Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rants and Raves

Though it's been a freezing, rainy, crummy week around here, things are looking up.  Why? I moved, which, among other things, means that:
-The bathroom is now inside the house 
-The kitchen is also inside the house
-I don't ever wake up to a completely trashed, beer bottle and dirty ashtry-filled kitchen
-I have an oven that works
-I don't seem to have any neighbors who verbally abuse their children/spouses (at least not loudly enough for me to hear it, which is obviously the important part)
-The bathroom comes with not only a functioning toilet and a tub that doesn't threaten to keel over every time you step in it, but also a bidet

As you can see, lots of reasons for thing to be looking up, although I'm not going to lie, I find the bidet to be a fascinating appliance but I still don't really understand the method of using it. Bidet(s?) are very common in Argentinean households, though, so I'm just going to have to ask someone for more explicit instructions. This whole moving process has been as much of a cultural learning experience as anything else. First of all, the apartment was unoccupied for the past 5 years, which for most Americans sounds completely ridiculous, especially given that housing here is scarce and expensive. Then, when the owners put it up to rent, they didn't clean it beforehand. They painted the walls, but everything else was covered with 5 years of dust and grime when they showed the place. We figured it was just kind of old and dingy, but that's quite common here so we weren't surprised or dismayed and were happy to take the place as it was. At first the landlady didn't want to take us: in a surprising twist of the way things usually go around here, she didn't like the idea of having a Colombian tenant, having had a bad experience in the past. She was, on the other, perfectly happy with me, and in the end was persuaded (through a deposit) to rent us the place. Before moving in, we cleaned and cleaned, and cleaned some more.  And what we discovered was that all the fixtures are almost new, and that the bookshelves and dressers are in fact cream colored, not brown.  If you've invested in new fixtures, and painted the walls, wouldn't you clean it too so you could rent it out for a lot more money?  I'm not complaining, not in the least-- if they had done that, I couldn't have afforded it.  But I find it a strange practice, and I get the sense that it's not an uncommon one either.  An Argentine friend came over the other day, and one of the first things he said was that it was weird for him to see such a clean house, referring both to the fact that it was newly painted and that the floor and appliances weren't dusty and dingy.  Argentina architecture has lots of onda (charm), and interior design is very strong here, but good upkeep and cleanliness are not necessarily their defining characteristics. 

I say it was surprising that the landlady had a problem with Felipe instead of with me because the general reaction is normally the complete opposite. Yesterday was a perfectly infuriating example. We were sitting on a bench in the subway station, waiting for the next train, and Felipe had his double bass rested in front of him, not the most subtle of accessories. Someone always makes some comment when he's out with it, the most common one being, You should have played the flute! A woman sat down next to us and asked him if he was about to play. No, he answered simply. The woman continued looking in our direction as if she wanted to say something more. 
I'd like to show you some books about life, she said, stretching her arm out towards us, a stack of thin books held in her palm. 
We don't have any money, I responded. 
No, they're just to look at, if you'd like to take one and donate whatever you'd like. Goddammit, I realized, she's proselytizing to us.  I don't care what anyone does on their own but I hate when people try to foist their beliefs on me, especially in public places where I'd much rather be left alone so I can resume making jokes about all the pleather leggings passing by (I'm not going to pretend that I don't kind of want a pair at this point).  Felipe, less comfortable at rejecting people under these circumstances than I am, took the stack of books and politely flipped through.  Buddhism, vegetarianism, karmic something or other...I'd never been proselytized to by a Buddhist before, and I was kind of under the impression that that went against their beliefs.  
Thank you, he said, giving back the books.  Silence.  
You guys aren't from here, are you?  
No.  Silence.
Where are you from?  
Colombia.  More silence. 
You, too?
Are you from here?  
No.  I knew that in no way did I want to have this conversation with this woman.  I gave it an approximately -50 percent chance of ending well.
Where are you from?  
The United States.  
Oh, yes, (switching into accented English) I speak English!  Central Americans are much more humble than you guys are.  
Me, pissed off to have been trapped into a conversation I knew I didn't want to have: Colombia isn't Central America.  
Her, not listening: I just mean people from Central America tend to be... 
Me, cutting her off and thoroughly annoyed: Colombia isn't Central America, it's South America.  
She looked at me like I had slapped her.  Right at that moment, the subway came and we quickly slipped on, relieved.  I probably reacted more strongly than I should have.  But, to recap: lady comes up, tries to sell us books about/convert us to her religion, asks us where we're from and then immediately tells me that Americans are jerks, especially compared to people from a country that she couldn't locate on a map.  All with a beatific smile, as if this were a completely reasonable and respectable thing to do.  Americans are the politically-correct punching bag for much of the rest of the world, and although much of the flak we are given as a political/historical entity is well deserved, I can't believe how often I meet people who consider it perfectly appropriate to be insulting to someone who they've just met about their country of origin.

