Obituary

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sourdough_0001(Easton, MD) RIP. Gwynevere Sourdough, (August 6, 2014 – January 10, 2015) was laid to rest today in a small tomb in a compost tumbler today. She is followed in life by her three sisters, Mulan Kimchi, Ariel Pho and Belle Kombucha. Her colors were orange and earth, and her grave adorned with Paradise Tea and Christmas Holly, who joined her in the everlasting ebb and flow of the circle of life.

Gwynny, as she was so fondly known by her friends and family, was responsible for many loaves of sourdough bread in her time here with us. Her Father and Benefactor, Hank Sourdough, age 47, offered a eulogy. “She was a hungry and often petulant child, who was meant for the warmth of the sun. It is with great poignancy to know she suffered from cold, but never from neglect. She sorely missed her mountains and the torridity of her beloved hickory stove.”

Her caretaker, Chef Ron, was not available for comment.

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Boots and Baby

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Dearest Son:

I’m proud of how well you behaved today. You drove your end of the shopping cart all over the store and didn’t hit a thing. When the pretty lady behind the counter offered you a cookie, you took it, graciously, even though you really didn’t want it that much. You even ate part of it while she was watching. That is called grace. Sometimes, I have that.

You sat up straight in the restaurant, talked on your phone to some Very Important People. You still made time to recognize the small folk, like your Dad, and the waitress. You chattered away to her and let her know you liked here, though her shoes were pretty and I think you complimented her on her hair. She was blown away by how well you handled your hot pizza and blew on it before offering her a bite. That is called charm. Most of the time, I have that.

You rode your bike, a new one, even though you are barely two. You managed to make me so proud when you coasted a few feet all by yourself. I was also astonished by your ability to jump into our bed, even though it’s low, by just placing your hands on the mattress. You caught a football in the sporting goods store after you threw it into the air all by yourself. I’ve never seen a child do that before. Not age two. That is called natural athleticism. That is from your mother. I don’t have that.

After catching the ball, you played hide and seek with me all over the store. Most of the time, you let me find you. You were also content to wander about the store on your own, not knowing exactly where I was, but not looking for me either. You are already expressing your independence, even at this early age. That is called confidence. I used to have a lot of that.

You were quick to straddle a new bicycle in the store, taking off before anyone could get into position to help you, not thinking of the consequences of falling, or getting hurt, or what other people thought. That is called fearlessness. I used to have a lot of that.

You carefully read your book at dinner, engrossed in all the new pictures, and looked over each page carefully while drinking your milk and finishing your pizza. I was so proud at how you have developed so far. That is called intellect. I have been accused of having that, too.

When you fell off your bike later, you almost caught yourself, but not quite. You managed to turn yourself around, almost impossibly, to break your fall. Your head was too heavy. You still almost managed to stop your journey to the concrete floor but I was there, and I caught you. That is called agility. I still have that, thanks to you.

Just now, you would not stop trying the buttons on my thermos until you discovered for yourself what they did. That is called curiosity. Keep that trait. I have.

You have big feet. The doctor said so. You are tall and thin, as I was at your age. Being naturally thin is a good thing, it means you’ll be healthy later on, if you take care of yourself. I didn’t do that.

You make good decisions, already. You can differentiate between what is right and wrong, what is scary and not, what will burn you and what will taste good to you. You also try to never hurt anyone’s feelings, demonstrating a natural ability to read into a situation and do the right thing. I have not always done this.

You like to brush your teeth, take baths, get plenty of sleep and eat good food. You avoid things that are bad for you. I didn’t do that.

There are lots of things I didn’t do, but that is not what life is about. You already know this, even though you are two. I wasn’t even supposed to be your Dad, but I am. I wasn’t supposed to live long enough to be at your first birthday party, and we just celebrated your second. That is called stubbornness and luck. You have that too. You are my son.

With you at my side, I went through a lot of things these past two years. I had fluid drained from my abdomen twelve times. I had a really hard time with addiction and recovery, which I should not have had to go through, had I been smarter and wiser, like you. I was operated on several times, once by mistake, but I pulled through, knowing that you would be there with your sense of humor, loving smile and with your Mom in tow, even when she didn’t want to be, sometimes. I wasn’t the best Dad, and I’m still not, but I try. That is called being tough. You are tough. You are my son.

Now, as you are safely in bed, I look at your boots and mine, as you placed them side by side before you took your bath. It makes me cry, a little. But I am happy. I am your Dad. You are the best son I could have ever wished for.

I love you, son.

Daddyhood: Frozen and Preschool

I am one of those lucky Dads, through virtue of some creative financial juggling, a terminal illness, some creative talent and an independent and driven wife who happens to be the number one wedding photographer in Virginia, gets to stay home with his son. In a society that still, despite all of our predictions of the contrary, sets an unfair paradigm on couples for the male to be the primary financial provider, it can sometimes be difficult and even embarrassing to be a stay at home Dad. It’s also very edifying intellectually to observe my son’s behaviorisms compared to other children his age, who have been placed in day care in other more orthodox alternative environments.

This is not to say that raising a child outside of day care, in the absence of nannies (except when Mom & Dad really, really need some time alone) and with both parents usually present or more or less equally involved in a child’s development is the right thing. I don’t know that it is. None of us will really know. Children are resilient, no matter what. Toddlers have survived in hunter gatherer societies for thousands upon thousands of years. If not for their survival, we would not be here, right?

But day care can be a very touchy subject. Parents who choose Daycare or Preschool over alternative, stay at home options are often defensive of their decisions. Men who choose, either by virtue of their disposition or financial analysis to stay at home are even more defensive. As one of those men, I feel much the same way.

I’m not accepted, for example, on playgrounds where the majority of caregivers present are women. It doesn’t matter the ethnic or societal of the populace: I get strange looks either way. Most mothers ignore me, with a few notable exceptions who are simply thrilled to find a man occupying their world. In the environment of adolescents, I am either a suspected creeper, a lazy father who can’t or won’t work, or someone for mothers to pour out their hearts to in scenes eerily reminiscent of absolvent repentance.

I’ve learned to mostly nod and listen in those situations, which happen more than you would think. I’m southern, educated and I was raised by some very strong women. The women in my life as a child ruled the house with an iron fist. The man may bring in some money, but the women? They planted the gardens, raised the children, slaughtered the animals, stored all the food, prepared all the nourishment and paid all the bills. I have a lot of respect for women in general and mothers in particular.

There were two events that have really jumped out at me lately. Soon after moving to a new location, I visited a local bakery. It was upscale, and appropriately priced. Coffee was around three bucks, and cookies were about two dollars. Each. That is a bit pricey, but they were really good cookies and cookies are what my son lives for right now. that and Bubbles. both words elicit a very excited state of behavior for him.

We dropped the cookies on the floor. We were both at fault, as I didn’t have him properly secured when I picked up our plate of treats, and he over-reached in a lunging attempt to seize the prize. We stared at one another, my son and I, as we grappled for a decision together. We arrived at the same conclusion: We would pick up the cookies, continue to our targeted seat by the window, and eat them.

So we did. the mothers present, in their full regalia of ultra tight running pants, extremely bright running shoes that had only been to coffee shops and Whole Foods, matching socks with a water and wind proof top, completed by a conservative yet bouncy blonde ponytail, were very disapproving. One mother even dared so far as to raise her voice so that all could hear. “Where is his Mother??

then there was the “Frozen” moment. I released him into the wilds of a very high end toy store. Every single child in the store was planted firmly in front of a large screen T.V., which was relentlessly bombarding them with Disney’s latest financial marvel. Nolan sailed into the room, glanced at the screen, paused for a moment and my heart stopped. What would he do> He shook his head a moment, talked to himself, and proceeded to the trainset and engineers blocks, kitchen set and carpenters bench, where he pretended to build, cook, and destroy lots of things while happily rewinding the train over and over.

For some insane reason, I was so proud of him I nearly cried. Maybe I am doing something right. Maybe.

2015 Food Predictions.

Maybe I’ll be right. Maybe I’ll be wrong. Either way, it’s fun to think of. Here are a few of my food predictions for 2015.

1. Out: Specialty Bacon. In: Serrano Ham.
2. Out: Artisanal Olive Oils. In: Small Batch Butter.
3. Out: Truffle anything. In: Artisanal Salt.
4. Out: Smoothies. In: Kombucha.
5. Out: Gourmet Burgers. In: Classic American Cheeseburger.
6. Out: Duck Fat Fries. In: Deep Fat Sweetbreads.
7. Out: The Chipotle Effect. In: Real Small Restaurants.
8. Out: The Celebrity Chef. In: Cooks.
9: Out: Specialty Imported Coffee. In: Broth.
10: Out: Organic. In: Local.
11. Out: Beer. In: Small Batch Ginger, Sorghum and Tea Brews.
12. Out: Whole Foods. In: Small Local Markets.
13. Out: Crazy Expensive Imported Chef’s Knives. In: Refurbished Military Issue High Carbon Kitchen Blades.

Some other thoughts: Out: Convection Ovens. In: Kitchen Hearths. Out: Pizza Stones. In: Ceramic Pizza Tiles. Out: Crazy expensive designer kitchen appliances. In: Used professional kitchen appliances.

We’ll see! Welcome to 2015. I’m so excited I have to pee. Then I’m going to bed. I’m going jogging in the morning after yoga class, before broth and after sourdough toast with marrow butter.

Christmas Menu, 2014

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The Story of Our Christmas Dinner

My journey into cooking is a long and strange one. I grew up under the tutelage of two Grandmothers and my Mother. In Deep Appalachia, food was one of the few attainable status symbols. Sure, you could take out a loan and buy a car; a Cadillac even! It fooled no one. Everyone knew that it was paycheck to paycheck and one step away from being repossessed.

Food was another matter. Great pride was taken in the harvesting, canning, preserving, pickling, smoking, drying and compiling a larder. The family with the biggest root cellar, often still the only reliable refrigeration when I was a child, won the envy of all the other people in the holler.

As I progressed from the counter to the floor, to the garden and to the yard, my responsibilities grew accordingly. The oldest of seven, I was expected to care for the chickens, keep the critters out of the gardens, barter eggs for honey and my grandfather’s white lightening for pig.

Pigs were harvested once a year, usually just before Christmas, based on the signs and weather. We needed three days of near freezing temperatures to safely prepare two or three pigs for the year. It was hard, brutal work. But oh, so delicious. My grandfathers and uncles would shoulder the task of dispatching, butchering and preparing the young boars for the women to preserve. They canned pork, rendered pork fat, seasoned pork belly, fried everything, made sausage by hand and smoked the rest.

Like all families in Appalachia, ours was full of legend and lies. The truth, though, was for the tasting. I grew up with traditional Mountain Cuisine and Cooking Techniques, but with a twist. My family used more spices, herbs, hot chili peppers and molasses than other families. Our food had an Asian twist.

The story is this: A long time ago, just after WWII, after the Asian-Americans, mostly Chinese, were released from concentration camps in the U.S., a wandering Asian man stopped by my Grandmother’s House. Like all red-blooded Americans at the time, she hated Japanese. This wanderer assured my Grandmother that he was NOT Japanese. We never knew what happened to him, what his real name was or where he came from. His story is lost in the mist of the mountainsides as he hunted ginseng, which was his main source of income.

He stayed with my Grandparents for a time, along with their parents and the Matney, Cochran and Cree families who made up our community. His cooking influences found their way into our food, becoming a permanent mainstay for generations.

As time passed, the old recipes were lost and forgotten, until my sister and I began our own quest in culinary adventures. We found that, amazingly, the tastes and sensations we crave and remember from our childhood were to be found in home Thai, Vietnamese and Cantonese cooking. So, with a nod to my ancestors and their fables, here is your Christmas Dinner.

With much Love, Ron, Laura and Nolan.  

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Menu

Starters:

Duck, Duck Goose. Marinated Duck Liver, Rare Sliced Thai Style Duck and Goose Breast

Assorted Pickles, Southern Style

Antipasto Platter

Marco’s Famous Oyster Casserole

Main:

Smoked Muscovy Duck

Smoked Boar Butt with Thai Molasses and Chai Tea Glaze

Soup Beans

Collard Greens

Chicken and Pork Terrine

Corn Muffins

Deviled Eggs

Desserts:

Red Velvet Cake

Peppermint Ice Cream

Assortment of Christmas Cookies

Sober Holidays, Take Two

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The reason I stay sober. Every day. I love my little boy!

The Holidays are hard on addicts. All of us. No matter our past drug(s) of choice, this time of year finds us surrounded by fellow human being indulging in substance abuse in celebration of a year ending, a year beginning. Even normally reserved members of society get to act as total fools as they let themselves go without normal fear of self-degradation and ill-reputation usually accompanying a person caught in asinine behavior.

This is my first holiday out of the farm, so to speak. Last Christmas I was working full time in a restaurant and lodge that specifically catered to Holiday guests. Located on one of the highest peaks on the East Coast, with snow almost guaranteed, it was the perfect getaway for families, singles, and anyone else seeking to get away from everything during the zaniest time of the year.

There, I could just be me. The only expectation of me from my team of ruthless cooks was to perform. We were stressed, tense and snapping at one another. The days leading up to the whirlwind of festivities were spent prepping, organizing, cleaning, sharpening knives, thawing meats and ordering final items that had been overlooked.

Some drank, some used other drugs and nobody really cared. Nobody asked me to take a drink, apologized for drinking around me, or in any way changed their behaviorism in my presence. To do so would be offensive, both to me and the other cook, server, facilitator, sommelier, bartender or any of the other talent striving to make the Holidays an unforgettable experience for our guests.

We stacked firewood, fired grills, polished silver and copper ware, put on clean aprons, mopped the floors during shifts as foodie’s poured in and out of the kitchen in gawking droves, interrupting the flow of work in their self-absorbed insistence in having their picture taken at the stove or with the Chef. Cooks have learned to deal with this as best they can, but there are inevitable conflicts between the internet celebrities and the cooks trying to get the work done.

Cooks deal with it. Confrontations can be violent, both in-house and out, but are short lived in the face of the work to be done. We did what had to be done.

Through it all, my phone rang. My wife called over and over and over, demanding that I come home, pleading with me to walk out on my team members to come save her from loneliness. It was her first Holiday spend away from her family and she was devastated. My parents called, over and over, asking if I would be there tomorrow. Or the next day. There was food, my favorite dishes, and I was raked with consciousness and guilt. What do I do? I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my wife and son, and I did spend Christmas day with them. That was a lot more than most of the other cooks got to do.

I couldn’t leave my team without me, although I’m sure I wouldn’t have been missed. Not much. Cooks are resourceful. The truth was, I had become comfortable there, with myself.

Away from there, as I am finding this year, people make excuses for consuming alcohol, or whisper amongst themselves, “Should we hide it? Are we bad hosts? Should we even invite him? After all, we don’t have a problem.” Wine continues to flow, and even the ones most dear to you, those who suffered through the addiction and the sickness after, begin to fold to the temptation. “Do you mind?” They ask. “I’ll just have one beer. Do you care? Will it make you uncomfortable?” Or, “I’ll go to the bar, so you don’t have to be around it.” As people spill alcoholic drinks in increasingly sloppy celebration, the people that you know look increasingly worried, even guilty for the wine that they’ve been saving for so many years.

The addict, embarrassed and weary beyond belief, wishes the floor would open and swallow them. That’s how I feel sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. The other inevitability for an addict, whether it’s your first year of sobriety or fifth, is that you will, as some point, be reminded of your past. Someone dear to you, perhaps loosened by their own first or second drink, or irritated as they remain sober and ever-conscious of the presence of alcohol, will hurtfully remind you of the pain you cause.

I recently paid the price for too much exercise, strain, salt and calories. Overnight, my liver revolted and deposited ten pounds of fluid, special delivery, straight into my abdominal cavity. This was two days after the doctors gave me the cleanest bill of health I’d had in six years. I suspected the swelling was due to Ascites, but when I mentioned it to my wife, she told me it was probably too many hot dogs. I hoped she was right.

Most likely, I will be physically fit enough to overcome this reminder of my sickness. I’ve begun to realize that despite the changes I’ve made and the battles our relationship has endured, neither my wife nor I will be quite the same. We’ve made it hard on one another at times, yet joined together in others. Her blunt reminder tonight that my temporary setback makes her think of why I’m sick is just that, a reminder.

Those reminders aren’t pleasant for the addict. Then again, a lot of things aren’t. You’re reinventing yourself in the face of a lot of adversity. It can be overwhelming, shameful, lonely interminable. The thought will hit you, “I could just have one.” Don’t. Maybe you can. Maybe you can’t. There is no way of knowing.

Put your back against the wall, smile at everyone, and be gracious, no matter how you truly feel. After all, our loved ones are really why we’re here. Remember how it could have been, and be grateful for the present and the promise of a future.

Things will get better. I promise.

Happy Holidays.

Ron

Dining Out

It happened to me today. The moment, a magnitude of moments, building up in the back of my mind, relentlessly shoved aside when it rose to consciousness and threatened my everyday happiness with their existence. The moment that happens to any cook, home or professional, who relentlessly pursue their craft to a higher plane. The moment when you realize that the food you are eating in a restaurant, in almost any restaurant, simply isn’t any good. It’s a sad moment, when you realize that the experience of eating out is not about the food anymore. No matter what you eat, no matter how fine the dining establishment, you are one day enjoying yourself in a spot of sunshine with your favorite dish in a favorite joint, and it happens. You think the terrible thought: “I could have made this at home! Better!”

I was doing just that, enjoying the sunshine heating up my back and having one of my favorite sandwiches in my adopted local restaurant. I was happy. It was cold outside. A cold that I’m still not used to, the bitter chill of temperatures just above freezing, which is practically shirt sleeve weather in the mountains. There, at higher elevations, the frost of the night is burned off on most mornings by brilliant sunshine. The rising temperatures create steam off the roofs of houses and fog over the river valleys and steeply descending icy cold streams as they plunge down in their relentless pursuit of sediment and scour. On the shore, here by the Chesapeake Bay, the local weather is best characterized by the term raw. I’m still not used to it. The relentless wind from the northeast, combined with steady humidity around 60 to 80 percent, which makes your skin cool from evapotranspiration that makes even so called normal temperatures miserable.

That was one of those mornings. I’d been outside most of the day, still glorying in the new and unfamiliar, even the temperatures. I was finally driven in to the restaurant by my own timidity of my increasingly good health and falling temperatures, which felt to me like a storm was on the way. My arthritis was howling, reminding me of past stupidity and to make sure my son is not successful at riding his new little bike off the bed in his room, or at least keep him safe while he does it.

I pulled myself up to the bar, blew on my hands, ordered a coffee and a prime rib sandwich. Holding an ever changing lead with a great cheeseburger and a Bahn Mi, a prime rib sandwich with au jus is a meal dear to my heart. Warming and sloppy and filling on a cold day, there is little to go wrong with that choice. I make it my mainstay in judging the quality of a restaurant: If you can get two of these sandwiches right, then you are most likely paying attention across the board.

Philly Cheesesteaks are also one of my favorites, but my standards are too bizarre to make that a judgment call. It simply isn’t fair to evaluate most establishments on the quality of this sandwich, but if I eat there, and you have it, it had better be right! Melty cheap cheese on a high quality prime rib or sirloin chopped beef with a homemade loaf, onions and peppers, they are like crack to me. If they are good.

This place didn’t have a cheesesteak, but it did offer an American Cheeseburger. You had to look for it, hard, under all the burger options, but it was there. Along with its gourmet brothers, who were covered in everything from oysters to Foie Gras, it was there. A burger, with American Cheese, rather embarrassingly sporting a trio of unripe tomatoes, onions and limp lettuce with ketchup and mayo in little cups on the side, it was still there. I tried it. It was ok. Not great, but ok.

I expected more from the Prime Rib. After all, isn’t it the grown up and sophisticated cousin of the cheeseburger? The Au Jus alone makes it worth the price of admission, or it should. With two hands clenched around my mug of coffee for warmth, it was hard to let go to take my first bite of the sandwich. It looked good. It was steaming in the afternoon light, the kind of sunshine that reflects just so off the windows and gives you a good, unfiltered look at what you are breathing. When I was a little kid and first saw all the dust, mites, dander, pollen, carpet funk and other particles that you suck into your lungs for life, I held my breath until I fainted. I was afraid to breathe. How I ended up in a coal mine from that is beyond me.

I let go of the coffee cup reluctantly and made a grab for the sandwich. It looked good. It was on a toasted bun, and piled high with what appeared to be prime rib. I took a bite, then another look at this sandwich. I felt like Christian in “Pilgrims Progress,” seeing things as they really were for the first time. The bread was dry. It was old. It was still cold inside. There was no mayo, no cheese, no onions, no umami from the beef. Nothing. I dipped it in the Au Jus, my heart sinking a little. The second bite confirmed my initial venture. It wasn’t any good.

People who cook professionally represent a very small community. Pare it down a little further, and the air becomes a bit more stratified. With that said, it can be hard to be somewhere new very long, buying produce, getting to know farmers, butchers, fishmongers, grocers and the purveyors of kitchen equipment before people begin to put out feelers. Your reputation, for better or worse, will immediately follow you. In other words, the community was getting to know me. Far faster than I was getting to know them.

The sandwich was bad. Plain and simple. I disassembled it, poked around a bit and surreptitiously examined my catch of the day. I didn’t eat it. The Jus was cold, and the meat looked dangerously close to a frozen mystery product I used to clobber together as a cook at a summer camp and there was nothing else on it.

Seeing my dilemma, my bartender wandered over. “Did you like it? Sure. Are you not hungry? No, not really. Want something else? No, I’m good. I’ll just pay rent on my space for a while.” He studied me, then my plate. “That’s our best seller.” I offered no further comment, my day dampened a bit. Not ruined, by any means, but rendered a bit raw.

He collected the cast aside parts of the sandwich and ignored fries and wandered away, dismissing all of it immediately. I felt abandoned, somehow. Like all wannabe artisans of a craft, I wanted to think that maybe, just maybe, I would be told if something was off that day.

With my delicate ego in balance, I thought of other dishes I’d had there, and at other restaurants, good establishments, all of them. Nothing whatsoever jumped out at me. Whenever I went looking for something good, I didn’t find it.

Where I did find it was during a street sale in a small town, where oysters were being shucked in the freezing rain for charity only. From a pink joint, where the owner laughingly made me a hot dog piled high with slaw, baked beans, mustard, ketchup and hot sauce. From a roadside fish stand, where crab cakes and trout were being deep fried and people gathered in the freezing cold, regardless of race, economic status or creed to enjoy the fatty goodness of simple food. I thought of the impromptu neighborhood barbecue I had crashed a few days earlier, carrying a case of Keystone Light, with my cargo pants stuffed with pork rinds and dragging a cooler full of ice and Mountain Dew. I thought of my wife’s handmade pasta, carefully shaped as she cast the dough over the flour dusted workspace, over and over and over again. Her potato gnocchi, her mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, all of them cooked with love, with little regard to what needy little foodie bitches like me would think.

I thought of my grandmothers deep fried chicken and squirrel brains with red-eye gravy and biscuits, served to me on my eighteenth birthday, the day I went to work in a coal mine. Six years later, as I was lacing up my boots on her porch, which was overflowing with herbs, flowers and plants growing out of every conceivable container, she told me: “No matter where you go, always take your boots.”

So, the sad day of realizing that I was missing something when I dined out was replaced with the memories of why I started cooking in the first place. Out of love. Love, and the pursuit of perfection.

I’ll never view dining out the same die, cast as I have come to opinionate it. Instead, I will eat what is put before me where I enjoy it most, in the homes and backyards and back kitchens of the world, and I will appreciate every bite.

Maybe I’m not a pretentious bastard, after all.