Go, Daddy, Go!

This story of abundance begins two hours away, at a freshwater reservoir in north-central Utah, where, on a summer night, crayfish emerge from sandy soil and are easily caught between a net and a bright flashlight. Two hunting methods prevail. Shine a light in shallow waters where crayfish dwell and either: position a net behind them to catch them as their abdominal muscles (i.e. the delicious “tails” we seek to eat) furiously backpedal, or position yourself to pluck them by hand, one by one, writhing, in tact, as they slowly maneuver forward. Toss them quickly into ice coolers waiting nearby.

 

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Crayfish in wait.

Genetic cousins to insects, crayfish (also known as crawfish or crawdads) are crustaceans that have proliferated as a species for millions of years. Sturdy exoskeletons and an instinctual affinity for the dark have encouraged their success. To their detriment, their sexy abdomens: humanity’s temptation.

In the intervening hours after catching crayfish, and prior to boiling the crayfish in restaurant-sized pots situated on heat sources of your choosing, encourage the little bugs to purge the mud and flatworms from their digestive tracts by submerging them in a series of cleansing salt-and-ice-water baths, each of which should grow successively less murky as the purging progresses. Crayfish, like other crustaceans, have evolved to self-metabolize at death; their digestive enzymes quickly begin breaking down the very muscle tissue prized by food enthusiasts, so be sure to keep them very cold and cook them quickly.

At cooking time, aim for maximum output and minimal clean-up. Our hosts, Kurt and Maggi, set out vinyl tablecloths topped with newspaper and mason jars filled with fresh flowers (the former for practical disposal, the latter for aesthetic pleasure). Maggi and Kurt invited all guests to contribute their lot of corn-on-the-cobs, red potatoes, sausages, and butter. Kurt graciously incorporated all of our ingredients into a crayfish boil, extending the haul – with generous sprinklings of Old Bay – to a lavish backyard feast. Maggi adorned each table with bowls of hot, melted butter for dipping.

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The art of eating involves tactile education, which many guests received together, under Kurt and Maggi’s tutelage. With their guidance we learned to twist and snap the abdomens away from the upper bodies, and to grasp the middle tail fins in order to pull out the digestive tracts cleanly. (These are filled, mostly, with sandy debris.) Once accomplished, we smashed the protective abdominal shells in order to harvest the silken meat. Crunchy orange confetti, small enough to be overlooked, signify females and their roe. That weird green stuff under the spindly legs? Probably related to the tomalley in lobsters, crayfish’s bigger, saltwater relative: sometimes used as a flavorant, but deleterious to leave in tact, for its self-destructive tendencies. Should we eat the claws or the heads, as we’d seen on television? Yes, we could, crunching their shells in our teeth – we found them briny, but less abundant than the abdomens, which yielded fleshy stores about the same size as small-to-medium shrimp.

Seafood boils have roots in the coastal regions of the southern United States, but they vary in history, geography, and name: clam bakes, shrimp boils, low country boils, etc. Boils flourish in ice coolers (excellent insulators for temperature extremes); in cast iron pots or Dutch ovens; on the stove; on the grill; and in any place the human initiative seeks to celebrate the bounty provided by the natural world. For us, it was central Utah on a random July night with gas stoves in a friend’s backyard.

James Beard wrote fondly of the crayfish boils of his Oregon youth. “If you can find or order crayfish in your locality,” he wrote, “they are something to hail with joy and treat with reverence.” He cooked his in court bouillon; we cooked ours in water and Old Bay, but I like to think that, over two nights and in our very small scale, we joined Beard in spirit, hailing in joy over a delicious feast.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Morphine

Relentless suitor, you courted me four years ago with ruinous largesse: eleven deaths in eighteen months… and, good lord, the aftershocks. You changed me, scraping me raw, wiping friends and loved ones from my spare landscape as if they were loose pebbles. I’d lived many deathless years before our intimate, thorough affair. When you left, I did not miss you. I thought I’d quit you, at least for a while, but here you are again, purring at the door.

*

Julia, have you seen the news? It’s Randy. He’s been in an awful accident… I saw the news. A drunk driver claimed the life of my college employer. I read and reread each piece of the accident’s coverage. Words and letters jumbled into a language I didn’t want to understand. I rested my head on the table for a long while, ears roaring, temples throbbing. Hot tears pooled on the smooth, cool wood.

*

I hate condolence cards. I have a collection of cards, emails, news articles, and journal entries from my mother’s death. I wrapped my little mausoleum in silken gold ribbon, storing it high on my bookshelf. At the time she died, those correspondences were precious doses of emotional morphine, and I am as grateful for them today as I was four years ago. Every now and then, though, I gather the cherished golden bundle in my arms and bite back rage, because it lacks the one thing my sister and I wanted most after our mother’s sudden demise: an apology from the man whose vehicle struck her.

*

Dear Sally, I was shocked to learn of Randy’s death. I am so very sorry. You and James have been in my thoughts and prayers all week. I am heartbroken. Please call on me if there is anything at all I can do to help you during this terrible time. With much love, Julia. See what I mean about condolences? No matter how sincere the intent or how profound the disbelief, ultimately they are just words on a page.

*

Losing mom made me realize that there are two types of people: those who have experienced loss and those who have yet to. Neither camp is appealing, though a visit to both is inevitable. For a brief period, death notices became so commonplace that I started to believe that the universe had recruited me to be its death coach, so that I could offer my unique spin on surviving harrowing loss. Page 1 of Julia’s Macabre Death Aphorisms: Do whatever you have to do to pull through. Page 38: Resist the overwhelming urge to make out with the doctor who shows you kindness. Page 127: When in doubt, say you’re sorry.

*

Death is an illusionist who makes surprise appearances at unlikely events. Once you’ve met him, it’s hard to avoid tracking him, following him as he surveys the room, measuring up his next victim. He demands acknowledgment, and is perhaps the most notorious of all public figures. Death makes the front page everyday.

*

I’ve spent many nights in Death’s company, wallowing in his merciful analgesic thrall. How many times have I thanked him that my mother wasn’t around to experience the world events that would have unhinged her? Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, rogue gunmen shooting children in schools, the political unraveling of her home country… She would have sickened herself: physically, mentally, or both. I rally against Death, but he is simultaneously an enemy and a friend. Our discomfiting relationship continues.

*

You forced a new vocabulary on me: irreparable brain damage, hemorrhage, respirator, intensive care unit, hospice, funeral, burial, grief counseling… I could have lived my entire life without learning these words. You dimmed my days with the promise that our dark dalliances will only increase in frequency as time progresses. Four years ago, you left a broken hull to rot in the dirt. I recovered, just enough. I hear you whispering out there, but I won’t let you in.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Pleasure Seekers

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town...

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town…

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
- Rudyard Kipling

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a community much like that of any other small town. While the sun crested the high alpine peaks, residents prepared for their days, readying for work of one kind or another, inside or out of the home. Children rode their bicycles to the elementary school. Birds chirped as farmers loaded aging pick-up trucks with hay bales and feed. Cars passed through the town’s only stoplight, heading north to more prosperous cities and south to larger towns: stop, go, stop, go.  And each day, a shadow coursed along in pajama pants, jittering, thrusting her hands, visible one moment and gone just as quickly, as if to convince onlookers she was never really there at all. Except, she was.

*

I can only speak for the town in which I live, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that addiction addles other communities as well. His face and temperament might vary, but he wears a similar outfit wherever he roams: an overcoat of hole-filled secrecy, shoes worn thin from tireless searching for the next fix. Whispers follow him, though few care to look him directly in the eyes. In my town, his name is Meth. He has an alarming number of friends.

*

As children, we’re warned not to do drugs. Our parents admonish us, as do schools and billboards. Culturally, however, we do drugs all the time, often in multiples, each one yielding a specific desired result: pain killers, anti-inflammatories, allergy relievers, anti-depressants, contraceptives, cholesterol lowering agents… Drugs are commonplace and abundant. People use them for leisure, for pleasure, to improve quality of life; others take drugs out of necessity, medical or otherwise. Into our bodies they go, dissolving into the bloodstream, workhorses for end goals. The distinction, then, isn’t that we should abstain from drugs, but that we should avoid the drugs with the potential to destroy us.

*

Problems are easily overlooked when the user has no name, but, in this small town, it was only a matter of time before I would see (and know) my first before-and-after. I encountered her a few weeks ago, hastening along Main Street, eyes bulged, punching the air around her head, cigarette in hand. Did she recognize me? Did she catch my wince before I looked away? Did she register my shock at her haggard appearance? Growing up in Brooklyn accustomed me to unanticipated doses of fright, but it seemed unfathomable that the girl before me was the same girl I remembered from just last year. Today, she is a wiry, crackling, frayed piece of electricity paying a dear price for her pleasure.

*

One of my friends has a strong background in drug and alcohol counseling. Lacking first-hand experience, I consulted with him to round out the research I’d done online, and what he told me helped me understand meth usage from a neurological perspective. Basically, meth floods the brain with dopamine (a chemical tied to motivation and reward that makes people feel really good) for a much longer duration than we usually experience from doing other activities that make us feel good, like eating good food, having sex, or working out. Its biggest danger, he explained, “is that it makes other activities seem pointless by comparison…. When the animal part of our brains know that with a phone call and a quick injection we can feel incalculable pleasure, it makes putting in the effort for going for a run and feeling a little bit better seem like a much less satisfying option. We tend to take the path of least resistance for the highest gratification.”

*

I am an outsider to the world of illegal drugs, but addiction is relatable, because it spills into alcohol, tobacco, exercise, food, creative expression… anything, really, that promises the chance of happiness or fulfillment. Social pressures, genetic inheritances, and slick marketing conspire to weaken resolve.  I understand the human appetite for pleasure.

*

Utah has its highlights and its struggles. As a non-Mormon, I will forever be a minority, a member of the 30% fringe, though I attended college here, live and work here, and, as the only child of my parents’ union and subsequent separation, have enjoyed the state’s natural offerings every summer since I was a baby. Countless observations have shown me that ice cream satiates (and palliates) the appetite of the state’s majority, who abstain from hot tea and coffee, alcohol, and tobacco – and vice in general – as a religious and moral imperative. Ice cream is obviously not a drug, but any child can tell you that its sweet creaminess has its own mood-altering effects.

*

The state has also been scrutinized for its high use of anti-depressants. Some contend that residents are more likely to seek medical assistance because they are forbidden to imbibe in the substances that others typically use to elevate moods, legally attainable or not. An entry in the Mormonism Research Ministry suggests that the pressure of striving for perfection could potentially lead to higher rates of depression. I think winter and relative isolation work in tandem to foster sadness. Winter days crawl along, prolonged nighttime encrusted in snow. Salt Lake City, with its dense population, experiences a thermal inversion that blots out the sun with a dense layer of smog for days and weeks. My town does not experience the inversion and is, for the most part, blessed by crisp, blue skies, but the days are so very lonely and hollow, making the world feel too small at times. How we cope varies. Pleasure is pleasure, and we seek it in whatever ways we can.

*

The minority fringe blisses out on caffeine in the form of tea and coffee, as does a large part of the overall global community. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, caffeine is a “behavior-modifying chemical” that “stimulates the central nervous system, relieves drowsiness and fatigue, and quickens reaction times.” And yet there are no awareness campaigns or recovery programs for caffeine addicts. Those who quit consume other, easily acquired drugs until the jitters, headaches, and cloudy irritability pass. The Coca Cola website tells me that there are “34, 750 ways to describe” how the popular beverage makes a person feel.  In 2009, the soda’s motto was “Open Happiness.” Who wouldn’t want to drink in happiness if that was all it took?

*

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a writer who recoiled in the raw face of addiction. Her shock unnerved her. Her mother’s family had lost brothers and uncles to alcoholism. She remembered sneaking outside to smoke in high school and college: those dizzying, intoxicating first drags. She felt the beckoning warmth of a morning cup of tea, black and sweet, radiating against her cupped hands. Even her chosen field of interest condemned her: musings on food and drink, near obsessive in tone, for which she held – and still holds – such reverence. She had peered into the frenzied blue eyes of someone who might under other circumstances be her friend and judged, only to recoil at herself, deeply ashamed by her reaction.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Lessons From The Big Easy

On February 2, 2014, I ran my first race: the New Orleans Rock N’ Roll Half Marathon. I traveled to the Big Easy with three girlfriends: Lori, who ran the race with me as a fundraiser; Casey, a frequent conspirator in food adventures; and Alethea, who drove from Georgia show her support. Though the run loomed prominently in our long weekend, so did our determination to find the best meals the city offered. What are four hungry ladies to do in the heart of Nola? Eat, and eat well. These are the abridged notes from a weekend I won’t soon forget.

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The adventure begins!

The ghosts of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, companions who famously toured the French countryside in search of culinary delights, lured us into the French Quarter the evening we arrived. We chose Acme Oyster House for our inaugural meal. Hopes high, we walked to the restaurant, located a short distance from our hotel, and assumed places in line for, what we were promised to be, “enormous plates of fried seafood.”  After 15 minutes of unsuccessfully garnering the attention of the hostess out front, our stomachs loudly rumbling, the hostess approached us, took our names, and led us past several other parties-of-four to a table by the bar. We did not question our good fortune. Hunger is a powerful condiment.

Our server, Will, a young L.L. Cool J, served me my first po’ boy: the Peace Maker, filled with equal parts of sweet fried shrimp and spicy fried oysters, and “dressed” with spicy mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. L.L. Adorable also brought us our first – but not last – hurricanes, oysters on the half shell, gumbo with rice, and dark, savory seafood étouffée, also served with rice. Lesson one: Enjoying a meal in a new place with friends is a joy. Enjoying a meal in a new place with attractive friends gets you seated faster.

Arrive early on Bourbon Street, because after a certain hour, the crowds thicken and traversing them can feel something like salmon swimming upstream against the current. We enjoyed more neon hurricanes in the cobbled courtyard behind Pat O’Brien’s, where music played, fountains flowed, and heat lamps and colorful lights warmed the nighttime bar crowd. We found a table in the corner of the courtyard. One of our neighbors promptly hit on Casey. He slurred his way through two introductions, only to seem to reconsider, apologizing to her and offering her his beads in truce. (His friends, only marginally less inebriated, eventually hauled him out of the bar.), Lori donned a newly acquired masquerade mask for the rest of the evening, laughing with her whole being as her hurricane shrank in her cup. We left the bar around 11 p.m. to find that an Egyptian-themed dance party had overtaken the block. I started to nervous-sweat and begged my friends to remove me from the Isis-fest. Alethea received beads – Thoth beads – before we got away, as well as an invitation to a “pimps-and-hoes-nipple-painting” nightclub.  The three who remained without invitation tried not to take umbrage. Education: Inebriated men give beads freely. Drunken, apologetic men take a little longer to part with their beads.

Hurricanes... and that one crazy who ordered a Bloody Mary instead.

Hurricanes… and that one crazy who ordered a Bloody Mary instead.

Impressive beads... but still not Thoth beads.

Impressive… but still not Thoth beads.

At Laura’s Candies, off Chartres Street, two wizened shopkeepers informed us that pralines are pronounced “prah-lins,” like “naw’lins.” They encouraged us to share this knowledge with others. If only all lessons were so easily digested.

We made reservations for Saturday night at 6:00 at Commander’s Palace, the venerated Garden District establishment that nudged Emeril into the realm of culinary acclaim. We arrived by streetcar, with a cushion of time for allotted for exploring the neighborhood. As we roamed the quiet, tree-lined streets, admiring the architecture for which the area is renowned, we met a couple walking an enormous black mountain dog. G and P inquired about our attire (Commander’s Palace strongly recommends semi-formal dress), then pointed out houses of interest, such as the 24,000 square foot estate in which American Horror Story: Coven is filmed, and invited us to their home for after-dinner drinks. We felt giddy with possibility when we arrived at the restaurant.

Exploring the Garden District with three lovely friends.

Exploring the Garden District with three lovely friends.

Dinner at Commander’s Palace was everything we imagined… and more. Servers moved as elegantly as synchronized swimmers, clearing each course before delivering the next and coordinating their movements in unison, so that everyone at the table received their plates at the exact same time. Though Lori and I demurred from post-prandial libations chez GP, opting instead to rest prior to the race, Casey and Alethea joined the couple and had a famous night. They slinked back into the hotel room just after 2 a.m., buzzing with stories to share when we awoke. The take-away: Not all strangers want to stuff your pistol-whipped, half-mutilated body up their chimneys.

By race day, I suspected that the run had become ancillary to our epic meal docket. Nevertheless, we completed the race: Lori radiant with exuberance; me, hell-bent on finishing despite the searing pain in my right knee. I marinated in sweat and wrapped myself in a foil blanket like a sea bass ready for the oven. We hailed a cab. Kismet winked at me: our driver had two first names, a quirk I find endearing. Gary Albert (or was it Albert Gary?) enchanted us with tales of his six former wives and 15 children (all fictionalized) – a welcome distraction from sore muscles. I would have loved to sit with him, memorizing his deep, rolling drawl and seaside swagger, if only the fare remained static per quarter mile. Note to self: Find less expensive over-sized personalities to talk to.

Lori and I ran to support this very deserving young lady.

Lori and I ran to support this very deserving young lady.

While Lori and I cleaned up post-race, Casey and Alethea sought out snacks to tide us all over before a late lunch.  They found luck at Café Beignet on Royal Street, where one can purchase a trio of beignets (they are typically sold in threes) for $3.99, including tax.  Beignets, the state doughnuts of Louisiana, are squares of choux dough, which blister and puff while deep-frying in oil and are sprinkled with powdered sugar immediately prior to serving.  The powder explodes in flurries with each bite. Over the next two days, we visited the café several more times, leaving small avalanches of sugar in our wake. Lesson: If one beignet is good, three is better.

Where the beignet magic began.

You had us at beignet.

During our brief time in New Orleans, we also ate at Ernst Café (killer fried green tomatoes), the Green Goddess (truffle cheese grits, sweet potato biscuits, and a bloody Mary sufficient to make a girl swoon), Domenica Restaurant (thank you, GP, for securing our reservation last minute on a Sunday night!), and the Ruby Slipper Cafe, where we ate our last New Orleans meal prior to leaving. If we’d arrived ten minutes later on that Monday morning, our wait would have quadrupled: the line only lengthened during our meal, a testament to the quality and reputation of the institution. At the Ruby Slipper, “there’s no place like home,” a philosophy that appears on their walls and menus alike. Maybe that’s why our Irish coffees felt so invitingly warm on that brisk gulf city morning; or maybe it was the service, true to our every experience in New Orleans: honest, easy, delicious, and so very genuine.

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Ernst: Crab Cakes.

Ernst: Fried Green Tomatoes.

Ernst: Buffalo Shrimp Salad.

Ernst: Fried Green Tomatoes.

Ernst: Fried Green Tomatoes.

The view from Green Goddess.

The view from Green Goddess.

Many, many thanks to Alethea, Casey, and Lori (and Maggi!) for sharing their photos in this post! When’s our next food adventure?

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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The Year of the Thousand Splendid Grass-Fed Steaks

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Where’s the beef? It’s right here. In my freezer.

“You have some boxes of eyeballs on your back porch,” said Casey, stepping into the kitchen for dinner. I’d picked up the “eyeballs” earlier that afternoon and left them outside while I plugged in our upright freezer for the first time since we purchased it six years ago. (We’d been using it as a liquor cabinet.) The temperature outside trumped the average freezer, so the porch seemed like a logical stopping point for the beef as I worked my mind around the reality of purchasing a quarter of a cow.

When friends and I first entertained the possibility of buying grass-fed beef from a local farmer, one quarter seemed reasonable. I’m familiar with cows. I often run past their pastures; I talk to them and admire their liquid eyes and long eyelashes, their shaggy, luscious winter coats. I know how big they are. The abundance of meat I received was, nevertheless, jarring. Discussion, I realized, is nebulous; three large cardboard boxes, overfilled with beef parcels wrapped in white butcher paper, are concrete. It’s humbling to consider the bounty of a single cow.

While I tamped down the stress of my beefy new world, shoving liquor bottles into temporary housing, Casey chuckled at the dining table, shoulders quaking. “Hey,” she said, calling to me. “You want some rump with that?” Two seconds later: “How many burgers would you like with your cow?” She kept laughing. “Jules,” she said. “You know I’m gonna have mad jokes about this, right?”

I don’t think I’ve eaten this much beef in my life. My family has yet to discover an affinity for burgers or meaty sauces. My food truck/catering dream has not suddenly materialized. I sifted through the parcels, making a list of what the cow provided. As I stared down at the boxes, I questioned my sanity.

Casey looked at me – my pale, sweaty face; knit brows; frown broader than a cow’s hind end – and stopped laughing. She stood up and hugged me. “Remember why you did this, Jules,” she said, holding my frantic gaze. “Tell me again why you wanted to do this.” I did this because I could. What could be more sustainable, ethical, and beneficial to a local, independent economy than this awe-inspiring, prolific cow?

Vocalizing my intent undid the panic loop. I asked myself:

Who raised the cow? Joe Ray, a family friend and local farmer.
Where did the cow grow up? About five miles from my house, on grassy pastures in the outskirts of Moroni, Utah.
Was the cow treated humanely? Yes.
Did the cow die humanely? Yes, insofar as any animal reared for consumption can die.
Who processed the meat? Circle V Meats in Spanish Fork, Utah.
Who inspected the meat? Utah 5.
Can the grocery store answer any of these questions? No.

The cost-benefit analysis:
The beef cost $2.67 per pound prior to processing, which raised its cost to $3.38 per pound. Our locally sourced, grass-fed cow yielded approximately 467 pounds of meat in total, which means that one quarter contained about 115 pounds of:

1 package top round steak
2 packages sirloin tip roast
3 packages T-bone steak
5 packages cubed steak*
2 packages sirloin steak
3 packages rib steak
2 packages stew meat
3 packages chuck roast
2 packages rump roast
1 package tenderloin
49 pouches ground beef**

* My daughter, Rory, loves country-fried steak, so I requested a larger proportion of cubed steak than my friends did. Rory and I will learn how to cook the dish together.

** Casey and I estimated each pouch to contain ½ pound of ground beef, though others say each pouch weighs a pound. It’s difficult to tell for sure, because the pouches are frozen solid and could be use as weapons in case of a zombie apocalypse. So, the quantity I received could be anywhere between 25 and 50 pounds of beef, which is, by any estimate, a holy crap ton.

Let the year of the thousand splendid grass-fed steaks begin.

Joe Ray's pastures.

Joe Ray’s pastures.

© Julia Moris-Hartley 2014

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Back to Beginnings

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Shot at night in low light with a flash… and four friends willing to be scalded in the process of capturing a single good photo. This, to me, signifies true love.

In this new year, I find myself going back to beginnings. Eater Provocateur started as a creative outlet for my inner MFK Fisher, a vehicle for self-expression with the side benefit of bringing culinary joy to others.  Entering the teaching arena diverted my energy, dividing my attention inequitably: scales tipped towards the classroom, leaving behind the whispered remnants of a blog, dusted with shreds of faded photographs past.  These days, I write as often as I can (which is not as regularly as I would like). I cook only rarely, and my camera and my food intersect awkwardly, like lovers who have grown apart but still try to maintain the pretense of an intimate relationship. Thinking of my forsaken blog causes me to wince.

Friends advise that I shouldn’t worry about my absence from the electronic world. They are, in ways, right – isn’t it more important that I engage as a human being among fellow humans? Logically, this makes sense, but it doesn’t ease the guilt of abandonment or the mourning for the lost solace of each passing day. A blog is like a child or a spouse: it requires constant, devoted attention. The reciprocation, once provided, sustains the giver. Deprived of such dynamics, the partners stray. I have been wandering in the weeds.

Nevertheless, I am blessed with friends who want, earnestly, to help keep me on track. If I make French onion soup, with toasted baguettes topped with bubbling smoked Gouda, they rally around me in support, armed with oven mitts and professional-grade cameras… a boon to a girl who started a blog with an Elph and a dream.

So I’m going back to my roots. I used to think an ambitious person could market herself in the food world and succeed according to the effort she put forth. Adulthood, and Amanda Hesser’s Food52 advice to budding food writers, convinced me otherwise. Realistically, the reach of my writing is constrained by the economic sensibilities of geographic distribution. Publishing trends and books sales are similarly disheartening. The modern literary forum is so different from that which fostered MFK Fisher and Julia Child. That knowledge is, reluctantly, and maybe must be by necessity, okay with me.

I’m still a girl with a food dream. It would be awesome to one day realize my life in terms of writing about food for a greater purpose; I’m just not there yet. I couldn’t have started this blog without the help of the friends and readers who buoy me, without those shouts of support right from the beginning. Thank you for joining me on this blog’s journey so far. Let’s make this a great year to get back to our roots… together.

Happy New Year!

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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I Heart…

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…Because I Call Them on a Saturday Night and They Are Gracious

A group of friends went to dinner in an early celebration of Mother’s Day. They hired baby-sitters for their children; they coordinated a carpool to a city an hour’s drive north, where they had made reservations at Communal, a restaurant that boasts locally sourced, seasonal menus. At Communal, they ordered wine, appetizers, and six entrees, which they shared, family-style, in an amber-lit, partitioned room. Some partook of dessert, which was also shared. The friends split the bill without quibbling, and tipped their servers well. One of the men offered to drive everyone home. Hunger sated, spirits buoyed, they returned.

I was fortunate to be part of this dining experience. My friends and I live in a rural area with limited dining options, so planned events – I call them food pilgrimages – provide us with rare moments of socio-culinary joy. The details of this meal have since faded into an overall impression: the food was delicious; we had a great time. But one dish stood out: skirt steak with roasted piquillo peppers.

I could not stop thinking about the steak the following day and well into the evening, so I called the restaurant about twenty minutes before they closed. To my delight, one of the chefs agreed to talk with me. I apologized for the late hour and asked if he had a couple of moments. He assured me that he did, then he told me how the dish was made: ingredients, pointers, and all. Dear chef, had you been standing next to me, I would have kissed you.

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… Because They Know How to Make An Experience Unforgettable

My friends, Casey and Laura, occasionally abduct me for a girls’ night out. Recently, we ventured to Chef’s Table, which is located in Orem. Chef’s Table is an eight-year recipient of the Best of State Award in Fine Dining. The restaurant is a luxury that we, on school salaries, can afford only on choice occasions, so we tend to make the most of them.

When we arrived, they seated us in the east room, which has floor to ceiling windows overlooking Provo Canyon. The setting sun blushed against the grey, striated upper crags of the Wasatch front, shrouding the lower valley in evening shade. We nestled into comfortable leather chairs amidst the tinkle of forks and low conversations.

One of our servers brought us a basket of warm, doughy rolls with a side of kalamata butter. We promptly ate them all. Casey, bedecked in a long grey dress and her signature red lips, ignited as the rush of umami engulfed her. We began to talk more animatedly, debating what to order. Which appetizers sounded the best to share? (Three cheese fondue with sourdough crisps and onion soup gratinée.) What entrée were we least likely to replicate at home?  (Lamb with white beans and sausage goulash; mushroom stuffed filet with ‘whipped’; and sirloin steak with truffle frites.) What type of wine should we drink? (Ravenswood Red Zinfandel.)

A change rippled through the dining room sometime in between the second round of rolls and the uncorking of the wine. The room quieted. Other diners, mostly couples, were watching us as we sampled from each other’s plates: spoons swooping, glasses tippling, murmuring in a near-rapturous state. It occurred to us that three boisterous women, high on delicious food and wine, might pose a date night anomaly. Glancing mischievously at one another, our eyes made a silent pact to provide our fellow diners with the entertainment they sought. Unapologetic foodies, we murmured louder.

By the time our entrees arrived, we didn’t really care what the couple seated across from us – who ate their entire meal one-handed, their opposite hands entwined in a sustained, tabletop embrace – thought. I turned my back to the balding man among the party of six in the corner of the room. He had actually leaned forward in his seat, neck craned, ear cocked in our direction. Casey playfully returned the favor. “Maybe we should invite him to join us,” she mock-whispered.

Our servers offered us countless rolls and unending butter; they refilled our glasses, removed plates, replaced silverware, and inquired about our satisfaction with each dish. I think our antics secretly amused them, though the befuddled hostess may have lamented her placement choice. Perhaps we’ll warn her next time: Beware! Foodies Gone Wild! On that night, however, our fleeting celebrity was well worth the cost of the performance.

*

… Because Making Others Happy Makes Them Happy

Joe, the chef de cuisine at the school where I work, rides a motorcycle and rocks out in a band. He recently got his last name tattooed on his forearm in large cursive letters, and is someone to whom I might turn if I needed food advice, special ingredients, or, perhaps, the name of a hit man.

Chef Joe is one of the most generous people I know. On my daughter’s birthday, he posted a big colorful sign in the cafeteria. He offers food samples and overages he can’t use to anyone who will take them. He’s given me honeycomb and Thai peanut marinade; he’s even given me duplicate cooking books, because he knows I share his love of food and because he has excellent taste in aspiring food writers who live in his immediate vicinity. Generosity isn’t an air or obligation for him; it’s his manner of being.

I can attest to Joe’s generosity specifically, but in my experience many food people share this quality. I do, as do my food-loving friends. I have yet to meet an ungracious chef. Generosity of spirit marks those who love to share their meals: it compels us to commune, to inquire, to enjoy and delight. Our spirits are propelled by the appreciative gestures and smiles of our efforts. It makes Joe happy to make others happy. It makes me happy to make you happy.

*

… Because They Give Me A Reason To Write

To all my friends in food: Thank you for helping to make the world a happier and infinitely more delicious place. Thank you for giving me direction and literary purpose. Happy, happy Thanksgiving!

I thank you!

I thank you!

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The Hunting Incident

It started out well enough...

It started so innocently…

“Mom, can we bring the pup?” asks Kai, gazing up with expectant hazel eyes, the freckle under his left eye illuminated in early afternoon sun. I glance at our dog, Coco: a small whitish mass of downy fluff and energy, her tail alert and wagging.

“Sure,” I say. “She’s part of the family, too, right?”

My children, Kai and Rory, exclaim “Yay!” in unison. Kai takes Coco’s leash from its hook in the laundry room, attaches the leash to Coco’s black collar, and stands and salutes, saying, “Ready for takeoff, ma’am!” Rory follows suit, also saluting. She giggles. Her freckled cheeks giggle with her.  The dog sneezes.

We open the door to a gentle easterly fall breeze, and pile into the car for a hike in nearby hills.

*

Our valley had its first snow a few days earlier, ironically, on the calendar’s first day of autumn: snow sheathed the higher rocky crags, and icy confetti dotted our driveway.  I mused on Mother Nature’s harsh whims, knowing better but nevertheless pressing a grey smudge of bitterness on my heart.  The weather gave us a short reprieve, and I seized the chance to venture out – with the kids, the dog, and the camera – in search of changing leaves.

We drove to Power Plant Road, and started up a trail that leads to a peak overlooking the valley. Kai offered to walk Coco so that Rory and I could take pictures. We passed two hunters dressed in dark camouflage suits, a common sight during the annual hunting season.  They knelt in the dirt with their backs to us, rinsing their hands in a stream of snow run-off, and talking in low, deep voices.  We continued up the trail with Kai and Coco in the lead. Kai stopped abruptly.

“Mom?” he asked. “Mom, what’s that?”  He pointed.

“What’s what?” I said, unzipping the camera bag and wrestling out the camera.  My eyes followed Kai’s finger and saw a bright red leg, deftly removed of skin, with muscle, bone, and hoof in tact.  A precise cube of venison steak lay in the dirt by my feet; stringy maroon entrails scattered along the path in the short distance between us.

“Is that blood, mom?” asked Kai, who is squeamish about everything related to internal anatomy. He presses his hands to his eyes during portions of movies or television shows that involve the handling or manipulation of flesh. “Sorry,” he says, genuinely apologetic. “It’s just that it makes me feel yucky inside.”  He gags at the sight of blood and prefers to eat things that grow from the earth.

Around us, autumn’s leaves succumbed to winter; they changed colors, but the colors were muted and pale.  The deer leg offered the brightest hue for miles.  I looked at Kai, who stared at the neatly severed leg with uncharacteristic calm. His arms strained to hold Coco, the only hunter among us, pawing at the dirt and sniffing furiously.  The sun shone warmly on my skin, but I felt chilled.  Distant gunshots pierced the air.

“Come on back down, you guys,” I said, as coolly as I could, though even I felt yucky inside. “Don’t let the dog get that meat,” I added.

The hunters had left; clouds of dust swirled in the wake of their four-wheelers.  I have never hunted, but I was puzzled.  Why would anyone leave such a huge portion of meat behind after going to the trouble of killing the deer?  Would the hunter return to claim what remained?  We did not linger to find out.

*

When I was a child visiting my grandfather in Idaho, we said grace before meals. Grandpa spent most of his career working in Africa as a physician and missionary for the Lutheran church.  He dreamt in vivid detail and often recounted his dreams at the breakfast table: wild tales of hunting and harrowing near-death experiences, the tableau of his memories translated into the larger-than-life adventures of his subconscious mind.  Grandpa hunted and fished for sustenance as well as survival. Saying grace was his way of honoring the providence of his Lord.  The naked affront of flesh on the trail brought his voice back to me.

We thank you, Lord, for this meal we are about to receive and for the blessings you give to us each day…

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sustenance you provide to our bodies and to our souls…

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed…

*

Winter brings deer down from the mountains into our high desert valley.  Their trails scissor the deep, impacted snow.  They nibble at bare hedges and bound fences easily.  The deer congregate in clusters, trotting past the house, lingering underneath the trampoline with luminous black eyes, watchful but emboldened.

Coco invariably barks at them.  I’ve seen Coco confront a doe, who held eye contact with the dog, lifting and lowering her head repeatedly as if to say, Don’t cross me, runt. I suspect the doe’s powerful hooves would trump Coco’s teeth in a fight.  Exiles of the snow, the deer seek what sustenance they can find, wherever and however they can find it.

There was a time when I, the reformed Yankee, frowned upon hunting. But time and knowledge changed me.  If deer in our valley proliferated unchecked, they would render our gardens bare without so much as a guilty exhale, clearing trees and shrubs of foliage, chewing lettuces flat to the ground. My friend – a true Renaissance man who bakes his own bread, bottles wine from grapes and fruits he’s grown, and gardens by principle – lost acres and months of gardening effort to a single family of deer last year despite preventative barriers. The deer ravaged his extensive garden overnight.  Deer graze everything, and they reproduce rapidly.  They multiply, despite their high rate of roadside casualties. Do I see myself hunting?  No, but I understand the practicality of hunting in my area.

*

As a meat eater, albeit an occasional one, I acknowledge my complicity in the demise of animals who, while not hunted, are born and raised to give their lives for my supper.  I may not wield the gun, but I purchase and consume the spoils.  The plastic-wrapped parcels I buy are a different version of the same primal hunger.  Meat is flesh; organs are organs. The bare leg on the trail confronted me with this humbling reminder.

My grandfather died years ago, and my practice of saying grace at the table died with him.  His spirit has not left me, however, so instead I practice gratitude, sprinkling my thanks on plates of crunchy fried chicken and seasoning my meals with care.

The deer distressed me. Is it common for hunters to leave unwanted meat? Are deer legs undesirable cuts, and if so, why go to the trouble of skinning an entire leg only to leave it, carelessly strewn in the woods? Why make the effort of killing the animal, only to waste such a considerable part of it?  It struck me as an appalling lack of regard: towards other humans and, more importantly, the deer itself. I think I heard my grandfather’s voice that day to tether me, to remind me of what it means to be grateful.  His voice rustled through the pale leaves, whispering condolences for a loss wholly lacking grace.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013

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Pickled Peppers

My friends and I have been pickling Hungarian wax peppers for the last two weeks. Feeling Peter Piper-ish, I conducted dutiful research into pecks of peppers (a peck translates to roughly two dry gallons) and into the well-known tongue twister, whose origin stems from an English pronunciation handbook that veritably sings the praises of assonance and alliteration.  But, now that I’ve been through the process of pepper picking, preparing, brining, and bottling, I’m still a little perplexed.  How could Peter Piper have possibly picked pickled peppers?  Did he pick them out of a jar?  Or were they raw peppers that he intended to pickle?  In any case, I’m pretty sure we out-pickled his peck.

Below are detailed instructions for the pickling process.  Though it may seem like a lot of text, the process is quite easy.  No boiling or sterilizing required.

The brining process:

In a large non-reactive vessel (something plastic, like a five gallon mixing bucket from the hardware store, or a large ceramic crock), combine 3 gallons of white wine vinegar, 1.5 gallons of water, and 3 pounds of kosher salt.

Many thanks to Jim and Patty Berlin, who let us harvest peppers from their amazing garden.

Many thanks to Jim and Patty Berlin, who let us harvest peppers from their amazing garden.

Pick a peck (or two) of peppers… or buy/barter some from a local farmer. Wash peppers well to remove dirt and debris. Shake off excess water. Chop peppers into circles, about ¼” wide.  (You may want to line up peppers into rows of two or three to expedite the chopping process. Chopping with friends is also helpful.) Discard tops, bottoms too small to worry over, and any portions of the pepper that appear to be mushy or compromised by bugs.  Keep chopping until you amass a mountain of sliced peppers.

Next, slice a head of garlic into thin slivers.  (Buying pre-peeled garlic is much easier and far less sticky than peeling each clove individually.)  Garlic adds an aromatic quality to the peppers and develops a savory, toothsome texture as it ages in the jar.  If you like garlic, don’t be shy – go for two or three heads per bucket.  If you don’t like garlic, err on one head per.

This is roughly the chop you want.

This is roughly the chop you want.

Transfer peppers and garlic to the brining solution until the vessel reaches critical mass – the point at which it becomes difficult to stir.  Common sense will dictate if you’ve put too many peppers into the mix. Don’t panic if you suspect you’ve put in too many.  You can always fish out the overflow with a large bowl and transfer it to an additional brining vessel.

Allow brining mixture to rest for three or four days.

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The bottling process:

Purchase one or two cases of quart-size bottling jars, and a good amount – a few gallons? – of corn oil.  (We bought more than we needed and saved the receipts in case we had unused items that we could return.)  Working with one case at a time, remove the lids from each jar and set the lids aside in a dry, clean place.

Set up a draining station by the sink.  You will need a large, lightweight mixing bowl or spoon (for scooping peppers from the brine), a large colander or straining bowl (for draining the initial brine), and a couple of cooling racks, placed where any excess brine can drain (we placed ours adjacent to the sink).  I highly recommend opening your windows or otherwise ventilating your workspace.  My friends and I worked in teams to save time.

Draining station.

Draining station.

Scoop some peppers from the brining solution.  Drain them over the sink, then transfer them to a cooling rack.  Arrange the peppers so that they rest flatly on the cooling rack to remove as much of the brine as possible.  Grab a jar.  Gather several garlic slices to put at the bottom of the jar (they tend to naturally rest at the bottom).  Start adding pepper slices.  Shake the jar a few times as you fill it – this allows gravity to help the peppers settle, reducing air bubbles and maximizing the amount of peppers per jar.  Fill to the top of the jar – about where the lid stops when it is tightly screwed on.  Do not overfill.  Set the jar aside and repeat.

If you have company, ask them to start filling the jars with corn oil – it speeds the process up.  If you’re working solo, jar all the garlicky peppers and begin adding corn oil to each jar, allowing enough oil to cover the mixture.  Then, take a fork and carefully tamp the peppers against the glass in an effort to remove air bubbles.  Screw the lid tightly on the jar and repeat.

Later in the night or the next day,  jostle the peppers in a gentle sideways swishing motion to suss any remaining air bubbles out.  Allow peppers to cure for about two weeks.

We devoted about eight hours over two weeks, jarring upwards of 30 quarts of peppers – a full year’s supply for two households.  Pickled peppers rock in martinis, salads, and pizzas.  They are also delicious when served as an appetizer with cream cheese, sweet jelly, and crackers.

It's going to be a good year for martinis!

It’s going to be a good year for martinis!

© 2013 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Secret Squirrels

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Recently, I orchestrated my greatest culinary coup yet.  I pulled off the ultimate surprise party – a belated birthday brunch for one of my dearest friends, Lori.  Lori and I started working together six years ago, both of us relocating from the South.  We quickly realized that living and working at a boarding school carry complicated dynamics, which are difficult to explain to those who live outside of the boarding arena and which sometimes impose tricky, uncomfortable situations within the boarding community.  Simply put, living at a boarding school is like being on reality television, 365 days of the year… Which is why it was a little amazing that the party secret didn’t leak two minutes after I distributed the invitations.

Part spitfire, part sage, Lori has helped me overcome countless emotional hurdles.  She mourned with me when I lost my mom, and she has coached me through struggles with my children and with some choice haters.  Her bright blue eyes positively twinkle with mischievous sass, but make no mistake: she is all heart. I knew that whatever I planned would have to be big.

Coordinating an in-house party for upwards of 30 adults and children requires planning and endurance. Logistics come into play, because summer vacations comprise a variable element in boarding school life.  When will the maximum number of potential guests return home from their vacations?  How many seats do I have available?  What if some guests RSVP and others don’t – what is an acceptable median for invitations extended?  And, most importantly, who should I invite?

The answer changes with each party and harbors an implicit caveat: everyone can’t be invited to everything, especially in a boarding school community, where faculty are united by chance, tamped into a fish bowl, and expected to accord in peace while living on-call, 24/7.  There are too many members in the community and too few venues in which to host events of such magnitude.  Ultimately, the decision falls on depth of experience – the friends with whom one has laughed the most.

When the day came, we hovered in a darkened corner of my living room, smirking when we heard Lori ask her husband, my co-conspirator, where everyone was.  He came in, nodded at us, and gave us the verbal cue: “I don’t know, honey… Maybe they’re all outside.”  She entered the room.  We yelled, “Happy birthday!” She twirled in a double take.  And we laughed all morning.

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© 2013 Julia Moris-Hartley

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