He washed the dishes slowly with determination before he evicted them from one sink to the next. Soapy bubbles coated raw red skin.
His hands were rough from rubbing them together while watching cable news with one eye trained on the front door. An anxious habit, he clutched his hands together and rubbed them over and over as if a spark might manifest. Cold dry winter air chapped his paws too, but he paid no mind.
Washing dishes gave him time to think. His brutish hands, knuckles as big as walnuts, worked with grace and soaked in the lukewarm grayish water. He handled each mismatched utensil and dish with care as if a baby were being baptized.
She had left him. The house was quiet. All rooms dark save for a sole light in the kitchen that cast an off-white glow over the sinks. Wind howled past naked oak branches and a tire swing just outside the kitchen window.
His mind wandered to the last time they spoke, even further to the final kiss. He didn’t know it at the moment that his lips would never touch hers again. If he had, he might have, no, certainly would have chosen different words. Like a dragon breathing fire, he unleashed accusations and deflected blame with fury and force until there was nothing left.
A Pyrrhic victory. His war of words resulted in loss, permanent and replayed each night. A deep dull ache weighed on his chest.
She sheared contact between them. Removed her belongings from the home. Never returned his calls. Gone. A mass of ice calved from the glacier of their relationship and swept to sea. He felt less than whole.
Hulking over the sink, he slowly rinsed the fork, the knife, the plate, and the glass. He set each one on the drying rack, shut off the light, and leaned into the darkness.
The first spoonful of chicken chorizo vegetable stew tastes rich and savory, slightly smoky with a faint residual heat. Hard nuggets of potatoes and carrots have slowly cooked into creamy, grainy morsels, rising as mountain ranges just above a sea of sienna-colored broth in the bowl. Scattered dark green islands of poblano pepper and specks of oregano form an archipelago. The broth glistens from chicken fat and tomato-chorizo stock, making each slurp feel more indulgent than wholesome and nutritious. Chunks and shredded bits of meat from chicken legs, thighs, and backs are distributed throughout the earthy stew.
Earlier this evening, I debated what I should eat for dinner after waking from an afternoon nap. My head was still groggy. My muscles sore from work over the weekend. I thought about visiting the newly-opened Black Sheep + Market, a farm-to-table restaurant and market from chef Michael Foust and his partners at The Farmhouse. Or, perhaps I could head to The Rieger for the debut of their new fall menu.
Recently, someone had shared a photo of the gargantuan pork tenderloin sandwich at The Firehouse on 20th Bar and Grill The image inspired a craving for the tenderloin and cold, cheap beer. I wrote about that impressive made-from-scratch sandwich three years ago. The sandwich is big enough to constitute two meals. Customers often buy an extra bun for fifty cents and take home the leftovers for a second meal.
However, after splashing cold water on my face, I resorted to peering inside the refrigerator. As often as I open the fridge, you’d think I would have its contents classified and memorized like it was my social security number. Whether it is before midnight, first thing in the morning, or just as hunger pangs inspire action for supper, I often take a gander inside the fridge. Sometimes I’ll also peek in the freezer and then double back to the fridge in case I missed something. At first, I’m reacquainting myself with what’s there or, more often, not there. Other times I open the door and look inside. I’m full of hope as if I’m scratching away at a lottery ticket to score $500 or a beef Wellington. Usually, I’m either assessing leftovers or calculating ingredients and what can be composed into a meal.
I opted for the container of chicken chorizo vegetable stew. Technically, the food wasn’t leftover but instead a dish I prepared a few days ago from various ingredients lying around. I threw them in the crockpot, cooked and seasoned the stew, and then stored it for later in the week. I waited impatiently for the stew to reheat in a deep saucepan on the stove. I could have abandoned the preparation and easily bolted for a restaurant. There, I could sit, drink, and indulge in someone else’s cooking. Yet, I’m glad I didn’t tonight.
I don’t mind spending money on food and drink prepared and served at local restaurants. Not only does it support the local economy, but it also breaks up the monotony of cooking and eating my food daily and nightly. Eating out provides ideas, inspiration and social interaction, a chance to see the results of another cook’s labor and creativity.
Sometimes eating a home-cooked meal provides its own reward. The sensory payoff of a dish’s flavor, aroma, and presentation makes the effort worthwhile. Tonight, the decision to stay home and eat rustic, hearty chicken chorizo vegetable stew paid off.
Two days ago, the last day of summer ended and autumn began in the northern hemisphere. The stretch of daylight has regressed as evening grows dark earlier. It’s a time for festivals, harvest and rituals that prepare us for darkness, cold weather and a slower pace for some. Eating simple meals like stew prepared at home offers comfort and satisfaction. And opening the refrigerator door, a daily ritual to peer from the outside in, is a sort of kitchen equinox that observes a transition from dark to light, from indecision to inspiration. The possibility of hope and pleasure that awaits serves as a reminder that I can nourish myself no matter how many meals await elsewhere far beyond the refrigerator door.
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.”
“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.
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.”