It's insulting, but it can also just be kind of silly.  I remember being in Sofia, Bulgaria a couple of years ago, about to take the overnight train to Turkey and looking to buy some bread and vegetables to carry me over for the night.  For some reason there weren't very many shops open at this time, or it was the wrong neighborhood, I had no clue, but I was having a hard time coming across much bread (I think I was looking for something whole-wheatish, something  I've long given up worrying about when I´m traveling, but this was my first "big trip" on my own)  The only whole grain-looking thing I ended up finding was a rather dark sliced brick, sealed in plastic and looking as if it had had better days. When I asked the woman behind the counter if I could take a look at the bag, she asked me where I was from. America, I said.  Oh, she said haughtily, this bread is way better than any of the bread you guys have. And she didn't say it in the way that French people sometimes talk about their food as being better yours is, because they´'re like that towards everyone, or the way Italians talk with pride about their national cuisine.  The insinuation was: you are American, therefore automatically your food/cultural level is lower than everyone else's. There is no way anything of value could possibly come out of your country, and if you think so it's because you're an idiot.

That bread was one of the more tasteless things I've eaten in my life, and this is taking into account the fact that I was on a night train during which the border guards woke us up at 2 in the morning to stand in line for 2 hours in the freezing cold waiting to get our passports stamped. Had the bread been even decent under those circumstances it would probably would have stayed in my memory as that awesome bread that that Bulgarian lady was totally right about.  But it wasn't.  And I'm sorry to tell you, xenophobic Bulgarian lady, that the bread that I like to eat, me and my American self, made by me and my American hands, is way better than that bread you sold me. It's better because it's not a brick (I have very strict criteria, you see), and because it has oats and whole wheat and seeds. It's a bit sweet and I like to bake it with more seeds on top because they're crunchy and because sesame seeds make almost everything taste better. It's better because it makes great peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (I am American, after all) and it also makes great avocado sprout sandwiches (California American, to boot).  I've been making some version or other of this bread for quite a while every week or so, and it mainly gets eaten as part of breakfast or when I get home starving and a peanut butter sandwich is the best resolution to the problem.  I throw in whatever I have around, and I only really measure three of the ingredients-- the water, the yeast and the salt, and the quantity of yeast isn't actually even all that important, either.  Less yeast will make a slower rise, but I don't go by rise times anyway because I've lived in cold houses and warm houses and hot climates and cold climates, and this all is going to affect the rising time.  So I wait for the bread to double.  Sometimes it takes an hour and a half.  If it's cold in the house it might take 4 or 5 hours.  I don't worry about it much and just leave it to do it's thing while I do my stuff, and if I have to go out for more than a couple of hours I stick it in the fridge.  So once I've measured out the water and sprinkled the yeast over it, I put it some oats if I have them, and a couple of cups of flour.  I mix it up and let it chill for a bit.  If l lived in a place that had a laundry machine in the building, it'd be the perfect time to go do a load of laundry.  After an hour or so I add in salt, as much sugar/honey as I feel like (between 2 and 5 Tbsp. typically) and whatever seeds/nuts/dried fruit I have around that sound good to stick in there.  You can add a bit of fat, a couple of tablespoons or oil or butter if you like, or you can replace some or all of the water with warmed milk.  These changes will make for a richer, more tender loaf.  But sometimes I want just an honest, hearty whole wheat bread (ok, what makes anything about bread any more or less honest?  Let's keep the anthropomorphizing and moralizing to a minimum please, Eva).  But as I said, I mainly just throw in whatever is at hand, taste the dough, and decide if I like how it tastes.  Yesterday after class I came home to a really good, nontraditional sweet and sour stir-fryish dish that Felipe had made as part of our lunch.  When I asked him how he had made it he said, oh I just used the technique I learned from you.  What technique? Throw in weird things and see how it tastes.  Hey, I never called it refined, brutish American that I am, I just said it was tasty, which is totally sufficient for me.

