We lived in Asia for a total of fifteen years in two separate cycles. First in Singapore for three years, followed by an interim three years in the Mediterranean, followed by twelve years in Taiwan.
Throughout Asia, the daily carbohydrate staple is, obviously, rice.
As a child who grew up in the American Midwest our daily carbohydrate was the potato. When my mother tried to spiff up evening meals by serving rice, we shunned the tasteless pile of grain. In frustration, she resorted to sprinkling sugar over it. Which made things worse.
Fast forward to Singapore where rice and noodles became a regular part of the family diet. It was presented in many delicious ways as a base to vegetables or bits of meat. Our son and daughter learned the dexterity of handling chopsticks at tender ages. Three-year-old Lara had her own style. Holding a chopstick in each fist, she pinched food between the two ends. With some luck, it eventually reached her mouth.
For me, making rice was always a guessing game–ratios of water to rice, cooking time, lid or no lid, rice cooker or no rice cooker. Finally, it was our Taiwanese helper, Alon, who showed me that preparing perfect rice requires only one thing–an index finger.
The index finger method works for any kind of rice–white, brown, red, black or multi-grain. It works in any size pot. It works over gas, electricity or induction heat. It is the best way to prepare fluffy, un-sticky rice.
Perfect rice can be made this simple way at home or even in a restaurant.
Here’s an example. While hanging out one morning at my friend Laurel’s small Paris restaurant, Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris, she wondered aloud how to cook the large amount rice needed for the lunch special. I offered to show her the foolproof-hack method. When you know the chef/owner and it’s an open kitchen, the answer is “Sure, go ahead!” And that’s how a Charleston cook learned to make perfectly cooked red rice to accompany southern black beans.
PERFECT RICE HACK
1 cooking pot and lid, any size
rice of choice, optional to rinse first
Place any amount of rice into cooking pot.
Add water to cover and stir gently until floating rice grains settle on bottom.
Gently touch the tip of your index finger on the top layer of rice.
Continue adding water until water level reaches the line of the first joint.
Place uncovered pot over high heat. [Sometimes I add a drizzle of olive oil or vegetable bouillon cube for flavor.]
When water begins to boil, adjust heat to continue boiling gently at lower setting.
When there is no water visible and the surface of the rice shows craters, immediately turn heat to lowest setting and cover with a lid.
Set timer for exactly 5 minutes.
Turn off heat when timer buzzes.
olive oil and veggie cube added to rice and water
beginning rapid boil
at full boil, reduce heat to medium
There you are. No fussy measurements. Just a finger joint level of cooking water. And a timer. Rice is ready immediately or will stay warm under cover until ready to serve.
use fork to fluff up rice in pan
ready to garnish
For small amounts of rice, the cooking is very fast, only a few minutes. For larger amounts with more water to boil away, keep an eye on it until it’s time for the final five minutes.
For heavier rice grains like black, red or multigrain, I measure water to just above the line of my index joint. Somehow it always seems to work.
Because I don’t measure rice there is always more for another meal. I found a new recipe for leftover rice called Torta di Riso. Credit to Sasha Martin from her memoir Life from Scratch.
TORTA DI RISO
6 slices bacon, chopped [can be omitted]
1 T. olive oil, plus more for baking dish
1 chopped onion
3 C. leftover cooked rice [any kind]
6 eggs, lightly beaten
½ C. grated parmesan cheese [or more]
¼ C. chopped parsley [or more]
Red pepper flakes, optional
Sauté bacon in olive oil until fat begins to render. Add onion. Sauté until it turns light brown. Set aside.
In large bowl, place rice, cheese, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper. [Can add chopped up spinach for more green.]
Stir in slightly cooled onion mixture.
Pour into lightly oiled 8×8 inch casserole.
Bake 400 F. or 205 C. for 35 minutes or until golden brown on top.
Cool 15 minutes.
Cut into squares or diamonds.
Serve room temperature or cold.
Torta di Riso is a nourishing finger food snack. It’s great for picnics or hikes.
Some “firsts” you remember and others you don’t. I can’t remember my first Sex in a Pan.
Many years ago, I was told Sex in a Pan was for women only. Men don’t like it. It is something you never do alone, always with others, preferably in the afternoon.
Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I say, never have Sex in a Pan with anyone you don’t like–at least a little bit. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?
What’s special about Sex in a Pan? It’s not the equipment, which is ordinary. It’s not the getting ready, which is straightforward. It’s not the result, which is pleasurable. It is when everything comes together.
When we lived in Taiwan, I remember one Sex in a Pan party around my friend Linda’s dining table. The other guests were Asian women who had no idea what to expect. But, as with our American Thanksgiving dinners, they wanted to learn and share new customs. So they joined in…and loved it.
Sex in a Pan is like secretly swiping your finger across a thickly frosted cake. It’s what lingers in the memory after taste melts away. But Sex in a Pan is not cake. It is a decadent dessert of many layers–for sharing.
The recipe I have carried around the world is in someone else’s handwriting. That well-worn piece of paper is the key to unlocking where I was and who I was with my first time. It’s sadly lost to memory now.
So, by default, Sex in a Pan is mine to offer anyone who loves smooth and creamy with some crunchy, slightly sour with some salty, chocolate-y, close your eyes, eat-with-a-spoon-kind-of-fun.
At the Taiwan party, inhibitions were safely shed around the table as we talked of taste and texture and guiltless self-indulgence while eating something pleasurable. There was laughter and letting go among friends. And that, in a nutty crust, is what Sex in a Pan is about.
Recently, I updated the recipe Euro-style since we live in France. The ingredient choices are different. Butter from Normandy embedded with crystals of sea salt, Chantilly whipped crème [from a can] instead of Cool Whip, dark chocolate shaved into curls instead of milk chocolate.
We were four women around the table–two Americans, one French and one German. The other three had little forewarning except I needed help to write a story.
It doesn’t really matter who or how many you gather for Sex in a Pan. Once you invite people in, they are mostly curious, ready to dabble in the unconventionally offbeat, perhaps with a touch of “double sens”, [“double entendre”, which is strangely not the expression in France]. The truth about Sex in a Pan is that what’s in the pan is simply a channel for what happens around it.
In double-sens-speak, I learned that “sensuously seductive” is said to be “croustillante” in French or “eine heisse Affäre” in German. We romanticized taste by describing the salty [yes to French butter!] and crunchy [those pecans!]. Layers of chocolate, sweetened cheese, and fluffy crème mingled in the underbelly. Tiny pellets of chocolate atop hid unexpected softness below. Voilà! Quelle langue!
We sipped Champagne and dipped into the communal dish. Late afternoon gave way to evening. And other liaisons.
