Sunday, November 09, 2014

Words Made Flesh



"Candelita de ojos azules," wrote my mother when I turned 2 years old 45 years ago.

Candelita literally means "little candle" or "little flame on the candle," but in Cuban Spanish it can also mean "a little girl with fiery curiosity and mischief to spare."

My love of cooking must have started then. My mom noted that I cracked eggs on the sofa and grabbed olives from the refrigerator. I also remember opening and emptying out every single jar in the spice cupboard onto the countertop in neat little piles -- my first mis-en-place.

Forty-seven years ago my mother gave birth to me in San Juan. Every year since -- until Alzheimer's stole her memory -- my mother would tell me the story of my birth, of how I came into this world her flesh and blood, both bound to each other, poised for a 47-year adventure.

My mother always wanted to write a book. And today, on the eve of my birthday, I caught a glimpse of what could have been a career in writing three months after my mom's last breath on earth.

"Now I understand why rental apartments in the U.S. post NO CHILDREN signs," she wrote to introduce a description of my childhood pranks in a baby book, still wrapped in protective plastic, which I found in a box next to her ashes.

Thank you mother, for recording this moment in time.

Many memories have dissipated in the sea since my childhood years, shoring up now through your handwriting, which floods my heart with immeasurable love.

If I could speak to you now and hold the hand that once traced those words, I would say to you: "But you did write a book, mother. You did!"

You raised a prankster daughter who has written more words than she cares to remember. Words so charged with urgency. Important words. Words that mean nothing now. Those words crumble down, collapse into a pile of meaningless absurdity next to the simple phrase candelita de ojos azules.

I see you writing this, probably after I had gone to sleep, on the living room table. I see myself reading this now and there is no time, no distance between us. It's 1969 all over again. It's also 2014. The heart doesn't know time. Love is boundless, with no beginning or end.

Mother, know that your voice still lives, has always lived, through the ink and tears, the laughter and parchment of my own writing. Words made flesh in the fiber of my being.

My words are your legacy, mother. And since I couldn't give you a grandchild, my legacy -- our legacy -- lives on through my writing and the stories engraved in our hearts.

Thank you for giving birth to me, mother. It was and always will be "our" birthday.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

To Know Such Love


They would have been married 55 years this Thursday. Havana, Cuba 1959.

I don't know if my father remembers the date but today was especially quiet, as if a premonition of the anniversary. I mourned my mom in a different way. I mourned her for him, for his sadness. A tether keeps him attached to his body, knowing full well his soul wants to be next to hers, that his life is meaningless without her. Time stands still, stuck in the past of all he has ever known, the one constant in his life, the woman he most loved, my mother.

Would we all be so lucky to know such love.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Local Foodies Travel the World Without Leaving Miami

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Maude Eaton beckons with a "come eat" look and her Persian Polo (steamed basmati rice with golden saffron crust).

I'm American but you can keep your turkeys, cranberry relish, green bean casseroles, bread stuffing and mashed potatoes for another day.

This is what I'm talking about: a great afternoon savoring delicious food and wine in the company of friends without having to rush through a meal that took an entire day to cook just to stand in line at some megastore. Forget about Black Friday. How about Sunshine Sunday?

Because that's what happened last week in Miami.

"This is better than Thanksgiving," said my friend.

"Better than what you'd get at many a restaurant," I replied.

So there was much to be grateful for when South Florida Foodies gathered at Zonin Wine's hospitality suite for an afternoon of gourmet delights, thanks to Maude Eaton and over a dozen folks who prepared 16 dishes, paired perfectly with prosecco, red and white wines chosen by Casa Vinicola Zonin.

And in true American fashion -- after all, we're a country made up of immigrants from around the world -- these potluck dishes served up flavors from French Polynesia, Lebanon, Scandinavia, Asia, Italy, India, the Middle East, Britain, Colombia and France.

So let our palates be thankful for variety and the pleasure of eating in good company, without having to set foot on an airplane.

Behold a sampler. If Pavlov was right, get a napkin.

The appetizers alone were enough to satisfy ...

