Wednesday I spent a great deal of time thinking about the Voting Rights Act. The act is complicated, because it was trying to solve a complicated problem that I have never experienced or witnessed. It looks like the problem is solved. In many of the places where the Voting Rights Act was requiring federal approval of changes in voting, African-American voting is near parity, which seems to indicate that the problem has outgrown the need for strict federal regulation. I was having a hard time understanding how one could argue the historical problem could still be a contemporary problem.

Then, thanks to Twitter, I found Jelani Cobb, who laid it out for me. His argument is that the Voting Rights Act, as it was until a few days ago, was the mechanism by which African-American voting was near parity. The federal government has stopped hundreds of proposed changes in voting, Cobb points out, any of which may very well have have brought those numbers down. Cobb lays out the argument that the problem is not just historical. It’s just that back in the day, in history, there was no Voting Rights Act to keep it from happening.

What happened back in the day, in the South, between white people and black people, is very much on my mind, so much that at 10am Eastern Wednesday I was watching an internet video of Paula Deen totally miss the point about history and culture and the South and her view of it. She was crying about how she was being unfairly targeted for using one word one time decades ago. If she thinks that’s the worst thing she did, she has no understanding of history and race and culture. Michael Twitty has been burning up on this topic for the past couple of days.

Paula Deen has made her fame and fortune with Southern food, which is food largely developed by black slaves and domestic servants. She does not acknowledge that debt now. In the deposition that has caused her so much trouble, she elaborates on a fantasy wedding reception plantation-style, with African-American servers, as if that is something that would be romantic. That fantasy is completely based on the white nostalgia for a time when whites held power at the expense of African-Americans’ pain, lives, families, dignity, liberty and voting rights. Countless lives were lost or ruined or damaged or thrown away in the making of that plantation she wants to recreate in that wedding reception. Willfully mis-remembering those centuries of history is Paula Deen’s real wrong.

I don’t care if she used one word a hundred times in the past. She is a communicator of culture. That is how she has positioned herself, as a teacher and transmitter of her beloved Southern food culture and the way of life it represents. It has made her a rich woman. The culture she has communicated is based on a terrible fantasy, and when she is called on her mistakes of misrepresenting history and culture, she does not even try to understand where she went wrong. She cries on national television about the wrong thing.

I was so involved in wanting her to pay her dues to the black Southern cooks whose centuries of work she builds on, that I was listening to Paula Deen and Matt Lauer miss the point about what she did wrong and I wasn’t paying attention to the time Wednesday morning. I had forgotten about the Supreme Court ruling at 10am until a colleague IMd me, “Also, DOMA” as if I knew what the Supreme Court had ruled.

This DOMA ruling is not just a nice validation for me and Ellen. It means thousands of dollars for us in the future. But DOMA’s great impact on the course of our lives is in the past. It happened back in 2000, when Ellen, as a federal employee, could not put me on her health insurance. So she stayed home with baby Jacob and I kept working at my job that offered partner health benefits. Every single facet of our lives – where we live, how our children are raised, my greater economic power and her outsized influence on the kids and their activities, the friends she made in the society of moms, every single story I have worked on since May of 2000 – all of those things are irrevocably different because of DOMA. Ellen was the one who saw Jacob run and got him to try cross country. If I had been the at-home mom I might not have noticed that; he would not be a runner. The smallest detail and the biggest sweep of our lives, all four of our lives, was made entirely different because of the federal law that was struck down Wednesday. That can never be undone.

We are not the only ones. I think about the mentors of my young 20s who are at retirement age now, their retirements more secure because their partners can get their benefits and Social Security. I think about the couples with immigration issues, who have endured long separations or forced moves out of the U.S. That specific aspect of DOMA, the inability to sponsor partners for immigration,  is why Glenn Greenwald reported from overseas the story of the NSA and how the federal government is collecting data about its citizens.

Just as it is impossible to say if Jacob would have been a runner if I had stayed home, it is impossible to say if Glenn Greenwald would have reported this story if he had been based in the U.S. for the last many years. The chances are great that this story, which has far-reaching implications for the nation and the president, would not have played out this way if DOMA were not a factor.