When you host a Sex in a Pan party, try to keep the memory alive by having it again…and, then again.
SEX IN A PAN
1 C. flour
½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
¾ C. chopped pecans
8 oz. cream cheese [let get to room temperature]
1 C. icing sugar
1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
3 C. cold milk
1 large container Cool Whip [or a good whipped cream]
1 large dark chocolate bar
Mix flour, butter and pecans and press into bottom of 8 1/2 x 11 inch [22 x 28 cm] pan. Bake for 20 minutes, 350 degrees F. [180 C.].
Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar and spread on top of cooled crust.
Spread ½ of Cool Whip or whipped cream over cream cheese layer.
Mix together instant chocolate and vanilla pudding with COLD milk and beat by hand with a whisk until it starts to thicken.
Spread over top of whipped cream.
Spread remaining Cool Whip or whipped cream over pudding.
Shave, grate and chop the chocolate bar. Sprinkle all over the top.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serves 12-15 from one pan, depending on appetites.
Pass out spoons, one to a person. Place Sex in a Pan in the middle of the table. In the spirit of communal adventure everyone dips in and eats spoonful by spoonful from the pan. Scoop all the way to the bottom with each bite.
So far, I’ve only known one man who said he enjoyed Sex ina Pan. He was able to rise above the gooey communal aspects others have no taste for. However, let it be known that my brother-in-law, Frank, has a very strong bias for anything chocolate.
We might live in less divisive times if world leaders learned a few lessons from multi-cultural families.
The intersection of New Year’s weekend in Latvia with the Russian side of our family [by marriage] with news of cyber-hacking by Russia’s government in the U.S. presidential election is one example. Cultural and political tensions between nations have always been complicated to resolve. In contrast, relationships in our dual culture family grow stronger with shared experiences, cooperation, and acceptance. People behave better than governments.
The holiday time in Riga made me think about new ways to initiate diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It might begin with, well…making Russian dumplings.
I have been to Latvia twice before with our daughter-in-law’s family. [Shrooming in Latvia, Letting Go In Latvia] What I know about Russian generosity, from the first time and thereafter, is that it begins at the table and flows outward from the heart.
New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016
This was the evening for a small family gathering. After gifts were exchanged, we sat down at Aunt Olga and Uncle Ivar’s large dining table.
olga and ivar
site of the feast
sergei and tania
There was food covering the entire surface. We generously helped ourselves to dishes of caviar or smoked fish and quail eggs on bread. There was a huge platter of olives, pickled tomatoes, stuffed peppers, salted cucumbers, garlic and mushrooms. There was perch salad, stuffed calamari, meat salad, and layered shrimp salad. There was sturgeon in fish jelly, herring-in-a-coat, and lamprey–a bottom feeding fish that I diplomatically declined.
That was the beginning. Later, a second round of eating featured mutton, potatoes, and more of the first courses. The finale was cousin Polina’s homemade cheesecake.
We toasted throughout the meal, which meant raising a shot glass of icy Beluga Vodka and downing it whenever someone spoke. After the first two toasts, I strategically sipped my drink. The other women refrained from vodka and drank juice or wine. I stayed with the cold Beluga, finding it perfect with the food.
At 11:00 PM, when it was midnight in Moscow, we toasted Russian New Year. One hour later we toasted the arrival of 2017 in Latvia. Fireworks lit up the sky. Seven-month-old granddaughter was carried to an upstairs window to see the colorful light show.
anna, leila, babushka [vera]
wendy, adam, leila
New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017
The day for partying with family and friends! Guests and more guests arrived throughout the afternoon. It was an open house that overflowed with adults and children of all ages. There were platters and casseroles of food, shots of vodka [yes, indeed], glasses of cognac [with tonic and lemon], prosecco, champagne, beer and wine.
Russian music concerts played nonstop on the television. Women gossiped around the table or in the living room. Men stood at the kitchen island for manly talk and vodka. I learned that if Beluga is not available, Grey Goose or Finlandia are good choices for icy shots.
Yuri Gorbacev is the maternal grandfather of Anna, our daughter-in-law. Every year, on January first, he makes fresh dumplings from a family recipe that originated in the Ural Mountains.
Meat stuffing had been prepared the day before. It was a mixture of ground beef and pork, eggs, salt and pepper, onions and cabbage. When it was time to make the dough, two young girls joined Yuri. A new generation was eager to learn, as there is no written recipe.
Basic Dumpling Dough [by observation]:
Start with a glass bowl with water in it. Break three eggs into the water. Stir yolks with a fork until broken. Throw in two unmeasured amounts of salt [like mini handfuls]. Add more water. Pour in flour straight from the bag in several batches. Keep stirring with the same fork, even when dough gets thick and sticky and hard to turn. Arm muscles helpful.
photo by kristians lipse
muscles for stirring dough
photo by kristians lipse
Eventually, dump the lump of dough onto floured counter. Begin kneading.
The girls were fully engaged under Yuri’s guidance. The rest of us watched. Our hands-on help time was approaching. Kneading completed, the dough was rolled out flat and thin, then cut into small rounds with the open end of a glass. Each round had to be packed full of the meat mixture, pinched tightly closed, bent into a circle and laid on a floured tray.
stuff, pinch and…
…turn into dumpling circles
Readied dumplings were placed in boiling water. In a few minutes, they were pulled from the pot and immediately served. Latvian sour cream with or without black pepper was the dipping sauce. Vodka shot optional.
serve hot with sour cream
and vodka! photo by kristians lipse
My son, Adam, and I stood next to each other as part of the dumpling-filling team. Others continued to roll dough, cut circles, fill or boil dumplings. Volunteers rotated by choosing a part to play: production, cleanup, serving, eating, or simply enjoying the party.
photo by kristians lipse
photo by kristians lipse
Suddenly, the volume of voices grew very loud. Russian–spoken, shouted and sung overwhelmed the room. The cacophony turned into background “white noise” for Adam and me. We spoke of feeling “invisible” in the middle of a hubbub we couldn’t understand. It was surprisingly peaceful, even meditative. We murmured in our own language, rhythmically filling, pinching, and turning out dumplings.
Adam said it is like this every year. The dumpling ritual gives him a purpose. Then, when he can no longer discriminate words through the tangle of sounds, he slips into his own thoughts. It’s a little quieter there, yet he remains physically present amid the chaos. He can be happy in both places at the same time.
I had my own thoughts, too. Here I was, on New Year’s Day, in a houseful of partying Russians and Latvians who embraced me with ease. No tension. No discord. An international marriage, a dual culture grandchild and, of course, Yuri’s dumplings bound us all together in friendship, joy, and love.
In 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 stylish 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 travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.
Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and 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 an early breakfast.
Fisher’s typical breakfast 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 menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.
