A guest is good or bad because of the host who makes being a guest an easy or a difficult task. –Eleanor Roosevelt
When I was a child, there was a book called Miss Jellytot’s Visit that formed my first impression of what it means to be both a host and a guest. Nine-year-old Katie O’Dea watched her mother host college friend, Irene, in the guest room of their home. The bed was made up with the best pink linens and quilts in the house. There were big, soft feathery pillows in pink pillowcases that you could sink back into, and a rose on the bedside table. The towels were fluffy and white in the spotless bathroom. Their guest was served breakfast in bed on a tray with another rose alongside. There was an assortment of magazines and books to peruse in lounging leisure.
Katie dreamed of being a guest in her own house, staying in that comfortable room with nothing to do but dress up in fancy clothing, wear French perfume, and be waited on like “Aunt Rene”. With her parents’ indulgence, she arrives as a “visitor” from out of town, calling herself Miss Jellytot because that was the name of her favorite cookies. Everyone stayed in their assigned roles. Katie was treated like an adult the entire visit.
Of course, there were problems with all of this. The first was that Aunt Rene stayed for two weeks and never lifted a finger as she had come “to rest and relax.” Mrs. O’Dea was not sorry to see her friend leave on the train. The second was that Katie learned being a grown-up meant missing pleasurable childhood activities like playing outside with friends, going to swim parties, or getting a new puppy. She couldn’t wait to end her “visit” after six days and be a kid again. Lessons: Don’t jump into adulthood when you haven’t finished the fun of being a child. And don’t overstay.
The story left me with “how-tos” carried into my own adult life. As a guest in someone else’s home, I stay no more than three days, with exceptions for family birthings or need-to-help home stays. I also like to set up a room for overnight guests that is cozy and welcoming and well-outfitted. A room that I would enjoy spending time in, too.
In early December, a cousin’s memorial service created the need to travel to St. Louis while I was already out of town for another event. My niece, Rebecca, has a large home with a guest bedroom and bath separate from the family’s living space. It was mine for the weekend. I flew in from across the country on a blustery wet night, rented a car and drove to her house knowing that everyone was out for the evening.
It couldn’t have been a better welcoming. I was warmed to my soul. Shrugging off coat in the back door entry, I smelled something delicious. Christmas lights and decorations were twinkling in every room. There was soft music coming from a speaker in the kitchen. Simmering on the stove was a pot of homemade chicken soup. There was a place setting on the counter next to a fresh baguette, butter, and a note inviting me to help myself.
I sighed gratefully and headed for the bedroom. Lights were on, a little gift in a colorful bag was on the bedside table next to a carafe of water. White towels were folded on the chair by the window. The bed was layered with white quilts, comforters, and billowy pillows.
Back in the kitchen, I poured a glass of wine, served myself a bowl of soup with bread and butter on the side, and said aloud, “This woman gets it.”
Hosting overnight guests involves providing for them in surprising and generous ways, going out of your way to roll out the welcome mat, even if you aren’t there to open the door. My niece checked all those boxes.
Rebecca is an interior decorator and organizer extraordinaire in her home and for her clients.
On a previous visit I noticed an opportunity where I could be of help. There is a small, temperature-controlled wine room in the basement. I had seen bottles of red and white and bubbly of differing vintages and values pushed randomly in slots, shelves a-jumble with gifted booze never opened and never intending to be drunk, gift bags strewn on the floor. If trying to find something special to serve and drink, well, there was no order.
My offer–to sit with her [and a charcuterie plate and two glasses of wine], pull everything off the shelves, put like vintages together, separate great bottles from the good and the cooking variety, use the label maker, toss out or give away questionable items like Ever Clear [!], horrible flavors of vodka, and other unidentifiable poisons. We set aside whisky that I might drink on another visit. She was thrilled. I was happy to spend time in a companionable activity in return for her hospitality. Win-win, like a thank you note in action.
Guest: Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with. –Seth Godin
Hosting at home can also be a celebratory party, a dinner, an outside barbecue. The host sets the stage while guests bring their exuberant mood, conversational banter, and best engaging self to round out the table. The most memorable get-togethers with family or friends have free-flowing discussions, storytelling, perhaps some soul searching, and laughter.
To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
–Gabrielle Hamilton,chef and author
We have a friend who masterfully slips in what he calls “the provocation” during dinner parties and casual social gatherings. It’s not confrontational and participation is optional. It’s a conversational attention grabber along the lines of “Who was an important influence in your life?” or “What is something that changed the direction of your life?” or “Have you experienced anything scientifically unexplainable, something paranormal?” Everyone chimes in because it adds another dimension to what we know about people we care about, and isn’t that why we get together in the first place? Adding detail, bridging thoughts and ideas with content, creating connection.
One more thing about being a good host and an even better guest. After years of inviting people to our home in Colorado, and for many years overseas, I have learned to enjoy late hours clean-up after the candles are snuffed and guests have cheerily said, “Good Night”. I like putting the kitchen back in order by myself or with my husband and thinking about the best parts of the evening. Again, from Gabrielle Hamilton:
I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested…When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
Yes, it is.
Rebecca uses bamboo sheet sets from Cozy Earth. They live up to the advertising “sleeping on a cloud”. www.cozyearth.com
Gabrielle Hamilton wrote the memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. Her writing voice is very engaging. She also owned and cooked at Prune Restaurant in East Village, NYC until the first Covid shutdowns in 2020. She contributes occasional articles to the NY Times.
For additional stories, international anecdotes, and photos about hosts and guests there is this: The Grown-Up Table.
One of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quotes is this: Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. To this I would add another companion comparison from my own recent experience: children and ice cream.
In 1686, the first café in Paris, Le Procope, opened in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with a Sicilian chef at the helm. His recipe of milk, cream, butter and eggs, an early Italian gelato, made ice cream available to the general public for the first time. For centuries it had only been enjoyed by the aristocracy. Over in America, it wasn’t until 1790 that an ice cream parlor opened in New York. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were known to have an affinity for this creamy icy treat. Ice cream’s reign as an indelible taste of summer is in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps children most of all.
When I was growing up, the seasonal ice cream truck rang its bell through the streets of our neighborhood in St. Louis once or twice a week every June, July, and August. Parents doled out pocket change. We shouted and ran to the ice cream man who opened his portable freezer filled with drumstick cones or chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on a stick or ice cream sandwiches. It was a race to eat as fast as possible in the heat and humidity while trying not to lose precious drips on the way home. There was usually some kind of messy “plop” on the sidewalk which was left for the ants.
There are, of course, other foods typically consumed in the summer besides ice cream. Fresh corn-on-the-cob or s’mores made around a campfire are two of them. Food happiness, measured individually by expression, is certain to occur when delicious things are eaten by young children for the first time.
In April, we drove across two states to care for a two-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter and her eleven-month-old brother while their tired parents flew somewhere else for adult R & R. We brushed off muscle memory around the heavy lifting required with infants and toddlers. By the third day, it was time for a change of scenery away from the house, backyard, and front porch. Some kind of field trip.
Because of the previous fifteen months of shutdown life during Covid, I thought an outing for ice cream might be just the thing for young and unsuspecting palates. Also, it could be accomplished outdoors on a warmish spring day.
With the 2-year-old, things began with the anticipation of a drive somewhere new. There was curiosity to stand at a window, place an order, and be held up to see what was going on inside. There was eagerness when a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in rainbow sprinkles was handed through the window. There was barely contained excitement while carrying it to a red iron bench and sitting down with a spoon and her own multi-colored delight.
While husband fed tiny tastes of ice cream to infant brother, the independent “I-dood-it-myself” girl spooned one transformative bite into her mouth. After one or two more she discovered a faster method.
It was the hand-to-mouth-vacuum-cleaner-technique. Her eyes narrowed momentarily as the heady sensation of cold and sweet sank in. Both hands tipped the cup to vertical maximum.
There was a moment of selfish possessiveness as she huffily pulled away from brother’s outreaching hand. Letting the remainder of the icy creamy semi-liquid slide into her mouth, she paused to consider what had just happened. Then, with a smug and satisfied grin, what was left was an empty container and face, hands, and clothes covered in sticky.
The success of the outing was summed up in one final moment. It was the kind of moment that captures the best part of kids and ice cream. With a timely click of the camera, a small girl was framed in a spontaneous second of joy…and ice cream bliss.
Joseph Campbell said that sacred places are where you go to wake up something important about yourself. Specifically, “A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are or what you might be.”
…go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, then stay with it and don’t let anyone throw you off. –J. Campbell
When I wrote about how creating and inhabiting personal space nourishes us from the inside out [The Poetry of Space], I remembered a place rooted in my childhood. It was an 1840’s, pre-Civil War, stately brick home fronting more than 600 acres of Missouri woods and farmland.
