Exotic Every Day

A few years ago, my friends the WWs and I took a daytrip through northern San Diego county. We passed the guidebooks among ourselves and took turns deciding where to stop next. One of us, I think it was SWW, suggested we stop at an exotic bird refuge to visit with the animals. Once there, we paid our dollar admission fee, slathered our arms and hands with disinfectant, and entered the aviary. All sorts of bird inhabited the space. Some birds sat in corners, missing lots of feathers, clearly angry and clearly swearing. Others hopped to the edges of branches to be near us visitors; they talked and wagged their heads and let us pet them. One African Gray fell in love with RWW. The bird crawled up his arm and onto his shoulder, happily humming and rubbing against RWW's head. Supremely content, the bird gently took RWW's ear in his beak, pulled on it a little, then released it, stroking it with his beak.

(Slight interjection: When I told this story to my students just after it happened, one student, a student who though intelligent and creative, never looked much like he was paying attention, raised his head at this point in the story and blurted out, "Gives new meaning to the phrase 'exotic bird'!")

This bird loved RWW the whole time we were there. Finally, when it came time to go, SWW reached up to remove the parrot from RWW's shoulder. "No!" the bird shouted. SWW's hands flew back in surprise. She tried again. "NOOOOOO!" even louder, the bird cried.

Before this visit, none of us knew that the birds had words that they could use to really communicate, not just imitate. Here we were just stopping to get our animal-fix, and this small animal so clearly used our language to tell us what it wanted, and in this case, it wanted RWW. We got more than just the cute factor on this visit, but a reminder of how little we understand the creatures that surround us. How much underestimating do we do when we don't understand?


In Santa Barbara for friends' wedding last weekend, ECG and I decided to go a little out of our way up to Goleta, where Norman Beard, a real estate broker, has a private nursery dedicated to tropical fruit trees. He led the two of us on a tour through his hilly 5 acres, where we met a mare and her 2-week old colt (named Hollywood) and lots and lots of fruit trees. Some of the plants he grew I had read could fruit well near the coast, with a more temperate climate. Others I had no idea would grow in Southern California at all.

A black sapote.

A broody-near-black paw paw blossom from below.

An almost-ripe white sapote.

An immature Pineapple Quince.

Immature longan fruit.

I can't remember for the life of me what this plant is.

A small cherimoya.

A heart-shaped young mango.

We asked him about the flavors of his fruits, which ones were his favorites. Clearly a lover of tropical fruits, he firmly declared that he loved all papayas and he couldn't get enough black sapote. He showed us which fruits he eats on his daily cereal due to their prolific bounty, and which he cradles carefully until they are ripe, since he gets so few.

We purchased a Tainang papaya and a Keitt mango from him to grow on our little mini-farm. When he found out we were from Altadena, he declared, "You guys are so lucky; you can grow anything in such an exotic climate."

Exotic? It's hot every day here right now, sunny, dry; it's exotic to him, I guess. His clouds and July-green hills were awe-inspiring to us.


In Mexico, it is cajeta; in Argentina, dulce de leche; and in other places, it goes by many other names. Before I met my Argentine husband, it was an exotic treat that I rarely consumed, but now there is always a jar of it in our house. ECG spreads it on toast in the morning or drizzles it over ice cream. Sometimes I melt a spoon of it in coffee.

Now, there are three ways to get cajeta/dulce de leche. First, you can buy jars of it at the store, which is what we usually do. Most Latin groceries sell it. Second, as we occasionally do, you can boil cans of sweetened condensed milk for an hour or so in a large pot of water and hope the cans don't explode. That gives a decent product, but it is hard to monitor the consistency and color of the caramel. And the third way is to make the whole dang batch from scratch, which I did a few days ago with some of the goats' milk I had received from a member of the produce exchange to which I belong. It takes forever, but requires almost no work, and it is the richest, most caramelly dulce de leche I've ever had. Will I make this every day? No, but it sure won't be unusual in this house.

Cajeta/Dulce de Leche/Whateveryouwannacallit
I found this simple recipe at Vanilla.com. It's worth the time, and it will make a lot, about a pint and a half, so you'll have plenty for a while.

You will need:
2 quarts of goat’s milk, cow’s milk, or a mixture of the two
2 cups sugar
1 large, plump vanilla bean, split open
1/2 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

To make the caramel:
In a large, heavy pot (not iron), combine the milk, sugar, and place over medium heat. Scrape the contents of the vanilla bean out and stir the tiny seeds into the mixture. As well, drop in the vanilla bean pod to further flavor the caramel. Stir regularly until the milk comes to a simmer and sugar is dissolved. Remove the pot from the heat and add dissolved baking soda; it will bubble up at this point, especially with goat’s milk. When the bubbles have subsided, return it to the heat.

Adjust heat so that the mixture is simmering. Simmer for a long time. For me, it took a total of about two hours. Occasionally stir the pot, making sure to swipe all along the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching or sticking. As the mixture begins to thicken and turn a caramel-brown color, you will probably need to stir more frequently.

If you take the pot off the heat and allow the cajeta to cool, it should be a medium-thick sauce. If it’s too thick, add hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the proper consistency. If it is too thin, return to the heat until it thickens.

When the cajeta is cool, remove the vanilla bean, let it cool, then lick off the caramelly goodness. The cajeta tastes great warm on ice cream, but also tastes fantastic cool, eaten off a spoon. Oh now, here I go, making myself hungry again.


I have the ability to travel with or without my husband, in mixed company, dressed however I want. I have the freedom to write whatever I want to write about and publish it freely for whomever wants to read it. And no one could stop me, nor did anyone try, from marrying the man I love. To me, these are every day basic rights. To some, they're exotic.

Have a meaningful 4th of July.

(And, I have an updated version of Cajeta, very similar, but with an important addition, here.)


Rebecca Penney said…
I love your last paragraph-soooo ture!
ben wideman said…
"To me, these are every day basic rights. To some, they're exotic."

Let's hope and pray that we one day live in a world where everyone gets to experience these freedoms.
Christina said…
Rebecca: Thank you. I know you've experienced all sorts of life that many of us haven't, and you probably understand the values of these freedoms more than most. Happy 4th!

Ben: This is in my prayers, indeed.
ann said…
I did in fact have a meaningful July 4th! We asserted our American independence by removing yet more of our lawn. I consider it a patriotic and powerful act. Isaac did the sod removal while I mowed our lawn with a reel mower, all the while being serenaded by the noise of our neighbor, a half-mile away, mowing his lawn with a gas mower. Smug? Sure. Satisfied though? You betcha.
Christina said…
Ann: That sounds like a great 4th to me.
Caleb said…
I found your food blog going through a few links. Glad I ran into it. Didn't know that the food blog community was so big. I love your posts!

I was wondering if you would like to exchange links. I'll drop yours on my site and you drop mine on yours. Email at ramendays@yahoo.com or stop by my site and drop a comment. Let me know if you would like to do a link exchange.

Wendy said…
Love this post. So much in it. That last paragraph... I take so much for granted.

Shall show David the dulche de leche recipe. His favourite dessert is banoffee pie and he's never quite happy with the caramel.
Unknown said…
I could do with some Dulce de leche right now. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

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