We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left to return to 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 most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. It is impossible to fathom the volume of 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 is often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-wet, tired, and hungry.
We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. What we ate was so simple and satisfying that I wanted to replicate it at home.
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 rain showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.
There is perfection and enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, all-afternoon rain. Breakfast in luxurious old world splendor–dinner in provincial old world simplicity.
The day began under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ended at 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 [keeps 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.
Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.
inside gare de lyon today
track side view, judith clancy drawing, 1979
Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.
clock tower outside entrance
under the glass roof
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.
She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.
ascending the stone staircase to le train bleu
and from the other side
the revolving door into another century
In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.
In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”
In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.
art nouveau details
opulence, decadence and delight to the eye
Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.
If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.
Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.
Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.
The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.
big ben bar today
sits near kitchen doors
drawing by Judith S. Clancy, 1979
There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.
art nouveau details
view toward the city
These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.
Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.
When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.
Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.
On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.
buffet with PLM logo from 1901
As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?
To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.
Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…
In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was described in a previous story, Letting Go In Latvia.
The women in our daughter-in-law’s Russian family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is a highly anticipated annual event.
The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. Then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: 1. I would forge a new Russian/American alliance, 2. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting, and 3. I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.
Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and its’ history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer.
ceiling in the orthodox church
tania and wendy and a monument
Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.
After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.
In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters, Tania and Olga, and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.
Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forest areas where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.
Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides were Tania, her sister Olga, and their friend Edita, who acted as my translator. That day, they needed to do some serious sleuthing to find the coveted treasure.
I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.
The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in the Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their range of comfort.
Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were, well…poisonous.
the highly coveted cepe mushroom
a little mushroom family
a prize cepe mushroom
my morning crop
baskets set aside for lunch
One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered small squares of sliced black bread. There was a whole hardboiled egg, and a big wedge of red tomato. Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.
an edible still life-in hand
Two more hours of hunting before returning to the city, changing clothes, and meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for safely chauffeuring “precious cargo”–Julia and me. You have to love a man like that!
Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived. Her technique was meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, bigger means less work for the end result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white, when looking at it from the bottom, it meant worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded as unacceptable. After peeling, mushrooms were rinsed and drained in a colander.
perfectly cleaned, ready to cook
While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.
Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. But this is not Russian at all.]
While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.
First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, down a shot followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–deliciously satisfying. No side effects.
vodka with bread and fish or
with a pinch of cabbage
A cultural turning point occurred unexpectedly at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna had told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.
When her parents, Tania and Sergei, would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, down to the white rind. Seeds and all!
As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at the dessert plates. On every plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. But, on my plate, there was a mountain of black and white seeds because I had carefully picked them out before eating the sweet fruit. Every single seed.
I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted into uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.
As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.
Babies are such a nice way to start people –Don Herold
It’s true what they say. Grandmother hormones materialize in much the same way maternal ones do–even 30+ years later. Babies born in one’s own family are the most miraculously perfect creations in the world. Parents [and even grandparents] check out other newborns to confirm this nuance of nature. Gradually it is understood to be a “Universal Truth”. We all simply feel this way.
The good fortune to dust off my pediatric nursing and maternal memories arrived with the birth of our first granddaughter. I reflected on the gift of “presence” my mother gave me after our son and daughter were born. It’s a gift that gives both ways.
First, an [experienced] pair of hands in the early postpartum weeks gives new parents time to focus on the interplay of relationships that are suddenly rightthere. Baby inside, baby outside. Everything has changed. All three–mother, father, and newborn enter a timeless dance that begins with a new song.
A distinctive aura hovers over first time parents, beginning in their own relationship. Helplessly charmed by the miracle they created, they now exist inside a bubble of enhanced love and new responsibilities. At the same time, bonds between mother and baby, father and baby unfold daily, even hourly. My presence [teaching rigorous burping techniques, offering parental napping time, having my own infant cuddling and singing time] opened a bit of space for these relationships to settle and strengthen in the first month.
The second gift of being present was entirely personal. Watching my first-born baby, now a 34 year-old man, tenderly hold and croon to his tiny, perfect daughter overwhelmed me with wonder. That “circle of life”, as clichéd as the phrase may be, sideswiped my heart with a flush of love and emotion. I’m all in now.
At night, I mulled over the randomness of dominant and recessive genes forming this beautiful baby’s eye color [murky grey to clearly blue–overnight!], the turned up button of a nose, the rosebud mouth, the one dimpled cheek, and the movable face of so many expressions–skeptical, smiling, hesitant, observant, and sometimes cross-eyed. Even though it was too early for spontaneous social smiling, we gathered expectantly, eagerly, with each facial movement, hoping to be the first to receive that important human recognition, “I’m happy to know you.”
One day I had a flashback of maternal “déjà vu” when my daughter-in-law said, “I’m overwhelmed by how precious she is to me. I didn’t know I would feel this way.” None of us do. But almost every new mother is eventually overcome by the feelings of her own power to nurture and love her baby. That’s universal too…
I observed parents and babe develop their rhythms–for communicating, comforting, handling, and, of course, feeding. The dance changed by the minute, the hour, and the day. Flexibility is key with babies. But in less than a week, my daughter-in-law blossomed from tentative new mama to an instinctively confident one. My joy was seeing this unfold.
Newborn nourishment is where everything begins. Breastfeeding rituals gradually establish themselves. Then, suddenly, they fall apart with a day of feeding frenzy or a night of longer sleeping intervals. It is an ebb and flow of constant change in the early weeks.
No less important is the nourishment of parents. Emotional swings as a result of sleep deprivation, new responsibilities, and sweetly swaddled newborn love leave not-so-much-time for meal preparation.
We planned and cooked together as a team. Daughter-in-law, knowledgeable of her protein needs, prepared the meat or fish. Son stepped up to roast veggies on the grill. I offered carbohydrate rich side dishes and green leafy salads.
Leftovers were used creatively for other meals. A big batch of brown rice became the base for protein breakfasts of eggs on rice*. Two eggs cooked over easy then cut up into a bowl of rice with freshly chopped tomato on top nourished mama with easy effort.
Grilled eggplant, peppers, onions and mushrooms from the night before became a hearty side dish the next day when combined with whole-wheat penne, sautéed garlic, fresh spinach, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.
One night I made an old family favorite, Mujaddarah, a Lebanese lentil and rice casserole. The addition of chopped up bacon made it not purely vegetarian. It was smothered with slowly sautéed onions that make a delicious caramelized topping. Recipe here: People Who Pull the Magic Out of You
Extra lentils [the tiny green French kind] became the basis for another day’s cold salad with green onions, carrots, cucumber, parsley, and homemade vinaigrette.
