To say it has been an atypical summer in the mountains is an understatement. Forest fires burning around us since July, ash and haze obscuring mountain outlines, no rain in three months, statewide fire ban, surging global pandemic, and a dearth of guests except for brief visits with children and grandchildren.
I’m more than ready for next season’s return to normalcy, if it works out that way. By ready, I mean that I have three exceptional recipes to satisfy the sweet tooth of any person or group that drops by, sits around a campfire, or stays overnight.
Maddy’s Caramel Bars, Patricia’s Double Chocolate Brownies with Sea Salt, and Jean’s S’mores Bars are an unbeatable threesome. Any one, or all of them, is a winner for chewable bites of sweetness cut from a 9×13 inch-baking pan.
As all great passed-on recipes should be, these come from encounters and stories about friends.
Last summer’s road trip to Maddy and Cabby’s cabin on the Methow River [A Guest Room Under the Porch] in Washington State was the beginning. Maddy is a great cook and hostess. Their log cabin home, with overflow teepees and tents, is a revolving door of family and friends. She offered us her always-on-the-counter pan of caramel bars and said, “Try these. People love them! They are my go-to staple for company all summer long.” We sampled and agreed. Caramel bars with chocolate chips and pecans were prepared over and over for our own late season guests, with rave reviews.
Patricia, whom I have written about in several adventures, Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please, Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees] came to Colorado in August. She rented a cabin bordering on the National Park just down the road from us. The double chocolate brownies she brought to our front porch table originated from a friend of hers in Wisconsin. Richly chewy with a bit of texture from chocolate chips inside, these brownies are for every chocoholic. I switched out the garnish of powdered sugar from the original recipe for flaky sea salt sprinkled over the top. Et maintenant ç’est plus délicieux. Chocolate and salt can’t be beat. Except by caramel and salt, or almost anything with salt.
The last recipe came onto the scene this summer because of the harsh no burn season. We invited neighbors for a social-distanced outdoor cookout around the fire ring. S’mores were requested for dessert. Except a campfire couldn’t be legally lit with the restrictive ban. Our friend, Jean, came bearing S’mores Bars baked in the oven and cut into bite-sized squares. These are better than actual s’mores, which typically feature marshmallows charred black over red-hot coals.
With baked s’mores you can revisit the original in one chewy, not overly sweet bite of mini marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough over a graham cracker crust. There is even melted chocolate on top to lick off fingers. You might decide you want “s’more” to give it a true taste test. I substituted dark chocolate for traditional milk chocolate. [S’more better.]
I’m anticipating the return of a next summer’s season of sequential guests. This winter as I drink coffee and sit by the picture window with the wide angle view of Long’s Peak, I will muse about daily summer afternoon rainstorms followed by rainbows, campfires by sunrise, sunset, or moonrise, and baking pans full of dessert bars to sweeten everything that happens in between.
CARAMEL BARS [Maddy Hewitt]
1 C melted butter
1 1/2 C flour
1 1/2 C oats
1 C brown sugar
1 ¼ tsp baking soda
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Pour melted butter over and mix in. Reserve ¼ of the mixture for topping. Pat the rest into bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Bake 15 min. at 350 F. Cool 5-10 min.
1 bag Kraft Caramels
3 ½ Tbs butter
3 Tbs cream
Melt all together, SLOWLY, in cast iron skillet over low heat. Stir constantly. When melted, pour over cooled crust.
1 C semi sweet chocolate chips
¼ to ½ C pecan pieces
Mix together and sprinkle over caramel layer
Using reserved crust mixture, sprinkle over the top of chips and pecans
Bake 10 min. more at 350 F. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Store in tins. Freezes well.
DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BROWNIES WITH SEA SALT FLAKES [Patricia Green-Sotos]
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 C butter
2 C granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 C flour
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ C miniature marshmallows
Flaky sea salt crystals
Melt chocolate and butter slowly in a saucepan over low heat. When melted, add sugar and set aside to cool slightly. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in vanilla and flour. Mix well. Fold in chips and marshmallows.
Bake in a parchment paper lined 9 x 13 baking pan [or grease the pan] for 30-35 minutes at 350 F. Top may be bubbly. Don’t overcook. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and cool completely before cutting. Store in tins or plastic ware. Freezes great.
S’MORES BARS [Jean Adam]
1 ½ sleeves graham crackers, crushed with rolling pin in zip-loc bag
2/3 C melted butter
1/3 C granulated sugar
Mix together and press into bottom of 9×13” pan lined with parchment paper. Bake 7 min at 350 F. Cool slightly.
1 C butter softened to room temperature
¾ C brown sugar
¾ C white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Cream together. Add:
2 ¼ C flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 C semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 ½ C mini marshmallows
Drop by large spoonfuls of dough carefully over crust and press into graham crackers without disturbing the layer underneath. Bake 15 min at 350 F or until golden brown on top. Quickly remove from oven and cover the top with broken pieces of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars. [2 large ones or 3 small]
Return to oven until chocolate melts ~ 3-5 min. Don’t overcook or let the top get too brown.
Cool completely before lifting parchment out of pan and cutting into small squares.
Many of the most rewarding relationships in my life are friendships formed when we lived in Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Our family friendship with the people in this story, Nancy, Maddy, and Cabby, began in Taiwan in the 1990s. We forged relationships in the midst of howling typhoons and bed-shaking earthquakes, during Thanksgiving pig roasts, in delivery rooms birthing babies, on hillside picnics with roaming water buffalo transcendent-picnics, at uncountable dinner parties in each other’s homes, and on apartment rooftops.
In 2018, we decided to have a reunion in Greece. Shortly before Easter, Nancy flew from New York to Paris where I was living. Together we traveled to Athens where Maddy and Cabby are now living.
In Greece, we shed our Asian history and jumped right into a mix of antiquity and contemporary adventures. As we climbed to the rooftop of their home, the Acropolis and Parthenon appeared stage center before our eyes. Hellooooooo Athina.
Mornings began with breakfast carried to the roof–an image imprinted forever in my mind. Strong French-pressed coffee, a bowl of Greek yogurt with sour cherries spooned on top, a basket of buttered toast, hardboiled eggs. And that view…
Family and holiday traditions are often a shared experience with friends overseas. During the Taiwan years, when our children were young, Maddy and Cabby hosted an annual family-centered party at Easter time. Eggs, dyed and decorated, were hung from dried branches standing upright in a tall vase to form a colorful egg tree. Multiple families were invited. There was food and a ceremony involving candles and a song. Then the eggs were selected from the tree, one to each person, and taken home in carefully packed containers.
Twenty-five years later, Cabby was in the final phase of decorating 60 eggs hanging over the second floor balcony. I don’t mean simple-dipped-in-one-pastel-color-dyed eggs. I mean Eggs As Art.
In the 1990s, decorating small bare tree branches as “Easter Egg Trees” became popular in the United States. In the Tennis/Hewitt family, the first egg tree was produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts when their first-born, Liza, was a toddler. It consisted of a single branch decorated with a few colored eggs taken to a party of graduate school friends.
Following graduate degrees and the birth of a second child, Maddy and Cabby moved to Taiwan. In succeeding years, their egg tree tradition was shared with international school families from Taipei, to Cairo, to Johannesburg, to Saudi Arabia.
Watching the tradition unfold in Athens, I realized that an important annual event, merged with artistry, had created outreach and a ripple effect in international relationships. Families from different countries and cultures invited to the Egg Tree celebration often carried it forward. They began new traditions that passed on beyond the Tennis/Hewitt family.
Maddy inspires action. Cabby implements details. It’s one of the ways they complement each other. Together they prioritize the importance of nurturing the family they created with lasting traditions.
Cab also has a knack for research and prototyping. Since crafting the first egg tree, he experimented and fine-tuned the “how to” process of taking a raw white egg and turning it into something spectacular. The steps from A to Z are not for the impatient or the faint of heart. But, the results are dazzling.
