Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Black-Eyed Peas in Pink and Green

Oh, remember when we went swimming at the lake and had a picnic and gave each other silly nicknames after different cheeses? Char brought some black-eyed peas, still in the pod, to share, and we ate them raw. I didn't know they spend their salad days in merry pink and green, and that only in their dessicated undead state do they become beige with black eyes. They were more tasty to look at than to eat raw, though, I'll admit.

Beware, these peas are not really peas but beans. Somebody better tell Cook's Thesaurus. As cowpeas (a beany family), these Vigna unguiculata operate in that shadowy space of misrepresented legumes, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea), chickpea (Cicer arietinum), pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan), and the winged pea (Lotus tetragonolobus). Thank you to the Library of Congress Everyday Mysteries patrol for informing us of this important distinction and also for telling us that:

As legumes they are extremely nourishing vegetables, both to people and to the soil. They are able to fix nitrogen, meaning nitrogen from the air is taken in by the plant and bacteria living in the roots convert it to a useable plant nutrient. Because of this process, nitrogen-fixing plants improve soil quality by adding nutrients back into the soil.

The "peas" bounced around in the topsoil of my belly as I let go of the rope swing and plunged into the cold cold water. I swam alone to the far end to investigate but got scared of lake monsters as I sank my toes into the muck around the tree roots and very soon turned back to join the others in the sun.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Haw flakes were once and will always be a favorite snack of mine. I went to elementary school in San Francisco's Richmond district, which is one of the several unofficial Chinatowns we have around here, and Haw Flakes were an unquestioned part of every black-haired child's snack life.

The ingredients are simple: haw, sugar, water. The discs recall communion wafers and melt away if you place them on your tongue and wait patiently. Press them to the roof of your mouth, and they break apart softly into grainy pieces that dissolve quickly. The taste is only very slightly tart and mostly fruity, but again in a kind of oblique manner, not so exaggeratedly flavored in the camp way of mainstream American fruit snacks. Some have compared it to the taste of fruit leather or fruit roll-ups, which I think is more or less accurate, despite the difference of texture.

I lived for an impressive amount of time before ever having to doubt the normalcy of this snack or to explicate its ingredients in any meaningful way. Haw was haw and that was that. Sometimes a lighter-haired friend would venture some objection to this mysterious package, but they were usually made to feel shame for their ignorance by the Asian majority. At some point between college and graduate school, I fell out of my Asian buffer zone, with the consequence that Haw Flakes became newly cast as a strange freakshow food to be sniffed at suspiciously and the accuracy of its terse ingredient list challenged ("I don't know... they're probably not listing all the chemicals in it"). I would offer the haw with assurances of its auspicious, most delicious qualities, but couldn't really say whether "haw" was a Chinese word or a substance also known here.

It turns out that "haw" in fact refers to the crushed up berries of the hawthorn tree and used to be eaten in rural areas of the American south before the industrial food system taught people to be afraid of food that didn't come from a grocery store (though the Chinese hawthorn may vary from trees found in this hemisphere).

Here is a great description of Haw Flakes on Asiangrocery.com that was written as a serious information source after the site had to take down its earlier reference to a Haw Flake writeup by some "totally clueless American" when said "clueless American" wrote Asiangrocery.com to complain and threaten a code-yellow Homeland security alert. Read angry letter here. And click here to read the angry American's original post, which includes such choice lines as, "What's a firework doing with an ingredient list? And what the hell was a 'HAW', anyway? Haw haw haw! Well, since the whole ten-pack cost thirty-nine cents, I figured what the hey." and "There was no way I was going to eat these babies until I figured out what 'haw' meant - I didn't want to find out it was Chinese for 'pig innards' after knocking down a pack."

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Fruits of Today's Labor...

...are so very sweet. San Francisco's jumping on this heat wave craze, and I'm taking Labor Day off from vegetables to spend some quality time with fruit.

Watermelon Agua Fresca

8 cups diced watermelon
1 cup water
juice of more or less 1 lemon
a couple of old wrinkled kiwis, diced
some strawberries you were meaning to make jam from but that languished in the fridge, sliced

Put them all in a big pitcher. Smush with a wooden spoon and if you still want it smoother, put a hand blender in there (also known as immersion blender). Or use a regular blender. Chill in the fridge and/or add ice.

It may be a little on the tart side, but so many things are too sugary these days, it's nice to remember the sweetness of fruit alone. Your wooden armadillo will love it.