The family food tradition I used every day and wish to pass on to my granddaughter is the simple 1-2-3 of dressing a salad. Any salad, any day, any time. With ingredients found in most kitchens.
So, with arms opened wide to embrace Leila Alisa into our family’s love, care, and nurturance, here is my wish:
May you grow up healthy and wise and become an interesting person. And may you always make your salad dressing from scratch.
a smile on my departure day
remembering the sweet baby smell
DEE DEE’s VINAIGRETTE DRESSING
Ingredients: Amounts will vary according to how large the salad, so all are approximations. Taste testing necessary. Stick your finger in and adjust.
Dijon mustard, if you have some [optional]
Good quality vinegar of choice [balsamic, wine or champagne]
Place a small amount of Dijon in the bottom of a bowl. [¼ to ½ tsp.]
Measure about 2-3 spoonfuls of vinegar over mustard. Add the garlic, seeds and basil, if using.
Sprinkle in S&P.
Then, very slowly, pour in a thin stream of olive oil, blending rapidly with a small spoon. There is no exact amount of oil. You simply taste with your finger and adjust proportions of vinegar to oil, as you prefer. Adjust salt.
Pour dressing over prepared greens and veggies. Toss together.
Grind of fresh pepper over all and serve.
Voilà! A lifetime of salads without bottled dressing.
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. –William Morris
No kitchen is really complete without a container of wooden spoons on the counter. Both useful and beautiful. In our Paris apartment, a wire basket holds an assortment of spoons, soup ladles, spatulas, salad servers and flat bladed stirrers. When home in Colorado, an antique stoneware pitcher and sugar bowl overflow with old and new implements. All wood.
I come about this affection genetically. My mother had a collection of well-used wooden spoons. Some were from her mother, whom we called “Gram”.
Before she married my grandfather, Gram was a Home Economics teacher in the local high school. That was when “Home Ec” was taught in U.S. public schools. Several of her spoons now have a flattened edge on the left side. This came about after many years of right-handed stirring by my grandmother, my mother and me.
In Gabrielle Hamilton’s book, Blood, Bones, and Butter, her French-born mother was known to wield a wooden spoon as an extension of her arm:
“She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease….Her burnt orange Le Creuset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work…cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones–whatever she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven.” –from Blood, Bones & Butter, Random House, 2011
Legacy spoons are recycled pieces of history. The patina and grain are enhanced by generations of cooks stirring rich stews, thick hot chocolate, or biscuit batters.
Wooden spoons and implements are not meant to be purely decorative. I use them all the time for cooking or baking. The difference is, I treat them like royalty compared to other kitchenware. They don’t roll around in overstuffed kitchen drawers with metal and plastic. They aren’t abused in soapy cycles of the dishwasher. They are hand washed with a scrub brush and hot running water.
When my spoons become noticeably dry with scratches and splinters, it’s time for a sanding, smoothing, oiling timeout.
Fine grade sandpaper exfoliates surface problems. Smooth wood grain quickly emerges. Rinse off sanding dust under tap water. Air-dry and then apply the final finishing touch.
No olive oil or furniture polish should condition wood used in food preparation. Ok, I have used olive oil in a pinch. But better to use an inexpensive bottle of plain mineral oil. Massage into the wood from head to handle. Buff off excess oil. Admire them briefly.
Drawing on William Morris’ philosophy, now make them useful. Baking is a good idea. The gold standard of baking in our household is Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies.
In my teens, I learned that the best homemade cookie batters are creamed, beaten, and stirred by hand with a sturdy, long handled wooden spoon. Also, raw cookie dough tastes better off wood than metal or plastic.
My recipe originated from Mrs. Longhurst, the mother of a high school girlfriend. I have been making these cookies for decades–from my own adolescent cookie cravings, for a young husband in early marriage, into the children-raising years, for nieces, nephews, sisters, and countless friends overseas. The contractor and crews who built our new Colorado cabin ate “Wendy’s Cookies” throughout construction. Some say it is better built because of that mixture of oats, chocolate, and physical labor.
Wooden spoons are like the trees from which they are honed. They are organically beautiful. They are eminently utilitarian. They can be passed through many generations of kitchens and cooks. In this way they live…maybe forever.
WENDY’S CHOCOLATE CHIP OATIES
Ingredient amounts have been adjusted to make big batches that are easily frozen.
2 C. butter or margarine
2 C. packed brown sugar
2 C. granulated sugar
4 tsp. pure vanilla extract [don’t skimp, use an expensive real vanilla]
2 ¾ tsp. baking soda
2 ¾ tsp. salt
5 1/3 C. unbleached flour
5 1/3 C. whole oats
5 C. semi-sweet chocolate chips or cut up dark chocolate bars or a mixture of both
In a large bowl, beat butter, sugars, and vanilla until light and creamy. You can melt the butter first to speed this up. Beat eggs lightly together. Add to creamed ingredients.
Beat everything together with a sturdy wooden spoon. Stir in salt and soda. Add flour, mixing in each cup completely. Stir in oats and finally chocolate bits.
Drop spoonfuls of dough onto un-greased baking sheet. [or a small ice cream scoop holds the perfect amount] Bake in preheated 375 F. oven until lightly browned, 8-10 minutes. For crispy cookies, bake to a darker brown. Lighter brown results in chewy cookies.
Remove immediately from baking sheet to cool. Store in cookie tins lined with wax paper. Or in jars as my daughter does. Keep one container out for noshing. Freeze the rest.
At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nightmare. Where you can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences occur wherever you live in the world. When they happen, it’s important to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again. For me the reset button began with a serendipitous stop in a Parisian café.
I had just returned to our home in Paris after two months in the U.S. First order of business was to exchange my old French telecom SIM card for one to fit a new cell phone purchased over the holidays. It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk to the neighborhood store where we have been customers for six years.
Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air seemed minor compared to the long queue of people ahead of me. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in for the wait by staring at mute TV monitors rolling repetitious ads. A sign on the wall reminded everyone to behave courteously at all times. Potential customers entered, assessed the non-moving line, and spun back out. A few lined up behind me. Ninety minutes later, it was finally my turn.
I explained that I needed a replacement SIM card to fit my new cell phone. Account numbers were given. Alors, mais non! The account was not in my name. No transaction was possible without the account holder’s identity card. The “account holder”, my husband, was at work outside the city with his passport and carte sejour [residence card] in his briefcase.
I pleaded courteously, in poorly phrased French, about how long and patiently I had waited, what an easy transaction it was. Surely the man could see our long-standing account on the computer. He agreed it would take 30 seconds to give me a new SIM card. However, I did not have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. No further negotiation.