In the beginning, there was trial and error. He blew out the egg interiors as a first step only to realize that empty eggs don’t sink. There was year-by-year evolution, advancing the dyeing/waxing techniques used today. For example, randomly splattered candle wax creates only one type of pattern underneath–spots. So Cabby made small tools from toothpicks and wooden skewers that allow painting stripes, swirls, and even plaid patterns onto the shell with hot melted wax. Complexity and depth magically emerge after rounds of dyeing/waxing/dyeing/waxing on a single egg. Each egg reveals a surprise ending.
The bleaching process arose from a mistake of leaving an egg too long in one dye. Because it turned an ugly dark color, he wondered why not lighten it with bleach. A new step was added when he discovered bleaching enhanced the depth and range of dye colors.
Growing up overseas, the three Tennis children spent time around the table with their parents learning the egg dyeing craft. One Christmas, when they were older, each of them received a complete supply kit with containers, dye packets and tools to build their own egg tree and carry on the tradition after leaving home.
Oldest son, Whiting, took on the challenge first as a university student. Now married and teaching in an international school overseas, he produces spectacularly decorated eggs and invites faculty families to participate in the Egg Tree Party.
After Athens, I thought about the generosity of sharing this family-centered tradition all over the world and how comfortably it links people together in international communities. Cabby and Maddy exemplify a natural ability to build and create inclusiveness in every relationship.
The Tennis Family Egg Tree Tradition is one way this family has fostered love and respect in their global and personal relationships. It begins at home with a circle of people gathered around a bare branched tree covered with kaleidoscope colored eggs.
I’m reminded of the ending to the movie Annie Hall. The main character muses about the nuances of relationships, suggesting they are sometimes irrational, usually complex, and often absurd. He tries to sum up his feelings with a joke:
…A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. The doc says why don’t you turn him in? The guy says, I would but I need the eggs.
And, he’s right. We strive to hold onto each other in love, support and caring, because, actually, all of us…need the eggs.
This is the definitive “How-To” for dyeing and decorating eggs in the Tennis/Hewitt tradition. Instructions are by Cabby Tennis. There is minor editing on my part for clarity.
THE TENNIS FAMILY EGG TREE
WHY GO TO ALL THIS TROUBLE FOR A FEW COLORED EGGS?
It brings family and friends around the table working creatively together.
There is hands-on learning––coordination, art, safety, chemistry, physics, perseverance, patience and the final “wow” factor with each finished egg.
There is grace and humility in overcoming a “Humpty Dumpty” moment of loss on the kitchen floor.
Cover surface of worktable with taped together garbage bags, a vinyl tablecloth, or shower curtain liner. Layer of newspaper on top absorbs spills. Do not work over carpeting! Outside picnic table is ideal.
Set up table with plastic gloves, liquid dye containers, plastic spoons, eggs, paper towels [pre-torn into a stack of single sheets], empty egg cartons, waxing tools [explained below], 3 bowls for bleach and rinse water, candles for waxing, small saucepan for hot melted wax, scissors, pen, scotch tape.
EGGS – Unstamped white eggs are best. Large [not XL] range free eggs tend to have stronger shells. Rinse under water–no soap. Eggs are dyed raw because they are heavier and will sink. Blowing them out comes later.
CONTAINERS FOR LIQUID DYES – Any glass jar [preferably with lid] such as jam jars, canning jars, etc. One plastic spoon per jar to prevent color mixing as eggs move between dyes. Leftover dye can be kept year to year, so save the jar tops. If not enough jars, use water glasses.
DYE MIXING – 1 packet powdered dye diluted with ¾-1 cup boiling water. Add 1 T. white vinegar. Apple or grape vinegar is ok. (Exception: No vinegar for orange dyes because they will curdle.] Follow package directions for diluting liquid concentrate dyes. Cut off color name from dye packet and tape on jar for reference.
Partially used taper candles set into aluminum tea candle base for dripping or sprinkling wax over eggs.
A small saucepan with hot melted wax to use with tools [see below] or for complete immersion of egg into wax. Leftover candle remnants can be melted over low heat in saucepan on stovetop, camp stove, or hotplate. If no candles at home, purchase 2-3 thrift store pillar candles [any color] as melting base.
