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.
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
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 out of the glass. Whatever sticks inside is just enough. A fraction of the whole, the vermouth ratio can define or ruin a martini depending on your taste.
Vermouth should be used quickly. Some sources say within a month. Toss out those years-old-dusty-bottles on a shelf. Keep it cold. Never buy icky vermouth. Buy the smallest bottle of the best quality [not Martini & Rossi] and make great martinis.
The vermouth dilemma was solved at home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One half measure of this French invention offers smoothness not tasted with vermouth. I don’t know if vermouth really goes bad after a month, perhaps it’s that we don’t like it, but Lillet keeps in the refrigerator for a long time and is always just right. The point is, to each his own proportion of spirit to vermouth, or to Lillet, or to none.
It was Ian Fleming who introduced me to Lillet. In the 1953 novel, Casino Royale, James Bond invents the “Vesper”, named for a short-lived girlfriend:
“A dry martini,” he [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“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 creating great martinis. Head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, is Italian and has worked there for more than three decades. He says, “A martini is a drink that has to be strong and three ingredients only.” No chocolate, no espresso, no fruit additions make the cut. Their current signature drink has been around since the mid-1980s. Dukes is known for using a direct martini method, cutting out ice as middleman. After a thin wash of vermouth, already frozen gin or vodka is poured like syrup directly from bottle into glass.
There are martini snobs today who claim that Fleming’s British spy ruined the cocktail with his standard “shaken not stirred” preparation and for ordering vodka instead of straight gin. It’s remarkable that people not only target a fictional character with a cocktail crime, but that martinis still provoke argument 100+ years after being invented.
A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.–Somerset Maughan
If you belong to the stirring-only-fan-club, mix ingredients in a container with ice for 30 seconds to bind and thoroughly chill. It will only be diluted a touch. If you shake, use plenty of ice and keep going until shaker is frosted over, your hand is frozen to the metal, and/or you felt a decent upper body workout. For the unprofessional, occasional imbiber there is no discernible difference in taste or chill factor with either method. We tend to go the shaken route because we like sipping through a sea of ice shards.
Whether shaken or stirred, the “have to” of every martini is that it must be served 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 for a champagne flute!] The conical shape allows olives to stand upright rather than clump unattractively in a heap. The stem protects cold glass from warm hands. The wide bowl opens the alcohol to air and makes it pleasantly aromatic, especially with gin.
This is an excellent martini – sort of tastes…just like a cold cloud. –Herman Wouk
Dueling twin tastes parallel ongoing general public debate between classical gin martini lovers versus those who drink only vodka. I went to my own double sources to learn why each side aligns so dramatically this way or that.
Brother-in-law is a man who enjoys the peppery taste that certain vodka emits. Ketel One for everyday, Christiania–Norwegian potato vodka–on special occasions. He likes one spray of vermouth in his glass, replicating the method of the bartender who made his first martini. He believes gin tastes like fertilizer or moldy leaf compost.
Husband who prefers gin says it has substance and tastes like earthy herbs and spices that linger on the palate. His current favorite is Fords Gin, known for its’ juniper essence. He likes a martini laced with Lillet rather than vermouth. He believes vodka tastes like lighter fluid.
There you have it–true twin diversity in taste and preference, martini style. In finishing the story, two final quotes from two favorite writers:
I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.–Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
A well-made martini correctly chilled and nicely served has been more often my friend than any two-legged creature. –M.F.K. Fisher
Civilized or not, friendly or not, it’s wise to be slightly scared of martinis. This is not a girly wine spritzer you can swill in multiple rounds when thirsty. This is an adult drink, a serious drink. This is a pond of pure booze in a glass and should be treated as such. For most of us, who inhabit a world with both civility and friendship, one martini is probably enough. Unless you happen to be drinking with these 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 HOTELTINI
Rinse a well-chilled glass with dry vermouth by pouring in and out
Add 5 shots [oh my!] of frozen gin or vodka
Express the oil from the peel of an organic, un-waxed Italian Amalfi Coast lemon over the top and then drop in as garnish
House rule–maximum 2 drinks only
Served with olives and snacks on the side
Customer has table rights all evening
THE MARK GINTINI
3 shots Fords Gin or The Botanist Gin
½ shot white Lillet
Garnish with minimum of 4 green olives on a stainless skewer
Float ice chips over the top
THE ERIK VODKATINI
1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
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 on hearty rye or sourdough bread.
It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.
GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]
1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
Good Butter, European if possible
Grated mix of cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
Thick sliced bacon, if desired
Fresh baby spinach
4 slices hearty bread such as rye or good sourdough
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 [if you have it].
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.
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 not-so-subtle suggestion and 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. No one would do this on a daily basis unless highly paid. 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 years ago 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 only restaurants circa 1990s.
We did that, too, because the food in Taiwan is freshly prepared and delicious. It was also a no-nonsense way to get the eating chore done. 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 born 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 would occasionally help with preparation, but often just showed up for the eating part.
When she made pizza for entertaining, I latched right onto my favorite Linda-version. 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 world map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily work and still be near sand and water. The sand and water part didn’t work out. Not much beach in Taipei.
After an evening of cooking, Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers. 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 dinner 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 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 misplaced 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 CRUSTS
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.
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
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; that number engenders the best conversational banter.
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, time and practice.
When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I sought guidance to learn one decent 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, we changed our entertaining routine. 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 prepared the table, carefully, on the day. 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, randomly, to reflect the candlelight.
Later, when 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 as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling 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 some advice for the perfect guest, too.
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…
WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts to our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, thisis the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.
Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi in Paris, my husband and I laughed long and hard about an enforced departure where 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.
WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. 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…
WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that 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 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 who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still,always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.
WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the traditional Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but tragic, too. This vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.
At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients and preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.
A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]
GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.
Our children are adults now and the best ones to say what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.
I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is indelibly imprinted in my mind as the communion of good people around a grown-up table.
The last time I turned down a whisky, I didn’t understand the question. –Anonymous
I always take whisky as a night preventative of toothache. I have never had a toothache. What is more, I never intend to have one. –Mark Twain
Whisky is liquid sunshine. –George Bernard Shaw
I love so many things about Scotland–except perhaps the native food culture that takes mashed up sheep innards, encases them in stomach lining and disguises the whole mess by calling it “haggis”. Scottish comfort food for some, perhaps an acquired taste for others. On the other hand, a morning bowl of hot porridge with good butter and honey stirred in, topped with fruit and a wee drizzle of whisky–well, I took to that right away. *
Our New Year’s holiday was spent in the countryside of the central Scottish Highlands, south of Inverness. We stayed in a stone cottage on the grounds of a 17th century farm in Cairngorms National Park. It was nicely decorated, outfitted with a wood-burning stove that kept the living room toasty warm. Otherwise, we wore layers.
The Bothy, our cottage
the source of heat
Killiehuntly office and storage buildings
Our excursion was inspired by the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon. Each is a captivating tome of historical fiction set in 1700s Scotland, England, France, and the young U.S. colonies. There is also some time travel. Certain characters have an ability to pass through a cleft in a ringed cairn of standing stones in the Highlands and fall into a different century. Don’t let that put you off–somehow it all works. Gabaldon weaves an engrossing tale with strong protagonists that pull you right along.
The other reason we headed from Paris into the winter Highland hills is that I enjoy single malt whisky. My husband–well, he enjoys driving on the opposite side of the road. Match, game, win-win!
I don’t simply like to taste or sip whisky. I need to understand it. “Distilled” into bullet points, this is what I know about the drink of my ancestors.
Single malt Scotch whisky is distilled and matured in Scotland from 100% malted barley and water. No other grains are added. It is the product of only one distillery.
It must be kept in a wood barrel for a minimum of three years in its’ country of origin. [Otherwise it is considered a “spirit”.]
It is at least 40% alcohol by volume.
The difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey is in the spelling and the process of how the malt is dried. Hence, flavor differences.
Peat is partially carbonized plant matter [largely heather and mosses] decomposed over centuries. It is cut directly from the bogs and marshes where it forms. Its’ characteristics differ from geography to geography.
If there is a ready supply of peat for drying the barley during malting and firing the stills, the whisky will have a smoky flavor.
Location of a distillery is dependent only on a supply of good, clean, fresh water.
Water is of critical importance in the production of whisky. It is used for soaking the barley, making the mash, condensing, and diluting the spirit.
Water must be COLD, unpolluted, and as constantly flowing as possible.
Water picks up the influence of the peat over which it flows.
Every distillery is on the bank of a river or by a mountain stream or spring.
Water guarantees both the quantity and the quality of the end product.
It is crucial that a river runs through it…
Water is also important when enjoying whisky as a beverage. You can drink it straight, unmixed, or un-chilled. Or, water can be added to bring out flavor.