Why did a 100+ year-old house in Villa Ridge, Missouri, deeded to my grandmother on the sudden death of her second husband take me metaphorically “where body and soul wanted to go”? I stayed with the feeling, as Campbell suggested, dug into archival history, then realized it was a story of its own.
This place, in rural Missouri, is why houses and spaces resonate with me. Time spent here, in a house with more than a century of history, was where I learned that certain spaces are more than a container with walls and floors.
I don’t remember John Coleman, who wed my grandmother late in life, but I do remember the house that his grandfather, Spencer J. Coleman, bought exactly one hundred years before grandson John, his last living heir, dropped dead outside the home where he was born.
That unexpected death occurred two years into the second marriage of John Coleman and my paternal grandmother, Effie [“Fifi”] Harbour Coulter They wed in 1954. John died two years later at age 77. Fifi, widowed for the second time at age 68, was deeded the house and 665 acres of prime Missouri farmland.
The Coleman House, as it is called today, became the place for our extended family to spend time together. Thirty miles from St. Louis off old Highway 100, Fifi’s six children and many grandchildren annually spent Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays at the farm. Potluck picnics were set up on tables in the side yard. The adult crowd ate and socialized on lawn chairs while grandchildren from toddlers to teens were largely left to their own devices.
In my age group, cousins ran freely around the house and outbuildings or across the road to the school playground. We banged out every version of “Chopsticks” on the old upright piano. We walked the grassy road to the first big gate. If the black bull with a reputation for charging wasn’t in sight, we went on through and down the hill to the pond. Or we walked farther into the woods looking for the headstones of a family cemetery.
It was a jubilant time with a different brand of freedom; protected independence, discovery and exploration, wide-open country spaces, and the backdrop of a slightly downtrodden, but still imposing house, with tall-ceilinged rooms so different from the way we lived in town.
The condition and decor of the house might be described as mid-20th century shabby. There had been multiple renovations since its pre-Civil War prime. At this time, it featured large-patterned wallpaper, beige carpeting over wood floors, rickety enclosed porches with creaky, tilting floorboards, and fireplaces sealed or completely walled off. The eat-in kitchen had no built-in counter space. The plumbing upstairs and down was cast iron bathtubs, no showers.
What it looked like didn’t matter. What I remember is feeling happiness and liberating independence when I was there. Coleman House was where I “woke up” to making a decision about the future. I would only live in places and spaces that offered a brand of comfort and being at home in myself.
The summer I turned 11, we moved to a different state. Two years later we returned to visit the St. Louis family. At that time, an aunt and uncle and two of my closest cousins were living with Fifi to help manage the big house, the livestock and the fields.
When it was time to drive back to Texas, I begged to be left for a longer stay. The rest of that summer is etched in long-term memory. Finally I was living in a place I loved, where learning and experiencing and confidence building occurred by waking up in rural country spaces every day.
My cousin Karen taught me to drive a stick shift VW Beetle on farm roads. I gathered eggs, hung laundry to dry outside, picked garden strawberries, rode tractors, hand milked the cow, and stuck my finger into the thick layer of cream at the top of the milk canister. In the pick up truck, we checked on the cows down in the fields, sometimes with hay or a block of salt. I hiked to where the tiny Coleman cemetery was hidden in the woods.
My cousin Judy and I had a job selling July Fourth fireworks at a temporary stand on the highway. We sweated through our clothes, walked home covered in dust, and with a little money in our pockets. Before falling asleep, I climbed onto Judy’s bed under the window hoping to catch a whiff of breeze. Every night, with hands propped under her chin, she rattled off the make, model, and year of each passing car as it rounded the curve in the highway. Squinting at red taillights from a second floor window and listening to her monologue was sleep inducing.
In the old house, Judy felt the presence of “others.” No one believed her. According to her daughter Elise’s retelling, radio and television dials were in the habit of flipping on and off. Once, to make it stop, Judy unplugged the big radio in the kitchen, but the music continued. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner mysteriously went into action with no human nearby. On her only visit to the house, Elise herself experienced an eerie vision of “a coffin with a body” right where she was standing. She ran out of the house to escape the image. In an earlier century, the room she was in would have been used as the viewing parlor when family members died. Current owners of Coleman House mention “a light” or “a shadow” going up the staircase from time to time.
When Fifi died, her estate was sold in its entirety, house and acreage, to a real estate firm in St. Louis and later to Ralston Purina Company. Purina owned much of the surrounding land since the 1920s and still operates a research farm in the area.
I knew the Coleman House before I understood Joseph Campbell’s sentiment about “sacred places and spaces”. It awakened something inside me at a tender age for two reasons. It was a unique and memorable place. And I was with people who granted me the freedom to experiment and experience during formative years.
Everything that happened at Coleman house helped nurture my better self then. And everything that happened brought forth the person I became.
A Consolidated History of the Coleman Family and Coleman House
In 1837, Spencer Joseph Coleman [1816-1888] moved west, with his father and brothers, from the depleted soils of Virginia to land south of the Missouri River near St. Louis. They planned to start a new family plantation. By 1841, Spencer married Elizabeth Ann Wright and decided he liked the land further west, near Gray Summit, in Franklin County. So he split off from the family and began buying up different sized parcels over many years. Eventually he acquired 665 acres of rolling hills and fertile fields for growing tobacco and hemp.
Along the way he saw an elegant red brick mansion built by James Ming in the 1840’s. He offered to buy it with an attached 200 acres. Ming was a skilled craftsman and had built the home for himself using walnut, white pine, and oak cut from the land. He oversaw the making of each brick–cut from clay soil, shaped, molded and fired on site. But he sold the house and land to Spencer for $6000 in 1856.
It was initially called Bellaire, a solidly built mansion of masonry walls two bricks thick with a foundation of limestone blocks. The front porch entry was relatively small, but featured hand carved decorations and four columns on the front and two on either side of the door. There was leaded glass above and around the door.
Inside were two large rooms flanking a central walnut staircase. The back entrance opened to a double open porch gallery of two stories with its own smaller stairway. Beams used to support the upper gallery were hand hewn from trees cut on property and cemented with wooden pins. The kitchen was also in the back with an attached summer kitchen for hot weather cooking. Upstairs were three bedrooms, two large ones at the front of the house and a smaller nursery behind. There were six fireplaces for heating, three on each floor.
Spencer Coleman, with wife Elizabeth Ann [1823-1867] and four children moved into Ming’s mansion in 1856. For the next 100 years it was passed down through succeeding Coleman generations. Eldest son William Joseph Coleman [1848-1925] was the first to inherit the house and farm when Spencer died in 1888.
William Coleman married 15-year-old Emma Lou Sullivan [1860-1883] in 1875. She bore three children before dying tragically when her skirts caught on fire while burning trash and leaves in the orchard. She was only 23. William was left with two young children–Emma Josephine [1876-1952] and my grandfather by marriage, John Marshall Coleman [1879-1956]. William asked his unmarried sister, Elmira, to move in and help care for the family. He never married again.
That generation of Colemans, Emma Josephine and John Marshall, children of William and Emma Lou, and grandchildren of Spencer and Elizabeth Ann, produced no heirs.
John Coleman’s first wife died in 1925. He waited 29 years to remarry. The second time was to my paternal grandmother Effie Lavina Harbour Coulter [Fifi]. He was 75. She was 66. Fifi had raised five daughters and one son, my father Joseph Clayton. My grandfather, Andrew Joseph Coulter, left her widowed in 1946.
Effie and John had already known each other for many years. John was a lawyer by degree but worked as the bookkeeper for my grandfather’s “Coulter Hay Feed and Grain” store in downtown Kirkwood, Missouri. It is rumored that he was sweet on Fifi for a long time before asking her to marry. She moved into Coleman House in May 1954.
Two years later, John was in the yard talking about building another pond in the fields when he keeled over from a heart thrombosis and died instantly. My cousin, Linda, remembers it vividly because she was spending the night at the farm as she often did with Fifi.
From the purchase of the property by Spencer in 1856 to John’s death in 1956, one hundred years of Coleman legacy ended that summer evening. My grandmother inherited the estate. For the next seventeen years, Coleman House and farm was part of our extended family.
In 1973 Fifi died and everything was eventually purchased by Ralston Purina Company. It added a large parcel to their adjacent land. Transient workers, who were researching animals or Purina product development, moved in and out. Soon everything–the house, grounds, and outbuildings fell into crumbling disrepair.
Finally, in 1985, Purina sold the house “as is” with a few acres of land to a couple working for the company. That’s when transformation began. I didn’t meet these owners, but I learned that their labor-of-love saved the historic property from complete ruin. Over many years, with a contractor’s help, the house was gutted and literally rebuilt from the inside out.
Because it was solid brick construction, they began pulling down interior plaster walls to build new walls with studs, insulation, and dry wall. All six fireplaces were opened and restored to the top of the chimneys. In the kitchen, one fireplace was hidden behind a wall. It turned into a beautiful and usable part of the room.
White pine floors were uncovered and refinished. The walnut staircase was refurbished. The attic was insulated. Original single pane windows were replaced by custom built ones. Two rickety enclosed porches on the back were torn off and rebuilt to their original open architecture.
The smallest of the upstairs bedrooms was opened and incorporated into the master bathroom with a fireplace and sitting area, now used as a sewing room. The summer kitchen was torn off and rebuilt brick by brick to become the back entrance. The old wooden front porch must have been unsalvageable because it was replaced with bricks spanning the front of the house and a second floor balcony was added. Shutters were hung on the outside windows.
After years of living in a construction zone, a job change occurred, and the property sold in 2003 to the couple that now lives there. They have added their own touches–an attached garage and an outbuilding for storing antiques for their business. The summer kitchen entry was raised by one story to house an office upstairs and an improved bathroom/laundry area below. The cedar shake roof was replaced with metal after severe hail damage several years ago. They built a patio and walkway around the house with 10,000 cobblestones and added to the landscaping by replacing dead trees, planting many shrubs, and adding a large flower/vegetable garden.
The current owners graciously allowed me to visit Coleman House in early spring this year. I went with my cousin, Karen, who had lived there with her mother, father, sister, and our grandmother.
It was wonderful to see the changes from “then to now”. Coleman House was truly saved after 1985. It was revitalized to modern living standards and new generations continue adding to its legacy. Restorations that took decades of vision and a tremendous outlay of work enhance the original beauty of James Ming’s craftsmanship from almost two centuries ago.
Added Coulter Lore with Pics
*Final musings about my grandmother.
When I began this research, I wasn’t thinking about the work-a-day life for women in my grandmother’s era. But it was overwhelming by anyone’s standards. Over the span of 17 years, Effie bore 5 girls and 1 boy at home and raised them almost singlehandedly. Her husband, a middle-aged man who provided for the family, was uninvolved in household life. Grampa Joe was known to sit in his chair reading the newspaper with a spittoon at his feet, seemingly oblivious to the chaos of six children running circles around him. Added to that workload was the daily care and feeding of a mother-in-law who wouldn’t get out of bed for the last 20 years of her life. And then, after marriage, several daughters lived at home with their husbands until finding other arrangements.
The overall picture of Fifi’s life looked like this: The full management of a large household with six children underfoot, a disconnected, but working, husband, a mother-in-law who decided to stay in bed for 20 years, taking in boarders for extra money, and adult children moving in and out with spouses.
Perhaps John Coleman saved Fifi by wooing her out to the farm where she only had one man to worry about.
As a mountain is unshakenby the wind,so the heart of the wiseperson is unmovedby all the changes on this earth.
Summer 2020. July road trip from the mountains of Colorado to lake hopping in Wisconsin–cancelled. Coronavirus rampant worldwide and no vaccine, yet. While accepting the present moment, something needed shaking up.
A conversation about camping in early marriage led to the basement in search of gear. It was not what we remembered. There was an under sized tent–don’t think so, wafer thin sleeping pads–nope, one camp stove–completely rusted. Not much in the way of basics. However, a reliable looking percolator coffee pot and two fine sleeping bags revived hope and possibility. We headed to the nearest REI store to fill in the gaps.
An open sky half-domed tent, two self-inflating sleeping pads, and one tiny state-of-the-art stove later, we were ready to reconnect with outdoor living in nearby mountain campground terrain.
September was late to get started. We hoped the fire ban, in place since July, would be lifted but instead it was extended for good reason. It’s almost obligatory to come home from camping and smell like campfire smoke. Not this season.
We scoped out sites in advance because reservations are mandatory. To “walk in” means setting up a tent next to the bathrooms. Our choice was a good one. We had neighbors to the right and left, but lodge pole pine forest behind.
Forgetting a few things prompted the start of a “next time” list. The night passed peacefully for husband who slept right through while I lay awake with a maddening bout of insomnia. Hours spent listening to night sounds–the tent-side scratching and rustling of small rodents. Later, there was a loud and persistent snuffling noise just north of sleeping man’s head. I chose to let him slumber on as I flipped over and over in my sleeping bag in hopes of urging away nocturnal critters, imagined or not.
In the morning, the aluminum coffee percolator worked like a charm.
A month later, we tried out new territory in the Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forest. Within the forest is a huge expanse of land originally owned and used by Hewlett-Packard for employee recreation and leadership retreats. It has since become public space with large, natural, private campsites.
The mid-October day of our reservation began with cold rain, then sleet, and finally horizontal blowing snow. We watched and waited. Hours later, as often happens in Colorado, the sun was shining. Deciding that our tent and sleeping bags could withstand forecast colder temperatures and high winds, we headed out.
Campsite #38 in Hermit Park is isolated and beautiful. Late autumn golden-leafed aspens, craggy rocks, boulders, and pine trees surrounded the tent. Metal stakes and rocks kept things battened down as the predicted wind picked up with attention getting gusts. Yet again, we were underprepared. This time–no warm gloves, no insulated footwear, no heavy coats. Temperatures dipped even before darkness fell.
Only 25-minutes from home, I volunteered to collect missing gear so we could see the night through. Upon return, husband was stamping in circles to keep warm. It was time to open the wine and get the stove fired up. Hands and feet were toasty and battery lanterns lit up the dusk as night settled in, even without a campfire.
Homemade chili heated in vintage cast iron warmed our insides. Finally, with the wind blowing in breathtaking gusts, an empty wine bottle, and total darkness, we looked at each other and laughed. The tent was an easy invitation to turn in.
All night the wind moaned, circled and doubled back relentlessly. But we were snug as bugs. This time, the only outside noises were buffeting tent flaps noted briefly before turning over and settling back to sleep under layers of cozy warmth.
Husband was up at early light to get the coffee started. It was a feat of expertise to keep the stove lit and protected from the high wind. But he did. Emerging from the tent, I took a photo of the moon above the trees.
We cheered when the pot finally began percolating. Coffee was steaming and strong. Continental breakfast, camp style, was s’mores bars dipped in tin mugs. [recipe: Guest Ready Sweetness]
We could have stayed home. We could have sat by an indoor fire in a heated cabin with candles on the coffee table. But a pandemic with ongoing caution to remain hunkered down and distant from others invited us into the wilderness.
So we found ourselves pitching a tent, in a remote campsite, in inclement weather, inside a slice of time with no past or future, only the present. A late autumn afternoon turned into evening, and then a new day.
We chose to go deeper into the mountains and sleep on the ground with high winds as our companion. And while there, we let go and breathed deeply in the midst of life’s uncertainty.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows through trees.The wind will blow freshness into you,and cares will drop away like leaves of Autumn.–John Muir
To say it has been an atypical summer in the mountains is an understatement. Forest fires burning around us since July, ash and haze obscuring mountain outlines, no rain in three months, statewide fire ban, surging global pandemic, and a lack of visitors except for children and grandchildren.
I’m more than ready for next season’s return to normalcy if it works out that way. By ready, I mean that I have three exceptional recipes to satisfy the sweet tooth of any person or group that drops by, sits around a campfire, or stays overnight.
Maddy’s Caramel Bars, Patricia’s Double Chocolate Brownies with Sea Salt, and Jean’s S’mores Bars are unbeatable for chewable bites of sweetness cut out of a 9×13 inch-baking pan.
As all great passed-on recipes should be, these come from stories about friends.
Last summer’s road trip in 2019 was to Maddy and Cabby’s cabin on the Methow River [A Guest Room Under the Porch] in eastern Washington State. Maddy is a great cook and hostess. Their log home, with overflow teepees and tents, is a revolving door of family and friends. She offered us her always-on-the-counter pan of caramel bars and said, “Try these. People love them! They are my go-to for company all summer long.” We sampled and agreed. Caramel bars with chocolate chips and pecans were prepared over and over for our own guests, with rave reviews.
Patricia, whom I have written about in several adventures, Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please, Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees] vacationed in Colorado in August. She rented a cabin bordering on the National Park just down the road from us. The double chocolate brownies she brought to our front porch originated from a friend in Wisconsin. Richly chewy, with texture from chocolate chips inside, these brownies are for every chocoholic. I switched out the garnish of powdered sugar for flaky sea salt sprinkled over the top. Et maintenant ç’est plus délicieux. Chocolate and salt can’t be beat. Except by caramel and salt. Or almost anything with salt.
The last recipe came onto the scene this summer because of the harsh no burn season. We invited neighbors for a socially-distanced outdoor cookout around the fire ring. S’mores were requested for dessert. Except a campfire couldn’t be lit. Our friend, Jean, came bearing S’mores Bars baked in the oven and cut into bite-sized squares. These are even better than real s’mores, which often feature charred marshmallows blackened over red-hot coals.
With baked s’mores you can revisit the original in one chewy, not overly sweet, bite of marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough over a graham cracker crust. There is melted chocolate on top so licking fingers is required. I substituted dark chocolate for traditional milk chocolate. [S’more better.]
I’m anticipating the return of a next summer’s season of sequential guests. This winter while I drink coffee next to the picture window with the wide angle view of Long’s Peak, I will muse about the return of daily summer afternoon rainstorms followed by rainbows, campfires by sunrise, sunset, or moonrise, and baking pans full of dessert bars to sweeten everything that happens in between.
CARAMEL BARS [Maddy Hewitt]
1 C melted butter
1 1/4 C flour
1 1/4 C oats
1 C brown sugar
1 ¼ tsp baking soda
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Pour melted butter over and mix in. Reserve ¼ of the mixture for topping. Pat the rest into bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Bake 15 min. at 350 F. Cool 5-10 min.
1 bag Kraft Caramels, wrappers removed
3 ½ Tbs butter
3 Tbs cream [or Half & Half]
Melt all together, SLOWLY, in cast iron skillet over low heat. Stir constantly. When melted, pour over cooled crust.
1 C semi sweet chocolate chips [or dark chocolate chips]
¼ to ½ C pecan pieces
Mix together and sprinkle over caramel layer
Using reserved crust mixture, sprinkle over the top of chips and pecans
Bake 10 min. more at 350 F. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Store in tins. Freezes well.
DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BROWNIES WITH SEA SALT FLAKES [Patricia Green-Sotos]
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 C butter
2 C granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 C flour
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ C miniature marshmallows
Flaky sea salt crystals
Melt chocolate and butter slowly in a saucepan over low heat. When melted, add sugar and set aside to cool slightly. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in vanilla and flour. Mix well. Fold in chips and marshmallows.
Bake in a parchment paper lined 9 x 13 baking pan [or grease the pan] for 30-35 minutes at 350 F. Top may be bubbly. Don’t overcook. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and cool completely before cutting. Store in tins or plastic ware. Freezes great.
S’MORES BARS [Jean Adam]
1 ½ sleeves graham crackers, crushed with rolling pin in zip-loc bag
2/3 C melted butter
1/3 C granulated sugar
Mix together and press into bottom of 9×13” pan lined with parchment paper. Bake 7 min at 350 F. Cool slightly.
1 C butter softened to room temperature
¾ C brown sugar
¾ C white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Cream together. Add:
2 ¼ C flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 C semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
2 ½ C mini marshmallows
Drop by large spoonfuls of dough carefully over crust and press into graham crackers without disturbing the layer underneath. Bake 15 min at 350 F or until golden brown on top. Quickly remove from oven and cover the top with broken pieces of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars. [2 large ones or 3 small]
Return to oven until chocolate melts ~ 3-5 min. Don’t overcook or let the top get too brown.
Cool completely before lifting parchment out of pan and cutting into small squares.
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
It’s the middle of April. There are eighteen inches of snow outside our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It’s stay-in-place quarantine time so there is nowhere to go anyway.
We watched a coyote run by in the early morning hours yesterday, on the hunt for something to fill his stomach, followed by four more.
Today, a family of deer bedded down among the pine trees on the southern hillside. What we actually saw was heads and ears, their bodies completely blanketed in white powder like a downy duvet.
The pine needles are so heavily laden that they create avalanches when they unburden themselves from the top, cascading down through lower branches in bulky snow burst plops.
All of this is pretty to look upon, but we must occasionally venture from the fireplace to don boots and hats and gloves and shovel out the drive, now a pileup growing foot by foot instead of inch by inch. Back inside, we shake off the snow and head to the kitchen. It’s time to refuel with something hot, hearty, and with ingredients almost always on hand.
Our quarantine comfort food go-to is an improved reboot of a childhood staple–grilled cheese sandwiches. But this is not some processed-cheese-slices-between-layers-of-white-bread kind of sandwich. I’m talking GrilledCheese. With caramelized onions, bacon, and fresh spinach [or apples].
It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.
GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]
1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
Grated mix of meltable cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
Thick sliced bacon, if desired, or use crisp apple in thinly sliced wedges
Fresh baby spinach
4 slices hearty bread such as rye or sourdough
Fry bacon slices [if using], set aside, and drain grease from pan.
Add some butter to heavy skillet [cast iron!] and slowly sauté sliced onions over med-lo heat. Onions will brown slowly. Stir occasionally. It can take 20 minutes, so be patient. The crucial step is tocaramelize those onions!
Place grated cheese in bowl.
Add the browned onions and mix together thoroughly.
Pile onion/cheese mix onto each slice of bread.
Top with bacon [optional] and spinach. For a meatless version substitute very thin slices of raw apple for the bacon.
Press sandwich halves together.
In cast iron skillet, place sandwich into melted butter and heat to grill bread on both sides. It’s helpful to press down with heavy spatula to squish insides together. Turn over carefully.
When bread is toast-y and cheese is melt-y, serve at once.
Enjoy with a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion or scallion, black olives, and feta or goat cheese. Glass of wine–always nice.
Afterward, poke the fire, add some wood, lay down on sofa with a book or for a shelter-in-place power nap.
I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.
With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.
A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house.–Michael Ruhlman
The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.–Joy Harjo
Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.
From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.
Good kitchens are not about size. –Nigel Slater
My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.
To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.
During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.
By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.
I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what. –Alice Waters
During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.
My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things.
There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful. –M.F.K. Fisher
During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.
This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.
You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens.–Trisha Yearwood
Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. [love-and-layers-of-lasagne] She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.
The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.–Laura Esquival
Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development. –Laura Esquival
People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup. Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.
True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal.–Mehmet Oz
These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.
Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.
I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment. –M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food
Good Olive Oil
1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
4-5 minced garlic cloves
1 T. dried oregano
1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 1/4 C. dry red wine
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 T. tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1# dry pasta, any kind
1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.
Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.
Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.
Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.
A Hollywood movie was released in 1998 called Sliding Doors. It’s a romantic comedy in which the plot alternates between story lines depending on whether the female character jumps through a closing subway door and catches the train or misses it entirely.
The concept of “sliding doors” is life’s trajectory. Even mundane moments of decision-making can alter future outcomes. We all think about what might have been if we had chosen differently in our lives.
I wonder if we sometimes pass through sliding doors completely unaware. When what we are doing is different than what we think it is. When someone else chooses for us.
It helps to have an active imagination.
For example, I could have been recruited as a CIA operative earlier in life, making a conscious choice to jump through that door. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the CIA found me.
In the early 1990’s, I was married and raising two young children with a husband working in Nicosia, Cyprus. We had a friend I will call “John”. His job was with the “State Department” in the U.S. Embassy. We assumed he was part of the CIA desk because he made extensive trips throughout the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Also, he never talked about his work.
John was a foodie before the term was common in popular culture. He relished good food and wine, and was knowledgeable about both. When he wasn’t out of town gathering information and following leads, he enjoyed long lunches at his favorite Italian restaurant, La Romantica. The owners knew him well. They were cued to his wine preferences and shared what was fresh on the menu. He always reserved the same corner table.
As John often entertained visitors, he began inviting me to join his lunch gatherings. I had no idea who any of the guests were, met them only once, never saw them again. It was always new people from different countries and cultures. At first, I thought I was rounding out the table for some good food and conversation with a friend and his clients.
I can talk to just about anyone in a social setting, even people I don’t know, by asking a question that leads to a further question. “Tell me about…” followed up with “And what about…?” A slight nod and unwavering eye contact helps people go on and on with their stories.
As a conversational skill, the focus is on the talker. Begin with one searching question, followed by the next, and then another. Sometimes people share more than intended. Perhaps John knew I naturally asked a lot of questions. What I noticed about him was that he hardly said anything at all. He just listened.
Oh, he ordered bottles of wine for the table, joked with the chef and his wife and made recommendations about food. Otherwise, he quietly took in what people were saying, what they were telling me.
After several lunches, I began to wonder if I was gathering info for his professional files instead of being a good guest chatting up sophisticated visitors. The thought escalated after my husband asked, “Do you ever wonder why John invites you to lunch with people you don’t know?”
Eventually the lunch crowd thinned and the restaurant emptied, but our table remained intact. There was no mention of needing to vacate the space. This should have been my cue to excuse myself so John and his guests could get down to “real business.” If non-verbal cues were signaled, I missed them.
Instead, I busied myself a different way. Over the course of four, and sometimes five-hour lunches, I became familiar with Romantica’s owners who invited me into the kitchen for a mini-cooking lesson. With hindsight, Signor and Signora “Romantica” were probably in on the gig, too. Allowing John some professional space in the front of the house while they tried to beef up my cooking skills in the back of the house.
I have often said that I am not a natural born cook. Eating well is important, but I love when someone else is in charge of the preparation of a good meal. Still, I learned two memorable recipes from my post-lunch lessons.
