Million Mile Stories

I have flown a million miles over the past 31 years. As the miles accumulated so did stories of airports and airplanes. One of them, now part of family lore, involved a plane departing with my  child but without me. 

There are two other unforgettable stories about one airport in particular, the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International. It closed 20 years ago, in 1998, after serving the city for 73 years. In the late 1980s we used it for three years to fly from the U.S. to our home overseas in Singapore. It was a 24 hour trip from Denver, Colorado with layovers in California and Hong Kong before landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

One decade and two international moves later, a chance encounter with a contemporary oil painting transported me back to the first, spectacular, pulse-racing landing we made into Hong Kong.

In 1999, an overseas friend, who is a Brazilian artist, held a gallery showing of her oil paintings in Taipei, Taiwan. Strolling the array of artwork, I saw the title “Rooftops” next to a large canvas. Looking from the title to the painting, something shivered through me. Art is supposed to create emotions like this. When I looked again, I had a visceral flashback to 1987, the summer we left Colorado and moved to southeast Asia.

In the years since Taiwan, “Rooftops” has hung in our home in the “altstadt” in Oberursel, Germany, later above an elaborately carved marble fireplace in Paris, and now in the living room of an apartment in Princeton, New Jersey.

Neither of our children understand why I love this painting. One summer, our son Adam stayed in Taipei to work while the rest of the family was on home leave. He disliked it so much that he removed it from the wall and stashed it out of sight until August.

Adam was only 5, 6, and 7 years old during those early years overseas. He doesn’t remember what made this particular piece of art “real” for me. Or why I keep dragging it around the world to hang in a place of prominence in our homes.

Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International was a city airport in the midst of densely populated Kowloon. There were mountains and hills and multi-story apartment buildings surrounding it. The runway protruded into the sea. Reclaimed land kept extending its’ length as airplanes grew bigger. 

kai tak runway into kowloon bay

But there was something even more remarkable about it than just longevity. Pilots of all airlines regarded it as one of the most difficult airports in the world to land a jet smoothly and safely. Because Kai Tak was renowned for its’ challenging, hair-raising approach to the runway. For a spectator on the ground witnessing jumbo airliners land was eye-popping entertainment. As a passenger in a window seat–it took my breath away.

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landing approach into kai tak
skimming rooftops part of a normal day

One commercial pilot with 30+ years of experience remembers, “As a pilot, it was totally unique. It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway, literally flying between the high-rise buildings, passing close to the famous orange and white checkerboard as you made that final turn toward the runway.”

making the turn with checkerboard marker
night time view of landing pattern

With two sleeping children who were oblivious, I watched with my forehead pressed against the window while the pilot executed that sharply arced turn to align with the runway. As the engines decelerated, the fuselage and wings seemed to barely skim the flat tops of square-shaped apartment buildings–block after block after block of them. In slow and slower motion, I looked down onto rooftops, laundry flapping on clotheslines, children playing, and Chinese faces with features easily distinguishable, turned upward. It was a bird’s eye view teeming with life. 

Landing at Kai Tak was tricky partly because of a prominent hill blocking what would normally be a straight-on approach to the runway. Another daunting reason for a truly “white knuckle” landing was inclement weather.

A Cathay Pacific pilot reflects, “This [landing on runway 13] was quite a challenge, especially in strong wind conditions. As Cathay pilots, we had plenty of practice and became very adept at flying the approach…but it was quite a challenge for pilots from other airlines, especially in the more demanding flying conditions, as they might only come into Kai Tak once a year.”

Wind was one very big problem. Rain and low ceiling cloud cover were another. Because of the unique approach over the city,  it was important for pilots to have a good view of the runway in order to avoid overshooting the turn on the approach.

A retired pilot recalls watching unsuccessful landings from the ground. “Being at the Kai Tak car park watching airplanes land in heavy rain could be very worrying. The pilots could not see the runway, and landing over Kowloon, you had to be visual with the runway. Some [pilots] seemed to wait a little longer than others before they aborted the landing and went around for another go. Some would appear out of the low clouds on the approach path, then power up and vanish back into the clouds.”

Another year I was traveling alone back to Singapore via Hong Kong.  The descent began in extremely foul weather. There was rock and roll turbulence, heavy rain, and no visibility as we neared the airport. Everyone strapped in, no rooftop views, just a wish and a prayer to be on solid ground. The plane angled and tipped drastically with a big “bump”. Suddenly, the engines powered into high acceleration as the nose pulled upward sharply. We were pinned back in our seats, gripping armrests. The cabin was silent. No explanation from the flight deck. We swung around for another try. 

circling for another try

Vivid memories tie me to that now defunct airport of crazy turns, aborted landings, and inhabited rooftops appearing like colorful concrete terraced gardens in the sky.

rooftops like gardens in the sky

And that is why a painting always hangs on a wall of our home depicting blocky, geometrically aligned squares and rectangles in colors of red, blue, yellow, green, and mustard brown.

