Both Sides of the Bountiful Table

Thanksgiving Day 2021 is the 400th anniversary of the first harvest feast when the English Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts celebrated survival after a harsh introductory year in the New World. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln decreed an annual Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.

Is what we know about Thanksgiving a day of celebration based on actual history or popular mythology? It depends where you get the story–from the perspective of the victors or the vanquished. In actual history, the Wampanoag Indians, who indeed helped the Pilgrims survive, were not officially invited to the celebratory harvest dinner. But they showed up anyway. And stayed for three days.

In land covering present day southeastern Massachusetts and part of Rhode Island, the Wampanoag Nation once numbered 30,000-100,000 strong. Their lineage can be traced back more than 10,000 years. They lived on the coastline in summer and moved inland during winter. Their geography provided herring and trout from the water, deer, elk, and bear from the forest, and crops planted and harvested on cleared land.

Wampanoag long house

For the previous 100 years, the Wampanoag and other tribes had been trading and fighting with European explorers who passed through the area. Shortly before the Pilgrims came to settle at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Wampanoag population had been decimated by a three-year pandemic of smallpox and yellow fever which they called “The Great Dying”. They lost approximately two thirds of their people. 

Seeing women and children disembark from the Mayflower, the Wampanoag chief decided these people had not come to fight, but to stay. That winter, the Indians watched as half of the English died of cold, starvation, and disease. 

families disembark from the Mayflower

Because of their own reduced numbers after the pandemic, the chief wanted to make allies, not war, with the new settlers. He had another ulterior motive–to get better weapons [guns] to use against their own neighboring tribal enemies. So, the Wampanoag people approached the starving settlers in the spring of 1621 and showed them the best way to plant, fertilize with fish entrails, and harvest crops that would survive–corn, beans and squash.

lessons of survival

That fall, after a successful first harvest and the know-how to see them through succeeding winters, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast of thanks. The Wampanoags were not invited but showed up after hearing gunfire which they presumed to be the start of a war. They were dressed to fight but ended up joining the Pilgrim party as guests. Indian hunters brought in five deer to share. The feasting and revelry went on for three days and nights.

Was it a mistake for the Indians to befriend the Pilgrims? No one can answer for the actions of their ancestors, but today’s surviving members of the Wampanoag nation believe the wrong decision was made. After that first feast of celebration for a plentiful harvest and survival, colonization began in earnest. It was followed by the slow genocide of native people. More waves of Europeans landing on the shores led to more disease and more death of the indigenous cultures. The Wampanoag lands were stripped away, and their traditions shunned with enforced Christianity and boarding school attendance for children.

In 1970, a Wampanoag activist designated a “National Day of Mourning” to counter the national celebration of Thanksgiving Day.

Today, immersion schools have begun for Wampanoag children to learn subjects in their [almost lost] native language. For adults there are language classes. A museum near Plymouth is dedicated to the Wampanoag Indians and their contributions. There is an emphasis on the education and explanation of culture, traditions, and history, including the original Thanksgiving story.

From the conquerors’ gain, there is always loss and disarray left behind. On Thanksgiving Day, as in other years, the Wampanoag gather for a meal and give thanks, not for the Pilgrims arrival in the New World, but to their ancestors and for their survival as a tribe.

For the past 158 years, since Thanksgiving became a holiday, we pause on this day to say “Thank You” for blessings great and small among family and friends. As we gather to share with others in celebration and gratitude, let’s also remember the diverse contributions on both sides of the table, beginning more than 400 years ago. 

______________________________________________________________________________

The inspiration for this Thanksgiving story came from an article in the Washington Post by Dana Hedgpeth, “This Tribe helped the Pilgrims survive their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.”


For a different view of Thanksgivings spent in countries overseas where it is not a holiday and the Best Dressing Recipe in the World, see the story French-splaining American Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving Blessing

Today we give thanks:

For food in a world where many walk in hunger,

For friends in a world where many walk alone,

For faith and hope in a world where many walk in fear or sorrow.

Let us give thanks for this food, this home, and all things good,

For the wind and sun above

And most of all for those we love–

Family and friends here and around the world.

–Author unknown


Gratitude

I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the blessings of this earth I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for all this, including the life I have been given.

–Jack Kornfield

Paris al Fresco

Sitting every night at the dining table with my wife, sharing our meal and a bottle of wine, discussing the events of the day…This daily ritual has been ingrained so profoundly within us that we could not live without it and that is how food memories are made–Jacques Pepin

If you watch people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat…But as we get older, we begin to make our own food choices and they are equally telling. If I tell you I like very spicy food, I’m not just talking about food…I’m telling you I like adventure. –Ruth Reichl

Yesterday was the first rain/sleet/snowstorm in our part of the Colorado mountains. I spent the afternoon on the sofa with a fire blazing, a book in my lap, and candles on the coffee table as the light faded. The season for sitting outside with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a meal is behind us now.

Europeans have well-established dining rituals built into their cultures for centuries. Having lived in Germany and France, memories filter in on this quiet day. When we lived in France dining outside, “al fresco”, occured throughout the year, weather permitting, whether sipping “un café” or “un verre de vin” or enjoying a meal. It is as acceptable to do this alone as it is with friends or family.

My friend, Michelle, is American/French, married to a Frenchman, Jean Louis. They both own their own businesses. Michelle and her partner are in relocation services with their company, A Good Start in France. Jean Louis took over his mother’s bookstore which started out specializing in rare books on mountain climbing in the 1930’s. Since then, Librairie des Alpes has expanded into books on mountain imagery, guidebooks, rare, vintage, and new books of photos, art, lithographs, and even postcards. It continues to reflect the spirit of the mountains on rue de Seine in Paris’ 6th Arrondissement.

Michelle and Jean Louis live in a charming glass fronted two story house that looks like an atelier [artist’s studio] with so much natural light flooding in. It has a private courtyard outside the kitchen and living room.  

welcome home

Almost every Sunday morning Michelle and Jean Louis walk to the Porte de Vanves Flea Market which is in their neighborhood in the 14th Arrondissement. 

After browsing and schmoozing with vendors they have long known, they head home stopping at a local market for lunch ingredients. Theirs is a mixed ethnic section of Paris which offers a rich variety of flavors in food choices in their market. Seasonal fruits and vegetables come straight from the farm, their favorite fish vendor is from Martinique and specializes in spicy, white fish dumplings called “acras de morue”, from the butcher they buy Lyon sausage, the boulanger provides fresh baguette and pastries.

What do I miss about living in Paris? It’s right here–in every local market in every neighborhood throughout the city. Choosing what to eat from the best and freshest ingredients all year long. I miss daily shopping on my market street.

Sometimes I ran into Michelle and Jean Louis on Flea Market weekends. One Sunday, shortly before we left France, I was invited to meet them at 10 AM for a walkabout/browse/pick up a trinket followed by lunch in their home courtyard. In the warm months, lunch takes on the informality of tapas, an assortment of small dishes. Always wine and a basket of sliced baguette.

The generosity of the French table is akin to honoring the spirit of the guests invited for a sit-down meal. Any meal, simple or formal, pays tribute equally to the guest and to the hosts who prepare it. It is a time to gather, enjoy good food, exchange information, share conversation (often politics), and memorable time with others. The art of the debate is encouraged and freely employed. No subject is off limits. This is a centuries-honored ritual of dining à la français. 

For our lunch fare, the table was laid with spicy “acras” or codfish dumplings, slices of farm tomatoes with basil snipped from the courtyard garden, shrimp and avocado, cucumber salad with dill and a dash of piment d’espelette, a cheese assortment of buffalo mozzarella, goat, and camembert, smoked salmon, asparagus, roasted red peppers and tuna salad which Michelle spices with lots of chopped shallots and Dijon mustard. [She says French people think tuna salad is exotic because of its inherent American-ness]. A glass of wine, bien sûr.

Sunday tapas

What I remember is conversation that was lively and fluid, a Willy Ronin black and white photo [which I admired and was given as a gift], delicious food to dip bread into, and a host and hostess most charming. This “meal as a ritual of exchange and sharing”, in Michelle’s words, is a perfect reverie on a snowy indoor day. In France, every single sit-down meal is like this, whether sitting with one other person or a tableful of guests. Ah, France.

I believe we replicate this in America, perhaps not daily, but better on our national holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter where traditions and patterns around food are more universal in many families. Religious traditions also claim meal rituals and memories particularly around their holidays.

There are other stories of living in France, many written while we lived there. But today, this one of friends and food and time spent around a table in a cozy Parisian courtyard comes just at the right moment. It is vivid and warms me to the core while I gaze at blowing snow and autumn slides into winter.

Michelle and Jean Louis, at home


Michelle often makes a seasonal soup for Sunday lunch. Fresh spinach soup is one of her staples. Spinach is out of season here now, but this is her recipe in simple format to try on your own.

Michelle’s Homemade Spinach Soup

  • Thoroughly wash and stem 2 lb of fresh spinach leaves. 
  • Heat olive oil in a large stockpot, add lots of chopped shallots and sauté until wilted.
  • Peel and chop 1-2 large potatoes.
  • Add spinach, potatoes, and water or chicken or vegetable stock to the pot. [You can use a pressure cooker if you have one.]
  • Simmer until spinach cooks down and potatoes are soft.
  • Using an immersion blender, blend ingredients together in the pot.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper and some piment d’espelette. [Espelette pepper]
  • Serve in a bowl with a little design made with cream or half and half on top.

Links to more stories about living in France that you will enjoy:

My Market Street, Ode to My Paris Kitchen, Leaving Paris and Hemingway, Cow Seduction, “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon, Living Both Sides of the French Coin, Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris, Looking Back To the Present, Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”, La Bonne Rentrée in Paris, The Baba au Rhum Affair, Kindle Some Candlelight, You Say Jam, Nico Says Confiture, The Unexpected in Normandy, The Lowly Leek from Boring to Sublime

al fresco dining Colorado style

Carolina On My Mind

There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it. It goes, and what remains are memories. But these memories of food are very powerful. –Jacques Pepin

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. –John Leonard

These quotes remind me of the last time I visited my friend Gail in the mountains of North Carolina. Gail is my longest “go to” friend. We met at age 16 when my family moved to a small town in Iowa along the Mississippi River. She balances my analytic nature with kindness and consideration toward everyone. She is intuitive and listens like a compassionate counselor. She knows my eccentricities and loves me anyway. When I was undergoing medical treatments and the rest of my family was overseas, she jumped in to help by coming to Colorado and being with me. We laugh easily and know each other’s stories. Even when too much time has passed, there is immediate ease when re-engaging in each other’s lives. Although we don’t share the same blood, she is my sister too.

sister girlfriends

We didn’t know it at the time we became friends as teenagers but that is when we began living the concept of “growing an old friend”. We were unwavering through the high school years, the university years, summer jobs in the Wisconsin north woods, a western road trip at 21, marriages one week apart, children, and now grandchildren. We haven’t lived near each other for a long time, but we talk on the phone or visit back and forth in our respective states of Colorado and North Carolina as often as we can.

When we were 20, Gail and I worked one summer at a camp for girls on a lake in northern Wisconsin. It was the same year that she introduced me to the man I would marry three years later. She loyally returned from her honeymoon to stand next to me in our wedding one week after I had been a bridesmaid in hers. With husbands, our friendship grew as couples.

The last time I was in North Carolina we spent the entire visit in the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Leatherwood rather than in the city. It was early August and humidly warm in the mountains. Low bluish clouds formed a canopy over and around the green mountains across the valley. It’s a mystical and captivating way to greet each morning. And such contrast to Colorado’s high rocky peaks, golden aspens, and dry mountain air. 

The food recollections from that visit are so clear. Gail made a pre-dinner apéro by muddling very ripe peaches in the bottom of a glass then poured Vino Verde [a light Portuguese sparkling white wine] over the top. Along with the wine were appetizers of pickled okra [very southern] and small slices of Manchego cheese. Manchego is a firm sheep’s milk cheese with buttery texture and mild taste. It was a perfect combination. The company, the light food, the ambience.

