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Janet’s Thanksgiving Missive December 2, 2009

Posted by Janet & Hich in : SANDWHICH musings , comments closed

I’m feeling a little bit grateful about a few things and I suppose it makes sense to go ahead and get them out in the open.

First of all, I’m feeling pretty good about the egg sandwich I just ate – the “Lex’s Favorite” which was named after our former neighbor of 3 Cups fame, Lex Alexander because it was, well, his favorite thing to eat at Sandwhich. It is an over-medium egg with lettuce and tomato and bacon (but I had mine with avocado instead), and it is served between two slices of whole wheat bread. It was salted perfectly. When Umberto, our friend and line cook, cut the sandwich after he assembled it, one of the yolks broke and that made a type of mess that I liked because the yolk went all over the cut side of the bread and seeped into the tomato crevices. I used not two napkins, but two paper towels. Umberto forgot the avocado, but then he remembered and put five thin slices on a little plate. He asked me if I wanted salt and I said no (feeling all virtuous about that), and then, on my way to my table, because I was eating in the dining room for a change, I stopped by the hutch and got the salt shaker and shook it a few times over the gently fanned-out avocado slices. I had to shake it hard because the little beautiful flakes of kosher salt needed to get out. They didn’t pour out like ordinary salt would have. It was a good sandwich.

Second of all, while I’m on the topic of 3 Cups, a perfect thing for after work is to go have a “wine flight” at 3 Cups. I did it recently with a friend and it was PERFECT. The wine was very, very special and it only cost about $6 to try three wines. Sometimes it costs $7, but anyway, you should try it. You can be out of there in half an hour and you’ve had a perfect glass of wine and maybe a chunk of baguette and you’re the happiest person in the world. That’s what I think. www.3cups.net

Third of all, my Moroccan sister-in-law made couscous on Sunday and invited me over and I couldn’t get there in time and they all really just had to go ahead without me, which is fine. Traditional Moroccan couscous (pronounced, css-cssu’, really, I swear), is served in a big huge vessel (a platter as big as a circle of both of your arms). Everyone has their own spoon and their own “territory” and you aren’t supposed to steal couscous or vegetables from anyone else’s territory. It becomes a little bit iffy to know whether or not something in the center is your territory or not, so you go at it with the spoon and drag it over to your own spot, just to be sure, like a piece of butternut squash. Everyone usually obeys this rule except on the occasions when Hich and I are both there and if we happen to be seated side-by-side, and if I happen to get something really good in my territory, like the clump of parsley, which looks like spinach there is so much of it, or one of the jalapenos, then he might “accidentally” steal some of my good stuff. But usually there is plenty to go around.

Aside from the territory rules, couscous is shared like this: the meat is buried in the middle and you are supposed to eat the veg and the couscous first and get sort of full on that. Then you uncover the meat and although there is less meat than veg, you aren’t as hungry for it, now that you have eaten so much other stuff (especially considering the Cheetohs factor which I’ll discuss later), so you all share the meat nicely. I am shameless about it. I am always the last one eating, just digging and digging with my spoon. I can’t stop. Moroccans – or at least the Moroccans in my Moroccan family – take little bits of couscous and then maybe a bit of turnip, or some meat, or both and then they take that spoon and go chop, chop, chop, against the edge of the bowl, working away at the little bite until it becomes a puree. Then they might spoon some of the broth on top of that little bite – the broth is always provided in a bowl near the gigantic vessel. Chop, chop, chop and they work at it. It can take a long time, even for a whole family, to go through a mountain of couscous in a big bowl. Me? I go for the speed round. I’m busy, busy. They know that about me, and nobody seems to mind, even though I am the ex-daughter-in-law.

To prepare it, the couscous “grain” (in quotation marks b/c couscous is really just teeny tiny pasta) is steamed and steamed for about an hour. The steam is actually broth: in the bottom of the steamer, you put a whole chicken, or you put a piece of beef (you can also, really, put a sheep’s head in there, but that’s not my favorite, even though me saying this out loud to 700 e-mail subscribers might actually get me in trouble, but anyway I don’t like it as much as I like the chicken or beef, and let’s leave it at that), and then you also put turnips and carrots and zucchini and onions and butternut squash with the peel on, and you throw in 1-2 jalapenos and a nice handful of parsley and I think there is another vegetable in there, but I can’t remember which. The broth is underneath and the couscous is sitting on top, like in a double boiler, but with holes in the bott om of the top part. Every once in a while, you dump out the couscous and knead it with butter (and if you really know your stuff, the butter is “smen” which is more like blue cheese) and then you put it back in, and then take it out and knead it some more and then put it back in. You do the kneading three times. It takes forever, but my mother-in-law can do it in like 10 minutes, or that’s how it seems. I’m sitting there drinking tea, trying to understand what everyone is saying, and maybe I’m eating some cookies and some Cheeetohs (I kid you not! They sometimes appear at Moroccan tea and I’m glad about it! It is perfect to eat cookies and Cheetohs before dinner, don’t you think?). But usually it is some incredibly fancy cookie, believe me. And when there is a big plate of cookies, I have to have one of each kind. Anyway, there I am, drinking tea and listening to everyone speak Darija (Moroccan dialect) and I’m feeling pretty cool and international about myself, and POW out comes the couscous like no time passed at all. My sister-in-law is fast too, but not that fast. Still, she was too fast for me on Sunday and I wasn’t ready, but when I got there, guess what? Everyone had eaten and was splayed about on the couches in the adjoining living room, but over on the table, there was the big couscous vessel, with a perfect isosceles triangle of territory – my would-have-been territory – waiting for me, still super delicious.

While I spooned broth on my territory and got busy digging, my sister-in-law and I talked about “stuff” which included such topics as how Americans play spin-the-bottle in junior high school. My sister-in-law, who has two young children, was so horrified that I worried she was actually going to get mad, but instead, she just listened to me with her arms crossed,, occasionally interjecting words of disbelief. She is very open-minded about so many things, but this spin-the-bottle business was completely new to her. She had no idea we were so brazen. Crazy Americans…. I talked in third person about “people I know” who might have taken a boyfriend home for Thanksgiving during college and she was like all, “without a pretty definite plan to marry him????” And I was like, “nope.”


Then I’m sitting there, and for the tiniest split second, I wonder: is it ok for me to be sitting at her nice table, digging away at what remained of the yummy couscous she made. And by “her table,” reader, understand this: although, for me, she is always my sister-in-law, she is, technically speaking, my “ex” sister-in-law, since her brother is my ex-husband. Believe me, I cook for her, but I can’t possibly reciprocate the many feasts I’ve had chez Elbetri family. So there I am and I’m telling her all these terrible things about spin-the-bottle and makeouts and college boyfriends and she’s all up-in-arms about it and for a second I wonder if it is all OK. If I shouldn’t be a little more demure. If I shouldn’t just be sort of, well, quiet.

So I look at her and I say, “I hope I’m not really making you mad, gosh,” and then I add, trying to be light-hearted, “are you gonna be ok?” And she says, chuckling at my worry, “Janet, you are OUR FAMILY. You can come here and say whatever you want.” I say: “and still eat couscous?” She laughs, “and still eat couscous.”

(and I’m thinking, “and Cheetohs too…….”)

This Thanksgiving I will spend with my American family, the one into which I was born, the one that made me who I am, and the mother and siblings and aunt and others to whom I am incredibly grateful. And I think of my Moroccan family too, who has made me so welcome in their own family – me, the loud-mouthed couscous vacuum, laughing and joking, and finding cross-cultural common ground more often than not.

We are the same, everywhere, really — stories-of-adolescence notwithstanding. We are much more alike than we are different. I know that’s cliché, and there’s a reason it became so. Think of how many times people have said it, like I am now saying it, because they needed to point it out.

We are all so alike. And that’s a nice thing in this world, don’t you think?

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!


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