The Devil’s in the Peanut Butter

I dropped out of college when the chance to live in Europe came along and didn’t have a chance to return until the mid-eighties when my life hit an unfamiliar period of calm and, because I wasn’t used to calm, I decided to spice life up by returning to UC Berkeley. However I needed childcare as my son was just a toddler. Finding childcare is always a sticky-wicket if you don’t have a mother-figure nearby to help. (You’ll notice I said “mother-figure” and not mother and there’s a reason for that.)

After fretting over my options for a couple of weeks (potential child abusers versus soulless baby mills), my husband pointed out that we had an extra bedroom with an attached bath, so why not find a college girl willing to trade room and board for help with the children?

th-2He envisioned a buxom blonde from Sweden. I thought more along the lines of a quiet farm girl from Kansas. 

The ad read: “Room and Board in exchange for child care a couple of times a week. House is only 15 minutes from campus.”

I’d just returned home from posting the advertisement when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a young man with a thick accent. “I have sixteen brothers and sisters,” he informed me. “I know all about babies.”

Stunned stupid I mumbled:  “But you’re a man.” Something which he’d probably already figured out.

“But your ad didn’t say…”

What a corner I’d painted myself into! I couldn’t say we want a girl, now could I?  That would be sexist. Besides, he had a point. There was no “must have a vagina” in my ad.

“I can come in for an interview today.”

“Today?  Ah, no, um –  that won’t work. Tomorrow, eleven o’clock,”  I needed time to figure out how I was going to reject him. Now, I should have said the position was already taken but I’ve never been that quick on my feet.

OmarSharifThe next morning at precisely eleven the doorbell rang. How stupid, I thought. I’ve probably just invited a serial killer or a rapist to my house while my husband was at work. I should have arranged to meet him somewhere else, a public place with lots of people around.  I should have had him come when my husband was home. But as I said, I’ve never been quick on my feet. 

Like a ninny I peered out the living room blinds.  At my front door stood a young Omar Sharif in a plaid shirt and slacks, his dark hair cut short. Figuring that serial rapists generally don’t look like Omar Sharif, I opened the door and let him in.

“Just call me Aziz,” he informed me. “Americans can’t pronounce my real name,  Azizulah.”

“Azizulah, that’s not such a hard name to pronounce.” You twit, I thought, feeling insulted. I’d traveled the world. I wasn’t a typical American, or so I thought.

He went on to say he was a graduate student from Karachi who had scored fourth in Pakistan’s version of the SATs which guaranteed him entrance into just about any college in the world (lack of confidence was not one of his failings). He took a look at the room and the bath and declared it would suit him just fine as it was far away from the “family” quarters and he liked to touch base with his family in the middle of the night. He also informed me that he expected to be allowed to cook at least one meal a week and asked if the local butcher stocked freshly slaughtered goat.


Aziz with the woman he couldn’t possibly live without and Cam

I was about to tell him that we’d get back to him when my son who was sitting on the floor abusing the dog began to wail. Aziz picked him up, made a funny clacking sound with his tongue and Cam settled right down. They got along so well that I invited him back to meet my husband for dinner that evening. 

“Is there anything you don’t eat, other than pork?”

“Peanut butter!”  He said, looking as if he’d just smelt a fart.

He stayed with us until he married the woman he claimed he “would die without.”  It was true. Whenever she was out of town he couldn’t eat or sleep, often stumbling from his room red-eyed and moaning.  I’ve never seen a man so love-sick. 


Hindu Marriage Ceremony

Unfortunately, she was a Hindu. And so, of course, his family boycotted their wedding and my children played the roles meant for the groom’s siblings. After a few years and children, his family softened their stance.

Here are just a few of the things I learned during my years with Aziz:

  • Peanut Butter is the food of the Devil. Grilled Cheese isn’t far behind.
  • The worst thing you can call someone in Urdu is a Devil.
  • Pakistanis do not celebrate birthdays because many of them have no idea when they were born (Aziz was either 24 or 26 depending on whether he believed his mother’s journal entry or his father’s).  The date on his passport was made up and then made official by a bribe to an immigration official.
  • Pakistanis also do not believe it is necessary to either give or receive thanks. People are expected to do good deeds for each other without expectation of a thank you.

We introduced Aziz to Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas cookies, and Easter bunnies. He introduced us to curry, Eid and Ramadan. One summer, part of his large family came for a visit, staying at the Claremont Hotel and traveling around the Bay Area in a Azizconvoy of vans. They owned a factory on the outskirts of Karachi and made replicas of the kind of furniture you’d find at Versailles which they sold primarily in Europe. They invited me to their home but, after Aziz told me the honored guest is always offered (and expected to eat) the eyeball of a freshly slaughtered cow, I declined the invitation!

I used to joke that during the time we were all together, we had the bases covered – the son of a Holocaust survivor, a baptized Christian (drifting towards Buddhism), a Hindu and a Muslim – should the world come to a sudden end; an end which would probably have been caused by one or all of the above religions.  Ironic, isn’t it?

Holy Mole

On the third day of chili grinding (see Making Mole Sauce and Making Mole in the Modern World) the chili-nut-fruit mixture was still not ground to Liz’s satisfaction and so I kidnapped every grinding machine I could find in Joel’s well equipped kitchen and brought them to her house.


Then we got an assembly line going – using one grinder until it started to overheat and then switching to another.  BTW – the best grinder in our assortment was the small white one on the right (a Grup).  I’m happy to say that no grinders were permanently damaged.  Finally we had a Costco-size pretzel jar full of perfectly ground mole powder!


Above is pork mole with sourdough bread and my share of the mole powder. It should last a year.

Liz then added a cup of the mole powder to 8 ounces of tomato sauce and sauteed the mixture with a cup of chicken broth and grated chocolate to taste. Please note, if you use dark, dark chocolate you may want to add sugar to prevent bitterness which we did.

The mole was divine.  Worth every blister!


Liz’s Paternal Grandmother’s recipe – Note the final step – “Then take all ingredients to a mill and have it ground!” No shit!!!!!!!!


Last night I made chicken mole with the commercially made powder for a taste test.  Aside from being a little sweeter than the homemade, it was also excellent.

When Liz enrolled her son for kindergarten she told the principal that he was bilingual, that English was his second language. The woman countered by saying she didn’t think it would be too much of a “problem.” A problem, Liz thought, seething.   Of course, it wasn’t a problem a few months later when the son of a Venezuelan ambassador interviewed at the school and they needed a translator.

Stereotyping by political buffoons  “Mexicans are all rapists” may seem like merely the ranting of an opportunist but unfortunately it’s far more pervasive in our society than we blush-faced Euro-types want to admit.  And don’t get me started on racism. 

And while I’m at it, next time:  My Pakistani Nanny.  


Making Mole in the Modern World


Traditional Mole Grinding Tool

Making Mole Sauce, Part Two (Part One here)

We turned to Liz’s antique mixmaster after giving up on the mortar and pestle of her ancestors.  However, after only one over-stuffed load of roasted poblano chiles (I warned her!), it begun to smoke and the resulting mixture (after five minutes of grinding) did not resemble powder; it resembled cornflakes.  A light went on over Liz’s head. She unwrapped a present she planned to give her daughter for Mother’s Day: an electric coffee grinder,  an itty bitty thing perfect for her daughter’s one cup of coffee per day.

Alas, it soon became apparent that between the smoking mixmaster and the tiny coffee grinder we would be pulverizing chiles until the end of days. Luckily I knew where to find a much more powerful mixmaster and a substantially larger coffee grinder.


Modern day poblano chili grinders!

“You’re not taking my babies to Liz’s house!”

My husband adores his gizmos. Almost obsessively and Liz, well, Liz has no patience with a machine that doesn’t obey verbal orders.  He went on to catalogue all the things we’d lent her which came back a little wonky.

“I won’t let Liz touch it.  I’ll do all the grinding myself.”

He didn’t believe me but when informed no mixmaster equaled no mole sauce, he relented. I returned to Liz’s house and we commenced our never ending chili grinding operation.

Step 2:  Roasting the spices, fruits and nuts


Once the chiles were pulverized, it was time to work on the other ingredients: hazelnuts, almonds. raisins, pecans, cinnamon, garlic, sesame seeds, anise, and plantains. All of which would need to be roasted until they were fragrant.


As Liz roasted, I pulled apart garlic.  I love garlic, I really do.  But peeling garlic, oh my, do your fingers get sticky.

