Send Me the Bill

In a recent blog post, I mentioned how I actually learned to fly at one time in my life – not in a plane, or even a hang-glider, but just on my own, completely self-propelled.  One gentle reader asked if I would tell that story.  It’s a tough one for me to get my head around, not unlike nailing jello to the wall.  And the events surrounding it defy not only gravity, but any effort to formulate them into conflict, crisis and resolution.  But it’s a golden moment worth the attempt, so here goes…

It started with a note on the kitchen table.  Well not really, but sometimes you have to start the story in the middle, this middle being December 1980.  It was freaking frigid out there in Minnesota, with snow already piled up in huge mounds on the streets, both in Minneapolis where I was going to school and in Owatonna, where I still called it home.  The note on the table said “Call Bill McChesney” and there was a 451-xxxx number.  An Owatonna exchange. 

 Yeah right.  This was no doubt another in a long string of practical jokes perpetrated by the pater familias, my father.  This was the guy that fooled me into thinking the tuft of antelope mane in his overcoat pocket was in fact my Christmas guinea pig; the guy you had to watch like a hawk on April Fool’s Day because he would cook toilet paper in your pancakes.   

Except this time it wasn’t a practical joke. It was true. 

Now you may not know who Bill McChesney was, but in December 1980 I sure did.  And that he was waiting for my call at an Owatonna landline required a remarkable confluence of events.  Just six months previous, Bill had run an insanely bold and brave 5000 meter Olympic Trials race to make the ill-fated, Ruskie-boycotting U.S.Olympic team.  With a mile to go and time running out, he had stormed the field with a power surge that electrified his Hayward Field homeys into a frenzy in Eugene, where he was both a red-shirt junior Duck and a hometown hero, being a product of South Eugene High School.  Spent by his surge, he was overtaken down the stretch by legends Matt Centrowitz and Dick Buerkle, but Bill hung on gamely, lunging at the last moment for the third and final slot on the team.  The crowd, as they say, went wild. 

Oh, I knew Bill McChesney alright.

Or at least I knew of him.  Over the next two weeks we ran together twice a day, cruising in the crushing cold and crunching snow of Minnesota, developing a bond that would last until a dark, dank day in October 1992. 

It’s at this point of the story I need to backtrack a bit.  In December 1980 I was, as the saying goes, at the end of my rope.  Having accepted a scholarship to run track and cross-country at theUniversity of Minnesota, my days as a Golden Gopher had been particularly undistinguished, gold-plated at best.  I’d shown a few flashes of semi-brilliance, but by mid-way through my junior year I was bogged down in what could only be described as mediocrity.  Or worse.  My first race of the 1980 cross-country season, (held in a heatwave in Wichita in early September) saw me collapsing, blacked-out and puking in a heap with a serious case of heat exhaustion.  That debacle unhinged me and made something go horribly wrong, not just physically but mentally.  I was a psychic mess.  Once at least a decent enough runner who could hang with the leaders and score a few single digit points for my team, I turned overnight into an also-ran, pulling up the rear and falling off the back of the truck.  For somebody who had dedicated and defined himself by his running prowess since he was sixteen, I was embarrassed.  Embarrassed and, quite frankly, humiliated.  

So when I approached Bill for our first morning run, I did so with a double dose of humility.  Introverted by nature anyway, I didn’t say much our first few outings.  Bill on the other hand was chatterbox of the first degree, weaving yarns of European racing and Oregon life, exotic experiences to my Midwestern ears.  How the guy could keep up the patter the way he did while we carved out 10 mile runs through the southern Minnesota countryside was a wonder.  As for Bill, he couldn’t believe we ran in such conditions regularly.  “You mean it’s like this all winter long?” he would say shaking his head.  “I could never do it! Nobody on my team could do it…Well, maybe Alberto.”  Slugging me in the shoulder he’d shout “You are TOUGH, man.  One tough hombre.”  And he wasn’t above being cheesy, telling stupid jokes, or stories about skinny-dipping with nymphets on the beach in Nice, France.  One of his favorite things to do was to adopt an overblown television sports announcer’s voice (think Cris Collinsworth) and provide color commentary on our run as though we were duking it out down the backstretch of the track at Bislett Stadium in Oslo.  He would egg me on until finally, transported, I would bolt around the curve with McChesney in hot pursuit, the Norwegians going crazy as we drove in a mad sprint the final meters to a World Record time. 

Bill was in my little town down by the river because he had fallen madly in love.  About a year previous, broken down himself by injury and scraping the bottom of his own barrel, he had one night been lured out by his brother to a local Eugene watering hole for a 1950’s dance contest.  His hair slicked back and collar popped, he was struck by lightning.    Lightning by the name of one Nanci Westerlund, a blonde bombshell from (you guessed it)Owatonna who was attending theUniversity of Oregon as a grad student studying modern dance.  Captivated by Bill’s “unique” dance moves, Nanci paired up with Bill on the dance floor.  They won the contest and immediately fell for each other.  The electricity was such that it is amazing anyone in the building lived to tell. 

Which explains how he found himself stuck in frozen Owatonna,Minnesota in December when just a few months prior he was speeding around the great tracks of Europe, captivating crowds there with his infectious energy and fearless front-running.

One day, after a week and a half of running together, Bill and I finished up the last half-mile of a long run with an all-out sprint, one that saw him barely inch in front of me at the end.  Exhaling huge steam clouds and panting with our hands on our knees, Bill put a hand on my shoulder and looked up at me.  “Tell me,” he said between breaths.  “What happened?” 

Breathless, I paused a moment.  “What do you mean?” 

“For ten days you have been taking me to the limit in every run.  I just gave you everything I had and you stayed with me stride for stride.  But I never even heard of you before I came here.  What gives?” 

So, I told Bill my story of heat exhausted woe, of how no matter how hard I tried, how tough I was, something just happened to me now when I got in races.  How I’d get a mile in and suddenly my legs would turn to oatmeal.  How I was worried I would never be the same, let alone any better.

Bill looked up at me.  By now we had recovered some of our breath.  “That happened to me too,” he panted, going on to tell me how he too had suffered from heat exhaustion and struggled mightily for months after.  “It goes away, man,” he said.  “Don’t worry, you are going to be alright.”  He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye, his face just inches away from mine.  “You are going to be more than alright.  You are going to be great.  You know how I know that?”  I shook my head. 

“Now you know the secret.  Your body won’t let you kill it.  You are so damn tough, you can run yourself straight into the ground.  But now you know that even though you can run until you black out, you aren’t going to die.  Your body won’t allow it, it won’t let you”  He paused a moment.  “You can pull the ripcord, you can let it all hang out.  You can run free.  And you’ll be OK.  Not just OK, you are going to be great.” 

And with that, he pulled my sweat-soaked stocking cap off my head and threw it in a snowdrift.  “C’mon champ, let’s get some tea. It’s fucking freezing out here.”

We ran a few more days after that and then it was time for Bill and Nanci to head back west, back to Eugene where Bill was at home in the drip and drab of his Eugene. 

As for me, learning to fly didn’t happen overnight.  Bill flipped a switch for me, but the toggle took awhile to fully take effect.  Things got better for me almost right away, but I still had some serious uphill sections of road in front of me.  But I was better.  And I started to feel at ease.  Little by little I let it go.  And the more I let it go, the more free and easy it got.

Then, finally, it happened.  It happened like Scott Fitzgerald went bankrupt – that is, gradually and then all at once. 

On May 22, 1982, I woke up in the morning and I could fly.  Not metaphorically, literally.  As in, I could propel myself through space with virtually no effort, my feet not touching the ground.   OK, it looked like my feet were touching the ground, but they weren’t, not really. 

That morning I cut my shakeout run short after just two miles, worried that my newfound ability would disappear as quickly as it had come.  But it didn’t.  Later that afternoon, I knocked a minute and a half off my previous best 10,000 meter time and almost effortlessly beat a field of excellent runners for the Big Ten Championship.  The next day, I doubled back in the 5000 and again lopped dozens of seconds off my previous personal best, being beaten in the process only by Jim Spivey and Tim Hacker, two men who would go on to distinguish themselves as Olympians and international stars.  Two weeks later I was an All-American. 

After that, I was on my way.  To be sure, not every day was one where I could fully take flight, but I had more good days than anyone deserves to have.  Some of those days were even great.  Some days, I even flew.  Many days in fact, and the memory of being able to do that lives on in my body and in my bones to this moment.   For a thick-legged kid from the flatlands, I did reasonably well.  Not the best, not by any stretch, but I did well enough to rank in the second fifty runners in the world in my event. Top 100 doesn’t sound like much, but it meant something to me then, as it does now. 

As for Bill, he had his share of good and great days as well.  Man, when that guy was on, he didn’t just fly, he was a fighter jet.  There were few people in the world that could stay with him.  Ultimately, he hammered out a 5000 meters in 13:14, which at the time stood as the U.S. Collegiate Record and was agonizingly close to the World Record.  At least three times he was ranked among the top five in the world at 5000 meters.  His time still stands as the UO school record, which is no slouch given Oregon schooled the likes of Alberto Salazar and Steve Prefontaine, among many other champions.

As with all champions, Bill had his own Achilles heel, which ironically in his case was actually his Achilles heel.  Born with fragile tendons, Bill nevertheless flew close to the sun and then, when inevitably his wings melted, he crashed.  Mortals like us can play with the Gods only so long, but eventually we are fucked.  On a rainy afternoon in late October 1992, his running career prematurely cut short and now long over, Bill’s small pick-up truck hydroplaned (ironically flying again I suppose, but in a very bad kind of way) on a busy coastal highway and he spun out into an oncoming semi-truck. 

Bill was just 33 when he saw the black lights.  That the world is a little bit less for me without Bill McChesney in it bears mention.  If you never saw him run, you missed something pretty special – the sight of a human being in full flight.

Here is a video of Bill with some great clips of him flying.  At first glance, it looks like he is running like normal mortals, but if you look really close, you can see that his feet don’t actually touch the ground.  He’s flying…


Now I am getting old and I can’t fly any more.  Still, I have my memory and my imagination, and on a crisp fall day with the sun slanting low, memory serves.   

Bill’s Granola

It seems odd to wrap up this story with a recipe, but that’s the format of this column and I’m sticking to it.  This recipe actually came from Bill’s mother-in-law, Nanci’s mom Mary Lou Westerlund.  Or at least that’s where I think it came from.  I remember Bill loved it and we had it every morning after we ran together.  I still make this regularly and the recipe is in my card box with the title “Bill’s Granola.” If you start levitating after eating this, don’t worry – it’s natural.

3 cups whole oats

1 cup chopped nuts

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup melted butter

1.5 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt

2/3rds cup raisins

Mix all ingredients except raisins and bake in an ungreased baking pan @ 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until well toasted.  Add raisins and mix well. 

Fly.  Bon Appetite.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Get What You Need

What do you really need?

The question came up this week when my friend Chef Gordon Naccarato posted a question on his award-winning Pacific Grill Blog (  about sweet potato casserole with marshmallows:  Necessity or abomination? 

It got me to thinking about Thanksgiving necessities. For example, I’d be delighted with a large stuffed salmon over a turkey, especially accompanied by a largish platter of Penn Cove Selects as an appetizer.  Pecan pie, cherry, or key lime could sub in for punkin and I’d be fine with that.  Stuffing?  Make mine bread, cornbread, oyster…it’s all good to me.  Veggies?  Brussels sprouts are the tradition around my home, but I’m good with lots of options there. Sufferin’ succotash anyone?

If you’re like me (and I know I am), it’s all good.  Still, there is one Thanksgiving dish upon which there can be no discussion, no compromise, no negotiation.  One dish so modest it barely merits mention in most cook books, glossy periodicals or televised food porn.  You’ll find no featured centerfold in Gastronomica. 

That’s right, mashed potatoes and gravy. 

If you aren’t planning on serving this dish on Thanksgiving, don’t bother inviting me over.  Not even opening that bottle of Chateau d’Yquem could make up for such a glaring omission. 

Ample opportunities for trial and error have helped me develop what I think to be the optimal method of preparation for this dish, which (while humble) can soar on wings of ospreys and/or eagles if you do it right.   “Sure,” you are now saying.  “Anybody can make mashed potatoes and gravy.  EVERYbody makes those.”  And it’s true, everybody can make them and seldom are they really bad, unless the potatoes came out of a box and the gravy from a packet or can. 

Still, like many things in life, a little planning and care can transform the prosaic into poetry.  In this case, poetry on a plate. 

Here goes:

Mashed potatoes

As with everything, it starts with the ingredients.  You need good potatoes.  That 10 lb. bag of moldering russets on the basement stairs that cost 10 cents a pound isn’t going to cut it.  I like Yukon Golds or Yellow Finns best, but am also fond of large reds.  Either peel them or leave the skins on, whatever you prefer.  I happen to like the reds with skin-on andYukons peeled, but that’s me.  Cut into chunks and place in a pot big enough so that you can get a couple of inches of water over the potatoes, no crowding.  Fill the pot with cold water.  Notice how cloudy the water gets?  Now drain it, that’s nasty starch you don’t want.  Refill with cold water and salt very liberally.  Be bold.  Some say salt it enough that the water tastes like seawater, but I don’t go that far.  I use kosher salt, but then that is all I have in the house. 

Bring the potatoes to a hard boil and cook them until they are well done and very soft.  A fork should easily pierce them without resistance.  Once fully cooked, drain the potatoes in a colander (reserving at least 1-2 cups of the cooking water) and return potatoes back to their pot.  Put the pot over medium heat and cook dry for a minute or two.  Don’t scorch.  This is a step that I omitted for decades, but it is key.  You need to get every bit of the liquid you can out of those guys. 

Once they are dry, its time for the mashing.  Some are steadfast in their belief in the ricer as theOne True Way, but I believe there is more than one route to salvation.  Personally, I am good with an old fashioned potato masher.  I don’t like my taters too creamy or uniform and the masher performs admirably in this regard.  Growing up, we used a Sunbeam electric beater and while I am generally disallowed from casting aspersions on my mother’s cooking, we part ways on this particular technique. 

Now that you have your potatoes cooked and mashed, it’s time for imagination and the artistic impulse to take over.  You could add some milk and butter and call it a day, but that would be the Readers Digest version of mashed potatoes.  Sour cream (neither lite nor fat-free, this is not the time for healthy options) is a traditional option, but this is Thanksgiving after all and time to go for broke.  If not now, when? 

For me, going for broke means sautéing some chopped garlic in butter and then adding a largish splash of heavy whipping cream.  Warm that mixture and then put it into the mashed potatoes and mix thoroughly. 

If this concoction is insufficiently slutty for you, you can tart it up even further.  Chives are good, but I prefer a handful of chopped Italian parsley.  Once I added some nubbins of sautéed lobster mushrooms.  This, I highly recommend.  Chanterelles, now in season, work nearly as well. 

So, let’s review.  Good potatoes, salt the water, cook thoroughly, mash roughly, add liquid, accessorize to taste.  Easy peasey.  Now we’re cookin’.


This is an area where my tread needs to be light.  As it turns out, my mother is very sensitive about culinary criticisms contained in my little essays here, regardless of whether the slight is real or merely perceived.  So, before I fire up the gravy train, I am required by family law to make the following declaration:  my darling mother makes the world’s best rhubarb pie, potato salad and snickerdoodles.  Hands down no question. 

Now that we have that out of the way, she makes gravy wrong.  If you make gravy by mixing some flour with water, stock or other liquid and adding the raw slurry to pan drippings you are making your gravy incorrectly.  Sorry Mom. 

To make a perfect, velvety, rich gravy you need to roux.  Here are the basics:

4 cups turkey or chicken stock (preferably homemade)

4 tbs skimmed turkey fat, butter or combination

Quarter cup flour

Warm the stock.  Put the turkey/butter fat into a saucepan large enough to hold all the gravy and warm to medium.  Stir in the flour and cook on low, stirring regularly while the roux foams until it becomes a nutty brown, probably 10-15 minutes.  Add the warm stock and some of the reserved potato water.  Whisk vigorously to remove any lumps until the gravy thickens.  Season expertly and you have the perfect gravy. 

If you are cooking a turkey, you can add any carving juice that comes out of the bird.  Also, scrape up the caramelized brown bits from the bottom of your roasting pan with some white wine and add that as well.  The result is virtually fool-proof and magically delicious. 

