Dig In

This may change in a few months, but right now, summer is my favorite season. It has earned this accolade by mastering the most important criteria of all: food.

produce at a farmer's marketThe August issue of Bon Appetit arrived sporting a picture of an heirloom tomato sandwich so drool-inducing that any sane person must have been tempted to eat the cover. When I made their tomato, raw corn, avocado salsa (with lime juice and, if you insist on ruining it, cilantro and serrano chilies), it looked just like the picture. I do not make food that looks like pictures. Martha Stewart crosses the street when she sees me coming. The food this time of year is just that beautiful.

In summer you can make things like buckwheat pancakes with fresh peaches and cardamom cream syrup, if you have cream, which I didn’t, so I can’t report on them. But just saying fresh peaches, cardamom, and cream in the same sentence lifts my heart (recipe from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark).

This evening I was slicing some squash for future use (don’t worry, I won’t let this one, ecstatic moment of advance preparation go to my head). The deep yellow of the squash was such a clear, visual sign of overflowing goodness that I had to eat one of the raw spears even though I was in the middle of my third chocolate chip cookie.

Last weekend I spent way too much money at the farmer’s market; way too much is the amount that buys more food than I can eat before it goes bad. But how do you choose among raspberries, peaches, Santa Rosa plums, Early Girl tomatoes, and fresh corn? That’s right, you don’t. Yum!

Plus I have these amazing friends who, unlike me, grow things. The sunshine-in-flesh-form squash mentioned above came from a coworker’s mini-farm. Another friend grows scarlet runner beans, which are green on the outside, pink on the inside, and more delicious than any other green bean ever. Yes, ever.

To top it off, while entertaining your tastebuds, you can also sit outside and be warm (except maybe in certain parts of northern California). So rejoice! Summer is celebrating and we’re invited.

Celebrate Your Life

Birthdays can be a time for reflection, but this year I’m opting for celebration. Some cool things that happened on or near my birthday:
•    My van erupted into spontaneous song on hearing news of the occasion.
•    A friend sent me a picture of her smiling, swinging baby with good wishes.
•    Three friends from two very different times in my life met each other in Johannesburg, South Africa.
•    My team won the over-30s division of the local soccer tournament.
•    I discovered someone in my new office has the same birthday I do. As a result, we got both a birthday breakfast and a birthday lunch. I think that’s what they mean when they say nirvana.
•    A friend baked me some healthy yet surprisingly tasty cookies, which is particularly impressive because I am generally opposed to combining the concepts health and dessert.
•    My mom took me out to dinner, and we had completely unhealthy chocolate torte with hazelnut mousse. Yum.
•    Another friend sent me this blog post by someone who spent her birthday doing random acts of kindness.
•    A number of people wrote cheerful texts.
•    My dad called.
•    The answer to one of life’s great mysteries—who buys Christmas ornaments in July?—was answered when my mom and sister bought me some I’d been eyeing in San Diego.

According to this list, what’s going to make the next year enjoyable is chocolate cake. That and the people who surround, nurture, and support me, who make me laugh and do me perhaps the greatest favor any of us can do for each other—keep me in mind, whether they are near or far.

And all of this for someone who only remembers others’ birthdays about fifty percent of the time. Thanks, everyone.

Get Your Sopas on

Heaven may very well look like a sopas feed. Though technically the event I attended is called a St. Anthony celebration, this Portuguese-American tradition appears to boil down to getting together to eat. As you know, I support basically any gathering and eating opportunity.

Sopas (pronounced sopish and sometimes spelled soupish, at least on the Internet) means soup in Portuguese. It consists of beef cooked until it’s falling apart with onions and sometimes cabbage and is served with day old French bread soaked in the juices until it achieves a delightful mushiness.

Sopas forms the foundation of a cultural tradition that ties together the Portuguese-American community all over California. That’s right: people who don’t know each other travel from all over the state to eat together. Every weekend from June through August, you could, if you so chose, travel to a different city and participate in the sopas goings-on. All are welcome. They don’t ask for your percentage Portugueseness at the door.

Every town chooses a high school-aged queen to represent Queen Isabella of Portugal, who rescued her country from a famine. Queens from all over the state invite other queens to share in their city’s parade and celebration.

My mom and I were lucky enough to sit across from a woman who grew up very much involved in the Portuguese community. The woman confessed that the queens try to outdo each others’ dresses and intricate, hand-embroidered capes, but all the same, whether you share the parade with a poorly clad queen (of which there were none) or one who manages to upstage you, you still sacrifice the idea that you’re the only queen in town.

As the woman told her stories, I could see lines of connection threading their way through the entire state of California. Someone who lives in Bakersfield has an opinion about the way they cook sopas in Pismo Beach or San Francisco or San Diego. Whatever her opinion, she knows the cook; she knows the city; by the end of the summer, she probably knows all the queens if she’s following the circuit.

Fittingly enough, sopas is served family style. As we sat at long rows of picnic tables and waited impatiently for the big, dented, metal bowls of food to come around, I had no doubt everyone would eat her fill.

Did Someone Say Food?

If I go past entry number three without talking about food, those who know me will begin to question the honesty of this blog. I love to eat, especially other people’s food.

In his book Brain Droppings, George Carlin suggests world peace through formal introductions. I believe potlucks could accomplish the same end. Eating together is an intrinsic human behavior, like language, perhaps because of the bonds it forms. We may say all sorts of critical things about someone, but if he or she brings a fabulous spinach artichoke dip to the party, a lot can be forgiven.

I once took a long, overnight, third class train ride in China. The very accurate Chinese term for third class is “hard seat,” but they sell far more tickets than there are seats, or did in 1997, and I was sitting on the floor with a crowd of fairly cheerful Chinese people, far more cheerful than I. I spoke Chinese well enough to get around but far short of fluency and often understood my fellow passengers’ questions but didn’t have the vocabulary to answer them.

At one point during the night, the two people nearest me, better prepared than I, broke out their food and offered me some. I declined. It’s good form in China to politely refuse a couple of times and then accept, but I continued to say no. They hadn’t planned on feeding me, and I didn’t want them to spend the night hungry.

Then they asked me a question I couldn’t have answered even if I had known the words. It went something like this: What’s wrong with you Americans? You think you always have to look out for yourselves, but here we look out for each other. Needless to say, I accepted the orange soda and the sausage stick and redoubled my Chinese efforts. (A sausage stick does not belong to the sausage family. It resembles a cold hot dog wrapped in red plastic the way some cheeses are wrapped in red wax. It has the shelf life of a twinkie and tastes as delicious as it sounds.)

Closer to home, one friend in my office recently made my day when she brought me a breakfast burrito for no other reason than that she had made one for herself. Another brought me peas from her garden because she knows they’re my favorite.

Their thoughtfulness reminded me to follow suit, and I delivered banana bread to another office during a stressful time. I’m as capable of believing I don’t have enough as the next person, and sharing what I do have cures this feeling faster than anything else I know of.

We are a species capable of incredible generosity and incredible selfishness, and both are contagious. Offering and receiving food opens that generosity within us. So let’s eat!