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

More Than Just an Egg Sandwich

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In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.

IMG_0936A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with location, now entwined in longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.

Some 20 years ago, I was immersed in the writings of MFK [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. In sensually descriptive prose, she weaves autobiographical stories of people, place and food. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches particularly captured my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life’s lessons are often inseparable from a strong, loving mentor.

When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained, “…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”

With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister  hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach, singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. And always, there was an egg sandwich, or two, carefully tucked into their pockets.

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the hills above laguna beach

“In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970

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sunset at laguna

I love this description because it encompasses much more than satisfying simple physical hunger. Fisher was learning, at a young age, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment were a metaphor for living well. The spiritual ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.

There are no cliffs overlooking the ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and darkly cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife provide our spiritual geography. When we are in residence in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. With Fisher’s story in mind, a tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.

Aunt Gwen’s original recipe was well documented. It started with heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart. An ocean hillside sunset and good companionship completed satisfaction of body and soul.

As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our contemporary version.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH  

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basic ingredients, before adding options

Ingredients [physical]

  • Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply                                                          
  • Eggs, preferably brown and free range
  • Jalapeño jack cheese [or cheese of choice]
  • Toasted English muffins [or good brown bread]
  • Salsa or fresh tomato slices
  • Fresh spinach [or some kind of leafy green]
  • Avocado slices or guacamole [optional]
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Additional red pepper flakes, as desired

Ingredients [spiritual]

Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily, with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Love and camaraderie shared. A new day begins…

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on the front porch in summer

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or around the fireplace in winter

Method

Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season if desired with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea makes a desirable accompaniment.

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crack an egg into a round egg form

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break the yolk, season with red pepper, if desired

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constructing sandwich in layers

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completed, before pressing down

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added guacamole option

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with a mug of strong coffee

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the option of good bread instead of english muffin, coffee still mandatory

Traditions are specific to individuals or families, but the ritual and meaning behind Aunt Gwen’s egg sandwiches is as important to me today as it was to a young girl a century ago.

“All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends  

It is fortunate, indeed, at whatever age we learn this to be true.

Kindle Some Candlelight

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I’m obsessed with flames. Growing up in a family with fire-making and fire-tending rituals, I come by this naturally. Wherever we lived, when the outside temperature dropped, it was time to lay wood in the fireplace and watch it burn. Now I live in a Parisian apartment with seven fireplaces. All of them literally sealed shut. In the dark winter months, there is only one alternative. Between four and five in the afternoon, as the sun is waning, I start lighting candles, room by room.

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or group impact

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single

Recently, it became apparent that this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. On a late December afternoon, earlier this month, my friend Lesli invited a group of women for “wine and unwind” time. This is when we gather in someone’s home, open a bottle of something and see what conversational banter arises.

On this occasion, we met at her apartment. Which happens to be furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. While studying it admiringly, I noticed it was not electrified. It was outfitted with white candles. They had never been lit since Lesli moved in, three years before. She needed little encouragement to change this. With partially burned candles already in place, I climbed on a chair and broke off the blackened wicks before re-lighting them. Once in full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy candelabra. Although no “ugly duckling” before, it transformed into a stunning swan.

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candelabra transformation, chez Lesli

She also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the crème de la crème candle store, Cire Trudon. This is the oldest and most prestigious wax manufacturer, since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax having not been lit in a long time. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into active use. Soon the living room was ablaze with candlelight, bubbling “coupes de champagne”, and good conversation among friends.

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trimmed and untrimmed wick lengths

It’s one thing to describe creating ambient light and warmth with candles. The truth is, for many people they are messy and off putting except on special occasions. This is easily remedied by a bit of maintenance know-how. For anyone inclined to light up the night with candlelight, here is the most basic tutorial, as requested by a few friends in France.

  • ALWAYS trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, over time, the smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
  • Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious, but it’s really important to be aware of changing air currents wherever candles are burning. For safety reasons as well as dripping.
  • If you light a LOT of candles, it’s better to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This dramatically reduces smoke pollution and spraying wax on walls and horizontal surfaces.
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    use candlesnuffer by

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    covering and holding 5-8 seconds

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    voilà! no smoking candle

    Whether you engage in regular candle usage or not, there is other interesting etiquette to know.

  • Never display new candles [taper or column] in their holders with white wicks. If you leave them unburned, it looks like they belong in a store rather than in your home. All wicks should be blackened, by lighting them briefly, even if not using the candle right away. [I make an exception with votive candles because they are small and often in containers that don’t show their wicks. I also have a lot of them. A purist would say to blacken those too.]

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    a pair of votive monks

  • Don’t burn candles during the daylight. Candles are for darkness only—morning or evening. Breakfast before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle lit bath can be a regular luxury.

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    breakfast candles with flea market match holder

  • When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A spatula easily scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water does the rest, melting it away.
  • As column-shaped candles burn, empty the wax pool [while it is still liquid] right after extinguishing. As it burns deeper into the column, occasionally trim off the top to make it even with the wick. Use a cutting board and a large knife. This prolongs a natural burning life until it becomes a stump, ready to discard.
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living room candelabra, paris

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best of both, electricity and candlepower, colorado cabin

I can’t explain how fire and candle lore came to be so second nature to me. But, I do believe that our “indoor lives” are  enhanced with strategic candlelight. It’s a personal and creative choice as to the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a good low maintenance option.

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mixing regular and oil burning candlelight

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colorado coffee table

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shadow play

So light a candle or two at home tonight. Enjoy a few flickering flames with family or friends. After all, ‘tis the season.

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santa says ho ho ho & hippobirdday dar

For premier candles: http://www.ciretrudon.com

Cire Trudon USA, Inc. 358 Fifth Ave., Suite 901 NY, NY 10001

In France: 78, rue de Seine 75006 Paris