Handshake Food I Bought Downtown
Two weekends ago, while everyone I know was speedreading 759 pages of some tome, I set out in search of magic and culinary wizardry in Central Virginia.
I had already been to the Charlottesville City Market, but I couldn’t find peaches to my liking, so I drove toward Henley’s…
that was closed again this weekend, so I kept driving for half an hour—
and twittered from a plot of sunflowers I turned the car around to see. My work colleague Chris responded that I was “twittering from a dream.”
He was right. Driving through vineyards and past pastures feels dreamy and slightly surreal.
I’m happy that when I woke, I still had the dress I bought for three dollars at a vintage store in Crozet. (Shoulder pads and animal prints are big for the fall season.)
And while I did not happen upon a market, I discovered the Miller School, a nineteenth-century school combining “hands-on labor with a liberal arts education.”
A tour of the facilities revealed an old bell tower under renovation and a student reading near the pool who looked rather a Hermione, but I left the intriguing campus and returned to the road to find Queen Anne’s lace swaying in the wind on my way back to Charlottesville.
A few texts later, the kitchen filled with friends—Ben, Dana, Michael, and Eric—and I made Grace Parisi’s corn fritters from the July Food & Wine with diced roasted vegetables below.
Parisi is supernaturally talented with quick, smart recipes—half of the corn is puréed here and the other kernels left whole.
I would put shiitakes on top, but it works without (do add parmesan to the fritter batter). I stirred sour cream, buttermilk, and garlic chives together for a sauce.
I also made scallops with corn and tomatoes, one of my favorite simple summer combinations.
Recipes with fewer than five ingredients keep you honest.
I’m thinking specifically about honesty, trust, and intellectual property as cooking and design principles after reading Ryan Freitas’ thoughtful article for the new Ambidextrous issue on how the professional kitchen relates to professional design studio lifehacks (hat tip to Brian for blogging Ryan’s article),
and, after seeing the sloppy shortcuts and disorganized structure of the new movie “No Reservations” (which is unfortunately titled, as it recalls the Anthony Bourdain gonzo culinary expedition show that feels authentic where this Americanized remake largely does not).
Freitas ends his article with a note on trust, lauding Jason Pringle, executive sous chef at Aqua for requiring his cooks to “confront and resolve ambiguity.”
Ambiguity is where “No Reservations” begins, with Chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) preparing scallops that later in the movie are plated with her famous saffron sauce that distracts her therapist and intrigues her romantic interest, new restaurant sous chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart). A bizarre NYT review describes stock character Nick as Whitmanian; while I think the script writer might have overreached with the buoyant dialogue, I don’t think this character contains multitudes (neither do I think he resolves multitudes).
The best relationship in the movie exists between Chef Kate and her fishmonger, who asks for and receives a kiss on the cheek after procuring the type of fish Kate wants. The rest of the movie is forgettable, as lame as Nick’s orange clogs (the cue to make sure audiences understand all American chefs cooking Italian wear orange clogs like Mario Batali) and as nonsensical as the ending where the chefs exchange the Bleecker Street restaurant for a “bistro” (just because they filmed down the street from Prune…)
I went for the food.
And one short scene near the end made it almost worth the admission: Kate ducks into an Asian grocer, crumbles a kaffir lime leaf in her hand, and lets Nick smell. He realizes instantly that she is sharing the secret to her saffron sauce, and the moment where she overcomes trust issues and he makes the synaesthetic leap works.
She buys the leaves, inserting the dime bag of her newly-shared knowledge into her purse, and we sense a turn in the narrative and a rare moment of true character development.
I joined Eric and Sara on a recent Sunday for Mas brunch, and we were boring diners, all ordering the same thing. Eric admitted that whenever he orders something else, he regrets not ordering the French toast; we were terrible foodies (the rule is to always order differently and share/pass throughout the meal), but very happy brunchers.
It made me think about ordering what you really want and the power of personal recommendations and connections—that sharing and continuity have an equal place with experimentation, particularly in small, hyperlocal environments.
Later that afternoon, I drove to the Esmont Post Office, where my friend Will lives and was holding a Sunday afternoon potluck.
I brought corn and squash with local goat cheese,
and Ben was a very good hand model for the passed eggplant plate before I took a picture of his macaroni and cheese.
Will roasted a chicken, which was perfectly done,
and Sueanne shared with all of us her wonderful pomegranate soup. I usually don’t go for cold soups, but she explained that it was the specialty of a town she visited (Ben, do you remember the name of the soup?) and the soup fit the surprise of the post office setting, with a yard bordered in bamboo, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
We drank bottles of rosé before Will popped a Prosecco to toast Clare’s birthday; we ate Helen’s wonderful key lime pie and and Will’s cheeses, and lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s celebratory poetry were echoing in my head—
Will led the birthday toast to Clare
and then, and then, there was dancing;
I’m not sure what type of dancing Ben and Dana were doing in the below picture, but it was graceful all the same.
And we went off to look for the peacocks that had been screaming (Eric researched later and tells me we were off to find an ostentation of peacocks), and found a spider instead as the peahen we spotted darted away.
It was a wonderful afternoon, as if we had walked through the looking glass into a magazine spread for an afternoon tea party…
…and when I stepped back through, the next day, I found myself in Adams Morgan with my friend Andrew, at the M’Dawg “haute dog” shop.
M’Dawg makes a very respectable veggie dog in Andrew’s estimation, and a satisfying French sausage in mine.
I paid an extra dollar for the entire “uptown” condiment bar and added remoulade, garlic mushrooms, and onions. The M’Dawg staff assured us that they made the best dogs around, and Andrew and I talked of my shoes, and shipments, and sealing wax and other geolocatable things before crossing the street to a Netsquared meeting on mapping for non-profits, with affable Affinity Lab staff being gracious hosts like Will…
On Sunday, I ventured into Dupont Circle for the farmers’ market, since I have decided to try every pastry at the Bonaparte Bread stand.
The almond pastry looked good, but I went for a pain au chocolat and an apple pastry, noting that there were at least ten pastries I had yet to try.
The market on Sunday made me think about the PBS show that aired last night (and should repeat soon) by Rick Sebak, called “To Market To Market To Buy a Fat Pig.” The program highlights local markets across the country: a Hilo local who considers coconut trees his office and where some local orchids smell like chocolate, the woman who brings bison skulls at the Santa Fe market. I’m inspired to visit the Lancaster, Pennsylvania market for Springerle cookies (Grant, you’ve been warned); Ben, I’m dragging you to Baltimore to experience chicken gizzards, Faidley’s raccoon and muskrat, and smoked pig tails at the Lexington Market (promise to pay for your toxin-cleansing Bikram class that day).
The movie “No Reservations” resolves the loose ends by making the three leads chef-owners of a bistro, which has led me to think perhaps applying Freitas’ cooking principles to design and to life, owning what we present—the product (be it food, design, image) and its history, and, as Freitas points out, our bias in the process.
This is my bias, my history, where I’ve been to market; look for me again, you’ll find me weaving my way toward tomatoes…