Subcultures are made up of people who share a passion about a specific interest that is often stereotyped. Hippies, bikers, skate boarders, NASCAR racers, bird watchers, body builders, punk rockers, break dancers, to name a few. Recently, I learned about an American subculture that has been around since 1992 but escaped my attention for a couple of reasons–geography and interest.
We were living in Cyprus and Taiwan in the 1990s, and I was involved in learning quirky details about other cultures rather than paying attention to what was going on in my home country. Also, the subculture I recently witnessed in California was about 180 degrees outside of my normal interests. Possibly because it involves five and six-ton vehicles doing impossible tricks–jumping in the air, spinning donuts, flipping over, standing on two wheels, and racing in circles. It is a competitive spectator sport of huge trucks with notorious names and drivers. This is Monster Jam.
While visiting a four-year-old grandson who is obsessed with cars, trucks, and trains–basically anything with rotating wheels, I was notified by his father that we would be attending a Monster Jam rally with the entire family on Sunday afternoon. I watched a YouTube video that told me, “If you don’t know what Monster Jam is, you are a certified city slicker.”
Monster Jam is a live motorsport event under the auspices of U.S. Hot Rod Association, based primarily in North America. The Monster Truck series is the longest running and most successful competition of big trucks in the last 30 years.
Monster Trucks are special off-road vehicles with heavy duty suspension, 4-wheel steering, and oversized tires. The tires are a monstrous 66 inches tall and 43 inches across. Each truck is built like “an engineered fighter jet airplane” but only used for competitive entertainment. They cost $250,000.
The drivers work on teams, performing in seasonal rallies that tour the U.S. with famously known and named vehicles–Grave Digger, Son-uva Digger, Zombie, Whiplash, El Toro Loco, Megalodon, or Jurassic Attack. Currently, there are 14 female Monster Truck drivers in a predominantly male circuit. All driving teams are salaried and receive no prize money.
Monster Jam is one of the safer driving sports. Drivers are protected from head to toe in custom-made fire-resistant suits, helmets, and gloves. They are completely strapped in with head, neck, and body support. When a truck flips upside down or catches fire, most drivers walk away unscathed.
It’s very LOUD when turbo-charged engines rev up and grind away in competitive stunts for several hours. Grandchildren six-year-old Leila and four-year-old Archie wore protective headsets with flashing lights over their ears. We stuffed orange and white foam plugs tightly into each ear canal. The arena was packed with fans of all shapes and sizes, ages, and genders, defying stereotypes. Families, couples, and singles gathered for the same purpose, waiting for their favorite Monster truck to take center stage and perform.
And so, the show began.
Exactly on starting time, overhead lights dimmed. Multiple Monster trucks vroomed into the stadium flashing headlights, painted in bold designs. The first competition was racing around in a circle. Followed by the Two-Wheel event where each truck has two attempts to show their strongest skills on two wheels, either front or back. Drivers could choose to spin in a whirlwind of donut dust as an alternative in this category. The final competition was Freestyle, where trucks showcase any, or all, of their abilities in timed competition from ramp jumps and diving, flips, or wheelies.
Like any subculture, Monster Jam has its own vocabulary. Cyclones are high speed donuts. Doing an endo is not cool. This is where the truck does a front-end rollover and crashes. Pagos are good and applauded loudly. It means doing a wheelie and bouncing forward on the rear tires. In contrast, riding the wave is bouncing up and down while standing precariously on the front tires. The hot shoe is the top driver who scores the most points overall. Grave Digger driver, of course.
During our show, the lone female driver attempted a flip…but failed. The indoor venue was a bit small for this maneuver, but she was the only one who tried. Then had to be rescued from sitting on her head by a massive crane that re-righted her machine. She emerged smiling and waving to the cheering crowd. And won the Freestyle event.
It’s a formula that works and has gained popularity over the decades. For adult spectators, large-can beer drinking is involved. For children, sticky blue and pink cotton candy from a bag is preferred. For any age, heavily breaded chicken nuggets and french fries smothered in ketchup. American dining not at its finest. But this is Monster Jam!
