Carolina On My Mind

There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it. It goes, and what remains are memories. But these memories of food are very powerful. –Jacques Pepin

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. –John Leonard

These quotes remind me of the last time I visited my friend Gail in the mountains of North Carolina. Gail is my longest “go to” friend. We met at age 16 when my family moved to a small town in Iowa along the Mississippi River. She balances my analytic nature with kindness and consideration toward everyone. She is intuitive and listens like a compassionate counselor. She knows my eccentricities and loves me anyway. When I was undergoing medical treatments and the rest of my family was overseas, she jumped in to help by coming to Colorado and be with me. We laugh easily and know each other’s stories. Even when too much time has passed, there is immediate ease when re-engaging in each other’s lives. Although we don’t share the same blood, she is my sister too.

sister girlfriends

We didn’t know it at the time we became friends as teenagers but that is when we began living the concept of “growing an old friend”. We were unwavering through the high school years, the university years, summer jobs in the Wisconsin north woods, a western road trip at 21, marriages one week apart, children, and now grandchildren. We haven’t lived near each other for a long time, but we talk on the phone or visit back and forth in our respective states of Colorado and North Carolina as often as we can.

When we were 20, Gail and I worked one summer at a camp for girls on a lake in northern Wisconsin. It was the same year that she introduced me to the man I would marry three years later. She loyally returned from her honeymoon to stand next to me in our wedding one week after I had been a bridesmaid in hers. With husbands, our friendship grew as couples.

The last time I was in North Carolina we spent the entire visit in the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Leatherwood rather than in the city. It was early August and humidly warm in the mountains. Low bluish clouds formed a canopy over and around the green mountains across the valley. It’s a mystical and captivating way to greet each morning. And such contrast to Colorado’s high rocky peaks, golden aspens, and dry mountain air. 

The food recollections from that visit are so clear. Gail made a pre-dinner apéro by muddling very ripe peaches in the bottom of a glass then poured Vino Verde [a light Portuguese sparkling white wine] over the top. Along with the wine were appetizers of pickled okra [very southern] and small slices of Manchego cheese. Manchego is a firm sheep’s milk cheese with buttery texture and mild taste. It was a perfect combination. The company, the light food, the ambience.

There was one quirky but memorable cocktail hour involving neighbors who invited us to their home. Burdette, a retired architect, 90 years-old, wanted to prepare his own version of “The World’s Best Martini”. Gail’s husband is a bourbon man and politely declined. But the three women–Gail, her sister, and I agreed to try. There was much ceremony involved in the preparation of glasses, the assembly of ingredients, the shaking of equal parts of vodka, gin, AND vermouth. Only one olive allowed per glass. We sipped. It was okay, but what I appreciated most was the Rumford fireplace–a tall, shallow, masonry fireplace of European design. They had added a swinging black pot apparatus to cook soup or stew over the open fire. It seemed romantically retro, but I could see myself sitting by a fire that way.  

When in Carolina do as the locals do. Or drink as the locals drink. In many southern states, this means bourbon. Craig, Gail’s husband, is a quintessential bourbon guy. He has his own version of an Old Fashioned. The only time I drink bourbon whiskey is when he makes this for me. A slice of orange, some Bada Bing cherries, two shots of good bourbon, fill with club soda and ice. His daily bourbon is Maker’s Mark. For splurging, he reaches for Jefferson’s Ocean or Woodford’s Reserve to sip over ice.

pickled okra appetizer, glass of white, Craig’s bourbon special

The best meal was something new to me. Shredded beef brisket with a smoky homemade sauce. Cooked long and slow in the oven and served as a main course with side dishes of cornbread, beans, and salad–the epitome of southern cuisine. Perfect for guests and great leftovers. 

Each day was full–with morning walks before the heat rose to a crescendo, a side trip to Blowing Rock’s boutique shops, outdoor showers with wide-angle valley views, picnic lunch in a park, and noisy Jenga games ending with blocks crashing to the floor amid cries of “Oh no!” and laughter.

showering with that incredible view!

The Carolina mountains have been on my mind recently for a particular reason. Several seasons have passed and now it feels like time to return. To a different climate and different scenery. To those lower, greener hills, and humid misty clouds. To friends who make a difference in my life when we are together and even when we are not.

Jacques Pepin is right about the fleeting nature of food. You make it. It goes. What remains, what is truly powerful, is when we nourish our lives with memories of food in a spectacular setting, in a meal around a table, and taking time to grow the very best of friends. 



GAIL’S BEEF BRISKET

Brisket is a tough cut of beef that must be tenderized by long, slow cooking. I adjusted the recipe for high altitude as most food takes longer to cook at 8300 feet where we live. My edits are in parentheses. The secret to this recipe is the sauce. Shredding the cooked brisket rather than slicing it eliminates the fat layer, leaving only the lean.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 5-6 lb brisket  [I have used smaller] 
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Liquid Smoke

Place brisket in baking dish with fat side up. Rub salt and pepper and liquid smoke onto both sides of meat. Cover with foil and seal edges of pan. Marinate 12 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

NEXT DAY:

  • Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. 
  • Place sealed baking dish in oven for 5 hours. 
  • [Better than timing is to test with a meat thermometer as it will take 2 or more hours longer at higher altitudes. Internal temperature should reach 200 degrees F.]
  • When meat is tender and done, take two forks and shred onto a serving platter. 
  • Discard the fat layer.
  • Pour sauce over or serve in a pitcher, on the side.
  • Serve brisket on buns or as a main course with side dishes.
  • Leftovers are easily reheated and just as delish.

FOR THE SAUCE:

  • 2 C. catsup
  • ½ C. water
  • 3 T. Liquid Smoke
  • 4 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 8 T. butter
  • 3 T. brown sugar
  • 3 t. dry mustard
  • 2 t. celery seed
  • ¼ to ½ t. cayenne pepper

In a saucepan, slowly heat all ingredients together while stirring.


Mussel Memory

IMG_1072
Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.

For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.

In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.

I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.

A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.

Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.

IMG_1036
side by side friteries
IMG_1041
sauce choices
IMG_1049
cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce

While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.

Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.

My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.

In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” m.f.k. fisher

Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”

And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…m.f.k. fisher

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.

In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.

IMG_3511
waffles plus
IMG_1062
waffles loaded

On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

IMG_1034

The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.

IMG_3526
the best modules-frites in brussels

September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.

IMG_3535

They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.

IMG_3541

The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

IMG_1028
two ways to eat: using shell as utensil
IMG_1031
or fork

The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.

IMG_3560

Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.

“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher

Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’est très bon.