The first was how to make a fresh tomato sauce from the beautiful, deep red, Cypriot tomatoes. It begins with removing the skins by dropping them into boiling water. After de-skinning, it is basically a stir-fry for about 20 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, fresh basil leaves added at the end. The eye-closing-wonderful-taste of this simple sauce, with any pasta, has everything to do with tomatoes grown in ancient soil, ripened in blazing hot Mediterranean sun. I found it difficult to replicate elsewhere.
The second thing I learned was how to prepare my favorite order at Romantica; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. This became one of my comfort foods–spaghetti with garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. It’s a fast prep made as easily for dining solo as for a crowd.
If the afternoon wore on toward 4:00 or 5:00PM, my husband and John’s wife would show up, their working day ended. They wondered why lunch had stretched into the apéro hour, but sat down as John ordered a final round of wine before we all headed home.
What they didn’t realize was that I had completed another assignment of covert information gathering as a CIA volunteer.
Well, anyway, all imagining aside, what those lunches provided was a set of skills that served me for the rest of our years overseas. With insightful questions, I learned to navigate, and [mostly] enjoy, large social gatherings where I didn’t know anyone.
I’m not wild about stand-up cocktail parties, shoulder-to-shoulder receptions, huge galas, or fancy dancing balls. But we participated in all of these during 31 years overseas. Many times. Gearing up for such events was less formidable when I realized I didn’t have to talk to every person or “work the whole room” as my husband did naturally and very well.
My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without idle mingling and wishing to kick off high-heeled shoes. Thus, my brief interrogation stint with the CIA had a positive afterlife.
Life’s opportunities come and go. Whether we decide to enter a door as it opens, or miss it and choose the next–there is always an experience or an unexpected something that follows.
Overseas living was a sliding door of opportunity for us. The courage to jump [blindly] was necessary only once. With the next international job and the next, we understood that our family unit would remain tight and our collection of memorable stories would continue to grow.
However, I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which briefly opened for me personally. Riding horses in my 20’s, and newly married, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel and hinted of excitement, risk, adventure.
Now there’s another story ending to imagine…
SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO
1 lb. spaghetti
1/3 C. good olive oil
8 garlic cloves, minced
½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
½-1 C. flat-leaf parsley or baby spinach, coarsely chopped
1 C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ C. pasta water.
Heat olive oil in large saucepan.
Sauté red pepper flakes with garlic until garlic just begins to brown.
Stir in the reserved pasta water.
Add the cooked spaghetti and heat through, mixing all together.
Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan.
Use additional parsley and Parmesan as garnish.
If you don’t like spice, leave out the pepper flakes and you have spaghetti aglio e olio.
Some Italian lineages say never use Parmesan on any pasta dish with an oil base. Parmesan is for tomato sauces. Signora Romantica was of that tradition. But we love Parmesan and made it our own addition.
Other stories of friends and adventures in Cyprus [with recipes, too]:
Summer at our cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains began in June this year.
A guest I wasn’t expecting had already arrived. Stepping onto the covered front porch, a young deer with budding antlers leapt out from underneath my feet. He had moved in below the decking, among rocks laid down years ago.
The buck didn’t venture far, sticking close to nearby pine trees, pretending to graze and glance silently at me. Over the course of days, I became familiar with his routine and he with mine.
I began calling softly, “Hey Buddy, it’s just me”, when he startled awake with my footsteps above him. If it was late afternoon, nocturnal foraging began and he wandered away.
My husband arrived one week later. We have our morning coffee here, on the porch that faces north, with a view of craggy rock knobs and towering Ponderosas. Rays of rising sunlight are welcome when the air is cool.
We began to see Buddy meandering “home”, well after sunrise, having pulled the typical all-nighter for a mule deer. Sometimes there were two younger bucks with him. When he angled down the hill toward his sleeping space the others strolled on down the road.
Because we were often sitting on top of his semi-concealed den, he began lying down in the grassy weeds off the porch, awake and relaxed. He saw us. We saw him. He heard our voices as we talked. An unusual compatibility formed. When we left our chairs he would ease back into his rocky enclosure and bed down. One day led to the next…
Mule deer are indigenous to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. They differ from their whitetail cousins with a larger body build, oversized ears, a black tipped white tail, and white patch on the rump. Males prefer sleeping among rocky ridges while females like bedding down in meadows protected by trees and shrubbery. Life span can approach ten years, but only if they avoid mountain lions, bobcats, and packs of coyotes.
Antlers are shed and re-grown every year. In the beginning, they are covered in hairy skin called velvet. Velvet supplies blood to protect and nourish them while they are still soft and fragile. As they grow, [as much as half an inch a day] a deer’s antlers branch forward and “fork”, then fork again. When full size is reached, the velvet dies off and bucks remove it by rubbing on trees and bushes. This also strengthens their neck for sparring with other males in the fall rut.
Days turned into weeks as we watched Buddy’s frame fill out. His antlers seemed to grow visibly overnight, forking once, then twice into an impressive display. He was going to be a player in this season’s rut.
In late July, we left Estes Park heading northwest on a road trip to visit friends. In contrast to dry, grassy, wildflower meadows and granite-rock mountains, our friends summer near water–a large lake in the Idaho panhandle, and the Methow River valley in northern Washington State.
Sometimes we wondered about our under-the-porch guest back in Colorado. Husband surreptitiously placed a web cam to observe activity while we were away. Feedback went to his phone, but only for a short time. Within days, Buddy stuck his face into the camera lens and apparently kicked the whole thing over. We could only guess whether he abandoned the den…or simply triumphed over unwanted technology.
Spending time with friendships that began in Taiwan in the 1990s was the highlight of our days on the road. In northern Idaho, on our friends’ boat, we enjoyed a scenic tour of Lake Pend Oreille followed by a sunset dinner al fresco. The next day, in a two-car caravan, we drove to Mazama, Washington where the Methow River runs through the property of our friends.
Important activities take place along this strip of rocky, sandy riverbed as the Methow flows by. Cooking over fire in a circular rock surround, lumberjacking dead trees for winter firewood, sleeping in teepee or tent, sharing meals, talking and story telling, watching clouds, the sunrise or the sunset, reading with the soothing background noise of water sounds. Rhythms of a summer lived outside play daily here. It is the spiritual landscape of our friends. While sharing their space we moved within its’ cadence and felt it, too.
A circuitous route took us back to Colorado after saying good-bye in Mazama. When we pulled off the dirt road onto the cabin driveway, it was still light enough to note the sleeping den was empty. The web cam was upside down near rocks about fifteen feet from the porch steps. Buddy returned the next morning, noting our presence by plopping down and waiting for us to finish breakfast and move off the porch.
Our cabin was built to house a crowd. Family and friends pile upstairs and bunk in rooms with multiple beds. Less than a week after we returned home there were rounds of guests–more footsteps, new smells, even a baby’s babbling voice. Buddy moved out.
It’s been several weeks now since he left. A woman mentioned that her husband saw a deer sleeping in an unused barn on the property they are renting. It is just below us. Visiting sister-in-law saw a buck with good-sized antlers walking with a doe early one morning. We ran into Buddy, grazing one evening, as we walked home from a neighbor’s cabin. He started to walk toward us, then turned and kept his distance. There is a return to natural order on the hillside.
These days the morning air smells of approaching autumn. The temperature at sunrise can be nippy in that put-on-your-sweatshirt-to-sit-outside kind of way. Sunlight has shifted its’ arc. The bugling chorus of bull elk, signaling the start of the rut, is only days away. Change of season in the mountains propels the notion of moving on.
Yet, for a short while this summer we shared an uncommon acquaintance with a young deer as he grew into strength and maturity. We liked his quiet presence. He tolerated ours. We didn’t invite him, so I guess he chose us…because he found a guest room that suited him under the porch.
Editor’s Note: While we were living in France, my husband was invited by the American Embassy in 2014 to take a group of students from the American School in Paris to a commemorative ceremony overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. The presidents of France and the United States spoke. American veterans of that fateful day were present. It was a time to reflect on remarkable courage and leadership–with freedom as the outcome. I wrote about that here: The Unexpected in Normandy
Five years later, as the 75th D-Day anniversary approaches, we now live in the U.S. and find ourselves thinking about our country’s role in today’s world. I asked my husband to be a guest writer and offer his perspective on keeping the spirit of D-Day alive. What follows are his remembrance and thoughts about an historic event and the hope that the metaphoric message of D-Day will live on throughout all generations. Thank you, Mark.
There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. –Barbara Kingsolver
Second Lieutenant Richard Winters parachuted into D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944, separated from his weapon as he jumped, landing miles away from the rest of his Easy Company 506 Parachute Regiment. A soldier from another company, who came down near Winters, asked if they were lost. Lieutenant Winter’s response? “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.” Operation Overlord had begun at 1:30AM on a pitch-dark morning.
In all, about 75,000 Americans parachuted behind the lines or disembarked from an armada of boats onto Utah and Omaha beaches that first day. Casualties were over 10,000. With unimaginable sacrifice and courage, so began the liberation of France and, once the breakout unfolded beyond Normandy, the fall of German Fascism.
