BIG WEATHER

Air is water’s ghost, flowing, like water, through its seasons. In the spring, as every child in grade school knows, the northern hemisphere of the earth is tipped toward the sun, and the jet stream, that narrowest and swiftest channel of the river moving at speed aloft, drops southward, in a grand lasso, through Canada into the United States. A cold and dry air mass that has been hovering over the polar cap all winter thus barrels across the country. It would drop as far south as Texas and Louisiana, as it sometimes does, but for an epic collision with the only thing on earth that can stop it: the Maritime tropical air mass thrusting north from the Gulf of Mexico. To the ensuing windswirl, and to the water metaphor that helps describe it, a different–and decidedly mixed–metaphor adheres: as air masses advance and clash and retreat like armies, and then advance and clash again across shifting fronts and flanking lines through the months of April, May, and June.
 
The land that lies beneath these colliding air masses is home to more violent weather than any place else on the planet: on average, 10,000 severe thunderstorms sweep over the continental United States annually, bringing with them 5,000 floods and 1,000 tornadoes. While tornadoes occur everywhere in the world, fully three-quarters of them strike the United States over a region that encompasses all of the mid-west, most of the east coast, and nearly all of the south. Some maps delimit a region of greatest tornado frequency along an area beginning in South Dakota and extending southward to include most of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and much of Texas—the legendary region of Tornado Alley. But there are several Tornado Alleys, perhaps the most significant being the big, right-hand turn at Oklahomathat reaches eastward through Arkansas, Mississippi, and much of Alabama. If these two alleyways were combined, from the Dakotas to Alabama, they would form a giant, listing L, a soaked sock. Distinctions can and will be made among states about their indigenous features, even about tornadoes, a sort of ill wind boosterism that ranks Texas first in the sheer number of tornadoes, Kansas first in the number of that rarest sort of tornado, the F5, from the Fujita scale of magnitude, with 16 such monstrous tornadoes hitting Kansas over the last fifty years. Then there is the matter of the Palm Sunday Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974, the biggest outbreak of its kind in recorded history, that unleashed 147 tornadoes across 12 states. So prolific were the storms that at one point there were as many as fifteen different tornadoes on the ground simultaneously. Although most did relatively little damage, the super outbreak produced six F5 category tornadoes, two of which had damage paths in excess of a hundred miles. The F4 tornado that swept through Monticello, Indiana, had the longest damage path at 121 miles. This calamitous event, an historical and statistical anomaly in the extreme, is liable, in the manner of the proverbial five hundred pound movie executive, to draw attention away from a seasonal battle that rages no where else with greater apocalyptic fury than in the prairie state of Oklahoma. “Threat maps,” estimating tornado probability invariably place Oklahoma in the center of an oblate zone of concentric rings with Oklahoma City and its surrounding counties forming a bull’s eye. And indeed, more violent tornadoes of magnitude F4 or higher strike Oklahoma than anywhere else on earth—nearly a hundred in the last fifty years. Oklahoma City has been hit more than any city anywhere–112 times by tornadoes in the last hundred years, 17 of those involving two or more tornadoes striking on the same day.
Yet these statistics, of course, are misleading. Most Oklahoman’s live their lives, growing up, marrying, raising children, growing old, passing through life’s stages, its weeks, months, years, and decades–time lived on the human scale–without ever seeing a tornado first hand. Fewer still are the number of people who are directly affected by the destruction of a tornado. The cycles of tornado occurrence and recurrence are played out on a time scale quite beyond the human frame of reference. For each spot on the Oklahoma prairie, a thousand years might pass between one tornado strike and the next, and yet, statistically—relative to other geographical areas—climatologists who study the matter would consider the rate of one-tornado-per-thousand years a veritable tornadic rush hour. Against the backdrop of statistical recurrence, entire generations come and go between tornado strikes, the memory of their destruction ebbing, receding into the historical vanishing point.

(If you want to understand more about the violent weather the rips across the south, read Big Weather. Written by Mark Svenvold, poet, nonfiction writer, my husband.)

Let’s Live, you and I, …

Heaven preserve me from littleness and pleasantness and smoothness. Give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve me from the neat little neutral ambiguities. Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent. Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.’

Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, October 1918

Yucatecan Cuisine: Making Panuchos In New York City

I have always found my portal into another culture to be through its food.  In March I went to the jungle outside of Merida and stayed in a colonial hacienda that had been transformed into a private home, soaring ceilings and rioting vegetation just outside the screened doors, the constant song of doves.  At this extraordinary place, where every desire was anticipated before we had a chance to think of it ourselves, all meals were prepared for us — a showcase of Yucatecan cuisine: caldillo poblano con ensalada de camerone; sopa de tortilla y poc-chuc; frijol de puerco; arroz a la Mexicana y frjitas; and on and on.  Our favorite, caldo Tlapeno y panuchos, was described to us as Yucatecan “fast-food” because the panuchos are eaten fast since they are so good.  They are also considered a form of street food.  But actually, they take quite a long time to make.  We loved them so much that when we returned home we had a little dinner party to remember the trip and spent the afternoon making the panuchos.  Panuchos are homemade tortillas stuffed with refried beans, topped with lime-rinsed shredded cabbage, achiote-rubbed grilled and shredded chicken, pickled red onion, a slice of avocado.  They are simply delicious, all the flavors coming together in a burst of texture and spice and lime.

Ingredients and directions: achiote paste thinned with lime juice; pickled red onions (pickle them yourself by thinly slicing the red onion and soaking them in one part lime juice, one part orange — enough juice to submerge them, and, the longer they sit in the juice the better, at least a few hours; chicken breasts first poached and then rubbed with the achiote, then grilled, then shredded.  I did this with my fingers.  It was laborious, but I didn’t mind it as it brought me to contemplate the beauty of preparing delicious food, that it should take some time.  It also allowed me to appreciate the effort that went into preparing the Yucatecan food for us when we were at the hacienda.  There is something meditative about pulling chicken breasts apart — sort of like ironing.  Prepare the shredded the cabbage.  (I used a food processor, having had enough meditation.)  Once shredded, squeeze lime juice abundantly on the cabbage.  Cut avocado in thin wedges.  Have all the ingredients ready so that you can assemble the panuchos quickly.  Make the tortillas.  We did this by hand.  The flour packaging (masa harina) will have the recipe.  We didn’t have time to buy a tortilla press so we rolled them by hand.  They were not perfectly round, but it didn’t matter.  We rolled the dough between two layers of Saran Wrap and then fried them until they puffed.  Take them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and rest them on paper towel.  As soon as you can, slice into the tortilla to make a pocket, fill it with black refried beans (ours were from a can, make sure they are black).  Start assembling the panuchos: cabbage; chicken, onions, avocados.  Make a gorgeous platter of them and then serve immediately.  I promise you that this is worth all the effort.  Making them and eating made us feel we were back in the hot, fragrant jungle even though we heard sirens racing up Broadway.

We were so enthusiastic about recreating the experience of eating at Hacienda Petac that we set the table as they did for all meals.  Flower petals and napkins shaped to look like Mayan pyramids.  (At the hacienda at each meal the napkins would be shaped differently: a shirt one day, a flower, a little woman.  I believe there was a different shape for each meal: 3 meals per day times 7 — a lot of shapes.)  We drank margaritas and a cool Chablis and limonadas.  For dessert we made a Key Lime Pie and Flan.  After the meal, the kids whacked a pinata until it burst.  They’d made the pinata at Hacienda Petac during the lazy afternoons.  Here are some fun and essential links:

Achiote Paste

Masa Harina

Hacienda Petac

How To Make Panuchos

Tortilla Press

The Perfect Flan

Some pictures:

The achiote-rubbed chicken on a make-shift cast iron grill that sits on stove top burners.

Making the tortillas

Frying the tortillas

All the shredded chicken.  This was from about 3 full breasts.  Beyond the chicken, the assembling begins.

The panuchos

The glorious table.

The Flan

Followed by …

Recipe for Key Lime Pie:

3 egg yolks

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup of key lime juice.  Sercet: DO NOT use bottled key lime juice.  If you can’t find key limes, use regular limes.

Directions:

1) Make a pie crust with 5 tables of melted butter and 1 package of nine graham crackers crushed.  Press it into and up the sides of a 9.5 Pyrex pie pan.

2)Preheat oven to 375

3) Combine egg yolks, milk, lime juice.  Mix well.  Pour into unbaked crust.

4) Bake for 15 minutes.  Allow to cool.  Refrigerate.  Top with thin lime slices and unsweetened whipped cream … if you desire.