I’ve always wanted to be from the South. Odd because I’ve only been to Austin, TX and many would say that hardly counts. Last week I tried to pick up some tips while in West Virginia. Like Austin, there’s apparently quite a bit of debate about how truly Southern West Virginia is. But I’ll tell you, it was humid, there were mosquitoes, mint juleps, biscuits at lunch, “ma’ams” and “ya’alls”, a great deal of bacon, and bright floral wallpaper. I’ll leave it to you to decide.
I stayed at The Greenbrier Hotel for the Professional Food Writers Symposium. It was other-worldly in so many ways: long hallways leading to blasts of color, a line of white rocking chairs looking out over an expansive lawn, horse-drawn carriages, farms and country roads, and porches with wicker chairs that hold you tight in the mornings and even tighter in the evenings as the light turns a dusky shade of purple.
There were three very square meals, dozens of new friends, one Dorie Greenspan (!), uncountable oaks and sycamores, patches of inviting lawn, pages and pages of notes and handouts, and many a smiling stranger.
There was afternoon tea in which couples would languish with nowhere else to go–continuing to refill their cups while listening to the piano until it was time to dress for dinner. Women pulling along tow-headed children in neat pastels with matching shoes. Men golfing in plaid shorts and families playing croquet and shuffleboard.
So there were all of these things and more. But for me, most importantly: there were my people. One of the women at the symposium appropriately deemed it “our tribe.” For those of you who do any kind of writing, you know that sometimes it can be a lonely endeavor. It’s just me and my antique desk and some coffee and an existential battle to turn off twitter and unplug from email. Sometimes there’s a little dish of M & M’s and often there’s some Pandora. But that’s about it. Baking is also pretty darn lonely. It’s just me rolling out pie dough early in the morning. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember music or listen to a podcast, but often I’m running over thoughts in my head or sneaking out to talk to Sam for a few minutes while a sheet of cookies cools.
Rarely do I have people to talk to about my craft — people who are equally excited about new cookbooks, jam techniques, revolutionary ice cream methods, writers, authors, bloggers. People who talk about how they do things, what works for them, what you should try, who you should contact, who knows who and how the heck it is that we’re all connected. Talking, sharing, exchanging, advising, giggling, eye-rolling. These were the people who, all week, were right across the table from me at the crack of dawn gossiping over a soft boiled egg or drinking dry martinis in bright turquoise chaise lounges as the second hand neared midnight.
I’ve been home for a little over a week now. I miss my tribe dearly. Reality has a way of forcing you to jump right back into daily life though, doesn’t it? I made almost 60 pounds of granola last weekend, baked pies for the farmers market, and managed to unpack, throw a load of laundry in and download these photos. I made an heirloom tomato salad and caught up with a few friends. My head is still spinning. In a good way. You see, that’s what happens when you’ve got your people around. That’s what happens when you’re challenged, baffled, inspired, and nourished.
In addition to all of the great networking and new friends, I’ve taken home a cocktail recipe that I couldn’t seem to get enough of while at the Greenbrier. The Mint Julep.
At the hotel bar, we’d meet before dinner and order mint juleps. They were served in the traditional silver cups and were just the way I like them: strong and not at all too sweet. The Greenbrier uses perfectly-shaped, pearl-sized pieces of ice and I actually spent some time searching these out here in Oakland with little success. So I settled on some good mostly-crushed ice. I know some of you on the East Coast are in fall mode right now, but in California it feels more like July than September. So there have been mint juleps this week. And I hope you’ll find time to squeeze one in before the evenings get too chilly. I hope you can enjoy one with “your people,” too. Whatever that looks like for you. It’ll mean more that way. Trust me.
Place mint leaves in the bottom of a glass cup or traditional silver cup. Add the sugar and muddle the mint and sugar together, breaking down and bruising the mint and making sure the sugar is dissolved. Fill glass with finely chopped ice. Pour bourbon over the ice. Stir well; add more ice if needed. Garnish with a few sprigs of mint.
Note: If you like your mint julep a touch sweeter, make a mint simple syrup and add 1-2 teaspoons, depending on taste.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.