Whole Wheat Bread

2 c. warm water
1/2 Tbsp. dry yeast
1 c. rolled oats
around 4 c. whole wheat flour, divided
1/2 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. flax seed
1/4 c. brown sugar or honey
all-purpose flour
a mix of sesame, amaranth, poppy or other seeds to sprinkle on top

In a large bowl, sprinkle your yeast over the warm water.  Stir in the oats and 2 cups of the whole wheat flour.  Cover lightly with a kitchen towel and leave for an hour or so.  Stir in the salt, the flax seed, and the brown sugar or honey.  Begin to stir in the whole wheat flour, a cup at a time, until it's too hard to stir, and then empty out the bowl onto a countertop floured with all-purpose flour. Flour your hands, and begin to knead, adding all-purpose flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking too much to the countertop and to your hands.  Depending on the humidity you will need more or less flour.  When the dough is a coherent mass the bounces back when you stick your finger in it (after about 8-10 minutes), oil a bowl, place the dough in it, and turn the dough over so that the top has a a thin layer of oil protecting it so it doesn't form a skin during the rise.  Cover the bowl with a clean plastic bag or moist kitchen towel, and leave to double.  It will take anywhere between 1 1/2 to 5 hours to double, depending on how cold your house is (as long as you don't need to wear your jacket inside your house, it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours at most.)  Oil a 9 in. x 5 in. loaf pan. When the dough has doubled, gently deflate it and roll it up tightly into a loaf.  Place the roll seam side down into the loaf pan, cover lightly, and leave to double once again.  Preheat the oven to 375º F.  Spray the top of the dough with water or paint it with a beaten egg.  Sprinkle the top with a mix of sesame, amaranth, and poppy seeds, or whatever you like.  Bake for about 50 min.- 1 hour, until the loaf is deeply brown and sounds hollow when tapped.  
Make sure to store in a plastic bag to keep it from getting stale.

Pan Integral Básico

2 tazas de agua tibia
½ cucharada de levadura seca
1 taza de hojuelas de avena
aprox. 4 tazas de harina de trigo integral, dividida
½ cucharada de sal
2 cucharadas de semillas de lino
¼ taza de miel, panela o azúcar rubia
harina de trigo (tipo 000)
una mezcla de ajonjoli (sesamo), amaranta, semillas de amapola, u otras semillas para esparcir encima

En un bol grande, esparce la levadura sobre el agua tibia. Agrega la avena y 2 tazas de harina integral y revuelve. Tapa el bol ligeramente con una toalla de cocina mojada o una bolsa de plastico y dejalo por una hora y pico. Añade la sal, las semillas de lino, y la miel, panela o azúcar rubia. Empieza a agregar la harina integral, una taza a la vez, hasta que sea difícil revolverla, después vacia el bol sobre una superficie aharinada con harina de trigo. Aharina las manos y empieza a amasar, agregando harina de trigo cuando sea necesario para ayudar a que la masa no se pegue a la superficie o a las manos. Dependiendo de la humedad necesitarás más o menos harina. La masa esta lista cuando vuelva a subir inmediatemente una vez que metes el dedo suavemente en ella (después de 8-10 minutos de amasar), aceita un bol, coloca la masa allí, y volteala para que la parte de arriba tenga una capita de aceite protegiendola para que no forme una piel mientra reposa. Tapa el bol otra vez con el trapo o la bolsa y dejala crecer el doble. Tomará entre 1½ y 5 horas para crecer hasta este punto, dependiendo de que fria esté la casa. Aceita un molde de pan de 23 cm. x 13 cm. Cuando la masa haya crecido, desinflala ligeramente y envuelvela estrechamente en un rollito. Colocala en el molde con la raya abajo, tapala ligeramente, y dejala crecer el doble otra vez. 
Precalienta el horno a 190º C. Unta la superficie de la masa con un poco de agua o con un huevo batido, y esparce sobre ella la mezcla de semillas. Hornea durante 50 min.- 1 hora, hasta el pan esté bien dorado y suene vacio al golpearlo suavemente. Cuando se haya enfriado, guardalo en una bolsa de plástico para que no se endurezca.