“rooftops”, painted by heloiza montuori, 1999

The other story, mentioned as family lore, has tried to remain buried at the bottom of mothering mistakes. But it is the one our son most definitely remembers. In today’s world of air travel the same series of circumstances would never happen again. It was bad enough 30 years ago.

Our first home leave trip was not until 1989, the second summer away from the U.S. I made the trip alone with the children, husband coming later. Four-year old daughter did not sleep for the interminable hours from Singapore to Hong Kong to California to Arizona where we had one final flight before meeting grandparents in Iowa.

She passed out in deep slumber as we landed at the Phoenix airport. There was no plane change, simply a one-hour layover to pick up additional passengers and a new crew. I asked the flight attendant if I could leave soundly sleeping child to run into terminal and make a phone call about our very delayed arrival to Des Moines.

Taking seven-year-old son, we disembarked and found the pay phones. Twenty minutes later we were back at the gate.

The jet-way door was locked. The plane was no longer there.  A new crew had boarded quickly and, because the flight was well behind schedule, a decision was made to depart right away. I went into panic mode, pleading that my child was asleep in the back of the plane. IT COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE LEFT! The flight attendant who had [minutes before] agreed to my brief leave-taking “forgot” to mention sleeping child. The gate agent told me it was too late, the plane was in the sky.

In actuality, the plane taxied to the departure runway, was cleared for take off and began acceleration. As a new crew member prepared to take her jump seat, she discovered a small girl in the back of the plane with no adult nearby. A hasty call to the flight deck and jet engines were powered down seconds before lift off. The plane returned to the gate.

I did not look at the faces of the other passengers as I re-boarded, holding tightly to the hand of the child with me. I knew they were appalled at the situation and angry about the delay.

In the long walk to the back of the plane, I focused only on the shining face of my now awake child, eyes blinking and small blond head bobbling back and forth above the seat, calmly wondering what was going on.

Two stories–one of a plane swooping low over flat rooftops teeming with life, the other of a plane that left the gate…early.  A painting reminds me of one. A heart-stopping memory will not let me forget the other.

Both are reminders that life unfolds as a collection of stories–some of them expand the world we know, as when we see or do something extraordinary, and others remind us there is a world of unexpected, too.

Somewhere in between is where we live.

The Grown-Up Table

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

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dinner for six, chez bentley

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.

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sunday pizza night–courtyard oberursel, germany

When we first began to invite guests for dinner, I needed guidance to learn and perfect 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. 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.

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Prune Restaurant, East Village, NYC

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. It is a highly desirable life skill to embody the role of a good guest.

Gabrielle’s words from a NYT series of articles published October 2017 are in italics preceded by her initials, GH, followed by my 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 or our friend Alec’s chronic 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, this is 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, we laughed long and hard about an awkward departure where we were suddenly 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.

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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”.

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 a 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 Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but a bit tragic, too. This old 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 or 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]

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family style, at the cabin, estes park

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 tell 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 well 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 imprinted forever–the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

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Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party]Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant

 

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the best dining room view in the world

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dinner chez tennis/hewitt, athens, greece

Garlic and Girlfriends

How can I cook dinner tonight–we’re out of garlic! –Aunt Josephine, from the Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

It’s not an exaggeration to say that an absence of garlic in the house could be, as far as dinner goes, a showstopper. Garlic simply makes things taste better. And, as Josephine makes the case, without it, why bother?

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creative advertising, estes park market

There is more lore about garlic than any other food. As one of the oldest cultivated plants, it was thought to be a cure-all, to have mystical powers, and even to protect from evil spirits. It was used in Egyptian burials and placed on windowsills when babies were born.

Garlic is a member of the lily order of plants and the onion family that includes chives, shallots, scallions and leeks. But the most important thing about garlic is the magic it performs when blended into other foods, creating delicious, taste-enhancing flavors.

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I love garlic like I love my friends. Friends, carefully cultivated with time and circumstance, blended into my life, enhancing everything. Friends going back to childhood, at home in the U.S., and while living all over the world.

