AUGUST 15, 2010

Its been cooler than usual and overcast late into the day all week here on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

With the times being so hard, food tends to arrive in the larder in very curious forms, and usually is entirely unlike what you usually have. Jose and Xavier got a big bucket of Black Lentils from the food bank and looked to the internet for ways to make something of this bonanza. Neither one of them knew that the efforts to make a meal for the Household would result in one of those "Only in the Bay Area" stories.

Xavier downloaded a black lentil recipe without checking all the ingredients, the recipe or the process, which is pretty much what all good cooks will do, but not our boys, and so they were well on the way to making savory lentils when they each came across an item of which no one had ever heard.

"Add one full tablespoon of garam masala. This will give the dish its distinctive savor and aroma."

? !

They each looked at one another. "Maybe we can just add celery or Worcestershire sauce instead," offered Xavier.

"No no, if it is so distinctive it must be something special and we have to have it. We have already begun everything else. We just need to know if it's a spice or like a vegetable or a kind of meat," Jose said.

So the two did what any enterprising American-Wabos would do in such circumstances: they went onto the Internet at the Free Island Library. They each knew that it was a free library because the sign said so. "Are their libraries in Alta California which are not free," Xavier asked. There ensued a lively discussion as to whether the library was free because nobody paid for the right to read books or whether the name referenced the political condition of the Island until Jose told Xavier to shut up and stop asking stupid questions while he hunted for garam masala on the library's free access computer. As no one at the House had enough money for computers, let alone monthly internet service, the library remained their conduit for news and international affairs, so free worked well enough for them.

"It says here on the bottom that garam masala is the most commonly used spice from Tunisia across North Africa, the Middle East and on to all of India," Jose said. "It also says that it is universally available but that many households make their own so as to have the freshest condiment in the house."

"So that's it!" Xavier said. "Off to Plucky's Grocery." And with that the young man dashed off with the five dollars the two of them had managed to scrounge by lifting all the cushions in the house, checking the gutter, the underside of dryers at the laundromat, begging and just going through their own pockets.

A little concerned that five dollars might not be enough for some kind of exotic spice, Jose stayed on the computer. "To make garam masala, assemble the following spices: one 1/4 tsp saffron . . . "

Saffron! That was the first ingredient?! Jose did not know much about India anything but he did know that saffron from India was hideously expensive and so up he jumped to intercept Xavier with the precious five dollars without checking any further. Hell, with that kind of gourmet expectation they could just mix the lentils with day-old and Worcestershire as usual and grill up veggie burgers.

He ran into Xavier who was triumphantly waving a sheet of paper in front of him inside the Waifsay Grocery. "Guess who I ran into!"

"You have the recipe", Jose said. "You look at what's innit yet?"

"No. He said it was easy. Nobody knew what it was in Plucky's and not in Traitor Schmoes either. And no one here in the Waifsay. They say all say go to speciality shop. But I got this recipe right from the main source! Somebody from India!"

"Give me that!" Jose said.


"This rare spice is put in recipes by devious witches who look to ensnare the unsavory effendi.

First, you gather a small herd of garams, which are galloping, 7 legged creatures with one red and one green eyeball that find themselves primarily in the mountains of Morocco and the Hindu Kush. Because they have seven legs they can only run either clock-wise or anti-clockwise around the mountain hillsides.

You must wack them with your cast iron frypan and kill the rest with blasts of rocksalt and nails until they are done.

Now, you masala them furiously with cheap rotgut wine until their antennae fall off and their legs are tender and after that you dry them on paper towels before crushing them with a masala crusher available from Bombay and Trader Joes for only 9.99 rupees.

Then you pour the powder into small vials whispering the incantation, "Bettycrockerbettycrockerbettycrocker", put the vials into an iron-bound chest made of teak and then place a solid King James version of the Bible upon the chest, otherwise they may get out again to infest the ears of one's housecats."

Jose looked at Xavier dubiously, saying, "Somehow I do not think this recipe is all genuine. Who gave this to you?"

"Amir," said Xavier.

"Amir?! Amir Booshwadi of the Blue Ganges restaurant? I have known Amir for over fifteen years and never known the man to speak two serious words in consecutive order! First time I met him he said quite seriously that he felt very Northwest Indian that day and could not speak to me."

"I do not get it," said Xavier.

"He meant he was feeling 'velly Sihk'," said Jose.

"I still do not get it," Xavier said.

"Here we are in the middle of the most cosmopolitan area in the most cosmo State of the American Republic and nobody here knows about 'the most commonly used spice from Morocco across North Africa, the Middle East and on to all of India'!" Jose stamped his foot. "All gabachos esta stupido!"

A voice broke into their discussion there in the spice section of the Waifsay. "Excuse me, do either of you gentlemen know the difference between Saigon Cinnamon and regular cinnamon?" A short Asian woman, perhaps Chinese-American, perhaps not, stood there holding two bottles of a reddish powder.

Jose looked at her. "The Saigon Cinnamon undoubtably costs at least a dollar more," he said.

The woman looked at the two bottles in her hands. "Why yes, that is exactly true! Did you say you were looking for garam masala? There it is -- under the Cinnamon."

And there it was. Bottles of it that looked as if they had resided there for one thousand years. Layers of dust covered each one. And each one cost exactly $1.50. No one knew it was there, no one had inventoried the stock since god knows when and no one had changed the price since they had been placed there sometime in the 1950's. Or perhaps earlier than that. Javier grabbed a bottle and after paying for their purchase, they ran all the way back to the house just as the Mary Poppins Summer School was letting out after a day trip to the dye factory in Oaktown.

Those of you who have never employed garam masala should know that "1 tbls garam masala" is an aweful lot of masala, and probably a misprint. More likely the original recipe called for "1 tsp", for when the boys dumped a tablespoon of the pungent spice mixture into the lentils the aroma filled the house and all the other houses in the neighborhood with a peculiar scent that evoked djinns, whirling belly dancers, geniis, busy bazaars thronged by people wearing djellabas and headscarves. Guys coming home to the usual tuna hot dish or chicken enchilada sniffed the air and wondered what was up in the kitchen as they came through the door for four blocks in all directions. For a time, ancient Persia glided along the hallways and alleys of that district in silk slippers with curled toes, resurrecting a time of magic carpets and turbans as little girls ran down the street unfurling long translucent colored scarves while the two cooks reeled with waving arms to bang into the stacked pots and the refridgerator.

But a little smoke in the air cannot hold back folks used to noshing on raw habaneros. The two of them who had just been cursing with language that would have turned a sailor pale only a moment ago soon bustled about the little kitchen, getting in one another's way and singing merrily little songs, like "Siempre Siempre Abualita" a song by Tish Hinojosa, who is a darling of the Lilith Faire, a place where gentlemen such as these were hardly welcome. Certainly not in their Appolonian aspect. However, Jose in wearing the apron with sunflowers printed on it represented some other aspect at the moment.

That night the denizens of Marlene and Andre's household on Otis all gathered around the pot and all admired the extraordinary odor, an odor that was a product of NorCal, and the Bay Area in particular, for it had all resolved itself satisfactorily after an Asian-American woman had asked two Wabs about the fine distinctions between two Vietnamese spices in a thoroughly Gabacho grocery store.

And as they all sat back or reclined after their fabulous repast that included Food Bank lentils, rice, and ninty-nine cent jugs of Burgundy wine, for the meal had begun after the sun had set, allowing for a breaking of fast in the middle of Ramadan.

And so, the long wail of the throughpassing train ululated across the holy waters of the estuary as the little locomotive wended its way from the gantries of the Port past the dark and shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, heading off to parts unknown.