The Christmas Cracker Dogs

The Wondrous Traveler

Image - California Citrus Crate Label Image – California Citrus Crate Label

I have always loved the English tradition of pulling Christmas crackers and then wearing the cheerful paper crowns found inside during Christmas dinner. During holiday visits with family and friends in Devon and Cornwall, I was first introduced to this custom many years ago. The Christmas cracker itself looks like an oversized Tootsie Roll wrapped in shiny metallic paper while inside it, there is a very tiny firework that goes off when the cracker is pulled apart.

Some years past, I was invited to the annual Christmas Eve party given by my neighbors for all the ex-patriates in the small village where I lived in the south of France. Along with a couple of my Dutch friends, we piled into a classic, dusty blue Citroën Deux Chevaux and made our way down the steep hill, past the historic olive mill, to the celebration. The…

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The Sinterklaas Story

The Wondrous Traveler

Photo by Denice Envall Photo – Denice Envall

My grandmother, whose family was from Spain always observed their custom of celebrating the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6. As children, we would receive stockings brimming with ribbon candy, walnuts, pecans, mandarin oranges, kumquats, and gold-foiled wrapped chocolate coins. To this day oranges, walnuts, and chocolate always evoke Christmas for me. Although my sister and I did not really understand all the various holy days during the Christmas season, we quickly figured out the gifting cycle that started with St. Nicholas Day and finished with the arrival of the Three Kings.


Much later when I lived in The Netherlands, I was delighted to learn that St. Nicholas Day is a national holiday and the major feast day of their Christmas holidays, the real day of exchanging presents. St. Nicholas has always been dear to my heart since my childhood and because I once…

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Sausalito Ferry

 

As I board the MV Golden Gate ferry, for my daily commute from Sausalito to San Francisco, I see that the fog is once again a thick blanket across the middle of the bay, although at least a quarter of each of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge are visible as is Angel Island. At this hour of the morning, it is cold on deck so I scurry inside to the warm cabin to watch the ever-changing scene outside which is never the same no matter how often I make this trip.

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Fog clouds sit like a pale wash of lavender mauve above the teal green sea, and small whitecaps are visible across its surface. A lone speedboat steadily makes its way toward the bridge, whose towers are rapidly losing their visibility to the incoming fog. It is a dramatic picture and one I would like to capture, but alas the boat has vanished all too quickly into the cool embrace of this pervasive sea cloud, which we ourselves have now entered as well.

When the ferry passes within fifteen feet of a buoy, I wonder where Alcatraz is as I watch white-capped waves rolling slowly but unceasingly toward us. Then I realize the vessel must be directly in front of the mouth to the bay, though at a distance, for this is where the waves tend to form. The ship suddenly slows down and is barely moving when I hear the moans of the foghorns calling lovingly to each other. A red-orange and white pilot boat passes by, heading in the other direction, and then I feel the rolling motion of the waves quite strongly, but a minute later, the pilot boat too has disappeared.

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Now at last, I spy the vague outline of the rocky isle known as Alcatraz on the left, desolate and empty except for its avian inhabitants. San Francisco lies straight ahead sitting mainly in the sunlight, with the flat Marina district bright and white, in sharp contrast to the fog bank, which hugs the city’s many hills and the Presidio on it’s far west side, as it reaches up to the tops of Twin Peaks so that only Sutro Tower, the gigantic tower that sits near Mt. Parnassus, is perceptible. The twin symbols of San Francisco in the summer — the only two things visible above the fog — both red, perhaps to offer caution and warning as well as signs of life beyond.

Unexpectedly a tall ship appears out of the fog, flowing easily with the current, catching the morning’s gentle breeze in its sails, and stirring within me a longing to be on it sailing to some exotic faraway land.

