Holiday Traditions

Ginger cats, dog and piggies

Now that we have a baby, traditions have taken on a new meaning. And in all of the traditions, the key seems to be family, friends, and food. What is food without spices? Much of the spices that we are familiar with today are native to South Asia. Black pepper, cardamom, ginger, sugar – the key ingredients of making gingerbread cookies are all from India. Other wonderful spices such as cloves, cinnamon too are from South Asia. So, although we are celebrating European-style Christmas (minus Krampus, unfortunately) – we are also celebrating a multi-cultural cuisine, reminding us of histories and flavors from far-away worlds and cultures.

The recipe I’m trying today is from Michael Ruhlman’s blog:

The Gingerbread piggies taste great – and thanks to the enterprising Brits (and the Portugese, of course) who sailed around the world in search of spices! How dull would Christmas cuisine be with just salt and juniper berries ūüôā

Christmas has truely become a secular festival (I know the current Pope hates the ‘s’ word- but there it is). I called family and friends in India, and they were all either hosting large Christmas parties or going to one (or several). Christmas in India means out-of-tune carol singing, kebabs, spicy Indo-Chinese food, spiced rum, colonial Christmas puddings, skinny brown Santas, elephant and camel rides for children, and hoopla stalls run by large Punjabi ladies. It is all rather jolly. Delhites also round off a month of Christmas parties by heading off to balmy Goa and renting a beach-side cottage or hotel room for the New Years. Then, it’s a round of fresh sea-food, Portugese carnivals, and lounging on the golden sand drinking chilled Kingfisher beer.

Ok, granted, that this is not the life of many Indians (as my American friends quickly point out when I display my Indian holiday pictures – “but India is so poor”). Yes, that is true. And that is why, I think (as an outsider of course), that Christmas in America can stray off into the realm of ridiculous crazy consumerism. I like the gift-giving for children – but for adults, do we really need to hunt down another feather-boa for Aunty Gladys? This year we made cookies for family and friends. That was a lot of work for us that required thought and attention to detail, and a lot of love went into making each gingery batch. The house smelled wonderful. I was happy. Contrast that to battling angry crowds at the mall (not to mention that the parking lot is a medieval jousting ground).

As my husband observed, as a large woman pushed me and my baby out of the Chipotle burrito line, “Some people do get more aggressive and rude during the holidays”. Americans are normally over-worked, exhausted from long work-days and commute; juggling house cleaning, laundry, cooking; brutalized by credit card companies and living precariously from paycheck-to-paycheck – then, on top of it, dealing with frenzied crowds just seems to be palcing the extra needle on the camel’s back. El snapo.

Going back to traditions, my husband’s grandma is our beacon. I ask her how things are done for guidance, as this is new territory for me. Grandma says that before women went back to work in America, traditions were celebrated differently. People were more neighborly. People made the ornaments themselves and gave them as gifts, baked cookies for neighbors and friends, and filled stockings with little things like candies and winter socks. As I reflect on her wise words, I understand why India seems so rooted in traditions still. Most women stay at home and families are multi-generational. Grandparents live at home with you. Friends drop by for lunch or dinner unannounced, all meals are home-cooked, homes spotless, holidays extra special, children well-behaved – mothers and grand-mothers are truly the ‘kings of the castle.’ My friends who do work in India, do it out of choice, not under the necessary burden of meeting the monthly mortgage/rent or credit card bill.

Ok, I’m not advocating that women stay at home, I myself prefer to work and have a career. I’m only making an observation that once a culture’s women are all at work, who’s helming the castle and maintaining the values the traditions? The kids? The pet dog?

But, hey – the gingerbread cookies turned out great and everyone enjoyed them. This is one Christmas tradition that I’ll be continuing. ūüôā



Top 5 “Hello Breeze” Grasses

Fountain grass - Neighborhood garden

After planning my parkway for the grasses, I have come up with the top 5 grasses that nod in the breeze, plus change color to luscious burgundy/red/copper. Check out the must-have list, in no order of preference:

Nassella tenuissima – silverish panicle on a soft green stalk. I have planted these before – word of caution, they have a propensity to self sow – which is a great quality for an experimental gardener ūüôā

Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’ – I lost my heart to these whilst taking evening walks on Manhattan Beach with my husband and baby. It was late summer, and an ocean-front home had planted these in a row. They flamed magenta in the setting sun, and caught the gentle evening breeze. I vowed to plant these in our home as well. Definitely to be placed in the direction of the twilight, i.e west. More effective in mass planting.

Pennisetum setacum ‘Fireworks’ – I have seen these pop up recently in a our neighborhood as they are being offered in our local nursery – H&H. Quite the du jour flavor, haven’t seen how they perform long-term (if they lose their color or form). But am planting a couple in the parkway to see how they do in comparison to other grasses.

Miscanthus sinensis – copperish hues, long soft panicles waving in the wind – what’s not to like?

A Hiatus for Holidays!

Even though our gravel is in, we will take a break this week for Christmas. Next week, a trip to the native plant nursery. All we have done this week is to plant Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’ in the parkway.

Though not a Californian native, Muhlenbergia capillaris is native to the Southeast region of the US. For the parkway, we chose a pallette of grasses, based on their wind-waving qualities and color interest, and have selected from a variety of regions (rather than just California natives). My husband and I staggered the placement of the Muhlys – shifting each pot an inch here and an inch there till they were just so. We smiled in satisfaction as the grasses settled in their new home. They are placed in the westernmost corner of the parkway bed, sure to catch the last ray’s of the sun – the reason being that the panicles flame a deep maroon in late summer. Right now, near Christmas, the panicles glow golden, and shimmer in the slightest of breezes. The grasses and I are content on this sunny day in Long Beach.

Tackling another problem at the same time, the front brick beds now host burgundy Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax) and Cordyline australis – we successfully transplanted the unhappy roses into a sunnier spot in the back-yard. In a sharp contrast to the gentle Muhlys, the Phormium and Cordylines are rigid and military-like – painted a deep burgundy which blends them into the shadows, perfect for the back-ground. Phormiums will notice you before you do.

I have a gripe with how things are named in the Western world. Cordyline australis is mostly found in South Asia – but it’s somehow a better sell to name it Australian (Cordyline australis). Just as the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is mostly found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but named Russian for some reason known only to the marketers. Better to call it Russian than Pashtun Sage? Naming sometimes has little to do with region of origin than with the preferences of the customer buying it. Farmer’s Market is overflowing with “English Peas” – which makes me want to tear someone’s hair out. Peas are native to northwestern India, the Punjab region. But are they called Punjabi Peas? Even though I love the alliteration of Punjabi Peas, sellers have chosen to call peas English. Is the Queen is a better sell than Slumdog? Does teh former bestow a veneer of respectability, the delicate whiff of crumpets than the fiery smell of naan?

Check out the very beautiful Pink Cordyline below (this one is definitely in the Mata Hari league):

We haven’t decided yet where this lovely Pink Cordy will reside- maybe in a large earthenware (painted/unpainted, ceramic/clay, style?), ready to welcome guests.

California Natives Gardening – Turning the front-yard into a habitat oasis

While we tackle on the larger front yard, we realized what an eye-sore the brick front-bed was.¬† It wasn’t so much as a realization, but a frank remark by our friendly neighbor.

In all honesty our brick bed is a hodge-podge of sun-starved roses, anemic succulents, aggressive jupiter beards, straggly nasturtiums, and a forgotten daffodil or two Рall making their exhausted way out of the confined space of a damp brick bed, enfeebled under the chilly shadow of the beloved-tract house.

The pandemonium resides under the cold¬†wooden face of the beloved tract-house, which¬†gently dusts the leaves with the flakes of the¬†blue paint-dust, so that¬†the end result is¬†a bed of bluish-ethereal fairy plants – too¬†coddled to die, but too miserable to bloom as they should.¬†Hence our kindly neighbor suggested we move the roses, and to plant something else instead.¬† So, if our front yard project wasn’t enough, we¬†are¬†now also thinking about planting a narrow strip of a brick bed with something appropriate.

Front brick bed
Rose hips look beautiful in the dreary winter
East facing¬†brick bed –¬†¬†Zephrin Drouhan rose which never blooms, wild mint, weeds, and woody purple hibiscus

Let¬†me tell you, the smaller the space – the more difficult it is to plant ‘something appropriate’.¬† We also had to consider our future projects – putting in a big window on the stern wooden face of our beloved tract-house and¬†re-painting¬†it.¬†¬†At a later date, when we can gather a pot of money….

As we were digging out the roses last evening,¬†my husband remarked that¬†I always ended up planting¬†too many plants in¬†too little a space.¬† Since it’s true – there was no refuting the truth.¬† But then I said it was the same thing with his tools – they are all over the¬†house.¬† Every drawer or cabinet¬†houses a drill bit or¬†two.¬† ¬†As we worked away in silence, ruminating the other’s weakness for¬†certain possessions ¬†– the truth dawned that it was all for a good cause.

‘Tis better to invest in the house than a new pair of boots.¬† In the age of marching global consumerism, let us remember that in the end that it’s not the ‘thing’ that will make us better, but a new bloom or new coat of paint on the cabinets – basically, the work that we do and the happiness we find in it.¬† Investing in and working on our garden and our beloved tract-house¬†gives us and our families much pleasure.

A fond farewell to our garden in Encino….

As I drove by our last house on the way to my friend’s house – ¬†who lives in a lovely house in Encino (‘north’ of the Boulevard, thanks dah-ling) – I almost had a heart-attack.¬† Not from fearful shock, but more from a jitter of pain travelling from down from what my eyes were seeing,¬†down my spine.¬† We had sold our house to a couple, believing that they must have bought our house because of the multiple¬†quirky gardens surrounding it.¬† But no, our beloved gardens were gone.¬† Instead was¬†flat green¬†turf, freshly laid, sitting prim and proper like a dowager queen at the opera house.¬†¬† Aagh!!

I¬†drove in silence for fifteen minutes, debating on whether to tell my husband on what I had just seen.¬† For two years, he and I (him mostly) toiled in the front and back yards, constructing gazebos, fences, patios, installing concrete fountains – hauling in gravel, flagstone and boulders one shoulder jolt at a time, saving up for days to drive exaltingly to the nursery to choose carefully among salvias, fruit trees, roses, grasses – this was our first house, our first garden, first dogs together (two very beautiful boxers) – we laughed and cried together as we built, cooked, cleaned and planted beautiful dreams together – all the while making our relationship stronger.¬† It hurt to see all that wiped clean in one fell swoop.¬† I’m posting some pictures as a tribute to our first home and garden, which now exists only in these photographs.