There was one quirky but memorable cocktail hour involving neighbors who invited us to their home. Burdette, a retired architect, 90 years-old, wanted to prepare his own version of “The World’s Best Martini”. Gail’s husband is a bourbon man and politely declined. But the three women–Gail, her sister, and I agreed to try. There was much ceremony involved in the preparation of glasses, the assembly of ingredients, the shaking of equal parts of vodka, gin, AND vermouth. Only one olive allowed per glass. We sipped. It was okay, but what I appreciated most was their living room Rumford fireplace–a tall, shallow, masonry fireplace of European design. They had added a swinging black pot apparatus to cook soup or stew over the open fire. It seemed romantically retro, but I could see myself sitting by a fire that way.  

When in Carolina do as the locals do. Or drink as the locals drink. In many southern states, this means bourbon. Craig, Gail’s husband, is a quintessential bourbon guy. He has his own version of an Old Fashioned. The only time I drink bourbon whiskey is when he makes this for me. A slice of orange, some Bada Bing cherries, two shots of good bourbon, fill with club soda and ice. His daily bourbon is Maker’s Mark. For splurging, he reaches for Jefferson’s Ocean or Woodford’s Reserve to sip over ice.

pickled okra appetizer, Gail’s glass of white, Craig’s bourbon special

The best meal was something new to me. Shredded beef brisket with a smoky homemade sauce. Cooked long and slow in the oven and served as a main course with side dishes of cornbread, beans, and salad–the epitome of southern cuisine. Perfect for guests and great leftovers. 

Each day was full–with morning walks before the heat rose to a crescendo, a side trip to Blowing Rock’s boutique shops, outdoor showers with wide-angle valley views, picnic lunch in a park, and noisy Jenga games ending with blocks crashing to the floor amid cries of “Oh no!” and laughter.

showering with that incredible view!

The Carolina mountains have been on my mind recently for a particular reason. Several seasons have passed and now it feels like time to return. To a different climate and different scenery. To those lower, greener hills, and humid misty clouds. To friends who make a difference in my life when we are together and even when we are not.

Jacques Pepin is right about the fleeting nature of food. You make it. It goes. What remains, what is truly powerful, is when we nourish our lives with memories of food in a spectacular setting, in a meal around a table, and taking time to grow the very best of friends. 



GAIL’S BEEF BRISKET

Brisket is a tough cut of beef that must be tenderized by long, slow cooking. I adjusted the recipe for high altitude as most food takes longer to cook at 8300 feet where we live. My edits are in parentheses. The secret to this recipe is the sauce. Shredding the cooked brisket rather than slicing it eliminates the fat layer, leaving only the lean.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 5-6 lb brisket  [I have used smaller] 
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Liquid Smoke

Place brisket in baking dish with fat side up. Rub salt and pepper and liquid smoke onto both sides of meat. Cover with foil and seal edges of pan. Marinate 12 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

NEXT DAY:

  • Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. 
  • Place sealed baking dish in oven for 5 hours. 
  • [Better than timing is to test with a meat thermometer as it will take 2 or more hours longer at higher altitudes. Internal temperature should reach 200 degrees F.]
  • When meat is tender and done, take two forks and shred onto a serving platter. 
  • Discard the fat layer.
  • Pour sauce over or serve in a pitcher, on the side.
  • Serve brisket on buns or as a main course with side dishes.
  • Leftovers are easily reheated and just as delish.

FOR THE SAUCE:

  • 2 C. catsup
  • ½ C. water
  • 3 T. Liquid Smoke
  • 4 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 8 T. butter
  • 3 T. brown sugar
  • 3 t. dry mustard
  • 2 t. celery seed
  • ¼ to ½ t. cayenne pepper

In a saucepan, slowly heat all ingredients together while stirring.


Frozen Euphoria

One of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quotes is this: Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. To this I would add another companion comparison from my own recent experience: children and ice cream.

In 1686, the first café in Paris, Le Procope, opened in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with a Sicilian chef at the helm. His recipe of milk, cream, butter and eggs, an early Italian gelato, made ice cream available to the general public for the first time. For centuries it had only been enjoyed by the aristocracy. Over in America, it wasn’t until 1790 that an ice cream parlor opened in New York. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were known to have an affinity for this creamy icy treat. Ice cream’s reign as an indelible taste of summer is in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps children most of all.

When I was growing up, the seasonal ice cream truck rang its bell through the streets of our neighborhood in St. Louis once or twice a week every June, July, and August. Parents doled out pocket change. We shouted and ran to the ice cream man who opened his portable freezer filled with drumstick cones or chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on a stick or ice cream sandwiches. It was a race to eat as fast as possible in the heat and humidity while trying not to lose precious drips on the way home. There was usually some kind of messy “plop” on the sidewalk which was left for the ants.

There are, of course, other foods typically consumed in the summer besides ice cream. Fresh corn-on-the-cob or s’mores made around a campfire are two of them. Food happiness, measured individually by expression, is certain to occur when delicious things are eaten by young children for the first time.

In April, we drove across two states to care for a two-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter and her eleven-month-old brother while their tired parents flew somewhere else for adult R & R. We brushed off muscle memory around the heavy lifting required with infants and toddlers. By the third day, it was time for a change of scenery away from the house, backyard, and front porch. Some kind of field trip. 

Because of the previous fifteen months of shutdown life during Covid, I thought an outing for ice cream might be just the thing for young and unsuspecting palates. Also, it could be accomplished outdoors on a warmish spring day.

With the 2-year-old, things began with the anticipation of a drive somewhere new. There was curiosity to stand at a window, place an order, and be held up to see what was going on inside. There was eagerness when a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in rainbow sprinkles was handed through the window. There was barely contained excitement while carrying it to a red iron bench and sitting down with a spoon and her own multi-colored delight.

While husband fed tiny tastes of ice cream to infant brother, the independent “I-dood-it-myself” girl spooned one transformative bite into her mouth. After one or two more she discovered a faster method.

It was the hand-to-mouth-vacuum-cleaner-technique. Her eyes narrowed momentarily as the heady sensation of cold and sweet sank in. Both hands tipped the cup to vertical maximum.

There was a moment of selfish possessiveness as she huffily pulled away from brother’s outreaching hand. Letting the remainder of the icy creamy semi-liquid slide into her mouth, she paused to consider what had just happened. Then, with a smug and satisfied grin, what was left was an empty container and face, hands, and clothes covered in sticky.

The success of the outing was summed up in one final moment. It was the kind of moment that captures the best part of kids and ice cream. With a timely click of the camera, a small girl was framed in a spontaneous second of joy…and ice cream bliss.

Happy Summer.


The Coleman House

Joseph Campbell said that sacred places are where you go to wake up something important about yourself. Specifically, “A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are or what you might be.”

…go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, then stay with it and don’t let anyone throw you off.  –J. Campbell

When I wrote about how creating and inhabiting personal space nourishes us from the inside out, [The Poetry of Space] I remembered a place rooted in my childhood­. It was an 1840’s, pre-Civil War, stately brick home fronting more than 600 acres of Missouri woods and farmland.

Why did a 100+ year-old house in Villa Ridge, Missouri, deeded to my grandmother on the sudden death of her second husband take me metaphorically “where body and soul wanted to go? I stayed with the feeling, as Campbell suggested, dug into archival history, then realized it was a story of its own.

This place, in rural Missouri, is why houses and spaces resonate with me. Time spent in this house, with more than a century of history, was where I learned that certain spaces are more than a container with walls and floors.

illustration of Coleman House by Eloise LeSaulnier, 1975

I don’t remember John Coleman, who wed my grandmother late in life, but I do remember the house that his grandfather, Spencer J. Coleman, bought exactly one hundred years before his last living heir, grandson John, dropped dead outside the home where he was born. 

That unexpected death occurred only two years into the second marriage of John Coleman and my paternal grandmother, Effie [“Fifi”] Harbour Coulter. John lived 77 years. Fifi, widowed for the second time at age 68, was deeded the house and 665 acres of prime Missouri farmland.

wedding photo john and effie coleman [center], I’m on my mother’s lap next to john

The Coleman House, as it is called today, became the place for our extended family to spend time together. Thirty miles from St. Louis off old Highway 100, Fifi’s six children and many grandchildren annually spent Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays at the farm. Potluck picnics were set up on tables in the side yard. The adult crowd ate and socialized on lawn chairs while grandchildren from toddlers to teens were largely left to their own devices. 

In my age group, cousins ran freely around the house and outbuildings or across the road to the school playground. We banged out every version of “Chopsticks” on the old upright piano. We walked the grassy road to the first big gate. If the black bull with a reputation for charging wasn’t in sight, we went on through and down the hill to the pond.

It was a jubilant time with a different brand of freedom; protected independence, discovery and exploration, wide-open country spaces, and the backdrop of a slightly downtrodden, but still imposing house, with tall-ceilinged rooms so different from the way we lived in town.

Coleman House, 1960s version

The condition and decor of the house might be described as mid-20th century shabby. There had been multiple renovations since its pre-Civil War prime. At this time, it featured large-patterned wallpaper, beige carpeting over wood floors, rickety enclosed porches with creaky, tilting floorboards, and fireplaces sealed or completely walled off. The eat-in kitchen had no built-in counter space. The plumbing upstairs and down was cast iron bathtubs, no showers.

cousin judy when she lived at the farm, with large format wallpaper

What it looked like didn’t matter. What I remember is feeling happiness and liberating independence. Coleman House was where I “woke up” to making a decision about the future. I would only live in places and spaces that offered a brand of comfort and being at home in myself.

The summer I turned 11, we moved to a different state. Two years later we returned to visit the St. Louis family. At that time, an aunt and uncle and two of my closest cousins were living with Fifi to help manage the big house, the livestock and the fields. 

When it was time to drive back to Texas I begged to be left for a longer stay. The rest of that summer is etched in long-term memory. Finally I was living in a place I loved, where learning and experiencing and confidence building occurred by waking up in rural country spaces every day.

My cousin Karen taught me to drive a stick shift VW Beetle on farm roads. I gathered eggs, hung laundry to dry outside, picked garden strawberries, rode tractors, hand milked the cow, and stuck my finger into the thick layer of cream at the top of the milk canister. In the pick up truck, we checked on the cows down in the fields, sometimes with hay or a block of salt. I hiked to where the tiny Coleman family cemetery was hidden in the woods.

My cousin Judy and I had a job selling July Fourth fireworks at a temporary stand on the highway. We sweated through our clothes, walked home covered in dust, and with a little money in our pockets. Before falling asleep, I climbed onto Judy’s bed under the window hoping to catch a whiff of breeze. Every night, with hands propped under her chin, she rattled off the make, model, and year of each passing car as it rounded the curve in the highway. Squinting at red taillights from a second floor window and listening to her monologue was sleep inducing. 

In the old house, Judy felt the presence of “others.” No one believed her. According to her daughter Elise’s retelling, radio and television dials were in the habit of flipping on and off. Once, to make it stop, Judy unplugged the big radio in the kitchen, but the music continued. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner mysteriously went into action with no human nearby. On her only visit to the house, Elise herself experienced an eerie vision of “a coffin with a body” right where she was standing. She ran out of the house to escape the image. In an earlier century, the room she was in would have been used as the viewing parlor when family members died. Current owners of Coleman House mention “a light” or “a shadow” going up the staircase from time to time. 

When Fifi died, her estate was sold in its entirety, house and acreage, to a real estate firm in St. Louis and later to Ralston Purina Company. Purina owned much of the surrounding land since the 1920s and still operates a research farm in the area.

I knew the Coleman House before I understood Joseph Campbell’s sentiment about “sacred places and spaces”. It awakened something inside me at a tender age for two reasons. It was a unique and memorable place. And I was with people who granted me the freedom to experiment and experience during formative years.

Everything that happened at Coleman house helped create my better self then. And everything that happened brought forth the person I became.



–AN ADDENDUM– 

A Consolidated History of the Coleman Family and Coleman House

In 1837, Spencer Joseph Coleman [1816-1888] moved west, with his father and brothers, from the depleted soils of Virginia to land south of the Missouri River near St. Louis. They planned to start a new family plantation. By 1841, Spencer married Elizabeth Ann Wright and decided he liked the land further west, near Gray Summit, in Franklin County. So he split off from the family and began buying up different sized parcels over many years. Eventually he acquired 665 acres of rolling hills and fertile fields for growing tobacco and hemp. 

Along the way he saw an elegant red brick mansion built by James Ming in the 1840’s. He offered to buy it with an attached 200 acres. Ming was a skilled craftsman and had built the home for himself using walnut, white pine, and oak cut from the land. He oversaw the making of each brick–cut from clay soil, shaped, molded and fired on site. But he sold the house and land to Spencer for $6000 in 1856.