When we were young mothers I envied Liz.  I was divorced and struggling in a community were misfortune was treated like rabies, the victims snubbed and quarantined, while she lived in a sprawling ranch-style house on a hill, her Liz-worshipping husband, an attorney specializing in environmental concerns, her large close-knit family always around for family dinners and impromptu babysitting, her children invited to all the parties mine were not. So when her family adopted me and my son as a part of their extended family, I smiled and pretended things were not as bad as they were for me. I always assumed the same women who pretended not to see me when I went to school events, welcomed Liz into their fold because, unlike me, she hadn’t caught the misfortune bug.  Apparently she was as a good a pretender as I was. 


There is nothing more blissful than the smell of roasting nuts combined with cinnamon, anise and sesame seeds. It’s better than an orgasm!


Ah, the things we do not see.  Until Liz was 30 she was a legal resident of Mexico, having come to this country at age 5. And although she earned a college degree and worked for the state for many years, as a child she would have been someone Trump and Cruz would want to deport.

“Remember Miss Crap?” she asked as we were roasting away.

Miss Crap is what she calls our boys’ kindergarten teacher. Her real name was Miss Trap.


“Remember how we all had to go in and help her out once a week?”


“You know what the bitch had me doing?”

Miss Trap generally put me in charge of an art project. I always assumed it was the same for Liz. “No.”

“Cleaning the damn windows!”


Ground chili powder on top of the nut/raisin/spice mixture.

After filling the house with their heavenly fragrance, we dumped the spices, nuts and raisins into the mixmaster and let ‘er rip. Unfortunately the raisins proved to be a problem. They don’t grind very well. We ended up with a mixture the consistency of lumpy peanut butter.

And there was another problem.  The plantains were not ripe.  “I’ll call Pat and have him buy some more plantains,” she said.

Pat, Liz’s husband, had been MIA most of the morning.  After she reached him, he called back several times, unable to find plantains anywhere.


Our hands were chapped and bleeding.  Our wrists aching from that damned mortar and pestle adventure. “Oh crap, I’ve had it,” said Liz. “Let’s have a glass of wine and call it a day.”

I didn’t argue.

Stay tuned for the final episode – will Pat find ripe plantains?  Will Liz and Jan figure out how to turn raisin goop into powder? Or will their mole turn out to be mole paste?

Anyone have a suggestion as to how to grind roasted raisin goop?


Making Mole Sauce


Liz and I on another of our adventures – coaching softball, something about which we knew NOTHING!

When my friend Liz announced she was going to make mole (pronounced mole-lay) I offered to help. The process of making mole takes at least a day, even in Mexico where there are special mills for chili grinding so I saw this as a chance for us to spend some time together. You see, her life is in constant flux and I’m always writing, blogging or taking care of my elderly mother so mole-making would force us each to take a day off just for ourselves. In fact, Liz is so busy I half expected something to come up which would postpone our adventure, maybe forever.  But, miracle of miracles, it did not.

Here’s what a commercially made mole looks like:


It’s actually a powder which, before serving, is mixed with crushed tomatoes and freshly grated dark chocolate and then served over meat (generally turkey).  I suppose it could be served over cheese enchiladas, for you vegetarians, but from what I’ve read, it was originally developed to disguise the taste of bad meat.

The last time Liz made mole was in Mexico with her aunt.  At that time they’d roasted the chiles and de-seeded them before taking them to a professional chili grinder. Her aunt was from Puebla, one of the cities claiming to be the mole capital of the world.


This is a BIG bowl of roasted poblano chiles – it took us an hour and a half to slice and de-seed all these buggers!

By the time I’d driven to her house, Liz had already roasted the chiles over her gas range. The smell of burning chiles hung over the small enclave of houses on the hill where she’s lived peacefully for twenty five years.

However it wasn’t always a peaceful co-existence. The day she moved in there was a knock at the door. A middle-age woman stood on her welcome mat, a disconcerted look on her face. “You don’t look like a Mexican!”

Without missing a beat Liz fired back: “Well, let me go get my sombrero and serape! Then maybe I’ll look like a fucking Mexican.”

I think the neighbors got the point.

Step One: Preparing the Chiles:

Without much adieu we set to the task of pulling apart the chiles to remove the seeds. You don’t want to leave the seeds in as they are as hot as Hades and they do not grind properly. While we processed the chiles we gossiped and giggled and complained about our husbands, the key ingredients of mole making.

Here’s what our fingers looked like after all that work.


Luckily it washed off.

Next came the task of grinding the chiles to powder. Unfortunately we don’t have any nearby professional chili grinders. Here’s what we had:


Traditional tool used to make mole. You’ve got to be kidding Liz!

It took about two seconds before we realized neither of us had the wrist strength of Liz’s ancestors.

