Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fake Trees and Real

This is not my family nor my tree. (Image courtesy of

We used the same artificial Christmas tree year after year throughout my entire childhood, dragging its musty box out of the cellar or garage every year and shaping the limbs into verisimilitude before decorating it.

At least we weren't the people with the silver foil Christmas tree.

I swore that when I grew up, I'd have a  real tree. And I did for many years.

The Hat Tree (1981)

At the young-adult flop house where I did most of my young-adult partying, we had a real Christmas tree that we left up for months and months after Christmas came and went.

We did eventually take off the ornaments, then covered it with hats and called it a hat tree.

Happily, though there was plenty of smoking going on around it, this little fire hazard never burned the flop house down.

Top-Heavy Tree (1984)

A couple of years later, I moved west to California and lived in the legendary Casa de Montgomery in Santa Cruz.

It was a boarding house of sorts, with a colorful history. It had originally been an old country estate, later turned monastery, turned mental hospital, turned low-rent boarding house.

By the time I met the Casa, it was a decrepit Spanish-style estate with a long industrial-utilitarian hospital wing extending from it. It had fallen into disrepair and was occupied by university students, aimless young people like myself, divorcees and people or various ages who were on the dole.

When Christmas rolled around, we residents put up a tree and decorated it. But sometime in the night, the tree fell over with a crash, ornamens rolling and pine needles scattering across the floor.

I was very troubled by this at the time, making vague analogies of this event to my lifestyle: top heavy, pretty to look at but lacking in a solid foundation.

That was the same year I went to the beach on Christmas day and made a sandman. California living...

Trees of Life (1990-1996)

When my kids were little, we always had a live tree, which we tried to plant again afterwards, but I don't know if any of them survived the ordeal of being brought into the warm indoors like a pet, then thrust back out into the harsh elements.

Under one of those trees, my partner planted the placenta that had nourished my elder son throughout his gestation. A no-longer-needed organ, full of nutrients that could now nourish that little tree instead.

One of those live trees I kept in its pot on the front porch after Christmas was done and it stayed there all year long like front-porch topiary. When Christmas rolled around again, I pulled the whole tree, pot and all, back inside for decorating.

Snow Tree (2002)

Years later, I remarried, and my new husband, plus his two kids and my two kids, journeyed up Trinity Mountain Road to hunt for our tree, all bundled up for snow.

This was a wonderful, beautiful day which stands out in my memory. So much laughing, snow up to our knees, crisp, bright winter wonderland.

The kids found the right tree, my husband cut it down, and the kids dragged it back to the truck, where hot chocolate in a thermos awaited us.

Sadly, that marriage didn't work out. No one ever really got along. His kids moved out almost immediately, and after that mine went to live with their own dad awhile. And eventually the marriage itself was casualty.

But that day in the snow, we were all together like a real, hopeful and happy family of six.

Simplifying (2007)

One summer, at a yard sale, I found an artificial tree, still in the box, tall and slender, with built-in lights. It was like a miracle: just pop it up like an umbrella, plug it in and voila! The best 20 bucks I ever spent.

We use this tree every year now and cover it in homey Swedish-style decorations. I understand now where my parents were coming from with their fuss-free fake tree.

My elder son, who has his own family now, has a real tree at Christmastime, I noticed. The circle continues...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Vanilla Tales

Image courtesy of UCLA Biomedical Library, Spice Collection

Once upon a time, vanilla was my term for anything ordinary, mainstream or unembellished. I used the word disparagingly, with contempt for all things that swam downstream or failed to stand out.

But that was before I understood vanilla. Vanilla, my friends, is anything but ordinary. In fact, vanilla is exotic, legendary and downright sexy.

Did you know, for example, that a vanilla bean is the fruit of a gorgeous, curvaceous orchid that only grows naturally in the tropics of Mexico, where it has a delicate, symbiotic relationship with a certain vine and a certain bee?
Image courtesy andesamazon,org
Anywhere else it manages to grow nowadays, it is being pollinated by hand. This high-maintenance substance is the second most expensive spice next to saffron. A single vanilla bean costs about $3 in Safeway, but aficionados can find more affordable options online.
 Image courtesy of the National Museum of Mexican Art
Local legend in Mexico says that the first vanilla orchid sprang up from the shed blood of a heartsick princess. Old medical texts call it an aphrodisiac, and modern science tells us it is possibly even addictive.

Hernan Cortes, image courtesy Wikipedia
Vanilla came to Europe at the hands of a conquistador. It was an adolescent slave-boy who first thought to try hand-pollinating it, thus making it possible for us here in the US to be cavalierly adding it to our cookies and ice cream today.

Last year at Christmas, my sister put a single vanilla bean in my stocking, encased in a small, glass spice jar.
 It took me an entire year to get around to making my own vanilla extract, which I did last night.

Last night was my first tactile, sensual experience with a raw vanilla bean. When I opened the spice jar, the powerful creamy aroma burst into the room and settled in my hands and hair. I can still smell it in my apartment this morning.

I had a wide-mouth jar of brandy, sweetened with agave nectar, ready and waiting when I took the long brown vanilla pod from the jar, marveling at its pliable texture. I split it lengthwise to reveal the dark mass of pulpy black seeds inside.

I dropped the opened bean into the sweet brandy and sealed the jar tight. It's now languishing in the dark cupboard for the next few weeks until it's ready to use.

What I really want to make now is vanillinsocker (vanilla sugar), an amazing substance I discovered in Sweden while making whipped cream for pankakor.

Vanillin socker is strongly aromatic powdered sugar used in baking the way Americans use vanilla extract and the way Germans use vanillezucker, which is vanilla scented granulated sugar.

I recently used the last of the canister of vanillinsocker I brought back from Sweden in 2009 and I'd like to replace it with a natural handmade substitute. So that's going to be my next endeavor.

I'll let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, please read the ingredients carefully on the package of vanilla you are using, whether it is extract, socker or zucker. Avoid artificial flavorings of any kind, which seduce and inure our tastebuds with falsity and aliencate us to the delicate flavors nature has to offer.

Check out the nanofoods section of PBS' "Need to Know" page to see how widespread chemically engineered flavor enhancers are going to be in the coming years.