Friday, December 24, 2010

Tributes: Martha "Marty" Beard and Joan Barsotti

There are times in life when we encounter someone who touches us in a profound but unexpected way. The passing of two friends, Marty Beard and Joan Barsotti--both writers, did that to me. However, as writers they were on the opposite ends of the writing spectrum just as they were in real life.

I met Joan at a librarian convention in Seattle in 2004. We were part of a small booth among hundreds of booths. In our booth at least 70 authors were represented. It was my extremely good luck that Joan and I were paired to work together. If I remember correctly, the convention lasted 3 days and we worked different hours each day trying to get passing librarians to consider buying the books that were displayed in our booth. Joan was fun, kind, and considerate. When the convention was over and she returned to California and I to Oklahoma, we continued our friendship online.

I never met Marty in person but I got to know her just as well as I did Joan and perhaps even more so. I'm not sure in what year Marty joined an online group, which I usually referred to as the "Recipe Club" or "Comfort Food Club". We were a group of people who had met, for the most part, on AOL's food message boards. We broke away from the boards and created an e-mail group. Marty was not part of that original group but her best friend was. When she first burst onto our scene, she wrote in "cyber shorthand", which drove me crazy at first. Eventually, however, I realized what a very funny person she was and, most important, very kind. Although squabbles appeared once in a while in the group, Marty never took part in them. She got along with everyone.

Joan came from a prestigious family in California and belonged to many organizations, especially charitable organizations. Marty, a Cherokee, lived in the hills of Tennessee with her husband Joe, the love of her life. Never have I met two such diverse persons but both with a goodness of soul that one rarely encounters.

Joan created her own publishing company and wrote books for children. She visited elementary schools and read her stories to the students. Marty's writing was much more diverse. She wrote poetry, both nutty, comical limericks and deep-feeling poems of great beauty. But her strangest writing dealt with horror stories. Her stories were so dark and gory that she made Stephen King and Dean Koontz look like wimps!

Joan created a website ( and her work can be found there. Marty published many of her poems online but the sad thing is that neither I nor her best friend can find that site. I have done every kind of search that I can think of but cannot find her. If anyone can find Marty's work online, please let me know. She also used a Cherokee name as a pen name and I cannot remember that name either.

Marty died a year ago on Halloween at the age of 51 and Joan died last summer at the age of 70. Both left us much too early and I am sure they had many more stories and poems to share.

Note: One of Marty's friends has found some of her poetry (pen name Martha Moongazer Beard) at these sites:

Five of her poems are found here:

And one of Marty's poems is on this site:
this site has a copy of her poem "The Cherokee Path"

I wish I could publish the poems here but I do not have the rights to them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tortillas y ¿Llapinghachos?

In my last column, I was sitting in a little restaurant in Puerto Rico and had ordered a tortilla from the menu.

As I was waiting for my tortilla, I thought about the famous tortillas of Spain—omelets made with eggs and potatoes, almost like a potato cake. I was fairly certain that this was the dish that I was going to receive. You can imagine my surprise when the waiter placed before me—a plain egg omelet! No fancy sauces or fillings—just an omelet.

The word tortilla comes from the Latin torte, which means, more or less, a round cake. The words tart in English and torta in Spanish are also derived from torte. And in many Spanish-speaking countries a tortilla is an omelet but not necessarily so in Mexico. Americans usually associate the word strictly with Mexican corn or flour tortillas, a type of round, flat bread.

Years later when I was teaching Spanish in a Texas Junior High School, we had a lesson dealing with the culture of Ecuador. For some reason I was intrigued by the description of llapingachos—una tortilla hecha de papa y queso [a tortilla made of potatoes and cheese]. Silly me, I thought llapingachos might resemble breakfast tacos, Mexican style, but without the eggs. We were going to have guest speakers who had visited Ecuador and I wanted to serve the students Ecuadorian food. However, I wasn’t sure that the llapingachos resembled tacos and one day as I was browsing through the grocery store, I stumbled upon cheese and potato pierogis, a Polish food, I think. But, I reasoned, my students wouldn’t know the difference so I bought several boxes. On the day of the presentation I boiled then deep-fried the pierogis and called them “llapingachos.” I bought some fresh coconut and tropical fruit drinks, some banana chips and my students had a great time. I doubted if any of these items remotely resembled anything Ecuadorian. My guest speakers said nothing of my improvisations as they conducted a question and answer session with my students.