We said “yes” to it all and were caught in the uplifting atmosphere of a new experience. It was about participating in the enjoyment of a boy who knows the names of all the big trucks and has a fine collection of them at home. He owns this subculture, for now.
Here’s to boys and girls everywhere who love to push, [even across the street on the way to breakfast] or drive, big wheels that go around and around and sometimes even upside down.
Monster Jam. Know what it is. Don’t be a city slicker.
Walking down a street off the square in Taos, New Mexico, I noticed an adobe building with a colorful door set back off the sidewalk. The name, El Rincón, caught my eye because a friend in Colorado had mentioned buying interesting turquoise jewelry there. Opening the bright blue painted door, I didn’t immediately realize I was entering the domain of a family saga that began more than 100 years ago. But I would soon learn that the maverick who started it all was named Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers.
On that afternoon, Estevan Castillo, grandson of Ralph Meyers, greeted me from behind an antique display cabinet. Estevan has dark, curly, gray-flecked-hair and a gentle, soft spoken demeanor. He is a musician, a talented silversmith jeweler, and the owner of El Rincón, known as the oldest trading post in Taos. More importantly, he is “Contador de historias”, the teller and keeper of family stories.
Old wooden display cases with deeply scratched glass countertops drew me in right away. Some were filled with vintage “pawn” turquoise and silver. My appreciation for one-of-a-kind jewelry art has roots in a small cottage business I started when we lived overseas. For several years, I designed and sold ethnic necklaces and earrings made from beads, stones, and silver collected around the world.
Questions to Estevan were answered with stories. About bead strands collected and worn by his grandmother Rowena Meyers, artifacts made by Indians in his grandfather’s time, a photo of Estevan in the shop as a boy cutting holes in silver beads, one of his grandmother’s buckskin dresses hanging on the wall. I wanted to know more.
El Rincón first opened as the Mission Shop, an Indian curio store started by Ralph Meyers in the early part of the last century. Now it spans three generations. The evolution and survival of the oldest trading post in Taos is as remarkable as the museum quality Native American art and artifacts Meyers traded and sold. Some of his collections are now in the Smithsonian and Guggenheim Museums.
The history begins with a curious young man’s all-consuming passion to live his life in the “old west” of more than 100 years ago. And his desire to paint pictures of Indians. The saga is best divided in two parts–during and after the life of Ralph Meyers.
PART ONE–The Ralph Meyers Years
Born in 1885, Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers grew up in Denver, Colorado. He was a disinterested student and dropped out of school after third grade. But he was an avid learner with keen listening skills. He hung onto stories told by “old timers” of his era. Stories of Indians and rugged geographic beauty and remote life in the west. Even without formal art training, he wanted to make paintings of Indians in their environment. He talked easily, to anyone, which made him adept at turning relationships into friendships. And so, with a head full of stories, good communication skills, and an innate ability to teach himself anything, Meyers took off for rural New Mexico.
He worked as a fire guard for one year with the U.S. Forestry Service, stationed near Blue Lake, north of Taos. Blue Lake is sacred ceremonial ground for the Taos Pueblo Indians, worshiped as the source of life for the irrigation of their land. [See *End Notes]
Meyers lived a hermit’s life that year, but he connected personally with the Pueblo people and began trading with them. After several years of collecting Indian artifacts throughout the west and southwest he settled permanently in Taos, and the Mission Shop trading post opened for business.
Ralph Meyers was an outlier. He was the first white man to make social and professional relationships with the secluded Pueblo-dwelling Indians around Taos. Initially, the trading post highlighted Native American pottery, rugs, jewelry, baskets, buckskin, moccasins, and ceremonial beadwork. Then, as a self-taught oil painter, Meyers began displaying his own work. He was part of the emerging artist colony of Taos in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other creative people arrived–painters, photographers, and writers. Many were captivated by the beauty of the landscape, the simple unhurried pace of life, and they stayed.
He was drawn into the close circle of friends that wealthy New York art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan brought to the area–painter Georgia O’Keefe, writer D.H. Lawrence, photographer Ansel Adams, heiress and jewelry designer Millicent Rogers, Russian emigré and portrait painter Nicolai Fechin. Hollywood actors, musicians, and other artists cycled through Taos. Ralph Meyers knew them all. His ability to sustain trusted friendships across Indian and Spanish-American cultures, socio-economic status, gender, and notoriety contributed to his stature as a leading citizen.
Ralph Meyers was a mountain guide, business entrepreneur, and a Renaissance man of his generation. By observing other artists, he taught himself to oil paint. He learned to be a skilled silversmith, made his own tools, and created beautiful jewelry. He took up furniture making and wood carving in the Spanish colonial style. He taught himself leather working and beading. He learned to spin, dye, and weave wool blankets in the traditional ways. He trained and hired Indians to make jewelry, hand-bead moccasins, buckskin garments, and ceremonial ornaments in his shop. They were paid fair market prices which further engendered loyalty.
Then came family life. Rowena Matteson, born in Pennsylvania in 1909, moved to the Taos area as a child. She was engaged to an employee in The Mission Shop while she was a teenager. That relationship faded and another bloomed. Rowena married Ralph Meyers in 1933. He was 48. She was 24. Two children were born. Daughter Nina and son Ouray became artist/painters.
A rattlesnake bite through his thumbnail was the beginning of Meyers’ demise. He saw what he thought was a dead snake hanging in a tree and began swinging it around to entertain friends. It doubled back and bit him. There was no anti-venom treatment. After a debilitating infection and illness he died in 1948 at the age of 63.
For more than 36 years Ralph Meyers was a trusted icon in Taos and Pueblo communities. He was introspective with an extrovert’s personality. He had demons too. Mainly alcohol, which fueled angry and sometimes destructive behavior. One night, under the influence of whiskey, he took 30 of his paintings and set them on fire.
He loved his children but was self-absorbed by an extreme need to create or build or paint something every day. He was not remembered as a nurturing father. Rowena filled the gap.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers was an unconventional man who loved Native American culture as an outsider but found his way inside the New Mexican Pueblo community. An original western icon who listened, learned, and bridged cultures with a legacy lasting long after a snake bite.
PART TWO–The Mission Shop becomes El Rincón
After Meyers’ death, Rowena closed the trading post, moved away, and leased the space to The Taos Bookshop for the next twenty years.
She returned in 1970, in a second marriage with another son, and moved into a house behind The Taos Bookshop. There she opened El Rincón [“the hidden corner”, in Spanish] to showcase jewelry, costumes, and artifacts acquired from continued trading. When the bookstore owners vacated the trading post building, Rowena moved back into the larger space and added a museum. The name El Rincón remained.
Eventually Rowena’s home became La Doña Luz Inn, a bed and breakfast started with daughter Nina in 1985. The building has been extensively renovated with new additions designed and built by Paco Castillo, Nina’s middle son. When Nina died in 2007, La Doña Luz became Paco’s inheritance. Nina’s vivid paintings can be seen throughout the inn in the form of colorful folk art kitchen cabinets, bathroom murals, and kiva fireplace surrounds. It’s a lovely historic building, rich in family art and creativity.
Oldest son of Nina, Miguel Castillo, owns part of Ralph and Rowena’s original homestead attached to the trading post. The front rooms were once a restaurant, also called La Doña Luz. With Ralph serving as chef, their dinner parties with other artists and guests were legendary and raucous, lasting long into the night. Now renovated, these rooms and former living quarters house boutique shops.
When I first walked into El Rincón, it felt like living history in every direction. There were relics and heirlooms and stories everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, tacked to the walls, or loaded into display cases. Shelves with dusty pottery and baskets. Concho belts, bolo ties, strings of beads, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings, vintage and new silver and turquoise. A back room piled with artifacts, too many to absorb.
Over my several visits to Taos, Estevan has been a generous “Contador” of his family’s stories. Often, we talked in his workshop where strong natural light pours in the big windows with a view toward his brother’s Inn. Jewelry making tools, silver, stones, and unfinished projects cover the workbench. There are cans and containers of beads and silver lining a high shelf along one wall.
Estevan Castillo is a nostalgic man. He remembers Rowena sitting on her chair in the late afternoon talking to Indian traders and customers while sipping a beer. He knew that his mother Nina was driven by a consuming need to paint every day. Just like her father. He is proud of the history and contributions of the ancestors who preceded him. He understands artistry, creation, and relationships founded on trust. Estevan knows devastation from tragic accidental deaths of his uncle and cousins. He has lived the bittersweet blessings of caretaking his grandmother and mother as they faded and died.
Today, Estevan preserves the legacy that began in the Mission Shop and continues in El Rincón. His stories are vivid. And like the grandfather he never knew, he can talk to anyone. In the worn adobe walls, darkly stained wooden beams, and eclectic collection of artifacts there are layers on layers of stories. Ask a question or wonder about Taos history and the oldest trading post from 100+ years ago, then be ready for where Estevan’s stories take you.
Facts About the Taos Pueblo
Taos means “Place of Red Willows” and the Indians of the Taos Pueblo are the Red Willow People, from the pre-Hispanic period in north America. There are 19 Pueblo communities in New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo is the only Native American community designated both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a National Historic Landmark.
Taos Pueblo is north of the town of Taos, located under Pueblo Peak [12,300 ft. elevation] in the Taos Mountain Range, which is part of the North American Rocky Mountains, specifically the Southern Rockies in the Sangre de Cristo Range. A tributary of the Rio Grande River runs through the property and provides running water and irrigation.
The multi-storied adobe dwellings [made of mud, clay, water, and straw] of the Taos Pueblo are unique to this geography and have been inhabited for more than 1000 years, due to a determined Native American community. It is the only World Heritage site cited for its significance as a living Native American culture.
There is no inside running water or electricity in the Pueblo. In the beginning, the dwellings had no windows or doors and were entered by climbing a long ladder through a hole in the roof. That has changed. Most residents live outside of the walls for much of the year. They return for sacred ceremonies and for tourism before Covid 19 arrived. The Pueblo has been closed for two years and there is no current plan to re-open.
Preservation of the buildings is a priority for trained community members. The sun-dried mud brick is annually restored with a new coat of adobe plaster using both traditional and modern construction techniques. This occurs as part of a tribal ceremony.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a law returning 48,000 acres to the Pueblo Indians. This included Blue Lake, where Ralph Meyers was once a fire ranger. It was worshipped as a water source, is sacred land, and off limits to outsiders. The law provided a new safeguard to the water supply, natural resources, and the welfare of the Pueblo. The land is now secure for all social and cultural events.
A guest is good or bad because of the host who makes being a guest an easy or a difficult task. –Eleanor Roosevelt
When I was a child, there was a book called Miss Jellytot’s Visit that formed my first impression of what it means to be both a host and a guest. Nine-year-old Katie O’Dea watched her mother host college friend, Irene, in the guest room of their home. The bed was made up with the best linens and quilts in the house. There were big, soft feathery pillows in pink pillowcases that you could sink back into, and a rose on the bedside table. The towels were fluffy and white in the spotless bathroom. Their guest was served breakfast in bed on a tray with another rose alongside. There was an assortment of magazines and books to peruse in lounging leisure.
Katie dreamed of being a guest in her own house, staying in that comfortable room with nothing to do but dress up in fancy clothing, wear French perfume, and be waited on like “Aunt Rene”. With her parents’ indulgence, she arrives as a “visitor” from out of town, calling herself Miss Jellytot because that was the name of her favorite cookies. Everyone stayed in their assigned roles. Katie was treated like an adult the entire visit.