AP Photo:John M. Harris

AP Photo – John M. Harris

 

The Christmas Cracker Dogs

Image - California Citrus Crate Label

Image – California Citrus Crate Label

I have always loved the English tradition of pulling Christmas crackers and then wearing the cheerful paper crowns found inside during Christmas dinner. During holiday visits with family and friends in Devon and Cornwall, I was first introduced to this custom many years ago. The Christmas cracker itself looks like an oversized Tootsie Roll wrapped in shiny metallic paper while inside it, there is a very tiny firework that goes off when the cracker is pulled apart.

Some years past, I was invited to the annual Christmas Eve party given by my neighbors for all the ex-patriates in the small village where I lived in the south of France. Along with a couple of my Dutch friends, we piled into a classic, dusty blue Citroën Deux Chevaux and made our way down the steep hill, past the historic olive mill, to the celebration. The pebble pathway leading up to the old rambling bastide (country house) was lined with lavender, cypresses, and many tiny sparkling lights. Although the rose bushes and elegant French irises were dormant, I remembered their beauty from earlier in the year.

“Come in, come in!” said Jane as she greeted us at the door.

“Welkom in mijn huis!” Jeroen joined in.

Inside, the house had been decorated traditionally with bunches of green holly, swags of pine boughs, red amaryllis, and ribbon. However, the center of attraction was an enormous Christmas tree, hung with old-fashioned glass ornaments.

“Grab a glass of champagne, and I’ll give you a tour of my workshop” he went on in his deeply accented Dutch.

The hostess had been a London fashion model, and looked quite glamorous in a long, flowing Moroccan caftan that set off her golden locks. In her mid-seventies, she still had it! Her husband was a very talented maker of musical instruments and supplied basses to a few select musicians like Sting.

Artist - Edwin Megargee

Artist – Edwin Megargee

The couple were the loving owners of Daisy, a very silly, somewhat crazy, and utterly spoiled small dog! Her little terrier friends had also received their own special invitation to the celebration. Daisy, an apricot-colored Cairn terrier, was best friends with Bonnie, my little silver-brindle female Scottie dog, as well as with Chivas, a handsome black male Scottie belonging to the owners of the local Dutch Country Club.

During the party, the three dogs were given the run of the house. Astute and gregarious, this petite gang of terrorists took full advantage of the situation. Knowing that no one was keeping an eye on them, they chased each other, ran circles around the tree, jumped on the furniture, and generally behaved like very unruly puppies.

As we proceeded to toast the hosts with a glass of champagne, suddenly there was an unexpected loud bang. Then an elderly gentleman, being quite startled by the sound, saw his glass of champagne take an unexpected leap towards the ceiling.

“What!” he cried out as he plopped down quite unceremoniously on the seat nearest him.

As we all looked around for the source of the noise, peeking out from under the tree was one of the Scottie dogs and the little Cairn terrier holding opposite ends of a large Christmas cracker.

“Who? Us?” I’m sure they would have said if only they could have talked. Instead, they only looked at us for a few moments, and then proceeded to carry on with their high spirits, impish behavior, and shenanigans.

Chery Holmes

Artist – Chery Holmes

Only a couple of days later on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, I was invited to lunch by Veronique, an eighty-seven year old Belgian-English artist. She had a black Cairn terrier named Toto, who although terribly spoiled, was friends with my rough-and-tumble Bonnie. My Scottish terrier was also friends with Bramble, a West Highland terrier who was no less pampered and belonged to Emma, a tall English woman from Yorkshire who now lived in Grasse. Similar to the Christmas Eve party, all three dogs had also been invited along with their owners.

A bottle of 1993 vintage Veuve Clicquot was popped open, and we watched the dogs playing as we sipped our champagne. While they ran after each other and zoomed in and out the villa, we pulled our Christmas crackers and put on our crowns. As I related the story of the dogs at the Christmas party, Emma looked rather skeptical.

“Oh, they wouldn’t dare!” she stated quite emphatically.

Before I could respond, we all stared in frozen silence as the small white Westie, in what seemed like slow motion, tugged hard at the corner of the tablecloth on which the smoked salmon, crab and asparagus, and duck mousse canapés had been sitting. Though the loud crash initially startled the dogs, they immediately reverted to nature and scooped in for the kill, or rather to feast on the hors d’oeuvres meant for us.

“Rascal!” cried Emma.

“Villain!” shouted Veronique.

“Naughty!” I joined in.

“Huh?” Toto, Bonnie, and Bramble seemed to say with their mouths full of delicious delicacies.

“Arooo!” went the Scottie dog in triumph.

“Woof!” barked the Cairn terrier as he licked his chops.

The Westie only smirked and didn’t make a sound, content as he was with his mischief.

Luckily for us, there was a foie gras appetizer and a delicious salad of mesclun, consisting of mixed domestic and wild greens, to sustain us. We then had Earl Grey tea with the Bouche de Noel or Christmas log, the traditional Christmas dessert in France — a type of sponge cake filled with fresh raspberries and covered in meringue and lots of tiny Christmas toys. Unluckily for the dogs, there were no more treats or toys.

After these surprising celebrations with Scotties and their ancestral cousins, I decided to create a new tradition of my own, an annual Christmas Scottie tea party to celebrate the winter solstice and the Christmas holidays. However while dogs are always welcome, Christmas crackers are optional.

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Photo – Catherine Christiansen for Nosy Rosy Cards

A MacScottie Wish

Artist - Michelle D'netto

Artist – Michelle D’netto

Once upon a time in the ever, ever foggy land of San Francisco, there lived a droll and gregarious Scottish terrier named MacDougal. Now MacDougal never did get along with other dogs, but he had many human friends and other friendly relations, notably among the cat and cow families.

The first time I saw him, he was striding jauntily along next to a pair of skyscraper legs which reached up and up into the fog and belonged to a very tall man, his owner. I had met his owner at the weekly volleyball get-together, and MacDougal had come along for the pizza party following the game. While not much of a sporting dog himself, he was an enthusiastic connoisseur of tasty pizza and promptly gobbled up the portion his owner had intended to take home. Although MacDougal won me over immediately with his funny and silly antics, he was banned from pizza parties for a long time afterwards.

Charles & McDougal in SF 1976As we had all become fast friends, Mac started coming over regularly and even spending weekends and an occasional holiday. With a smile, I remember the gigantic rawhide bone that resembled a dinosaur fossil, which he received one Christmas morning. Never mind that it was nearly his own length and too heavy for him to pick up, MacDougal was a tenacious dog by nature. So he promptly grabbed hold of one end of the bone and proceeded to drag it round and round the living room, while wagging his short tail triumphantly!

On another occasion, MacDougal and I were out for a walk in the park, across from the house where I lived, when he saw three other dogs in the distance. Determined to defend his territory, Mac started towards them. Running hard after him, I scooped him up and raced breathlessly back to the house with a Doberman, a German shepherd, and a large yellow mongrel fast on my heels. Meanwhile, Mad Mac continued to bark his defiance at them all the way back home.

After each of these madcap visits, MacDougal would invariably return to his abode in the foggy Sunset district, leaving me with the slowly growing desire to have my very own dog, and more specifically a dog just like MacDougal. Because of the special friendship that existed between the dog and I, his owners agreed to escort him on a first date with a well-bred and adorable Scottie who had recently moved into our neighborhood from Paris.

Trimmed and groomed and looking every inch the brave, stalwart and handsome sire, MacDougal proudly led our little retinue forwards to his rendezvous. But soon, too soon, any hopes for a romantic interlude and possible offspring were dashed when he spied the Parisian Scottie’s constant companion — a sweet, timid, floppy-eared Belgian dwarf rabbit. True to his ancestral instinct, MacDougal was far more interested in chasing the rabbit than in cuddling up with the little Scottie. She, at the same time, fiercely protected her pet companion, and would have nothing further to do with the unmannerly Mad Mac ruffian.

