Here let us feast, and to the feast be joined discourse, the sweeter banquet of the mind. –Homer
MFK Fisher said that the best outdoor eating happens on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of a memorable picnic occurred in Switzerland in the 1930s. Ours was on a grassy meadow in Taiwan in the 1990s. Continents and decades apart, these two reminiscences linger because a certain combination of people, place and food surpassed simple physical nourishment.
Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them came laden with baskets to the construction site, after the workers left for the day. A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed to chill in an ancient spring-fed fountain nearby. A hearth fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.
The first peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot between her feet. The casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the last, then immediately table side.
On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread. Fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They sat sharing the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.
During the spring of our first year living in Taiwan, there was one picnic that stands out above all others. First, there was the perfect alignment of people, time, place, and food. Secondly, I witnessed our young daughter’s first awareness of this symbolic communion.
Yangmingshan is a national park, just north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, flowers and greenery, hiking trails, outdoor recreation. Our friends, Maddy and Cabby, knew of a less populated area of the park where water buffalo grazed freely on the grassy slopes. They organized a picnic for both families at Buffalo Meadows one late afternoon. We were a small group of four adults and three children from four to eleven years old.
Hiking uphill to the meadows we were enveloped in a moist, misty cloud. Arriving at the top was a sunny green landscape with views all around. Under foot, the soft grass was perfect for lounging and playing. Cabby produced a Frisbee and the men took the children to run on the hillside. The little girls quickly tired of running after Frisbees they couldn’t catch and tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.
Our nine-year-old daughter came over to watch food preparations. Maddy had a tiny back packing stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to produce the meal. Ingredients had been previously sliced, steamed, or grated at home. Once the stove was primed and pumped into producing enough heat, assembly began.
Olive oil was generously poured in and heated. Next, thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Then, bite sized broccoli flowerets [already steamed] were stirred in along with freshly ground pepper. To this, pre-cooked penne pasta and butter were added. The whole combination was tumbled about with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. A pile of freshly grated Parmesan cheese went on at the end and melted into everything. Browned garlic slices offered toasted sweetness to the broccoli pasta. The simple ingredients combined to make a perfect one-dish picnic meal.
Plates were passed. We sat together on that soft hillside grass, enjoying the view, eating, laughing and talking. The sun slid down over the far hills and the air began to cool. Maddy and I companionably shared a flask of single malt whiskey in the fading light, sipping from thimble-sized glasses. A breeze came up. We put on our jackets and leaned in together, wrapping arms around children. Sleepy four-year-old Liza was zipped inside her father’s sweatshirt, asleep against his chest with only her head showing. We talked into the descending darkness. When the mist returned, it was time to go home…
Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that picnic pasta for her. She had a faraway look in her eye as she spoke of how much she loved it while we were in Buffalo Meadows. Watching her face and listening to her speak, it was clear to me that she had made, in her little girl mind, a connection beyond physical taste. She wanted the dish again, but it was more than that. She was really asking to return to the feeling created on a tranquil Taiwanese hillside with family and great friends.
It’s difficult to explain why this picnic, more than 20 years ago, remains so vivid to me. Perhaps more so than to others who were present. I still love to reflect on Fisher’s metaphoric reference to peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell. But my own memory is filled with a battered wok of pasta, a water buffalo, children and friends enfolded on a misty mountain; and, well, I can’t let it go.
MADDY’S BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [via Silver Palate Cookbook]
- 1 lb. [500 gm] penne, cooked til just tender [al dente]
- 2 heads broccoli, in small flowerets
- ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
- 10 [or more!] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
- Freshly ground pepper
- 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
- Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese
- Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
- Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1 1/2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
- Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
- Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
- Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
- Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
- Serve immediately.
- Pass the pepper mill.
Wendy’s suggested options:
Chopped cherry tomatoes, as garnish. Cooked chicken, black olives, green onions or leftover veggies can be added. Red pepper flakes always advisable. Original recipe calls for no added salt, so suit your own preferences. It can use some salt.