Rachel Bennett

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Good Noggin

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2011 at 17:13

Christmas Cocktail Line-Up 

I like simple drinks. None of your elaborate rosemary-infused pear vodka pompom for me thank you very much. I have tried these ornate offerings and their kin too many times, only to wind up feeling disgruntled and ripped off. Most are pretentious, too sweet, and extortionate. If strong spirits are required give me scotch with a splash of water or a tequila on the rocks with a twist of lime; you can keep your fruit juice fripperies.

And then Christmas arrives. As December dawns I become a glutton for all the hot, fruity, mulled mugs that you can throw at me. Perhaps it’s the combination of heat, spice, booze, and fruit; the first sip is always medicinal (okay, I may be several hundred years behind modern medical science, but who cares) and the last sip is just as assuredly Dionysian, complete with the subsequent collapse into snoring contentment. So this year, in the spirit of Santa’s hard working elf, I am pleased to present my definitive Christmas Cocktail Line-Up.

First, a sustaining breakfast beverage to get you holidays off to a good start.

Eggnog

I first encountered eggnog while working as a barista. We served ‘eggnog lattes’ (a desecration of our sumptuous coffee) and the so-called nog came in cartons with an expiration date six months away. Isn’t this stuff made of milk, cream, and eggs? I wondered. Freaky. The liquid was slop heavy and puss yellow. As customer after customer crooned in delight over their noggy-drinks, however, curiosity overcame disgust and I took a sip. It clung to my tongue, it clawed at my throat, it wallowed in my stomach like Platonic melancholy. ‘Ah, but this isn’t real eggnog,’ a co-worker informed me. ‘It’s got to be homemade. And the key is brandy and rum; they cut the cream and make it a different drink entirely.’

So I gave it a whirl. The result was indeed worlds away from store-bought nog—lighter, fragrant with nutmeg, and a pleasant pale creamed hue. It was still rich and weighty, but the alcohol carved through the cream giving it lovely sharp counterbalance. A small cup of this nog is a luxurious festive indulgence. It can also be adapted for various recipes from eggnog french toast to fudge and cheesecake. For Christmas dessert I’m thinking of trying a recipe for eggnog flan with a cinnamon crust.

The true etymology of the term ‘eggnog’ is hard to distinguish from legend. Some say that ‘nog’ comes from the middle English ‘noggin’ meaning a small wooden cup for alcoholic drinks. Others say eggnog is a shortened version of ‘egg and grog,’ the latter being a term for the diluted alcohol, particularly rum, given to sailors (presumably in an attempt to keep them sufficiently tipsy and content but not so drunk that they toppled overboard). Whatever the case, the drink itself if thought to come from an English drink called posset. Dating back to the 14th century, posset was a medicinal beverage (here we go again with the booze-loving doctors) made with cream, eggs, spices, and a sherry-style wine called ‘sack.’

Both posset and eggnog were beverages of the aristocracy. The lower classes couldn’t afford luxuries such as cream, eggs, and spices. Instead these commoners would thicken their booze with bread (tipsily one-upping the Italians and their bread soup).  I find it a great tragedy that we have reduced this once noble tipple to a dispirited yellow goop filled with chemicals and colorings. The only resort is to make the stuff at home. Here is a good traditional recipe adapted from Historical Foods.

Ingredients:
4 fresh healthy eggs*
100g (3oz) sugar
1/2 tsp fresh grated nutmeg – extra grated for garnish
1 whole cinnamon stick
100ml (3oz) brandy
100ml (3oz) dark rum
350ml (12oz) whole milk
250ml (8oz) heavy cream
Optional: bring this recipe up to date with the addition of vanilla

* Salmonella is a remote possibility. Life is risky. Buy fresh, good quality eggs.

Method:
1. In a large bowl beat the eggs until frothy. Then beat in the sugar. One by one slowly add the milk, followed by the cream, brandy, and finally rum, beating each in well before adding the next.
2. Grate in the nutmeg and add the whole cinnamon stick. (Although vanilla is not traditional, it complements the other flavors well. If desired, add the seeds scraped from 1/2 a vanilla pod.)
3. Refrigerate the mixture for a few hours, then remove the cinnamon stick, shake well, and serve.

Eggnog that is not preserved by ungodly means has a short shelf life. Keep refrigerated and drink within a few days.

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Anthropology of Aprons

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2011 at 11:59

My mother had a navy blue smock apron made of a sturdy cotton and decorated, Pollock-like, with exuberant blobs and smatterings collected from countless domestic projects. She used it for heavy work——for weeding, tackling the basement, and repainting bedrooms. She also had a green bib apron with capacious front pockets and tattered strings that had been savaged by our dog Crackers. This apron carried more odiferous decoration: a splodge of tomato sauce here, a spot of gravy there, a trickle of molasses running down the bosom. There was also a blue and white striped apron reminiscent of butcher’s attire and a drawer full of folksy waist aprons lavishly embroidered and rarely used. My own apron at that time was a voluminous smock with strings that tied at the back of the neck. I used to love wearing this apron with my mum. I felt mature and important; I was part of her world. Unwittingly, when I wore that apron I also became part of a circuitous and weighty history, for upon closer scrutiny this simple article of clothing provides a rich tapestry for the story of changing social conceptions of cooking, women, and the home.

For much of its history, the apron was thoroughly utilitarian. Before the industrial revolution reshaped homes and work, aprons were vital for many daily chores. In 1800s America, for instance, at a time when most people were farmers, aprons served a multitude of purposes: they protected the wearer’s dress while she planted potatoes or performed the weekly clothes wash; they carried apples from the orchard or vegetables from the garden. Given this heavy use, aprons were plain and sturdy, often stitched from old sacking or patched together from scraps. Only rich women in cities, whose most strenuous work consisted of managing servants, could afford to wear decorative aprons. And wear them they enthusiastically did. Perhaps in an effort to distance themselves from common farmers or their female employees, these wealthy ladies began sewing elaborate, fanciful, and often decidedly impractical aprons.

During the 20th century, with rapid urbanization and technological changes that lessened the burden of housework, a growing middle class of women joined their wealthy counterparts and began stitching extravagant collections of aprons. It became a way for women to articulate housework. In the 1950s at the apex of this fashion craze women appeared to have an apron for every task—for sewing, cleaning, gardening, casual cooking, and entertaining. Many women kept their best apron clean and pressed in a drawer to be whipped out and donned when company unexpectedly arrived. God forbid the neighbors catch you cooking in a dirty apron!

Thus this humble workday garb morphed from function to fashion. In this process it became a symbol of that paragon of mid-20th century feminine virtue—the good housewife. Arrayed in a comely apron, she could serve dinner to the kids and then, at the sound of hubby’s footsteps, she could tug the strings and remove her apron to reveal something sexy underneath. An aproned angel in the kitchen and a spotless scarlet woman in the living room?

And then the 60s arrived. In the struggle for a woman’s right to develop her own career beyond the kitchen sink, the image on a be-aproned housewife lost her shine. A potent symbol of domesticity the apron was also dethroned as women labored at the monumental task of cleaving the words ‘house’ and ‘wife’ apart. In the 1960s women may have burned their bras but a decade later they were also burning aprons, metaphorically at least.

So how did the sneaky devils reappear? Why do I and many of my contemporaries—all strong, confident, self-determining women of substance—embrace this old symbol of domestic serfdom? Today, every kitchen shop boasts a stock of aprons in every style imaginable. Looking around, it is hard to avoid the impression that aprons have become a celebratory garment rather than a symbol of women’s subjugation. One reason may be that my generation did not fight the good fight in the 60s and 70s so we have the privilege of forgetting. None of us were admonished by popular imagery and tradition to wear aprons and they were never a object of rebellion.

Furthermore, following the cyclical tendency of fashion, my generation is going wild for old kitchen projects that were all but forgotten 20 years ago: from baking bread to brewing beer, many of us are obsessed with kitchen DIY. It is a trend has many roots (a mistrust of industrial food, a desire to work with the hands and gain rest-bite from a virtual world, a curiosity about these fading skills) but it is clearly visible in blogs, articles, the proliferation of community gardens and cookbooks on caning and cheese making. These DIY projects are often elaborate and messy endeavors. It is easy to forget, in all this talk of symbol and status, that aprons have always retained an element of functionality. As a profoundly clumsy cook, I find that donning an apron before entering the kitchen is simply good sense. It pays off in a lighter laundry basket.

My love of aprons has grown since that first smock and I now have a sizable collection: frilly and frivolous garments such as a flamenco-style apron—all ruffles and polkadots—that I bought at a tourist shop in Granada; simple everyday aprons; and sturdy working aprons built to withstand culinary mayhem, and often the literal strewing of blood and guts. I cherish them all.  Slipping on an apron is a ritual in itself, a moment of marking. Now, I am ready to cook. As the Spanish saying goes,  estoy en mi propia salsa. I am in my own sauce, and happily so.

Note: The history of mens aprons is simpler yet no less symbolic. Men have long worn aprons for a variety of occupations. Butchers, bakers, chefs, carpenters, blacksmiths—each had a distinctive style of apron. They were dignified and serious. In contrast to women’s aprons, they symbolized a real and respectable profession. In America of the 1950s it became popular for men to take on the manly side of cooking, spending summer weekends barbecuing in the back yard. Aprons for these hobby cooks became popular, but they were markedly different from the decorative outfits worn by their wives. Male aprons sported silly phrases which served to distance themselves from the drudgery of everyday food preparation. Today, these glib aprons still reflect certain social attitudes to man’s role in the kitchen. Here are a few interesting specimens I discovered:

Will grill for sex

I can light your fire

Caution, extremely hot

Real men don’t use recipes

In dog beers I’ve only had one

I like cougars . . . .medium rare

Who’s your daddy

I turn grills on

Scallops and the Stage

In Uncategorized on November 21, 2011 at 12:38

There are few greater pleasures than a good meal in a fine restaurant. Threadbare as that cliché may be, I was bodily reminded of it last week as The Texan and I sat before a white gazpacho at the Book Bindery. With the greatest reverence I lifted the spoon to my lips and sipped the silken liquid. It was the color of polished ivory, a quiet and unassuming hue. Yet on my tongue this soup shed its modest garb and underneath—oh how deep, how complex, how nuanced. It was creamy yet clear, without any of the cloying fattiness that characterizes many such soups. And I tasted wave upon wave: there was a fruity sweetness, the grape no doubt, and beneath it the crab’s rich, aqueous depth. In place of the common crouton there were nuggets of smoky Marcona almond, a stubby Spanish variety of nut that is currently all the rage. They are usually served warm, slick with oil, and lightly salted—very toothsome yet a trifle uninspiring after a time—so discovering Marconas in a white gazpacho was unexpected and wonderful.

My body slowed. Spoon dipping into the ivory soup again I slipped into quiet gastronomic euphoria, a state that often overwhelms me in such circumstances. The symptoms of this state are predictable: the body purrs gently, as if every pore were personally tasting the dish on its own little palate. Every atom wakens and begins humming with happiness. The mind, in contrast, sinks into a contented stupor so that you can barely hold the thread of conversation, offering nothing but monosyllabic responses and a creamy grin. This was good food.

Yet why was this food so spectacular? The most obvious answer is to salute the chef. After all, a fine restaurant must be headed by the best in culinary acuity. Surely it is his skill and creativity—his food—that make the meal. But this is not all. It has long been acknowledged that fine dining is as much theater as cuisine so we must also pay tribute to the waiter. We may sip fine wines and nibble carefully crafted morsels, but waiters are the ones who make us feel like royalty. Our gazpacho at the Book Bindery was not merely plonked down on the table with a brisk ‘bon appétit.’ The waiter arrived carrying jug and a wide, shallow bowl. In the center of the bowl the soup’s ingredients were deconstructed as a garnish and arranged into a little bird’s nest of crab, almond and pickled green grape. With a graceful swoop of his wrist, the waiter poured the soup around the garnish so that it looked as though the bird’s nest had blown into the sea and lay rocking on the waves. Ever ready to answer inane questions, replace tipsily dropped forks, and generally pamper their patrons, these waiters don’t merely deliver the food, they actively manufacture the mental perfume of the place.

Yet again, to define haute cuisine as theater—with the chef as star, servers as supporting actors, and diners as audience—only tells a partial truth. It neglects is the role of the customer. Not merely a passive audience, the diner is part of the play, or rather an active participant in unfolding ritual of the meal. Think about it. The diner books the reservation. She decides what to wear (a ritual in any circumstance and one that says much about your character’s approach to dining out). She chooses the wine, talks to the server, and tastes the food. At the end of the meal she is the one who forks over the money, reacting with gasp, sigh, or casual wave, to the size of this bill which resembles Grecian debt.

The idea of social action as performance is an old one. ‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare declared.  In the same vein, mid-twentieth century anthropologists such as Victor Turner began analyzing social phenomena as one might a play, with actors taking roles and participating together in the performance. This seems a particularly apt model for looking at the dynamics of fine dining where the performative aspects of food reach soaring heights.

I have experienced this from both sides of the table. Having worked in food service I have visceral knowledge of adopting a role. Particularly in America, servers, baristas and their kin are expected to exude bonhomous contentment, as if it were their greatest delight to fulfill the customer’s every whim. Of course, ma’am, I would just love to drop what I’m doing, butter your croissant and divide it into three perfectly equal pieces for your whining brats who need to learn that someone always, always gets the smaller slice, and life is really, really unfair. Butter your own bloody croissant. Only you don’t say all that. You smile sweetly, attend graciously. Within days this costume feels like a second skin.

On the other hand, I have experienced the delicious sensation of wafting into a restaurant, relinquishing my coat to the host and settling into a few hours of luxury. This too is a role. I am not this important in the real world. But it’s more fun to play the beaming queen rather than the obsequious serf. I have also watched diners play other roles, like the man in rumpled clothes and sporting an air of casual detachment, even boredom. I do this all the time, blah blah. Or the woman who flaunts her gastronomic knowledge and attempts to one-up the waiter. ‘Chilean sea bass?’ Her left eyebrow creeps upwards and a smirk curls out from her lips, ‘are you by any chance referring to Patagonian toothfish?’ 

Perhaps, then, it is the donning of these roles—the sumptuous caress of the costume—that makes the meal. Would that gazpacho have tasted so good served in my chipped blue bowl at home, the table strewn with books, and the occasional fruit fly dallying overhead? Probably not. As Claude Levi-Strauss famously said, ‘food must be good to think about before it is good to eat.’ I prefer the thought of billowy chairs and soft lighting to fruit flies and chipped china.

This is why I have a tumultuous relationship with fine dining. On the one hand my knees quiver at the mere mention of foie gras emulsion, my tastes buds collapse in ecstasy when confronted by a masterful tiramisu.  And although I know that those thimble-sized glasses of squash-ginger cappuccino were not really ‘a gift from the chef’  but were carefully factored into the cost of the meal, I still felt a warm glow as the waiter sets them delicately on our table. Yet I am conflicted. This food is so removed from business of nourishment, of sustenance and health. It is so excessive and flashy, so ludicrously extravagant. But, oh, it feels so good.

For a moment at the Book Bindery I am caught in this antagonistic terrain. And then our main course arrives: For myself, caramelized sea scallops with chanterelle mushrooms, red kuri squash, bacon jam, and sauce Périgourdine. For The Texan, the Mishima Ranch “Flavor Curve” of beef with fork crushed fingerling potatoes, grilled king trumpet mushrooms, pearl onions, and Bordelaise vinaigrette. My fork pierces the golden brown surface and melts into the scallop. I shrug.

What queen, for the length of her reign, would question the monarchy?

Wild Thing

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2011 at 14:01

Last Sunday BBC Radio 4 aired an edition of the Food Program entitled ‘Into the Wild.’ As its name implies this episode explored the rising popularity of foraged foods. The guiding question was this: Are foraged foods a passing fad, the fashion of the moment for high chefs and the culinary elite? Or does the revival of interest in dandelions and damsons indicate a societal shift in our approach to food? Naturally the BBC focussed on Britain, but the same phenomenon is occurring this side of the Atlantic and the same questions could fruitfully be asked (so sorry, I couldn’t resist) of American food and culture.

Over the past half century, the status of the literal free lunch has undergone a profound transformation. For most of history, in most cultures, foraging for food has been a last resort, the absolute base of the gastronomic hierarchy. After all, the rich commanded the best farmland and the fattest crops. Only the most impoverished peasants could not survive on their cultivated harvest and were compelled to scour the countryside for edible shoots and leaves. Scholars studying famine have noted that in certain societies foraged foods occupy such a low social position that people will undergo significant physical hardship before resorting to gathering these wild and freely available calories. In rural WWII Britain, foraged foods brightened a mundane and highly rationed diet. Yet still they were associated with the extreme requirements of hard times.

The initial transformation of foraging, at least in the context of the modern, industrialized west, occurred in the 1970’s as part of the wider movement to embrace natural food and reject homogenized, preservative laden, denatured food. I remember this, because even in the late-eighties  when I was young, my mother remained highly enthusiastic about nut cutlet, wholewheat pasta, sucanat, and other determinedly wholesome fare. At this point, foraging was a preoccupation at the fringe of the whole food movement. Die-hard tree-hugging wheatgrass lovers, intent on revitalizing their connection to the natural world and eschewing industrial homogeneity, took to the forests and fields, picking mushrooms (of various types . . . huh, there’s another hypothesis on why foraging took off with the hippies . . .) and plucking leaves, and immersing themselves in the bosom of nature.

For several decades, foraging remained primarily a fringe activity. It is true that a broader portion of the population have long enjoyed collecting more easily identifiable and accessible foods such as nuts and berries, but for the most part wild foods remained a cranky curiosity.

Until today. The current food revolution we are undergoing differs from it’s older sibling. Like the 1970’s movement, fair trade, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, today’s revolution is concerned with environmental and social justice. Yet it has a more ambitious goal. Today the issue is not only politics but pleasure, and foraging for foods is not only a political and social statement but a gustatory one as well.

It is virtually impossible to sit down in a smart restaurant today (and it doesn’t even have to be that posh or pricy) without confronting a smattering of wild items on the menu. Pork belly drizzled with wild huckleberry jus, lamb loin topped with sea asparagus, foraged mushroom risotto. These plates are not limited to the El Bullis and French Laundrys of this world; chances are you can find something similar down the street. Of course A-list restaurants have embraced wild food with equally wild abandon. The chef at world-famous NOMA, Rene Redzepi, is perhaps the culinary king of this approach. His menu includes such enigmatic items as ‘stone crab and beach mustard‘ as well as ‘gammel dansk and wood sorrel.’ Personally I wouldn’t know beach mustard if it poked me in the eye, but I have no doubt that, paired with that old favorite stone crab, it is nothing short of knee-wobblingly divine.

The recent rise in popularity of foraged food has taken place in tandem with the Slow Food movement, and the latter’s guiding philosophy neatly explains why untamed greens and far flung roots are proliferating in restaurant kitchens, farmers markets, and cook books alike. In the original Slow Food Manifesto, founder Carlo Petrini challenges readers to ‘rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food.’ The organization aims to catalog and promote unusual foods cultivated in specific regions but the sentiment extends to the promotion of wild foods as well. It is part of a wider cultural rebellion against a food system that provides false diversity—a myriad processed products based on the cultivation fewer and fewer, increasingly industrialized species.

Personally, I hope that wild food is here to stay. Good chefs will always search for exciting ingredients and may perhaps be accused of fetishizing foraged foods, but they are also doing us a favor. By sparking curiosity in a greater breadth of ingredients they encourage us out into the woods for a reviving tussle with nettles and some much needed fresh air. And surely diversity in all forms is a good thing. The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. In my experience dandelion soup has an alarming, explosive effect on the digestive system while huckleberries are like a tiny, condensed and heavenly blueberry.

Death and the Harvest

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2011 at 14:49

The face caught me off guard, casting a baleful, crooked glare in my direction. I had paused, breathless, at the top of Queen Anne hill, turning to survey the city below and the trees swaying their dying mosaic of leaves. I was relishing this walk in the soft evening air when the lurid visage lurched into the corner of my eye. Turning, I stared the pumpkin. It was the first jack-o-lantern I’d seen this season, and, unaccustomed to their garish presence, it got me thinking. . .

How strange we humans are, how strange that we lop off the top of a large vegetable, scoop out the innards, and carve a face into its flesh. When you start thinking about it the whole business seems bizarre. Is it just an extreme case of our proclivity to play with our food? A relic of some ancient harvest ritual? Perhaps an extravagant marketing tactic dreamed up by the Pumpkin Growers Association of America, or some such organization, to spark demand? What could have brought us such a zany tradition?

As it turns out, jack-o-lanterns are a mongrel offspring. They are entwined with the history of Halloween, the Irish, and that usual suspect lurking around so much of western history, Catholicism.

Autumn harvest festivals are venerable, perhaps the most ancient of rituals. After all, for most of the last 10,000 years most of us have been farmers. Living at the mercy of the seasons, it seems only natural that every successful harvest induced bacchanalian celebrations, hence the age-old tradition of  autumn festivities wherever crops were grown.

Into this landscape enter the Catholics. In their tireless quest to convert pagans and garner all the attention, the church established not one but two of its own holidays over this time. All Saints Day on November 1st followed by All Souls Day on the 2nd were set aside to honor, respectively, all of the prodigious number of Catholic saints and all deceased yet faithful Catholics.

No one knows precisely how pagan and Catholic rituals tussled and entwined, but an early version of Halloween was the result. And yet, what about this dalliance with death? What about the ghost stories and witches, the plastic skeletons hanging from porches and copious consumption of zombie movies?  It would be wrong to assume that Catholicism, in honoring the dead, was first to bring death and the harvest together.

In Mexico, for instance, rituals surrounding All Souls Days reach a fever pitch in the elaborate foods, traditions, and celebrations of Día de los Muertos. But this does not imply that they simply and wholeheartedly embraced the Catholic calendar. In fact, historians have traced a holiday honoring the dead back to the Aztecs. And to this day, Mexican Catholic celebrations of All Souls have radically reinterpreted the European version of the holiday.

In remote reaches of the British isles, where Celtic traditions held out for longer against Catholic hegemony and interpreted religious doctrine in unexpected ways, we find the most obvious origins of Halloween. Samhain was the Celtic harvest festival, a time of transition from the light to dark, summer to winter. It was also a time during which the veil separating this world and the next was thought to be thin and people might stumble upon spirits and ancestors in the lengthening darkness. It was a time of relief, with a good stock of grain and fruit, but also a frightening time. The ease of summer was over and months of bare, dark winter had to be faced. Today, with ‘seasonality’ as a favorite buzzword of food marketers and restauranteurs, it is hard to imagine what true seasonal dependence meant—the flip side of that abundance of apples, hazelnuts, and fragrant mushrooms was a cold, hard period of paucity and a real fear of making it to the next harvest.

Fear and death manifested in many of the rituals practiced on ‘All Hallows Even’ (the evening before All Hallows Day). A favorite of the Irish was to carve out a turnip and place a candle inside, warding off any evil spirits that might come drifting across from the other world and make trouble for humans. For immigrant Irish in America, turnips where hard to find but they quickly stumbled upon a perfect ghost repelling vegetable. The pumpkin, native to North America, was larger and brightly colored, providing a far more spine-tingling spectacle when carved and lit.

I often wonder why it is that some traditions continue while others fade. There is power, of course. Those in control are often able to manipulate traditions to suit their own ends, and the subtle processes, permutations, and exceptions to this phenomenon are a subject of much academic scrutiny and debate. However, I also wonder if the physicality of some rituals or objects, their raw power to spark the imagination, can lend endurance to certain traditions. Perhaps jack-o-lanterns continue to flicker on doorsteps because the eerie glow they exude is so wonderfully malicious, so ripe for sinister fictions.

*     *     *

Yesterday The Texan and I drove east to pick a pumpkin. The sky issued a pitiful drizzle and an ominous mist clung to the firs as we descended into the Snoqualmie river valley. We found Jubilee Farm, looking a bit forlorn under its coating of mud, squished and squelched our way to the pumpkin patch, and spent a while comparing the merits of various specimens. Eventually we chose a plump and brightly hued 20 pounder. The Texan heaved it onto his shoulder and stumped back to the car, mumbling about mud and how much fun this all was. I walked beside him, listing all the dishes we could make with this magnificent vegetable and breathing in the rain and the damp, dying leaves. Death and the harvest are inseparable, the one always following the other. Once home we carved a large malevolent grin into one side of our pumpkin. Then I used the mouth and eyes to make pumpkin curry and roasted the seeds to make crunchy pepitas—death and the harvest in one meal.

Happy Halloween.

Mountain Spirits

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2011 at 21:52

‘We can bring a picnic,’ I exclaimed, as if it were an original, breathtaking idea to bring food on a hike. The prospect of eating a meal in the glories of a mountain wilderness, you see, tends to fill me with inordinate glee. ‘Oh, oh, yes,’ I continued, squirming with excitement, ‘we must bring a flask of whiskey.’ My boyfriend (a.k.a. The Texan) looked mildly alarmed. ‘Lets go buy some now,’ I suggested. The Texan’s expression deepened and tinged with doubt as I grabbed his arm and began maneuvering towards the liquor store across the street. It was the look of a man quietly reassessing the sagacity of his love.

I should point out that I am not an alcoholic. There is a big difference, as I explained to The Texan, between slurping whiskey and gingers in front of the TV and enjoying a warming nip from your flask on the summit of a mountain.  The latter might take place at midday, but it does not count as daytime drinking in the pejorative sense. Also, unlike a brawny glass of Old Crow and Schweppes, a hip flask is elegant, rather romantic, and decidedly appropriate for a chilly autumn hike. Furthermore, a little liquor might be useful on a mountain; might even be thought of as a precautionary measure.  What if we got lost or injured? I demanded, making my case as we left the store with a bottle of bourbon. It would get dark and freezing; then you’d really appreciate a tipple.

Hip flasks (again, unlike Old Crow and Schweppes) have a long and notable history. They first appeared in the 18th century and were common among the rich, who could afford the expensive silver and ornate engravings. It was said that silver did not spoil the flavor of the spirits it held, unlike other cheaper metals. Even so, flasks grew in popularity and were soon fashioned from more affordable pewter. In the United States, these sleek, hip-hugging containers became popular during prohibition, when all aids to covert boozing were in high demand. And they stayed in fashion during WWII when they proved convenient for soldiers in the field.

I find much to admire in hip flasks. Delicate or tough, ornate or functional, they are interesting and often beautiful. My brother has one that belonged to our grandfather. It is small and sturdy, a burnished silvery-gold metal displays his initials and a band of leather encircles its width. It is a weighty flask. I also like the air of determined independence—rebellion almost—that a flask exudes. Not only the shape itself, which was designed to be carried easily and fit sleigh against the body, but the dark interior too is a mystery. No one but the flask’s wearer knows what’s inside. It is made to conceal.

*     *     *

The day looked promising as we left the Mount Pilchuck trailhead and began climbing through heavy woods, a soft sun filtering through the branches. But as we clambered above the tree line a dense mist descended and obscured the surrounding expanse of mountains, a breath-taking view on a clear day. It was a short sharp hike, three miles and about 2,500 feet, and we were tired and hungry by the time we summited the peak. Settling on a cold patch of rock we ate sandwiches, teeth chattering and enveloped in a thick, damp fog. Any meal after a climb is satisfying, but this was not the most idyllic picnic. And although I am not sure The Texan was convinced—taking the proffered flask with a slight shake of the head but drinking anyway—I for one was glad of a warming swig of Bulleit Bourbon. A little fire and then honey; a little kindling for my feet on the trail home.

Welcome

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2011 at 21:05

Anthro.Eats is still simmering on the hob. Come back in September for a fine feast!