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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.