WAYS OF APPLYING WAX – Time to get creative. Holding a lit candle above egg, drip or shake/splatter wax onto shell. You can also use tools made from several toothpicks or split bamboo skewers bound with rubber bands to paint on wax. Repeatedly dip wooden tool into melted wax in saucepan, then touch or tap the egg with the tool. Egg color underneath the wax will be preserved and not take on next dye color. This is how you create different color patterns by waxing stripes, dots, or splatters on the dry egg. The number of colors on the egg depends how many times it goes through the cycle of 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry.
DUNK DYEING – Place waxed egg into any dye jar, then remove and gently dry with paper towel before waxing on a new layer of stripes or splatters. Repeat sequence as many times as you wish. Each wax application retains the color underneath it. Dyeing sequence is from light colors to dark. Begin with yellow [or any light color] moving toward darker colors each time you 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry. Creativity and patience are keys to this technique.
BLEACHINGas part of the dunk dyeing process – An optionalbut effective way to reverse the usual light to dark dyeing sequence. Bleach lets you cut through any final dye color [even black] that is un-waxed on the egg. Once the dark color is bleached, a lighter color can be dyed over it. This takes deft handling. Three bowls recommended. One with 1 part bleach to 2 parts water, and two [or 3] rinsing bowls with plain water. Dip the egg into bleach solution. Then move it through the rinse cycles, swirling thoroughly through each bowl. Egg continues to bleach with each step. Dry with paper towel. Note: The bleach will creep under some of the wax edges so be quick with the steps. You can do several rounds of 1. Bleach 2. Rinse 3. Dye 4. Wax 5. Dye and then repeat.
POWDER DYEING – This is a simple and efficient one step method to achieve beautiful eggs with the look of Monet water lilies or a ‘60s tie-dye experience. Eggs must be moist after soaking in plain water or liquid dye. Use leftover powder remnants [from envelopes used to make liquid dye] or open new ones specifically for this technique. With previously opened packets, write the color name on the outside to identify the powder inside.
METHOD FOR POWDER DYEING – Wearing clean, dry gloves lift a wet egg from bowl and hold each end between thumb and fingers. Tap the powder dye envelope against the egg to sprinkle grains onto the moist surface. Upon contact they will explode into fireworks shapes. Turn the egg and keep applying powder until it has the look you want. Use different colors, but be careful of combinations. Red, green and blue used together will turn brown. When desired color is achieved, quickly pat dry and immerse in saucepan of hot melted wax to seal. Or splatter with candle wax.
DE-WAXING EGGS – Wear gloves. Place used candle stubs or pillar candles into small saucepan over low to medium-low heat on stovetop. You need enough wax to completely immerse an egg. Have a stack of prepared paper towels nearby. With a slotted spoon, lower egg into the pan and stir gently, watching for wax coating to loosen and shed. [Stirring speeds up wax removal.] When the coating is clearly melted, add a second egg to the pan and lift first egg out. Rub loosened wax off first egg with paper towel. It should feel smooth with no rough spots and have a shiny patina. When wax in the pan starts to film over, time to re-heat on low temperature.
Safety note: Heat wax only until it liquefies. If it starts to smoke, it’s too hot and should be removed from heat.
Economy note: Place the saucepan of wax in the refrigerator overnight. The solidified wax will pop out the next morning. Store for re-use the next year.
BLOWING OUT THE EGGS – Use a bellows type egg blower. Good source: BestPysanky Egg Blower. With the awl that comes in the kit, make a hole in the exact bottom of egg the size of a wooden kitchen matchstick. The bellows pumps air in and forces white and yolk out the bottom hole. Be gentle. Take your time. Too much pressure and egg can explode. Use a paper clip or thin wire to break yolk or un-jam clogs as needed. Do this in rounds, about 10 eggs in a round, letting each egg sit upright between rounds so gravity can help the insides move to the bottom. Next, do a “gravity shake”. Holding egg upright in fingers, firmly and repeatedly whack your wrist against the tabletop onto a paper towel. When drips emerge from bottom of egg, blow it out again. Repeat until nothing comes out of egg and it feels light and empty. Finally, carefully use the awl to make a hole the size of a thick paperclip in the top center of egg. This is where knotted string will be attached later.