Of course, there were problems with all of this. The first was that Aunt Rene stayed for two weeks and never lifted a finger as she had come “to rest and relax.” Mrs. O’Dea was not sorry to see her friend leave on the train. The second was that Katie learned being a grown-up meant missing pleasurable childhood activities like playing outside with friends, going to swim parties, or getting a new puppy. She couldn’t wait to end her “visit” after six days and be a kid again. Lessons: Don’t jump into adulthood when you haven’t finished the fun of being a child. And don’t overstay.
The story left me with “how-tos” carried into my own adult life. As a guest in someone else’s home, I stay no more than three days, with exceptions for family birthings or need-to-help home stays. I also like to set up a room for overnight guests in my home that is cozy and welcoming and well-outfitted. A room that I would enjoy spending time in, too.
In early December, a cousin’s memorial service created the need to travel to St. Louis while I was already out of town for another event. My niece, Rebecca, has a large home with a guest bedroom and bath separate from the family’s living space. It was mine for the weekend. I flew in from across the country on a blustery wet night, rented a car and drove to her house knowing that everyone was out for the evening.
It couldn’t have been a better welcoming. I was warmed to my soul. Shrugging off coat in the back door entry, I smelled something delicious. Christmas lights and decorations were twinkling in every room. There was soft music coming from a speaker in the kitchen. Simmering on the stove was a pot of homemade chicken soup. There was a place setting on the counter next to a fresh baguette, butter, and a note inviting me to help myself.
I sighed gratefully and headed for the bedroom. Lights were on, a little gift in a colorful bag was on the bedside table next to a carafe of water. White towels were folded on the chair by the window. The bed was layered with white quilts, comforters, and billowy pillows.
Back in the kitchen, I poured a glass of wine, served myself a bowl of soup with bread and butter on the side, and said aloud, “This woman gets it.”
Hosting overnight guests involves providing for them in surprising and generous ways, going out of your way to roll out the welcome mat, even if you aren’t there to open the door. My niece checked all those boxes.
Rebecca is an interior decorator and organizer extraordinaire in her home and for her clients.
On a previous visit I noticed an opportunity where I could be of help. There is a small, temperature-controlled wine room in the basement. I had seen bottles of red and white and bubbly of differing vintages and values pushed randomly into wine slots. There were shelves a-jumble with gifted booze never opened and never intending to be drunk, gift bags strewn on the floor. If trying to find something special to serve and drink, well, there was no order.
My offer–to sit with her [and a charcuterie plate and two glasses of wine], pull everything off the shelves, put like vintages together, separate great bottles from the good and the cooking variety, use the label maker, toss out or give away questionable items like Ever Clear [!], horrible flavors of vodka, and other unidentifiable poisons. We set aside whisky that I might drink on another visit. She was thrilled. I was happy to spend time in a companionable activity in return for her hospitality. Win-win, like a thank you note in action.
Guest: Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with. –Seth Godin
Hosting at home can also be a celebratory party, a dinner, an outside barbecue. The host sets the stage while guests bring their exuberant mood, conversational banter, and best engaging self to round out the table. The most memorable get-togethers with family or friends have free-flowing discussions, storytelling, perhaps some soul searching, and laughter.
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…
–Gabrielle Hamilton,chef and author
We have a friend who masterfully slips in what he calls “the provocation” during dinner parties and casual social gatherings. It’s not confrontational and participation is optional. It’s a conversational attention grabber along the lines of “Who was an important influence in your life?” or “What is something that changed the direction of your life?” or “Have you experienced anything scientifically unexplainable, something paranormal?” Everyone chimes in because it adds another dimension to what we know about people we care about, and isn’t that why we get together in the first place? Adding detail, bridging thoughts and ideas with content, creating connection.
One more thing about being a good host and an even better guest. After years of inviting people to our home in Colorado, and for many years overseas, I have learned to enjoy late hours clean-up after the candles are snuffed and guests have cheerily said, “Good Night”. I like putting the kitchen back in order by myself or with my husband and thinking about the best parts of the evening. Again, from Gabrielle Hamilton:
I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested…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…
Yes, it is.
Rebecca uses bamboo sheet sets from Cozy Earth. They live up to the advertising “sleeping on a cloud”. www.cozyearth.com
Gabrielle Hamilton wrote the memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. Her writing voice is very engaging. She also owned and cooked at Prune Restaurant in East Village, NYC until the first Covid shutdowns in 2020. She contributes occasional articles to the NY Times.
For additional stories, international anecdotes, and photos about hosts and guests there is this: The Grown-Up Table.
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 being 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.
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 their living room 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’sReserve to sip over ice.
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.
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.
5-6 lb brisket [I have used smaller]
Salt and Pepper
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.
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.
One of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quotes is this: Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. To this I would add another companion comparison from my own recent experience: children and ice cream.
In 1686, the first café in Paris, Le Procope, opened in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with a Sicilian chef at the helm. His recipe of milk, cream, butter and eggs, an early Italian gelato, made ice cream available to the general public for the first time. For centuries it had only been enjoyed by the aristocracy. Over in America, it wasn’t until 1790 that an ice cream parlor opened in New York. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were known to have an affinity for this creamy icy treat. Ice cream’s reign as an indelible taste of summer is in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps children most of all.
When I was growing up, the seasonal ice cream truck rang its bell through the streets of our neighborhood in St. Louis once or twice a week every June, July, and August. Parents doled out pocket change. We shouted and ran to the ice cream man who opened his portable freezer filled with drumstick cones or chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on a stick or ice cream sandwiches. It was a race to eat as fast as possible in the heat and humidity while trying not to lose precious drips on the way home. There was usually some kind of messy “plop” on the sidewalk which was left for the ants.
There are, of course, other foods typically consumed in the summer besides ice cream. Fresh corn-on-the-cob or s’mores made around a campfire are two of them. Food happiness, measured individually by expression, is certain to occur when delicious things are eaten by young children for the first time.
In April, we drove across two states to care for a two-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter and her eleven-month-old brother while their tired parents flew somewhere else for adult R & R. We brushed off muscle memory around the heavy lifting required with infants and toddlers. By the third day, it was time for a change of scenery away from the house, backyard, and front porch. Some kind of field trip.
Because of the previous fifteen months of shutdown life during Covid, I thought an outing for ice cream might be just the thing for young and unsuspecting palates. Also, it could be accomplished outdoors on a warmish spring day.
With the 2-year-old, things began with the anticipation of a drive somewhere new. There was curiosity to stand at a window, place an order, and be held up to see what was going on inside. There was eagerness when a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in rainbow sprinkles was handed through the window. There was barely contained excitement while carrying it to a red iron bench and sitting down with a spoon and her own multi-colored delight.
While husband fed tiny tastes of ice cream to infant brother, the independent “I-dood-it-myself” girl spooned one transformative bite into her mouth. After one or two more she discovered a faster method.
It was the hand-to-mouth-vacuum-cleaner-technique. Her eyes narrowed momentarily as the heady sensation of cold and sweet sank in. Both hands tipped the cup to vertical maximum.
There was a moment of selfish possessiveness as she huffily pulled away from brother’s outreaching hand. Letting the remainder of the icy creamy semi-liquid slide into her mouth, she paused to consider what had just happened. Then, with a smug and satisfied grin, what was left was an empty container and face, hands, and clothes covered in sticky.
The success of the outing was summed up in one final moment. It was the kind of moment that captures the best part of kids and ice cream. With a timely click of the camera, a small girl was framed in a spontaneous second of joy…and ice cream bliss.
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 then 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 in our home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One 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 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 feel 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 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 one way or another.
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. It 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 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 HOTEL MARTINI
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 or The Botanist Gin
1 shot white Lillet
Garnish with minimum of 3 green olives
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 [or apples].
It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.
GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]
1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
Grated mix of meltable cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
Thick sliced bacon, if desired, or use crisp apple in thinly sliced wedges
Fresh baby spinach
4 slices hearty bread such as rye or 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. For a meatless version substitute very thin slices of raw apple for the bacon.
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.
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!
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 other athletic directors around the country. 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 serve with drinks before dinner. 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 the benefits.
Pickled beans can be eaten as a low calorie snack or as a garnish to any food where pickles are used [as in neighbor Barbara’s hamburgers!]. They can be added to drinks such as Bloody Marys or martinis in lieu of olives. 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.
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.
“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” These words, written long ago by M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992], speak of the chemistry that occurs with the right combination of people, place and food–a communal spirit shared around the table with family or friends. Bread and wine are not the only catalysts. It can happen around a pot of egg coffee, too.
Three weeks ago we reconnected with a group of people we have known for many years but not seen in a long time. It was one of those bittersweet reunions–gathering to celebrate the life of a friend who passed away. And, at the same time, seeing others with whom we had shared great moments in the past. The weekend was one of those memory jolts when you re-encounter special friendships after losing touch with them. It’s easy to catch up because what you loved about them before is still there.
For several years in early marriage, we made repeated visits to a stone farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the family home of Dale and Marilyn Larson. The house was thick walled with deep windowsills constructed from native fieldstone. Of all the warm memories of time spent on that beautiful farm, the clearest one is standing in the kitchen around an enamel coffeepot with a broken egg inside.
Legend has it that the recipe for egg coffee was carried on a boat from Sweden to the New World sometime during the 1800s. In Larson family lore, the story goes like this.
A young Swedish girl, named Edla, moved to southern Minnesota in the late 1880s. She was terribly homesick, often going into the fields late at night to have a little cry. Then, Karl Larson proposed marriage and a new life began on his farm. It was 1890. There was no more homesickness. And there was always a pot of egg coffee on the stove.
Two generations later, Edla’s grandson, five-year-old Dale Larson, walked across two farm fields to visit his grandparent’s home. To gain his mother’s permission for the trek, he had to hold the hand of his older sister. She was six-and-a-half. Upon entering the kitchen, Edla would say to them, “Milk is bad for you. Coffee is good. Drink this.” So he did. For the next 80 years.
Every time we visited the Michigan stone farmhouse we drank it, too. It was a morning ritual perfected over generations and fascinating to watch. Making egg coffee became the symbol for something else—time spent with people we admired and loved. And who loved us back. Important life lessons were absorbed over cups of egg coffee in those years.
During the memorial weekend for our mutual friend, an important message from the Larson kitchen returned. It’s this–spend time with people who bring out the best parts of you, the best version of you. Then remember to go back and get refreshed.
I tried making egg coffee each time we returned from those Ann Arbor visits. But it was never quite right. I was probably too impatient or easily lured by push button coffee making. Eventually the attempts stopped and the enamel pot became merely decorative.
These days I’m more patient about the sweet spot of perfecting a ritual. With an enamel coffee pot from the flea market and step-by-step practice, I can make a good cup of egg coffee now. And always within this ritual, I’m reminded of friendship and lessons learned first in a kitchen, in a field stone farmhouse, with a broken egg at the bottom of the coffeepot.
…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds it morning and is refreshed.”–Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”
LARSON FAMILY EGG COFFEE
Determine how many cups [8oz] of coffee your pot makes. Break one egg into bottom of pot, with or without the shell.
Measure in coarse ground coffee–one heaping scoop for each cup plus one for the pot.
3. Stir mixture with chopstick to combine egg and coffee grounds. Pour boiling water over egg/coffee mix. Stir together with chopstick.
4. Place enamel pot over heat. When it starts to foam up and boil, turn off heat immediately. Watch closely so it doesn’t boil over.
5. Cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Then pour and enjoy. You can use a sieve to strain, but if you pour slowly it is not necessary.
Egg coffee is as good as it gets for those who love a strong, smooth, mellow brew. What happens is this: The egg congeals coarse coffee grounds into a clump and neutralizes acidity that makes coffee taste bitter. It also acts as a filter, because essential oils from the beans are in the finished beverage, rather than on a paper filter. More oils make better tasting coffee. If you throw the whole egg with shell in the pot, you probably get some added calcium benefits, too.
