Life is a celebration . . .

Note: The news earlier this week of the death of Ed Lowe, renowned Dallas restaurateur, came as a shock, not only to his family and friends, but also to those who loved the family dining spot on Lovers Lane. I couldn’t help thinking of the last time I visited there. It turned out to be a much better experience than I had hoped, thanks entirely to the staff of Celebration Restaurant. Although I sent a note to the restaurant at the time, I’ll share the whole story here. I think Ed Lowe would like it, just as I am certain that his spirit lives on at his restaurant with every meal that is served.

There may be no better way to celebrate a special occasion than with a family group sitting around a table laden with good food. And, sometimes, going out is better than cooking at home.

So, it was with high expectations that I chose a place we had not visited for years, but known for decades, as the perfect surprise for a special birthday luncheon. It represented, in some ways, a trip down memory lane.WP_20180311_14_17_57_Pro (3)Celebration Restaurant on Lovers Lane in Dallas is known as the city’s first true “farm to table” enterprise. It has been serving up good food and good times for 46 years in a location not far from Love Field. It still exists in the same sprawling Bluffview neighborhood home where it originally opened. It has been expanded over the years, and now includes not only an outdoor patio, but also an adjacent retail market.

It’s homey in all the best ways.

Tables are set in rooms of varying sizes. There are private rooms available to accommodate groups large or small. The atmosphere isn’t trendy, but rather as familiar as a visit to Grandma’s house.

The food is much the same: No sushi, fusion or “nouvelle” anything here; just good honest beef, pork, chicken, fish and a choice of freshly prepared sides. The veggies, which vary by season, are served in family style bowls, a choice of three for each table. Every meal carries a choice of starters — soup, salad or fresh fruit; and desserts are too good to miss, even though ordering them reaches the borders of glut.

The concept was unique in the mid-70’s when Celebration opened. Now, after nearly five decades, it is still unique in a market that prides itself on its growing roster of award-winning chefs and innovative eateries.

Celebration is low key and pleasant. Children are welcomed, but the children’s menu contains “adult” food. Portions are reasonable rather than “super-sized,” but seconds on most entrees are available, and cheerily served. No one ever leaves hungry.

On our recent visit, there was a slight glitch with the reservations — some of our party arrived a bit early only to find that there was no record of our request for a large group. On a Sunday, the restaurant was already filled to overflowing. I learned of the problem when I arrived with my husband, the honored “birthday boy,” at the appointed hour. Needless to say, I was upset. We did not want to wait for two hours, and we did not want to go elsewhere. It seemed as impossible situation.

However, with only a few words exchanged and a delay of just a few minutes, we were made welcome at a table hastily set on the patio. Luckily, it was a pleasant, early spring day in Dallas, and overhead heaters warmed our bodies. The pleasant views of  fountain, fireplace and greenery warmed our spirits, as did the friendly smiles and attentive bustling of the servers.

I could go on about the impeccable service, the variety of the food, the courtesy of management. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that Celebration Restaurant is an example of the way it ought to be. There is no doubt that Ed Lowe’s visionary eatery is still in business after all these years because it consistently “gets it right!”

Would that it will continue in that tradition.

 

Eating well in Puerto Limon . . .

High above the harbor, where the air is clear and the streets are filled with cars and people rather than warning signs and concertina wire, our cab driver pulled to the side and indicated a colorful sign and an open doorway. We had arrived at our destination, and a smiling waiter came out to greet us. 100_4759

Crew members on board our cruise ship had said this was the place to go for lunch in Puerto Limon. We were early but it was comfortable enough to just sit and “be.” The big-screen TV that hung from the ceiling, thankfully, was not blaring, and the hum of quiet conversation from two or three adjoining tables was pleasant “background music.” We ordered cool drinks. We did not expect to be alone for long.

The ‘back side’ of Costa Rica

This is not the tourist’s Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, the busiest port in the country, has the look and the feel of a “real” town. Bananas, grains and other goods leave here bound for destinations across the globe, but it has not yet become a prime cruise ship destination. It retains its working class flavor, refreshing in a time when glitzy storefronts and undistinguished trinkets welcome disembarking passengers in most other ports.

This Caribbean port has island roots and they stretch all the way back to 1502, when Christopher Columbus set foot on the land. Beaches stretch in both directions, and the sea is beautiful, but the city itself is a bit disheveled and has suffered the ravages of earthquakes, storms and economic blight. Like much of Latin America, it is defined by gates and barricades, and the ever-present concertina wire.

Limon is not postcard pretty, but the people we met were gracious and friendly, although busy with their own pursuits and not impressed by cruise ship crowds. We had no desire to shop in town, but the fruits and vegetables displayed at the market looked lush, ripe and inviting.

My journal note from the day:

“The Red Snapper (or Da Domenico; we were never quite certain exactly where we were!) is unassuming from the street, pleasant enough within; with a friendly local ambience not unlike bars and restaurants elsewhere in the tropics. Sea breezes circulate under a soaring ceiling, wafting through open-air rooms like invited guests. Dark wood interiors punctuated with spots of bright color keep it cool, but lively. And the good-natured banter emanating from the kitchen makes us smile. So, too, does the sleeping dog that patrons are careful to step over or around!”

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Views of the harbor — our glistening white cruise ship seemed far away and far below — were mesmerizing. We looked over the rooftops toward the horizon and were captivated. We drank in the beauty of the sea, ordered cool drinks, and knew we had been given good advice.

We also knew it was going to be a long and satisfying lunch! We were not disappointed.

Sampling the sea’s treasures

Because the best part of travel involves putting aside the familiar, we asked our waiter for lunch suggestions. We specified fish or seafood. Little did we know what a feast would be set before us, so we also decided to share a pizza marguerita “appetizer.” No way could we consider it a mistake in terms of flavor, but there is no way a starter course was necessary!

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Our surprise dishes were delightful — and the three of us happily shared two distinctly different orders. The first, a whole fish served with fried plantain and a fresh green salad, was not only impressive to behold, but would have offered sufficient food for three on its own! And it was presented as beautifully as cruise ship fare.

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The second house specialty included perfectly-prepared seafood steamed in a delicious sauce and served in its own foil pack hot from the oven. 100_4748Overloaded with shrimp and mussels swimming in flavored sauce atop a bed of pasta, it was Caribbean in character, boasting plump cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and subtle exotic spice, perfectly executed, but too much for one person!

When our congenial cab driver returned to pick us up, he obliged by taking us on a short tour through his town — a request we always try to make. As we made our way back to the dock, we were happy to have shared a great meal in Puerto Limon, sorry that we had no more time to explore this back side of Costa Rica more fully.

We will savor the experience we had, and we will continue to wonder about our young waiter who dreamed someday of joining a cruise ship crew to see the rest of the world.

 

It’s not the Maine state food, but it should be!

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather!

I was certain that the state food of Maine had to be lobster, but I was wrong! According to all sources, it’s the blueberry, as in “wild blueberry,” which was officially designated the101_3377state fruit in 1991. It is also the “state dessert,” so proclaimed in 2011, more specifically “Blueberry pie made with wild Maine blueberries.”

So, where does that leave the lobster?

Well, as much as I like blueberries and wild blueberry pie, I believe I’d opt for lobster any day. There are many ways and many places to enjoy lobster in Maine, some of them renowned, some far off the beaten track — all of them good!WP_20160716_020

This summer, during a much anticipated, multi-week sojourn in this seacoast state, I did my best to sample as many of those places and ways as possible, often with an ample measure of other seafood added in for variety.

I have to confess I turned down a spoonful of “lobstah ice cream,” but I may have to go back for a sample, just to say I did. (Somehow, I just can’t imagine it — in the same way that I cannot imagine fried clam, jalapeno or barbecued chicken ice cream!)

Keeping It Simple

In Maine, especially in the summer, it’s hard to escape lobster specials. There are 2 and 3-lobster dinners with all the trimmings served by uniformed waiters at fine restaurants. And there are lobster rolls at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, with long lines and periodic traffic101_3355 jams at all hours, no matter what the weather. A person can buy lobsters from friendly vendors along the road who will steam them so you can take them home and add the sides yourself, your choice.

In Maine, McDonald’sWP_20160709_028 even serves lobster. For a quick bite, it’s not at all bad! Honest.

But the best way? Again, it’s personal choice, of course, but lobster fresh off the boat and straight from the tank, eaten at a picnic table on a pier overlooking a local working harbor is really about as close to “wonderful” as it gets. At most of the local lobster piers, it’s perfectly acceptable to pack a picnic basket with your own favorite appetizers, sides and beverages and make an afternoon or an evening of it.

In Midcoast Maine, locals have their own preferences; co-ops and waterside restaurants do a brisk business even when the tourist trade is off. Some of the local hangouts serve lobster, steamers (clams) and corn only. Others have a full menu that might include burgers, coleslaw and potato salad, grilled cheese sandwiches, clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, crab and haddock. French fries and onion rings tempt adults and children alike. And then there’s dessert. Ice cream stands are at least as popular as lobster shacks!

All About Food

About that state food — there really is no officially designated “state food” in Maine. That would take an action by the state legislature, and we’ll just trust that these days they have better things to do!  101_3107However, just in case you’re interested, Moxie is the official state drink and the whoopie pie is the “state treat.” Don’t know about whoopie pies? Ask any Mainer!

There are other people, by the way, who think lobster should be Maine’s special food. There are at least several lists, and that crusty little crustacean is on every one I found, in one form or another.

Maybe we should start lobbying for that “official” designation after all! It’ll get my vote!

 

 

 

 

 

Mainely good: Up country, Down East

Maine in the summer is full of good things: salt air, brisk nights, bright sun, wispy clouds, lobster, ice cream parlors seemingly on every corner, breathtaking scenery, a lazy way of taking one day at a time and putting aside the rush.

There’s also traffic; getting anywhere by car is apt to take twice as long as anyone thinks it should, with distances measured in time rather than in miles. And, yes, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in the car in order to see it all.

But Maine is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s hard to resist coming back — and the more one returns, the longer one wants to stay.

Yesterday’s excursion took us along the back roads of Midcoast Maine from Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed “prettiest village,” northeast to Belfast, another old seafaring village about 50 miles distant. 101_3156Then we clung to the seacoast to reach Camden, where Mount Battie stretches to the sky along one side of scenic Route 1 and the surf crashes against the rocks on the other side.101_3149

It was a leisurely drive, interspersed with frequent stops for photos, some “on purpose” wrong turns, and a drive up the bluff to view storied offshore islands from the heights at Point Lookout in Lincolnville.

Summer is alive with color — vibrant flowers, lobster buoys glistening in the sun, colorful sails silhouetted against the sky, canoes and kayaks forming their own artistic displays in their racks.101_3015

Farm stands and roadside booths abound — offering everything from fresh strawberries and blueberries to ever present lobster rolls, fried clams, and whoopie pies (definitely a Maine thing!) 101_3107We even found ice cold Moxie for sale by the bottle. Yes, it still has a medicinal taste, but apparently it has never lost its appeal.

We made a stop at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, and were thunderstruck by the beauty of huge floral hanging baskets. Alas, it’s still a bit too early for Maine sweet corn. But that’s another story; instead we stocked up on fresh strawberries, tomatoes — both red and green, and on purple carrots!

Make no mistake: Eating your way through Maine is half the fun.

Our lunch destination, and one of the main reasons for the trip, is an unassuming eatery with a loyal following in Belfast. Behind bright yellow doors at 96 Main St. is a thriving vegetarian lunch spot (open for dinner one night a week) that also has an in-house produce market, bakery and flower shop. The owners are all family, and their history in Maine dates to 1969; Chase’s Daily opened its doors in 2000.

Good food and sustainability are hallmarks of the operation; the owners and operators are down to earth, realistic and nothing if not approachable. The food is good, with unexpected layers of flavor and unusual ingredients; the ambience is pleasant, the wait staff congenial and the history heartwarming.

Maine has changed over the years, but in important ways this state remains the same as it was decades ago when I first visited. It’s still a little foreign, perhaps a little provincial, and rough around the edges at times. Portland, the largest city, is a cosmopolitan 101_3181center today, full of fine restaurants, hotels, shops, museums and galleries.

But, get out to the country and there’s still a whole wide world to explore. That’s part of the delight, and that’s the reason for the traffic on the coastal highway. You need to get out of the city and away from the resorts to really experience Maine. As a state slogan proclaims: It is “the way life should be.”

Up country and Down East are not only destinations; they are states of mind.

The open road: Traveling tips

101_2217Fast food isn’t particularly good for the waistline or the pocketbook! And, no matter how familiar, most of it is nothing to write home about.

So, this summer, why not slow down a little to nurture your spirit as well as your body? Whether you take a quick weekend jaunt or an extended trip across the country, here are some good ways to make your next driving trip a memorable one:

Pack a picnic basket

Seriously. There was a time when a wicker basket was a staple in the back seat or the trunk of almost every vehicle. Those were the days when people planned a day’s journey based on the distance between gas stations, and pulled off the road to enjoy a field of flowers or a lakeside vista. Today, with conveniences available at every highway exit, it’s not so necessary to plan ahead, but having a picnic basket full of good food still makes sense.

Fill yours with hard boiled eggs, a package of mini carrots or sugar snap peas, cans of sardines and packets of tuna, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of crusty French bread, crackers, and homemade granola or trail mix. Bring along either a round of Brie, a wedge of blue, or some string cheese that can stand being out of the refrigerator for a few hours. Include apples, oranges and dried fruit, and maybe some homemade cookies. Pack plastic plates, glasses and silverware, a roll of paper towels and a plastic tablecloth. Include a blanket or quilt for sitting on the ground.

If you’re taking a long trip, restock at a local grocery store; forego the chain restaurants. Forget the cooler full of soda, but bring a large thermos filled with iced tea or lemonade. In cooler weather, fill the thermos with hot chocolate, tomato soup or chicken bouillon. Invest in refillable personal water bottles and fill them with tap water. When you get hungry, get off the road and get out of the car. Park by a stream or find a city park: Walk around, lounge on the grass, walk the dog, and let the kids run!

Get off the road – go local

Turn off the interstate occasionally. Even if you want to make good time getting to your destination, you’ll be surprised how invigorating it can be to take a scenic route or venture onto a back road. Forget the GPS and the app, and buy an old-fashioned road map, the paper accordion-folding kind that you spread out on the hood of the car, the kind that shows small towns, county roads, twisting dirt paths, historical sites and topographical features. Then make time to explore.

Leave the smart phone in your pocket and teach your children map-reading skills; get lost on purpose, just so you can find an alternative way back to the highway. Cultivate spontaneity! Take a few chances. Laugh a lot!

The highways were built to move goods and people quickly from place to place, and they do that well. But, any journey can be as interesting as the destination if you take a turn through the countryside and small towns along the way. It’s a whole different world view and one you don’t want to miss. Stop to photograph wild flowers, historical markers, spectacular views, a herd of longhorns, or an old barn. Look for the unusual. Stop at farm stands and “pick your own” orchards. Buy freshly-squeezed orange juice in Florida, fresh shelled pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington or just tapped maple syrup in Vermont. WP_20160508_007 (1)

Keep a travel journal

Don’t worry about the literary quality; just make it personal and it will be memorable. Simply write quick notes to keep in an old three-ring binder and punctuate with doodles, postcards, snapshots or restaurant business cards. Or take notes on your digital device to accompany the pictures you snap: Transfer the notes and photos to an online journal when you return home. Just be sure to date (and place) the entries so that you can look through actual or virtual pages later to recall specific events.

Your kids will love reliving this part of their history, and you can tell friends and relatives about your experiences.  Write about the wild flowers or the weather; the long, boring miles of highway, or the squabbles in the back seat; add anything that describes the moment! And don’t wait for an epic two-week vacation to Europe to begin journaling. You don’t have to be born with a sense of adventure to enjoy travel. You simply have to keep your mind open to possibilities, your heart open to fun and your eyes focused on the new sights all around you.

Slow down and look around

Take advantage of state tourist information centers as you cross state lines. Great sources of information,  they are staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, and often offer snacks, coffee and cool drinks. They also provide a welcome break from sitting! Many states also have upscale, modern rest stops with clean rest rooms, playgrounds and picnic tables.

Turn off the highway and head for a small town square. Look for a local café, or a diner with lots of cars parked outside. Chances are you’ll discover friendly people, good food and good times. Strike up a conversation with your server; ask questions about the area if it’s new to you.

Travel without reservations if you don’t have a deadline, and look for local hotels in small towns rather than chain motels along the highway. Consider it a bonus if you find a charming country inn, a lakeside cottage at a state park, or a historic hotel in the heart of a Midwest city. Another way: Take day trips to other towns in your area. You’ll be surprised at the things you discover!

Walt Whitman said it pretty well:

         “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 

         Healthy, free, the world before me, 

        The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” 

Fishing in Waxahachie? Oh, yes!

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Sometimes the best places are close to home, just undiscovered.

And sometimes all that’s necessary to find great food is to listen to friends.

Both were true this past weekend as my husband and I took a pleasant drive to a small town just 30 minutes south of Dallas.

Getting off the highway is key to discovering the best Texas towns. I have known Waxahachie for many years as the site of the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and I have been down that road several times. But I had never before gotten “off the road” to get into town.

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On this trip, however, the destination was Waxahachie’s downtown square, across the street from the historic Ellis County Courthouse.

The reason? A friend had recommended that we try a newly-opened restaurant. Actually, the friend and a partner own this newly-opened restaurant, and we were only too happy to be invited to sample the fare prior to the grand opening.

Both the restaurant and the town are unexpected treats.

Fresh and Local — and Seafood!

The Fish Grill is a labor of love many months in the making. Open for only seven days when we visited, it is sure to enjoy a long and healthy life. Retired architect Dana Wenzel partnered with Chef Christopher Stanford, a fifth-generation native Texan to bring a beautiful old bank building back to life as a charming and eclectic downtown eatery.

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The Fish Grill, Waxahachie

The building dates to 1900 when it was Citizens National Bank. It served at one time at the Ellis County Tax Office, but had stood forlorn and empty for a couple of years when Wenzel and Stanford found it. Well-known Dallas developer Jim Lake of Design District and Bishop Arts District fame, had already seen the potential for a restaurant in the space.

Features include the original vault doors, ornate brass 101_2138handrails, stunningly detailed wall and ceiling medallions, and native stone inserts in polished wood floors. A mezzanine and upstairs bar offer patrons spectacular views of the stately courthouse and other historic buildings.101_2147

Large, arched windows let in lots of light, and etched glass doors both lead outdoors and can be closed to provide private dining areas.

There are vibrant red-orange walls, modern art, linen cloths and napkins, and a friendly vibe — it is immediately welcoming. And the menu is as special as the space.

Menu offerings are Stanford’s creation, with a layering of flavors that is at once satisfying and unique. The goal, according to Wenzel, is to produce “good food to get out to the world,” and the governing philosophy is “fresh and local.” All seafood is from the Gulf — none of it arrives frozen. Other menu offerings, including the catfish, pork and beef, vegetables and greens, are locally sourced.

The word is that if it’s not in season, you won’t get it at The Fish Grill — that includes the battered fried oysters and the Grilled Strawberries au vin rouge!

Our lunch began with an impressive Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, highlighted by a piquant tomato sauce  with bits of onion, pepper, avocado and just the right amount of spice. We followed that with Fish Tacos and the ultimate comfort food — Mac and Cheese, served with grilled shrimp.

The only appropriate comment? Delicious! The only downside? No room for dessert, tempting as those grilled strawberries were. The bonus? Enough food in “packed with a smile” to-go boxes for additional taste treats at home.

After leaving the restaurant, we took the time for a walk around the courthouse, a tour of WP_20160410_027the abundant antique shops on the square and its adjacent streets, and a leisurely drive past the impressive gingerbread homes that characterize this town. Waxahachie obviously takes pride in its past and looks toward its future. It has the feel of a gracious, cultured college town; actually it was once the home of Trinity University, but that’s another story.

Because there are other stories to be told about this interesting little Texas town, you can be sure I’ll be returning to Waxahachie, and I look forward to enjoying more — perhaps many more — meals at The Fish Grill.

 

Cruises: An unending buffet of treats

It’s true. There’s a lot of food — and drink — available on the average cruise ship.

But even the cruise lines have lightened up a bit. Gone are the midnight buffets, although there are definitely ways to get food around the clock. Gone are the late night chocolate extravaganzas that were as much a feature of cruises as the welcome aboard champagne towers.

Healthy has come to cruising

Sit down breakfasts in the dining room are as apt to include healthy oatmeal and fresh fruit as Eggs Benedict, corned beef hash and fried potatoes; smoked whitefish and soft boiled eggs in addition to bagels, lox and cream cheese. Waiters still circulate with trays of croissants and pastries, and we hope that never changes!

Ever-present buffets are heavily laden with salads, fish and fruit, including Scandinavian and Mediterranean specialties, in addition to hot entrees. It’s still hard to be sensible with buffet selections, but not as difficult! There are many more choices that reflect the cultural identify of scheduled ports. A relatively new alliance between Australian Chef Curtis Stone and Princess Cruises has led to revamped menu offerings on the line’s 18 ships, as well as new a concept dining venue called “Share,” soon to be available on most of them.

Lighter, but as pretty as ever

It’s an interesting, welcome and delicious departure. Food on cruise ships has always been something to write home about — mostly, in days gone by, for its calorie-rich decadence as much as for the quality and the abundance. Today, the food is different.

It’s beautiful to look at, thoughtfully prepared and presented, regionally appropriate — and it’s lighter, fresher and healthier. An extensive array of vegetarian offerings reflects a changing culture and the global trend toward health consciousness and fitness.

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Desserts are often fresh fruit, lighter sorbets, cheese trays and sugar-free cakes. But the Baked Alaska parade by waiters is still a feature! And, although the variety, preparation and presentation are still worth celebrating, food service as practiced by the cruise lines has achieved something much more notable.

It is entirely possible to return from an extended cruise vacation not a single pound heavier, and at least as healthy as when you stepped aboard, with no hint of deprivation.

A newly enriching travel experience

Food is a part of the experience and, in the words of Chef Stone: “When good food and travel brings people closer together, you experience the world in a whole new way.”

On a recent Eastern Caribbean sailing with Princess Cruise Lines, our party was delighted by the variety of dishes, the range of flavors, and the visual appeal of every plate brought to our table. We were equally entranced with the buffets — Danish smorgasbord for breakfast; shrimp salad and fresh fruit for lunch. Lighter custards, along with tempting fresh-baked cookies, for an afternoon pick-me-up.

The food on board was so good, in fact, that I sought out some Curtis Stone recipes upon returning home. You can try some too, if you’d like!

 

Digesting art and history — good memories

Two menus occupy special places in my heart and in my home. They couldn’t be more different.
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When in Rome

The first is a colorful, poster-size graphic from Da Meo Patacca, a memento from a first “Roman holiday” when I was 21. I still smile every time I look at it, remembering how impressed I was with the white-shirted waiter who unfurled the almost three-foot-long roll of paper with a deft flick of his wrist.  I don’t remember the food of that long-ago dinner table, but I can’t forget the experience, and the framed menu has graced my kitchens and pantries for longer than I care to admit.

The classic restaurant is still serving its traditional fare in Rome and, by all accounts, still delighting tourists from all over the globe. It is now possible to purchase the extravagant vintage menus on ebay or etsy, and I suspect that many, like mine, are still kept as keepsakes.20160110_120156

I treasure the memory; I also delight at the items priced in Lira. A mixed salad for 250, garlic bread at 100, saltimbocca a la romana at 950, gelato for 300 and a bottle of wine at 2500 – dinner easily required counting out bills running to multiple thousands! Truly, that was culture shock. However, the exchange rate at the time was around 600 Italian Lira to a single U.S. dollar. My dinner, I am sure, was quite a bargain! I returned to Da Meo Patacca a few years ago and came away with a later version of the menu, this time with prices in Euros. I also took away a renewed appreciation for this lively eatery that has served generations of diners during its five decades of operation. I know there is better food in this ancient city, and trendier trattorias. But this is a tradition of sorts and, on a pleasant evening, the patio is friendly, the wine is abundant, and the music can be fine!

Viva la France

The second menu is not as vibrant in color, but it boasts fascinating pastel drawings of animals around its edge – elephant, bear, camel, kangaroo, cat and rat – along with frivolous hot air balloons floating over the countryside. It is dated “25 Decembre 1870 – 99eme Jour du Siege” from Voisin in Paris. It is in French. And, no, I did not eat there. Rather, I was entranced by the images and by the subject.

I have loved this menu for years, knowing it was not a real menu. I thought it was simply a quirky take on French culture and paid little attention to the actual items: Haunch of Wolf with Venison Sauce, Cat flanked by Rats. Jugged Kangaroo and Elephant Consomme20160109_171810Among the Hors d’Oeuvres: Butter, Radishes, Stuffed Donkey’s Head, Sardines. It includes other food choices as well: Wild Mushrooms Bordelaise and Rice Cake with Preserves. Again, I thought, a nod to French ingenuity, or an attempt to be entertaining. I thought nothing of the English translation at the bottom of the poster. I investigated no further, and simply enjoyed the artwork of my charming wall hanging. Until just recently.

The Back Story

Around Christmas, I happened across a blog post with an intriguing title. With an audible gasp, I realized that it was the story of my menu. I now know about the Franco-Prussian War, about the long and celebrated history of Voisin Restaurant, about how adaptable French cuisine can be, and about the suffering and endurance of a proud people during hard times. I know about how a renowned chef was truly creative and managed a Christmas dinner that must have been quite a treat for wealthy diners, and that at least one other restaurant routinely served equally bizarre dishes. By discovering the history of “my menu,” I have gained a new understanding of life, and of war and survival. During this siege, not even the well-to-do were spared hunger and deprivation.

The City of Light has known some very dark times. The French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871, when the citizens of the city were truly half-starved. I still love the depictions of the animals in their faded watercolor reality. But I will never again look at this menu in quite the same way. And I now view history very differently.

Learn more about the war, the zoo and the dinner.

Also included, between the French and English versions of the historic menu, is a letter to “Dear George,” signed “See you in Boston. Hopefully, Charles.” Perhaps it’s a figment of someone’s imagination. Or not.

Among other things, the letter states: “The Prussian encirclement of Paris is now so complete that no word is getting out except by carrier pigeon or balloon. As the besiegers have become increasingly adept at shooting down the balloons or tracking them to their destinations, the government will probably soon abandon the balloon service.”

It continues with the odd statement: “I think you will enjoy the enclosed Christmas menu from Voisin’s where I dined yesterday. As you can see, hunger forgets squeamishness.”

Pleasures and Pitfalls of Olive Oil

Recently, at a local farmers market, I stopped at an olive oil display and was transported – in memory – to my first encounter with the mystique of locally-produced olive oils. I learned that today, in Texas, there is not a “lone olive ranch” in the Lone Star state, but several. It seems this state is better suited for black oil than olive oil, but with time, luck and persistence, some olive ranchers are making a go of it. Texas A&M explains that climate is a limiting factor.

The oil pressed from trees has a long, rich history, and was commonly known as the “gift of the gods” by ancient civilizations. There is a bit of doubt about which gods first introduced olive oil to humans, and where exactly, but no doubt at all about its continuing popularity among Mediterranean peoples. That’s how I first was introduced to its wonders.

It was decades before the Mediterranean Diet became codified; EVOO, at the time, was not in the vocabulary of most chefs. But, even then, olive oil was something special among the “initiated.”

Photo by Adrienne Cohen
Photo by Adrienne Cohen

I have written about olive oil in terms of its natural properties, and as a regional, historical and cultural component of diet and tradition. The following piece first was published on Yahoo Contributor Network March 3, 2013. It was prompted by a news story confirming the health benefits of olive oil.

I’d like to share it again (with minor changes and updates):

Eating Well, Staying Healthy Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Many years ago, while vacationing at a Caribbean Island resort, my husband and I met a vivacious Italian couple at dinner. They were older, by decades, than we were at the time, but just as active, full of curiosity and fun to be with. They were swimmers, reef explorers and divers, and had come to enjoy the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. We met and talked, and because we had lived in France and traveled in Europe, we shared our experiences with them; they asked us about our life in the United States. We found we had much in common, despite the differences in age and geography.

One night at dinner, we tasted what that Italian gentleman called his “secret of long life.”

Olive Oil

Pressed from olives grown on his trees on his land, and carried from his home in travel flasks, he passed it around the resort’s community table for all to sample, and to savor, with our bread. I still recall the color, the scent and the flavor of that olive oil. The couple was justifiably proud of the golden elixir.

As “20-somethings,” we were enthralled. We were captivated by the setting; by the sun and the sea, by the activities and the bountiful food. We were charmed by the company. This pair

Olive Grove, Tuscany' Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr
Olive Grove, Tuscany’
Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr

of free-spirited, fit, fun grandparents enjoyed life every bit as much as we did. They were only too happy to meet new friends and share good times, good conversation, good food and abundant wine.

This incident occurred before the current popularity of all things Mediterranean, including the diet. On vacation, we two laid aside moderation: We overdid the activity as well as the food, the sun and the drink; and we paid the price upon our return home.

Not so our Italian friends. They maintained their routine. A simple breakfast of bread, with the requisite olive oil, and cheese; perhaps a soft-boiled egg, and black coffee. For lunch, a simple salad, with fish or fresh vegetables, fruit and bread, with olive oil. Whole olives, too, if they were available.

They walked, they swam, they dove; they relaxed.

Olives ready to pick Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr
Olives ready to pick
Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr

And then dinner — long, multi-course dinners. Soup, appetizer, entrée, roasted vegetables, salad — and bread. Always with the olive oil. Good conversation, much laughter. Much wine. And then dessert.

No, we never saw them again. But we never forgot that olive oil.

When I heard on ABC News that new findings confirm that the benefits offered by the “Mediterranean Diet,” in particular its emphasis on daily consumption of olive oil, include an astounding 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk, I thought of those Italian friends from long ago. I doubt that they are traveling this earth still, some 30-plus years later. But I would wager that they did so for many years following our meeting, always with enthusiasm, with smiles and laughter, and with olive oil.

Note: Now that I have discovered, and confirmed, that olive trees grow in Texas, I am planning an upcoming visit to the groves. I’m really looking forward to exploring the modern process of producing that “divine” oil.

How to know if you’re a food snob

 . . . and what to do about it!

Some people celebrate their snobbery, of course, by reading restaurant reviews before making a reservation, cultivating their knowledge of the proper wine to accompany a rare steak or a traditional Welsh rarebit, diligently identifying every ingredient and perfecting the most unusual preparation techniques.

That’s okay — absolutely! The joys of cooking and eating are individual pursuits.

But good food is found in unusual places and, at least sometimes, under the oddest of conditions — on street corners, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, in unexpected circumstances. Good food is also found, commonly and abundantly, around a simple family dinner table, whether it’s a hearty soup, a warm casserole, a generations-old treat, or a weeknight family get-together. Good food does not have to be fancy, and it can also be fast.

Food, at its best, is a celebration. Breaking bread together is an honorable tradition in every culture around the globe. It’s not in a literal sense that sharing food is so important, but in the wider sense of sharing a small slice of life with other people, be they family members or strangers, along with the slice of beef, the slice of pizza, or the slice of pie.

It’s the connection that matters; food is the glue that binds us together.

I happened to catch the last few minutes of a Jacques Pepin cooking show recently on PBS and was transported back to the time I spent in Paris as a young woman. French food was so good; learning how to prepare it properly seemed so unattainable. And then I learned.

What I learned is that French cuisine, at its heart, is simple food. It’s crafted from simple ingredients, picked fresh from the garden, or purchased fresh from the market. It’s peasant food and, as such, often there are no recipes, just general guidelines. It’s meant to be shared, with friends and family, both the preparation of it and its consumption. It evolves naturally from what’s available.

Iconic French onion soup illustrates the point — humble onions and a bit of butter combined with dry bread and a some leftover cheese! It’s a classic. But, at its heart, it is simply a “make do” meal for times when no meat is available.

Although I never met him, I feel as if I know him. Jacques Pepin’s brand of kitchen reality resonates with me; he is the chef I would most like to spend time with in the kitchen, or have as a guest at my dinner table.

Yes, I know that he once prepared dishes for the presidents of France. I know that he’s a renowned chef, and that he has written cookbooks and mastered all the fancy kitchen techniques. I know all that, but as I watch his shows, and see him interact with his family and friends, I can’t help but appreciate how this 80-year-old chef views food, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a smile on his lips. It’s always a celebration.

“The love of food, and cooking, is passed down from generation to generation, with favorite recipes at the heart of every family. What do you say to that? Happy cooking!” Jacques Pepin.

I am convinced again that this is the way we all ought to approach food — in our own kitchens, laughing and sampling and experimenting — tasting as we go along — just the way Jacques Pepin does. My grandmothers did that too. They sampled food with their fingers, added a “bit of this and a pinch of that,” rarely followed a recipe exactly, and always let the “young’uns” lick the spoon and sample the pie crust tarts hot from the oven. They also learned to “make do” when necessary.

PBS stations around the country air a final 26-week series on Jacques Pepin, “Heart and Soul,” this fall. Check local stations for scheduling. Segments from a previous series, entitled “Jacques Pepin: fast food my way,” are available to watch online.