Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. The scent of smoke from wild plum, oak, grapevine, and lavender clings to my skin, my hair, and my clothes. Smoke hangs on with persistence, a ghost that lingers, a presence that is intangible but most certainly there.

As the chef and brand/event manager at Fence Stile Vineyard and Winery, I spent the afternoon preparing ingredients for a farm and market-themed wine and small plates dinner taking place on November 18th in the Tasting Room. Near a pond with a slushy iced surface, I built a small fire to grill radishes and smoke leeks sourced from farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff at Fair Share Farm, based in Kearney, Missouri. I used wild plum wood obtained from farmer Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm, also based in Kearney, and oak and grapevine from the winery estate. A single piece of oak formed the foundation of the fire. Smaller pieces of wood tilted at angles on both sides of the oak like church rafters. Brisk November wind blew across the pond and fanned a flame. Kindling shriveled into glowing orange threads and ash. Soon the fire roared as wood crackled and hissed. 

The upcoming wine and food dinner highlights ingredients and products from Fair Share Farm and Prairie Birthday Farm. Also, Dr. Janet Smith of Borgman’s Dairy Farm, based in Holden, Missouri, supplied milk, cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat milk.

Several varieties of French-American hybrid grapes grow along ten hilly acres that surround the tasting room at Fence Stile. Owner-winemaker Shriti Plimpton launched the winery and vineyards nearly ten years ago. The winery is known for its dry and semi-dry wines, but has a wide range for those with sweeter palates. The upcoming dinner is an opportunity to offer a showcase for how three wines produced onsite – Vignoles, Backpack Red, and Vidal Blanc – pair with seasonal farm ingredients prepared to their utmost flavor.

Vineyard manager Shawna Mull tends to the vines year-round. Sometimes, a section of vine runs its course. Cut into small segments, this particular dry, dead grapevine in the heart of the fire had no more life to give as a lifeline for grape clusters. Burning vine and wood produced smoke that enveloped the bulbs of radishes with leafy greens still attached and a cluster of leeks thick as metal pipes.

You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you.

The wind shifted and smoke blew past my face, prompting my eyes to water. The smoke sent a signal, a reminder. Smoke and fire heeds its own whims and acts as its own master. I attempted to coax the smoke to lend its scent to vegetables on the grill. I tried to tame orange licks of flame to do by bidding. I poked and prodded and fed the fire’s appetite. Flames subsided into coals and smoke wafted at a steady pace, dancing around the radishes and leeks. 

Slowly, the bright magenta skin of the radishes dulled and charred with black flakes. Most of the greens had burned away. Removed from the grill, the radishes more closely resembled baby red potatoes cooked directly in a fire. Grilling the radishes mellows its sharp peppery bite and introduces a soft sweetness. The subtle taste and aroma of smoke will interplay with the sweetness, a tart dash of lemon juice, creamy butter, and a dash of salt to unite the flavors.

The leeks grilled until they softened and charred at the edges. Once the coals were ready, I added stalks of dried lavender from Fence Stile’s flower bed to further perfume the smoke dancing around the leeks. After sufficient smoking, I plucked the leeks from the grill, doused the coals, and headed to the kitchen. 

The leeks and radishes are only some of the produce received from Fair Share Farm. They also provided pristine small salad turnips with ivory skin and lush plumes of green leaves. I trimmed the greens and set them aside. They will be sauteed in a pan with Chinese broccoli and served with spelt, a rustic grain similar to farro. Salted and buttered grilled radishes will accompany the greens and spelt. I roasted the trimmed turnips with garlic cloves in the oven until they were tender, sweet gems. 

After paring the charred tough outer skin of the leeks, I cut them into long strips and then chopped them into smaller pieces. The scent and taste of smoke on the leeks seemed to aggressive. Not only would it compete with the other flavors in the dish, it would overwhelm the wine pairing with Backpack Red. This light-bodied, dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton offered a hint of pepper and earthiness on the finish. Bold smoke would wrestle and dominate the wine, altering the balance of the sweet, salty, earthy and smoky flavors. 

I tucked the chopped leek into a food processor and pureed the contents. A light cloud of steam and smoke arose. Perhaps the leeks could become a sauce for oven-roasted turnips? Ransacking the refrigerator, I selected a jar of creamy goat milk yogurt from Borgman’s Dairy. Slowly, I spooned dollops of yogurt and sprinkled a bit of salt into the leeks and whipped them further. The leeks transformed into a creamy, thick sauce that still bore a hint of smoke. The savory, smoky sauce will provide suitable balance for sweet, earthy turnips. 

Slowly, the various components of this dish, one of three, were coming together.Once assembled, plated and served, this melange of smoked, roasted and sauteed vegetables and grain should work in harmony. The goal is to stimulate the senses, appease the appetite, and illustrate how Backpack Red tastes with a variety of flavors while holding its own. 

Other small plate dishes for the Farm and Market meal include a sweet potato, ginger, and turmeric samosa with curry goat’s milk yogurt sauce (paired with Vignoles). Dessert will be honey and apple sweet grits topped with Fence Stile blackberry compote and goat’s milk caramel sauce (paired with Vidal Blanc).

Smoking is one technique used to impart flavor and aroma to food. Its scent and taste connect with the primal parts of our brain and ancient appetites that learned how smoke adds character to food and drink consumed. Even when curls of smoke have dissipated, the aroma of smoke is a remnant of wood and vine that grew over years, served its purpose, and continues on its journey in an intangible form. Smoke is ethereal yet real like the memory of a remarkable meal or bottle of wine that makes a lasting impression long after the last bit and sip. 

You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. It sends a signal from past to present before continuing on for those ready to receive. 

Thirty Minutes Past Two

Thirty Minutes Past Two

Thirty minutes past two in the birth of today. Unreal Ocean, a selection from a white noise generator app on my phone, fails to lull me to a deep sea sleep.

I stir and tumble out of bed like a clumsy gymnast impressing no one with my floor routine. Hunger tugs.

I scramble two eggs from Stanberry Community Farms. The eggs were nestled in a gray cardboard carrier. Each carton of eggs includes a slip of white paper eight-and-a-half inches wide and about an inch high. A handwritten message or poem is photocopied on the paper. The homespun message or observation bears a mark of humanity unlike any fortune cookie’s neat and pat wisdom printed in tiny typography.

Worry is a futile thing
It’s much like a rocking chair
although it keeps you occupied
It doesn’t get you anywhere

True enough. I save these slips of paper behind a magnet on the refrigerator. This lazy scrapbook reminds me that someone took the time to write and include a message in a carton of eggs produced by hens at a farm operated by a farmer an hour-and-a-half north of the bed where I can’t sleep.

I fold the scrambled egg whites and yolks into the blanket of a white flour tortilla, add yellow shredded cheese produced from some factory, and tuck the warm meal into a handheld roll. The morning breakfast doesn’t last long. It rouses hunger even more. I obey.

I hunt and peck in the refrigerator. Out comes a hunk of pork loin. Bunches of shiso mint, peppermint, and Italian parsley look like limp pom-poms from an underfunded junior high school in a town you’ve never heard of.

A black cast iron skillet is called up for duty. I slake its thirst with sunflower oil. Heat soaks into its dense hide.

I wash the herbs and cut a generous pinch from each bunch on a white cutting board. The nine-inch knife slices and minces the aromatic green leaves and stems like a scythe sails through stalks of wheat. I toss the herbs in a bowl.

The refrigerator is an easy jailbreak for a hunk of white onion and its partner, a lemon that’s been partially amputated. I liberate a narrow wedge of onion, mince it into a flash mob, and add the bits and pieces to the bowl of herbs. The amputated lemon cries a river after a rough squeeze. I lightly toss the mix with a fork, season it with a brief April snowstorm of kosher salt, and set it aside.

A single red baby potato doesn’t stand a chance against the knife. Sorry, babe. Slices lie flat, devoid of expression, still in shock.

The cast iron skillet is a teenage dragon, all fumes and attitude, smoking, just sitting there doing nothing.

Baby potato slices scream in the hot oil sauna. Sugars in the creamy white flesh slowly caramelize into golden brown.

I grab the pork loin and trim out an oval medallion about three-quarters of an inch think. Salt and pepper applies a tag-team seasoning whammy. One, two, pow, bang.

The potato slices are flipped, browned, removed, placed on a plate, and salted again for good measure.

The pork is presented as an offering to the dragon. It hisses with appreciation.

As the pork sears and sings one last song, I arrange six coins of browned potato in a circle on a white plate. I anoint the end of each slice with a dab of brown mustard.

