I am eating a piece of toasted walnut bread smothered in butter, topped with a slice of salted and peppered tomato, which, like the walnut bread, I purchased fresh today from the Hollywood Farmers’ Market. Maybe not to you, but to me, it’s delicious.
Excuse me, I think I’ll have another.
My mini-repast sparks two thoughts: 1) I owe this kind of haphazard pleasure to my association and appreciation of two friends: Kay and Sally; and 2) I am not what I eat, but where I eat. In other words, food pleasures are totally related to people and places.
This idea first hit me one Saturday morning in Phoenix before a bike ride. I walked into my friend Sally’s house. She was just finishing up a breakfast of avocado toast with her sister Jerry, who was visiting from Minnesota.
Gosh! To a hungry cyclist, that toast looked good. It was.
Chatting with Jerry brings me inevitably to memories of Sue, Sally’s other sister, the chef de cuisine for Sally’s favorite after-Ironman competition meal: Tater Tot Casserole.
You might have to be from the far north of Baudette, Minnesota or a post-Ironman contender to truly appreciate Tater Tot Casserole. I don’t fit either category, but I sure liked sharing it with Sally, Sue, husband Mark, and others around Paula and Thad’s family room in Whistler, B.C. in July, 2015.
Which reminds me of the very special delicacy I regularly ate one September several years ago walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with my friend Kay.
Spaniards are not big on early or American breakfasts, which made it difficult for predawn starts on the Camino. Kay and I were both early risers and found that a piece of fruit — maybe, a cold portion of Spanish tortilla from the night before — and very definitely, a carton of yogurt seasoned by a handful of peanuts kept us going until the chance for a real meal presented itself.
People make a difference in how much you savor a meal. And so does the place.
Every year or so, I get together with a group of college girlfriends. When we left Stanford in the Spring of 1963, none of the original six of us had immediate plans to marry. We called ourselves the GGP: Girls Going Places.
I don’t remember the first year we got together. (I leave that to Sooz, who keeps good records.) Deaths and occasional inclusions of others have decreased and expanded our numbers, but over the last couple of decades, four of us have consistently found ways of seeing each other on a weekend here and there, around a class reunion or birthday milestone.
Some of the most memorable get-togethers have been in Maine, where Sooz lives, in Claverack, New York, where Floss has a house, and on Lummi Island, Washington, where Judy recently hosted us in June.
According to Judy, who is active on a local preservation board, Lummi has turned into a NORC, a “naturally occurring retirement community,” though it still has a grade school, whose children ferry into Bellingham for middle and secondary school, and a community of fishermen.
During our three-day visit, we ate breakfast at The Willows Inn, a reprise of a dinner we had had seven years previous. Dinners at The Willows Inn, $225 per guest, are out of our range and Judy’s, who hosted us. To reserve either breakfast or dinner — if you are not an overnight guest ($345/ per room) — candidates must call no sooner than two weeks before the date.
At the Willows, we were lucky to have Raquel Ruiz Diaz, fiancee and partner of head chef Blaine Wetzel, as our host. Raquel, a native of Paraguay, was gracious to speak to me in Spanish and reminisce about her time at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she met and studied alongside Wetzel.
What did we eat? Frankly, it’s a blur of beautifully prepared and presented dishes: buckwheat pancakes topped with hazelnut butter, a syrup infused with chamomile and vanilla, smoked salmon, a cold-cut plate of kale, radishes and other crudites, everything locally grown, caught or foraged. I specifically remember a pucker-delicious juice of kale, apple and ginger. (One of us pronounced it “astringent.”)
I asked for a second glass.
On the way out we crossed paths with one of the restaurant’s kitchen staff carrying leaves of skunk cabbage destined to wrap a dinner’s delicacies — probably a fish — to be roasted over a wood-burning fire.
Eating in the Pacific Northwest is always pleasurable because of the people with whom you share a meal and the place you find it. Portland is a treasure trove of culinary gems. I make a point of finding unique spots for lunch with friends and family whom I’ve missed during the seven or eight months we live in Phoenix.
In the last two weeks, I found wonderful eats at Providore, a marketplace at 2340 NE Sandy that opened in 2016, and Hat Yai at 1605 NE Killingsworth, a family-run Thai restaurant, which has plans to open its second place in Southeast Portland in November.
At Providore, my lunch companion, Karie Trumbo, Senior Development Director at the Portland State University Foundation, chose salad items from the Pastaworks deli case, and I — ever in search of the perfect poke — found a fresh tuna version side-by-side with a delicately seasoned pyramid of jasmine rice ($12) at Flying Fish oyster bar. It was heaven.
At Hat Yai, I had a braised chicken thigh in a soup plate of Malayu curry, roti (Thai fry bread) and pickled vegetables. There is nothing on the menu that I wouldn’t want to try. Allan Oliver, with whom I ate, is as much a culture monger as me. We like to eat lunch together once a month when I am in town and catch up on what’s new and what I’ve missed while I’m away.
People and the event of eating out with them is what makes a meal memorable. And some even leave you with a little going-away gift to remember them by.