Monday, April 25, 2011

Asparagus: White Gold

Food lore has always been one of the most fascinating and versatile elements of folk lore. How to prepare, tend, hunt and harvest this basic source of sustenance of life (besides water) has long been the focus of community and individual care and concern. Intricately woven together with the mysteries of life, such as birth and death, food customs and traditions have held societies together. Consider for example the Sikh dietary practice of not eating meat, the Catholic custom of not eating meat on Friday or the Jewish tradition of keeping kosher. These are only a few examples of ways in which societies have identified themselves through their food ways.

As societies have expanded their reach from one continent to another they have either brought with them important foods to grow in their new locations, like corn kernels or they have modified and/or given new meaning and purpose to the foods they have come upon, like asparagus.

This spring vegetable has found its ways into meals around the globe. A flowering perennial plan, it was once thought to be part of the lily family. Also considered to have been related to onions and garlic it is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and Western Asia.

Asparagus has been used from early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavor and diuretic properties. In fact, a recipe for cooking asparagus can be found in the oldest surviving book of recipes, De re coquinaria. It was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who ate it fresh when in season and dried the vegetable for use in winter. Asparagus is pictured on an Egyptian frieze dating to 3000 BC.

Around the world, asparagus shoots are prepared and served in many ways. Often as an appetizer or vegetable side dish. In Asian-style cooking, asparagus is often stir-fried. It can be quickly grilled over charcoal or hardwood embers and is also used as an ingredient in some stews and soups. In the French style, it is often boiled or steamed and served with hollandaise sauce or melted butter.

Tall, narrow asparagus cooking pots allow the shoots to be steamed gently, their tips staying out of the water. In recent years, almost as a cycle dating back to early culinary habits, asparagus has regained its popularity eaten raw as a component of a salad.

Did you know this about asparagus?

· The Romans prized asparagus. In the first century, runners took asparagus from the Tiber River valley to the Alps so that it could be frozen and thus preserved for the Feast of Epicurus.

· King Louis XIV had asparagus grown in his greenhouses so that he could enjoy it year round.

· In continental northern Europe where asparagus has a short growing season, local white asparagus is in such high demand, it’s been nicknamed "white gold".

· European colonists brought it to America where Native Americans used it for medicine.

Here are few asparagus recipes:

-- Asparagus Quiche

-- Asian Beef Wrapped Asparagus

-- Asparagus Potato Salad

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Slavery Emancipation Folklore

Folklore exists on both sides of the human fence, so to speak. Those traditions, morals and customs that reflect the best values fall on one side and on the other side are those behaviors, attitudes and practices that represent the darker side of our humanity. And, regardless of culture or geographic boundaries, both exist in all cultures.

In America one example of our best value is freedom. Freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion as one sees fit are among the cornerstones of our democracy. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was built upon it.

Here is an example of the darker side of that same American fence. It involves behaviors and attitudes about what freedom is and for whom: slavery. People, primarily those brought over from Africa to work as slave labor, were excluded from having the rights and privileges afforded others in that great declaration which, ironically, granted the right to men (not women), regardless of race, to be treated as human beings.

It took almost 200 years for our country to take at least a legal stand against the original decision/compromise that
basically decreed that slaves were property, not people.

From 1619 to 1865, formal slavery was legal. According to some accounts there were about four million slaves in the United States by 1860. It would be two years after that – on April 16, 1862 - that that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed more than 3000 slaves in the District of Columbia. But it wasn’t until 1865, after the American Civil War that slavery officially ended in the rest of the United States.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by 30 of the then 36 states in 1865. It would be more than 100 years after that before it would be ratified in Mississippi.

Emancipation Day in Washington DC marks the anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act. On January 4, 2005, legislation was signed to make Emancipation Day an official public holiday in the District of Columbia. Elsewhere in the United States, the emancipation of slaves is celebrated in only these states and territories:

· Florida

· Texas

· Mississippi

· Washington DC

· Puerto Rico

· U.S. Virgin Islands

Amazingly, in the other states where, no doubt, slavery existed – especially where Native Americans and Mexicans were enslaved- the day is not observed. And what of those six states that did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment?

There is no doubt that this darker side of our humanity is not specifically American. Slavery has long been a force among people for eons and, as such, continues to reflect what still needs to be addressed - as often as it takes to eradicate it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Vaisakhi: A Time of Worship and Celebration

My friend Harminder Bhandal Singh lives in Punjab and every once in a while shares with me wonderful stories about India where she lives with her husband and two beautiful children. She recently read my blog post about Flying Kites and wrote to tell me the post made her, first of all, miss America where she grew up and, secondly, reminded her of Vaisakhi, a harvest festival and one of the most significant holidays in the Sikh calendar.

Being a generous woman (and a dear friend), she said yes when I asked her to write about this celebration for Folkheart Press. So here it is. If you can, please take a few moments to comment on what she has written. I know she’d love to hear what you thought.

In the northern Indian state of Punjab the month of April brings with it a time of harvesting, rejoicing and above it all worship. April is when the entire state celebrates the coming of the harvest of wheat. Wheat is Punjab’s primary crop and the main staple in the Indian diet. The harvest season officially begins on the 13th of April known as Vaisakhi, which is the Birth of the Khalsa (Sikhism). This day is honored throughout the homes and churches everywhere with prayers and colorful festivals.

Almost everyone goes to Gurudwara (church) and then attends a local festival complete with traditional dress, dancing and food. For all Sikhs this is a very important day because this was the day that Sikhism was officially initiated as a religion.

It was on this day over 300 years ago that the 10th Guru of the Sikhs (sri Guru Gubind Singh) called all his devotees to Anandpur Sahib and asked for five heads. He declared on these five heads shall rise a new man. Everyone looked around and thought Guru Ji had gone crazy. However, history noted that out of the crowd stood up five men one by one and each one Guru Ji took with him behind a door and came out with a bloody sword.

It is said that Guru Ji severed the heads of the five men and later with spirit of the Amrit (Immortal drink) brought them back to life. From that forward Guru Ji announced that wherever five Sikhs shall come together and stand as one, I shall be seen in them. That is why to this day whenever anyone takes the Amrit it is given by five Sikhs.

From that day to today Vaisakhi is celebrated with fervor and vigor throughout the entire world. The festivals of Vaisakhi have followed Sikhs all over the World. However the biggest festival even today is in the holy land of Anandpur Sahib. A day when people from all over the world travel to this holy city and pay homage to both Guru Ji and Sikhism.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cabaret: Heroine's Journey

Every day folk heroes and heroines are people – real or imagined - who have faced and overcome internal and/or external challenges. Most people are familiar with the obstacles: fear, greed, anger, laziness, etc. There are countless songs, stories, rhymes, games, legends and movies about how these folk go on a quest – a journey - to find their destiny. They leave the familiar world behind (i.e., village or family) and discover along the way that the world is more complicated than they originally thought it was and that it takes character to be able to learn how to hold onto one’s self and one’s values. Those values, of course, are the morals and ethics of a particular culture at a certain time and place.

Sally Bowles, the star of the popular Broadway musical "Cabaret" is a classic example of a relatively contemporary heroine’s journey. The 19 year old English actress and cabaret singer goes to Berlin with dreams of stardom. It is against the backdrop of Berlin in the 1930’s (Nazi Germany) that she clings to her dreams despite the all too real fears she and her newly-found friends and acquaintances must live with each day.

I recently interviewed award winning actress Marjorie Rose Taylor about Sally Bowles and about the role of theater – performing arts – in the folklore landscape. Taylor, a North San Francisco Bay Area resident and graduate of The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, plays the role of Sally Bowles in the 6th Street Playhouse (Santa Rosa) production of "Cabaret" which runs April 15-May 15:

Q: Sally Bowles is, in many ways, a folk heroine. She takes a journey far away from home in the hopes of finding stardom. What character traits do you think a performer needs to possess in order to take such a journey?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is drive and determination. Especially in Sally’s case, she has a complete belief in herself and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals.

Q: In general what character traits/values are important in theater?

A: Accountability, imagination and also flexibility in working with an ensemble and your director. In the case of “Cabaret,” it was really important and exciting for me to immerse myself in all the different versions of the story and the play as well as different resources regarding the time and the history in which “Cabaret” takes place.

Q: Set in 1930 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, the play focuses on nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub and revolves around Sally Bowles and her relationship with the young American writer Cliff Bradshaw. What relevance does this story line have for today’s theater goers?

A: It has such an extreme relevance for today’s theater goers. We’re in a time of economic recession and yet we’re still grasping on so tightly to dreams we had. And thinking of the characters in “Cabaret” – they’re not perfect - they have their flaws…but are still clinging to their dreams despite the impending doom.

Today we are at the breaking point of change, with world politics and the economy, somebody coming to see “Cabaret” today will certainly see the possibilities in the reflection.

Q: Do you think this play tells/shows us anything about our humanity?If so, what?

A: The most interesting thing I see is that these characters (particularly the Kit Kat Klub performers) teach us about humanity because they are putting up a fight until the end of the show - they are not giving into the fear. And they’re choosing to stand strong and hold on to themselves, despite the world crashing down around them.

Q: What attracted you to this particular play?

A: What has always attracted me to this play is the completely three-dimensional story with its brilliant music score of classic songs and great book. What you get is a musical that isn’t all fluff. It’s a musical that shocks, titillates, potential scares and definitely makes you think.

Q: What role does theater play in our lives/society/culture?

A: Just as the Emcee says in “Cabaret” - “leave your trouble outside, in here, life is beautiful.” The theater provides a haven for people to leave their daily worries behind and to enter a space a suspended disbelief – to be entertained, to learn and to be inspired and provoked.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your own journey as an actress?

A: I’m still very much on the journey. I’m compiling my training and I’m approaching things in a different way. When I was a was a teen, I’ll be the first to admit it, I was lucky enough to just “phone it in.” But now, I’ve become more intellectual about the research and during the process of rehearsal I’m learning to let everything go and act from instinct and natural reactions.