When living in France, as we did for eight years, you learn there is no such thing as Bastille Day. Instead, “la Fête nationale” or “le 14 juillet” is the national public holiday celebrated on July 14 everywhere in France and in many places around the world. The date is never changed to make it convenient to a long weekend. It’s that important. Like 4th of July, Christmas Day, and New Years’ eve.
The 14th of July is the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution when the common people revolted against their king, Louis XVI, and the French aristocracy. In 1789, economic conditions in France were in crisis and tensions were nearing a breaking point. People were fed up and unable to afford daily bread.
The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison that held political prisoners with no hope of pardon or freedom. It was also thought to contain munitions and gun powder. A crowd of angry citizens stormed inside the Bastille, freed the few [only 7 at the time] who were imprisoned, but found no guns. It was a compelling action and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2010, we were living on the 5th floor of a small apartment building in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, on avenue de la Motte Picquet. Tall multi-paned windows opened like full length doors onto the street below. There was a direct view of the top third of the Eiffel Tower in the park of Champs de Mars. For five minutes every night, at the top of the hour, from dark until midnight we watched thousands of lights twinkling on la Tour Eiffel. It charmed our guests and was a spectacular display we never tired of during two years in the neighborhood.
What we did tire of was perpetual plumbing problems ancient apartment buildings in Paris are prone to. It’s all part of 19th century architectural charm. But still. Leaks from above dripped through our ceilings and light fixtures or down walls. After a middle of the night broken pipe in the wall of our unit flooded apartments one and two floors below, it was time to try our luck elsewhere in the city.
But for two summers, living near the Champs de Mars, we adventurously celebrated la Fête nationale far above the crowds amassed for the fireworks display along the river Seine. With the best seats in town.
French neighbors who lived in the apartment above ours shared the idea because they said the entire building would be deserted by early evening. And they weren’t going to try it themselves.
There was a tiny one-person-sized elevator in the back of the building that accessed 7th floor apartments. These “chambres de bonne” were maid’s quarters in another century. But in this century they made for inexpensive living, like a one room studio. The ceiling in the hallway of 7th floor had a trap door to the roof eight floors above the street.
By removing the ladder attached to the wall and climbing up to the hinged glass door, it was possible to unlatch and fold it back onto the metal roof. We came prepared. One backpack carried chilled champagne and glass flutes, crudités, and salty snacks. Another held big camera equipment. This was not a party for cell phone photography.
We gingerly situated ourselves on the angled roof near some chimney stacks and away from the sloping edge, set up the picnic, toasted a new adventure, waited for darkness and the show to begin.
We had a bird’s eye top-of-the-world view, albeit a bit precarious. Tiptoeing back up the roof and descending the ladder was another intrepid experience, but no one was the wiser. For two memorable years we managed to enjoy le 14 juillet festivities with a private rooftop party in magnificent Parisian scenery.
I’m reminded this week, on July 14, of the sacrifices French citizens made 233 years ago to spur change and move an entitled monarchy to a democratic republic for all.
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.
It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins.–Chinese Proverb
There is something about a Martini, a tingle remarkably pleasant, a yellow, a mellow Martini, I wish I had one at present. –Ogden Nash
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
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
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
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.
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 then 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 in our home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One 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.”
“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”
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 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.
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 feel 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 extremelyCOLD.
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 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
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 one way or another.
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.
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. It 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.
[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
Garnish with large twist of lemon peel
THE SIGNATURE LONDON DUKES HOTEL MARTINI
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
1 shot white Lillet
Garnish with minimum of 3 green olives
Float ice chips over the top
THE ERIK VODKATINI
1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
Garnish with lemon peel or burnt blood orange peel, olives if you must
There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared…twins. –Josh Billings
Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza. When tomato was added to flat bread in the late 18th century, pizza, as we know it today, was born. If you go to Naples, you will certainly enjoy eating pizza on a cobblestoned street after touring the Amalfi coast and the dusty excavations in Pompeii. Then fly out the next day. Naples is not an easy city.
Pizza ranks high as a favorite food all over the world. You can order in, carry out, or enjoy at your neighborhood spot. However, I don’t eat restaurant pizza anymore, except in Italy, because my husband learned to make perfect pizza dough at home. His finesse began with a friendship of mine.
My husband enjoys creative time in the kitchen. Not everyday. But when people come to our home he will go to finicky recipe extremes. I call it performance cooking. Guests love it. Each course is beautifully plated and presented with a detailed description of what goes into whatever is being served.
His foray into kitchen time began when we lived in Taiwan. Home dinner parties were an almost every weekend event. This, in contrast to meeting up with friends in fluorescent lit, Formica tabled, disposable chopstick, plastic plate restaurants circa 1990s.
We did that often, as well, because the food in Taiwan is fresh and delicious. However, it wasn’t a place for long, conversation filled evenings with good wine and food, heavy china, linen napkins, and candles flickering down the middle of the table.
One of our family rituals while the children were growing up was to have a formal Sunday night dinner. Husband was in charge of menu planning, shopping and meal prep. I laid the table with the “fancier” china and flatware. Son and daughter were on cleanup and some form of “presentation” as entertainment. Those responsibilities worked some of the time.
My friend, Linda, is a Midwestern ex-pat who moved to Taipei with her family several years after our arrival. We became fast friends with husbands and children joining in. Linda’s Sunday night family ritual was making homemade pizza. Her youngest daughter liked to participate by carefully rolling out the dough, just so. Her two teenagers showed up for the eating part.
When she made pizza for guests, I discovered my favorite Linda-topping-recipe. It was always this: the thinnest crust, basil pesto sauce, toasted pine nuts, sliced garlic and fresh chili peppers with grated Parmesan cheese over the top.
Along the way, a quirky tweak was added to her recipe because of an Italian chef named Max, who found himself temporarily employed in a Taipei restaurant. He left Barbados for one year while the hotel where he worked was being renovated. What he loved about the Caribbean was the warm, turquoise colored water and beautiful beaches. Max found Taiwan on a map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily cook and still be near sand and water. That didn’t exactly work out. Not much white sand and blue water in Taipei.
Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers after the kitchen closed. When Linda mentioned she often made pizza from scratch at home, he told her the secret for the “best pizza dough”. It was a tip from his Italian mama.
Don’t add salt right away. Wait at least 20 minutes to let the yeast, sugar and warm water begin their bubbly reaction. Yeast reacts better without salt added until later. It creates more pliable and elastic dough. From a mother in an Italian village, to a beach loving chef in Taiwan, to an American home cook, here was insider pizza chemistry.
Before Linda left Taiwan, I wrote down her dough recipe with Max’s tweak. I’m the basic kind of cook rather than the finicky kind, so it was filed away and several years went by. Children left home. A new job with new geography moved us out of Asia.
With only two at the table, formal Sunday dinners faded away. We ate out more often because it was Europe! Germany! Restaurant atmosphere was charming. And the food didn’t disappoint.
Sundays in Germany are quiet. Everything closes from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Pulling out Linda’s recipe, I waved it in front of my husband and suggested, “We need a new Sunday eating ritual. I love Linda’s pizza. Why don’t you learn to make it?”
And so, my man began kneading and punching and creating homemade dough with puffs of flour in the air and a rolling pin in hand. Sunday night became Pizza Night. It worked when there was just the two of us. It worked as a night for entertaining guests. It worked as a Christmas Eve meal for a crowd.
From rustic Naples centuries ago, to an ex-pat friendship in Taiwan, to a displaced Italian chef and his mother, to a man who found contentment in mixing flour, water, yeast and salt into elastic dough, a new family tradition was formed. Linda’s pizza became ours.
We have made it for family, and for people from cultures around the world. In whatever geography we find ourselves, and in the midst of complexity and the rush of life, we always wait twenty minutes. And then add salt.
MARK’S PIZZA CRUST
Yield: 4, 15-inch or 6, 12-inch pizzas
2 packages active dry yeast
1 t. sugar
2 C. semolina flour–mix in first [optional, but a good Italian touch]
3 C. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
2 t. salt
Olive oil for coating bowl as dough rises and for pizza pans
Place 2 C. warm water [110-115 degrees F.] in small mixing bowl.
Stir in 1 t. sugar. Then sprinkle in yeast. Stir to combine.
Set aside for at least 20 minutes, letting it expand and bubble.
After 20 minutes, combine flours, salt and yeast mixture in a large bowl. If using semolina flour, stir in first, then add the rest.
When dough becomes difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, turn out of bowl onto a lightly floured smooth surface.
Begin kneading by hand. Add small amounts of flour, as needed, so dough is not sticking to hands and surface.
Knead at least 10 minutes, squeezing and folding dough over on itself, pushing with heels of both hands. I like to pick the dough up and throw it down hard onto kneading surface several times. Husband likes punching it.
When dough becomes smooth and elastic, form into a ball.
Lightly wipe a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl. Turn once to coat both sides in oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
Set aside to rise 45 min. to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
Punch down, reshape dough, and cover. Let it rise once or twice more as you wish. It’s not necessary to do multiple risings, but time gives more structure and flavor to the dough.
Preheat oven to 465 degrees F.
Wipe or spray pizza pans lightly with olive oil. Optional to sprinkle pans with semolina flour.
Roll out sections of dough as thinly as possible to fit prepared pans.
Arrange toppings on dough. Less is more with homemade pizza. This keeps crust from becoming soggy and heavy.