It was initially called Bellaire, a solidly built mansion of masonry walls two bricks thick with a foundation of limestone blocks. The front porch entry was relatively small, but featured hand carved decorations and four columns on the front and two on either side of the door. There was leaded glass above and around the door. 

front of coleman house, date unknown

Inside were two large rooms flanking a central walnut staircase. The back entrance opened to a double open porch gallery of two stories with its own smaller stairway. Beams used to support the upper gallery were hand hewn from trees cut on property and cemented with wooden pins. The kitchen was also in the back with an attached summer kitchen for hot weather cooking. Upstairs were three bedrooms, two large ones at the front of the house and a smaller nursery behind. There were six fireplaces for heating, three on each floor.

Spencer Coleman, with wife Elizabeth Ann [1823-1867] and four children moved into Ming’s mansion in 1856. For the next 100 years it was passed down through succeeding Coleman generations. Eldest son William Joseph Coleman [1848-1925] was the first to inherit the house and farm when Spencer died in 1888.

William Coleman married 15-year-old Emma Lou Sullivan [1860-1883] in 1875. She bore three children before dying tragically when her skirts caught on fire while burning trash and leaves in the orchard. She was only 23.  William was left with two young children–Emma Josephine [1876-1952] and my grandfather by marriage, John Marshall Coleman [1879-1956]. William asked his unmarried sister, Elmira, to move in and help care for the family. He never married again.

That generation of Colemans, Emma J. and John M., the children of William and Emma Lou, the grandchildren of Spencer and Elizabeth Ann, produced no heirs.

John Coleman’s first wife died in 1925. He waited 29 years to remarry. This time was to my paternal grandmother Effie Lavina Harbour Coulter [Fifi]. He was 75. She was 66. Fifi had raised five daughters and one son, my father Joseph Clayton. My grandfather, Andrew Joseph Coulter, left her widowed in 1946.

Fifi’s wedding day to John Coleman, with her children, from left: Jackie, Lee, Nicky, Effie, Joe, Bess, Dot, 1954

Effie and John had already known each other for many years. John was a lawyer by degree but worked as the bookkeeper for my grandfather’s “Coulter Feed and Grain” store in downtown Kirkwood. It is rumored that he was sweet on Fifi for a long time before asking her to marry. She moved into Coleman House in May 1954. 

Fifi and John at the farm

Two years later, John was in the yard talking about building another pond in the fields when he keeled over from a heart thrombosis and died instantly. My cousin, Linda, remembers it because she was spending the night at the farm as she often did with Fifi.

From the purchase of the property by Spencer in 1856 to John’s death in 1956, one hundred years of Coleman legacy ended that summer evening. My grandmother inherited the estate. For the next seventeen years, Coleman House and farm was part of our extended family.

In 1973 Fifi died and everything was eventually purchased by Ralston Purina Company. It added a large parcel to their adjacent land. Transient workers, who were researching animals or Purina product development, moved in and out. Soon everything­–the house, grounds, and outbuildings fell into crumbling disrepair.

Finally, in 1985, Purina sold the house “as is” with a few acres of land to a couple working for the company. That’s when transformation began. I didn’t meet these owners, but I learned that their labor-of-love saved the historic property from complete ruin. Over many years, with a contractor’s help, the house was gutted and literally rebuilt from the inside out.

Because it was solid brick construction, they began pulling down interior plaster walls to build new walls with studs, insulation, and dry wall. All six fireplaces were opened and restored to the top of the chimneys. In the kitchen, one fireplace was hidden behind a wall. It turned into a beautiful and usable part of the room.

kitchen fireplace

White pine floors were uncovered and refinished. The walnut staircase was refurbished. The attic was insulated. Original single pane windows were replaced by custom built ones. Two rickety enclosed porches on the back were torn off and rebuilt to their original open architecture. 

The smallest of the upstairs bedrooms was opened and incorporated into the master bathroom with a fireplace and sitting area, now used as a sewing room. The summer kitchen was torn off and rebuilt brick by brick to become the back entrance. The old wooden front porch must have been unsalvageable because it was replaced with bricks spanning the front of the house and a second floor balcony was added. Shutters were hung on the outside windows.

After years of living in a construction zone, a job change occurred, and the property sold in 2003 to the couple that now lives there. They have added their own touches–an attached garage and an outbuilding for storing antiques for their business. The summer kitchen entry was raised by one story to house an office upstairs and an improved bathroom/laundry area below. The cedar shake roof was replaced with metal after severe hail damage several years ago. They built a patio and walkway around the house with 10,000 cobblestones and added to the landscaping by replacing dead trees, planting many shrubs, and adding a large flower/vegetable garden. 

These are the people who graciously allowed me to visit Coleman House in early spring this year. I went with my cousin, Karen, who had lived there with her mother, father, sister, and our grandmother. 

karen, who taught me to drive a standard shift VW beetle

It was wonderful to see the changes from “then to now”. Coleman House was truly saved after 1985. It was revitalized to modern living standards and new generations continue adding to its legacy. Restorations that took decades of vision and a tremendous outlay of work enhance the original beauty of James Ming’s craftsmanship from almost two centuries ago. 




ADDENDUM 2

Added Coulter Lore with Pics

Coulter family, circa 1937
Standing left to right: Bessie Mae [Bess or Betty], Joseph Clayton [Joe], Effie Lavina [Fifi], Andrew Joseph [Joe], Ethel Ann [Nicky], Dorothy Jane [Dot] Seated left to right: Jacqueline Elise [Jack or Jackie], Frances Lee [Lee]
Fifi Coulter Coleman dressed up, in summer

*Final musings about my grandmother.

Until I began this research, I wasn’t thinking much about the work-a-day life for women in my grandmother’s era. It was overwhelming by anyone’s standards. Over the span of 17 years, Effie bore 5 girls and 1 boy at home and raised them almost singlehandedly. Her husband, a middle-aged man who provided for the family, was uninvolved in household life. Grampa Joe was known to sit in his chair reading the newspaper with a spittoon at his feet, seemingly oblivious to the chaos of six children running in circles around him. Added to that workload was the daily care and feeding of a mother-in-law who wouldn’t get out of bed for the last 20 years of her life. And then, after marriage, several daughters lived at home with their husbands until finding other arrangements.

The overall picture of Fifi’s life looked like this: The full management of a large household with six children underfoot, a disconnected, but working, husband, a mother-in-law who decided to stay in bed for 20 years, taking in boarders for extra money, and adult children moving in and out with spouses.

Perhaps John Coleman saved Fifi by carrying her off to the farm where she only had one man to worry about.

The Poetry of Space

Your home has to be a refuge, the place you come back to after the world has done all the things it has done to you, where you can be truly yourself, power out, refuel. It should feel good every time you walk in the door.Amanda Dameron

One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, where spending more time at home has been the norm, the importance of home space, how we create it, how we live in it, what it means, seems a timely topic.

Quarantine has redesigned the rhythms of life at home. It has provided different ways to think about and use space. It’s not only about structure, but also light and air, comfort, privacy and intimacy in a place where we can safely talk, think, do, or just be. 

drawing by elizabeth zareh, 2020

…as a child, I always wanted to be in other people’s houses. Now, though still fascinated by those other houses, I am only really comfortable and relaxed in my own. My house is like a garment, made to my exact measurements, draped around me in the way I like… Margaret Forster

My interest in houses and interior spaces began in childhood. In a small town suburb of a mid-western city, my mother would pile my younger sister and me into the backseat of the station wagon whenever she visited a friend outside our neighborhood. I never refused to go. I knew we would drive past a certain house, on curvy Big Bend Road, where my imaginary friend Cindy lived. And every time we drove by, I said aloud, “Look, there’s Cindy’s house!”

Imaginary friends weren’t an option–they were essential.Emory Ann, 23 Things Only Children Know to be True

I made up this friend, gave her a name, and pretended to call her on the phone from the car because there was something I loved about that particular house, shaded by tall trees on a curved lot. I wanted to run to the door and be invited to play with a friend who didn’t exist. In my eight-year-old mind, I even imagined living in this cottage-like home with people I didn’t know.

Like the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in.…it is an image, an idea, a goal; perhaps as it was for my mother…it has filtered down to me. –Rachel Cusk

It is common to find a family link in people who care about how they live, what their space looks like, how it feels to others. Often it begins in an environment during childhood, emulating a grandmother or mother or aunt’s sense of design and comfort in the home. Sometimes it comes from another early life experience.

I spoke with a sampling of family and friends about how their interest developed in creating a home that both nurtured them and resonated with others. I asked for a recollection or anecdote when they knew that space, of a certain style, just so, would be important for the rest of their lives. 

Responses varied from a childhood obsession for re-arranging furniture in a tiny bedroom until it felt right, to sewing curtains, bedspreads and pillows to create a signature space. Others spoke of a fascination with miniature rooms in doll houses, or a teenage bedroom on the top floor of a Victorian house with a sink built into the closet, or annually setting up a primitive cabin in a summer boys camp.

My friend Marilyn Larson wrote a beautiful memory about playing with her younger sister on the family farm in southern Minnesota. In a small grove of trees, they carefully raked the ground and removed debris in preparation for setting up rooms for a home. Each room was given a name designated by purpose, furnished with orange crates, lumber, or broken implements scavenged outside the barn. Sometimes they played “restaurant” by setting up a counter on a long plank of wood dragged from the junk pile, accessorized with broken dishes. They served homemade “mud cakes” and tried to entice their brother to buy one.

My brother-in-law Erik, a professional designer, has two memorable stories. The first was when he carved the skyline of New York City into the pine headboard of the bed his father had just built. Only six-years old, using pointy scissors and ballpoint pens as primitive tools, he was proud of the creation of what he thought New York might look like. His parents were not impressed. He also secreted clear plastic food containers from the kitchen to an empty neighborhood field where he spent hours constructing houses, buildings and towns in the open, weedy landscape. His mother had no appreciation for this either. But he was onto something that evolved into a life of designing and building sets and spaces for theater, television, and corporations.

Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work organically synced with nature, was influenced by space as a toddler. His schoolteacher mother bought a set of educational blocks created by the German educator, Friedrich Froebel. These geometrically shaped blocks were designed to teach children about form and relationship to nature. Wright remembers being fascinated by them, assembling shapes and compositions for hours at a time. He credited them for kindling his creative mind toward architectural design.

…there is no true understanding of any art without some knowledge of its philosophy. Only then does its’ meaning come clear. –Frank Lloyd Wright

Considering houses as art forms, Wright suggests that to really understand them they should be viewed philosophically. But it was a book by Gaston Bachelard that first started me thinking about houses metaphorically.

Gaston Bachelard [1884-1962] was a French philosopher from the last century. But his idea of the house as poetic space that holds memories and opens portals to dreams and imagination feels timeless.

Bachelard uses the image of houses “as a tool for analysis of the human soul”. Simplified, the house is the container that shelters our body, which is the container for our inner life. To access inner life requires daydreaming. In order to daydream we need solitary time. With solitary time, we learn to love “the space inside us”, the creative dreaming place. Learning to happily “abide” within ourselves while in the shelter of the house is poetry, because the house is in us as much as we are in it. What does this mean?

The house, a physical space, provides shelter for us to dream and make memories. These are held in our unconscious, a metaphysical place. Remembering dreams is easier with connection to an actual space. When the house offers places to curl up, in solitude, such as nooks and crannies, window seats, attics and garrets, one’s own bedroom, there are built-in places to think and dream and create. The circle of house around us housing the soul within us is poetry.

Bachelard says children must be allowed time to daydream. They need to learn to love being alone and, at times, even bored. Solitary time opens and invites new thinking in unexpected ways–just as poetry does. Time alone teaches children to live within themselves, too. Inside their daydreams is where they experience the immensity of imagining–worlds within worlds.

The house protects the dreamer. The houses that are important to us are the ones that allow us to dream in peace.Gaston Bachelard

The house you were “born in” is your first space of material warmth, protection and rest. It is imprinted in a place in the subconscious that you may or may not return to in dreams. If we dream about houses they are often not easily described by words. There’s where the poetry comes in.