It’s true, you can’t always get what you want.  But if you serve mashed potatoes and gravy, you’ve got … ah, hit it Mick…


Happy Thanksgiving.  Now go for a walk.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Great Big Empty

Gillette, Wyoming might well be the worst town in America, its sole redeeming virtue that you can buy a fifth of cheap Canadian from a liquor store with a drive up window.  Because God Knows, the last thing you want to do in Gillette is to get out of your car to buy your booze.

Gillette has gas.  Literally.  One of the main industries in the area is drilling for methane, which is an industry that stinks.  Again literally. As a result of drilling, the methane in Gillette leaks into residential wells in sufficient quantities that you don’t want to light a match while you are sitting on the commode, so the story goes. 

No lie.  I can’t make this stuff up. 

A while back I actually spent the night in Gillette in what was perhaps the worst motel in town, a dump so nasty it gives landfills a bad name.  Let’s take a second to review.  The worst motel in the worst town in America.  You do the math. 

So you might understand when I say I woke up the next morning a tad grumpy.   The Mustang Motel, I should have known better.  My first room had not even been touched by housekeeping.  The wastebasket next to the lumpy (and unmade) full-size bed contained half a dozen used condoms and there was a half-rack of crushed Pabst cans on the side table.  Party on Wayne.

When I went back to the office (where the clerk sat behind bullet-proof glass), and asked for a new room, the guy rolled his eyes as though I had just asked for Egyptian linens and a humidor packed with Cuban cigars.   

Damn high maintenance tourists. 

The night previous I had stayed in Livingston, Montana.  In comparison to Livingston, Gillette might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  At Livingston’s Murray Hotel, a mere block from the Yellowstone River, I slept deep and dreamless on a fluffed featherbed with a deep down comforter and watched pay-per-view on a large flat-screen TV.  Dinner was at artist Russell Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill (now shuttered, sad to say) and included a dozen Kumamoto oysters and a monster lamb shank (braised until falling off the bone) that was nestled cleverly into a bed of creamy polenta.  Dinner was finished with warm pear crisp.  The oysters were washed down with a couple of glasses of steely Loire Valley Muscadet, the lamb with a bottle of St. Innocent Pinot Noir from Oregon.  With dessert there was scotch, a splendid and smoky single malt from the Isle of Islay. 

In Gillette, not so much on the food front.  Unable to find an open restaurant at 9:00 pm, dinner was a greasy bag of Burger King slop (have it your way my ass), washed down with the afore mentioned Canadian mixed into a super-sized Diet Coke.  As if matters could get any worse, the game on TV found the Raiders being beaten by the Patriots on the infamous/bogus “tuck rule” call that magically transformed a Tom Brady fumble into a meaningless incompletion.  Upon further review, instant replay sucks. 

Needless to say, I was out of sorts. 

The next morning I got up early and went for a run to try to shake off the slag.  Two steps out the door of the Mustang, I knew there was trouble.  A biting wind blew out of what could only have been the north and angry dark gray clouds scudded at barely rooftop.  Clouds with an attitude.  Clouds that had just been paid and were fixin’ for a bar fight.  It was January, which in Gillette can only mean bad things.  Believe me when I tell you I was not in the mood to be snowed in and stranded in Gillette, Wyoming. 

After being nearly eaten by an unleashed pit bull protecting the turf around his double-wide, I snapped the run off short, threw my bag in the car without a shower (as if) and hustled Roy, my trusty yellow Labrador, into the back of the Outback.  Pulling out of the Mustang parking lot, I thanked heaven for all-wheel drive.

We boogied out down the arterial past a couple of depressing unoccupied strip malls without so much as a Styrofoam cup of Folger’s Mountain Grown.  A few weeks previous I had lost a crap job and in the process several other things of far greater value.  I was in no mood, believe me. 

Roy and I drove straight past the Interstate entrance ramp and in a quarter mile came to a T in the road.  Frozen snow spit on the windshield while the intermittent wipers smeared the freeze.  Roy groaned once and laid down on his cedar chip bed in the back, chagrined no doubt by the absence of a morning tennis ball toss. 

Stopped at the intersection, we idled.  Across the way, an impossibly long freight train clattered past in front of us, coal cars dusted with snow.  I looked right and saw nothing.  Looked left and saw more of the same.  Had there been tears in my eyes I would not have been embarrassed.   But I was bone dry. 

Then, this song came up on the shuffle, completely by chance. 

Roy and I sat at that intersection stopped with my foot on the brake and listened all the way through.  Four minutes give or take.  At the end of the song I looked at Roy in the rearview mirror.  “Well, boy” I said through tight lips, “whaddya think?  Which way?”  The dog said nothing, his brown eyes staring back calmly, without emotion. 

We turned right and left Gillette in the rearview mirror. 

Lamb Shanks Braised in Red Wine

Rub lamb shanks liberally with a mixture of fresh chopped rosemary, minced garlic, paprika, salt and pepper.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 

In a deep pot (I use a large Creuset enameled cast iron beast) brown the shanks in hot olive oil turning until they are well browned.  Remove from pot. 

Add chopped onion, leek, carrot garlic, and celery (in French this is called a mirepoix) to the pot and cook until softened.  Add about 2 Tbs tomato paste to mirepoix and cook until it gets clumpy, about 2 minutes.  Add red wine (at least a half bottle) and scrap up brown bits from the shanks.  Replace lamb shanks in the pot and add more red wine (and perhaps some good beef stock) until the shanks are at least half covered with liquid. 

Cover and place in 300 degree oven for 3 hours. 

Serve with creamy polenta or garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. 

(Author’s Note:  You will never find this dish in Gillette, Wyoming)

Bon Appetite.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Church of Breakfast

Maybe you are walking down the street.  Maybe it is a fall morning and the crimson maple leaves are blowing in circles in the gutters in the light breeze and the sky is cracking blue and it is Saturday and even though it is still too early for the hung-over college students to be rousing, you are already done for the day.   

 For you being done for the day means you already have your run in, a pleasing 12 mile jog-trot around the East and West River Roads at daybreak, easy for you at a pace that is impossible for 99% of the population on their best day, pressing only the last 4 miles, and then the last two with the pedal to the metal and you flattened the hill up from the river to Middlebrook Hall.  It’s a cold, clear day and as you run the gray of first light gives way to a full-on Technicolor fall morning that feeds the soul machine. 

 And now you are stretched and showered, kicking it down the empty street past the student slum-rentals, off to get something in your belly, off to get something to eat.  Every cell in your body is crying “feed me” and that is what you are off to do.  The hunger you feel is like nothing else you are going to feel again in your life. Starving isn’t the word.  It’s a big, gnawing empty vacuum that nature abhors, a hollow that is equal parts stomach and psyche, a hole that is only caused by burning a thousand-plus calories in an hour and twelve minutes.   

 But you are going to Al’s.  Al’s Breakfast, Dinkytown USA.  Maybe you could get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.  But if you try sometimes, you get what you need at Al’s.   

Approaching the literal hole in the wall (OK, it’s a roofed alleyway), things are looking good.  You are early enough that there is nobody lined up waiting outside on the sidewalk like there will be in two hours because it is a game day and the civilized slackers and the loyal alumni will be finally awake.  Later, it means an hour wait, easy.  You swing through the latching street door and then through the screen into the dimly lit ten-foot tunnel that is an improbable place for a restaurant. 

Al’s Breakfast.  Fourteen stools on a yellowed Formica counter with just enough standing room behind the stools for a single file and the scent of breakfast cooking – bacon and eggs poached in pungent vinegar water, crisp-fried hashbrown potatoes, waffles and omlettes.  Brewed coffee.  And pancakes.  Blueberry buttermilk pancakes, the best damn flapjacks in the whole wide world.  Seriously.  Maybe you think it’s funny to get all emotional about pancakes, but when your body fat is the limit as it approaches zero and you just took out a caloric jumbo-loan, pancakes are pure currency.  And Al’s serves up the gold standard. 

You take your place in line and there are maybe 8 or 10 people ahead of you, waiting for a stool to open on the counter.  Not bad you think.  Just when you think you should try to snag a StarTribune because you  might be waiting a while, somebody gets up down at the end of the row, a single empty stool, a lost soul.  Grina the fry-cook/owner  marches down the working side of the counter, snatches the few greenbacks left in payment, looks up and points unexpectedly at you.  “Single,” he shouts, the volume of his voice stuck on “Holler.”  Somehow, you are up.  A stroke of luck, a minor miracle. 

As you sit down a coffee cup immediately appears and a multiply-pierced young lady with jet black hair and no bra pours your coffee which you mix with cream and sugar.  You can’t help but stare and order the usual, two poached eggs on corned beef hash smothered with a half order of hollandaise, a side of hashbrowns, and “long blues” aka four plate-sized blueberry buttermilk pancakes with a largish dollop of softened smearing butter that begins to melt on contact.  That oughta do.  The bra-less wonder rolls her eyes at your caloric overload of an order and croaks “poach two on CBH with half a holly. Hashbrowns.  Long blues.  For a single.” Grina, now back at his grill station, shouts the order back in confirmation.  “Hey,” you tell her half-apologizing, “I’m hungry.”  You leave out the part about your 1500 calorie run.  Her squinting reply tells you to um, get lost.  Loser.

In mere moments your food appears, even before you can read the preview of the Gopher game that afternoon, a sure loss of Little Brown Jug to the Michigan Wolverines.  You poke into the perfect egg, poached like a pure white Titleist in vinegar-laced poaching water and the yolk runs out over the corned beef.  The hollandaise is splendid, a thick emulsification of yolk and butter heavily spiked with lemon.  No grainy, tasteless Knorrs mix here.  You eat the eggs and hash first, but poke your fork into the pancakes to let the melting butter seep into the holes along with the maple syrup. 

Of course, food is not the only reason you are here, although on any given morning it might be reason enough.   Al’s exerts a magnetic draw that is equal parts buttermilk flapjacks, iconoclastic roots music, 60-watt lighting, celebrity patrons, and unapproachable, unencumbered servers.  It is hollering short order cooks who have lost their hearing but retain their sense of humor.  It’s as much the spirit-lifting experience as it is the cellular sustenance.  Musically, Al’s was a splendid crap shoot, depending on who was rolling the musical dice.  Chances are that on a fall day in 1983 Bob Dylan would be on the tape deck, something like Blood on the Tracks with Peter Oshtrusko’s weeping mandolin, or John Wesley Harding or Highway 61 Revisited.  Another day Tom Petty might suggest that You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee.  I heard the Replacement’s “Hootenany” for the first time at Al’s and it’s entirely possible that I was sitting next to a member of the band that day (Tommy Stinson).  I especially recall one day in particular, a steaming weekday morning in late May when the special was blackberry banana pancakes and the deck was blasting the Grace Jones “Private Lives”.  I don’t know if it was the pancakes or Grace’s cover of Petty’s “Breakdown” that brought me to my knees, but it the end it doesn’t matter now does it?  

On this day though, owner-cook Dougie Grina marches down the counter, slotted spoon in hand, glancing at the orders written in short order code on small notepads before each diner.  He gets down to your end of the row and stands in front of you, his greasy apron wrapped around his waist, a worn ‘Mats t-shirt stretched over a then-ample gut.  He squints.  “You,” he hollers his voice stuck at its single volume.  “I saw that race you ran.  That was a helluva a run.”  You look up at Grina, your mouth full of egg and hollandaise and corned beef.  “Last May.  That race.  You won.”  Grina seldom speaks in sentences longer than two words.  You have been in Al’s maybe 20 times since that day in May when you learned to fly and everything changed and Grina has never once before so much as acknowledged your existence.  Until now.   He leans in and shakes a slotted spoon in your face.  “That was a helluva race!”  He grabs your bill, wads it up and throws in on the floor, turns heel and storms back to the grill, saying not a word more.  In two hundred visits to Al’s over the last five years you have never seen Grina pick up a bill and you will never see it again. 

Amazed, you sit and finish your eggs and hashbrowns and pancakes, eating until your stomach says no mas.  The waitress picks up the bill Grina crumpled and throws it away, now regarding you with a certain curiosity.  A graying middle-aged guy two stools away from you pays his bill and gets up to go.  He grabs a worn letter jacket of the hook behind him and before he leaves he reaches  into his coat wallet and produces two game tickets and hands them to you.  “Here, take these,” he says.  You vaguely recognize him, but can’t place the face.  You thank him and then he is gone.  In a few minutes you get up and go yourself and now the line to Al’s is out the door and down the block, a mixed crowd of hung-over students, tweedy literature professors, and alumni reliving glory days.  The sun is higher in the sky but not yet at zenith, and now the day is laid out ahead.  Tomorrow will be another day and the alarm will ring and you will head out again on another run.  Drain the well and refill.

For me food and eating is about a lot more than a calorie in and a calorie out.  Life is impossibly short and we can only celebrate the fleeting moments we have.  You can celebrate how you want, but me?  I celebrate with food. 

Recently, I re-read for the umpteenth time Ernest Hemingway’s fact/fiction memoir “A Moveable Feast” which he prefaces by saying that “if you were lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”    The trick is, find your Paris. 

Then you’ve got it made. 


Al’s Breakfast Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes

1 heaping cup flour

1 heaping tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg

1.5 cups buttermilk

2 tbs melted butter


mix dry ingredients well.  Add egg and buttermilk and mix well.  Add butter.  Let batter sit overnight (this is key).  Pour cakes onto buttered griddle and scatter blueberries onto each pancake.  Top with soft butter and maple syrup. 

Eat Well.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Miss the Mississippi…

Until I was nearly ten, I lived just blocks away from what I took for granted was the world’s greatest river, the Big Muddy itself, the Mighty Mississippi River.  We lived on a spacious double lot at the intersection of two gravel streets, Sunset Drive and Cartway Road, neither of which really went anywhere.  I walked across the street to school and came home for lunches of Spaghetti-O’s and bologna and butter sandwiches.  In the summer I played baseball on an actual sand lot, caught flies that made either butter or fire and captured frogs that I sold to a bait shop for fifty cents a dozen. 

Of course, one indulges in such nostalgia and sentiment at one’s own peril.  To be sure, not everything then was rainbows and puppy dog tails.  In the mid-sixties, when I grew up Kennedys and Kings were killed with alarming regularity and we were trained in school to expect and deal with nuclear holocaust by hunkering under our wooden desks.  Not to mention that summers were filled with tornadoes and thunderstorms that would shake, rattle and roll a house right down to the foundation.  As a matter of fact, my best friend’s home received a direct hit by not one but two twisters in a single night, an event that haunted me until my father was inspired to purchase a surplus metal army helmet to serve in lieu of a security blanket.

Still, memory speaks, as it must.  For me, for those days, my memories are of a big backyard, bare feet and a river rolling past.  From before the time when I could remember, my father took me fishing on the Mississippi for smallmouth bass.  We fished from shore in a sweet spot just downstream from Elk River, Minnesota on property owned by family friends, Dave and Judy Godard.  Dave and Judy owned and operated a daylily farm, of all the crazy things.  One might ask, where have all the daylilies gone?  But for such questions there are no answers.   

In those days, there was no such thing as “catch and release,” except for fry deemed too small for the pan.  We fished for keeps, our stringer always heaving by evening with a legal limit of beautiful bronze-backed smallmouth so heavy it was sometimes hard for me to lift.  These fish were astoundingly strong and amazingly beautiful – a three-pounder would bend your rod right down to the cork handle.  We fished with bait, nightcrawlers, usually or when those ran out we would turn over river rocks and snatch crawfish barehanded, which the smallmouth seemed to prefer even more. 

I don’t remember fishing one day that wasn’t sunny and hot and when the bite would go off mid-day my father would send me up the bank with a dime to buy two bottles of cold pop from the machine in the Godard’s farm office, Orange Crush for me and Black Cherry for my own pop.  Judy, who called me Peter Johnson (because my middle name is Peter and I am John’s son) of course never took the ten cents.  “You keep that dime, Peter Johnson,” she would say.  “But don’t tell your Dad.”  At that time a dime purchased two packs of baseball cards, any one of which might contain a coveted Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, or Jim Kaat.  But never did. 

Once our limit was attained,  usually by late afternoon or early in the evening, we would heave our stringer of fish up the bank and into the Buick and head on home, stopping to leave a couple of nice ones with Dave and Judy.  Just down the road from the daylily farm, we stopped at Parker’s roadside vegetable stand, where we would secure a dozen ears of sweet corn for a dollar, a real splurge.  This Minnesota August corn was, I guarantee you, the best damn corn in the world. 

After photographs in the backyard, my father would filet the fish, expertly carving off boneless slabs of smallmouth meat.  My job, until I learned to filet myself, was to shuck the corn, a task I took on with all the relish of Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence.  If there is a job more satisfying than shucking cobs of sweet corn, I still don’t know what it is. 

We always ate fish the same day as they were caught and we always cooked them the same way – dipped in an egg wash, dredged in cracker crumbs and fried in hot oil.  The corn I shucked was boiled briefly, then slathered with butter and sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper.  We had tartar sauce made at home from Miracle Whip and sweet pickle relish.  Most Minnesotans are raised with the belief that walleye is the king of all fish and I will grant that walleye is terrific, as is the noble crappie.  But for my money, you can’t beat a smallmouth bass, fresh caught yourself from the big river.

As they say though, things change, even rivers.  There is a saying that you can never visit the same river twice, and in my experience this has considerable veracity.  A number of years ago, as an adult, I went back with rod in hand to the smallmouth hole where I grew up and found that the 10-foot deep hole that once harbored seemingly limitless schools of bass had filled completely with silt. The river has its way.  There are no means to stop it and no sense in shedding tears over it.  Somewhere else downstream another hole has been carved and some new kid keeps watch over a floating bobber in the hope that a fish will bite.   That’s life, as it has always been.

These days, while I still fish a fair amount, I hardly ever eat the fish I catch.  Most of the time, I throw them back, believing that the catching can continue only if we stop killing so many.  But I know a fresh looking fish when I see it and can’t resist.  Somehow, smallmouth bass has never become commercially preferred here out West, so one must make do in these parts with such species as halibut, salmon, and black cod, not to mention clams, oysters, crab and mussels. 

As for preparation, I haven’t ventured all that far from home.  My favorite halibut dish owes a huge tip of the cap to my father’s smallmouth.  I call it Halibut P3 and it goes a little something like this:

Halibut filets

Japanese panko crumbs

Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

Finely grated parmesan cheese


Mix together the Panko, Parsely and Parmesan (P3).

Dip the halibut in the milk and then dredge in the P3 mixture.  Let it sit awhile. 

In a cast iron pan, fry the crusted halibut in very hot canola oil until golden brown on the outside, but just cooked through on the inside.  Be careful not to overcook.  Serve with lemon wedges. 

With this I like to serve a black bean and fresh corn salsa that includes cilantro, diced jalapeno peppers, red bell peppers, sweet onion, garlic, cumin, lime and canola oil.   

This would be great with a nearly-frozen bottle of bargain-priced Saint Veran wine from the Macon region in Burgundy.  Best served at sunset outdoors at the end of a hot day.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Big Two-Hearted Cold Missouri Water: Part Deux

When he hit, he nailed it.  Like a 20 lb. sledge hitting a finishing brad.  Like a Mike Tyson uppercut.  Like a Clarence Clemons sax riff.

My friend the Birddog (aka Don Hurley of fame) and I were floating down the seriously-swollen-but-still-clear Missouri River, in late June, fishing perhaps the only fishable trout waters in theWestern United States.  On the oars we had our own Big Man, guide/outfitter Dan Kelly who calls Wolf Creek, Montana his home.   The other Big Man, the one anchoring the E-Street Band passed away that very day, but we had the Big Man we needed.  It was our second day on the water and Tramps like us, Baby we were Born to Fish.

Typically, on the Missouri by this time of year, you have at least a few hours opportunity for dry fly fishing;  pale morning duns maybe, or if you are lucky some nice plump caddis will hatch toward evening when the sun starts to slant.  Big Mo is famous for its awesome hatches of aquatic bugs that lure impossibly large trout to the surface, but on this day we were having none of that.  Not this year.  Due to crazy high water, the dry flies were off.  I mean, we were talking about water so high that BD took one nice fish right out of a family’s lawn.  Dude hooked up right next to the swing-set, I kid you not.

The Dog and I had fished with Big Man Kelly a couple years previous on a brutally cold day that with six inches of snow on the ground looked and felt more like February than it did early October.  That day we caught more than our fair share of fish, holding the trophies up for pictures with frozen fingers.  In fact, the brown trout featured on the masthead of this blog was one of those fine fish. 

Since we had enjoyed success with Big Dan previously, we were eager to get on the water that morning.  After a couple of toads in the hole (an Irish egg breakfast), and an extended game of “find the car keys” (Dude, look in the glove box), we met Dan at the Trout Shop in Craig.  “Fellas, unusual times call for unusual measures,” was Dan’s morning analysis.  Taking a tactic that could only be described as contrarian, we put the boat in right there in Craig rather than driving well-upstream near Holter Dam as is the usual practice. 

Me?  I love being contrarian.  Game on.

While we were prepping our rigs, Dan introduced us to the magic weapon of the day, an itty-bitty, teey-weeny crawfish imitation.  OK, it’s not exactly a yellow polka-dot bikini, but at our age, girls in bikinis tend to be in the rear-view mirror, if you catch my (drag-free) drift.  We tied imitations of impossibly microscopic bugs onto tippets that only spiders could have spun and shoved off. 

BD got the stink off the boat after about 15 minutes with a nice 15 inch rainbow, which was good.  You don’t want a fish on your first cast as it ruins the power of negative thinking so necessary to success in fishing, not to mention Life.  Then he hooked up again, at which time I thought we were seeing a replay of the day previous, where I was outfished by a nauseating 4:1.  Déjà vu all over again as the philospher Yogi Berra would say. 

Well, as we used to say in high school, fuck that shit.  Finally, I hooked up with a nice rainbow, and then another and then another.  While my status as an angler in no way requires me to tell the actual or whole truth, I will admit that I accomplished a difficult “long distance release” on the middle fish.  Still, who cares?  My friend Gordon Nacarrato (chef/owner ofTacoma’s excellent Pacific Grill) says that sex and pizza two things that are good even when they are bad, and I am persuaded to add a whippy fly-rod bent to the cork to that list, regardless of whether or not the fish reaches the net. 

By the time we broke for lunch, we had almost already equaled our catch of the previous day.  BD’s crawfish was producing best, but we also caught some nice thick piggies on San Juan worms and #20 pmd nymphs.  Just before lunch I hooked up with a true oddity for the Missouri, a little 10-inch brook trout, which Dan conjectured had been blown out of one of the Missouri’s feeder creeks.  In 25 years of guiding the river, Big Dan said this was only the second brookie he had ever had in his boat.   Since brookies are neither indigenous nor exactly welcome in the big river, he offered to dispatch it for us and we accepted the offer.  Happy Hour just got that much better.

Maybe it was the brookie, or maybe it was the way the clouds burned off, or maybe it was my switcheroo to the crawfish, but after lunch (tri-tip steak and black bean wraps), things got quite real heavy quite real fast.  For a good couple hours it seemed like the fish were jumping in the boat.  In fact, BD had one that almost did, a decent enough  rainbow who went all Neil Armstrong on him and rocketed out of the water about 4 feet into the air in a desperate attempt to shake loose from the mysterious force pulling him into an unknown orbit. 

I have neglected to mention until now that the Dog and I go way back, at this point in our lives way, way back.  We did not go to high school together, but we raced our lungs out against each other in cross-country and track, with BD usually coming in a couple of steps ahead of me, although I did hit some fliers myself.  Rivals on the track, but brothers off, we teamed up in college as Golden Gophers at theUniversity of Minnesota where we shared both an apartment and captaincy of the cross-country team our senior year, back in the olden days.  This sidebar is pertinent if only to highlight in fluorescent marker our mutually competitive nature, not to mention our fraternal affection. 

While we long ago left behind the desire to run each other’s legs off, we both still gain no small satisfaction from outdistancing the competition, which in this specific instance became the other anglers on the river.  Just before I hooked up with the Mike Tyson of brown trout,  I had noticed that we were coming up on a couple of boats of anglers parked on the shore next to a nice looking hole.  I may have mentioned something about how nice it would be to take a fish from right under their nose.  No sooner had the words left my mouth, but the fish hit.  I lifted my rod and it doubled over.  For a moment I thought I had bottom, he felt that immovable.  But then my rod pumped with life and I knew it was game on.  “Look out,” Dan cautioned.  “This hole is full of boulders and he’ll wrap around one if you give him the chance.” 

“O.K.”  I thought to myself.  “I have a huge fish here on a tiny hook with a barely-there tippet and a deep hole full of giant boulders.  This is going to get complicated.”  Immediately, Mike Tyson dove straight for bottom of the hole, while Dan rowed frantically upstream against that huge current trying to get me in a position where I would have a fighting chance.  He ripped off line yards at a time, putting my antique Browning reel into overdrive reverse and into the backing line for the first time in its 20 year life.  Gradually, with Dan’s expert boat handling, I eased the fish toward us, gaining ground a foot at a time and lifting him off the bottom with soft hands so he wouldn’t have so much heavy fly-line to lean against. 

Then we saw him.  Turning sideways in shallow water, his golden brown speckled sides looked the size of an oar blade.  Granting that water and memory magnify all things, the fish was in the range of 25 inches.  Fortunately I had evacuated my bowels before boarding the boat, otherwise we would have another fine mess on our hands.  Holy crap, this was easily the biggest fish I had ever caught on a flyrod.  He ripped off more line at will, again diving deep where he could use the leverage of my floating line against me.  I could feel him shaking his oversized head, my rod no match and quivering like jello.  I eased the fish back toward the boat and we got a second look, only to have him bolt again.  “Oh boy,” Dan chuckled, again leaning into the oars.  “You pissed him off now.”  Yet again I eased the fish half-way back to the boat and we saw him a turn a third time. 

And then he was gone: the hook of my bitsy fly had finally straightened out by our game of tug-of-war.  When the line finally went slack, my stomach sank, but really only for a moment.  It would have been fine to possess the picture of such a fish, but I knew right away that the memory was all mine, psychic ownership of the best possible sort.  The fish was going to be released regardless, so the game ended up exactly where it would have anyway, with a big fish swimming back to the bottom of the hole where he lived.  The only real loser was Big Dan himself, deprived a money shot for marketing purposes.

After, we sailed on down the river continuing to hook and land fish hand over fist, with astounding frequency.  While the Birddog and I never double-dated in college, we scored numerous “doubles” that day on theMissouri, both of us hooking fish at the same time.  To our mutual satisfaction, we hooked-up several times right in front of boats parked on the shore, taking fish right out from under the noses of competing anglers.  That happened often enough that Captain Dan finally shook his head and chuckled “you guys are on fire.” 

Some days, but not always, it pays to zig when others are zagging and this was one of those days.  While literal busloads of anglers thrashed the waters just below Holter Dam, Dan snuck us off on the path less traveled.  Proving poetry true, it made all the difference. 

Back at the cabin that evening we uncapped numerous frosted Blondes, those of the Redhook trademark. I fried our little brookie simply with nothing but salt, pepper and a cast iron pan smoking hot with olive oil to make the skin extra crispy. Fresh from the water, it tasted like a clear, cold river.  Luckily, I had thought to bring along two ultra-thick New York strip steaks from Dave’s Meat and Produce on North I Street in Tacoma.  Along the way, I had stopped and purchased two pounds of perfectly ripe Lambert cherries ($6) from a road-side stand in St. Regis,Montana, so I improvised a reduction sauce of blood red cherries, garlic, and red Barolo wine from Italy.  The steaks were grilled a perfect medium rare over a red-hot grill.  On the side we had wilted spinach (imported from my Tacoma community garden) with copious amounts of garlic and a squeegee of lemon.   

Over such a dinner, we drank the Barolo and revisited memories recent and long past, reliving these treasured moments as though they were happening all over again.  Solutions to problems vexing the world were solved, if only they would put us in charge.  Later, lying in bed with the wind blowing sage-scented air through an open window open I tried to imagine a better day, but could not.

New York Steak with Cherry-Red Wine Reduction Sauce

Procure the best quality NY strip steaks possible, the thicker cut the better

Handful of pitted cherries


Red wine

 In a pan, sauté some garlic in olive oil over low heat for 2-3 minutes.  Add red wine and turn heat up to high to reduce by at least half.  Reduce heat and add cherries to heat through until softened.

 While cherry reduction is being made, heat grill to high (charcoal is best, but gas works if that’s what you have).  Rub steaks with olive oil and liberally season with sea salt and coarse ground pepper.  Add steaks to hot hot grill (live dangerously) and cook to medium rare.  You want a nice carmelization on the outside of the steak without overdoing the inside. 

Pour hot cherry reduction over steaks.  Serve with sautéed garlic spinach.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Big Two-Hearted Cold Missouri Water: Part I

Tooling eastbound and down on I-90 through the mountains of Idaho and far western Montana the other day, things weren’t looking good. 

 Blown-out.  Blasted.  Browner than a milkshake. 

 In the backseat of the Passat I had my flyrod, a box full of flies, and barrel full of hopes for tight lines.  My ipod was fully queued up with the likes of James McMurtry, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, and Ry Cooder.  Destination: Craig, Montana and the Holy Grail of western trout water itself, theMissouri River. 

Sailing past such familiar haunts as LakeCoeur d’Alene, LookoutPass, andSt. Regis, MT, I started to get a gut sinking feeling.  Every river was up – way, way up and often overfilling its banks.  Every river I crossed over from Kellogg to the Clark Fork in Missoula was a stinkin’ mocha-choka-latte mess.  I’d never seen it so bad.

On Highway 200 just outside of Lincoln, Montana (famous as the home of Unabomber Ted Kazinsky) I took this shot of the famous Big BlackfootRiver– the River that Runs Through It of Norman Maclean fame.

Not exactly the stuff fly-fishing dreams are made of.  Visibility zero is not good. 

 For luck, I popped a cassette into the deck of the Passat and wheeled on down Route 200, one of our most beautiful highways, making my way through sun breaks and some of the most splendid scenery this side of a Scarlett Johansson swimsuit calendar.  The cassette was a reading by the “Professor” himself, an elderly Norman Maclean making his way haltingly and hauntingly through excerpts from A River Runs Through It and my favorite all-time work of non-fiction, Young Men and Fire, his brilliant account of the Mann Gulch fire that took the lives of 13 smokejumpers in August 1949.  It was an event that not only inspired Maclean’s great book of truth, grace, and redemption, but this fine song by James Keelaghan.

On the recording, Maclean not only reads his works, but stops from time to time to reflect and comment on the technical aspects of his work.  At one point he stops and says with surprise in his quavering voice “that was actually a pretty good sentence.”  Pretty good?  I’ll say.  Mad props to Norman’s son John Maclean (a peerless writer himself) for alerting me to the existence of this rare cassette, and to for actually tracking it down.

One thing I learned in listening to this recording, was that Maclean wrote A River Runs Through It to function on one level as a how-to manual about fly-fishing.  Of course there are other levels as well (the novella is as layered as a veritable Walla Walla sweet onion), but you’ve got to start somewhere.  I like it when that somewhere is rooted in something real.  Or somewhere “reel” as is the case here.

After a long-ish drive of five hours I finally pulled in late to the house rented for the weekend by my long-time buddy (and one-time partner in crime) the Birddog (not his real name).  Thinking ahead, I had prepared a jar of spicy homemade tomato sauce, one of a handful of dishes I feel confident that I have pretty much mastered.  The sauce was cooked with spicy Italian sausages from Dave’s Meat and Produce and a half pound of large peeled shrimps that I had stashed in the cooler.  Thanks to the wonders of cell phones, BD had the pasta water already boiling when I pulled in.  My first move after finding the beer opener was to dunk in fistful of linguine.  Dinner was on with barely any time or effort.  We dug in like ravenous dogs, drank some Famous Grouse and called it a night with visions of sugar plums and rainbow trout dancing in our heads. 

The next day we met our guide Mike Guerin at the highly recommended Trout Shop in Craig, collected a shore lunch (for me a rare roast beef sandwich piled improbably high) and set off for the river.  The Mo was running as high as I had ever seen it, but thanks to a couple of dams upstream, the water was still relatively clear with at least five feet of visibility.  It was amazing to think that we were fishing on perhaps the only fishable water in most of the Western United States.  While we rigged up, Mike put his gorgeous handcrafted boat in at the Wolf Creek Bridge and off we went. 

With the water so high, dry-fly fishing was out of the question and we were relegated to fishing impossibly small nymphs on tippets that appeared to have been spun by spiders.  The Birddog caught several nice fish but my timing was off and though I had hits, I was not hooking them.  Finally, Captain Mike pulled out his magic weapon:  The Power of Negative Thinking.  Passing through a stretch of decidedly unlikely and un-fishy water, Mike commented with absolute confidence that this stretch hadn’t been producing anything lately.  Literally as the words left his mouth, I had a hard tug and eventually boated a sparkling 16-inch rainbow.  Take that Norman Vincent Peale. 

By the end of our float, we had brought a dozen fish to the boat, with Birddog clearly in the lead, outfishing me 2-to-1.  His first fish, a dam scarred rainbow was perhaps the best piggie of the day and gorgeous specimen indeed. 

We retired back to the hacienda and cracked open a couple (OK, more than a couple) Pyramid Curveball Blondes in celebration (beers, not babes).  At risk of imminent starvation, BD fired up the gas grill while I prepped a gorgeous orange slab of Columbia River King salmon that I had transported from my favorite fish monger, Northern Fish in Tacoma, WA.  I applied an improvised schmear of arugula pesto and sautéed some spinach with garlic and a squeeze of lemon.  We uncorked a bottle of Andrew Will red wine circa 2004, a vintage from the Two Blondes vineyard (again with the blondes, what’s up with that?) and dug in.  As we ate, the sun set against the stony bluffs guarding the swollen Missouri and we recounted glory days from some 30 years previous that would make the Boss himself jealous.  We hit the hay early and slept like 50 year old logs. Warning:  reader comments about “old growth logs” will be promptly deleted.   

It had been a good day, a fine day on the river.   At our age, a good day fishing can only beget a good nights sleep. Had we only known how fate would tap our shoulder the next day, our sleep might have been more like a couple of seven year old boys on Christmas Eve…

John’s Spicy Tomato Sauce (adapted from Giadia DeLaurentis, I cannot tell a lie)

One stalk celery, finely diced

One carrot, finely diced

Half a large onion finely diced (duh)

Several cloves of garlic, chopped

Red pepper flakes to taste

1 tsp fennel seeds chopped

3 tbs tomato paste

White wine, generous splash

Large can San Marzano brand crushed tomatoes

Oregano, basil, sugar, salt, black pepper

Saute celery, carrot and onion in olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes.  Add garlic, red pepper flakes and fennel seed and sauté 3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and sauté until clumpy, about 2-3 minutes.  Add generous splash white wine and raise heat to reduce by half.  Add crushed tomatoes and spices.  Can be served with sausage, meatballs or seafood.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

You Can’t Resist It

One of my favorite food-o-phile scribes, Jim Harrison, once wrote that “the idea is to eat well and not die from it–for the simple reason that it would be the end of your eating.”  “Word,” as the young people say.

With fifty-one plus years across the plate, I am more painfully aware than ever of Harrison’s dictum.  Once upon a time, a breakfast of hollandaise-slathered poached eggs on a generous bed of corned beef hash, coupled with a “side” stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes drowned in maple syrup and adorned with a largish dollop of butter seemed like a perfectly reasonable response to having run 15 miles at 6:00 pace earlier that morning on an empty stomach. 

These days, such a repast would comprise sufficient calories to get me through the rest of the week, including the elimination of red wine.  The attention-grabbing experience of having a cardiologist string a catheter up your femoral artery will do that to a guy.

Still, a man has his cravings and as Lyle Lovett says, “You can’t resist it/when it happens to you.”  I don’t think he was singing about food, but who knows?  Regardless, I believe in cravings.  Say what you will about self-consciousness, the ability to reason, or the (over-rated) opposable thumb, I say it is in fact cravings that make us human.  Ever notice that urge you get when you walk into a movie theater and smell that salty, buttery, popped corn confection?  I swear, they could charge a hundred bucks a box and I’d pay it. 

That’s humanity talking, Buster.  Full volume. 

The rub comes of course in that you don’t want to eat yourself into a box.  You know, the six-foot long rectangular variety.  So, the trick is, as Harrison wrote, to eat well and not die from it. 

The trick, I’m learning is not to smother cravings or somehow swindle them into submission (see Coke:  Diet).  If you’re like me (and I know I am) it’s not so much about discipline and more about learning how and what to want.  In the restaurant world, they talk about “training the palate” and that’s what I’m talkin’ about here.  Example:  rather than a KFC Family Bucket, learn to love an airline breast of chicken, bone-in, grilled golden brown with a dollop of home-made arugula pesto.  Yeah baby, that’s some serious eatin’. 

Of great assistance to me in this effort has been a “diet” (I use the term ever so loosely) that I got from Mark Bittman, New York Times’ resident foodie.  Bittman’s way of eating (WOE) is basically this:  Breakfast = whole grains + a little bit of protein.  Lunch is “intentionally healthy”.  Dinner  (“supper” for my Minnesota Readers) is whatever you want.  As long as what you want is not that KFC Family Bucket.  Fortunately, Bittman’s WOE includes red wine.  Otherwise, I’d be out.

Since I don’t weigh myself, I’m not sure if following the Bittman WOE has helped me lose any weight or not.  I can tell you this though:  I feel great eating this way.  Isn’t that the real thing?   OK one exception to the Feels Great rule is when dinner/supper is held at a Tacoma Rainiers game and consists of a hot link with kraut, onions, and pickled jalapeños, washed down with a couple of Weinhard IPA’s with a bag of salted peanuts on the side.  Batter-up and burp. 

 What got my attention on the whole eat-to-live thing is, oddly enough, a two week stint on Jury Duty last November.  When you are sequestered in a cramped room that got the short end of the HVAC stick, believe me, you better watch what you eat.  Just for the record, a brimming bowl of Tabasco-laced cilantro chili from a Tacoma café called the Red Hot, while extremely tasty, does not win you many friends in that situation. 

 In addition to ventilation issues, I learned something pretty fast about food.  While it is true that you are what you eat, it’s also true that what you eat has a surprising effect on how you think.  When you need to stay (or at least appear) mentally alert during a highly technical exposition on the anti-coagulant effects of ibuprofen (it was a medical malpractice case – yawn),  it’s better that you start your day with a bowl of oatmeal rather than three glazed donuts and a venti with cream. 

 Two weeks of eating for the primary purpose of staying alert really got me thinking about what I ate and how it affected my affect.  I started to think about my diet less for its physical impacts, than for its psychic effects.  While there is always a time and place for a beef brisket slow-braised in red wine and root vegetables, it is a dish that must include time for a not-brief siesta.  While on Jury Duty, my go-to cuisine for mental acuity was decidedly Asian.  More specifically, Vietnamese.  We may have lost that war, but if the ubiquity of pho joints in this neck of the woods is any measure, we may not have lost so bad as we thought.  With its emphasis on fresh veggies, clean flavors, low fat and protein as a condiment, Vietnamese cuisine is the ultimate brain food, at least for me.  Is it any wonder that one of Tacoma’s best examples of the genre, Le-Le, is located but steps from the courthouse? 

 It was with no small degree of dismay that I realized my favorite rustic dishes from Tuscany and Burgundy were being summarily dismissed, marginalized from my diet.  Coq au Vin with a largish serving of roasted garlic mashed potatoes?  Good night nurse.  A well-marbled 14 oz slab of steak grilled Florentine-style with lemon and served with a side of garlicy sautéed spinach?  Take Sominex tonight and sleep.  The Flintstone-esque braised lamb-shank, spendidly plonked onto a bed of creamy polenta?  Zzzzzzzz.   

 However, just when I was beginning to give up completely on my French and Italian favorites I remembered a classic dish that perfectly fit my new culinary parameters.  Trout meurniere!  Light and delicious, trout meurniere is at once succulently sweet, sautéed until golden brown and then sauced with a balanced acid/fat blend of lemon and butter that simply but expertly complements the flavor of the fish.  A classic now too often ignored in search of the dangerously creative, trout meurniere is brain food pure and simple.  While I find it odd that many of my fishing friends express dislike bordering on distain for trout, perhaps they just haven’t had it served right.  

While I am still unable to resist the siren song of the bottomless bag of popcorn at the local cinema, I do tend to eat with greater intention these days.  Gradually, my desires are leaning toward the truly tasty, not to mention food that doesn’t require a Zantac or a 90-minute snooze afterward.  Vive la craving.

 Trout Meureire

 1-2 pan-sized fresh trout (preferably with head-on)

Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper

Olive oil

2 Tbs Butter

Juice from half a lemon

Chopped flat leaf parsely

Heat a cast iron pan medium high with a generous amount of olive oil.  Dredge the trout lightly in the seasoned flour.  Fry the trout in the pan until golden brown and flip once.  When trout is cooked through, remove fish to plate and tent with foil.  Pour excess oil from the pan, leaving brown bits.  Reduce heat and add in butter.  When melted, add lemon juice and cook a few seconds to reduce.  Add parsely and pour over fish immediately, serve them piping hot.  An acidic, dry Riesling would be excellent with this dish.  Add a fresh salad or wilted greens. 

 Bon Appetit. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Archives from Mise En Place/

My friends at were gracious enough to publish the original versions of Mise en Place.  Those original 9 columns are archived here.  I had a ton of fun creating the first iterations of Meez and I think my understanding of the blog format grew a bit during those first epistles.  I know they still run long, but what can I say.  Bon Appetit.


Confessions of a Food-o-Phile

Roy and Rabbits

I Eat, Therefore I Am

A Garden Plot

Aioli All Wrong

Salmon Snobbery

Fungus Among Us

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Confessions of a Food-o-phile

Awhile back, my friends at Exit133 ( gave me the opportunity to post some columns on their excellent blog.  This was one of those.

Confessions of a Food-o-phile

Norman Maclean opens his full-of-grace novella “A River Runs Through It” with the beguiling line “in our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”  Having recently driven Route 200 in western Montana, skirting the Big Blackfoot River that was Maclean’s spiritual inspiration, I had the opportunity to consider that opening line, as well as his summary judgment “I am haunted by waters.” 

Aside from a layer of asphalt on Route 200, Maclean’s cathedral canyon is virtually unchanged from the days in the 1920’s when he would have driven the difficult miles from Missoula to Wolf Creek.  Here, he was haunted not just by the waters, but by thoughts of a girl.  Try driving that section of road sometime, with a CD by Ry Cooder (I recommend the soundtrack to “Paris, Texas”)on the car stereo and tell me there aren’t ghosts in them thar hills. 

For those of us who grew up in religious families, the distinction between spiritual matters is often unclear.  In my family, for example, the line was often blurred between religion and … eating. 

If you are thinking of an idyllic household of Julia Child crossed with Jacques Pepin, I should hastily disabuse you of that notion.  Aside from my Aunt Dorothy in Connecticut who made mousse au chocolat, not Jello Pudding, nobody would mistake us for gourmets.  Let’s get real.  This was rural Minnesota circa 1970.  I never saw so much as a clove of garlic until I went away to college. 

Still, we were enthusiastic eaters.   And, thanks in no small part to my father, adventurous eaters as well.  As an avid hunter and angler, our table often featured his fruits of the field.  Wild venison, duck, pheasant and grouse were staples, with the summer fishing season bringing smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, bluegills, and crappies.  “Where the Wild Things Are” had nothing on us.

Of course, that’s fare you’d find on almost any Midwestern table.  My father, though, had a more expansive view of what might be good to eat, or at least possibly edible.  From a culinary standpoint, he was, shall we say, “inclusive” to use a phrase now co-opted for the purpose of political correctness.   For example:  squirrel gets a bad rap as hillbilly food, but braised in a sauce made of cream of mushroom soup, it is almost tasty.  Trappers often discard the carcasses of their catch in favor of the pelts, a practice my father found reprehensible.  As a result of his friendships with local furriers, roast beaver was not uncommon on the Sunday dinner table at Chez Idstrom (he drew the line at muskrat).  I’ll admit, some beaver can have a swamp-ish overtone on the palate, but often they are quite delicious, especially studded with cloves and sprinkled liberally with mace.  It’s a dice roll, but what in life isn’t? 

Of course not all the food we ate was so exotic.  Like every other family in our neighborhood, ours was a diet reliant heavy on ground beef, which was the basis of meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes, and pizza topping.  Living in a pre-e coli world, we ate our burgers medium rare, cooked over charcoal briquettes doused with explosive lighter fluid (“stand back, your father is lighting the grill”). Cream of mushroom soup was as important to my Dad’s cooking as fish fumet was to Julia Child. 

I hasten to add that not all my foodie influences came from my father’s intrepid imagination.  A latter day Betty Crocker, my mother’s potato salad is the stuff summer dreams are made of.  I always thought that the secret to her rhubarb crisp was that she soaked the ruby stalks in water at least two hours before cooking.  Or so I thought until a couple of years ago, when she admitted that our massive rhubarb plant was a marking post for our male hunting dogs.   No harm, no foul.  If I close my eyes and breathe slowly from the belly, I can smell her snickerdoodles on a fresh fall afternoon, the olfactory memory indelibly imprinted on my psyche.  Cookies and milk, bread and wine.  This is my body.  Who can tell the difference?

Today, I am as avid about food as anyone in my family ever was, including my father.  Sad to say, I do not have everyday access to wild duck or venison, much less grouse or woodcock.  Still this is a great time and place to be a food-ophile (I find the popular term “foodie” unnecessarily fey).  Industrial food production came very close to ruining our sources of nutritional, psychic, and spiritual sustenance, but the times they are a-changin’.  Last weekend I purchased grass-fed lamb kidneys from the Calendula Farms booth at the Proctor Farmers market, which I intend on marinating in dijon mustard, crushed garlic, Spanish olive oil, and rosemary, then grilling until just medium rare.  These I will eat with organic chard from my own community garden, wilted in a pan with a little duck fat, which I reserved and rendered from a recent birthday meal.  Duck is what God was thinking of first when he invented poultry.  In addition to eating its breasts and hind-quarters, pan-roasted and served with a glaze of reduced balsamic vinegar, I roasted the leftover bones and trimmings and made a velveteen duck demi-glace which is now in my freezer under armed guard. 

But I digress.  Back to the original point, good food is relatively easy to come by these days.  Some of it is a little more expensive than its industrial cousin, but not all of it, not by any stretch.  A bundle of beets, into which you can turn a gorgeous borscht, can be had for a lowly dollar bill at any farmers market.  At those prices you can afford to splurge on a slab of handcrafted goat cheese, a loaf of artisanal bread, or my personal favorite, Quilcene Bay Select oysters from the purveyor Quil Bay (ice cold and raw with a few drops of mignonette).   Just $6.95 for a dozen nuggets of salt-water heaven.    

Still, one ventures from one’s roots at their peril.  One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Illinois-born John Prine, wrote in his classic tune “Bruised Orange” that “it ain’t such a long drop/don’t stammer, don’t stutter/from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter” and ain’t that the truth.   It occurred to me the other night while making halibut (Northern Fish, $11.99/lb) crusted with parmesan, panko and parsley and smothered in a chantrelle lobster cream sauce that my dish was really not much more than a gussied up version of my mother’s tuna noodle hot dish, which if you’ve never had it, is delicious.  At least that’s how I remember it. 

Salvation is a tricky issue and if you are like me, the lines are seldom clear.  We all find our own road to get there and some of us take a more circuitous route than others.  But we’re all saved by grace one way or another, however that may find us. 

I am haunted by food. 

Jane’s Tuna Noodle Hotdish

One package egg noodles

1 can tuna

1 can cream of mushroom soup

1 can mushrooms

Crushed potato chips (preferably Old Dutch brand)

Cook egg noodles in boiling water.  Mix tuna, mushroom soup and mushrooms in a bowl.  Pour over noodles in oven-proof casserole dish.  Top with crushed potato chips.  Cook uncovered in oven set to 375 degrees for 45 minutes.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments