The Pinky Ring Club

Sunday brings Pentecost, a day that I associate with a most fleeting thing: air. Invisible life force, we breathe in, breathe out: respiration. A word so close to “inspiration” and indeed they share the same Latin root, spirare: breath. Pentecost has to do with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Earth and it is this that brings about my airy thoughts each year for this day, as one word links to another: spirit to ghost, ghost to gust, gust to wind, wind to breath, breath to respiration, and breath to inspiration, too.

With Pentecost, we are 50 days past Easter, and with it, we transition further beyond spring and closer to summer. Though red is the color of Pentecost in the Church, the day in some places is known as White Sunday: Whitsunday. Special Whitsun Ales are brewed at this time of year, in some places drunk on Whitsunday, in other places brewed on Whitsunday.

Ah, but that is Sunday. Today, the 18th of May, it’s another celebration, one of my family’s own. My dad would have been 92 today. Approaching his birthday this year is not as bad as it was last year. Some of the sadness over his passing has been replaced by something different. I still miss him something awful, but more often when we talk about him or when he pops into my head the feelings are bathed in warmth, which is a slight change from last year. I still sigh a lot, but I smile a lot, too.

Mom does not want to do anything in particular for Dad’s birthday and so we are honoring her wishes. I’m not sure what Seth and I will do. It’s not like we can just make Dad’s favorite meal in honor of his birthday. He didn’t really have a favorite meal. He would sometimes say how much he loved a good Porterhouse steak… but once you put one on a plate for him, he would eat it and when he was done, always proclaim that he’d rather have a nice dish of pasta. And there was the custard-filled crumb cake he would talk about, too––the one that came from a bakery in Brooklyn called Hummel’s when he was younger. When you got right down to it, though, Dad was always just plain happy to eat whatever was put in front of him.

Honoring Dad’s memory with a favorite meal may be out, but I will wear his ring for his birthday. It was his pinky ring, one that he had from the time I was a boy. His initials, which happen to be the same as mine, in diamonds. It is so not something I would wear, but I do wear it when I want to keep him closer in spirit. It’s too big for my pinky so I wear it on my ring finger. It’s flashy, sparkly, a bit like my Dad, who, though he did not like to call attention to himself, did love himself some bling on his fingers. When he bought himself that pinky ring, Dad drove a 1960s Cadillac and he liked the finer things in life, as he always did––things he worked hard to attain. He was of the Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra age, and he would have fit in nicely shooting pool with them wearing this ring. I wore it at his funeral last year. I wish I could remember which New York cousin it was of mine who I think was wearing his own dad’s pinky ring then, too, and who said we were all members of the Pinky Ring Club now. I’ll take that as inspiration, too, in this time of holy spirit, ghost, gust, and breath. Happy birthday, Dad.

 

Image: Dad’s JC ring. Dad would sometimes try to teach me boxing moves when I was a kid. He’d have both dukes up and tell me, “Watch the left,” and then surprise me with the right. I was too busy trying to figure out which left he meant: mine or his. Needless to say, I didn’t do very well at boxing. Things like that always made me think we were very different, until we were both older, and I realized how much we are the same. That, too, is something that I can smile about now. If I am wearing my dad’s pinky ring, though, watch out: That ring can do some serious damage to your kisser.

 

Ramadan & the Ice Saints

With tonight’s new moon this 15th of May, the holy month of Ramadan begins. For those of the Muslim faith, it is a month of prayer, almsgiving, and most especially fasting. During the daylight hours, not even water is taken. But this daily period of deprivation is rewarded once the sun has set with good nighttime meals. A common food to break the fast each night is Harira, a traditional Moroccan soup made from chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes, and onions in a broth spiced with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, chiles, and cumin. Harira is served all year long, but it is especially plentiful at Ramadan. I plan on making some this week, and maybe you’d like to, as well. There are many variations, some with meat, some vegetarian, some with egg and some with noodles, and all manner of spices. But here’s the recipe I’ll be using:

H A R I R A
1 onion, chopped finely
Olive oil
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
8 cups chicken broth
1 cup dried red lentils
2 cans chopped tomatoes
Dried chiles, for a little heat (or 1 teaspoon chili powder)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt & Pepper
Flat leaf parsley, chopped
Lemon wedges

In a large pot, cook the onion in some olive oil until it is translucent. Add the chickpeas and the broth. Bring to a boil, then add the lentils, tomatoes, and spices. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Bring to a boil again and simmer for a half hour or so, until the lentils are mushy and the soup has thickened. Ladle into bowls, finishing off each serving with a bit of fresh olive oil, chopped parsley, and a lemon wedge for squeezing. This recipe makes about 6 to 8 servings.

In places like Morocco, this simple yet hearty soup is often the first thing folks take to break their fast with the setting sun. It is a bit of spiritual and physical nourishment. Other wonderful things follow, and often the feasting goes on well into the night. And then to bed… until the tabbal, the drummer, wends his way through the dark and empty streets to awaken everyone for the final meal before sunrise, usually bread with mint tea. And so each day goes in this month of fasting until the next new moon.

This year, the start of Ramadan coincides with the arrival of Cold Sophie, who, according to German legend, brings a blast of cold weather, winter’s last hurrah. But they say it’s been such a long and cold winter that I’m not going to give Sophie any attention at all. She and her fellow Ice Saints have had a ball of it this year, so enough of that. She can have some Harira with us if she wants, but that’s it. We’ve got our sights set on summer.

Image: My husband may be a potter, but I still can’t help buying bowls I like from other potters, too. These porcelain bowls are brand new additions to our collection. They’re by local potter Nena Escobar. I found them just last week, and I suspect we’ll be eating Harira out of them this week. Oh and if you do want to read more about Cold Sophie and the Ice Saints, well… here’s an earlier Book of Days chapter about them.

 

Our Mothers

It was Pizza Night on Saturday––homemade pizza that my mom and sister made from scratch. My grandma used to do this when I was a boy and it was a very big production back then: I would watch as Grandma measured the flour and salt out onto the wooden board and form it into a well; the yeast, proofed in warm water, would go into the well, and then Grandpa would hold the board steady while Grandma mixed and kneaded the dough, by hand. It took muscle and strength. It seemed every baking project began this way, whether it was pizza or taralli or macaroni or the crustilli at Christmas.

Nowadays the dough-making is easier––my mom and sister use the big stand mixer on the kitchen counter. One result, maybe, is we have these things more often. But still it’s special anytime there is homemade pizza or homemade anything. My family truly uses food as an expression of love. Sitting down for a meal––especially a Sunday dinner, as we will today, for Mother’s Day––comes with an understanding that it is an event that will last for hours. There is always abundance and we are always well fed and fully loved. I’m sure there are psychologists who will find this unhealthy, but this is the way of my family. And when you get right down to it, it is the core of the Convivio way of doing things. Mangia is our mantra.

Mother’s Day here will revolve around the table, which is no surprise. We will gather and we will celebrate all of the mothers in our lives, being thankful for each of them, whether they are with us now or not, and whether they are mothers we were given or mothers that we chose. The definition can be very open. Certainly all of the women who took part in raising me––mother, grandmothers, sister, aunts, and more––all have played their part. How wonderful to be part of that community.

Image: India, Luisa, Marietta, Carmela––mothers and daughters––at Saturday night’s pizza party.