Sunday, March 23, 2008

Afro puff

My hair is natural.  Finally, after about 8 months it is getting where I want it to be.  I love it, I am consistently happy with it and never feel regret or doubt about it.  It's really is odd that I should even think that way, that I should utter that statement, but we live in a world where it is considered bizarre that a black person might want to sport their own natural hair.  People are baffled when you revel in your hair texture, the kinky coils, the tight corkscrew curls.  I spend a lot of time with people from Latin America, Brazil in particular, and they are amazed that I would want an afro.  I have been asked numerous times why I don't straighten my hair, tonight it happened again, after a woman noticed that my hair, when pulled straight, reached to the nape of my neck.  She looked startled, particularly because it looks only about two inches long.  "Why don't you straighten it?"  she asked.  "It would be so pretty and it would blow in the wind."  

I've heard this basic sentiment from all people of color.  Only white people say "Oh my God, I love your hair, it's so beautiful!"  I have my theories about that, of course, but that's another commentary.  It's crazy really that the natural me is considered a "style" and not just me.  It's amazing that the accepted and EXPECTED hairstyle for black women is one that requires the use of harsh chemicals or searing heat to completely alter the hair.  What's even crazier, is that we do it.  I did it forever.  It's considered part of a beauty regimen:  makeup, clothes, manicure, touch up.  Really, it's terrible.  Not that people straighten their hair, but because they feel that they have to.  Black women feel like they don't look neat or taken care of or that their hair is not done if it's not straightened.  Even the ones who aren't self-hating think that.  Some may say it's just easier, but it's not easier at all, it's just that they've accepted that straight hair = attractive and straight hair = female beauty.  Not me, I love my hair.  Maybe even more because I'm lazy.  I know that I may blow my hair straight someday to change up my look temporarily, but it will never again be because 'I have to get my hair done.'  And most importantly, no more chemicals. Ever. 

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Fantasy 1; Reality 0

I realize this is not about food but...

The movie, "Humboldt Park" is being filmed in and around my neighborhood.  I don't actually live in HP but very close and I spend lots of time there, because I'm wishing that, when I'd made the decision to spend the next year on American soil this past summer, that I'd expended a bit more effort trudging through the neighborhood to find a gem among the tenements there. However, I took the first thing I saw, a cute, too small, half-tenement just south in the Ukrainian Village, which is still the 'hood (oh yes!) just with an Eastern European accent.  

Anyway, I was walking through the HP today (exercise walking, something I'm committing myself to, trying actually to work up to jogging in the coming weeks).  On the way in, I passed a film crew setting up for the shoot and on the way back I tried to follow the same route and this boy (he was probably early to mid-twenties, part of the patchouli set) ran up on me and declared:
"We're filming a movie."  I mean like right all up in my face.  
My response, of course was: "And..." "Well, can you go around?" He half asked.
"I live right up there, what sense would it make for me to go around two blocks?"
"But, we're filming a MOVIE here." He says, as though it matters.

This is part of a huge problem in our society.  It is not that I didn't know that they were filming a movie, as I said they've been doing it for almost a month now in the two adjacent neighborhoods.  So I had no problem going around.  My problem was that this youngsta seemed to think that it mattered more than the fact that he and the film crew that pays him are invading my neighborhood, making it impossible for me to walk down to the laundromat to wash my down comforter in the big washer and high powered dryer conveniently.  They are making it difficult for people to park, they are making it difficult for children and the elderly to get where they need to go easily and on top of it they keep slapping a sign that says bodega in front of the stores where they are shooting.  This is not New York.  We do not have bodegas here, I mean, obviously we have them, we just don't call them that.  No one in the neighborhood calls them that here.  People are annoyed that they are making life inconvenient and that they are not truly representing the neighborhood.  Instead of using established businesses, they have scoped out businesses of gentrifiers and slapped signs like bodega and pasteleria in front (Pasteleria, what the hell is that?  Again, I know what it would be, if we had that here, but come on, aren't people supposed to do a little research to ensure authenticity) and people who were once excited and happy that the neighborhood was getting attention, are much less so.  I shudder to think what they would do in a black neighborhood.  Oh, but wait, they don't really make movies about black people that are filmed on location in areas where black people live and work, unless its a period piece, or The Wire, which isn't even a movie, and since there are few projects left around here in Chicago anymore, and no plantations, there's probably nothing to worry about.

