23 July 2009

Slouching Tiger

Dublin July, 2009

What a fascinating time to be in Ireland.

Few people realize that in the last fifteen years, the country has experienced cataclysmic changes. Having visited every two years or so since the turn of the millennium, I've been uniquely poised to observe those changes. Sometimes, outsiders see these things more clearly than locals.

This trip, I'm tuning in to the swan song of the Celtic Tiger, whose death knell, I'm told, has officially been ringing since 2007. It's got me thinking: as the Irish economy tanks, what's the public sentiment towards the country's enormous recent immigrant population?

I've got my ear cocked for any audible notes of xenophobia.

Here's a brief primer on Ireland these past few years: In the mid-nineties the country offered huge tax incentives to companies like Intel, Dell and Microsoft. Those companies brought with them plentiful jobs and high wages - to a population that not long before fled the country in search of any decent work prospects. Unemployment was so high at one point that according to UN standards, martial law should have been in effect.

But with the new tech jobs came a tsunami of wealth. Building projects abounded. My first trip here, I could scarcely count all the cranes angling across the Dublin skyline. Property values skyrocketed. Conversations revolved around the unbelievable prices houses were fetching - sometimes up 200% in just a handful of years.

Following in the wake of the tech wealth came massive immigration, to an historically homogenous nation. Ireland did not exactly abound in diversity. To illustrate, take my husband. The first black person he ever saw in person was Phil Lynott, lead singer of Thin Lizzy. Heads turned everywhere the star went, as much for his race as for his celebrity. Different-looking people, let alone foreigners, you could count on two hands. But as Ireland became known as a financial success story, people from Poland, China, the Philippines, Nigeria began arriving in droves. By my second trip here, in 2002, you had to make an effort to find an Irish drinks server or cashier. It seemed as if the Irish were no longer willing to take service jobs.

So what were all the Irish doing? According to my observations circa 2005, they were shopping. Nearly every person on the street made like a pack mule, loading themself down with precious cargo from the shopping centers and high street. From what I could tell, an enormous vacuum opened up in the country as the influence of the Catholic Church waned, thanks to unsettling public recognition of widespread sexual abuse by priests. The void had to be filled by something, and rampant consumerism seemed to fit the bill. With shopping becoming the national past time, what a great time that was to scour the local charity (i.e. thrift) shops. I couldn't afford what the locals were splurging on, the dollar getting reamed by the Euro, but I could afford the cast-offs.

Then in the last few years, our correspondents abroad started sending hard-to-believe reports that the robust Irish economy had begun to seriously falter. Before we arrived, someone told me that 150 people had recently lined up to apply for a once-lowly cashier's job at a convenience store. Apparently nearly ten percent of the population has been laid off of late. And so this time around, as I packed my suitcases for Ireland, I wondered: would there be palpable resentment towards foreigners now competing for scarce jobs? It seemed like a perfect storm.

I've got two more weeks here to read the headlines, snoop around and engage friends and strangers alike in conversation. And I wonder: will my American viewpoint on racism distort my observations here? Will Irish natives even be able to recognize racism on their home turf?

20 July 2009

The Ramos House, San Juan Capistrano

Board the Amtrak Surfliner. Disembark at San Juan Capistrano. Walk 100 paces from the tracks and you will find the Ramos House. Its an original structure from the 1850's, turned into a restaurant. As you can see by the Spanish moss below, its aims for a Southern feel (cue banjos).

You've got to appreciate anyone that goes to the trouble of lighting votive candles in broad Southern California daylight. The owner appears to live in the house, with the kitchen in the back and tables in the side yard and front porch. This is the owner's kitten, who popped up to nuzzle the living room window.
Whoever owns and operates this establishment has got one hell of an eye for design. Note the oversize shipyard-esque chain (would love this in my nautical bathroom) and the drive-in theater speakers on the porch (fully functioning, wired for sound and playing music. Why did I never think of that?)
Great minds think alike, I'd like to say; just the other day I started looking for a five gallon glass water jug for collecting corks. I love this for a project, it slowly becomes an organic-material art piece.

16 July 2009

To the Brave go the Spoils

A fig tree grows in our front yard. It is a persistent tree, a survivor. For seven or eight summers now, Ysidro the gardener has hacked it back almost to nothing, just when the fat hand-shaped leaves start to form their promising canopy. Ysidro (and let me pause for a moment to gush rhapsodic about the beauty of that name!) doubtlessly thought the tree was a nuisance, growing over our cars and making a mess (more on that in a minute). For some reason, however, last summer he relented and took pity on the tree.

In the fall I could smell that delicious warm earthy aroma wafting off the leaves baking in the sun. All winter long I watched it inch taller. Now the tree easily stands twelve feet tall, and the moment I've been waiting for has arrived. Its branches droop under the weight of its bounty.

I've deemed the fruit rapidly ripening outside my door The World's Tastiest Figs. Other figs are dark purple, almost black, and a brownish-purple on the inside. They taste dark and earthy and feel grainy against your teeth. Not our figs.

Our figs are bright green, but fade almost to yellow as they ripen and their thin skins til sometimes it actually ruptures. What lies inside is a shock - translucent and blushing pink, and not dry, but like jelly, if it were made from rose petals.

Somewhere along the line I got the idea that ours are Adriatic figs. Well, tack an exotic location on anything's nomenclature and I'll instantly like it better. Poor ole stringy, dried out Calmyra figs, with their spinster-ish name, dessicating in the desert. Our figs are lush, European topless sun-bathers on a stony Dubrovnik beach. "Join us, we're having cocktails!" these figs beckon.

Yet we have a rival for our figs. The birds. They are the ones who initially taught me when the figs were ripe. I'd have my eye on a fattening specimen on an easy-to-reach, low-hanging bough. Tomorrow it'll be ready. Still too firm today, I'd think. But tomorrow would be too late.

They'd have pecked themselves into a fury, our birds, leaving a seedy crime scene in their wake. Seriously, you do not want to park your car under this tree in summer.

They don't waste one minute, our neighborhood birds. I'm out there everyday, squeezing figs as unsheepishly as an MD, eyeing and sniffing and sizing up the chances of getting one of those sun-warmed beauties before the feathered horde.

Its a battle. But the spoils of this war are sweet.

Sparkling Basil Limeade

To celebrate Bunni falling asleep on her own - in her crib! - for the first time ever.

Salad Days Part II

Because one good salad deserves another. This one is in honor of the Greek goddess of crops, mistress of planting and harvesting, the lady of Growing Things.

Demeter Salad

2 cups of orzo
1 bunch spinach, rinsed and chopped or 1 bag baby spinach
6 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 lb feta
1/3 of a medium-sized red onion - sliced thin
1-2 dozen Kalamata olives, halved
a generous bunch of fresh basil, cut into ribbons
1/3 cup good olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
fresh thyme or oregano
salt, pepper

Add orzo to boiling water, cook for 13 minutes, then drain and transfer to a large bowl. Whisk the oil, vinegar, mustard, thyme and s & p. Pour over the still warm orzo. Add spinach, tomatoes, cubed feta, onion , olives, and basil. Toss and serve. Would go well with grilled chicken or fish.

15 July 2009

Salad Days

Lately restaurants bore me. When faced with the choice of where to eat out, what is normally a joyous prospect has me drawing a blank. Where to go? I wonder. "Well," I ask myself, "what do you feel like eating?" But nothing anyone serves appeals to me. I guess the reality is that for the moment I'm over cooked foods; anything subjected to the oven makes me lose my appetite. Maybe its the heat, this being summer and all, and us without air conditioning. Then there's the matter of the embarrassment of riches at the farmer's markets - too much gorgeous produce to pass up. As a result, all I want to eat is homemade salad, either on my front porch or in the backyard, with a cold Red Stripe, and a few friends. And because everyone likes to pretend their life is a movie, I crank up Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July as soundtrack, and I'm one happy lady.

To that end, here is what I made for dinner last night. It serves about 4 generously if that's all you're having. It might serve a few more if you accompany it with a protein; and who can fault a few grilled spicy marinated lamp chops with it? Especially if you have a volunteer happy to be in charge of the grill.

Asian Noodle Slaw

1 package soba noodles, cooked, drained and rinsed in cool water
1 head napa cabbage, shredded
1/2 head red cabbage, shredded
4 green onions, diced
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 carrots, shredded
1 bunch cilantro, chopped fine
Handful of sesame seeds, toasted

Toss with the following vinaigrette:
1 Tbsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp safflower oil
3 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
a squeeze of honey
salt & pepper to taste