The Grown-Up Table

Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”

Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.

The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher

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dinner for six, chez bentley

Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.

I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher

 During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.

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sunday pizza night–courtyard oberursel, germany

When we first began to invite guests for dinner, I needed guidance to learn and perfect one decent dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.

Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.

Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads randomly, to reflect the candlelight.

Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order, listening to favorite tunes. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.

My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.

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Prune Restaurant, East Village, NYC

I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too. It is a highly desirable life skill to embody the role of a good guest.

Gabrielle’s words from a NYT series of articles published October 2017 are in italics preceded by her initials, GH, followed by my thoughts and experiences.

GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…

WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts or our friend Alec’s chronic clumsiness [Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, this is the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.

Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi, we laughed long and hard about an awkward departure where we were suddenly offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.

GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.

WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.

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GH: I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…

WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.

GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still, always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.

WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was a 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but a bit tragic, too. This old vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.

At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients or preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.

A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]

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family style, at the cabin, estes park

GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.

Our children are adults now and the best ones to tell what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults well known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.

I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is imprinted forever–the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

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Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party]Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant

 

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the best dining room view in the world

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dinner chez tennis/hewitt, athens, greece

“Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon

For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, published here October 2016.

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railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for a early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon would take us there in a little over three hours.

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the staircase to le train bleu

We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch.

We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance along with an early breakfast and conversation.

Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

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We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left on the metro back to Montmartre, we boarded the train headed south.

Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

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photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence and is north of the coastal city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy [during the 14th century] from Rome to Avignon, it was the center of Christianity for seven decades. From 1309-1376, the Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied by seven successive popes beginning with Clement V.

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UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterwards, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Popes’ Palace.

The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are replete with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

For me, the most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then, it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. Only the wildest imaginings can fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, but resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple. We sipped wine there after dark and carried pots of coffee from the breakfast buffet to sit in the morning sun as it slipped in and out of thick gray clouds.

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closeup on the steeple view

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rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case, one of the best experiences we have when travelling is a restaurant we stumble upon.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café not far from the hotel. What we ate was simple and so satisfying that I knew we would replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of baked Camembert cheese in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad. A basket of fresh bread and glasses of wine completed the table setting.

That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

That day, which began in the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in “Not a station, but a Place”, ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

There is a kind of perfection in the harmony of opposites. Enjoyment exists there too.  Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, drizzling afternoon rain. Parisian breakfast in luxurious splendor–provincial dinner in old world simplicity.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie… [If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…]

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parisian luxury, le train bleu

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provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

 

BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

  • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
  • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
  • prosciutto or any charcuterie [sliced meat], optional
  • tiny pickles [gherkins or cornichons]
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, etc.
  • chewy baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad, dressed in homemade vinaigrette
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basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad

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remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil

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sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

Preparation:

  1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
  2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired. [Optional use of garlic, rosemary, salt and peppers.]
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet in preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
  4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
  5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
  6. To make the world’s best vinaigrette look here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
  7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne [always perfect, all the time] as accompaniment.

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baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread

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et voilà, c’est mieux avec un verre de chablis

“Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris

Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.

Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.

In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

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gare de lyon today

In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.

Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

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neon sign pre 2014 renovation

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and after renovation

The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.

Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

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view toward kitchen and big ben bar

On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

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view toward the station tracks

To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.

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Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…

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Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

Secret Eating

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Secret eating is something seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they generally hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s also possible that they’ve never experienced this type of solitary pleasure.

The desire to eat 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 came 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, by herself, and buy a huge ripe watermelon, 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.

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anna’s secret eating

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

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

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mfk’s secret eating, pre preparation

There was a long lunch when Al returned, and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter in the room 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, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, individually 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 from 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 others 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, 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 overhead. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window.

It was a bitterly cold, gray February.

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Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg

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Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg

I bought a bag of seasonal clementines, peeled them into sections, laid them out on a piece of hotel stationery and left them on the radiator. Then I went out to explore.

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

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my room under the roof

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“peaked” bathroom, up the open stairs

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cathedral view from window by night

My current secret eating began during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national 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 shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, 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, before it was ready to swallow. You had to pay attention.

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transformed into a secret obsession

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delicious fresh mango

The degrees of subtlety from  dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.

Now when I feel a secret urge, I go to the hiding place and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment, often overlooking the vine-laden courtyard, where I never tire of the view.

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early spring

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later spring

If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the opposite balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If, instead, I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.

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courtyard dining room

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with a view

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street side windows at sunrise

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across the street

Or, I might decide to stand in the livelier street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.

My secret eating is something I usually keep to myself. It gives me enormous pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s just 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?

Transcendent Picnics

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“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

–mfk fisher

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 stories interweave 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 carrying 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 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 iron 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 with our own perfect alignment of people, place, and food. Perhaps more importantly, I witnessed our young daughter’s awakening to 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 on Buffalo Meadows one late afternoon. We were a small group of four adults and three young children.

Hiking uphill, we were completely enveloped in a cool, misty cloud that moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail, we emerged into a sunny green landscape with views all around. Under foot, the soft grass was perfect for lounging and playing. Out came a Frisbee and the men took the children to play on the hillside. The two little girls tired of running 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 the food preparations. There was a tiny backpacking 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 levelled against the hillside, primed, pumped and producing enough heat, assembly began.

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ancient wok from japan still in existence

Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. 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. Pre-cooked penne pasta and butter were added. The whole combination was tumbled about with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, a fluffy  pile of freshly grated Parmesan was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices offered toasted sweetness to the broccoli pasta. The simple ingredients combined to make a perfect one-dish meal.

Plates were passed. We sat together on the downy grass, enjoying the view, eating, laughing and talking. As the sun slid over the far hills, the air began to cool. Thimble-sized glasses of single malt whiskey were passed among the grown-ups. A breeze stirred as the light continued to fade. We put on our jackets and leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Sleepy four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front her father’s sweatshirt. She curled against his chest with only her blond hair showing. We continued talking as darkness descended. When the mist returned, it was time to go.

Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that picnic pasta at home. She had a faraway look in her eyes 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. There was something more. She was asking to go back to the feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot it.

It’s not easy to explain why this picnic, more than 20 years ago, remains so vivid–perhaps more so to me than others who were present. Although I still love to reflect on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own memory takes me to a battered wok of pasta, families encircled on a misty Taiwanese meadow, and a water buffalo…and, well, I can’t let it go.

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

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.

An Egg in the Coffeepot

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“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” These words, which MFK Fisher wrote decades ago, guide my interest when food, people and place are combined. I do believe in the blending of spirit when nourishment and conversation about important things are shared with family or friends. Bread and wine are not necessarily the catalysts for creating a communal bond. It can happen, too, with a pot of egg coffee.

Three weeks ago, quite unexpectedly, we reconnected with a group of people in the U.S. It was one of those bittersweet reunions—gathering to celebrate the life of a friend who passed away. And, at the same time, seeing others with whom we had shared great moments in the past. The weekend was one of those memory jolts that occurs when you re-encounter special friendships after losing touch with them. It’s easy to catch up because what you loved about them before is still there. Then you want to hold onto those feelings after you part.

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courtesy of marilyn larson

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courtesy of marilyn larson

For several years in early marriage, we made repeated visits to a stone farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the home of the Larson family, parents of long-time friends. Their cozy house was thick walled, with deep windowsills, constructed from native fieldstone. Of all the warm memories of time spent on that beautiful farm, the clearest one, by far, is standing around an enamel coffeepot with a broken egg inside.

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enamelware, port de vanves flea market, paris

Legend has it that the recipe for egg coffee was carried on a boat from Sweden to the New World sometime during the 1800s. In Larson family lore, the story came about this way. A young Swedish girl named Edla moved to southern Minnesota to find work in the late 1880s. She was terribly homesick, often going into the fields to have a little cry in the evenings. Then,  Karl proposed marriage and a new life began on his farm. It was 1890. There was no more homesickness. And there was always a pot of egg coffee on the stove. Two generations later, five-year-old Dale Larson walked across two farm fields to visit his grandparents. To gain his mother’s permission, he had to take the hand of his older sister. She was six-and-a half. Upon entering the kitchen, Edla would say, “Milk is bad for you, coffee is good. Drink this.” So he did. For the next 80 years.

more flea market searching for the right pot

Every time we visited the stone farmhouse, we drank it too. It was a morning ritual, perfected over the generations, fascinating to watch, delicious to drink. But it actually became the symbol for something else—time spent with people we admired and loved. And who loved us back. Important life lessons were quietly absorbed over cups of egg coffee in those years.

During the memorial weekend for our mutual friend, subliminal messages from the Larson kitchen returned so clearly. It’s simply this; spend your time with people who bring out the best parts of you. The better version of you. Then, remember to go back to get refreshed.

I tried making egg coffee each time we returned from Michigan. But it was never quite right. I was probably too impatient or caught up in push button coffee making. Eventually the attempts stopped. The antique enamel pot became merely decorative. It makes sense, now, that what I was trying to do was replicate the feeling of being with special friends rather than simply making a beverage. IMG_2506These days I’m more willing to find the sweet spot in perfecting a ritual as much as enjoying the end result. With a coffee pot from the flea market and step-by-step guidance from my friend, a new breakfast routine has been created. Gazing at the courtyard colors, sipping a hot cup of egg coffee, I’m reminded of fragments of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Friendship”:

“…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit

… …And let the best be for your friend…

…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds it morning and is refreshed.”

necessary ingredients

LARSON FAMILY EGG COFFEEIMG_2416

  • 1 enamel coffee pot
  • 1 egg
  • very coarse ground coffee
  • boiling water
  • chopstick or something long to stir with
  1. Determine how many cups of coffee your pot makes.
  2. Break one egg into the bottom of the pot. [With or without the shell.]IMG_2479
  3. Measure in coarse ground coffee for the number of cups. I use one rounded scoop for each cup [and one extra scoop for the pot]. This should be determined by preference.IMG_2485
  4. Stir the mixture with a chopstick to blend egg with the coffee grounds.IMG_2486
  5. Pour boiling water over the egg/coffee mix.IMG_2449
  6. Place enamel pot over heat. When it starts to foam up and boil, turn it off.IMG_2499IMG_2455

 

 

 

7. Cover and let steep 5-10 minutes.IMG_2502

8. Pour into cup and enjoy. [You can use a sieve to strain, but if you pour slowly, it’s not necessary.]IMG_2517

 

 

This is about as good as it gets for coffee drinkers who love a strong, yet very smooth, mellow brew. What happens scientifically is this: The egg congeals the grounds into a clump and neutralizes acidity that sometimes makes coffee bitter. It also acts as a filter, because essential oils from the beans are in the finished beverage, rather than on a paper filter. More oils make better tasting coffee. If you throw the whole egg with shell in the pot, you probably get some calcium carbonate benefits. I’ve tried it both ways, finding no difference in taste. Grandma Larson added additional water to the pot all day. She was probably frugal with eggs and coffee. I tried adding a second round of water and it tasted fine, but I wouldn’t go beyond that. Just start over. You can afford the eggs.

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perfect petit déjeuner