Four Hours of Car Parking and 500 Balls

The rumors were rampant: ICE would swoop down on our county fair, where at least seventy-five percent of the attendees are Latino. Wednesday, opening day of the fair: slow. Thursday: slow.

Friday, Stu was the Lion’s shift captain for the day, which meant that he’d arrive at 8 a.m. and park cars with his crew until 10 p.m. that night. It’s what the Lions do: it’s community service, and it raises money for their scholarship programs.

What self-respecting similarly community-minded wife would not raise her hand, so I did, and Stu assigned me to a 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday shift, coinciding with the big Latino band concert that began that night at 8 p.m.

By Thursday, with very light fair attendance, Stu was saying, “Yeah, I’ll probably send you home.”

But by Friday afternoon, it was as if our Latino neighbors decided that ICE was just another boogey man under the bed. Slowly, the lots starting filling. And then the doors blew off. The chatter on the walkie-talkies we are carried was as noisy as blackbirds on a wire, and we began shifting cars and Lions rapidly from one lot to the next – first the soccer field, next the McCurdy field– as fast as we could.

I hate to just stand and wave cars by, so every year, on my single Lion’s fair car parking shift, I dance, I sing, “We’re off to see the wizard!” I bow, I kick, I jive, I juke. I get lots of grins and waves and thank-yous. One woman said out her window, “You’re going to wear yourself out!” And yep, it was HOT out there. A sheriff on a three-wheeler tossed me a bottle of water. Stu brought me a gator aid. I had fun.

And then, after hundreds of cars settled in for the music show, I went to see Cuate. In my screaming yellow parking vest, walkie-talkie around my neck.

Cuate and his wife Lola and their kids are family to Stu and me. Cuate was with us from the beginning of Nora’s Table as a dishwasher, and by the end of that run, he was the only cook besides me who could work every station at both breakfast and dinner service. I love him. After Nora’s, he bought not one, but two food trucks, and every year he has a hamburger booth at the fair. This year, he went with two booths: one for tacos, one for burgers.

When I arrived at the back of the food truck, lines at both booths were about 40 people deep, and it was bedlam. Organized bedlam, but bedlam all the same as fifteen staff cranked through preparing the hand-made tacos and burgers (we taught him well at Nora’s) to meet this crush of customers, the first big crowd of the week’s fair.

Cuate was elbow-deep in a big metal bowl of masa flour, water, cumin and salt, getting the mix just right for tortillas. Another of our Nora’s dishwasher alums, Arturo, was running a metal spatula through a big flat top full of carnitas. And in the tent attached to the side of the food truck, Cuate’s staff were frying burgers, grilling tortillas, building tacos, and hollering.

“Mas chipotle mayo!” “Mas cebolla!” “Mas masa!” Mas, mas, mas.

“I’m washing up, Cuate,” I said, to his appreciative nod. I took the now well-mixed masa, and started rolling it into balls, and plunking them into a big plastic pitcher. When the pitcher was full, I reached across the food truck window into the prep tent, and dumped the balls into Lola’s upheld lexan container. Boy, was she surprised to see me on the other end of that pitcher! Two more women dropped the balls quickly into a tortilla press, and then onto a flattop to griddle.

Ball after ball after ball. Mas. Mas. Mas. I lost count after a while, but I think it was darn near 500 before I was done. Cuate and Arturo and I chatted in the midst of all that chaos, catching up on families and friends and children, church and school and life. And then Cuate handed me a plate of tacos.

When people ask me if I miss Nora’s Table … this is what I miss. A crew of people working through pressure, happy to be together, pulling in the same direction, putting a food coma smile on people’s faces.

I’m sure people walking by wondered what an old white woman in a parking vest with a chattering walkie talkie in her pocket was doing in Cuate’s trailer rolling masa balls. To a few raised eyebrows, Cuate laughed and pointed at me, “She was my boss. She’s STILL my boss.”

No Cuate, I’m not your boss anymore. You, my friend, are the boss. El Jefe. Thanks for letting me roll your … well, you know.

When the New York Times declares “Kathy Watson 2020!”

One day you are sitting on the coach getting over hernia surgery, and the next day you’re in the pages of the New York Times, The New York Magazine, Mediaite, and David Green is saying your name on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Not because you cured polio or flew to the moon. No, it’s because you punked your husband in the New York Time’s comment section on a story about Facebook.

It started with an e-mail from the Times:

“My name is Michelle and I work in the New York Times newsroom on our Reader Center team. One of our comment moderators spotted the comment exchange between you and your husband yesterday and we were all delighted by it. As you may have seen, it made the rounds on Twitter, racking up thousands of likes. (As one of my colleagues said in our office chat room, “Kathy Watson 2020!”)

