Glenn Frey’s Miami Vice hit “Smuggler’s Blues” was on the radio this morning on the ride into work. What a hoot. Made me think of all the smugglers in our family, Mom and Dad being our sources of inspiration. I think Mom started before Dad, smuggling plants and herbs out of Puerto Rico. Culantro, the stronger cousin of cilantro, was completely unheard of in Florida when we were growing up. It is absolutely essential in Puerto Rican cuisine. It goes in everything, soups, stews, chicken, beef, beans, EVERYTHING. Mama never prepared any of those dishes but she wanted her culantro. It has a very strong perfume and I know its heady scent propelled her back home if only for a few fleeting seconds. Most trips to Puerto Rico ended the same way. On the day of our departure one of her sisters or her mother would lovingly uproot five or six small culantro plants making certain the thin, spidery roots were covered by wet paper napkins. The slim, green leaves were then carefully encased in a protective envelope of tin foil. Mama would then tuck away her stash in the bottom of her suitcase in a shoe. Or a place the Agriculture Department would never think to look…one of those satin side compartments. I remember one trip in particular. We were all at the airport saying our goodbyes. Those were the days when our entire family would turn out. My grandmother and all my aunts had on hats and gloves. I turned around looking for Mama, she had disappeared but then just as quickly reappeared. It was such a hectic scene I didn’t think anything of it. There was always somebody crying and our uncle, Panino, would again be holding his movie camera while barking orders for us to smile or wave or stand over there. It all happened so fast, the hugs and kisses and goodbyes. Suddenly we were back home. I walked into my parent’s bedroom and Mama was just staring off and not in a happy way. When I asked her what was wrong she answered that she didn’t have her culantro. She had thrown it into a garbage bin at the San Juan airport. I remember her saying “I was going to get caught. I knew I would get caught.” Even if she had, all Agriculture would have done is throw the stuff out. Mama was so literal in her life. Wrong is wrong is wrong. She barely spoke for a week after that. Her homesickness was so close to the surface but she would never, ever let her girls see her fall apart. How hard it must have been to say goodby to her precious, precious family. Dad, on the other hand, never got caught but didn’t care if he had. He just wanted his stuff. He did, however, get searched with Mom in San Francisco on the way back from Japan. Dad had bought Mom a watch and didn’t declare it. In fact, he left the watch box in the barf bag on the airplane. That was a red flag for Customs. Kids, when I say Mom and Dad were searched, it was a complete pat down. For an undeclared watch. Meanwhile, Dad had decided he wanted to raise silk worms and some exotic rare beetles. That’s what he was smuggling back. Silk worm cocoons and beetles. Did he get caught? Au contraire, mon frere. In the San Francisco hotel where they were overnighting the beetles got loose and were flying about the suite like big, black Russian air buses. Mama burst into tears exclaiming, “Oh, Jackson! I cannot take this anymore! It’s been a bad day!” Dad said he would catch the beetles and put them away. He only caught three of the four illegal creatures but didn’t have the heart to tell Mama. “Don’t worry, Cookie, I got ’em all.” What did I smuggle? I brought all kinds of things back from Puerto Rico. Culantro for Mom, gigantic yagrumo leaves from the rain forest, El Yunque. They’re white on one side and chocolate-brown on the other. And were most stunning in my apartment. I brought back seeds and seedlings. One time I brought back two huge stalks of sugar cane. My Tio Enrique cut them down for me on his ranch and patiently explained how to care for them. Was I caught? Nope. Well, flash to years later when we were close to leaving Greece and I found myself in a market staring at a wooden wine cask filled with fresh, LOCAL oregano. In Greece fresh oregano is a thing of beauty. The ubiquitous herb is scattered on salads, vegetables, meats, everything. Pale and golden in color, rich in perfume I filled up a bag the size of a pillow case. Jimmy said, “You can’t take that back.” I replied, “Just watch! I can bring anything back. I never get caught.” I hid it in my suitcase, checked the bag through and started worrying. On the flight back we got our cards of declaration and no mention was made of my contraband. We snaked our way through the long lines at Kennedy claiming our bags to then get in the queue for Customs. James was texting like a mad man finally having internet access on his cell phone while Jimmy was flip-flopping between murmuring in my ear, “What are you going to do if you get caught?” and flat-out stating “You’re going to get caught. YOU’RE GOING TO GET CAUGHT!” With my heart pounding in my throat all I could think to do was try to act like a typical American family. I was loudly all over James saying things like, “Son! Please! I don’t want to have to tell you again. Pay attention. We’re in a hurry.” And hissing at him in a most unloving way, “We have a plane to catch and we still have to get through Customs. Please. Move up in the line and help us out!” That’s when Jimmy would quietly murmur in my ear, “You’re gonna get caught.” Back and forth it went. And every time a Customs agent would walk by with a walkie-talkie I would exclaim, “James! I am asking for your attention and help. Please! Put that fool phone away and grab these bags! WE.HAVE.A.PLANE.TO.CATCH.” My heart was beating like a rabbit on crack. “Dammit, James! I mean it! You need to help out, son.” We were next in line when a walkie-talkie wielding Customs agent approached us. He slowly looked us up and down. Sizing us up he said, “You people go through here, please.” They skipped right over us. No Customs inspection. None. He put us in the boring, tame as little baby deer, non-smuggling, family line. My ruse had worked. They thought we were just another typical American family on vacation. Little did they know this Mama was a mule. A spice mule. I was thrilled. Thrilled! Here at home I used my oregano miserly as if it were flakes of dried gold. And I was quite proud of my law breaking feat. Until the day I told my story to another Greek who said to me, “You know, you can bring it back. Oh, yeah. It’s totally legal. Bring back as much as you want.” I couldn’t believe it. After all that. The moral of the story? Next time bring back two pillow cases full!
I use my oregano from Mytilene for these Greek Style Roasted Potatoes. Since the first time I made this recipe I have never wanted any other kind of roasted potato. These are truly sublime. I have made tray after tray and there are never enough. Your people will eat them and eat them until there are none left. They’re super simple, an easy side or uncomplicated meal. Very monastic. Tonight we’re having them as dinner. With some homemade tzatziki to dip and a few slices of ripe summer tomatoes. James and all the kids love these so I urge you to try them. You’ll never buy frozen again. Lemony, crisp on the outside and flaky, dense on the inside. A true gift from the gods…Greek gods. Thanks, Dimitra! (Goddess of the Harvest)
Greek Style Roasted Potatoes
- 4 large baking potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch spears
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 heaping tablespoon dried oregano, Greek if you can get it
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 3 lemons
- Preheat oven to 450°.
- In a large bowl combine all ingredients EXCEPT potatoes and lemons. Stir well making sure salt has completely dissolved.
- Add potatoes to bowl and using hands toss well covering potatoes completely with water olive oil mixture.
- Line a large baking sheet with tin foil. That makes for easy clean up. Spray lightly with nonstick spray.
- Place potatoes cut side down in one layer on baking sheet. Pour water olive oil mixture over all the potatoes and carefully place in oven.
- Bake for 20 minutes, remove from oven and turn all potatoes so the other cut side is facing down.
- Cut lemons in half and juice all of them over all the potato slices. Return them to the oven.
- Bake another 10-15 minutes or until crisp and golden.
- Serve immediately. They’re divine with homemade tzatziki.