Outside in much cooler air, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken, all the while fuming over French “rules”. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED” until 3:00PM. Now, both annoyed and hungry, I decided to wait it out in an upscale brasserie around the corner. Although well known by everyone living in the area, I had never been inside. Unknowingly, upon entering the door, my reset button began to tick.
A man in a red tie and black suit greeted and then ushered me to a small table for two. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and bistro glassware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.
The menu covered a range of fresh seafood platters–oysters, lobster, shrimp, and crab–served on ice with lemon halves, brown bread and butter, or starters of salads and terrines, main courses of viandes or poissons [meat or fish], desserts of profiteroles au chocolat chaud, crème caramel, glaces and sorbets. Très French indeed.
I chose two starters as a meal. OEufs durs mayonnaise is one of my favorites. Hard-boiled eggs with fresh, homemade mayo and garnished with greens. Followed by a salad of frisée, croutons, and bacon. A silver basket of sliced artisanal baguette was placed on the table almost immediately, along with a tall pepper grinder, a carafe of water and a glass of wine.
In France it’s easy and comfortable to dine alone, any time of day or night. As a single diner you are rather ghost-like, invisible to others dining and talking with companions. I sipped red wine, relaxed into the back of the cushioned leather chair, and contentedly looked around. A layer of frustration melted away.
At the entrance was a long brass bar framed in wood. While the bartender busily prepared coffee or drinks, his eyes took in everything else going on in the room. The inside lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades.
Servers wore traditional long black aprons over white shirts and black ties. They moved in fluid choreography; carrying food from the kitchen, unobtrusively refilling carafes of water, breadbaskets, or wine glasses at tables with standing silver buckets and cloth draped bottles.
A woman swirled in the door wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man at the table next to me was obviously a regular. His meal appeared without ordering, including an espresso at the end. He donned a fedora, slipped a newspaper under his arm, and departed with a handshake to the man at the door.
My food was served in two leisurely courses. I never felt hurried. Another layer of annoyance fell away.
By 2:45PM, the atmosphere changed. Diners drifted away and the bartender’s pace visibly slowed as he cleaned, polished and put away wine glasses. Servers casually cleared and reset tables, chatting back and forth to each other. A table of four lingered over a bottle of wine and an intense discussion.
I had finished eating, but remained sitting and rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the score tally had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, my mood was lighter, my attitude readjusted. All because of doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch, blending in with culture and ambience that I both admire and appreciate.
La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça. Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie…I won.
OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]
2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
2 pinches salt
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups olive oil
dash of H2O
drop of red wine vinegar
1-2 hard-boiled eggs per person
Mâche [lamb’s lettuce] or greens for salad/garnish, cayenne pepper, optional
Whisk egg yolks together with salt and mustard until creamy and light in color. SLOWLY begin to add olive oil–a few drops at a time to start, whisking vigorously all the time as you go. It should become thicker as the oil is mixed in, but not liquidy. Add all the oil until it is finished. If it seems too stiff, add a dash of H2O and continue whisking. Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and salt to taste.
Cut hard-boiled eggs in half. Top with fresh mayo. Garnish with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and greens as desired.
A year ago I wrote a story about my favourite Colorado hometown café. It was titles A Mountain Gem for 70 Years.The owner, Rocky St. John, passed away right before Christmas. In tribute to her, I have revised my words and added additional photos. Her sons Ben and Joe, along with their father, are keeping the café open in her memory. She trained them well.
Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it’s easy to simply bypass this tiny town. But if you turn right onto the business spur, it’s probably because you know about Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe.
On a hillside halfway through town is a small green building with purple trim. Colorful buttons are mixed into the cement between slate stone steps climbing to the front porch. The main room has knotty pine walls and an antique potbelly stove, radiating warmth. Shelves are lined with an eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. Local artwork is for sale on the wall. Behind this quaint façade is a long history of food, friendly service, and loyal customer relationships.
It began in 1946 with a local character named Lil Lavicka. Known as the “Pie Lady”, Lil was famous for her homemade baked goods. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a two-room cafe across from her tiny home. Lil’s Pie House flourished for twenty summer seasons.
Then, after several changes of ownership, Meadow Mountain Cafe was born. Breakfast and lunch became the daily fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order. Coffee was hot–with a touch of cinnamon. Consistently good food, friendly service, and reasonable pricing enhanced its’ reputation beyond the boundaries of the small community. Locals and tourists line up for a table inside or on the covered porch, complete with hummingbirds, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil Lavicka’s seasonal pie house evolved into a legendary year-round cafe with returning customers who became friends.
Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t long before her cooking finesse and creativity nudged her into the kitchen full time. Rocky worked the grill for several female owners until finally, in 2007, she took over solo ownership. Already an established part of the ongoing success of Meadow Mountain, it was time to put her personal stamp on the place.
Rocky introduced two new house specialties–the veggie burger and the green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Cinnamon spiked coffee is still standard, of course. She chose the outside paint colors and easy-on-the-eye peach walls for the kitchen. The button-inlaid steps were designed and built for safer access in all weather conditions. An herb garden was planted out in back. Inside, the eclectic collection of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers [always part of her style] continued to grow. Her kitchen blasting music-of-choice ran along the lines of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food. You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back near the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen to say hello. At a corner table, friends sit and play cards after their meal. A man at the counter leans his chin into one hand and dozes, holding a coffee cup with the other.
Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread, thickly sliced for toast or sandwiches, is baked twice daily in summer to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of customers stepping through the door to the din of country or rock-n-roll music pouring out of the kitchen. Conversation and laughter is spiced with the clatter of plates and silverware as tables empty and fill.
beaded tapestry made by a friend of Rocky’s
What sustains this kind of success in a town of just over 500 people? Rocky, along with the women before her, crafted a timeless formula. It begins with an old-fashioned hard work ethic. It’s maintained by keeping quality high, service friendly, and community relationships strong. Rocky was passionate about what she did and consistently did it very well. And then, just maybe, that hint of cinnamon in the coffee didn’t hurt either.
Rocky St. John, 1960-2015
new step up to the cafe
Rocky was a well-known and well-loved figure in the Estes Valley community. Meadow Mountain will continue to flourish in her memory. After a 70-year legacy of female owners [since 1946], the cafe will now operate under the expertise of Dan, Ben, and Joe St. John. In Ben’s words, “We have been well-trained.” Indeed.
And the rest of us will continue to be there to support them.
I have a problem trying to figure out whatto cook for dinner. It’s silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I know right away what will feed my hunger. My husband always asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.
Cooking at home is a repetitive daily hang-up. Over the years I have relied on friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. This kind of decision-making must be inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking is my predicament.
During our years overseas, friends taught me to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that over time no longer required following a recipe. Mujuddarah, People Who Pull the Magic Out of You Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine Garlic and Girlfriends to name a few.
