Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Delight amid Sorrows: Día de los Muertos and Singing Neruda’s Poetry

Once upon a time, Pablo Neruda came to my rescue.

digitally painted photoI was a perplexed and moody undergraduate taking just a few too many credits at a time to cover for the semester I’d frittered away (both the time and the tuition money) in getting a much broader, deeper education by gallivanting across Europe with my sister to work on being ever-so-modestly less perplexed and moody (it did work, I swear it did!). By pushing a little extra during my remaining semesters I knew I could graduate ‘on time’ with my class and not use up further masses of time and money and my parents’ remaining non-grey hairs, so I crammed a bit to compensate. And by the time I signed up for one particular poetry course I was just a tiny bit frazzled. I knew I had a sort of dispensation from the university to take a certain number of credits Pass/Fail rather than as graded courses, and decided that since I’d not used that option and had taken other legitimate English courses already, now would be an excellent time to relieve a small portion of pressure by opting for P/F. Señor del profesor had a slightly different idea.

As in, “What, are you nuts?” and a firm No. Oddly, it had not occurred to me that this particular academic rubric could only be invoked with the professor’s permission. Silly undergraduate. My response was to burst into tears. But he persuaded me, in good professorial fashion, that it was for my own good and that he was quite certain I would do Just Fine in this course if I was committed enough to take it in the first place. So I pulled up my socks and took it like a good girl. I guess it’s only fair to confirm the obvious, that the professor did his part to get the aforementioned rescue work underway, and I’ll tell you now that being a true educator rather than a sometime impostor like me, he kept at it throughout the semester, and I was no easy or patient patient.

Meanwhile, I quickly discovered under said professor’s tutelage that my incredibly narrow view of poetry was just a sign of lost time and an opportunity to open an infinitely interesting and challenging world of unexplored wonders. But I was still horribly intimidated by the prospect of learning to bravely parse and explicate poems, and I was still amidships in the throes of general anxiety and fear of speaking up as it was. Yikes! Bit of a fright, that.

Then the wonderful Chilean master Pablo Neruda beckoned me to come in and make myself at home. His writing, so evocative and so deeply personal, made me feel somehow safe. This, despite his writing in Spanish, a language unknown to me except for some very useful food-related words. Now, I will admit to having read numerous translations of his poetry alongside the originals, but all one really needs when presented with this juxtaposition is, as I had, a little youthful church-Latin exposure, a handful of high school and college French classes (sorry, I came out of it with appreciation but not much real knowledge), and the will to make serious inroads in various dictionaries; the work simply sings. The variety that emerged from the different translations brought out a wonderful amplitude inherent in Neruda’s poetic work and inspired me beyond measure.

I fell in love with several of the Neruda poems I got to read for that class. But the poem that truly resonated in me turned out to be his ‘Entierro en el Este[‘Burial in the East’], and I happily labored over three different translations of my own after studying the existing ones by pros and linguists far beyond my skill level right alongside the beautiful Spanish-language original, whose marvelously lyrical sonorities drew me in inexorably, filling me with their dark and earthy music. Can’t say exactly what happened to those translations. Surely the world is missing nothing with their disappearance. The professional poets’ translations and transcriptions remain for Anglos’ edification. Far more importantly, the rich and exquisite deliciousness of the Spanish version remains, and not just on the page and in the ether but also in my heart.

Because the class requirement to learn and recite a chosen poem in class before writing a paper on it made some strange little spark light up in my soul and I realized that, however hard it might be to memorize a poem in a language I’d never spoken, it was well worth learning this one because I sensed how its incredible beauty would resonate not just with me but with my peers if I managed even barely well enough. Its sheer musicality made it easier to learn, with the help of a Spanish-speaking coach, and the difficulty of learning a foreign-language poem and its meaning deeply enough not only for the recitation but to be able to write semi-cogently about it kept it ingrained, I found, years later as well. Too, it gave me the great gift of lightening my fear: standing in front of my classmates and giving my all to this lovely Chilean masterpiece in Spanish somehow made me less terrified of forgetting or of making it dull–something I just knew it would be hard to do with such beautiful and moving words. I lost myself in the poem, which is precisely what good poetry in any language hopes to make us do.

mixed media drawingENTIERRO EN EL ESTE

Yo trabajo de noche, rodeado de ciudad,
de pescadores, de alfareros, de difuntos quemados
con azafrán y frutas, envueltos en muselina escarlata:
bajo mi balcón esos muertos terribles
pasan sonando cadenas y flautas de cobre,
estridentes y finas y lúgubres silban
entre el color de las pesadas flores envenenadas
y el grito de los cenicientos danzarines
y el creciente y monótono de los tamtam
y el humo de las maderas que arden y huelen.
Porque una vez doblado el camino, junto al turbio río,
sus corazones, detenidos o  iniciando un mayor movimiento
rodarán quemados, con la pierna y el pie hechos fuego,
y la trémula ceniza caerá sobre el agua,
flotará como ramo de flores calcinadas
o como extinto fuego dejado por tan poderosos viajeros
que hicieron arder algo sobre las negras aguas, y devoraron
un aliento desaparecido y un licor extremo.

Pablo Neruda

INTERMENT IN THE EAST [translation: KIW Sparks, 28 October 2011]

I work by night, in the heart of the city and surrounded

by fishermen, by potters, by the cremated dead

with their saffron and fruits, enveloped all in scarlet muslin;

below my balcony these terrible corpses

pass by with the rattle of chains and the playing of copper flutes,

such strident, lugubrious noise,

between the colors of those weighty, poisonous flowers

and the cries of the ash-covered dancers

and the crescendoing monotone of the beating drums

and the fragrant smoke of the burning wood.

For once they reach that place where the road meets the turbid river,

their hearts, stopping or perhaps starting a larger movement,

roll aflame, the leg and foot catching fire,

trembling ashes falling onto the water

to float like calcined blooms

or like a fire set in antique times by voyagers

so powerful they could make the very river burn, could eat

a food no longer known and drink the elixir of extremity.

El Día de los Muertos has a certain similar quality to the Neruda poem for me. The traditional Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead coincides with the Catholic commemoration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days (the 1st and 2nd of November, respectively). The depth of passion with which the bereaved mourn lost loves is brought to balance in Día de los Muertos in a marvelously worldly and tender way when families gather to tend the graves of their dead, to meet over feasting and drinking, amid art and dance and music and prayer and embraces and revelry of all sorts and to remember with love and joy the lives of the dead whom they have known and now carry in their hearts. I’ve long cherished the magical folk art arising from Día de los Muertos tradition, loving of course the charming and even joyful representations of Death as the natural culmination of life, and admiring the attitudes that these in fact symbolize. They feed that sweet dream in my heart of hearts where life and death intermingle in the most fitting way they can and we all dance between them with passion, with love, with hope–and with a river of deep, sonorous and abiding poetry flowing in our veins.

digital collage