Purple Savoy Cabbage

Purple Savoy Cabbage

The vivid color and shape of this purple and green savoy cabbage looks alien as if frilly jaws are poised to snap open and seize a meal. This winter cabbage is as delicious to eat as it is to look at aesthetically. Milder and sweeter than red and green cabbage, savoy cabbage makes a great alternative to the heavy, dense bowling balls of cabbage typically used for coleslaw or boiling down with potatoes and corned beef.

Try quickly sautéing savoy cabbage for 3-4 minutes (or longer, as desired) in canola oil in a hot skillet. Because savoy cabbage is more tender than its counterparts when cooked, avoid long cook times normally used to render green cabbage into a limp mess. Pair it with savory links of sausage or bratwurst, Burger’s smoky country ham or bacon, or chicken breast cooked in the iron skillet before the cabbage, so the leafy green can absorb flavor-filled pan juices.

Or, for a vegetarian dish, combine sautéed cabbage with caramelized onions and crunchy diced apple. Something tart to play against the sweeter cabbage and onions. Drizzle a spoonful of pan juice atop the dish. Add crumbles of tangy goat cheese and a sprinkle of minced rosemary and cracked black pepper. Serve with seasoned rice.

 

Ride Along With Jerry Fisher

Ride Along With Jerry Fisher

Deb Crum

Deb Crum

I knew that a Saturday morning ride-along with Jerry Fisher would cost me. I just didn’t know how much.

I pulled up to the Parkville Farmer’s Market early Saturday morning. Smooth as Antonio Banderas as a charity fundraiser, I made my way past the produce stands and ignored the farmer’s catcalls. No, honey, I didn’t want a sample.

There, Fisher interrogated one of his street informants, a local dealer by the name of Deb Crum. She was hooked up with the Crum’s Heirlooms crew, peddling kale, beets, and chard. I observed from a distance so I didn’t wreck Fisher’s flow. His facial expression was tense, a pale green beefsteak tomato too full of water and about to burst before ripening.

“Crum, don’t play me now,” Fisher barked. “What happened to the blueberry pusher? The grower that used to be on the end of this row at the market?”

Deb Crum smiled. She played coy and arranged chard in a pretty basket display, avoiding Fisher’s eyes. She said quietly, “He went to U-Pick only. Doesn’t push his berries here anymore.”

beets

parkville farmers market contraband

Fisher went on a rant about non-local blueberries and contraband blackberries flooding the market, grabbed his payoff from Crum, and growled at me. “C’mon, rookie. Let’s roll. I won’t tell you twice.”

I looked over my shoulder. I could have sworn I saw Deb Crum giving Fisher the finger, but she just winked at me.

Fisher climbed into his Saturn, fired up the engine, and laid tracks in the parking lot. I scrambled to get in, fasten my seatbelt, and chill. I wasn’t sure how he wanted to play today’s ride-along around Kansas City. He had never taken another person on his Saturday drive as he checked in on the underbelly of local food purveyors and players.

Was I supposed to be a wise-cracking Eddie Murphy to his hard-nosed Nick Nolte in “48 Hours?” Or “Miami Vice’s” Ricardo Tibbs to his Sonny Crockett? Thelma to his Louise? Good, bad, or otherwise, Fisher gave no clue on how today would play out until I spoke up.

“I was thinking –”

“Shut it, pickleweed. You’re not the brains or the brawn here. You say nothing, you do nothing, and maybe you get out of this alive.” Fisher’s voice rumbled low like Nigella Lawson’s belly during a bout of the runs.

“Can I at least have a weapon?” I asked. Fisher ran into some skanky low-lifes around town. I wanted to protect myself.

He shot me a look. One part “cray-cray” and one part “You goin’ die, today.”

The Saturn shot out of Parkville and toward midtown Kansas City. Now we rollin’.

“So tell me about Fight Club. We goin’ to the Club, today?” I slipped it into the conversation like a crisp twenty in a maitre-d’s hand.

“Punk, you’re not worthy of Fight Club. You couldn’t serve them coffee. #STFU and follow me,” Fisher grunted. He parked the car and posted something on Facebook. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t going to like it.

oddly correct

oddly correct pour

oddley correct
Fine. ‘Nuff said. We approached Oddly Correct, local coffee roasters known to smuggle “beans” from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Sumatra, Ethiopia, Kenya and other suspect countries of origin.

I checked the script before we burst through the front door. “You want to go in first and I’ll cover you?”

Jerry Fisher at Oddly Correct

Jerry Fisher at Oddly Correct

Fisher just shook his head and swaggered inside like he owned the joint. A sweet, waifish blonde with a pink tint in her hair greeted my partner.

I felt like he could trust me with his life no matter what went down so that makes us partners, right? I mentally logged everyone in the place with a quick visual scan. I got cold, hard stares in return from midtowners trying to enjoy their latte while skimming Instagram. Fisher ordered a shot of espresso and a macchiato. The barista loaded the coffee with uncut, extra-fine caffeine but I wasn’t going to snitch.

We sat and savored our coffee. From across the table, Fisher gave me a thousand-yard death stare that chilled my soul. Without a word, I got it. He had a wife and a kid. That baby wasn’t going to feed itself short rib ravioli from The Rieger. My man had mouths to feed and a job to do on the streets. If I laid low and stayed out of the way, I might learn something.

“So what’s the best sushi in town?” I asked, making small talk. “I heard about this place–”

Fisher gave me a withering look as we headed to the car. We drove downtown, bound west across the state line into KCK.

I tried again to engage. “What’s the worst dish you’ve ever eaten and why?”

“Dulin, shut it.” Fisher grabbed an empty Port Fonda to-go box and crammed it in my pie hole.

By the time we arrived at San Antonio Carniceria and Taqueria, I had extracted the box from my larynx. Fisher’s rough-housing made me hungry. He nodded to the kid behind the counter. The kid rang in his order, keeping one hand near a bottle of triple-X salsa picante just in case shit went down.

San Antonion tortilleria

tacos al pastor
I put in an order for two tacos al pastor to match Fisher’s deuce. While waiting, I picked up a bag of dried hibiscus flowers and a package of tortillas made on site. I listened to Fisher tell war stories of his days before Fight Club. We gobbled our food and hit the road. Fisher hauled a dozen tamales from the restaurant. Some might call it a “tax” but I just kept my mouth shut.

We cruised through the streets of KCK. Fisher recounted tales of his youth spent on these streets making pipe bombs for kicks. He told stories of surviving Jesus freaks, winos, gangbangers, and hard-as-nails abuelas that could grind you up with a mortar and pestle and turn you into a bowl of life-changing mole.

Bellies primed for action, we went in search of more grub. Fisher gunned the engine. He whipped around corners as we barreled through the streets of Columbus Park. I grabbed the car door for dear life. Fisher just grinned like he had devoured an entire bag of Savory Addictions nuts and didn’t give a crap about brushing his teeth.

“Last one in buys!” shouted Fisher as he slipped out of the Saturn and beelined for Happy Gillis.

Fisher at Happy Gillis

Eans at Happy Gillis

Abbey-Jo and Josh Eans at Happy Gillis

We raced to the building, kicked the door in and bolted to the kitchen. Chef/owner Josh Eans had no time to scram. Fisher pushed his head into a pile of local, organic, sustainably harvested, heirloom mizuna lettuce, flexing his pecs the whole time.

“Lemme go!” Ean’s screams were muffled by the greens as he reached around frantically for a knife. My partner slapped at Ean’s delicate hands until he was still. Fisher winked at me as he strong-armed the chef and held him by the neck like a kitten.

“Make me a Pig & Bean, Eans,” Fisher grunted. “Put some flippin’ tamales on it. Close your eyes and pretend I’m Eddie fucking Izzard while you’re at it.”

Pig and Beans
The Pig & Beans combined stewed black beans, chipotle braised pork, soft egg, San Antonio’s tortilla, radish, cilantro, and chive. Fisher pulled out a container of tamales from San Antonio plus some greens from Deb Crum at the Parkville Farmers Market.

Holy Campo Lindo! The pieces started coming together. Fisher was a dirty foodie, workin’ the circuit to skim the choicest goods from chefs, farmers, baristas, butchers, bakers and cooks, who let their meat rest before slicing. At the same time, Fisher passed fenced goods along his route like a mule that was really the mastermind. Support local, my ass.

happy gillis bs and gs
I was about to post a review about Fisher on Yelp when I saw stars. I spun out of control and slumped to the floor. When I came to, my head was pounding and my face was dripping wet. One of the Happy Gillis employees, a petite chick with tattoos, short-cropped hair, and a wicked backhand, peered at me over her glasses. She threw another splash of Mexican coke in my face.

“Let’s keep this in the family, right?” she said. The girl grabbed a skillet. “Or I might have to give you another dose of this iron supplement.”

Fishers enforcer Happy Gillis
Fisher chowed on his order at a table and didn’t say a peep. He just nom-nommed the whole time like Marlon Brando eating his last supper. I winced and nodded. The girl was one of Fisher’s enforcers. I ate my half-order of B’s-and-G’s, nursed my aching head, and sipped on a blood orange Pellegrino to take the edge off.

When we left, Eans and his wife Abbey-Jo stood behind the counter tense but quiet. They didn’t even wave goodbye.

“Let that be a lesson to you, Dulin,” Fisher said. “Don’t cross me.” His voice was smooth and well-balanced, menacing but artful, the vocal equivalent of a happy hour plate presented by Chef Michael Corvino with liberal doses of XO sauce.

“Say no more.” I nursed my wounds.

little freshie composit

little freshie dealer
Fisher navigated to 17th and Summit and nudged me toward Little Freshie. “C’mon, don’t be a sourpuss,” he chided. “Here’s an inside tip to cheer you up. Most people don’t know this, but Little Freshie’s best stuff isn’t on the menu.”

Once inside the counter, Fisher approached the counter and asked for two “bath salt specials.” The server didn’t flinch, disappeared in the back, and returned with the order. Fisher handed me the hand-crafted “soda” and a cookie. The drink tasted like bathtub gin with a soupçon of something I couldn’t place.

“It’s non-alcoholic but you’d never know from the natural fermentation,” Fisher explained. “The hint of fishiness comes from water used to rinse off plates of Chef Ryan Brazeal’s hamachi crudo plate at Novel. So it’s locally sourced.”

Fisher smiled at me like we were “Duck Dynasty” brothers laughing all the way to the bank. He was an enigma. The man was his own good cop, bad cop. I didn’t know what to think. We left the shop and turned the corner to Fervere, a den of sin if there ever was one.

fervere bread
Artisan loaves of fresh-baked ciabatta, pain au levain, olive rosemary, cheese bread, and more rested on shelves with no modesty whatsoever. Fisher gestured to samples of cut bread and bowls of what I can only assume was massage oil.

“Go on, try a piece, baby,” he said with lust. “It won’t bite back.”

The whole scene felt whorish. I spotted the bakery’s brick oven where the real action happened in the back late at night… Yeast rising, temperatures getting hotter… I couldn’t resist. I bought two loaves. I told myself I’d never do this again, but I knew the truth. I was weak. I could smell the bread’s heady perfume. I caressed its hard crust with my fingertips. It was all I could do to not sink my teeth into–

“Rookie, don’t soil your shorts here,” Fisher said. “We’ve got two more stops.”

We drove south to midtown and parked at Broadway Butcher Shop. Damn, Fisher was hardcore corrupt and hooked deep.

stuart aldridge

Chef Stuart Aldridge, Broadway Butcher Shop

broadway butcher chop samples
“I need a meat fix,” he said. “Follow my lead and don’t turn down anything Lil’ Stu offers. People don’t call him a butcher for nothing.”

Stuart Aldridge was a supplier of the first order. He dealt top-notch merch like Duroc pork, sashimi-grade U-10 sea scallops, Burger’s Smokehouse bacon, USDA prime tomahawk chops. You name it, fish, fowl, or four-legged beast, Lil’ Stu didn’t mess around. He put the pro in proteins. He could get his hands on anything legal you could name and some goods better left unnamed.

salmon broadway butcher
“Yo, yo, yo, fellas,” the butcher bellowed when he caught sight of us. “Let me fix you up with a little sumthin’, sumthin’.”

Before we knew it, he served us octo-pastrami egg salad. Fisher gave me the stinkeye so I didn’t hesitate. I ate a bite, then another. I didn’t stop until I had gulped the whole sample down.

“That’s some crack salad, Lil’ Stu,” I said. I was addicted from the first bite.

The butcher leapt over the counter like a ninja and hit me hard in the chest with his feet. He wielded a heritage smoked turkey leg over my head. Damn, second beat-down of the day.

“Only Fisher gets to call me that,” the butcher said. “You can call me sir or get yer rat-ass out of my holy temple.”

I turned my head, pleading with my eyes for Fisher’s help. My partner sneered. “What part of ‘follow my lead’ did you not understand? No one told you to speak.”

Sir Stuart Aldridge stepped off and returned with a slice of 18-month-old aged Serrano ham. He hand-fed it to Fisher. Freaking weird. I’d never seen a tongue snatch a piece of meat from another man’s hand so fast.

With his other hand, the butcher threw a slice of Oscar Meyer pimento loaf in my face. He said, “Eat this and tweet it.”

I tried to get my iPhone out, take a photo of the limp cold-cut, and post it, but Fisher kicked the phone out of my hand. “No evidence, fool! We were never here.”

“But y-you post your Saturday morning stops on Facebook every week?” I protested.

“No one needs to know you were with me though,” Fisher countered. “If people knew that I let you ride along, then every foodie in town and their Yelp-lovin’ aunt would hassle me. Screw that.”

Fisher left through the front door with a dozen sea scallops big enough to stop bullets. I grabbed my phone.

“Get off my floor, man,” Stuart said. “Don’t make me whip you with a hand-ground, herb-seasoned chain of sausage links.”

“Can I at least get a biscuit sammie to go?” I said with no pride left. The butcher threw a stale, hard biscuit at my head. I caught it on the fly and scrammed. “Thanks, Lil’ Stu!”

I raced across the parking lot, slid across the hood of Fisher’s Saturn, and slipped through the passenger-side window, Dukes of Hazzard-style. “Let’s roll.”

“Somebody’s getting cocky,” Fisher muttered. He did a donut in the parking lot and then peeled out southbound. “Put this over your eyes, rookie. This last stop is at a secret location.”

Fisher handed me a thin blue cloth. It smelled like mezcal, huitlacoche, and sweat. Thoughts of Port Fonda entered my mind. “Is this Patrick Ryan’s bandana?” I asked.

“Damn straight,” Fisher said. “Black-out time.

Reluctantly, I slipped the bandana over my peepers. The combined scents left me intoxicated, lost in a psychedelic hip-hop haze. Suddenly, Tony Glamcevski and Amy Smith from The Rieger escorted me through a mental replay of the day’s events while Fisher’s baby girl banged out percussion with a spoon to the beat of Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz.”

Today, Fisher and I met Dirty Rat Deb Crum, who was an informant at the Parkville Farmer’s Market, Oddly Correct coffee smugglers, a taqueria where Fisher collected his weekly tax, the Ean food fencing operation at Happy Gillis, Little Freshie’s secret bathtub gin operation, Fervere’s whorehouse of artisan bread and a maniacal meat dealer on Broadway. Not a bad ride-along so far.

“We’re here. You can take the blindfold off,” Fisher instructed.

I removed the cloth, wiped the huitlacoche juice out of my eyes, and blinked. Dazed, I felt like I had been shacked up with Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett from “Orange is the New Black.” Fisher waved a crusty old slice of Johnny Jo’s pizza under my nose to snap me out of my haze.

“It’s go time,” he said.

Glancing around, I couldn’t tell for sure but I thought we were in Waldo, the bacon-loving, beer-crawling sister to virginal, vegan Brookside. Fisher stood next to the door of a beige, nondescript building and briefed me. Finally! He was treating me like a partner on his beat.

“We’re about to bust up an endorphin lab. Last chance to stay in the car. Once we go inside, it’s on and we might not make it out alive. They’re heavily armed,” Fisher said.

I studied him. He’d taken me on an emotional, psychological and gastronomic rollercoaster today. This time I could sense he was serious.

“How you want to play this?” I asked. “Starsky and Hutch?”

“You’re David Caruso, ‘CSI: Miami.’ You get a one-liner. No more.”

Not my first choice, but Fisher was the jaded veteran. I asked, “What about you?”

“Mel Gibson. ‘Lethal Weapon’ all the way,” Fisher said with a straight face.

Gonzo. Fisher unsheathed his camera, nodded at me, and burst through the door. He did a forward roll and came up shooting left and right, rapid-fire, blinding our perps. A split-second behind him, I punched the button on my iPhone’s camera quick as I could, no filter.

We took heavy fire in return. French macarons flew past our heads. Pink, yellow, purple, every pastel color you could imagine with delicious filling. Smack! I got whacked in the head by a cake slice of Eloise, dacquois layers filled with chocolate ganache, hazelnut buttercream and cream legere. I wiped the frosting from my eyes and scanned the room for Fisher. He was prone on the floor, clutching his belly and laughing maniacally in his best Mel Gibson impression. He had taken several direct hits from cinnamon rolls made with brioche.

cinnamon rolls

tasha goellner 2I wanted to call for backup but there was no time. Our assailants were on us like fresh lemon zest on citrus panna cotta. I glanced up. Vicious Victoria Shriver Goellner and Natasha “No Scrubs” Goellner stood over us with rolling pins and knives at the ready.

Fisher should have told me. We just tried to take down the production bakery of Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott. This mother-daughter duo were the most notorious endorphin dealers in the city. Their distribution network involved weddings, brunches and thoughtful drive-bys with a drop-off of deadly French patisseries. There were worse ways to die, but I couldn’t think of any. As we lay on the floor covered in pastries, they tied us up head-to-toe with silk ribbon.

“Boys, get up and move over to the table,” Victoria shouted. “You’re not going out so easy.”

Natasha kicked me in the ribs. “Move it, scumbags. I’ve got handmade marshmallows to slice.”

We crawled to the table, hobbled upright, and awaited instructions. Fisher and I looked at each other.

jerry fisher natashas“Thanks for everything today,” I told him.

“It’s not over yet, partner,” he replied under his breath. Fisher gave me a wink. “Remember the straightjacket scene from ‘Lethal Weapon 2?”

I had no clue.

Meanwhile, Natasha and her mother brought over two plates loaded with slices of Chocolate Tuxedo Cream™ Cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory.

My heart sunk. “Not Death by Chocolate.”

“Eat it, bitches,” Natasha cackled. “Eat it and die.”

Victoria grabbed my hair and began to shove my face toward the plate. Just then, I heard a loud, unnerving pop. I glanced at Fisher. He had dislocated his shoulder and wriggled out of his silk ribbon bonds. Of course! Fisher used Gibson’s trick to escape a straightjacket. He worked one hand free, gathered a container of cocoa powder and threw it into our captors’ faces. Fisher grabbed a knife and sliced ribbons to free me.

victori goellnerWe bolted toward the door. Fisher revved the engine and raced away. I took off my glasses, looked at Fisher and gave him my best David Caruso impression. “I guess we creamed them,” I deadpanned, serious as a Facebook foodie group discussion. “Get it? Pastry cream? Creamed them?”

“If you have to explain it, it ain’t funny,” Fisher said. “Shut yer piehole.”

We were silent for the rest of the drive back to the Parkville Farmers Market. Frankly, I had enough abuse and disrespect for one day. We parked. I started to open the door.

Fisher spoke. “Wait a minute, Dulin. I was hard on you today, but that’s street life. Call me a foodie or whatever insult comes to mind, but running this gauntlet every Saturday is hard. It’s my reward after surviving Fight Club each week.”

“I get it. No harm done,” I said. I got out of the Saturn and leaned on the window, ducking my head in to listen.

“Best part is that I get to head home now and see my lady. We kick back, sip on a soda, and watch our baby do impressions of Howard Hanna. It’s hilarious. Life’s good.”

“Life is good. Thanks, partner,” I said. “What do I owe you for this ride-along?”

“You survived. That’s all the payment I need,” Fisher said. “But you can treat me to an Admiral’s Feast at Red Lobster and we’ll call it even.”

“Deal. Maybe I’ll even take you on a ride-along in my part of town one day,” I said.

“Great. I love Taiwanese food,” Fisher drolled.

“I’m Thai. Not Taiwanese,” I shot back.

“I know.”

“Now you’re just being an assh–”

Fisher didn’t hear a word. He just peeled his tires and raced away in the Saturn. He threw something out of the window and it rolled toward me.

Curious, I picked it up. French macaron with pistachio cream. I shrugged, blew on it, and took a bite. Five-second rule.

Burgers’ Smokehouse, Fort Bacon and The House of Ham

Burgers’ Smokehouse, Fort Bacon and The House of Ham

We made ourselves hungry talking about hickory-smoked bacon en route to Burgers’ Smokehouse in California, Missouri. Dave Crum, general manager for Arrowhead Specialty Meats and former chef de cuisine at bluestem, drove while Chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger rode shotgun and I settled into the spacious back seat of Crum’s black SUV. Our adventure began at 6:30 AM on a brisk overcast December weekday. We convened at The Rieger and headed east on I-70. Within minutes, we started discussing where we could eat a bite before we left the city limits of Kansas City.

Like a siren’s call, the appeal of touring Burger’s, known for its superior hickory smoked ham and bacon, was irresistible to the three of us. Dave, son of Deb and Jim Crum of Crum’s Heirlooms in Bonner Springs, came up with the idea for this food field trip over a year ago. He suggested the trip while chatting with me one sunny day on the sidewalk patio in front of The Rieger. It didn’t take much to convince me and Howard that we should drive across central Missouri to visit Burgers’. The combination of salt, sugar, smoke and meat spoke to my primal instincts.

Professionally, Dave had good reason to learn more about Burgers’, a client of Arrowhead Specialty Meats. His company sells two tons, or 4,000 pounds, of slab bacon from Burgers’ each week to clients. All three of us were fans of cooking with the smoked meat at home. Howard regularly features Burgers’ meats on The Rieger’s menu. Dave and I parted ways that spring afternoon, and our good intentions were swept away by the flow of work and life.

Then Howard revealed plans in October 2013 to open Ça Va, a new champagne bar, in Westport. While eating lunch at the chef’s counter of The Rieger that fall, I learned that ham from Burger’s would likely make an appearance on the menu, which was a work-in-progress. Cold weather and the approaching holidays also put me in the mood for comfort food. I resurrected the idea of making that pilgrimage to Burgers’, pitching the trip to Dave and Howard. They heartily agreed and we prepared for our ham and bacon quest.

Arrowhead Specialty Meats sells two tons, or 4,000 pounds, of slab bacon from Burgers’ each week to clients.

Bacon Bits

Two hours flew by on the drive as we traded comments about breakfast, restaurants and what we wanted to eat. Howard called farmer Thane Palmberg to place a produce order for leeks, potatoes and other produce. Of course, we discussed the finer points of bacon.

Dave shared his admiration for Burgers’ Smokehouse. “Burgers’ sells direct with Arrowhead versus selling through Sysco. It’s good to feel you have those relationships.”

Sysco is the 800-pound gorilla in the business of marketing and distributing food products to restaurants. Arrowhead is a smaller scale specialty meat supplier. With locations in North Kansas City and Lewisville, Texas outside of Dallas, the company acts as a middleman between small producers like Burgers’ and local restaurants and other accounts.

The conversation turned to the chef’s tastes in bacon. Howard prefers that his bacon not taste too smoky or sweet. He said, “It should have a good balance of meat and fat.”

“The trend is toward applewood-smoked bacon,” Dave said. This style is sweeter than hickory-smoked and has cinnamon in the rub. But tastes in the market do shift. “We’ve gone full circle from flavored bacon to plain hickory style.”

“I don’t want bacon to taste sweet. There should be just enough sugar for balance,” says Dave, who prefers a brown sugar cure over white sugar.

“If the bacon has more sugar on it, then I want black pepper on it,” Howard adds.

I prefer thick-cut bacon with savory black pepper and salt balanced by a touch of sweetness and smoke. I rarely bother with watery, thin, classic-cut bacon, and often dust a plate of fried bacon with black pepper for extra kick.

Dave and Howard reveal insights about frying bacon. If the slices stick to the pan, then the bacon was probably injected with brine. The fat should retain its texture as it crisps up rather than melt out.

We passed Odessa and neared Boonville before turning south on a county highway. We skipped the chain restaurants that populated the interstate and hoped we could find a good local joint in California before arriving at Burgers’. For three guys with hearty appetites, we were woefully unprepared with our breakfast planning.

We stopped at the Dutch Bakery and Bulk Goods Store in Tipton, a few miles away from California. Dave and Howard hadn’t been there before and I thought we might find some snacks to tide us over. A college friend from Tipton first tipped me off years ago to the bakery’s pies, cinnamon rolls, candies and snacks. Not finding any breakfast food that wasn’t laden with sugar, we vowed to return after our tour and continued to the smokehouse plant about 15 minutes further east on Highway 50. By the time we arrived, we were famished.

Dutch Bakery

Burgers’ Smokehouse Visitors Center is a granite stone building that houses a working water wheel; three museum-quality dioramas showcasing winter, spring and summer in the Ozarks; and a sandwich shop. We walked inside and marveled at the display of old tools and implements used for the art of meat curing and historic photographs. An Ozark farmhand in overalls – animatronic like a country cousin to the Chuck E. Cheese band characters – perched on a wooden platform overhead and greeted us. We turned a corner in the hallway and entered the showroom where the The Good Ole Days Theater, reception desk and sandwich counter was located.

Basic Tools

hillbilly

Welcome

visitor center

  sandwich counter

howard and dave
Sales representative Terry Meisenheimer greeted us as we checked in at the desk. A nearby sign welcomed us as today’s guests. After seeing the hundreds of products available for sale in the store, including multiple varieties of ham, bacon, bacon steak and jowl, our appetites were fully primed. We ordered country ham sandwiches for breakfast to appease our hunger.

We ate in a large meeting room, joined by Terry and Philip Burger, corporate vice president, who gave us an overview of the family business and addressed questions about their history, plant operations and upcoming innovations. Philip confirmed how popular applewood-smoked bacon, which uses 20% less sodium, had become. Within a year or two, he anticipated that this style will become the company’s best-selling bacon.

“Slab bacon is, hands down, what Arrowhead sells the most of,” Dave said. “I think Burgers’ Southern Smokehouse Ham may be my favorite thing they produce.”

Next we donned white smocks, hair nets, and, in the case of Dave and Howard, beard nets. More Burgers’ staff joined our entourage for a private tour of the plant and behind-the-scenes view not offered on the usual visitors tour.

Ham steaks
House of Ham

Moniteau County farmer E.M. Burger began producing and selling hams in the mid-1920s to supplement his farming income. Most poor farm families already raised at least a hog or two, did their own butchering and cured the hams. Burger, a savvy entrepreneur, realized that he could earn more from a cured ham than he could from an entire live hog. He learned about Old World curing methods, combining a mixture of salt, sugar and pepper to preserve meat, from his German mother. Most of Burger’s early customers didn’t have iceboxes or electricity for refrigeration so buying cured meat was practical for clients that could afford it. He sold hams to lawyers, doctors, other professionals and city residents with disposable income in Jefferson City, Sedalia, Columbia and other cities with growing populations.

Burger sold six hams in 1927 and doubled his sales a year later. By the 1930s – the era of the Great Depression and setting for John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, where tenant farmers were losing work – the enterprising Burger was curing and selling 24 hams each year himself.

He built a one-room, 1,500-square-foot Ham House on a bluff in 1952 to cure, age and smoke hams in larger quantities. The house overlooked the Moreau Creek, three miles south of California, on the farm of Burger’s father-in-law F. A. Bueker. The family completed farm work during the day and cured meat at night. Two decades after launching his farm-based business, Burgers’ production and sales to area restaurants and companies grew to 1,000 hams per year.

By 1956, the Ham House produced 5,000 hams annually. Burger began to devote more time to the ham business and less on farming. The business, incorporated as Burgers’ Ozark Country Cured Hams, continued to expand and became the first country cured meat company in the United States to receive federal inspection. The current 300,000-square-foot plant is built on and around the location of the original Ham House, which now serves as the central office. Annually, the family-owned smokehouse operation, now known as Burgers’ Smokehouse, produces 750,000 hams, bacon, sausage and other specialty meats.

bacon fort 2
Philip described the company’s position in the marketplace. He said, “Burgers’ is in the high-end specialty market versus the commodity market.” Sales split among direct retail, Internet, food service accounts, private label for mail order and private label grocery accounts.

Today, E.M. Burger’s grandson and Philip’s brother, Steven Burger, is president of Burgers’ Smokehouse. The family-owned business employs second- and third-generation family members as well as hundreds of area residents. While the founder began carving out a business selling cured ham decades earlier, Burgers’ Smokehouse considers 1952 as the official launch of the modern operation.

Smile-long Tour

Howard, Dave and I absorbed historic details of the family business as we walked through the plant. The sheer volume of meat and efficiency of the operation fascinated us. At any given time, more than a quarter-million hams are hanging in some stage of curing, aging and smoking, and are tended to by a full-time staff of 200 employees—more during busy seasons.

The processing, storage and packing rooms are cold, as one might expect in a meat plant. Employees pay careful attention to operating procedures to ensure sanitary conditions and safety. We entered the cutting room where dozens of employees processed smoked meat to customer specifications.

Water jet used to cut ham.

Water jet used to cut ham.

Some hams are shuttled on a conveyor belt toward a machine where they pass under a camera that “maps” the ham’s shape. A computer determines the best way to slice the ham’s bulk into ham steaks. Two laser-guided water knifes use thin streams of water pressurized to 40,000 psi to precisely trim the meat into perfect cuts with no waste. The machine accurately trims 45 to 50 steaks a minute.

Nearby, pressed, chilled slabs of smoked pork belly met saw blades and transformed into slices of bacon and jowls. The regional accent of our hosts made jowl sound like “Joel” to me. Our tour guides were actually pointing at and talking about the lower part of the pig’s cheek. Basically, it was face bacon. In Italy, pork jowl is used to make guanciale, an Italian cured meat. More irregular and rounded in shape than strips of bacon, jowl is used to flavor dishes or eat by itself. Fried, baked or boiled, slender pieces of jowl add layers of flavor to a pot of beans or just about any dish.

pork belly on racks

Pork bellies on racks.

howard pork bellys

bacon fort slicing

Bacon fort 1
Smaller pieces of ham were trimmed into “biscuit cuts” and packaged for sale. Long, chilled sections of smoked, pressed pork belly were layered like Lincoln logs to form a four-sided stack with space in the middle. Immediately, I dreamed of a bacon fort and tried to conceive of a way I could have one delivered to my home, where I would live in it and eat happily ever after.

We visited a large room where hickory sawdust is fed by the shovelful to a furnace. Fragrant smoke funneled into another room where hams were hung to absorb the rustic perfume. Burgers’ used to get all of its hickory from Kentucky and Tennessee forests, but has begun to obtain wood from southwest Missouri. The smoky aroma triggered the senses and made my mouth water, prompting thoughts about the flavor smoke imparts, followed by saltiness, sweetness and the familiar yet complex taste of the ham itself.

As Howard, Dave and I progressed through the tour, it was difficult to stop smiling. We had claimed our golden tickets. We were like three kids in “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” hungry, wide-eyed guys surrounded by lots of ham and bacon.

Smoker

Hickory sawdust is fed by the shovelful to a furnace.

Phillip Burger discusses the smoking process.

Phillip Burger discusses the smoking process.

Hickory smoke streams out of the chamber.

Hickory smoke streams out of the chamber.

Not All Hams are Equal

During our tour, Terry explained the difference between country ham and city ham. Country hams use traditional dry-curing methods, where the cure is applied to the surface of the ham in dry form and penetrates the meat naturally over time. The result of the drying and aging process, which takes a minimum of 120 days, creates a robust, pronounced flavor, dark interior color and firm texture. These hams taste saltier but that’s part of the delicious appeal.

Alternately, city hams are produced using modern moist-curing methods. A brine injected into the ham reduces the overall curing time, somewhere between 48 to 72 hours, compared to country ham. City hams are moist and tender with a characteristic sweet flavor and light pink color. While milder than country ham, the flavor of Burgers’ city ham is not bland. Try comparing it against a water-infused grocery store ham. There’s a flavor-filled world of difference.

Burgers’ country ham is sold in two varieties, Southern Smokehouse and Attic Aged country ham. The former ham is aged 4 to 6 months and then gently smoked with natural hickory sawdust, creating an authentic yet milder flavor. It’s more southern belle than rebel yell. In contrast, the Attic Aged ham spends more time hanging to age 7 to 9 months This unsmoked version harkens back to the way country ham was cured on the farm several generations ago. The lengthier aging creates a heightened salty flavor that is even more fully developed.

Ham on racks
Beyond these time-tested methods of curing and smoking, other factors come into play that make Burgers’ Smokehouse dry-cured hams truly world-class. The company is located in a magical geographic belt for curing meats that spans the globe, a zone that extends east from Missouri through Virginia, across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, southern Germany and northern Italy and even to southern China.

Culinary geographers may recognize that celebrated cured meats such as Italian prosciutto and Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico) from Spain fall within this zone. Jinhua ham, named after the eastern Chinese city in the Zhejiang province where it is produced, is yet another highly regarded dry-cured ham. The Chinese methods of processing and dry-curing this ham date back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD).

So what makes Burgers’ Smokehouse dry-cured hams and its global brethren so special? Dave Arnold eloquently explains the ham belt in a 2007 article (“Aging Gracefully”) for Food Arts:

Cold, but not freezing, winter weather was the first thing our ancestors needed to make a great dry-cured ham. If the climate was too cold, a whole ham would freeze before it could be cured in the classic technique; too warm, and the whole ham would spoil. The tradition of the dry-cured ham, therefore, wraps around the world in a distinct climate zone. This ham belt includes most of lower Europe and the Mediterranean, is interrupted by Islamic and Jewish interdictions on pork consumption, extremely high mountains, and vegetarian-based cultures, and picks up again in China, which has a fantastic dry-cured ham tradition (alas, no Chinese dry-cured hams are available in the United States.} The ham belt in this country threads through the south, extending from Virginia in the north to North Carolina (some say to northern Georgia) in the south and west through Tennessee and Kentucky to Missouri and northern Arkansas. There, in the Ozarks, the tradition stopped. There are no legendary Great Plains hams. Modern technology, however, has made it possible to dry-cure ham anywhere from the North Pole to the equator.

Call it a stroke of fate or good fortune for the rest of us – E. M. Burger set up his original Ham House in California, Missouri, an ideal climate for dry-curing ham where the weather is neither too cold nor warm. However, today Burgers’ certainly doesn’t rely on Mother Nature’s fickle mood and central Missouri’s shifting seasonal temperatures to impact the superior quality of its dry-cured hams. The company developed winter, spring and summer rooms, where the hams cure under specific conditions.

The hams are trimmed once fresh pork arrives from packing plants. A mixture of salt, brown sugar and pepper is hand-rubbed onto each ham. Then each one is wrapped in white paper, placed in cotton netting and hung on one of over 3,000 large wooden racks. Dave, Howard and I saw these mobile racks of ham firsthand, marveling at the quantity, quality measures put into place and the forethought applied to maintain these “ham cellars” that will one day yield delicious slices of meat.

The racks are moved into a “wintertime” room where the temperature is cold enough to prevent spoilage. This stage allows the cure to penetrate the meat and discourages future pathogen growth. Once the cure is absorbed, the paper is shucked from the ham and the meat is slipped back into the netting and re-hung. The ham racks are rolled to a “springtime” room, where moving air slowly dries the hams and the cure equalizes outside and in so flavor is consistent throughout.

Fine wine and certain cheeses take time to age and develop character. Similarly, aging dry-cured ham adds complexity to the flavor and serves a practical purpose. The racks are transported to a “summertime” room, where warmer temperatures pull grease from the ham, evaporate a small amount of moisture and concentrate the flavors.

Howard, Dave and I sensed the balmy shift in temperature and pronounced aroma of the hams in this room. The exact temperature, aging time and other factors were trade secrets that our hosts at Burgers’ declined to divulge. Finally, the hams are hickory smoked to complete the 4-6 month curing process.

California and Beyond

In addition to the scale and sophisticated operations of the plant, the sheer ingenuity and variety of Burgers’ product development was impressive. Their website, catalog and Visitor’s Center store offered hundreds of different items with multiple flavors and options. We saw city and country ham, summer sausage, country sausage, ham steaks, country bacon, thick-cut bacon and still thicker, quarter-inch bacon cuts dubbed bacon steak that were simply glorious. Bacon steak, when rubbed with brown sugar and baked in the oven, turns into bacon candy. Duly noted.

Ham on racks 2
The plant also smoked, produced and sold cuts of beef, ribs and turkey. Dry rubs, jams, jellies, cheeses, snacks, sauces and other fare are sold individually or packaged for gift orders. Smoked, cured ham remained Burgers’ bread and butter, so to speak. Sales of their smoked ham and other products peaked during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but the plant remained busy year-round.

Fine-dining restaurants, chain restaurants and private label clients sell Burgers’ smoked meats throughout the country. Chef Howard Hanna at The Rieger and Chef Colby Garrelts at Rye use Burgers’ bacon and country ham for dishes on their menus. Howard anticipates serving Burgers’ center-cut slices of ham at Ça Va, his forthcoming champagne bar in Westport. 801 Chophouse uses Burgers’ thick slab bacon on its griddled bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato sandwich. Broadway Butcher Shop in midtown Kansas City sells the company’s spiral cut hams and bacon, and customers might find that complex smoky flavor in the butcher shop’s biscuits and gravy on weekends. Elsewhere, famed Chef David Chang of momofuku has used Burgers’ smoked jowls in his recipe for Fuji Apple Salad With Kimchi, Smoked Jowl & Maple Labne.

Near and far, it’s no secret how good these smoked meats are. Fortunately, Burgers’ ham, bacon, and other products are also available at most major supermarkets in Kansas City. If not, a butcher can order it in or customers can simply order direct from Burgers’.

Home

After the tour, our kind hosts at Burgers’ sent us home with a Smokehouse product of our choice. Unlike Charlie at the end of “Willy Wonka,” we didn’t return our gobstoppers. We had already won the prize of a lifetime.

Later, Dave concluded, “I was extremely impressed by the facility and production. It was to me an excellent compromise between modern production methods and artisanal products. It managed to be different than I had imagined but still exactly what I had hoped it would be.”

We shook hands with Terry and Philip, said our goodbyes and headed home, but not before we stopped for lunch at Vanilla Grill, a roadside burger stand in Tipton. We walked to the window counter, ordered lunch and chowed on burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and shakes. Afterward, we headed to the Dutch Bakery and loaded up on candy, cinnamon rolls and homemade pie. By the time we left the city limits and reached the interstate to conclude our pilgrimage, we couldn’t eat another bite. Drowsy and dreaming of ham and bacon, the hickory-laced aroma of Burgers’ Smokehouse infused in our clothes followed us all the way home.

Blind Faith – Dining in the Dark with Alphapointe

I sat a table with six other people and prepared to put on a blindfold. In moments, I would attempt to eat a three-course meal without the aid of sight. This exercise was a simulation of what 300 guests will encounter at Dining in the Dark, an event on February 27 hosted by Alphapointe, a private, non-profit organization that serves Kansas Citians who are blind or visually impaired.

At Dining in the Dark, everyone eats in complete darkness. No blindfolds, no cell phones, no ambient light, just sheer darkness. The focus of the meal goes beyond what it is like for guests to eat without a key sense. The event is designed to showcase the capabilities of people who are blind. Attendees will be served by blind and visually impaired Alphapointe members.

At the moment, I’m in a small dining room at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. I slip the blindfold over my eyes, pausing beforehand to mentally visualize where the place settings and glass of ice water are located. Immediately, I’m relying on other senses and coping strategies. My right hand feels for the knife and spoon, following the knife to its tip where the glass is located. I remind myself to place and line up the glass in this same spot each time I take a sip to avoid reaching out blindly – literally, temporarily – and knocking my drink over.

Our host from Alphapointe tells us that during past dinners, guests invariably spill something such as sauce on the tablecloth. Today’s outcome remained to be, well, not seen, but determined. We try to keep the mood convivial as part of this experiment. The group’s banter was light; the mood buoyant in our sightless state.

Apparently, sometimes a few guests grow anxious at Dining in the Dark, although we’re told that many steps are taken to put them at ease and reassure diners. The menu is set; the setting is safe. There will be no surprises – no weird foods served that they cannot see, no one grabbing your feet while seated, no funny business. Again, the emphasis is to place yourself in the hands of vision-impaired servers that guide you slowly, carefully, to your table, seat you, capably serve you and attend to your hospitality needs during the meal.

Once the novelty of eating in sheer darkness fades, practicality sets in as guests devise ways to find food on the plate, cut it into bite-size portions, secure it with a fork or spoon and guide it through the barn door without getting food on the face. It’s fun, a little unnerving, challenging even, but once it is understood no one else can see you make a mess, the social graces of dining are less important.

Our first course is a salad. Actually, two different salads are on the plate. For this tasting, we are to help determine what the final dishes will be at Dining in the Dark among two options for each of the three courses. I bring a fork full of salad – I think, I don’t know yet and can only guess – toward my mouth. The sharp, tangy aroma of Italian salad dressing arrives before the mouthful. Smell, touch, taste, even hearing, all come into play throughout the meal. Through our common experience, table conversation and individual assessment, we figure out the difference between each salad and determine our preference. The shape, crunch and texture of the lettuce leaves provide crucial clues. We’re undertaking detective work as we feed ourselves.

I hear a good-natured wisecrack from the host about my “air fork” as I attempt to bite into a second mouthful of salad that I thought I had stabbed delicately with a fork. I try again, load my fork and succeed in taking a bite. I reach for the water glass, mentally sticking to my plan, wash down the salad and return the glass to square one.  At first, the process becomes a ritual of steps to not make mistakes, to not make a mess, to eat properly and efficiently and completely. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t have refined skills or practice at eating in the dark, so I gradually abandon the pretense of propriety at the table.

If only the kids at home could see me now, how they’d chide me for taking bites far too big or touching food with my fingers. It’s all in good fun. Frankly, the food prepared by the chefs at the Westin smells and tastes so good that I want to clean my plate.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, host of the chef competition show “Hell’s Kitchen,” leads blindfolded contestants through an exercise where they attempt to identify the taste of familiar foods. Watching at home, it’s easy to be stunned that a wannabe chef cannot identify the taste of mozzarella or lobster or whatever the ingredient might be. Sitting here with a salad composed of multiple ingredients, I begin to see – no, I understand – how challenging it can be to put a well-versed palette to the test. Getting the answer right is part of the fun.

A server removes our plates and brings the second course – two cooked variations of the same meat with two types of starch and vegetables. We’re asked by our host to identify what we’re eating. What do we prefer? What else do we discover on the plate? Again, the detective work resumes.

The banter and good-natured ribbing continues. Apparently, the first fifteen minutes at the actual Dining in the Dark event grows louder in volume as people sit, adjust to the darkness and speak louder and emphatically to aid hearing and place where they are in relation to others. Our host reminds us how much we rely on our sight, how the eyes are a key part of visual, nonverbal communication. For now, we are unable to roll our eyes, wink, or otherwise express through the windows to our soul. Our voices, spoken and silent, serve as the key instrument to let our thoughts be known or reserved.

Our host explains that after those first fifteen minutes, guests typically quiet down as they concentrate on their meal. Eating without sight requires more energy and effort, at least for those of us not used to eating this way. We eat with our eyes first; presentation is important and it builds anticipation for our other senses. It’s a challenge to not use vision. Imagine a sprinter competing in a race using only his or her hands, as clumsy as that comparison is. As a food writer, I am used to paying attention to the details of food – the appearance, scent, texture, temperature and other hints that relay information to complement what my taste buds convey. Now I concentrate even more on my other senses to discern details and neglect to join in the conversation as others describe what we’re eating.

We fill our bellies and conclude the second course with anticipation of dessert. The final course is perhaps the most fun because the contrast between sweet options is quite different. Creamy, crispy, aromas homespun and fanciful, a burst of fruit flavor cutting through decadent sweetness. My other senses and, let’s face it by now, my fingers, come fully into play as I tuck into dessert.

After we’re done eating, the blindfolds come off. A sense of relief arrives. Instantly, I revert back to my sense of sight to orient where I am in relation to others. A trio of chefs from the Westin appear with fresh plated versions of the dishes we just ate. It’s a revelation to see them, to study the food with our eyes and confirm what we thought we ate or acknowledge what was guesswork.

At the conclusion of the meal during Dining at the Dark, the lights will come up so guests can view the dishes they consumed. The lights come on in more ways than one as guests begin to understand the differences that blind or visually impaired people face when eating, a daily ritual that the rest of us take for granted.

More importantly, the servers – none of them work in the hospitality industry by trade – sit with the guests they just served. Together, they connect, exchange comments and address questions. The key takeaway is that the blind and visually impaired are capable, talented individuals. Not only can they serve a ballroom of 300 people after undergoing a mere seven hours of training, but they are also capable of so much more in the workforce.

Alphapointe is the single largest employer of visually impaired individuals in the state, employing more than 176 people. Alphapointe is the only comprehensive rehabilitation and education agency for people with vision loss in the state of Missouri, serving more than 4,000 individuals.

While Dining in the Dark is a one-night experience, the goal is to have 300 people emerge from the event with a change in perspective and motivation to act that lasts far longer.

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Dining in the Dark takes place in a completely darkened ballroom on Thursday, February 27 at The Westin Crown Center Hotel, 1 Pershing Road. Cocktail hour begins at 5:30 p.m. at Benton’s at the top of the Westin.  Seating for dinner begins promptly at 6:30 p.m.

New to the event this year is The Art of Dining in the Dark, a silent art auction of fine art and photography prior to the start of the dinner. For tickets and further information, please visit alphapointe.org/Events or call 816-237-2099.

The Host and The Guest

When I learned about a death in the family, I immediately agreed to cook dinner for them that night.

The family wasn’t mine or Pam’s, but someone she knew. Cooking a meal was something I could do to help in a time of need.

“Anything that doesn’t use pork or alcohol,” Pam said.

She suggested a meat dish and a vegetarian dish. I decided on Indian-style chicken curry and vegetable curry. That made more sense to me than lasagna or chicken enchiladas or some casserole, standard comfort food offered at unimaginable times like this.

The Muslim family was Syrian. An aunt in Syria had died. The result of a bombing, I believe. I didn’t know, and didn’t ask for, many details.

The ongoing civil war between Syrian government forces and opposition rebels has resulted in approximately 90,000 fatalities, likely more, depending on what news source and numbers seem credible. That’s the population of Chilliwack, British Columbia, or slightly more than one out of five people living in greater Kansas City.

I spent the afternoon gathering ingredients at the grocery store, returned home and began preparing food that I would deliver by 6 p.m. The family we knew would receive extended family in their home that evening.

After skinning potatoes, I diced them along with carrots and onions. I heated curry powder and vegetable oil in an iron skillet to open up the flavor of the aromatic spices before lightly sauteing the vegetables. Next, I added a bay leaf, coconut milk and more seasoning.

Instead of chicken curry, I opted to prepare chicken tikki masala and used a store-bought brand. I wanted to offer different flavors rather than serving two curry dishes. Plus, I am not skilled in Indian cuisine to make tikki masala sauce from scratch when time was running short. I diced several pounds of chicken breast, minced onion and garlic and sauteed everything before adding the sauce to simmer.

I steamed two batches of rice – one with saffron, the other with cardamom seeds.

I was supposed to bring enough food to feed ten people. Even though the food I made should have been ample, it didn’t feel like enough. I prepared mango chutney, something with sweetness, tartness and spice to complement the combined flavors of mango, raisin, chili and onion. For good measure, I made a batch of fudge brownies. Something for the kids. I had no idea if anyone would like the food I prepared. I didn’t know the family or their tastes.

I packaged the food, loaded the car and headed to the family’s home in south Kansas City.

The husband greeted me at the door. He welcomed me inside. I brought in the first load of food, explained that I had a second load and headed back to retrieve it. My plan was to drop off the food before 6 PM and leave before the guests arrived. When I returned to the door, the husband graciously insisted I come inside and visit. I agreed out of politeness.

His wife, the woman Pam knew, stepped out of the kitchen to greet me. I was introduced to their youngest of six children, a handsome boy who wore eyeglasses and hovered by his father’s side.

I sat in the main room with the husband. We would have coffee, he suggested. We sat and began that semi-formal exchange between two people that had not met before yet still had a mutual connection. With a few words, I had been accepted into this family’s home not as a neighbor or family friend delivering food, but as a guest.

He spoke of his work at Sprint and the house he had purchased in foreclosure and improved with major investment. He gave me a tour of his home and expansive back yard. I saw how he had worked to provide a home for his family. We sat again in the main room, where the youngest son asked about the possibility of going to karate that night. The father patiently explained that guests were coming tonight and that the boy must stay here, despite his eager son’s suggestions on how he could arrange a ride.

The urgency of youth, the will of the father, the generosity of a host, the place of a guest. I watched, listened and waited as this everyday moment between father and son played out against the backdrop of tonight’s agenda.

Guests began to arrive singly and in pairs. Brothers, uncles, cousins, men that uttered words of greeting in low voices I didn’t understand. They glanced my way to acknowledge my presence, not quite understanding who I was or why I was there. I tried to take this moment to depart so that the family could spend time together.

My host insisted I stay longer. I sat once again within a circle of chairs that had been gathered in the room. More men arrived, the host’s father and an uncle. And finally, coffee was served according to Syrian custom. A large, polished pot and a tray of petite cups were placed on a low table along with a tray of dates and a plate of sesame pistachio cookies. A young man poured coffee for me.

Somehow I found myself eating dates and cookies, unable to refuse the generosity bestowed to me. I had come to feed the family and was in turn fed. I sipped the strong, bitter coffee brewed with cardamom. My host explained that it was arabica coffee. It was unlike any roasted, brewed coffee I had ever tasted.

They taught me how to offer up my cup or wave off offers for more coffee. They offered me more dates. As I sat, sipped and nibbled on snacks, I learned that this group of extended Syrian family and friends lived nearby mere minutes from my home. I watched these men – the host’s wife and all children were in another room – as they discussed politics and other topics in a language I didn’t understand. I could only pick out a few words of English mixed in with their native language.

The moment felt familiar. I had grown up listening to my mother speak Thai to friends visiting over a meal or on the phone. I was never taught enough Thai to become fluent, so I learned to glean what I could from words, phrases, tone of voice and expression.

I watched the men and how comfortable they were together. The younger men listening as two elders debated events and circumstances much like my grandfather and uncles once did. I studied their eyes, their skin, their clothes and mannerisms, feeling out of place and privileged at the same time to be present as a guest.

Glancing around this group of men, knowing there were kids in the back room and more people expected to arrive, I wished that I had prepared and brought more food. The next day, I would learn that the kids loved the food and some needed to be held back for the other guests.

I cannot imagine the complex feelings that my hosts dealt with as they absorbed national news and grappled with its human impact on their bloodline.

I thought of my family in Thailand, the conflicts taking place in Bangkok between political parties, the tension between soldiers, police and protesters. I thought of my grandmother, my only remaining living grandparent, who is terribly old and in poor health, and worried that I might never see her again while she was still alive. Even though I am able to connect through short phrases, photos and likes via Facebook with members of my family that live twelve timezones away, I feel so far away and out of touch.

It seemed like I could have stayed in this warm home for the rest of the night. After a few attempts, I finally managed to depart so that this group could spend time together, discuss and grieve, or whatever their custom, in the wake of tragedy taking place on the other side of the world.

Saying goodbye, I thanked my host and left. I had received far more than I had given.

Sometimes life opens a door, a window into the world of others.

Not Syrian or American, just human. We were not so different from each other, I thought, as I drove home to my family.