BAKING THE HOLLOW EGGS – This removes the final film of wax and bakes inside of eggs to prevent spoiling. In a preheated metal pan, place 6 eggs at a time on their sides. Make sure both ends of egg are open and unplugged or egg can explode in the oven. Bake at 350 F for 4 minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn. Remove from oven and cover pan with foil or kitchen towel to retain heat. Place next pan of eggs in to bake. Quickly rub each baked egg with paper towel to remove any wax residue before it cools.
STRINGING THE EGGS – Use thin string such as dental floss or embroidery thread. Tie a knot and create a loop where the size of the knot barely fits inside top hole of egg. Hold the knot against the hole, and gently push it inside the egg with a paper clip. Expand hole with the awl if necessary. Line up strung eggs for gluing. One by one squirt a tiny dab of super glue into the hole. This affixes knot inside the egg. Let eggs rest on their sides [string parallel to table top] while glue dries. Avoid getting too much glue on the string above the egg as it will dry stiffly and can snap like a twig over time.
HANGING AND FINAL CLEANING OF EGGS – String a rope where eggs can be suspended at least 6 inches apart. Use large paper clips or loops of wire to attach eggs to rope. If inside the house, place drop cloths below to catch drips. Wear gloves and use a soft cloth to gently wipe each egg all over with paint thinner [white spirits in Europe]. Dry with another soft cloth to remove any residual wax. Let stand for 30 minutes. This step speeds up drying time of the lacquer.
LACQUERING THE EGGS – Use clear polyurethane [Varathane] or Spar Varnish to seal eggs and enhance colors with a durable finish coat. Varnish can be satin or gloss finish. [Cabby prefers gloss.] Dip fingers into the urethane and rub each egg, coating from top to bottom. Dab off accumulated drips with paper towel. Lacquer can take 1-3 days to dry. Eggs kept year to year can be re-lacquered annually. The Tennis family has one egg, “Jungle Book”, with over 15 coats and a deep hard shine.
NAMING [Optional, but great fun] – Give each egg a creative name–something it reminds you of. Examples from the 2020 collection: The Duke of Earl, Violet Sultana, Jigsaw Cyan, Fly Like an Eagle, Calypso, Sgt. Pepper, Tetherball, Clouds of Mercury, Purple Reign, Gilly Spring
BEST EGG TREES – Made with dry sticks or branches with many limbs. Bougainvillea branches are excellent. Bind branches with string or zip ties and place in a large vase or container, preferably metal. Fill with rocks/pebbles to keep branches secured and centered. Hang eggs in a pleasing arrangement.
THE EGG GIFTING TRADITION – Invite families with young children to your home. Have an Easter reading about the historic symbolism of eggs, the season of spring and renewal, or related meaningful traditions. Light hand held candles one by one around the circle, and sing, “This Little Light of Mine”. Pass a bowl of folded bits of paper with numbers on them. Eggs are chosen from the tree in numerical order. [Parents sometimes trade numbers so children can pick earlier.] Number 1 leaves the room after pre-selecting an egg in their mind. The group tries to guess which egg will be chosen. #1 returns, removes their egg and the sequence continues. The key is to keep the pace going without dampening the enthusiasm of conjecture.
Egg cartons are filled with selected eggs for each family to take home.
A new egg tree tradition begins.
Cabby has additional details such as video clips of different stages of the process and a movie of the complete 2020 egg line up with names included. For more information, contact: email@example.com
Summer at our cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains began in June this year.
A guest I wasn’t expecting had already arrived. Stepping onto the covered front porch, a young deer with budding antlers leapt out from underneath my feet. He had moved in below the decking, among rocks laid down years ago.
The buck didn’t venture far, sticking close to nearby pine trees, pretending to graze and glance silently at me. Over the course of days, I became familiar with his routine and he with mine.
I began calling softly, “Hey Buddy, it’s just me”, when he startled awake with my footsteps above him. If it was late afternoon, nocturnal foraging began and he wandered away.
My husband arrived one week later. We have our morning coffee here, on the porch that faces north, with a view of craggy rock knobs and towering Ponderosas. Rays of rising sunlight are welcome when the air is cool.