In the house I was born into, my older sister had the best room. Her bedroom was underneath the roof. To the right, at the top of the stairs, was an aromatic cedar closet where seasonal clothes were stored. To the left, down a narrow hallway was the door to her room. The walls and ceiling were honey colored pine and the ceiling angled like a triangle from the peak. Low walls ran along both sides with cubbyhole doors that hid spaces further under the eaves. There was a tiny closet with low hanger bars and a narrow shelf for folded clothes. The only window opened to a flat roof over the front porch. It was forbidden to go out there because you might “fall through” the unsupported porch ceiling. But I learned that my sister crawled out the window to climb onto the higher roof and [secretly] smoke with her friends. 

birth house, st. louis, missouri

When she was away, I lay on her bed, stared into the peak, re-arranged the furniture in my head, and imagined how I would live if this were my space. Eventually I had a claim to the coveted room when it was time for her to go to university. But then my father took a job in a different state. And that perfect bedroom nest, which I never fully inhabited, still recurs in my nighttime dreams. [Disclosure: with the addition of a bathroom through the back wall of the closet by my subconscious.]

Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe. If looked at intimately–even the humblest dwelling is beautiful. –Gaston Bachelard

All inhabited space is essentially the notion of home. But it doesn’t have to be a house as the shelter that opens the doorway to creativity and dreaming. A hermit’s hut, a childhood bedroom, a tent in the woods, the car on a road trip, a favorite hike, a deep soaking bathtub, a tree next to a river–places where we can be alone are also conduits to accessing “inside” spaces where we think and dream and create. Even the humblest, most primitive space can be this place.

You have to filter out stale ideas that your mother gave you about how you should live, or what you should have in your space. Does it have to do with you, or not? –Interior designer, New York Times

flying goddess gift from a friend

My mother had a knack for making houses into homes. She intuitively knew how things should be arranged and was true to her own tastes for creating comfort in the places I grew up. Later, she was on the sidelines with advice as I began experimenting with my own living spaces. 

The time came when we both realized that choices going forward needed to be mine and not hers. One birthday she gave me a clear glass ginger jar lamp stuffed with white seashells. The shade had accordion pleats the color of beige sand. I didn’t say I hated it, but it had nothing to do with me. It was her idea of a cool accessory. So I diplomatically said I didn’t want a lamp as much as I wanted a professional bread knife with serrated edges. She kept the lamp. I got the knife. Future gifts were checks.

My first apartment living alone was in Madison, Wisconsin on the top floor of a house across the street from Lake Monona. It had a glassed-in porch that looked into trees on the lake shore. The bed was a saggy mattress on top of bouncy coil springs hauled down from the attic one floor above. I arranged green trees and plants for window treatments, hammered Indian cotton tapestries to the wall to hide plaster cracks, and covered splintery floors with funky patchwork rugs. There was no bedroom door so I tacked up a curtain of wooden beads that clinked and swayed in long strands. It was perfect.

Marriage followed with several changes in geography in the U.S. Eventually we made the decision to move overseas. Different stories accumulated while living in five countries over the next 30 years. Apartments or houses in Singapore, Cyprus, Taiwan, Germany and France were woven together by the layout of affordable space that fit our family and by treasures we collected from each place we lived. There were always challenges while adapting to a new job, unfamiliar languages and cultures. But whatever the outside world threw at us, when we crossed the threshold of each dwelling and breathed in familiar sights and scents, it was our space, our comfort, our sanctuary of home.

paris apartment, 16th arrondissement

My artist friend, Catherine Ventura, whom I met in Taiwan said it best, “I make familiar spaces in unfamiliar places.” We all did.

The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle. It stands for permanence and separation from the world. –Simone de Beauvoir

Frances Schultz recovered from a failed relationship and missteps in mid-life by buying and renovating a tiny dilapidated cottage with good bones. She wrote a therapeutic memoir about healing herself with the power and creativity of making a beautiful home. 

the bee cottage, hamptons, long island by frances schultz

There are no rules about how a house becomes a home. It requires thought, time and attention, and putting your stamp on it by living in the space. As far as decorating, Schultz advises intuition; “If it feels right, it probably is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Instincts are not wrong. Ignoring them is…when a space is right for you; there is an instinctive response to it–an intuitive sense of how you would live there, where your things would go, what you would keep, and what you would change. It’s a project, not a struggle.”

Ruth Bender, a long time friend, wrote these thoughts; “Making a home is a mentally engaging and creative gift to oneself. It is an expression of love to those we are lucky enough to actually be with and to those dear ones who are gone or far away.”

Houses that become homes are like a poem. They have structure that represents how we want to live in the world. They shelter our feelings for people and beautiful surroundings we love. And if the home is nourishing to the soul and allows expression of the “inner self”, then we are fortunate to have created our own poetry of space.




Brave Enough

It seems that every four years I am moved from writing personal stories to a subject that resonates in the current moment. The 2021 inaugural ceremony for the 46th President of the United States provided the moment. Specifically, Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem written for the occasion entitled, “The Hill We Climb”. Her words left me without any. I was overcome with emotion, and then hope.

Amanda Gorman is our National Youth Poet Laureate. She is the youngest person to write and present an inaugural poem on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC. Her message is one of resilience and recovery, of democracy’s imperfect, unfinished business. It requires bravery and stamina to weather inherent storms in America’s form of democracy. It requires courage and contribution to promote the work of systemic change. 

amanda gorman

Amanda spoke of the ability, after a period of disconnection and chaos, to collectively re-form as a nation of Americans, rather than a nation of divisions.

The fact that a twenty-two-year-old authored such beautiful, powerfully emotive words was, for me, the essence of her moment in the spotlight. It is this brand of inspiration which the younger generations bring to the table that will move us forward. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see.” In Amanda’s words:

“If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promised glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare it.

Because being an American is more than a pride we inherit–It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.”

Gorman is also part actor. Her interpretive recitation of “The Hill We Climb”, at the close of the inauguration, was punctuated with alliterative emphasis, emotion, gesture, rap and rhyme. Hamilton fans will recognize illusions to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s way with history, words, and meter: 

In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”

Amanda Gorman is more than a talented poet of her generation. She understands the power of words, their lasting effect, whether written or spoken. She believes in words as a catalyst for change. Poetry is her medium.

As part of a peaceful transition of power in America, an inauguration ritual is enacted with every new administration voted into office. It has been this way for more than 200 years. On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman revealed to the world, with cadence and crafting, that a shift in our country’s values will lead us to where we belong.

“We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.”

And finally,

 “When day comes, we step out of the shade. Aflame and unafraid.  The new dawn blooms as we free it.  For there is always light, if we’re only brave enough to see it.  If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Amanda Gorman among a generation of many, ready to lean across the national divide with outstretched arms, is the future where I want to be.


THE HILL WE CLIMB by Amanda Gorman

When day comes, we ask ourselves: 
Where can we find light 
In this never-ending shade? 
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. 

We braved the belly of the beast.
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, 
And the norms and notions of what “just is" 
                                           Isn't always justice. 

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. 
                                         Somehow, we do it.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed 
A nation that isn't broken, but simply 
     unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time 
Where a skinny Black girl,
Descended from slaves and raised by a 
   single mother, 
Can dream of becoming president, 
Only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes, we are far from polished, 
    far from pristine. 
But that doesn't mean we're striving to 
    form a union that is perfect. 
We are striving to forge our union with 
   purpose, 

To compose a country committed
To all cultures, colors, characters,
And conditions of manAnd so we lift our gazes not 
To what stands between us 
But what stands before us. 
We close the divide, 
Because we know to put
Our future first, we must first 
Put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms 
So we can reach our arms out to one 
    another. 
We seek harm to none, and harmony for all. 

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: 
That even as we grieved, we grew, 
That even as we hurt, we hoped,
That even as we tired, we tried. 
That we’ll forever be tied together. 
    Victorious, 
Not because we will never again know 
    defeat, 
But because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that: 
"Everyone shall sit under their own vine 
   and fig tree, 
And no one shall make them afraid."
If we’re to live up to our own time, then 
   victory 
Won't lie in the blade, but in all the bridges 
   we've made. 
That is the promised glade, 
The hill we climb, if only we dare it: 
Because being American is more than a 
   pride we inherit––
It's the past we step into, and how we 
   repair it. 

We've seen a force that would shatter our 
   nation rather than share it, 
Would destroy our country if it meant 
   delaying democracy. 
And this effort very nearly succeeded. 
But while democracy can be periodically 
   delayed, 
It can never be permanently defeated. 

In this truth, in this faith, we trust. 
For while we have our eyes on the future, 
History has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption. 
We feared it at its inception. 
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs 
Of such a terrifying hour. 
But within it we've found the power 
To author a new chapter, 
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So, while once we asked: How could we 
   possibly prevail over catastrophe? 
Now we assert:  How could catastrophe 
   possibly prevail over us?
 
We will not march back to what was, 
But move to what shall be: 
A country that is bruised but whole, 
Benevolent but bold, 
Fierce and free. 

We will not be turned around, 
Or interrupted by intimidation, 
Because we know our inaction and inertia 
Will be the inheritance of the next 
   generation. 
Our blunders become their burdens. 
But one thing is certain: 
If we merge mercy with might, and might 
   with right, 
Then love becomes our legacy, 
And change, our children's birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better 
   than the one we were left. 
With every breath from our bronze-
   pounded chests, 
We will raise this wounded world into 
   a wondrous one. 

We will rise from the gold-limned hills 
   of the West! 
We will rise from the windswept 
   Northeast, where our forefathers first 
   realized revolution! 
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities 
   of the Midwestern states!
We will rise from the sun-baked South! 

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover, 
In every known nook of our nation, 
In every corner called our country, 
Our people, diverse and dutiful. 
We'll emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the 
   shade 
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it, 
For there is always light, 
If only we're brave enough to see it. 
If only we're brave enough to be it.

Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.

President Joseph Biden

capitol building, washington, dc, 2021
washington monument fireworks, 2021

High Winds

As a mountain is unshaken
by the wind,
so the heart of the wise
person is unmoved
by all the changes 
on this earth.          
–Buddha

Summer 2020. July road trip from the mountains of Colorado to lake hopping in Wisconsin–cancelled. Coronavirus rampant worldwide and no vaccine, yet. While accepting the present moment, something needed shaking up.

A conversation about camping in early marriage led to the basement in search of gear. It was not what we remembered. There was an under sized tent–don’t think so, wafer thin sleeping pads–nope, one camp stove–completely rusted. Not much in the way of basics. However, a reliable looking percolator coffee pot and two fine sleeping bags revived hope and possibility. We headed to the nearest REI store to fill in the gaps.

An open sky half-domed tent, two self-inflating sleeping pads, and one tiny state-of-the-art stove later, we were ready to reconnect with outdoor living in nearby mountain campground terrain.

September was late to get started. We hoped the fire ban, in place since July, would be lifted but instead it was extended for good reason. It’s almost obligatory to come home from camping and smell like campfire smoke. Not this season. 

We scoped out sites in advance because reservations are mandatory. To “walk in” means setting up a tent next to the bathrooms. Our choice was a good one. We had neighbors to the right and left, but lodge pole pine forest behind. 

first campsite 2020

Forgetting a few things prompted the start of a “next time” list. The night passed peacefully for husband who slept right through while I lay awake with a maddening bout of insomnia. Hours spent listening to night sounds–the tent-side scratching and rustling of small rodents. Later, there was a loud and persistent snuffling noise just north of sleeping man’s head. I chose to let him slumber on as I flipped over and over in my sleeping bag in hopes of urging away nocturnal critters, imagined or not.

In the morning, the aluminum coffee percolator worked like a charm. 

A month later, we tried out new territory in the Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forest. Within the forest is a huge expanse of land originally owned and used by Hewlett-Packard for employee recreation and leadership retreats. It has since become public space with large, natural, private campsites. 

The mid-October day of our reservation began with cold rain, then sleet, and finally horizontal blowing snow. We watched and waited. Hours later, as often happens in Colorado, the sun was shining. Deciding that our tent and sleeping bags could withstand forecast colder temperatures and high winds, we headed out. 

