Saturday, June 15, 2013

My Mother, My Worm

Don't be fooled. This post is really about Mexican food.  I have two reasons for writing it.  These will be revealed.

Here's a picture of my Mother on the day in November 1948 when she married my Father.

Next is a headshot of "my worm" - Flabelliderma Ockeri.  Well, it's an example of the species of worm which is named after me.  Cute, huh?  It even has its own Wikipedia listing (which is more than you can say about the human me.)  Curiously, the listing is in Dutch.

As some of you may know I come by my scant biological knowledge solely through my marriage to a marine biologist Leslie Harris.  To be more specific, Leslie is an invertebrate taxonomist.  To be downright precise, she's a polychaetologist - a worm expert.  She doesn't deal with just any worms - certainly not with earth worms.  She only deals with worms found in the ocean.  (Personally I had no idea that worms even lived in the ocean until I met Leslie.)

And there are, it seems, an awful lot of worms in the sea.  Leslie works at one of the world's largest collections of polychaetes, housed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  People come from all over the world to study these worms and Leslie and I have offered our guest room to many of these worm people while they're in LA.

One such visitor has been Dr. Sergio Salazar-Vallejo, a polychaete expert and professor at Ecosur, an institute of biological studies in Chetumal, Mexico.   He visited us enough that not only did he become our friend but we made him a member of our family.  (We even gave him a certificate to prove it.)  Sergio arranged for many of his worm students at Ecosur to study worms at NHMLAC.  All of them stayed in our guest room.  Not all at once of course.

Sergio apparently believed that I should be rewarded for allowing this steady stream of biologists into my home.  That is where the idea of naming a worm after me got its start.  In his scholarly paper cleverly entitled Revision of Flabelliderma Hartman, 1969 (Polychaeta: Flabelligeridae) published in the Journal of Natural History, he described Flabelliderma Ockeri.  In that paper he explained why I deserved this honor
Etymology: This species is named after Mr. David Ocker, in recognition of his long-standing generous support to polychaete workers, most having come from Chetumal. Thanks to his support, many extremely productive research visits have been made to Los Angeles.
This happened over six years ago.  You'd think I would have blogged about this long before now.  One of the purposes of this post is to belatedly thank Sergio for this signal honor.  Thanks, Sergio.

Here's another picture of "my worm".

If you have no idea what you're looking at in these pictures, don't feel bad.  Neither do I.  At my request Sergio provided an explanation.  I felt it was too complex for Mixed Meters.  He obligingly provided a second, simpler paragraph.  I felt that was still too complicated.  Here's his third revision.
Living specimen of Flabelliderma ockeri, anterior end, dorsal view. The thin filaments are branchiae and the thick ones are palps. The dark brown central area is the group of eyes.  The family name, flabelligerids, indicates that their members carry a fan (L. flabellum). The fan is made up with fine chaetae, often included in a thin layer of a fibrous matrix, which can also include some sediment. The genus Flabelliderma was proposed because the body wall or skin (Gr. derm, skin) differs from other species belonging to Flabelligera.
I needed to look up some of the words:
  • anterior - front
  • dorsal - top
  • branchiae - organ of respiration (kind of like a gill on a fish)
  • palp - organ of sensation or feeding
  • chaetae - bristles, organ of locomotion  ("polychaete" means "many bristles")
By the way, F. Ockeri is a Southern Californian.  It has been discovered only in the area roughly from San Diego to Santa Barbara.  Here are more pictures - including a full body shot - which were included with Sergio's paper:

This Spring Sergio and his wife, Emilia Gonzalez-Salazar (she studies molluscs) visited us again for several months.

In this picture you can see Dr. Luis Carerra-Parra (another polychaete person and one of Sergio's students), Emilia Gonzalez, Sergio Salazar and Alejandro Salazar (he's an offspring of Emilia and Sergio.)  Notice that they are sitting at a dinner table.

When Emilia and Sergio stay with us they take over our kitchen.  Leslie and I don't mind.  We are not particularly familiar with their strange idea of preparing an evening meal and then gathering the entire family around the table to eat it together.  Very curious.

Naturally, when gathered around the table in the presence of a freshly prepared meal, the discussion often turns to food.  That's how it happened at one meal that I told a story about my Mother's Midwestern encounter with Mexican food sometime in the early '80s.  (Remember my Mother?  Check back to the beginning of this post.)

Here's a picture of me with her in Sioux City Iowa in June 1986.  Sioux City is where I grew up and where she still lived.  We're standing in front of the Green Gables Restaurant on the corner of Pierce and 18th Street.  I wonder if they still serve kreplach soup one night per week.

Here's that story about my Mother and Mexican food that I told at dinner:
At that time I was living in California and periodically she came out from Iowa to visit me.  Although Sioux City has an airport of its own, flying to California was cheaper if you first drove to Omaha Nebraska, about 100 miles south.  
When I grew up there weren't many ethnicities in the Midwest.  Beyond a few Jews (that was us), a few black people and a very few Native Americans (who mostly kept to themselves on reservations), there were only seemingly countless varieties of Northern Europeans.  
Sometime after I moved to California apparently things began to diversify.  Latinos began moving to the Midwest, many of them to take the difficult, dangerous jobs in meat processing plants.  As their population increased, services geared to Latino customs followed.  I remember the surprise while visiting of seeing not one but two Latino grocery stores in Sioux City.
And that's why my Mother could have the experience of eating at a Mexican restaurant in Omaha Nebraska before she flew to California: because there were Mexicans running restaurants there.  Later I asked her what she had eaten.  Her answer - she pronounced the unfamiliar polysyllabic word very carefully - she had eaten an entomatada.
I told her that she must have gotten the name wrong.  I had been living in Southern California for nearly 10 years and thought I knew all about Mexican food.  I rattled off a list of the possibilities for her.  Could she have had an "Enchilada" or even a "Burrito" perhaps?  "It had to be one of those other things," I told her.  "Entomatadas don't exist."
Now, cut back to the present, a few weeks ago.  Twenty-five years or so have gone by.  Leslie, Sergio, Emilia and I are having dinner.  I tell them this story.

Imagine my surprise, my astonishment, when Sergio replies that my Mother had indeed gotten the name correct, and that entomatadas are not some mythical culinary chupacabra.   Entomatadas are a Mexican speciality made by dipping lightly-fried tortillas into tomato sauce and then filling them with cheese or meat or something.  The word tomato is easy to find in "entomatada".

I asked Emilia and Sergio if they could make entomatadas for us some night.  And they did.

Here's a plate of entomatadas ready for consumption in our kitchen.  They were very good.

And so the second purpose of this blog post is to apologize to my Mother.  Sorry, Mom.  I should have believed what you told me.

For Further Reading:

My Mother, were she still alive, would turn 101 next month.  Click here to see a genealogy which lists her.  (It also lists Leslie and myself.)

Sevens, a MM post, has one story about my Mother's pregnancy with me and another about the massive pile of manure in Sioux City.

Reagan Says Give Chesterfields for Christmas, a post about my Mother's cigarette habit.

An obituary of Ben Shuman, my Mother's brother.

Yelp lists 19 Mexican restaurants in or near Sioux City Iowa right now.

About growing up in Sioux City and listening to Mahler.

About Oscar Littlefield, an artist I knew in Sioux City.

Google search for entomatada.  (lots of recipes)

Mother and Worm Tags: . . . . . .

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