Monday, February 04, 2013

The Prickly Pear Cafe

Sorry to be a little late this week. This appears to be the winter of the cold for me. I've been sick three times since Christmas. I'm not the only one. There are several people I know who have come down with multiple colds. How many varieties of the common cold virus are there?

But on to this week's post:

Since setting plays such an important part in “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” I thought it might be interesting to talk about some of the places Faith and her friends experience. First up is the Prickly Pear Cafe, the coffee shop that Hope runs and where Faith always orders a vanilla latte. Unlike many of the locations in the story, the Prickly Pear is fictitious, made up of bits and pieces of other places I’ve been.
Old Ship Parish House

When I lived in Massacusetts, I used to volunteer at the Coffeehouse Off the Square in Hingham. There are lots of coffeehouses presenting live folk music in Massachusetts, most of them in Unitarian churches like Old Ship, run by volunteers who love the music. Refreshments are home-baked and whatever proceeds there are go to pay performers and for charitable causes.

At Coffeehouse Off the Square, the priority was always on community. The staff made a conscious effort to keep admission prices low so that local people could enjoy a night out for not too much money. And we always had an open mic where local musicians could perform in front of a live audience. These musicians might not be the most talented, but we felt they deserved a venue. And sometimes a performer would show up, do their song, and we’d be pleased enough with what they did to offer them a paying gig at a later date.

Another piece for the Prickly Pear came together when I signed up for a course in cooking native plants given by Carolyn Niethammer at Tohono Chul Park a few years back. Naturally I’d bought Cheri’s Prickly Pear Syrup at various gift shops around Tucson and read about mesquite flour made from the pods of the mesquite tree, but I wanted to learn more about these foods that I’d never eaten before. Carolyn did an excellent presentation, showing us how to scrape the needles off prickly pear cactus pads, cut them up, and prepare them. Nopales the Mexican population calls them. With somewhat the consistency of okra (never one of my favorites), she told us several ways to minimize the slimy nature of the plants.

After the class, I bought two of Carolyn’s cookbooks, found mesquite flour at Native Seeds, and tried making my own mesquite muffins. I also made the nopalito and French lentil salad. Yummy! Carolyn has a blog on which she alerts readers to what native plants are coming into season, how to harvest them, and how to cook them. Her recipes are my inspiration for the food at the Prickly Pear Cafe.

Last, but certainly not least, because it was the real inspiration for the Prickly Pear Cafe, was Javalina’s Coffee and Friends in Rita Ranch, run by Bonnie Vining. When I found Javalina’s, I felt as if I’d also found a little bit of the Boston folk music scene. Like the volunteer coffeehouses, Javalina’s featured local performers in a homey atmosphere for a reasonable price. It was the kind of place that encouraged you to sit at a table—or on a couch—and stay a while. I only went a couple of times because I lived so far away, but I was hoping to go there much more often.

Unfortunately, the decline in the economy forced Bonnie to sell Javalina’s to a local chain, Java Edge. I see now that they, too, couldn’t make a go of it. The store is empty. Sad-looking.

But Bonnie has kept up the music. She founded LAVA Music, with performances in a church during the spring and fall.

And I’ve tried to keep alive my version of Javalina’s in the fictional Prickly Pear Cafe.
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