Our early years living in Taiwan, in the 1990s, were the beginning of a ritual of rotating Friday afternoons among a group of women I grew to know and love. We took turns gathering in each other’s living rooms. Friends came and moved on as is normal in ex-pat circles. Yet, through the revolving door of overseas life, those Friday afternoons of “wine and unwinding” remained highly anticipated.

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a sampling of TGIF friends, Taiwan, late 1990s

Food served invariably included a healthy dose of garlic. In certain seasons in Taiwan you could find big heads of garlic that were perfect for roasting whole. We squeezed warm, nutty, oil-soaked roasted cloves onto fresh bread or directly into our mouths. Open bottles of wine stood at attention, ready to replenish glasses.

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We let our hair down and put our feet up. The formula within the formula was that all ideas, problems or dreams were fair topics. Laughter kept everything in check. We appreciated each other’s insights, intelligence and strengths. We learned to love the idiosyncrasies. And couldn’t wait to return to garlic and friendship a week later.

What garlic is to food, insanity is to art. –Augustus St. Gaudens

10,000 years ago garlic was first discovered. It has evolved since then, having survived winters in the caves of our ancestors. Garlic is a natural antibiotic, fights bacteria and viruses, thins the blood, detoxifies the liver, decreases inflammation and lowers bad cholesterol. It is also low in calories–one or two per clove.

There are five elements: earth, air, water, fire and garlic…without garlic I simply would not care to live. –Louis Diat

 

Store garlic in a cool, dry place with ventilation. Not above or next to the stove, sink, or in a window with sun exposure. Never in the refrigerator! Strands of garlic can be braided attractively into plaits, ready to pull off a head as needed.

 

There is no such thing as a little garlic. –Arthur Baer

To eliminate garlic on the breath: chew fresh parsley or, my favorite, allow a piece of good, dark chocolate to melt slowly on your tongue and slide down your throat.

The best way to rid garlic odor on the hands is to wash with soap and water then rub fingers and hands back and forth on the chrome of the kitchen faucet. This works!

Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic! –Anthony Bourdain

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Farmer’s market, Estes Park, CO

For easy peeling of cloves, separate them from the head. Smash each individually with the broad blade of a chef’s knife. Slip skin off. Or, from Dietitian Daughter, place cloves in a plastic container with lid and shake like crazy. The skin will loosen and separate, ready to be easily peeled away. For either method it helps to first cut off the stem ends.

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One little known use for garlic was as glue in the middle ages. It was used to affix gold and silver leaf to furniture, mend glass and porcelain. This seems like a natural idea when literally everything sticks to garlicky fingers after peeling and chopping.

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese. Garlic makes it good. –Alice May Brock

As good as the garlic was in Taiwan, it is even better in France. I’m partial to the big bulbs of rose garlic on my market street. [My Market Street] It has a pink purplish tinge to the skin unlike white garlic. Once peeled, all cloves look the same. Rose garlic cloves are uniform in size and have a less pungent smell and taste.

 

We went to a party in Paris one Christmas season. The dining table was laden with an impressive array of food, but I made a beeline directly to a casserole of hot artichoke dip. It was perfuming the room with a delicious, warm, garlicky aroma that I could not resist. After the first taste, I spooned it directly into my mouth foregoing bread or crackers. A lot of garlic was the secret.

That same recipe for garlic artichoke dip played center stage at the French version of “wine and unwind”, chez moi. Not all of the women knew each other well, but conversation and laughter flowed as effortlessly as it does among long time friends. Garlic seemed to be the tie that binds. And, well…a few bottles of memorable white and red Bordeaux [Les Hauts de Smith Blanc et Rouge] from my husband’s wine closet worked a bit of magic, too.

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It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking. –Marcel Boulestin

I don’t cook everyday now, but I always have a bulb or two of garlic in the kitchen. I’m afraid of being caught in a pinch, like Aunt Josephine, unable to put a meal together because the garlic tin is empty. And, if some girlfriends are having a rendezvous, I’m ready with my go-to ingredient to enliven the camaraderie…

…and create a memory of food and friendship.

 

ROASTED HEADS OF GARLIC

  •  Cut ¼ to ½ inch off the top of head of garlic.
  • Cut off just enough so all clove ends are exposed.
  • Drizzle with olive oil. Salt and pepper as desired.
  • Rub oil in with finger or use a brush to evenly coat.
  • If roasting 1 or 2 heads, wrap each in foil and seal.
  • If roasting many heads, place them in baking pan with cut sides up. Cover the whole pan with foil.
  • Roast 45 minutes at 400 F. [205 C.]
  • Cool a bit.

Squeeze roasted cloves out of skins onto fresh bread, crackers or mix into potatoes or any pasta dish. Or place in oil and refrigerate to use later.

GARLIC ARTICHOKE DIP

  • 2-15 oz. [400gm] cans artichoke hearts in water. Drain water.
  • 1 whole fresh jalapeno pepper
  • 3 large or 6 small green onions
  • 6 large cloves garlic, chopped, then smashed in mortar and pestle
  • 1 C. [250gm] grated mozzarella cheese
  • ½ to ¾ C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 drops Tabasco, Siracha or chili sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ C. [or less] good quality mayonnaise. Not Hellman’s. [add just enough to bind ingredients]
  • Sprinkle of cayenne over top

Bake 350 F. [175 C.] for 30-40 minutes until bubbly and brown. Serve with bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

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ingredients for artichoke dip

 

 

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serve with a side of friendship

SPAGHETTI JOSEPHINE from Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

[This dish was prepared regularly on cooking nights in Taiwan. You can add in other ingredients as desired. But I like it best Josephine’s way. Serve with a big salad.]

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, separated into tiny flowerets.
  • 1 lb. [500 gm] spaghetti
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • ¼ C. minced parsley [cut with scissors in tall glass]
  • ½ C. butter
  • ½ C. or more freshly grated Parmesan
  • Freshly ground pepper
  1. Cook cauliflower in boiling salted water until almost tender [~5 min.]
  2. Cook spaghetti al dente.
  3. Sauté garlic in olive oil ~1 min, then add butter and parsley.
  4. Cook on very low heat until hot and bubbly.
  5. Add garlic butter to spaghetti and cauliflower.
  6. Toss together. Add Parmesan and toss again.
  7. Serve immediately with additional grated cheese and the pepper grinder.

 

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Janmarie demonstrates how to pound garlic in my Cyprus kitchen, circa 1992

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Estes Park, farmer’s market

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French-splaining American Thanksgiving

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.

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roast turkey or la dinde rôtie

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.

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, and there 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 Made From Scratch 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 MADE FROM SCRATCH HOLIDAY DRESSING [serves 12]

Ingredients:

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  • 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*
  • Olive oil
  • 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.

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

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cubed bread before oil/rosemary toss and crisping

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

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maybe the secret is in the butter, but it’s really much more than that…

Set a festive holiday dinner table. When seated among family and friends give thanks to everyone and everything for which you are grateful.

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Remember to raise a glass to those Peaux-Rouges and Pèlerins who started it all…

Joyeux Jour de Merci Donnant!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Other stories about Sally Bentley here: Foxglove and “Oreos” on the Camino or Sex in a Pan and the Tennis/Hewitts [Maddy and Cabby] here: Transcendent Picnics

Transcendent Picnics

qiagtiangangcloudy

“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

–mfk fisher

MFK Fisher said that the best outdoor eating happens on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of a memorable picnic occurred in Switzerland in the 1930s. Ours was on a grassy meadow in Taiwan in the 1990s. Continents and decades apart, these two stories interweave because a certain combination of people, place, and food surpassed simple physical nourishment.

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 enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them came carrying baskets to the construction site, after the workers 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 to chill in an ancient spring-fed fountain nearby. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.

The first 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 between her feet. The 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 last, then immediately table side.

On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread. Fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They sat sharing 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.

During the spring of our first year living in Taiwan, there was one picnic with our own perfect alignment of people, place, and food. Perhaps more importantly, I witnessed our young daughter’s awakening to this symbolic communion.

Yangmingshan is a national park just north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, flowers and greenery, hiking trails, outdoor recreation. Our friends, Maddy and Cabby, knew of a less populated area of the park where water buffalo grazed freely on the grassy slopes. They organized a picnic for both families on Buffalo Meadows one late afternoon. We were a small group of four adults and three young children.

Hiking uphill, we were completely enveloped in a cool, misty cloud that moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail, we emerged into a sunny green landscape with views all around. Under foot, the soft grass was perfect for lounging and playing. Out came a Frisbee and the men took the children to play on the hillside. The two little girls tired of running and tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.

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lara and liza, buffalo meadows, 1994

Our nine-year-old daughter came over to watch the food preparations. There was a tiny backpacking stove along with a  battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to produce the meal. Ingredients had been previously sliced, steamed, or grated at home. Once the stove was levelled against the hillside, primed, pumped and producing enough heat, assembly began.

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ancient wok from japan still in existence

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. Then, bite sized broccoli flowerets [already steamed] were stirred in along with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta and butter were added. The whole combination was tumbled about with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, a fluffy  pile of freshly grated Parmesan was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices offered toasted sweetness to the broccoli pasta. The simple ingredients combined to make a perfect one-dish meal.

