I don't get to keep a lot of memories, so I pay attention to my small collection. I can't recall many details of classes at Connecticut College, but I remember Melissa Mylchreest, sitting in a barely sunny classroom in Blaustein Humanities Center, reciting "The Waking" by Galway Kinnell. We'd been asked to memorize a poem to share with the class. Most of us chose something short and straightforward, but Melissa took on Kinnell's erotic epic and hypnotized us all. Her voice stayed as steady and elegant over the word flamingos as it did the f-word, and her face will never leave me: vulnerable yet certain, filled with the kind of beauty that is totally unaware of itself. I am happy for the world that Melissa writes and cooks, perhaps a little envious of the residents of Missoula, Montana that get to admire her up close and taste herbs from her garden. Tomorrow I will share one of her poems--a collage using bits from this blog. For now, her take on flavors and food processors, pea vines and Paul Simon. As with so much that she does, a celebration.
Melissa's Disclaimer: I am utterly incapable of “favorites” – the world is too full of variety and wonderfulness to have one favorite anything. Always, my pleasures are at the whim of the weather, the season, the company, the mood. So. Today? On this lazy April morning with a late-season snow coming down? These answers are my loves today. Tomorrow will bring something new to adore. Isn’t it grand how that works?
* Family gatherings at Gramma and Papa Italiano’s house, with all the women in the small kitchen fussing over the food and gossiping. Hand-making tortellini with this same Gramma and her sisters and cousins.
* In college, Earth House dinner parties and illicit nighttime picnicking at Harkness Park.
* Apple picking every year with my family at Lost Acres Orchard in North Granby, CT, followed by ice cream at the local dairy.
* Steaming mussels in seaweed on the beach of a little island off the Maine coast.
* Knocking back oysters onboard an oyster-fishing boat in Puget Sound.
* “Meat at the Pit,” a gathering held by friends far off the grid here in Montana: a bonfire barbeque on the banks of the river, willow saplings whittled down to skewers, and the guest of honor: platters of wild game cut into chunks – antelope, venison, elk, moose. So much burning of fingers, so much revelry, so many ecstatic dogs underfoot.
A glutton for savory of every ilk. Specifically, torrid unions involving dairy: Balsamic-fig-prosciutto-blue cheese. Goat cheese, caramelized onions and thyme. Alfredo anything. Seafood bisques. A flurry of shaved parmesan or pecorino over risotto. Smoked gouda with sausage and cherry chutney. Also, an insatiable penchant for coconut curry.
I’m not too big on cookbooks, although I should be. I like The Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, for no real good reason. It’s the grimiest of my cookbooks, which I take as a measure of how often it’s open on the counter, getting splashed and spilled upon.
Item in your kitchen?
My decrepit, cheapo, one-speed food processor. I bought it at a time that I was more-or-less broke, but was desperate to make a mammoth batch of pesto. (I was homesick. It was summer. My mom makes endless batches of pesto in the summer. Buying a $40 food processor was a coping mechanism). Remarkably, years later, it’s still powering through hummus, soup, dough, sauce, and yes, pesto, just fine. And, happily, I’m slightly less broke.
Like everyone else, when I think spring I think delicate, I think vegetables – asparagus, peas, garlic scapes, light dressings with lemon. But spring arrives tantalizingly slowly here, so there really isn’t much produce until late May, and that’s just what’s been growing in greenhouses. So invariably, before any of that, the first meal that really marks the start of spring is meat on the just-brought-out-of-storage grill; ideally, burgers and a cold beer after spending the whole day getting the garden tilled and ready to plant. Then eventually it’s greens, greens, greens, all the time. Especially pea vines! It’s delightful to eat something so whimsically curly. Best with purple potatoes, capers, and mustard vinaigrette.
People in Missoula often groan about the dearth of good restaurants. Generally, these are folks who have recently arrived from a big-ish city, and are accustomed to having their pick of global cuisine. True, there are a few glaring holes in the culinary scene – Indian food, for one. But in reality, there’s a rather astonishing number of small, swank, creative little eateries here – certainly a higher concentration here than anywhere else in the state – and an impressive number considering it’s a town of only 60k people. There’s also this absolutely rabid “eat and source local” thing going on, so the chefs, farmers and ranchers in this valley maintain a thriving network.
Some of the best: For tapas, Silk Road. For pizza and salads, Biga. For good, upscale eating, Scotty’s Table. For feeling dreadfully posh, The Red Bird Wine Bar. Also, a guy who shows up to the farmer’s markets and peddles his wares from a booth bearing the sign “Mmm, Waffles.” Imagine: chilly, sunny Montana morning, the early bustle of the market, and a buckwheat waffle “taco” of sorts, filled with blueberries, lemon curd, and whipped cream. Oh my.
Also, in memoriam: La Parilla, which had the best burritos ever (think coconut-curry-tofu, or fried-catfish-and-cilantro-slaw), and was my number one eat-out go-to. They closed in January. I am bereft.
Cheetos. Appalling, yes. But so finger-stainingly good. I allow them once or twice a year, and I hide the bag so I don’t have to share.
Culinarily speaking, basil. It might seem an unambitious answer, but it’s true. So versatile, such luscious leaves, such a knock-out scent, such an amenable plant, willing to grow in a cramped pot in a drafty kitchen all winter long, gladly offering itself to a whole world’s-worth of cuisine. Aromatically speaking, though, it’s all lavender, all the time. There’s lavender all over my house. Big dried bouquets of it in every room. Bowls-full of the loose dried flowers. It’s in the drawers, on the shelves, little pinches of it tucked in pockets or under the rug. I use it in cooking too, sometimes, but not as fanatically as I use it in my décor. Other favorites: thyme and marjoram. Oh! And cilantro too, luscious and divisive creature that it is.
Album to cook to?
Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints. I like to listen to all kinds of music while I cook, but for some reason this is the album that I always come back to in the kitchen. Maybe because I like to sing while I cook, and Simon’s poetry begs to be memorized and sung. I also listen to a lot of public radio.
Dish to conquer?
Bread. Seriously! I think the perfect loaf of bread is something that might take a lifetime to conquer. Good thing I’m not that old yet; my bread has a long way to go.
* All of the photographs in this post courtesy of Melissa Mylchreest.
* Read Galway Kinnell's "The Waking" here.