Campsite #38 in Hermit Park is isolated and beautiful. Late autumn golden-leafed aspens, craggy rocks, boulders, and pine trees surrounded the tent. Metal stakes and rocks kept things battened down as the predicted wind picked up with attention getting gusts. Yet again, we were underprepared. This time–no warm gloves, no insulated footwear, no heavy coats. Temperatures dipped even before darkness fell. 

second campsite
late fall aspen past their peak

Only 25-minutes from home, I volunteered to collect missing gear so we could see the night through. Upon return, husband was stamping in circles to keep warm. It was time to open the wine and get the stove fired up. Hands and feet were toasty and battery lanterns lit up the dusk as night settled in, even without a campfire.

preparing the feast

Homemade chili heated in vintage cast iron warmed our insides. Finally, with the wind blowing in breathtaking gusts, an empty wine bottle, and total darkness, we looked at each other and laughed. The tent was an easy invitation to turn in.

snow starts, time to turn in

All night the wind moaned, circled and doubled back relentlessly. But we were snug as bugs. This time, the only outside noises were buffeting tent flaps noted briefly before turning over and settling back to sleep under layers of cozy warmth. 

Husband was up at early light to get the coffee started. It was a feat of expertise to keep the stove lit and protected from the high wind. But he did. Emerging from the tent, I took a photo of the moon above the trees.

daybreak

We cheered when the pot finally began percolating. Coffee was steaming and strong. Continental breakfast, camp style, was s’mores bars dipped in tin mugs. [recipe: Guest Ready Sweetness]

We could have stayed home. We could have sat by an indoor fire in a heated cabin with candles on the coffee table. But a pandemic with ongoing caution to remain hunkered down and distant from others invited us into the wilderness.  

So we found ourselves pitching a tent, in a remote campsite, in inclement weather, inside a slice of time with no past or future, only the present. A late autumn afternoon turned into evening, and then a new day. 

We chose to go deeper into the mountains and sleep on the ground with high winds as our companion. And while there, we let go and breathed deeply in the midst of life’s uncertainty.

Climb the mountains and 
get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you 
as sunshine flows through trees.
The wind will blow freshness into you,
and cares will drop away 
like leaves of Autumn. 
–John Muir 


Guest Ready Sweetness

hazy smoke sunset over Long’s Peak
blood red sunset due to nearby wildfire
smoky mountain views in RMNP [drone photo by Jeremiah Green]

To say it has been an atypical summer in the mountains is an understatement. Forest fires burning around us since July, ash and haze obscuring mountain outlines, no rain in three months, statewide fire ban, surging global pandemic, and a lack of visitors except for children and grandchildren.

rocks and a river

I’m more than ready for next season’s return to normalcy if it works out that way. By ready, I mean that I have three exceptional recipes to satisfy the sweet tooth of any person or group that drops by, sits around a campfire, or stays overnight.

idle campfire ring [drone photo by Jeremiah Green]

Maddy’s Caramel Bars, Patricia’s Double Chocolate Brownies with Sea Salt, and Jean’s S’mores Bars are unbeatable for chewable bites of sweetness cut out of a 9×13 inch-baking pan. 

As all great passed-on recipes should be, these come from stories about friends.

Last summer’s road trip in 2019 was to Maddy and Cabby’s cabin on the Methow River [A Guest Room Under the Porch] in eastern Washington State. Maddy is a great cook and hostess. Their log home, with overflow teepees and tents, is a revolving door of family and friends. She offered us her always-on-the-counter pan of caramel bars and said, “Try these. People love them! They are my go-to for company all summer long.” We sampled and agreed. Caramel bars with chocolate chips and pecans were prepared over and over for our own guests, with rave reviews.

Patricia, whom I have written about in several adventures, Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please, Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees] vacationed in Colorado in August. She rented a cabin bordering on the National Park just down the road from us. The double chocolate brownies she brought to our front porch originated from a friend in Wisconsin. Richly chewy, with texture from chocolate chips inside, these brownies are for every chocoholic. I switched out the garnish of powdered sugar for flaky sea salt sprinkled over the top. Et maintenant ç’est plus délicieux. Chocolate and salt can’t be beat. Except by caramel and salt. Or almost anything with salt. 

The last recipe came onto the scene this summer because of the harsh no burn season. We invited neighbors for a socially-distanced outdoor cookout around the fire ring. S’mores were requested for dessert. Except a campfire couldn’t be lit. Our friend, Jean, came bearing S’mores Bars baked in the oven and cut into bite-sized squares. These are even better than real s’mores, which often feature charred marshmallows blackened over red-hot coals. 

With baked s’mores you can revisit the original in one chewy, not overly sweet, bite of marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough over a graham cracker crust. There is melted chocolate on top so licking fingers is required. I substituted dark chocolate for traditional milk chocolate. [S’more better.]

baked s’mores

I’m anticipating the return of a next summer’s season of sequential guests. This winter while I drink coffee next to the picture window with the wide angle view of Long’s Peak, I will muse about the return of daily summer afternoon rainstorms followed by rainbows, campfires by sunrise, sunset, or moonrise, and baking pans full of dessert bars to sweeten everything that happens in between.


CARAMEL BARS  [Maddy Hewitt]

First Layer:

  • 1 C melted butter
  • 1 1/4 C flour
  • 1 1/4 C oats
  • 1 C brown sugar
  • 1 ¼ tsp baking soda

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Pour melted butter over and mix in. Reserve ¼ of the mixture for topping. Pat the rest into bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Bake 15 min. at 350 F. Cool 5-10 min.

Second Layer:

  • 1 bag Kraft Caramels, wrappers removed
  • 3 ½ Tbs butter
  • 3 Tbs cream [or Half & Half] 

Melt all together, SLOWLY, in cast iron skillet over low heat. Stir constantly. When melted, pour over cooled crust.

Third Layer:

  • 1 C semi sweet chocolate chips [or dark chocolate chips]
  • ¼ to ½ C pecan pieces

Mix together and sprinkle over caramel layer

Fourth Layer:

  • Using reserved crust mixture, sprinkle over the top of chips and pecans

Bake 10 min. more at 350 F. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Store in tins. Freezes well.


DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BROWNIES WITH SEA SALT FLAKES  [Patricia Green-Sotos]

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 C butter
  • 2 C granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 C flour
  • 12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 ½ C miniature marshmallows
  • Flaky sea salt crystals 
ingredients for brownies with sea salt [instead of powdered sugar]

Melt chocolate and butter slowly in a saucepan over low heat. When melted, add sugar and set aside to cool slightly. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in vanilla and flour. Mix well. Fold in chips and marshmallows.

Bake in a parchment paper lined 9 x 13 baking pan [or grease the pan] for 30-35 minutes at 350 F. Top may be bubbly. Don’t overcook. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and cool completely before cutting. Store in tins or plastic ware. Freezes great.


S’MORES BARS  [Jean Adam]

Crust:

  • 1 ½ sleeves graham crackers, crushed with rolling pin in zip-loc bag
  • 2/3 C melted butter
  • 1/3 C granulated sugar

Mix together and press into bottom of 9×13” pan lined with parchment paper. Bake 7 min at 350 F. Cool slightly.

Cookie Top:

  • 1 C butter softened to room temperature
  • ¾ C brown sugar
  • ¾ C white sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Cream together. Add: 

  • 2 eggs

Stir in:

  • 2 ¼ C flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda

Mix in:

  • 1 C semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
  • 2 ½ C mini marshmallows

Drop by large spoonfuls of dough carefully over crust and press into graham crackers without disturbing the layer underneath. Bake 15 min at 350 F or until golden brown on top. Quickly remove from oven and cover the top with broken pieces of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars. [2 large ones or 3 small]

Return to oven until chocolate melts ~ 3-5 min. Don’t overcook or let the top get too brown.

place broken chocolate bars over baked cookie dough layer
heat in oven just until melted

Cool completely before lifting parchment out of pan and cutting into small squares.

Refrigerate to slightly harden. Freezes well.

Summer’s End…

“It was now one of those moments when nothing remains but an opening in the sky and a story–and maybe something of a poem.”
–Norman Maclean, “USFS 1919-The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” from
A River Runs Through It

Rain Happened

It’s late summer in Estes Park, Colorado. Smoky haze from surrounding forest fires has begun to subside. Afternoon rain showers precede lower temperatures day and night. A bugling elk was heard from the open window last night. Change of season is near. 

Sunday afternoon. We spontaneously headed into Rocky Mountain National Park. A picnic supper was packed, and we set out to an undetermined location for sunset watching and contemplative time. 

This wasn’t our first venture in improvising an outing at the last minute. But it turned out to be a memorable one.

Moraine Park is a vast landscape with 360-degree wide-angle views. Elk herds typically congregate here during the rut, covering wide swaths of the meadow. It is still early for this so we looked for a scenic place to set up temporary camp.

The Big Thompson River flows east through Moraine Park, gurgling and sparkling and encouraging fishermen to cast lines in late afternoon sun. We spied an empty sandbar and a trail leading there. Pulling over, we walked to the water’s edge. 

The sandbar was wide and pebbled with small and medium sized rocks. Clear, shallow water curled around with soothing sounds. There were tall green reeds on the far side, shining in the sun, waving in the breeze. The river is narrow here but cold, as expected of mountain run-off streams.

Green folding camp chairs, a small oak table, a cooler and a basket of food completed the set up. We settled in and began with a toast to the sunset, to the high peaks, to living in such an incredibly beautiful natural environment, and to each other.

Up river from us, backlit by sunlight, a fly fisherman cast again and again. His wet line glistened and lashed out like horizontal lightening. It was perhaps too breezy for trout to bite, but the silhouette of his attempt was lovely.

Husband indulged with homemade pizza taken from the oven just before leaving home. There was farmer’s market arugula as salad on top. And, there was champagne because bubbles create an optimal accompaniment with pizza. [Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”] [Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt] A square of dark bittersweet chocolate accompanied last sips.

Clouds formed between the sinking sun and western mountains. Breezes blew them south and then new ones took their place. We settled in to see what would happen. 

Rain happened. A misty, silky, spotty rain destined to subside quickly. Reluctantly we began to pack up. 

Then, the almost certain finale to showers in the mountains lit up the sky behind us–a full rainbow that touched the meadow on both ends.

There it was–nature’s beautiful end to a serendipitous outing. It gave us more than we expected on a late August evening. 


day is done

Of Twins and ‘Tinis

It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins. –Chinese Proverb

when cowboys wore snow-boots on horseback

There is something about a Martini, a tingle remarkably pleasant, a yellow, a mellow Martini, I wish I had one at present.Ogden Nash

mellow martini with a view

Twins and martinis are an interesting study of compare and contrast. 

I’m married to an identical twin. He is ten minutes older than his brother. They learned to speak the mother tongue on the normal developmental curve, but retained a private language from the time they were infants until four-years-old. 

Look at identical twins. When you get closer, you start to see the small differences.Brian Swanson

still flying united

Placed in different classrooms in elementary school, their interests and friends diverged. One gravitated toward sports, fishing, and camping, the other to art, music, and drama. As adults, it is easy to identify who is who because hair parts are on opposite sides and voices differ, but they use identical hand gestures and are both creative leaders in their respective professions.

Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences and their brains are not wired the same way.John Medina

There are significant differences in food and taste preference in these twins. My husband’s brother eats coriander, both raw and cooked, while my husband vehemently pushes away any dish with a hint of it. In childhood, one twin developed a food allergy to shellfish, the other to fish with fins.

And then I stumbled onto the great martini divide, placing them firmly into polarized camps…

I’m not talking a cup of cheap gin splashed over an ice cube. I’m talking satin, fire, and ice, surgical cleanliness, insight and comfort, redemption and absolution. I’m talking MARTINI. –Anonymous

with a Capital “M”

In the late 1990s, my brother-in-law joined colleagues after work at a bar conveniently located on the ground floor of their office building in New York City. Martini culture was popular, and an architect he knew always ordered one. The bartender used a small aerosol bottle to spray vermouth inside the glass. Then he added a 50/50 ratio of gin and vodka. It was a memorable first martini because my brother-in-law despised it. Later, when he decided to try again, there was the same essence of vermouth spray followed by chilled vodka only. Thereafter, his go-to cocktail was born. 

During the same time period we were living overseas. My husband never drank distilled liquor, preferring wine or beer as a social beverage. Then, last summer in Colorado I began experimenting with “dirty” vodka martinis as a late-in-the-day-cabin-cocktail. He turned up his nose and stuck with wine. Dabbling with other recipes, I mixed vodka and gin. He agreed to taste, but only tolerated a few sips before a decided, “No thank you”. Several months later, experimenting again, I offered a pure gin concoction and substituted Lillet [a French aperitif wine from Bordeaux] for vermouth. He surprised us both by saying, “This could be my martini.” He is also big on multiple green olives as garnish.  

And so, with ongoing research, I discerned a new difference–to each twin, his own base spirit.

The iconic martini is never completely out of style. Yet it could be the most argued about drink in history because it comes in such a variety of variations. Amazing for a cocktail with only three parts:

  •  1. Base alcohol
  • 2. The ratio of spirit to vermouth
  • 3. Garnish 

Seemingly simple, yet every martini must be carefully created. Often it’s better not to order one in public. Most bartenders, unless you instruct them carefully, don’t have the time or inclination to make it to personal specifications. There is no right or wrong recipe. It’s just that the best martini is one made the way you like to drink it. Begin mixing at home.

home mix up line up

If someone says they hate martinis, it’s possible they never had a proper one. The disgruntlement is most often not with the gin or vodka. It is usually with the concentration of vermouth. 

A perfect martini should be made by filling a chilled glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy. –Noël Coward

For many martini lovers, the “right” proportion of vermouth to spirit is more art than science. An exact measurement can be difficult when it is more like a hint or a suggestion. Like the spritz my brother-in-law sprays inside his glass. Or the way Dukes Hotel Bar in London pours vermouth in and out of the glass. Whatever sticks inside is just enough. A fraction of the whole, the vermouth ratio can define or ruin a martini depending on your taste.

Vermouth should be used quickly. Some sources say within a month. Toss out those years-old-dusty-bottles on a shelf. Keep it cold. Never buy icky vermouth. Buy the smallest bottle of the best quality [not Martini & Rossi] and make great martinis.

The vermouth dilemma was solved at home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One half measure of this French invention offers smoothness not tasted with vermouth. I don’t know if vermouth really goes bad after a month, perhaps it’s that we don’t like it, but Lillet keeps in the refrigerator for a long time and is always just right. The point is, to each his own proportion of spirit to vermouth, or to Lillet, or to none.

It was Ian Fleming who introduced me to Lillet. In the 1953 novel, Casino Royale, James Bond invents the “Vesper”, named for a short-lived girlfriend:

“A dry martini,” he [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

–Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir”

the vesper dressed to kill

It was in Dukes Hotel, on tiny St. James Place, Mayfair London, where Fleming regularly consumed vodka martinis while writing his infamous 007 spy stories. Today, Dukes’ bar is an institution with an established reputation for creating great martinis. Head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, is Italian and has worked there for more than three decades. He says, “A martini is a drink that has to be strong and three ingredients only.” No chocolate, no espresso, no fruit additions make the cut. Their current signature drink has been around since the mid-1980s. Dukes is known for using a direct martini method, cutting out ice as middleman. After a thin wash of vermouth, already frozen gin or vodka is poured like syrup directly from bottle into glass. 

alessandro palazzi and the dukes’ vesper

There are martini snobs today who claim that Fleming’s British spy ruined the cocktail with his standard “shaken not stirred” preparation and for ordering vodka instead of straight gin. It’s remarkable that people not only target a fictional character with a cocktail crime, but that martinis still provoke argument 100+ years after being invented.

A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another. –Somerset Maughan

If you belong to the stirring-only-fan-club, mix ingredients in a container with ice for 30 seconds to bind and thoroughly chill. It will only be diluted a touch. If you shake, use plenty of ice and keep going until shaker is frosted over, your hand is frozen to the metal, and/or you felt a decent upper body workout. For the unprofessional, occasional imbiber there is no discernible difference in taste or chill factor with either method. We tend to go the shaken route because we like sipping through a sea of ice shards. 

Whether shaken or stirred, the “have to” of every martini is that it must be served extremely COLD.

The real key to a great martini is it should be all arctic, deliciously crisp… –Victoria Moore

Glassware can be freezer chilled or let ice cubes rest inside while ingredients are assembled. Also, consider the allure of the glass. A long stemmed V-shaped martini glass looks better in your hand than any other drinking receptacle. [Except for a champagne flute!] The conical shape allows olives to stand upright rather than clump unattractively in a heap. The stem protects cold glass from warm hands. The wide bowl opens the alcohol to air and makes it pleasantly aromatic, especially with gin.  

This is an excellent martini – sort of tastes…just like a cold cloud.Herman Wouk

a cold cloud on a hot day…

Dueling twin tastes parallel ongoing general public debate between classical gin martini lovers versus those who drink only vodka. I went to my own double sources to learn why each side aligns so dramatically this way or that.

Brother-in-law is a man who enjoys the peppery taste that certain vodka emits. Ketel One for everyday, Christiania–Norwegian potato vodka–on special occasions. He likes one spray of vermouth in his glass, replicating the method of the bartender who made his first martini. He believes gin tastes like fertilizer or moldy leaf compost.

Mr. Ketel One mixing his way

Husband who prefers gin says it has substance and tastes like earthy herbs and spices that linger on the palate. His current favorite is Fords Gin, known for its’ juniper essence. He likes a martini laced with Lillet rather than vermouth. He believes vodka tastes like lighter fluid.

There you have it–true twin diversity in taste and preference, martini style. In finishing the story, two final quotes from two favorite writers:

I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized. –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A well-made martini correctly chilled and nicely served has been more often my friend than any two-legged creature.M.F.K. Fisher

Civilized or not, friendly or not, it’s wise to be slightly scared of martinis. This is not a girly wine spritzer you can swill in multiple rounds when thirsty. This is an adult drink, a serious drink. This is a pond of pure booze in a glass and should be treated as such. For most of us, who inhabit a world with both civility and friendship, one martini is probably enough. Unless you happen to be drinking with twins…then, better make it a double.

4 MARTINI RECIPES

[Shaken or stirred, or eliminate ice with frozen gin or vodka & a very well chilled glass]

THE 007 VESPERTINI

[Disclosure: Impossible to replicate exactly as Bond created. Why? Gordon’s gin in 1953 was not the same gin as by that name now. Kina Lillet is no longer made either. Use a strong rather than a soft gin, Stoli vodka, white Lillet and a dash of bitters for the closest approximation.]

  • 2 shots gin of choice
  • 1 shot vodka [100 proof Stoli preferably]
  • ½ shot white Lillet
  • Optional: 2 dashes bitters
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with large twist of lemon peel

THE SIGNATURE LONDON DUKES HOTELTINI

  • Rinse a well-chilled glass with dry vermouth by pouring in and out
  • Add 5 shots [oh my!] of frozen gin or vodka
  • Express the oil from the peel of an organic, un-waxed Italian Amalfi Coast lemon over the top and then drop in as garnish
  • House rule–maximum 2 drinks only
  • Served with olives and snacks on the side
  • Customer has table rights all evening

THE MARK GINTINI

  • 3 shots Fords Gin or The Botanist Gin
  •  ½ shot white Lillet
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with minimum of 4 green olives on a stainless skewer
  • Float ice chips over the top

THE ERIK VODKATINI

  • 1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
  • 3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with lemon peel or burnt blood orange peel, olives if you must
“The Boys” back then…
and several years later…

There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared…twins. –Josh Billings

Hack #6: Quarantine Comfort Food

It’s the middle of April. There are eighteen inches of snow outside our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It’s stay-in-place quarantine time so there is nowhere to go anyway. 

We watched a coyote run by in the early morning hours yesterday, on the hunt for something to fill his stomach, followed by four more.

Today, a family of deer bedded down among the pine trees on the southern hillside. What we actually saw was heads and ears, their bodies completely blanketed in white powder like a downy duvet. 

The pine needles are so heavily laden that they create avalanches when they unburden themselves from the top, cascading down through lower branches in bulky snow burst plops.

All of this is pretty to look upon, but we must occasionally venture from the fireplace to don boots and hats and gloves and shovel out the drive, now a pileup growing foot by foot instead of inch by inch. Back inside, we shake off the snow and head to the kitchen. It’s time to refuel with something hot, hearty, and with ingredients almost always on hand. 

Our quarantine comfort food go-to is an improved reboot of a childhood staple–grilled cheese sandwiches. But this is not some processed-cheese-slices-between-layers-of-white-bread kind of sandwich. I’m talking Grilled Cheese. With caramelized onions, bacon, and fresh spinach on hearty rye or sourdough bread.

It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.


GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • Good Butter, European if possible
  • Grated mix of cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
  • Thick sliced bacon, if desired
  • Fresh baby spinach
  • 4 slices hearty bread such as rye or good sourdough

Preparation:

  1. Fry bacon slices [if using], set aside, and drain grease from pan.
  2. Add some butter to heavy skillet [cast iron!] and slowly sauté sliced onions over med-lo heat. Onions will brown slowly. Stir occasionally. It can take 20 minutes, so be patient. The crucial step is to caramelize those onions!
  3. Place grated cheese in bowl. 
  4. Add the browned onions and mix together thoroughly.
  5. Pile onion/cheese mix onto each slice of bread.
  6. Top with bacon [optional] and spinach [if you have it].
  7. Press sandwich halves together.
  8. In cast iron skillet, place sandwich into melted butter and heat to grill bread on both sides. It’s helpful to press down with heavy spatula to squish insides together. Turn over carefully.
  9. When bread is toast-y and cheese is melt-y, serve at once.

Enjoy with a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion or scallion, black olives, and feta or goat cheese. Glass of wine–always nice. 

Afterward, poke the fire, add some wood, lay down on sofa with a book or for a shelter-in-place power nap. 

Quarantine comfort eating is complete.


Colorado sunshine, blue skies

Why cast iron cookware rules in our home: care-about-cast-iron

We All Need the Eggs

This is a story about friendship. And eggs.

Many of the most rewarding relationships in my life are friendships formed when we lived in Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Our family friendship with the people in this story, Nancy, Maddy, and Cabby, began in Taiwan in the 1990s. We forged relationships in the midst of howling typhoons and bed-shaking earthquakes, during Thanksgiving pig roasts, in delivery rooms birthing babies, on hillside picnics with roaming water buffalo [transcendent-picnics], at uncountable dinner parties in each other’s homes, and on apartment rooftops. 

In 2018, we decided to have a reunion in Greece. Shortly before Easter, Nancy flew from New York to Paris where I was living. Together we traveled to Athens where Maddy and Cabby are now living.

In Greece, we shed our Asian history and jumped right into a mix of antiquity and contemporary adventures. As we climbed to the rooftop of their home, the Acropolis and Parthenon appeared stage center before our eyes. Hellooooooo Athina.

Acropolis and Parthenon, Athens 2018

Mornings began with breakfast carried to the roof–an image imprinted forever in my mind. Strong French-pressed coffee, a bowl of Greek yogurt with sour cherries spooned on top, a basket of buttered toast, hardboiled eggs. And that view…

streetscape on the plaka, athens
top of the acropolis
seaside, temple of Poseidon

Family and holiday traditions are often a shared experience with friends overseas. During the Taiwan years, when our children were young, Maddy and Cabby hosted an annual family-centered party at Easter time. Eggs, dyed and decorated, were hung from dried branches standing upright in a tall vase to form a colorful egg tree. Multiple families were invited. There was food and a ceremony involving candles and a song. Then the eggs were selected from the tree, one to each person, and taken home in carefully packed containers.

Twenty-five years later, Cabby was in the final phase of decorating 60 eggs hanging over the second floor balcony. I don’t mean simple-dipped-in-one-pastel-color-dyed eggs. I mean Eggs As Art.

sample of the 2018 egg line up
last step–lacquering

In the 1990s, decorating small bare tree branches as “Easter Egg Trees” became popular in the United States. In the Tennis/Hewitt family, the first egg tree was produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts when their first-born, Liza, was a toddler. It consisted of a single branch decorated with a few colored eggs taken to a party of graduate school friends.

Following graduate degrees and the birth of a second child, Maddy and Cabby moved to Taiwan. In succeeding years, their egg tree tradition was shared with international school families from Taipei, to Cairo, to Johannesburg, to Saudi Arabia. 

Watching the tradition unfold in Athens, I realized that an important annual event, merged with artistry, had created outreach and a ripple effect in international relationships. Families from different countries and cultures invited to the Egg Tree celebration often carried it forward. They began new traditions that passed on beyond the Tennis/Hewitt family.

