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Travel: Wisconsin’s Cranberry Harvest is a Sign of the Season

    They are one of the first signs of the holiday season: bright red cranberries in a sauce or compote on the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes they’re part of the centerpiece or decorations and they’re there all the way through Christmas. 

 

    It used to be that when the holidays were over, the cranberries were gone. But that was then. In the last decade cranberries have moved out of the holiday-only aisle and into the year-round pantries of most Americans. Now they’re baked into cookies and scones, sprinkled on salads and eaten as a quick, healthy, snack.

 

    Most of us grew up with a kind of Norman Rockwell-inspired image of New England as the only place cranberries grow but that isn’t true. Wisconsin has been growing and harvesting the berries for 140 years and since the mid-1970s has produced more cranberries than any other state. Today, more than half the cranberries grown and consumed around the world come from Wisconsin, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington trailing.

 

    In the last few years a new industry has grown up around the Wisconsin cranberry harvest: Agritourism. Now you can tour the marshes and get a glimpse of the unique processes involved in growing and harvesting one of the three fruits that are unique to North America (the others two are blueberries and concord grapes.) 

 

 

    I was curious and joined a tour at two Wisconsin cranberry farms: Glacial Lake Cranberries and Elm Lake Cranberry Company.

 

    At Glacial Lake Cranberries we boarded a bus and drove along the narrow pathways between flooded marshes. The iconic image of cranberry fields is a flooded bog filled with floating berries, but they don’t grow that way and the low-growing vines are perfectly acclimated to the sandy soil acidic soil left behind Wisconsin’s ancient glacial lakes. From June through late September they form and ripen. Then, during harvest the marshes are flooded and red-ripe cranberries are scooped off the vines by special tractors (this used to be back-breaking work done by hand) and, thanks to the four small hollow chambers in each berry, float to the top of the water. 

 

   Like any kind of farming, growing cranberries is hard work, subject to the whims of nature and the ups and downs of volatile markets. It’s easy to forget the hard work behind the berry when in the fall the cranberries ripen and the beds are flooded to create a temporary marsh. 

 

    At Elm Lake Cranberry Company, the rich crimson color of the berries, contrasted against the vivid blue of the sky and the brilliant gold larch trees reflected in the water, was as pretty as a postcard.

 

    With slow, graceful, movements, harvesters dressed in hip-high waders walk the circle of berries corralled by a yellow plastic boom and I watched as a man stretched out his arms, extending the wooden rake in his hands to gather and pull toward him the bright red cranberries while a vacuum swept them up onto a conveyor belt and into the deep bed of a waiting truck.

 

    I know it’s intense and a lot is riding on getting the berries to market without bruising them, but he made it seem like water ballet.

 

    Most of the berries are taken to a nearby processing plant where they will be frozen before being processed into juice, sauce or dried sweetened berries. Only a very small percentage of Wisconsin’s cranberries are packaged fresh for holiday sales.

 

    Like every other behind-the-scenes look I’ve gotten into the heart and soul of any kind of farming—usually thanks to the agritourism movement— I came away with a deeper appreciation for the small red berry that has always been such a big part of my holiday table. And now, in ever increasing ways, a part of my everyday diet.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

 

Travel: Bring Home the Taste of Tennessee

Every year, usually some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I bring out all the good stuff. I put out an assortment of foods I’ve picked up as I traveled in the months before and brought home to share with my family. 

 

Some years it has been a feast of German chocolates, Wisconsin cheese and Pecans from Texas. Other years I have jams and jellies and sauces from around the country, around the world. 

 

This year when my children come home for the holidays it will be all about the taste of Tennessee. 

 

I spent two autumn weeks in East Tennessee this year and I came home with a suitcase full of tasty souvenirs: two kinds of honey—a raw wildflower honey from Appalachain Bee, a woman-owned artisanal honey company in Ocoee, and a bottle of sourwood honey I picked up on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have rich buttermilk cheese from Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee and a box of Ole Smoky taffy from Gatlinburg, a sweet treat I remembered from childhood trips to the mountains. And I couldn’t resist a box of mini Moon Pies from Chattanooga, another childhood favorite.

 

But this year I brought home the bacon. It isn’t just any old bacon, it’s Benton’s bacon. Walk into any upscale restaurant, coast to coast, and there’s a good chance Benton’s Smoky Mountain Ham or bacon will be on the menu. It’s sold in gourmet markets and it can be pricy, but when you stop by the smokehouse in Madisonville,Tennessee, they’ll pull it right out of the box and sell it to you for just about the same price the chefs pay.

 

The store is plain and no-nonsense with not much more than a display case and a cash register. And there’s usually a line leading from one to the other. 

From the front, you can see smoked meats hanging on racks in the back of the building and I watched as a woman packed big boxes of bacon to ship out to restaurants across the country. Men were busy, moving meat from the smokehouse to the slicing room.

 

 

The man at the counter told me they sometimes struggle to keep up with demand. but that wasn’t always the case. Allan Benton bought the smokehouse in the late 1970s from the man who started the business in 1947 and he’s been making ham and bacon in the traditional way—dry cured or hickory smoked—since then.

 

The business struggled at times until several years ago when Blackberry Farm placed an order. A few days later Allan Benton got a call from the chef saying he wanted more. Word got out quickly and it wasn’t long before leading chefs around the country had Benton’s on the menu. Suddenly, Smoky Mountain bacon and hams were flying out the door.

 

“We smoke it and ship it, the man behind the counter told me. “And when it’s gone, it’s gone. You just have to wait ‘till we catch up.”

 

I wasn’t taking any chances. I bought three pounds of bacon and put the package in my suitcase. (Benton’s meats are cured so they don’t need to be refrigerated to ship.) If I’d had room for one of their country hams, I would have put one of those in, but I did buy a couple of ham steaks—my husband’s favorite— and brought them home especially for him.

 

So, when we all get together in a week or two, I’ll have delicious things from other places to share with my family—dried cranberries from Wisconsin, a bottle of Champagne I brought home from France, and more—but I have a feeling Mr. Benton’s bacon will steal the show.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Collectible milk glass is both pretty and practical

I’m not a milk glass collector, although there are many people who are, but I do occasionally pick up a particularly pretty piece when I can put it to some practical use. Living in a small cottage means that what comes into the house must serve some purpose, but I didn’t hesitate when I saw this dish in the shape of a woman’s open hands. I knew it would be perfect for any number of things: rings and other jewelry, after dinner mints, keys, and more.

 

Or, perhaps, for showcasing an object. Like a single ripe cherry.

 

One of the best things about living in this part of the country is access to the dark, sweet, cherries that pour into the markets each summer and cherries are my favorite fruit.