We had to come up with another plan. Next: Grinding Chiles in the Modern World.  In the meantime – chiles are just one of the twenty or so ingredients used in mole. Without googling, can you guess some of them?

My Heart is a Map

The other day I ran into an interesting post regarding whether or not to include maps in works of fantasy and science fiction.  Apparently some readers hate them.  Not me! In fact, I’ve even considered adding them to my books, Flipka in particular. 


Who didn’t love tracing Bilbo and Sam’s route as they tried to save Middle Earth?

The first edition I owned of the Lord of the Rings trilogy contained several maps which had the effect of further loosening my grip on reality.  Thirteen years old and I still believed in elves and fairies.  And there were maps so Middle Earth had to be a real place, right?

 I wasn’t alone. There were thousands of us running around demanding to be called Arwen, dressed in medieval garb and smoking pipes filled with something other than tobacco. Of course, Tolkien was mortified by our behavior however it’s the price of success. Unless you’re a total narcissist, fame is a beast you can’t control.  th-1

I was surprised to read that many of Tolkien’s descendants considered Peter Jackson’s movie version of LOTR a complete desecration of his work. I’m of two minds. I’m a big fan of Viggo Mortensen but he was not my Aragorn.  My Aragorn was a bit more – dare I say it – effeminate.  (You have to remember – I was just exiting the Justin Bieber years.)  My Aragorn did not have facial hair and looked a bit like Cary Grant, my then favorite movie star. Can you image Cary Grant as Aragorn?

The fact that we all have our own Aragorns and Arwens made it fool-hardy to try to interpret those books in film (with real humans!) and so for the most part I cut Jackson some slack.  Gandalf was perfect, the Nazgul terrifying and who didn’t root on the Ents?  Go get ’em trees!

Sometimes you need a map just to keep track of all the places and names in a book or television show.  For example, the Game of Thrones:


Be honest, did you have trouble keeping track of the seven kingdoms? Course I probably should have read the book before getting hooked on the television series…

My real passion however is antique maps, particularly if the place in question has special meaning for me.Monson

This is a map of Monson Massachusetts circa 1879 which is around the time my great grandparents decided to make it their home. The drawings on the bottom are of the town’s finest establishments: Greens Hotel, the Reynolds Woolen Mill and Merrick, Fay & Co. Straw Works.  All sadly no longer in operation.  Old Monson hangs on the wall of my bedroom and greets me each morning with a kiss from those idyllic days of ice-cream floats and evenings spent watching Lawrence Welk with my grandparents.  I never thought I would ever miss all those cheesy performers or the bubbles (talk about fantasy land!) but sometimes I wish I could jump into the map and return.


Heidelberg Germany circa who knows!  The inscriptions (upper right) are in Latin and difficult to read.

I bought the above map of Heidelberg Germany on a magic night long ago.  We don’t get that many magic nights. Each and every one should have its own map.

If you had the chance to purchase an antique map of a special place, where would it be and why?

#ThursdayDoors: Brave

Sadly, I have no interesting doors for Norm Frampton’s ThursdayDoors challenge. Obviously I just don’t get out enough!


This open door leads to a small art gallery which also serves as a studio. The artist sits at her easel all day long as people walk past on their way to near-by restaurants.  If the weather is nice, she leans her paintings against the plate glass window in front.  She is good, really good.  If I had the money, I’d buy as many as I could.  To paint out in public where people can wander by and remark is one of the bravest things an artist can do.

You probably won’t catch me doing that anytime soon.  However, today I’m honored to be featured on Colleen M. Story’s Wellness and Writing blog. Please check it out if you have the time.  Colleen is a gifted writer whose focus is on helping writers stay mentally and physically healthy.  I’m hoping she’ll drop by the Twissel blog and give us some tips and maybe talk about her book Loreena’s Gift (sci-fi, fantasy) which is coming out on April 12!  Here’s the beginning of the synopsis: Loreena Picket is a blind young woman who lives with her uncle, a reverend at a small-town church. Loreena has a strange gift, which she’s not really sure is a gift at all.

ddduke.128.625110On another note: I’ve decided that my blog is pretty blah so, one of the bravest writers I know, Duke Miller and I are experimenting with new ideas on a blog we call Tin Hats. If you’re a fan of Duke’s, there are a few powerful often controversial posts there.  I may even get brave and let loose my subversive side!   Here’s a video that explains the theme of Tin Hats pretty well: