Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wednesday, December 29, 2010 - No comments

Noah, Enough With the Pudding Already!

Ever stop to think about what Noah fed his family once they disembarked from the ark? It's not as though he'd had a chance to plant and harvest crops, and his kitchen cupboards weren't exactly stocked, or even standing. As the legend goes, for their first dry-land meal, they gathered up all the leftover nuts, grains and bits of fruit still in the galley pantry and cooked them up into a sort of pudding, and that's how they kept from starving.

Here in the land of Ararat, every year in the month following the Sacrifice Festival, it's traditional for each family to make up a big pot of aşure ("Noah's Pudding") and then take bowls of it around to share with friends and neighbours. Every housewife has her own recipe that she swears by - a varying combination of grains, wheat, beans, nuts, dried fruit and sugar.

Once "aşure making week" rolls around, the pots start boiling and the doorbell starts ringing, and soon an entire shelf in the fridge is full of bowls of the stuff. Each bowl has its own personality - as distinct as the cooks themselves. Emine's is soupy - mostly wheat and chickpeas, while Aydan Abla's has lots of crunchy bits, and yummy pomegranate seeds sprinkled generously on top. I've never made my own, but if I did, it would probably involve less wheat and more chocolate chips, not keeping very close to the story of "what they had on the ark." :)

I suppose if one wanted to amuse oneself, one could set up a booth in the complex parking lot and do taste tests to see whose is the most well-loved...but that might not be the best thing for neighbourhood relations, being that these recipes are well-honed masterpieces of great pride. There are strong opinions about these things, you know.

All in all, aşure is a point....but it's also pretty....texture-y. I can only handle one bowlful per year, and I'm done. Thankfully my roommate likes to warm it up and eat it for breakfast, sorta like a porridge. It's a good thing, too, cuz just when the bowls were empty and she thought she'd finished her aşure-duty for the year, yesterday the doorbell rang....

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010 - 1 comment

Have Power Outage, Will Improvise

The last glowy bits of pink in the western sky are somewhat muted by the smoke rising from hundreds of soba chimneys, and the scent of coal and burning wood fills the air and mingles with the call to prayer, marking the onset of twilight. I'm outside on our terrace, bundled up in my coat and those little gloves with the finger holes, which I am sure were invented precisely for people like me who are determined to sit outside and squeeze every last drop out of a good sunset.

Today was a sunny treasure of a day, most welcome after the uncharacteristically freezing week we've just been through. Sunshine means hot water, straight from the tap - no bucket showers or boiling pots on the stove for dishes. And it means laundry that actually has a shot at drying the same day it is hung! I celebrated the appearance of Mr. Sun by cleaning the terrace, barefoot in a t-shirt (!), squeegie-ing away the remnants of a week of storms. It seems every tree in the neighbourhood had seen fit to generously deposita shower of gifts on the tile, and that, coupled with a thick layer of that red dirt that tends to fly around in the air here, made for quite the mucky mess. It took me and my trusty squeegie twice as long as usual to make that balcony shine, but the hope of an afternoon read under the open sky was more than enough motivation for the job. Days like this are not to be squandered.

Stormy days here usually mean a succession of power outages, and this week was no exception. I must say, I am grateful to live in a country that, at least in this half of it, has pretty reliable electricity most of the time. I am far better off than many friends who plan their days around the hours their part of the city has power. When we first moved here, there was road work being done, sewer lines being laid, water pipes being put in, and for the better part of a year, hardly a day went by without a water or a power cut. Back then it was closer to an annoyance than an adventure, but now, especially if it is accompanied by some satisfying thunder and lightning, I am usually more than game for a good spell in the dark. Unless, of course, I have online orders to place or something half-cooked in the oven.

So, like I said, no complaining here, but I thought it'd be fun to give you a snapshot of a day without power, and the creative improvising that springs forth as a result.

This past Thursday, the power was off for much of the afternoon, so when it came back on, knowing we were in for a doozy of a storm that night, I made my preparations for Round 2. I had a whole slew of baking to do for various Christmas and birthday parties on the weekend, so I got the oven going right away, praying that the power would last long enough to bake two cheesecakes. (Which it did - with a half hour to spare!) I charged up my laptop battery (thankful for my 8 hour Mac!) and had every possible recipe I would need for the next two days open in multiple tabs so that even if the lights were out, I'd still be able to mix up ingredients and make the things that could be made on the gas stove. (These tabs would prove to be the modern day equivalent of a cookbook by candlelight!)

I took a break from my baking frenzy to have some supper, and I turned on the TV for some company. (My roommate was away for the week.) And just about the time when Fatmagul was reading Kerim's letter after he left for the airport, theoretically exiting her life forever, the cable started to go out. "Drat!" I thought. "I'll have to catch those scenes online later." (It's important to keep up with these things, you know. :) ) This, and the wind that was beginning to howl outside, were my cue to go turn on my (electric) heater in hopes of heating my room up before bed. Shoulda thought of that sooner - I only got in about five minutes of hot air blasting and then, just like that, pitch blackness. And no more heat.

I lit enough candles to keep me from bumping into things and then layered myself in long johns, extra socks, and a ski hat to keep from freezing to death in my bed. (This is the Mediterranean - these houses are NOT made for cold winters!) Then, the question of how to spend the rest of my suddenly darkened evening. Finishing the cookies was out. Skyping anyone was out. I amused myself by seeing which neighbours had candles burning in their windows, journaled a little by candlelight (feeling very Jane Austenesque) and then decided that, rather than hanging out with the Gilmore Girls for a few hours, I should take this rare opportunity to abandon all sense of a need to finish "just one more project" and get some extra sleep. Trouble is, while I love a good storm, this one was the closest thing you can get to a hurricane without actually being one, and I was suddenly not so thrilled to be home alone in the dark. The wind was whipping the rain against my windows so hard, I expected one to shatter, and actually contemplated moving my bed to the middle of the room, just in case. The thunder was the kind that reverberates in your sternum, and I could see every lightning flash even through my tightly closed eyelids. Telling myself it was impossible for a three-storey cement house to be lifted off the ground by fierce winds in the night, I settled into my Heavenly Father's arms, comforted myself with the sound of His booming voice, and eventually fell asleep.

Awakening to a still-standing house, a lack of shattered glass on my bedroom floor, and, alas, still no elecricity, I boiled my way to a cup of coffee (thank goodness we have a French press instead of a coffee maker!) and set to work on getting the house clean for the gathering we were having later in the day. Vacuumless, I tamed the floor with a broom, and then boiled water to do the dishes. That's the tricksy thing about our hot water system. It's solar-powered, so when there's sun but no power, you can still get hot water once the sun's been up for a few hours. When there's nothing but clouds, you go for plan B, which is (if you have lots of time) to flip the switch that will heat up the tank in an hour or so, or (if you are in a hurry) you boil water in the kettle we keep in the bathroom for such events, and you take a bucket shower. But when you're lucky enough to have a no-sun, no-power day, you go for Plan C, which is to boil water on the (gas) stove, Little House on the Prairie style.

Bucket shower successfully executed, and with Christmas carols singing from the battery-operated iPod speakers, I set out to finish the last of the baking that needed to happen before the guests arrived. Cookies now being officially off the docket, I made what turned out to be a deliciously wise choice and made some stovetop mint fudge instead. You gotta know how rare and valuable this fudge was. Every ingredient was from the "stash cupboard" - the one where we keep all the imported ingredients that we've hauled over from Walmart and only permit those who pass the Appreciation Test to partake of. Mint chocolate chips, sweetened condensed milk, mint extract, snowflake sprinkles. Seriously amazing.

Right around lunchtime, I heard the beep of the phone and the whir of the heater coming to life, and I knew that we were back in business. Glad as I was to get back to emails and photo product orders and "business as usual," I do kinda enjoy the "pioneer aspect" of having to make do without electricity. After all, it wasn't SO long ago that people got along with woodstoves and lanterns and iceboxes just fine. Then again, they weren't trying to buy all of their Christmas presents online.... :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thursday, December 09, 2010 - No comments

Merriment on Hold

There is a strict rule in our house about when the commencement of the celebration of Christmas is officially permitted. My roommate’s birthday is December 1st, and there shall be no listening to carols, decorating of trees or making of gingerbread men until the 2nd. Normally I am chomping at the bit, ready to unleash a torrent of merriment as soon as it’s legally allowed. But this year, December 2nd has come and gone, and I’m finding myself screaming, “Stop the calendar! I’m not ready!”

It’s not even so much a thing of having been too overwhelmingly busy to think about writing Christmas cards (though that is definitely the case) or even the fact that Christmas isn’t celebrated here, and the halls of the malls are far from decked. I think it’s more that I didn’t feel like I got to savour autumn long enough, and I’m just plain not ready for winter. The calendar may not be on my side, but the weather sure is. It’s still, for the most part, t-shirt friendly during the day, and the leaves are still fluttering from the trees in cascades of red and yellow. The last few months have been so incredibly packed with work and activity, and silly sentimental me feels like I need to slow down and enjoy just a little more pumpkin soup and leaf crunching before I’m ready to switch into wassail sipping and snowflake snipping.

A few weeks ago, some friends asked me to do a photo shoot for their family Christmas cards. They went with the theme of “Merry Mediterranean Christmas” and we built ourselves an adorable little “sandman” on the beach, complete with a scarf and a toque, a carrot nose, and seashells for eyes. Bundled up in their Christmas sweaters, they got quite the amused glances from the bikini-clad passers by who stopped to watch them posing for pictures. Our little sandman was proof that what Christmas “feels like” is a result of where we grew up. For me, having lived much of my life in Canada, the classic Christmas scene is a cozy house with candles in the windows, a wreath on the door, lights on the roof and a snowman in the yard. But if I’d grown up in, say, Australia, it might look more like a row of picnic blankets on the beach. And now, living in Turkey, it’s up to us to merge the two and make Christmas happen for ourselves, cuz it certainly isn’t happening around us. And while last year, by this time, I had a tree up in my room and was decorating cookies and playing elf and making presents, this year my heart just feels like it got stuck in November.

I have this calendar that I keep as sort of a scrapbook, and every day I write something or stick a little memento in that day’s square. And last night, as I attempted to find my floor under the piles of (clean) laundry and various project stacks, I realized that I’d been so busy, I hadn’t even switched my calendar over December yet, and it was already the 8th. It was high time to flip that page and decorate the top part with something Christmasy....and yet something inside me resisted. It was like by admitting it was December, I was being disloyal to fall. And not only that, it meant I needed to get out the decorations and put on the carols and enjoy as much of “Christmas” as I could, cuz like it or not, it was coming. And I know that once I get into the Christmas spirit, I’ll want to stay in it for a good while, and I can’t very well keep the house full of holly and snowflakes and “O Come All Ye Faithful” through the end of January, cuz I might drive certain other people in the house crazy.

So, in the end, I reluctantly put on the year’s first Christmas music and got out my Christmas scrapbook paper and I sipped my peppermint hot chocolate and made myself a happy December calendar page. And with that, coupled with the bag of Christmas blend I’d picked up at Starbucks in the morning, I declared the beginning of the Christmas season in my heart. On the weekend, I’ll put on Bing Crosby and break out the decorations and kick the baking into high gear. But in the meantime, I think I might go collect just a few more autumn leaves.....