Soup, Beans, Cans, and Farts: A Love Letter in Four Acts

“How about some soup?” Leon suggests, hugging me from behind me as I stand mournfully staring out into the dreary June rain.

“You know,” he says in a low seductive tone. “Beans.”

I can feel his breath against my neck.

“Something nice,” he kisses my ear, “and farty.”

With that, he gives my rear a slap and pulls on his coat to work outside.

Hell, I can do farty with the best of them.

My version of minestrone is nothing that Mario Batali or Lidia Bastianich would recognize as coming from Old Europe but it does induce a terrifying bout of flatulence that my sons, blessed as they are with drumbeat digestion, have feared since early childhood.

“Not the minestrone!” they would wail in rare unity, knowing that they’d soon be stuck in a classroom with the soup stuck inside them.

6a00d83451c56869e200e54f4c04158834-640wiI used to do beans from scratch, if there’s anything “scratch” about shaking a bag of old legumes to rinse in a colander, throwing out the odd pebble, and boiling the stuff for three hours. I’d dutifully let the pot sit overnight to soften, rinse them again, and add them to the soup. At dinner, nearly 24 hours after the bean brigade had begun, we’d sit around the table spooning up soup, each of us discreetly setting the still-hard things aside.

And then I remembered about cans.

We had cans when I was a kid. Corn came in them, as did pitted black olives, green beans, that ghastly white asparagus, and peas-oh-yes-peas.

Now I keep canned Italian tomatoes in my pantry, but I have an unfounded prejudice against canned American tomatoes. If they’re Italian, Mario and Lidia might use them; if American, Paula Deen might. With Cool Whip.

But when things must be farty, they must contain beans, and already softened canned beans are my closest friends when it comes to minestrone.

So while Leon digs the yard outside in the unseasonable rain, I go to the market and collect cans. Once home, I keep on my own coat to strip early squash, clip kale, and grab heavily soaked herbs from the growing box. Inside, I stack Italian tomatoes and white cannellini beans. They stack so nicely.

There are some kitchen utensils that contain memory. The ancient electric mixer I inherited from a mother-in-law two marriages ago is one. It sticks in one position only, throws off blue sparks, and has the thrilling ability to deliver unexpected electric shocks. But it makes me think of Magda, a hardy Lithuanian who escaped the Russians, took refuge with the Germans, and landed in Baltimore, where she promptly learned Polish, not English, from the ladies in the sweatshop where she sewed for a living.

The manual can opener is another.

Not the manual can opener my mother used to extract that awful white asparagus from its tin, gummed black as it was around the blade with the residue of wet cat food gunk and the oil from a thousand tuna fish sandwiches, but a new one that never has touched cat food or tuna, grabs easily in the hand, and opens cans like opening cans is what it’s supposed to do. I now own this ordinary miracle.

After all the brushing and washing and chopping and sautéing that goes into making a New World minestrone, there is the ritual Opening of the Cans. I marvel at how easily my non-gunked opener works the rim, I delight in how I no longer must risk a cut hand when grabbing the lid, and I actually stand at the sink to better admire the pinkish glow of the tin’s interiors once their contents are gently folded into the soup and they are rinsed for recycling.

Leon comes in the back door shaking water from his hat.

“Soup smells good,” he says, and kisses my cheek.

He peers into the pot. “Mmm, beans,” he smiles.

“Looks nice and farty.”

This essay was originally published on Foot Riot, July 1, 2013.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Leon loves mole. If I am buying the Mexican food, I buy him mole. If he is buying the Mexican food, he aims mole’s way. Or else he has a fish taco.

But mole occupies his brain. Why is it chocolate but not? What mix of spices brings a particular mole so entrancingly to life? Leon thinks of the Mayans and the Aztecs, he dreams of pyramids and ziggurats and sacrifice rituals and building a huge vibrant culture under the looming lee of a rapacious forest. But mostly he thinks about chicken covered in a bitter chocolate sauce wrought from ground nuts and charred chiles, cinnamon and cloves.

And so, on our recent trip to Los Angeles, it was only natural that we present ourselves at the Southland’s veritable Palace of Mole, Guelaguetza.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the place was packed with young Latino families, birthday celebrants, cuddling lovers, silent groups of men, and very few googley-eyed gringos like ourselves. A band played, loudly and badly, and mescal was in the air.

The dining room perhaps at 11am on a Sunday morning. It was dark and packed when we were there.

The dining room perhaps at 7am on a Sunday morning. It was dark and packed when we were there.

Functioning not only as a restaurant but as a mescalaria and a store, Guelaguetza specializes in agave-based liquors and cocktails. “If it’s your first time trying it,” counsels their website, “remember you are having a distillate with an average of 48% alcohol. Give it kisses and take it slow.”

I was ready to give everyone kisses after slowly and happily imbibing two Margerita Guelaguetza ($8.50), which marry Mezcal reposado with Galliano, Triple Sec, cucumber, and tajin, the chile/lime/salt powder that is like umami to Oaxacans.

Leon was driving and suspicious of drinking mescal before climbing back in. Aiming for the prudent, he ordered a Michelada ($6), a Bloody Mary-like concoction in which cerveza is doctored lightly with tomato juice and heavily with spices. He almost spit the first sip out it was so hot, and sat grimly with it for the rest of the meal.

But enough unhappiness. There must be mole! And so I chose the Enmoladas ($13.95), three hand-made tortillas wrapped around Oaxacan string cheese, served with chicken and napped in black mole. Leon went with what the menu suggested was a “must-have” meal: the Mole Negro ($13.95), which is simply a chicken leg covered, slathered, and smothered in thick, sweet, spicy, dark, mole sauce. A sea of sauce. A saucy sea. Of sauce.

And so we spent the next 30 minutes navigating through darkness, trying to balance the non-mole comestibles on our plates with the very much mole that accompanied them, Leon occasionally wincing down a sip of his Michelada and me silently motioning the waiter for yes, please, another Margarita Guelaguetza. We had a rotten time.

But it wasn’t Guelaguetza’s fault. Everyone around us was having a roaring afternoon, feeding each other food with their fingers and ordering more regular beer and receiving massive pizza pan-like platters of tortillas or big skillets of sharable food that we gringos were too unschooled to even know to order, off-tracked as we were by descriptions of avocado leaves and “goat (tender)”.

Faced with a jar by the door.

Faced with a jar by the door.

It’s no surprise that a restaurant whose website is ilovemole.com has the stuff for sale—clean pretty jars all neatly lined up on the shelves. Leon would have none of it.

Turns out, Leon hates mole.

LEON RESPONDS

Mole, I Thought I Knew Ye
Few things are as disconcerting and disorienting as being convinced you like something—a kind of food, a genre of music, an old flame—and then, after much eager anticipation, you experience your desire and are left with the growing, hollow realization that you don’t like it that much after all.

I experience this with disturbing regularity. For instance, when I order a lamb dish at a restaurant. I know I don’t like lamb, but the descriptions on the menu—succulent, flame-grilled, infused and young, very, very young—are irresistible to me.

Mole is a different matter altogether. I love mole and I know it to the very core of my being. I always order it. And from Palo Alto to Portland, Puerto Vallarta to Puebla, I have never experienced a lamb-like ennui. Never, that is, until I was presented with a veritable tub of black mole, mole negro, with a lonely chicken piece immersed in it, accompanied by a couple tablespoons of rice at Guelaguetza in beautiful Los Angeles.

Perhaps it was the tomatoey, spicy beer concoction I ordered by mistake to accompany my treat. I admit I sometimes will order something in a language not my own and be unpleasantly surprised. But I know what mole is in any language—or thought I did.

As I gamely entered my mole swamp, I interrogated my taste buds: Is it too rich, is the unfamiliar flavor off-putting, is it my spicy tomato beer, is it the barely competent band? I do not know. But I do know that any mole worth its chocolate contains roughly 30 ingredients, any one of which could be the offending, or authentic, culprit.

Let it be known: I am not giving up. I just ordered the Festival of Mole bundle from Guelaguetza containing jars of black, red and Coloradito mole ($22). I am going to figure out what went so horribly wrong with my Mexican food on that warm afternoon in Koreatown. I am not prepared to have my mole lust be transfigured into lamb disappointment.

All the Beauties Eat Cake

As seems to happen with alarming regularity, yet another lunch was launched lonely without Leon. In his stead was SSO (pronounced sah-sah-so), a friend since 4th grade. SSO is perfect, or so my mother has long (decades) believed, and shucks, I believe it too.

SSO captured on a more glamorous occasion than a mere lunch.  Yet SSO pretty much always looks like this.

SSO captured on a more glamorous occasion than a mere lunch. Yet SSO pretty much always looks like this.

She’s thin, beautiful, smart, funny, empathetic, and kind. I’ve had the shape of her rear end memorized since I was 10 and it still looks the same. She can turn on the radio, hear five seconds of a song, and name it. She can walk into a Goodwill and find the single Anne Taylor suit hidden on the racks. She drove hundreds of miles just to make me lunch after each of my children were born. When low skinny pants came into fashion, she looked at me seriously and told me to keep wearing 501s until the fad was over. The fad is seemingly never going to end. She maintains this advice.

She’s that kind of a friend. We recently  met over Chinese Chicken Salads at San Anselmo’s rocking little Comforts cafe.  Comforts is the kind of place where Robin Wright—who lives in nearby Ross—has been spotted stopping mid-run for a latte and something gluten-free, sugarless, and fat-negative before sprinting off for another 13 miles. It’s glamorous in the lowdown highbrow way that only Marin can be glamorous. The women wear no makeup but their skin products are made from their own stem cells. Everyone is fairly steaming with health yet all anyone discusses is their health. They’re worried; we say ha-ha-ha.

The foreground squidge of cream? Necessary to keep the sweetly staling cake itself fresh with each mouthful. Like, as if on purpose!

The foreground squidge of cream? Necessary to keep the sweetly staling cake itself fresh with each mouthful. Like, as if on purpose!

Which is why, after splitting a half order of the Fresh Soft Wild Prawn Spring Rolls ($5.95) and devouring a small portion of Comforts’ famous Chinese Chicken Salad ($9.95) apiece, we opted for a lovely statuesque serving of coconut cake (who cares how much the damn thing costs!).

We had a lovely statuesque serving of coconut cake because DMB (pronounced dah-bomb, just go with it) insisted we do so. While DMB has herself not eaten so much as a single slice of bread since Thanksgiving 2012 due to a paleo-aversion to grain-based carbs, she has no problem demanding such sacrifice of others. And while DMB was hard at work putting criminals squarely into the slammer on the day that SSO and I dined, her will must be obeyed.

As it turns out, SSO and I were her willing carbo-slaves. The only cure was avid, rigorous, unstinting consignment shopping—a guaranteed win for the likes of us in a wealthy woman’s town. Perhaps Robin Wright got rid of something tiny she no longer needs.

Dah-Bomb in slightly younger days. It is now scientifically impossible to find a photo of her not including her two perfect babies, but she basically looks like this at lunch or otherwise.

Dah-Bomb in slightly younger days. It is now scientifically impossible to find a photo of her not including her two perfect babies, but she, too, pretty much looks like this—at lunch or otherwise.

Leon doesn’t eat cake and Leon doesn’t consignment shop. Leon, I’m afraid, was not missed this time one whit.

Southland-Bound: On the Road to ‘Medicine’

As blessed as Northern California assuredly is, Los Angeles must also sometimes be attended to. And so it was that on the first weekend of May Leon bundled me into the car for that most California of endeavors—the road trip.

Intent on salving a horrific birthday number with the cheering sight of contemporary art paired with excellent food, we caroomed down the I-5 throughway at those speeds demanded by the sheer boredom of the scenery.

In our minds, I-5′s Pea Soup Andersen’s is always in sepia.

Destined for a sweet Airbnb casita in Santa Monica, we were blessed with an opposing commute all the way west, streaming the 405 to the 110 without incident. That night’s meal was slated for Red Medicine, an innovative Vietnamese-inspired place on Wiltshire. The plan was to visit museums by day and restaurants by night. Perfect!

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Ladies Who Lunch, a Cautionary Tale

Sometimes it comes to pass that Leon is simply not invited to lunch. Instead, he roams the house, speaking in dark tones of the decidedly minor pleasures to be wrought from the marriage of the peanut butter with the jelly. Suffice it to say that when this happens he is not pleased.

I hate to displease Leon—and not just because, when I ditch him, he tends to moodily take former lovers out to eat and then enjoy a long, suspiciously deep nap upon returning home. But sometimes a girl just has to put on a pretty flowered dress, topple onto way-high shoes, freshen her lipstick and meet another high-heeled lipsticked girl in a pretty flowered dress for a plate of fried Spanish potatoes iced down with a couple of lovely yummy cocktails on a hot spring afternoon.

!Caliente! The outdoor bar at Bravas is alluring no matter the time of year, but spring is super.

!Caliente! The outdoor bar at Bravas is alluring no matter the time of year, but spring is super.

Wearing yellow heels, the Chestnut Queen tottered into Bravas‘ Healdsburg backyard  resplendent in an apple green dress with a light white and orange wrap. The server complimented her, I complimented her, she and the server remarked that my outfit complemented her, and then they both complimented me. Things were off to a smashing start.

And smashing they stayed, because this is Bravas Bar de Tapas, the newest Stark property, housed in the former Ravenous bungalow. The backyard has been spruced up, the interior has gone stone-cold Spanish Modern, and the outdoor bar is devoted to hot jámon and cold alcohol. In a word: Splendid.

Perhaps it’s just me, but if you say “potatoes” and I say “patatas,” I’ve suddenly cut thousands of calories from a plate of the tuber fried, enlivened with fresh tomato sauce, and sluiced in homemade aioli ($6). So I like to say it often. The Chestnut Queen sagely agreed. She also agreed to crispy chicken skin thighs ($10), roasted octopus ($16), and a refreshing escarole salad ($8). Cocktails must be served! CQ had the punny Seville-ian (tequila, sherry, citrus, agave; $11) and I the Dingo (vodka, aperol, sherry; $11). OK, we each had two.

When our first glasses arrived, CQ regaled with her Tom Waits Story and her Little Known Bridges Boy Story. I was enthralled. I had potatoes and patatas and since CQ paid the aioli little mind, I had an awful lot of that. One crispy-skinned thigh, poof! Half of an evil, oily, delicious link of octopus leg, black with roasting—poof! Salad, of course. Patatas, god yes.

Ahctopus: Grilled, sluiced in lemons and oil, served with hot citrus and dark olives. Yes, please.

Ahctopus: Grilled, sluiced in hot lemons and sweet oil, served with dark olives. Yes, please.

Another round, dear server! Lipstick reapplied, I pat dry the slight lisp of bovine perspiration on my upper lip. I parry, offering the Chestnut Queen my Phoenix From the Ashes Story for dissection as well as another chapter of my I Love Leon Story, a perennial fave. We fall to it.

Dessert? Discussed and rejected in favor of another long round of active satisfaction in the outdoor setting, that shady tree, this last alluring bit of nut and cheese and a single green leaf on the salad plate.

Abruptly, I’m done. CQ is nowhere near to exhausting her charm and I didn’t ask way enough questions during the Tom Waits Story, but I’m ready to leave this arcadia for another one.

Once home, I shake Leon awake, anxious to tell him how much I missed him during lunch.

A Farmhouse Like No Other

So it came to pass that Leon was one year older and festivities were duly arranged. Considering the gravity of the man’s ghastly age, it was decided that a full week must be engaged for the  follies, beginning most auspiciously with a Monday evening three-course fixed menu meal at Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn. This local’s tradition continues through the end of this month.

outside

On the evening we arrived, the prix-fixe featured a fresh piece of halibut, a gorgeous green salad, and a sweet for just $49. Perhaps this Michelin-starred restaurant meant no harm, intended no evil, when our hostess generously slipped us the night’s four-course fixed menu along with the Monday evening special. But alas. Continue reading

April in Stinson

The beach became the star last week when Leon’s grandson Eric came to visit. Eric is nine and lives close to the sere inland border of Idaho’s grain deserts. In other words: the lad had never been to the ocean.

We set about fixing that exception with a short overnight trip to Stinson Beach that was ostensibly about taking the boy to the buoys but was really about eating deeply and well.

eric

We set out through the town of Tomales and along the bay. First stop, Nick’s Cove, the Pat Kuleto-designed property that transformed an old fish shack into a souped-up facsimile of an old fish shack. With its magnificent perch right on Tomales Bay and its stuffed heads and fishing paraphernalia adorning the walls, Nick’s is a charmer. And a perfect spot, we decided, for a nine-year-old to try his first oysters. Continue reading

Prix-Fixe Truckee: Restaurant Trokay

No one goes to Truckee for the food.

But a day of falling down raises up a hearty appetite. And after dropping sideways and forward and backward all over the bunny trails of Royal Gorge, Leon and I could have eaten one of the tiny pinecones we so often found near our teeth in the snow. We couldn’t face another meal at the B&B (see image below) and so set out to scout the culinary environs of nearby Truckee. The Interwebs had promised great things on Donner Pass Road, after all.

That's a steak. On the right. That thing. A steak.

That’s a steak. On the right. That thing. A steak.

Things started well with a lovely life-giving beer at Moody’s, where I became transfixed by the ski-bum-beauty of our bartender, a slim athletic woman who took my stunned adoration as a matter of course. Leon busied himself assessing the comestibles being to delivered to other patrons. “Those,” he hissed, jerking a thumb at the offending basket of fried items being devoured to our right, “are corndogs.”

“We can’t possibly,” he declared, finishing his beer, “eat here.”

Nor could we eat at the Mexican place (“We came all this way for a taco?”); the sushi place (“Sushi in the mountains?”); the California cuisine place (“Punny names are just plain frightening.”); or the Italian place (“Reminds me of that spot in Santa Rosa I hate so much. What’s it called? Oh, right. Yeah, that place. Hate it.”)

Our options were dramatically narrowed as specialty candy—even fudge—makes for a poor evening meal. And then we saw it. It had all of the faux Depression-era marks of a great hipster joint: Raw leather, raw wood, Edison-style lighting, burnished steel, cement floors, the promise of drinks served in mason jars. That much we could see. What we couldn’t yet know was that the Restaurant Trokay was about to provide one of the most delicious and cerebral meals we ever have enjoyed. In Truckee!

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