Maddy inspires action. Cabby implements details. It’s one of the ways they complement each other. Together they prioritize the importance of nurturing the family they created with lasting traditions.

maddy inspires
cabby implements

Cab also has a knack for research and prototyping. Since crafting the first egg tree, he experimented and fine-tuned the “how to” process of taking a raw white egg and turning it into something spectacular. The steps from A to Z are not for the impatient or the faint of heart. But, the results are dazzling.

In the beginning, there was trial and error. He blew out the egg interiors as a first step only to realize that empty eggs don’t sink. There was year-by-year evolution, advancing the dyeing/waxing techniques used today. For example, randomly splattered candle wax creates only one type of pattern underneath–spots. So Cabby made small tools from toothpicks and wooden skewers that allow painting stripes, swirls, and even plaid patterns onto the shell with hot melted wax. Complexity and depth magically emerge after rounds of dyeing/waxing/dyeing/waxing on a single egg. Each egg reveals a surprise ending.

The bleaching process arose from a mistake of leaving an egg too long in one dye. Because it turned an ugly dark color, he wondered why not lighten it with bleach. A new step was added when he discovered bleaching enhanced the depth and range of dye colors.

Growing up overseas, the three Tennis children spent time around the table with their parents learning the egg dyeing craft. One Christmas, when they were older, each of them received a complete supply kit with containers, dye packets and tools to build their own egg tree and carry on the tradition after leaving home. 

Oldest son, Whiting, took on the challenge first as a university student. Now married and teaching in an international school overseas, he produces spectacularly decorated eggs and invites faculty families to participate in the Egg Tree Party. 

2020 egg tree

After Athens, I thought about the generosity of sharing this family-centered tradition all over the world and how comfortably it links people together in international communities. Cabby and Maddy exemplify a natural ability to build and create inclusiveness in every relationship.

The Tennis Family Egg Tree Tradition is one way this family has fostered love and respect in their global and personal relationships. It begins at home with a circle of people gathered around a bare branched tree covered with kaleidoscope colored eggs.

I’m reminded of the ending to the movie Annie Hall. The main character muses about the nuances of relationships, suggesting they are sometimes irrational, usually complex, and often absurd. He tries to sum up his feelings with a joke:

A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. The doc says why don’t you turn him in? The guy says, I would but I need the eggs. 

And, he’s right. We strive to hold onto each other in love, support and caring, because, actually, all of us…need the eggs.


 

This is the definitive “How-To” for dyeing and decorating eggs in the Tennis/Hewitt tradition. Instructions are by Cabby Tennis. There is minor editing on my part for clarity.

THE TENNIS FAMILY EGG TREE 

WHY GO TO ALL THIS TROUBLE FOR A FEW COLORED EGGS?

  1. It brings family and friends around the table working creatively together. 
  2. There is hands-on learning––coordination, art, safety, chemistry, physics, perseverance, patience and the final “wow” factor with each finished egg.
  3. There is grace and humility in overcoming a “Humpty Dumpty” moment of loss on the kitchen floor.
  4. It can become an annual family tradition.
  5. Eggs are beautiful.

GETTING STARTED

  1. Source dyes in craft shop or order online. Powdered dyes offer greater color variety. Suggested websites: Ukrainiangiftshop.com, BestPysanky.com, Ukrainianeggcessories.com
  2. Cover surface of worktable with taped together garbage bags, a vinyl tablecloth, or shower curtain liner. Layer of newspaper on top absorbs spills. Do not work over carpeting! Outside picnic table is ideal.
  3. Set up table with plastic gloves, liquid dye containers, plastic spoons, eggs, paper towels [pre-torn into a stack of single sheets], empty egg cartons, waxing tools [explained below], 3 bowls for bleach and rinse water, candles for waxing, small saucepan for hot melted wax, scissors, pen, scotch tape.
the set up

EGGS – Unstamped white eggs are best. Large [not XL] range free eggs tend to have stronger shells. Rinse under water–no soap. Eggs are dyed raw because they are heavier and will sink. Blowing them out comes later.

CONTAINERS FOR LIQUID DYES – Any glass jar [preferably with lid] such as jam jars, canning jars, etc. One plastic spoon per jar to prevent color mixing as eggs move between dyes. Leftover dye can be kept year to year, so save the jar tops. If not enough jars, use water glasses.

one spoon per jar, label with dye color, keep the lids

DYE MIXING – 1 packet powdered dye diluted with ¾-1 cup boiling water. Add 1 T. white vinegar. Apple or grape vinegar is ok. (Exception: No vinegar for orange dyes because they will curdle.] Follow package directions for diluting liquid concentrate dyes. Cut off color name from dye packet and tape on jar for reference.

WAXING METHODS 

  1. Partially used taper candles set into aluminum tea candle base for dripping or sprinkling wax over eggs.  
  2. A small saucepan with hot melted wax to use with tools [see below] or for complete immersion of egg into wax. Leftover candle remnants can be melted over low heat in saucepan on stovetop, camp stove, or hotplate. If no candles at home, purchase 2-3 thrift store pillar candles [any color] as melting base.

WAYS OF APPLYING WAX – Time to get creative. Holding a lit candle above egg, drip or shake/splatter wax onto shell. You can also use tools made from several toothpicks or split bamboo skewers bound with rubber bands to paint on wax. Repeatedly dip wooden tool into melted wax in saucepan, then touch or tap the egg with the tool. Egg color underneath the wax will be preserved and not take on next dye color. This is how you create different color patterns by waxing stripes, dots, or splatters on the dry egg. The number of colors on the egg depends how many times it goes through the cycle of 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry.

candle set up for waxing, wooden tools made from toothpicks and skewers

DUNK DYEING – Place waxed egg into any dye jar, then remove and gently dry with paper towel before waxing on a new layer of stripes or splatters. Repeat sequence as many times as you wish. Each wax application retains the color underneath it. Dyeing sequence is from light colors to dark. Begin with yellow [or any light color] moving toward darker colors each time you 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry. Creativity and patience are keys to this technique. 

BLEACHING as part of the dunk dyeing process – An optional but effective way to reverse the usual light to dark dyeing sequence. Bleach lets you cut through any final dye color [even black] that is un-waxed on the egg. Once the dark color is bleached, a lighter color can be dyed over it. This takes deft handling. Three bowls recommended. One with 1 part bleach to 2 parts water, and two [or 3] rinsing bowls with plain water. Dip the egg into bleach solution. Then move it through the rinse cycles, swirling thoroughly through each bowl. Egg continues to bleach with each step. Dry with paper towel. Note: The bleach will creep under some of the wax edges so be quick with the steps. You can do several rounds of 1. Bleach 2. Rinse 3. Dye 4. Wax 5. Dye and then repeat.

POWDER DYEING – This is a simple and efficient one step method to achieve beautiful eggs with the look of Monet water lilies or a ‘60s tie-dye experience. Eggs must be moist after soaking in plain water or liquid dye. Use leftover powder remnants [from envelopes used to make liquid dye] or open new ones specifically for this technique. With previously opened packets, write the color name on the outside to identify the powder inside.

METHOD FOR POWDER DYEING – Wearing clean, dry gloves lift a wet egg from bowl and hold each end between thumb and fingers. Tap the powder dye envelope against the egg to sprinkle grains onto the moist surface. Upon contact they will explode into fireworks shapes. Turn the egg and keep applying powder until it has the look you want. Use different colors, but be careful of combinations. Red, green and blue used together will turn brown. When desired color is achieved, quickly pat dry and immerse in saucepan of hot melted wax to seal. Or splatter with candle wax.

DE-WAXING EGGS – Wear gloves. Place used candle stubs or pillar candles into small saucepan over low to medium-low heat on stovetop. You need enough wax to completely immerse an egg. Have a stack of prepared paper towels nearby. With a slotted spoon, lower egg into the pan and stir gently, watching for wax coating to loosen and shed. [Stirring speeds up wax removal.] When the coating is clearly melted, add a second egg to the pan and lift first egg out. Rub loosened wax off first egg with paper towel. It should feel smooth with no rough spots and have a shiny patina. When wax in the pan starts to film over, time to re-heat on low temperature.

Safety note: Heat wax only until it liquefies. If it starts to smoke, it’s too hot and should be removed from heat. 

Economy note: Place the saucepan of wax in the refrigerator overnight. The solidified wax will pop out the next morning. Store for re-use the next year.

BLOWING OUT THE EGGS – Use a bellows type egg blower. Good source: Best Pysanky Egg Blower. With the awl that comes in the kit, make a hole in the exact bottom of egg the size of a wooden kitchen matchstick. The bellows pumps air in and forces white and yolk out the bottom hole. Be gentle. Take your time. Too much pressure and egg can explode. Use a paper clip or thin wire to break yolk or un-jam clogs as needed. Do this in rounds, about 10 eggs in a round, letting each egg sit upright between rounds so gravity can help the insides move to the bottom. Next, do a “gravity shake”. Holding egg upright in fingers, firmly and repeatedly whack your wrist against the tabletop onto a paper towel. When drips emerge from bottom of egg, blow it out again. Repeat until nothing comes out of egg and it feels light and empty. Finally, carefully use the awl to make a hole the size of a thick paperclip in the top center of egg. This is where knotted string will be attached later.

BAKING THE HOLLOW EGGS – This removes the final film of wax and bakes inside of eggs to prevent spoiling. In a preheated metal pan, place 6 eggs at a time on their sides. Make sure both ends of egg are open and unplugged or egg can explode in the oven. Bake at 350 F for 4 minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn. Remove from oven and cover pan with foil or kitchen towel to retain heat. Place next pan of eggs in to bake. Quickly rub each baked egg with paper towel to remove any wax residue before it cools.

STRINGING THE EGGS – Use thin string such as dental floss or embroidery thread. Tie a knot and create a loop where the size of the knot barely fits inside top hole of egg. Hold the knot against the hole, and gently push it inside the egg with a paper clip.  Expand hole with the awl if necessary. Line up strung eggs for gluing. One by one squirt a tiny dab of super glue into the hole. This affixes knot inside the egg. Let eggs rest on their sides [string parallel to table top] while glue dries. Avoid getting too much glue on the string above the egg as it will dry stiffly and can snap like a twig over time.

HANGING AND FINAL CLEANING OF EGGS – String a rope where eggs can be suspended at least 6 inches apart. Use large paper clips or loops of wire to attach eggs to rope. If inside the house, place drop cloths below to catch drips. Wear gloves and use a soft cloth to gently wipe each egg all over with paint thinner [white spirits in Europe]. Dry with another soft cloth to remove any residual wax. Let stand for 30 minutes. This step speeds up drying time of the lacquer.

LACQUERING THE EGGS – Use clear polyurethane [Varathane] or Spar Varnish to seal eggs and enhance colors with a durable finish coat.  Varnish can be satin or gloss finish. [Cabby prefers gloss.] Dip fingers into the urethane and rub each egg, coating from top to bottom. Dab off accumulated drips with paper towel. Lacquer can take 1-3 days to dry. Eggs kept year to year can be re-lacquered annually. The Tennis family has one egg, “Jungle Book”, with over 15 coats and a deep hard shine.

NAMING [Optional, but great fun] – Give each egg a creative name–something it reminds you of. Examples from the 2020 collection: The Duke of Earl, Violet Sultana, Jigsaw Cyan, Fly Like an Eagle, Calypso, Sgt. Pepper, Tetherball, Clouds of Mercury, Purple Reign, Gilly Spring

BEST EGG TREES – Made with dry sticks or branches with many limbs. Bougainvillea branches are excellent. Bind branches with string or zip ties and place in a large vase or container, preferably metal. Fill with rocks/pebbles to keep branches secured and centered. Hang eggs in a pleasing arrangement.

THE EGG GIFTING TRADITION – Invite families with young children to your home. Have an Easter reading about the historic symbolism of eggs, the season of spring and renewal, or related meaningful traditions. Light hand held candles one by one around the circle, and sing, “This Little Light of Mine”. Pass a bowl of folded bits of paper with numbers on them. Eggs are chosen from the tree in numerical order. [Parents sometimes trade numbers so children can pick earlier.] Number 1 leaves the room after pre-selecting an egg in their mind. The group tries to guess which egg will be chosen. #1 returns, removes their egg and the sequence continues. The key is to keep the pace going without dampening the enthusiasm of conjecture. 

Egg cartons are filled with selected eggs for each family to take home. 

A new egg tree tradition begins.


Cabby has additional details such as video clips of different stages of the process and a movie of the complete 2020 egg line up with names included. For more information, contact: windowtoalifeoverseas@gmail.com

metropolis sprawl, athens
still life with chop

Ode to My Paris Kitchen

I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.

With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.

A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house. Michael Ruhlman

The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. Joy Harjo

Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.

From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.

Good kitchens are not about size.Nigel Slater

My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.

informal dining
courtyard from kitchen eating area

To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.

During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.

By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.

olive tree view
window meditation

I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what.Alice Waters

During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.

My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things. 

There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful.M.F.K. Fisher

During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.

chopping block with a view

This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.

adam, anna, and leila in paris for the holidays, 2017

You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens. Trisha Yearwood

Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. [love-and-layers-of-lasagne] She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.

The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.Laura Esquival

Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development.Laura Esquival

People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup.  Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.

True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal. Mehmet Oz

These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.

Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.


I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment.M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf


Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food

Ingredients:

  • Good Olive Oil
  • 1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
  • 4-5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 C. dry red wine
  • 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1# dry pasta, any kind
  • 1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
  • 1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
  • 1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
  • Fresh parmesan

Assembly:

Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.

Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.

Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.

Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

My Brief Stint With the CIA

A Hollywood movie was released in 1998 called Sliding Doors. It’s a romantic comedy in which the plot alternates between story lines depending on whether the female character jumps through a closing subway door and catches the train or misses it entirely.  

The concept of “sliding doors” is life’s trajectory. Even mundane moments of decision-making can alter future outcomes. We all think about what might have been if we had chosen differently in our lives.

I wonder if we sometimes pass through sliding doors completely unaware. When what we are doing is different than what we think it is. When someone else chooses for us.

It helps to have an active imagination.

For example, I could have been recruited as a CIA operative earlier in life, making a conscious choice to jump through that door. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the CIA found me.

In the early 1990’s, I was married and raising two young children with a husband working in Nicosia, Cyprus.  We had a friend I will call “John”. His job was with the “State Department” in the U.S. Embassy. We assumed he was part of the CIA desk because he made extensive trips throughout the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Also, he never talked about his work.

John was a foodie before the term was common in popular culture. He relished good food and wine, and was knowledgeable about both. When he wasn’t out of town gathering information and following leads, he enjoyed long lunches at his favorite Italian restaurant, La Romantica. The owners knew him well. They were cued to his wine preferences and shared what was fresh on the menu. He always reserved the same corner table.

As John often entertained visitors, he began inviting me to join his lunch gatherings. I had no idea who any of the guests were, met them only once, never saw them again. It was always new people from different countries and cultures. At first, I thought I was rounding out the table for some good food and conversation with a friend and his clients.

I can talk to just about anyone in a social setting, even people I don’t know, by asking a question that leads to a further question. “Tell me about…” followed up with  “And what about…?” A slight nod and unwavering eye contact helps people go on and on with their stories. 

As a conversational skill, the focus is on the talker. Begin with one searching question, followed by the next, and then another.  Sometimes people share more than intended. Perhaps John knew I naturally asked a lot of questions. What I noticed about him was that he hardly said anything at all. He just listened. 

Oh, he ordered bottles of wine for the table, joked with the chef and his wife and made recommendations about food. Otherwise, he quietly took in what people were saying, what they were telling me.

After several lunches, I began to wonder if I was gathering info for his professional files instead of being a good guest chatting up sophisticated visitors. The thought escalated after my husband asked, “Do you ever wonder why John invites you to lunch with people you don’t know?”

Eventually the lunch crowd thinned and the restaurant emptied, but our table remained intact. There was no mention of needing to vacate the space. This should have been my cue to excuse myself so John and his guests could get down to “real business.” If non-verbal cues were signaled, I missed them.

Instead, I busied myself a different way. Over the course of four, and sometimes five-hour lunches, I became familiar with Romantica’s owners who invited me into the kitchen for a mini-cooking lesson. With hindsight, Signor and Signora “Romantica” were probably in on the gig, too. Allowing John some professional space in the front of the house while they tried to beef up my cooking skills in the back of the house.

I have often said that I am not a natural born cook. Eating well is important, but I love when someone else is in charge of the preparation of a good meal. Still, I learned two memorable recipes from my post-lunch lessons.

The first was how to make a fresh tomato sauce from the beautiful, deep red, Cypriot tomatoes. It begins with removing the skins by dropping them into boiling water. After de-skinning, it is basically a stir-fry for about 20 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, fresh basil leaves added at the end. The eye-closing-wonderful-taste of this simple sauce, with any pasta, has everything to do with tomatoes grown in ancient soil, ripened in blazing hot Mediterranean sun. I found it difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The second thing I learned was how to prepare my favorite order at Romantica; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. This became one of my comfort foods–spaghetti with garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. It’s a fast prep made as easily for dining solo as for a crowd. 

If the afternoon wore on toward 4:00 or 5:00PM, my husband and John’s wife would show up, their working day ended. They wondered why lunch had stretched into the apéro hour, but sat down as John ordered a final round of wine before we all headed home.

What they didn’t realize was that I had completed another assignment of covert information gathering as a CIA volunteer.

Well, anyway, all imagining aside, what those lunches provided was a set of skills that served me for the rest of our years overseas. With insightful questions, I learned to navigate, and [mostly] enjoy, large social gatherings where I didn’t know anyone.

I’m not wild about stand-up cocktail parties, shoulder-to-shoulder receptions, huge galas, or fancy dancing balls. But we participated in all of these during 31 years overseas. Many times. Gearing up for such events was less formidable when I realized I didn’t have to talk to every person or “work the whole room” as my husband did naturally and very well.

My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without idle mingling and wishing to kick off high-heeled shoes. Thus, my brief interrogation stint with the CIA had a positive afterlife.

Life’s opportunities come and go. Whether we decide to enter a door as it opens, or miss it and choose the next–there is always an experience or an unexpected something that follows.  

Overseas living was a sliding door of opportunity for us. The courage to jump [blindly] was necessary only once.  With the next international job and the next, we understood that our family unit would remain tight and our collection of memorable stories would continue to grow.

However, I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which briefly opened for me personally. Riding horses in my 20’s, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel flexibility and hinted of excitement, risk, adventure.

Now there’s another story ending to imagine…


SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 1/3 C. good olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • ½-1 C. flat-leaf parsley or baby spinach, coarsely chopped
  • 1 C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
only 6 ingredients: red pepper, olive oil, parsley, garlic, parmesan and spaghetti

Preparation:

  • Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ C. pasta water.
  • Heat olive oil in large saucepan. 
  • Sauté red pepper flakes with garlic until garlic just begins to brown.
  • Stir in the reserved pasta water.
  • Add the cooked spaghetti and heat through, mixing all together.
  • Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Use additional parsley and Parmesan as garnish.
  • If you don’t like spice, leave out the pepper flakes and you have spaghetti aglio e olio.
comfort food garnished with extra cheese and parsley
or a whole meal with spinach salad, wine, and candles

Addendum:

Some Italian lineages say never use Parmesan on any pasta dish with an oil base. Parmesan is for tomato sauces. Signora Romantica was of that tradition. But we love Parmesan and made it our own addition.

Other stories of friends and adventures in Cyprus [with recipes, too]:  

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

Hellenic Halloumi

Hack #5: Finally, The Best Salad Dressing Ever

In our family, birthing babies and salad dressing share a story. It began three and a half years ago after the birth of a first grandchild and my small role in helping feed tired and hungry parents. Babies and Rice So Very Nice

still tired but photogenic several weeks later [2016]

Recently, I learned something new about dressing a salad from an article about an Italian restaurant in New York City. With a surprise ingredient [warm water] and a special twist in the assembly, there is now a best-ever-homemade-green-salad-dressing to have on hand in the home refrigerator. This one tops them all. So dump those bottles of preservative laden grocery store sludge.

Full disclosure: I have poached and improved a recipe from Via Carota resto in Manhattan’s West Village. The New York Times article stated that people who ordered the “Insalata Verde” swore the dressing was delicious enough to eat on its’ own by the spoonful. I had to see what the fuss was about.

Via Carota, NYC

Via Carota is a charming Italian restaurant featuring exposed brick, cozy wood, and ambient decor. There are no reservations. Since the article appeared in the newspaper, it is always packed. Plan on waiting for a table or try to slip onto a stool at the bar.

I invited my Manhattan based sister-in-law to join me for lunch. We decided to split the “Insalata Verde” as it is a veritable mountain of fresh greens, enough for two, or more, people. We were deep in conversation when the salad arrived.

the infamous green salad at Via Carota

Digging in, we continued talking until I finally blurted out, “Let’s debrief this dressing. All I taste is oil and salt. Where are the other flavors? I wouldn’t eat this with a spoon, even metaphorically.” 

Too much oil, too much salt, but an inspiring blend of other ingredients is the reason a well-publicized recipe from a popular NYC restaurant became an even better one in my own kitchen.

The ingredients are common. And usually found in most home pantries. Well…except, perhaps, for aged sherry vinegar and shallots.

There are a couple of quirks in assembling the dressing. The first is to rinse minced shallots in cold water. Second is to add one tablespoon of warm water to the vinegar and shallot mix and let sit briefly. And third, the greens should be slightly damp before dressing them. For this, a salad spinner is handy.

Use any amount of the freshest greens you can find. A hearty combination of butter lettuce, endive, romaine, red leaf lettuce, watercress, spinach, arugula, and/or the jumbo mixed box of salad found in every supermarket.

The recipe makes enough for more than one use, unless you are preparing salad for a crowd. Stored in the refrigerator it tastes even better the next time. And the time after that.

The tweaks I made to the Via Carota recipe are minimal. Cut the oil, double the garlic, adjust the salt. Modify to your own tastes. Get creative and spoon it over vegetables, or meat, or inside a sandwich as the bread spread.

This dressing is loaded with substance in the form of solid bits of shallots and mustard seeds. The small addition of warm water softens the vinegar edge and smoothes the blended flavors harmoniously, making it sublime.

As a final editorial, here are the three reasons you never need store bought dressing.

  1. Ten minutes of delicious homemade dressing preparation is a good use of time.
  2. Dinner guests and family will rave about a simple green salad. Every single serving.
  3. With a jar already in the refrig, meal planning is simplified.

At the very least, make the Best Green Salad Dressing Ever, just once. Then you will understand the urge to dip in and eat it off a spoon.


BEST GREEN SALAD DRESSING EVER

Ingredients:

  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 2 T. plus 1tsp. aged sherry vinegar 
  • 1 T. warm water
  • ½ C. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 ½ tsp. whole-grain mustard [with seeds]
  • 1 ½ tsp. honey [optional, but I always use it]
  • 2 sprigs thyme, washed and stripped [or use dried thyme leaves]
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely grated 
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
E-V olive oil, aged sherry vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, S & P, garlic, shallot
minced shallot and grated garlic

Preparation:

  1. Wash the greens in cold water and discard any stems or brown pieces. Spin in salad spinner, wrap in clean dishtowels, and set aside.
  2. Rinse finely minced shallot in mesh strainer under cold water. Drain. Place in a bowl.
  3. Add sherry vinegar and the tablespoon of warm water. Let sit for two minutes.
  4. Whisk in oil, mustards, honey, thyme, grated garlic, and a pinch of salt.
  5. Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as needed. [Using these measurements, I have not found it necessary to adjust anything.]

Serving:   

Place prepared greens in a large serving bowl and drizzle dressing over, tossing to lightly coat. [I don’t like a heavy coating of dressing, so drizzle to your taste.] Generously grind black pepper over the top. Toss again. Taste and serve.

Refrigerate remaining dressing in a glass jar. If the refrigerator temperature is very cold and the olive oil has slightly solidified when you want to reuse, let sit at room temperature for a couple minutes, shake it up, and it’s good to go. 

leftovers for another day

A Guest Room Under the Porch

Summer at our cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains began in June this year. 

A guest I wasn’t expecting had already arrived. Stepping onto the covered front porch, a young deer with budding antlers leapt out from underneath my feet. He had moved in below the decking, among rocks laid down years ago.

The buck didn’t venture far, sticking close to nearby pine trees, pretending to graze and glance silently at me. Over the course of days, I became familiar with his routine and he with mine.