Tuesday, December 28, 2010


My grandmother lifts her spoon from the large soup pot to taste the simmering stew. Adding a pinch of salt, she stirs the muscles and clams with the crab legs and halibut morsels in their rich tomato bath. Christmas dinner will be served in moments, cioppino the main course. Grandmother has spent many years perfecting her recipe, and Christmas isn't Christmas without the Italian fisherman's stew.

Legend claims cioppino (chip een o) got it's name from hungry fishermen who all "chipped in" their catch of the day to make a collective stew. It's an awkward dish to eat with shells still cradling clams, muscles, and delicious pieces of crab meat. For the Tobey family, eating Grandmother's cioppino is almost a rite of passage. If you want to become a Tobey, you'll tuck a napkin under your collar, put your spoon in the potent stew, and crack the shells with the best of them.

For me, the simmering substance grandmother gently stirs symbolizes the tie to the eclectic races and cultures that make up my heritage. I, like cioppino, feel I'm made up of a little of this and a little of that without any main ingredient at all. Since the time I was a young girl riding the bus to and from school, people have starred ponderously at my brown skin and dark hair wondering how I could possibly be related by blood to my pale and fair-haired sister sitting next to me. They awkwardly guess at my nationality of origin, and though I'm descent of mostly Western Europe, I always explain my race by my skin.

"I'm Mexican and Italian," I say, although I'm Irish, Scottish, English, Canadian, and many other things as well. "My great grandmother was the daughter of a ranchero from New Mexico which was a part of Mexico at the time. She was fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian. Her husband, my great-grandfather, was an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily." In my mind, these characters are larger than life. I see my great-grandmother watching her father as he rides through the dry dessert, in my day-dreaming, his stead always black stallion rearing on it's hind legs. I envision my nineteen-year old great-grandfather approaching a desk on Ellis Island, shoving some papers across to a disgruntled clerk, and receiving the stamp that made my existence in the United States of America possible.

But, if I'm truly honest with myself, the scenes of their actual lives really weren't as romantic as I've made them out to be. My great-grandparents married, had three girls, and then my great-grandfather left them. As a single parent, my great-grandmother worked much of her life in a cannery and nobly provided for her children. Although, I'm a product of the better life she sought to provide, still, I stare at the stew in front of me, and long for some connection to Italy and to Mexico, to feel even through my white, middle-class, American upbringing, the threads of their culture woven into mine.

I am cioppino, many cultures, races, and stories chipping in to make my substance. As I pop open each shell, removing each crab leg, clam, and mussel, I gain a larger understanding of myself and the individual stories and decisions that have shaped my life. The substance may be messy and awkward at times, but it is the specialty of a Master Chef who lovingly stirs the pot over a low flame. And as each flavor works together, a masterpiece is created. Someday, I will serve this dish to my children at our Christmas celebrations. I tuck my napkin under my chin, and dig in.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Of Ships and Shoes and Singing Penguins

"3, 2, 1, blastoff!"

Captain Daniel punches the red button and our spaceship, made of a large purple blanket draped between the couch and two chair from the kitchen table, launches into the final frontier.

"Captain Daniel, there's a giant flying donut ahead! What do we do?"

The three-year-old space adventurer pauses for a second, carefully calculating his next mode of action. "Eat it!" he says, with a grin of sheer glee illuminating his face.

I hold 18 month Kaden on my lap who quickly proceeds to shoot the donut with his TV remote blaster, saving our spaceship from certain dismemberment by flying pastry.

Kaden ducks under the blanket behind the captain's chair to check on the singing penguins we've rescued from Planet Transformer along with a large stuffed puppy dog, a monster truck, and Bumblebee himself. Daniel pretends to cut down the Christmas tree feeding our group of refugees their quota in greens for the month.

And I am amazed at the faith Daniel places in large purple blankets and kitchen table chairs, and how confident he is that no matter what junk food we encounter in space, nothing will stop him from reaching Planet Transformer. And I want that faith for myself, a faith that meets each twist and turn in the story with eager enthusiasm, a faith that believes I've been equipped with everything I need to reach my destination. And maybe along my way, I can rescue a singing penguin or two.