By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when I met my friend Sally.
Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.
Sally is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. She always has a plan.
Her picnics, in our Parisian neighborhood park, were memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty brownies. Flutes of champagne or a glass of wine served as accompaniment. Flowers stood in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many summer evenings, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.
One day, undecided about a cooking idea, I asked Sally what she was making for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year in France. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder.
“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.”
Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.” We agreed to meet the following week in my kitchen-with-a-view for an afternoon of cooking.
That evening, on the day we met, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard of our apartment building. All the other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.
Back in the kitchen, there was a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it and got busy. From start to finish, preparing a galette couldn’t have been easier. A little glass of wine is a great buffer. –Sally Boyle
Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.
It was simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.
For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For vegetarian, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.
Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king, Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.
Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious on their plates. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.
Surprised to receive notice in a foodie crowd, I said, “Oh, it was very simple…”
August is the month when France goes on vacation. In the early 1900s, “La Fermeture Annuelle” was a tradition to provide paid time-off to factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.
From late July to the end of August, Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.
Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and summertime is officially over. By the end of the first week of la rentrée, streets and cafés are full again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.
La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.
One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market or even the most famous one in Paris. The mega-flea market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where scenes from the movie “Midnight in Paris” were filmed.
I like the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s treasure hunting and people watching fun. The crowd is both local and tourist.
When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee An Egg in the Coffeepot, I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useful items such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we collected in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.
Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. And sometimes–nothing at all.
Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The volume and range of objects astounds. Even knowing, “one man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s hard not to be judgmental of some objects on display for sale. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.
I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with a cup of coffee or vin chaud [in wintertime] from the corner kiosk.
The adventure never disappoints. It’s an annual ritual that reminds me that I’m back home in my favorite city in the world.
Joseph Campbell, mythologist and philosopher, wrote, “A ritual is an enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth…But you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. That’s what ritual does. It gives you an occasion to realize what you are doing so that you’re participating in the energy of life. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention…you learn about yourself as part of the being of the world…”
Campbell also said, “Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical…it is beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known, but not told.”
Herein lies the challenge–to tell a story that for the past two months has been beyond the reach of my words. It is rooted in a ritual with pagan origins. It was part of the wedding of our son and his Latvian/Russian bride.
In a countryside setting outside of Riga, Latvia, June 12 was as perfect as a summer day can be anywhere in the world. There was warm sun and a light breeze. Cloudless sky. Lapis-blue lake and a field of soft grass. A ceremonial framework of boughs entwined with flowers. Shared vows in Russian and English. Radiant smiles. Applause, joy, and love.
The after party began with a scavenger hunt and Champagne for guests as the newlyweds were whisked away for photos. Upon their return, the celebration continued with good food and drink, fantastic music, poignant toasts and funny speeches.
Just before midnight, the band music stopped. All of the guests were ushered from the party tent, down the hill, to the wedding site near the lake. Glowing candle lanterns lit the darkness. Blankets were offered for the cool evening air. There was a young man playing soft guitar music. Two chairs had been placed beneath the framework of boughs and flowers. The mothers of the bride and groom were instructed to sit on the chairs. Then our children sat on our laps. No one understood what was happening, but we were entering an ancient Latvian myth.
Mičošana [pronounced “Michuashana”] is a Latvian wedding tradition that dates back to [pre-religious] pagan times. It symbolizes the moment when the bride becomes a wife and the groom a husband. It is a way of saying “goodbye” to childhood and home. In this enactment, there was an unspoken tribute to both mothers as we held our children one final time before they passed into adulthood and the creation of a new family. It is a sweet, sad, and somehow romantic experience.
Historically, Latvia was a country of peasants living and working on large farming estates under a feudal system. Girls typically married boys from settlements far away. Mičošana became a ritual of farewell. After marriage, the bride would live on her husband’s settlement, rarely seeing her own family again. The ceremony symbolized “giving the bride away” because it severed ties between the girl and her family.
Here is how it went 21st century style. Midnight–the end of the day and the beginning of a new day. With soft background music and married children on our laps, the bride’s mother took off her daughter’s veil and placed it into a box. She tied a ruffled apron around her daughter’s waist.
I placed an engraved wooden pipe in my son’s hand. The bride and groom stood together with their symbolic accessories and read aloud the roles they would now assume. This was the lighthearted version of contemporary Mičošana, with laughter too. Choosing from a basket of printed cards the bride read, “I will drink beer and be the master of the remote control.” The groom, “I will always be very pretty and sweet.”
The readings went on for several minutes. The bouquet was tossed by the bride as the guitar music faded. People began to drift uphill to the tent where the party continued until the sun rose. But something very special had happened. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have words to describe it. I only knew how it made me feel. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Walking across the grassy field, the bride’s mother and I linked arms. She turned to me and said softly in her rudimentary English, “Wendy, when babies come, 50/50, okay?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and said, “Of course, Tanya. 50/50. Always.” It was another unexpected moment. Her overture touched me. The meaning behind the words was heartfelt and real. First women, then mothers, and now a multi-cultural family bound by our children.
As I learned more about Mičošana, the symbolism became clearer. Our son and his wife have assumed roles in an international marriage. It will take our daughter-in-law far from her Latvian family home. She will undoubtedly see her parents and family less and less often. The bittersweet midnight ceremony was the same parting experienced by generations of brides over thousands of years.
I believe Campbell. Myths are important. Rituals are important. Poetry is important. Symbolism runs through ceremonies from ancient times to the present. Because of our thinking nature, we strive to understand the meanings underneath. This helps awaken us to our place in the circle of life.
Campbell’s words, again: “…by participating in the ritual [with intention]…you are being put into accord with the wisdom of the psyche, which is the wisdom inherent with you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.”
This is what we hope for all of our children. We wish for them to grow into the wisdom of their own lives.
SOLYANKA [pronounced Sahlahnka] aka HANGOVER SOUP
Partying continues well into the day after a Russian/Latvian wedding. A thick hearty soup of salty, cured meats and sausages is usually on the menu after a night of drinking. It hits the spot with its’ rich meaty stock, briny pickles and vegetables, garnished with sour cream. Although there is a vegetarian form, meat solyanka is more common. I fell hard for it’s delicious taste at Jumurda Manor. Anna and I made a version in her London kitchen. The key is a lot of sour and salt in a rich broth. Ingredient proportions are flexible. Rice can be substituted for potatoes. This is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup. It tastes so much better than you think it will!
