Tuesday, March 23, 2010

anger and a sandwich... or two

Last Saturday was the Vernal Equinox – the first day of spring – in Culebra as well as in Vermont, and on Equinox Eve my Culebran/Wallingford friends called me from there: “We’re just sitting out on the deck, having just come back from Susie’s, and while we were there another couple came in and sat down near us. We chatted. They told us they had found Susie’s through a column in the Rutland Herald, and just had to try it.”

I love those little synchronistic happenings in life, don’t you? Those little ‘6 degrees’ events? Here are these people – from Brattleboro, I think – who just happened to read my last column and end up 3,000 miles away, meeting the very friends I wrote of, while checking out my suggestions for good eats. Happy plantain mash to them, and a tip of my pina colada!

I laughed and chortled at this news, and perhaps even more heartily because I’d received an angry email about that column from someone who resented my being ‘snarky’ about their precious little Culebra. I guess they didn’t get that Culebra is precious to me, too. People must think in order to show admiration for some place, person, or restaurant, etcetera, that one must ooze adulation all over it and find nothing to improve.

Well. Not me!

Take the Farmers’ Market, for instance. Everyone knows I totally adore/admire the Market and I loves my Farmers! But don’t I admit that they can be cantankerous prigs sometimes? Oh yes, I do. Insensitive to other peoples’ accomplishments? Yes! Full of themselves? Oh my goodness! But better friends and quality food you cannot find!
I do not brag when I tell you that I receive my share of appreciative messages from you, my readers, about my columns. I so appreciate those messages and want to thank you for them, but once in awhile a really angry one knocks me from my comfortable little roost.

I received one from a ‘nutritionist’ (you’ve probably noticed that I usually bracket that word) a while back when I wrote about canola oil vs the lovely Lard. Meh, I blew that one off. I also got a lot of flak from my editor, my dear Randal, which followed down to the fact that the beautiful yellow drifts of rapeseed (Canola) blossoms in his grandparents’ fields made a big impression on him as a little buzzer. Ah, I appreciate that. Much of my food sense stems from the same kind of thing – rosy memories of familial pig-killings, for instance. But the memory of long tight rows of corn with the DeKalb 791 sign in the corners of them, or of my dad kvetching that the blankety blank government was paying him to keep fields fallow did not inculcate me with any respect for the so-called ‘green’ revolution, government subsidies, or GMO crops.

But really – do people need to be so blasted angry at me for something I wrote? I mean, I’m angry, too, but my anger is at big banks, big insurance, big pharm. Etcetera.

On the other hand, if you remain open, something good almost always comes out of such encounters. For the Culebra column it was a link to this blog http://islandwomanculebra.blogspot.com/ . If you go to Culebra, you will meet this woman. She runs a little stand on the corner of the bridge, and when it’s closed the words Open Some Days, Closed Others appear on the doors, in true island time!

The most vicious attack happened a couple of years ago by a friend of a friend for a column about a grass-fed burger and a plug for a restaurant, as I remember. Oh well, who cares! Because you’d best try not to let that kind of misplaced anger cramp your style – it’s the penalty for being a public object for people to see and take umbrage at if they happen to be in a bad mood and don’t have a dog to kick. Honestly? That’s what makes people mean – down deep thinking that everyone else is bigger and more powerful than they are, which gives them the right to blast ‘em!

Still, it DOES put a crimp in your style. I seldom write about restaurants anymore because there are few I can recommend with unremitting adoration – I’m sure I could nitpick with Thomas Keller’s French Laundry for heavens’ sake. My farmers, now, they just grin and bear both my praise and my plaints. There’s hardly anything bad I can say about them anyway, even the Republicans, and the single one I do not favor with my currency or words is so popular he doesn’t need them.

Another crimp is that I don’t have the heart to do those long, fully researched stories that I used to offer you. They’re lots of work and time, and then Whap! Back o’the knees with a 2X4. Still, that’s a doubtful loss, at best – just means you spend less time reading!

But you know what? Three years of writing these Twice Bittens, countless wonderful letters, comments, and even several friendships, and only 3 nastinesses. I guess I can take it.

That said, I have discovered two new comparatively hidden places that might or might not be new to you. I’ve been out and about – frenetically so, for me – these last couple of weeks, and I spent many hours driving to and from Vergennes on the bucolic 22A.

On the Vergennes main street there is a little rustic place called 3 Squares Café, and on their blackboard they do have a Boyden Farms grass-fed beef burger! They also have good coffee and bagels and scones and muffins for starting out your day. Lunch is handwritten on said boards, with lots of Mexican shadings and very nice all-American sandwiches with good breads and fillings. The owner, Matt Birong, cooks in a tiny kitchen in almost plain view, with some added help on busy days. It’s a bustling place, with wood floors and tables, even some community ones, and, the first day I walked in, there was Patrick Leahy scarfing down a sandwich with some cohorts.

So, my final word is – excuse me if I don’t gush – If you find yourself in Vergennes (perhaps you’ve driven up to Dead Creek to check out the spring bird migration) around breakfast, lunch, or dinner (although I haven’t had dinner there) give it a try. I like it. A lot.

Another day I was driving through Chester, on my way to Andover (don’t ask) and went by an almost hidden fairyland with a sign out front announcing The Phoenix Café. I screeched to a halt and backed up. The lettering on a large building half-hidden behind some trees gave me to know that I had found the latest home of Baba a Louis bakery, the original one, I mean, which shares a common birth but is now under separate ownership from our own excellent Baba down on the notorious south end of Wales Street.

Entering the shrubby wooden arch and following the curving shallow steps and path to the entrance was indeed like entering a fairyland. Inside, big wooden, high-ceilinged rooms with lots of bakery equipment at one end, and chairs and tables at the other. Again, good sandwiches, soups, and salads, as well as the bakery’s famous rolls and pastries. And of course your choice of breads and crackers. I chose a ham and Swiss on rye for my sandwich, and a loaf of seriously whole-grain bread and some latticework crackers to take home. All were delicious. Note: the café and the bakery are separate businesses, so you will also pay separately. See if you can find it right at the end of Main Street in Chester before the wilds begin.

... Catching up ...

Peter McGann will do another, long-awaited workshop on authentic Mexican Cooking, with all new recipes from diverse regions of Mexico. They will take place on three Wednesdays, April 14, 28, and Cinco de Mayo, from 5 to 7PM in the Rutland Area Food Co-op kitchen at 77 Wales Street. $30 per class or $90 for the whole series. Sign up at the Co-op, or call 773-0737.

Peter will also be providing the food for the Co-op’s annual meeting on Sunday, April 25th at 5PM at the Unitarian Church on West Street. You should attend, why? Well, to become a member ($10 a month); because you ARE a member; to voice your vote on new Co-op Board members; see the new RAFC video; mingle with friends, and, of course, to enjoy Peter’s food. Catch up on the Co-op, come and enjoy!

Rutland is the host of the statewide Farm to Plate local food summit on Saturday, April 10 from 9:30am to 4pm at the Rutland Middle School Complex on Library Avenue. This is a big deal, because the purpose is to bring together people from the whole state to review the goals and provide feedback to guide final drafting of the Farm to Plate strategic plan – what is our farming and food future? How does the Rutland area fit in? Registration is required. Contact Heather Pipino, heather@vsjf.org if you would like to attend. $10 registration fee to cover lunch cost - scholarships available. Send check to: Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, ATTN: Farm to Plate Summit, 3 Pitkin Court, Suite 301E, Montpelier, VT 05602.

And lastly but not leastly, Maya Zelkin has been holding food workshops at Pierce’s store in Shrewsbury. I’ve been out of town for most of them, but am determined to attend the last one on March 28 to celebrate spring foods – making butter, yogurt, and soft cheese from local jersey cow milk, and then an assortment of maple confections and candies. Call (802) 492-3326.

Monday, March 15, 2010

when in Culebra, eat as Culebrians do

Typical lunch -- chicharrones my addition

“When in Rome...,” quoth I the other day when my companion complained that his pre-plane Bloody Mary was rather watery. We weren’t in Rome, but believe me when I tell you that the choice of a Piña Colada couldn’t have been more apt in this instance.

We'd fled Vermont just on the leading edge of that nasty spell a week or so ago, when it was still deep winter, and came back to balmy, sunny skies filled with the steam of maple sap and signs of spring. Since when have I been so lucky? Well, “Lucky is as lucky does,” as Grandma used to say, and we did skedaddle ahead of plan, nevertheless finding ourselves in the Dartmouth Coach (what a great deal) grinding sideways up (or down) 89 in a foot of snow on the way to Boston; but better that than standing in grounded Rutland APO missing our Boston/San Juan flight.

Because, yes, we were on our way to the little island I wrote about last year, where the flock of wild chickens that roams it wakes you at 4:30AM crowing raucously PUERto RIco, PUERto RIco! They scratch and scavenge up and down the island, making a mess of your gardens and planters, meanwhile providing a certain amount of protein for hardened islanders. “Makes wonderful soup,” one of them told Leo, and indeed they are all handsome, feathers glowing, living the good life under that hot hot sun.

Culebra, with the creamy white sands, the long white rollers on the edge of the turquoise sea, the thorny acacia, the rutted roads, and the house of friends high above the bay.

View from the deck. Bougainvillea is rooting. Book? Fortress of Solitude
The drill? Wake and wander through the breezy, bright kitchen to get coffee then out to the deck to observe the sun’s progress up over the end of the bay. Walk. Breakfast. Read. Lunch. Desultory conversation. Read. Beach. Showers. Cocktails. Conversation. Dinner. Discussion. Bed. To be repeated next day. Lovely way of alleviating the sense of existential loneliness caused by residing in one separate body and mind.

Zoni Beach, inaccessible, with a shrouded St. Thomas in the distance

The only decisions needing to be made were which beach, the secluded and lovely Zoni or the more accessible and world-class Flamenco; and what and where is dinner. Oh, and whether or not it’s worth it to break the unspoken agreement to agree to disagree. Diverse opinions there!

Breakfast consisted of eggs (each marked “U.S.” in blocky red-inked letters), bacon, English muffins, and fruit – grapefruit, bananas, mango, pineapple, and papaya, most from local trees. Lunch was usually sandwiches made of the only bread that could be had, which was tan and square with the consistency of Wonder, along with coldcuts – mostly ham and swiss cheese, and whatever salad was left over from dinner the night before. Chips and bottles of pickles and green olives usually accompanied the sandwiches. Some of us eschewed sandwiches and resorted to the gigantic local avocados, drizzled with olive oil and chopped garlic, salt and pepper, or else tucking slices of them into sandwiches.

But dinner was a different story; that was where we shone. At home, grilled tuna, red snapper, pork loin. Potato salad, lentil salad, pineapple and yellow peppers brushed with garlic and olive oil and then grilled. Man, that was good. The pork was marinated in the spicy fish sauce Nuac Cham we’d made the night before as an accompaniment to the tuna.

It was a whole different way of eating, of course – I hadn’t had sandwiches like those since I was there the last time. The fruit and the avocados were local, but nothing else – even the fish had been imported from Boston, I imagine. There you are, surrounded by fishy seas but the fish are... unavailable, though we did see one sign on top of an insulated picnic cooler advertising fresh fish but didn’t have the opportunity to investigate. The pork was very good, so it may have come from the main island. Puerto Rican cuisine is known for its pork, as well as its use of dried cod (bacala).

“But not for its beans,” chided a restaurant owner in Old San Juan, where we spent a few days before taking the small plane to Culebra. “You have us confused with Mexicans,” she spat. In Old San Juan we explored and ate tapas, which were invariably small regularly shaped items, like bacala, coated in that tan granulated cornmeal that makes everything look industrial and pre-formed whether it is or not. Much to my chagrin, time after time these tasted like they were. Our last morning, after the early morning flight from Culebra, we took a cab to El Convento, a fabulous 400 year old Carmelite convent-cum-hotel, for breakfast. I spent the morning within its thick walls and shaded courtyards just wandering around inspecting the original art and tapestries or sitting in a cool corner reading. I heartily recommend it.

In Culebra, we did go back to visit the fabulous Jennifer at Juanita Bananas, the hilltop restaurant I wrote about last year that is owned by the young couple who grew much of their produce hydroponically just outside the restaurant, and set up a system to obtain much of their fish from local fishermen. But no more. Our visit to their full-moon tapas celebration was disappointing, no fresh produce in sight, the little dishes too few and uninspired. Apparently a new baby is taking up their time these days.

Another night we had a superb dinner at the new Susie’s, right by the bay in an old fish house in the small – and only – town of Dewey. In the open air, accompanied by the cats that also roam the island (I’ve seen them lazing about surrounded by baby chicks), we ate our plantain mash, fresh fish, and nice sauces with gusto.

We were back in Vermont by last Saturday’s Winter Farmers’ Market, and I burst in there, too, with lots of gusto! Local food! My friends, the farmers! You’d think I’d been gone a month!

I’m not complaining about the food in Culebra – not a bit! We make our own good times and good food. But how much better to be able to rave about it.

I wonder. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to help make the wonderful little island sustainable again? People growing their own pork, catching their own fish, planting their own gardens and small farms? Hmmm. Six months here, six months there. Doesn’t sound too shabby!

In the meantime I bought those Boardman Hill pork chops and a small pineapple from the Co-op, and that’s what we’ll be having for dinner! And maybe a Piña Colada.
You know, made out of pure Vermont rum, coconut, and pineapple! How local can you get?

Published as Twice Bitten column, Rutland Herald, 09 March, 2010