So not only did the Times do a story about it, but it was also picked up by Mediaite, New York magazine’s “The Cut” and finally, at the end of our 15 minutes of fame, NPR’s Morning Edition.

How did this happen? All comes from Stu and I sharing the same NYT digital account, which just so happens to be in my name. So when he comments on a story, I get an e-mail informing me that his comment has been approved. And when I saw that comment from him about FB, I just couldn’t help adding a few helpful little comments of my own.

Three days of fame, on the couch in Oregon, was a fun little idyll. Now I just need to hear Terry Gross say, “Kathy Watson, welcome to Fresh Air.”

What they don’t tell you in guide books, or, we tried to figure it out so you don’t have to

“Is this a two-lane street?” asks Stu, both frustration and panic in his voice. He is driving our rental car into Oaxaca Juarez, the colonial city in Central Mexico we have been living for two months.

Who knows? It’s a two-lane street if the drivers using it want it to be. Gutters, parking lanes, breakdown lanes, the lanes going the other direction, can all be utilized by drivers if they need them at any given moment. And then I utter our refrain, the one we use whenever we attempt to use American logic to understand anything here:

“You’re assuming someone is in charge.”

If Mel Brooks had directed Fury Road, he might have set it in modern-day Mexico. Driving here is a comedy action thriller.

Take one-way streets. Many streets in Oaxaca and surrounding pueblos, towns and barrios, both paved and unpaved, have large painted arrows on facing walls, showing if the street is two-way or one-way. The Mexican driver believes you should probably obey those arrows, unless you really need to go the wrong way on a one-way street, in which case, you should try to avoid the oncoming cars as judiciously as possible. Wave, showing your appreciate their understanding.

Take crosswalks. Someone, somewhere (the person who was temporarily in charge?) painted many crosswalks on Oaxacan streets. As near as we can tell, these painted areas tell drivers that this is the area where they should, if convenient, avoid hitting people as they drive through, very rapido. It does not mean, under any circumstances, that they should stop and let the people standing nearby cross. Unless of course, they are already stopped because of a red light, in which case it is the pedestrian’s responsibility to make eye contact with the driver, and wave at the driver, just to make sure the driver agrees with the pedestrian’s interpretation of the event. And of course, Oaxacans, being extremely friendly and accommodating, always smile back, “Why, of course, go right ahead!” It’s such a civilized approach.

Take bus lanes. Actually, yes, take bus lanes. The sign on the lane repeated every 100 feet that says “Bus Only” is meant to be poetic. It may mean that a bus uses the lane sometimes. But the definition of bus is rather lax, and encourages creativity. Cars, trucks, motorcycles: we all feel like a bus sometimes, don’t we? A couple of “Bus Only” lanes are the only lane you can take if you want to turn right or left at the next light. So call me a bus. I’m OK with that.

Take other traffic violations. Some weeks ago, the erstwhile traffic department of Oaxaca (the people, who, at one time or another, are briefly in charge) put up a nice tent on Alcala, the main downtown tourist pedestrian-only street. Inside the tent, they put 20 posters on easels, each with a drawing of a traffic violation, and a recitation of the Oaxacan law at issue. The first thing about this display that struck me is that it was set up on a street few where cars can’t drive. It was honest and sincere, but in a state where literally anyone can get a driver’s license, no test required, it seemed woefully inadequate as a driver education tool.

That said, here are some of the things, pictured on the posters, that are illegal here:

– Putting rocks, buckets, old chairs or spare construction material anywhere on a public street to reserve the parking spaces in front of your house or business. So, who knows why every street in Oaxaca sports one of these free-lance loading zones. Illegal, we’ll give you that. Enforced? OK, now you’re acting like there’s someone in charge.

– Riding with a dog or child loose in the front passenger seat. The poster only showed one loose child and one loose dog. Maybe that explains why we’ve seen three or four children loose in one front passenger seat. One child could get knocked about, but there’s safety in numbers.

– People riding in the open bed of pickup trucks. Seriously? Even the local, state and federal cops ride around standing in the back of pickups. Of course, they are all carrying semi-automatic weapons, which they use to steady themselves against the truck frame when they go around corners, so that probably makes it safer for them. It also ensures I won’t be pointing out to them that it’s illegal.

