The Comfort of Home

With the stay at home orders that have been issued as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been longing for the comfort that my parents provided for me in youth.

One of the ways in which I, and probably many people, transport myself to different times or feelings is through the use of food. The smells emanating from the kitchen and the flavors that hit your taste buds, can act as a time machine to take your mind to memories of safety, security, and love.

This week I did exactly that when I decided to re-create my father’s Mexican shrimp cocktail or cóctel de camarón. And, although it wasn’t an exact match, it was enough to cause those feelings to flood back into my heart and mind.

I was glad to have asked my mom for the recipe; she texted me a list of ingredients. I had a good laugh after I called her to ask for the precise measurements. “No measures, just make it taste good for you.”

When I pressed her a little further about this she gave me the most logical explanation in the world. “Look,” mama said in Spanish, “when papi makes for us he puts four jalapeños in it.” I felt my eyes widen at the thought of that much spice. “But, when you’re home maybe two jalapeños. You see?” And I did.

To that end, I hope you enjoy my papa’s cóctel de camarón recipe. Remember that the most important thing is to make it taste good for you.

Ingredients

1- 1 ½ pounds of shrimp

1 bottle of Clamato

1/2 cup of Ketchup (I maybe added a third as ketchup is not one of my favorite flavors)

Juice squeezed from 2 limes (you can also use lime juice from a bottle but I think fresh ingredients are just better.)

2 jalapeños (remember that you can reduce the spice by removing the seeds)

1/4 onion

2 avocados

1 tomato and

cilantro to your liking.

If it’s not pre-cooked, boil your shrimp. I boiled large shrimp in water and lime (the juice of one lime was used for the shrimp boiling.) Next, drain the water and return the shrimp to the same pot.

Add the Clamato and ketchup to the pot and turn on a low heat.

Now, add your lime, tomato, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro. Let the flavors meld on a low heat for 5-10 minutes max. It doesn’t necessarily have to be cooked because you pre-cooked the shrimp. But, the cooking process does help the flavors blend together nicely.

When you’re ready to eat, add your avocado; my papa’s recipe calls for the avocado to be included during the cooking/melding process. But since I am the only person in my family that would eat this meal, I chose not to add the avocado so that I could refrigerate a portion of it and eat it at a later time. I reasoned that if the avocado turned brown by the next day, it would reduce my enjoyment of the leftovers.

A few notes about how to eat and enjoy this delicious meal:

Cóctel de camarón can be eaten immediately from the stove or you can choose to put it in the refrigerator for a little while to make it a little colder. I like it colder because I associate this as a summer meal. The leftovers I ate the next day without warming it up. The day I cooked it, I ladled some into a bowl and ate it immediately. I learned that, straight off the stove, the distinct flavor notes are more evident.

I like to chop vegetables into small uniform pieces, as you can see from the accompanying photo. However, your taste buds and chopping skills can dictate how you cut them up.

The cilantro is not a dealbreaker. If you are among the percentage of the population that tastes soap when you eat cilantro, omit it and enjoy the meal without the soapy taste.

I also like to eat saltine crackers with it as that is how I grew up eating this meal. However, the crackers are a filler and do not really add to the experience.

In conclusion, I hope you enjoy this meal and please share any modifications you may have done to it with me by adding a comment to this post. I would love to know how you have made my papa’s recipe your own.

Papa’s cóctel de camarón

Beware the Boys

The dogs growled at one another. “Behave.” I yell. Why won’t they let me concentrate on this free writing. I try to focus on the thoughts running through my mind. Will I create a next best seller? Will I create a POS? Will I create?

I return to the sounds of the dogs, this time it is the quiet sounds of eating. My pack of three enjoying their meal. I do not ever recall wanting a pet when I was young. My personality was much too cold to want something so warm. And wet.

The little one jumps on my lamp and licks my chin. He is the youngest of the bunch; a blondie bear of a terrier. I can understand why parents let the youngest run them ragged. After a certain point, they just want to get something done. I squint and focus on my writing while he crawls onto my shoulder. I return my attention back to the task at hand. But it is not easy to do. One by one, the boys ask, no, demand my attention. How did I get here?

My willingness to get a family pet came after my husband and I were unable to conceive. I did not enjoy the hormones that the doctors prescribed to get pregnant. My husband did not enjoy me while I was on the hormones.

A few months after our decision to end the process, my stepson voiced a desire for a dog. Growing up, my family never had pets. My mother and father had five children on their hands. I imagine that was enough herding and wrangling for them. I had attempted pet ownership in years prior. I shirked the responsibilities of my two prior pets onto my more human friends when things got hard. Those two pets spent less than three months total time with me. I was under 30 years old during that time.

About six months after my stepson had begun to ask for a dog, we found our first furry friend in February 2012. Chewbacca was a two month old brown mutt who my husband immediately loved. He made me fill out the paperwork at the adopt-a-dog event because he refused to put “Chewie” back down. Someone else may want him. By February 2013, Shaggy and Baxter had joined our household.

Learning to like pet ownership was not made easy by my three chewing, pooping, peeing, loving lads. By the time we get home from work at 6:00 p.m., they demand attention. Daily, they need to go out, walked, fed, and occasionally, also washed and groomed. In short, they are work. If I pick up my computer or a book to read before I have given them enough attention, they will let me know it.

And, you guessed it, my husband and stepson do not contribute as much as I do to the care and upkeep of our furry friends. But here’s the thing, I am okay with that.

By becoming my pets’ primary caretaker, I have learned about myself.

Our family pets have given me more than I give them. Examine a photo representation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I posit that I help meet their basic needs- food, water, warmth, rest, security, and safety.

I posit that they help meet my psychological needs. They provide me friendship and companionship. Every morning before 6:00 a.m., I get up to start writing. Within fifteen minutes, they leave the warmth of our bedroom to snuggle next to me on the couch while I write. When I find myself laid up due to illness, they will remain at my side while I recover. They are devoted. They force me to take good actions. Because I know that their behaviors will be more relaxed, I try to take them out for a walk in the evenings. And, by walking them in the evenings, I am taking an action that benefits me. The walk in the evening benefits me as I have sat all day in an office. I feel a sense of accomplishment for getting exercise and doing something for my dogs.

They are even helping me to become a fully self-realized human being. They have helped me work towards my full potential by inspiring my creativity in this essay. Yes, they fuel my inspiration often. Chewie’s first year with us, I wrote kids’ stories featuring him as the protagonist. Perhaps someday I will even revisit those ideas. For now, they help give me the love and support I need to become a better person every day.

Contemplating the future, I do not know if I will get more pets once my boys die. I do not think that I would want to own three dogs all at once again. It is work. But, I now understand why pets are so important to people. They give you love and a sense of responsibility. They make things fun and me more patient. In sum, pets can help balance you out. If you are considering a pet, get it. Your world will open up in ways that you could not have imagined.

Tell me the story of your first pet and how it helped you grow.

The Gift of Food

Confession time. I love to cook. The act of cooking itself gives me pleasure. I like being in the kitchen contemplating what I am going to make for dinner. I enjoy takings disconnected ingredients and turning them into a unified meal.

I also love the act of feeding people. I love how happy it makes them feel to know that someone took time to nurture their bodies. I enjoy the camaraderie that sharing a meal creates.   

It makes sense, I think. Sharing food is prevalent among Latinx communities, In fact, I have so many ideas about food that are tied to my Mexican upbringing. These ideas have helped in my growth as an adult. I offer three stories that highlight ways in which food sharing has taught me about the world.

Never eat in front of someone without sharing

My parents workday began at six o’clock in the morning at the meatpacking plant. By the time school got done in the afternoon, they were home to greet my brothers and I. We would open the front door to the smells of Mexican food and the sounds of music or Univision.

One particular occasion, a friend accompanied me home after school. Upon arriving, my stomach grumbled awake by the aroma of my mother’s home cooking. I said to my friend,

“I’m going to get something to eat.”

My mother immediately scolded me in Spanish, “do not say, I am going to get something to eat. Ask, would you like something to eat?”

After my friend left, she shared a story of experiencing hunger as a child and having to sit and watch others eat. It was a pain she would never allow anyone to experience in her presence. This lesson impacted me in a way few things ever have. It enabled me to see my mother, not as my mother, but as someone who had once been like me and whom I would someday be like. And, it impressed upon me the gift you give someone when you share a meal with them.

Sharing a meal can tell you a lot about a person

I sat across the table from my best friend and her new beau. We sipped our soft drinks as we waited for the waitress to bring out the appetizers. When our crab rangoon arrived at our table we all began to it.

“So, how long you chicas known each other?” He boyfriend asked as he chewed threw the half a rangoon he had stuffed in his mouth. His mouth widened as he laughed at his “clever” use of Spanish.

My eyes widened as I stared at my BFF in disbelief.

Has Molly had a meal with this man? My expression asked her. Molly, was her 60 year old mother whose favorite author was Emily Post.

Her head shook no and she looked down at the table. I sucked my teeth at her. After observing his table manners, I knew that he never would meet my friend’s mother. That was a relationship leading nowhere. I was right; it did not lead anywhere… for four years.

Memories happen when we share a meal

“Get the dessert.” My husband egged me on. “You are on vacation.”

I smiled at our waitress. “One chocolate flan, please.”

I was on my second cup of decaf when the two desserts we had ordered finally came out. My husband and son would be sharing one (my husband is not a big fan of sweets.) I would be enjoying my own.

The waitress put them down and left. When she was out of earshot, my son began to laugh hysterically.

“What’s so funny, honey?” I asked.

He shook his head and looked at his dad. “It looks like Shaggy poo.” He  pointed with his head at the flan sitting before me.

I  looked down at my plate. “Damnit!” I exclaimed. He was right. By then, the hysteria hit my husband. I shook my head at my crazy guys. I started to laugh along with them. I pulled my camera out and took a snapshot. They made my life interesting.

I have that photo hanging on the gallery wall on the stairs that lead to the basement. I remember that trip fondly and so do the guys. And, we have never looked at flan the same way.

 

Mama Didn’t Mean That Honey…

Words matter. Words have the power to embolden and empower. They also have the power to destroy and denigrate. This is especially true with children. It is important to contemplate the words we say to children. And, people who want to be decent parents try. We stay away from language that will brow-beat, disregard, or mistreat our children. We forgo frustrated statements that will scar children in years to come.  

I pondered the hidden messages that children may hear in or between our words. Communication is a two person activity. It is not only the intention of the speaker that matters. Interpersonal communication requies listeners to interpret the message. I have contemplated the benign words we use that unintentionally impact children. I came up with three types I wish to explore.

Unsaid Statements

Sometimes, we communicate positions and expectations to our children without even knowing. Most often these unsaid statements are due to defaulting to assuming the status quo. Contemplate the following example:

A young man embarking upon high school is nervous about dating. His parents tell him that he is a smart and handsome young man and any girl would be lucky to date him.

If the young man in question is gay then our affirming statement may create the wrong impression. He may now assume that his parents demand heterosexual behavior from him. The young man may feel rejection of who he is. Instead, his parents intended their words to be supportive of his likability.

This is tough because the parents may not have a problem with whom their son chooses to love. They may not expect him to default to a status quo relationship. But, he know assumes that; unnecessarily so. Language conventions need words have specific meanings which distinguish them from other words.

As my son has reached high school, I have tried to work outside of the status quo. When he has felt bad about himself, I remind him that any person would be lucky to date him. I have said, “once you meet a boy or girl you like.”

To which he replied, “oh mama.”

“I want to make sure you understand that who you like will not impact how much I like you.” I said and walked away.

Blanket Statements

Blanket statements, overgeneralization, stereotypes. All these words fall under the logical fallacy known as hasty generalizations. Hasty generalizations are statements without adequate supporting evidence. Hasty generalizations illicit assumption, stereotyping, unwarranted conclusion, overstatement, or exaggeration. I know all this because I took too many philosophy classes in college. And yet.. I find myself committing the fallacy of hasty generalization with my own child. Like, always. (see what I did there?)

When I make blanket statements to my son they usually have to do with house chores and begin like “You Never…” or “You always forget….”

It may feel like he never does X or always forgets to do Y. Those all or nothing words serve to undermine the impact of the message. Even if there were truth to such a statements, how does stating that truth help you get the result you want? I posit that it does not.

Young people justify actions when situations seem hopeless. And negative thinking can lead to future negative actions. Thus, we must prove that for every problem there is a solution.

“She never notices when I do things right anyway.”

As parents the key to raising children that think like you is to make them want to emulate or please you. When we act with good and maintain high self-expectations, children will rise to our level. To this end, I am going to change my words. When I want to say,

“You always forget to throw out the trash.”

Instead, I am going to try to say,

“I do not like it when you forget to throw out the trash.”

Regrettable Statements

The final type of statement to curb are the statements we make that we later regret. I have been guilty of it. I am horrified to think about the number of times that I may said something that I should not have said to my child. I suffer from foot-in-mouth disease because I am temperamental and impetuous. A dangerous combination.

I do not have any examples for statements in this section. Because I cannot think of any now. And, likely because it is too embarrassing to recall the ugly words I may have said to my sweet stepson. But, I have begun to develop a technique for lessening the number of time that “Amada Piranha” rears her ugly head. (And yes, my bite can be so sharp that my family’s nickname for me is in fact, “Amada Piranha.”)

When you feel those ugly words making their way out of your mouth. Bite down. Cover your lips with your hands and run away. Do not talk. Use a two to one ratio for this practice. In other words, “for every one minute of talking you are about to do, think for two minutes first.”

How do you prevent from making these types of statements with your children?

 

Family Time Reset

It is commonplace to live near family members among Latinx communities. Unfortunately,  I live in a town where the extent of my family connections are my husband and stepson. No big. We have created a “family circle” by forging excellent friendships. Our friends have become our family. These bonds developed through spending time together and establishing traditions. 
 
Among our favorite activities is the Family Dinner Party (FDP.) It is an excellent way to create camaraderie for your social circle or even extended family. The goal of the FDP is to focus on relationships rather than refined niceties. Thus, to enjoy its benefits, re-evaluate and reset your expectations of what a social gathering requires. To start an FDP tradition with your friends and family, consider the following three tips.  
 
Reduce work
 
The purpose of this party is to enjoy your circle of friends. But, it is hard to enjoy a party if you have a stack of dishes to wash afterward. A key to making this a tradition you want to uphold is to reduce work.
There are many ways to reduce the work. I use disposable dish-ware, divide cooking responsibilities, and sometimes take the fun outside.
It sounds controversial, I know. Your inner Martha Stewart cringes at the thought of using disposable dish-ware. After all, not only is it ugly, but it does not bode well for reducing your carbon footprint. I get all those arguments; but, hear me out. Life is about the people you have in it. People coming to your FDP are or should feel like family. They are not going to judge you. They shouldn’t. Besides, you have two choices. One, you can reduce the work and enjoy your party. Or, you can enjoy the perfect house and not party. When in doubt, party. Let it go, the fun will be worth it. Just be yourself… unless yourself is a clean freak perfectionist. Do your best for that moment and let go of the rest.
 
Another way to reduce the work? Divide the food responsibilities. This is an excellent way to reduce the work AND help others become invested in your party. People want to share some of themselves also. By giving them the ability to bring a side, you share not only the responsibility but the accolades for a delicious meal. If you are responsible for the main dish, ask others to bring sides, drinks or accompaniments.
 
One of my worries early on was ending up with a hodgepodge dinner. There was no reason to worry.  My friends brought sides that worked with my entrees once I let them know what the entree would be. You can assign people to help clean up afterward. Or do something simple like order takeout. Ask everyone to contribute towards its cost and enjoy your party.
 
Get everyone involved
 
To turn this activity into a tradition for your VIPs, make them feel involved. Essential. Start by inviting a small enough group that everyone can interact. Our core group began with fourteen people. Yours should be the size that feels right for you. Part of the fun is interacting with all your guests so starting small will help with that. Once everyone is participating in the tradition, you can add more guests. A bonus tip to getting everyone involved? Consider letting everyone vote on who is added to the group in the future.
 
The best way to make everyone feel essential? Greet each person as they arrive and spend a little time talking to everyone that attends.   Looking for more ways to get others involved? Suggest that others host, if they seem interested. Another option? Ask everyone to take turns designating and preparing the main entree.  
 
Create fun
 
Now that you have gotten everyone together, mix it up and have fun. Include time to socialize, communicate, and even compete. Add a board game night; interactive activities ensure participation and involvement. Not into board games? No worries. Consider your circle for inspiration and choose activities that appeal to your group. Are your friends movie buffs? Watch a movie together but add an interactive discussion afterward. In the summer, plan a croquet game and a cookout for a fabulous time.
 
Don’t have a yard to play croquet or a home large enough to have a group over? Don’t sweat it. There are still many ways that you can enjoy create traditions. Consider taking the party to a park, as appropriate. There will be plenty of activities for all involved. When the fun ends, you clean up your picnic space and go home to a clean house. Check out your city’s parks and recreations department. Many cities have community spaces available for public use. Whatever you decide to do, enjoy the process. The family dinner party is supposedto be fun and enriching. Don’t stress out and enjoy your crew.
 

If it sounds like fun to you, I encourage you to try it. If you do, don’t forget to report back and share your experience.