Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Quick Update: North Atlantic Right Whales

Lest I forget to share this with you, my loves:
On Sunday (as you now know, if you're a regular reader) Rodney and I were at home preparing for some friends and family to welcome home our beloved Katie from Ghana. As we were putting together the kindling in the fire ring, taking the ham out of the oven and kneading biscuits, we got a message from our friend Tyrone: he and Louise had seen two of the highly endangered whales, close off the beach and not far from their house.

When Rodney and I became aware of the whales and their annual presence off our coast as they have their calves in the winter, the population numbers we heard cited regularly were 300-350. Imagine that: less than 350 individuals left alive of an ancient and breathtaking species. But interestingly, the range we hear cited most often now is 350-400. And as small a difference as that seems, when you think of it as a percentage, it's a far more successful number.

Thank you, Louise and Tyrone, for reminding the rest of us that they really are out there.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When Katie Comes Home...and The Biscuit Recipe

Katie came home to the warmth of her circle. We gathered, we cooked and we opened the wine we'd been saving for the occasion. Rodney built a nice fire in the fire pit; faithfully tended by Rodney and Pablo, it radiated warmth and helped close the distance of the past few months. We all missed Adam, the heart of Kate's heart, but there was much comfort to take in each other.

We cooked. Katie made a lovely salad with slices of pear and arugula, and I made the Tahini Dressing, which you may recall was first famed as an offering on the menu of The Cafe Alcazar. It's in a gravy boat (much to my dismay, upon reflection), but trust me - it was all I hoped for when I shared the recipe with you. There was a marvelous pasta salad, there were pot stickers...there was even handmade vegetarian sushi. There was Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream, and a yummy cake to satisfy our craving for chocolate. I made a vegetarian lasagne and a ham, and baked Cream Biscuits.

The fire was lovingly tended as I mentioned, by Rodney and Pablo, so that it glowed throughout the evening, offering constant warming and underscoring the metaphor of the circle of our friends. (If you're hearing the Whos of Whoville singing "Fa Who Foris", I can't help but laugh with you. But sentimental it was, and sentimental it remains.) The building and maintenance of a good fire is one of the enduring bonds persistently connecting southern men - maybe all men, come to think of it. And whatever: it works. Everybody seems to be nurtured by the fireside, as they are by the comforting food the kitchen turns out.

A fine time was had by all, and I'm certain those of you who were not with us are able to summon a memory of your own, touching on a time when someone you loved came home from a distant place. So the fatted calf is killed (or the portobella mushrooms grilled, as the case may be) and the Ritz is put on, as it were. And as I've been asked more than once for the biscuit recipe, here it is. I take no credit for it; I learned it from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, and author Marion Cunningham credits it to James Beard. As always, I'll describe how I follow the recipe, more or less. If you want to know more about the various ways in which biscuit dough is leavened, go buy Cunningham's book, or Susan Purdy's..I'm sharing my experience, but they're the experts. Cunningham's cookbook describes this recipe as one used by Beard in his cooking classes, valued by his students as the perfect trencher for fresh northwestern berries in the short, beautiful summers. They are, to my mind, as delicious as the famed Angel Biscuits of Ms. Moon but they don't call for yeast, so you handle them somewhat differently.

So...the Cream Biscuits. They're wonderful with ham, if you have to bake one for some occasion or another. They are also, as my people will tell you, perfectly, beautifullly indescribable when they're hot from the oven: split open and drizzled with Tupelo honey. But as possession of the honey jar is always a slightly testy subject here, let me shuffle right along to the biscuit recipe.

In a good-sized mixing bowl, put 2 cups all-purpose flour (King Arthur is preferred in my kitchen), 1 tablespoon of baking powder, a teaspon of salt and a pinch of sugar. Note: if you use this recipe for shortcakes in the summer berry season, add more sugar, up to about 2 tablespoons. Don't forget that sugar makes things brown faster. Use your brain.

In between these steps, melt about 6 tablespoons of butter in a large measuring cup and set aside so it can cool off while you finish the biscuits.

Lighten these ingredients with a fork, and add about 1-1/2 cups of cream. I use light cream but to lessen the fat content you could probably use whole milk; in fairness I've never tried it. I can tell you that the science part of biscuit making (as opposed to the art part) dictates that fat is required. In this recipe, you're using cream instead of the "cutting in" of butter or shortening or whatever. If I really wanted to reduce the fat, I'd try that on another occasion before planning to serve the biscuits at a dinner party or whatever.

Mix the dry ingredients and cream together and turn onto a floured board or counter top. The dough should hold together in a round shape; turn out and knead for about a minute. Remind yourself at this point that you're not working with a yeast bread, so overworking the dough is a bad thing. Knead to mix well, but don't overwork. Press the dough into a round or square shape, about 1/4" thick. Cut into biscuits. If you've shaped into a square you can just slice the dough crosswise to create diamond shapes. Dip each biscuit into the melted butter and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. I know, I know. Fat! Butter! OMG! But remember, the butter is only on the outside here and when you taste these you'll know they don't need any more butter.

Anyway, bake at about 425 degrees until they're lightly browned and everyone in your house is drooling. Serve right away, with a ham or some honey, or fresh berries or not one single blessed other thing. Like many of the recipes I've shared with you, this isn't one you make often, but it's surely one you make when your best friend comes home from Africa.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Posting news, and some odds and ends

Here is our oldest son Mac in a high school production of "Guys and Dolls". He is now serving in the U.S. Navy, and got his orders this week. There's a LOT of gobbledegook I couldn't figure out, much less explain to you, my dears, without at least an undergrad degree in Institutional & Bureaucratic Doublespeak. But the bottom line is this: when he completes his training, he'll be posted at a location about an hour and half from HOME. This is news of the kind that makes one's heart sing with joy, the kind that makes one shout from mountain tops, the kind that makes one's heart feel like frantic hummingbird know what I mean. He'll miss a few homefront things during training (Katie's welcome home gathering, my birthday, the wedding of his oldest friend) but having him so close to home will be sweet beyond measure.

In other Eat Here news, I'd like to thank those of you who have replied to my request for opinions and thoughts on blogging. In my relatively short lifespan as a blog author I've found amazing, unique voices and consistent intellectual generosity (thank you again, Ms. Moon!) and much inspiration. It's a mark of the generosity I mentioned that all these comments were from people I've never physically met. Thanks, one and all.

And finally, here is how you make the leek and potato soup I learned from Julia Child, with my own particular touches. It's easy and wonderful and if you've never made it before, make some before the end of the winter.

Potatoes first: I love those beautiful Yukon gold potatoes, but you can use whatever is on sale. Peel (or just wash, as you prefer) about 3 pounds of potatoes for a nice big batch; cut into medium-sized chunks. Once you've made this soup you'll be able to figure out the proportions to make the size you like, and it does freeze well for a second go-round. Boil the potatoes as you would for mashing or whatever (remember to season with a little salt and pepper), drain and set them aside. You'll need a pot big enough to hold a 4 quarts comfortably so go ahead and put the cooked potatoes in this pot; it'll make it easy to finish the soup. This is the point at which you can throw in other root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips, etc., and if you want to add other cooked vegetables you can throw them in later, when you simmer to marry the flavors.

Leeks are tricky: you have to clean them really, really well. Do that first, and then slice them pretty thinly. I use just about the whole thing, with the icky ends trimmed off, and I usually use 2 or 3 leeks.

In your cast iron skillet, put about 2 tablespoons of olive oil or butter or a combination. If you're watching fat, you can use less and compensate with water or a little wine. Put the leeks in the skillet (add some finely minced garlic if you like), season with salt and pepper, and cook until they're reduced and very tender. Deglaze the skillet with some white wine.

Add this to the drained potatoes in your big pot. Top off with chicken or vegetable stock (about 4 cups or enough to make it look like soup) and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Using a stick blender, cream the mixture together. Use your own judgement about how creamy you want this - you can choose to set some of the vegetables aside before you blend for more texture.

Return to a gentle simmer and correct for seasoning. At this point I add some ground red pepper, but that's a matter of taste. When you're happy with the seasoning and have a nice simmering pot, turn off the heat and add a touch of cream to finish the soup. Don't let the soup come back to boil once you've added the cream. Serve topped with a little grated cheese or fresh chopped parsley.

This is one of my favorites because it's the culinary equivalent of a canvas you can use to create your own magic. And this is really at the heart of Julia cooking: she always encouraged exploration. You can start with a finely diced jalapeno pepper along with the leeks, for instance, season with some cumin and fresh cilantro and have a Southwestern version. It's fun, it's delicious AND you can bring it to the next Julia Child party. Bon chance, my loves!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Julia Child and Claude Sinatsch, remembered together

In August 2006, long before Julie and Julia renewed public interest in Julia Child, a small group of friends gathered to celebrate the anniversary of her birth. We knew we were slightly off a milestone (the 100th anniversary of her birth will come in 2012) but we all admired her, we love good food and almost any excuse for a party, and I'd recently found a battered and beloved copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and wanted to try it out. It's become a more-or-less annual event in my circle and each is its own story, but this one was something special and I've wanted to share it since the day I started writing Eat Here. I beg your indulgence for its length and hope you'll be rewarded by the stories nested within the little story of this party.

I am far too cowardly to host A Real Dinner Party. In fact I often wonder who IS brave enough to consider such a thing without a staff to clean and help cook? But I do love to cook, and I trust the affectionate indulgence of my friends and the fact that they love to cook, too. It was Katie's idea. We asked a tiny group because we can only seat about 8 people at our table, and you can't host people outdoors in the August of north Florida without risking the possibility of melting people into little puddles. So, a small, safe crowd. And then somehow we invited Claude and Giselle.

They are owners, and Claude chef de cuisine of one of St. Augustine's favorite restaurants, Le Pavillon, where European cooking has been done excellently for more than a generation. It seemed perfectly crazy and perfectly natural, in equal measure, because the points of intersection were so many, and so intriguing.

When Rodney was a teenager he delivered restaurant supplies to Le Pavillon; when I was younger I had many dinners with an extended circle of friends practically in the kitchen of the restaurant. Pablo and Sue had separate connections as writers, video producers and members of various national culinary and cultural organizations. Lon and Lis, known to most of our small community for their astonishing musical range and connections, were old friends of the restaurant and the dedicated family who'd owned and defined it. Claude had known the Cafe Alcazar as a fan and a customer and therefore loved its owner, Lorie. And when Rodney and I bought our place some years ago we discovered to our delight that Claude and Giselle were neighbors. The friendship was renewed, with much of the kindness coming from Claude's side of the fence. I don't know if that all hangs together for you, but the point is we live in a funny little old town, and the circles are small, small, small, my loves, and the losses are poignant.

So Claude and Giselle were invited. Giselle was working at the restaurant that night, but Claude dropped by before the party really started: Giselle had sent a quiche and he was charged with dropping it off; couldn't stay more than a moment, had to be off, oh, but he would LOVE to see Lis for a moment...perhaps he would stay for just a few minutes. Claude had one of those personalities that fill rooms, but not in the bad way. He filled a room so that you wanted to just squeeze in and get in on the fun, because people were generally either loud or laughing or both and there was something interesting going on, something with people and food at its middle, something you didn't want to miss. In all honesty, I think Tommy Willis told this part better than I ever could. He's a priest and he was talking at Claude's funeral, but his story was perfectly balanced and a terrific snapshot of Claude. I'll make you a deal: I'll tell you what Tommy said later, maybe in a Part II. Suffice it for now to say that Claude was a force of nature, perfectly suited to running a great kitchen with one hand (that hand probably belonging mostly to Giselle and her brother, their late, much-lamented business partner Fritz), and making every customer feel as though they lived in his kitchen with the other. And not just as though they lived in his kitchen, but as if they'd been made welcome at the king's kitchen table, had set up housekeeping and couldn't bear to think of leaving.

Claude made some early noises about leaving as we waited for people to gather. I said, "Claude, really, you've brought this lovely quiche and Giselle is at work, and anyway, you have to eat. How about a cocktail?" He tilted his head as he considered. "What do you have?" he asked, clearly not interested in the red wine that was more or less going around. "Vodka," I answered, which was pretty much all I had, since I'd assumed Julia Child revelers would all drink wine of one description of another, and most of them had kindly brought bottles.

"Perfect," he said, "but just one." He settled at the table with Pablo and Lon. It didn't last long, but here they are in a regrettably dark photo with Claude to the left, dressed in tennis whites, Pablo and Lon.

I had game hens or chicken roasting on the grill and when I brought them in, Claude stepped capably into the kitchen and cut them into serving-sized pieces and I made him a second drink. Katie's French onion soup was simmering on the stove and we shaved Gruyere and pretty soon we all were more or less in the kitchen together. I think this was when Claude realized that the point of the party was to celebrate Julia Child: her influence on us as people (watching her on TV) and cooks (reading her cookbooks and using her unflappable steadiness to brave French cooking). He shoved his glasses onto his forehead as he worked with the chicken, sipped his vodka martini and said, "Ah! Julia! I knew her, you know." So the tiny crowd drew in closer, excepting one or two who'd already heard the story, and Claude described his first meeting with Julia Child. He had been a sous chef at The Four Seasons, and she had just walked into the kitchen one day. Laughing, Claude put his hand out above his own head to indicate how tall she'd been and even imitated her voice, which was funny on Saturday Night Live but for various reasons even funnier when Claude did it, leavened by genuine respect and affection, and his persistent Swiss-German accent. Apparently she'd made more than one stop at the famed New York restaurant, and each of his recollections led him to another. We made stops via Claude's memory at the White House, where he once cooked, and finally ended back in St. Augustine.

In the late 70s, Jacques Cousteau was here, his famed ship Calypso undergoing work at one of the local shipyards. Claude shared his European sensibilities and taste in food with Cousteau, and it sounded as though Cousteau was quickly welcomed to the king's table I described above. Whether sitting in the kitchen at Le Pavillon or eating Claude's bouillabaisse aboard the vessel he was loathe to leave untended, an important friendship was apparently forged. More than 30 years later, our tiny circle welcomed these memories and warmed its collective hands as they were recollected. Claude stayed until the very end of that party, drinking and laughing and eating and telling stories. Giselle's quiche, it turned out, was a Quiche Lorraine, bound by a creamy cheese and egg flavor she claims is a snap but which I've never been able to replicate.

And though we've continued to celebrate this special (en Francais) anniversaire, its inaugural will stand in our memories forever. If you can see the delicate web of connections between us at which I have hinted, you'll understand why. There are many more stories beneath this surface, my loves, but they will have to come another night. Sooner or later, I'll tell you about the impact of Claude, Giselle and Fritz on the family of Tommy Willis and about some of the other connections we share. Thank you for keeping your drooping lids open with me for this recollection, for listening carefully to all that needed saying, all that didn't need saying, and all that lies between.

Credits: Photo by Rodney
Umm, I had no copy editor tonight, so any typos are completely the fault of Dylan. He does promise to proof for me tomorrow so stay tuned. :)

Monday, February 15, 2010

A request for your opinions

Recently several people have asked me questions about blogging. Some are starting blogs, some are thinking about starting blogs, and most seem to be asking me because they know I'm a relative newbie. I've yet to develop anything like subject matter expertise, so no one minds asking me: Is it hard to do? What are your limits? How do you put photos in it? In truth these are questions many of you have generously helped me answer for myself as I've gotten started.

There was an op-ed piece in a local paper the other day in which the author denigrated bloggers, essentially saying in a tone of revolted superiority while almost visibly rolling his or her eyes, Everybody thinks they're a writer these day. And while I know this feeling very well and deal with some variation on its theme almost every day of my working life, I find I cannot share this opinion. Certainly there are bad writers and people whose opinions are not rempotely interesting. There are terrible writers, whose voices and opinions one learns quickly to ignore. Perhaps worst of all, there's a great deal of mediocrity and it takes work to winnow through this in search of value

But the big surprise to me has been how many very fine voices and thoughts there are out there. And the even bigger surprise has been that it's not just talking. It's listening. Good writers have to be readers. They have to listen. So in seeking to share insight with others, it seems to me the community is the best place to start.

So what say you, Community? What's your advice to people who want to speak here among us? What makes you write? What makes you read? And what magic binds those active and passive activities and gives rise to conversation?

In like a lamb and out like a rather indifferent lion: the beach in winter

After a completely relaxing and restorative weekend with one last day stretching out before us to savor, Rodney and I packed up the backpack and two of the dogs for a walk on the beach. It was a perfect day for late winter. The wind was out of the southwest, the temperatures in the mid-60s and an afternoon low tide. This is what it looked like when we got there. For those of us who love walking in our beloved Guana it was a perfect prescription for late winter/early spring: not too cold, bright blue skies and just the right music of the spheres resulting a lower-than-average low tide.

The sun was warm on our faces, so warm I'll probably go to work tomorrow with a tell-tale pink look, despite the sunscreen. And it was a lovely walk, the dogs setting their own pace part of the time; me, looking for shark teeth and other bits of fossils, setting the pace at other times. Rodney sets his own pace, walking with his metal detector. The dogs are generally pretty indulgent about the pace, slowing down to human speed when they'd rather be allowed to race after pelicans or accelerate toward lunch when we get close enough. But they do know when it's time for lunch and they're pretty definite about their preference to have it. (This spot is at the beach monument of which I've written before.)I don't know what sensory everyday canine miracle enables dogs to know things like "we are now within 15 feet of that place we eat lunch when we come to this part of the beach" (is it smell? is it memory? is it one of them saying to the other, "Dude, this is place we ate lunch last time...remember how we made those sad faces and got them to feed us half the sandwich?") but certainly there is such a miracle. I have thoughts about this, but they are a tale for another day, my dears, so let me shut up and wander on.

The monument's flag indicated a brisk and steady wind from the south-southwest. Or at least it did at lunchtime. The face of the beach changes with every tide, and if you go often to the same spot you see this with every visit. Those who are lucky enough to live at the beach and wise enough to pay attention are able to seee the changes in real time. Most of the time, for us, the observation of the changes - the shifting sand that reveals fossilized riches in one fall and obscures them again with 18 inches of sugary power with the rising of another - usually happens from one weekend to the next. The high-tide line changes, the bluffs shift, sometimes by 3 or 4 feet, the color of the water is never the same. Today, though, the change was visible within a few short hours as the wind changed and the clouds began to build.

Within a couple of hours, the changes ceased to be subtle. The warmth of that southerly touch to the wind disappeared when the wind shifted to come straight from the west. The clouds thickened and began to darken in color and the temperature dropped enough to make me glad I'd worn a sweater. The water began to reflect the shadows of the clouds, and I started to think about the hat and scarf I'd tucked into the backpack. And Meg, whose fur is fine and smooth, without much of the undercoat some dogs have, began to cry every now and then: I want to go home. And this is what the beach looked like when we left. As we drove home, Rodney checked the weather. The forecast is for bright, shiny beautiful blue days, those days I often tell you about, those days which in northeastern Florida seem to occur between October and April. They are days of almost indescribable clarity and sharpness in the very air. Such days can come with a price exacted by the thermometer. They are often no warmer than the 40s or 50s under the brilliant blue sky but freezing nights that can cost some of us plants and fruit trees, and others their crops for the season. But for this evening, we're counting our blessings, happy that a perfect weekend finished with a perfect day, and that we're able to share it with you.
Coming this week: a soup recipe of some kind. I started with a potato and leek soup I learned from Julia Child and have taken it to all kinds of interesting places. It's so much easier than I thought it would be. You probably already have the most divine cold weather soup recipe in the world and if you want to share it, I'd love to put it here and of course give credit where credit is due.

Tonight's captions and credits follow.
Second photo, left to right: Rodney, Tyson (digging up something almost-certainly smelly), and Meg
Copy editing: Dylan
A generous willingness not to be annoyed that he had to stay home: Calvin

Friday, February 12, 2010

Home at last, home at last

Remember this? This was a week ago, but so goes the weather in north Florida: tonight it rains, as it has all day, and sleet or snow are predicted after midnight. It won't accumulate, of course, because the ground stays too warm here, but the very idea of snow kind of gives us fluttery tummies, and also makes us feel slightly nauseated. Still, it can always be worse. My older son, away in Charleston in the Navy, is seeing something else entirely through this windshield.

With his usual astonishing sense of timing, he called tonight during the middle of our first visit with Katie since her arrival home from several months in Africa. She was here, this treasured sister without whom my heart is not complete; she was curled up with me watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen, from 1933, with Barbara Stanwyck, and do you think I took one picture? Of course I didn't. But I will, my loves, for though I have half-sisters of my own blood and friends, as I have told you, who are more riches than gold to me, there is nothing quite like having Katie home. We sat by the fire, we had a glass of wine, we put hummus on pita bread, and I made that lovely cucumber stuff with yogurt. Rodney ran the projector, er, TV. Katie and I were just grateful, and relaxed, and happy. She is at home for the wedding of her son, and there are many more stories, my loves, many more, but for tonight I am grateful for fire, family and friendship and it's enough.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Warm your fingers and toes and wait for the thaw

While friends and colleagues and facebook pals are posting photos of snow, snow and more snow (and some of them have even built whole new families of snow people), here in north Florida we're usually more or less getting ready for spring this time of year. Why, those all-important, eagerly awaited four lovely little words are mere days away: Pitchers and catchers report.

But though we have no snow, we do have cold weather and last night about 8 hours of freezing temperatures. Perhaps a little glimpse of the fireplace will warm your heart; I do hope so. From the window I can see the long, graceful fingers of the queen palms, wrapping around each other as if for warmth, watching for spring, looking hopefully at the azaleas and hoping for the best. Thanks to those of you who visited here recently; thanks for all your breathtaking words and pictures and insights. And comments. Those are more intoxicating than I'd have thought, before I started this blog-journey. Thank you. Stay warm.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Don't ask a kid what he wants to eat

That is the moral of the story, at least at my house. My sons are grown, mostly, and though one still lives at home they travel around the sun on their own orbits and spin on their own axes (that looks weird, but I think it's right). But now and then, they do actually Eat Here, and as I've mentioned before, they more or less defined the virtual menu for the virtual restaurant I will almost certainly never open. If you ask them what they want for supper, or if it happens to be someone's birthday and they have the inalienable right to pick, they will ask for That Chicken.

That Chicken is a recipe I suspect my mother got out of one of those infamous women's mangazines to which I have also alluded. This is how you make it:
Crush a bag of cheap, rgular potato chips until they are nearly subatomic particles. Kids love this part. If you let them just smash the chips right in the bag, or roll over the bag with a rolling pin, they are delighted, and the pieces are usually still not small enough. Dip boneless, skinless chicken breasts into melted butter or margarine, roll in the chips, and place in a baking dish. Bake at 350 or so until they're nicely browned and done all the way through, about half an hour or so.

Your kids will love That Chicken and into their teens and beyond will ask you to make it. You might even have to beg them NOT to ask you in front of people you think may respect you as a cook. That's all from Eat Here tonight, but then, it's probably plenty.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

An afterthought, but could North American Right Whales ever be an afterthought...?

It's pretty much past my bedtime, but it seemed really important to provide you with a view of what they look like, from the planes that are sent up to spot and identify them.

If you don't read Eat Here regularly, you may not be aware that between December and March, we are privileged in North Florida to be visited by North Atlantic Right Whales as they move into warm waters to calve. There are approximately 400 of these amazing animals left on the planet. If you see one, you call it in, and a plane is actually sent out to locate the animal(s) you've seen, and believe it or not, you get a call in the evening, telling you they've found your whale. If they have the information they also tell you the name of the animal and how often she's been seen, and whether or not she is traveling with a calf. Imagine (as I've said before): there are 400 of them alive on the planet (and that number seems to be creeping upward!), so Rodney and Louise, who've seen them swimming southward, are among the fortunate and rare humans to have witnessed the continuation of this astonishing species.

Tune in tomorrow. I promise to include a recipe, and I'm thinking of a perfectly appalling one beloved of my sons, for baked chicken. You'll love it. I'll see you then.

The New Old Bridge of Lions, with humble thanks

We live in an amazing town, filled with artifacts so integrated into our lives that we can sometimes not imagine not having them in place. Some years ago, there was a battle about this beautiful landmark, the Bridge of Lions, connecting downtown St. Augustine to Anastasia Island, where Rodney grew up and where many treasured friends live today. This is a picture of our beloved bridge I borrowed from, and if you were driving toward the distance, you would coming into downtown St. Augustine. I hope you'll forgive me for letting my friend Pablo over at Pablo Notes do some of the heavy lifting for me tonight, because he has beautifully captured the first lighting of the new lights on the saved, preserved, rescued bridge, the beneficiary of a dogged fight to save it that took many years and the passionate activism of many people.

It wasn't, perhaps, the bloody battle of some of those of previous centuries in our town, but it was a hard-fought one, nonetheless. You can see its history at the Save Our Bridge site, but the bottom line is this: there was a drive to widen the bridge, making it four modern lanes, but losing the beauty and architectural elegance of this edifice, one that served to connect us with the generations of our parents and stood as a reminder of those generations before them. It was touch and go, as they say: that four lane replacement bridge nearly won the day.

It's the work of hundreds, or maybe thousands of people, but there it is. Saved, for everyone to enjoy. As it seems to be the work of this blog to talk about connections, this was too important to miss. Thank you, Lis and Kristie. Thank you, Teresa Danahy Segal. Thank you, Pablo. Thank you, sort of crazy people at Folio Weekly, who covered the topic and did your best to help preserve this treasure. Thank you, people of St. Augustine, who, in the end, DID save this treasure.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Booksmith Recollection I: St. Augustine is for book lovers

This is the view down Stokes Creek yesterday afternoon, looking through the live oaks and Spanish moss, through the wind-bent trees limned with moss, adorned with resurrection fern. When we first moved here my husband's brother said it looked like a little slice of Old Florida. Like Cross Creek, maybe. We thought so, too; this disappearing old Florida was what we'd fallen for when we bought the place.

Years go, there was a marvelous independent bookstore in St. Augustine called The Booksmith, carefully and affectionately run by Diana and Bob Smith, and it was my first real career-job, the first job I loved and didn't just go to so I could collect a pay check. In fact, The Booksmith was the first time it had really occurred to me that such a thing was possible: to go to work and be fulfilled by how you'd spent your day.

Matchmaking happened every day, for one thing. Every day someone came in and said they needed something to read, but weren't quite sure...every day, one of us said, "What's the last thing you read that you loved?," and then, "What's the last thing you tried to read but hated and could't finish?", and we could always put a book into their eager hands. If they hated the book, we'd let them bring it back. Perhaps these were the questions later co-opted into the algorhythm I imagine whirring and whizzing under the hood at Barnes & Noble and Amazon and places like that. And we did magic, too. Regular, everyday magic, like finding obscurities in Books In Print, which we owned in multi-volumne hard copies we had to buy every year or so. But we did some modestly exotic white magic, too, more complicated but still more art than science. Like this, for instance: a man came in and said to me, "I was reading this book, and I loved it, and I couldn't wait to finish it, and you won't believe this, but I came home and the dog really had eaten it. The cover is gone, and I can't remember the title." He looked at me sadly.

"Who was the author?" I asked hopefully, but he looked sadder than before. "I can't remember," he said, "not for the the life of me."

I thought for a minute and then asked, "Well, what was it about? Can you describe the plot or characters, or anything?"

"Dear me, yes," he said. "It was about a kind of crazy guy who lives in New Orleans with his mother...." and while he talked I walked to the shelf and handed him his replacement copy of John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. He stared at me. In all modesty, as I said, it was a kind of simple magic we did, a lacing together of shared knowledge, for I certainly hadn't read every book we had. But there were Diana and Maggie, Sue and Katie and many others whose shared knowledge encircled the little store like a gently cast magic spell, and mostly we could find those lost things for people if they were stories or books. Sometimes, we could find things even more unexpected, but that is another story, my loves. Remind me to tell you about the OED, Unabridged. This is the Oxford English Dictionary, and as I mentioned, unabridged, and in those days ran to more than a dozen volumes and was (I am not making this up) about $2500. Really. But you must remind me, my dears, for that story on another cold night by the fire.

Famous people breezed in and out, usually without our realizing; occasionally with our unspoken agreement to ignore their fame and treat them like everyone else. And of course there were also those people whose fame was important to them, or who were only marginally famous and wanted more attention, or whose 15 Andy Warhol minutes had passed despite their best efforts. The view of our little creek in the golden sunlight reminded me to tell you about this one. Mr. Baskin used to come into the store now and then, and more often would call and order something someone had mentioned and which he thought he ought to read. He always expected to be recognized, and liked to be fussed over a little. I had to ask Diana who he was, and for some local context.

(Bear with me for a momentary geographic digression to help make a better picture, won't you? The location of the store doubtless played a role in its guest list, at least sometimes. And it might help you, when I come round to tell you Booksmith Recollection II, or III, or what have you. Rocky will be in one of those. Lis will be in one. Gamble Rogers, Jimmy Buffett...those are fine stories, my dears, still to come. For now, it's enough to tell you this, and to thank you for being patient.)

The Booksmith's tiny back storage room shared a wall in common with its neighbor, a local landmark and famously, realistically seedy and universally loved bar called The Trade Winds. At other end of our small block was The Cathedral of St. Augustine, and our front yard was the Plaza. The Cathedral and the Plaza and perhaps their proximity to one another often reminds visitors of Europe. And right across the Bridge of Lions was the picturesque neighborhood called Davis Shores. David Nolan wrote a book about it, favored among locals, called Fifty Feet in Paradise. Lots of us have lived in that beautiful old neighborhood over the years; some close friends still do.

And sometime between the 1940s and 1960s, so did Norton Baskin and his wife, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Here is a photo I took from an uncredited photo in a book from Rodney's St. Augustine collection, with some unnamed folks and the new-made Mr. and Mrs. Baskin on the far right; they have just been married at the St. Johns County Courthouse, itself only a two-block walk from The Booksmith. It's not a good picture, of course, but you can look it up for yourself if you like. By the time my path crossed Mr. Baskin's at The Booksmith, he was quite elderly but he did like to be remembered, and I think he liked people to know he'd been the husband of Ms. Rawlings.

So here we are, Rodney and I, on our tiny corner of the land that must look much like the tiny outpost of Florida Marjorie Rawlings found, profoundly grateful to share it with you and remind you that it may be much smaller, but it's still here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Peace be with you, from the beach

With good reason, there was nary a surfer to be seen at the beach today, but as the day unfurled and the barometric pressure rose, the sky just got bluer and bluer and the sea more calm and smooth all the time, and it would have been a perfect day to see whales, but we did not. The sun grew stronger behind the fast-moving clouds, laying shadows on the surface of the water that looked like deep green and steely blue stripes on canvas, which I tried to photograph to no avail. If I could ask for my gift, as the animals did in the T.H. White story I told you the other day, I would ask for the ability to paint the effect of light on the world, like Edward Hopper. Alas, such is not my gift as you know, so we shall have to make do with the photo I have. You can let its sun kiss your face and the color of its sky lighten your heart.

What I did see was an amazingly big object in the surf. It looked like a long bone, black as obsidian and gleaming in the water. Despite an incoming tide, I went in after it, got wet nearly to the waist, and retreived this amazing thing. You can see that it has a curved shape to it, like a rib bone, and you get a sense of how long it is by comparison to my foot. I wouldn't hazard a guess as to what kind of animal it may have come from, as there was an ancient time in which the peninsula of Florida was far wider than it is now, and another time when it was far more narrow, meaning that hundreds of square miles that are now above the water line once belonged to the ocean, and vice versa. The bone fragment is a beautiful thing and creates a sense of connection for me between our humble selves and those of our sister and brother vertebrates who dwelt in the backyard of Mother Ocean long before we did. That sounds serious and respectful, but you would have laughed your head off to see an old fat lady, running into the surf on a chilly day in 30 mile an hour wind gusts, chasing a bone the size of her own forearm. Remember that scene in Bringing Up Baby where Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are chasing George around the yard, looking for the all-important bone they think he's buried? Rodney kept calling me Mister Bone, but I think he was proud of my perseverance.

There was also a dead sea turtle. It was about 2 feet long from the top of the shell to the back, and perhaps 18 inches wide. Considering the size of the baby turtles that emerge from eggs along this same stretch of beach, which are smaller than the palm of my hand, I would guess this that this was a turtle of some mighty years: perhaps 50 or more. Its back was covered with barnacles. Rodney knows the person who coordinates the sea turtle preservation program for St. Johns County. This being St. Augustine, he used to work with the woman's husband and had their phone number in his phone, so I called. If the turtle had been tagged, the nice husband told me, there would have been a large white X painted on the shell, but there was no such mark. I wondered if this turtle could have started its life before we ever gave their species a thought for preservation, and he said, Yes, that was certainly possible. He was grateful we'd called, and he would let the folks at Guana know so they could collect the body and one hopes, learn whatever it might have to teach them.

And so goes the circle of life at the beautiful beach of Guana. I won't include a recipe tonight but I am making a southwestern chicken and corn chowder. I promise to tell you how to make it, just in case you don't already know. If you already have a perfectly marvelous chowder recipe of your own, let me know. Nothing is nicer on cold February nights, when the sky is clear, the stars are beginning to peep out and the hope of spring is furled tightly as a budding tree, invisible still, but certain as sunrise.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bad weather and guilty pleasures

Warning: Winter weather in north Florida may cause hail. Some restrictions may apply. See store for details. And there it is: hail, falling from the sky and bouncing around on the back porch.

In weather like this, you can go out in it and face it bravely, or you can cower indoors and watch old movies. Hmm. Tell you what: I'm thinking old movies. The great marriage of elderly technology, for me, was that of Tivo and Turner Classic Movies. TCM brought the guilty pleasure right into our living room; TiVo and its descendants kept it there. So I say we leave the great outdoors out there, for this evening, my loves, and watch an old movie.

Movies connect people, on so many levels and with so many vocabularies. If that sounds trite and unoriginal, the Emperor said in Amadeus, There it is. But it's also true. During the years Rodney's dad stayed with us as Alzheimers slowly unraveled his memory, movies many times helped preserve such familial connective tissue as remained between us all, saved us from boredom and pointless focus on a situation that could not be changed. Movies reflected back to him the years Pop could remember as though they were last week, and gave us a window into his history. Those movies of war and romance, of escapism and propaganda, filled with virtue and goodness as well as tragedy and heartbreak; those movies from 1930 until about 1970 provided blessed if temporary sanctuary. Even better: we came to love them even more dearly than I had as a school-skipping teenager and the affection crossed generational boundaries in ways we hadn't expected.

Holiday movies, I suspect, may perform a similar function in many families; it may be why It's a Wonderful Life was, several years ago, so over-presented on TV that people kind of hated it, for awhile. In our family, The Man Who Came to Dinner became de rigueur. Katie was infected eventually, so that we watched it in June or September; it didn't matter. It was hilariously written, brilliantly acted and in its way a marvelous period piece, recalling as it historical figures from Walter Winchell to Eleanor Roosevelt to Haile Selassie. My sons would quote from it - and it has truly delightful, witty Moss Hart dialogue, and it is not unusual for someone in our circle to be referred to as "the moonflower of my middle age, and I love you veddy much," in the plummy tones of Reginal Gardiner. And that's just the starting place, of course, but it created a framework for Witty Children, and with such have we been rewarded. One of the daughters of our circle, Hannah McNoface, is actually a movie reviewer and, I believe, a future filmmaker. (Imagine this: her father shot the video for our wedding. For the city where we live may be large, my loves, but the circles are small, small. Forgive me; I digress.)

You could watch a movie with devices almost unrecognizable to the youngest of modern viewers: the typewriter, the telephone when it still had a cord connecting it to the wall and was heavy enough to have been used as a murder weapon in Clue, cars of such size and weight as to resemble sculpture, and that list, of course, goes on and on. And certainly you could track the nation's progress through some of the signal events of the 20th century, if you had the perseverance. The First World War, the Great Depression, and certainly World War II and every war was all on film. Not objective journalistic works, with some exceptions, but if you look closely the history of the 20th century is there for you, in film. Even shameful things like racism are there. A movie graced by the elegance of Lena Horne and the astonishing voice of Ethel Waters is rendered appalling by the racist lens through which it was created: Cabin in the Sky. This lesson in racism was wasted on Pop, but not on our children; it is in stark relief for them in the current decade. Watch it sometime. You will fall off your chair.

Such ugliness contrasted with such beauty: while Katie was in Africa there was a month or so of TCM showing the entire body of work in film produced by Grace Kelly. We recorded every single one of them, thinking of curling up on the couch like a litter of puppies when she was home, watching wide-eyed, savoring each of them like manna from heaven. And there were a bunch of Bogart films, too. Not the ones you always think of fondly, like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, but those and many more I'd never heard of...Passage to Marseilles, for instance, and The Petrified Forest, too many to name. And as unexpected delights, there were Lawrence of Arabia and, o, ye gods: The Lion in Winter. Yes, it's all there in the movies, my loves, and all saved by The Great and Wonderful TiVo, so we can watch every minute when Katie comes home.

Photo courtesy of Rodney
Copy editing: Dylan

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Eat Here's once-a-year Fried Chicken, for when Katie comes home

Here's a sweet nosegay of violets, uncovered today in the Ongoing Excavations of Rodney. It'll have to get you by til the real ones bloom, my dears. Or you can go to Ms. Moon's, and look at her deliciously delicate white violet.

The Countdown to Katie is in full swing, and I've been thinking about how my welcomes always include food (I know, I know) and then, inevitably, about what to cook. This is partly because of me, because of my history and my roots and my crazy family and Why We Are Fat, but as Monty Woolley says in The Man Who Came to Dinner, "Yes, yes, we won't discuss that". It is also, at least on this occasion, because I've been thinking of the relative privations of living in a country, on a continent, where much of what we take for granted is simply not there. Katie called me a few months ago to ask how to make buttermilk. She knew it could be done but couldn't remember the proportions; she was cooking for Adam and something needed buttermilk. A few days later she emailed and said whatever it was had been wonderful, especially considering that she'd made buttermilk out of canned milk, because fresh milk, what my mother used to call "sweet milk", was an hour's drive away. Eggs were the same. So since she's had to be without these riches we hardly give a thought to enjoying, it seems to me that the thing to do would be welcome her with the, er, fatted calf, with apologies to my vegetarian friends, who are legion.

I am thinking of our old favorite chocolate cake, a Susan Purdy recipe I won't share with you here, but you can find it in A Piece of Cake, and you'll be glad you did. It calls for buttermilk. Before I was given a copy of this invaluable Biblical reference for cakemakers by our dear Lis, I used cake mixes. I was raised with cake mixes. But when you make a few cakes from scratch you discover a couple of things. One is that cake mixes don't really save you much time. Another more critical fact is this: cake mixes are made with chemically-treated flour. When you taste the difference for yourself, there's no going back. So I was thinking of the chocolate buttermilk cake, to celebrate a missed birthday.

And because I was busy sharing the Angel Biscuit recipe with you, the thought of fried chicken came to me. My menfolk will tell you that this is something I only cook once or twice a year, usually for celebratory occasions. Generally speaking they believe to a man that it should be served every other evening, but you'll know right away that it's not good for you and is a luxury to be savored on rare and memorable occasions. This is partly because its inseparable, more or less, from its many friends and relations, which include biscuits, of course, and usually mashed potatoes and what is called in the South "milk gravy". I think I might fry chicken for this wonderfully savor-able occasion, so I thought I'd tell you how to make it, in case you ever need to know. You can make it rather less bad if you use smart things like skim milk and reasonable serving portions, and boneless skinless chicken breast meat instead of pieces of chicken. However you decide to do it, here are the secrets to success.

Black cast iron skillets are highly recommended, but if you don't have one, use whatever you have, as long as it has a lid. Season enough flour to coat the chicken and leave some to make the roux for the gravy. This may take a couple of cups of flour, depending on how much you need, but make plenty. It's easy enough to throw away the extra but hard to recover from in mid-fry. Use salt and plenty of pepper, and whatever else you like: marjoram, rosemary, fresh or dried parsley and thyme...the salt and pepper are mandatory. The best pepper is that nice stuff that comes in different colors, fresh ground, but you know how to do this for your people so they'll like it. Put enough oil in your skillet to fry the chicken, but remember you're not deep-frying; you probably need an inch or so evenly across the bottom of your skillet. I use canola oil, but you can use peanut or safflower or whatever you prefer. Be sure it's an oil that can tolerate a heat, especially if you're frying chicken with bones; it takes longer to cook. Make sure the oil is well heated to what you might think of as medium high if you used an electric stove; this is one of the places the recipe might become science if I knew enough. I don't, so it's still art for me and you'll have to use your good cook judgement. Salt and pepper your chicken, too, but mostly pepper.

Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour. In my family there is no dipping of the chicken in buttermilk, or any extra liquid at all. Just dredge. Place the pieces of chicken (carefully!) in the skillet, making sure not to crowd. Feed the pan (which means, sprinkle more flour on top of the chicken) and cover the skillet. This is the magic part. If you don't feed the pan, you won't have those tasty crunchy bits to season the roux for you and the gravy will taste like milk and flour. And you can only do this on the first side you cook; once you turn the chicken your opportunity passes. Leave the cover on the chicken until you're ready to turn it. The time will vary, depending on what you're cooking: if you have three chicken breasts with bones in your skillet, you let it cook for 15 or 20 minutes before you turn it. If you're doing boneless breast meat, it takes about half that time.

When you're ready to turn the chicken - this is the super top secret part you canNOT tell ANYone, and I am not kidding - turn this chicken and DO NOT put the lid back on. The lid has helped you steam your chicken to perfect white doneness and set the fine crumb coating. If you put the lid on after you turn the chicken, the breading will fall off and you'll throw the whole mess away. Peek at the chicken until the second side is nicely browned and you know you've cooked it long enough. (Make a test piece of a breast or thigh if you haven't done this before, and you'll get an idea how long it takes to cook.)

After the chicken is done, pour off the extra oil and leave just enough in the skillet to make a roux. This is purely art, my loves. Add seasoned flour until the oil is "taken up" and you can see a nice thick roux forming, stirring all the time. You want this to be as brown as it can be without even hinting at burning. As soon as you're happy with that color, add enough milk to thin the roux to the right consistency and cook as it thickens, usually another 5 minutes, perhaps a little longer. To reduce the fat, you can use half skim milk and half water if you like. The flavor is going to come from that feeding of the pan you did earlier and your beautiful dark brown roux, anyway.

Don't try to do this for a dinner party tomorrow night if you've never done it before. It's one of those recipes you have to try a few times before you do it for show. But it's completely worth it. I think Katie will love it, don't you think so? It's a good bit of work and care, this chicken, but it says, Welcome home, my dear old one. Welcome home.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

'Tis the season

No, not that season. It's winter, and for another few weeks the camellias will continue to bloom and it will continue to be whale watching season in northern Florida. I mentioned it briefly in a previous blog entry, but it's worthy of a further note, and more detail.

About this time last year, Rodney was working at one of the county's beach access points in the northeast part of our county when he saw what he thought was a car or something equally unlikely rising out of the Atlantic. And then he realized the sound he could hear was air: she was close enough that people on the beach could hear the sound of her blow hole. He thought she might have been a hundred yards off the beach, and she might have been 30 feet long, maybe more. And this is a man who's worked for a living, a man who knows how to fix things and put things together, one of the smartest men I've ever known, a man whose estimates are trustworthy. 30 feet. Imagine that.

Because we spend so much time at our beloved Guana Tolomato Reserve, a state park, and because it has signs posted like the one I've pictured for you, he remembered that there was a number he ought to call, so he did. To his surprise, he got a call later that night. "We've found your whale," the woman on the phone said, "and her name is Arpeggio. She's traveling with a calf, and this is the fourth year we've seen her..." So imagine THAT: out of an entire population consisting of less than 400 individual animals, the most endangered whale species in the world, Rodney had seen a veteran mother, and a new baby. When the whale calving season ended, and all the North Atlantic Right Whales had moved back up to their regular range far to our north, Rodney got a certificate in the mail. He had been one of only a hundred or so people to see and report a whale that year.

The world turned round and round and a year later my friend Louise was at the beach, less than 10 miles from Rodney's spot last year, and called her husband to say she could see 4 whales. She had her binoculars, but they were too far off the beach for her to take pictures of them, and in any case I think she wanted to watch them more than take pictures. It happens that her husband and I are work colleagues, and he mentioned she'd called to say what she'd seen. "Well, have her call," I said, and pulled out the very picture I've given you here to hand over the number. There were a couple of rough patches, work and communication being what they are, but the long and short of it is that Louise did call, and did get her observations to the right people. A short while later, driving toward town, she was able to see the plane circling over the ocean, looking for the whales she'd spotted. And that evening, she got a call: the plane had spotted not only the 4 whales Louise had seen, but 5 more: a total of 9 whales. And when you think about that, those whales represent nearly 5% of the whole living population of these marvelous creatures. It is nearly indescribable, so miraculous does it seem. I have lived on this coast the most part of my life now, and have never seen one, for they could glide by in the night or be under the water when you happen to look, or have wandered far enough from the breaking surf that you could miss them, easily. But they are out there, my loves. They are.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The blog-ness of others

"Sub-tropical" is the typical characterization of our climate here in St. Augustine; in the language of gardeners and those who read seed catalogues, we are dwellers of Zone 9a. This dogwood grows an hour or so almost due west of St. Augustine, but it must border on the edge of the next zone for it has a stately glory you will only occasionally see on its sister trees to the east. And like the wet, chilly weather of this lingering winter, it provides the contrast we need to tell the good from the bad. Blogs were like this to me, in the beginning: they were like dull, wintry weather from which bright sunlight and stippled shadow were missing.

Slowly I began to see the contrast, and then all at once, it seemed, there it was. How had I missed it? The name, for one thing. While the words "web log" evoked diaries and memoirs and other interesting and richly different stories, the inevitable "blog" took me to "blob" and "clod" and "blah". I didn't dive in on my own. Luckily for me, I was invited and as you know, became hopelessly addicted. Ms. Moon's compelling voice and Pablo's dazzling and poetic approach led me. Tyrone's whimsical, if intermittently posted, view was unique and his technical counsel valuable. And these were the people I knew. These were some of the writers I knew, for they are not babbling nonsense, these writers: most are FAR more compelling than many of the heads talking on your television in the evenings. Best of all, this was not the social network created in sound bites, the network you enjoy as you do an appetizer, the social equivalent of a flock of swallows, dipping and skimming at the top of a pond for an evening drink: the interaction of facebook or twitter. These have their places, and many of us are thankful for the connection facilitated by them, around our busy lives, our work, our play our kids our houses our commutes...but this is a different place altogether.

Do yourself a favor. Read your friend's blog. And then read some of the people he or she reads. Savor the contrast, drink in the fine writing; you will be surprised. You may even be astonished. You'll laugh out loud; you'll read things out loud to your partner or your children. You will marvel at the intellectual and personal courage; you will read things that make you take a sharp breath in, that make you glad to know such writers. Dive in.

Here is a taste. Ms. Moon has kindly shared her recipe for the truly divine Angel Biscuits. I could just give you the recipe here, but I believe it to be inextricably part of a larger menu she offered on the day she shared it, and it seems sinful, somehow, to pull them apart. Go and see Angel Biscuits, the Director's Cut and make some of those biscuits one day before you die. While they're in the oven, you can read a blog by someone you've never met and the winter gloom will be lost in the beautiful contrast.

Time cheerfully sacrificed by Rodney & Dylan
Gatorbone Dogwood photo by Lorie

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Chinese Men and the tahini dressing, for surely you will love one or the other

Can you see this tiny, spotted amphibian? He sat on the edge of our pond the other day for nearly half an hour, letting us both take pictures of him. In fact there were two of them, one closer to the fall of water, both poised as if they could not see us. They reminded me of those glazed figurines that come from China, and this (and Rodney) reminded me of a story I wanted to tell you.

My great-grandmother, Addie, had two daughters, Gladys and Helen. Addie is the one I told you about, the one who was suspected of never properly sharing a recipe for fear of also sharing its inherent perfection with the recipient, but she was as dear as diamonds to me when I was small. She was tiny, with bright white hair that seemed to stand out around her head like an imperfect halo, and blue eyes twice as bright. Her daughters had come, like her granddaughters (and, yes, I think even her great-granddaughters would), in one of two shapes: the boobs, butt and belly shape of Glad, and the delicate, Celtic old-ones look of Helen. When Glad and Helen were grown and married, one of them had, or was given, or collected on her own, a set of about 7 Chinese mud men, each distinct from the others, who looked more or less like these, but not the same.
Addie had a wonderful collection of things we might call knick-knacks today; she had one of those sets of shelves recessed into the wall of her living room, and there were things I now know to be milk glass pitchers, and depression glass vases and other beautiful things I wasn't allowed to touch, and I *think* I remember the Chinese men, but it was lo, these many years ago, my loves, and I could have imagined that. In any case, I do remember for certain that these figurines were about 5 or 6 inches tall, and that they were always called, in the family, The Chinese Men, and everyone knew exactly which "Chinese men" were meant. One had a pair of baskets across his shoulders, balanced carefully. One had a staff or walking stick, and the others had decorative touches of their own; I cannot recall whether one had a frog, but for some reason this still, silent living frog reminded me of The Chinese Men quite strongly. Who can tell the earliest fragments of childhood memories from the things we added later? Who can sift the absolute reality from the softened and probably inaccurate recollection? Not me, my dears. Not me.

The years passed by, and Glad moved to Virginia (far, far, in those long-ago days, from eastern Tennessee), and more years passed and Helen moved to Florida (imagine!), and Addie died. And all the while as the years passed and the sisters visited each other, something mysterious and never spoken aloud was happening to The Chinese Men. It seems that Glad may have hosted the whole assembly of them in her house not far from Richmond, and Helen, fey, elegant Helen, may have visited, and when she was gone some of The Chinese Men may have disappeared. And in the days before Winter Park was close to anything called DisneyWorld, but while Walt was digging and pouring and changing the aquifer, Glad may have gone to Florida. Imagine! A place where the very name seemed to be an irony, where palm trees actually grew in front yards, and where Helen worked at Ivey's mixing face powder for ladies as beautiful as she was, and even more so. Helen had worked at a department store in Kingsport, before she left the beautiful mountains, and perhaps because she was small and lovely and a fine advertisement for the products, she was put in charge of the cosmetics counter, where she was the first cosmetics sales lady in town to mix face powder for ladies of color. I don't think anyone was especially proud of this at the time, though I know she came to be proud of it later in her life. So Glad came to Florida, where the heat may have bothered her, and she stayed a bit with her sister. Close in age, they seemed to have remained close through their lives. When Glad left to take the train or to be driven by her husband back to her Virginia home, inexplicably, some of The Chinese Men had found their way back to a shelf in Helen's small apartment. But others were missing. Some would find themselves in Virginia. There were always the same number; there was always the same collection of The Chinese Men. But some were with Helen, and some were with Glad, and this equation seemed to change now and then.

This mystery continued in my family for some years, though no one said a word about it, and I do not myself know the whereabouts of The Chinese Men now. Helen died, leaving two desolate daughters behind, and years later, Glad died, too, leaving her own daughter. With them, as far as I know, was buried the mystery. It has been kept affectionately, if quietly, alive for me: one small dear Chinese man was given to me many years ago by my friend Laurel, who shared so many family tales with me, and another by my kind husband, who has never forgotten a word I've said to him. You must have tales of your own childhood Chinese Men, if you can bear to look at them; I cannot bear to look too long upon my own, I know. If you can tease the cheeriest pieces of the memories out, do look on them and think of them with happiness.

If you cannot, or don't want to be bothered with sentiment just now, here is something nice for you: The Cafe Alcazar's Tahini Dressing, courtesy of our dear Lorie. If you can make a lovely green salad and make the edges of your plate bright and beautiful with strawberries and melon and slices of starfruit and whatever else you can find, and add a scoop of Curried Chicken Salad, and put this dressing alongside for the green bits, you will have tasted a bit of Heaven, as it is revealed by the Cafe and by friendship. This is the big recipe size, but you can halve or perhaps quarter it for your own delicious purposes.

Into a mixer you blend a cup of tahini, a tablespoon of finely chopped garlic and a pinch of cayenne pepper. VERY SLOWLY, add 3 cups of blended oil (Lorie recommends a combination of olive and canola, but you can do as you like), and I think you're looking for the typical emulsification of a salad dressing. Then you add 1/4 cup of soy sauce and 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar. "That's it!" Lorie says, "it's easy!"

When I started writing Eat Here, I meant to only include recipes I could tell myself, ones I knew how to make so well that I wouldn't consult cookbooks. Mostly I've been able to be true to this, except for one quick read of Southern Sideboards which I promise was only to remind myself of the city in which its authoring Junior League is located. The exceptions so far have been from Lorie's kindness, in honor of the much-loved Cafe Alcazar. And I have been shyly thinking of asking Ms. Moon for her positively heavenly Angel Biscuit recipe (only don't tell her, will you, because I haven't quite worked up my nerve). And I do welcome your own recipes and thoughts on food, because it wouldn't be quite right not to, since I so often hope you will Eat Here.