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Sardinian Octopus Salad (made with conch instead of octopus) for a Bahamian twist.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
From other islands, across the globe: Poisson Cru with Coconut and Lime Juice, inspired by Tahiti.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Quick stir-fry bell peppers for Asian tacos by Wokstar.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Asian pork meatballs in sesame-toasted wonton cups with sweet chili aioli and pickled scallions by FOODalogue.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Unfortunately, the Italian wasn't on the menu, but the Prosecco was.

And then the main courses ...

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Cooking, laughing, eating, drinking at the Zonin hospitality kitchen.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Tuscan grilled chicken with rosemary, lemon and olives.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Khoresh Gheimeh (Persian meat stew), saffron rice and Masto Khiar (yogurt salad with shredded cucumber and mint).

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
In the cup, a tribute to Louisiana: spicy Cajun crawfish sausage with creamy smoked gouda grits.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
To sip it all down: Zonin's selections for the gourmet potluck.

And last but not least, dessert ...

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Il Diplomatico Cake by yours truly.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Truffles, Sticky Toffee Pudding and Cheese Platter.

Hungry? More photos on Flickr or mouse-over and click on the arrows to see a slideshow.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Photographer Mac Stone Launches Everglades Book in Miami

mac-stone-everglades-book
A snail kite hunting for food. Photo by Mac Stone.

I hope Marjory Stoneman Douglas was looking down from heaven recently because she’d have been very pleased. The author of River of Grass -- a book that changed the world's perception of the Everglades in the 1940s -- would’ve loved to meet conservation photographer Mac Stone.

Stone grew up in North Central Florida, where he cultivated a love of swamps and practiced the craft of photography. As a teenager, he'd wake up before dawn to capture the perfect light, even if it meant being tardy to school.

His dogged determination didn't end there. Fast forward -- after years of traveling around the world with his camera -- to the Everglades, where Stone trekked through the wilderness, shooting breathtaking images of flora and fauna for his new book, Everglades: America's Wetland.

Stone launched the book last week at the Frost Museum of Science where over 100 guests enjoyed viewing 40 framed prints in the gallery. In the book, art meets science through photographs of birds, reptiles, plants and weather -- all things great and small in the river of grass. The book also features narrative and a list of resources.

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Mac Stone at the Miami book signing.




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Photographer Mac Stone with book cover and print.

I’ve followed Stone and his work on Facebook for months but nothing prepared my eyes for the stunning images seen on a wall instead of a computer screen -- so precise and detailed,  as if graced by the brush of a watercolorist.

To the undiscerning eye, an Everglades panorama may seem flat and boring, but it's really a complex landscape of contradictions, harsh and yet subtle in its vastness. Stone's photography beautifully reveals the many nuances of America's only subtropical wilderness.

During his presentation, Stone often reminded us about a story that needs to be told.

And it's a story that's not so easy to tell -- logistically speaking.

It takes true grit to explore this forbidding landscape. For five years, he ventured into remote areas far from the comforts of civilization. He hung a hammock from a cypress tree for a makeshift campsite that dangled above a lake. He took a close up of a snake, fangs about to attack the lens. He snapped an image of a very toothy alligator -- jaw gaping, tongue covered in mud. He endured sunburn as well as mosquito bites in chest-length black water for days just to capture a snail kite’s hunting technique.

While showing us a slide of his face covered in spider webs he pointed out the obvious: “It’s not glamorous or Indiana Jones.”

For those of us who aren't brave enough to witness the Everglades so intimately in the muck, we can experience Stone's adventure vicariously and travel to places distant not only by miles but also in time. Trails carved where there are no trails, far from the truck-filled highways that intersect the state. Winding rivers that have never seen urban development. Celestial backdrops on flowing water. Nature beating its own primal rhythm.

I’ve experienced this poetic side of the Everglades before. A blanket of peace. The smell of the swamp. The shrill cry of a hawk.

The book brings it all back to me, although I've never ventured so deep into the wild as Stone. Its pages serve as a meditative road map to this once pristine wonder. The camera's lens glimpses an ancient past when plants and animals coexisted without meddling humans. It’s a privileged vantage point: look but don’t touch.

Stone's story is simple yet its impact is profound: if you don’t appreciate it, you won’t protect it. So in a very tangible way, he’s carrying on Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ legacy in the effort to restore, conserve and protect the Everglades.