DOMA is not just about being gay. It reaches out and alters the details of our lives and the history of our country. Paula Deen’s trouble is not just about one terrible word, but about how distorted memory of history illuminates the racial misunderstandings of the present. Different ways of understanding of how the past reaches into the present is why section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional, after Paula Deen revealed her gross misuse of the Southern culture she claims to love – and before Ellen and I gained one more way that we can control our own lives.

When my mother’s brother and sister get together on holidays, they talk about my grandmother’s cooking. They have a whole routine they go through about her pies (banana cream, grasshopper, apple). My uncle complains about something with a Japanese name that seems to mean leftovers with a hot dog. They talk about her lasagna. My mom talks about my grandmother’s lasagna, too.

They are remembering the 1950s and early 60s. Italian food was an adventure for the postwar American homemaker, and my grandmother was right on-trend with the other cooking mothers of her generation. Lasagna was the exotic-other cuisine. It would be decades before every other supermarket carried imported blocks of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it’s in your local store now because my grandmother and millions of other mid-century home cooks were tantalized by the idea of making foreign food from Italy.

I remember my own mother in the 1970s, frying corn tortillas into hard taco shells. She used wooden chopsticks to shape them in the hot oil. I’m sure it was a big project for her to figure out. She made enchiladas, too, because she was looking for an exotic cooking challenge, and in the 70s in the suburbs, that was Mexican food. She was one of many other 70s suburban housewives priming their kids for 1992, the year that salsa sales overtook ketchup in the U.S.

So I feel like I’m carrying on a family tradition. When I have a hard day at work, I need a little retail therapy in the ethnic markets in the neighborhood. A few weeks ago, I ended up with dried lime, sumac, pomegranate molasses and guava paste. It’s me and my mom and my grandmother, just like all of those other American home cooks, going for a new challenge or just looking for a change on the dinner table. We find something that is exotic but becoming more accessible, and in a decade or two it seems simply American to serve enchiladas or lasagna.

Lasagna was never exotic to Ellen’s Italian-American grandmother, who learned to make it from her Italian mother and served it for Sunday dinners her whole life. My grandmother’s food traditions – sushi, miso, tofu – which she also served to her family regularly, were integrated into mainstream American cooking and eating as well, though not exactly as she cooked them. The boundaries between what is familiar and what is exotic depends a lot on your culture of origin, but it’s safe to say that ethnic foods gain broad practice in American home kitchens in waves. For Italian food it was in the 1950s and for Mexican it was in the 1970s. It’s a pot that is always getting deeper.

It’s also rarely authentic. I don’t think Ellen’s grandmother would have thought much of my grandmother’s lasagna, even though my aunt and uncle remember it fondly. Hard shell tacos are not particularly Mexican, either. I don’t really want to know what an actual Persian cook would think of what I did with those dried limes. In part, it’s because I don’t care. I care about my Shabbat dinner guests, who loved what I did with the lime and the sumac and the guava paste. I care about the food traditions of my culture of origin, by which I mean the lasagna and the enchiladas as well as the miso and the tofu.


January 5, 2013

Right now I feel like Susan Feniger has shoved me down the rabbit hole after kokum.

I had flagged “Curried Lentils with Indian Dried Plums,” in her book, “Susan Feniger’s Street Food.” It involved other ingredients I already knew, such as black mustard seeds and curry leaves. It was outstanding and, as soon as I did the tiniest bit of googling, I discovered that it was also misnamed. There are not plums in this dish, but kokum.

Kokum 2

Kokum is its own kind of dried fruit, related to a mangosteen. Very quickly I blew through the very few American sites that mentioned kokum and got to the Indian ones. There were a handful of articles. Kokum is used, I read, like tamarind and and amchoor for sourness. The comparison wasn’t as helpful to me as I would have liked. I have never used tamarind. I have amchoor but I don’t reach for it often.

There were a lot of recipes for summer drinks with kokum and chiles, many fish dishes and dals. Their untranslated ingredient lists puzzled me (dahi? jeera? jaggery?). I could look up each individually (curds, cumin, raw sugar) but Indian dishes can have north of 20 ingredients and going through all of these Indian cooking sites that way would get tiresome. Also, I am not great at reading recipes for Indian cooking and knowing what the dish will taste like when it’s done.

After a couple of sessions with the Indian food sites, I stopped reading them. I took the kokum out of the top shelf of the cabinet and put one out on the counter. I smelled it a few times a day and tried to imagine what to do with it. Susan Feniger’s recipe used the kokum so well that I had hard time imagining anything else. Kokum was falling faster than I was down the rabbit hole. I didn’t think I could catch up.

Fruit-sour is a very common savory element. Think of the lime in guacamole, the lemon vinaigrette, the applesauce with latkes. Even if kokum is new to me, I hoped, my decades with lemon and apples would inform me on the kokum.

Today I needed to make vegan refried beans. This is something that I can make out of my head. The ingredients are all familiar to me. I know it so well I’ve never written it down. In it, lime juice is the fruit-sour.

All fruit-sours are not the same, but they all occupy a similar place. So I thought, why not put the kokum in the refried beans. Even if it was a total failure, there would be no particular loss. As I cooked I took notes, and it slowly became clear to me that Susan Feniger’s curried lentils and my refried beans are parallel, almost ingredient for ingredient:

masoor dal = pinto beans
black mustard seeds and curry leaves = epazote
onion = onion
arbol chiles = New Mexico chiles
kokum = lime

My vegan refried beans recipe ends with lime juice. Instead of finishing my beans with lime, I started them with the kokum. The result was that the beans were much deeper and richer. Lime is wonderful and bright, but it’s one-dimensional. The kokum is less bright but more complex, tangling with the epaozte and the chiles in a way that the lime could never hope to do. 

Mangoes so easily migrated from South Asia to Mexico many generations ago because their climates are so similar. I can’t quite imagine Mexican food without it. Until now, the kokum has stayed firmly in Indian cooking, but maybe it’s time to bring another fruit from India to the Americas.

18 pieces dried kokum
1 T dried epazote
1 large yellow onion cut in 8ths
2 dry New Mexico chile pods, tops cut off and seeds shaken out
1.5 c dried (unsoaked) pinto beans
swirl of cooking oil and then another later

Throw everything in a pot and cook at high pressure for 40 minutes and let the pressure come down naturally, or until the beans are soft. If there is a lot of water, pour most of it out. 

Fish out the chiles and let them cool enough to handle. With the flat (not sharp) edge of a knife, scrape the flesh away from the skins. Chop the flesh a little. Discard the skins and mix the flesh back into the beans. 

Salt it and heat again and let the liquid cook out more. Swirl in some more olive oil. Mash some of the beans with a potato masher.

For next time: chop onion smaller, chop kokum a little. Soak the beans so the cooking time is less.

Cup of love

March 27, 2011

Even the pots love each other

In our marriage, we take the French presses very, very seriously. We started using one to make coffee because it’s so low tech. That appeals to the essentialists in us. We run into a problem, though, because I need to drink an entire French press in the morning to wake up. Ellen and I tussled over it on weekend mornings for a long time. There were a lot of dust-ups when she would want to drink some coffee when I hadn’t had a full pot yet. It would seem so reasonable to her that she should get some of my coffee and I was not reasonable because I hadn’t had enough coffee yet to be reasonable. Then she found another one at a yard sale for $5. Now we have two, hers and mine, and they sit next to each other on the kitchen counter. There are no more tussles over coffee in the morning.

We need two coffee pots, which is funny for us to say because most couples would be fine with one coffee pot. We don’t need a lot of things that a lot of other American families say they need, such as two cars and a dishwasher and a steady stream of new clothes. It’s one of the reasons that our marriage works; we agree to a great extent that we don’t have to have the same stuff that everyone else does. We also agree that when we land on things that are ridiculous but work for us – such as “We need two coffee pots,” – we just do it.

When we lived in DC we didn’t make coffee. We bought it at work or at Mr. Kim’s, the corner store that was next to our apartment building. When we moved to Berkeley there wasn’t cheap coffee on the corner (though there is very expensive coffee on the corner) so we got the french press.

For years I hated the way that Ellen didn’t clean it. She would make coffee in the morning and let the grounds sit in the bottom of the pot all day long. It fucking killed me every weekday to come home and see the dirty pot with the old grounds. I never said anything about it to her, though, because although I hated it passionately I knew it was a little thing. It was trivial and it fucking infuriated me. It’s the kind of trivial thing couples fight about all the time. On Saturday morning I would hate it even more when I threw out her old grounds and washed the pot. I would unscrew the three layers of filters from the plunger and wash them with soap, one by one. I made coffee and then I washed it again so it would be clean on Sunday morning. I did that for years, hating the way she didn’t wash every time.

And then – and I don’t remember when this happened exactly – I stopped washing out the french press. I left the grounds in on Saturday and they were still there on Sunday morning and everything was fine. Now that I work from home I make coffee in a dirty french press every morning. The French press is all mine – because Ellen has her own – and I could wash if if I wanted to. I don’t. Her way, the way I hated for years, is better.

There are so many things I am sure of in my life, and when I am too sure of them I think about washing the french press. There are so many things that she does that I hate. Most of them I don’t hate as much as I hated the dirty french press. I try not to call her on them because they might be like the french press. I could be wrong and she could be right and it could be years before I realize it.

There’s a lot of stuff in Out’s extended interview with Adam Lambert, but in the part that’s up today, one thing in particular – it’s almost an aside – struck me.

Sometimes it’s hard to, like, be a boyfriend for somebody, because you don’t know what that means. What does that mean? Especially if you haven’t been in many relationships. And being in the gay community, we don’t grow up with any role models for that. We don’t know what we’re supposed to be.

Adam Lambert is a good two generations of gay behind me, and yet I totally identified with this statement.

When I was in college studying ASL, I learned that Deaf culture is peer-transmitted culture. A lot of Deaf kids have hearing parents, so they learn about their culture from friends, at school, when they go to Gallaudet. It was a huge reason why Gallaudet was to important to Deaf people, the same way that Jewish camp experience is a greater predictor of adult Jewish involvement than having been to day school. Gallaudet, like camp, is a place where you finally go where you can be in an environment where everyone is like you. It’s a place to develop your identity without having to talk about yourself in opposition to most of what is around you.

I was in college studying ASL at the same time I was entering gay culture. I thought that “peer-transmitted culture” was a term made to describe the gay culture I was coming out into. When I was young and gay, in New York in the late 80s and Washington DC in the early 90s, it was all about other young gay people. We would go out dancing or hang around on the weekend and if I was 22 years old and Ellen was 30, we were the absolute outliers in terms of age. Everyone in our group of gay friends was in their 20s and E might have been the oldest gay person I knew.

She wasn’t because before I met her I had walked into the gay synagogue in Washington DC – and I stayed. Through that congregation I knew a lot of queer people in their 40s and 50s and 60s. I knew gay couples – not just one but lots of them – who had been together for 15 or 20 years. I talked to them after services or during committee meetings. They invited me and Ellen to their beach houses and holiday dinners because, I think, they wanted us to see their older lives. I had no problem imagining what my marriage to Ellen would be like because, for me, gay culture was not just peer-transmitted. I had older role models, lots of them. When we had our wedding, in 1996, it was very important to me to have those older couples present. They hadn’t had weddings. They had been together since the 70s or 80s when you didn’t just rent out a fancy hotel restaurant for an evening and smile as everyone clapped when you kissed your new husband or wife.

I had a unique experience and I tried to be grateful for it. Sometimes my friends in their 20s would say something and I’d realize that they had no idea what their future in a couple could look like. They weren’t sure if or how or why they would shift from the dating-clubbing-hookingup part of their lives into some sort of relationship groove. I’m not going to say that Ellen and I stayed together through that transition because I had all those role models at synagogue. I do think that it was easier for us because we could see, every week, that it was possible. I felt very lucky.

That was a long time ago. I thought that if you were gay and in your 20s now it would be different. I thought that being young and gay was different, especially if you were in a big city. Adam Lambert has been out there, circulating in gay culture for many years of his young adulthood 15 years after I did and he still says that there aren’t role models for relationships. There is a chasm between hooking up and marriage and if you want to get to marriage you have to cross it in some way. I can see how it would feel less possible if you didn’t know anyone on the other side. I guess I thought that now young gay people would know older couples. I can see why I might be wrong.

We have expended a lot of words and energy and money in the last couple of years pushing the idea that being a gay married couple is married just like a straight couple. Now, prompted by Adam Lambert, I don’t believe it any more. I think that my marriage to Ellen is qualitatively different from a straight marriage – not entirely but there are important differences. I can see how being young and gay and only seeing straight marriages in your family would not give you enough of an idea what marriage is like to make you feel it was something you had access to.

I don’t know that there are many instances when I make my marriage available for viewing by young gay people who might need to see it. We belong to a mainstream synagogue, neighborhood, school. There aren’t any younger gay people in the life of my family. I think of them, in their 20s, clubbing and hooking up on the other side of the bay, the water a chasm between us.

Song up in his head

May 26, 2009

In the car on the way to my parents’ today I was listening to my iPod (because I was driving. The person who is driving gets to plug their iPod in the stereo.) I wanted to hear my new music, “Song up in Her Head” by Sara Jarosz. It’s bluegrass-influenced singer-songwriter stuff. I was pointing out to B the things that are markers of bluegrass: the mandolin and banjo, the open-chord harmonies, the twang in the vocals, the use of minors.

“Can we listen to Rock of Ages?” B and R asked.

“Let me listen to the rest of this album and then we can,” I said.

By “Rock of Ages” they meant the Gillian Welch song recorded by The Duhks. I’ve had it on my iPod for a long time and the kids can sing along with it. I don’t quite know why they are attracted to it, but they are. When Sarah Jarosz was over, E put Rock of Ages on and we sang along to it:

Round, round I wanna go round
Wanna see the rock of ages
Till my body gives out
Gonna read the gospel pages

We’ve never talked about these lyrics before, but I felt compelled to explain that the theology in this song isn’t our theology. I talked about the gospels, what they are. I explained that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the evangelists who wrote the gospels. I explained the Moses verse:

Moses heard a voice
Called him up the mountain
40 days had set
When Moses come a shoutin’

And that that is the story that we tell in the Torah, the mountain and the 40 days, I told them. But at the end, we say that Moses gave us the Torah, the books of the law. That’s what is important to us as Jews, the books and the laws. In this Protestant Christian song, Moses shouts. Shouting, which is testifying faith, is important to the Christian denomination this song belongs to.

I told them that “Rock of Ages,” is a metaphor for God that we use in Judaism as well as being used in Christianity. We sing a Chanuka song, “Rock of Ages let our song praise your saving power,” or Ma’oz Tzur. “Tzur” is the rock,” I said. “We sing ‘Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael,” after Mi Chamocha when we stand for the Amida,” I said. “‘Rock of Israel, rise up,’ and we rise up. I think of that rock, meaning the strength and stability of a rock, the way your school is built on the bedrock so it will stand up in an earthquake. When we use the metaphor of rock for God, that’s the kind of rock I think of.”

We got to my parents’ house. We ate lunch, played ping-pong, went to my aunt’s house to swim, eat dinner with my cousins, let R blow out some birthday candles. My aunts gets B to play the clarinet for her. We came back to my parent’s house, shower and get ready for bed.

“I still have that song in my head,” B said to me as he was sitting on the couch, about to turn on the TV.

“Which song?” I asked. I thought it would be the minuet he played for my aunt. He’s been practicing that one pretty intensely for the past few days.

“Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael,” he sang. I was so happy, so gratified, that he had gone through that whole big day – and my theology lesson had stuck with him. Specifically, they had stuck with him through the familiar melody. I could make that point about rock and theological metaphor and it wasn’t just abstract. He could pin it on something he knew intimately because he has been sitting next to me as I sang it week after week after week.

When I wanted to have children, one of the biggest thing I wanted to do with them is sing. I sang a lot of American folk songs and nursery rhymes to B, but the songs I really wanted to give him were liturgical. There are hundreds of songs based on psalms and liturgy that swirl around in my head. I love them and I want to give them to my children. Here he was, in his shorty pajamas, letting me know that he’s been listening all along and that he has the Hebrew and the melody swirling around in his head, too.