Consider that seventy-five years ago the youth of America with their lives out in front of them came ashore, under withering fire, based on a premise of arriving into a country not their own, fighting to liberate a people they did not know, and becoming one with the human race in a fight against Nazism. Not words but actions to preserve democratic ideals of self-government, liberty, equality and human freedoms. “America First”–no. American leadership–yes. In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
But on June 6, 1944 there was terror amid bloodshed and dying young men crying out for their mothers. It was a time when America did the most important thing on earth by letting besieged nations know they were not alone. It was American power with characteristic capacity for good.
Today if you fly into Paris, rent a car, and drive into the Normandy countryside you will see two flags adorning doorways of farmhouses and homes–the French tri-color and the American stars and stripes. Young school children still tend the graves in allied cemeteries across France.
Five years ago, I took students to Colleville-sur-Mer, in Normandy, France, to participate in the ceremony of the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings. That year’s commemoration brought together then U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande at the Normandy American Cemetery. They spoke of what love means after all: sacrifice and selflessness. Standing on this ground, absorbing the meaning of their speeches, made me weep. I wanted every child from now to eternity to understand what happened in Normandy.
President Obama observed that, “If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world. And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history.”
Then our president said, “But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it. And when the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it. But America’s claim — our commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being — that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.”
How important it was for our students, surrounded by 9388 gravestones, to hear about America’s (and our allies) sacrifice beyond borders.
President Hollande described the reality of that day in 1944, “Seventy years ago to the day, right here, opposite this beach, this beautiful beach on the Riva Bella, thousands of young soldiers jumped into the water under a torrent of gunfire and ran toward the German defenses. They were 20 years old, give or take a few years, and at that moment, who could say that 20 was the best age in life? For them, 20 was the age of duty, it was the age of commitment, it was the age of sacrifice. They were cold; they were afraid. On that June 6th the air, so pure today, was thick with the smoke of the first clashes, and riven by the din of explosions. The calm water we see today was striped with foam from the landing craft and red with the blood of the first combatants. What were those 20-year-olds thinking in the face of this terror? They must have been thinking of their beloved mothers, their fathers so worried, their loved ones so far away, their childhoods so recent, and their lives so short, lives whose horizons were blotted out by the war.”
“And yet those young men, amid that hell of fire and steel, didn’t hesitate for one second. They advanced, advanced across the soil of France, braving the bullets and shells; they advanced, risking their lives to defeat a diabolical enemy; they advanced to defend a noble cause; they advanced, yes, and went on advancing, to free us, to liberate us at last.”
The French president reminded us about the character of America and our country’s leadership, “But the soldiers who came from the sea had achieved the essential thing. The essential thing was to set foot on French soil, and on 6 June they had begun to liberate France. And as the sun set on the Longest Day, a radiant beam of hope rose over subservient Europe. On these Normandy beaches, the memory lingers of a bitter, uncertain, decisive confrontation. On these peaceful Normandy beaches, the souls of the fighters who gave their lives to save Europe live on. On these tranquil beaches, whatever the weather, whatever the climate of the seasons, a single wind blows, the wind of freedom. It still blows today.”
On that beautiful spring day in the “orchard of gravestones”, Normandy American Cemetery, all of us attending the 70thanniversary recognized that freedom is fragile and that we must stand together as nations. Hollande continued, “I’ve talked about courage – the courage of the soldiers, the courage of the resistance fighters, the courage of people at the time; courage in wartime. But courage in peacetime is just as essential and necessary. What motivated the soldiers who landed here 70 years ago? Their patriotic duty? Yes, no doubt. But also an idea, an idea they all shared, whatever their nationality: by setting foot here, on these beaches, they were carrying a dream, a dream which seemed impossible in 1944; a dream born out of the depths of despair, a dream which enlightened their conscience. What was this dream? It was the promise of a world free from tyranny and war.”
Speaking directly to President Obama, François Hollande said, “Mr. President, the French people recognize an indefatigable energy in America, an ability to innovate, create, invent and carry the dream of success. But what they admire the most in the American people – because they themselves are its most ardent champions – is their love of freedom. And my compatriots know that, when the critical moment comes, when our principles are in danger, France and the United States always come together, as in that terrible summer of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and on the beaches of Provence.”
How is it possible to hear the French president’s words about the spirit and character of America and not feel proud, and today wonder how we would ever compromise this legacy under the moniker of “America First?” What is the message we send our youth about the principles of democracy and friendship between nations being worth courage and sacrifice? The story of June 6, 1944 must live in the hearts of today’s and future generations too.
As the 75thanniversary of the Normandy landings approaches, with many fewer World War II veterans alive, is there not still a message about America’s leadership overseas? To honor those young, forever young soldiers who died for our freedom on foreign soil that day in 1944, what decisions will we make about our world? Is it going to be totalitarianism or will democracies prevail? Will the current “America First” idea, or runaway nationalism, diminish the message of Normandy? History tells a different story. America was not so constructed. We lead with generosity.
Today, American leadership around the world is perhaps in doubt, especially when leaders of other countries are asked. We appear to be an uncertain friend. Our moral compass is without a true north.
Maybe the Longest Day, seventy-five years later can serve as a reminder that if there is an “America First” concept, it is our willingness to step into the breach–to advance values born out of the Constitution and with our allies in common purpose to preserve freedom around the world.
It was William Blake who said, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” We remember June 6, 1944 by defining a hero as someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Such thinking might well apply to individuals and nations alike. A life message to all children–we want them to know and to care.
Let “America First” mean finding our way with confidence and courage to confirm our nation’s place as an agent for good in the world. On this principle, we need to stand rock solid. Think of two soldiers finding their way on the darkest of nights, having been dropped from the sky, not knowing what was ahead, but optimistic–where the metaphor of our time lies in the hopeful words of Dick Winters, “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.”
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.
My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one. –Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter
Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a winter holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.
The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.
The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in NYC balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching reruns of a favorite TV series.
Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites that teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.
On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.
It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!
When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.
Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.
In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”
I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.
The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in bold italics:
“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”
Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.
“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’”
Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”
“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.
It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’
I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.
‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’
I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too.
And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **
It doesn’t necessarily matter when a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way.
That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered.
Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. “Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!
Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.
But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, integrated with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.”
**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.
I have flown a million miles over the past 31 years. As the miles accumulated so did stories of airports and airplanes. One of them, now part of family lore, involved a plane departing with my child but without me.
There are two other unforgettable stories about one airport in particular, the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International. It closed 20 years ago, in 1998, after serving the city for 73 years. In the late 1980s we used it for three years to fly from the U.S. to our home overseas in Singapore. It was a 24 hour trip from Denver, Colorado with layovers in California and Hong Kong before landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport.
One decade and two international moves later, a chance encounter with a contemporary oil painting transported me back to the first, spectacular, pulse-racing landing we made into Hong Kong.
In 1999, an overseas friend, who is a Brazilian artist, held a gallery showing of her oil paintings in Taipei, Taiwan. Strolling the array of artwork, I saw the title “Rooftops” next to a large canvas. Looking from the title to the painting, something shivered through me. Art is supposed to create emotions like this. When I looked again, I had a visceral flashback to 1987, the summer we left Colorado and moved to southeast Asia. Now, I wanted to own that painting.
In the years since Taiwan, “Rooftops” has hung in our home in the “altstadt” in Oberursel, Germany, later above an elaborately carved marble fireplace in Paris, and now in the living room of an apartment in Princeton, New Jersey.
Neither of our two children understand why I love this painting. One summer, our son Adam stayed in Taipei to work while the rest of the family was on home leave. He disliked it so much that he removed it from the wall and stashed it out of sight until August.
Adam was only 5, 6, and 7 years old during those early years overseas. He doesn’t remember what made this particular piece of art “real” for me. Or why I keep dragging it around the world to hang in a place of prominence in our homes.
Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International was a city airport in the midst of densely populated Kowloon. There were mountains and hills and multi-story apartment buildings surrounding it. The runway protruded into the sea. Reclaimed land kept extending its’ length as airplanes grew bigger.
But there was something even more remarkable about it than just longevity. Pilots of all airlines regarded it as one of the most difficult airports in the world to land a jet smoothly and safely. Because Kai Tak was renowned for its’ challenging, hair-raising approach to the runway. For a spectator on the ground witnessing jumbo airliners land was eye-popping entertainment. As a passenger in a window seat–it took my breath away.
One commercial pilot with 30+ years of experience remembers, “As a pilot, it was totally unique. It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway, literally flying between the high-rise buildings, passing close to the famous orange and white checkerboard as you made that final turn toward the runway.”
With two sleeping children who were oblivious, I watched with my forehead pressed against the window while the pilot executed that sharply arced turn to align with the runway. As the engines decelerated, the fuselage and wings seemed to barely skim the flat tops of square-shaped apartment buildings–block after block after block of them. In slow and slower motion, I looked down onto rooftops, laundry flapping on clotheslines, children playing, and Chinese faces with features easily distinguishable, turned upward. It was a bird’s eye view teeming with life.