MAKING THE BROTH
300 gm lean beef rump
1 whole onion, peeled
4 bay leaves
1 T. whole peppercorns
In a saucepan, cover broth ingredients with water. Boil uncovered over medium heat for 30 minutes. Take out onion and discard. Continue boiling until the meat is cooked through, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water to keep meat covered and to build up broth. When meat is tender, take out to cool slightly. Skim fat off top of broth.
200 gm Polish sausage
100 gm good German ham
Cut cooled beef, sausage and ham into julienne strips. Cube some potato. Place in broth to simmer.
Chop ½ onion and sauté in olive oil. Add julienned carrots and ¼ cup [or more] tomato paste. Continue sautéing for a few minutes then add all of this to stock.
Place sliced meat in skillet to warm slightly. Then add to stock.
IMPORTANT FINAL INGREDIENTS
Jar of cucumbers in BRINE. Different from regular pickles. Saltier. Brinier. See photo.
Black olives packed in BRINE
Stir in julienned cucumbers, whole black olives and ¼ to ½ cup [or more] of the brine.
When potatoes are cooked, turn off heat. Salt and pepper to taste.
Slice fresh lemons into circles and place over top of soup. Cover pot and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove lemons. Serve garnished with a large dollop of fresh sour cream.
Delicious and nutritious even without the hangover.
Secret eating is seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible they’ve never experienced this solitary pleasure.
The desire to eat unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you do surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.
A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It came from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she went to the market by herself. She bought a huge watermelon with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Including the seeds. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure.
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place one frigid winter when she and her husband lived in an unheated walkup apartment in Strasbourg, France. They were depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows and heat.
Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in her Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing all the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.
There was a long lunch when Al returned and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter on the dresser before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.
For the rest of the afternoon, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each orange morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home from school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way.
Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that others with “secret eatings of their own” would somehow understand.
I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, I traveled by myself to Strasbourg on a train from Frankfurt. Next to Place Gutenberg is a small hotel where I stayed in a room under the roof. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window. The bathroom was at the top of an open staircase right under the peak.
That February was bitterly cold.
I bought a bag of small clementines, peeled them into sections, and laid them on a piece of hotel stationery on top of the radiator. Then I went out to explore.
When I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. It made me happy.
Several years later, a new secret eating ritual started during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national food chain. I watched her fill a bag with flattened, dull-colored, brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. They were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.
The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, that road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and pliable. Careful considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. I had to chew slowly, without hurrying, before it was ready to swallow. I had to pay attention.
The degree of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.
Now when I feel the urge, I go to the hiding place in the kitchen and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment overlooking the vine-laden courtyard where I never tire of the view.
If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.
Or, I might decide to stand in the street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.
My secret eating is something I try to keep to myself. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s simply a meditative time-out, or a few private minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, or a satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month.
There must be someone out there who understands what I mean…
When dining in a French restaurant, there are three typical dessert categories people choose. There are the crème brûlée lovers or the mousse au chocolat [or anything chocolate] lovers. There are fruitarians who crave tarte tartin or other fruity things.
When I watch people eating these classic desserts I sometimes live vicariously with a mental spoonful. Mostly I remain distant from what I consider their ordinary desires. This is because of a passionate affair I had with Baba au Rhum.
It began casually, with an innocent introduction. We skipped over flirtation as things rapidly accelerated to a lusty peak, then slid rather quickly into unmet expectations. Inevitably it dwindled to a wistful end. Such is the cycle of most affairs. Even with desserts.
A series of events led to this. For two months I worked as an assistant to a French woman who conducted cooking classes for tourists in Paris. She was between student “stagiaires” during a busy season so I volunteered to fill in. Lessons began at 9:00AM with a walking tour through a well-known market street, followed by preparation in her professional kitchen, ending with a three-course luncheon. My job was to pay the vendors, schlep items home, prep and clean up while clients chopped, stirred, watched and listened. As they nibbled on regional cheeses and sipped white wine around the large kitchen work-island, I set the dining table, refilled glasses, and washed dirty dishes and utensils.
“Payment” for my services was mostly in the form of laughable anecdotes. Once, a 500gm block of butter fell to the floor and was stepped on by the chef. I was told to, “clean it” because it was “still usable”. I wiped the smashed butter with a lot of paper towels until only a small sliver of “use” remained.
As a thank-you at the end of this brief tenure, I was invited to lunch in a small, classic French restaurant off the Boulevard St. Germain. My hostess ordered dessert for both of us. And so, with this unexpected introduction, I met my French love.
In front of me was placed a shallow white bowl containing a cylindrical piece of spongy cake, a side dish of smoothly whipped fresh cream, and an open bottle of Martinique rum.
Rum was slowly and generously poured over the cake. I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and–well, it was like sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.
Here is the curious part; I don’t drink rum or even think about it, ever. I shun plain squishy cake as unnecessary calories. Whipped cream is so “dairy” and off my nutritional list. But the sum of the parts turned into obsession–lusty Caribbean rum plus airy booze-drenched cake mingled with cool, vanilla flecked cream. All of which dissipated into a cloud of vaporous desire in my mouth. I was hooked at first bite.
Thus began my infatuation with Baba au Rhum. It wasn’t perfect. There were ups and downs. I rejected restaurants that did not offer the rum bottle tableside, or served pre-fab, stale, even crunchy cake. Quelle horreur! I knew what I wanted. Expectations were extremely high from the beginning.
After months of reckless indulgence I made a profound discovery. And it was the beginning of the end. The best Baba au Rhum I ever had was not in Paris.
During one fall season, we took a road trip to the countryside of Bordeaux. We stayed in a charming guest cottage near the town of St. Emilion. It was in the middle of the vineyards of the Troplong Mondot winery. Having arrived after the harvest, the vines were empty and the fields quiet. The weather was cold and wet. We had an open-hearth fireplace in the living room that burned twisted grape vines and three foot logs. One evening we dined in the upscale restaurant of the Château. The menu was fixed. Dessert was Baba au Rhum. Of course I was thrilled.
It was served in the usual trilogy with one notable exception. The cake was lightly warmed–a variation that immeasurably enhanced the coolness of the cream and the velvety smoothness of the rum. I knew right away this was the best it had ever been. And might ever be.
Intense relationships often run their course. So it was with Baba and me. After Bordeaux, I tried it a few more times but it was never quite the same. Finally it faded into a wistful memory. Now when I see Baba on the menu there is a flutter of recognition. I question whether to dabble again. But I’m certain my expectations won’t be met. And, truthfully, they can’t be.
I enjoy telling friends and guests about Baba au Rhum’s charms, urging them to give it a try. It seems to fall into the love/hate category. Maybe it’s too extreme, too unusual, or too far removed from mainstream desires for chocolate, crème brûlée, or fruit tarts.
And yet, I remain nostalgic because that bite of sweet, rum, and coolness, savoured and shared, is a fine way to spend time around the table with people you love.