 

We drive to the cherry orchards at Green Bluff and pick them right off the tree and I fill freezer bags with pitted cherries to last us through the winter. And, for as long as they last at the grocery store, I can’t resist bringing them home. They are, to me,  the taste of summer and a sweet benefit of our hot, dry, summers and cold winters. During the season, especially a particularly abundant season like we’ve had this year, there is always a bowl filled with cherries in the refrigerator. At the end of the day or on a lazy Sunday morning, I like nothing better than sitting in a shaded spot in the garden with the cherry bowl and a good book.

 

 

I brought home another bag yesterday and I noticed there were only a few left in the store. I packed a few for our picnic at the Spokane Symphony Soiree on the Edge concert at Arbor Crest Winery last night and I’ve been nibbling on them this morning until there was only one left.

 

I suppose it’s possible this might be the last fresh cherry I’ll have until next summer so I dropped the remaining cherry into the palms of the open hands of the milk glass tray I'd just brought home. Perfect. The cool white glass was a good background for the dark, satiny, fruit.

 

Tomorrow the tray will be on my dressing table, holding my watch and the silver bracelets I pick up on my travels. But this morning the hands frame another favorite thing: the sweet bounty of the a Northwest orchard. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

 

Travel: Explore Ann Arbor

    If I told you I’d gone to the city to see a few shows, listen to some impressive live music, catch a cutting-edge film festival, spend time in world-class museums, and chow down on an astonishingly diverse and multicultural dining scene including Cuban, Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, Asian and Turkish food, you’d probably assume I was talking about a big city. Somewhere like Chicago or Seattle or New York.

 

    When when I tell you I did all that in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you should pay attention. 

 

    Ann Arbor, with a population of around 116,000 and home to sports and academic powerhouse, University of Michigan, rivals big urban destinations in terms of food, entertainment, and culture.

 

    I spent a few days looking, tasting, and exploring. Here’s a roundup of my favorites:

 

Feed Your Mind

    

    Ann Arbor boasts a number of superior museums. The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) offers an impressive collection of fine art and artifacts. Two of my favorite pieces were the Samurai armor in the Asian collection and John Stanley’s “Mt. Hood from the Dalles”, a beautiful landscape painted in 1871 with an iconic view of Mt. Hood from the Columbia River. 

    Another fascinating stop is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This state-of-the-art facility, housed in an exquisite Victorian-era Romanesque building complete with turret and Tiffany window, is centered around the late-19th Century and early-20th Century collection of it’s namesake, Francis Kelsey. Some highlights of the more than 100,000 artifacts include Roman glassware, Egyptian masks, and an elaborate sarcophagus. The coffin’s owner, the missing Mummy Djehutymose, has his own popular Twitter feed and Facebook page.

    The nearby Gerald Ford Library Museum and archives is also worth a visit. Primarily a holding place for more than 25 million pages of historical documents pertaining to Ford’s political career and the Cold War era, the center offers an intriguing view of the man, including the story of Ford’s birth and childhood.

 

 

 

Taste the World

    My first meal in Ann Arbor, a Cuban burger and batida ( a frozen concoction of mango, pinaeapple, scoop of ice cream and a splash of dark rum) and a basket of what may be the best fries I’ve ever tasted, at Frita Batidas, set the tone for the rest of the week. Everything was delicious and often unexpected. Some of my other favorites were the Ethiopian Injera (soft bread) and Gomen (collard greens cooked with spices, onions and jalapeno peppers) at Blue Nile and lamb-stuffed grape leaves and cold vegetable salads at Ayse’s Turkish Cafe. Of course, no visit to Ann Arbor counts unless you stop by world-famous Zingerman’s Deli. For beer lovers, there are a growing number of microbreweries in the area and you won’t regret a day spent tasting local brews.

 

Always Entertaining

     Football may draw the crowds in the fall, but Ann Arbor hosts large events throughout the year. Seasonal favorites include the winter Folk Festival, a springtime FestiFools puppetry and public art festival, and a three-week summer festival with art, music, food, and film.  

 

Treasure Hunting

    The number of antiques, collectibles and vintage shops within walking distance of Main Street was a nice surprise. Treasure Mart, in the Kerrytown area near the farmer’s market and Zingerman’s Deli, is a rambling historic building full of all kinds of interesting things. Some of the rooms are decorated and arranged like an antiques mall, others are crammed with goodies strewn on tabletops or piled in corners just waiting to be discovered. 

    Located in the Nickles Arcade, a 1918 covered passage lined with unique shops that make the place feel like a bit of Paris in the mid-west, The Arcadian antiques is a jewel box. Crystal and china line the shelves and the store stocks fine antique furniture, but the highlight is a collection of beautiful estate jewelry.  I watched a couple shop for wedding rings, trying to choose from trays of lovely old diamonds and gemstones.

    I did a lot of window shopping but I didn’t come home empty-handed. At Antelope Antiques and Coins, a funky store on the lower level of a downtown building. I plucked an autographed photo of Woody Herman ($10) out of a box of old photos and postcards, and did a little happy dance when I found a Waterford goblet in my (somewhat obscure) “Kylemore” pattern, for only $15.

 

    Like most travelers, I have a fantasy “I could live here” list in my head made up of places I’ve been and couldn’t forget. After this first visit, Ann Arbor moved to the top of the list. A robust arts scene, a vibrant main street, an energetic farm-to-table movement and a cosmopolitan foodie-friendly ethos, paired with a dedication to preserving the past, makes Ann Arbor, Michigan hard to resist. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Popeye would be proud

Fresh spinach shines in hearty penne beef. Cindy Hval photo.

The only spinach I knew as a child came from a small white carton in the deep freezer. Mom would dump the frozen leaves into a pot of boiling water and serve them with lemon juice. I liked the tart juice; the slimy spinach, I hated.

Flash forward 40 years.

I toss a handful of fresh spinach into the slow-cooker and take a deep breath as the fragrance of basil and oregano fills my kitchen. “Yum! Tomato spinach soup!” Sam, 14, shouts when he arrives home from school.

What happened to my loathing of Popeye’s favorite vegetable? Simple. As a young adult I cautiously sampled spinach salad at a local restaurant. I figured anything with bacon in it couldn’t be that bad. It wasn’t! Fresh spinach proved to be delicious. More here. Cindy Hval, SR

Name a food you hated as a child, but love as an adult.

Woman wolfs down 9 lbs of beef

File photo: The Tap House Steak is the signature dish at Manito Tap House.

AMARILLO, Texas – A Nebraska woman celebrated breaking a Texas steakhouse’s speed record for eating a 41/2-pound slab of beef by polishing off another one.

The Amarillo Globe-News and the Big Texan Steak Ranch’s Twitter page said competitive eater Molly Schuyler finished her first steak in 4 minutes and 58 seconds. The previous record was 8 minutes and 52 seconds.

The 5-foot-7, 125-pound mother from Bellevue, Nebraska, ate her second 41/2-pound steak in 9 minutes and 59 seconds.

The restaurant foots the bill for anyone who can eat one of the steaks, a baked potato, shrimp, a salad and bread roll in under an hour, so Schuyler ate those side dishes as well.

I can't even imagine! What's the most you've ever eaten at one sitting?

 

Travel: Salinas Agritourism: From field to table

 

    The men walked along the rows of artichokes, following long, straight, ribbons of green that stretched out to the horizon as far as the eye could see. Moving toward the big mobile processing trucks parked on the road that marked the boundary of the field, they harvested artichokes without stopping. As they walked, in one swift motion, they cut and then tossed the artichokes over a shoulder into the strong fabric baskets strapped to their backs. When they reached the truck, the men dumped the contents of the baskets, put them back on, turned around and started again, this time moving in the opposite direction, marching toward another road and another truck.

 

    A few smiled at the crowd gathered along the side of the road watching and taking photos, but most faces were unreadable as they passed us. There was still a lot of work to be done.

 

    On the open trailer, an artichoke processing plant on wheels, men and women wearing hair nets and gloves sat one behind the other in a line of busy hands that didn’t pause as they quickly sorted, washed and packed the fruit. The boxes were filled and taken away. 

 

    The company they worked for, Ocean Mist Farms, has a four-hour “cut to cool” policy. Everything must move from the field to the cooler in that time and an elaborate system of bar codes and time stamps tracks it all along the way as the produce moves from the field to boxes to coolers to tables around the world.

 

    I’d joined a private tour of the artichoke mega-producer’s fields and distribution center and it was an eye-opening experience. 

 

    Like most people, I’m relatively ignorant of the process by which my food arrives on my table. Oh, I read labels and worry about food safety, but beyond that I don’t know much. I like—I need—fresh vegetables all year, even in winter, even though I live in a place where nothing grows in the winter. So I depend, like most consumers, on the good practices of growers and producers in places like Salinas, Castroville and Monterey County, California.

 

    Walking through the distribution center I noticed pallets of produce labeled for its destination, for the stores where it would be sold. Sitting side by side were cases destined for Kroger stores, Trader Joe’s and for Wal Mart. Food democracy in action.

 

    I found this distribution to be a most interesting thing. We put such a negative label on “big.” Big is bad. Big is careless and always looking for a shortcut. Big is for “them,” not for us. We forget it takes a big effort to feed a hungry, demanding, world, even our small corner of the world.

     

    At dinner that night I ordered an artichoke with my meal. Marinated and fire roasted, it was perfectly prepared. As I pulled each leaf from the cluster, dipping it in sauce and then stripping the tender meat with my teeth, I thought about the process that brought it to me. I could see the faces of the men who’d walked past me in the field, the people washing and packing what had been picked or driving the forklifts speeding pallets into coolers or onto trucks. 

 

    My artichoke now had a story. The big company behind it was suddenly small and intimate to me.  

 

    Although the fields are open to the public during the annual Artichoke Festival in Castroville, I had an exclusive look into the Ocean Mist Farms processing center and I came away thinking an occasional public tour might be a good thing. It’s reassuring to see the path our food has followed, that there isn’t always a caste system to quality and the same food really can be available to all of us.

 

    Chances are, unless it was raised in our own backyards or in the fields of an area farmer, our produce was prepared in one of the fields of a company big enough to grow, process and distribute what we desire. To step into the fields, to follow the boxes, to see the safeguards and quality control is a good thing. To put a human face behind an artichoke, brussels sprout or head of iceberg lettuce shrinks even the biggest company profile.

 

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

 

Trying to duplicate restaurant dishes

You were dining out and had something you really enjoyed.

So, after asking the waiter a few questions about its preparation, you later tried to make this dish at home.

How did that turn out?

Travel: Winter is Wine Time in Healdsburg

 

 

Winter seems to have faltered in the Inland Northwest this year, bringing weeks of freezing fog but little snow to the region. So, when a trip to Sonoma County, California was suggested, I didn’t think twice. I’ve been hearing about Healdsburg, the small city in the heart of wine country, and was happy to do some research. 

 

Go: With Alaska Airlines offering direct flights from Seattle and Portland to Santa Rosa’s Sonoma County Airport, it’s easy to escape, soak up a little sun and spend a few days in wine country. The Charles M. Schulz Airport—look for some familiar faces—has car rental facilities and is only 25 minutes from downtown Healdsburg. (No need to fly into San Francisco and face Golden Gate traffic.)

 

 

Eat: The small city  of Healdsburg is charming, historic and home to some of the most creative chefs in wine country. Don’t miss dinner at Spoonbar! Chef Louis Maldonado is on the current season of Top Chef New Orleans and his food is as good on the table as it looks on TV. Another standout was Dry Creek Kitchen at the Healdsburg Hotel. The setting is upscale and sophisticated and the food is outstanding.  How good was it? When the chef Charlie Palmer stepped out of the kitchen, he was treated to a round of spontaneous applause. 

 

 

Stay: After three nights tucked into a big bed in a pretty room on the top floor of the Grape Leaf Inn, I could feel the difference. I was rested and refreshed. The rambling historic house is within walking distance of shops, tasting rooms and restaurants in downtown Healdsburg and the inn’s gourmet breakfast and frozen fruit “shooter” was a great way to start each morning. Coffee, tea and cookies are always available for late night snacking or an afternoon pick-me-up.

 

 

Taste: I tasted some wonderful wines but Lambert Bridge Winery was a standout. Winemakers JillI Davis and Jennifer Higgins create small-batch wines in a beautiful setting of manicured gardens and valley views. Lambert Bridge is recognized as a food destination. Be sure to book one of chef Bruce Riezenman’s wine-pairing tasting events in the barrel room. Riezenman is also the creator PairIt! of a successful wine-pairing app for iPhone and Android users.

 

Dip: I didn’t expect to bring home a suitcase full of olive oil, but I did. After tasting Dry Creek Olive Oil Company's oils, I was a believer. I also learned a lot as I sampled, including the fact that to be considered true extra Virgin olive oil, olives have to be picked and pressed within 24 hours, something many of the highest priced European oils might not be able to guarantee. Northern California is gaining stature as an excellent olive growing region and Dry Creek oils took gold at both the New York and Los Angeles international olive oil competitions.

 

 

Shop: If you like vintage finds you’ll enjoy Healdsburg Vintage. The rambling antiques mall is filled with everything from vintage clothing to one-of-a-kind architectural salvage. I spent an hour poking into every corner and my find-of-the-day was a $10 sterling silver photo frame.

 

Tip: The annual Winter WINEland festival each January is a great time to visit.

 

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Travel: Preserving Heirloom Apples at Arbor Day Farm

 

   When I was a child, you couldn’t have paid me to eat an apple. The bright red picture-perfect fruit was always disappointing. The waxy skin was tough and bitter and the inside was bland. I didn’t like the way the fruit felt in my mouth as I chewed. The Red Delicious apples that were in the grocery store, on my lunch tray at school or in the fruit bowl in the kitchen at home were the Kardashians of fruit: Pretty to look at but not much more than that. 

 

   It wasn’t until years later when I discovered other varieties, the Macintosh, the Gala and Fuji, the Braeburn and Honeycrisp, that I became an apple fan. The exact opposite of the apples I’d hated as a child, they were crisp and sweet and heavy with juice and I kept them in the fruit bowl and packed them in my own children’s lunches. I baked them, and made apple sauce. I sliced them, browned them in butter and sprinkled the caramelized slices with cinnamon before serving them on cool autumn nights. Once in a while I made a pie.

 

   I began to hear more about heirloom apples, varieties that were old and in danger of disappearing completely, and the growers who were working hard to save them.  It was hard to imagine that there had once been so many kinds of apple and some had disappeared completely while we were engineering fruit solely for appearance and durability.

 

   But visiting the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska, I took the  Discovery Ride around the farm, a 45-minute narrated wagon ride behind a tractor. We learned the unique story of the farm, the history of Arbor Day and the work of the Arbor Day Foundation, before stopping in front of the Preservation Orchard. 

 

   “Now, this,” our guide Carol told us, “is a special place.” 

 

   As she showed us the rows of heirloom apple trees, some still heavy with beautiful fruit, she talked about the farm’s dedication to preserving the old, and in some cases endangered, varieties. Some of the trees were marked and I read the names: Wheeler’s Golden Russet, Old Nonpariel, and Raine de Reinette.

 

   There were others: the Wolf River apple, an apple so big one was enough for a pie. The Arkansas Black, with its distinctive purple color, and Esopus Spitzenburg, the orange-colored apple that was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.

 

   We were invited to choose an apple from any tree and I wanted to choose wisely, so I took my time, walking slowly between the rows of trees. I finally decided on an Opalescent. I liked the tree for it’s toughness, its branches had been damaged but the tree had borne well in spite of the injury, and, to be honest, I was intrigued by the oddly-elegant name. I reached up, let the apple rest lightly in my palm, and twisted it gently. The ripe fruit fell into my hand and I admired it for a moment before I took a bite. 

 

The apple was dense and crisp and the flavor was surprisingly delicate, with just a hint of violets and strawberries. It probably wasn’t the rarest in the Preservation Orchard but it was a good choice for me.

 

Maybe that’s what is most important about places like the Arbor Day Farm Preservation Orchard. These trees and their fruit are part of our history. Our story. They are worth saving and sharing. You shouldn’t have to be all grown up before you taste something so good. 

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Feasting on King Crab in Kirkenes, Norway

   When I choose a port excursion while on a cruise, what they’re going to feed us on the excursion is usually not my first priority since food is more than plentiful on most ships. I almost always opt for some kind of unique experience I couldn’t have anywhere else, but the King Crab Safari in Kirkenes, Norway, a small waterfront town only 30 kilometers from the Russian border, offered as a Hurtigruten excursion, was intriguing. And not just  because it promised a feast of fresh crab.


    I was there in August, but the water can still be dangerously cold. First we had to put on heavy insulated suits, designed to protect us from the cold waters of the fjord if we were to fall in. On top of that went a life jacket and we were given gloves to wear.  After we were all suited up we boarded the boat. Instead of seats we straddled benches, holding onto the safety rails in front of us as our guide pulled the boat out onto the fjord and picked up speed.


    While touring the coastline and listening to the history of the area, after skimming swiftly over the surface of the water and moving slowly along the  cliffs where we could see the remains of a Nazi bunker from the German occupation of Norway during World War II, we stopped to check one of the numerous crab baskets that sit on the bottom of the deep fjord. Our guide attached a hook to the basket and used a motor to pull it up from the bottom. As it broke the surface we could immediately see the basket was filled with some of the biggest crabs I’ve ever seen. (Those that weren’t absolutely massive were thrown back to grow in the cold, dark water.)


    We pulled up to what looked like a small fishing shack on the shore. The small house, just big enough for the long table that ran from one end to another, was the place where we would have our meal. Our guide unloaded the dozen or more giant crabs from the trap and began to prepare our dinner while we settled around the table on benches covered with skins and pelts.


    When they were done, steamed to perfection, the giant crab legs were piled onto platters and placed on the table. The meal was simple: fresh King crab legs and slices of good bread. There was butter for the bread and lemon slices to squeeze over the crab if we wanted it. That was all and it was all we could want. 

   
    We turned on the platters of crab legs like we were starving. For a few minutes all conversation stopped and everyone around the table concentrated on getting to the delicious crabmeat in the shells. We ate until we could not hold another bite.  

   Fresh, simply prepared and served, the meal was good enough to be added to my list of favorites. There was no fancy dining room. No music. No upscale atmosphere. And the view of the fjord through the small windows reminded us with every bite that we weren’t just having a meal, we were feasting on a real Norwegian adventure.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio 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 catmillsap@gmail.com
 

  

Travel: Truffle Hunting in Croatia


    Our small group, an assortment of travelers from the US, Canada and Germany,  gathered as Ivan Karlic, our guide, leashed up Blackie, the sweet, specially trained dog who would sniff out truffles buried at the base of oak trees growing in a small grove on a hillside near the village of Buzet. Most of us were visiting the Istrian peninsula of Croatia for the first time and none of us had ever been on a truffle hunt.


    Blackie knew what to do. Nose to the ground, she set out snuffling at the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor. Tail wagging, she moved quickly from one spot to another while Ivan whispered soft words of encouragement. We followed them both, stepping over roots and stones.


    Pigs were once the traditional truffle hunting animals, but as Ivan pointed out, it’s much easier to stop a dog from destroying or eating the truffle than a determined pig. So, these days, most truffle hunters have made the switch.


    Truffles are true buried treasure. Black truffles, the ones we were watching Blackie search for, average 30 to 50 Euros. When they’re in season, white truffles can go for many times that amount. That’s no small thing when you consider most are the size of a walnut or a small apple.


    As we walked behind Blackie, Ivan chatted with us about his family’s business harvesting the truffles from the small wood.  But suddenly he called out to the dog and rushed over to pull her away from where she was pawing at the ground. Using the tool he carried, a flat blade attached to a stick, he sliced into the dirt until the truffle was exposed. Gently, he scraped the dark soil away with his finger until he could gingerly pry the truffle free of the root to which it had been attached. He held up the prize and we cheered. Blackie got a treat for a job well done.


    While we were still admiring the find, Blackie went back to work. Once again we followed her zigzag path, talking quietly as we watched her stop, sniff, sniff again and then move on. When she started pawing at the ground, Ivan ran over to her and again, pulled a hard black truffle from the ground. Blackie moved deeper into the small forest and a few minutes later she hit paydirt again. While Ivan worked to free that truffle the dog started scratching at the base of another tree nearby. He called out for someone to help so I took his place and slipped my fingers into the hole he’d created with his spade. The dirt was cool and moist as I worked it away from the truffle. Like an archaeologist, I worked slowly, gently, scraping away the soil that concealed the truffle until Ivan came back and helped me pull it away from the root. I handed my phone to the woman beside me and asked her to take a photo. In the image, I am a blur. The only thing in focus are my hands, muddy, with dirt-caked fingernails cradling the truffle. It was exactly right.


    We carried the four truffles we’d gathered back to the farmhouse and Ivan’s mother, Radmila, met us at the covered patio. She exclaimed when she saw what we’d found. Apparently, it was a very good truffle hunt. Blackie, after being petted again by everyone in the group, was taken back to the kennel with the family’s other truffle-hunting dogs.


    Radmila broke eggs into a bowl, added thin slices of one of the truffles we’d found and made an omelet of our work.


    She sliced a baguette and topped the slices with butter and another sliver of truffle on top. With savory sausages and bottles of house-made wine, we had a meal so fragrant and delicious I will remember it forever.


    I’d expected the tourist treatment: a field “salted” with truffles that had been planted so we could have the (artificial) pleasure of watching a dog sniff them out. But my experience was just the opposite. I kept the photo and I’m going to frame it for my kitchen. The next time I make an omelet, I’ll think of that day; the feel of the dirt on my fingers and the unmistakable earthy fragrance of delicious buried treasure.
    



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Tasting the Best of Apalachicola, Florida

   I pushed away my plate and picked up my purse to leave The Fisherman’s Wife and move on, but at the last minute I pulled out my phone and took a photo of the only bite left on my plate. One crescent of cornbread was all that remained of a meal of fried shrimp, cheese grits, coleslaw and hushpuppies.

    I took the photo because I’d already made one call to my husband telling him I’d found a place he might want to visit and he might never want to leave and I knew the hushpuppy—the Southern staple of seasoned cornmeal batter, fried crisp and brown—would strike its mark. But I also took it because I’d been trying to think of the best way to describe the unique personality of the north coast of a state that is probably best known for the broad beaches, busy theme parks and bustling cities on the lower half of the peninsula. Looking down at my empty plate, I found my answer. In a lot of ways, the food—the seafood—is the key.
    
    It’s impossible to spend any time in that part of Florida and not be offered a fresh Apalachicola oyster, pulled out of the bay that morning, shucked and served on a saltine cracker and dressed with horseradish and hot sauce. Afternoons become “Oyster Hour” when local restaurants serve up more fresh oysters with laughter, gossip and plenty of cold beer. Dinner might be Grouper or a basket of grilled oysters or fat Gulf shrimp, butterflied, battered and fried or simply boiled and seasoned and then served ready to peel and eat. Life centers around the bounty and it is served up fresh and simply prepared.

    The cluster of small communities in Franklin County, Florida, the largest of which is Apalachicola, or Apalach, as the locals call the small picturesque waterfront town, has shown a unique ability to reinvent itself to fit the times. At various points in its history the county was home to one of the busiest ports on the Gulf of Mexico. It was the site of a thriving sponge market and later an important Southern timber hub. Times and industry have changed but the one constant has been and still is the rich variety of seafood harvested locally by people who are deeply rooted in the community. People like the fisherman married to the fisherman’s wife who’d served up fresh-caught shrimp for my lunch.

    While there, I met people who’ve lived in the county for generations and others who moved to the area to get away from the larger and busier world. I met a few first-time visitors like myself. But I quickly discovered we all have something in common. We love the slow pace of life. We love the natural beauty of the coastline and rivers and estuaries, and all the wildlife that come with them. And we really, really, love the food.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio 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 catmillsap@gmail.com



  

Break in tradition: Good food in national parks

 
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Chief Jonathan Jarvis held an event on the Lincoln Mall to unveil new healthy food standards for national park concessionaires, with chefs offering free samples of such fare as bison tenderloin, free-range chicken breast, black bean sliders, sweet potato cakes, berry yogurt parfaits and rain forest coffee. — Washington Post
 
What? No hot dogs on a stale white bun?

Travel: Home Cooking

   The routine is always the same.

   I walk into our kitchen, a place that is deeply familiar and filled with all the pleasant associations of my family, and I pull out everything I will need. Methodically, listening to the radio or letting my mind wander, I chop onion, celery and carrots into the mirepoix that will form the base of a pot of homemade soup. Sauteing the vegetables, I separate two, three, sometimes four garlic cloves and chop them, tossing the aromatic pieces into the olive oil and butter with the other ingredients. Then I fill the big pot with stock, chicken or vegetable, add seasoning and put it on the stove to simmer. Sometimes I add leftover chicken but usually it is meat-free. In an hour or so our meal is done. I slice the bread, set the table and call out that dinner is ready. We pick up our spoons, take the first sip, and I know I am home.

   Food, as we all learn quickly enough, as newborn babies crying out in hunger and frustration, does more than just feed us. Food comforts. Food connects and unites us. It brings us closer and broadens our tastes. Food carries us forward and, as we get older and years escape us,  reminds us of the past.

   In some elemental way, soup captures all of that for me. It is simple, inexpensive and quickly prepared but it carries so much more than just flavor.

   For years now, after returning home from a trip, especially when no one could get away to come along with me, I’ve made soup when I got back and I’ve come to realized it is more than an act of putting food on the table. Sometimes, when I grabbed a cheap fare and took an impulsive journey, giving in to the temptation to travel, the meal is part apology. Other times, when my work took me away and I was busy and frustrated, it is part recompense, a way to make up for my short absence.

   But always, whether anyone sitting around the table knows or even cares, the act of making and sharing a pot of homemade soup, of gathering over the savory fragrance of simple ingredients, is an act of love. It is a way to say leaving this place and these people always hurts a little. And that coming home to chop and and stir and season a meal to feed them, somehow feeds me more.


For more about travel and homecoming, read Traveling Mothers

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Starting the New Year with Edible Souvenirs

We were fortunate again this year, the whole family was together for Christmas. We gathered, exchanged gifts, caught up on one another’s lives and enjoyed one another’s company. And we ate. We ate a lot.

When we weren’t sitting down to our traditional Christmas dinner, we were snacking on things I’d gathered on my travels and brought home to share with my family. That’s come to be one of my travel traditions and now wherever I go I spend time looking for goodies to bring home with me.

This year, while playing board games or working on a jigsaw puzzle we opened a can of Virginia peanuts that traveled back from Roanoke tucked into a corner of my suitcase.

We made pots of good Door County Coffee & Tea Company coffee and nibbled peanut brittle from Silver Dollar City in Branson Missouri.

I passed around a can of delicate and delicious Clear River pecan pralines I bought in Fredericksburg, Texas and hand-carried home. And we cracked pecans I gathered from where they’d fallen from the trees around the same city.

I spread tart cherry jam from, also from Door County, Wisconsin, on our toast at breakfast. In the afternoon I sliced a block of Wisconsin's Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese to go with the bottle of crisp white wine I brought back from Rhine River valley in Germany.

One night I made a big pot of chili and seasoned it with heritage chili pepper powder I bought at the Chili Pepper Institute in Los Cruces, New Mexico. I made a batch of brownies with brownie mix spiced with the same chilis.

We warmed up with mugs of hot buttered rum, savoring the bottle of Koloa rum I picked up in Kauai and saved especially for this holiday season.

This is the time of my life when I can travel freely and I don’t take it for granted because I know that could change at any time. My children are mostly grown and my work takes me around the world. I can’t always take them with me, but I can bring the world back to the ones I love and share it with them one delicious bite at a time.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Holiday gifts from the kitchen

If you need me this weekend, I’ll be in the kitchen making my holiday cookies and gifts.

There’s still time to join me and whip together some treats for others before the season slips away. I'm fussing over ideas for the Meyer lemons I found this weekend at Costco. I was thinking of lemon curd, but I'm cranky about the recipes I've found because they call for bottled lemon juice to ensure they are canned safely. I may end up with a freezer curd instead. I'll report back on what I make.

Here are some of the recipes I’ve made in the past that were well received:

Orange-Cardamom Marmalade

From “Gifts Cooks Love,” by Diane Morgan (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010)

2 1/2 pounds (6 to 8 medium) oranges (such as Valencia or Cara Cara)

3/4 pound (2 large) lemons

6 cups cold water

20 green cardamom pods, crushed

8 cups granulated sugar

Prepare the fruit 12 to 24 hours before you plan to cook and preserve the marmalade. Wash and pat dry all the fruit. Trim and discard the stem ends. Cut the oranges and lemons into quarters and poke out all the seeds with the tip of a paring knife. Reserve the seeds in a small covered container. Using a sharp chef’s knife or mandoline, cut all the citrus, including the rinds, into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Put the sliced fruit in a large pot, including any juices left on the cutting board. Add the 6 cups of water. Gently press down on the fruit to make sure it is submerged. Cover the pot and set aside at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. (This softens the rinds and releases the pectin.)

The next day, bring the pot of sliced fruit and water to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils steadily without splattering, and cook for 30 minutes. Wrap the crushed cardamom pods and the reserved lemon and orange seeds in a cheesecloth bag tied securely with kitchen twine.

While the fruit is cooking, prepare the preserving jars and bring water to a boil in a water bath canner. Sterilize the jars and lids.

Add the sugar to the fruit mixture and stir until dissolved. Add the cheesecloth bag of cardamom and seeds. Continue to cook the marmalade at a steady boil until it reaches the gel stage (see note) or reaches 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer, 30 to 40 minutes longer.

Remove the cheesecloth bag from the marmalade, pressing any liquids back into the pan.

Remove the marmalade from the heat. Using a wide-mouth funnel and filling one jar at a time, ladle the marmalade into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles by running a long wooden utensil, such as a chopstick or wooden skewer, between the jar and the marmalade. Wipe the rims clean. Seal according to the manufacturer’s directions. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat. Wait 5 minutes, and then lift the canning rack and, using a canning jar lifter, transfer the jars to a towel-lined, sturdy rimmed baking sheet and let them rest. Check the seals, wipe the jars, and label.

Note: Here’s an easy way to check whether the marmalade is set. Put a small plate in the freezer. When the marmalade looks thickish and a bit gelled, put a small amount of the marmalade on the frozen plate and return it to the freezer. After a couple of minutes, run your finger or a spoon down the center and see if it stays separated and is a bit wrinkled. If so, it is done.

Storing: Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Yield: 11 half-pint jars

Nutella Biscotti with Hazelnuts and Chocolate

From “The Art and Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet (Andrews McMeel, 2008). These crisp, twice-baked Italian favorites are perfect for dunking in coffee, tea or hot chocolate. They’ll keep in an airtight container for two months.

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup (4 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar

1/2 cup Nutella, room temperature

3 large eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 3/4 cups (13 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) chopped skinned toasted hazelnuts (see note)

5 ounces good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, cut into 1/4 inch chunks, or 1 cup (6 1/2 ounces) mini chocolate chips

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) superfine sugar, optional (see note)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position oven rack in the center.

For the dough: Place the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until smooth and slightly lightened in color, 2 to 3 minutes. You also can use a hand mixer in a medium bowl, although you may need to beat the mixture a little longer to achieve the same results.

Add Nutella and blend well. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well (15 to 20 seconds) and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Stir in vanilla extract.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the butter mixture all at once. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and blend slowly, just until there are no more patches of flour. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl.

Add the hazelnuts and chocolate chips and mix on low, just until blended. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir gently a few times with the spatula to make sure the nuts and chips are evenly distributed and there are no patches of unincorporated flour or butter lurking near the bottom of the bowl.

To shape and bake the dough: Divide the dough in half. On a work surface lightly dusted with flour, gently squeeze and roll each piece to shape into logs about 13 inches long. Line one baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the logs on the sheet about 4 inches apart. Press down the logs, flattening them slightly until they are each about 2 inches across the top. Place a second baking sheet under the first (to prevent the bottoms of the logs from browning too quickly).

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the logs are firm to the touch and lightly golden brown. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let the logs cool completely. (If you attempt to slice them while warm, the chocolate will smear and the cookies will look messy.)

Cut the logs and bake them a second time. Turn the oven down to 275 degrees and position two racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Carefully transfer the cookie logs to a cutting surface. Use a serrated knife to slice the logs on a slight diagonal into cookies 3/8-inch thick.

Line the second baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the cookies, cut side down, on the parchment-lined sheets. (You’ll need both sheets to hold all the cookies).

Toast the cookies in the oven, switching the sheets between the rack and rotating each front to back halfway through, for 30 to 40 minutes, until dry and lightly tinged with color. Transfer to a cooling rack.

While the cookies are toasting, prepare the finishing sugar if you like. Whisk together the superfine sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. As soon as the cookies are out of the oven and off the rack, immediately roll them in the cinnamon sugar and return to the baking sheet to cool completely.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 months. If the cookies soften during storage, re-crisp them in a 300-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool and return to storage container.

Notes: To toast and skin hazelnuts, place the hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 10 to 14 minutes. The skins will begin to split and come away from the nuts. Transfer the hot nuts to a clean kitchen towel and wrap them lightly inside it so the steam will help loosen the skins. After 3 to 4 minutes, rub hazelnuts vigorously inside the towel to remove as much of the skins as possible. Depending on the variety, you may be able to remove some of the skin, but sometimes very little rubs off. Don’t worry, the remaining skin will add flavor and color to your baking.

Superfine sugar is sometimes labeled “baker’s sugar.” To make your own, whirl granulated sugar in the food processor for about 60 seconds. You can substitute superfine sugar for granulated sugar on a 1 to 1 ratio one to one.

Yield: About 45 biscotti

Cranberry Turtle Bars

From “The Gourmet Cookie Book,” from the editors of Gourmet magazine. The recipe is also available at www.epicurious.com, along with dozens of other cookie and treat recipes. I chopped the cranberries when I made this recipe, but some reviewers suggested keeping the cranberries whole. I’m going to try that when I make these again.

For the base:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

For the topping:

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (not thawed; 6 3/4 oz), coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups pecans (12 ounces), toasted and cooled, then coarsely chopped

For the decoration:

2 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), very finely chopped

Special equipment: a candy thermometer

To make the base: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Line a 15- by 10-inch shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the 2 short sides. Butter all 4 sides (but not bottom).

Blend flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor, then add butter and pulse until mixture begins to form small (roughly pea-size) lumps. Sprinkle into baking pan, then press down firmly all over with a metal spatula to form an even layer. Bake in middle of oven until golden and firm to the touch, 15 to 17 minutes, then cool in pan on a rack.

To make the topping: Melt butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Boil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel registers 245 degrees F on thermometer, about 8 minutes. Carefully stir in cranberries, then boil until caramel returns to 245 degrees F. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, then stir in pecans until well coated. Working quickly, spread caramel topping over base, using a fork to distribute nuts and berries evenly. Cool completely.

Cut and decorate bars: Lift bars in foil from pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 6 crosswise strips, then 6 lengthwise strips to form 36 bars.

Melt half of chocolate in top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and add remaining chocolate, stirring until smooth. Transfer chocolate to a small heavy-duty sealable plastic bag. Seal bag and snip off a tiny piece of one corner to form a small hole, then pipe chocolate decoratively over bars. Let stand at room temperature until chocolate sets, about 1 hour.

Note: Bars keep in an airtight container (use wax paper between layers) 1 week.

Yield: 36 bars

Travel: Back to Memphis

   Some places belong to our deepest memories. They are the source of the sights and sounds and experiences that define us, that make us the into people we become. Because I was born in the Southeast, less than a day’s drive from Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a place my family particularly loved, Tennessee became that kind of touchstone for me. As a child I camped along Deep Creek, explored Pigeon Forge and Cade’s Cove and looked out the window, staring into the clouds, lost in my thoughts as we drove the winding roads.   

    When I was a teenager my friends and I drove to Nashville for the weekend and we walked to Ernest Tubb’s Music Store to hear the musicians who gathered there late at night to play for the fun of it.

    One fall day when I was in my 20s, I took a single seat on a day-long excursion train to Chattanooga and started talking to a tall man who was there with a couple of friends. We spent the rest of the day together and in a few years we were back again, this time with our children.

    So when I had a chance to return to Memphis recently, a place I hadn’t been since we moved to the Northwest more than a decade ago, I didn’t think twice. The first day, not long after checking into The Peabody Hotel, the grand hotel that has been the heart and center of the city for almost 100 years, I walked down to the lobby to join the crowd around the fountain and the ducks swimming in it. If you don’t know, The Peabody is famous for its ducks. What started as a practical joke has become a treasured tradition and each morning they march single-file down a red carpet to spend the next few hours swimming in the hotel lobby before marching back to the elevator at in the late afternoon.

    The ducks always play to a crowd. Young children were gathered along the red carpet, anxious to have a front-row seat for the duck parade, and I realized my own children must have been about that age when we brought them to Memphis to see this particular show. I thought back on that day, wondering at the speed with which time grabs so many little moments and sweeps them into the corners of our minds, to sit there until we stumble on them again if we’re lucky.
    

   The woman standing beside me told me she comes to the city and to the hotel at least once a year. “I’m like one of these ducks,” she said, laughing and taking a sip of her cocktail. “I keep marching back.”

    After the ducks marched past me and into the elevator that would take them to their rooftop “plantation” I joined a tour of the building offered by an employee.  As he led us from one beautiful room to another he talked about growing up in Memphis and how the hotel has been a vital part of the community for most of its history. And for most of his personal history.
   

    “That’s the thing about this place,” he said, looking around him. “Everywhere you look you see a scene from your past.”

    For the next few days, as I explored a part of the country that used to be so much a part of me,  I said the same thing again and again.

    Memphis is a vibrant city. The music never stops on Beale Street. The food is spicy and delicious. I sat down to a plate of ribs at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous and could have spent hours just looking at the memorabilia  on the walls. I joined the crowd at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and savored every bite. I toured Graceland and stood in front of the microphone at the old Sun Records studio. I walked through Soulsville, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and listened to the music that was the soundtrack of my youth. And, just as it has forever, the river kept rolling.

    That’s the thing about Memphis, I guess. It was full of the familiar but it held so many new experiences I didn't get around to everything I wanted to do and see.  I should have told the woman in the Peabody lobby to save me a place next year.

       

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
       

    
  

The Year of the Goo Goo Cluster

The Goo Goo Cluster is 100 years old this month.

Anyone who grew up in the South or has spent any time in Nashville (and that includes the airport) will recognize the distinctive package featuring a piece of candy with a big bite missing. The Goo Goo Cluster is everywhere.

Created in October, 1912, by Howell Campbell and the Standard Candy Company, the chocolate, caramel, marshmallow and peanut patty has become a Southern food icon. During the Great Depression Goo Goos were advertised as “A Nourishing Lunch for a Nickel” and the South's favorite candy has appeared in a number of movies, including The Nutty Professor and Charlie's War.
Today, the factory cranks out 20,000 Goo Goo Clusters an hour.

I loved Goo Goos when I was a kid and I always bring home a box when I'm in Nashville or anywhere close.

I'm flying out of Roanoke, Virginia later today. I think I'll keep my eye out for a chocolately souvenir. I mean, after all, I'm going to have to get something for lunch.

Travel: Overnight idyll at Montana’s Virgelle Mercantile

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   The two-story mercantile, a farmhouse, the old grain elevator, a bank building and a set of abandoned railroad tracks running across the grassland are the only visible reminders of the town of Virgelle, Montana. Settled in 1912 by homesteaders who rushed to claim their 300 acres in the harsh Montana landscape, by 1930 the boom was over and the little town was frozen in time


    After the last holdout left in the 1970s, the ghost town could have faded away but the property was purchased by a pharmacist who’d grown up nearby. He filled the mercantile space with an antiques business and turned the upstairs rooms into a Bed and Breakfast. One by one, original homestead cabins, rescued from the surrounding countryside, were brought in and refurbished. A vintage sheepherder’s wagon was added to the mix of restored accommodations.


    My room for the night was the 1914 Little Mosier homestead cabin. Big enough for a double bed, an oilcloth-covered table and two chairs, a big iron-and-nickel cook stove and a washstand with both a Coleman lantern and a battery lantern, the cabin faced the grassy slope rolling down toward the Missouri River. To my left, down the road a bit, I could see a working ranch. To my right, a bath house and the Mercantile building. A little further, more cabins and the rest of what remains of the original town.


    Dropping my bags in a chair, I opened the screen door and stepped back out to the porch and stood there a long time looking out, trying to imagine the scenes that had played out in the tiny cabin and others like it. I thought about what it must have been like to live there a century ago, a child on my hip, maybe another in a cradle by the stove. The family would have ached with cold in the harsh winters and been baked by the relentless summer sun. It’s easy to imagine early optimism giving way to fatigue and loneliness and perhaps, eventually, even despair. The reality of the hardscrabble life most early homesteaders faced would break most of us. Only the toughest made it.


    Grabbing my camera, chasing the golden light cast by the fading sun, I followed the path across the road and walked to where the old railroad sign still marked the town by the railroad tracks. A rabbit, startled by my footsteps, darted out and, deciding I was no threat,  skirted me, almost touching my boots, before continuing down what was obviously a trail, worn and defined by generations of other wildlife.


    As it always does, gazing out at the vast openness of the Montana sky and rolling grassland soothed the jangled tension inside me. Like many others, I am someone who needs quiet spaces but although I relish my solitude, I don’t need complete isolation to find it.  The little cluster of old buildings and cabins was perfect. There were a few others staying in the restored cabins and the sheepherder’s wagon surrounding the mercantile store, but voices were low and each of us seemed to be happy to be left alone with our thoughts.


    After a big meal served family style in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast, in the company of other guests—there were only one or two others as it was late in the tourist season—I was ready to call it a day. Flashlight in hand, I followed the path back to my cabin. A bird, startled by my footsteps on the porch, returned the favor and startled me as it flew over my head and out into the night sky. Inside the cabin, the lantern painted the walls with shadows.


    I slipped between crisp cotton sheets, burrowing under the heavy hand-stitched quilts. The early September night was already cool, tinged with autumn, hinting at the winter that would come.


    As I lay alone in the dark, listening to the coyotes call down by the river and the rustling of nightbirds and small creatures outside, I closed my eyes. Content, warm, safe, and, for the first time in weeks free of the noise of a busy life, it felt possible to pick up the loose and broken threads of work and family and all the other nagging worries that fight for attention in my mind and knit myself back together. I closed my eyes and let the night sounds sing me to sleep.
    

More information about the Virgelle Mercantile

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 catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Best fair food

I have not yet made my annual trek to the Spokane Interstate Fair, but I'm looking forward to checking out the fare offered this year.

Judges have already done some of the hard work finding the best food.

Bob Rogers, executive chef at Masselow's at Northern Quest, caterer Eric Wilson and photographer Megan McCorkle judged Best Fair Food Contest on Saturday.

They picked foods based on taste, appearance, originality, portion size and value.

Here are the results:

Best Signature Dish / Entrée – King Burrito ($9) at Baja Bowl

Best Dessert – Tiramisu ($5) at Lasagnas On Ya

Best Deep Fried Food – Greek Nachos ($9) at Azar’s

Most Creative – Bacon Wrapped BBQ Hot Dog ($8.50) at SandwicHAVEN

What is your favorite thing to eat at the Spokane Interstate Fair?

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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Gourmet dorm eats

My former colleague Jamie Neely, who is now an assistant journalism professor at Eastern Washington University, sent along some links to some videos her students have been producing for the student newspaper.

“Dorm Gourmet,”  she said, is an “authentic student perspective on dorm cooking, and our students are having a riot producing them. Perhaps even a sophisticated foodie like you would get a kick out of them, too.”

I did. And I can't resist sharing them here.

They are clever and a little goofy at times. I love the unflinching look at what is really being eaten in Eastern Washington University dorms punctuated by trendy descriptions. Notice how few pots and pans there are to wash.

My favorite scene? When cook Josh Friesen can't find any place to drain the bacon, so he just dumps it all right into the dish.

Friesen tackles some complex dishes in the videos which feature Tuna Ramen Casserole, Easy Cheesy Beef and Bean Burritos, Chili Mac with Bacon and Bag Omelets. (And by complex, I mean there is more than one can and/or bag to open).

Here is the link to the Easterner and the Dorm Gourmet videos.

A list to re-read every so often

I guess you can't “boil” it down to seven deadly sins, or even Ten Commandments, but this list of the most common cooking mistakes from the folks and Cooking Light certainly reminded me of kitchen transgressions I occasionally commit and then must atone for. I plan to bookmark and read periodically.

Which ones are you guilty of committing most often? (I tend to crowd the pan, Mistake No. 10)

Healthier school lunch

I had so much fun reporting today's story on healthier school lunches at schools in Othello and Cheney, Wash.

This picture of chef Tom French giving one of the kids a fist bump for trying some of the new foods presented to them in the library is at the heart of the program. I had to share it, even though it didn't make it into today's newspaper.

The schools switched from last year's processed, eat-to-serve menus, to a from-scratch effort this year. Although it took kids some time to get used to the new foods, most are loving it now.

It was so fun to see what they would try… many of them were eating foods my own children wouldn't even think about touching. It gives me the courage to start trying more foods with my kids again.

Wednesday food section annex

www.closetcooking.com

I have a question for those who did not grow up in the West.

Before you came out here, had you encountered the “Spaghetti Feed”?

Sometimes “feeds” are part of fund-raising events. Other times, they're simply the food focus of a community celebration.

But it's the fun language that interests me. This usage can also be found in “Hamburger Feed,” et cetera. 

Hot dogs: Pros and cons

Pro: Quite possibly the most fun-to-eat food there is.

Con: Lingering suspicions about just what's in them besides high-protein snouts and cartilage.

Pro: A summer without hot dogs would be like a season without mystery meat.

Con: See above.

Pro: It's fun and tasty to load the bun and dog with a colorful heap of condiments and toppings.

Con: You just washed that blouse.

Pro: Sometimes, when the stars are aligned, they taste so good you almost want to laugh.

Con: “Daddy, where do hot dogs come from?”

Pro: Stunningly easy to cook.

Con: You've already had three and it's still the first inning.

Pro: They tend to be a hit with kids.

www.campustimes.org