Landing at Kai Tak was tricky partly because of a prominent hill blocking what would normally be a straight-on approach to the runway. Another daunting reason for a truly “white knuckle” landing was inclement weather.
A Cathay Pacific pilot reflects, “This [landing on runway 13] was quite a challenge, especially in strong wind conditions. As Cathay pilots, we had plenty of practice and became very adept at flying the approach…but it was quite a challenge for pilots from other airlines, especially in the more demanding flying conditions, as they might only come into Kai Tak once a year.”
Wind was one very big problem. Rain and low ceiling cloud cover were another. Because of the unique approach over the city, it was important for pilots to have a good view of the runway in order to avoid overshooting the turn on the approach.
A retired pilot recalls watching unsuccessful landings from the ground. “Being at the Kai Tak car park watching airplanes land in heavy rain could be very worrying. The pilots could not see the runway, and landing over Kowloon, you had to be visual with the runway. Some [pilots] seemed to wait a little longer than others before they aborted the landing and went around for another go. Some would appear out of the low clouds on the approach path, then power up and vanish back into the clouds.”
Another year I was traveling alone back to Singapore via Hong Kong. The descent began in extremely foul weather. There was rock and roll turbulence, heavy rain, and no visibility as we neared the airport. Everyone strapped in, no rooftop views, just a wish and a prayer to be on solid ground. The plane angled and tipped drastically with a big “bump”. Suddenly, the engines powered into high acceleration as the nose pulled upward sharply. We were pinned back in our seats, gripping armrests. The cabin was silent. No explanation from the flight deck. We swung around for another try.
Vivid memories tie me to that now defunct airport of crazy turns, aborted landings, and inhabited rooftops appearing like colorful concrete terraced gardens in the sky.
And that is why a painting always hangs on a wall of our home depicting blocky, geometrically aligned squares and rectangles in colors of red, blue, yellow, green, and mustard brown.
The other story, mentioned as family lore, has tried to remain buried at the bottom of mothering mistakes. But it is the one our son most definitely remembers. In today’s world of air travel the same series of circumstances would never happen again. It was bad enough 30 years ago.
Our first home leave trip was not until 1989, the second summer away from the U.S. I made the trip alone with the children, husband coming later. Four-year old daughter did not sleep for the interminable hours from Singapore to Hong Kong to California to Arizona where we had one final flight before meeting grandparents in Iowa.
She passed out in deep slumber as we landed at the Phoenix airport. There was no plane change, simply a one-hour layover to pick up additional passengers and a new crew. I asked the flight attendant if I could leave soundly sleeping child to run into terminal and make a phone call about our very delayed arrival to Des Moines.
Taking seven-year-old son, we disembarked and found the pay phones. Twenty minutes later we were back at the gate.
The jet-way door was locked. The plane was no longer there. A new crew had boarded quickly and, because the flight was well behind schedule, a decision was made to depart right away. I went into panic mode, pleading that my child was asleep in the back of the plane. IT COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE LEFT! The flight attendant who had [minutes before] agreed to my brief leave-taking “forgot” to mention sleeping child. The gate agent told me it was too late, the plane was in the sky.
In actuality, the plane taxied to the departure runway, was cleared for take off and began acceleration. As a new crew member prepared to take her jump seat, she discovered a small girl in the back of the plane with no adult nearby. A hasty call to the flight deck and jet engines were powered down seconds before lift off. The plane returned to the gate.
I did not look at the faces of the other passengers as I re-boarded, holding tightly to the hand of the child with me. I knew they were appalled at the situation and angry about the further delay.
In the long walk to the back of the plane, I focused only on the shining face of my now awake child, eyes blinking and small blond head bobbling back and forth above the seat, calmly wondering what was going on.
Two stories–one of a plane swooping low over flat rooftops teeming with life, the other of a plane that left the gate…early. A painting reminds me of one. A heart-stopping memory will not let me forget the other.
Both are reminders that life unfolds as a collection of stories–some of them expand the world we know, as when we see or do something extraordinary, and others remind us there is a world of unexpected, too.
…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
A new experience can be extremely pleasurable, or extremely irritating, or somewhere in between, and you never know until you try it out. ―Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book
There are myriad ways to experiment with life. Moving away from the known or familiar is one way to keep things interesting. Finding enriching friendships is another.
In the late 1980’s, a new job opportunity nudged our family geographically away from the comfort zone in middle class America. Our two children were young and adaptable. As the decision-making adults we took a chance–letting go of two jobs, two cars, a house in the ‘burbs of Denver, Colorado. Just for a couple of years. We moved to Southeast Asia.
From the beginning, everything we saw, smelled, ate, drank, or experienced in those first years in Singapore laid the foundation for what followed over the next three decades. We moved to four other countries. Singapore was the catalyst to keep experimenting.
My husband remembers pacing the aisles of the airplane as we flew there for the first time, children sleeping peacefully, worrying about what he had wrought on our family. How would we adapt a very American lifestyle to this small, tropical, island-state with three predominant cultures–Chinese, Malay, and Indian?
Actually, it was easier than we imagined. Because of the people we met, the friends we made–living a little off balance and learning to experiment became the new norm. The first important overseas experience happened after I met Jan.
Jan was an operating room nurse–we had that in common–who left her job to follow a husband to work in Germany and then Singapore. We both missed the camaraderie of our co-workers and the hospital environment. Here we were, in a foreign country, unable to work professionally. It was time to find something else to do.
There was a refugee camp located in a former British barracks on Hawkins Road in the Sembawang area of Singapore. It was established after the fall of Saigon in 1975 for Vietnamese “Boat People”. Because Singapore did not accept refugees, this camp was a transit stop before deportation to countries accepting them. Volunteer nurses were needed. Jan signed us up.
We took long bus rides to the north of the island to work in the clinic. Giving immunizations, tending injuries, dressing wounds, treating minor illnesses in men, women and children who usually spoke no English, but knew how to smile in gratitude. A steady influx of refugees created long lines of those needing help. I jumped feet first into learning the risks that other people take, too.
risking all for a new life
singapore refugee camp, 1975-1996
Friendship with Sandy provided something different. She was also an American nurse who moved to Singapore with a husband and three children several years before we did. It didn’t take long for her to start a business by filling suitcases with wholesale women’s clothing made in Hong Kong and selling them out of her home. Clothing in Singapore in the ‘80s was available only in small Asian sizes and styles. Non-Asian women were an eager and ready market for her niche.
updated façades, little india, 2017
singapore little india shops, 2017
merlion park and a modern city backdrop, 2017
Sandy’s home was a cozy, eclectic mix of styles and textures that I loved. When I asked where she found certain pieces of furniture or funky artifacts, she said, “We should go Kampong shopping.”
The word “Kampong” is from the Malay language, meaning village. Throughout Singapore’s early history, and well into the 20thcentury, kampongs were settlements of houses and small shops where the indigenous population lived. Initially, huts were built with palm-thatched roofs designed to let the air pass through and temper the heat of tropical sun. Later, wood and zinc replaced thatch, which seemed exotic but actually leaked horribly in monsoon rains and housed centipedes and other creepy crawlies that dropped down from overhead.
The kampong communities were close-knit, doors left open, children of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian culture played together seamlessly. Rainwater was collected. Cats, dogs and chickens roamed in co-existence. Later, generators that sometimes worked brought electricity.
Colonial British government began addressing overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions within the kampongs in the early 1900s. Public housing began in earnest after WWII as the Singaporean population rapidly increased.
In 1960 (prior to independence in 1965), the Housing Development Board [HDB] was established to further urban renewal. Mass demolition of shop houses and kampongs began to build affordable, low cost, high-rise, housing estates for all Singaporeans. HDB flats led to the creation of “new towns” throughout the island.
Transition from kampong living to government sanctioned housing flats allowed people to easily enjoy clean water, electricity and gas. However, life changed dramatically in the sense of decreased community spirit, less neighbor interaction, and a population of children who grew up playing on concrete, not in nature.
By the time we moved to Singapore many kampongs had been partially bulldozed or completely razed as residents moved on to modern living. Tropical heat, humidity, and prolific vegetation growth from daily rains rapidly invaded and took over abandoned sites.
remains of kampong house
steps leading to nowhere
the jungle takes over in time
Sandy knew locations of deserted kampongs where, if you dared to venture into the overgrowth of tenacious weeds and jungle vines, dodge snakes and crawling things, repel dengue-fever-bearing mosquitoes, you could unearth left behind possessions with potential for renewal and use.
It was the Singapore equivalent of an archeological dig, with a recycling component. Here we witnessed the life of a community after the community had moved on.
