Holiday Foods (from my memoir)

Looking back on the most recent holidays,and ahead to St. Patrick’s Day,  Passover and Easter soon to come, I realize just how important traditional foods are to all our celebrations.

Living in the tropics for almost twelve years was exciting, colorful and adventuresome until our favorite holidays rolled around. Those were the times when we wanted to recapture the atmosphere, the traditions, and most of all,  the foods that we associated with each holiday.

Raising three school-age children while away from home, families and old friends was cause for a lot of nostalgia.  We were living in what was formerly known as the Panama Canal Zone, which at that time was still all-American. Our many new friends soon became our families, but our holidays were never quite the same.

The Canal Zone maintained a small fleet of passenger-freighters that regularly traveled between Colon, on the Atlantic side, and New York, then later to New Orleans, keeping our commissaries supplied with frozen, canned, and dried food, also clothing, household needs and all basics.  With an average population of around 50,000 people in the Zone, including the military bases, there were a lot of people to provision. The military had their own commissaries, of course, and also used ours.

We had access to fresh garden produce from several small plots of land managed by Chinese families, each with a roadside stand.  The Zone maintained a dairy farm and there were bakeries in the clubhouses in the larger towns.

The public markets in each of the towns in Panama were full of   everything from homemade leather sandals with old tire tread for soles, to live turtles. Their fresh seafood was always available and always the best. We made a trip into Panama at least once a week to shop, usually oftener.

There was never a shortage of foodstuffs. We might have to do a bit of running around to track it all down, not like a one stop supermarket, but no big problem.   When our small ships came into port with something like a load of frozen turkeys, or better still, green Christmas trees, word traveled fast and everyone made a beeline for the nearest commissary.

Local foods made great substitutes for old favorites.  Sliced green plantain chips were deep fried for snacks, yucca and taro provided plenty of starch, chayotes  tasted like summer squash. Yams, corn and avocados (known locally as alligator pears) were all native to the Caribbean and South America.  Guava jelly was great on hot biscuits or the local michas, as French rolls were called. Mangoes were wonderful in pies.

Most of us kept a stalk of bananas hanging under our quarters. There’s no comparison with a banana that was picked green weeks before.  Fresh pineapples were turned upside down and left outside to ripen fully. My favorite red papayas and limes were always available in the Panamanian markets,  And we never knew what might turn up in our commissaries. Our children recall pickled crab-apples on our holiday tables.

Our biggest complaint was the cold storage eggs. No egg was ever cracked directly into a batter or a heated pan. They always needed the sniff and eyeball test. However, fresh eggs were available in the local markets across the border.

As for special local dishes, one of the biggest favorites throughout the Caribbean was  “Arroz Con Pollo,” or rice with chicken. This amazed me because one of the basic ingredients was green peas.  Now, where did they ever get green peas back in the day and how did the recipe originate? Paella, originally Spanish, was another popular, tasty dish in the better restaurants.

Panama itself didn’t have a really local cuisine. Sancocho, a chicken stew, is the only truly Panamanian dish that comes to mind. Sancocho is made with chicken parts simmered down with chunks of corn on the cob, any of several root vegetables such as yucca, yam, taro, or name, chayote which is a local version of summer squash, onions and cilantro.  It was never highly seasoned; the Panamanians preferred their foods to be bland.

Two dishes that all Zonians remember fondly are first, the local empanadas,  pastry turnovers filled with meat, potatoes and savories, similar to Cornish pasties. Balboa clubhouse empanadas were the best ever.

Then there was the dish that built the Canal, every digger’s favorite, Johnny Marzetti.  “Diggers” were the much respected laborers, most of them from the West Indies, who actually worked on the construction of the Canal.  They were honored in later years with well deserved medals and awards.

Johnny Marzetti was basically the typical American mixture of ground beef,  onions, garlic, tomatoes and pasta, often including green olives. Every cook had his or her own version.

All these dishes were good, but hardly holiday fare as we knew it.

Our holiday meals somehow managed to retain a festive, satisfying spirit even though some of the foods were unusual and unexpected.  A table full of close friends and happy children can make a success of anything.


. . .If It Weren’t for Bad Luck . . .

. . . I’d have no luck at all, as the old song goes. There I was, barely into the new year, having just posted a blog about the January Blahs and the boredom that sets in after the holidays.  So what happened? Well, for starters, my credit card was hacked. Then one of my teeth fell out, and just to add a bit more drama, I sat on my glasses again. I didn’t even need to leave home to get into trouble.

For a person who hasn’t traveled farther than the Oregon coast for at least four years,  I was shocked to discover I’d just paid $347 for a one way ticket from London. England to Amman, Jordan. The charge seemed quite reasonable – if I had been in London and wanted to go to Jordan. However, I hadn’t been to any London, whether Ontario, Connecticut,  Oregon or England for some time and had never had a desire to go to Jordan, even back when Jordan was still Jordan and not another bullet-riddled pawn to rabid rebels.

Fearing I might be mistaken for a middle-eastern Mata Hari masterminding a cell of suicide bombers headed for Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street,  I was sure Interpol and the C.I.A. already had me in their sights.

I couldn’t call Visa fast enough.  Apparently hacking has become so commonplace they immediately canceled my number and assured me that it was highly unlikely that either Interpol or the C.I.A. was after me .  And NO, I did not have to pay the $347. My fears set to rest, all I had to do was make a myriad phone calls and spend hours canceling all my online deposits and payments.

After a few sleepless nights  I began to relax, thinking to myself, “Well, I managed to dodge that bullet, what’s next?”   I soon found out. I was vigorously brushing my teeth the next morning when I heard a distinct PLINK in the sink and looked down, horrified to see one of my molars rolling around. Talk about biting a bullet, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Cautiously exploring the gap it left, and assessing the situation, I realised there was no pain, I could still chew, and I didn’t resemble Alfred E. Neumann’s great-grandmother from the old MAD Magazine days. So I put the entire situation on hold. I can see the dentist after I’m certain my new Visa is secure. After all, if the C.I.A. nabs me, they’ll be responsible for my health and welfare anyway, they can spring for one tooth.

And then I sat on my glasses again. I have no excuse, no explanation. It just happens every now and then. The young woman smiles graciously as she straightens them, but her eyes are saying  “Have you ever considered safety goggles?” I’m just happy lenses are plastic nowadays. Sitting on a Band-Aided butt for a week or so can’t be much fun. Might make for some interesting scars, though.

So much for a boring January.  What will February bring? Will I be languishing in a Federal pen breaking in my new tooth and wearing safety goggles? I can hardly wait to find out..

The January Blahs

(another re-run, Januaries don’t change much year to year)

Dismal, dreary, depressing and a real downer.  I think that just about covers the month of January.  What a letdown after the previous two months! November kicks off the holiday season early every year, starting with the long Thanksgiving weekend –  family oriented and peaceful. Even so, the quiet Thursday holiday we used to enjoy so much just isn’t the same these days with the prospect of Black Friday and big time shopping right around the corner.

Nowadays Black Friday, that 18 to 24 hour gift shopping blowout, abruptly ushers in what used to be a pleasant run-up to our most loved holiday, Christmas. Whether we celebrate Christmas as a religious or a social occasion, or both, we find ourselves in a mad whirl of activity throughout December that doesn’t ease up until January 1st.

We shop, we clean, we shop, we decorate, we shop, we send out greetings, shop, bake and wrap.  Somehow we fit school programs, benefits, concerts and parties into our busy schedules, then shop some more.  Refrains from favorite carols fill the air and everyone smiles. The days rush by. Santa Claus comes, he goes,  and we have a brief opportunity to catch our breath and prepare for the last big party of the year.

New Year’s Eve means more merriment, music, noisemakers, champagne and promises to ourselves that we know we’ll never keep.

Then suddenly it’s all over.  Everything stops. We pause for a day or so, remember how to relax, and look forward to some peace and quiet.  Surprise! The minute we let our guard down that January feeling sets in. How can things change so quickly? We spent weeks rushing around, longing for a little relaxation; now in no time at all we’re bored.  The bright shopping ads that were so enticing a month ago are now begging us to buy healthy foods, vitamins, exercise equipment and all sorts of sensible, ordinary things. There is no end to the shopping but now the fun is gone.

The weather that was invigorating and exciting in December is now drab and grey. The days are short and dark, the sun seems to have gone permanently south, and the only beings who enjoy these gloomy days are skiers, snowboarders and hard core shoppers who can ignore the weather while on the hunt for next year’s Christmas decorations at 70% off.

We feel like overblown balloons just pierced by a pin. We’ve kicked the bathroom scales under the bed.   Last month’s roast meats and gravies are only a fond memory. The Christmas cookies are down to the last few crumbs and there’s nothing left in the candy dish but a couple of striped canes, both broken.

Worse yet, we find ourselves turning down the few dinner invitations that come our way in January.  Where is the fun in a glass of sparkling water served with a bowl of greens and some poached tofu?

What to do?  Well, there are several choices, depending on who we are.  Some of us might call our favorite travel agent and book a flight to Papeete, Rio or The Bay of Islands.  As far as I’m concerned, a quick peek in my checkbook cancels that plan. Even a jaunt south to Medford would be a strain on my bank balance at the present time and it wouldn’t be a bit warmer.

Some of us could  opt for the “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em” strategy.  That lets me out, too. How many snow angels can one person make and still think they’re having fun?  And I hate soggy, half frozen mittens.

I suppose I could go shopping (there’s that word again). My pantry is bare and my list is long, filled with all sorts of boring stuff.

Instead, I opt for turning up the heat, donning those fleecy new jammies I found under my Christmas tree, sipping a steaming cup of hot chocolate and diving into the stack of books I’ve been wanting to get at.

With enough books, it’ll be February before we know it, the days will be getting longer and the sun will be back.  January will be a bad memory, best forgotten. I can always grocery shop next month.