We began to see Buddy meandering “home”, well after sunrise, having pulled the typical all-nighter for a mule deer. Sometimes there were two younger bucks with him. When he angled down the hill toward his sleeping space the others strolled on down the road.
Because we were often sitting on top of his semi-concealed den, he began lying down in the grassy weeds off the porch, awake and relaxed. He saw us. We saw him. He heard our voices as we talked. An unusual compatibility formed. When we left our chairs he would ease back into his rocky enclosure and bed down. One day led to the next…
Mule deer are indigenous to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. They differ from their whitetail cousins with a larger body build, oversized ears, a black tipped white tail, and white patch on the rump. Males prefer sleeping among rocky ridges while females like bedding down in meadows protected by trees and shrubbery. Life span can approach ten years, but only if they avoid mountain lions, bobcats, and packs of coyotes.
Antlers are shed and re-grown every year. In the beginning, they are covered in hairy skin called velvet. Velvet supplies blood to protect and nourish them while they are still soft and fragile. As they grow, [as much as half an inch a day] a deer’s antlers branch forward and “fork”, then fork again. When full size is reached, the velvet dies off and bucks remove it by rubbing on trees and bushes. This also strengthens their neck for sparring with other males in the fall rut.
Days turned into weeks as we watched Buddy’s frame fill out. His antlers seemed to grow visibly overnight, forking once, then twice into an impressive display. He was going to be a player in this season’s rut.
In late July, we left Estes Park heading northwest on a road trip to visit friends. In contrast to dry, grassy, wildflower meadows and granite-rock mountains, our friends summer near water–a large lake in the Idaho panhandle, and the Methow River valley in northern Washington State.
Sometimes we wondered about our under-the-porch guest back in Colorado. Husband surreptitiously placed a web cam to observe activity while we were away. Feedback went to his phone, but only for a short time. Within days, Buddy stuck his face into the camera lens and apparently kicked the whole thing over. We could only guess whether he abandoned the den…or simply triumphed over unwanted technology.
Spending time with friendships that began in Taiwan in the 1990s was the highlight of our days on the road. In northern Idaho, on our friends’ boat, we enjoyed a scenic tour of Lake Pend Oreille followed by a sunset dinner al fresco. The next day, in a two-car caravan, we drove to Mazama, Washington where the Methow River runs through the property of our friends.
Important activities take place along this strip of rocky, sandy riverbed as the Methow flows by. Cooking over fire in a circular rock surround, lumberjacking dead trees for winter firewood, sleeping in teepee or tent, sharing meals, talking and story telling, watching clouds, the sunrise or the sunset, reading with the soothing background noise of water sounds. Rhythms of a summer lived outside play daily here. It is the spiritual landscape of our friends. While sharing their space we moved within its’ cadence and felt it, too.
A circuitous route took us back to Colorado after saying good-bye in Mazama. When we pulled off the dirt road onto the cabin driveway, it was still light enough to note the sleeping den was empty. The web cam was upside down near rocks about fifteen feet from the porch steps. Buddy returned the next morning, noting our presence by plopping down and waiting for us to finish breakfast and move off the porch.
Our cabin was built to house a crowd. Family and friends pile upstairs and bunk in rooms with multiple beds. Less than a week after we returned home there were rounds of guests–more footsteps, new smells, even a baby’s babbling voice. Buddy moved out.
It’s been several weeks now since he left. A woman mentioned that her husband saw a deer sleeping in an unused barn on the property they are renting. It is just below us. Visiting sister-in-law saw a buck with good-sized antlers walking with a doe early one morning. We ran into Buddy, grazing one evening, as we walked home from a neighbor’s cabin. He started to walk toward us, then turned and kept his distance. There is a return to natural order on the hillside.
These days the morning air smells of approaching autumn. The temperature at sunrise can be nippy in that put-on-your-sweatshirt-to-sit-outside kind of way. Sunlight has shifted its’ arc. The bugling chorus of bull elk, signaling the start of the rut, is only days away. Change of season in the mountains propels the notion of moving on.
Yet, for a short while this summer we shared an uncommon acquaintance with a young deer as he grew into strength and maturity. We liked his quiet presence. He tolerated ours. We didn’t invite him, so I guess he chose us…because he found a guest room that suited him under the porch.
Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”
Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.
The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher
Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.
I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher
During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.
When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I sought guidance to learn one decent dish to cook. Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.
Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.
Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads, randomly, to reflect the candlelight.
Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order listening to favorite tunes on high volume. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.
My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.
I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too.
Gabrielle’s words from a New York Times series of articles published October 2017 are in bold italics preceded by her initials, GH. They are followed by my own thoughts and experiences.
GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts to our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, thisis the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.
Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi in Paris, my husband and I laughed long and hard about an enforced departure where we were offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.
GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.
WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.
GH:I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.
informal dinner for 4
thanksgiving table, chez bentley
GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still,always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.
WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the traditional Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but tragic, too. This vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.
At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients and preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.
A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]
GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.
Our children are adults now and the best ones to say what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.
I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is indelibly imprinted in my mind as the communion of good people around a grown-up table.
In November 2005, before I was reading news digitally, I cut out an article by a humor columnist from a prominent international newspaper. The subject was why Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving.
In 1952, an earlier version of this article was published under the title “Explaining Thanksgiving to the French”. The back-story, prompting the reprint, was a woman in Maryland who bought an old, yellowed newspaper clipping at a garage sale. She paid $10 for it. Someone-in-the-know, at the Library of Congress, told her it was worth $80,000 as a collector’s item. It became art on the wall of her home.
We were living in Germany in 2005. I didn’t speak French then, but found the story quirky enough to save. I understand French better now, so the literal translations read even sillier.
For history buffs wishing to be enlightened without forking over $80,000, here is one version of why we eat turkey:
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims [Pèlerins] who fled from l’Angleterre to found a colony in the New World [le Nouveau Monde] where they could shoot Indians [les Peaux-Rouges] and eat turkey [dinde] to their heart’s content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth [a famous voiture Américaine] in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower [or Fleur de Mai] in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them to grow corn [maïs]. The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges…
…And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do…1
Living overseas for 30 years, without extended family around, our Thanksgiving holidays have been celebrated rather differently. In early Taiwan years, there was an annual pig roast in Maddy and Cabby’s backyard, linen covered tables lit in candlelight, adults drinking wine and trading stories while children ran rampant until late at night.
Another year, we shared Thanksgiving with Chinese friends who delighted in the array of traditional-American-food-in-excess more than we did.
The year we became empty nesters, I said to my husband, “No more beige, brown and white food for Thanksgiving. Let’s check into a hotel and eat what we want.” So we did. Spicy Thai is what I remember.
After moving to Europe, with both children permanently in the U.S., we continued to lay low during this holiday-that-was-never-a-holiday in the country where we were living.
A couple of Novembers ago, we were invited to our friends’ Sally and John’s Paris apartment for Thanksgiving. It was an intimate group of eight, but international with one Spanish husband and one Italian boyfriend mixed among the Americans. We brought champagne, red wine, and something green to offset the neutrals of what would undoubtedly be served. Thanksgiving food color is traditional.
twice baked potatoes
pumpkin and fruit pie
something green [and red] to offset neutrals
But then–I was completely turned upside down by the holiday dinner we had been avoiding for at least 10 years. At John and Sally’s table there was color, there was taste, there was texture, andthere was deliciousness in the one dish I detest the most–dressing.
Everyone in this family is creative. They are artists, film producers, film animators, screenwriters, painters, musicians, and, as it turns out, they are kitchen creative, too.
The dish I now call “John’s Best Original Holiday Dressing” is far superior to the sage-y, soggy, overly bread-y brown mess I have skipped since childhood.
John’s dressing, rich with veggies, full of crunch, a hint of sweetness and tang, was the centerpiece to a remarkable meal in my favorite city where Thanksgiving is not celebrated.
Last year, when we were invited again, I asked to learn the family secret to the best dressing ever invented to be eaten with roast turkey on Thanksgiving. Like most naturally creative cooks, John uses no recipe. It varies from year to year, ingredients added or subtracted.
For the Benson/Bentley family legacy, as well as our own future holiday celebrations, here is, thankfully presented, the most delicious stuffing/dressing recipe you will ever enjoy eating. Second and third helpings, yes! Next day leftovers, if there happen to be any, yes!