Edla Larson kept adding water to the same pot all day long. She was probably frugal with both eggs and coffee. I have used a second round of boiling water, but don’t go beyond that. Just start over.
Our United States home is in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When not in our home overseas, we live in a cabin built on a hillside outside the town of Estes Park. The back of the cabin faces the Front Range of Rocky Mountain National Park–mountains towering 10-14,000 feet above sea level. We gaze at them on a deck in the summer or through picture windows near the fireplace in the winter.
There are no streetlights and the roads are unpaved. The landscape is native Ponderosa pines, wild grasses, sage shrubs, and wildflowers. The maintenance is digging up noxious weeds and harvesting fallen pinecones and dead branches for kindling. We built a campfire ring with rocks from the land and sit around it with stories and laughter or the silence of a starry night. This has been our home-away-from-overseas-home since 1991.
The summer season return begins with the first morning after we arrive. It’s early. The sun rises at 5:30AM. Coffee is started and we pull rocking chairs onto the deck. Mountains and clouds to the south and west are pink-tinged at first light. As the sun makes its’ way upward, the color shifts to yellowish gold. When it finally rises over the eastern ridge line, the sky turns robin’s egg and then lapis blue. Second cup of coffee, still in bathrobes, day begins.
There is a different way of living and “being” in the mountains. Time is simpler, less hurried, less structured. It’s not necessary to “do” much of anything for the first transitional days. We live casually in blue jeans, moccasins or hiking boots, cotton or flannel shirts, depending on the temperature.
We eat differently too. The thinner air and long days tempt us with food and drink that somehow belong in the high country. Hearty breakfasts of egg sandwiches [More Than Just an Egg Sandwich] are eaten on the sunny front porch. It fuels the day before re-stacking firewood, trimming dead tree limbs, or hiking into the National Park.
When it’s time for a break, there is a place downtown we like to go. Ed’s Cantina is a 30-year locally owned and operated Mexican restaurant. The sign on the side door says, “Get in Here”. Their logo: “Live Forever. Eat at Ed’s.” When we go there, Avocado Margaritas are what we find.
Dietitian Daughter, savvy in combining nutrition with great taste, showed us the way. We fell in love, one by one. It’s the reason we wind up at Ed’s on a warm summer afternoon.
For the nutritionally minded, avocados are one of the healthiest food choices around. They are a good source of mono-unsaturated fat, the desirable fat for lowering LDL [bad] cholesterol while raising HDL [good] cholesterol. Vitamins in avocados, E and C among them, are good for skin tone and texture. There is documentation for the avocado’s anti-inflammatory properties. Even in liquid form, avocados provide a nice range of health benefits!
We also eat a lot of avocados in easy-to-make, lime-y, homemade guacamole. Less is more with guacamole. Let the avocado shine with a light touch on ingredients. Use as a sandwich spread [breakfast egg sandwiches–yes!] or more traditionally as a dip with chips.
Keep your avo margs and guacamole as separate ventures, though. You can ingest too much of a good thing.
GUACAMOLE à la Colorado
2 [or more] ripe avocados
diced red onion [or shallot]
diced or pressed clove of garlic, optional
juice of fresh lime
Cut around outside of avocado and separate the halves. Scoop the meat out of the rind with a spoon. Mash avocado in a bowl with a fork or potato masher. Add onion, garlic, S&P. Stir together. Squeeze in as much fresh lime juice as you like, to taste. Adjust seasonings.
Will keep in refrigerator without discoloration by covering with plastic wrap pressed down on top of guacamole, allowing no air space.
ED’S AVOCADO MARGARITA [AVO MARG by order]
½ ripe avocado
Jose Cuervo Silver Tequila
Limeade [they say theirs is homemade, but frozen concentrate is fine]
Into blender, scoop one half avocado, a shot or two of tequila, a generous squirt of agave syrup, an even more generous pour of limeade and lots of ice. Blend together on high setting. Serve in tall, salt rimmed glass, garnished with a slice of lime.
Best when sipped on Ed’s outdoor patio with the Big Thompson River rolling by.