493bbc694f7c1b8c8d996e3f5fad44b0  Over steaming cups of Jasmine tea and gales of laughter, we all agreed that MacDougal was certainly a very special dog, and we would have to wait a long time indeed for him to sire a puppy. Shortly after his failed attempt at romance, one of my colleagues gave me a magazine clipping of a Scottie and a dark-haired woman in red holding him. Since the woman resembled me somewhat and red is my favorite color, I immediately pinned up the clipping next to my desk and glanced at it often during the course of each work day.

A few months later, I left for a year’s sojourn in Europe to visit friends but naturally to include some doggie haunts. In Scotland, I met several of MacDougal’s long-lost relatives, and it simply reinforced my desire to have my own Scottie dog. I found the perfect puppy in London, but he was too young to make the trip back home. While in Texas, once more I came across a Scottie puppy, but it was not meant to be. As I slowly made the cross-country trip back to California, I spoke with various breeders, only to have my inquiries met with a by-now familiar response, “You sure don’t see many Scotties nowadays.”

Indeed, no Scottie dogs were to be found. However in Los Angeles, I did share lodgings with a couple of Great Danes, more like small horses, who enjoyed climbing onto the bed when they thought I was asleep. Certainly it is an original and effective way of waking up and getting out of bed to avoid being trampled on before breakfast. Another image comes to mind of MacDougal’s own fascination with horses, but especially cows. He came from a kennel in the mid-West that was located next to a dairy farm, and perhaps he had experienced “imprinting” as a puppy.

On drives up to Sonoma County, whose low-rolling hills are dotted with sheep and cows, Mad Mac would constantly dash from one side of the old VW station wagon to the other, barking at all the grazing cows. Whenever I visited a dairy farm, he would sit quietly by the fence watching the enormous cows on the other side, until he was dragged away. In fact, even when there were no cows nearby, it was easy to tease him by simply calling out, “MacDougal – mooooo cows!” and that was enough to get him going.

While reminiscing on these past adventures with MacDougal, I started the last leg of the journey through the farmlands of California’s Central Valley towards the almond farm of a warm Italian family, with whose daughter I had worked. Pulling up, I saw the new pink piglets running around and broke into laughter remembering Mad Mac’s adventure the year before. He had been left on guard duty outside when all of a sudden, there was a commotion. Somehow the piglets had escaped from the pig-pen, and the next thing we all saw were all the piglets running around and rooting in the garden with MacDougal in their midst, looking like a shaggy black piglet himself.

MacDougal 1982

MacDougal

However, along with the welcome of glasses of delicious homemade wine and mounds of hand-rolled pasta, there was a troubling message from MacDougal’s owner asking to contact him as soon as I returned to San Francisco.

Upon arrival, I went to see him right away, and he had some unexpected news. Since he and his girlfriend had separated, MacDougal had not taken it well. She wanted me to come over and visit the dog, who was listless and despondent and had taken to peeing on the bed pillows when left alone. I hardly recognized the sulking and unhappy dog, so very different from the high-spirited one I knew so well. His mistress confided that his present behavior was out of loyalty to his former owner, and then she really surprised me! The two had agreed to give MacDougal to me, that is, if I wanted him. Of course, of course I did!

Artist - Svetlana Novikova

Artist – Svetlana Novikova

So that is how a MacScottie wish came true almost forty years ago. Although MacDougal is long gone, there have been a steady and unbroken succession of MacScotties since then. With each passing year, I am increasingly grateful for my continued relationship with these courageous, loyal, stubborn little dogs that have always brought me joy and laughter. And I am often reminded that wishes do come true simply because a funny Scottie dog once claimed me for his own in the foggy, foggy never-land of San Francisco. Since where a Scottie dog magically appears, others are bound to follow and that is also the nature of miracles.