Stone’s work -- 40 large prints from the book's enormous collection -- will be on display at the Frost Museum of Science until December 4. Half that exhibit will remain until closing date, January 11.

The book launch was also co-presented by the Audubon Florida.

Everglades: America’s Wetland is available wherever books are sold. Support a local bookstore and buy it at Books and Books.



We had an impromptu chat at the book launch. Video on Youtube.

Fortunately, we needn't travel too far to experience and appreciate America's Wetland -- at least from the safety of boardwalks and cemented paths. I recommended the Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley for beginners. Visit Everglades National Park for more information.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Fledgling

Photo via Teddy Llovet's Flickr.

A falcon is fledgling on the edge of a dizzying precipice, clumsily flapping its wings. Winds blow hard on the mountaintops, dropping and swirling through the valley below.

As my talons grip the nest, all I see is the infinite sky.

 I'm afraid. Mom’s shrill call echoes in the distance.

And then I woke up.

This morning’s sunrise greeted me with the thought that in two weeks I would celebrate my first birthday without my mother’s living presence on this earth. And although I’ll be 47 years young, it’s perhaps fitting to call it a first birthday.

Every year, she would tell me the story of how I was born. Never why. Just how.



The mundane details: how she packed her hospital bag early to avoid traffic in San Juan; how labor was not as painful as her first three births; how I peed on my brother the first time he held me in his arms; how my ears were pierced; how the delivery doctor told my dad "it's a boy" as a prank.

On the brink of 47, I think I know the “why” now. It’s a why that doesn’t need the clutter of words. It’s a why of soaring through vast open spaces, of being unafraid, of not staying stuck, of peace in the midst of chaos. A why of infinity.

A why of raptor birds perched on cliffs.

“I’m a fledgling too, Maria. I also took a leap into the unknown. Don’t be afraid of living. Don’t be afraid of dying.”

And with those words, my talons let go.

Happy first birthday, mom. It's yours just as much as mine.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Miami Plants A Seed for Healthy Eats

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Wake up, taste buds! You won't need a rod and reel for this zesty Mushroom Ceviche from  plant-based Temple Kitchen in South Miami.

Last week, a seed was planted in Miami that will hopefully grow into a big tree, spread roots all over town and yield abundant fruit.

The first annual Seed Conscious Plant-Based Food and Wine Festival celebrated all things vegetarian, vegan and organic through a variety of activities, including a dinner hosted by health advocate Alicia Silverstone (you might remember her as the blond from the film Clueless) and a day-long festival in Midtown.

Since I've recently embraced a plant-based diet -- I hesitate to even call it a diet since it's by no means restrictive -- I ventured out to Saturday's festival not quite sure what to expect. The last time I attended the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, or as I like to call it -- the people-watching orgy -- I felt jaded and unsatisfied.

Not so with this gang of plant lovers.

Seed's one-tent wonder was full of enthusiastic folk with contagious energy. Smiles beamed. No 86 on happiness at this unpretentious event. Many of Seed's vendors were local mom-and-pop business owners who manned their own booths and offered samples of fine product.

And by product, I don't just mean food. If you are what you eat, then natural beauty was definitely on the menu here. My friend was drooling at the site of so much eye candy. I almost wiped his chin with a napkin. Oh wait, that was soursop gelato ... never mind.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Two of the ladies who run Lunchology, a Miami-based gourmet food delivery service. When you eat clean on the inside, you look great on the outside.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
To be fair, I couldn't get my hands off this hot guy's vegan "pop," either. Who can resist that smile? Filippo from Eccolo Pops brings Italian ice and gelato tradition to his shop in Downtown Miami.

But back to the drinks and grub.

To my surprise, there were more businesses advocating healthy eats in Miami-Dade and Broward than I imagined -- a great discovery in a town with agricultural roots. Before urban development pushed plows down to Homestead, South Beach was a fruit plantation. Allapatah was farmland.

The festival's tent was only deceptively small. I thought I'd be there for two hours. I ended up staying five and still didn't try everything. I missed the wine, talks and cooking demos.

What I did thoroughly enjoy were some delicious bites that made me want more. That's right: a culinary tongue tease. For the bed, leave something to the imagination. For the table, leave something for the appetite.

And voila:


Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Spaghetti squash, lentils and curry from Lunchology. All food made fresh daily.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
The brand name tells it like it is: Pure Brazilian Coconut Water. It's raw with a brief shelf-life. I'll never drink carton or canned coconut water again.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Live in a condo? No excuses. Grow herbs in these stylish wine boxes.  How? Contact Urban Gro in Wynwood.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Basil Park had run out of utensils, which was just as well. This marinated mushroom, water chestnut and cilantro iceberg lettuce cup with homemade sriracha was finger lickin' good.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Marcel had me at his exuberant hello. Or maybe the biceps. Definitely the flavor of Badass vegan artisanal cookies, made with spirulina and chock full of bounce-off-the-wall energy. Created by Badass Vegan founder John Lewis.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
I've always wanted a monk in the trunk.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Fruit and Spice Park showed off their exotic specimens. Pay them a visit to see the amazing variety of plants grown in South Florida.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Fennel-icious faux meat Italian sausage and dairy free mozzarella from small-batch delicatessen Atlas based in Hollywood.


Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Worth a drive to Fort Lauderdale: Green Bar Kitchen's Walnut Taco (served in an orange bell pepper) and spicy Coconut Soup.


Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
The line was long to sample Beyond Meat. I'll have to buy some at Whole Foods.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
South Florida-based OnJuice makes cold-pressed juices for cleanses that also work well as cocktail mixers or refreshing alternatives to soda. Ginger freaks, try the Lemon Aid.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
KIND bars was giving away pay-it-forward flowers.


Seed confirmed for me what I've lived in the flesh the last two months: cooking up a riot of vegetarian alternatives in my kitchen, eating well and abundantly yet shedding pounds. I always loved fruits and vegetables. Now I know they're loving me.

And that's a seed I'd like to see grow not just for me but for the rest of the community.

Seed was presented by Whole Foods. For a complete list of vendors who participated, click here.

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There’s the Dishes and Then There’s the Dishes


I take pride in my humble little kitchen, the operative word being little. My imagination goes wild in this small space where I whip up memorable repasts.

Being single, I most often enjoy meals by myself. Food is my companion. It nourishes and speaks to my body. I like it. It likes me.

Last night's entrée was no exception. Salmon en papillote dotted with organic butter, encrusted with crushed black pepper and sesame seeds. On the side: curried cauliflower purée blended with almond and coconut milk. And of course, something green: sautéed kale with sun-dried tomatoes.

I slowly savored my meal while listening to two unlikely companions, Oprah and Pema Chodron on Super Soul Sunday. Pema spoke about embracing -- with an ever-expanding heart -- all that which makes us uncomfortable. Can you be present with your fears? Can you make room for your discontent?



After dinner, I was tired. A huge pile of dishes stood before me in the sink.

“Ugh.” I thought. “Can I be present with my fatigue? And for Pete’s sake, how can a meal for one person make such a mess?”



I sighed and put on my dishwashing gloves.



And then I chuckled through the suds.



As in dishes, so in life. You see, it’s not that I had an insurmountable number of dishes to clean. It’s just that the sink was too small for the joyful, messy abundance in my creative culinary life. I’m so happy in the kitchen. What else matters?

“Well, if only I had a bigger sink,” I thought.



And then I shook my head. “No what if’s, Maria. Just be present. Keep scrubbing.”


Maybe that’s what Pema meant: it’s not that we have insurmountable fears in life. It’s just that our hearts are too small sometimes to take it all in, fears and all -- those glorious messes that make a meal taste even better.



No wonder fears take a hold of us. They’re stuck in the chambers of a tightly bound heart, with nowhere to go.



Well, you know what? Hey fear: relax, sit down and have dinner with me.

Square footage be damned. Sure, I’d love a bigger sink someday. Heck, why not an enormous kitchen? But my little space will do just fine in this moment as long as my heart continues to grow in the only way it knows -- to infinity.



Photo by Lex on Flickr. Not my kitchen!



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Monday, October 20, 2014

A Dream of Love


I witnessed my younger self walking slowly down a country road.

A wooden fence enclosed a pasture lined with trees that stretched endlessly to the sky. A breeze gently stirred the leaves as golden light peeked through a dense canopy.

I wrapped a blanket tightly around me as I stepped forward to nowhere, amid soft yellow seeds drifting lazily around me.

A faint glimmer in the horizon turned into a reddish beard.

He appeared as tall as the trees in his blue overalls. We had known each other before. We knew each other now.

I looked up at him, dropped my blanket and we hugged.

And then I woke up from this road less traveled, wrapped in my blanket, my naked body still basking in and already missing the plenitude of our embrace.

“What are you waiting for, Maria?” I asked myself. “What are you waiting for?”

Photo by B K on Flickr.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An Angel on Bus 58

angel drawing
Artwork by yours truly on Flickr.

She tenderly held my face with her bony hands. “You have an angelic face,” she said. Then she kissed my forehead.



“I believe in God,” she exclaimed. Pointing her finger upward, she completed her thought. “God will bless you.”

She was a stranger, among so many, on a bus heading west.

She wouldn’t be a stranger for long when we both stepped off at a busy intersection.

 I gave her my hand to help her down as she clumsily negotiated a small rolling suitcase and walking cane.

I glanced into her eyes.

 She seemed confused.

“Can I have two dollars?” she asked. “I need it to buy a sandwich for lunch.”

I was nowhere near downtown Miami. This seventy-something woman dressed in brown slacks and a matching blouse didn’t look like a crack addict.

Noticing her accent, I asked her where she was from. “I’m from Paris.”

“I don’t have much money in the bank myself,” I said. Reaching down into my purse, I handed her two bucks.

“Thank you,” she said. A smile beamed across her face.



The crosswalk lights were out of order. Cars sped westbound and eastbound over four lanes.



“Here, grab my arm,” I said.



We crossed Bird Road together. And on that journey of just about a hundred feet, I thought intensely about my mother, who had just passed away. While the sky was about to burst, my beautiful mom came to me in the middle of a road assaulted by frantic drivers and surrounded by hideous strip malls.

Across the street, my accidental companion pointed at a gas station. “That’s where I’ll get my sandwich. Thank you. Thank you.”



I pointed south. “I’m going to visit my father,” I said. “Enjoy your lunch.”

We said goodbye.

The rain came down hard and I rushed on foot to the assisted living facility. I’m terrified of lightning.

But another kind of bolt struck me.

I decided then that dad would come home to live with me. I couldn’t bear to see this old Parisian woman begging for a paltry sum of money. I couldn’t bear to see my dad in a place where vestiges of lives were waiting to die in a solitary hell.



Here on earth, with a heart still beating, a once daring life fading away in the same room where my mother had taken her last breath.

I felt a great sense of freedom and I was no longer afraid. Lightning be damned.

Soaking wet, I marched into my dad’s room. “Papi, you’re coming home.”

After my visit, I waited for the eastbound bus back to the Metrorail station.


I wasn’t surprised when I saw her. I don’t believe in coincidences.

“How was lunch?” I asked.

 “Oh,” she replied. “It was delicious. Thank you.”



The bus was loud and she was hard of hearing. I had to lean close and speak loudly in her ear. 

“What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Mary.”



We shook hands.

“I’m Maria de los Angeles.”

No surprise. No coincidence. My mom whispered a reminder. "Remember, I knew I was going to have a girl named Maria long before you were born."

On the way back, I learned that Mary was indeed from Paris. A widow with only one child who lives in Canada and rarely visits Miami. Mary makes ends meet as part-time seamstress at home, despite her failing eyesight.

"I'm tired," she said. "I'll take a nap when I get home."

As we approached the station, I reached into my purse and handed her another two dollars. 

“Here’s your next lunch, Mary.”

She tenderly held my face with her bony hands. “You have an angelic face,” she said. Then she kissed my forehead.


“I believe in God,” she exclaimed. Pointing her finger upward, she completed her thought. “God will bless you.”



I helped Mary find her transfer bus and we hugged goodbye.

I no longer need to take Bus 58 now that dad is home, saving me 3 hours of travel time. I’ll probably never see Mary again, but I’ll never forget her.

Mary, like my dad and my mother before him, is approaching the last stop, the final transfer. Sometimes you meet angels with wrinkled faces en route. Sometimes they fall from heaven and ask for lunch money in return for a priceless blessing.

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