So, I'll stop.  The point is that I was annoyed by dude because he thought that making a movie really mattered more than my life or the lives of others in and around the shoot.  That's the problem with society today, too many people think fantasy is more important, more worthy, more serious that reality.


Oh yes, I'm quite sure I won't be seeing this one because it has John Leguizamo and Debra Messing starring as central characters, and they both offend my sensibilities. Don't ask me where D.M. fits in... Someone with a greater tolerance that I will have to tell me about that after they see it.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Phoenix dactylifera

Dates at various stages of ripeness

Since I began exploring and writing about North African and Middle Eastern food a few years ago, I embraced one particular food that I'd heretofore rejected:  dates.

Phoenix dactylifera or the date palm.  Dates are quite simply one of the most perfect, nutritionally balanced foods, but that didn't matter to me before, I thought of them as big, fat, overgrown raisins (don't particularly like raisins) when the truth was really that I'd never actually eaten one.  I just remember them most from date nut granola cereals as a child.  More significantly they struck me as looking quite like huge water bugs that one finds near open drains or in damp areas such as basements, so this, of course, did not help their cause with me one bit. 

But after living in Paris a few years ago, I ate my first Algerian pastry, called a makrout.  It's a little diamond-shaped cake, not much bigger than a petit-four that's made from semolina dough and filled with date paste flavored with orange flower water and a hint of cinnamon. 

Sometimes they are fried, always they are delicious.  

Anyway, after that, as I got to know more about the cakes and about Algerian culture, I noticed that while visiting with friends, I would get offered dates and milk.  There were Algerian deglet noor for sale in every shop in the African/North African neighborhoods where I spent my time. And I also noticed that everyone always had a box on hand at home.

Later after returning to the U.S. and beginning research for my article Gateaux Algeriens:  A Love Affair, I learned that dates (and milk) were the food that Mohammed ate to break his fast. I learned that desert nomads sometimes eat nothing but dates and milk to sustain them because they are extremely nourishing and packed with natural sugars that help maintain energy levels in such harsh environments.  Incidentally the Arabic name for dates is tamr and just the other day I learned that the Portuguese name for them is awfully close:  tamara. How's that for some ancient cultural diffusion?  I learned that dates are ingredients in both sweet and savory dishes all across the Middle East and North Africa and I've even tried a few.  There is nothing quite like Rice with dates and almonds as a side dish for a succulent baked chicken, or even a stuffing for all types of fowl.  YUM!  It's also particularly good as a side with pork roast or chops, because pork just marries so well with sweet fruit.

They have a fascinating history and there is so much lore surrounding them, they are incidentally one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world and of course they grow on date palms.  Not the kind of palm trees in the tropics, they really need the dry air and the heat of the desert to flourish.

These days I keep a stash in my own refrigerator to eat as a snack or to use in recipes.  They are now a staple in my pantry.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Stolen Loot...

Okay, I recognize that I should be writing more posts about food.  To date only one since I took up blogging again.  I promise myself the next three will be about food, but I had to pay homage, to these M.C.'s.  Here for your (if you're reading) but mostly my viewing pleasure are:
Masta Ace
Craig G
This is courtesy of Jay Smooth of  Too much.   Jay Smooth, who has a great blog and an admirable perspective on things, has that endearing Skip Gates dork-iness to him, which is cute.  If you've seen any of the PBS documentaries he's done you'll know what I mean when you visit his site and view a couple of his video entries.   

Anyway, I love Hip-Hop, I can't say more than that.  

*I must give props to Jay Smooth for all he has done for the Hip-Hop cause with his site, his blog,, and his radio show (check info here).  

