Letting Go In Latvia

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Jumurda Manor, Latvia

Joseph Campbell, noted mythologist and philosopher, wrote, “A ritual is an enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth…But you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. That’s what ritual does. It gives you an occasion to realize what you are doing so that you’re participating in the energy of life. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention…you learn about yourself as part of the being of the world…”

Campbell also said, “Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical…it is beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known, but not told.”

Herein lies the challenge–to tell a story that for the past two months has been largely beyond the reach of my own words. It is rooted in a ritual with pagan origins. It also happened to be part of the wedding of our son and his Latvian/Russian bride.

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ceremonial site from our skylight window

In a countryside setting outside of Riga, Latvia, June 12 was as perfect as a summer day can be anywhere in the world. There was warm sun and a light breeze. Cloudless sky. Lapis-blue lake and a field of soft grass. A ceremonial framework of boughs entwined with flowers. Shared vows in both Russian and English. Radiant smiles. Applause, joy, and love.

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The after party began with a scavenger hunt and Champagne for guests as the newlyweds were whisked away for photos. Upon their return, the celebration continued with good food and drink, fantastic music, poignant toasts and funny speeches.

Just before midnight, the band music stopped. All of the guests were ushered from the party tent, down the hill, to the wedding site near the lake. Glowing candle lanterns lit the darkness. DSCF1672 Blankets were offered for the cool evening air. There was a young man playing soft guitar music. Two chairs had been placed beneath the framework of boughs and flowers. The mothers of the bride and groom were instructed to sit on the chairs. Then our children sat on our laps. No one understood what was happening, but we became participants in an ancient cultural myth.

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Mičošana [pronounced “Michuashana”] is a Latvian wedding tradition that dates back to [pre-religious] pagan times. It symbolizes the moment when the bride becomes a wife and the groom a husband. It is a way of saying “goodbye” to childhood and home. In this enactment, there was an unspoken tribute to both mothers as we held our children one final time before they passed into adulthood and the creation of a new family. It is a sweet, sad, and yet somehow romantic experience.

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Historically, Latvia was a country of peasants living and working on large farming estates under a feudal system. Girls typically married boys from settlements far away. Mičošana became a ritual of farewell. After marriage, the bride would live on her husband’s settlement, rarely seeing her own family again. The ceremony symbolized “giving the bride away” because it severed ties between the girl and her family.

Here is how it went 21st century style. Midnight–the end of the day and the beginning of a new day. With soft background music and married children on our laps, the bride’s mother took off her daughter’s veil and placed it into a box. She tied a ruffled apron around her daughter’s waist. IMG_4409

I placed an engraved wooden pipe in my son’s hand. The bride and groom stood together with their symbolic accessories and read aloud the roles they would now assume. This was the lighthearted version of contemporary Mičošana, with laughter too. From a basket holding printed cards the bride read, “I will drink beer and be the master of the remote control.” The groom, “I will always be very pretty and sweet.”

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The readings went on for several minutes. The wedding bouquet was tossed by the bride. Finally people began to drift uphill to the tent where the party continued until the sun rose. But something very special had happened. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have words to describe it. I only knew how it made me feel. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Walking back across the grassy field, the bride’s mother and I linked arms. She turned to me and said softly in rudimentary English, “Wendy, when babies come, 50/50, okay?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and said, “Of course, Tanya. 50/50. Always.” It was another unexpected moment. Her overture touched me. The meaning behind the words was heartfelt and real. Women, then mothers, and now a multi-cultural family bound by our children.

Later, as I learned more about Mičošana, the symbolism became clearer. Our son and his wife have assumed roles in an international marriage. It will take our daughter-in-law far from her Latvian family home. She will undoubtedly see her parents and family less and less often. The bittersweetness of the midnight ceremony was the same parting experienced by generations of brides over thousands of years.

I believe Campbell. Myths are important. Rituals are important. Poetry is important. Symbolism runs through ceremonies from ancient times to the present. Because of our thinking nature, we strive to understand the meanings underneath. And this helps awaken us to our place in the circle of life.

Campbell’s words, again: “…by participating in the ritual [with intention]…you are being put into accord with the wisdom of the psyche, which is the wisdom inherent with you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.”

This is what we hope for all of our children. We wish for them to grow into the wisdom of their own lives.

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ajutimestwo, 6-12-15

SOLYANKA [pronounced Sahlahnka] aka HANGOVER SOUP

Partying continues well into the day after a Russian/Latvian wedding. A thick hearty soup of salty, cured meats and sausages is usually on the menu after a night of drinking. It hits the spot with its’ rich meaty stock, briny pickles and vegetables, garnished with sour cream. Although there is a vegetarian form, meat solyanka is more common. I fell hard for it’s delicious taste at Jumurda Manor. Anna and I made a version in her London kitchen. The key is simply a lot of sour and salt in a rich broth. Ingredient proportions are flexible. Rice can be substituted for potatoes. This is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup, but tastes so much better than you think it will!

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lean beef and seasoning for broth

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other raw ingredients

MAKING THE BROTH

  • 300 gm lean beef rump
  • 1 whole onion, peeled
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 T. whole peppercorns

In a saucepan, cover broth ingredients with water. Boil uncovered over medium heat for 30 minutes. Take out onion and discard. Continue boiling until the meat is cooked through, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water to keep meat covered and to build up broth. When meat is tender, take out to cool slightly. Skim fat off top of broth.

NEXT STEPS

  • 200 gm Polish sausage
  • 100 gm good German ham

Cut cooled beef, sausage and ham into julienne strips. Cube some potato. Place in broth to simmer.

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ready to use ingredients

Chop ½ onion and sauté in olive oil. Add julienned carrots and ¼ cup [or more] tomato paste. Continue sautéing for a few minutes then add all of this to stock.

Place sliced meat in skillet to warm slightly. Then add to stock.

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brine soaked cukes and olives

IMPORTANT FINAL INGREDIENTS

  • Jar of cucumbers in BRINE. Different from regular pickles. Saltier. Brinier. See photo.
  • Black olives packed in BRINE

Stir in julienned cucumbers, whole black olives and ¼ to ½ cup [or more] of the brine.

When potatoes are cooked, turn off heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

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Slice fresh lemons into circles and place over top of soup. Cover pot and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove lemons. Serve garnished with a large dollop of fresh sour cream.

Delicious and nutritious even without the hangover.

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Secret Eating

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Secret eating is something seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they generally hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible that they’ve never experienced this type of solitary pleasure. The desire to eat intimately and unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you eat surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.

A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It comes from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian, with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from about the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she would go to the market and buy a huge ripe watermelon, by herself, with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room, sat on the sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Seeds and all. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure, over several summer seasons.

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anna’s secret eating

MFK Fisher, of course, has a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place during a frigid winter in Strasbourg, France when she and her husband, Al, lived in an unheated walkup apartment. They grew increasingly depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows, and, most importantly, heat.

Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window, considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in a thick Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.

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mfk’s secret eating, pre preparation

There was a long lunch when Al returned, and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time, the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.

For the rest of the afternoon, she sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home after school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way. Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that other people, with “secret eatings” of their own, would somehow understand.

I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, in 2006, I traveled alone to Strasbourg, via the train from Frankfurt. There is a small hotel off Place Gutenberg where I stayed in a room under the roof. The bathroom was at the very top of the peak–reached by climbing an open staircase with a skylight. The historic Cathedral was visible if I stuck my head out the dormer window. It was a bitterly cold, gray February.

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Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg

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Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg

I bought a bag of seasonal Clementines, peeled them into sections, laid them out on a piece of hotel stationery, and left them on the radiator. Then I went out to explore. Later, when I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot, just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim wintery afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. And it made me happy.

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my room under the roof

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“peaked” bathroom, up the open stairs

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cathedral view from window by night

My current secret eating began during a visit to “Nutritionist Daughter” in late March. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national U.S. food chain. I watched her fill a bag with extremely flattened, dull colored brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. As it turned out, they were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.

The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough and hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoe leather. As salivary juices kicked in, so did transformation. That road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and moistly pliable. Careful, considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. You had to chew slowly, without hurrying. You had to pay attention.

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transformed into a secret obsession

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delicious fresh mango

The degrees of subtlety from  dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris. Now when I feel the urge, I go to the secret hiding place and randomly choose several pieces. Then I stand or sit for awhile in a window of our apartment, often overlooking the vine-laden courtyard, where I never tire of the view.

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early spring

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later spring

If I stand in the kitchen, I might muse over the gradual unfolding of the Virginia Creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations of the apartment across the courtyard. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room window, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.

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courtyard dining room

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with a view

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street side windows at sunrise

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across the street

If I move to the noisier street side windows for “mango time”, I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, and sometimes a wandering trumpet playing musician four stories below.

My secret eating is something I usually keep to myself. It gives me enormous pleasure. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps a meditative “time-out”, a few solo minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, a uniquely satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month…

Still, there must be someone out there who understands what I mean?

The Baba au Rhum Affair

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crème brûlée

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mousse au chocolat

Typically, there are three favorite dessert categories people choose from when dining in a French restaurant. There are the crème brûlée lovers, the mousse au chocolat [or anything chocolate] lovers and then there are fruitarians who crave tarte tartin or other fruity things.

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tarte tartin

When I watch people eating these classic desserts I sometimes live vicariously with a mental spoonful. Mostly I remain distant from what I consider their banal desires. This is because of an intensely passionate affair I had with Baba au Rhum.

It began casually, with an innocent introduction. We skipped over flirtation, as things rapidly accelerated to a lusty peak, then slid rather quickly into unmet expectations. Inevitably it dwindled to a wistful end. Such is the cycle of most affairs.

A series of events led to this unexpected relationship. For two months I worked as an assistant to a French woman who conducted cooking classes for tourists. She was between student “stagiaires” in a busy season so I volunteered to fill in. Lessons began at 9:00AM with a walking tour through a market street, followed by preparation in her professional Parisian kitchen, ending in a three-course luncheon. My job was to pay the vendors, schlep items home, prep and clean up while clients chopped, stirred, watched and listened. As they nibbled on regional cheeses and sipped white wine around the large kitchen work-island, I set the table, refilled glasses, or washed dirty dishes and utensils.

“Payment” for my services was mostly in the form of laughable stories. Once, a 500gm block of butter fell to the floor and was stepped on. I was told to “clean it because it was still usable”. So I wiped the smashed butter with a lot of paper towels until only a small “usable” sliver remained. Then I hid it.

At the end of this brief tenure, I was invited by my chef friend to join her for lunch in a small, classic restaurant off the Boulevard St. Germain. She ordered dessert for both of us and so, without formal introduction, I met my French love.

Placed in front of me was a shallow white bowl containing a cylindrical piece of spongy cake, a side dish of smoothly whipped cream, and an open bottle of Martinique rum.

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baba at first sight

First, a generous amount of rum was slowly poured over the cake. Then I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and…well, the sensation can best be described, figuratively, as sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.

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slowly pour rum over cake

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take a spoonful of rum infused cake and cream

Here is the curious part; I don’t drink rum or even think about it, ever. I shun plain squishy cakes as unnecessary calories. Whipped cream is so “dairy” and off my nutritional needs list. But all together, the sum of the parts turned into obsession–dark, lusty Caribbean rum plus airy booze-drenched cake mingled with cool, vanilla flecked cream. All of which dissipated into a cloud of vaporous desire in my mouth. I was hooked at first bite.

Thus began my affair with Baba au Rhum. It wasn’t perfect. We had our ups and downs. I rejected restaurants that did not offer the rum bottle tableside, or served pre-fab, stale, even crunchy cake. Quelle horreur! I knew what I liked and what I wanted. Expectations were extremely high from the start.

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split open, ready for rum, cream on the side

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served with full bottle à table

After several months of reckless indulgence I made a profound discovery. And ultimately, it was the beginning of the end. The best Baba au Rhum I ever had was not found in Paris.

In the spring, we took a road trip into the beautiful countryside of Bordeaux. Near the town of St. Emilion, we stayed in a charming guest cottage in the middle of the vineyards of Troplong Mondot. One evening we dined in the upscale restaurant of the Château. The menu was fixed. Dessert was Baba au Rhum. Of course I was thrilled. It was served in the usual trilogy with one notable exception. The cake was lightly warmed. A variation that perfectly accentuated the cool cream along with the smooth velvety-ness of the rum. I immediately knew this was the best it had ever been. And might ever be.

Intense relationships often run their course. So it was with Baba and me. After Bordeaux, I tried it a few more times, but it was never quite the same. Finally it faded into a fond memory. Now when I see a menu and there is a flutter of recognition, I question whether to dabble again. But I’m certain my expectations won’t be met. And, truthfully, they can’t be. Such is the nature of these kinds of affairs.

I enjoy telling friends and guests about Baba au Rhum’s charms, urging them to give it a try. It seems to fall into the love/hate category. Maybe it’s too unusual, too extreme, or too far removed from normal desires for chocolate, crème brûlée, or fruit tarts.

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I really do believe that many of life’s greatest pleasures are enjoyed around the table. A bite of sweetness, of any choice, is a fine way to spend time with others. Which is why I still remain friends with Baba…

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another presentation

Transcendent Picnics

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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.

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lara and liza, buffalo meadows, 1994

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.

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ancient wok from japan still in existence

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

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1 1/2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
  • Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
  • Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.

Wendy’s suggested options:

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

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assembled ingredients, except for parmesan

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shake garlic until it begins to brown

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add steamed broccoli and lots of pepper

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stir in pasta, butter, and combine til heated

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grated parmesan overall and cherry tomatoes to garnish

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enjoy immediately

Mussel Memory, Revisited

Disclosure: A technical error sent an unedited draft of this story to readers on email, Facebook, and Google +. This is the version I wanted to publish. 

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Hotel de Ville [City Hall] on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction. But the importance of Brussels, to me, is tied to memories of food I ate there thirteen years ago while visiting a friend. For the past five years we have lived next door to Belgium, in France. In February it was time to revisit. We set out on a little road trip.

In 2002, while we were living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels where she had moved several years before. She and her family lived in an attached row house of many ascending levels. The guest quarters were on the top floor, under the eaves. The ceiling angled sharply down from the peaked roof. A big skylight opened to fresh air, clouds, sun, or neighboring rooftops. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet covered in green and white gingham. An adjoining bathroom housed a large bathtub and towels that were warmed by a radiator attached to the wall. I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the Swiss children’s book by Johanna Spyri. I flew out of Asia into a fairytale.

A small boy who believed he was Batman also lived in the household. It was nearly impossible to separate costume and character from the child. I was the guest in a house-of-many-levels with a miniature black caped, masked action hero and his parents. At his French pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect accent that I can only dream about for myself. And, like everyone in Brussels, he adored pommes frites. 32965c

Frites are a national snack food as well as a side dish. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts are dedicated to selling paper cones of frites, right out of the fryer, with a choice of sauces. They are eaten with tiny plastic forks. Each order is freshly made and always just right–crispy on the outside, feathery light on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected making frites precisely because they know that eating them outdoors on a freezing day warms your insides. On our recent visit we shared a cornet on two bitingly cold days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries

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sauces are tastier than you might think

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cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce [delicious!]

When Nancy took me to the Grand Place of landmark architectural fame, she said, “Here. You MUST eat this. Right now.” I was handed a hot waffle, wrapped in paper, from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker, and more irregular around the edges. I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized crystals of sugar crunched and then dissolved into pools of syrup, filling my mouth with warmth and sweetness. In that moment, time, place and taste blended together. A blustery winter morning, an historic square with ancient cobblestones and gothic spires, and a mouthful of fresh waffle. I never forgot it.

My food writing mentor, MFK Fisher, has her own version. As a young woman living in France in the 1920s she belonged to an Alpine hiking club. Most of the members were much older. She felt a bit lonely as the only foreigner. One very cold day, reaching the top of a steep hill and catching her breath, an old general said to her, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate. She writes, “In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” Another member of the group came bustling up to say, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady! Very bad for the interior, very bad.” She continues, “And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…”

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Two fine food moments. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. She intellectualizes, “It is, I am sure as much a matter of spirit as of body. Everything is right; nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” Still, these moments are very personal and often hard to describe.

Return visit 2015, I learned that waffle vendors are no longer in the Grand Place. Nearby, shop after shop sold waffles, mostly loaded with extras. We snapped a few photos, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

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waffles +++

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Then, on a side street, I spotted a parked truck with the words, “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. The inside had a thin layer of sweetness but no crunch to the bite. Perhaps he used a finely grained sugar that readily melted on the griddle. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

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the lone street vendor

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but not the same waffle

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The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. Moules-frites, en Français, because they always come with fries. I ate them for the very first time at Aux Armes de Bruxelles with Nancy. And then recently, I ate them at the same restaurant, three times in three days, with my husband. We found no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians go there for a mussel fix too.

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

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

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of plump jumbo mussels, steamed heat and aromas from the sauce wafting up, followed by the pleasure of eating them one by one. We smiled and sighed between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil

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or the conventional fork

The choice of accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of red Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. Unanimously, our recommendable favorite was a bottle of white burgundy Chablis. Order it immediately and begin sipping while you wait.

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Mussel memory was still great despite the intervening years. Sharing the experience with a loved one was especially poignant. Together, we know what it means to have a “Fisher moment” of complete gastronomic satisfaction. Mussels in Brussels. C’était bon.

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flowing chocolate, another story

  • Aux Armes de Bruxelles
  • Rue des bouchers 13
  • 1000 Brussels
  • Tel: +32 [0] 2 511 55 50
  • Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
  • Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday
  • http://www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com

Comfort Food for Cal

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what comforts cal

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what comforts wendy

comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]

My father was the fourth born of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew, my cousin Cal, is 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, she wrote to say, “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. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. The bar is not high. Cal also enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are “pork”. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”

I have no desire to eat creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of “comfort food”. There is no single explanation for how our taste preferences arise or even change. It must be tied to our senses, our experiences, and certainly to our emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, grief, punishment, or contentment can trigger a taste memory–by longing or loathing.

Cousin Cal is truly a comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood tastes that matured into strong adult preferences. His eating experiences are limited to the USA Midwest, highlighted by cuisine of a certain generation.

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Joan says he is obsessed with Jell-O. th Jell-O with crushed pineapple and nuts, Jell-O with strawberries, bananas and nuts, and, at Christmastime, Jell-O made by rolling cream cheese into balls covered with nuts somehow meant to resemble snow balls in red gelatin. I’m trying to visualize what this looks like. Less certain I could eat it.

Cal 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.”

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In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and over-processed vegetables from cans. Uncountable family meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and then [hopefully] into the garbage without being caught. Now, thankfully, my food preferences cut a wider swath simply because we moved overseas in the 1980s. Spices, particularly fresh chilies, in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds, and more.

Life became an eating adventure that changed my definition of comfort food forever. It should awaken my senses with spicy flavors, stirring memories of literally sweating my way through an Asian food stall.

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fresh or dried, equally good

Cal and I are as opposite as any two people could be in what excites us at the table. He eats his vegetables “well cooked”, his fried egg sandwich only on white toast, and of course the Jell-O thing.

As Joan and I talked about Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family eating lore tumbled out. She told of my father’s second sister, Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition”, outlived two husbands, and never had children. She had some peculiar phobias and was not much of a cook either.  To family potluck gatherings she always brought her signature Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans containing cubes of pork fat.  Then she added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The whole mess was baked for awhile in the oven. The onions were always “crunchy” and hated by small children. Perhaps everyone else too.

We lost track of time as I took notes and enjoyed being with cousins I don’t see very often. Cal called Joan’s phone to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. Later that day she sent an email with a few more thoughts ending with, “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 favorite sweets are offered.

I asked extended family members to talk of their comfort foods when we were at a reunion last summer. Choices ran the gamut of American food tastes. Friends from other cultures, including my daughter-in-law who is Russian/Latvian, offered a more varied palate. But it is this quote, from an overseas American friend, that provided the most surprisingly unique definition:

“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.”

It seems unlikely that Cal and I will ever share similar food tastes, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that we are linked by the way our choices make us feel. Satisfyingly nourished, emotionally content, warmly loved.

Two recipes; one sweetly bland and one very well seasoned.

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lineup of opposing food ingredients, cousin versus cousin

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.

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tapioca undressed

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casually dressed

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well dressed

WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

  • 1 serving rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well.
  • 1 or 2 eggs cooked in butter, turned over easy for a few seconds at the end.
  • Sprinkle eggs liberally with red pepper flakes or fresh chopped chilies. Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Slide eggs and any remaining oil from cooking on top of rice. Take two knives and cut eggs into pieces so yolks run into the rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped cherry tomatoes.
  • Eat with a Chinese ceramic spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.
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ginger and garlic garnish, optional but deliciously optimal

For a blander, easy to digest version, simply leave out the chilies, garlic and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.

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A Mountain Gem for 70 Years

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Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. It is situated within the Roosevelt National Forest and surrounded by mountains of the Front Range Colorado Rockies. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it would be easy to bypass the business spur and keep descending the mountain.

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looking back on Long’s Peak from Hwy 7

But if you do make the right hand turn into Allenspark, it’s probably because you know about an historic hillside landmark halfway through town–Meadow Mountain Café.

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On the outside, it is painted green with purple trim. There is always a line up of cars parked below. An assortment of buttons are mixed into the cement and stone steps that you climb to the front porch.

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Inside, the main room has original knotty pine walls and a working potbelly stove for heat. Hand colored photographs by a local artist are displayed for sale.

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An eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers line the walls.

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Behind this quirky façade, there is a long history of food and relationships that began in 1946, with a local character named Lil Lavicka.

Lil was known as the “pie lady”. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a small two-room café where she could sell her baked goods. On this hilly spot, in tiny Allenspark, her pie house flourished for twenty summer seasons. It was just a stone’s throw across the street from a teeny house, where she lived into her 90’s.

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where Lil lived

Several changes of ownership and some 30 years later, Lil’s place was renamed Meadow Mountain Café. The menu became daily breakfast and lunch fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order, the coffee hot, with a hint of cinnamon. Consistently delicious food, friendly servers and reasonable pricing enhanced its reputation within the small community and radiated beyond. Locals and tourists began lining up for a table inside, or on the covered porch with hummingbird feeders, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil’s seasonal pie house evolved into an Allenspark landmark with regularly returning customers, who eventually became friends.

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Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain in the late 1970s. Almost right away she was moved into the kitchen and continued to work the grill after two other women purchased it in the 1980s. Rocky finally took over solo ownership in 2007. It was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky is responsible for introducing the veggie burger and the incredible green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Both became specialties of the house. Cinnamon spiked coffee remains standard, of course.

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a delectably fine lunch: veggie burger and sweet potato fries

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breakfast specialty: huevos rancheros with green chili sauce

She chose the current paint colors, including easy-on-the-eye peach walls in the kitchen and built the button inlaid steps for safer access in all weather conditions. The funky array of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers were always part of her style. The music that blasts from the kitchen is pure country western or rock-n-roll oldies. Son Joe mans the grill, daughter Alicia works the front, and husband, Danny, does whatever needs doing. It’s a full family operation, year round, with added help in summer. On Tuesdays, they take one day of rest.

We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. I go by myself, with family, or with friends, usually for breakfast, sometimes lunch. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food.

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You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back sitting at the counter by the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book, or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen looking for Rocky and to say hello. A table of friends play cards in the corner after their meal. At the other counter, a man leans his chin into one hand, and dozes, holding his coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread is sliced thickly for toast or sandwiches. Summer requires twice-a-day baking to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of people stepping through the front door to the din of kitchen music, mingled conversations and laughter, and the clatter of clearing plates as another table empties and fills. It always feels just right. You are glad to be hungry and in Allenspark.

What sustains 70 years of successful continuity in a community of just over 500 people? Rocky, and the female owners before her, perfected a simple yet timeless formula. Starting with an old-fashioned hard work ethic, they stay passionate about what they do and consistently do it very well. Quality is always high, service friendly, and customer relationships strong. And then, just maybe, a little hint of cinnamon in the coffee doesn’t hurt either.

I hope you have your own gem of a hometown café–a place with honest food, ambience, and feeling of community–where you seek to be nurtured over and over again.

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St. Catherine of Siena Chapel [Chapel on the Rock], St. Malo Conference Center, Allenspark, CO

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hand colored black and white photo of St. Catherine chapel, before the flood of 2013, purchased at Meadow Mountain