South

The air smelled of wood smoke and leaf rot. I ran round the side of the mountain in what every small boy growing up in Appalachia knew was the fastest way to the top. It was futile to struggle straight up the side of those steeply pitched eroded plateaus. That was a sure way to recognize an outsider – as if it weren’t easy enough as it were. Within one sentence, spoken without our distinct accent that has been butchered by so many in Hollywood attempts to reconstruct our way of life for the amusement of the masses, an outsider was recognizable for what they were. Someone not from here. It was rare that the distinction need be determined by a single-minded determination to claw ones’ way straight up the side of a hill.

Going down, well, that was another matter. When we were kids, my brothers and I would dare one another to see how far we could jump down the side of a mountain. The terrain was so steep that you could be aloft for what seemed forever, skimming down, down the pitched earth, dry leaves rustling in your wake, your body only scant inches over the ground. It was exhilarating, maddening, frightening and bound to end up with one of us bruised and banged from landing in rocks. We would fling ourselves anyway, heedless of potential injury, yelling with glee as we defied gravity, sans parachute, with altitude our only hindrance.   

None of that was on my mind at that moment, although I would surely think of it again, after my race against the sun was over. I had just discovered a new cliff face, and like any mountain boy, it had to be climbed, again, and over again, until it was familiar territory, every nook, cranny and face explored and poked and excavated. I also had to see, simply must watch, the sun set off the top of my new fortress of solitude.

I was out of breath when I reached the top. Small wonder. I had just sprinted over a thousand feet up in vertical elevation, the last eighty or so literally straight up a rock chimney. It was a feat that would no doubt leave my adult self exhausted and sore for weeks, provided I had the courage to perform it. I faced out, west, watching the sun fall behind the mountains that marked the divide between counties in my small part of the world, thinking that someday, soon, I would follow that sun, see where it went.

Most of my books, beloved and dog-eared, described great adventures to be had in the direction of the setting sun. West, they would have you believe, is where all red-blooded American boys wanted to go, to the great painted deserts, to the endless prairies and the mighty Mississippi, further, onward, to the great Pacific Ocean, where you could ride giant waves generated by thousands of miles of storm cells building across the fetch of the great water. North was also just as magical, if not more so, with the frozen tundra and great white bears and endless miles of ice and suffering and adventure and kayaks and schooners frozen into glaciers while the men aboard slowly starved and read books and ate raw seal and dreamed of warm feet.

My gaze, inexplicably, did not hold in either of those compass delineations. Instead, inevitably, my wandering eye, even then destined to roam, turned south. To me, in my childhood imagination, south was a land of even greater adventures, where one could simply get lost in the swamps of the Everglades, wander the dunes of the Carolinas, or run the high trails, as my ancestors did, of the mighty spine of the Appalachian Mountains all the way into Georgia, then south and east into the sandy beaches where beautiful women were whispered to be, tanned and golden from the sun, where money was had to be gained and lost.

South was Mexico, a land of spicy foods and fish and beaches and cliffs and pirates. South was the Caribbean, where pirates still plied their desperate trade. This was the direction of derelict wanderers and warriors alike, where schooners were not frozen in ice, their occupants reduced to mad scribblings upon the dried skins of seals, destined to wait, helplessly, for springs thaw. No, South was where a man could drive his own destiny, unencumbered by the desperate plight of winter, nor chained as a slave to the mad longings of some greedy mine owner to the depths of the earth, clawing at the veins of coal, scrabbling for a living, emerging from the darkness as barely lit broken things, steaming of the muck of extinct swamps and long dead creatures.

South was my sirens song, as I clung to the branches from my perch high above all I knew. I dreamt of Miami, of Costa Rica, of surfboards and senoritas, of cenotes and monkeys and perfect, peaking waves. That was where the Incans were, and the Mayans, and the old ones whispered of in the legends past, dim mists of time forgotten. There was no predicting what one would find buried beneath the jungles and beaches and lost, remote, high mountain plains, blown dry and desolate with longing for an age long since passed.

Now, every chance I get, I go south. Nowhere else will do. My eternal compass points in that direction, always. On silent, cold, dreary, mindless short days when sunshine and warmth seem distant and impossible, when not a fire can be lit, I dream of the waves, the sand, the beaches, the food.

This winter was no different. My wife and I, silent partners in our fascination for the warmth of the equatorial sun, set out for the Yucatan, where eons ago a celestial body of colossal dimensions slammed altering the face of our planet forever. We rode jungle trails, celebrated a wedding with a family we adore, basked in the sun, and avoided tourist hordes as if we feared some contagion, brought about by their sunscreen smeared blank stares. We ate, we lived, we saw, and we went home – to restlessly place our port sides to the setting sun, and stare into the Chesapeake, dreaming once again of adventure.

 

For We Are Cooks

“Inspiration comes to those that seek it.” Did I come up with this? It’s highly unlikely. It’s more probable that the “one thousand monkeys on one thousand typewriters” idea is at work here. The quote is probably contained, more or less in its entirety, in one of the hundreds of dustless tomes lying about my house, clogging up my memory banks, and left behind for some other traveler to ponder in my endless voyages in life.

I do seek it though. Every day, the cook in me is pondering moments, sifting through smells and thoughts, memories and tastes, contemplating, wondering – is this it? Is this good? I’m not interested in molecular gastronomy in its intransiences, in its bewildering combinations of the periodic table and divergent molecular bonds. I learned enough of chemistry during my ponderings of minerals and the building blocks of nature, the things that bind together our lives in our trip on this semi-rigid body of stone we occupy.

Instead, I am interested in sharing my life, my experiences, and my reason for being, if you will. Through the artistry of food, through the simple act of sharing nourishment with other humans, cooking becomes art, which becomes sustenance, which becomes memory – all of which is bound for some other destination in the years to come. Who is to say that a sandwich shared, or eaten alone on the shoulder of some blacktop ribbon will not become a valued prescient of memory in the future?

Food transcended the simple act of nourishment for me some time ago. Somewhere between the lip of dawn and the cave of a new dark sky, cooking became more to me than just food. I realized the potential in every single thing I prepared, and so it became more than just the act of transforming the inedible into something tangible, something treasured, if for but one moment.

That is the raw beauty of cooking. The end product, which can take days, months or even years to procure, develop, tease into existence, is, if you have performed the task correctly, gone within but a moment. Works of art, arranged just so, with the passion of a soul yearning to share something so precious that it cannot be put into words, or upon a wall for viewing, are lost to memories and shared bits of information that is passed along, through the human whisper stream of consciousness into the future for others to hear of, sometimes only in passing.

The touch of the ocean upon the shore, the fallible scent of a wildflower at dawn, in the moment it winks out of existence, it’s entire life culminating in that moment, oh so fleeting; to place those passing seconds upon a plate, to bare ones soul to those strangers who dine on the memories of life; such is the existence of the cook.

Just as the artist cannot live without his brush, the dancer without her music, the mathematician without her constructs, the warrior without her battlefield, so is a cook without a medium. Ours is the simplest of professions – we are but cooks, are we not? We simply prepare food for others to eat. Only in recent years has the paradigm shifted to allow us to do what we have always wished, to truly share something with another person, the delight in senses. The smell of fresh mozzarella, the sound of a sizzle of something transcending its garden state, the taste of another’s life, taken with love and respect, so that another may live – so another may do more than just live. So that another may enjoy the life that comes to all of us, so often, at the expense of others.

So we work tirelessly, frustrated sometimes, in our quest to share what we know, what we can do, and above all else, who we are.

For we are cooks.

Southern Camping

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The Mason-Dixon Line is a bewildering boundary. Officially, it marks the South from the North, a reminder of the past, of iniquities real and suffered and penned into the history books. It is poorly understood, by both sides now, who wonder why there even are sides. The South is a conundrum of contradictions. Both old and new, stubbornly hanging on to the past while passive aggressively evaluating the new. It’s a place where old families still rule vast areas of land and wield incredible power, both over the vote and football. A place where old cuisines are being preserved and rediscovered nearly as quickly as they are being lost. Red Eye G­­­­­ravy and Cheesy Grits, once a staple of the poor and working class only, have earned their place in the hippest and trendiest restaurants in the United States. At the same frustrating moment, it is a place stereotyped by deep poverty and ignorance, attributes which strike even the casual observer with the question: Why?

The food culture of the South has always had its roots firmly in necessity. The mountains of Appalachia cut a deep swath through the majestic countryside to the west, surrounded by the lowlands so bloodied by the riches available through exploitation of slave labor for hundreds of years. One has always influenced the other. Appalachia was ruthlessly pillaged for her natural resources. Majestic stands of old growth hardwood, some believed to the remnants of ecosystems before the last ice age, were clear cut to provide timber to not only the ports and plantations of the South, but to the world as well. Ships laden with lumber planned from giant Chestnut Trees plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic for centuries. Fur, gemstones and precious metals were collected from the same unique microclimates and travelled the same trade routes as the hardwood, coal, cotton, corn, tobacco and other raw materials, making a few wealthy beyond all measure while enslaving an entire populace to the land and their taskmasters.

Through it all, culinary influences migrated from country to region, following the people who were forced to scrape something from the few morsels and scraps abandoned by their overseers. Spanish rice followed maize crops, black-eye beans, grits, lard, abandoned parts of otherwise valuable animals became staples across the south. Appalachia contributed their own influences as well. Desperate for calories, laborers in coal and logging camps invented lard biscuits, made from a few cups of flour and whatever fat they could render, most often from pigs turned free into the mountains to avoid property taxes levied upon the owners.

Red-eye gravy became a breakfast staple, a way to consume half a days’ worth of fat and calories into one simple and hardy meal. Sausage and egg biscuits were easy to wrap and carry and the Southern King of all foods, fried chicken was born out of the necessity of keeping priceless nutrition from spoiling during the heat and dirt of the day. Brined in tea, dusted with flour and spices, the Cajun and African roots of this dish are undeniable.

Every food around the world has its influences from somewhere else. Tracing a culinary common root is impossible: Even more so in the South. Especially in the modern South. The New South has risen again, dusting off the ashes of centuries of bloodshed and horror, stigma and exploitation to become something else. Where only a few years ago the presence of heavily tattooed, bearded white men would have been a sign of a deteriorating neighborhood, now it earmarks a place as an up and coming residential gold mine.

The young are migrating in spades to the New South. Once a home only to aging retirees, seeking solace in the land of eternal sunshine while taxing the finite resources of the crippled infrastructure with unlimited air conditioning, now Central and Southwest Florida is becoming a place for hipster bars, artist communities and organic farmers. Chefs, no longer bound to the once American Quest for superstardom on the Food Network, follow the influx of migrant populations to serve the food that they have always wanted to cook. The food they grew up eating, the food of their lives.

Chefs like Sean Brock, Ashton Carter, Aaron Deal, David Chang and so many others are earmarking their clients by cooking food that they themselves want to eat. Food they are interested in. The food industry will likely always be driven by the desire of the masses, but there is a select clientele that are truly interested in good food: Not the shit served to the oblivious or obnoxious, but instead to the appreciative.

A quick stop at an orange grove in north central Florida gave testament to the theory of a changing South. Gobbled up by conglomerates and subsidized giants, the citrus groves of old are largely gone. Just as their northern counterparts, small fruit growers were nearly annihilated during the Cold Wars of global food sublimation. A few families banded together, refused to sell and began selling local citrus in roadside stands, banking on the curiosity of weary travelers. It worked. Just as local apple and peach orchards in Georgia and further North, near the Mason-Dixon Line, began hawking their wares at farmer’s markets, newly popularized by the trend in healthier food.

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Savannah, Georgia is barely recognizable to me. On this recent trip, I’m struck by how much everything has changed in the past fifteen years. Me. Savannah. The populace. Mostly me. Fifteen years ago I was a stressed to the bone twenty-something graduate student struggling to find my way into a suitable career. With a sizable monkey on his back. Now I’m a forty-something newly minted Dad, much more relaxed and sans monkey.

What I remember as run down old shops on the waterfront have now given way to carefully restored four-star accommodation’s, each one preserving the old in order to give life to the new. Three-hundred year-old knotty pine planks, destined for the trash heap, were salvaged and refinished to provide flooring for dozens of structures. Brick and stone architectural notes, ancient by American standards, their mortar spilling a thousand stories of slavery, bloodshed and war down their weather beaten surfaces, remain behind as cornerstones for new elements.

Our room was a reminder of such. Two giant king beds with uber-soft, yet perfectly firm mattresses, parallel an ultra-thin television, not much thicker than a half-deck of playing cards. The bathroom is no less elegant, with tile floors salvaged from another locations, lovingly and painstakingly restored and placed for my barefoot, dripping enjoyment as I emerge from the steam shower. Hand hewed granite stones, significant historically by their geological origins from far away, give testament to the trade routes that once plied Savannah with raw goods, labor, and money.

Paula Dean’s shop beckons. We don’t enter, our morbid curiosity satiated by years of her drawl and stubbornly contradictory southern standards. We cross the square honoring John Wesley, my brother’s namesake, and I regal my wife and son with the history of this strange individual, curiously small in stature and demeanor, who was forced to leave England behind due to reported rendezvous with a church members daughter. I muse on how little things have truly changed over the last few hundred years, and then I realize I have lost them both. Another truth I must accept as a Dad: Nobody really listens to me anymore.

We wander on, back to the river front, strangely drawn by the past and present, and also by the warm winter sun, tanning our faces in the unexpected glow. My son plays, a testament to the past and the future, as he carts around his Tonka truck in one hand and his tablet computer with the other. I feel suddenly sorry for him, for some reason I don’t understand.

We eat breakfast at a trendy spot that our doorman recommended. We were the first customers through the door, and didn’t think to google the menu until after we had been seated. It felt better to just not know for a change. We started to twitter our meal, then thought better of it and enjoyed our fried chick pea sandwich and fried green tomatoes in peace. With hollandaise sauce. Our two year old son, who has decided that food is for the delight of mere mortals and not something he should be wasting his valuable time with in his quest to conquer the world, or at least the restaurant, by noon, refuses to eat one delicious morsel. Until we are ready to go. He then settles down and back content to be fed spoon by spoon, while he regales his loyal subjects, which consist of a table of giggling senior citizens, with tales of his glory and conquest. He’s not in the least embarrassed by the fact he has a very poopy diaper. If only our world leaders could be so oblivious.

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At the orange grove in central Florida, the temperature is already seventy degrees, despite the fact a cold spell is gripping the northeast and blizzard conditions are expected in our new hometown. We change delightedly from our Carharrts and Patagonia and Ibex cold weather gear into board shorts, t-shirts and flip flops. We return to the truck, an old F-150, yet another staple of Americana and sheepishly put our long sleeves back on. It’s still too cold for that.

Across the way, out of sight of the main parking lot, which provides a proper spot for two BMW’s, one Jaguar, a Land Rover, and at least three other mid-to-high end SUV’s, there are a couple of old cars and vans idling away. A worker pulls around back of the warehouse end, the business end, of the orange processing facility, where organic oranges become organic juice, which wing their way into organic aisles at Whole Foods far north of the Mason-Dixon line, where they are guzzled by toddlers on their way to swim class from their non-PCP certified Sippy cups.

Black women descend from the old cars at a sign, unnoticed by me, from the worker in his forklift, who leaves a giant crate of oranges out of plain site from the parking lot housing the upscale imported sheet metal. The sort through the fruit quickly and efficiently, pausing to take juicy bites as they work, loading the vitamin C laden food into plastic shopping bags. They are stare at me with some hostility until I take an orange from the bin and more or less try to join them, peeling an orange with my spring-loaded Case Knife, with a carbon heavy steel blade ordered just for me as a Chef. The woman across from me is greedily eating hers in big chunks, pulling it from the skin as she works, dropping the peels in the refuse bin for the compost heap. It is organic, after all. Certified.

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Field after field of citrus pass by as we hurtle south on back roads. I-75 is under construction, so google maps redirected us onto the byways of the state. We speed almost constantly, irritated by the extra time it is taking us. We make a pit stop in a small town, not more than a service station and a basic grocery market. All the signs are in Spanish. I’m stuck for a bit asking for the key to use the restroom. The lady behind the counter finally takes pity on my lack of Spanish and gives me the key and tells me to have a good day. Drive safe. In perfect English. I feel stupid. She looks at me warily, as if I may steal the key.

Outside, day laborers are squinting in the early morning sun, dragging hard on this sunny Monday. The wear tattered khaki pants, greasy torn t-shirts festooned with cartoon characters and reflective vests. They all wear either rubber muck boots or no shoes at all. One is singing something to himself in time with the Spanish radio station as he hoses out his cooler with a cut hose attached to a leaking pipe just outside the building. I am embarrassed to greet him as I pass by, revolted by the bathroom I just unlocked. Why it sports a padlock is beyond me. Maybe to lock some truly evil, barely human being in while awaiting deportation to another realm by a wizened Keanu Reeves type? I start the truck and hurry away, punching stations until I find a country song. Darius Rucker is singing “Wagon Wheel.” It’s my son’s favorite song and my wife and I both sing along to the lyrics, making up words as we go. Fields full of crops, intermixed with Thoroughbred horse farms blink by us. We barely notice.

**********

We arrive in Tampa right on schedule, unbelievable timing with a toddler. Not that we have a schedule, but it’s hard to leave a world full of deadlines, reservations and appointments behind in a day or so. It will take us a few days. We don’t exactly leave our search for hotels to chance, and once again google suggests something right in our price range. The Tahitian Inn. At first we think it’s closed, as at least half of it is under construction and the only activity that I can see is a young black man behind the reservation desk in a deep conversation with an equally young Persian man about women. One particular woman, to be exact.

We get our room key, which is much cleaner, or at least passes the visual and olfactory test, than the one from earlier in the day and find our room. It smells of chlorine and detergent, which is far better than a few alternatives that I have experienced. Nolan trams about the room, commandeers the phone, the remote and the dresser drawers. He really does act like a world leader. I unplug the phone and he doesn’t notice, just continues to give orders in his sing-song baby speech, which will one day soon turn into a command of the English vocabulary, including phrases that will likely shock his Nana speechless.

We don’t tarry, but dash out the room and back into the truck in search of an authentic Cuban meal. Google directs us at once to the oldest restaurant in Tampa, established in 1902. We arrive rather parched and dusty, with my stomach rumbling in surprise hunger pains. I haven’t felt those this strongly in a long time. Not since before rehab and nearly two years of battling symptoms caused by cirrhosis. My greatest fear on this trip is that they will return in all their agony, ruining our vacation. We’ve been lucky so far.

We cruise through the dining room after accidently entering the place by the wrong door. Literally hundreds of diners sit in large groups, sipping on or chugging drinks in glasses adorned by tiny umbrellas. They are all white and reek of tourists. I notice more than one fanny pack amongst the sea of gray hair and beer bellies and wonder where they have all parked. There is not a car in sight outside the restaurant. The waiters seem nervous, all men of color in three piece black suits. My wife and I realize two things: Not one table has any food and there is not another child in sight. We bolt through the front door just in time to hear someone complaining that they had left after an hour wait without getting anything to eat.

Another place, another google search. This one is a combination café and dining room, with an attendant serving their part of the room. The menu is in Spanish and cheap: Our entire meal was around twenty dollars. We feel that we have won a battle of some sort and we are inordinately pleased with ourselves.

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Day three in our camp. In my experience, it takes three days to settle into a campsite. The first day is spent trying to get the tent up, an outdoor kitchen (in our case, that is a must have) organized and sleeping cots assembled, dried out and placed in the tent. With a toddler, we find that this is more of a challenge than it used to be. His rapid and sudden change in environments results in an immediate temper tantrum, complete with wailing, green snot and eye buggers. Miserable with diaper rash from spending the last two days in the car but safe in his cocoon of familiarity, he tries to get back inside the truck. We pull him freed of his trappings and set him on the ground to wail at the other campers as they beat a furious retreat.

We did make it through the third day. The second day is spent looking for things, blaming one another for things forgotten and astonished by what you brought and didn’t bring. In our case, the fearless author completely forgot a freezer full of frozen portion sized yogurt, ready to be thawed and eaten. I also forgot a simple staple of camp life: A short sleeved button up shirt. I had several put aside to bring, but, I forgot them. Laura, in her excitement of being somewhere warmer than the Great Frozen North, neglected to bring a proper coat or warm clothes to sleep in.

Thank God we did remember the baby, who has also settled in by this third day. Our bodies and minds are adjusting rapidly to the sunrise and sunset, time to go to bed, time to nap, time to eat. We’ve already figured out a cooking rhythm at this point, and have fallen into the familiar tasks of home, only now it’s outside. We have packed plenty of beans and rice and various other sundries: Canned peas, dried pasta, noodles, quart jars of Ramen Stock, frozen chicken, fish and a little beef, all separated into portion sized parcels for thawing individually. That part we have finally gotten down. Nothing leaked meat juice into the cooler ice, which we still eye cautiously in memory of scarfing down icy rum drinks at night years ago only to discover the next morning that we had been gloriously sucking down raw chicken blood, antibiotics and god only knows what else with our swill. Our uneasy stomachs were a product of not only too much alcohol, but all the other stuff we’d been drinking.

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So we learned our lesson. We also learned to take cheese out of its wrapper, label it, and portion it before placing it in the cooler, so we’re batting pretty well right now, all things considered. I make a glorious Ramen in the cool evening with soba noodles and scallions, and all seems right.

Looking around for the first time as my body remembered how to ride a bike again, I am once again examining the South for traces of what it may be. We are just north of the Everglades now, a place I paddled into as a much younger individual, only to paddle even more rapidly out of. In the words of my father, there were things in the swamp that would BITE YOU. Now, older and with nothing to prove, I have no intention of leaving this island. For now.

The island is a curious paradise. Just below Ft. Myers, it is accessible by bridge on one end only. The toll is much less than I seem to remember, most likely because disposable income was not a thing that I had, at all, fifteen years ago, when I first arrived on these fair beaches. Not that I have much now. The toll still stings a bit.

Once a mecca for the aboriginal people who lived here, the island is now entirely inhabited by Senior Citizens. These curious individuals have indeed found the cure for getting old. Move to an island that is populated by the elderly, governed by such and priced accordingly. Looking at property values, we are both grateful for our tent, which is pitched at the only campsite allowed on the entire island.

We discover immediately that bikes rule here. Big cruisers and little Townies alike, with an occasional three-wheeler and the odd emaciated looking person on a lithe speedster doing his best to impersonate an elderly Lance Armstrong, there are bikes everywhere. Bike lanes. Bike rules. Bike paths. We find it rather glorious, as Laura gets to use her giant beach cruiser I bought her for Christmas ten years ago. I am jealous: I wish I had one.

We are trying to find the south, and here, we have found a new interpretation of it. The old meets the older, everything is convenient and comfortable and pleasant and as new parents, we love it. Everyone coos over our son, who is still shamelessly stumping for votes, poopy diaper and all, everywhere we go. I’m suddenly the “Young Man” with a small family, instead of the old dude in the kitchen. It’s nice. We eat at one restaurant, eyeing the comfortable menu that you find all over the United States, order a fish sandwich and don’t go back.

We do find a taco stand on our wanderings and vote to go back to visit ASAP, after Nolan calms down for a day or so. He is reacting to restaurants with something akin to fury right now, I’m not really sure why. Laura and I find a small coffee shop so she can upload some files and send out some contracts. We end up paying $6 for a small tea and $5 for a cup of coffee, plus tip, which ended up being nearly a third of what we pay for our camp site for our privilege of getting wireless.

I see no sign of the south that I know and love here, although it has plenty to like. As long as we eat what we cook, we’re in no danger of going over budget, and eating out becomes a technical and financial disaster. Nolan prefers stacking votive candles over watching their cheery, fake glow, which I must say I rather agree with. If he stopped there, that would be fine, but when the decorative artificial candles become missiles, then we become liable in the likelihood of a flipped comb-over. The perils of that are too great and we elect once more to stay in our campsite for meals.

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A sign of the new south is where we least expect it, but should have guessed. A convenience store next to our campsite, which is located way over in the corner, as far away from unsuspecting retirees that may be disturbed by a toddler in the wee hours of the morning. Early morning conversations in Spanglish serenade me into full wakefulness on our second morning. I was mostly awake anyway, my arthritis howling at me over the indignity of placing my old bones on a cot, padded by my sisters hand-me-down yoga mat. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We saved eighty bucks by borrowing one sleeping pad and utilizing the mat for sleeping. Besides being uncomfortably hard, it also smelled like my sister’s dog and my old habit with marijuana, with cigar smoke and ass sweat mixed in for good measure

I headed next door to find the source of the racket and following my nose to what was smelling oh, so good. There was only one thing that smelled like that, and I was not wrong. I bolted through the back door just before opening to find a sleepy eyed cook pulling chicken out of a giant vat of buttermilk, dredging them in flour, cornmeal and spices, and dropping them into a deep fryer full of peanut oil. At six a.m. $2 gets you a piece of chicken, a pickled jalapeño and a cup of cheap coffee. I’m very nearly in heaven. I watch the eerie pre-dawn light fade to morning as I crouch with the day laborers, mostly Latino, and munch on greasy, wonderful chicken with bites of hot pepper and a scalding hot sauce that they pass around. I know I’ll pay for it later in the morning. What the hell. It’s the best breakfast I’ve had so far that someone else cooked on this trip.

My wife is not as thrilled as I am as I rush back into camp with grease in my beard, babbling about fried chicken. She’s not very trusting in my judgment of what is and is not edible. I used to take great offense at this, and sometimes I still do, sulking at her for not even trying something I’m excited about. This morning, I really don’t care. She can eat it or not, but I vow to go back in a morning or two and get two pieces this time, with peppers and hot sauce, and bring it back to camp to use in a morning Ramen bowl. She blearily sighs at me just as our son starts to wake and I blather on about the historical significance of fried chicken in the south and to immigrants in particular when I realize I am once again just talking to myself.

So we’re left with the conundrum: This is not the South that I was looking for and hoping to find here. It is its own place, with its own ebb and flow of snowbirds migrating as far away from the northern winters as they can, much as we are. The island has its own brand of tranquility. Bicycling is the way to get around, food is overpriced, Yankee accents are thick and nasally, but it is still paradise. Just in its own way.

Camp life after a few days begins to have a personality all of its own. Deadlines slide into the background as your schedule now follows the sun. Sunup, you’re up, stomping off the cold and waiting on the tea to boil while you uncover the tailgate kitchen that, by now, is as good or better than anything you have at home. For one thing, spills aren’t quite as big a deal as in your outdoor kitchen. If a few crumbs hit the ground then so be it. Even the sight of your toddler eating food straight out of the sand seems, well, ok. It’s not like it’s “dirty” or anything. Books become old friends as pages turn with astonishing speed by headlamp after the sun bids goodnight and the stars, filtered a bit by the light pollution from Fort Myers, slide into place.

Bike routes become familiar, a favorite thing to do before the beach in the afternoon. Tooling around nature preserves, marveling at the diversity, you can’t help but be thankful for the vision of a few, so many years ago to preserve the island as best they could. There are no stop lights and no fast food restaurants allowed on the island, save one lonesome Dairy Queen, grandfathered in after 1974. So what if the restaurants lean their offerings to mimic the chains that Midwesterners are used to? Parking tickets and hefty shelling fines pay for the upkeep of some truly marvelous preserves. The Sysco trucks idle their way through 25 mph traffic, their drivers irritated, no doubt by the lack of eye candy on the way to the beaches, unless you count a particularly fit 70 something sporting new Under Armor leggings. It’s a place into and of itself.

**********

We wake even earlier Sunday morning, perhaps more excited than we should be. Nolan catches on to our energy and charges about the campsite until the neighbors begin to emerge from their tents like space age time travelers, sleeping through time and distance as the known worlds, old and familiar, become distant and gone, giving way to new worlds, betrothing in their unfamiliarity. The noise of a happy toddler isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I’m starting to believe that anyone who can’t respond kindly to a grinning two year old bearing a gift of sand covered cheese has something seriously wrong with them. He makes his rounds, saying hello to his fans, stopping long enough to gorge on milk and for us to chase him with food. A toddler is hell for a chef. They will disdain your best efforts for leftover ice cream in a trash can or dog food stolen from Fido. It keeps you humble.

We eat lightly and head for the Farmer’s Market, some two miles away, only a fifteen minute ride or so on our bicycles. Nolan is so excited that he starts leaning from side to side, causing his mother, at the helm of their great red Cadillac of a bicycle to list from starboard to port in an alarming manner. She fusses at him and he quiets down, but nothing is getting rid of that huge, toothy grin. He knows fun is afoot.

The market is glorious. It is beyond my expectations. It is beyond my dreams and hopes and dizzying in its array of glorious fruit, vegetables, citrus, strawberries, blueberries, tropical fruit we’ve never heard of before. I gorge on samples, taking full advantage of my limited Spanish and the eagerness of the sellers to trap you into their stall. It works: More often than not I spend a few bucks at the stands with the friendliest vendors. We eat samples of grapefruit and orange, mushrooms and starfruit, a spiky fruit I’ve never seen before that explodes with flavors of grape and mango when you bite into it. We eat tamales standing up in the street as a sea of people stream by us: Northerners of all dialects, Eastern Bloc accents boom unfamiliar tones as we listen, German wafts by, followed by small blond, impossibly tan boys. Nolan runs to play and they interact as only children can, squatted in the dirt inspecting various insects and shells, all invisible to adult eyes.

I hear Cantonese dialects, a few Southern drawls and the unmistakable honk of the Midwestern accent. A soft Vermont tone interrupts us in our fascination with this unbelievably good thing that we have found, this open air market where people are talking, conversing, laughing, eating and gouging prices with the ebb and flow of shoppers. Our neighbors in the campground, two hippies like us, only from a generation before, Vermonters fleeing the harsh winters, stand and chat as the crowd flows around us. A sea of senior citizens, in all shapes, colors and sizes, peppered here and there with other generations and the sellers themselves, all young and of various origins in the human mash-up of genetic migration.

We chase Nolan through the crowd, rescue a lady from his persistent little boy attempts to throw rocks at her, for what reason we still don’t understand. He vanishes so fast, running on his nimble feet on the sand causeways, darting to and fro through the maze of human limbs, prosthetics, canes, wheelchairs, shoes and bare feet. Laura stays on his trail like a Cree Indian, relentlessly pursuing him by sight, while I, on some unspoken agreement between us, swing wide through the crowd, reading reactions on adults faces as they are arrested by the smile of a child, tanned strong legs and blonde curly hair, playing as children should.

We never lose sight of him or his direction, between the two of us, but we sometimes wonder what it would be like for just one of us. It takes a village to raise a child. I believe that now, and sometimes wish our world was still composed of settlements, clans of humans dedicated to their families and the survival of those of their tribe. It’s hard to imagine evil in a place such as that. I have a hard time getting the movie “Minority Report” out of my head while we chase him, but we keep him close and people are kind.

We gorge later on tomatoes, grilled pineapple, oranges, onions, black beans and rice, grilled chicken with lime and lemon and spices and eat like kings. I am happy manning my station behind the tailgate kitchen, as any cook is who has good ingredients. I grill and taste, stir and add spices, chop and dice, paying little attention to anything around me. Laura watches Nolan as I make my mentors proud and pull a meal from our horde worthy of any restaurant, anywhere.

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Laura asks me over a spoonful of dinner: “Would this be as good at home?” I think on that for a spell. I grin at her, my love, my wife, and I have no real answer. She is beautiful with long, lean tan legs and a body that would make a teenager jealous. Her bare feet swing back and forth and she is sporting the tiniest bit of sunburn on her left shoulder. I just smile. I’m thankful to be here. Regardless of what sort of south we may be in.

The trip ended, as they all must. Ours ended in a whirlwind of impromptu packing as our son broke out in hives on all exposed skin and his face swelled to twice its normal size. We toughed it out as long as we could, correctly identifying it as an allergic reaction to something, what we didn’t know. We stayed one more night after his face began to swell, but packed up and bolted the next morning. Like all new parents whose child has never been sick before, and in that we are truly blessed, we make decisions in rapid fire and sometimes against common sense. We wander about Ft. Myers in search of a doctor who will see him, something taken for granted only a few years ago. We were turned away at the first practice, regardless of our excellent insurance and credit cards on display. We sat in a private children’s hospital for three hours as his swelling became worse, panicked and bolted for points north.

The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me. In a Walgreens a pharmacist, no doubt noticing my stricken look, tentatively diagnosed it as a reaction to sunscreen and gave me skin treatment suitable for babies. A nurse in Tampa left her post and hospital to evaluate him in the parking lot, worried that we wouldn’t be able to find health care in the labyrinth of our medical system. A rural doctor, wrapping his hands around his considerable girth, toyed with our emotions by playing with Nolan for a full fifteen minutes before pronouncing him allergic to an ingredient in sunscreen and prescribing steroids, the first dose of which was administered there in his office.

We stopped to visit family, including my wife’s large, loud, wonderful, exuberant, extended southern family in Georgia, just outside Atlanta. We were promptly fed until we felt we would burst. Nolan’s Auntie, as he dubbed her, much to her delight, made us at home immediately and we were all chattering like magpies in the kitchen within ten minutes of our arrival while Nolan showed off for his newest fan by banging on his toys as loudly as he could.

The night stretched on as I found it hard to leave these people, both nights we were there. They made me homesick for my own family as they talked over one another, laughing constantly and delightedly, at no one’s expense save those present. They passed giant bowls of cole slaw, green beans with bacon, savory chicken pot pie, bread and of course, the omnipresent pecan pie, all whipped up with little to no effort by our motherly host.

Time flew by too fast and we were in the driveway, saying goodbye, loaded down with coffee and fruit for our drive, Nolan pouting over leaving his Auntie. We all wave until we are far down the road, reluctant to say goodbye, but knowing that we will be back. The mountains of Georgia, the beginnings of the mighty Appalachia, nod goodbye to me, shrouded in the endless mist, rain and sunshine. My heart longs for the hills of my heritage, the green mountains and the mighty river and dirt lanes.

We dashed on north, back towards our home, although I was reluctant to return. The eastern shore, to me, is northern, regardless of its position on the map. We visit my sister in Charlotte, NC, living large in a small local restaurant where we can barely taste our food as we try to get caught up. Her husband has long since joined in the boisterous southern calamity that is our way of greeting one another and remains calm as we nearly shout at one another over endless plates of food, eating from one another’s bowls without a thought or care, something we’ve done since we were kids.

Then, suddenly, we are outside of D.C. after a wonderful and unexpected Indian breakfast conjured up by Laura’s Indian sister-in-law to be, full as we can be and savoring the exotic tastes of preserved lemon, fish cake and savory pancakes, smothered in cheese sauce, and eastern shore favorite. I can already tell that this will be a new family favorite.

I am becoming a bit exhausted and sentimental as we close the final gap to our new house on the Eastern Shore. I begin to feel homesick for the mountains, but the Bay welcomes us home with open arms. Not a breath of air is stirring on the still waters as we cross the bridge. The air and water become one as I gaze off into the expanse of horizon to my right, Laura at the wheel of our Ford truck, which has seen us through so many thousands of miles and we hope, for many thousands to come. I feel a glimmer of welcoming in the warm day as the now familiar salt air flows through the cab, carrying with it the smells of the earth and water. I become restless in the confines of the cab. I want to be out, planning our garden, ordering fruit trees, getting starter seeds washed and planted. Maybe I’ll get a few chickens this spring. Nolan will love the chicks. I imagine them in our workshop, dashing about under a heat lamp, surrounded by young tomato saplings and herbs awaiting the warm spring sun. I am home. Regardless of the Mason-Dixon line.

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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

Racism, Social Stratification and $5 Twine.

$4.99. I stared at the label, not quite believing my eyes. My kitchen was sacked, resembling what I imagine Carthage must have looked like after the Battle of Zama. The dishwasher was askew and looked ready to escape the madness. Loose heavy gauge wire snaked behind the cabinets like giant spaghetti. The sink was freed from its moorings and the faucet was scattered about on the floor. Chicken stock and jam were simmering and boiling, in that order, on the range. The crock pot was bubbling with soup and empty jars littered every available space. Sourdough bread was rising in the chaos, destined to fail from want of attention. The oven was set on 400 degrees and I was dangerously close to a full kitchen fire. Just add grease.

This time of year renders everyone insane. Those who do cook feel responsible for every mention of a Holiday dinner. The non-culinarians feel obliged to still contribute to the feasting in some way and so overspend at Whole Foods and Boston Market. At this point in time, the promise that this year, somehow, I will spend less on Christmas is shot as the Absolute Delivery Date From Amazon pursues us across the calendar is abandoned and largely forgotten.

The money crunch seemed more real this season. With one house empty on the market and another occupied by our small family, we were monetarily stressed. End of year costs for the self-employed are extremely shocking. Rising health care and all the myriad of fees, taxes and levies are leaving small business owners raped and broken as we front the money required to employ a host of government employees, whose sole intent seems to be declaring the day after Christmas a Holiday.

I looked at the war zone of a kitchen, dashed over to the range in time to keep the jam from boiling over and considered the real cost of eating in our country. It is ever popular to piously choose healthy food choices over packaged ones as more of us have the opportunity to do. Supply is rising in response to the social self-justification of high quality food products. High-end box stores such as Whole Foods are nearly neighborhood fixtures catering to the middle and upper class, primarily white, population. Fish markets are now part of a hip culture as consumers pose with product and hawkers gain reputation not for their fish, but their ability to toss them for their customers. Butcher shops, although still trailing their seafood and produce brethren, are also on the rise as the millennial horde discover what humans have intuitively known for thousands of years: Meat is good.

All this has its repercussions. We are still single consumers amongst billions that need sustenance to survive. If we are so lucky to have our own small gardens, access to local farms, waterways, apiaries, backyard poultry farmers and sustainable meat, then we should count ourselves blessed. What we proclaim as a right, access to good food, is in fact a privilege.

With all this in mind, as news coverage of demonstrations against racial and social prejudices plays silently on my open laptop, I sat stunned on the floor with my five dollar ball of twine. $4.99, plus tax, to be exact. It was in fact adorned in the appropriate wrapper. The label designated it as Gourmet Kitchen Twine. Was it so different than the twine used around the world by the working poor and upper class alike, which is available in most food supply stores and other bulk stores for about the same price as their gourmet counterpart, only for FIVE HUNDED feet of it?

I unwrapped the twine out of curiosity. What was the actual cost of this stuff? A rough measurement confirmed what I had suspected; the size of the ball was correlated to the length, as is every other rope-like product of similar diameters, regardless of the price. Brown twine, which widely available at most, if not all Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern or the myriads of other “ethnic” supermarkets, works out to a penny a foot. The shit being sold to pretentious wealthy white shoppers in search of the most seasonal and local vegetables to go with their imported cheeses and wines: About $0.25 per foot. You pay a lot for the packaging and marketing that goes along with being a foodie these days.

What irked me the most was that it was in our kitchen. That means that either my wife or myself, most likely me as badly as hate to admit it, had purchased it. One or both of us had thought so little of the costs associated with wrapping our sourdough starter, homemade butter and meat products that I simply had not checked the price. Such a thing is unthinkable for most Americans, regardless of color, but would be particularly nauseating for one of our ethnic minorities. I have dared think of people watching the price of their groceries mount on the blinking screen as they weigh their options as just not as smart as me. As I smugly stand in line with my frivolities, organic seedless grapes ($10.99 a pound at Whole Foods) and Kombucha ($5.99 per 12 fluid ounces at a local gourmet grocer), these people are weighing the cost of surviving until the next paycheck or government assistance installment.

The truth in the escalating price of wholesome food, health care and reality of the aptly labelled food deserts is not in the lack of education: It is in the lack of options.

I shamefully utilized my ball of twine. But not before I put up a length of it in my workshop. Six feet, six inches. Just a little over a $1.50. To measure the growth of my son, and to remind myself that food options, for now, are a luxury of the fortunate and a miserable truth for others.

B.S. and Calamity

B.S. on a plate!

B.S. on a plate!

There is a moment in every cook, chef or restaurant workers day when they feel like they should just quit. For the front house employees, it can be after Another Complaint rolls in from a table of eight who have just decided to split the tab into an aggravated octagon. Each one wants to pay only for what they have eaten, and arguments ensue over who ate most of Grandmom’s food, rustled drinks from the bar while they thought no one was looking and the dreaded tip calculation. Water service somehow becomes a big deal to these holiday scrooges, as does the timely delivery of bread to the table.

Exasperated to no end with her shift and very life at that moment, a server has two options: Roll with it or make a scene. Either scenario can play out in an instant, which is why God made front house managers. These are people who can swoop in like Batman, render justice as necessary, and most importantly, make sure that no one is permanently injured. The server is usually left to sulk, the guests are given gift certificates and rounds of promises that the next time they come in things will be better and a big sigh of relief goes up from the kitchen as they depart, huffily and deeply admired with themselves by the acquisition of free cake. They don’t know it was left over from three days ago, picked over by busboys, dishwashers, starving servers and the delivery guys, and, honestly, it wouldn’t really matter to them anyway. Their private war with the underlings has been won, and they can retire to the nearest McDonalds to glory in one-dollar cheeseburgers, which they all really wanted anyway.

Cooks can have their own meltdowns, which are generally confined back of the line, where the fallout is initially limited. Bodily harm is threatened, pots are hurled and insults are vehemently delivered in several languages, usually directed at the perpetrators lack of penis girth or lack of the described organ all together. It blows over quickly, but like a nuclear weapon, long fragmented in the explosion, continues to leak radiation over the entire restaurant. Potatoes disappear, cooks begin to insist they take regular breaks and everyone is suddenly aware of every employee protection law in existence. Tears are shed, cigarettes and weed are vigorously abused and house alcohol and wine vanishes at an alarming rate.

I stepped into one of these situations one night as a new cook. The situation was further complicated by sexual and emotional relationships and the unexplained truancy of the house side dish of grits and gravy. By this time, Chef was three sheets to the wind and the G&G was gone. Vanished. Faded into mist. Caput.

Chef demanded a new side dish. Pronto. The other cooks made their way into the land occupied by the immensely popular misplaced house G&G. Unaware of the calamity, I was perfectly happy mincing and dicing and julienning vegetables while secretly scribbling in my notebook. Somehow, it became my responsibility.

All we had in the walk in in mass quantities were Brussel Sprouts. A fifty pound bag of them. During the week following the insanity of Thanksgiving, someone, who was also occupying the great beyond with the missing chefs and corn grits, had ordered fifty pounds of Brussel sprouts.

Nobody likes these little green monsters. Not even me. Vegetarians don’t even care for them. Vegans avoid them. People with gluten allergies shun them as if they were a by-product of a bagel factory. Children are bewildered when parents try to make them eat them, as all children have been since the beginning of time. This was probably why we had fifty pounds of them. A highly perishable, dubious vegetable of unknown origins. In a burlap sack.

That night, I proved my worth. Our new side dish, appropriately labeled B.S., flew off plates and earned itself a solid place as a keeper on our seasonal menu. Here is what some desperation, a few ingredients and a house full of angry guests cogitated.
House Brussel Sprouts (B.S.)

(Serves 20)
• Five pounds of Brussel sprouts, halved;
• Two whole heads of garlic, peeled, smashed and finely chopped;
• One pound of bacon, diced (see below for tips on dicing bacon);
• Three medium shallots, finely diced;
• Four red onions, finely diced;
• One tbs. of garlic powder;
• One tbs. of celery salt;
• One half cup of crushed red pepper; and
• One glass of good red wine, for yourself and one glass for deglazing. (Meiomi, California, 2013)

• Sautee the onions in butter and olive oil until translucent, ten minutes or so.
• Add the shallots and garlic and continue cooking until lightly browned.
• Add the bacon and brown, stirring constantly until the bacon is cooked through and crispy.
• Deglaze with the wine.
• In the meantime, bring two quarts of water to a boil. Have a sieve and a bowl of ice water ready.
• Dump the spouts into the water, salt liberally. Boil for five minutes. If the leaves begin to separate, remove immediately.
• Drain through the sieve and place immediately in the ice water. After thirty seconds or so, remove the sprouts from the ice bath and strain once more.
• Add the sprouts to the pan and cook quickly, stirring gently, for about five minutes. Toss with the garlic powder, celery salt and crushed red pepper. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Pairs well with venison, flank steak or goose.
• Watch your kids eat the B.S.

The truth of the matter is this: When the chaos clears, the kitchen is clean, the wait staff have divided their tips, the cooks have sharpened their knives and hidden their most treasured ingredients from one another; everyone descends on a local bar and eatery, celebrates another shift won and battles conquered, there is nowhere else any of them would rather be.

I miss all of this. The hurled dishes, the heat, burns, cuts and calloused hands. These are small things in the face of a shared comradery. Like fellow blue collar workers all over our country, we appreciate the small things.

Tip: Partially freeze the bacon before dicing and make sure your knife is SHARP! Otherwise bacon is extremely annoying to dice evenly. Enjoy!