Sunday, March 09, 2008


I really love  I have to get something on that site, anyway check this out about Margaret Seltzer, or excuse me, Margaret B. Jones


Thursday, March 06, 2008

They really didn't know?

I've been keeping up with the reports on the rash of faked memoirs lately.  Well, I guess it's only two.**  The first is the Holocaust memoir by Misha Defonseca and the second is the Growing Up in the 'Hood memoir by Margaret Seltzer.  The first one, called: "Misha:  A Memoire of the Holocaust Years."  The author recounts her experiences of escaping the Nazis, being adopted by wolves, taking 1900-mile trek across Europe, and shanking a German soldier (SS or Luftwafen, I don't know, I haven't read the book) at the age of seven, I think.  No need to blink, put on your glasses, or re-read the last sentence, your vision is not blurry and there are no typos there, you got it right the first time--your girl Misha said she was raised by wolves.

The second, a ghetto fantasy, if you will, is called:  "Love and Consequences," and describes Seltzer's experiences as a half-breed (Native and white) living in an African-American foster family (!) in  South Central Los Angeles, where she quickly becomes engulfed in the whole Bloods/Crips saga as a drug runner and then dealer grace a her foster brothers Jamal and Devante.  No, I'm kidding, her foster brothers' names were Terrell and Taye.  Check out the NY Times article on the subject.

Everyone with good sense knows that anything is possible.  Really, I am a firm believer that no story is too fanciful, because after my share of adventurous living--and I mean that in the substance-free sense of things--I have some stories that one would have to live to believe. Having said that, however, sometimes, things just really don't add up.  Ms. Seltzer's tale is one of those that leave you wondering...

Well, it turns out that her "memoir" is actually the ghetto fantasy of an upper-middle class, 100% white woman who was so fascinated by the 'hood and all of its trappings after a short stint as a teacher, in what I am assuming was the public school system, that she decided to create a life and write a book about it, claiming the story as her own.  

I will not deny, that ghetto/gang life can be seductive to the outsider.  Even to the insider, or so many people wouldn't be down for whatever.  While desperation and/or poverty might push you out there I don't believe the two are enough to keep you out there like that, that life, from my observations is just too hard on the soul.  

My first encounter with the culture, which came after living the white-bred life of just about every American black kid whose parents move them to to suburbs in this country, smacked of romanticization. But after realizing that I was not so far from that life, that my parents and I were both born into that life and that thankfully unlike most of my extended family we had escaped.  It's not fun, and seeing friends and family atrophy in cellblocks or in crack houses, or even at local departments of human services, well, I snapped out of it.  Don't get me wrong, the ghetto has its charms, where else can you indulge passions for fancy hairdos, fancy kicks, and fried shrimp and catfish all in a two-block radius.  I mean really, some of those catfish shacks turn it out.  Still and all I'd rather just visit and go back to my cozy de-luxe apartment in the sky (not really, all that, but you know...), especially if I happen to working in the 'hood too, then its definitely sensory overload, but that's another story.  My point is, the 'hood is not to be romanticized.  I like the 'hood.  I like the ghetto, it feels like home, because it is for me at the root of all things.  BUT...

So my point is, that anyone with any commonsense would see that this story is highly unlikely for several reasons:

1.  I can't imagine a foster care system anywhere that would put a white kid in the 'hood with a black family, even if said white kid was half Native.  That's even more of a reason they wouldn't do it.  It's the same reason you never see black people adopting white kids.  I'm pretty sure adoptions agencies don't bring out the Asian-white-Native baby books when Black couples roll up.  It's just not done.  And if it is, somebody tell me something, please.  

2.  At one point in the book (as quoted in the article) the author says that:
"One of the first things I did when I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot..."  What? I say.  This kid is supposed to be 14 when this all starts.  You're telling me she had the forethought to prepare for imminent death at 14?  I was a public school teacher for six+ years and while I had some true geniuses,who were triple threats with street smarts and commonsense on top of it all--the smartest among my students were usually out in the streets like this woman claimed she was--I could never see it.   Not when there are the latest Air Force Ones, bad gangsta rap, and plenty of Flamin' Hots to be purchased.  Or even food, clothes, or transportation for the family in some cases. Come on now.  No kid has it like that.  Most adults don't.