Plates were passed. We sat together on the downy grass, enjoying the view, eating, laughing and talking. As the sun slid over the far hills, the air began to cool. Thimble-sized glasses of single malt whiskey were passed among the grown-ups. A breeze stirred as the light continued to fade. We put on our jackets and leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Sleepy four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front her father’s sweatshirt. She curled against his chest with only her blond hair showing. We continued talking as darkness descended. When the mist returned, it was time to go.

Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that picnic pasta at home. She had a faraway look in her eyes as she spoke of how much she loved it while we were in Buffalo Meadows. Watching her face and listening to her speak, it was clear to me that she had made, in her little girl mind, a connection beyond physical taste. There was something more. She was asking to go back to the feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot it.

It’s not easy to explain why this picnic, more than 20 years ago, remains so vivid–perhaps more so to me than others who were present. Although I still love to reflect on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own memory takes me to a battered wok of pasta, families encircled on a misty Taiwanese meadow, and a water buffalo…and, well, I can’t let it go.

BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [via Silver Palate Cookbook]

  • 1 lb. [500 gm] penne, cooked ’til just tender [al dente]
  • 2 heads broccoli, in small flowerets
  • ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 [or more!] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
  • Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1 1/2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic 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.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.

Wendy’s suggested options:

Chopped cherry tomatoes, as garnish. Cooked chicken, black olives, green onions or leftover veggies can be added. Red pepper flakes always advisable. Original recipe calls for no added salt, so suit your own preferences. It can use some salt.

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assembled ingredients, except for parmesan

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shake garlic until it begins to brown

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add steamed broccoli and lots of pepper

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stir in pasta, butter, and combine til heated

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grated parmesan overall and cherry tomatoes to garnish

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enjoy immediately

Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

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fine-looking pesto ingredients

Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.

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lara and friends, dihua jie, early 2000s

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dihua jie market, every chinese new year

In our Tien Mu neighborhood,  we ate in local restaurants that served delicious, and always freshly made, Chinese food.  Still, you signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins the size of a piece of toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting were standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we often did in our favorite haunts. But it was far from cozy.

Desire breeds creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends in conversation around a candlelit table set with pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend pleasure. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes. Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to it as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops, where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.

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tien mu grocer, of the mom and pop variety

There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking and our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table outcomes rather than his in the kitchen methodology. Which tended towards the euphemistic “bull in a china shop”.

It’s a fact that Alec operates on a very high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger pangs in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast, always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends this way—with delicious home-cooked food. He not only cooks and bakes, he makes his own jams and condiments. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried very hard to make us love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never really ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.

At times, Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were the norm. When Alec was sous chef, things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot. Over the years, the kitchen table was reworked with a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. Guests were mostly unaware and always charmed by the cuisine. The table was designated firewood by the time we left Taiwan.

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alec and mark, chez ulfers’ cuisine, late 1990s

When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in a kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their apartment foreshadowed the eventual doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time. Six or eight of us were chatting amiably while final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash followed by a muffled wail stopped conversation. Splayed out on the green marble tiles was an enormous kettle of just combined spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely repressed laughter. Using the well-known culinary 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Table-side, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto-pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.

miami+marble+floor+restoration

Hualien marble floor, made in Taiwan

My all-time favorite recipe of Alec’s, and certainly the most memorable, is his version of homemade pesto. Served immediately on hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner, I secretly hoped it was on the menu. Because basil was inexpensive and available year round in Taiwan, it often was.

There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s super easy and very versatile. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts or sandwiches, used as a dip, or as an incredible base sauce for homemade pizza.

It’s only optional whether you use it to polish the kitchen floor.

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toast pine nuts in un-oiled pan

ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO

  • 2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 6 large cloves garlic
  • ¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
  • ¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
  • red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat

Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P.  Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, even roasted butternut squash! Chopped cherry tomatoes make a colorful garnish.

Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container, with a thin film of oil.

I have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.

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line-up of the usual raw ingredients

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prepared for food processor or mortar and pestle: oil, garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan

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out of food processor—the color of green marble

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dilute with hot water before adding pasta

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stir into pasta and reheat slightly

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garnish with chopped tomatoes, sprinkle of parmesan

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a glass of champagne makes anything better

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our local tien mu buddhist temple, taipei, taiwan

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temple dragons

Eternal+Spring+Shrine

taroko gorge, taiwan, source of hualien marble