The Sinterklaas Story

Photo by Denice Envall

Photo – Denice Envall

My grandmother, whose family was from Spain always observed their custom of celebrating the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6. As children, we would receive stockings brimming with ribbon candy, walnuts, pecans, mandarin oranges, kumquats, and gold-foiled wrapped chocolate coins. To this day oranges, walnuts, and chocolate always evoke Christmas for me. Although my sister and I did not really understand all the various holy days during the Christmas season, we quickly figured out the gifting cycle that started with St. Nicholas Day and finished with the arrival of the Three Kings.
Much later when I lived in The Netherlands, I was delighted to learn that St. Nicholas Day is a national holiday and the major feast day of their Christmas holidays, the real day of exchanging presents. St. Nicholas has always been dear to my heart since my childhood and because I once loved a Dutch sculptor named Nicholaus.

The most magical event of the season occurs when Sinterklaas arrives by ship in Amsterdam’s harbor, having come from Spain with his white horse and his sidekick, Zwarte Pieter or Black Pete, a Black-a-Moor. Sinterklaas has long white hair and a full curly white beard, wears a red and gold bishop’s mitre, is dressed in striking red and white robes, carries a tall golden staff. Zwarte Pieter on the other hand wears a short medieval page’s black and red costume, with white ruffs at the neck and wrists, long red stockings, and a floppy black hat with a white plume in it.
Unfortunately, I could only view his grand arrival in Amsterdam by television. However, once Sinterklaas sets foot in Amsterdam, he also makes simultaneous appearances in every village and public square throughout The Netherlands. So I hurried excitedly to join the children at my local town square in greeting Sinterklaas and little Zwarte Pieter, joining the gifting cycle, and celebrating the magic of the season.

After his daytime appearance to greet the children, Sinterklaas then rides across the Dutch countryside on his magnificent white horse and at night, he sends Zwarte Pieter down the chimney with gifts for the children who have been good. In turn, they leave a carrot and hay for the horse in their shoes, which they set next to the fireplace before his arrival. Yet if Dutch children have not behaved, Zwarte Pieter whips them, throws them into the empty bag, and takes them back to Spain!

Photo - Sandra Machielsen

Photo – Sandra Machielsen

St. Nicholas Day is always an occasion for fun and merriment. When I lived in The Netherlands, I was lucky to work in the town of Gouda, famous for its cheese. That medieval Dutch city has a magnificent town hall about three stories high and a block long, all spires and leaded glass windows, dating to the fifteenth century. Early on the evening of St. Nicholas Day, candles are lit in every window of the town hall and around the entire square, while children’s choirs sing age-old Christmas carols.

Photo ©Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions

Photo ©Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions

Though I have celebrated Christmas all over the world, one of the most memorable celebrations was at the local Dutch Club when I lived in the south of France. All of us were surprised, but none more astounded than I was, when my neighbor, the cardiologist, turned into Sinterklaas, and my insurance agent became Zwarte Pieter. Instead of carols, there was hot jazz, and my jazz singer friend, performed some American classics. We all danced and toasted the holiday season until Sinterklaas had to leave to make his rounds.
However, the origin of Sinterklaas himself is a fascinating story. It seems there once lived a Turkish saint named Nicholas known for his kindness to children. According to legend, he left Turkey and traveled by ship along the Mediterranean, settling in Spain for a while. It was there that he met his black Moorish assistant, an adolescent boy who helps him distribute presents and goodies, from the bag he carries, to the children who have been good.