3.  Finally, and this may sound comical, the foster mother is called Big Mom. What I'm referring to here are the snippets of language in quotes from the book.  For example the character used drug money to buy a burial plot.  People say that, but not so much and if her character was writing a true-life gritty street tale of the streets, she probably wouldn't either. It's interesting that the article cites several reviewers of the book thought the language to be contrived or a bit too embellished or even awkward.  

The kicker is that she got busted because her sister saw a profile of her in the New York Times referencing her as the author of the book and then subsequently blew the whistle on her.

At the end Seltzer says essentially that she just wanted to bring attention to the plight of the people about whom she wrote and that maybe she didn't do it in the best way.  Publishers who worked with her seem to justify her and themselves by saying that it all happened because she's just so naive.  Humph. I'm not sure naive is what I'd call her.

What I don't understand, is why not just bill it as a work of fiction?  Why co-opt a story built from fantasy.  Why own such a story?  People who live these stories don't necessarily want to own them.  SIGH.  It reminds me of one of Dave Chappelle's standup acts where he talks about people repping the streets constantly, with a declarative "I'm from the streets!" in response to which he says basically:  'Oh, how unfortunate for you.'  

Doing you is ok.  Really.  And no matter what anybody says, it's not ok to do somebody else for money (in either sense of this unavoidable pun).  I'm certain this woman would have never said a word if she hadn't gotten busted, she would have raked in the cash, gone on the book tours, inevitably shared a couch with Oprah.  I wonder if she would have given some of her earnings to the people whose stories she claimed as her own.  

I guess we'll never know.  Too bad she and Misha didn't have access to this from the good people at

**Let me add to this list Ishmael Beah ("A Long Way Gone"), Marjane Satrapi (for taking "extensive liberties..." with the subject matter of "Persepolis' and "Persepolis 2"), and Dave Eggers for actually not taking liberties in "What is the What".  The thing is these books sound fabulous, without the extras, with the exception of Eggers, who I am not feeling.  Ever.  Hated "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," found it to be 400+ pages of smart-ass-(racist)-white-boyese.  As you can see I still haven't gotten over it and I read it about six years ago.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

For Real?!?

My plan was to write a post about plantains and how I have almost totally swapped them for potatoes in my diet, but on my daily rounds of online news sites, I read an article about how Ohio has been the determinant in every presidential election since 1964 and why Ohio is a barometer of sorts for the nation's social and economic welfare.  I am from Toledo originally and while I lived there no longer than about a year or so when I was but a pup, I can tell you that after 30+ years of visiting periodically, that we're in a lot of trouble, if Ohio is every(wo)man's America.

As if we all didn't know that.  Anyway, what struck me about the article was a statement made by a couple of people that the author identified as diehard Republicans who had turned up at a Clinton rally.  Apparently, they decided to check out Hillary because they don't like the direction in which the country is heading under the Republicans.  

To this I say:  

I take this personally.  Who are the people offering up these inanities?  It is possible that the comment was taken out of context for journalistic license. Perhaps, but I doubt it.  Truthfully, I know who these people are, we all do.  They are my neighbors, acquaintances, even a few family members.  Hell, some of us are them.  I also know that things here in the United States could get worse.  Any follower of truth, any realist, knows, things (anything) can always get worse at anytime, but damn, heading?  Heading

They're only worried now?  I remember when GWB was first elected.  I was sick.  I vowed never to watch a State of the Union Address until he vacated the premises.  I decided that I would prefer to look up on the horizon and see the proverbial mushroom cloud (or literal, there's still time) rather than read about it's prelude day in day out or listen to dude rationalize ridiculousness each year, which would only serve to depress me further.  When it happened a second time, well, I really can't even begin to express how I felt.  I took that shit personally.  So, as an act of self-preservation, I have kept that initial promise to myself over the years and really, when I had a television, everytime GWB came on, I changed the station.  He offends me and he offended me long before Katrina and the recent trip to Africa.  I mean, think back to 2000, when he thought it pertinent in the course of addressing a meeting of the NAACP to remind the attendees that the Republican Party was the Party of Lincoln.  What?!?  