[Although this has nothing to do with the topic at hand, the most pertinent question that day was “Do toilets flush backwards in Ecuador as you cross the equator?” Apparently a character on a popular American television show had said something to that effect. American students, always in a quest for higher learning, were most intrigued by that possibility. The response was “No.”]

A month or so later after serving my fake llapingachos to my students, I finally acquired Internet access and began to inquire what llapingachos really were. Since the original description said they were tortillas de papa y queso I realized that I should have known that they would be made of eggs, potatoes, and cheese. I received many recipes for llapingachos and the most delicious also included onion and achiote—en otras palabras, una tortilla muy sabrosa, a most delicious tortilla.

A few years ago a friend and I traveled to Spain and Portugal. My friend had taken a Spanish course years earlier but struggled with the language. “Have no fear,” I told her. “I’ll be the translator.”

After arriving in Madrid and enduring a rather hectic taxi drive , we found ourselves ensconced in a small hotel across from the Plaza Mayor. As we set out to explore the Plaza our first mission was to find a good but inexpensive place to eat. I was looking forward to sampling Spanish food and especially tortillas. We glanced in several places and I was puzzled by what appeared to be menus written on many of the walls. Each “menu” was headed by the word “Tapas.” I had no idea what a tapa was nor did I understand anything on the “menu” except tortilla.

Thus began a three-month adventure on how not to order food in Spain and Portugal.

To be continued . . .next year. Next week I pay tribue to two friends who have died and left a legacy of writing and storytelling.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Puerto Rican Tacos?

In my travels food has played a central part in experiencing other cultures and I now use many of those foods or adaptations in my novels. For those of you who have never sampled Puerto Rican frituras and other yummy treats, I hope you will want to after reading this. And I hope you become just as hungry reading as I am writing.

Last week's journey ended at the entrance of Luquillo Beach, one of the loveliest beaches in the world, where a group of huts or cabanas offered a variety of frituras, perhaps the Puerto Rican equivalent of Mexican antojitos. I stood in front of a little food stand studying the menu sign, I knew I had a difficult choice to make—should I venture out and try one of the unfamiliar frituras or stay with the tried and true—tacos? Now, I have met tacos in many forms during my travels through México and the United States—from those wonderful tacos made from steamed corn tortillas with the meat sliced from pork or chicken roasting on a México City street and a choice of spicy condiments to the fish tacos by the waterfront in Ensenada or to those crunchy ones found in American establishments.

But, I thought, how different could a Puerto Rican taco be? Then I remembered that jugo de china was jugo de naranja and a guineo was a banana, not to mention a guagua turned out to be a bus and chavos were centavos. Could a Puerto Rican taco really be a taco?

Overcoming my desire to try the unknown frituras I ordered a taco. As the proprietor handed it to me I just stood there, looking at it. This rectangular shaped deep-fried pie of some sort was a taco? Tentatively, I took a bite—ahhh, ¡qué sabroso! How delicious! I didn’t know what kind of meat it contained but it didn’t matter—this was one of the spiciest treats that I had ever eaten—and it was spicy hot. I’m not sure about this but I think eating that taco caused me to have a lifelong hunger for fried and also baked meat pies. Future travels introduced me to Spanish empanadas, Portuguese salgados, and even the Cornish pasties of England—I’ll never be able to get enough of any of them—but Puerto Rican tacos started it all.

As our time in Puerto Rico progressed, bacalaítos, those wonderful codfish fritters, became favorites, at least for me, especially on our Sunday trips to the beach. Another favorite for both my son and me was relleno de papa—potato puffs with a filling of ground beef, raisins, and chopped hardboiled egg. My son wouldn’t touch many of the frituras as he was a picky little eater in those days. And he especially wouldn’t sample alcapurrias, those wonderful cigar-shaped, deep-fried meat pies with a masa made from yautia and green bananas—a flavor I had never encountered before. Then there were sorullos with a cornmeal masa and cheese filling.

Now with tostones, salty fried plantain slices, I have a rather embarrassing confession to make. I never tried to make these on my own until a few years ago when I was watching Martha Stewart Living on assignment in Puerto Rico. Curious as to what she would come up with, I watched as her guest hostess demonstrated how to make tostones and pique, the hot peppery vinegar that can be found in almost all homes and eating establishments in Puerto Rico. I immediately went out and bought a plantain and made my own tostones. However, nowadays I live in Florida and can find tostones in the frozen foods section of supermarkets.

Although pasteles [the Puerto Rican equivalent of Mexican tamales] perhaps don’t belong in this discussion of frituras, they are the one Puerto Rican concoction that I crave the most. I’ll admit that the first time I ate one I wasn’t sure that I liked it. However, each time I was offered one I discovered that I liked them more and more. The masa is made from taro root and green bananas [not plantains]—so very different tasting from the cornmeal masa of tamales. The filling also has an unusual flavor for those of us not accustomed to foods of the Caribbean—achiote [annatto], ham, raisins, garbanzos, green olives, and seasoned with adobo. They are wrapped in banana leaves or plantain leaves and steamed or simmered in water.

Now I have touched on only a few of my favorite Puerto Rican foods—there are many more such as pastelillos and arroz con gandules. We lived with a Cuban lady for a while who made wonderful black beans and rice. There was a Cuban bakery across the street from where I worked that made a dish called Argentine pie. At the time I thought the filling was made from chicken, pork, and pepperoni. Only years later in Spain did I discover what that delicious filling really was. [That will be covered in a future column.] However, I make my own adaptation of this meat pie and call it Palmaltas Pizza and it has appeared in a couple of my novels, The Pig Farm and A Caribbean Summer.

One evening soon after our arrival in Puerto Rico my son and I went to our little neighborhood restaurant to eat. As I was reading the menu I noticed that tortillas were offered. Now, you’re probably thinking that I thought I was going to get a Mexican tortilla. But, you’d be wrong—I knew what a tortilla was. Didn’t I?

To be continued . . .

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jugo de China and other Puerto Rican Surprises

As recent arrivals in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, my son and I sat in the little restaurant around the corner from our hotel and studied the menu thoroughly. I was very dismayed to find that there was only one kind of juice offered—jugo de china, as I mentioned last week. I knew that my son would not drink anything like that so I ordered milk for him—un vaso de leche was most definitely on the menu.

Each morning we would go down to the small restaurant for breakfast, now accustomed to the fact that we weren’t going to get any proper jugo. As we became acclimated with our surroundings, we branched out and began to investigate other eating establishments. One morning we passed a small stand that was selling fruits and juices. The inevitable jugo de china was naturally one of the items on the daily menu board. However, I saw several customers sipping what suspiciously looked like orange juice to me and I boldly requested jugo de naranja from the proprietor. He gave me a disdainful look and turned to his assistant and said, “Un jugo de china.”

What? Jugo de china was orange juice? What next? I looked at his menu board again and saw guineos and plátanos boldly printed. Well, I certainly didn’t know what a guineo was—maybe a bird of some kind although this did seem to be a fruit and juice stand—but I knew what a plátano was, didn’t I? Now, I knew my son wouldn’t eat a banana [trust me on this--that’s another story not relevant to this one] but I was in the mood for one. So, I said to the proprietor, “Un plátano, por favor.” And he gave me the biggest banana that I had ever seen. I returned to our table and proceeded to peel the banana except that the peeling was so hard I couldn’t budge the thing.

The proprietor started to laugh then came over to our table with a smaller banana and said, “Debe comer un guineo.” Then he handed me the smaller banana.

Okay, dense as I may be at times, I finally got it. A guineo was a banana and a plátano was a plantain and plantains are best cooked before eating.

I then noticed some small round green fruits that looked somewhat like grapes but even I could tell they weren’t. I asked the proprietor what they were. He replied that they were quenepas. Always searching for new taste treats I bought some and they were—delicious--with a sweet, tart flavor.

And thus began our sojourn into the world of Puerto Rican cuisine, so very different from anything I had tasted in Southwest Texas and in my travels all over México. Of course, one of the joys of traveling and living in other countries is the sampling of local dishes, especially what I call street vendor food. I had fallen in love with Mexican antojitos and now it was time for Puerto Rican frituras and other delicacies.

We began to make friends and were invited on Sunday outings at the various beaches around the island. On our first trip to beautiful Luquillo Beach, our hostess stopped at a group of cabanas selling various frituras. She suggested that we should purchase our beach “picnic” lunches.

Here my taste buds found paradise . . . bacalaítos . . . alcapurrias . . . relleno de papa . . . pastelillos . . . tostones . . . sorullos . . . pasteles . . . my only dilemma—how was I going to choose only two or three? Then suddenly I saw a sign that included all of the above plus . . . tacos . . . ¿en Puerto Rico? Could it be true?

To be continued . . .

Sunday, November 28, 2010


When I lived in Laredo and worked for a certain international department store, I decided I wanted to branch out and move to Puerto Rico. I guess you could say I had island fever—I wanted to live in the Caribbean. Luckily the store I worked for had its international headquarters in San Juan at that time. I asked for a transfer there and, unbelievably, received one.

About six months before moving there, I subscribed to a Puerto Rican newspaper in hopes of learning all I could about the island and its culture. There was one thing, however, that bothered me in that paper. I frequently noticed ads that said, “Los Chavos? Dónde están? Están en el Banco Nacional.” I didn’t have a clue what “chavos” were. I asked my Laredo friends, Spanish speakers, each and everyone, for the translation of “chavos”. No one knew. One friend suggested that maybe they meant chivas, but why would anyone keep goats in a bank?

After arriving in Puerto Rico and getting settled in our small hotel [temporary lodging until I knew in which store on the island I would be working and it also became the setting for my first published novel The Pig Farm], I decided my son and I should take city buses and tour San Juan. This was something I had done many times in México City and I felt quite comfortable doing it.

I looked around for a Parada de Autobús or Parada de Camión but all I could see was a Parada de Guagua. Huh? Gua-gua meant woof-woof or bow-wow, didn’t it? I thought, Why would there be a parada for barking dogs?

Now, if you’re thinking that Parada de Guagua fooled me, you’d be wrong. I knew it was the bus stop. A bus pulled up and stopped there.

So, grabbing my son’s hand, we prepared to board the guagua. As I stepped up, I politely asked the driver, “¿Cuánto es?”

“Diez chavitos,” he replied.

“¿Cómo?” I asked.

“You don’t speak Spanish,” he said. “Ten cents.”

“Sí, hablo español,” I said as I handed him a dime. Just what language was he speaking, I wondered.


As we sat there enjoying our first Puerto Rican bus ride, I wondered if there was anything else that transplanted Laredoans (I'm originally from Oklahoma) might encounter with an offbeat translation.

After returning from our bus ride, I asked my son if he would like to go to the little restaurant around the corner and get something to eat.

As I read the menu I knew we were in trouble. The only juice offered in this restaurant on a tropical Caribbean island was jugo de china. Who in their right mind would drink Chinese juice??

To be continued . . .

Sunday, November 7, 2010



(Originally published in Pensamientos--Está Aquí)

In the coming months I hope to share with you a few humorous incidents that occurred during my travels in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking world.

Many years ago I worked as a bilingual receptionist/switchboard operator in an international department store in Laredo, Texas. I received calls in both Spanish and English and for the most part had no problem transferring them to the proper department. This was one of the easiest and most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had and believe me I’ve had a great variety over the years.

