Simply Sally


“A little glass of wine is a great buffer.”–––Sally Boyle

My recurring problem, throughout adult life, has been figuring out what to cook for dinner. This seems rather silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I can decide within seconds what will feed my hunger. My husband invariably asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.

Coming up with a plan for cooking at home has always put me in a quandary. Over the years I have relied upon friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. The ones I count on know exactly what they are making at the very moment when I am asking them! I’ve come to believe this kind of decision-making is inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking continues to be a troublesome hurdle.

During our years overseas I have had many mentoring friends who taught me how to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that, over time, no longer required a recipe. Mujuddarah [Lebanese lentils and rice], Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine to name a few.

By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when, thankfully, I met my friend Sally.


Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.

She is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. Sally always has a plan.

Her picnics in our Parisian neighborhood park were particularly memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on the lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, tiny thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty bites of brownies. Flutes of champagne or a perfect glass of wine served as accompaniment. Even flowers in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many a splendid summer evening, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.

our park, paris 75016

One day as I was floundering around for an idea, I asked Sally what was for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder. That is if you don’t swallow it.

“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.” Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.”

We agreed to meet the following week in my sunny kitchen for an afternoon of cooking camaraderie.

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world’s best kitchen

That same evening, in celebration of the retirement of our apartment building’s caretakers, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard. All other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.

Back in the kitchen, there happened to be a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it. Then got busy. It couldn’t have been easier. Especially with the “wine buffer”.



Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.

It became simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.


fold crust over for half-moon galette

For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For veggie style, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.


ready to bake



the lovely result

Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king! Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.



one crust, open faced

Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then quickly moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.


my dinner party galette

Surprised to receive such notice in a foodie crowd, I laughingly shrugged, “Oh, it was so simple…”

Simple, that is, if you have a friend like Sally…


sally and rick, courtesy of rick engelmann

“Tasting the Stars”

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“There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne.” –Jared M. Brown

“I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad.”–Lily Bollinger

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”–Mark Twain

In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.

Then, in the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards, formerly a financial mainstay for monasteries.


Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing champagne”. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, “Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars!” But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.


All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered to be a flaw of nature. And fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.

What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.

His real genius–the most important thing he did–was to blend and marry different grapes. The harmony he created, between balance and taste, was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region. A completely NEW concept. Myths arose because he was so extraordinary, but the truth was he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an intelligent innovator and adaptor with keen gifts of observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs wrapped in oil soaked hemp. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.


pinot grapes


chardonnay grapes

Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. While partying, Kings and courtiers drank the local wine, deciding the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.


chagall stained glass windows, reims cathedral

However, production remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of carbonic gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few were maimed, or killed.

Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.

Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks, and significantly, the process of “remuage” [disgorging sediment] further propelled Champagne’s future.


spring unfolds april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. Widow Clicquot [Veuve Clicquot] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table, then inserted the bottles upside down by, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually towards the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked and ready to ship–a clearly sparkling outcome. Their secret soon leaked. An industry took off.


champagne countryside, fall 2015

During WWI, two extremely bloody battles were fought along the River Marne. Trenches cut knifelike paths through the vineyards. Villages in Champagne were bombed, burned and pillaged along the front line, but hardy Champenois women, old men, and children managed to tend vines not demolished.

In WWII, most of the wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demands for shipments to send home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in a simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”


undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

 Post-war, the vineyards were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrical orderly rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and microclimate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagnes are now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.


blanc de blancs


blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later rather than earlier in my life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years in Asia we drank Champagne once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. It was nice, but we didn’t buy it to drink at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to outright delight.

Soon after moving to Paris, we saw that Champagne was basically the only beverage offered as an aperitif on any occasion, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, coexisting capitals of the Champagne region, to sample and learn more. Gradually, we found the tastes and the amount of effervescence we most enjoy.


current lineup of favourites

Some people consume Champagne only for special party occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. Now we happily live outside of that box. When home in France, Champagne is the white-wine-of-choice any day of the week, month or year.


Buying good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions have led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Deliciously drinkable bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 per bottle.


color change fall 2015


Pairing Champagne with food sometimes surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are obvious clichés. Perhaps counter-intuitively, pizza is a perfect match to the sparkles of Champagne. Homemade pizza night begins by uncorking something to sip in the kitchen while we cook. Glasses refilled table side when we eat.


classic pairing


surprising pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other geographies–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California Champagne are runners-up. They aren’t bad, even acceptable tasting to many people. But it’s simply not the same. If you are fortunate enough to buy or be served a bottle of Champagne, raise your first glass to thank Dom Pérignon. Then sit back, relax, and simply enjoy “tasting the stars”.


“In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening.”––Willie Gluckstern.

I second that notion.

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne.”––Bette Davis.

I’m not sure when that time is, but I’m probably there.

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne.”––John Keynes.

I’m not planning to have that regret.

For an award-winning documentary entitled “A Year in Champagne”, click on this website for a preview or download on ITunes:


fall in champagne, 2015

La Bonne Rentrée in Paris


August is the month when France goes on vacation. “La Fermeture Annuelle” is a tradition which originated in the early 1900s to provide paid time-off for factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.

From late July to the end of August, the city of Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for sunny beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.

Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and sleepy summertime is over. By the end of the first week, streets and cafés are full once again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.


un café timeout

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une bouteille de vin rouge timeout

La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.

One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market in Paris or even the most famous. The gigantic market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where Woody Allen filmed scenes for his movie “Midnight in Paris”.


I much prefer the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s both treasure hunting and people watching fun–crowded with locals and tourists.


The entertainer,


the daydreaming vendor,


the watchful merchant,


the consideration,


the negotiation, and


the transaction.

When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee [An Egg in the Coffeepot, Oct. 4, 2014], I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useable finds such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we began collecting in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.




red is best


japanese-occupation, circa 1895-1945, made in taiwan

Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. Or nothing at all.

Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The sheer volume and range of objects astounds. Even keeping in mind the adage, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s impossible not to be judgemental. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there, for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.


The odd,


the quirky,


the eccentric, and


the useful.


The cheap, for a discerning eye,


the expensive, and



the collectibles.



The colorful,


the playful,


the beautiful,


the strange, and


simply, the weird.

Most of the time I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with coffee in hand or, in winter, a cup of vin chaud [hot wine] sold at the corner kiosk. On a perfect day, the corner café features a temptable lunch offering.



The adventure never disappoints. It’s simply a rentrée ritual to remind me that I’m back in my favorite city in the world.


I. M. Pei’s pyramid




Letting Go In Latvia


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.”


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!


lean beef and seasoning for broth


other raw ingredients


  • 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.


  • 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.


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


  • 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.


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.


Secret Eating


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.


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.


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.


Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg


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.


my room under the roof


“peaked” bathroom, up the open stairs


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.


transformed into a secret obsession


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.


early spring


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.



courtyard dining room


with a view


street side windows at sunrise



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


crème brûlée


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.


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.


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.


slowly pour rum over cake


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.


split open, ready for rum, cream on the side


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.


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…


another presentation

Transcendent Picnics


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.


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


  • 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.


assembled ingredients, except for parmesan


shake garlic until it begins to brown


add steamed broccoli and lots of pepper


stir in pasta, butter, and combine til heated


grated parmesan overall and cherry tomatoes to garnish


enjoy immediately