Indeed the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving in Amsterdam has its real origins in the trading routes between the two countries. For most of the sixteenth century, Charles V, king of Spain and holy Roman emperor, and his son Philip II, both Hapsburgs, ruled The Netherlands with a sinister hand. The Spanish occupation was particularly harsh, and no region suffered more cruelly than the southern province of the Brabant. To this day, men from that province have black curly hair and dark eyes like the sculptor I knew, descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese soldiers once stationed there. It was Philip II who brought Andalusian horses from Spain to a stud farm in Lipizza, near Trieste Italy, from which the Lipizzaner breed takes its name, and they can be seen performing in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
The Dutch can be quite pragmatic and kept the best of what they had experienced under their Spanish tyrants – St. Nicholas’ black Moorish helper became Zwarte Pieter, the Spanish doubloons of old transformed to chocolate candy coins, the white horse was originally a Lipizzaner, and that is how St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas.

A Ghostly Provençal Tale

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Artist – Laura ldiehl

The following tale is a true one and occurred at the house I lived in during my long sojourn in Provençe. Only the name of the ghost has been changed to honor the departed.

“My ghost was spotted by the au pair, but not by me”, my neighbor said in what once had been a crisp Berlin accent, but was now slurred from the rosé wine he had been drinking since lunch time, followed by Armagnac in lieu of dinner.

“She saw him in the courtyard below, by the well, next to the bedroom where she was sleeping.”

I remained silent, letting him elaborate on my question about the strange noise I had heard the night before.

“She told me that he looked near starvation and held his hands out piteously towards her, but though she could see his form, she could not make out any distinctive features yet was sure he was a man from the trousers and peasant’s shirt he was wearing.”

Although I felt the hairs on the back of my neck and along my forearms stand up, I remained riveted to the rush-bottomed chair next to the roaring fireplace in his kitchen. Since I said not a word, he continued with his story.

“It was enough to scare her away, and she did not last the week, poor girl. Since then, I have had other guests who have also seen my poor, starving ghost. You know that the village lay under siege in the fourteenth century for many, many months, probably from the Saracens, but I no longer remember all the details”, he said as he drank his brandy.

Tant pis!  Never mind! The water supply had long been exhausted, along with the food.  And without water, the poor villagers could not survive. After that long terrible siege, it was decided to build cisterns under the village. This house is called the Deux Puits, because it is the only house in the village with two wells – that one over there by the door as you came in, and the one out in the courtyard. It was these wells that let the villagers survive the sieges from that time on.”

He poured himself another brandy, stood up, and placed another log on the fire. I thought of the film “Manon of the Springs” and its story over water rights among the people of Provençe. From what my neighbor was saying, the struggle went back many centuries.

“The wall beyond my courtyard and your garden was part of the original fortifications from the twelfth century. The outer wall was only built later, in the fifteenth century. But this part here was the original village. You’ve seen the tunnel in your lower cellar, haven’t you?”

“Yes”, I said nodding my head slowly, “but the entrance has been bricked up.”

Tant pis!” he said again.

“Once you could take the tunnel and go straight to the château. All the big houses in the village are connected to the château by tunnels, so that the gentry could make their getaway in case the outer walls were breached. They left the poor peasants behind to fend for themselves. I think that’s where my ghost comes from….” and his voice trailed off as he took a deep draught of his brandy and stared into the fireplace, before rousing himself again.

“Sometimes I think I hear a low moaning near here”, and he pointed to the enormous walk-in fireplace.

“You do know that all these four houses were once connected, don’t you?” he asked in a more quiet tone.

“The two small houses next to your big place housed the laundry and the oven for baking the bread for the family, which is why the street is called Rue du Four. But my house was where the servants lived, and your great big house belonged to the family. Our two houses were once connected by a door that used to be right here,” he said as he pointed to an area next to the fireplace.

“See — you can still make out its outline, even though it has been sealed up. It let the servants go back and forth easily when they served the food that was cooked here.”

I stammered in bewilderment, “Bu… but… that is where my utility closet is. You know, on the other side. Tha… that is…” but I could not continue.

He looked at me closely in the flickering light of the fireplace, and reached again for the bottle of Armagnac.

“Are you quite sure you are all right?” he asked in a tone gentler than normal.

“You look as though you have just seen a ghost.”

As I shook my head no, No, NO! — I could not tell him that in my wanderings of the night before, I had traced the eerie haunting sound in my house to the innocuous utility closet with the grand doorway.

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Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo

To get in the mood for gumbo, stand up, and give yourself a little room to move about.  As you sing the lyrics to the “Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo” song, wave your arms and sway your hips to the Okra beat!  Ready, on the count of 3.

Jambalaya, gumbo ya-ya,

Gonna put you in a pie-ah!

Okra’s such a wholesome food,
Straightens out your attitude.

Can’t put Okra in a pie.

But it makes a great stir-fry.

Jambalaya, gumbo ya-ya,

Gonna put you in a pie-ah!

Okra’s green, goes down with ease,
Just remember, say Okra please.

You can keep your ole’ hot mocha,
Give me a beer and a dish of Okra.

Jambalaya, gumbo ya-ya,

Gonna put you in a pie-ah!

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Image from book of poetry by Alice Walker


Now, don’t you feel better shaking out all the kinks in your body? As is evident, I am crazy enough about Okra to not only extol its virtues, but to sing and dance to it.  And I hope after you read a bit more about it, you will want to do the same too.

Gumbo has been called the greatest contribution of Louisiana kitchens to American cuisine.  The dish has its origins in the cultures that came together in Louisiana during the 18th century.  French cooking, the native Choctaw Indian’s filé powder, and local seafood provided the beginning.  Okra brought in by way of Brazil and the slave trade of West Africa provided gumbo with its name.  To it, the Spanish Creoles added bell peppers, tomatoes, and cooked onions. The typical gumbo usually contains several types of shellfish and smoked pork. Gumbo is normally served over long-grained, plain white rice, which has been boiled with only salt.  However, the use of Tabasco sauce is left to the individual.

But let’s start with the basics.  Do you know what Okra is?  Maybe a better question is, do you know what Okra is not? So let’s get to the root of the Mumbo Jumbo about Gumbo.  There are a lot of myths about Gumbo, and Okra figures in most of them.  As I overheard someone recently say, “Eeeeew, that nasty ole’ Okra”!

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Glorious Okra!

 

MYTHS and FAQs

Okra means “gumbo”. Almost but not quite. The word Gumbo is derived from “kingombo“, the word for Okra in the Bantu language of West Africa.

Okra is always found in gumbo. Okra is usually found in seafood or chicken gumbos, but not meat or game gumbos.

Crocodiles eat Okra. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Okra originated on the banks of the Nile, and it still grows wild there, right alongside the crocodiles. When I visited the Temple of the Crocodile God in Egypt, I found Okra nearby, and took it back to the boat so that the chef could cook it for supper.

Some folks eat “lady’s fingers”. This happens in the UK and Australia where Okra is known as “lady’s fingers”.

Big Okra is better. In this case, small is definitely better since the small pods, 2 inches or so long, are the best.

Okra is slimy when you cook it.  Not so. I’ll let you in on the real secret of the Gumbo Ya Ya Sisterhood.  Don’t stir it more than once!

Okra has no nutritional value. Another fallacy. Okra is a powerhouse of nutrients.  It helps lower serum cholesterol, the risk of colon cancer, and contains nearly 10% of the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid in a ½ cup of cooked okra.

Okra looks like marijuana. Some people can’t tell an apple from a watermelon either. The sheriff actually raided an Okra patch in Modesto, CA in 1950, thinking it was marijuana.

It just isn’t summer without okra. What can I say? If you have Okra, it is always summer.

YOUR INNER OKRA

As with true religion, there are several ways to find your inner Okra:

Buy some Okra.  Maybe you can’t grow it because it’s too cold, too wet, you don’t have a green thumb, or you just ole’ plain can’t.  As they say in Texas, “Git yourself on over to the nearest farmers market”, because it comes in from the Central Valley in California at this time of year.  It will be fresh and cost less than in the supermarket.  In the winter, try an East Indian or Asian market.  Even in the far frozen north of Canada, I could always find Okra flown in from Fiji.  Just remember that at any time, Okra is growing somewhere in the world where it is hot and humid.

Grow some Okra, like I used to do when I was a kid.  Put some seed in the ground, watch it blossom, wait for the pods to show up, and pick them when they are about 2 inches long.

Pay a visit to Okra, Texas which is halfway between Dallas-Ft. Worth and Abilene.  It is so small, there is only a single sign depicting the city limits.  It says “Entering Okra” on one side, and on the other, it says “Leaving Okra”.  Those folks take Okra seriously there.

Cook some Okra.  Wash and dry the Okra ahead of time.  Heat 1T. of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Throw in a little garlic or green onions.  Slice the Okra into ½ inch rounds directly into the skillet.  Wait 1 minute.  Add a little diced tomatoes.  Give everything a quick stir.  Wait 1 minute.  Serve it plain or over rice. Sit back and enjoy.

Follow these suggestions, and you will become a convert to the religion of Okra before the season is out.  Then you’ll be ready to do the “Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo” too!

At the End of the Day

I had never spent much time in cemeteries until I moved to tiny Châteauneuf in Provençe. The small hilltop village had two cemeteries, an old and a new one, situated on its flanks.

The new cemetery dating to the 17th century was located outside the original wall that had once fortified the village against Saracens. This cemetery was terraced, and contained white, gray, and rose marble and granite mausoleums as well as more plain tombstones. On reading the names on the tombs, it was easy to see several generations of a family buried in the same spot.

The cemetery was shady with broad, worn, stone steps running down its middle, descending the steep hillside, and ending right behind the main grocery store. Everyone used the path as a short cut to the store, otherwise it would have been a couple of extra kilometers to get there. For most of the year everyone hurried through – children would run up and down with popsicles dripping down their shirts, and older women would tramp up the 45-degree steps with bags laden with fresh fish, produce, and a baguette tucked under their arm for the evening meal.

However on All Saints Day or Toussaint, the first day of November, the local flower lady would set up a small stand at the bottom entrance to the cemetery with bunches of mums in shades of burgundy, russet, pink, and yellow. In France, it’s traditional to place mums on tombstones as offerings to the dead, but mums are never ever given to a living person.

But it was the old cemetery, within the 12th century ramparts, that drew me. That one sat at the same height as the village, but it overhung the road winding down the hill. Three gigantic sycamore trees, looking like they had been there for centuries and resembling lonely sentinels under the Provençal sky, dominated the old cemetery. The tombstones had been removed or turned to dust, and the ground was covered with fine grass and wildflowers. In a corner was a bench to sit upon and gaze out at the surrounding countryside far below.

My old Scottie dog and I used to visit on our daily walk, and on winter afternoons I would often sit in that high lonely place where few others ever visited, to watch the storm clouds come in over the Mediterranean. During summer, giant thunderheads would come rolling up over the mountains and down the alpine valley that lay due north of the village. At night the stars would dance and swirl in the clear heavens above, an entire river of stars extending down the valley back to the Alps, while on the plain below hundreds of lights twinkled as people went about their nightly rituals. Looking further afield, the coast was a glittering diamond necklace of town after town lit up, all the way from Nice to Cannes.

I always felt that angels guarded that quiet, holy place where souls had once been laid to rest, and imagined they had glimpsed heaven, even as I had.

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You Are Here To Risk Your Heart

Artist~Shawna Erback

Artist – Shawna Erback

“Life will break you.
Nobody can protect you from that,
and living alone won’t either,
for solitude will also break you with its yearning.
You have to love. You have to feel.

It is the reason you are here on earth.
You are here to risk your heart.
You are here to be swallowed up.
And when it happens that you are broken,
or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near,
let yourself sit by an apple tree
and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps,
wasting their sweetness.
Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
~ Louise Erdrich