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Home Planet

Archive for July 2012

A memorable feast under the Tuscan sun

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)  

   I have friends who actually plan each meal. Not just at holidays, but all year long. Even in the summer. Even on vacation. They look through magazines and cookbooks and pick a recipe because it excites them, not because it uses only four ingredients and the prep time is guaranteed to be less than fifteen minutes. Pushing a cart through the aisles of the grocery store doesn’t cause them to wilt like yesterday’s salad. They actually enjoy it.

    I am not like these people.

   And yet, by default, and I’m still trying to remember exactly how this happened, I am the person who has the responsibility of putting something (occasionally food) on the table each day. This is not easy.  I like to eat. I love food. I just like it better when someone else figures out what it will be and then makes it happen.

   As a young mother, with toddlers at my feet and a husband who was away three nights each week, we ate a lot of informal meals of fruit and cheese, hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes we added bread and butter to the feast. As a not-so-young mother working from home, writing around the schedules of four active children, I learned to love my crock pot. 

   It should be easier now but it isn’t. Now I lack any real motivation.  And I still lack imagination.

   I finally realized the real problem is that I’m just not a sophisticated foodie. I love to eat but, for me, the simpler the better.  I can sit down to fruit and a little cheese (tossed with a good book) and call it good. I like a nice piece of salmon. A piece of crusty bread and good butter. A bowl of strawberry ice cream. In the winter, simple and basic vegetable soup ( the one thing I like to prepare) can make me happy every night of the week.

   I was with friends not too long ago and the subject of memorable meals came up. I listened to the others rhapsodize about famous restaurants, Foie gras, thick steaks and various ragouts, reductions and complicated recipes. After thinking about it, I realized that, predictably, one of my favorite meals was one of the simplest I’ve ever eaten.

   My husband and youngest daughter and I were in Italy several years ago, in mid-October, strolling through a beautiful village in Tuscany. By noon we were ravenous. As it happened, it was market day and the town square was filled with vendors. I purchased a roast chicken from a mobile rotisserie and three clementines from a fruit stand. Actually, when the man realized all I wanted was three pieces of fruit, not the three kilo he’d thought, he gave them to me with a smile, waving away the Euro I offered.

    We took the warm, moist, roast chicken and the fragrant fruit to a small courtyard at the top of the city wall and sat looking out over the beautiful countryside as we ate with our fingers. My husband and I shared a bottle of local white wine as the sun warmed us. Bees droned in the flower garden and a local cat showed up to eat the scraps my daughter tossed to him. When we were done, the remains of the feast were rolled into the paper bag that had held the hen and thrown away. And that is my memorable meal.

   I watched people smile and nod, imagining the day and the moment as I described it. I’m no gourmand but even I know the secret ingredient of any feast is the simple pleasure of consuming it. Especially when you share it in the company of friends and family and, occasionally, a very good book.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

FĂȘte ImpĂ©riale: Vienna’s Summer Ball

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    As the newspaper’s former “social” reporter, I’ve been to a lot of parties over the years. Countless times I’ve dressed in an evening gown or little black dress and found my seat at a big banquet table set for eight or ten and made small-talk while one plate of food after another was put in front of me and my wine glass was refilled. I’ve listened to local news anchor emcees make jokes and introductions and I’ve placed bids on silent auction packages. Then, at the very end of the long evening, after the dinner and fundraising were out of the way, the band began to play and those of us who’d stuck around long enough danced.

    That’s usually how we run a ball or gala in this country.

    But a recent trip to Vienna, the city of grand ballrooms and the grandest dancing tradition, opened my eyes.  I attended the third annual Fête Impériale at the Spanish Riding School, one of Vienna’s newest balls and the only one held in summer. Like many of the more than 450 balls held during the short winter season in Vienna, the Fete Imperiale is a fundraiser, held to support the historic Spanish Riding School and the beautiful Lipizzaner Stallions. This year more than 2,000 tickets were sold and the courtyard around the riding school and adjoining Ringstrasse was filled with women in beautiful gowns and men in elegant tuxedos.

    The ball began at 9 p.m. with an opening ceremony. An aria was sung by an Italian opera singer, a brass band played, debutantes in white dresses paraded and waltzed and the ball’s founder, Elisabeth Gürtler owner of the historic Sacher Hotels, was acknowledged and saluted. At 10 p.m. the orchestra leader picked up her baton and men and women of all ages—surprisingly, many were young 20-somethings, everyone waltzes in Vienna—surged onto the specially-laid black and white parquet covering what is normally the sawdust riding school floor, and the waltzing began.

    It was one of the most beautiful nights I’ve ever spent at a gala. It was one of the most beautiful nights I’ve spent anywhere. Couples whirled around the floor, spinning as they danced, smiling, surefooted and graceful. And the dancing went on for hours because that was what they’d all come for. At a ball in Vienna you do not dress up to sit down and eat. You are there to dance. There is no long banquet. When you get hungry you can buy a plate of traditional Vienna sausages and rolls or a bowl of goulash. If you’re thirsty you can buy champagne and cocktails (it is a fundraiser, after all) but no one sits down for very long. The tables are almost always empty because everyone is on the dance floor. Dancing is a passion for Austrians and waltzing is the queen of the night. At midnight, the dancing moves from the waltz to the quadrille and the floor is packed.

 I stayed until almost two in the morning but when I left, strolling down quiet streets back to my hotel, the sound of my heels striking the cobblestones echoing in the night, the party was still going strong. I heard later they’d shooed out the lingerers at 4 a.m.

 In a lifetime of “pinch me” moments, the Fête Impériale will always stand out. I’ve enjoyed a lot of parties, but in Vienna I really had a ball.


(You can watch a video of the Fête Impériale midnight quadrille at

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at


Forget the app, there’s a map for that

   In the jumble of odds and ends I carry around in my purse, a mix of grocery store receipts, loose change, lipgloss, hairbands and bobby pins, mints, a small leather notebook and a pen, there is an honest-to-goodness map of the world. And I don’t mean the Google Maps app on my iPhone.

   The portable, purse-size Oxford World Atlas was a gift from my daughter, something I asked for last December, when, for once, I had an answer ready when asked what I would like to unwrap on Christmas morning. She bought it, brought it home and put it under the tree and now it is almost always with me.
   I pull out the book often and I am never disappointed. In less time than it would take to type in a keyword and track the tiny virtual map on the tiny screen on my phone, I can check the milage from Tokyo to Mumbai. I can, using the graph, measure the distance in miles or kilometers from one side of Paris to the other. I can daydream and make plans. I can follow along with the BBC or NPR news anchors when they’re talking about a drought, or disaster in some distant part of the world. Or, if I’m in the mood for something closer to home, I can look for unexplored places just a day’s drive from my backyard. And it isn’t all maps. At a glance, I can see what the national flag of Luxembourg or Montenegro looks like. I can find the capital city of the Slovak Republic, the population of the Mariana Islands, a list of the world’s busiest airports, the annual rainfall in Rome and even the average income of residents of Berlin.

   The information in the atlas is random and immediate. No searching for service or wireless. Just as men and women have been doing for centuries, I open a book and find a place that sparks my imagination. I like the satisfactory sound and feel of crisp, glossy, paper when I turn a page or trace my finger along printed highways, railways and rivers. I get swept away by possibilities and before I know it I’m connecting the map-dots of cities and countries. 

   I know a few facts may have changed since the book was updated, in fact, I’m sure of it. The world in always in flux. If I need to confirm the data, I do. But, for the most part, I’m sure of what I see. The socio-economic situations, politics and migratory habits of people are constantly changing but, and I find this immensely comforting, the continents, islands and land masses that make up the physical world as we know it are all still, barring any meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions and other cataclysmic surprises before this goes to print, exactly where they are supposed to be. And thanks to my daughter, I’m happy to say they are right at the bottom of my purse, between yesterday’s to-do list, a white shirt-button and my phone.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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