One morning, however, as I answered my little switchboard, a rather gruff male Anglo voice demanded, “Gimme Krat!”

Now, I had no idea what a “krat” was and asked the gentleman to repeat his request.

“Gimme krat!”

“Uh, I beg your pardon, sir, what department is that in?”

“The krat department!”

After a few rounds of getting nowhere with this gentleman, I decided to strike out on my own. Obviously I had no idea what a “krat” was, but I thought that maybe it was an auto part since I knew next to nothing about auto parts. Besides, I figured that if that was the wrong department, the auto clerk would tell me which one. So, I connected the call to the Automotive Department and right on cue, the Automotive light blinked back. I answered with anticipation expecting to be told the right department. However, the clerk said hurriedly “You’ve got the wrong department!” and hung up.

Realizing that I would get nowhere if I asked the gentleman to repeat himself, I boldly plunged ahead and transferred the call to the Service Department. Surely someone there would know anything and everything about "krats”. A few minutes later the Service Department light blinked and as I answered the clerk said, “You’ve got the wrong department!” and hung up.

Being ever enterprising I decided to try all of the departments until I found the right one. I sent the call to Men’s Clothing, Sports, Shoes, and was told by each one that I had the wrong department. Finally, in desperation I tried Women’s Wear although I didn’t think that a krat was an article of feminine adornment. And that, amigos y amigas, is where I found my answer.

The Women’s Wear light blinked and as I answered, the saleslady said quite concisely, “El señor quiere el departamento de crédito.”

Ah, Spanish, such a lovely language—so clear and understandable—a phonetic language where one can’t help but understand every word, every syllable. ¿Crédito-credit-krat? ¡Increíble!

Of course, anywhere one goes in the Spanish-speaking world, the language can be understood quite easily, right? Spanish speakers would never mangle a word like crédito.

And Spanish in one country is the same in all the others, wouldn’t you think? Take the word guagua, for example. Would someone transferred from Laredo, Texas to San Juan, Puerto Rico have a problem with a word like that?

To be continued . . .

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tributes: Tony Hillerman and John Leonard

(Originally posted December 2008)
Two of my favorite literary people died recently: two diverse men who entertained and enlightened me profoundly. Tony Hillerman wrote enchanting mysteries in and around Navajo country. I first learned of him in an interview on the Today Show in 1989. That summer I read seven of his novels, beginning with Listening Woman, a Joe Leaphorn novel, followed by People of Darkness featuring Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee, fictional policemen of the Navajo Nation, immediately became my literary heroes. Every year since then I have looked forward to at least one new Hillerman novel and I feared the day when there would be no more. Sadly, that day has come. During the school year of 1993/94, I lived in Cortez, Colorado and sometimes did substitute teaching on the nearby Ute Reservation. I remember standing by a large window in the classroom and gazing out at the surrounding desert scenery, especially the mesas in the distance, and thought about my favorite Navajo policemen. On the classroom shelves sat the books of Hillerman--the books of Indian Country. I don't know if they were required reading but I have heard that students learned more about their culture from Tony's books than they did living within it. Not all of his books were about Leaphorn and Chee. One of my favorites was Finding Moon, which took place in Southeast Asia. Wherever the setting, Tony Hillerman was a master storyteller and I will miss him profoundly.

My encounters with John Leonard were his regular appearances as a critic on The CBS Sunday Morning Show and that remained the only place where I saw him. But from the beginning, I was enthralled by him and his segment was my favorite part of that charming program. Most of the time I didn't understand a word he said but when I did, I was not only thrilled but also agreed with him. He critiqued everything--from books to movies to TV programs to music. Books, however, were what intrigued me the most. However, I only read one book that he recommended, The Witches’ Hammer by Jane Stanton Hitchcock, and when I finished it, I was puzzled as to why he had recommended it. Kurt Vonnegut once called him "the smartest man who ever lived." He was also a TV critic for New York magazine, book critic for The Nation, and among many other accomplishments, the author of numerous books.

These were two men who gave immeasurable pleasure yet were as unlike each other as two literary men could be.