September’s Foodie Penpals recap

Have you ever read those charming newspaper interviews with especially elderly citizens? Maybe it’s a small town thing. I find them fascinating, but as soon as I get to the paragraph where the sprightly 105-year-old attributes her longevity to “never snacking between meals,” I can’t help but roll my eyes. I am a devoted snacker, and if I live to be 100 you can bet I’ll chalk it up to the goods that kept me from completely losing my mind out of hanger.

That’s why I was so pleased to get a box full of new snacks in the mail last month. In August I signed up for Foodie Penpals, a terrific program that lets you exchange edible gifts with participants all around the country. I packed up local spices, honey, and various snacks and sent them off to one of my partners, and within a few weeks I received my own box from my other partner, Bethany.

I realized after our first email exchange that I’d given Bethany very little information about myself, other than, “I don’t like fennel.” Helpful. But she must have sensed my need for snack food, because she sent me a wonderful assortment of sweets and savories.

First glimpse…

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Here For A Hot Dog: Maine part 2

I have been rising early enough to be able to tell that fall is beginning to wheedle its way in. Our chilly mornings have some bite to them, and I think hopefully, maybe today I can wear my sweater. Today? But I shed the sweater by 11 am and switch to a tank top by 2.

Napa Valley’s summers are persistent, and at times I love the dusty depth of the early fall heat. There’s no chance I’ll get confused, though. I know my summer is over because I’ve had my Brunswick hot dog.

Empty Cottage. Photo: Luke Myers

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Rock and R-Old Fashioned

Please head over to your nearest music listening device. Anything will do, as long as it’s loud, although today a record player would be best if you can wrangle it.

Please call up the Rolling Stones and hit ‘play’. If you can’t do that, I don’t really know how to help you. I’m afraid you better move on.

Because today is a very, very important day that calls for a special soundtrack. I can’t be in Portland this morning, but that won’t stop me from wishing a certain Nikki G. a most excellent 22nd birthday in the next best way.

Graduation from Reed College, May 2012

Nikki and I both drew semi-unfortunate housing lots before our sophomore year of college, I as a House Adviser, she as one of my “dormies”. We should have at least heard of each other before then, but even at our very small college, we managed to live on opposite sides of campus, have none of the same classes, and ignore each other in the dining hall (I did find out later that Nikki was the very-harried chemistry lab partner to another of my best friends, so our eventual friendship was inevitable). We were fated to live on the basement floor of the dingiest dorm on campus (“You’ll brighten up the halls,” they said. “We need you down there,” they said.) where nobody lived after freshman year  unless they were inclined to join any of the eccentric theme floors in the building or had a terrible lottery number. In Nikki’s case, she’d settled for the tiny room with the stuck windows because she would only have to spend a few months there before departing for Paris.

We were friendly for a month or two at first. Possibly we each recognized a kindred spirit in the other, though we had never had more than brief pleasant conversations in the hall. Demanding classes and separate social circles kept us from real camaraderie, but all it took was a pizza to establish our true friendship, which should come as a surprise to no one. We found ourselves in the dorm at an off hour one night–we’d missed dinner, our friends were out, and we were both skulking around with nothing to do, so we ordered a pizza straight to the common room and gossiped for hours.

In some ways, we are as different as can be. Nikki is the tall brunette–and the G. in her name actually stands for “gregarious”–and I’m more of the short, shy, blonde type, but this friendship works. After the pizza night sophomore year, our rapport took off like a rolling stone.

Now, to the Stones. When I told Nikki excitedly, “I just started listening to the Rolling Stones!” as though I had personally discovered them, she didn’t laugh at me (like she should have) but instead exclaimed, “They’re my favorites!” and played me an album in the campus coffee shop. That became a theme over the next few years; I would wander in for a coffee in various states of consciousness, she would supply it, and we would rehash the weekend’s events over the sweet strains of Keith and the boys.

Since I can’t have a birthday drink with Nikki in person today, I have taken one of her favorite bands and one of her favorite cocktails, and put them together. I would like to introduce “Nicole’s Rock and R-Old Fashioned”–a loving cup from me to you!

Nicole’s Rock and R-Old Fashioned

Makes 1, once. Repeat as needed.

Now you must understand that I’m usually the gin-soaked queen in this friendship. Bourbon is reserved for those nights I’m feeling terribly, terribly bold. But you can’t make an old-fashioned that riffs on the Rolling Stones without bourbon, so that’s exactly where I started.

Kentucky Bourbon, like ya do.

I am neither mixologist nor food stylist nor photographer, so I made this all up from start to finish with a little help from the web. I tested two versions of the old-fashioned, with no expectations as to which would be better.

If I recall correctly, Nikki is full of good sense and does not care for maraschino cherries one whit. They have no place in a nice drink, but I wanted something to add a little punch. I took a cup of dried Columbia river tart cherries, to rep our Pacific Northwest, and drowned them in a jar of Maker’s Mark in hopes that they would reconstitute nicely for a garnish. I also planned to omit the orange slice, which some might call blasphemy, but think about it: the Stones wouldn’t mess with silly little orange slices in their drinks. I added some lemon zest to the jar of cherries and bourbon instead, to add a little more depth. The cherries took much longer to plump up than I had expected, so I let the mixture sit for a couple of days.

These cherries are absolutely smashed by now.

Once they were good and liquored up, I set about testing the old-fashioneds. I made a simple syrup with brown sugar instead of white, because, how could I not? It was sweeter than I anticipated, so I started with half an ounce of the syrup, and a couple dashes of bitters.

Before pouring in the whiskey, it occurred to me that I might taste the cherry mixture first. I know there are some of you who’d cry foul at using it in such a fashion–whiskey sullied with fruit!–but please, have some courtesy and get off of my cloud. It was a tremendously exciting idea.

Cherry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, Take 1

Cherry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, Take 2

I don’t own anything that resembles a proper old-fashioned glass, so I disassembled a small canning jar for the drinks. It’s about the right size, gives a little nod to “that Portland thing” about sipping from jars, and has a little bit of honky-tonk-ity to it. Perfect.

I couldn’t taste the cherries in the bourbon at first, because even half an ounce of brown sugar syrup overpowered two ounces of whiskey. I added a bit more whiskey, and found it better, especially after chewing on a tart, boozy cherry. The cherries came out the real winners of this experiment. They’d make a wicked little snack over vanilla ice cream, if you need to go there.

For the next old-fashioned, I took the traditional route. A hint less than half an ounce of syrup, a few dashes of bitters, two ounces whiskey, with cherries to garnish. Bourbon Old-Fashioned

This take was nice, in the sense that it conjured fond yet hazy memories of running around campus, soaking wet, during Reed’s end-of-the-year festival (you had to be there, really…). Perfect if you feel like playing with fire, but a bit much if you’d like to get on with your day. So I did something I hadn’t planned on doing, and added a splash of water. The Classics major in me likes things as pure as possible, and adding water felt like a cop-out, but it did serve to mellow the drink to my liking.

I hadn’t forgotten about the cherry bourbon concoction. When I tasted it again, with the extra whiskey and a few more melted ice cubes, it was much more pleasant. The sweetness of the sugar was less pronounced, and the cherries added just a little something extra to the whiskey–not enough to be identifiable, but enough to be different.   I’d have finished this one, but I had to sway my way back to the kitchen to clean up and hightail it out of town for a brief vacation.

Just Can’t Seem To Drink You Off My MIIIIIIIIIIND!

I wound up with a couple of tasty drinks, a jar of evilly-tasty cherries, and a bunch of Stones songs stuck in my head. This whole experiment would have been greatly improved if I’d had Nikki around to help me finish the bourbon, but you can’t always get what you want. Given our current unfortunate distance, the tribute would have to do, and sometimes, you get what you need. Which, in our case, is almost always a strong drink.

Happy happy birthday, Nikki, from me, Keith, and Mick!

Let It Rock

P.S. I’ll buy you a drink if you caught all the Stones references.

Instagoof

Hyve Honey Ale from Uinta Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City

I’d like to direct you to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, where there is another installment of one of my favorite features, Open Letters To People Or Entities Who Are Unlikely To Respond.

The most recent Open Letter, Dear People Who Take Pictures Of Food With Instagram, is a hilarious, cringe-inducing commentary on many things I love: food, hipsters, and social media. It will only take a quick glance before you chuckle because you know exactly what the author is talking about, and you may even recognize yourself in her pointed description of the “Instagram Visionary.” It’s a wry takedown of the “everyone’s a food critic” phenomenon, something I used to loathe but have come to love.

There seem to be two camps when it comes to the people who think about food photos. There are those who ask that familiar question about food blogging, “Who wants to see a picture of your lunch? Who cares what you had for breakfast?” and there are those who answer earnestly, “I do! Want to see mine?”

Obviously these people are not on the same page.

I used to belong to the former crowd. As a kid, I read the dining section of the newspaper with some horror, thinking “You can’t bring a camera into a restaurant. How rude. They’ll know you’re a critic. You’re blowing your cover!” That was before food bloggers let their meals get cold while angling for the perfect shot, and definitely before the iPhone made its way to the table. With that gadget, the sanctity of the communal meal was destroyed forever. Or so I felt–all the arranging of dishes, snapping, deleting and re-snapping of photos and the inevitable “share with friends” who weren’t at the table instead of those who were was distracting and so gauche. My poor father put up with a lot of scolding in those days. Like Katie from the McSweeney’s essay, I just rolled my eyes at the food paparazzi.

Until I became one of them. It was my food blog obsession that did it, of course. I started reading, then cooking, then trying to document my dinner, and one thing led to another and now I’m working on social media for Leite’s Culinaria. My exposure (heh–you follow me, photo nerds?) to the wonders and pleasures of Instagram has increased hugely, and I’m all for it. I do want to know what and where you’re eating, because chances are I want to eat it too, and without your photo record I would forget about it. Checking out Instagram photos of your friends’ meals feels like a politer version of sneaking bites off someone’s plate, albeit less satisfying. And if you’re subtle, tactful, and appreciative of your food, all the better.

Of course, I still recognize the silliness of it. I hadn’t actually tried Instagram for myself until this evening. I’m working on a special project that should make an appearance here by Sunday if all goes well, and some photographic evidence was key. I don’t have the stillness of hand nor financial stability required to feel confident using a fancy camera around food, so the iPhone it was. What a corner I have turned.

This endeavor shed new light on the particular trials of intro food photography, and now I see why we social media people look absurd to some of you. I also forgive anyone who ever made me wait to eat with their endless plating and arranging. I get it now. One minute you’re peering through the lens trying to see if the camera is even on, and the next you’re obsessed, awkwardly clambering onto the stove in order to get a good shot. Lighting? Please. Now I understand why the pros insist that natural light is best. You will notice that I took my efforts outside to practice on a beer, and produced a photo that was cut off, out of focus, weirdly shadowed, and off-center. Those were not artistic choices.

But I’m sharing the shot anyway, just in case you were jonesin’ for a new beer suggestion (and let’s be real, it might encourage me to practice). And to the Instagrammers: I want to see your lunches. Be shameless. Snap away.

A Bit About Just A Tidbit

“Just a Tidbit”? Why would I tease you with such a diminutive idea? Shouldn’t I ply you with the written equivalent of rich food and drink so you’ll want to linger and chat with me a while longer, symposium-style?

Well, not yet. First of all, I’m no M.F.K. Fisher. Until I hit my stride, I’ll keep it short and sweet. Second of all, I’ve got a soft spot for the whole concept of the tidbit, an affection that has its roots in a distressing childhood misunderstanding.

My parents, being the creative individuals they are, would often assure their picky and hungry daughter that she could have “a little tidbit” as a snack before dinner. This was always a delightful idea and should have satisfied us all. However, we had a problem. Upon mention of the tidbit, I began dreaming of a very specific, utterly tantalizing snack that had never yet found its way to me in spite of my parents’ promises. I imagined that it involved peanut butter, maybe some pretzel-y crunch, and was the perfect union of sweet and savory goodness (years later I discovered a certain grocery’s peanut-butter-stuffed pretzel nuggets, and it was as though the heavens had opened up). I wanted this tidbit so, so badly, and found myself disappointed time and time again by my snacks. There were simply no tidbits to be found in our kitchen, ever, nor could my parents comprehend why their offerings frustrated me so.

I don’t recall us ever talking about my confusion. Eventually I stopped wondering, “But why didn’t you give me a tidbit?” and must have discovered the sad truth about tidbits, the catch-all treats, on my own. I’ve always loved the term, though, and it seemed the most appropriate name for this site, where I’ll be feeding you bits and bites of my thoughts about food. Perhaps I’ll start a candy company someday and make my dreams of a tiny snack come true, but for now, I’m content to tap away right here at Just A Tidbit. I promise, it won’t spoil your appetite.

Oh but please–don’t even get me started on the elusive “morsel”.