I turn the pork cutlet over, sear it off, season it, and gently arrange it in the middle of the petals of potato. Next I spoon a generous amount of herb garnish atop the pork. The garnish adds much-needed color and a pop of savory mint-lemon flavor to each bite. The mustard’s sharpness offsets the light greasy potatoes and plays sidekick to juicy pork.

As I eat, deeper into the morning, I read a passage from “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson, p. 40. The character Bill Whitman, who is “just shy of sixty-three,” muses in bed, unable to sleep.

“I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.”

Essay Excerpt: When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Essay Excerpt: When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

“When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley” is the title of an essay I wrote for the series What It Means to Be American, a project by The Smithsonian and Arizona State University in conjunction with Zócalo Public Square.

Los Angeles-based nonprofit Zócalo Public Square, an ASU Knowledge Enterprise Magazine of Ideas, syndicates journalism on its site to media outlets worldwide. Zócalo editor Eryn Brown contacted me in October 2017 and commissioned an essay for the series, What It Means to Be American. After discussion, we decided on a topic that would explore the history of winemaking and grape-growing in Kansas before and after Prohibition. I wrote the essay over a month’s time, building on research I had unearthed while writing Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri.

Below is an introductory excerpt from the essay. Visit the links below to read the entire essay.

When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.

California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry in production. Bold entrepreneurs, industrious Kansas farmers—many of them German-speaking immigrants—produced 35,000 gallons of wine in 1872. That volume jumped more than six-fold by the end of the decade.

But the growth in Kansas’ wine industry (and its sister industry, brewing) coincided with dramatic changes in the state. From 1860 to 1880, Kansas’ population mushroomed from 107,206 to nearly one million people. Kansans battled over slavery in the Kansas-Missouri Border War (1854-1861) and again during the Civil War (1861-1865). Kansas vintners faced a dynamic and challenging moral, social, business, and political climate. The region’s civic and religious leaders railed against the use of alcohol, which they believed contributed to moral decay and spiritual rot, leading them to implement the first statewide prohibition on selling and manufacturing alcohol in the United States in 1881. For more than a century, this ban caused a slowdown from which the Free State’s winemakers are only now beginning to emerge.

Read the entire essay.

Image caption: Still photograph of teetotaler women from the satirical short film Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901), which spoofs the Wichita temperance activist Carrie Nation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Enjoy a Hot Scotchy or Hot Worty at Brewery Emperial This Winter

Enjoy a Hot Scotchy or Hot Worty at Brewery Emperial This Winter

In a recent “Tap List” beer column on Flatland, I wrote about a beer cocktail, the Hot Worty, served at Brewery Emperial on brewing days. Similar to a hot toddy, a hot worty (also known as a Hot Scotchy) is made with fresh warm wort from the brewery kettle served with a shot of Scotch whiskey. The article goes into more detail about wort, hot worties, and how master brewer Keith Thompson and chef Ted Habiger, two of Brewery Emperial’s co-owners, first encountered the drink at 75th Street Brewery two decades ago.

The article was edited for length. Here’s more background on the drink and its origins.

Thompson and Habiger first encountered hot wort as a beverage at 75th Street Brewery, where the two friends first met and worked. Artie Tafoya consulted with the owners of 75th Street Brewery during the Nineties. Tafoya introduced hot wort as a drink to 75th Street’s  brewer Tom Ricker and the brewery’s staff.

Brown Ale: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes by Ray Daniels and Jim Parker further explains the drink’s murky origins.

“The origins of the following ritual are rather sketchy, but the late Russell Scherer is often credited with introducing it to the craft-brewing scene. Jim learned about hot scotchies from Artie Tafoya on a very cold, snowy day when he was brewing at the Hubcap Brewery in Vail, Colorado. The process is very simple. Once you have recirculated and clarified your wort, draw off about a pint of first runnings, leaving enough room in the glass for an ounce of good single malt whisky. Add the Scotch, mix well, and drink. The rich malt sugar of the wort combines wonderfully with the whisky – particularly a peatier Islay or lowland Scotch – to make a delicious warm drink that gives you a nice energy boost during your brew day. A hot scotchie at the beginning of the lauter can help prevent stuck mashes – or at least make them easier to cope with when they occur.”