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.
Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.
A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.
The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.
On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.
There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher
In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated Fisher’s kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter began to understand the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company.
Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.
From the parking area we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they couldn’t catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.
Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began.
Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.
Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.
Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.
Perhaps this explains why a picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.
Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Pass the pepper mill.
Add garnish and extra Parmesan.
For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.
Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.
For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.
In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.
I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.
A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.
Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.
While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.
Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.
My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.
“In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.”–m.f.k. fisher
Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”
“And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…” –m.f.k. fisher
MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.
In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.
On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.
The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.
September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.
They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.
The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.
The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.
Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.
“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher
Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’était très bon.
My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle for the first time when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin Cal, who turns 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food or by his appetites.
Shortly after my first story was published Joan wrote, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from his mother is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from you.”
I have never eaten creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of comfort food.
Comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]
There is no single explanation for how our food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness or happiness can trigger a taste memory of longing or loathing.
Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.
For example, he is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime something special–Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered in nuts. This is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Trying to visualize this, I’m certain I couldn’t eat it.
He also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window.Now he enjoys a simpler pudding.”
In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and mushy canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many childhood meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and hoping not to get caught.
My food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas to Singapore in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.
Life became a tasting/eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls in heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.
As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot] who suffered from a “nervous condition” consisting of some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. She also wasn’t much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. It was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans that contained cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The casserole was baked in the oven until warm. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it.
Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left and later sent an email, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.”
You have to love a man who softens when sweets are offered.
I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the usual gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures and my Latvian daughter-in-law offered more variety in their comfort food desires.
It was our friend Alec [who is part comedian] that gave the most graphic descriptor:
“My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.”
My cousin Cal and I will never share the same food preferences. Nor should we. The important thing is that Cal and I are connected by the way our comfort food choices make us feel–enjoyably nourished, emotionally content, and loved.
Two recipes for opposing tastes, one sweet and bland and one well seasoned.
CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING
1/3 c. granulated white sugar
3 T. minute tapioca
2 ¾ C. milk
1 egg beaten
1 t. vanilla extract
Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.
Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. It is situated within the Roosevelt National Forest and surrounded by mountains of the Front Range Colorado Rockies. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it would be easy to bypass the business spur and keep descending the mountain.
But if you do make the right hand turn into Allenspark, it’s probably because you know about an historic hillside landmark halfway through town–Meadow Mountain Café.
On the outside, it is painted green with purple trim. There is always a line up of cars parked below. An assortment of buttons are mixed into the cement and stone steps that you climb to the front porch.
Inside, the main room has original knotty pine walls and a working potbelly stove for heat. Hand colored photographs by a local artist are displayed for sale.
An eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers line the walls.
Behind this quirky façade, there is a long history of food and relationships that began in 1946, with a local character named Lil Lavicka.
Lil was known as the “pie lady”. As part of a divorce settlement her husband hastily built a small two-room café where she could sell her baked goods. On this hilly spot, in tiny Allenspark, her pie house flourished for twenty summer seasons. It was just a stone’s throw across the street from a small house where she lived into her 90’s.
Several changes of ownership and some 30 years later, Lil’s place was renamed Meadow Mountain Café. The menu became daily breakfast and lunch fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order, the coffee hot, with a hint of cinnamon. Consistently delicious food, friendly servers and reasonable pricing enhanced its reputation within the small community and radiated beyond. Locals and tourists began lining up for a table inside, or on the covered porch with hummingbird feeders, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil’s seasonal pie house evolved into an Allenspark landmark with regularly returning customers, who eventually became friends.
Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain in the late 1970s. Almost right away she was moved into the kitchen and continued to work the grill after two other women purchased it in the 1980s. Rocky finally took over solo ownership in 2007. It was time to put her personal stamp on the place.
Rocky is responsible for introducing the veggie burger and the incredible green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Both became specialties of the house. Cinnamon spiked coffee remains standard, of course.
She chose the current paint colors, including easy-on-the-eye peach walls in the kitchen and built the button inlaid steps for safer access in all weather conditions. The funky array of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers were always part of her style. The music that blasts from the kitchen is pure country western or rock-n-roll oldies. Son Joe mans the grill, daughter Alicia works the front, and husband, Danny, does whatever needs doing. It’s a full family operation, year round, with added help in summer. On Tuesdays, they take one day of rest.
We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. I go by myself, with family, or with friends, usually for breakfast, sometimes lunch. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food.
You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back sitting at the counter by the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book, or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen looking for Rocky and to say hello. A table of friends play cards in the corner after their meal. At the other counter, a man leans his chin into one hand, and dozes, holding his coffee cup with the other.
Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread is sliced thickly for toast or sandwiches. Summer requires twice-a-day baking to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of people stepping through the front door to the din of kitchen music, mingled conversations and laughter, and the clatter of clearing plates as another table empties and fills. It always feels just right. You are glad to be hungry and in Allenspark.
What sustains 70 years of successful continuity in a community of just over 500 people? Rocky, and the female owners before her, perfected a simple yet timeless formula. Starting with an old-fashioned hard work ethic, they stay passionate about what they do and consistently do it very well. Quality is always high, service friendly, and customer relationships strong. And then, just maybe, a little hint of cinnamon in the coffee doesn’t hurt either.
I hope you have your own gem of a hometown café–a place with honest food, ambience, and feeling of community–where you seek to be nurtured over and over again.
In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.
A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with geography and longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.
Twenty-some years ago I was immersed in the writings of M.F.K. [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. She weaves autobiographical stories of people, places, and food into descriptive prose. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches caught my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life lessons are inseparable from a strong adult mentor.
When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained,
“…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”
With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister Anne hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. There was always an egg sandwich or two carefully tucked into their pockets.
In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it. —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970
What I love about this story is that it speaks of satisfaction beyond physical hunger. Fisher was learning, as a child, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment was a metaphor for living well. The ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.
There are no cliffs overlooking an ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife are our spiritual geography. When home in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. A tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.
Aunt Gwen’s recipe was well documented. It started by heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart.
As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our version.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH
Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply
Eggs, preferably brown and free range
Jalapeño jack cheese or cheese of choice
Toasted English muffins or good brown bread
Salsa or fresh tomato slices
Fresh spinach or some kind of leafy green
Avocado slices or guacamole, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Additional red pepper flakes as desired
Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Camaraderie shared. A new day begins.
Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea is good accompaniment.
Traditions are important to children as they grow up. Aunt Gwen’s ritualized hiking and singing and eating egg sandwiches at sunset on a beach created a symbolic tradition, which in turn mentored a young girl that living well and eating well are intertwined.
All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.—MFK Fisher, Among Friends