Ernest Hemingway contributed to the misconception about water when he proclaimed, “Real men drink whisky straight.” An unnamed source “straightens out” Hemingway’s assertion. “There are two things everyone should know about Hemingway. First, the whisky he drank had already been diluted by the distillers before he got it; secondly, that man was an awful fool.”
If water is added to whisky, it should be “as soft and pure as you can find”–ideally, natural spring water. To enhance subtleties in flavor add an equal amount of water, depending on the whisky and its’ strength. Tap water works fine. **
Water taken in moderation cannot hurt anybody. –Mark Twain
When in Scotland never request “a Scotch”. Total tourist talk. Ask for “malt whisky” or request by distillery name to guarantee being served native spirit.
Words for whisky measures vary in Scottish jargon. “Dram” is now in common use, but there is also a “nip”, a “toot”, a “tot”, or a “wee goldie”. All equate roughly to a single measure or one shot, 25-35 ml. A double shot is 50-70 ml. Asking for “a glass” of whisky means a double pour.
Measurement size is ultimately determined by the generosity of the pourer. In most Scottish bars, one dram is usual, but not always…a bartender in Edinburgh overflowed the measuring cup directly into my glass upon hearing the sorry tale of my cell phone’s demise moments before, after smashing to smithereens on rain slicked cobblestones.
after the rain in edinburgh
edinburgh skyline with christmas fair and market
the royal mile, edinburgh, scotland
With designated driver on hand, I sampled whisky from two distilleries, Tomatin [Speyside] and Dalwhinnie [Highland], because they happened to be within easy traveling distance on icy roads.
Dalwhinnie Distillery was particularly popular on New Years’ eve as it was open all day. Their sampler of six whiskies was served with individual chocolate palate cleansers on the side. I wanted to purchase something that was not exported or distributed in mainstream stores. Dalwhinnie Distillery Limited Edition is sold only on site–6000 bottles produced, 900 left.
A serendipitous Highlands coup occurred in the town of Aviemore. I walked into a shop and asked the man behind the counter where to find a liquor store. He scratched his head and said, “What? You must be American. No one says that here. We call them booze stores.”
Ben Harris is the proprietor of Cairngorms Creations, a shop of colorful knickknacks. I told him I was interested in whisky found only in Scotland to take home with me. He said, “Do you know the black whisky, Beinn Dubh? It’s made just a few miles down the road.” I had never heard of black whisky. Speyside Distillery, which produces it, is not open to the public.
Ben Harris of Aviemore
Speyside Distillery–known as the prettiest in Scotland
December 31, late afternoon. We followed Ben’s hand drawn, not very accurate map, got lost, backtracked, and finally found a store with the right address but selling home furnishings. The glass doors were locked–early closure. I knocked, pressed my map to the door and spoke loudly through the glass, “We were sent here to buy black whisky!”
They let us in. The man behind that counter was drinking a glass of Beinn Dubh before he went home. He held it up and offered me a taste. The dark-as-night color is specific to its’ maturation in Portuguese ruby port casks. [I later learned that added coloring helps too.] I bought a bottle for my son and one for myself.
New Years’ eve night–after three days of sleety rain, icy snow, and bone chilling cold the clouds parted to reveal a full moon.
Killiehuntly Farmhouse and Cottage now has a Danish owner. He and his extended family were using the main farmhouse, up the hill from our cottage, for the holiday. While they ate dinner inside, we sat by a bonfire outside, drinking champagne under fog-rimmed moonlight and tossing large logs into the pit to keep warm. It was exactly where we wanted to be.
The owner came outside wearing a tuxedo and, after chatting for several minutes [ascertaining our politics-yes indeed!], invited us in to see the restored 400 year-old farmhouse, meet his family, and share a dram of…black whisky. The very same we had chanced upon that afternoon.
In the living room a fire burned brightly. The Christmas tree was adorned in Scandinavian straw ornaments. Conversation flowed easily between Danish and American cultures and across three generations from children to grandparents.
The whisky was very smooth, very black, and served neat. My husband politely, tentatively, sipped his first-dram-ever. He looked up from his glass to me across the room…and smiled.
It was a “verra” good holiday.
* Whisky in the morning oatmeal was not on the menu during our Scotland trip. The idea came from Gabaldon’s books. She describes steaming bowls of porridge served with butter and honey melting in. If whisky was available to the character Jamie Fraser, he would drizzle it onto his porridge. Now, in the wintertime, I make it that way at home. Sublime! [Note to self: hack this recipe for future story.]
** I’m neither a water purist nor a Hemingway abstainer from adding water. I have my own method for the perfect water to whisky ratio. Running a very thin stream of cold water from the tap, I pass my glass under it three times. Just right.
In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for an early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon took us there in a little over three hours.
We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the historic restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains, on one side, and the city of Paris, on the other.
track side view, judith clancy drawing, 1979
street side view, judith clancy drawing, 1979
The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before the train departed. The second was to order petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories about this restaurant from the 1930s-1960s. I wanted to replicate her experience 50+ years later.
Le Train Bleu is always grand, but mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch. We were seated at an unadorned table near the trackside windows.
the revolving door into another century
We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance with a light breakfast, too.
Fisher’s typical order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a choice, but whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still traditional. Cappuccino or café noir was our beverage of choice.
We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. As our friends left to return to their apartment in Montmartre, we boarded the train going south.
Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.
Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence, north of the coastal city of Marseille. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century, it became the center of Christianity. The Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied for the next seven decades by a succession of seven popes.
Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterward, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Palace itself.
The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are filled with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.
top of the pope’s palace tower
palace walls 17-18 ft. thick
The “Treasure Room” was where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then it was off limits to everyone except the Pope. Today the room has a glass floor where you can see massive rectangular stones, propped up, under which the treasures were hidden, back in the day. It is impossible to imagine the wealth once secreted under these stones.
papal tower thru a rampart
We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple.
As often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences we had was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-soggy wet, tired, and very hungry.
We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of Camembert cheese baked in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box there were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad.
That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim interior lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.
There is subtle enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine in Paris–chilly, all-afternoon rain in Avignon. Beginning the day under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ending it in an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.
Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie…
If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…
BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE
1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
prosciutto or any charcuterie [optional]
tiny pickles, gherkins or cornichons
raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes
baguette or crusty country bread
mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette
Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil to keep cheese from leaking out of box. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue.]
Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired.
Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet then into preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.
Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.
Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.
The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!
The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully decorated in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.
Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].
While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They arenotall alike!
Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.
This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.
We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.
Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle and young lives in a proud democratic republic.
We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.
Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.
The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris and France.
After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”
I am struck by this difficult truth after disaster strikes. Of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…
The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to complete the building of a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.
Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.
[All photos courtesy of MEU, in-house photographer extraordinaire.]
There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne. –Jared M. Brown
I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad. –Lily Bollinger
Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right. –Mark Twain
In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.
In the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards.
Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing” champagne. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, “Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars!” But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.
All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered a flaw of nature. Fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.
What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.
The most important thing he did was blend different grapes. The harmony he created between balance and taste was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region–a completely new concept. Myths arose because he was extraordinary, but in actuality he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an innovator and adaptor with keen observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.
Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. Partying Kings and courtiers drank the local wine and decided the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.
Production, however, remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few people were maimed or killed.
Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.
Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.
Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks propelled Champagne’s future.
A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. The discovery of disgorging this sediment became the crowning glory to Champagne fame.
Widow Clicquot [of Veuve Clicquot Champagne] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table and inserted the bottles upside down, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually toward the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked, and it was ready to ship. The secret leaked. An industry took off.
During WWII, most of France’s wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demand for shipments home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in this simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”
Post-war, vineyards not destroyed were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrically ordered rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and climate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather, and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagne is now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.
My love for Champagne came about later in life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years of living in Asia we drank Champagne only once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. But we never drank it at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to delight.
In Paris, Champagne was the only beverage served as an aperitif, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, the co-capitals of Champagne region, to sample and learn more.
Some people consume Champagne only on special occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. We live outside of that box now. When home in France, Champagne is often our white-wine-of-choice.
Good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Delicious bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 a bottle.
Pairing Champagne with food often surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are cliché. Pizza happens to be a perfect chemistry match. On homemade pizza night we begin by uncorking something to sip while we cook. Glasses are refilled table side when we sit down to eat.
Sparkling wine produced in other countries–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California are runners-up to Champagne. They aren’t bad, just not the same. When you uncork a bottle of Champagne, for whatever occasion, raise your glass to Dom Pérignon. Then enjoy “tasting the stars”.
My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne. –John Keynes
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.
Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.
A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.
The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.
On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.
There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher
In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated Fisher’s kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter began to understand the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company.
Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.
From the parking area we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they couldn’t catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.
Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began.
Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.
Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.
Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.
Perhaps this explains why a picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.
Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Pass the pepper mill.
Add garnish and extra Parmesan.
For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.
Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.
For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.
In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.
I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.
A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.
Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.
While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.
Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.
My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.
“In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.”–m.f.k. fisher
Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”
“And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…” –m.f.k. fisher
MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.
In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.
On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.
The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.
September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.
They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.
The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.
The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.
Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.
“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher
Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’est très bon.
Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.
In our Tien Mu neighborhood, we ate in local restaurants that served delicious and always freshly made Chinese food. You signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins like toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting–all standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we did often in favorite haunts. It was far from cozy.
Desire bred creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends around a candlelit table set with china or pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend event. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes.
Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.
There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking. Our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table results rather than his in-kitchen “bull in a china shop” methodology.
It’s a fact that Alec operates on a high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger and insomnia in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends with home-cooked recipes.
Alec not only cooks and bakes, but makes jams and condiments, too. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried to persuade us to love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.
Sometimes Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were normal. Things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot when Alec was sous chef. Our kitchen table accumulated a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. By the time we left Taiwan, it was designated firewood. Guests were blissfully unaware of what went on behind the scenes and completely charmed by a three-course meal.
When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in any kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their Taipei apartment foreshadowed the future doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time.
Six or eight of us were chatting amiably around the dining table while Alec’s final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash was followed by a muffled wail. Conversation stopped. We peeked into the kitchen. Splayed like a fan on the green marble floor was an enormous spilled kettle of spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely suppressed laughter. Using the well-known 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Tableside, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.
My favorite recipe of Alec’s, and the most memorable, is this homemade pesto. Served immediately over hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner I secretly hoped it was on the menu.
There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s easy and versatile and can be frozen if made in big batches. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts, spread on sandwiches, used as a dip, or an alternative base sauce for homemade pizza.
It’s up to the cook whether to use it to polish the kitchen floor.
ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO
2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
6 large cloves garlic
¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat
Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P. Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, or cherry tomatoes.
Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container with a thin film of oil.
I have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.
When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and talk with someone every 50-100 feet. Café culture is built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking in this city, a sit-down-and-take-a-break opportunity presents itself. Locals always have a favorite café in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here, you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, muse, or hang out. It’s easily some of the best entertainment around.
When I told a French neighbor in our apartment building about my ritual at a favorite café on our market street, she nodded and said I had established my “poste d’observation”. Now that’s what I tell my husband when he calls wondering where I am. I’m involved in an activity of great importance–assessing the cast of characters who walk by my table. Sometimes he hurries to join me.
Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. The most important is the one nearest to where you live.
I venture to our market street in late afternoon to find something delicious for the evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty table at my café, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In the season of warm weather, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only this one. It’s on the corner where all the action begins.
There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel called On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. That is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is almost everything I want or need.
Butchers, bakers, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, caviar, oysters, homemade pizza and pasta, middle eastern food, cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, candles, household decorations, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner.
Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle into an empty chair at my “poste”. Greetings are exchanged with the server. I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé is standard. In cooler temperatures, a glass of Bordeaux feels cozier under the overhead heaters. Every beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.
The tables on either side of mine are occupied. To the left, a couple moves seamlessly from kissing to smoking to drinking beer. To the right, two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a brief glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world flows by.
Best times to be positioned at the “observation post” are late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is a perfect time to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires full attention. And never disappoints.
Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear–spiky heels, stylish boots, flip-flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopaedic shoes, even chic Italian shoes on a man with crutches.
Shoppers use rolling carts called “chariots” to hold and carry heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.
Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fresh produce, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up ingredients for lunch at home “en famille”.
Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run, bikes and scooters roll by, music plays. And always, people talk, talk, talk over everything.
The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely at home in the hubbub.
Sometimes I notice someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade glides by.
As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move on to the shops and my own errands.
Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass the chair I recently occupied. Someone else is sitting there–watching me as I walk by…
except from On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel
“The merchants down on Market Street were opening their doors. I stepped along that Market Street, I stopped at all the stores. Such wonders there on Market Street! So much to catch my eye! I strolled the length of Market Street to see what I might buy…
My arms were full on Market Street, I could not carry more. As darkness fell on Market Street, my feet were tired and sore. But I was glad on Market Street, these coins I brought to spend, I spent them all on Market Street…
What to put on toast in the morning was not something I thought much about for most of my life. That is, until four years ago, when we moved to France. It is interesting how a nondescript food item can suddenly become an art form when you step outside your normal way of experiencing it.
Most jams and jellies in North America are found in the supermarket aisle alongside peanut butter or honey. They can be chosen by color, flavor or, in my case, if there was red fruit and seeds in it. One jar usually sat forgotten in the door of the refrigerator unless I remembered to pull it out. It had the status of something easily ignored and possibly moldy.
Within the first year after our move to Paris, I experienced a “jam epiphany”. Students in French language courses learn “la confiture” is something to spread on the breakfast baguette or to stir into plain yogurt for dessert. Outside of class the learning curve rises steeply when you discover that confiture in no way resembles Welch’s-fructose-sugar-product in a jar. Yes, it is packaged in jars, but there are shelves upon shelves dedicated to the myriad brands and flavors in every market or shop. Another difference is that you want to savor, remember, and talk about what the flavors taste like.
While wandering about Paris, I discovered a small shop completely dedicated to “Les Confitures”. This specialty store, stocked floor to ceiling with out-of-this-world-jams, was not in my normal shopping district. Now I plan excursions across town to pick up a jar, or two, or three. I send visitors there to buy gifts to take home.
What is it about jam in France that turned my head around? For one thing, each jar tastes exactly like its name–-to the ingredient. You can close your eyes and identify the fruit from which it is made without looking at the label. The sweetness is not cloying and sugary, but subtle. The taste is pure, sweet, fragrant fruit in spreadable form.
Sometimes confiture tastes like flowers. At a breakfast buffet in a château hotel in Normandy, I zeroed in on an arrangement of seven jars in a perfect circle of color, each with it’s own long handled spoon. They had names like Violettes de Provence, Cerise Grillotes, Oranges Améres, Lait Confiture, and Roses Confit.
I tried four of them on the fresh bread being served. They were all exceptional. Those named after flowers tasted as you might imagine a violet or rose would taste. They had what looked like pieces of flower petals mixed into the jellied matter.
Lait Confiture is light caramel in color and taste. It is notable for a creamy texture that makes you want to close your eyes and hum. When my nephew visited us in Paris from the United States, I watched him quietly stir a spoonful of Beurre Lait Confiture into his coffee each morning.
I have written before of my love for Normandy French butter imbedded with crystals of sea salt; how I spread it daily over toasted pieces of grainy baguette. On the weekends, breakfast has a different routine. My husband and I share a leisurely petit déjeuner in the small eating area overlooking the vine-covered courtyard of our apartment building.
He starts the coffee and begins making a plate of toasted pieces of baguette. Sometimes we have the crusty round bread from Poilâne bakery. On the round marble-topped table goes a clean cloth. From the refrigerator comes a special pottery container filled with confiture transferred from its original jar to this one. The flavor is whatever is on hand: mango, fig, strawberry/rhubarb, wild blueberry, pear, or simply “fruits rouges”, red fruits. Weekend breakfasts are when we indulge pleasurably—when there is time to sit and read, or converse quietly, without rushing out the door. It’s a sweet formula we have come to love.
I learned something new about enjoying fine confiture from a young French boy. Nico, ten-years-old, lives in Strasbourg, and stayed overnight with us one weekend.
His mother and I were chatting when he arrived at the table to have breakfast. I served him a small wedge of Spanish omelet and two pieces of baguette toast. While our conversation continued, I was distracted by Nico’s approach to his food.
He looked into each of the two open jars of confiture and smiled to himself. Next, he scooped a generous amount of strawberry/rhubarb jam onto a piece of toast. With patience and precision he pressed the fruit of the confiture into the larger holes of the baguette, using the back of a spoon. Then he smoothed the entire surface, back and forth, back and forth, for about three minutes until it was evenly and completely covered out to the edges. Not one millimeter of bread showed through the jam. It looked beautiful. Like a rosy still life painting. Once satisfied, he began to eat. For Nico, nothing was more important than preparing his toast and confiture, just so.
It reminded me of a story M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about Lucullus, a gourmand from ancient Roman times. He had a reputation for hosting lavish, elaborate banquets. But a solo dining experience was just as important to him.
Once, when served a meal where “he was conscious of a certain slackness” in the food, he became annoyed. When the summoned chef protested, “We thought there was no need to prepare a fine banquet for my lord alone…”, Lucullus responded icily, “It is precisely when I am alone that you pay special attention. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.”
At my kitchen table, Nico was dining with Nico. With full attention and pleasure.
We stopped talking and watched as the second piece of toast was readied. With no less concentration, each meticulous step was repeated–smilingly scooping out jam, pressing it in, painting long strokes from edge to edge. His mother asked him what he was enjoying more, his toast or his confiture.
There was no need to answer. Nico’s contentment was visible from his smile down to the bottom of his little boy soul.