Bake in preheated oven to desired doneness. Start checking at 10-12 min. Watch the edges so they don’t get too brown.
Remove from pans and cut into slices. Kitchen scissors work great.
Individual preferences rule
Allow guests to create their own pizza topping combination
Toppings and Sauce suggestions: light brushing of red pesto, basil pesto, tomato sauce or olive oil over unbaked dough
Thinly sliced [or diced] garlic cloves–always
Red pepper flakes or sliced fresh chili peppers–optional
Meat–chicken, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage
Or no meat
Roasted vegetables such as eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower
Raw veggies like sweet peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onions or shallots
Toasted pine nuts
I like freshly grated Parmesan, only, over top of ingredients.
Husband mixes a little fresh buffalo mozzarella, or goat cheese, or mixed grated cheeses with a topping of Parmesan.
Fresh arugula or baby spinach strewn over cooked pizza adds a bite of salad and green. Add before serving or let people help themselves table side.
Champagne is our pizza beverage of choice. There is some kind of chemistry going on there too. In your home, family choice rules.
Practice makes perfect. Play with proportions until you are comfortable with the sequence of steps. You won’t need a recipe if you make it regularly.
This makes a LOT of dough, which is efficient for later use.
It freezes well in zip lock bags and thaws easily. Place in refrigerator overnight or on the countertop until soft.
Roll out on lightly floured surface and proceed with toppings.
…Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times,to start a new life…to embrace onepossibility after another…that is surely the basic instinct…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson
In 1989 Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to define an essential zone separate from home and the people you live with [“first place”] and work [“second place”]. Third place is your hangout, an informal social space with no dress code and a welcoming vibe that invites you to return again and again.
A third place is also one’s anchor to community life. You are drawn to it because it is socially fun, playful, and light-hearted. It’s where you go to chew the fat, discuss issues, ventilate, play games, or get to know someone. It is “…where you relax in public, encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.”
Third place is like pitching a tent in your back yard. It is home away from home.
When life opportunities create a geography change and your third place is left behind, it’s important to find a new one. And if what you are looking for can’t be found after searching, a creative instinct might emerge “…to start a new life…to embrace one possibility after another”.
This is Kyle’s story. He grew up in Kansas, in the heartland of America. From the age of five, he began drawing images–people, animals and made up characters. Riding in the car during family vacations, he drew the storylines from books-on-tapes while the rest of the family listened. While still a high school student, Kyle knew he would pursue an artistic course of study at university. He graduated in Fine Arts and Graphic Design.
In 2006, Kyle’s first job took him away from home and long-term friends to Fort Collins, Colorado. He started out living in the basement of a relative’s house. It was isolating for a young man. He needed friends his own age and a place to socialize with them.
A booming craft beer industry was the catalyst for many microbrewery openings in Fort Collins. Kyle found his “third place”, along with a friendly social circle, in the evolving scene.
Later, in a widening circle of mutual friends, Kyle met Lara. They enjoyed camaraderie in the breweries, but also shared a strong sense of community service. Together they coached Special Olympic basketball and softball for disabled adults.
When Lara accepted a new job in another state, Kyle’s mother said, “I thought he would never leave Colorado. So when he followed Lara to Kansas City, I knew she was the one he would marry.” They did.
In 2014, the craft brewery scene in Kansas City, Missouri was not as mature as the one left behind in Colorado. Lara and Kyle searched but couldn’t find the informal, social environment they were looking for in their new hometown.
Creative “can do” instincts took over. Kyle had experimented with beer making in the past. Now he became serious, bought equipment, and began home brewing in the basement. He went to weekend fairs, gave away samples, and won some tasting competitions, too. Feedback was consistent and positive.
He read book after book about the chemistry of beer making, industrial brewing equipment, hops and grains and flavor additives as well as how to open a small business. He enrolled in the American Brewer’s Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program. The final weeks of coursework were on site in Vermont.
Kyle befriended local KC brewers by cold calling them. He volunteered to work one day each week to help them brew commercial batches. He gained knowledge and a warm welcome into the community of micro-brewers. By now an idea was actively fermenting.
Over the next couple of years, Kyle and Lara drafted a business plan, found real estate property to buy, cultivated investors, and a bank loan. In a former commercial garage space, Kyle designed a back-of-the-house brewery with a front-of-the-house taproom. Doing most of the interior construction, alongside family members who pitched in time and expertise, Lara and Kyle founded a craft brewery on the principle of creating a social community space and then giving back to it.
In early February 2018, Casual Animal Brewing Company opened its’ doors at 1725 McGee Street in the Crossroads area of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their signature motto is: “Laid back beers that tap into your wild side.”
Casual Animal runs eleven full taps. Each has its’ own beer style, name, and an original logo of Kyle’s design. Animals are a recurring theme. Names are metaphorically linked to the style of brew. Customer favorites include Chaos Monkey [a banana cream pie ale], to Honey Wheat light ale, Nomo Rhino IPA, Branch Out Stout, and Hop The Fence IPL.
rotating t-shirt and hat designs by kyle
brewery paintings by kyle
art graphic wallpaper
designed by kyle
Tying into Kyle and Lara’s commitment to community service, Casual Animal taps into the ethic of “giving back” by designating a rotating beer called Local Motive. The beer style changes quarterly along with the charitable organization the staff votes on to support. Two dollars of every pint of Local Motive sold is donated. In-house events promote the spirit of the current charity.
The most recent charity promotion was the Kansas City Pet Project, a nonprofit pet shelter that guarantees every stray animal a home. Kittens and puppies were brought into the brewery for customers to play with and cuddle. A completely contagious combination–adorable baby animals plus eleven beer styles equals fun AND donation success!
KC Pet Project nite
Unless you are a real brewer, all there is to know about the process of grain and hops and water turning into deliciously drinkable beer is the basics of what happens in Casual Animal’s back room. Inside a series of huge shiny stainless steel tanks, Kyle’s chemistry know-how is mixed with the help of fermentation, time…and recipe magic.
Hot Liquid Tank water is piped into the Mashtun Tank where grains are mixed together and cooked. Next, this mash up is transferred to the Brew Kettle where hops [and sometimes other flavors] are added. After time in the Kettle, the liquid is piped into the Fermenting Tank, leaving behind all the grain residue. Now yeast is added and fermentation begins. This takes approximately two weeks depending on the kind of beer. From the Fermentation Tank, beer is transferred to the Brite Tank for carbonation and clarifying. And finally, kegs are filled and stored in the massive walk-in refrigerator that feeds the taps at the front-of-the-house. 217 gallons of beer per brew.
dividing brewery from taproom
kyle on brew day
hot liquid tank
mashtun mixes grains with water
brew kettle where hops added
fermentation tanks plus one brite tank
grain residue inside brew kettle
cleanup takes longer than brewing
removing grain mash which is picked up by local farmer for animal feed
Cycle complete. As for the magic? Well, every time I sip Casual Animal’s velvety dark nitro stout, it’s easy to believe in magic.
When I asked Kyle to talk about his favorite beer tastes, he said, “Well, it depends on the day. On cold, snowy days, I would say smooth, slight malty sweetness, and roast-y to describe a tasty pint of Nitro Stout. Other days it might be an IPA with resin-y, fruity, and bitter characteristics imparted by the hops. Now, is anyone thirsty?”
There is passion and precision in Kyle’s word selection that describes every beer Casual Animal makes. That same passion speaks of a man who dreamed of possibilities and pursued them with intense preparation. And labor. And love.
The truth is, when Kyle couldn’t find his “third place”–he built one.
…Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson
How can I cook dinner tonight–we’re out of garlic!–Aunt Josephine, from the Gilroy Garlic Cookbook
It’s not an exaggeration to say that an absence of garlic in the house could be, as far as dinner goes, a showstopper. Garlic simply makes things taste better. And, as Josephine makes the case, without it, why bother?
There is more lore about garlic than any other food. As one of the oldest cultivated plants, it was thought to be a cure-all, to have mystical powers, and even to protect from evil spirits. It was used in Egyptian burials and placed on windowsills when babies were born.
Garlic is a member of the lily order of plants and the onion family that includes chives, shallots, scallions and leeks. But the most important thing about garlic is the magic it performs when blended into other foods, creating delicious, taste-enhancing flavors.
I love garlic like I love my friends. Friends, carefully cultivated with time and circumstance, blended into my life, enhancing everything. Friends going back to childhood, at home in the U.S., and while living all over the world.
Our early years in Taiwan, in the 1990s, were the beginning of a ritual of rotating Friday afternoons among a group of women I grew to know and love. We took turns gathering in each other’s living rooms. Friends came and moved on as is normal in ex-pat circles. Yet, through the revolving door of overseas life, those Friday afternoons of “wine and unwinding” were highly anticipated.
Food served invariably included a healthy dose of garlic. In certain seasons in Taiwan you could find big heads of garlic that were perfect for roasting whole. We squeezed warm, nutty, oil-soaked roasted cloves onto fresh bread or directly into our mouths. Open bottles of wine stood at attention, ready to replenish glasses.
We let our hair down and put our feet up. The formula within the formula was that all ideas, problems, or dreams were fair topics. Laughter kept everything in check. We appreciated each other’s insights, intelligence and strengths. We learned to love the idiosyncrasies. And couldn’t wait to return to garlic and friendship a week later.
What garlic is to food, insanity is to art. –Augustus St. Gaudens
10,000 years ago garlic was first discovered. It has evolved since then, having survived winters in the caves of our ancestors. Garlic is a natural antibiotic, fights bacteria and viruses, thins the blood, detoxifies the liver, decreases inflammation and lowers bad cholesterol. It is also low in calories–one or two per clove.
There are five elements: earth, air, water, fire and garlic…without garlic I simply would not care to live. –Louis Diat
my garlic tin
filled with rose garlic
Store garlic in a cool, dry place with ventilation. Not above or next to the stove, sink, or in a window with sun exposure. Never in the refrigerator! Strands of garlic can be braided attractively into plaits, ready to pull off a head as needed.
braided garlic lasts a long time
and looks beautiful too
There is no such thing as a little garlic. –Arthur Baer
To eliminate garlic on the breath: chew fresh parsley or, my favorite, allow a piece of good, dark chocolate to melt slowly on your tongue and slide down your throat.
The best way to rid garlic odor on the hands is to wash with soap and water then rub fingers and hands back and forth on the chrome of the kitchen faucet. This works!
Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic! –Anthony Bourdain
For easy peeling of cloves, separate them from the head. Smash each individually with the broad blade of a chef’s knife. Slip skin off. Or, from Dietitian Daughter, place cloves in a plastic container with lid and shake like crazy. The skin will loosen and separate, ready to be easily peeled away. For either method it helps to first cut off the stem ends.
One little known use for garlic was as glue in the middle ages. It was used to affix gold and silver leaf to furniture, mend glass and porcelain. This seems like a natural idea when literally everything sticks to garlicky fingers after peeling and chopping.
Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese.Garlic makes it good. –Alice May Brock
As good as the garlic was in Taiwan, it is even better in France. I’m partial to the big bulbs of rose garlic on my market street. [My Market Street] It has a pink purplish tinge to the skin unlike white garlic. Once peeled, all cloves look the same. Rose garlic cloves are uniform in size and have a less pungent smell and taste.
Remove garlic root or not?
I remove it unless garlic is very young
We went to a party in Paris one Christmas season. The dining table was laden with an impressive array of food, but I made a beeline toward a casserole of hot artichoke dip. It was perfuming the room with a warm, garlicky aroma that I could not resist. After the first taste, I spooned it directly into my mouth foregoing bread or crackers. I learned that a lot of garlic was the secret.
That recipe for garlic artichoke dip played center stage at the French version of “wine and unwind”, chez moi in Paris. Not all of the women knew each other well, but conversation and laughter flowed as effortlessly as it does among long time friends. Garlic seemed to be the tie that binds. And, well…a few bottles of memorable white and red Bordeaux [Les Hauts de Smith Blanc et Rouge] from my husband’s wine closet worked a bit of magic, too.
It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking. –Marcel Boulestin
I don’t cook everyday now, but I always have a bulb or two of garlic in the kitchen. I’m afraid of being caught in a pinch, like Aunt Josephine, unable to put a meal together because the garlic tin is empty. And, if some girlfriends are getting together, I’m ready with my go-to ingredient to enliven the party…and create a memory of food and friendship.
ROASTED HEADS OF GARLIC
Cut ¼ to ½ inch off the top of head of garlic.
Cut off just enough so all clove ends are exposed.
Drizzle with olive oil. Salt and pepper as desired.
Rub oil in with finger or use a brush to evenly coat.
If roasting 1 or 2 heads, wrap each in foil and seal.
If roasting many heads, place them in baking pan with cut sides up. Cover the whole pan with foil.
Roast 45 minutes at 400 F. [205 C.]
Cool a bit.
Squeeze roasted cloves out of skins onto fresh bread, crackers or mix into potatoes or any pasta dish. Or place in oil and refrigerate to use later.
GARLIC ARTICHOKE DIP
2-15 oz. [400gm] cans artichoke hearts in water. Drain water.
1 whole fresh jalapeno pepper
3 large or 6 small green onions
6 large cloves garlic, chopped, then smashed in mortar and pestle
1 C. [250gm] grated mozzarella cheese
½ to ¾ C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2-3 drops Tabasco, Siracha or chili sauce
Salt and pepper
½ C. [or less] good quality mayonnaise. Not Hellman’s. [just enough to bind ingredients]
Sprinkle of cayenne over top
Bake 350 F. [175 C.] for 30-40 minutes until bubbly and brown. Serve with bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.
dip ready to bake
ready to serve
SPAGHETTI JOSEPHINE from Gilroy Garlic Cookbook
[This dish was prepared regularly for the family when we lived in Taiwan. You can add in other ingredients as desired. But I like it best Josephine’s way. Serve with a big salad.]
1 medium head cauliflower, separated into tiny flowerets.
1 lb. [500 gm] spaghetti
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. olive oil
¼ C. minced parsley [cut with scissors in tall glass]
½ C. butter
½ C. or more freshly grated Parmesan
Freshly ground pepper
Cook cauliflower in boiling salted water until almost tender [~5 min.]
Cook spaghetti al dente.
Sauté garlic in olive oil ~1 min, then add butter and parsley.
Cook on very low heat until hot and bubbly.
Add garlic butter to spaghetti and cauliflower.
Toss together. Add Parmesan and toss again.
Serve immediately with additional grated cheese and the pepper grinder.
The last time I turned down a whisky, I didn’t understand the question. –Anonymous
I always take whisky as a night preventative of toothache. I have never had a toothache. What is more, I never intend to have one. –Mark Twain
Whisky is liquid sunshine. –George Bernard Shaw
I love so many things about Scotland–except perhaps the food culture that takes mashed up sheep innards, encases them in stomach lining and disguises the whole mess by calling it “haggis”. Scottish comfort food for some, an acquired taste for others, or neither option for me. On the other hand, a morning bowl of hot porridge with butter and honey stirred in, topped with fruit and a wee drizzle of whisky–well, I took to that right away.*
Our New Year’s holiday was spent in the countryside of the central Scottish Highlands, south of Inverness. We stayed in a stone cottage on the grounds of a 17th century farm in Cairngorms National Park. It was nicely decorated, outfitted with a wood-burning stove that kept the living room toasty warm. Otherwise, we wore layers.
The Bothy, our cottage
the source of heat
Killiehuntly office and storage buildings
This excursion was inspired by the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon. Each is a captivating tome of historical fiction set in 1700s Scotland, England, France, and the young U.S. colonies. There is also some time travel. A few characters have the ability to pass through a cleft in a ringed cairn of upright stones and fall into a different century. Somehow Gabaldon makes it all work. She weaves an engrossing tale with strong male and female protagonists who pull you right along.
The other reason we headed from Paris into the winter Highland hills is that I enjoy single malt whisky. My husband does not, but he does enjoy driving on the opposite side of the road. Match, game, win-win!
I don’t just like to taste or sip whisky. I need to understand it. “Distilled” into bullet points, this is what I know about the drink of my ancestors.
Single malt Scotch whisky is distilled and matured in Scotland from 100% malted barley and water. No other grains are added. It is the product of only one distillery.
It must be kept in a wood barrel for a minimum of three years in its’ country of origin. [Otherwise it is considered a “spirit”.]
It is at least 40% alcohol by volume.
The difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey is in the spelling and the process of how the malt is dried. Hence, flavor differences.
Peat is partially carbonized plant matter [largely heather and mosses] decomposed over centuries. It is cut directly from the bogs and marshes where it forms. Its characteristics differ from geography to geography.
If there is a ready supply of peat for drying the barley during malting and firing the stills, the whisky will have a smoky flavor.
Location of a distillery is dependent only on a supply of good, clean, fresh water.
Water is of critical importance in the production of whisky. It is used for soaking the barley, making the mash, condensing, and diluting the spirit.
Water must be COLD, unpolluted, and as constantly flowing as possible.
Water picks up the influence of the peat over which it flows.
Every distillery is on the bank of a river or by a mountain stream or spring.
Water guarantees both the quantity and the quality of the end product.
It is crucial that a river runs through it…
Water is also important when enjoying whisky as a beverage. You can drink it straight, unmixed, and un-chilled. Or, water can be added to bring out subtle nuances of flavor.
Ernest Hemingway contributed to the misconception about water when he proclaimed, “Real men drink whisky straight.” An unnamed source “straightens out” Hemingway’s assertion. “There are two things everyone should know about Hemingway. First, the whisky he drank had already been diluted by the distillers before he got it; secondly, that man was an awful fool.”
If water is added to whisky, it should be “as soft and pure as you can find”–ideally, natural spring water or filtered water. Distilled water is less desirable because you lose the minerals occurring in natural water.**
Water taken in moderation cannot hurt anybody. –Mark Twain
When in Scotland never request “a Scotch” from the bartender. Total tourist talk. Ask for “malt whisky” or request by distillery name to guarantee being served native spirit.
Words for whisky measures vary in Scottish jargon. Dram is now in common use, but there is also a nip, a toot, a tot, or a wee goldie. All equate roughly to a single measure or one shot, 25-35 ml. A double shot is 50-70 ml. Asking for “a glass” of whisky means a double pour.
Measurement size is ultimately determined by the generosity of the pourer. In most Scottish bars, one dram is usual, but not always…a bartender in Edinburgh overflowed the measuring cup directly into my glass upon hearing the sorry tale of my cell phone’s demise when it smashed to smithereens on rain slicked cobblestones just moments before.
after the rain in edinburgh
edinburgh skyline with christmas fair and market
the royal mile, edinburgh, scotland
With designated driver behind the wheel, I sampled whisky from two distilleries, Tomatin [Speyside] and Dalwhinnie [Highland], because they happened to be close to our farm cottage and the winter roads were icy.
Dalwhinnie Distillery was particularly popular on New Year’s Eve as it was open all day. Their sampler of six whiskies was served with six chocolate palate cleansers on the side. I wanted to buy a bottle that was not exported or distributed in stores. Dalwhinnie Distillery Limited Edition is sold only on site–6000 bottles produced, 900 were left.
A serendipitous coup occurred in the town of Aviemore. I walked into a retail shop and asked the man behind the counter where to find a liquor store. He scratched his head and said, “What? You must be American. No one says that here. We call them booze stores.”
Ben Harris is the proprietor of Cairngorms Creations, a shop of colorful knickknacks. I told him I was interested in whisky found only in Scotland to take home with me. He said, “Do you know the black whisky, Beinn Dubh? It’s made just a few miles down the road.” I had never heard of black whisky. Speyside Distillery which produces it is not open to the public.
Ben Harris of Aviemore
Speyside Distillery–known as the prettiest in Scotland
December 31, late afternoon. We followed Ben’s hand drawn, not very accurate map, got lost, backtracked, and finally found a store with the right address but selling home furnishings. The glass doors were locked–early closure for the New Year’s Eve holiday. Seeing people still inside I knocked loudly, pressed my map to the glass and shouted, “We were sent here to buy black whisky!”
They let us in. The man behind that counter was drinking a glass of Beinn Dubh before he went home. He offered me a taste. The dark-as-night color is specific to its maturation in Portuguese ruby port casks. [I later learned that added coloring helps too.] I bought a bottle for my son and one for myself.
New Year’s Eve night–after three days of sleety rain, icy snow, and bone chilling cold the clouds parted to reveal a full moon.
Killiehuntly Farmhouse and Cottage now has a Danish owner. He and his extended family were using the main farmhouse, up the hill from our cottage, for the holiday. While they ate dinner inside, we sat by a bonfire outside, drinking champagne under fog-rimmed moonlight and tossing large logs into the pit to keep warm. It was exactly where we wanted to be.
The owner came outside wearing a tuxedo and, after chatting for several minutes [ascertaining our American politics–yes indeed!], invited us in to see the restored 400 year-old farmhouse, meet his family, and share a dram of…black whisky. The very same we had chanced upon that afternoon.
In the living room a fire burned brightly. The Christmas tree was adorned in Scandinavian straw ornaments. Conversation flowed easily between Danish and American cultures and across three generations from children to grandparents.
The whisky was very smooth, very black, and served neat. My husband politely, tentatively, sipped his first-dram-ever. He looked up from his glass to me across the room…and smiled.
It was a “verra” good holiday.
* Whisky in the morning oatmeal was not on the menu during our Scotland trip. The idea came from Gabaldon’s books. She describes steaming bowls of porridge served with butter and honey melting in. If whisky was available to the Scottish character, Jamie Fraser, he would drizzle it onto his porridge. Now, in the wintertime, I make it that way at home. Sublime! [Note to self: hack this recipe for future story.]
** I’m neither a water purist nor a Hemingway abstainer. I have my own method for the perfect water to whisky ratio. When drinking a dram or two at home, I run a very thin stream of cold water from the tap and pass my glass under it three times very quickly. Just right.
Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, and the great eagle; these are our brothers. We are part of the Earth and it is part of us.–Chief Seattle, native American
It’s autumn now in northern Europe where I returned a week ago. The courtyard Virginia creeper vine is reddening more each day. Heavier bed linens are in place so the window can remain open for good sleeping. Scarves donned for outdoor wear. And rain.
Still, for the moment, I’m thinking about a longer than normal summer season in Colorado. Three months at “Camp Estes”–our hillside home with Front Range views and walk-in access to Rocky Mountain National Park.
What made it particularly special were the visitors, different from other summers. A toddler grand-daughter’s first time to roam rocky, hilly landscapes, a reunion of women from my high school graduating class, visual apparitions of campfire spirits after two years of “no-burn” ban, s’mores with dark European chocolate, and a herd of rutting elk who wandered in–and stayed.
These events fused with other things I love; wildflowers in profusion, mountain sunrise and sunsets, thunderstorms and rainbows, low hanging clouds clearing to snow on the high peaks, elk bugling in the change of season.
Returning to the mountains is particularly significant to me because of our overseas lifestyle. For twelve summers, during the years we lived in Taipei, Taiwan, I needed to come home and recalibrate. Living and breathing for a few months at a higher altitude under clear blue skies was very different from a big Asian city of concrete, tile, and smoggy air.
The mountains give us our “spiritual geography”, a term coined by Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota. It is the place we inhabit to find our best selves.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote of the importance of finding individual “sacred space”:
“A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life. It has no function in the way of earning a living or a reputation…In your sacred space, things are working in terms of your dynamic–and not somebody else’s…You don’t really have a sacred space until you find somewhere to be…where joy comes from inside, not something external that puts joy into you, a place that lets you experience your own will and your own intention and your own wish…”
Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.–J.Campbell
My sacred spaces begin in physical forms–a cabin in Colorado mountains, a campfire ring, and a hidden destination called “Rock on the River” where I hike alone to heal or think.
There is a chameleon-like aspect to living an overseas lifestyle, between home in the U.S. and home elsewhere in the world. In the mountains I live in jeans and soft shirts, moccasins or cowgirl boots. I drink coffee on the front porch in sunshine or on a deck overlooking Long’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park. I go to bed after sitting around a campfire and awaken to the smell of smoke on my pillow.
Returning home to Paris, there is a seamless slide into the city version of myself. I adapt to the rhythms around me as I sit in cafés watching people instead of coyotes, hawks, deer and elk.
Returning to the mountains is what makes this work. Feeling small and insignificant amid the backdrop of a huge landscape clears my mind. I love the smell of rapidly changing weather, poking campfires with a stick, and wild animals that roam without fences. I think about the good fortune that lies ahead–sharing this with a generation of grandchildren.
Another way to tell the story is with pictures. To those who dropped in or to those who stayed awhile, and to those who will return–a look back at the best of this season’s memories…
CLICK HERE for 30 second video taken from front porch of biggest bull re-claiming the harem after three younger males tried a take over coup
And finally, to Leila: I hope the wide and wild natural world will always be part of your adventure, that you will be nurtured by its’ rhythms and beauty, and know that nature exists to support all of her creatures. You are now part of the earth and it is part of you.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The wind will blow freshness into you, and cares will drop away like leaves of Autumn.–John Muir
Some “firsts” you remember and others you don’t. I can’t remember my first Sex in a Pan.
Many years ago, I was told Sex in a Pan was for women only. Men don’t like it. It is something you never do alone, always with others, preferably in the afternoon.
Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I say, never have Sex in a Pan with anyone you don’t like–at least a little bit. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?
What’s special about Sex in a Pan? It’s not the equipment, which is ordinary. It’s not the getting ready, which is straightforward. It’s not the result, which is pleasurable. It is when everything comes together.
I remember one Sex in a Pan party around my friend Linda’s table when we lived in Taiwan. The other guests were Asian women who had no idea what to expect. But, as with our American Thanksgiving dinners, they wanted to learn and share new customs. So they joined in…and loved it.
Sex in a Pan is like secretly swiping your finger across a thickly frosted cake. It’s what lingers in the memory after taste melts away. But Sex in a Pan is not cake. It is a decadent dessert of many layers–for sharing.
The recipe I have carried around the world is in someone else’s handwriting. That well-worn piece of paper is the key to unlocking where I was and who I was with my first time. It’s lost to memory now.
So, by default, Sex in a Pan is mine to offer anyone who loves smooth and creamy with some crunchy, slightly sour with some salty, chocolate-y, close your eyes, eat-with-a-spoon-kind-of-fun.
At the Taiwan party, inhibitions were safely shed around the table as we talked of taste and texture and guiltless self-indulgence while eating something fun. There was laughter and letting go among friends. And that, in its nutty crust, is what Sex in a Pan is about.
Since we live in France, the ingredient choices are different. Butter from Normandy embedded with crystals of sea salt, Chantilly whipped crème instead of Cool Whip, dark chocolate, shaved into curls, instead of milk chocolate.
We were four women around the table–two Americans, one French and one German. The other three had no forewarning except I needed help to write this story.
It doesn’t really matter who or how many you gather for Sex in a Pan. Once you invite people in, they are mostly curious, ready to dabble in the unconventionally offbeat, perhaps with a touch of “double sens”, [“double entendre”, which is strangely not the expression in France]. The truth about Sex in a Pan is that what’s in the pan is simply a channel for what happens around it.
In double-sens-speak, I learned that “sensuously seductive” is said to be “croustillante” in French or “eine heisse Affäre” in German. We romanticized taste by describing the salty [yes to French butter!] and crunchy [those pecans]. Layers of chocolate, sweetened cheese, and fluffy crème mingled. Tiny pellets of chocolate atop hid unexpected softness below. Voilà! Quelle langue!
We sipped Champagne and dipped into the communal dish. Late afternoon gave way to evening. And everyone had different liaisons waiting.
When you host a Sex in a Pan party, try to keep the memory alive by having it again…and, then again.
SEX IN A PAN
1 C. flour
½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
¾ C. chopped pecans
8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
1 C. icing sugar
1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
3 C. cold milk
1 large container Cool Whip or any good whipped cream
1 large dark chocolate bar
Mix flour, butter and pecans and press into bottom of 8 1/2 x 11 inch [22 x 28 cm] pan. Bake for 20 minutes, 350 degrees F. [180 C.].
Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar and spread on top of cooled crust.
Spread ½ of Cool Whip or whipped cream over cream cheese layer.
Mix together instant chocolate and vanilla pudding with COLD milk and beat by hand with a whisk until it starts to thicken.
Spread over top of whipped cream.
Spread remaining Cool Whip or whipped cream over pudding.
Shave, grate and chop the chocolate bar. Sprinkle all over the top.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serves 12-15 from one pan, depending on appetites.
Pass out spoons, one to a person. Place Sex in a Pan in the middle of the table. In the spirit of communal adventure everyone dips in and eats spoonful by spoonful from the pan. Scoop all the way to the bottom with each bite.
So far, I’ve only known one man who said he enjoyed Sex ina Pan. He was able to rise above the gooey communal aspects others have no taste for. However, let it be known that my brother-in-law, Frank, is very partial to anything chocolate.
We might live in less divisive times if world leaders learned a few lessons from multi-cultural families.
The intersection of New Year’s weekend in Latvia with the Russian side of our family [by marriage] with news of cyber-hacking by Russia’s government in the U.S. presidential election is one example. Cultural and political tensions between nations have always been complicated to resolve. In contrast, relationships in our dual culture family grow stronger with shared experiences, cooperation, and acceptance. People behave better than governments.
The holiday time in Riga made me think about new ways to initiate diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It might begin with, well…making Russian dumplings.
I have been to Latvia twice before with our daughter-in-law’s family. [Shrooming in Latvia, Letting Go In Latvia] What I know about Russian generosity, from the first time and thereafter, is that it begins at the table and flows outward from the heart.
New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016
This was the evening for a small family gathering. After gifts were exchanged, we sat down at Aunt Olga and Uncle Ivar’s large dining table.
olga and ivar
site of the feast
sergei and tania
There was food covering the entire surface. We generously helped ourselves to dishes of caviar or smoked fish and quail eggs on bread. There was a huge platter of olives, pickled tomatoes, stuffed peppers, salted cucumbers, garlic and mushrooms. There was perch salad, stuffed calamari, meat salad, and layered shrimp salad. There was sturgeon in fish jelly, herring-in-a-coat, and lamprey–a bottom feeding fish that I diplomatically declined.
That was the beginning. Later, a second round of eating featured mutton, potatoes, and more of the first courses. The finale was cousin Polina’s homemade cheesecake.
We toasted throughout the meal, which meant raising a shot glass of icy Beluga Vodka and downing it whenever someone spoke. After the first two toasts, I strategically sipped my drink. The other women refrained from vodka and drank juice or wine. I stayed with the cold Beluga, finding it perfect with the food.
At 11:00 PM, when it was midnight in Moscow, we toasted Russian New Year. One hour later we toasted the arrival of 2017 in Latvia. Fireworks lit up the sky. Seven-month-old granddaughter was carried to an upstairs window to see the colorful light show.
anna, leila, babushka [vera]
wendy, adam, leila
New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017
The day for partying with family and friends! Guests and more guests arrived throughout the afternoon. It was an open house that overflowed with adults and children of all ages. There were platters and casseroles of food, shots of vodka [yes, indeed], glasses of cognac [with tonic and lemon], prosecco, champagne, beer and wine.
Russian music concerts played nonstop on the television. Women gossiped around the table or in the living room. Men stood at the kitchen island for manly talk and vodka. I learned that if Beluga is not available, Grey Goose or Finlandia are good choices for icy shots.
Yuri Gorbacev is the maternal grandfather of Anna, our daughter-in-law. Every year, on January first, he makes fresh dumplings from a family recipe that originated in the Ural Mountains.
Meat stuffing had been prepared the day before. It was a mixture of ground beef and pork, eggs, salt and pepper, onions and cabbage. When it was time to make the dough, two young girls joined Yuri. A new generation was eager to learn, as there is no written recipe.
Basic Dumpling Dough [by observation]:
Start with a glass bowl with water in it. Break three eggs into the water. Stir yolks with a fork until broken. Throw in two unmeasured amounts of salt [like mini handfuls]. Add more water. Pour in flour straight from the bag in several batches. Keep stirring with the same fork, even when dough gets thick and sticky and hard to turn. Arm muscles helpful.
photo by kristians lipse
muscles for stirring dough
photo by kristians lipse
Eventually, dump the lump of dough onto floured counter. Begin kneading.
The girls were fully engaged under Yuri’s guidance. The rest of us watched. Our hands-on help time was approaching. Kneading completed, the dough was rolled out flat and thin, then cut into small rounds with the open end of a glass. Each round had to be packed full of the meat mixture, pinched tightly closed, bent into a circle and laid on a floured tray.
stuff, pinch and…
…turn into dumpling circles
Readied dumplings were placed in boiling water. In a few minutes, they were pulled from the pot and immediately served. Latvian sour cream with or without black pepper was the dipping sauce. Vodka shot optional.
serve hot with sour cream
and vodka! photo by kristians lipse
My son, Adam, and I stood next to each other as part of the dumpling-filling team. Others continued to roll dough, cut circles, fill or boil dumplings. Volunteers rotated by choosing a part to play: production, cleanup, serving, eating, or simply enjoying the party.
photo by kristians lipse
photo by kristians lipse
Suddenly, the volume of voices grew very loud. Russian–spoken, shouted and sung overwhelmed the room. The cacophony turned into background “white noise” for Adam and me. We spoke of feeling “invisible” in the middle of a hubbub we couldn’t understand. It was surprisingly peaceful, even meditative. We murmured in our own language, rhythmically filling, pinching, and turning out dumplings.
Adam said it is like this every year. The dumpling ritual gives him a purpose. Then, when he can no longer discriminate words through the tangle of sounds, he slips into his own thoughts. It’s a little quieter there, yet he remains physically present amid the chaos. He can be happy in both places at the same time.
I had my own thoughts, too. Here I was, on New Year’s Day, in a houseful of partying Russians and Latvians who embraced me with ease. No tension. No discord. An international marriage, a dual culture grandchild and, of course, Yuri’s dumplings bound us all together in friendship, joy, and love.
In June 2015, our son Adam married his bride, Anna Jerovejeva, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was told in a previous story, Letting Go In Latvia.
The women in our daughter-in-law’s Russian family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga, Latvia for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is an anticipated annual event.
The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. Then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages. 1. I would forge a new Russian/American alliance. 2. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting. And 3. I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.
Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and its history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer.
ceiling in the orthodox church
tania and wendy and a monument
Like many Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.
After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.
In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters, Tania and Olga, and worked in a factory as an engineer. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family mother tongue is purely Russian.
Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forest areas where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover under trees, rocks, and leaves.
Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides were Tania, her sister Olga, and their friend Edita, who acted as my translator. That day they needed to do some serious sleuthing to find the coveted treasure.
I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.
The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose their American relative in the Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their range of comfort.
Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were, well…poisonous.
the highly coveted cepe mushroom
a little mushroom family
a prize cepe mushroom
my morning crop
baskets set aside for lunch
One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered small squares of sliced black bread. There was a whole hardboiled egg, and a big wedge of red tomato. Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.
an edible still life-in hand
Two more hours of hunting before returning to the city, changing clothes, and meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for safely chauffeuring “precious cargo”–Julia and me. You have to love a man like that!
Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived. Her technique was meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, bigger means less work for the end result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white, when looking at it from the bottom, it meant worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded as unacceptable. After peeling, mushrooms were rinsed and drained in a colander.
perfectly cleaned, ready to cook
While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.
Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. But this is not the Russian way.
While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka Russian style. It should be consumed in shots with traditional food pairings.
First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, down a shot followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–deliciously satisfying. No side effects.
vodka with bread and fish or
with a pinch of cabbage
A cultural turning point occurred at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story daughter-in-law Anna had told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.
When her parents, Tania and Sergei, would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half by herself with a spoon down to the white rind. Seeds and all!
As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at the dessert plates. On every plate there were two or three watermelon seeds idly dropped. But on my plate there was a mountain of black and white seeds because I had carefully picked them out before eating the sweet fruit. Every single seed.
I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched and erupted into uproarious, mirthful laughter. So did I.
As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard. And saw each other clearly.
A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing and the lawn mower is broken. –James Dents
Hey! It’s summer! Be free and happy and danceful and uninhibited and now-y! –Terri Guillemets
Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. –Henry James
My husband refers to me as a “late adopter”. This has been true regarding certain forms of technology. I’m not the first to run with the latest innovation when it first appears in popular culture. But when I do jump in, it’s all the way. Then, I can’t remember life as it was before.
This summer I was surprised with a different type of “late adaptation”. It happened to be with a beverage I had never tried, even once.
On the July 4th American Independence Day holiday weekend I was with Dietician Daughter, her husband, and his Kansas family. She served me a berry and fresh fruit topped drink in a tall glass with a straw. It was deep burgundy in color. The icy glass, sweating beads of condensation, was garnished with succulent fruit. It was her version of Sangria.
On a sultry summer afternoon, around a backyard table with good people, this drink captured my attention. There was thirst-quenching coolness. There was the lushness of summer berries in red wine. I drank a second glass.
Sangria has been around for 2000+ years. When the Roman Empire reached the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal and began mixing wine into the water to sanitize it, the beginnings of Sangria were born. Long a common, informal drink on the European continent, Sangria was not widely consumed in the U.S. until it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Twice I have been to the Iberian Peninsula in western Spain hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but I was not offered Sangria there. We drank wonderful Galician wines every evening as an accompaniment to the regional food. It was poured straight from the bottle and never mixed with anything.
Sangria comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “sangre” meaning blood because of its’ dark red color. It is traditionally made with Spanish red wine, fruit, brandy, some kind of sweetener and ice. Carbonated water may or may not be added for fizz.
That’s all there is to it. This is also where Sangria becomes much more interesting. With a rudimentary knowledge of ingredients, the end result is in the hands of the maker. Dietician Daughter was imaginative in her “berry” form of creativity. Now I can’t drink it any other way.
For the rest of the summer, I began ordering Sangria in restaurants. Some were made with white wine, some with red. At the very most they might have one or two pieces of shredded, mangy looking citrus fruit in the bottom of the glass. Pizzazz and eye candy beauty were nonexistent. Not one was memorable. Not one reminded me of friends and family sharing stories and playing games on a summer afternoon. Not one begged to be repeated.
My short scientific study convinced me that the only Sangria worth the calories is the one you make yourself. With ingredients you choose. The wine must be of a quality that you would drink on its own. The fruit must be plentiful. And FRESH.
Here is the very best summer SANGRIA you will ever make. Or drink. It’s simple, it’s fruity, slightly dry and slightly sweet, a bit boozy, and refreshing like a lazy summer day. Pass the pitcher around a table in the mountains, by the sea, on the terrace, or in the backyard. Say, “yes” to a berry summer sangria. Then go lie in a hammock under the trees and muse.
LARA’S BERRY BEST SUMMER SANGRIA
fresh whole berries [or pieces of fruit] for garnish
ice to chill
750 ml bottle of Spanish Red wine, chilled [I used Ribiera de Duero. Or Rioja.]
½ C. brandy
¾ C. orange juice
3-4 T. brown sugar
any seasonal combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. [Or use peaches and mangoes]
½ orange, rind on, sliced thinly
½ apple, skin on, chopped
In a large glass jar or pitcher, place fruit and sugar and muddle with a wooden spoon or muddler.
Add OJ and brandy and muddle again. Add red wine and stir.
Taste and adjust flavors to your liking. [More brandy or OJ or sugar as you wish.] Stir again. Add ice to chill and serve as is in clear glasses.
Get the fruit on. Garnish with lots of fresh berries or fruit of choice. Serve with a spoon for scooping winey fruit into your mouth between sips.
May be stored, covered, in refrigerator to steep and chill several hours, but then don’t add ice until serving.
At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nightmare. Where you can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences occur wherever you live in the world. When they happen, it’s important to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again. For me the reset button began with a serendipitous stop in a Parisian café.
I had just returned to our home in Paris after two months in the U.S. First order of business was to exchange my old French telecom SIM card for one to fit a new cell phone purchased over the holidays. It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk to the neighborhood store where we have been customers for six years.
Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air seemed minor compared to the long queue of people ahead of me. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in for the wait by staring at mute TV monitors rolling repetitious ads. A sign on the wall reminded everyone to behave courteously at all times. Potential customers entered, assessed the non-moving line, and spun back out. A few lined up behind me. Ninety minutes later, it was finally my turn.
I explained that I needed a replacement SIM card to fit my new cell phone. Account numbers were given. Alors, mais non! The account was not in my name. No transaction was possible without the account holder’s identity card. The “account holder”, my husband, was at work outside the city with his passport and carte sejour [residence card] in his briefcase.
I pleaded courteously, in poorly phrased French, about how long and patiently I had waited, what an easy transaction it was. Surely the man could see our long-standing account on the computer. He agreed it would take 30 seconds to give me a new SIM card. However, I did not have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. No further negotiation.
Outside in much cooler air, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken, all the while fuming over French “rules”. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED” until 3:00PM. Now, both annoyed and hungry, I decided to wait it out in an upscale brasserie around the corner. Although well known by everyone living in the area, I had never been inside. Unknowingly, upon entering the door, my reset button began to tick.
A man in a red tie and black suit greeted and then ushered me to a small table for two. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and bistro glassware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.
The menu covered a range of fresh seafood platters–oysters, lobster, shrimp, and crab–served on ice with lemon halves, brown bread and butter, or starters of salads and terrines, main courses of viandes or poissons [meat or fish], desserts of profiteroles au chocolat chaud, crème caramel, glaces and sorbets. Très French indeed.
I chose two starters as a meal. OEufs durs mayonnaise is one of my favorites. Hard-boiled eggs with fresh, homemade mayo and garnished with greens. Followed by a salad of frisée, croutons, and bacon. A silver basket of sliced artisanal baguette was placed on the table almost immediately, along with a tall pepper grinder, a carafe of water and a glass of wine.
In France it’s easy and comfortable to dine alone, any time of day or night. As a single diner you are rather ghost-like, invisible to others dining and talking with companions. I sipped red wine, relaxed into the back of the cushioned leather chair, and contentedly looked around. A layer of frustration melted away.
At the entrance was a long brass bar framed in wood. While the bartender busily prepared coffee or drinks, his eyes took in everything else going on in the room. The inside lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades.
Servers wore traditional long black aprons over white shirts and black ties. They moved in fluid choreography; carrying food from the kitchen, unobtrusively refilling carafes of water, breadbaskets, or wine glasses at tables with standing silver buckets and cloth draped bottles.
A woman swirled in the door wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man at the table next to me was obviously a regular. His meal appeared without ordering, including an espresso at the end. He donned a fedora, slipped a newspaper under his arm, and departed with a handshake to the man at the door.
My food was served in two leisurely courses. I never felt hurried. Another layer of annoyance fell away.
By 2:45PM, the atmosphere changed. Diners drifted away and the bartender’s pace visibly slowed as he cleaned, polished and put away wine glasses. Servers casually cleared and reset tables, chatting back and forth to each other. A table of four lingered over a bottle of wine and an intense discussion.
I had finished eating, but remained sitting and rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the score tally had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, my mood was lighter, my attitude readjusted. All because of doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch, blending in with culture and ambience that I both admire and appreciate.
La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça. Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie…I won.
OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]
2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
2 pinches salt
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups olive oil
dash of H2O
drop of red wine vinegar
1-2 hard-boiled eggs per person
Mâche [lamb’s lettuce] or greens for salad/garnish, cayenne pepper, optional
Whisk egg yolks together with salt and mustard until creamy and light in color. SLOWLY begin to add olive oil–a few drops at a time to start, whisking vigorously all the time as you go. It should become thicker as the oil is mixed in, but not liquidy. Add all the oil until it is finished. If it seems too stiff, add a dash of H2O and continue whisking. Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and salt to taste.
Cut hard-boiled eggs in half. Top with fresh mayo. Garnish with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and greens as desired.
Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.
Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.
Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.
The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!
The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully decorated in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.
Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].
While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They arenotall alike!
Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.
This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.
We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.
Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle and young lives in a proud democratic republic.
We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.
Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.
The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris and France.
After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”
I am struck by this difficult truth after disaster strikes. Of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…
The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to complete the building of a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.
Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.
[All photos courtesy of MEU, in-house photographer extraordinaire.]
There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne. –Jared M. Brown
I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad. –Lily Bollinger
Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right. –Mark Twain
In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.
In the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards.
Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing” champagne. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, “Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars!” But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.
All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered a flaw of nature. Fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.
What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.
The most important thing he did was blend different grapes. The harmony he created between balance and taste was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region–a completely new concept. Myths arose because he was extraordinary, but in actuality he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an innovator and adaptor with keen observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.
Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. Partying Kings and courtiers drank the local wine and decided the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.
Production, however, remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few people were maimed or killed.
Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.
Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.
Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks propelled Champagne’s future.
A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. The discovery of disgorging this sediment became the crowning glory to Champagne fame.
Widow Clicquot [of Veuve Clicquot Champagne] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table and inserted the bottles upside down, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually toward the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked, and it was ready to ship. The secret leaked. An industry took off.
During WWII, most of France’s wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demand for shipments home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in this simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”
Post-war, vineyards not destroyed were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrically ordered rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and climate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather, and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagne is now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.
My love for Champagne came about later in life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years of living in Asia we drank Champagne only once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. But we never drank it at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to delight.
In Paris, Champagne was the only beverage served as an aperitif, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, the co-capitals of Champagne region, to sample and learn more.
Some people consume Champagne only on special occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. We live outside of that box now. When home in France, Champagne is often our white-wine-of-choice.
Good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Delicious bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 a bottle.
Pairing Champagne with food often surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are cliché. Pizza happens to be a perfect chemistry match. On homemade pizza night we begin by uncorking something to sip while we cook. Glasses are refilled table side when we sit down to eat.
Sparkling wine produced in other countries–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California are runners-up to Champagne. They aren’t bad, just not the same. When you uncork a bottle of Champagne, for whatever occasion, raise your glass to Dom Pérignon. Then enjoy “tasting the stars”.
My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne. –John Keynes
Joseph Campbell, mythologist and philosopher, wrote,
A ritual is an enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth…But you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. That’s what ritual does. It gives you an occasion to realize what you are doing so that you’re participating in the energy of life. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention…you learn about yourself as part of the being of the world…
Campbell also said,
Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical…it is beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known, but not told.
Herein lies the challenge–to tell a story that for the past two months has been beyond the reach of my words. It is rooted in a ritual with pagan origins. It was part of the wedding of our son and his Latvian/Russian bride.
In a countryside setting outside of Riga, Latvia, June 12 was as perfect as a summer day can be anywhere in the world. There was warm sun and a light breeze. Cloudless sky. Lapis-blue lake and a field of soft grass. A ceremonial framework of boughs entwined with flowers. Shared vows in Russian and English. Radiant smiles. Applause, joy, and love.
The after party began with a scavenger hunt and Champagne for guests as the newlyweds were whisked away for photos. Upon their return, the celebration continued with good food and drink, fantastic music, poignant toasts and funny speeches.
Just before midnight, the band music stopped. All of the guests were ushered from the party tent, down the hill, to the wedding site near the lake. Glowing candle lanterns lit the darkness. Blankets were offered for the cool evening air. There was a young man playing soft guitar music. Two chairs had been placed beneath the framework of boughs and flowers. The mothers of the bride and groom were instructed to sit on the chairs. Then our children sat on our laps. No one understood what was happening, but we were entering an ancient Latvian myth.
Mičošana [pronounced “Michuashana”] is a Latvian wedding tradition that dates back to [pre-religious] pagan times. It symbolizes the moment when the bride becomes a wife and the groom a husband. It is a way of saying “goodbye” to childhood and home. In this enactment, there was an unspoken tribute to both mothers as we held our children one final time before they passed into adulthood and the creation of a new family. It is a sweet, sad, and somehow romantic experience.
Historically, Latvia was a country of peasants living and working on large farming estates under a feudal system. Girls typically married boys from settlements far away. Mičošana became a ritual of farewell. After marriage, the bride would live on her husband’s settlement, rarely seeing her own family again. The ceremony symbolized “giving the bride away” because it severed ties between the girl and her family.
Here is how it went 21st century style. Midnight–the end of the day and the beginning of a new day. With soft background music and married children on our laps, the bride’s mother took off her daughter’s veil and placed it into a box. She tied a ruffled apron around her daughter’s waist.
I placed an engraved wooden pipe in my son’s hand. The bride and groom stood together with their symbolic accessories and read aloud the roles they would now assume. This was the lighthearted version of contemporary Mičošana, with laughter too. Choosing from a basket of printed cards the bride read, “I will drink beer and be the master of the remote control.” The groom, “I will always be very pretty and sweet.”
The readings went on for several minutes. The bouquet was tossed by the bride as the guitar music faded. People began to drift uphill to the tent where the party continued until the sun rose. But something very special had happened. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have words to describe it. I only knew how it made me feel. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Walking across the grassy field, the bride’s mother and I linked arms. She turned to me and said softly in her rudimentary English, “Wendy, when babies come, 50/50, okay?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and said, “Of course, Tanya. 50/50. Always.” It was another unexpected moment. Her overture touched me. The meaning behind the words was heartfelt and real. First women, then mothers, and now a multi-cultural family bound by our children.
As I learned more about Mičošana, the symbolism became clearer. Our son and his wife have assumed roles in an international marriage. It will take our daughter-in-law far from her Latvian family home. She will undoubtedly see her parents and family less and less often. The bittersweet midnight ceremony was the same parting experienced by generations of brides over thousands of years.
I believe Campbell. Myths are important. Rituals are important. Poetry is important. Symbolism runs through ceremonies from ancient times to the present. Because of our thinking nature, we strive to understand the meanings underneath. This helps awaken us to our place in the circle of life.
Campbell’s words, again: “…by participating in the ritual [with intention]…you are being put into accord with the wisdom of the psyche, which is the wisdom inherent with you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.”
This is what we hope for all of our children. We wish for them to grow into the wisdom of their own lives.
SOLYANKA [pronounced Sahlahnka] aka HANGOVER SOUP
Partying continues well into the day after a Russian/Latvian wedding. A thick hearty soup of salty, cured meats and sausages is usually on the menu after a night of drinking. It hits the spot with its’ rich meaty stock, briny pickles and vegetables, garnished with sour cream. Although there is a vegetarian form, meat solyanka is more common. I fell hard for it’s delicious taste at Jumurda Manor. Anna and I made a version in her London kitchen. The key is a lot of sour and salt in a rich broth. Ingredient proportions are flexible. Rice can be substituted for potatoes. This is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup. It tastes so much better than you think it will!
MAKING THE BROTH
300 gm lean beef rump
1 whole onion, peeled
4 bay leaves
1 T. whole peppercorns
In a saucepan, cover broth ingredients with water. Boil uncovered over medium heat for 30 minutes. Take out onion and discard. Continue boiling until the meat is cooked through, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water to keep meat covered and to build up broth. When meat is tender, take out to cool slightly. Skim fat off top of broth.
200 gm Polish sausage
100 gm good German ham
Cut cooled beef, sausage and ham into julienne strips. Cube some potato. Place in broth to simmer.
Chop ½ onion and sauté in olive oil. Add julienned carrots and ¼ cup [or more] tomato paste. Continue sautéing for a few minutes then add all of this to stock.
Place sliced meat in skillet to warm slightly. Then add to stock.
IMPORTANT FINAL INGREDIENTS
Jar of cucumbers in BRINE. Different from regular pickles. Saltier. Brinier. See photo.
Black olives packed in BRINE
Stir in julienned cucumbers, whole black olives and ¼ to ½ cup [or more] of the brine.
When potatoes are cooked, turn off heat. Salt and pepper to taste.
Slice fresh lemons into circles and place over top of soup. Cover pot and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove lemons. Serve garnished with a large dollop of fresh sour cream.
Delicious and nutritious even without the hangover.
When dining in a French restaurant, there are three typical dessert categories people choose. There are the crème brûlée lovers or the mousse au chocolat lovers. There are fruitarians who crave tarte tartin or other fruity things.
When I watch people eating these classic desserts I can live vicariously with a mental spoonful. But mostly I remain distant from their “ordinary desires”. That’s because of a short-lived, but passionate, affair with Baba au Rhum.
It began casually, with an innocent introduction. We skipped over flirtation as things rapidly accelerated to a lusty peak, then slid rather quickly into unmet expectations. Inevitably, it dwindled to a wistful end. Such is the cycle of most affairs. Even with desserts.
A series of events led to this infatuation. For two months I worked as an assistant to a French woman who conducted cooking classes for tourists in Paris. She was between student “stagiaires” during a busy season so I volunteered to fill in. Lessons began at 9:00AM with a walking tour through a well-known market street, followed by preparation in her professional kitchen. It ended with a three-course luncheon. My job was to pay the vendors, schlep purchased food items home, prep and clean up while clients chopped, stirred, watched and listened. As they nibbled on regional cheeses and sipped white wine around the large kitchen work-island, I set the dining table, refilled glasses, and washed dirty dishes and utensils.
“Payment” for my services was mostly in the form of laughable anecdotes. Once, a 500 gm block of butter fell to the floor and was stepped on by the teaching chef herself. I was told to, “clean it” because it was “still usable”. I wiped the smashed butter with a lot of paper towels until only a small sliver remained. Then I pushed it to the back of the countertop.
As a thank-you for my brief tenure, I was invited by madame to lunch in a small, classic restaurant off the Boulevard St. Germain. My hostess ordered dessert for both of us. And, with this unexpected introduction, I met my French love.
In front of me was placed a shallow white bowl containing a cylindrical piece of spongy cake, a side dish of smoothly whipped fresh cream, and an open bottle of Martinique rum.
Rum was slowly and generously poured over the cake. I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and–well, it was like sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.
Here is the curious part. I don’t drink rum or even think about it–ever. I shun plain squishy cake as unnecessary calories. Whipped cream is so “dairy” and off my nutritional list. But the sum of the parts turned into obsession. Lusty Caribbean rum plus airy booze-drenched cake mingled with cool, vanilla flecked cream. All of which dissipated into a cloud of vaporous desire in my mouth. I was hooked at first bite.
Thus began my infatuation with Baba au Rhum. It wasn’t perfect. There were ups and downs. I rejected restaurants that did not offer the rum bottle tableside, or served pre-fab, stale, even crunchy cake. Quelle horreur! I knew what I wanted. Expectations were extremely high from the beginning.
After months of reckless indulgence I made a profound discovery. It was the beginning of the end. The best Baba au Rhum I ever had was not in Paris.
During one fall season we took a road trip to the countryside of Bordeaux. We stayed in a charming guest cottage near the town of St. Emilion. It was in the middle of the vineyards of the Troplong Mondot winery. Having arrived after the harvest, the vines were empty and the fields quiet. The weather was cold and wet. We had an open-hearth fireplace in the living room that burned twisted grape vines and three foot logs. One evening we dined in the upscale restaurant of the Château. The menu was fixed. Dessert was Baba au Rhum. I was thrilled with anticipation.
Baba was served in the usual trilogy with one notable exception. The cake was lightly warmed. It was a variation that enhanced the coolness of the cream and the velvety smoothness of the rum. I knew this was the best it had ever been and might ever be.
Intense relationships often run their course. So it was with Baba and me. After Bordeaux, I tried it a few more times but it was never quite the same. Finally, it faded into a wistful memory. Now when I see Baba on the menu there is a flutter of recognition. I question whether to dabble again. Certain that my expectations won’t be met, I look the other way.
I enjoy telling friends and guests about Baba au Rhum’s charms, urging them to give it a try. It seems to fall into the love/hate category. Maybe it’s too extreme, too unusual, too far removed from mainstream desires like chocolate, crème brûlée, or fruit tarts.
And yet, I remain nostalgic because that bite of sweet, rum, and coolness, savoured and shared, is a fine way to spend time around the table with people you love.
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.
Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.
A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.
The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.
On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.
There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher
In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated Fisher’s kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter began to understand the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company.
Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.
From the parking area we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they couldn’t catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.
Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began.
Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.
Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.
Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.
Perhaps this explains why a picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.
Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Pass the pepper mill.
Add garnish and extra Parmesan.
For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.
Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.
For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.
In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.
I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.
A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.
Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.
While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.
Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.
My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.
“In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.”–m.f.k. fisher
Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”
“And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…” –m.f.k. fisher
MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.
In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.
On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.
The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.
September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.
They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.
The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.
The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.
Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.
“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher
Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’est tellement très bon.
Growing up in a family with regular fire-making rituals, I inherited an obsession with flames. When the outside temperature dropped, it was time to place newspaper, kindling, and wood in the fireplace and watch it burn. Now I live in an historic Parisian apartment with seven stone and marble fireplaces. All of them sealed shut. In the dark winter months there is only one thing to do. Between four and five in the afternoon, as the sun is setting, I begin lighting candles.
Recently, I became aware this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. On a dark December afternoon, my friend Lesli invited a group of women to her apartment in Paris for “wine and unwind” time. This is a time of bringing friends into your home, opening a bottle of something, and letting conversation flow.
Lesli’s apartment is furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. While admiringly it, I noticed it was outfitted with candles! They had never been lit since Lesli moved in three years before. She needed little encouragement from me. I climbed on a chair, broke off the old wicks and re-lit them. In full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy show stopper.
Her apartment also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the oldest candle making store in Paris. Cire Trudon is the most prestigious French wax manufacturer in existence since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into burning use. Soon the living room was alight with candle glow, “coupes de champagne” in everyone’s hand, and easy banter among friends.
Candlelight warms up any room and the atmosphere immediately turns festive and ambient. Some people believe candles are messy and never use them except on special occasions. As requested by a few friends in France, here is basic candle etiquette to keep your home aglow anytime.
Always trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious. Also for safety reasons.
If you light a lot of candles, it’s good to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This reduces smoke pollution and prevents spraying wax on walls and surfaces.
When engaging in regular candle usage, there are other interesting tips to know.
Never display new taper or column candles in your home with white, unburnt wicks. If you leave wicks un-blackened they look like the store display, not something your actually use for home ambience and decoration. White wicks can be lit briefly and extinguished, unless using the candle right away. Votive candles are an exception. Light them when ready to use.
Don’t burn candles during daylight. Candles are for darkness only, morning or evening. Breakfast or coffee before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle-lit bath is self-care luxury. The long days of summer are for being outside so save candle rituals for the hibernating months.
When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A plastic spatula gently scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water on a washrag does the rest, melting it away.
One way to prolong the life of column candles is to gently press around the outside rim as it is burning, folding the soft wax in toward the wick. This will help the rim melt into the wax pool and keep it level. If the wax pool becomes too deep, pour the liquid out right after extinguishing. Occasionally trim the hollowed out part of the candle to make it flush with the wick using a cutting board and a large knife. The candle is shorter, but it will burn better.
I can’t explain how fire and candle lore became second nature to me. But I do know our “indoor lives” are enhanced by strategic candlelight. It’s a personal, creative choice for the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a no fuss no muss option, except for needing to occasionally replenish the oil. The rule of thumb is buy good candles, not the least expensive ones. You get better candle power return with the investment.
So on these dark days and long nights of winter, kindle a candle, or two, or three at home on a regular basis. Enjoy some flickering flames with family or friends. After all, ‘tis the season.
When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and talk with someone every 50-100 feet. Café culture is built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking in this city, a sit-down-and-take-a-break opportunity presents itself. Locals always have a favorite café in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here, you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, muse, or hang out. It’s easily some of the best entertainment around.
When I told a French neighbor in our apartment building about my ritual at a favorite café on our market street, she nodded and said I had established my “poste d’observation”. Now that’s what I tell my husband when he calls wondering where I am. I’m involved in an activity of great importance–assessing the cast of characters who walk by my table. Sometimes he hurries to join me.
Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. The most important is the one nearest to where you live.
I venture to our market street in late afternoon to find something delicious for the evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty table at my café, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In the season of warm weather, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only this one. It’s on the corner where all the action begins.
There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel called On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. That is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is almost everything I want or need.
Butchers, bakers, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, caviar, oysters, homemade pizza and pasta, middle eastern food, cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, candles, household decorations, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner.
Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle into an empty chair at my “poste”. Greetings are exchanged with the server. I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé is standard. In cooler temperatures, a glass of Bordeaux feels cozier under the overhead heaters. Every beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.
The tables on either side of mine are occupied. To the left, a couple moves seamlessly from kissing to smoking to drinking beer. To the right, two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a brief glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world flows by.
Best times to be positioned at the “observation post” are late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is a perfect time to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires full attention. And never disappoints.
Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear–spiky heels, stylish boots, flip-flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopaedic shoes, even chic Italian shoes on a man with crutches.
Shoppers use rolling carts called “chariots” to hold and carry heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.
Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fresh produce, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up ingredients for lunch at home “en famille”.
Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run, bikes and scooters roll by, music plays. And always, people talk, talk, talk over everything.
The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely at home in the hubbub.
Sometimes I notice someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade glides by.
As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move on to the shops and my own errands.
Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass the chair I recently occupied. Someone else is sitting there–watching me as I walk by…
except from On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel
“The merchants down on Market Street were opening their doors. I stepped along that Market Street, I stopped at all the stores. Such wonders there on Market Street! So much to catch my eye! I strolled the length of Market Street to see what I might buy…
My arms were full on Market Street, I could not carry more. As darkness fell on Market Street, my feet were tired and sore. But I was glad on Market Street, these coins I brought to spend, I spent them all on Market Street…
“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” These words, written long ago by M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992], speak of the chemistry that occurs with the right combination of people, place and food–a communal spirit shared around the table with family or friends. Bread and wine are not the only catalysts. It can happen around a pot of egg coffee, too.
Three weeks ago we reconnected with a group of people we have known for many years but not seen in a long time. It was one of those bittersweet reunions–gathering to celebrate the life of a friend who passed away. And, at the same time, seeing others with whom we had shared great moments in the past. The weekend was one of those memory jolts when you re-encounter special friendships after losing touch with them. It’s easy to catch up because what you loved about them before is still there.
For several years in early marriage, we made repeated visits to a stone farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the family home of Dale and Marilyn Larson. The house was thick walled with deep windowsills constructed from native fieldstone. Of all the warm memories of time spent on that beautiful farm, the clearest one is standing in the kitchen around an enamel coffeepot with a broken egg inside.
Legend has it that the recipe for egg coffee was carried on a boat from Sweden to the New World sometime during the 1800s. In Larson family lore, the story goes like this.
A young Swedish girl, named Edla, moved to southern Minnesota in the late 1880s. She was terribly homesick, often going into the fields late at night to have a little cry. Then, Karl Larson proposed marriage and a new life began on his farm. It was 1890. There was no more homesickness. And there was always a pot of egg coffee on the stove.
Two generations later, Edla’s grandson, five-year-old Dale Larson, walked across two farm fields to visit his grandparent’s home. To gain his mother’s permission for the trek, he had to hold the hand of his older sister. She was six-and-a-half. Upon entering the kitchen, Edla would say to them, “Milk is bad for you. Coffee is good. Drink this.” So he did. For the next 80 years.
Every time we visited the Michigan stone farmhouse we drank it, too. It was a morning ritual perfected over generations and fascinating to watch. Making egg coffee became the symbol for something else—time spent with people we admired and loved. And who loved us back. Important life lessons were absorbed over cups of egg coffee in those years.
During the memorial weekend for our mutual friend, an important message from the Larson kitchen returned. It’s this–spend time with people who bring out the best parts of you, the best version of you. Then remember to go back and get refreshed.
I tried making egg coffee each time we returned from those Ann Arbor visits. But it was never quite right. I was probably too impatient or easily lured by push button coffee making. Eventually the attempts stopped and the enamel pot became merely decorative.
These days I’m more patient about the sweet spot of perfecting a ritual. With an enamel coffee pot from the flea market and step-by-step practice, I can make a good cup of egg coffee now. And always within this ritual, I’m reminded of friendship and lessons learned first in a kitchen, in a field stone farmhouse, with a broken egg at the bottom of the coffeepot.
…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds it morning and is refreshed.”–Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”