If you’ve ever watched a bee hive, or an ant hill, it is obvious that advanced civilizations have no need for traffic signs or bureaucracy, as long as all the bees and ants are just going about their genetically-inspired jobs as judiciously as possible. The primary rule here is: we’re all on this road together, trying to get to our destinations. Let’s just get along. And if that means I need to drive the wrong way in your lane for just a minute, we’ll all just smile and wave.

A well-done onion

The onion is the most undercooked vegetable in the American kitchen. We know our meat times, pressing a thumb to a burger patty sizzling away in a cast iron pan, feeling for medium rare, or a fork to braised beef shortrib, looking for that moment of total tenderness. But onions? We think if we chop one up and saute it for two minutes, it’s good to go.

So wrong. Want caramelized onions on top of that burger? Better start 30minutes before you put that burger in the pan. A long slow saute in fat … butter, olive oil, bacon, suet … breaks down the onion into velvet sweetness. This is why shallots are so often recommended for quick pan sauces, because they cook so much faster than a yellow or red onion.

But for weeknight cooking, when our fingers ramble through the vegetable drawers looking for some credible items for a quick pasta sauce, we are more likely to find a lowly yellow onion. And so the trick is to give it enough time to cook all the way through, and not be a discordant note, too sharp and crunchy.

The  other night, I had a half-bag of dried orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta that holds sauce so well, a few strips of fatty bacon, a yellow onion, some parsley, a half-squeezed lemon, and a bunch of rapini, also called broccoli raab. I chopped the bacon and cut the onion in slices and started them, on a low heat, together. Thirty minutes later, the onion and bacon had made a wonderful fond on the bottom of a small rondo, and I was ready to finish the dish. I started the pasta in boiling water, and 10 minutes later, I added the rough-chopped rapini to the pasta and water, so that they would finish up together. In the rondo, I set the flame to medium high and poured some hard apple cider over the onions and bacon, scrapping up all the delicious brown bits, squeezed in some lemon juice, a spoon of Dijon mustard, tossed in the minced parsley, and then, using a spider, just transferred the pasta and rapini, dripping a bit of nice pasta water, into the rondo, and stirred them up together until the water evaporated, and the sauce was evenly distributed.

On to the plates it went, dusted with cracked black pepper and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese.

Night of the Spatchcock

The chicken, the herbs, the bones.

A good stock is a force of nature. It can stand up to a studio executive or a Supreme Court nominee. It is made of flesh and bones, herbs, onions, whole peppercorns, perhaps a few whole allspice, carrots, celery and time. Hours of untended time, and at a temperature that moves things just below the surface of the stock pot with a quiet menace.

A broth is another thing entirely. A broth is an idyl, a simple, small idea made on the back of the stove in the hour or two before it’s needed, with whatever happens to call to me, for the sole purpose of bolstering up some pan drippings or finishing a pan sauce along with some sherry or cider and dijon mustard and a slug of very good vinegar.

A broth is just what is called for tonight. Recently, I brought home some local chickens from Hood Hill Farm. These small birds, just under three pounds, are meaty, lean and petite. They are more like gymnasts than those fatty four-pound grocery store chickens who were butchered shortly after sitting in recliners watching Kardashian reruns and drinking cheap bourbon before noon.

On a Friday night in mid December, the light is already dimming at 4:00 when I enter the kitchen to start dinner prep, I look at that cute little chicken on the sideboard and decide to spatchcock it and roast it with winter orange slices under its skin. I rub it with salt, pepper, and smokey paprika, and lob a knuckle of butter on top. Because it is a local bird, the farmer was kind enough to place the chicken neck in the cavity. Armed with nothing but the spine snipped off when I spatchcock the bird, the neck, and that fat little butt we called the Pope’s Nose when I was a kid, I start a broth: those meager bones, the green tops of two leeks, several cloves of garlic, some parsley leaves and stems, and just enough water to cover. The broth will simmer slowly for at least an hour, then sit and cogitate until I run it through a chinoix.

My bird is laying flat and placid on a rack on a sheet pan. It’ll roast at 375 until a thermometer reads 160 in the fat part of the thigh, which will take 75-90 minutes. And I’ll be rewarded with mahogany brown drippings on the sheet pan. All those dripings will be prodded and scraped from the sheet pan into the strained stock.

And what now? Since hunger will be afoot by then, I will make a beurre manie, simply rubbing equal parts cold butter and flour together with my fingers, and whisking it into the lightly bubbling stock and drippings. It will not confuse anyone into thinking it’s a much reduced rich sauce built over hours, but on a cold December Friday, it is light and simple enough to moisten my little bird, and pool nicely over some potatoes and butternut squash mashed together with minced sage leaves, butter, buttermilk and parmesan cheese.