Saturday, August 28, 2010

The taste of summer

For some people summer means grilling or soft ice cream. For me, it's all about the watermelon. Maybe it's a bit late, writing about summer tastes in late August, but now is the time that I become sentimental for what will vanish in just a few weeks.

I love watermelon. I'm not the only one. Watermelon originated in southern Africa; watermelon seeds were found in Tutankhamen's tomb. It makes sense that these melons evolved in southern Africa; they hold immense amounts of water (92%) and as they over-ripen they crack open, giving the seeds a wet, lucsious place within which to take root. There are stories about watermelon from around the world, ruminations on sweetness and bitterness, Anansi tales where he pretends to be a talking melon, and more.

When I eat watermelon in the summer I am at once a kid again, longing for seeds to spit (curse these seedless watermelons!) and an adult indulging in a forbidden sweet. I love the varied texture and clean sweetness. And I love sprinkling it with salt or feta for one of my favorite taste combinations, sweet and salty.

What's you favorite watermelon tip? I've heard about grilling it but haven't been able to resist it long enough to get it downstairs to the grill. For that matter, what tastes like summer to you?

(c) 2010 Laura Packer

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bread of peace

Ramadan began this week. I am not Muslim but I  respect this religion, as I do most faiths. In the US these days there is growing anti-Muslim sentiment that I find quite distressing; judging a person based solely on their religion is no better than judging them based on the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage. Some of the hate-speech I've heard sounds awfully similar to what was bandied about in Nazi Germany. This nation that was founded on religious tolerance is slipping into a fearful state, where someone will be condemned because of their faith. How dreadfully sad and frightening.

Ramadan is an amazing statement of faith and humility. For a month everyone becomes equal - all are hungry and thirsty. All have the opportunity to pray for forgiveness. All have a specific opportunity to be kind.

As I said, I am not Muslim. I am Jewish. I have fasted for various religious holidays and have an appreciation for the clarity it can bring. And for the succulence of the meal that breaks the fast.

I am fortunate enough to live in a multi-ethnic neighborhood; recently a Moroccan market opened, with the scent of rosewater and the scrape of ceramic tagines. I stopped in a few days ago and spoke with the proprietor, a kind and friendly man. We spoke of Ramadan. And of Yom Kippur. And how the differences between his family and mine are really quite trivial. A woman in a hijab was listening to our conversation and, as we began talking about what we eat when we break fast, she said, "You must try this," pointing to a plate of flatbread covered in plastic. The proprietor nodded and pulled out a piece for me to eat. "She makes this," he said, and she preened, "I stick it in the oven with butter and honey. It tastes like my mother feeding me at the end of the fast."

They both watched as I tasted the soft, chewy bread. It was delicious and as each layer unraveled in my mouth I could taste the time it took to create, the delight on the tongue after a day of considered hunger.

"It's wonderful, " I replied, and bought several, along with sweets and pomegranate syrup. They smiled as though I were a child bringing home a good report card.

"Next time," said the shopkeeper, "You bring us some of your food. It's good to eat together."

And so it is.

It took me a while to find a recipe for msmen, the bread I ate, and I've not yet made it, so I will simply give you the link. Whether or not you make it, next time your stomach rumbles in hunger, take a minute and consider all those who are hungry. As you break your fast take a moment and be grateful. Let the taste of your food saturate your mouth. And then share your feast with friends old and new, familiar and different. We build bridges with bread, with shared meals, with hands reaching out across boundaries.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer