A Day in the Life of a Photographer – Baltimore

I have the sense of hurtling through time and space at an extraordinary rate of speed. I realize that I am dozing and awake briefly as the howl of the V-8 engine in Laura’s Cadillac reaches a fever pitch. Any attempts to sit upright are nullified as four hundred horsepower propel us through the early morning hour. The acceleration lane of exit 150 on I-81 becomes a launching pad as left-lane assholes get passed in a furious blast of acceleration and premium fuel, economy be damned. I take over after we hit I-66 west on the way into to D.C, and honestly, I’m a bit more aggressive than Laura behind the wheel. After all, it’s not often I get to drive the Caddy.

This is my introduction to the world of wedding photography. I feel as though I know it, after all the years of helping Laura, but I’ve been largely relegated to being an equipment mule and lighting guy. I’m fine with that. Anything that I can do to help is fine by me. But this weekend is special. Laura has finally decided that I am ready to actually take pictures and help with an entire wedding. I’m nervous and very excited.

We’re headed to Baltimore, Maryland to the Museum of Industry. The lucky bride and groom have reserved the entire space and catered the event with Rogue Catering, so the food is guaranteed to be awesome. We pit stop in Centreville for a bowl of our favorite Vietnamese Pho, and as usual we are the only white people in the restaurant. The entire restaurant is silent except for the sounds of people happily slurping noodles. I’m thinking, this is not so bad.

We arrive in Baltimore ahead of schedule and with a couple of hours to kill, we head out into the Inner Harbor. We are trying to find a place to eat for Sunday morning and we are having zero luck. Tourist trap, tourist trap….somebody slap me. Really?? I’m in freaking Baltimore and we can’t find a place to eat?

It was at that moment of frustration that I see a dude in chef’s whites cruising down the boardwalk in front of me. I run him down and see a bit of panic in his face at first – I can’t help but think that he was afraid the big sweaty dude chasing him was trying to mug him, but the reality is that I am about as threatening as a Labrador Retriever. I ask him, “If you had one, just one morning to eat in Baltimore, where would you go?” He grins at me, and without hesitation, replies, “Miss Shirley’s.” We run back to the hotel to finish charging batteries, (after a quick stop in a haberdashery, where Laura picks out a couple of rather dashing hats) and google Miss Shirley’s. Awesome. It’s been voted the best restaurant in Baltimore!

Honestly, after this weekend, I have nothing but respect for wedding photographers. I had no idea how much work is involved. People constantly ask Laura what she does for arm exercise, and she is always a bit bewildered. I will tell you what she does: Strap an eight pound camera around your neck, a twelve pound camera bag around your shoulder and do the equivalent of three to six THOUSAND modified curl/triceps extension for eight to twelve hours at a time fifty or so days of the year and see what your arms look like!

It was the intensity at which she worked that threw me a bit. After about five hours or so, I began to tire and get a little bored. Not Laura. She was operating at the same level of intensity eight hours in as she was in the beginning. My eyes began to burn from the flashes and a couple of times I lost track of her completely. The remote flashes were as constant as the lights playing across the band as she tracked every moment of the entire event.

By eleven, I was exhausted. The happy bride and groom exited into their waiting car and the entire wedding party was headed to the after-party event. I load Laura’s car and admire the waterfront at night. It really is beautiful.

We faceplant into bed and complete our whirlwind tour of Baltimore with a trip to Miss Shirley’s. It really is as good as the chef said. Laura has a soft-shelled crab Egg Benedict with Hollandaise sauce and I have a fried green tomato sandwich with runny eggs and bacon. It is perfect. We eat way too much, check out of our hotel and throw ourselves back in the car for the trip home. I’m sore, tired and completely checked out when we arrive home. Laura never hesitates, and begins charging her equipment for the next shoot. I wonder if I can even be a photographer.

So, to all you photographers out there, do what you do, and know that there are very few who can do what you do. My hat is off to you. So is Laura’s.

Deep South Yankee

I’ve been called many things in my life, and worn many hats. I’ve been a student, a brother, son and husband. I’ve been a friend, an enemy, a combatant and I’ve been labeled a challenge. I’ve been called a liar, once; recently, and I’ve been called an honest man. I’ve been a coal miner, a consulting geologist, an engineer of sorts and a teacher. I’ve traveled throughout most of the U.S. I’ve lived in Reno, San Fransisco, Maryland, D.C. and NOVA. Throughout it all, I’ve remained steadfastly southern and have only once been accused of being a Yankee.

That was in deep Mississippi. One screamingly hot night, in a fog of cigarette smoke which only pretended to keep mosquitos the size of small helicopters away, a rather drunk local stared at me through the smoke of endless cigarettes. I was uncomfortable and really wished I was in bed and wondering why, oh why, I had agreed to this trip in the first place.

Those that know me even slightly know that I do not travel well. In all honesty, I’d rather be home. At home, I know from which direction Jupiter will rise. I can find Orion’s Belt in seconds. Laura’s Mountain is always in the same spot and I know where the green garlic will be in the spring. My bed is reassuringly in the same spot every night, which is not the case when you are traveling. So, it is with great reluctance that I travel. But I do enjoy it, especially the fine art of observing other people, trying new things and learning about new places and cultures; and delving into strange food. That is the best. There is nothing funnier in retrospect and humbling in the experience than having a beautiful Italian woman in snake skin pants, high heels and a butchers apron tell you that the meat you have asked for is little better than dog meat. Score one, Italy.

This was something different though. The fog hung low and the unrelenting beat of southern rock stormed out of the smoky bar. I was face to face with a rather large and intimidating and decidedly annoyed girl sporting the most amazing mullet I’ve seen in years. I’m fairly certain I’ve just been insulted, but I’m so fascinated by the situation, the place and the mullet that good sense has abandoned me. I step closer. “Do what?” I ask. “I just wanted to know how you like it in the South.” This comes out as a threat, somehow. Accusatory.

I reply that I’m actually from the South, Virginia, as a matter of fact. This fact has no relevance on the situation currently at hand, which is to say that in her mind I am from Northern Virginia, that accursed place from which I fled so many years ago, a land of endless traffic jams, pavement, inflated real estate and desperate single women who want nothing more than to just meet a decent man, a myth in that desperate quagmire of iniquity. I’m offended, really, for her to think, with my accent, that I am from that place. I attempt a geography lesson. I explain that Virginia is a very large state, and the most beautiful part of it is Southwestern Virginia, which is a land of rivers and mountains, trees and fertile soil, wonderfully friendly people and entrepreneurs of all sorts. The kind of place that you can settle in, sink your roots deep and live with the land. A place where we have four seasons, gentle winters and mild summers. A place where you know your neighbors – and they leave you the hell alone.

I fall silent. I realize that I am now talking to several people, looming in the shadows, invisible except for the muted red of the nearly constant draws on their cancer sticks. I feel that I have made my case for being southern, especially since my Buchanan County accent has inexplicably returned in all its nasal glory. I glance at mullet girl, hoping for a confirmation of sorts. She is glaring at me now openly. “So, you don’t like it here, huh?”

I am baffled, but I realize that her attitude is germane to the fact that it is time to go. It’s been a very long time since I have been in a bar fight, and I have no desire to relive that experience in rural Mississippi. I beat a hasty retreat, collect my wife and friend and we head to the hotel. The bed is where it should be. For now.

(Author’s note: This recollection by no means summarizes my Mississippi experience. Quite the contrary, I found the Deep South to be a wonderful place, despite the unrelenting heat. The people were friendly and hospitable, the food was wonderful and I fully intend to go back. In January or February, not August.)

Spring Duck: And Asparagus!!!

I absolutely love this time of year. I especially love the cool, rainy days of spring, when I can literally, almost, if I imagine it just right, hear the trees leafing out. The dogwoods are in bloom, the redbuds are fading and the soft rain is permeating my garden boxes and reminding me that it is time, past time even, to plant my potatoes. And onions. And split up the hickory that I cut last winter. And put the poplar away and look for mushrooms. I also need to build two more garden boxes and put up a permanent deer fence. The first three chapters of my thesis is also due, and I have to make a decision on teaching next fall…

No stress, though! The greatest thing about this time of year can be summarized in one word: Asparagus. I have anxiously awaited the arrival of spring asparagus since last year. There is simply nothing better than al dente asparagus with a little butter and fresh local spring duck. Do you need a recipe? No. Score the duck breast on the fat side, place in a scorching hot cast iron skillet until nicely browned (fat side down). Move to the cold side of the grill for about 15 minutes, or until the interior is 140 degrees, or until it is approximately the tenderness of your palm as you press your middle first finger to your thumb. Boil the asparagus for about five minutes, then toss in a tablespoon of the rendered duck fat and a little butter. Slice the duck, serve, and remind yourself that you are eating like a king. Simple, easy, mac-and-cheesy. (For the record, I hate instant mac and cheese. Hate. That’s a strong word, I know. Hate it.)

A great side item is caulifower and potato mash. Boil until fork tender, drain, add about two tablespoons of mayo and a tablespoon of horseradish sauce and smash until smooth!

Crabbin on the Bay

I awake to the sound of gulls calling. I lay still for a moment, as we often do when awakening in an unfamiliar place, orienting myself in time and space. My wife’s gentle breathing from across the room and the sound of waves slapping the rocks lend my mind a trajectory and I realize that I am at Laura’s parents’ house on the eastern shore of Maryland, located on one of the tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay. I was born and raised in the mountains of Appalachia, in the coal fields of Virginia, so this world is foreign to me. I slip out of bed and pad as noiselessly as possible to the window. Moonlight glints off the water, and Jupiter is low on the horizon, indicating that dawn is near. I’m glad I’m awake, but, honestly, I am nervous.

We’re going crabbing today, with the vehicle of choice being one workboat named Dorothy, lovingly restored to her original form by Laura’s Dad. One of only two left in existence, this diesel-powered wooden testament to the hardworking people on the Bay is utilized on almost a daily basis for fishing, crabbing, transportation and recreation. I have never been crabbing, and I fervently hope that I do nothing to embarrass the tradition of this family and their beloved Dorothy. She rises and falls slightly in the early morning breeze and the tide laps softly at her stern. The first glints of sunlight break the horizon and I smile, despite my nervousness. It’s going to be a good day.

Six hundred feet of line have already been threaded with chicken necks for bait as we load Dorothy with water, sunscreen, nets and our dog, Axl, who has decided that this is definitely the most exciting thing in the history of doggy things. He leaps fearlessly from the dock to the boat, sliding on the bottom a bit before righting himself. I’m a bit less fearless, but I manage not to fall in the dock-to-boat translation. Laura’s Dad fires the massive diesel and we cast off the lines in the early morning mist, off on the search for the absolutely delicious Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab.

Considered to be too small and too difficult to harvest on the west coast of the United States, this crab is king on the eastern seaboard of Maryland and Virginia. People are passionate about their taste and they are prized for the tender, succulent body meat found within their carapaces. A bit intimidating to the uninitiated, a seasoned crab picker can reduce a blue crab to nothing but meat in a matter of minutes. The first time I watched Laura pick a crab, I was a little speechless and in complete adoration. It was like watching an expert pianist perform Bach’s sixth symphony. Not for the first sime, I thought, “I’m going to marry that girl!

Laura casts off the last line and leaps as fearlessly as Axl into the bow as it passes the end of the dock. Laura’s Dad accelerates away and we are soon in the middle of the creek, as the locals refer to the tributaries of the Bay and in prime crabbing territory. We wave at fellow crabbers, some already with their holds full, as we let out our line loaded with chicken necks into the green waters of the Bay.

After it is stretched, we begin our runs. The line is routed over a roller than lifts it out of the water, with the chicken necks spaced about every five feet. A net is utilized to grab the crabs just as they realized that their meal is being interrupted by a rude grab by a net. Laura is shockingly good at this – for her, it’s personal. She has nothing but bad intentions for these guys. I can tell that visions of steamed crabs are dancing in her head as she catches two in the same net, juggles them as they try to get away, and then slams them into the wooden bushel basket just in time to grab another. My job is to keep them from getting out of the basket, but they seem to intent on fighting one another to escape. I’m glad I’m not a crab.

We have a successful morning. In an hour or so we have a bushel basket full, and we declare it a victory. A few hours later, we are steaming them outside of the garage with corn on the cob, cornbread hush puppies and all the fixings. My God. Is it because we caught them ourselves? How can anything be this good? Laura slows down at around fifteen crabs and I am fighting to keep up. It’s not like you can save the leftovers – oh, wait, you can! After we are stuffed, we pick the remaining crabs for crab cakes. Laura normally despises crab cakes in favor of the actual crab, but when you are returning to Appalachia, you need to be adaptable. She makes the best crab cakes in the world, and I will share her recipe with you now. Catch your own, if you can – it is an unforgettable experience, as are most things on the Bay.

What you need:

½ cup of finely minced red onions

1/3 cup of finely minced red bell pepper

1 tablespoon of minced tarragon

1/3 cup of mayonnaise

1 pound of crab

¾ cup of panko

Salt and pepper to taste, plus a pinch of cayenne

What to do:

Mix all the ingredients well, form into palm size cakes and place in the refrigerator for a half hour or so to firm up. The panko will absorb the wet ingredients and they will stick better. Fry over medium high heat in olive oil until golden brown, 3-4 minutes per side. Asparagus and fresh baby carrots make a wonderful side. Enjoy!

A Positive Breakdown

I’m stuck. I can’t think. My kitchen is full of people who are currently staring at me, waiting for me to begin cooking. I realize that if I ever had a plan, it is no longer in occupying space in my head. I feel like I am having both stage fright and writers block at the same time. I stare at my ingredients as if I am not recognizing them. My guests and family are happily sipping wine. Laura is cheerfully preparing the salad course, chattering away with her Mom while slicing absolutely identically sized pieces of pancetta. I wonder what I was ever thinking when I volunteered to cook this meal.

It doesn’t help that we have had a foodie weekend. Chef’s Tour Saturday night, English breakfast at the Underground Pub on Sunday morning – wonderful Scotch Eggs, coffee and lattes by Strange Coffee – I’m feeling more than a little intimidated. I decide it’s a good time to pet the cat.

I wander out to the deck; Stubbs is nowhere to be found as there are what he considers to be strangers in our house. I light charcoal in the chimney starter, buying some time. Laura’s mountain is clearly visible now that we have cleared the trees – so now she can see directly from her hammock overlooking the river. I scour my brain for inspiration.

My ingredients are great, wonderful even. Inspiring. I have free-range, organic, grass finished beef tenderloin. Fresh new carrots and baby potatoes. Fresh horseradish. Assorted spring greens. New Vidalia onions and Granny Smith apples from last fall. What on earth to do?

Inspiration builds quickly as I overcome my stage fright. Everyone is ignoring me a bit now that the grill is lit. I put a tablespoon or two of pink and black peppercorns in a skillet and begin toasting them over medium heat. I add coriander seeds and with a nod to the morning, a small handful of coffee beans from Strange brewing company. I toast them all for a few minutes until they are aromatic, and then grind them in a spice grinder. Now, I have my rub for the tenderloin.

The tenderloin is already on the counter coming up to room temperature and so everyone can admire what they are about to eat. I am getting my confidence back. I start a large pot of salted water on the stove to heat up so that it will boil quickly. I rub the tenderloin down with olive oil and coat it in the rub, adding a bit of paprika and truffle salt at the last minute. The rub has a nutty, spicy flavor that will hopefully compliment the meat without delivering the same old barbecue flavor that is so popular this time of year.

The coals are ready, so I spread them over one side of the grill and place the tenderloin on the cold side. The thermometer instantly hits 400 degrees. Perfect. I’m starting to sweat now, and focus entirely on the food. I mix Sorghum Molasses and local honey, bring them almost to a boil and add a splash of Maker’s and a few pinches of brown sugar. I pour this over the carrots in aluminum foil and add them to the grill.

Now we’re getting somewhere. I slice the apples thinly, quarter the potatoes and split the onions in half, leaving the greens on. I sauté the apples in the remnants of the sauce for the carrots, boil the potatoes and throw the onions on the grill to char. I chop garlic and quickly brown the bits, then mix the garlic, sour cream, crème fraiche and horseradish for the tenderloin.

The tenderloin is at 135 degrees, so I char it quickly, and then put it on the cutting board. The potatoes are fork tender so I drain them, smash them quickly with sour cream, butter and horseradish and season everything with salt and pepper. IT’S WORKING!

I relax happily during the meal. Everyone claimed to love it, but the proof was in the empty plates. Whew. That was a close one.

Celebrity Chefs Tour – Eggleston, VA

I’ve been lucky the last three years to be able to attend all three of the Chef’s Tour visits to The Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston, Virginia. It is the closest restaurant to our house, which is convenient as it also happens to be one of our favorites. All three Chef’s Tour events have been something special but this year really stood out! Five chefs conceived of, developed and served five amazing entrees along with four hors d’oeuvres. I don’t even know how to start talking about how good it was, but before I do I want to point something out…

No one has ever, not even historically, called Eggleston a large town. A community, yes, a town, sure – but the definition is strictly small town. The first year that the owner of the Palisades, Shaena Muldoon utilized her connections to talk the tour coordinator into including her restaurant on the Celebrity Chef Tour, which was founded to benefit the James Beard Foundation. If you don’t know who James Beard is, that’s ok, but Wikipedia him now. He is considered to be the father of American Cuisine and was a major inspiration to Julia Child. The coordinator was a bit dubious, but agreed. The event sold out in one hour. In Eggleston.

This year, it sold out two nights in a row. The hos d’oeuvres included a spring pea, ricotta and pistachio toast prepared by Top Chef contestant Jennifer Carroll. Chef Aaron Deal prepared an absolutely succulent, falling-off-the bone tender lamb rib with sorghum molasses and crispy garlic. Why yes, please, I will have another. By this point, mingling was out. I strategically placed my family and I near the door to the kitchen so we would be the first ones the servers encountered on their way out, a fact that was not lost on the servers themselves, most of whom we know very well. Host Chef Ashton Carter prepared an amazing sweet and spicy beef cheek, which took me a bit by surprise in the complexity of the taste. But drum roll, my favorite of the night were winter duck oysters with menguez sausage and a hint of cilantro oil. Oh, my, God. Chef Barton Seavor prepared these oysters, which were sourced from the Rappahannock river basin in the Chesapeake Bay. I ate so many Laura began to laugh, but I could not help it. They were so creamy and delicate, perfectly shucked and succulent, with the flavors of the Bay just bursting in your mouth. I don’t know if I will ever eat a better oyster, but that’s ok.

Chef Ashton Carter, who is an acclaimed chef and advocate of the grow your own, slow food movement, served us a Togarashi Carpaccio with Oshinko Turnip and Spinach Gomaae along with fresh dandelion greens. His take on the dish is that this is the time of year when all you are likely to have left in your cellar are root vegetables and you just can’t wait to get your hands on something, anything, green. It was beautifully plated and perfectly balanced, a wonderful way to start the meal. Oh, wait. I had already eaten somewhere between twenty and forty-one oysters.

The next course up was prepared by Chef Barton Seaver, who didn’t wear chef whites in honor of the full-time chefs present. He looked a little tired, as well he should be. He had literally just flown in from Norway in time to conceive of and prepare his course. It was a collection of locally picked watercress and other spring greens in a not-so-simple salad with smoked trout. Like Ashton, his inspiration was the early spring that we were enjoying – with all the local greens exploding out of the ground it was hard for an environmentally aware chef such as Barton to ignore such bounty.

The next dish pushed everyone’s boundaries just a bit, which is exactly what Chef Jennifer Carroll had in mind. She served a wonderfully palatable Hudson Valley Duck Heart dish plated with sweet grilled ramps along with Uni Tapioca. The heart was tender and perfectly chewy and the ramps proved to be much milder than I remember them being as a child. Chef Carroll didn’t announce that it was heart until after it was eaten, which was perhaps intentional. I’ll eat nearly anything and recognized it as heart immediately, but several at our table were a bit unpleasantly surprised to realize the components.

The last dish received a standing ovation, but it wasn’t my favorite. Chef Aaron Deal served us a local Lamb Saddle along with perfectly cooked sweetbreads, red peas and baby carrots. Carrots are by far my favorite vegetable and I am a huge fan of lamb and sweetbreads. Everything was cooked to perfection and even though by that point I was bursting at the seams, I nearly licked my plate. I really have nothing else to say. It was absolutely wonderful. Which brings us to the standing ovation…

Bacon ice cream. Yes, you heard me correctly. I’m not a huge fan of dessert, even though that seems to be changing a bit as I get older, but this dish came in nipping on the heels of the lamb and sweetbreads. Famous pastry Chef Dana Herbert served us a colorful play on breakfast, his favorite meal with a twist on one of my breakfast favorites, French toast. He used sautéed apples, bacon and an almond lace tuile along with homemade bacon ice cream and maple syrup. I think a few people fainted. A guest to my right actually did lick his plate. By this time I really was bursting. We savored the company and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

We were amazed at the fluidity and coordination of the service. It is a testament to Shaena’s management and the speed of the chefs at how quickly and smoothly things went on the surface. I know that the kitchen was a zoo, since I took the opportunity to snoop around a bit, but how could I not? It was a controlled zoo, don’t get me wrong, but a zoo. And yes, Celebrity Chefs sweat too. A lot.

I volunteered to be the designated driver for the event, so I have little to say about the wine. The opinions of the people around me were that they were all perfectly paired to the course and the few sips I did have confirmed that opinion. In particular, there was a 2007 Domain Serene Rock Block Syrah paired with my favorite dish, the lamb, which was incredibly good and perfectly matched to the dish.  

All in all, this event continues to be a success year after year, drawing a packed house. The demographics are wildly varied, with people from the area, from Charlotte, NC; Richmond, VA; Washington, DC; and various other points all over the country, and in the case of Chef Barton, the globe!

Chef’s Tour

For the past three years, the Palisades Restaurant has hosted a stop on the Celebrity Chef’s tour that benefit’s the James Beard Foundation. Considered to be the father of American Cuisine, James Beard had a tremendous impact on our attitude towards food here in the United States. He worked with and helped train such chefs as Julia Childs and had a major impact on our culinary culture at a time when we as a society were trending catastrophically towards processed foods. Who knows what we would be eating now without this man’s impact? Regardless, here is a link to a blog published by one of the most highly regarded photographers in Virginia, Laura Matney, owner of Laura’s Focus, who was gracious enough to photograh this entire event.