There is room here for your own creativity too. Play with some of the spice amounts and optional ingredients.
À chacun son goût. To each his own taste. The essence of French-splanation.
1. Story excerpt from International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2005
JOHN’S BEST ORIGINAL HOLIDAY DRESSING [serves 12]
1 head celery, chopped
4 onions, chopped
6 large cloves garlic [or more], chopped
2 red bell peppers, chopped
2 yellow bell peppers, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
Button mushrooms, sliced
Fresh bread croutons–explained below
2 apples, chopped
Greek Kalamata or Moroccan olives, pitted and chopped-optional
Tomato confit [or sun dried tomatoes, softened with just enough hot water], chopped–optional
1/2 to 1 lb. good butter, melted–as much as you want
1 bay leaf
2 tsp. thyme
4 tsp. sage, rosemary, oregano and tarragon [approximate]
Turkey, chicken or vegetable broth, 2/3-1 Cup*
Several Tbs to 1/4 cup Maple syrup**
*For turkey broth: boil/simmer neck and chopped gizzard in 2-3 cups water, lightly covered, for an hour. You want 2/3 to 1 cup of liquid to add per casserole dish. Okay to use chicken [or veggie broth] as substitute.
**John’s turkey preparation involves brining it beforehand. He likes using the salty drippings and basting liquid to add to the dressing. He uses maple syrup during basting to caramelize the skin and add sweetness. If you don’t use the drippings with syrup in them, then add syrup, as directed, at the end of preparation.
1. In a large pan, sauté red, yellow and green peppers in olive oil on medium to high heat, until they are slightly browned and softened. Add in onions and finally garlic. Add spices–2 tsp. thyme, 4 tsp. each sage, rosemary and oregano during sauté. [Quantities are suggestions because he doesn’t precisely measure.]
“It needs to smell herby-and good-as it is cooking!”–John
2. In another pan [flat-bottomed] melt a couple tablespoons of butter. Place sliced mushrooms flat in pan without overlapping. Sprinkle tarragon over it all for a light coating. Brown both sides on medium to high heat. Keep adding butter to the pan as mushrooms soak it up. Don’t skimp on butter. Mushrooms should still be firm on the inside.
3. Make croutons by cutting day old baguette into cubes. Sprinkle olive oil and rosemary over them and toss together. Place in oven on low temperature until browned or crispy.
“They should get oiled all around a bit, not soggy of course. Rosemary should be a light sprinkle.”–John
4. Mix together all sautéed ingredients in a large bowl while still warm. Add prepared croutons.
5. Add remaining melted butter, at least 1/4 cup or 250 ml [melt more if you need it!]. Divide amounts evenly per casserole dish. Just pour it over and mix in. Use 1/2 bay leaf for each casserole.
6. Stir in broth, a little at a time until everything is mushy and moist, but not soggy.
“Croutons should not crumble into crumbs if smashed. You will probably use 1-2 C. of broth, based on crouton softness.”–John
7. Now add chopped celery, apple, seeded olives, and sundried tomatoes [or tomato confit]. These will add crunch, flavor, and a bit of tang.
8. Smell and taste. Perhaps add more butter or broth and drippings. Can also add sprig of fresh thyme or extra sage.
9. Stir in some maple syrup, a few tablespoons up to 1/4 cup per casserole.
10. Spread all ingredients into ovenproof dishes. Can place some inside turkey as stuffing. Grind black pepper over the top, if you think about it.
11. Bake uncovered 180 C. [350 F.] for about 1 hour. Halfway through, give it a stir to check for softness. If it’s too wet, stir again in 15 minutes to help with evaporation of broth. If still too moist after an hour, turn on broiler for a couple of minutes to brown and crisp the top. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn!
“Ingredients are already cooked so baking is to evaporate the broth and crisp everything. A good dried out, browned, crispy top is unbeatable. I think it’s the butter.”–John Benson
Set a festive holiday dinner table. When seated among family and friends give thanks to everyone and everything for which you are grateful.
Remember to raise a glass to those Peaux-Rouges and Pèlerins who started it all…
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.