It’s late summer in Estes Park, Colorado. Smoky haze from surrounding forest fires has begun to subside. Afternoon rain showers precede lower temperatures day and night. A bugling elk was heard from the open window last night. Change of season is near.
Sunday afternoon. We spontaneously headed into Rocky Mountain National Park. A picnic supper was packed, and we set out to an undetermined location for sunset watching and contemplative time.
This wasn’t our first venture in improvising an outing at the last minute. But it turned out to be a memorable one.
Moraine Park is a vast landscape with 360-degree wide-angle views. Elk herds typically congregate here during the rut, covering wide swaths of the meadow. It is still early for this so we looked for a scenic place to set up temporary camp.
The Big Thompson River flows east through Moraine Park, gurgling and sparkling and encouraging fishermen to cast lines in late afternoon sun. We spied an empty sandbar and a trail leading there. Pulling over, we walked to the water’s edge.
The sandbar was wide and pebbled with small and medium sized rocks. Clear, shallow water curled around with soothing sounds. There were tall green reeds on the far side, shining in the sun, waving in the breeze. The river is narrow here but cold, as expected of mountain run off streams.
Green folding camp chairs, a small oak table, a cooler and a basket of food completed the set up. We settled in and began with a toast to the sunset, to the high peaks, to living in such an incredibly beautiful natural environment, and to each other.
Up river from us, backlit by sunlight, a fly fisherman cast again and again. His wet line glistened and lashed out like horizontal lightening. It was perhaps too breezy for trout to bite, but the silhouette of his attempt was lovely.
Husband indulged with homemade pizza taken from the oven just before leaving home. There was farmer’s market arugula as salad on top. And, there was champagne because bubbles create an optimal accompaniment with pizza. [Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”] [Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt] A square of dark bittersweet chocolate accompanied last sips.
Clouds formed between the sinking sun and western mountains. Breezes blew them south and then new ones took their place. We settled in to see what would happen.
Rain happened. A misty, silky, spotty rain destined to subside quickly. Reluctantly we began to pack up.
Then, the almost certain finale to showers in the mountains lit up the sky behind us–a full rainbow that touched the meadow on both ends.
There it was–nature’s beautiful end to a serendipitous outing. It gave us more than we expected on a late August evening.
It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins.–Chinese Proverb
There is something about a Martini, a tingle remarkably pleasant, a yellow, a mellow Martini, I wish I had one at present. –Ogden Nash
Twins and martinis are an interesting study of compare and contrast.
I’m married to an identical twin. He is ten minutes older than his brother. They learned to speak the mother tongue on the normal developmental curve, but retained a private language from the time they were infants until four-years-old.
Look at identical twins. When you get closer, you start to see the small differences. –Brian Swanson
Placed in different classrooms in elementary school, their interests and friends diverged. One gravitated toward sports, fishing, and camping, the other to art, music, and drama. As adults, it is easy to identify who is who because hair parts are on opposite sides and voices differ, but they use identical hand gestures and are both creative leaders in their respective professions.
Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences and their brains are not wired the same way. –John Medina
There are significant differences in food and taste preference in these twins. My husband’s brother eats coriander, both raw and cooked, while my husband vehemently pushes away any dish with a hint of it. In childhood, one twin developed a food allergy to shellfish, the other to fish with fins.
And then I stumbled onto the great martini divide, placing them firmly into polarized camps…
I’m not talking a cup of cheap gin splashed over an ice cube. I’m talking satin, fire, and ice, surgical cleanliness, insight and comfort, redemption and absolution. I’m talking MARTINI.–Anonymous
In the late 1990s, my brother-in-law joined colleagues after work at a bar conveniently located on the ground floor of their office building in New York City. Martini culture was popular, and an architect he knew always ordered one. The bartender used a small aerosol bottle to spray vermouth inside the glass. Then he added a 50/50 ratio of gin and vodka. It was a memorable first martini because my brother-in-law despised it. Later, when he decided to try again, there was the same essence of vermouth spray followed by chilled vodka only. Thereafter, his go-to cocktail was born.
During the same time period we were living overseas. My husband never drank distilled liquor, preferring wine or beer as a social beverage. Then, last summer in Colorado I began experimenting with “dirty” vodka martinis as a late-in-the-day-cabin-cocktail. He turned up his nose and stuck with wine. Dabbling with other recipes, I mixed vodka and gin. He agreed to taste, but only tolerated a few sips before a decided, “No thank you”. Several months later, experimenting again, I offered a pure gin concoction and substituted Lillet [a French aperitif wine from Bordeaux] for vermouth. He surprised us both by saying, “This could be my martini.” He is also big on multiple green olives as garnish.
And so, with ongoing research, I discerned a new difference–to each twin, his own base spirit.
The iconic martini is never completely out of style. Yet it could be the most argued about drink in history because it comes in such a variety of variations. Amazing for a cocktail with only three parts:
1. Base alcohol
2. The ratio of spirit to vermouth
Seemingly simple, yet every martini must be carefully created. Often it’s better not to order one in public. Most bartenders, unless you instruct them carefully, don’t have the time or inclination to make it to personal specifications. There is no right or wrong recipe. It’s just that the best martini is one made the way you like to drink it. Begin mixing at home.
If someone says they hate martinis, it’s possible they never had a proper one. The disgruntlement is most often not with the gin or vodka. It is usually with the concentration of vermouth.
A perfect martini should be made by filling a chilled glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy. –Noël Coward
For many martini lovers, the “right” proportion of vermouth to spirit is more art than science. An exact measurement can be difficult when it is more like a hint or a suggestion. Like the spritz my brother-in-law sprays inside his glass. Or the way Dukes Hotel Bar in London pours vermouth in and out of the glass. Whatever sticks inside is just enough. A fraction of the whole, the vermouth ratio can define or ruin a martini depending on your taste.
Vermouth should be used quickly. Some sources say within a month. Toss out those years-old-dusty-bottles on a shelf. Keep it cold. Never buy icky vermouth. Buy the smallest bottle of the best quality [not Martini & Rossi] and make great martinis.
The vermouth dilemma was solved at home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One half measure of this French invention offers smoothness not tasted with vermouth. I don’t know if vermouth really goes bad after a month, perhaps it’s that we don’t like it, but Lillet keeps in the refrigerator for a long time and is always just right. The point is, to each his own proportion of spirit to vermouth, or to Lillet, or to none.
It was Ian Fleming who introduced me to Lillet. In the 1953 novel, Casino Royale, James Bond invents the “Vesper”, named for a short-lived girlfriend:
“A dry martini,” he [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.
Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”
–Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir”
It was in Dukes Hotel, on tiny St. James Place, Mayfair London, where Fleming regularly consumed vodka martinis while writing his infamous 007 spy stories. Today, Dukes’ bar is an institution with an established reputation for creating great martinis. Head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, is Italian and has worked there for more than three decades. He says, “A martini is a drink that has to be strong and three ingredients only.” No chocolate, no espresso, no fruit additions make the cut. Their current signature drink has been around since the mid-1980s. Dukes is known for using a direct martini method, cutting out ice as middleman. After a thin wash of vermouth, already frozen gin or vodka is poured like syrup directly from bottle into glass.
There are martini snobs today who claim that Fleming’s British spy ruined the cocktail with his standard “shaken not stirred” preparation and for ordering vodka instead of straight gin. It’s remarkable that people not only target a fictional character with a cocktail crime, but that martinis still provoke argument 100+ years after being invented.
A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.–Somerset Maughan
If you belong to the stirring-only-fan-club, mix ingredients in a container with ice for 30 seconds to bind and thoroughly chill. It will only be diluted a touch. If you shake, use plenty of ice and keep going until shaker is frosted over, your hand is frozen to the metal, and/or you felt a decent upper body workout. For the unprofessional, occasional imbiber there is no discernible difference in taste or chill factor with either method. We tend to go the shaken route because we like sipping through a sea of ice shards.
Whether shaken or stirred, the “have to” of every martini is that it must be served extremelyCOLD.
The real key to a great martini is it should be all arctic, deliciously crisp… –Victoria Moore
Glassware can be freezer chilled or let ice cubes rest inside while ingredients are assembled. Also, consider the allure of the glass. A long stemmed V-shaped martini glass looks better in your hand than any other drinking receptacle. [Except for a champagne flute!] The conical shape allows olives to stand upright rather than clump unattractively in a heap. The stem protects cold glass from warm hands. The wide bowl opens the alcohol to air and makes it pleasantly aromatic, especially with gin.
This is an excellent martini – sort of tastes…just like a cold cloud. –Herman Wouk
Dueling twin tastes parallel ongoing general public debate between classical gin martini lovers versus those who drink only vodka. I went to my own double sources to learn why each side aligns so dramatically this way or that.
Brother-in-law is a man who enjoys the peppery taste that certain vodka emits. Ketel One for everyday, Christiania–Norwegian potato vodka–on special occasions. He likes one spray of vermouth in his glass, replicating the method of the bartender who made his first martini. He believes gin tastes like fertilizer or moldy leaf compost.
Husband who prefers gin says it has substance and tastes like earthy herbs and spices that linger on the palate. His current favorite is Fords Gin, known for its’ juniper essence. He likes a martini laced with Lillet rather than vermouth. He believes vodka tastes like lighter fluid.
There you have it–true twin diversity in taste and preference, martini style. In finishing the story, two final quotes from two favorite writers:
I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.–Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
A well-made martini correctly chilled and nicely served has been more often my friend than any two-legged creature. –M.F.K. Fisher
Civilized or not, friendly or not, it’s wise to be slightly scared of martinis. This is not a girly wine spritzer you can swill in multiple rounds when thirsty. This is an adult drink, a serious drink. This is a pond of pure booze in a glass and should be treated as such. For most of us, who inhabit a world with both civility and friendship, one martini is probably enough. Unless you happen to be drinking with these twins…then, better make it a double.
[Shaken or stirred, or eliminate ice with frozen gin or vodka & a very well chilled glass]
THE 007 VESPERTINI
[Disclosure: Impossible to replicate exactly as Bond created. Why? Gordon’s gin in 1953 was not the same gin as by that name now. Kina Lillet is no longer made either. Use a strong rather than a soft gin, Stoli vodka, white Lillet and a dash of bitters for the closest approximation.]
2 shots gin of choice
1 shot vodka [100 proof Stoli preferably]
½ shot white Lillet
Optional: 2 dashes bitters
Garnish with large twist of lemon peel
THE SIGNATURE LONDON DUKES HOTELTINI
Rinse a well-chilled glass with dry vermouth by pouring in and out
Add 5 shots [oh my!] of frozen gin or vodka
Express the oil from the peel of an organic, un-waxed Italian Amalfi Coast lemon over the top and then drop in as garnish
House rule–maximum 2 drinks only
Served with olives and snacks on the side
Customer has table rights all evening
THE MARK GINTINI
3 shots Fords Gin
½ shot white Lillet
Garnish with minimum of 4 green olives on a stainless skewer
Float ice chips over the top
THE ERIK VODKATINI
1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
Garnish with lemon peel or burnt blood orange peel, olives if you must
There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared…twins. –Josh Billings
It’s the middle of April. There are eighteen inches of snow outside our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It’s stay-in-place quarantine time so there is nowhere to go anyway.
We watched a coyote run by in the early morning hours yesterday, on the hunt for something to fill his stomach, followed by four more.
Today, a family of deer bedded down among the pine trees on the southern hillside. What we actually saw was heads and ears, their bodies completely blanketed in white powder like a downy duvet.
The pine needles are so heavily laden that they create avalanches when they unburden themselves from the top, cascading down through lower branches in bulky snow burst plops.
All of this is pretty to look upon, but we must occasionally venture from the fireplace to don boots and hats and gloves and shovel out the drive, now a pileup growing foot by foot instead of inch by inch. Back inside, we shake off the snow and head to the kitchen. It’s time to refuel with something hot, hearty, and with ingredients almost always on hand.
Our quarantine comfort food go-to is an improved reboot of a childhood staple–grilled cheese sandwiches. But this is not some processed-cheese-slices-between-layers-of-white-bread kind of sandwich. I’m talking GrilledCheese. With caramelized onions, bacon, and fresh spinach on hearty rye or sourdough bread.
It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.
GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]
1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
Good Butter, European if possible
Grated mix of cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
Thick sliced bacon, if desired
Fresh baby spinach
4 slices hearty bread such as rye or good sourdough
Fry bacon slices [if using], set aside, and drain grease from pan.
Add some butter to heavy skillet [cast iron!] and slowly sauté sliced onions over med-lo heat. Onions will brown slowly. Stir occasionally. It can take 20 minutes, so be patient. The crucial step is tocaramelize those onions!
Place grated cheese in bowl.
Add the browned onions and mix together thoroughly.
Pile onion/cheese mix onto each slice of bread.
Top with bacon [optional] and spinach [if you have it].
Press sandwich halves together.
In cast iron skillet, place sandwich into melted butter and heat to grill bread on both sides. It’s helpful to press down with heavy spatula to squish insides together. Turn over carefully.
When bread is toast-y and cheese is melt-y, serve at once.
Enjoy with a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion or scallion, black olives, and feta or goat cheese. Glass of wine–always nice.
Afterward, poke the fire, add some wood, lay down on sofa with a book or for a shelter-in-place power nap.
I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.
With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.
A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house.–Michael Ruhlman
The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.–Joy Harjo
Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.
From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.
Good kitchens are not about size. –Nigel Slater
My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.
To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.
During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.
By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.
I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what. –Alice Waters
During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.
My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things.
There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful. –M.F.K. Fisher
During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.
This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.
You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens.–Trisha Yearwood
Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. love-and-layers-of-lasagne She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.
The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.–Laura Esquival
Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development. –Laura Esquival
People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup. Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.
True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal.–Mehmet Oz
These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.
Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.
I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment. –M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food
Good Olive Oil
1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
4-5 minced garlic cloves
1 T. dried oregano
1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 1/4 C. dry red wine
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 T. tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1# dry pasta, any kind
1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.
Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.
Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.
Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.
In our family, birthing babies and salad dressing share a story. It began three and a half years ago after the birth of a first grandchild and my small role in helping feed tired and hungry parents. Babies and Rice So Very Nice
Recently, I learned something new about dressing a salad from an article about an Italian restaurant in New York City. With a surprise ingredient [warm water] and a special twist in the assembly, there is now a best-ever-homemade-green-salad-dressing to have on hand in the home refrigerator. This one tops them all. So dump those bottles of preservative laden grocery store sludge.
Full disclosure: I have poached and improved a recipe from Via Carota resto in Manhattan’s West Village. The New York Times article stated that people who ordered the “Insalata Verde” swore the dressing was delicious enough to eat on its’ own by the spoonful. I had to see what the fuss was about.
Via Carota is a charming Italian restaurant featuring exposed brick, cozy wood, and ambient decor. There are no reservations. Since the article appeared in the newspaper, it is always packed. Plan on waiting for a table or try to slip onto a stool at the bar.
I invited my Manhattan based sister-in-law to join me for lunch. We decided to split the “Insalata Verde” as it is a veritable mountain of fresh greens, enough for two, or more, people. We were deep in conversation when the salad arrived.
Digging in, we continued talking until I finally blurted out, “Let’s debrief this dressing. All I taste is oil and salt. Where are the other flavors? I wouldn’t eat this with a spoon, even metaphorically.”
Too much oil, too much salt, but an inspiring blend of other ingredients is the reason a well-publicized recipe from a popular NYC restaurant became an even better one in my own kitchen.
The ingredients are common. And usually found in most home pantries. Well…except, perhaps, for aged sherry vinegar and shallots.
There are a couple of quirks in assembling the dressing. The first is to rinse minced shallots in cold water. Second is to add one tablespoon of warmwater to the vinegar and shallot mix and let sit briefly. And third, the greens should be slightly damp before dressing them. For this, a salad spinner is handy.
Use any amount of the freshest greens you can find. A hearty combination of butter lettuce, endive, romaine, red leaf lettuce, watercress, spinach, arugula, and/or the jumbo mixed box of salad found in every supermarket.
The recipe makes enough for more than one use, unless you are preparing salad for a crowd. Stored in the refrigerator it tastes even better the next time. And the time after that.
The tweaks I made to the Via Carota recipe are minimal. Cut the oil, double the garlic, adjust the salt. Modify to your own tastes. Get creative and spoon it over vegetables, or meat, or inside a sandwich as the bread spread.
This dressing is loaded with substance in the form of solid bits of shallots and mustard seeds. The small addition of warm water softens the vinegar edge and smoothes the blended flavors harmoniously, making it sublime.
As a final editorial, here are the three reasons you never need store bought dressing.
Ten minutes of delicious homemade dressing preparation is a good use of time.
Dinner guests and family will rave about a simple green salad. Every single serving.
With a jar already in the refrig, meal planning is simplified.
At the very least, make the Best Green Salad Dressing Ever, just once. Then you will understand the urge to dip in and eat it off a spoon.
BEST GREEN SALAD DRESSING EVER
1 large shallot, minced
2 T. plus 1tsp. aged sherry vinegar
1 T. warm water
½ C. extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
1 ½ tsp. whole-grain mustard [with seeds]
1 ½ tsp. honey [optional, but I always use it]
2 sprigs thyme, washed and stripped [or use dried thyme leaves]
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wash the greens in cold water and discard any stems or brown pieces. Spin in salad spinner, wrap in clean dishtowels, and set aside.
Rinse finely minced shallot in mesh strainer under cold water. Drain. Place in a bowl.
Add sherry vinegar and the tablespoon of warm water. Let sit for two minutes.
Whisk in oil, mustards, honey, thyme, grated garlic, and a pinch of salt.
Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as needed. [Using these measurements, I have not found it necessary to adjust anything.]
Place prepared greens in a large serving bowl and drizzle dressing over, tossing to lightly coat. [I don’t like a heavy coating of dressing, so drizzle to your taste.] Generously grind black pepper over the top. Toss again. Taste and serve.
Refrigerate remaining dressing in a glass jar. If the refrigerator temperature is very cold and the olive oil has slightly solidified when you want to reuse, let sit at room temperature for a couple minutes, shake it up, and it’s good to go.
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.
My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one. –Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter
Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a winter holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.
The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.
The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in NYC balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching reruns of a favorite TV series.
Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites that teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.
On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.
It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!
When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.
Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.
In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”
I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.
The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in bold italics:
“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”
Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.
“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’”
Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”
“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.
It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’
I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.
‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’
I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too.
And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **
It doesn’t necessarily matter when a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way.
That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered.
Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. “Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!
Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.
But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, integrated with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.”
**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.
…Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times,to start a new life…to embrace onepossibility after another…that is surely the basic instinct…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson
In 1989 Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to define an essential zone separate from home and the people you live with [“first place”] and work [“second place”]. Third place is your hangout, an informal social space with no dress code and a welcoming vibe that invites you to return again and again.
A third place is also one’s anchor to community life. You are drawn to it because it is socially fun, playful, and light-hearted. It’s where you go to chew the fat, discuss issues, ventilate, play games, or get to know someone. It is “…where you relax in public, encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.”
Third place is like pitching a tent in your back yard. It is home away from home.
When life opportunities create a geography change and your third place is left behind, it’s important to find a new one. And if what you are looking for can’t be found after searching, a creative instinct might emerge “…to start a new life…to embrace one possibility after another”.
This is Kyle’s story. He grew up in Kansas, in the heartland of America. From the age of five, he began drawing images–people, animals and made up characters. Riding in the car during family vacations, he drew the storylines from books-on-tapes while the rest of the family listened. While still a high school student, Kyle knew he would pursue an artistic course of study at university. He graduated in Fine Arts and Graphic Design.
In 2006, Kyle’s first job took him away from home and long-term friends to Fort Collins, Colorado. He started out living in the basement of a relative’s house. It was isolating for a young man. He needed friends his own age and a place to socialize with them.
A booming craft beer industry was the catalyst for many microbrewery openings in Fort Collins. Kyle found his “third place”, along with a friendly social circle, in the evolving scene.
Later, in a widening circle of mutual friends, Kyle met Lara. They enjoyed camaraderie in the breweries, but also shared a strong sense of community service. Together they coached Special Olympic basketball and softball for disabled adults.
When Lara accepted a new job in another state, Kyle’s mother said, “I thought he would never leave Colorado. So when he followed Lara to Kansas City, I knew she was the one he would marry.” They did.
In 2014, the craft brewery scene in Kansas City, Missouri was not as mature as the one left behind in Colorado. Lara and Kyle searched but couldn’t find the informal, social environment they were looking for in their new hometown.
Creative “can do” instincts took over. Kyle had experimented with beer making in the past. Now he became serious, bought equipment, and began home brewing in the basement. He went to weekend fairs, gave away samples, and won some tasting competitions, too. Feedback was consistent and positive.
He read book after book about the chemistry of beer making, industrial brewing equipment, hops and grains and flavor additives as well as how to open a small business. He enrolled in the American Brewer’s Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program. The final weeks of coursework were on site in Vermont.
Kyle befriended local KC brewers by cold calling them. He volunteered to work one day each week to help them brew commercial batches. He gained knowledge and a warm welcome into the community of micro-brewers. By now an idea was actively fermenting.
Over the next couple of years, Kyle and Lara drafted a business plan, found real estate property to buy, cultivated investors, and a bank loan. In a former commercial garage space, Kyle designed a back-of-the-house brewery with a front-of-the-house taproom. Doing most of the interior construction, alongside family members who pitched in time and expertise, Lara and Kyle founded a craft brewery on the principle of creating a social community space and then giving back to it.
In early February 2018, Casual Animal Brewing Company opened its’ doors at 1725 McGee Street in the Crossroads area of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their signature motto is: “Laid back beers that tap into your wild side.”
Casual Animal runs eleven full taps. Each has its’ own beer style, name, and an original logo of Kyle’s design. Animals are a recurring theme. Names are metaphorically linked to the style of brew. Customer favorites include Chaos Monkey [a banana cream pie ale], to Honey Wheat light ale, Nomo Rhino IPA, Branch Out Stout, and Hop The Fence IPL.
rotating t-shirt and hat designs by kyle
brewery paintings by kyle
art graphic wallpaper
designed by kyle
Tying into Kyle and Lara’s commitment to community service, Casual Animal taps into the ethic of “giving back” by designating a rotating beer called Local Motive. The beer style changes quarterly along with the charitable organization the staff votes on to support. Two dollars of every pint of Local Motive sold is donated. In-house events promote the spirit of the current charity.
The most recent charity promotion was the Kansas City Pet Project, a nonprofit pet shelter that guarantees every stray animal a home. Kittens and puppies were brought into the brewery for customers to play with and cuddle. A completely contagious combination–adorable baby animals plus eleven beer styles equals fun AND donation success!
KC Pet Project nite
Unless you are a real brewer, all there is to know about the process of grain and hops and water turning into deliciously drinkable beer is the basics of what happens in Casual Animal’s back room. Inside a series of huge shiny stainless steel tanks, Kyle’s chemistry know-how is mixed with the help of fermentation, time…and recipe magic.
Hot Liquid Tank water is piped into the Mashtun Tank where grains are mixed together and cooked. Next, this mash up is transferred to the Brew Kettle where hops [and sometimes other flavors] are added. After time in the Kettle, the liquid is piped into the Fermenting Tank, leaving behind all the grain residue. Now yeast is added and fermentation begins. This takes approximately two weeks depending on the kind of beer. From the Fermentation Tank, beer is transferred to the Brite Tank for carbonation and clarifying. And finally, kegs are filled and stored in the massive walk-in refrigerator that feeds the taps at the front-of-the-house. 217 gallons of beer per brew.
dividing brewery from taproom
kyle on brew day
hot liquid tank
mashtun mixes grains with water
brew kettle where hops added
fermentation tanks plus one brite tank
grain residue inside brew kettle
cleanup takes longer than brewing
removing grain mash which is picked up by local farmer for animal feed
Cycle complete. As for the magic? Well, every time I sip Casual Animal’s velvety dark nitro stout, it’s easy to believe in magic.
When I asked Kyle to talk about his favorite beer tastes, he said, “Well, it depends on the day. On cold, snowy days, I would say smooth, slight malty sweetness, and roast-y to describe a tasty pint of Nitro Stout. Other days it might be an IPA with resin-y, fruity, and bitter characteristics imparted by the hops. Now, is anyone thirsty?”
There is passion and precision in Kyle’s word selection that describes every beer Casual Animal makes. That same passion speaks of a man who dreamed of possibilities and pursued them with intense preparation. And labor. And love.
The truth is, when Kyle couldn’t find his “third place”–he built one.
…Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson
A solid Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and an excellent knife with a fine blade–the good life. –Anonymous
Cast iron cookware is one of the things to have in your life–but only if you love it.
An iron skillet is a link to the past [one of the oldest cooking tools in any kitchen], relevant to the present and can be passed into the future. It connects you to the people who used it before–to the everydayness of their lives.
Cast iron is durable on top of the stove and inside the oven. It retains the flavor of foods cooked in it and is considered to be superior for cooking in general. Cast iron grabs heat and holds it. It is not Teflon, something you throw away when it becomes scratched and used. Cast iron will outlive you and begs to be passed on.
There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful. –Ronni Lundy, historian of Appalachian food
Older cast iron is considered by purists to be superior. It is made with higher quality raw materials and the interior surfaces are smoother. A good vintage pan will be completely black in color and almost glassy in the texture of its’ interior surface. Seasoned right it becomes nonstick. Pitted surfaces on newer cast iron allow food to stick. It’s also more difficult to season.
Several summers ago, I met “Cast Iron Don” in an antique mall in Saugatuck, Michigan when my daughter and I were on a mom/daughter getaway. Don is a consummate collector of vintage cast iron, owning more than 100 pieces. He uses only two.
Don offered a wealth of cast iron history and information when he spotted my interest in a marked “Griswold, Erie, PA” skillet for the reasonable price of $17.00. He said it was the best-priced-name-brand-cast-iron-piece in the whole market.
Cast iron cookware was made in the U.S. from the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century. Griswold, Wagner, and Sidney were brand names casting pans in foundries, which also made farm tools and weapons. Each piece was poured and polished by hand which took hours of human labor, but produced a notable difference. They were lighter, thinner, with a smoother interior.
Today, some cast iron pans are being made this way but, with labor costs as they are, prices are in the hundreds of dollars for a contemporary artisanal skillet. For the fun of a treasure hunt you can find vintage cast iron in your relatives’ kitchens, garage sales, estate auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of anything new. Many of them will already be seasoned.
Well-seasoned cast iron is the equivalent of a broken in pair of well-loved jeans. This is what makes it both beautiful and utilitarian.
Cast iron is porous. To make a nonstick cooking surface it needs oil for protection. Seasoned correctly, oil bonds with the iron pores. When exposed to heat, the polymer chains link and form a durable, slick coating surface.
Back in Michigan, Cast Iron Don has refined his own techniques for rehabbing antique ironware. I don’t recommend any of his rather dangerous methods. Vats of lye, boiling water, hoses, and protective wearing apparel require a lot more time and caution than most consumers need to muster.
Rusted or mistreated skillets can often be restored with a simple steel wool scrubbing before re-seasoning. Or, use coarse salt mixed with oil and rub mixture around with a paper towel. For a super tough buildup of dirt and grime, place pan in a self-cleaning oven for one cycle. Sediment flakes off and can be wiped away.
After cleaning, the important next step is to season iron correctly.
Animal fat! Use lard, bacon grease or Crisco. [Do not use vegetable based oils because they leave a sticky residue and you have to start over, so no olive oil.]
Coat the entire surface including edges. Place upside down in 500 F. or 260 C. oven over a piece of foil. Bake 1 hour 15 minutes.
Cool gradually in oven with door ajar. Once thoroughly cooled, wipe off any excess oil.
Cast iron needs to be cleaned in a specific way.
Do not soak in water, put in dishwasher, or use soap.
A hot water rinse using a stiff brush to clean off residue will keep seasoning intact. If necessary, use a small plastic scraper first.
Dry completely. I always air-dry, but my daughter puts her cast iron on the stove over a low flame, briefly, to evaporate water.
If necessary, wipe with a thin coat of oil and buff with paper towel.
hot water and scrub brush
use plastic scraper if necessary
Use your cast iron often. For everything! Consider it an heirloom to be passed on and on and on from generation to generation. Embody it with your own family’s cooking lore. Someone else may get a taste of it down the road…
Two classic cast iron skillet recipes:
DUTCH BABY, SWEET – serves 2
Start with ingredients at room temperature.
In a bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs.
Then whisk in ½ C. flour, ½ C. milk, 1 T. sugar, ½ tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
Melt 2-3 T. butter in 10-12 inch cast iron skillet by placing in oven at 425 F. [220 C]. Watch so butter doesn’t burn! As soon as butter melts, pour in the batter.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden.
Cut into wedges and serve immediately with choice of toppings: maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, confiture [jam], cinnamon sugar, or fresh berries.
Makes an excellent, light, breakfast pancake.
batter on the left and ready to melt butter on the right
whisk ingredients by hand or in blender
pour into prepared skillet
ready to bake
DUTCH BABY, SAVORY
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 C. + 2 T. flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. pepper.
In a separate bowl, combine 8 large eggs and ¾ C. whole milk.
Whisk wet ingredients into dry until just combined.
Stir in 2 T. fresh thyme, 2 T. minced chives [or parsley or tarragon].
Melt 2-3 T. butter in 12-inch cast iron skillet until it smells nutty and brown. Swirl to coat sides and bottom of pan.
Pour in batter. Scatter ¾ C. freshly grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese over top.
Bake 15-20 minutes at 425 F. [220 C.] until puffy and golden.
Serve with lemon wedges and Siracha sauce. Both add a lot of flavor!
Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”
Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; 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.
There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who simply prepare meals.
Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, combine, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food from scratch. From a very young age she watched and learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.
The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking didn’t inhabit me either.
Because I care about nutrition and eating well, I put in the time required for meal prep during the years when everyone was living at home and hungry. Friends who loved stirring up tasty concoctions everyday were a regular source of inspiration. I copied their easiest ideas. One-dish meals, everything mixed together-protein, veggies and carbs, were my best efforts. This was also efficient because meals could be made in large enough quantities for leftovers.
I have never lusted for or spent any time making lasagne. To my taste, béchamel sauce is like eating wallpaper paste, bolognaise sauce so heavy with meat and thick chunks of canned tomatoes. Then, so many layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.
One December, several years ago, Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for our Christmas Eve dinner. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as circumstances in her life changed. Each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.
The Beginning Episode:
In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. While there, she bought a book for one pound Sterling called Simple Pasta. She found her bolognaise recipe and cooked it many times for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over different kinds of pasta or ate it as a hearty stand-alone meat and vegetable main course.
The Second Episode:
There was a German boyfriend for a few years. His mother was a wonderful cook who took enormous pride in her meals. Anna enjoyed many excellent dinners in their home. One time, lasagne was served. But, it was a disaster. The green colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce too dry and tasteless. All three sons complained loudly. There was drama as their mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand on the table, stood up and left the room, taking a bottle of wine with her.
Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already perfected bolognaise sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.
The Final, Most Important Episode:
A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her his mother said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. Then he suggested a bit more cheese might enhance the final result. This became his special part of the assembly. Collaboratively, they improved the recipe to its’ final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia
It was during that Christmas Eve dinner several Decembers ago that my taste buds took serious notice. This was lasagne I wanted to eat again. It wasn’t ponderously heavy. It was slightly sweetened with the addition of bacon, flavor-enhancing vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly, beautifully, yet distinctively. You couldn’t help but comment on the wonderful combination of flavors. Everything worked in this dish. I wanted to know how to cook it.
November 2015, in the days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, Latvian Lasagne offered me respite from the shock waves that followed. Planned attacks on several cafes and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw after the devastating events. Friends from the U.S. were arriving on vacation. We had already arranged to take them out to a restaurant for dinner.
Eating out socially in a public setting was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet market street and spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. Then I went about setting a formal dining table, assembling and baking Anna’s lasagne to share with our guests. It was an activity I needed, focused and calming, to cook for friends we love and hadn’t seen in many years.
That evening, six of us sat around the table, warmed by candles, nourishing food, friendship, and conversation. It was the right blend of the right ingredients and the right recipe. I remember everything, even now, entwined as it was in those world circumstances…
This month we are approaching a holiday season where family and friends gather in celebration and familiar food is often featured. Traditions in our family have benefitted from each overseas location where we have lived. Merging ideas from other geographies and people who became part of our extended family have contributed to our own evolving traditions.
With our dual culture family with us in Paris this holiday, we will chop, stir, and assemble layers of Latvian Lasagne together on Christmas Eve.
Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this is one of the very best cold weather comfort foods to cook for family or dinner guests.
Everything about the end result is worth the mess in the kitchen!
Ingredients for Bolognaise:
2 large carrots, chopped [or diced]
1 large onion, chopped
4 large stalks celery, chopped [or diced]
6 large mushrooms, chopped in half, then sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb [300 gm] thin, streaky bacon, chopped
1 lb [500 gm] lean ground beef [5% fat]
1 large can [600 gm] diced tomatoes in juice
2 C. red pasta or marinara sauce
2/3 cup [150cc] red wine
2/3 cup [150cc] milk
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. dried basil
Fresh ground pepper
Red pepper flakes [optional]
Ingredients for the Layers:
Red sauce of choice, ~400 gm [This is approximate, but use an amount that when mixed with the white sauce covers the casserole to the edges.]
White Alfredo or lasagne sauce of choice, ~300 gm [As above.]
8 oz. [250 gm] grated Italian blend cheese
8 oz. [250 gm] grated mozzarella cheese
Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
Fresh or dried lasagne noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Use thin, flat sheets of pasta rather than the wavy edged variety.]
Making the Bolognaise:
Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
Sauté onion until translucent.
Add carrots and celery. Cook until softened.
Add bacon and cook until it turns pink.
Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
Add milk and do the same thing.
Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, red sauce, garlic, fresh ground black pepper, mushrooms, and dried spices.
Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to one hour, cooking until mixture is thick.
Take off heat and set aside.
This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.
sauté first ingredients
adding mushrooms and spices later
Assembling the Layers:
Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
Spread one layer of bolognaise sauce over noodles.
Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
Add a layer of fresh spinach [as much as you wish] and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.
Cover with another layer of noodles.
Repeat layers one more time.
Cover all with noodle sheets.
Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
Bake 350 F. for convection oven, 385 F. for gas oven about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on it. When top is browning and bubbly, check that noodles are cooked all the way through. Take from oven. Let sit 5-10 minutes.
Serve immediately with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a Volnay red wine from Burgundy or pour Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Savor everything and everyone around the table for a long, relaxing evening.
Purists will note this is not Italian style lasagne. Anna describes it more as a “pasta cake”. She believes cheese is what makes the whole thing extra delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it always turns out great.
You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty “red-only-pasta-cake”.
You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. I don’t actually know how that would taste. The bacon adds something subtle and sublime.
There is no added salt. Bacon and cheese are enough.
There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other people’s preference for spiciness, but sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.
Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, and the great eagle; these are our brothers. We are part of the Earth and it is part of us.–Chief Seattle, native American
It’s autumn now in northern Europe where I returned a week ago. The courtyard Virginia creeper vine is reddening more each day. Heavier bed linens are in place so the window can remain open for good sleeping. Scarves donned for outdoor wear. And rain.
Still, for the moment, I’m thinking about a longer than normal summer season in Colorado. Three months at “Camp Estes”–our hillside home with Front Range views and walk-in access to Rocky Mountain National Park.
What made it particularly special were the visitors, different from other summers. A toddler grand-daughter’s first time to roam rocky, hilly landscapes, a reunion of women from my high school graduating class, visual apparitions of campfire spirits after two years of “no-burn” ban, s’mores with dark European chocolate, and a herd of rutting elk who wandered in–and stayed.
These events fused with other things I love; wildflowers in profusion, mountain sunrise and sunsets, thunderstorms and rainbows, low hanging clouds clearing to snow on the high peaks, elk bugling in the change of season.
Returning to the mountains is particularly significant to me because of our overseas lifestyle. For twelve summers, during the years we lived in Taipei, Taiwan, I needed to come home and recalibrate. Living and breathing for a few months at a higher altitude under clear blue skies was very different from a big Asian city of concrete, tile, and smoggy air.
The mountains give us our “spiritual geography”, a term coined by Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota. It is the place we inhabit to find our best selves.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote of the importance of finding individual “sacred space”:
“A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life. It has no function in the way of earning a living or a reputation…In your sacred space, things are working in terms of your dynamic–and not somebody else’s…You don’t really have a sacred space until you find somewhere to be…where joy comes from inside, not something external that puts joy into you, a place that lets you experience your own will and your own intention and your own wish…”
Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.–J.Campbell
My sacred spaces begin in physical forms–a cabin in Colorado mountains, a campfire ring, and a hidden destination called “Rock on the River” where I hike alone to heal or think.
There is a chameleon-like aspect to living an overseas lifestyle, between home in the U.S. and home elsewhere in the world. In the mountains I live in jeans and soft shirts, moccasins or cowgirl boots. I drink coffee on the front porch in sunshine or on a deck overlooking Long’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park. I go to bed after sitting around a campfire and awaken to the smell of smoke on my pillow.
Returning home to Paris, there is a seamless slide into the city version of myself. I adapt to the rhythms around me as I sit in cafés watching people instead of coyotes, hawks, deer and elk.
Returning to the mountains is what makes this work. Feeling small and insignificant amid the backdrop of a huge landscape clears my mind. I love the smell of rapidly changing weather, poking campfires with a stick, and wild animals that roam without fences. I think about the good fortune that lies ahead–sharing this with a generation of grandchildren.
Another way to tell the story is with pictures. To those who dropped in or to those who stayed awhile, and to those who will return–a look back at the best of this season’s memories…
CLICK HERE for 30 second video taken from front porch of biggest bull re-claiming the harem after three younger males tried a take over coup
And finally, to Leila: I hope the wide and wild natural world will always be part of your adventure, that you will be nurtured by its’ rhythms and beauty, and know that nature exists to support all of her creatures. You are now part of the earth and it is part of you.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The wind will blow freshness into you, and cares will drop away like leaves of Autumn.–John Muir
Our friend, Max, has spent a lot of time with his hands in the dirt. That is, when he wasn’t a student athlete, coach, husband, father, and Athletic Director for two universities in the mid-western United States. Since retiring [as AD] from Kansas State University, Max keeps an active hand as consultant and mentor to athletes, coaches and directors. He is a man who is wired to pay it forward by giving back to his profession as well as devoting boundless time and energy to his family and friend relationships.
Max also likes to get his hands a little dirty–by tending the soil.
He grew up in Troy, Ohio in a family of three boys. Every spring his parents planted a large “truck garden” outside of town. A truck garden is larger than a backyard or “kitchen” garden. A pick-up truck is often used to haul things back and forth to the plotted site. His parents worked the fertile Ohio soil without motorized equipment, using only hand tools. Each summer they grew the fruit and vegetables their growing family would eat for a year.
From an early age, Max played alongside the garden patch as his parents worked. He learned the rituals of tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting. It became natural–this annual cycle of producing fresh food with your own hands. And feeding people you love from the harvest.
He carried the tradition into adulthood while raising a family and growing his career. Certain veggies are a mainstay. He always plants asparagus, beets, cucumber, green beans, leaf lettuce, onions, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini squash. He sometimes plants bell peppers, hot peppers, garlic, peas, or yellow squash.
We are among the fortunate beneficiaries of the abundance that grows from Max’s hands and heart, in the friendship he shares with us. Visiting his home in Kansas or when he and his wife drive to our cabin in Colorado there is always a gift…fresh and delicious from the garden.
Two summers ago, Max brought something different. Green beans in a jar, packed in seasoned brine. It was a new thing–pickling the extra beans from a bountiful harvest.
Admittedly, at first glance, these beans deserved some skepticism–pale and limp in liquid–I wasn’t sure whether I could even try them. That’s because I grew up in a household that served beans only from cans. At the family dinner table, my learned behavior was to move them as quickly as possible from mouth to paper napkin to garbage can.
Max’s proffered jars were placed in the cupboard and overlooked until later in the summer. I finally took one as a dinner hostess gift to a neighbor on our mountain hillside. She called me a few days later and RAVED about the pickled beans. She said they were BETTER than any otherkind of pickle, especially for hamburgers. Did I have more jars to share?
Our daughter came to visit. She likes almost everything and is creative about ways to present food. I cracked open a jar of pickled beans and added them to a tray of small bites to have with drinks. At her suggestion, we placed them in icy martinis to sip on the shaded front porch.
I tried my own hand at pickling beans purchased from the local farmer’s market. It was a little trickier at the higher altitude of the Colorado Rockies, [see notes for high altitude processing at end] but they turned out fine. Now I’m hooked.
This summer I drove back for a lesson from the source–Max’s plot of land in the Manhattan, Kansas Community Garden. We awakened early, Max, Lynn and I, to pick beans before heat, humidity, and biting insects overtook us.
In the afternoon, we pickled our harvest from start to finish, ending the day with wine and unwind time–featuring, you guessed it, pickled beans.
Our Latvian daughter-in-law comes from Russian heritage that pickles any and all kinds of vegetables. Current nutritional trends suggest that fermented or pickled food should be included daily in healthy diets. Preserving food this way is an easy activity to do at home. Everyone reaps benefits.
Pickled beans can be eaten as a low calorie snack or as a garnish to any food where pickles are used [Barbara’s hamburgers!]. They can be added to drinks such as Bloody Marys or vodka martinis. Let the beans stand as green centerpiece to a tray of rainbow colored hors d’oeuvres. They make a unique and perfect homemade gift to a friend, tied with a ribbon and a sprig of herbs.
Max–here’s to you. Keep your hands in good soil and your beans in brine.
MAX’S PICKLED GREEN BEANS–Makes 4 Pints
2 pounds green beans–washed, trimmed and sorted by size
½-1 tsp cayenne pepper [optional, if you like a bit of spice]
4 heads fresh dill weed or 4 tsp dill seed
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 ½ C. water
2 ½ C. 5% white vinegar
¼ C. pickling salt
4 tsp pickling spices
Sterilize pint sized canning jars and lids by boiling for a short time in a water bath. Place lids first in bottom of pot to keep jars off the bottom.
Tightly pack same-sized beans, lengthwise, into sterilized jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. [Stem end goes on top [Max style], unless you trim both ends of beans, which I like to do.]
packing, stem end up
Make pickling solution by combining the vinegar, water, salt and pickling spices. Bring to a boil.
Pour hot liquid over beans, leaving ½ inch headspace.
Place one clove garlic, fresh dill weed or dill seed on top of beans before sealing lids. [Can also garnish with a strip of red bell pepper or red onion.]
add garlic and fresh dill
or dried spices
Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids securely but not overly tight.
Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Water should cover jars by 1-2 inches.
Remove from water and set upright on countertop.
Each jar will have a small rounded dome in the center of the lid. After 15 minutes of cooling time, there is an audible “Ping” sound as the dome depresses and the jar becomes sealed.
Let beans stand at room temperature for at least two weeks to allow flavors to develop. Refrigerate after opening.
VARIATIONS FOR HIGH ALTITUDE WATER BATH PROCESSING
If you are preserving at an altitude higher than 1000 feet above sea level, you need to adjust processing time as indicated in the chart below.
Altitude in Feet Processing Time [Increased by Minutes]
1001-3000 +5 minutes
3001-6000 +10 minutes
6001-8000 +15 minutes
8001-10,000 +20 minutes
After removing from water bath, leave undisturbed on countertop for 12-24 hours. Then check jar lids for sealing. They should not flex up and down when the center is pressed. If the lid does not seal in 24 hours, product can be immediately reprocessed or refrigerated.
A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing and the lawn mower is broken. –James Dents
Hey! It’s summer! Be free and happy and danceful and uninhibited and now-y! –Terri Guillemets
Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. –Henry James
My husband refers to me as a “late adopter”. This has been true regarding certain forms of technology. I’m not the first to run with the latest innovation when it first appears in popular culture. But when I do jump in, it’s all the way. Then, I can’t remember life as it was before.
This summer I was surprised with a different type of “late adaptation”. It happened to be with a beverage I had never tried, even once.
On the July 4th American Independence Day holiday weekend I was with Dietician Daughter, her husband, and his Kansas family. She served me a berry and fresh fruit topped drink in a tall glass with a straw. It was deep burgundy in color. The icy glass, sweating beads of condensation, was garnished with succulent fruit. It was her version of Sangria.
On a sultry summer afternoon, around a backyard table with good people, this drink captured my attention. There was thirst-quenching coolness. There was the lushness of summer berries in red wine. I drank a second glass.
Sangria has been around for 2000+ years. When the Roman Empire reached the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal and began mixing wine into the water to sanitize it, the beginnings of Sangria were born. Long a common, informal drink on the European continent, Sangria was not widely consumed in the U.S. until it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Twice I have been to the Iberian Peninsula in western Spain hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but I was not offered Sangria there. We drank wonderful Galician wines every evening as an accompaniment to the regional food. It was poured straight from the bottle and never mixed with anything.
Sangria comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “sangre” meaning blood because of its’ dark red color. It is traditionally made with Spanish red wine, fruit, brandy, some kind of sweetener and ice. Carbonated water may or may not be added for fizz.
That’s all there is to it. This is also where Sangria becomes much more interesting. With a rudimentary knowledge of ingredients, the end result is in the hands of the maker. Dietician Daughter was imaginative in her “berry” form of creativity. Now I can’t drink it any other way.
For the rest of the summer, I began ordering Sangria in restaurants. Some were made with white wine, some with red. At the very most they might have one or two pieces of shredded, mangy looking citrus fruit in the bottom of the glass. Pizzazz and eye candy beauty were nonexistent. Not one was memorable. Not one reminded me of friends and family sharing stories and playing games on a summer afternoon. Not one begged to be repeated.
My short scientific study convinced me that the only Sangria worth the calories is the one you make yourself. With ingredients you choose. The wine must be of a quality that you would drink on its own. The fruit must be plentiful. And FRESH.
Here is the very best summer SANGRIA you will ever make. Or drink. It’s simple, it’s fruity, slightly dry and slightly sweet, a bit boozy, and refreshing like a lazy summer day. Pass the pitcher around a table in the mountains, by the sea, on the terrace, or in the backyard. Say, “yes” to a berry summer sangria. Then go lie in a hammock under the trees and muse.
LARA’S BERRY BEST SUMMER SANGRIA
fresh whole berries [or pieces of fruit] for garnish
ice to chill
750 ml bottle of Spanish Red wine, chilled [I used Ribiera de Duero. Or Rioja.]
½ C. brandy
¾ C. orange juice
3-4 T. brown sugar
any seasonal combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. [Or use peaches and mangoes]
½ orange, rind on, sliced thinly
½ apple, skin on, chopped
In a large glass jar or pitcher, place fruit and sugar and muddle with a wooden spoon or muddler.
Add OJ and brandy and muddle again. Add red wine and stir.
Taste and adjust flavors to your liking. [More brandy or OJ or sugar as you wish.] Stir again. Add ice to chill and serve as is in clear glasses.
Get the fruit on. Garnish with lots of fresh berries or fruit of choice. Serve with a spoon for scooping winey fruit into your mouth between sips.
May be stored, covered, in refrigerator to steep and chill several hours, but then don’t add ice until serving.
Babies are such a nice way to start people –Don Herold
It’s true what they say. Grandmother hormones materialize in much the same way maternal ones do–even 30+ years later. Babies born in one’s own family are the most miraculously perfect creations in the world. Parents [and even grandparents] check out other newborns to confirm this nuance of nature. Gradually it is understood to be a “Universal Truth”. We all simply feel this way.
The good fortune to dust off my pediatric nursing and maternal memories arrived with the birth of our first granddaughter. I reflected on the gift of “presence” my mother gave me after our son and daughter were born. It’s a gift that gives both ways.
First, an [experienced] pair of hands in the early postpartum weeks gives new parents time to focus on the interplay of relationships that are suddenly rightthere. Baby inside, baby outside. Everything has changed. All three–mother, father, and newborn enter a timeless dance that begins with a new song.
A distinctive aura hovers over first time parents, beginning in their own relationship. Helplessly charmed by the miracle they created, they now exist inside a bubble of enhanced love and new responsibilities. At the same time, bonds between mother and baby, father and baby unfold daily, even hourly. My presence [teaching rigorous burping techniques, offering parental napping time, having my own infant cuddling and singing time] opened a bit of space for these relationships to settle and strengthen in the first month.
The second gift of being present was entirely personal. Watching my first-born baby, now a 34 year-old man, tenderly hold and croon to his tiny, perfect daughter overwhelmed me with wonder. That “circle of life”, as clichéd as the phrase may be, sideswiped my heart with a flush of love and emotion. I’m all in now.
At night, I mulled over the randomness of dominant and recessive genes forming this beautiful baby’s eye color [murky grey to clearly blue–overnight!], the turned up button of a nose, the rosebud mouth, the one dimpled cheek, and the movable face of so many expressions–skeptical, smiling, hesitant, observant, and sometimes cross-eyed. Even though it was too early for spontaneous social smiling, we gathered expectantly, eagerly, with each facial movement, hoping to be the first to receive that important human recognition, “I’m happy to know you.”
One day I had a flashback of maternal “déjà vu” when my daughter-in-law said, “I’m overwhelmed by how precious she is to me. I didn’t know I would feel this way.” None of us do. But almost every new mother is eventually overcome by the feelings of her own power to nurture and love her baby. That’s universal too…
I observed parents and babe develop their rhythms–for communicating, comforting, handling, and, of course, feeding. The dance changed by the minute, the hour, and the day. Flexibility is key with babies. But in less than a week, my daughter-in-law blossomed from tentative new mama to an instinctively confident one. My joy was seeing this unfold.
Newborn nourishment is where everything begins. Breastfeeding rituals gradually establish themselves. Then, suddenly, they fall apart with a day of feeding frenzy or a night of longer sleeping intervals. It is an ebb and flow of constant change in the early weeks.
No less important is the nourishment of parents. Emotional swings as a result of sleep deprivation, new responsibilities, and sweetly swaddled newborn love leave not-so-much-time for meal preparation.
We planned and cooked together as a team. Daughter-in-law, knowledgeable of her protein needs, prepared the meat or fish. Son stepped up to roast veggies on the grill. I offered carbohydrate rich side dishes and green leafy salads.
Leftovers were used creatively for other meals. A big batch of brown rice became the base for protein breakfasts of eggs on rice*. Two eggs cooked over easy then cut up into a bowl of rice with freshly chopped tomato on top nourished mama with easy effort.
Grilled eggplant, peppers, onions and mushrooms from the night before became a hearty side dish the next day when combined with whole-wheat penne, sautéed garlic, fresh spinach, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.
One night I made an old family favorite, Mujaddarah, a Lebanese lentil and rice casserole. The addition of chopped up bacon made it not purely vegetarian. It was smothered with slowly sautéed onions that make a delicious caramelized topping. Recipe here: People Who Pull the Magic Out of You
Extra lentils [the tiny green French kind] became the basis for another day’s cold salad with green onions, carrots, cucumber, parsley, and homemade vinaigrette.
The family food tradition I used every day and wish to pass on to my granddaughter is the simple 1-2-3 of dressing a salad. Any salad, any day, any time. With ingredients found in most kitchens.
So, with arms opened wide to embrace Leila Alisa into our family’s love, care, and nurturance, here is my wish:
May you grow up healthy and wise and become an interesting person. And may you always make your salad dressing from scratch.
a smile on my departure day
remembering the sweet baby smell
DEE DEE’s VINAIGRETTE DRESSING
Ingredients: Amounts will vary according to how large the salad, so all are approximations. Taste testing necessary. Stick your finger in and adjust.
Dijon mustard, if you have some [optional]
Good quality vinegar of choice [balsamic, wine or champagne]
Place a small amount of Dijon in the bottom of a bowl. [¼ to ½ tsp.]
Measure about 2-3 spoonfuls of vinegar over mustard. Add the garlic, seeds and basil, if using.
Sprinkle in S&P.
Then, very slowly, pour in a thin stream of olive oil, blending rapidly with a small spoon. There is no exact amount of oil. You simply taste with your finger and adjust proportions of vinegar to oil, as you prefer. Adjust salt.
Pour dressing over prepared greens and veggies. Toss together.
Grind of fresh pepper over all and serve.
Voilà! A lifetime of salads without bottled dressing.
A year ago I wrote a story about my favourite Colorado hometown café. It was titles A Mountain Gem for 70 Years.The owner, Rocky St. John, passed away right before Christmas. In tribute to her, I have revised my words and added additional photos. Her sons Ben and Joe, along with their father, are keeping the café open in her memory. She trained them well.
Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it’s easy to simply bypass this tiny town. But if you turn right onto the business spur, it’s probably because you know about Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe.
On a hillside halfway through town is a small green building with purple trim. Colorful buttons are mixed into the cement between slate stone steps climbing to the front porch. The main room has knotty pine walls and an antique potbelly stove, radiating warmth. Shelves are lined with an eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. Local artwork is for sale on the wall. Behind this quaint façade is a long history of food, friendly service, and loyal customer relationships.
It began in 1946 with a local character named Lil Lavicka. Known as the “Pie Lady”, Lil was famous for her homemade baked goods. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a two-room cafe across from her tiny home. Lil’s Pie House flourished for twenty summer seasons.
Then, after several changes of ownership, Meadow Mountain Cafe was born. Breakfast and lunch became the daily fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order. Coffee was hot–with a touch of cinnamon. Consistently good food, friendly service, and reasonable pricing enhanced its’ reputation beyond the boundaries of the small community. Locals and tourists line up for a table inside or on the covered porch, complete with hummingbirds, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil Lavicka’s seasonal pie house evolved into a legendary year-round cafe with returning customers who became friends.
Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t long before her cooking finesse and creativity nudged her into the kitchen full time. Rocky worked the grill for several female owners until finally, in 2007, she took over solo ownership. Already an established part of the ongoing success of Meadow Mountain, it was time to put her personal stamp on the place.
Rocky introduced two new house specialties–the veggie burger and the green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Cinnamon spiked coffee is still standard, of course. She chose the outside paint colors and easy-on-the-eye peach walls for the kitchen. The button-inlaid steps were designed and built for safer access in all weather conditions. An herb garden was planted out in back. Inside, the eclectic collection of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers [always part of her style] continued to grow. Her kitchen blasting music-of-choice ran along the lines of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food. You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back near the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen to say hello. At a corner table, friends sit and play cards after their meal. A man at the counter leans his chin into one hand and dozes, holding a coffee cup with the other.
Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread, thickly sliced for toast or sandwiches, is baked twice daily in summer to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of customers stepping through the door to the din of country or rock-n-roll music pouring out of the kitchen. Conversation and laughter is spiced with the clatter of plates and silverware as tables empty and fill.
beaded tapestry made by a friend of Rocky’s
What sustains this kind of success in a town of just over 500 people? Rocky, along with the women before her, crafted a timeless formula. It begins with an old-fashioned hard work ethic. It’s maintained by keeping quality high, service friendly, and community relationships strong. Rocky was passionate about what she did and consistently did it very well. And then, just maybe, that hint of cinnamon in the coffee didn’t hurt either.
Rocky St. John, 1960-2015
new step up to the cafe
Rocky was a well-known and well-loved figure in the Estes Valley community. Meadow Mountain will continue to flourish in her memory. After a 70-year legacy of female owners [since 1946], the cafe will now operate under the expertise of Dan, Ben, and Joe St. John. In Ben’s words, “We have been well-trained.” Indeed.
And the rest of us will continue to be there to support them.
Secret eating is seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible they’ve never experienced this solitary pleasure.
The desire to eat unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you do surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.
A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It came from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she went to the market by herself. She bought a huge watermelon with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Including the seeds. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure.
M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place one frigid winter when she and her husband lived in an unheated walkup apartment in Strasbourg, France. They were depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows and heat.
Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in her Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing all the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.
There was a long lunch when Al returned and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter on the dresser before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.
For the rest of the afternoon, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each orange morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home from school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way.
Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that others with “secret eatings of their own” would somehow understand.
I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, I traveled by myself to Strasbourg on a train from Frankfurt. Next to Place Gutenberg is a small hotel where I stayed in a room under the roof. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window. The bathroom was at the top of an open staircase right under the peak.
That February was bitterly cold.
I bought a bag of small clementines, peeled them into sections, and laid them on a piece of hotel stationery on top of the radiator. Then I went out to explore.
When I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. It made me happy.
Several years later, a new secret eating ritual started during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national food chain. I watched her fill a bag with flattened, dull-colored, brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. They were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.
The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, that road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and pliable. Careful considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. I had to chew slowly, without hurrying, before it was ready to swallow. I had to pay attention.
The degree of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.
Now when I feel the urge, I go to the hiding place in the kitchen and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment overlooking the vine-laden courtyard where I never tire of the view.
If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.
Or, I might decide to stand in the street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.
My secret eating is something I try to keep to myself. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s simply a meditative time-out, or a few private minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, or a satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month.
There must be someone out there who understands what I mean…
My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle for the first time when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin Cal, who turns 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food or by his appetites.
Shortly after my first story was published Joan wrote, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from his mother is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from you.”
I have never eaten creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of comfort food.
Comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]
There is no single explanation for how our food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness or happiness can trigger a taste memory of longing or loathing.
Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.
For example, he is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime something special–Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered in nuts. This is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Trying to visualize this, I’m certain I couldn’t eat it.
He also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window.Now he enjoys a simpler pudding.”
In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and mushy canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many childhood meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and hoping not to get caught.
My food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas to Singapore in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.
Life became a tasting/eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls in heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.
As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot] who suffered from a “nervous condition” consisting of some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. She also wasn’t much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. It was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans that contained cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The casserole was baked in the oven until warm. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it.
Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left and later sent an email, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.”
You have to love a man who softens when sweets are offered.
I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the usual gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures and my Latvian daughter-in-law offered more variety in their comfort food desires.
It was our friend Alec [who is part comedian] that gave the most graphic descriptor:
“My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.”
My cousin Cal and I will never share the same food preferences. Nor should we. The important thing is that Cal and I are connected by the way our comfort food choices make us feel–enjoyably nourished, emotionally content, and loved.
Two recipes for opposing tastes, one sweet and bland and one well seasoned.
CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING
1/3 c. granulated white sugar
3 T. minute tapioca
2 ¾ C. milk
1 egg beaten
1 t. vanilla extract
Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.
Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. It is situated within the Roosevelt National Forest and surrounded by mountains of the Front Range Colorado Rockies. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it would be easy to bypass the business spur and keep descending the mountain.
But if you do make the right hand turn into Allenspark, it’s probably because you know about an historic hillside landmark halfway through town–Meadow Mountain Café.
On the outside, it is painted green with purple trim. There is always a line up of cars parked below. An assortment of buttons are mixed into the cement and stone steps that you climb to the front porch.
Inside, the main room has original knotty pine walls and a working potbelly stove for heat. Hand colored photographs by a local artist are displayed for sale.
An eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers line the walls.
Behind this quirky façade, there is a long history of food and relationships that began in 1946, with a local character named Lil Lavicka.
Lil was known as the “pie lady”. As part of a divorce settlement her husband hastily built a small two-room café where she could sell her baked goods. On this hilly spot, in tiny Allenspark, her pie house flourished for twenty summer seasons. It was just a stone’s throw across the street from a small house where she lived into her 90’s.
Several changes of ownership and some 30 years later, Lil’s place was renamed Meadow Mountain Café. The menu became daily breakfast and lunch fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order, the coffee hot, with a hint of cinnamon. Consistently delicious food, friendly servers and reasonable pricing enhanced its reputation within the small community and radiated beyond. Locals and tourists began lining up for a table inside, or on the covered porch with hummingbird feeders, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil’s seasonal pie house evolved into an Allenspark landmark with regularly returning customers, who eventually became friends.
Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain in the late 1970s. Almost right away she was moved into the kitchen and continued to work the grill after two other women purchased it in the 1980s. Rocky finally took over solo ownership in 2007. It was time to put her personal stamp on the place.
Rocky is responsible for introducing the veggie burger and the incredible green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Both became specialties of the house. Cinnamon spiked coffee remains standard, of course.
She chose the current paint colors, including easy-on-the-eye peach walls in the kitchen and built the button inlaid steps for safer access in all weather conditions. The funky array of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers were always part of her style. The music that blasts from the kitchen is pure country western or rock-n-roll oldies. Son Joe mans the grill, daughter Alicia works the front, and husband, Danny, does whatever needs doing. It’s a full family operation, year round, with added help in summer. On Tuesdays, they take one day of rest.
We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. I go by myself, with family, or with friends, usually for breakfast, sometimes lunch. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food.
You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back sitting at the counter by the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book, or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen looking for Rocky and to say hello. A table of friends play cards in the corner after their meal. At the other counter, a man leans his chin into one hand, and dozes, holding his coffee cup with the other.
Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread is sliced thickly for toast or sandwiches. Summer requires twice-a-day baking to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of people stepping through the front door to the din of kitchen music, mingled conversations and laughter, and the clatter of clearing plates as another table empties and fills. It always feels just right. You are glad to be hungry and in Allenspark.
What sustains 70 years of successful continuity in a community of just over 500 people? Rocky, and the female owners before her, perfected a simple yet timeless formula. Starting with an old-fashioned hard work ethic, they stay passionate about what they do and consistently do it very well. Quality is always high, service friendly, and customer relationships strong. And then, just maybe, a little hint of cinnamon in the coffee doesn’t hurt either.
I hope you have your own gem of a hometown café–a place with honest food, ambience, and feeling of community–where you seek to be nurtured over and over again.
In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.
A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with geography and longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.
Twenty-some years ago I was immersed in the writings of M.F.K. [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. She weaves autobiographical stories of people, places, and food into descriptive prose. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches caught my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life lessons are inseparable from a strong adult mentor.
When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained,
“…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”
With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister Anne hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. There was always an egg sandwich or two carefully tucked into their pockets.
In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it. —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970
What I love about this story is that it speaks of satisfaction beyond physical hunger. Fisher was learning, as a child, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment was a metaphor for living well. The ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.
There are no cliffs overlooking an ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife are our spiritual geography. When home in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. A tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.
Aunt Gwen’s recipe was well documented. It started by heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart.
As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our version.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH
Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply
Eggs, preferably brown and free range
Jalapeño jack cheese or cheese of choice
Toasted English muffins or good brown bread
Salsa or fresh tomato slices
Fresh spinach or some kind of leafy green
Avocado slices or guacamole, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Additional red pepper flakes as desired
Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Camaraderie shared. A new day begins.
Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea is good accompaniment.
Traditions are important to children as they grow up. Aunt Gwen’s ritualized hiking and singing and eating egg sandwiches at sunset on a beach created a symbolic tradition, which in turn mentored a young girl that living well and eating well are intertwined.
All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.—MFK Fisher, Among Friends