Kampong shopping was always a dirty, sweaty proposition of hunting, excavation and fun. Rewards were in the discovery. We found crocks used for storing water, oil or food, incense burners, altar tables, tea pots, baskets, dragon pots, glass jars, marble lamp bases, teak tables, a wooden kitchen cabinet with rusted screens. We hauled our “treasures” home and spent hours cleaning or refinishing them. They functioned as decorative or usable artifacts, with a back-story.
altar table, refinished
ceramic pots for storing water or food
Then there was my Singaporean friend, Mary, who lived in the apartment building next to ours. She was a tiny woman who loved food–as culturally important to her as Chinese matrilineal family hierarchy. Mary would call me on the phone and say, “I’m picking you up to go eat!” The food in Singapore was, and is, phenomenal. This is the country where my taste buds learned to crave anything spicy. Mary was my guide.
We ventured all over to her favorite “Hawker Centres”–informal, open-air food stalls specializing in Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian food. Cooked on order, on site, eaten with chopsticks while sitting on plastic stools at plastic tables on the sidewalk.
I tasted Nonya Laksa [Laksa Lemak] for the first time at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road–a spicy noodle soup in curried coconut broth with prawns and a quail egg. Carrot cake [Chai tow kway] is not cake and not carrots, but a favorite hawker dish of mine. Steamed white radish and rice flour cut into cubes and fried with garlic, eggs, preserved radish and other spices. Whatever Mary ordered I ate, sweated through, and loved.
fried carrot cake
Peranakan Place pre-urban renewal, 1979
one rendition after renovation
current look in june 2017
Singapore was the beginning of making friends who lived as we did, away from the usual, outside the familiar. People who say “yes” to living outside of the box.
I thrived in our international moves because of every friend I made. Sometimes it was hard to leave one place to rebuild relationships in the next. But the easy part was sustaining those friendships because of everything we experienced together.
Creating relationships and life lessons is really what overseas living is about. In such a nomadic lifestyle, the key is making a home where you embrace friends as family. Anywhere in the world.
A REASON, A SEASON OR A LIFETIME
When someone is in your life for a REASON, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They are there for the reason you need them to be. Then, without any wrongdoing on your part, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes, they die. Sometimes, they walk away. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent has been answered. Now it is time to move on.
Then people come into your life for a SEASON, because it is your turn to share, grow, or learn. These people bring you peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They give you an unbelievable amount of joy. It is real, but only for a passing season.
LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons, things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life. –author unknown
A solid Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and an excellent knife with a fine blade–the good life. –Anonymous
Cast iron cookware is one of the things to have in your life–but only if you love it.
An iron skillet is a link to the past [one of the oldest cooking tools in any kitchen], relevant to the present and can be passed into the future. It connects you to the people who used it before–to the everydayness of their lives.
Cast iron is durable on top of the stove and inside the oven. It retains the flavor of foods cooked in it and is considered to be superior for cooking in general. Cast iron grabs heat and holds it. It is not Teflon, something you throw away when it becomes scratched and used. Cast iron will outlive you and begs to be passed on.
There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful. –Ronni Lundy, historian of Appalachian food
Older cast iron is considered by purists to be superior. It is made with higher quality raw materials and the interior surfaces are smoother. A good vintage pan will be completely black in color and almost glassy in the texture of its’ interior surface. Seasoned right it becomes nonstick. Pitted surfaces on newer cast iron allow food to stick. It’s also more difficult to season.
Several summers ago, I met “Cast Iron Don” in an antique mall in Saugatuck, Michigan when my daughter and I were on a mom/daughter getaway. Don is a consummate collector of vintage cast iron, owning more than 100 pieces. He uses only two.
Don offered a wealth of cast iron history and information when he spotted my interest in a marked “Griswold, Erie, PA” skillet for the reasonable price of $17.00. He said it was the best-priced-name-brand-cast-iron-piece in the whole market.
Cast iron cookware was made in the U.S. from the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century. Griswold, Wagner, and Sidney were brand names casting pans in foundries, which also made farm tools and weapons. Each piece was poured and polished by hand which took hours of human labor, but produced a notable difference. They were lighter, thinner, with a smoother interior.
Today, some cast iron pans are being made this way but, with labor costs as they are, prices are in the hundreds of dollars for a contemporary artisanal skillet. For the fun of a treasure hunt you can find vintage cast iron in your relatives’ kitchens, garage sales, estate auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of anything new. Many of them will already be seasoned.
Well-seasoned cast iron is the equivalent of a broken in pair of well-loved jeans. This is what makes it both beautiful and utilitarian.
Cast iron is porous. To make a nonstick cooking surface it needs oil for protection. Seasoned correctly, oil bonds with the iron pores. When exposed to heat, the polymer chains link and form a durable, slick coating surface.
Back in Michigan, Cast Iron Don has refined his own techniques for rehabbing antique ironware. I don’t recommend any of his rather dangerous methods. Vats of lye, boiling water, hoses, and protective wearing apparel require a lot more time and caution than most consumers need to muster.
Rusted or mistreated skillets can often be restored with a simple steel wool scrubbing before re-seasoning. Or, use coarse salt mixed with oil and rub mixture around with a paper towel. For a super tough buildup of dirt and grime, place pan in a self-cleaning oven for one cycle. Sediment flakes off and can be wiped away.
After cleaning, the important next step is to season iron correctly.
Animal fat! Use lard, bacon grease or Crisco. [Do not use vegetable based oils because they leave a sticky residue and you have to start over, so no olive oil.]
Coat the entire surface including edges. Place upside down in 500 F. or 260 C. oven over a piece of foil. Bake 1 hour 15 minutes.
Cool gradually in oven with door ajar. Once thoroughly cooled, wipe off any excess oil.
Cast iron needs to be cleaned in a specific way.
Do not soak in water, put in dishwasher, or use soap.
A hot water rinse using a stiff brush to clean off residue will keep seasoning intact. If necessary, use a small plastic scraper first.
Dry completely. I always air-dry, but my daughter puts her cast iron on the stove over a low flame, briefly, to evaporate water.
If necessary, wipe with a thin coat of oil and buff with paper towel.
hot water and scrub brush
use plastic scraper if necessary
Use your cast iron often. For everything! Consider it an heirloom to be passed on and on and on from generation to generation. Embody it with your own family’s cooking lore. Someone else may get a taste of it down the road…
Two classic cast iron skillet recipes:
DUTCH BABY, SWEET – serves 2
Start with ingredients at room temperature.
In a bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs.
Then whisk in ½ C. flour, ½ C. milk, 1 T. sugar, ½ tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
Melt 2-3 T. butter in 10-12 inch cast iron skillet by placing in oven at 425 F. [220 C]. Watch so butter doesn’t burn! As soon as butter melts, pour in the batter.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden.
Cut into wedges and serve immediately with choice of toppings: maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, confiture [jam], cinnamon sugar, or fresh berries.
Makes an excellent, light, breakfast pancake.
batter on the left and ready to melt butter on the right
whisk ingredients by hand or in blender
pour into prepared skillet
ready to bake
DUTCH BABY, SAVORY
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 C. + 2 T. flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. pepper.
In a separate bowl, combine 8 large eggs and ¾ C. whole milk.
Whisk wet ingredients into dry until just combined.
Stir in 2 T. fresh thyme, 2 T. minced chives [or parsley or tarragon].
Melt 2-3 T. butter in 12-inch cast iron skillet until it smells nutty and brown. Swirl to coat sides and bottom of pan.
Pour in batter. Scatter ¾ C. freshly grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese over top.
Bake 15-20 minutes at 425 F. [220 C.] until puffy and golden.
Serve with lemon wedges and Siracha sauce. Both add a lot of flavor!
Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”
Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple–it engenders the best conversational exchange with everyone’s participation.
The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher
Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.
I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher
During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity and practice.
When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I needed guidance to learn one decent party dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.
Gradually, and gratefully, the entertaining routine evolved into a shared partnership. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.
Left to my preferred activities, I carefully prepared the table. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads to reflect the candlelight.
After echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order listening to favorite tunes on high volume. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine in fading candlelight and remembered the best parts of the evening.
My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.
I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but also some advice for the perfect guest.
Gabrielle’s words from a New York Times series of articles published October 2017 are in bold italics preceded by her initials, GH. They are followed by my own thoughts and experiences.
GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
The art of good conversation and story telling is central to a successful party of any kind. I also believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about afterward. When guests have departed, before candles are snuffed for the night and you head to bed, there are a few moments spent remembering everything from mishaps [such as our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or ideas exchanged during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews. Optimally, thisis the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the spirit of friends present around the table hours earlier.
For guests, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while returning home. Once, my husband and I laughed out loud during a taxi ride in Paris about the enforced departure from our host’s home. We were offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.
GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.
There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” to dinner parties. Americans are almost always on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late ritual. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.
GH:I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. Invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe down kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.
informal dinner for 4
thanksgiving table, chez bentley
GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone w