Tamales, the Feast of the Seven Fishes and more

As I write this blog at about 25,000 feet on a flight from Denver to Washington, I am struck once again by how food indeed is the cement during the rough patches of the holiday season. Food talk certainly is a safer topic than politics, sex, religion and, in this instance, profiling.

I’m sitting next to a CU freshman on the first leg of her journey to Kuwait. Not military, but a Kuwaiti engineering student with a Lebanese mother and an Arab father who met when they, too, were college students “who fell in love” many years ago, she said.

I’ll spare you the details of what happened on this flight, short of saying that the flight attendants did the best they could to help this young, braced-faced student with her small carry-on.

Another passenger was not willing to stuff his overcoat under his seat, despite that it was interfering with closing the overhead bin and, yes, delaying the flight. No cooperation whatsoever. Not if it meant rendering assistance to someone on the opposing team. He made that clear.

Long story short, my roll-aboard too went voluntarily down to the bowels of the plane to be ticketed to God knows where. Like my seat mate, I have a tight connection.

Nothing like two strangers suffering the injustice of one fat- assed jerk. From that introduction it went to conversations of what each of us did.

The automatic assumption is that food writers get to eat whatever they’re writing about each week. Occasionally that’s true, but more often than not, it’s mainly what you’ll research, I explained.

Until I read about fondue history for this week’s centerpiece story, I would have never known that packets of “convenience food fondue” are at every major grocery store, front and center in the cheese case, according to several Internet sites.

I checked it out, but I wasn’t prepared for the sticker shock. Cheese, even when you are doing the grating, isn’t cheap. Let the Swiss package it with some white wine, cornstarch and nutmeg, and you’ll feel the pain of imported convenience.

Saturday morning’s tamale work session in the basement of Sacred Heart Church also brought a smile to my face. Two high school students working to raise money to study abroad for several months next summer rallied their parents, members of the Sacred Heart community, to cook, grind, stuff, roll and steam tamales. They’ll be sold for $18 a dozen to pay for the trip. You can read about that venture next week.

Tamale wrapping reminded me of my own Boulevard neighborhood neighbors and friends rolling meatballs in the Presbyterian church 20 years ago so we could pay for the luminaria we were setting out on Christmas Eve.

We were amateurs when it came to feeding a crowd of 100. We had folks seated at tables topped with butcher paper and water that would not boil. It’s amazing that we were not asked to refund the pittance they were paying for spaghetti and salad.

Now that neighbors are older and our knees are shot, we’d gladly pay takers to help us fill and set out those candle-holding bags. We’re skipping the spaghetti fundraiser, but maybe I’ll talk a few of my neighbors into buying tamales.

Tamales are as much a Christmas tradition of the Hispanic community as my family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes. I never quite muster up all seven, but the shrimp and calamari, occasionally the oysters, and always the anchovies, make it to the table.

While other homes on the Boulevard smell like cinnamon and vanilla on Christmas Eve, our land-locked three-story townhouse smells like a fish market, a stone’s throw from a crowded port.

Ah! The fragrances of the season…

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