Not long after we decided to make San Anselmo, California, our home base when we we're in the US, Rich and I were invited to a casual neighborhood cookout. The main course? Barbecued whole baby squid.
“I am so outclassed,” I whispered to Rich. “I am going to have to get all new recipes to run with this crowd!”
Every hostess strives to serve memorable meals, and lately, with so many Americans eating on the run, trendy new snack foods are standing in for sit-down dining. Food manufacturers (I can’t bring myself to think of them as chefs) are coming up with all sorts of outrageous combinations to appeal to lots of different market segments and make their products buzzworthy. Take this little treat, for instance.
Organic, low-fat, vitamin-rich, gluten-free, Asian seaweed with a gourmet touch of honey Dijon; it’s like a focus group in a bag.
Or how about this charmer?
Kale (the curly leafed kin of wild cabbage) plus chia (a seed rich in Omega-3 fatty acids) sounds like a healthy combination, but what about the flavor? I went on the manufacturer’s website and was directed to a nutritionist’s blog, which said, “I could taste the kale, but the salsa covered it up pretty well.” Well, thank heavens she didn’t actually have to taste this stuff! These chips come in five different flavors, and one poor fellow wrote on Amazon, “I thought that the Ranch flavoring might subdue that Kale taste and allow me to enjoy these. Unfortunately the Ranch flavor was not really very up-front and didn't mask that bitter taste of Kale that I dislike. These are a healthier option for people looking for a snack, though.”
Should we live in a world where you have to man up just to get through a snack? I think not.
If you’re looking for just the right beverage to wash down your kale or seaweed, you might – or might not – want to consider the new vegetable-flavored teas.
Marketed as a snack in themselves and “not quite a soup,” these veggie infusions have not exactly taken the culinary world by storm. “My brain and flavor-brain still hurt,” wrote one reviewer, adding “You could easily convince yourself it’s medicinal and restorative…in the right frame of mind, I could see them growing on the drinker with a little hard work.” Again, do I really want to work that hard for a snack?
Contemplating these new food options, I’m beginning to understand why some people think it’s healthier to stop eating altogether. When I first saw the notice below, which begins, “Get this. You can cure almost anything through fasting,” I dismissed the writer as just another California health nut. But lately I’ve been reconsidering. Fasting may not get rid of what ails you, but at least you’d be free of honey Dijon seaweed, kale chips, and vegetable tea snack foods. And that’s gotta help.
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“You’re getting a Christmas tree?” Spanish friends used to say, with such incredulity that I might as well have announced we were building an igloo in our living room. “A live tree? Really?”
“Where are you getting a tree?” expat friends would ask, eyeing us a trifle suspiciously, as if we had a direct line to Santa’s workshop and had been keeping it to ourselves.
That was a few years ago, when árboles de Navidad were a complete novelty here in Seville, known only from American movies and indulged in exclusively by a few foreigners who had enchufe (pull) with the local florist or a friend with a farm and an axe. The only ornaments available were from Chinese bazaars, made of sturdy plastic and hand painted in such a slapdash manner that the angels often had expressions ranging from quizzical to downright satanic (rendering them doubly useful as Halloween decorations). Today, holiday trees are common in larger shops and a few avant-garde households. Even homeowners tend to decorate them like the ones in movie department stores, with matching, evenly spaced ornaments of a single color. So far I’ve never seen a Spanish tree with a lopsided ornament made by a kindergartener out of dry pasta and old bottle caps, and I think the trees are the poorer for that.
While Christmas trees are slowly gaining traction here, buying a good one is still far from easy. Cheap artificial trees are readily available in discount stores, but to Rich and me, it just isn’t Christmas without a fresh fir like the ones we used to know as kids. A few local florists stock spindly three-foot trees — more like shrubs, really — that come with their roots in balls of dirt and their limbs so dry we can only assume they were dug up well ahead of time, say in June.
Even so, a couple of years ago we were thrilled to find one at the florist’s kiosk in our neighborhood and carried it home in triumph. Two nights later a windstorm swept through the city and, due to an open window, right through our apartment. In the morning we found our tree sprawled on the floor in a manner so corpselike, I looked for a chalk outline. When we stood it upright, the branches came but the needles — all of them — stayed on the floor, leaving us holding a bundle of dead sticks. We ran out and bought more garlands to wrap around the pitiful remnant, and with considerable effort and expense, we managed to create something that looked like a cockeyed, patchy artificial tree. People kept remarking, “I thought you said you bought a live tree.”
While decent árboles de Navidad may be in short supply, Seville is blessed with an abundance of Nativity scenes. Here in Catholic Spain, they’re de rigueur in government buildings, banks, stores, and private homes as well as churches. The bigger scenes nearly always include, somewhere in the background, a tiny crouched caganer who is clearly, explicitly defecating; they say it’s to add a touch of earthy realism. If you’re thinking of adding one to your seasonal decorations, you can find online vendors offering a wide selection of caganer figurines with well-known faces including Bruce Springsteen, Kate Middleton, Albert Einstein, Rodin’s the Thinker, the Queen of Spain, Bart Simpson, Darth Vader, the Three Kings, Santa, and many, many more.
Holiday traditions provide reassurance that whatever madness is currently abroad in the world, some things will roll around every year with comforting predictability. In December, Rich and I will have a holiday tree, with or without needles. American kindergarteners will bring home lopsided ornaments made from a motley collection of incongruous objects. And in countless reverently staged Nativity scenes throughout Spain, little caganer figures will be crouched in the shadows behind the stable, adding an earthy touch to the awesome moment, reminding us that we don’t have to be perfect to be part of something wonderful.
Parts of this post were drawn from my book Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, which tells tales of our move to Seville. (This book makes a great gift for anyone who likes to travel, laugh, celebrate holidays, or dance in fountains. Just thought I'd mention it, because I heard you might be looking for ideas.)
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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