In 2001, I owned a television.  But the morning of September 11th, I remember that I got sick at work with the stomach flu, so while everyone was glued to the television in the conference room, I was driving south on Lake Shore Drive toward home, listening to radio coverage, crying my eyes out, and trying not to vomit.  I was fortunate enough to have missed the planes slam into the twin towers, fortunate enough to have missed desperate human beings hurling themselves from the windows of the buildings, and especially fortunate to have missed GWB's first reaction upon being informed while reading to babies in Washington, D.C.  What shocked me was that he was reading to them (no really) not his reaction, one could have easily predicted that.  I was annoyed (and still am) that he didn't actually go to New York after it happened.  He really should have, I don't care what anybody says. I n hindsight, is it any wonder that he did little more than fly above the hardest hit areas in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or that he decided on his recent visit to Africa that he would focus on the success stories?  He's a punk. But, no, all of that is not what made people think we're heading in the wrong direction.

Which brings me to Katrina.  I didn't have a television at that time.  So I only saw what happened months after.  Why is it that only now, these people (who I am using as a representative entity for the great majority of Americans) don't like the direction in which the country is headed?  Why is it that no one says, 'Look, Bush and his crew have run the country into the ground, blatantly showcasing their racism, class-ism, and sexism and I am ashamed that I've played a role in letting them, so that's why I'm here to see what Hillary has to say'? That of course, doesn't exclude me or any of us who consider ourselves, thinking adults, liberals, whatever...but

Just once, I'd like to hear it said just that way.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Patisseries Algeriennes

Oh la la.  Comme je pense des patisseries.  Ca semble un peu bizarre je suis sure, mais c'est la verite.  Une vie sans ces ne peux pas l'imaginer.  

It's all true.  I am feeling the pull of the cakes that seduced me in Paris.  It's so difficult for me being away from all of that.  Just look at them....

Can you blame me?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I am working on edits for an article about a local neighborhood here in the Chi that I have always loved.  I've wanted to write about food, in Humboldt Park since I moved back, because Puerto Rican food is the shit.  While my editor is providing neither adequate direction nor time in which to get things done, I still relish the assignment.  

So, I am hard at work this evening, after she told me on Friday to include three more restaurants in my piece that would boost my word count from the 900 she originally told me to use as a cap up to probably 1500.  

I spent the afternoon going from place to place and met the owner of a really great place called La Bruquena.  I didn't include it originally, but I'm glad I went, because now, after a long conversation about Caribbean food, food of the African Diaspora, and gentrification, excitement about a project (actually an idea that's been floating in my head for ages) has been renewed. I've wanted to write something about food of the Diaspora and I have notes and research like crazy that I have not compiled or organized.  I am fascinated at the ways in which Africa has manifested itself in cuisine outside the continent.  I have been working at a Brazilian place and researching (and of course, eating) Puerto Rican and Dominican food lately, all of which has served to heighten my interest and reflection on the subject.  Dominican food, by the way, is surprisingly refined with diverse elements one would not expect.  At least I didn't expect it--I suppose I lumped it in with Puerto Rican food.  I never thought before about how its proximity to Haiti with its French and African influences might be reflected in the DR and vice versa with the Spanish.

Anyway, all of this, coupled with my knowledge of and experience cooking African American food (I still can't quite get down with the term soul food, although African American bothers me too, and southern doesn't quite do what I need it to either) whipped me into a frenzy today while talking to the owner of the restaurant who agreed to meet and talk about food and perhaps show me a few things in the kitchen. 

I love it when this happens.  It's like being on a diet and finally seeing those first few pounds fall off.  That's what keeps you motivated to press on. (I haven't had that happen.  Ever.  So, I am only imagining this.)  I have been working so much, laboring under the stress of poverty, rejection, and general fatigue only to find out that my efforts are paying off in the most unexpected of ways.

There's so much to do.