Violins, Nopales and Kansas Connections

This was supposed to be a piece about the fabulous cactus salad that my friend Juan Ramirez cooks up.  But during the course of putting it all together the other evening, the topic turned to violins.  Specifically, his violin.

 

Composer Ramirez with Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra conductor Michael Palmer after a rehearsal for his “Suite Latina” at the 2016 festival.

A composer and violinist, Juan has been in residence in Bellingham for the past three weeks where he has played in the first violin section with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra.  Last year, his work, “Suite Latina”, was performed by the orchestra with the Calidore String Quartet as soloists. The music evokes the sensuous dance rhythms of the composer’s native Mexico. The piece was originally written for string quartet and first performed at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in 2001. Juan adapted it for quartet and orchestra, especially for the Bellingham Festival where it was given its world premiere and a standing ovation from the audience.

The 2016 festival audience gives a standing ovation at the world premiere of Ramirez’ “Suite Latina” for string quartet and orchestra.

But the celebrated composer is also known for culinary artistry as well, with his specialty being his native Mexican dishes, especially his mole, made from a family recipe.  It’s a recipe that takes him three days to concoct and includes much grinding and pulverizing of ingredients using a blending machine from India in order to get just the right texture and consistency.  Most Americans I know think of mole simply as sauce with Mexican chocolate as the key ingredient.  Chocolate, specifically cocoa, is a main ingredient in Juan’s family recipe, but it is only one of 18 ingredients that go into his tasty, slightly spicy sauce.  Adding his mole, which is more pasty than the runny stuff usually poured over standard Mexican fare, to homemade enchiladas or to chicken turns the ordinary into an extraordinary treat!

Juan serves up his mole dish.

I watched Juan in my kitchen warming the mole on the stove and assembling the equally as delicious cactus salad made with nopales, or the big, flat paddle-like leafs from the prickly pear plant, that we began talking about violins.

I asked if he ever had any trouble traveling with his violin on airlines, given the recent headlines about one professional violinist whose instrument the airline, United, insisted be checked as baggage instead of carried on board with her.  “Not since the new laws,” Juan answered referring to the FAA rules revisions in 2015.

Then I asked where, when and how he found his violin.  “That’s a good story,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.  His violin was made in 1748 by Carlo Antonio Testore of the Milano school of violin makers who were crafting their instruments in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  It’s uncertain exactly how it came to America, but it was the possession of a plantation owner in Macon, Georgia prior to the Civil War.  He gave it to one of his favorite slaves who, upon the plantation owner’s death, “laid this instrument away as a keepsake,” according to a 1916 letter detailing the history.   The violin became the slave’s son, after his father died. The son had moved to the small town of Pratt, Kansas where he worked as a train porter.

At the mention of Pratt, I stopped Juan and told him that I was familiar with the town, having grown up in Kansas.  What a coincidence, I thought, for a musician who lives in Atlanta and plays with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to be standing in my kitchen mentioning Pratt, Kansas!  But the story continues..

The beautiful tiger grain of the back of Juan’s Testore violin is as rich-looking as the sound it produces.

The son, unable to pay a debt owed to F.A. Erwin, the writer of the 1916 letter, turned over the violin as payment. Eventually the Testore ended up in a violin shop in Wichita, Kansas.  Juan was a student at Emporia State Teachers’ College (now Emporia State University) in Emporia, Kansas (also a place with which I am very familiar) when he visited the Wichita shop to have his bow rehaired.  The shop owner took the violin out of its case, Juan said, and handed it to Juan to play.  “I fell in love with it and the sound,” he recalls. But being a college student attending Emporia on a scholarship, he had no money with which to purchase it. The violin went back into its case.

Juan transferred from Emporia to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When his teacher told Juan he needed a better violin he knew exactly the one he wanted. But when he contacted the Wichita violin shop owner Juan was told that an 80-year-old doctor had bought it for his son who had decided to take up the violin.  Juan was disappointed.

The composer/violinist proudly holds his cherished Testore violin.

Three years later, the violin shop owner notified him that he once again had the Testore violin. The doctor’s son, it seems, had switched from violin to accordion, and the violin was returned to the shop. Elated by the news, Juan dressed in his best clothes and walked down to the bank to ask for a loan in order to buy his prized instrument.  With the money granted, Juan booked a flight and headed back to Wichita where the shop owner took the violin out once again and handed it over to Juan.

It has now been his violin for nearly 46 years and he’s not likely to part with it anytime soon.  You might say the story has come full circle.  Juan plays it as a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, only a little more than an hour’s drive from Macon where the instrument first was traced.  And in 1988, Juan took it with him to Milan, the city where it was made, and played it in the city’s cathedral.

The cactus salad is ready to eat!

His story wrapped up just as the cactus salad was ready to chill in the refrigerator. Those same hands, which so nimbly had moved all over the fingerboard during the playing of music by Leonard Bernstein in the concert the night before, now turned to the delicate task of rolling enchiladas drizzled, inside and out, with Juan’s grandmother’s mole. That is another story.

 

 

A Recipe to Remember Made with Pecans and Love

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert,  is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.

My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker.  I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.

My Dad didn't know I'd caught him taking a taste of the filling he'd just stirred up.
My Dad didn’t know I’d caught him taking a taste of the filling he’d just stirred up.

My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving.  I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.

“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one.  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.

He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.

With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.
With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.

My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.pie-man015

For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great.  I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.

After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches.  One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.

The last step--transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.
The last step–transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.

“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack.  It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.

I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.

My Dad's pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was made with love.
My Dad’s pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was handmade with love.