Friday, March 26, 2021

A Passion For Passionfish

“People who are most afraid of their dreams convince themselves they don’t dream at all.”  I understand what John Steinbeck meant when he wrote this, but this has never been a problem for me.  I take great comfort in my dreams as they serve as an entré to my subconscious desires.  Dreaming has served me well during this year of sheltering at home during the pandemic.  It allows me to travel where I am unable to go, and to savor meals I am unable to enjoy in the settings where I have encountered them in the past.  

Recently I posted about the first time I ordered sand dabs which are a popular game fish in northern California and found on menus in the Monterey Bay and San Francisco areas.  I found them on the menu at Passionfish, my favorite restaurant in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, but it was not until a couple days later when I ordered them at Salito’s Crab House in Sausalito.
I had opted instead for the sea scallops at Passionfish (more on this in a moment).  

I first visited Passionfish, located at 701 Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove, in the late 1990s, notvery long after Chef Ted Walker and his wife Cindy first opened for business.   It was already turning eyes and tempting palates in and around the Monterey region when I first read about the restaurant in a feature story on Monterey in an airline magazine (with a photograph of Ted and his daughter Meghan) on a flight from Washington to San Francisco and I vowed to check it out if my schedule permitted.  Happily it did.  I have returned twice more since.

Passionfish is quite different from so many seafood establishments I have visited over the years.  It is not just a question of what fare is offered and how it is prepared.  Here the emphasis is on sustainability of the endemic fish populations off the California coast.  The Walters became trend setters in establishing an eco-friendly restaurant and gathering their ingredients from local fisheries, farmers markets, and smaller sustainable organic farms which necessitates a menu change almost daily depending on the season and availability.  What results are dishes far more interesting and flavorful than what the diner might find elsewhere. 
My first visit came at the end of a beautiful Saturday exploring some of my favorite spots in Pacific Grove and neighboring Monterey and Carmel.  I have long had an affinity to this area since my first visit (since childhood) in 1979 due to my interest in the life and works of John Steinbeck.  Pacific Grove is a quaint Californian town founded in 1875 as a seaside Methodist meeting camp on the Monterey Bay.  It is known for its charming beaches, a monarch butterfly preserve, a diverse marine life, purple ice plants along the rocky shores, and aesthetically pleasing architecture.  The Steinbeck family in Salinas 30 miles away would frequently spend weekend getaways at their Pacific Grove  cottage built by his father.  The cooler sea air came as a welcomed relief from the hot and dry weather of the Salinas Valley.  

John would later bring his first wife to live here in 1930 before he built his own home nearby.  At thesame time Steinbeck met the marine biologist Ed Ricketts who lived in a handsome house on Lighthouse Avenue not far from what is now Passionfish.  After Rickett’s wife left him he moved to his small rented laboratory among the sardine processing plants not far away along Monterey’s Cannery Row.  Ricketts and the denizens of Cannery Row would soon show up in Steinbeck’s popular fiction – Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday, a sequel published in 1954.  Tortilla Flat (1935) is set nearby in the hills above Monterey.  Steinbeck would join Ricketts as he gathered marine specimens among the tidal pools at Asilomar Beach in Pacific Grove and later would join him on a collecting expedition to Mexico which he documented in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951).  After exploring Cannery Row I was ready for some good seafood and Passionfish did not disappoint.
On that first visit I selected the fennel seed and sesame crusted albacore tuna prepared medium rare while sealing in the subtle flavor and giving the flesh a diaphanous succulence.  It was served over a bed of bacon gremolata beside a mound of cauliflower puree over bacon-wilted chard.  It was a difficult choice selecting an appropriate wine given the impressive wine list of local California varietals.  I eventually selected a very reasonable Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey Country and I was set for the evening.  Most seafood restaurants favor the yellowfin and bluefin tuna, but North Pacific albacore tuna, also known as the longfin tuna, is frequently found on West Coast menus since it is endemic from Baja California north to Oregon and Washington.  Albacore has long been the cornerstone of canned tuna in this country, and I never realized just how good it is if properly prepared until I fished for them off southern California coast between San Diego and Catalina Island.  I mentioned to my friendly server that I had read about the restaurant on my flight to San Francisco and she told me that the owners were both raised in Monterey County and were very devoted to serving only dishes based on sustainable sources and ingredients found locally.  
A few years later my wife and a dear friend from the East Coast accompanied me on a return visit to Passionfish.  Before dinner we had explored some of the same tidal pools that 
Steinbeck andRicketts had worked seven decades before, including the Great Tidal Pool near Asilomar Beach, a narrow, one-mile strip of sandy beach and rocky coves. Today this area is located within the confines of the Asilomar Marine Reserve, a Marine Protected Area where it is prohibited to disturb any of the resources, birds animals, fish and natural features, including shells and rocks.  These days Steinbeck and Ricketts would have to look elsewhere.  This beach also overlooks the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary established in 1992 and encompassing more than 6,000 square statute miles in which drilling, mining and dumping are prohibited in order to protect its marine life and other natural resources and to provide fish populations a haven where they can
feed, breed and thrive.  We were content just to look around and watch the sun sink below the Pacific horizon before we headed off to dinner just a few blocks away.  I had enjoyed the tuna so much on my previous visit that I ordered it again and it was just as tasty as I had remembered it.  Since tuna adapts just as well to a white wine as to a red, this time around I selected a Sauvignon Blanc which worked out very well.  Bringing others with me on this return to Passionfish on my recommendation, I hoped that it would be as good as I remember.  Suffice it to say we all left very satisfied with our meals and friendly service. 

My most recent return to Passionfish came after a more than breathtaking 100 mile drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (California One) from Morro Bay where I had spent the previous night after wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley north of Santa Barbara (more on that adventure in an upcoming post).  I was looking forward to my return to the Monterey area and the first order of business after settling in would be dinner in Pacific Grove.  I was curious what would be on the menu this time.  Actually, there was something new – sand dabs – and having never heard of them before I asked my server just what they are.  Passionfish had never served sand dabs before because they were not sustainably harvested.  With a sweet and delicate flavor they sounded interesting, but I decided on the sea scallops instead.  As fate would have it I would try sand dabs for the first time a couple nights later in Sausalito.
Dinner was simply plated yet it was a wonder to behold; three large, lush sea scallops over a tomato-truffle butter drizzle with bacon-wilted chard and an artichoke risotto cake.  I was pleased tosee that the wine list now featured bottles from Ryme Cellars in Sonoma County owned by the Walker’s daughter Meghan (the one photographed with her father for that airline magazine) and her husband since 2007 and where they produce wines from organic or sustainable vineyards.  It seems the acorn did not fall far from the tree.  I selected the Cabernet Sauvignon and hunkered down for a delightful dinner on a rainy night in Pacific Grove as I mapped out my local plans for the following day – a trip over to Salinas to wander Steinbeck’s boyhood haunts and to visit the National Steinbeck Center. 

It has been a few years since my last visit, but there is no doubt I will return to Passionfish the next time I am in the area.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Sand Dabs in Sausalito

         I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
         Wastin' time.
– Otis Redding

Sitting here pondering where I would like to eat vicariously today, my mind wanders west to America’s Left Coast and to the vibrant and slightly bohemian hillside town of Sausalito.  Jack Kerouac, in his On the Road (1957), refers to Sausalito as "a little fishing village" although it has evolved into something more than that today.  A decade later Otis Redding penned “The Dock of the Bay” in a rented houseboat along Richardson Bay in Sausalito, and although he never mentions the town by name in the song lyrics, those who have been there can’t help but recognize the setting.  Otis would record the song shortly before his death in a plane crash in December 1967.  I love that song, especially the sound of the waves and the seabirds in the background.   I can’t help but think of it every time I am in Sausalito.   Just like humming Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” every time I drive the New Jersey Turnpike.

There is a lot of nostalgia connected with the times I frequented Sausalito in the late 1970s and 1980s when I was out west conducting research at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  After a long day in the library stacks and blowing dust off of old documents I would return to my hotel to change and then I would head into San Francisco and environs for a good meal and a pleasant evening.  On my weekend breaks I like to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge for a drive along California Route One - the Shoreline Highway – and into the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.  These trips would always include some time along the Sausalito waterfront promenade with its wonderful views of the bridge and Richardson Bay with San Francisco skyline in the distance.  

There was always one stop that was de rigeur for any trip over the bridge.  Zack’s By the Bay,
located at the intersection of Bridgeway and Tunney Street, had been a  popular and some say notorious Sausalito institution since it was opened by Sam Zakessian in 1959.  It was famous for the weekly turtle races organized and announced by the legendary late Bill "Turtle Bill" Sanborn .  His trained stable of nearly 100 turtles won hundred of races at Zack's during its heyday and were three-time world champions and six-time American champs from 1976 to 1981.  There were two other neighborhood bars - The Boathouse onthe other side of the boat ramp and Sarky’s across the street - and together the three were sometime referred to as the “Bridgeway Triangle.”  I always enjoyed stopping in at Zack’s when I was in the neighborhood for one of their marvelous bleu cheese burgers and a couple beers while people watching out on the terrace with its sweeping views of the Bay and beyond.  I always left with a smile on my face, a warm spot in my heart, and a couple of their matchbooks in my pocket.   I still have a couple and they are collector’s items sold on eBay.
Time never stands still.  On my last visit to Sausalito I thought I would drop by my old hangout for a burger and a couple beers.  I was saddened to discover that Zack's had long since disappeared in 1981, replaced by the equally defunct Marguaritaville and Paradise Bay,   The building was still there but now it was an upscale restaurant called Salito’'s Crab House.  The location was still perfect and so Salito’s it would be.  Gone was the funky interior of Zack’s although some memorabilia from that era was still hanging on the walls.  The place looked bright, fresh with a casual ambience.  The large deck overlooking breathtaking Richardson Bay was still there and walking inside the memories came flooding back. The great square bar where I had rest my elbows long ago was still there and my eyes lit up at the addition of a new oyster bar.  I settled in at a table on the deck for a pleasant evening of dining al fresco.
            Two thousand miles, I roam
            Just to make this dock my home

Perusing the menu while enjoying a nice Russian River Pinot Noir and snacking on a fragrant loaf of warm house-made kettle bread served in a cast-iron pan, my eyes focused on a dish I had heard of but had yet to sample.  I ordered the Sand Dab Doré.   The Pacific sand dab is endemic to the northern Pacific Ocean and it is a popular game fish in northern California and found on menus in the Monterey Bay and San Francisco area.  Sand dabs have a delicate, sweet flavor unmatched by any other Pacific flatfish.  Pacific sand dabs are considered a sustainable choice for seafood and can be sauteed, fried, grilled, baked, or boiled.  I had seen it on the menu a couple night before in Pacific Grove but had opted for something else (more on this very soon in a new blogpost).  This time it looked too good to pass up.

And a memorable meal it was.  It is a shame more people have not heard of sand dab as it is very good eating and similar to sole and plaice – just a bit smaller.  Its diet of crustaceans and mollusks give it a rich, buttery, and nutty flavor and a moist texture. My meal that night was simple but delightful.  Two fillets sauteed with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon and served with a buttery sauce with capers and paired with seasonal vegetables and another glass of Pinot Noir. They literally melted in my mouth,  

So it was not the old memory reawakened but a new memory to cherish with the hope that my travels will eventually bring me back to Sausalito for another meal at Salito’s and not just this vicarious resurrection of the first time I enjoyed sand dabs.   

            Now I'm just gon' sit, at the dock of the bay
            Watchin' the tide roll away, ooh yeah
            Sittin' on the dock of the bay
            Wastin' time

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Three Score and Ten

Whereas I entered my seventh decade a year ago, I can now officially join the ranks of the septuagenarians.  It was 70 years ago this morning – at 4 minutes after midnight on March 21, 1951 – when Mrs. Rogers delivered a bouncing 8 pound, 9 ounce baby boy whose luxuriate cries echoed throughout the maternity ward of Holy Cross Hospital, on the southwestern edge of Chicago, Illinois.  It was a Wednesday, the first day of Spring that year, and my folks would bring me home to our South Side apartment on Easter Sunday.

The US president was Harry S. Truman serving his second term in office having been reelected in 1948.  US troops were still engaged in combat in Korea and would be for two more years. Just over a week after I was born Ethel and Julius Rosenberg would be convicted of atomic espionage and would eventually die in Sing Sing’s electric chair. "Rawhide," directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, would be released four days later, one of the most popular films of 1951.  A hit song at the time was Perry Como’s "If (They Made Me a King)" written by Tolchard Evans, Robert Hargreaves, and Stanley J. Damerell, and recorded by Como in November 1950.  Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle and published by Yale University Press in 1950, was one of the best selling books at the time. Televison was a relatively new invention, and in early 1951 people were watching "Circuit Rider," an early drama about the lives of evangelical clergymen who traveled across the new American states in the wake of the Revolutionary War.  It aired on Sunday nights on ABC-TV between March 5 and May 7, 1951.

If you think about it, 70 years seems like an awfully long time.  But think of it as 840 months, 25,566 days. Or 613,606 hours, or 36,816,413 minutes, or 2,208,984,819 seconds!  That is pretty hard to fathom.  How many times has my heart pulsed since that morning long ago?   How many times have I blinked my eyes?  Oh, if I had a dollar for each.  And, if I got a good eight hours of sleep every night, which I almost never do, that would mean I have slept away a third of my life . . . just over 23 years!  Thankfully that has not been the case.  I have things to do.  Places to go.  People to see.

I have mixed feelings about this personal benchmark.  The first year of my seventh decade is one I would just as soon forget; a year of personal loss, a killer pandemic, an election that divided this country to a dangerous level and ended with an insurrection incited by the outgoing president that attempted to destroy American democracy at the very seat of power.  So where will this new year of life, the first as a septuagenarian take me?  What will I be able to accomplish?  Hopefully, at the end of it all, I will still be raising a joyful noise.  Regardless, I will just take comfort in my loving family and my many friends.  It has been a good life so far, and I look forward to many more years in your good company.


Friday, March 19, 2021

A Quest for the Perfect Steak - Part 2

Leaving Wyoming behind we headed north into eastern Montana’s Bighorn Country and the present-day Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations, wandering the sites of the Battle of Rosebud Creek on June 17, 1876, and the Battle of Little Bighorn a week later, on June 25-26, 1876.  The area is also home to a number of beef-producing ranches and once again we worked up a good hunger when we finished the day in Billings,
That evening we visited a small steak and seafood joint near our hotel where I ordered  bone-in short ribs.   Technically not a steak, the meat off these ribs is not as tender as the meat of a steak.  This narrow beef cut is shorter than traditional ribs so they do not make for good steaks, but the bone imparts such wonderful flavor so how could I not at least give them a try as part of my quest.  “Variety is the very spice of life.”  Plate short ribs (ends of the back ribs higher up on the animal are referred to as flanken ribs) are found near the breastbone in the chuck of an animal (above the front leg shanks).   These short ribs have a nice layer of fat-laced meat sitting on top and were slow smoked and braised and served with roasted root vegetables, mashed potatoes, and finished with a red wine Bordelaise sauce.  The braising transformed these ribs into a tender, succulent, fall-off-the-bone chef-d’oeuvre.  Braised short ribs are a good source of protein and a number of essential vitamins and minerals.  There is no reason to be concerned about rendering out the fat as the collagen from the connective tissue to the bone provides a moist texture for the meat and the rendering makes for a good sauté for the roasted vegetables as was the case with this meal.

The next day we traveled west across Montana skirting Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park and that evening we ended up in Gateway, Montana along the Gallatin, River.  Dinner was at the Corral Steakhouse attached to the motel where we were staying.  I had noticed the place a few years earlier when I was attending a conference in nearby Big Sky and I made a mental note to try it the next time we were in the area.   I ordered the 16 ounce Delmonico steak (a boneless ribeye steak in this instance) served with a rather large baked potato.  One does not frequently find it on the menu and it had been years since I had one.  I jumped at the chance.

A Delmonico steak, first popularized by Delmonico's restaurant in New York City during the mid-19th century, is a thick-cut preparation (normally 1-2 inches), one of several steak cuts although most frequently a boneless ribeye although there is some disagreement whether it should be served boneless or bone-in.   It is always a high-quality piece of meat with plenty of marbling from somewhere in the rib or short loin section of the animal It was.  Because of its thickness, a Delmonico cut can be tougher than a standard ribeye and some chefs will marinate the steak for a few hours before cooking.  It is best to sear the steak for 3-4 minutes on each side to seal in the juices and prevent the steak from drying out, or it can be grilled or broiled quickly in a medium high heat to an internal temperature of 130-140 degrees for medium rare.

Our explorations in south central Montana led to dinner at the Grand Hotel, a quaint inn dating back to the 1890s, in Big Timber, a small hamlet half way between Billings and Bozeman.  I ordered one of its signature dishes, a grilled rack of herbed lamb served with balsamic raspberry mint and accompanied by a very fine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  I rarely have an opportunity to enjoy a well-prepared rack of lamb and it was a delightful meal . . . and a break from red meat. 

Out next stop was Bozeman where we visited old neighbors from back home in Maryland.  We had a chance to further explore this funky university town after which we enjoyed a drive through Paradise Valley south of Livingston in the shadow of the noble Absaroka Mountains.  This  followed by a spa afternoon at Chico Hot Springs near Emigrant Gulch.  That evening we returned to Livingston where we joined another couple for dinner at the  Montana Steak & Chop House where I ordered a 16 ounce Angus New York Strip served with garlic mushrooms and broccoli; yet another cut the bona fides for which come from that great Eastern metropolis far from the nearest herds of beef cattle.    
The strip steak is a cut from the short loin.  It is muscle that does little work which makes the meat particularly tender although not to the degree of the tenderloin.  The abundant internal marbling (although perhaps not as much as found in quality ribeye steak) gives the meat a robust flavor and a New York Strip is one of the tastiest steaks on the market.  It also has a thick and course stria of fat running down one side that is not that edible but should always be left on during cooking to lend its flavor to the meat.  A thick cut New York Strip can also be served Delmonico-style and most often boneless.  There is an advantage to leaving the bone attached.  It insulates the meat while cooking, which allows the steak to retain moisture as its marrow infuses the meat with extra flavor.  Since the bone heats to a higher temperature that the meat, that portion of the steak closest to the bone will cook slower than the rest of the steak.  A well prepared strip steak to medium rare can be complimented with a light seasoning applied before cooking 7-10 minutes on each side to an internal temperature of 140 degrees.  I am not completely sure whether it was the food or the company we enjoyed most, but this was a particularly memorable meal with a fine cut of meat enjoyed with some locally brewed beers. 

The following day we continued our road trip north and east of Bozeman as we made out way across Montana toward the Dakotas.  This is some stunning country with scattered cattle ranches but very little in the way of civilization until we reached Miles City on the banks of the Yellowstone River where we spent the night.  We settled in and then drove into town to wander around looking for an interesting place to eat when we stumbled on the Montana Bar with its marvelous Montana-shaped neon sign.  Founded in 1908 the bar was still in the midst of celebrating of its centennial and this seemed like an excellent choice for dinner.   We bellied up to the polished wooden bar installed in 1912 and after a couple cold beers I decided to order the 16 ounce marinated T-Bone steak.  Whereas a Porterhouse steak is cut from the rear end of the short loin and thus include more tenderloin steak, along with (on the other side of the bone) a large strip steak, a T-bone steak is cut closer to the front, and contains a smaller section of tenderloin.

Depending on who you talk to there is a question whether it is necessary to marinate a steak, especially a good quality steak.  It is not a requirement to marinate a steak although most cuts can benefit from it if done properly.   A marinade adds flavor, and the acids they contain can aid in tenderizing the meat.  Should one decide to use a marinade, it is best not to do it for longer than eight hours as the acids will then begin to break down the proteins in the outer layers of the steak.  A 1-2 inch thick T-bone steak is best seared over a high heat to seal in the juices and assure the best flavor.  A light coating of oil and a modest seasoning will aid in charring as the steak cooks 7-8 minutes on each side until the internal temperature of the strip portion reaches 150 degrees.   As with any bone in steak, the meat cooks slower closer to the bone and since the two portions of T-bone steak differ in size close attention is required to make sure the smaller tenderloin portion does not overcook.
We continued our eastward journey the next day, pausing for a time to explore Joe, Montana - - before passing into the North Dakota Badlands made famous in the writings of Theodore Roosevelt who ran a cattle operation near Medora.  I took a breather from my steak quest and ordered a grilled chicken breast that evening in Dickenson, some excellent Chinese fare the following night in Watertown, and another well-prepared broiled walleye fillet the following night in Sioux Falls (we were back in South Dakota after all).  This pause in my quest should not be interpreted in any way as me having tired of eating well prepared steaks (and every one so far had met my expectations).  I knew full well what lay in store for me.  

Our long road trip was winding down as we left Sioux Falls the following morning traveling west again to visit the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota where I was in corn dog heaven.  Breakfast was only a couple hours behind us, and lunch time still seemed far off, yet we ordered a couple corn dogs - real honest-to-goodness corn dogs from the heart of America’s Corn Belt - which we savored there is the bowels of the Corn Palace.  After all, they are tube steaks; big, fat corn dogs at $1.50 each!  Mmmmmmm.  I can still taste them.  Afterwards continued southwest, passing through the Yankton Lakota Sioux reservation and crossing the Missouri River for a second time on this trip at the Fort Randall Dam.  The rest of that day we paralleled the Niobrara River as it flows across northern Nebraska until we arrived back in Valentine for the night.  Oh yes, we returned to the Peppermill Restaurant where I enjoyed yet another 32 ounce Porterhouse and another long walk through town afterwards.  It did not disappoint. 
We took a couple more days working our way southeast back to Omaha to catch our flight home, but before we left I made a promise to myself that we would enjoy our last meal of the trip at Johnny’ Café adjacent to what had once been Omaha’s Union Stockyard.  Founded in 1883 it was second only to the Chicago stockyard in livestock and beef production in the United States.  It finally closed in 1999.  Johnny’s first opened in 1922 and for many years has been considered the best steakhouse in Omaha where steak is king.  What better place for our final meal of the trip?   Johnny's is famous for its hand-cut beef selections aged-on-the-premises.  The lunch menu was somewhat limited, but they offered slow roasted prime rib of beef au jus sliced to order every day, all day, and so it was not difficult to decide.  And who can forget their special onion rings?
Prime rib, also known as standing rib roast, may contain anywhere from two to seven ribs from the back end of the rib cage.  They surround an “eye” of meat in the center which is juicy, tender, and encased in fat-marbled muscle with a thick cap of fat.  Prime rib can tend to be on the expensive side since this section of the animal is relatively small, and many consider it to be the best cut off the animal.  It is good source of protein, the vitamin B complex, niacin, and iron.  Since prime rib is technically a roast and not a steak, cooking time and temperature is based on the weight of the roast and the level of doneness desired.  Dry-brining the meat the day before cooking will enhance its tenderness and flavor and will allow for a nice crust on the roast which is cooked bone side down in a large roasting pan.  It’s best to roast at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes for each pound until the interior temperature reaches 110 degrees.  Covered and rested the meat will continue to cook for medium rare to an interior temperature of 120-125 degrees due in part to the heat coming off the bones.
This might explain why steaks appear on regular menus while prime rib is only offered as a daily special and for as long as it lasts; it is more time and labor intensive.  So it was a treat to find Johnny’s Café serving it daily and sliced to order.  What a splendid way to end my quest to find the perfect steak.  Each of the cuts I sampled were delicious in their own right and it would be difficult to choose one based on taste and the manner in which it was prepared.  Each should be enjoyed for what it offers the diner.   When I set off on our journey I had my eyes set on the Peppermill’s porterhouse praised by Jim Harrison.  A man of discriminating tastes, he claimed it was the best steak he had ever eaten and I wanted to see for myself.   It was indeed something special.  Memorable to be sure.  So much so I ordered it twice.
As I finish writing this my dear mother has sent me six filet mignons from Omaha Steaks for my birthday.  Their meat is only from grain-fed cattle raised in the American heartland so some good eating lies ahead.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A Quest for the Perfect Steak - Part 1

When I was a young boy I use to accompany my mother to the grocery store and while she was busy shopping I would hang around the meat department watching the butchers at work.  I was fascinated how they came up with so many different cuts of meat.  For a time, when other boys dreamed of becoming firemen or policemen or doctors, I harbored the secret desire to become a butcher.  I eventually grew out of it as most boys do, but I am still fascinated by the knowledge and skill necessary to render a side of beef into the variety of steaks and roasts found at the meat counter.  After all, there is more to steak than “steak.”
In one of my last postings I touched on my search for the perfect steak during our travels through the Great Plains in the spring of 2007.
The main focus of this hunt was a planned visit to the Peppermill Restaurant, in Valentine, Nebraska, which, according to Jim Harrison, served the best steak – a two-pound Porterhouse – he ever had west of Chicago.  If luck would have it, I aimed to repeat the deed.  In fact, I did . . . twice!  Over the course of this trip which took my wife and I across Nebraska, the two Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota and Iowa, I enjoyed a number of very fine steaks and some were truly memorable.  It is probably not best to eat more than three portions of red meat weekly, but I decided to throw caution to the wind during my travels across the Great Plains.  Hard sacrifices are made in the name of research.  I would go back to being a good boy when I returned home to Maryland.

We spent the first night on the road in Kearney, Nebraska where we planned to view the spring sandhill crane migration along the South Platte River on the Central Flyway.  We treated ourselves to a relaxing meal at the Copper Mill Restaurant and the first one of many fine steaks I planned to enjoy over the next two weeks.  Harrison has written that it is difficult to find a good steak in the west except in Nebraska and Kansas and I planned to put this claim to the test.  I got off to a good start with a choice 14 ounce aged and well-marbled boneless Angus ribeye served with a loaded baked potato and bacon wrapped asparagus and a couple glasses of a nice Pinot Noir. 

A good steak should be aged for at least 14-21 days for enzymes to properly tenderize the meat fibers and for the more complex flavors to develop.   Most beef today is aged in plastic shrink-wrap – as one finds it in a grocery store – a process known as wet aging.  Dry aging, on the other hand, takes time and patience and the proper environment, ideally a well-ventilated and moist room at a temperature of 33-37F.  This will prevent the sides of prime beef from spoiling or freezing.  Once frozen the aging stops.  Dry aging beef, on the other hand, makes a steak more tender and flavorful, and given that it will lose as much as 10% of its weight due to evaporation as it ages coupled with the necessity to trim off the “bark,” the discolored and dried out exterior surfaces, before cooking.  As such, dry aged beef can cost much as 50% more than wet-aged beef.

The ribeye is probably my favorite cut which come from the rib section between the shoulder and loin or backstrap running the length of the spinal column.  It is routinely removed in two long strips producing the best quality steaks.  The ribeye’s rich interior marbling of fat tends to make it tender, juicy, and flavorful when prepared medium rare (cooked three to five minutes on either side to an internal temperature of ca. 140 degrees).  It is also my preferred manner of cooking as it allows for a rich exterior sear in the pan or clear grill marks and the meat is warm throughout yet retains it rich red coloring.  It is best plated after it is allowed to rest for up to ten minutes.  There is no need to add artificial seasoning to a well prepared ribeye steak.  A coarse sea or kosher salt rub prior to cooking helps break down the tissue to tenderize the meat and give it a more buttery texture.  Some course ground black pepper during cooking is really all one needs to bring out the integral flavor of the meat.  This first trip steak was very satisfying and what would follow would be faced with a bar set rather high.

On our second day we reached Valentine, the center of a major beef producing area,   after exploring Nebraska’s Sandhills and some of the most beautiful prairie landscapes I have ever see.  “Beef is a pleasure food,” Harrison tells us. “We desire pleasure because we live nasty, brutish lives.”  He also wrote in one of his food essays that the Peppermill Restaurant in Valentine served “the best porterhouse of my life.”   SallyAnn and I had dinner there that evening and I ordered the 32 oz grilled grass-fed porterhouse. 

Porterhouse steaks are cut from the rear end of the short loin and includes a smaller  tenderloin steak on one side of the bone, along with a larger top loin New York strip steak on the other.  The similar T-bone steak is cut closer to the front of the short loin and its tenderloin steak is smaller than that of the porterhouse (more on this later).  The strip steak portion is more flavorful than the tenderloin, but both are excellent cuts of meat which are leaner than a ribeye steak (although the porterhouse has even less fat than the T-bone).  In his essay “Meals of Peace and Restoration,” Harrison cautioned when trimming a two-pound porterhouse that one does not “make those false, hyper-kinetic motions favored by countermen in delicatessens.  Either trim it or skip the trimming.   Eat the delicious fat and take a ten-mile walk.”   Perhaps trimming fat before serving a steak might enhance the dining experience for some, it should only be removed once the meat has been cooked as the fat imparts a lot of flavor into the meat during the cooking process.  A porterhouse should be cooked (seared or grilled) for approximately 7-8 minutes on each side for medium rare.  The meat near the bone will cook slower than the rest of the steak, and the tenderloin portion will tend to reach the desired internal temperature of 130 degrees before the strip steak portion.  It takes care to prepare a good porterhouse.

I had steeled myself for this wonderful steak served with a few French fries that were good for sopping up the drippings.  The steak was everything I hoped it would be and I did eat what I considered to be an “acceptable” amount of fat.  Harrison recommended eating the fat and going for a long walk afterwards.  We were not up for such a rigorous outing as a 10-mile hike, but after dinner we did wandered around the cattle lots on the edge of town greeting all those wonderful steaks on the hoof.

The next day we headed west across the roof of Nebraska and into South Dakota, passing through Wounded Knee and the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux reservation on our way to the Black Hills.  After a visit to Mount Rushmore we stopped for dinner at the Ruby House in nearby Keystone, South Dakota before heading to Rapid City where we would spend a few nights while exploring the area.  For a change of pace I ordered a “buffalo” ribeye steak served with steamed broccoli.

I should point out that this was actually a bison steak; the two terms are often used interchangeably yet buffalo and bison are two distinct animals; both members of the bovidae family yet not closely related (a true buffalo is the Cape and water buffalo native to Africa and Asia while bison are found in North America and Europe).  Bison was not new to me as there are two bison farms here in Maryland that we would visit on occasion to stock up on various cuts of meat for the home larder.  A quality bison steak has the same vitamins, minerals and other nutrients found in beef as well as iron, higher levels of proteins, and omega-3 fatty acids but it is leaner and significantly lower in saturated fat with nearly 25% fewer calories than beef.  Due to its lower fat content, bison has finer fat marbling thereby rendering a more tender meat.  Bison steaks are best served rare to medium with an internal temperature of 145 degrees to maintain the moisture and flavor of the meat as it tends to dry out during preparation due to the lower fat content.  Beef ribeye steaks are quite flavorful due to the fat marbling and are in no need of marinades or seasoning (IMHO), but bison, which tastes very similar to beef although somewhat sweeter, can be a tad gamey and coarser and can benefit from either or both.  I have found that marinating a bison steak for a few hour before cooking followed by a gentle rub of sea salt and herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, savory or basil) will do the job very nicely.  The steak at Ruby House was well-prepared and nicely complimented by the broccoli and a nicely structured Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Touring through the Black Hills and the South Dakota Badlands for a couple days, I decided to take a break from my steak quest and clear my palate with some other local treats.   On a snowy afternoon in Deadwood, South Dakota, sitting in the same saloon where Wild Bill Hitchcock was shot in the back and killed, my wife and I sat at the bar and I ordered a large plate of Rocky Mountain oysters (bull testicles).  They don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got that swing.  Sally Ann had never tried them, had never even seen them served and she opted for the shrimp basket.  When the bartender brought them out and placed them before me along with a mug of cold beer, SallyAnn commented that they looked a lot like popcorn shrimp (they do a little only larger) and asked why they weren’t round. “So they won’t roll off the plate,” the bartender and I answered in unison. They were as good as I remembered while dipping them in a tasty salsa.

The next day, after a snowy drive through the Badlands east of Rapid City, we stopped in Wall, South Dakota to visit the anonymously famous drug store advertised for miles along Interstate 90 (you have to see it to believe it) after which we retired across the street to the Badlands Saloon and Grille where I was served a succulent walleye fillet.  Who can forget the de rigeur Friday fish fry dinners back home in Wisconsin when I was growing up.  Heady piles of the ubiquitous yellow and lake perch although every once in awhile one was lucky enough to score fillets of fresh caught walleye.  I fished for them regularly when I was a boy and it had been a few years since I had enjoyed one for dinner.  What better place than South Dakota where it is the state fish?  I personally consider it a crime to fry such a delicate fish; I prefer mine poached or broiled which is how it was served to me that evening.
Our road trip took us farther west and we stopped for lunch in Belle Fourche, South Dakota and I had the a “Buffalo Burger” (yes, bison) well seasoned and served medium rare with mushrooms and onions and a side of tater tots and a tall schooner of cold beer.  Continuing into Wyoming we had a close encounter of the first time at Devil’s Tower which we circumnavigated on foot to insure that we would have sufficient hunger come dinnertime which arrived as we reached Buffalo, Wyoming.   One would think this would be the perfect place to order a well-prepared bison steak.  We retreated to The Virginian dining room at the historic Occidental Hotel where instead I order the 8 ounce elk tenderloin pan seared to order with thyme beurre blanc (an emulsified butter based sauce made with a red wine reduction) and served with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables.   
If you have never had a chance to sample free range elk, the flavor is rather similar to bison.  I rarely get a opportunity to enjoy a nice cut of elk; it had been three years since the last time I had it in Gardiner, Montana at the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park where large herds of elk still roam.  So I could not pass it up when I once again found it on the menu.  The tenderloin, also known as the filet mignon cut, is perhaps the tenderest cut and also arguably the most desirable and therefore the most expensive.  Served medium rare from the grill or roasting oven it can be an ethereal eating experience.  
Elk has even less fat that bison and therefore its flavor is derived from the meat fiber rather than from the fat content.  Some find the elk fat unpleasant.  Its flavor is dependent to some extent on what the animal has been feeding on.  I prefer that the fat be left on, at least while it is cooking.  If it’s not up to snuff, it can always be trimmed off before eating.  Of course this is not an issue with the tenderloin cut.  What fat there is helps lower cholesterol and the meat is rich in proteins as well as a good source of iron, niacin, and riboflavin.  The American Heart Association considers elk to be the “Heart Smart Red Meat.”  Since there is so little fat in elk, it is best to cook steaks quick to no more than 140 degrees internal temperature to prevent the meat from drying out.  Roasting in the oven is one of the easiest and most low maintenance ways to cook an elk steak.  To insure that the meat remains moist it does not hurt to add some herbal butter on top of the steak before you put it in the oven just as they did for my tenderloin at The Virginian.  A couple glasses of Shiraz from California and this wonderful meal was an ideal grace note to an interesting day on the road.   We spent that night in Sheridan, Wyoming and the next day we headed north into Montana where my quest for the perfect steak would continue.

Continued in Part II

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Following My Stomach Around Montreal


As we reach the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic I imagine a gastronomic romp through the city Mark Twain called “the City of a Hundred Steeples.  Montréal is one of my favorite cities on the planet and I miss my visits during this pandemic.  It is also a city where I love to eat.  At first I though I might highlight a special eatery, but I decided what better way to pay tribute to the fabulous cuisine this city has to offer than to make a vicarious grand tour beginning with breakfast and ending at a favorite terrasse with a nightcap before calling it a day.  
I normally prefer a light breakfast, and there are so many places to choose from to score a fresh croissant and a well made cup of coffee.  Yet it seems a shame to pass up a full breakfast to fuel the day’s activities.  Whether you eat light or heavy, a good place to start is Olive et Gourmando, at 351 rue St-Paul Quest in the west end of Vieux Montréal, the Old Port where the city was first established as Fort Ville-Marie in the mid 17th century.  Olive et Gourmando also serves lunch and dinner, but I prefer the Old Port early in the day before it becomes choked with traffic and tourists.  One can sit and enjoy a quiet breakfast at a high-top table while watching the cobblestone streets come alive with activity.  The St. Lawrence River is just a couple blocks away at the foot of rue St.-Pierre.  Olive et Gourmando has a wide variety of fresh baked pastries and artisanal breads to choose from, but on this visit I opt for the mouth-watering cheese, bacon, and poached egg open face, the one that appears on the cover of their cookbook.   The pièce de résistance is a couple take away brownies should I for some reason feel peckish before lunch.  
After a morning of wandering around the shops and galleries in Vieux Montréal I would more than likely darken the threshold of Stash’s Café for a light lunch.   It is located just a couple blocks from Olive et Gourmando at 200 rue St.-Paul Quest.  It has long been a favorite of mine for lunch and dinner, serving delightful Polish dishes with a unique Québécois touch.  They are known for the sweet and savory pierogi served with a dollop of sour cream, as well as placki, the Polish version of the potato pancake served with fresh apple sauce.  For lighter fare there is the delicious flacki, a beef tripe soup, and the unique and refreshing zupa agorkowa, a dill pickle and vegetable soup.  My favorite is the kielbasa served with warm sauerkraut.  Those who know me know it is difficult for me to pass up a well prepared and attractively plated sausage.
I decide to move on for lunch today and I make my way downtown to the Boulevard St.-Laurent, locally known as La Main and one of principal commercial corridors since the early 18th century.  It originally separated the English west side with the French-speaking East End.  The Le Plateau neighborhood has long been the center of the Montréal’s diverse immigrant communities and I favor it for its bohemian atmosphere, its many cafés, shops, and galleries, but most of all for its variety of ethnic foods.  Boulevard St.-Laurent is also the center of city’s juiverie, the historic Jewish neighborhood since the mid 19th century made famous in the novels of native son Mordechai Richler (1931-2001) – The Apprenticeship of Dudley Kravitz (1959), St-Urbain’s Horsemen (1970), and Solomon Gursky Was Here (1981).  This is also where Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) grew up and where he maintained a home until the time of his death.
There is so much to choose from here, but I naturally gravitate to Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal, more popularly known as Schwartz’s Deli, at 3895 Boulevard St-Laurent.  Founded in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Romanian Jew, it has been serving to order the city’s famous viende fumée – brisket salt brined, cured for week, and smoked on the premises – to several loyal and appreciative generations.  I first visited Schwartz’s on the basis of two urban myths that, like most, turned out to be false.   First that the Reuben sandwich originated here.  Schwartz’s is strictly kosher and does not serve Reubens as they contain both meat and cheese.  Second, that it was Cohen’s favorite neighborhood haunt.   In fact, he lived just a few blocks away in the rue Vallières, just off St-Laurent in the Little Portugal neighborhood, and he frequented La Main Deli across the street from Schwartz’s at 3864 Boulevard St-Laurent.  But since I was already there I decided to stay and I have been returning ever since.
When I go, I order presque toujours the trademark steam pressed smoked meat sandwich served on rye with mustard.   Add a order of fries, a garlic dill pickle, a cherry pepper and a soda and what more does one really need?  The meat is cut to order and stacked high and a pretty good deal for CDN$10.   Another favorite at Schwartz’s is the smoked meat poutine.   The place is almost always crowded with a line snaking out the door.  Patience is amply rewarded in the end.  

A third urban myth turned out to be true, or at least partially so.  The eponymous  Montréal steak seasoning found in almost any grocery store in North America and used at smoked meat emporiums across this city, was first developed at Schwartz’s.  Originally a pickling spice developed by the Ottomans and further refined by Romanian Jews,  it is now a popular rub for steaks and chops.  Consisting primarily of ground salt, pepper, dill, coriander, garlic, paprika, and mustard seeds, it was brought to Montréal in the early 20th century and has been used in the preparation of smoked meats as well as in steak and chop houses across the city and beyond.
During a pleasant afternoon wandering around Le Plateau, one can stop into a café for a cup of coffee, and later meet friends for a cinq à sept  [literally “five to seven], enjoying  wine or beer at one of the many café terrasse scattered throughout the neighborhood while deciding where to have dinner.  Lunch, even on a good day, will only hold you so long.  Montréal is a great foodie town and there are so many places to choose from.  After drinks one might jump on Le Métro and explore what the city has to offer.

If one is a glutton for some of the best Québécois fare to be found anywhere, there is no need to wander far afield.  There is only one place I can think of and that is “the Wild Chef” Martin Picard’s Au Pied du Cochon at 536 rue Duluth in Le Plateau.  In 2012, Time called it a “bastion of excess beloved by Anthony Bourdain and other gastronomes” where even a salad can offer the diner a challenge.   So how could I go wrong?          
For such a well known and popular place it is rather unassuming and it is possible to walk right by the first time around.  Once you have eaten there, however, you will never forget it.  This is genuine Québécois fare at its best; a menu full of superb rich offerings that are truly decadent and guaranteed to stick to your ribs.  One thing for sure is you will probably not have to worry about breakfast the next morning.  Foie gras is featured throughout – foie gras tacos, foie gras poutine, foie gras chicken nuggets, foie gras hamburger, foie gras puree, and the house specialty – pigs feet stuffed with foie gras and covered with mushrooms and onions and served over a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes.  There is also pork loin, sausages, and duck pie.  I have tried them all and its hard to decide.  I sit at the counter so that I watch the food being prepared, a practice I have nurtured for years eating at diners.  On this visit I decide to try something new – canard en conserve – or “duck in a can.”
It is exactly what is sounds like but served in a most unique way.  The can contains a roasted half duck; in this instance a mallard raised for its foie gras  at Picard’s farm in St-Benoît de Mirabel northwest of the city where he also owns La Cabane d’ à Côté, a popular seasonal sugar shack.  The duck is extremely flavorful due to the manner in which it was raised, and the can also contains generous slices of foie gras, butter stewed cabbage, a balsamic vinegar demi-glace, and sprigs of thyme.  The can is heated for roughly 30 minutes in boiling water and then brought to the diner where it is opened and the contents poured over crostini covered with a thick Bernaise.   Many choose the house beer but I order a nice Syrah, a rather heavy red wine that helps cut through the fat without camouflaging the rich flavors.  It is a dish to be savored slowly and don’t be surprised if you have plenty of leftovers for take away.  There is certainly no room for dessert although APC has a wonderful selection.
After dinner is a good time for a leisurely stroll along nearby rue St-Denis.  This trendy tree-lined street where the sidewalks are filled with quotations by the famous and the obscure has plenty of places to sit and enjoy the electricity running through the city.  I pop into Bar L’Barouf at 4147 rue St-Denis for a nightcap.  It is not overly hip; a pleasant place to listen to classic rock music or watch a sporting event while enjoying a wide selection of beers from all over Canada and the world.  There is no question I won’t be going to bed hungry yet a couple of cold ones seems the perfect end to a far from quotidian outing.

If this pandemic lasts much longer I may have to plan another eating vicariously adventure in Montréal.  There is still so much to choose from.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A Year of Not Living Dangerously

 It is hard to believe that so many of us have now been sheltering in our homes for an entire year.  And those who have not probably should have.  Had all of us done what the experts had recommended at the outset, the pandemic may not have become as deadly as it has.  To date over 117 million cases of the COVID-19 model coronavirus have been reported worldwide.  While over 66 million have now recovered, the death toll has reached 2.6 million.  In the United States alone there have been 29.1 million reported cases resulting in roughly 525,000 deaths . . . nearly 1/5 of the total deaths worldwide.  There have been ca. 388,000 cases in Maryland with almost 8,000 deaths.  Here in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC there have been 138,607 reported cases and 2,767 deaths.  My town of 8,000 souls has reported 717 cases.  None of this was even imaginable one year ago.  
How many of these cases and deaths could have been prevented if the former administration had taken the threat seriously and listened to what the experts were telling them?   First it called the virus a hoax and then tried to convince the American people it would disappear when the weather turned warm.  That never happened.  The experts recommended social distancing and the wearing of protective masks and still there was push back from the White House that could have been a model for people to follow.  That never happened.  The former president spoke at press conferences and tweeted about untested (and frankly dangerously crackpot) cures for the virus and promised us for months that a vaccine was just around the corner.  That never happened.

It was not until the election and inauguration of a new president that the government began to take the pandemic serious and to listen to the science and the experts.  There is a new urgency as coronavirus variants are emerging worldwide raising many concerns that the virus could spike again if not curbed quickly.  President Biden promised 150 million vaccines in the first 100 days of his new administration.  Despite glitches the vaccines are arriving and being distributed and now 49 days into the new administration the Center for Disease Control has reported that federal data collected since vaccine distribution began in this country on December 14, 2020 indicates that more than 92 million doses have been administered, reaching 18.1% of the total US population.  The US is currently administering over 2.1 million vaccinations daily and at least 31.5 million people have now completed the two dose vaccination regimen.   Even though we are finally moving in the right direction, we are still far from vaccinating the entire US population.   At the current rate, it will take an estimated six months to immunize just 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine.  We have a long way to go.

Now, just when it appears that we might be turning the tide against the further spread of the coronavirus, individual states are perpetrating a false sense of security and are beginning to prematurely rescind their mandates for social distancing and the wearing of protective masks while reopening public spaces to 100% capacity with no restrictions.  Even so, some of the governors of these renegade states are still urging their citizens to act responsibly and wear masks even though their importance for the spread of the virus is no longer officially recognized.  What are the chances of that?  It seems to me that the moronic response of the former White House to the pandemic is still alive and well in many states across the country, most of which also rate low in the percentages of their populations that have been vaccinated.  With warnings of a possible new spike in cases if public health measures are dropped too early, President Biden has accused these leaders of “neanderthal thinking.”  At a time when this country is still experiencing thousands of new coronavirus cases daily requiring hospitalization and resulting in further deaths, these states have just decided they are tired of the restrictions and are taking action to remove them lock, stock and barrel.  This ignorance does not only endanger these populations, it endangers us all.  This pandemic is not going to be vanquished piecemeal.  It will take all of us working together as we take care of ourselves and those with whom we come in contact.    

I was particularly sickened by videos showing adults urging their children to burn masks on the steps of the Idaho state capitol in Boise . . . a state with one of the highest infection rates in the country.  The Republican state governor has never issued a statewide mask mandate while seven of 44 counties and 11 cities have such mandates in place.  In the past week Republicans in the state legislature have introduced a bill to prohibit mask mandates across Idaho.  I can’t even wrap my head around such an act of wanton irresponsibility.

This pandemic has nothing to do with politics or political affiliations.  The coronoavirus is an unbiased killer.  Yet partisan differences exist .  There are those who agree with health experts who say that social distancing and masks slow the spread of the virus while also believing that only by working collectively can we protect ourselves and one another.  Others believe that government invoked restrictions and mandates limit individual freedoms and endanger our republican form of government.  What they seem to forget is that we are not debating the survival of a form of government.  We are talking about the survival of our population whether it be red or blue.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who serves as the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is the chief medical advisor to the President Biden (after being ignored and marginalized by the previous president), believes it is still too soon to be canceling public safety measures and reopening businesses to full capacity. “I understand the need to want to get back to normality,” Dr. Fauci said in a recent interview with CNN.  “But you’re only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines — particularly when we’re dealing with anywhere from 55 (thousand) to 70,000 infections per day in the United States.”   Who would you listen to?

My wife and I have both had our first dose of the Moderna vaccine and we return in a couple weeks for our second and final one.  Whereas we are happy to take this important step in protecting ourselves and others, we both also realize that this is no panacea for the immediate eradication of the coronavirus.  We will still need to practice social distancing and continue to wear protective masks in many situations.  You are not free if you are dead.  And what about the freedom from danger for others who are impacted by those who refuse to comply?    

So here we are a year later and still wondering if the end of the pandemic is in sight.   We are all tired of the isolation and loneliness.   We all miss our families and our friends.   We all miss the things we used to take for granted that we are now unable to do, or only after logical and logistical planning.   We all miss traveling, and going out to eat, or to the movies or a concert.  But the only way we will ever get back to whatever will be the “new normal,” we are all going to have to trust each other and work together to do what is necessary to restore the health of our country and our neighbors near and far.    
There is an old Chinese proverb that tells us that one moment of patience may ward off great disaster, but one moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.   Former president
John Quincy Adams perhaps said it best.  “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”  As we take note of the first anniversary of this health crisis, I say we should remain patient and work together for the common good.   Don’t forget.  We are all in the same boat.

Monday, March 8, 2021

A Brief Berkshires Memoir

Every time I find myself driving Interstate 70 (the Mass Pike) through western Massachusetts I recall “a song they sing when they take to the highways.”   It is James Taylor’s 1970 “Sweet Baby James.”
    Now the first of December was covered with snow
    And so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
    Lord the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
    With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go.

There was no snow on the mountains when my wife and I drove through the Berkshires, a southern extension of Vermont’s Green Mountains, in a late October after spending a couple of weeks at the lake cottage in Maine.  We decided to take a different route home to do a little leaf-peeping and enjoy the tint of autumn in western Massachusetts and through the Taconic Range across the border in Upstate New York.

But it was not just the rolling hills and autumnal colors that brought us to the Berkshires.  Our detour afforded us the opportunity to visit with a very dear friend – the former Alaskan poet laureate and essayist John Haines (1924-2011) who was in the midst of a writer residency in Lenox.  I brought along two bottles of good single malt Scotch I picked up at the state liquor store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and I was looking forward to a long chat, that lovely usquebaugh properly loosening our tongues and inhibitions.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at 22 Nielsen Lane, just off the Old Stockbridge Road on the southern edge of Lenox and not far from Edith Wharton’s estate The Mount and the Tanglewood Music Center.  At first blush there was nothing exceptional about the house, a small Cape Cod bungalow built in 1941 and sheathed in clapboard painted a dull leaden blue.  What made this house special is that it was the last home of the American poet Amy Clampitt (1920-1994).  A native of Iowa, she had lived and worked most of her life in New York City, and in 1993 purchased this first house with funds awarded to her as a MacArthur Genius Grant the previous year.  Clampitt was first introduced to the Berkshires by Karen Chase, a local poet whom Clampitt met in Italy where both of them were residents at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, on Lake Como.  John had also been a resident there at another time.  Clampitt planned to use it as a summer get-away cottage. She and the NYU and Columbia University legal scholar Harold Corn, her partner of 25 years, lived in this house until her death from ovarian cancer.  They married here just three months before she died and he continued to live here alone until his own death, in 2001.  Before he died, Korn willed the cottage to the newly-established Amy Clampitt Fund to be administered as a writers residence by the Berkshire-Taconic Community Foundation.  It would be made available rent-free to selected poets who would have the time and solitude to work on a manuscript-in-progress while enjoying the tranquility of the Berkshires

William Spiegelman, Clampitt’s biographer and the cottage’s first writer-in residence, has called Clampitt “the patron saint of late bloomers.”  She attended Grinnell College, in her native Iowa, and later Columbia University, and worked as a secretary at Oxford University Press, an editor at E.P. Dutton, and as a freelance writer and researcher.  She was an avid birder and was also employed for a time as a reference librarian at the National Audubon Society.  She began writing unpublished fiction in the 1950s, and she released two poetry chapbooks in 1973 and 1981, but The Kingfisher, her first volume of poems published by Knopf did not appear until 1983 when she was 63.  Spiegelman wrote that her poems combine her Quaker austerity and the “luiciousness” of Keats, perhaps her favorite poet.  Clampitt’s career as a poet would only last eleven years during which she would publish five volumes of poems, the last being A Silence Opens published around the time of her death in 1994.  She had also served as a writer-in-residence at William and Mary, Amherst, and Smith College where she taught and instructed younger poets

John ambled out of the cottage into the front yard as we pulled into the driveway.  I admired the exterior admitting it was not quite what I had pictured in my mind although I cannot say for sure what I was expecting.  One conjures up all sorts of visions when one thinks of a writer’s cottage, especially one sequestered deep within the Berkshires.  Perhaps a small cottage set back in a copse of trees with ivy growing on its stone walls.  Instead it was one of eight modest homes with large yards situated on a quiet cul-de-sac and surrounded by autumn-colored woods.

John gave us a short tour of the property and I remarked on the size of the large backyard.  One side was lined with trees and shrubbery and I commented on the orange and yellow foliage of a stately beech tree.  I would learn later that evening that Ms. Clampitt’s small memorial service was held in the backyard and her ashes had been scattered under that very tree.

The neighborhood, and the cottage itself, both seemed very conducive to writing, offering solitude without being reclusive.  John was the fifth poet to enjoy the benefits of the Amy Clampitt Fund and to date 28 poets have spent months there working on their projects.  The cottage was simply furnished with many artifacts from Ms. Clampitt’s life and travels scattered throughout . . . her many hats and small collections of sea glass found during her summers spent in Corea, a tiny fishing village in Down East, Maine.  The walls were lined with books, many of them filled with Clampitt’s marginalia and with various ephemera employed as bookmarks.  Prominent among them were the collected works of her beloved Keats.

John had set up shop in Clampitt’s study to which her bed was moved during her final months so that she could watch her beloved birds flying to and from that stately beech tree in the backyard.  “What I like about the view is that there is so much going on.”  It was here she passed away on September 10, 1994 having lived in the cottage for only a year.  She would be pleased to know the tree and its birds were still there.  Her Olivetti typewriter sat nearby, a silent reminder of a stolen life.  Next to it were John’s notes and drafts for what he always referred to in his letters as his “big omnibus project,” a collection of essays that would eventually be published by CavanKerry Press as Descent in 2010 just months before his own death at age 86.  I was please to see that close by he had a copy of A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines, which I had edited and published with CavanKerry Press in 2003.

SallyAnn retired to the guest room upstairs and John opened one of the bottles of Scotch and we returned to the living room to chat.  Clampitt and Korn were married here and there was a photograph of them taken that day sitting next to one of her caches of sea glass.  It seemed that Ms. Clampitt’s spirit was everywhere watching over those who came to live and create in her cottage.  John and I discussed our respective projects and I caught him up on news of our mutual friends back home in Washington.  And there was also the upcoming off-year election and what it meant for our troubled country.  He and I never had a problem coming up with something to talk about.

SallyAnn rejoined us later and we invited John to join us for dinner at Bistro Zinc, on Church Street in the center of Lenox; it had been recommended to me by a friend back home who spends his summers in the Berkshires.  SallyAnn ordered the French onion soup and a small salad while John and I both selected the grilled flank of salmon served with couscous over a bed of crisp baby spinach.  John never considered himself a gourmand as such, yet having lived for so long in Alaska he found it hard not to appreciate a nice piece of salmon well prepared and beautifully plated.

Returning to the cottage, SallyAnn took her leave to read upstairs before turning in.  It was a very cozy space with bookcases lining the walls and a writing desk below a small window looking out toward the quiet street.  John and I retreated to the kitchen where we polished off the first bottle of Scotch before moving on to the second.  John may be considered taciturn by many; people he does not know.  But he and I had been good friends for almost two decades, having corresponded regularly and worked closely while I was editing A Gradual Twilight.  That night, with the skids properly greased, he was quite chatty and we talked long into the night on anything and everything.

When I finally went upstairs I found myself restless and unable to fall asleep.  I perused the book shelves and chanced upon a copy of Clampitt’s collected poems published in 1999.  I was particularly struck by the poems occasioned by her time in Down East Maine and also by the fact that none of the later poems, some of which may have been written in this cottage, made any allusion to the Berkshires or her time there. I also leafed through Clampitt’s guide to the English Lake District which she filled with notes on Wordsworth, his homes at Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage, and about her beloved Keats who traveled the region on foot in June 1818 hoping to visit Wordsworth there.

SallyAnn slept in the following morning but I arose early not surprised that Clampitt and her cottage had filled my Scotch-fuel dreams.  Before dressing I sat at the writing desk and sketched out some notes thinking they might some day give rise to a poem.  When I finally ventured downstairs I found John sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and writing down some of his own notes.  I poured some coffee and joined him, the two dead soldier Scotch bottles observing us from the far end of the table.  We talked about his plans to return home to Montana once his residency was over and we dredged up memories of our time together there in Big Sky a couple years earlier which was the last time we had spent any real time together. 

SallyAnn eventually joined us and John suggested that we drive down the Old Stockbridge Road to the nearby town of Lee for breakfast at Joe’s Diner.  It had been a local meeting place for locals and rusticators from away since 1955.  It served breakfast all day which was good because it was already approaching the noon hour.  Pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage, and plenty of coffee was just the ticket.  While we were eating I noticed a framed copy of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “The Runaway” hanging behind the counter.   Our server told us that Rockwell, who moved his home and studio to nearby Stockbridge in 1953, had used the diner as the setting for the painting although I would later learn that he had actually used the counter at the former Howard Johnson’s in Stockbridge.  Frankly, I think the painting more closely resembles Joe’s than any HoJO I had ever visited.  Doing some research later on I also learned that in the mid-1960s the downstairs portion of the building housing Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio was a small eatery known as the Back Room (aka Alice’s Restaurant) where you could get anything you want.  The same thing held true for Joe’s.  

After breakfast we dropped John back at the cottage and we loaded up the car and set out for home.   We had a long drive ahead of us.  The morning fog had lifted and it looked to be a beautiful day for some more leaf-peeping along the Taconic Parkway on our way toward New York City.  Before leaving Lenox, however, we stopped at a small bookstore we had spotted the previous evening.  It had a wonderful selection of poetry and I purchased a copy of Clampitt’s collected poems for my own library.  We also drove past the former site of Alice’s Restaurant in Stockbridge before we continued on our way . . . With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go.
In case you are wondering if those journal notes ever evolved into a poem . . . .Yes they did.

                     A Storm in the Berkshires
                                                      For Amy Clampitt (1920 - 1994)

            Perhaps it was only a dream, a violent autumn storm
            wrawling through darkness and raking the Berkshire hills;
            maple and oak riven from deep ancestral earth,
            and with them your beloved beech tree beneath
            which your ashes have reposed for many years.

            Branches stripped of leaves now broken and lying
            sprawled across the lawn, bird feeders tossed and shattered,
            their seed scattered far and wide in a tempest rush.
            Gone, too, the many birds, their homes and fodder
            carried by the winds to every near compass point.

            The storm has dissipated as I sit silent in your study
            where your breath quieted watching your birds on the wing.
            Drinking coffee I stare out at what nature has wrought,
            a gentle breeze blowing through an open window,
            a cadence your body followed to its early extinction.

                                                          John Haines  (1924-2011)