Field Notes: A Visit to Fair Share Farm

Field Notes: A Visit to Fair Share Farm

I visited Fair Share Farm in Kearney, Missouri, in late March. There, I met with long-time friends and farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff. They grow crops for their community-supported agriculture (CSA) members and canned fermented foods like kim chi and sauerkraut. The trip’s purpose was to research and gather information for a story in the June issue of Feast magazine. The story focuses on farming techniques that enrich the land and preserve the environment. This audiovisual journal provides a behind-the-scenes look at some of the farm’s operations not covered in the print story. (Image above provided courtesy of Fair Share Farm.)

Through audiovisual journal entries like this one, I will share a peek into my work as a writer. In this case, it is literally in the field. I plan to use similar journal entries to explore and expand different forms of storytelling. Please look, listen, and leave a comment about what you like and what could be improved.

Hopefully, you will enjoy this visit to Fair Share Farm. I enjoyed tromping through the fields and discussing the role of small-scale farmers like Tom and Rebecca. As the sun set, we settled down in their home for a truly farm-to-table dinner with ample conversation, wine and beer. But that’s a story for another day.

The chicken pen. Guess which one rules the roost?


Tom and Rebecca cover starter plants before cool evening weather sets in. The passive solar energy greenhouse design uses natural heat to help the growth of seedlings into starter plants.


The high tunnel is used to extend the growing season and produce a wide range of crops. At times between plantings, the chickens are rotated to the high tunnel and let loose to feed on insects, seeds and plant matter, till the ground through their pecking, and leave manure as fertilizer for the soil. This integrated system of biological farming (rather than chemical-based farming) improves the health of the soil. It also helps to sequester tens of thousand of carbon dioxide through consumption by cover crops, such as oats and field peas, instead of being released into the atmosphere.


Below, the high tunnel with full beds of lettuces, greens, herbs and other crops.

Image courtesy of Fair Share Farm.


Females on Fire at Jax Restaurant

Females on Fire at Jax Restaurant

The second annual Females on Fire event at Jax Fish House brought together a collection of talented female chefs and restaurant industry professionals for a five-course dinner with amuse bouche and drink pairings.

benay-shannon-females-on-fireHeld on October 11, 2016, this year’s featured chefs include Julian owner and chef Celina Tio, Bluestem pastry assistant Elise Landry, Krokstrom Klubb & Market chef Katee McLean, chef Kelly Conwell with Stock Hill Kansas City Steakhouse, Novel pastry chef Jessica Armstrong, and chef de cuisine Theresia Ota and executive chef Sheila Lucero from Jax Fish House. Drinks were prepared or selected by Clare Gillette with Pinnacle Imports, sommelier Jennifer Daugherty, Jax Fish House assistant general manager and cicerone Margaret Adams, cicerone and BackNapkin marketing director Erica Schulte, Restless Spirits Distilling co-owner Benay Shannon and Ça Va sommelier Caitlin Corcoran.

Also held annually at Jax Fish House in Denver, the Females on Fire event creates a showcase for the female talent in an industry where the top talent is predominantly white and male.

Rather than interpret the meaning of Females on Fire from my perspective, I invited several of the women involved in this event to share their thoughts on its significance and value.

Chef de cuisine Theresia Ota, Jax Fish House

What does participation in the Females on Fire dinner mean to you as a professional in the restaurant industry?
Bringing Females on Fire to Kansas City was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I got hired at Jax Kansas City. My boss and mentor Chef Sheila Lucero was hosting these events in Colorado when I was a brand-new cook. I always aspired to be invited to attend, and now I get to host them! It’s a thrill and an honor.

What do you think Females on Fire signifies or communicates to the public in attendance?
The Kansas City restaurant community is super talented, welcoming and supportive. I hope Females on Fire showcases all of those qualities.

Favorite aspect of the event?
I love getting to work with these women. We all manage kitchens. We all have a somewhat similar experience making our bones in this industry. I view Females on Fire as a celebration of making it, and achieving the goal of becoming a titled chef. I want more women to be involved and experience camaraderie; that we can all achieve and be successful.

Pastry assistant Elise Landry, Bluestem
In my career so far, I’ve worked a handful of events with a similar layout as Females on Fire with a group of chefs coming together and each having a course and a pairing. However, I’ve never worked a dinner where I’ve gotten my own course! I see it as a huge step in my career, and it means a lot that those I’ve always seen (and continue to see) as mentors are starting to become my peers.

I think the Females on Fire dinner represents a shift in the once male-dominated industry. More and more I see kitchens with an equal number of men and women. This dinner was a way to showcase (some of) the female talent in KC (because there is a lot!) to the public. The dinner sold out, so I think it’s safe to say we are a force to be reckoned with!

Erica Schulte, Certified Cicerone
General Manager, The Rockhill Grille
Marketing Director, Back Napkin Restaurant Group
I participated for the second year in the Females on Fire dinner. It’s an honor for sure! There are a ton of women in KC constantly raising the game in the industry so it’s a huge compliment to get asked. It’s such good networking as well as an easy way to build new friendships.

I hope that the attendees see it as collaboration as well as an experience they look forward to every year. Local women coming together to present something collectively shows respect and passion. It’s such a fun and laid-back event. Hopefully they see it as a chance to be introduced to new food or spirits/beer/wine that they didn’t know about. Educating is always a big thing for me and putting it into such a fun dinner is a blast.

My favorite aspect is that it’s just plain fun. Preparing for it has never felt like work, because it’s something I love. The experience both years has been memorable. At the end of the day, that’s more important than anything – creating the experience they won’t forget.

Chef Celina Tio, owner of Julian and The Belfry
What does participation in the Females on Fire dinner mean to you as a professional in the restaurant industry?
We’re all so busy. It’s awesome when we get to cook and share best practices with other great chefs.

What do you think Females on Fire signifies or communicates to the public in attendance?  
I think that it show exactly that – community. We all work hard to do great things but when you can support one another, that is extra special. I know people aren’t going to dine with me every day of the week. I like to be able to suggest other great places throughout the city. When we come together and work together, we show everyone that teamwork is key.

Favorite aspect of the event?
Finally meeting some people whose places I haven’t yet been because of my schedule.

Sommelier Jennifer Daugherty
As a woman in industry, dinners like this are really exciting because I’m used to being one of the few women in the building. In fine dining, the standard still seems to be put a cute girl at the door and that’s it. In the last decade, I haven’t worked with more than four other female servers at a time. To spend an evening with knowledgeable women at the top of their game was invigorating.

I’m excited to have been part of the event to show the public we are out there. It may take pooling from different restaurants to fill a room, but that’s another story. Despite my pin, I often have guests who don’t seem to believe I’m a sommelier. The chef I was paired with, Katee, has people assume she must be front of house when she says she owns a restaurant. People automatically assume chefs are men and women work in diners and call you “hon” as they serve you pie. I sometimes have people googling food info at my tables because they don’t think I know what I’m talking about.

My favorite aspect was listening to how collaborative everyone was. We tried each other’s courses or pairing and discussed in thoughtful detail how we felt about it. We immediately started spit balling off each other about future adventures we’d like to make happen.

Females on Fire dinner at Jax Fish House

Chef Kelly Conwell of Stock Hill prepared an amuse bouche of Fanny Bay Oyster with apple, cucumber, ginger, and Champagne mignonette. Restless Spirits distiller/co-owner Benay Shannon paired the course with a cocktail of Builder’s Gin, lavender and lemon.

Chef Jessica Armstrong of Novel created a crab eclair with caviar. Clare Gillette selected Champagne Extra Brut NV Pierre Gerbais from France for the pairing.

Females on Fire dinner at Jax Fish House

Chef Katee McLean of Krokstrom Klubb made smoked scallops served with roasted and pickled cauliflower, celery, and sour cream. Sommelier Jennifer Daugherty opted to serve Sancerre, Chaumeau Balland 2014 from France.

Chef Celina Tio of Julian accented tai snapper crudo with raspberry, wakame, and yuzu. She paired the course with Jolly Pumpkin’s O Saison beer.


Chefs Sheila Lucero and Theresia Ota of Jax Fish House composed a dish of abalone with hand-folded rice noodle, cha shu, scallion, black vinegar, and dulse. Erica Schulte’s beer cocktail featured J. Rieger gin, Blossom of Peace plum sake, Hitachino wit beer, and ginger.

Females on Fire dinner

Chef Elise Landry of Bluestem prepared brown butter tart with roasted plums, buttermilk ice cream, and thyme. Caitlin Corcoran of Ça Va served Champagne Demi-Sec NV Premier Cru, A Margaine, from France.