Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Gluten-free Swiss Steak for Novices. Murals Alive.

The Gluten-free Chicano Cooks
A Recipe Stolen In Complete Silence
Michael Sedano

My roommate hung up the phone with a loud, “Yes!” That raised a second question in my mind, what is that ‘yes’ all about? But first, “Why do you call her ‘Sister Phoebe’, I thought you said your sister the Sister’s name is Judy?” Two years as roommates and I’d never met Dave’s sister Judy, his sister the Sister.

Sister Phoebe is Judy’s Religious name. And Sister Phoebe—Judy--is Mother Superior at the Montecito novitiate, where we’re invited to dinner. Dave wasn’t talking country matters but a beachfront villa, a spectacular place willed to the Order by a 1920s bootlegger.

Dave parked as Vespers were finishing. High tide played nature’s continuo to the music of sweetly fervent choir voices floating over the ivied wall. The voices were singing in Latin, “Ave Maria.” A rope pull hung where the statue would be in a nicho with its recessed floral Talavera tile announcing, “Casa de Maria.”

Dave gave the rope a gentle tug.

Immediately, the substantial wooden gate swung quietly inward. Her nametag identified Sister Marla, her finger to her lips froze us in mid-smile. The elder nun in grey work clothes and cowl stepped outside to stand with us and let the gate swing closed with a solid thud. We’re expected, I was about to say when Sister Marla led Dave by the elbow a few steps to the side of the gate.

First Night Dinner, Sister Marla whispered, as if imparting secrets. Tonight marks the beginning of a year of complete silence for the novices. The “Ave Maria” is the last time the novices will use their voices until a year from tonight. 

But we could talk. Feel free to greet the novices as you would any other person (right, they’re novice Religious!), but of course, no one will answer you. Sister Marla leaned in conspiratorially to add Mother Superior and Sister Marla would be our dinner companions and we would enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company. Sister Marla had a dour look that belied a free Spirit that burst out in florid expressions and character voices. She was doing Groucho knocking ash off an imaginary stogie. Hijole, Sister Marla.

Just then, Sister Phoebe pushed open the gate and invited us inside with a gesture, offering a slightly sotto voce welcome. She backed through the portal and stepped aside, giving me my first view inside the sequestered convent.

A crème-colored, two-story, Mission revival mansion loomed at the end of a sandstone walkway laid flush in finely-cut lawn with the look of a putting green. It was a sculpture garden sans statuary.

The aroma of freshly-mowed grass permeated the air as a light ocean zephyr toyed with the lead-weighted skirt Sister Marla wore. 

Mother Superior wore a featureless, white, collared blouse, buttoned to the top, hair in a short bob. Her black straight skirt stopped halfway down her calves. Leather work boots hurriedly rubbed-clean sank into the lawn, leaving a trail where Sister Phobe's boots strode across to take her place standing next to a side door.

The portal opened expelling a silent, slow but relentless line of solemn young women, dressed in the same work garb Sister Marla wore, except the tight white cowl surrounding their sun-flushed faces robbed their features of individuality. 

Each novice nods to Sister Phoebe, who nods in return pressing both palms together with a slight nod. The novices return the gesture in silence, some with a smile of triumph, some wide-eyed with what I think is fright, others allow no expression on their white or brown oval face. 

The novices look at us and at one another as they step into the deep grass, one by one they form into a moving circle that spirals into two concentric rings moving in opposite directions. 

Eyes meet, steps hesitate, heads nod, faces smile, silently but for work boots sinking into the putting green making soft swish swish crush sounds with their soles. 

Sister Marla pushes me and guides me onto the lawn and I take the hint. We are moving sculptures in the garden. Dave and I cut across the lawn, interrupting the moving circles, nodding, smiling, and saying “good evening, Sister.”

Then a face wobbles me on my feet. The oval cowl takes away much that is distinctive about her brown face, but it’s one I would recognize anywhere and right now, I do. The most beautiful, unattainable girl in Redlands nods pleasantly and moves past.

Melinda Guerrero transferred to Catholic school Junior year. We were going to Disneyland after Graduation, I hoped. She affectionately blamed me for distracting her in French class to the point she got a “D.” I sat behind her, dreamy-eyed. She was “ma petite gâteau de savoie,” my little sponge cake. I thought it sounded like Pepe Le Pew and always got a laugh from the dark flashing-eyed madonna. Drink to me only, I would sing to myself.

I was madly in love, left empty and devastated when she went away to St. Mary’s, the raza Catholic school across town. And here she is, on the beach in Montecito. On First Night. Bye, Melinda. If you change your mind…

The aroma of fresh-mowed lawn mixes with another scent I linger on, until I recognize its source, the sour scent of perspiration. I’d attributed the flush of the faces to Schubert’s passionate music. Sister Marla tells me at dinner the novices spend their first day performing hard physical labor since first light, to contemplate this decision. After that ordeal, these women probably are too exhausted to talk.

That’s not all I learn at First Night Dinner. Sister Marla, it develops, is the house cook. Her Swiss Steak can’t be beat. When I made it, Sister Marla's richly melded flavors and the silken consistency of the gravy sauce eluded me. I needed to sample hers again. 

I was overjoyed to be invited the next year, the first day the novices were permitted to speak. I hoped Sister Marla would prepare Swiss Steak.

Sister Marla made Swiss Steak for dinner again. It was First Night Dinner, but the novices were speaking. I confessed to Sister Marla my inability to copy her Swiss Steak, yet our ingredients were the same. Could be that Sister Marla cooks for 35 and I for my three roommates, the wise old Latina counseled. So  after chatting and sharing the pleasure of our company, I got Sister Marla's recipe down pat. 

A year after first tasting Sister Marla's Swiss Steak, I walked again across that putting green lawn, expectantly making eye contact with each person as our paths crossed in the moment then diverged. 

“Good evening, Sister,” “Good evening, Michael.” Rich melodies filled their joyful speech after a year of silence, those who had endured. I looked for her, but Melinda Guerrero wasn’t among them.  

Sister Marla’s Swiss Steak – Adapted by The Gluten-free Chicano

A salad on the side completes the simple, hearty meal
Canned crushed tomatoes.
Onion, garlic, celery, carrot, bay leaf.
Gluten-free baking mix.
Salt, coarse-ground black pepper, olive oil.
Heavy cast-iron frying pan, lid.

Chuck roast, brisket, round steak are good cuts. 2 pounds makes several meals.

Rub gluten-free flour into both surfaces of the beef. Rub coarse salt and black pepper into the surface.

Finely mince the top 3” from a bunch of celery.
Fine chop half a medium onion.
Rough chop the other half.
Mince three garlic cloves.
Dice half a carrot into ¼” cubes and some rounds for visual variety.

Spray non-stick oil onto the frying pan then cover the bottom with a thin film of good olive oil.

Heat the oil on high for half a minute then lower the heat so the flame touches the bottom of the pan.

Slide the coated steak into the hot oil. Let it enjoy the hot iron for a full minute. 

Turn. The steak should be browned and crusted. If not, you needed more heat and time.

Use tongs to flip the steak and leave it there for a minute on that same flame-to-the-pan medium heat.

Drop in the bay leaf. Add the vegetables to the side of the meat, cover, and let them wilt so the onion turns translucent.

Pour the large can of tomatoes into the wilted vegetables and stir. Ladle some over the meat.

Lower the flame to low simmer. Cover the pan. The liquid will achieve a low, gentle boil. You don't want more than that. You can make this in a slow-cooker. Brown it first or rub with Kitchen Bouquet.

Cook the swissing steak for an hour, testing after 40 minutes. This time is weight-dependent; a larger roast requires more time. 

Begin your tests after 40 minutes. Steel a good knife see if you can easily make a clean slice off the edge. If the meat resists the blade, cook another 10 minutes, test.

A rich red gravy develops in the pan with the slow simmering. Sister Marla used wheat, and her Swiss Steak sauce thickened beautifully into a velvety glistening mélange of flavor. Gluten-free mixes don’t thicken so much. If you want a thick sauce, dissolve a tbs of corn starch in a glass of cold water, stir that into the sauce after you removed the meat.

When the meat is nearly fork-tender, take it out and let it sit for 15 minutes. Work on the sauce if you wish, or make instant mashed potatoes to hold the luscious gravy.

Roger Mahoney got a case of the ass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Order and seized the beachfront property. The Order dissolved and Sister Phoebe took an executive position in an office in San Francisco’s pyramid. Sister Marla, I salute you, wherever you are.

Murals Updates: Cervantes/Pola Lopez. Happy Valley Lupe

Last summer, La Bloga followed (link) Pola Lopez' restoration of Northeast Los Angeles' most significant cultural landmark, the David Cervantes' native peoples mural at the base of the Autry Museum for the American Indian.

Lopez completed the work late in the year and the mural began 2020 receiving anti-graffiti protective coatings. With that, the project stands completed, the mural available for any eye to see, or tagger to ruin.

I had not seen the totally completed work until recently. I wanted my wife, Barbara, to read her name on this beautiful wonder. We contributed small sums to support the work.

The mural remains in beautiful condition, this community respects its public cultural monuments. It's no accident. The artist and a local leader agreed, Avenues will not touch the wall.
The mural alone fills its space. Respecting themselves, taggers have honored the art by leaving it in paz.
Barbara Sedano under that mask, one of the good kinds of mask.
We're out but not relaxing vigilance against the plague.
Michael and Barbara Sedano sharing a memorable moment.
His mascarilla courtesy of Reyna Grande.

Happy Valley Lupe: Hanging Onto Her Hillside

I've photographed two walls in Happy Valley, between El Sereno and Lincoln Heights near downtown LA, since 1971. (link) On one, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl disappeared sometime in the seventies. La Virgen de Guadalupe held her space largely untouched, while the adjacent space hosted various temporary messages.

Starting at the corner of Huntington Drive and Monterey Road, find Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and you're probably on Mercury Avenue. Take that hilly road past the entrance to Debs Park, ascend the hill and descend Mercury to the foot of the hill.

At the foot of the hill, Mercury ends at the walls. 

Popo and Ixta have disappeared. A French textbook company published a copy of the foto in a chapter on Chicanos in the USA.

La Virgen, Lupe of Happy Valley, has a new iteration, and someone taking credit. Soledad Enrichment Action takes credit below the changing supplemental panel. Opposite this corner, Lupe of Happy Valley bears a dedication to Antonia Flores.

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