Fox and Pearl Brings Its Hearth to Kansas City’s Westside

Fox and Pearl Brings Its Hearth to Kansas City’s Westside

Flames and glowing coals in Fox and Pearl’s hearth are visible through the restaurant’s west-facing windows. The well-tended wood fire in the kitchen is an invitation, a flickering signal for diners and travelers to gather in the Westside’s newest addition. Chef Vaughn Good and his partner and co-owner Kristine Hull opened Fox and Pearl near the bottom of a steep hill on Summit Street. In a way, the restaurant is a summit in the couple’s journey as restaurateurs.

From Lawrence to the Westside
Good, who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, moved to New York and studied at The International Culinary Center. “I was into molecular cooking and super modern food,” Good says. Then he met a chef at the school who inspired a shift in focus. “Charcuterie was his thing. It was a turning point for me. I started working with him and became fascinated with [butchering] and rootsy cooking.”

Good returned to Lawrence and worked as a sous chef at Pachamamas, where he had previously interned. Next, Good and Hull opened Hank Charcuterie in 2014. The shop concept quickly expanded into a full-service restaurant that appeased demand for his dishes but outgrew Good’s original intent. 

“When it initially opened, I wanted it to just be a butcher shop and charcuterie,” Good says. “We couldn’t change the business name because it was already established. I felt stuck at Hank.”

Lawrence’s food scene is mostly geared to college-age diners. Good couldn’t find an audience for specialty offerings like foie gras sausage, for example. He says, “I was dictated to about what would work. We sold lots of burgers. The specials were our passion but we couldn’t sell it.”

After a four-year run, Good and Hull considered moving the business to another location in Lawrence. They decided to migrate to Kansas City. The relocation made sense to them. Good says, “Sixty or seventy percent of our customers were coming from Kansas City.”

 

Their new concept Fox and Pearl refers to the middle names of their daughters. Temporarily based in Novel’s former restaurant space (815 W. 17th St., Westside, Kansas City), Good began expanding his menu for a fresh audience. “The foie gras sausage at 815 was one of our biggest sellers,” Good says. “I only made burgers one day a week.” 

Good’s confidence grew, knowing he had creative freedom to explore ideas and develop dishes. Meanwhile, Hull and Good also searched for a more permanent location. 

They were drawn to an empty space with spacious windows and maple flooring on the corner of Summit Street. The couple worked with real estate developer and landlord Adam Jones to radically transform the space. The restaurant and bar occupies the main floor with additional seating and open kitchen on the mezzanine, and an outdoor patio. They installed a spiral staircase that leads to a basement bar, where retired Boulevard Brewing employee and music fan Trip Hogue spins ska and reggae vinyl records on Friday evenings. Good and Hull now had a setting to fashion a full-blown restaurant concept that suited their interests, expertise, and vision.

“I’m excited about the building,” Good says. “The time we had at the Novel space was important. We got to know people in the neighborhood. We want to be a neighborhood space for people in the community.”

 

From the Hearth
TThe wood-fired hearth is a key fixture in Fox and Pearl’s open kitchen visible from the mezzanine. Regarding the kitchen design, Good says, “People are interested in knowing where food comes from. People are interested in photos of the cooking process.”

Split pieces of oak and hickory wood are stacked on the patio, readymade fuel for cooking in the mason-built hearth. Local artist Bill Wenzel constructed the smoker positioned to the left of the hearth. Fox and Pearl also has a separate larger smoker formerly used at Hank Charcuterie. Good makes charcuterie and butchers meat in a dedicated room in the basement.

“Having a hearth will change the cooking quite a bit,” Good says. “I knew how to cook over fire. Now it’s getting in there, learning the tricks and setups and what works here. The built-in smoker can also be used as a warming oven. It imparts good flavor.”

Good drew inspiration for live-fire cooking from other chefs. Fox and Pearl developed its basic hearth design on chef Ted Habiger’s setup at Brewery Emperial in the East Crossroads. Both Habiger and Good were individually inspired by Camino, an influential Oakland, California, restaurant known for its wood-fired cooking. Highly-regarded Argentine chef, author, and restaurateur Francis Mallmann was another culinary North Star for both Habiger and Good’s aspirations to use a hearth in their kitchens. Good and his chef de cuisine Isaac Hendry (above right), who previously cooked at Hank Charcuterie, Bluestem, and Port Fonda, also researched many books on wood-fired cooking. 

Food is served on earthenware dishes created by Lawrence artist Michael Crouch. Good discovered the artist’s handcrafted coffee mugs in a Lawrence shop and commissioned the dishware. “It was his first time making plates,” Good said. “The kiln is wood-fired. Each firing gives each dish its own personality.” 

The focus on butchery and charcuterie is evident on the menu. Pork, beef, and chicken as well as rabbit, duck, lamb, and eventually goat will make appearances. For instance, made-from-scratch rabbit bacon sausage arrives on a cream-colored dish with a deep lip. Grilled potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, paprika sauce and mango-colored flower petals also adorn the dish. While categorically a meat-and-potatoes dish, the tangy mushrooms and savory sauce added pleasing depth to comfort food that’s far from plain. I paired this course with Off Color Brewing’s Apex Predator. This farmhouse ale is juicy and hazy with a dry finish and fruity character. Quite different from Belgian-forward floral saisons and farmhouse ales like Boulevard’s Tank 7, Apex Predator seamlessly paired with the caramelized flavors and delicate smokiness of Good’s lightly grilled food.

Other dishes include porchetta on a bed of horseradish turnip purée with grilled onions and salsa verde. Smoked and grilled duck breast is served with caramelized onion tart, cider turnips, and duck jus. Large parties might opt for the family-style portion of fried chicken with fermented hot sauce and pickles.

Vegetables, starches, beans and ingredients kissed by flame and smoke are also key components of dishes. For instance, roasted root vegetables are plated with peach sorghum vinegar, duck confit, and a crispy poached duck egg for good measure. 

Simplicity sometimes means restraint, allowing fresh ingredients to express flavor without unnecessary adornment. Subtly smoky tomato vinaigrette contributed umami to a salad of heirloom tomatoes, spicy greens, grilled squash, and cucumber relish. The dressing added depth without drowning the salad in a tsunami of excess. Nettle sheep’s milk cheese and crispy strands of fried shallots offered contrasting textures to a salad as pleasing as a summer lullaby. 

Duck pâté topped with strawberry jam and served with Ibis Bakery bread arrives on a wood plank. Ibis Bakery produces some of the best bread in the city. Its crunchy crust and chewy interior dappled with air pockets was a smart choice as a platform for what felt like a sophisticated PB&J. The bread counterbalanced the pâté’s custardy texture while the jam’s sweetness brightened its mild flavor.

Served in a petite iron skillet, a blueberry buckle dessert was on point with its homespun feel. A buckle is a coffee cake-like dessert where the cake batter rises or “buckles” around the fruit. This version had the lightness and texture of a sweetened cornbread with intense berry flavor. While an unconventional choice, I ordered a glass of J. Brix Skin Contact Pinot Gris 2018 to accompany the dessert. The Pinot Gris’ cherry notes, subtle spice on the finish, and gentle structure of this skin contact (aka orange wine) paired well with the buckle and delivered a satisfying conclusion to the meal. 

Lo-Fi Wines and Cocktails With Character
General manager and wine director Richard Garcia (above left), who first met Good and Hull as coworkers at Pachamamas, also worked at The Golden Ox, Novel, and The Antler Room. The couple recruited Garcia to be a core team member at Fox and Pearl, where he fashioned the wine list with an emphasis on biodynamic wines. 

“I call them lo-fi or minimal intervention wines,” Garcia says. Vineyard management and use of chemicals is 100-percent dependent on the environment and climate. When possible, Garcia sources wine from small producers dedicated to using “little to no chemicals in the vineyards that would wind up in the ecosystem.” These selections mirror “what Vaughn is doing in the kitchen” as far as working with small, eco-conscious farms and producers.

Designed to be approachable, the wine list highlights lo-fi wines and also lesser-known New World and Old World wines. Garcia says, “The world of wine is vast and hard to navigate. You try to find importers that parallel your values and offer wines you enjoy.”

Garcia’s wine descriptions are intentionally light and “tongue in cheek.” For instance, a Hungarian Hegyi-Kaló Kékfrankos 2015, made from Blaufränkish red grapes, is summarized as “cherries and violets, balanced acid and texture, sleeper hit for sure.” A sparkling La Vignereuse Gaia Quoi! Pet-Nat Syrah, from Gaillac, France, sounds like a catchy K-pop song – “plum and violet fizzy pop, easy going and super fun.” The listing for La Vignereuse Mayga Watt 2017, a Gamay from Gaillac, France, is hardly pretentious – “strawberry soda sop, melty push pop, indeed chuggable.”

“Making wine lists is like making mix tapes,” Garcia says. “There are elements of yourself and poetry. Little gems you want to share with friends and the world.” 

Bar manager Katy Wade (above right) honed her craft at top venues in Kansas City and Lawrence, including Voltaire, The Golden Ox, The Rieger, Julep, and 715 Mass. Her approach to unfussy cocktails further reinforces Fox and Pearl’s intent to be “a welcoming neighborhood place.”

Look for seasonal ingredients, such as blackberries and blueberries, and local spirits in cocktails. As an industry veteran, Wade is savvy to the wealth of well-made craft cocktails through Kansas City. She simply aims for her offerings to be “fun, accessible, and good.” 

To that end, Copper and Tod is a riff on the animal names in the film The Fox and The Hound. Wade says, “It’s our take on an Old Fashioned.” J. Rieger & Co whiskey, Old Grand Dad bourbon, Amaro Nonino, and Luxardo Maraschino form the quartet in this classic. 

The Third Plate is a rotating seasonal cocktail utilizing local produce. “It’s inspired by chef Dan Barber’s book on how we eat, what is available and seasonal,” Wade says. She also plans to develop alcohol-free and low-alcohol cocktails, a trendy alternative now available in New York and Los Angeles bars.

The basement bar and lounge, not a speakeasy, mind you, will have different offerings than the upstairs bar. Wade intends to feature spirits that “express a sense of place and terroir,” such as single-estate Tequila Ocho and sherries. She adds, “We’ll use the space to explore special spirits in a more intimate setting, where the bartender may spend more personalized time with guests.”

Feels Like Home
Fox and Pearl’s food evokes the bygone days of farmhouse cooking once commonly practiced in households as a matter of necessity. Baking bread, putting up preserves, butchering meat, and growing vegetables in a garden were (and are) labor-intensive activities. Putting sustenance on the supper table was more practical than pastoral. Foodstuffs were once exclusively sourced from farmland, ranch, field and stream. Fox and Pearl offers a modern version of this experience, where guests may enjoy the delicious riches of someone else’s creativity and labor.

Good’s cooking draws on southern and midwestern cooking influences from his upbringing. His iteration of regional cuisine uses wood and smoke in time-tested techniques. Yet, he isn’t beholden to Kansas City’s barbecue tradition or boundary lines of what regional cuisine should be. The menu at Fox and Pearl is adventurous yet approachable. Chermoula-rubbed quail with stewed field peas and greens, black garlic yogurt, radish salad, pickled garlic scape, and hush puppy? Good deploys a North African sauce on a game bird supported by southern cooking staples. Elsewhere, heartland meets Old World as Good marries casarecce, a type of Sicilian pasta, with Kansas white beans, mustard greens, herbed buttermilk cheese, and black walnut gremolata. These dishes exemplify Good’s culinary imagination and versatility by tapping into seemingly disparate foodways. 

Fox and Pearl will inevitably be described with words like rustic, farm to table, rootsy, and chef-driven. These words still have currency and apply, to a degree, to the food and experience that Good, Hull and their team have shaped. Yet, sometimes language or a hashtag serves as shorthand to sketch an impression, conveying an implied sense of being in the know without fully providing context.

Rustic evokes gauzy imagery of rural life in the countryside, where folks wear denim and mud-flecked boots and drive old trucks that run forever. The term also refers to unsophisticated, coarse people from the country, who lack social graces or polish. A yokel, if you will. The food, wine, cocktails, service, and decor at Fox and Pearl is anything but unrefined and provincial. Fox and Pearl connects diners in a cozy urban neighborhood setting with farms, ranches, and provisional suppliers located outside of city limits. 

More to the point, Fox and Pearl’s team have realized a vision for their aspirations. Within the realm of possibilities for what a new restaurant and bar might be, Hull, Good, and their team’s combined ideas and raison d’etre for Fox and Pearl are synchronized and unified. Warm sunlight fills the space and glows across the maple floor. Spacious booths and banquettes, family-style tables, and cozy bar stools offer multiple settings to have an intimate meal, a convivial gathering, or to rub elbows with the charming person at the bar. While brand new, Fox and Pearl already feels as familiar and inviting as home.

Swedes and Sunshine
Parking at the intersection of Summit Street and Avenida Cesar E. Chavez affords a view of the 1907 three-story brick building that houses Fox and Pearl. Cast iron five-pointed stars adorn the brick wall to the west like black sparks from an ancient fire long since cooled and bound in place. These stars are anchor plates, commonly used in European cities, towns, and villages on 18th and 19th century brick and masonry-based buildings. Connected to a tie rod or bolt, the anchor plates provide strength by reinforcing the wall. If read like a constellation and with knowledge of the city’s history, the stars are clues to the slow, gradual evolution of the Westside.

Fox and Pearl makes its home in a neighborhood long associated with its Latino and Mexican-American residents and cultural roots. Yet the building is a reminder that the area was once known as Swede Hill. In the 1900s, around 2,000 Swedes and western European immigrants settled in this hilly section of the city. 

According to Niel M. Johnson’s Swedes in Kansas City: Selected Highlights of Their History, Swedes began arriving in Kansas City in 1868. Some continued westward to rural towns such as Lindsborg, Kansas. Others settled near Kansas City’s riverfront, where they worked at meatpacking houses and on the railroads. 

By the 1880s, growing numbers of Swedish settlers congregated next to German and Irish immigrants. Swede Hill “was bounded by 25th Street (the railroad tracks) on the south to 16th on the north and from the bluff on the west to Broadway on the east,” according to Johnson. Gradually, Mexican-Americans rented and bought homes built by immigrant Swedes. By the 1920s, the neighborhood’s identity shifted from Swede Hill to the Westside. 

Swedish-Americans once gathered in the brick building that is now home to Fox and Pearl. The building originally housed the Nytta, Nöje och Enighet Lodge [usefulness, enjoyment, and unity], a Swedish-American social organization. The Swedish Pioneer Club No. 1 (Pionärklubben), another fraternal organization established in Kansas City in 1896, also met at the hall. 

Swedish-Americans observed native customs at the hall, such as midsommar and the julfest [Midsummer and the Christmas festival]. According to Johnson, cultural programs also included “readings of Swedish stories and reports by members on trips to Sweden or to remote places in the U.S.” Following each program, members served “a light supper, which might be accompanied by a case of beer and a fifth of ‘sunshine’ (whiskey).”

The first floor of the brick building later housed a drug store, possibly Stevens Drug Store, and grocery, likely Noon and Johnson. By 1970, the Swedish Pioneer Club and NN&E had dissolved. The latter organization sold their building to the Guadalupe Society. 

 A preserved Swedish lodge banner bearing the slogan Nytta, Nöje och Enighet is currently displayed on another floor of the brick building. The banner may be moved to Fox and Pearl’s upper dining room. 

The Swedish spirit of usefulness, enjoyment, and unity and Westside roots imbues Fox and Pearl’s modern space with an innate sense of history tied to the community. Other signs of the building’s rich history are evident. Blue-and-white tilework by Fox and Pearl’s fire engine red front door designate “Drugs,” a nod to the pharmacy that once operated in the space. 

Inside, Fox and Pearl displays a black-and-white photograph from 1923 of a grocery store and a second-floor butcher shop that once conducted business onsite. Artist Peregrine Honig and musician Mark Southerland, two longtime creative contributors to the cultural growth of the Crossroads, lived and worked in the building’s first-floor studio space years ago. Boulevard Brewing Company’s marketing department offices were once located on an upper floor of the building. Today, Fox and Pearl operates in a fully-transformed setting replete with rich history, providing hospitality, supper from its hearth, and even a bit of “sunshine.” 

Tradition and Trend in Buttermilk Grafitti

Tradition and Trend in Buttermilk Grafitti

I’ve been reading Buttermilk Grafitti, a food memoir by Edward Lee. Lee explores melting-pot cuisine across America. His writing deftly examines cities and communities and how immigrants and cultural forces shape a cuisine or local specialty. Lee shares anecdotes and conversations with chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, food enthusiasts, and passersby on his travels. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, “The Palace of Pastami.”

Brian Shapiro, Shapiro’s Delicatessen, Indianapolis: “All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”

Chef-author Edward Lee: “So there is no chef here?

Shapiro: “We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of the group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This…” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.”

This passage sparked a lively conversation when I posted it on Facebook. For me, Shapiro doesn’t entirely discount the impact of chefs as artists who may adapt to trends. His primary point is that adhering to traditional recipes and preparation methods have been the key to his family’s kosher delicatessen over four generations.

Operating since 1905, Shapiro’s focuses on a specific culture and its foods. It makes sense to emphasize the consistency of preparation and quality over time. The pastrami sandwich, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and other dishes are standbys. They are tried-and-true touchstones for regular customers that have been patronizing Shapiro’s for years. These prepared foods upholding Jewish traditions are also a draw for tourists and food lovers seeking genuine tastes.

There’s something comforting in eating food like this. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, whether it’s classic Italian-American cuisine based on family recipes brought from the old country or fried chicken that stands the test of time. Clearly, Shapiro’s has found a successful approach that pleases customers and generates profits. Otherwise, change would certainly happen if the business weren’t making money.

Underscoring Shapiro’s point, the focus centers on the food preparation more than the cook or chef making it. The culture of the group, the tradition of the family, whether tied to ethnicity or regional style, supersedes the influence of any one person.

Ong Choy With Pork Belly at Kim Son’s

Detour

Tonight I pulled into Kim Son’s Restaurant (7514 N. Oak Trafficway, Gladstone). Glad I did. 

A $6.95 Chinese buffet banner hangs above the front door. It is a tempting lure; however, that price applies to the lunch buffet. Later, the young woman behind the register said that a dinner buffet might be available in coming weeks. Meanwhile, I was hungry and curious to see what else Kim Son’s had to offer.

The menu offered both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In need of updating and reprinting, the menu has a number of items that are crossed out. I opted for #14, a Vietnamese dish made with ong choy and pork belly served with rice. 

Ong Choy

Ong choy is also known as morning glory, water spinach, and many other names. If you haven’t had ong choy, then seize the opportunity to eat a dish that features it. Ong choy is an oft-eaten staple in Thai and Vietnamese households. Abundant and available at Asian markets, inexpensive, and delicious, ong choy is also nutritious as a leafy green.

I haven’t seen the vegetable as an option in Vietnamese restaurants around Kansas City. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. Regardless, this dish had a home-style cooking feel to it that made it more appealing. 

I failed to jot down the Vietnamese name of the ong choy dish I ordered at Kim Son’s. The proper name of the dish is similar to rau muong xao toi, or ong choy stir-fried with garlic. The menu has options for at least two other dishes featuring ong choy besides pork belly, but I cannot recall whether it was catfish, chicken, or other protein. Odds are you can order a vegetarian dish of it that would also taste great.

The plant has a thin, long, and hollow stem and a slender triangular-shaped leaf when uncooked. Whether stir-fried or steamed, ong choy has the light taste of fresh leafy greens with no bitterness and a tender texture. Thin watery sauce in this dish added subtle sweetness and hint of salt. A wedge of lime squeezed onto the dish provided a suitable amount of acidity for balance.

Thin pieces of pork belly were mostly lightly rendered fat that added layers of flavor – a faint sourness reminiscent of cured Chinese pork sausage, a hint of sweet fatty bacon, umami, and salt.

Cooked ong choy is easy enough to eat with chop sticks. Transfer a mouthful from the main dish onto the rice mounded on a separate plate. Scoop underneath and guide the mouthful to its destination. A fork and spoon may make the handiwork easier for those not adept with chop sticks. Be sure to spoon some of the sauce from the plate onto the rice so it soaks up the combined flavors. Don’t waste a drop of sauce or grain of rice.

An order of ong choy with pork belly was an ample portion for one, but easily shared between two people. While the amount of pork belly wasn’t substantial, its contribution to the overall flavor of the dish was evident. Pork belly played a supporting role while ong choy shined as the star of the show.

Kim Son’s menu has plenty of other familiar Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls, pho, and banh mi, as well as classic Chinese fare. If inclined, try some of the less-familiar selections. The prices are super affordable. My initial unplanned visit was rewarding enough to merit return trips and sample other dishes. 

Beyond the Buffet

A final note on appearances.

Don’t venture to Kim Son’s for the decor or ambiance. Indoors, it is a colorful mishmash of low-key design and startup decor – think Las Vegas palace meets Chinatown meets restaurant makeover candidate. There’s an over-sized fish tank of goldfish trolling around in yellowish water. Even so, don’t expend effort knocking the venue for its looks. After all, it takes a lot of $6.95 lunch buffets to cover overhead. 

Here’s what I’m saying: Go for the food and simplicity of the experience.

There’s something delightful and understated about a suburban Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant in the sleepy nook known as Gladstone. The city’s modest civic revival hasn’t quite reached every shopping strip and parking lot filled with more pools of amber light than vehicles on a quiet weekday winter evening. With luck and time, joints like Kim Son’s and other Vietnamese restaurants and eateries in nearby Gladstone Plaza will find a growing audience for their food and drink. Kim Son’s has homestyle appeal with potential for growth. Hopefully, that sidesteps the formulaic offerings of a chain restaurant, an all-out dumbing down an “ethnic” eatery to accommodate timid diners, and hip takes on classic cuisine that render its spirit impotent. 

On the other hand, if you want a large volume of assorted food at a cheap price point, Kim Son’s will gladly welcome you to its buffet, too. 

These restaurants seem like the kind of modest venue that the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, might explore. Famous or not, the intent is not to be a foodie prima donna or a colonist, who “discovers” or denounces a “find” based on self-appointed criteria and standards. Instead, try savoring a single unfamiliar dish. See if it stands out from the usual array of greatest hits that normally constitute menus in Asian restaurants. Meet the food, culture, and experience on its own terms. Enjoy the detour.

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. 

Chicken Chorizo Vegetable Stew and the Kitchen Equinox

Chicken Chorizo Vegetable Stew and the Kitchen Equinox

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.

People of Craft Beer: Sloane Dominick, Kansas City, Missouri

People of Craft Beer: Sloane Dominick, Kansas City, Missouri

Sloane Dominick got her dream job at Kansas City Bier Company in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 14, better known as Valentine’s Day. Less than four months later, she worried about how a major life change might affect her career.

Previously, Dominick worked as a beverage manager at World Market but sought a change.

“I wanted to be on the production side of brewing,” Dominick said. Even after Dominick landed the brewery job, she said, “I felt like I was missing something.”

Professionally, the job fulfilled Dominick’s goal. She was initially hired in 2017 to work as a bartender and server at Kansas City Bier Company. She worked on the brewery’s bottling line and volunteered for odd jobs as the brewery grew. As a draft technician, she cleaned lines and even devised a method that saved Kansas City Bier Company around $1,800 a year. Personally, Dominick had a long-buried secret hidden behind a wall of uncertainty.

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Valentine’s Day is named after St. Valentine of third-century Rome. The name Valentinus is  derived from the Latin word for worthy, strong, or powerful. Over time, Valentine has come to represent the patron saint of couples, marriages, and the romantic February holiday. For some, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with flowers, heart-filled greeting cards, chocolate, and expensive dinner. Others reject the day as a make-believe ritual of commercialized marketing or view it through the prism of heartbreak and longing.

After launching a brewing career on this day, Dominick faced a pending choice to be strong and powerful enough to disclose her secret, or she could maintain a make-believe way of life that had already taken a toll.

In June 2017, Dominick chose to come out as transgender with a new assumed name.

“I talked about it with a friend,” said Dominick. “We discussed it and decided that I would go forward with coming out. I came out with my name Sloane on Facebook. I was afraid.”

The announcement was a decision to finally and publicly part with her previous gender and step into her feminine identity. In a way, coming out was both a breakup and an embrace of a true self she always knew existed.

That same night, she also made the announcement to friends and brewery coworkers while attending a Dogfish Head Brewery event at Bier Station, a local craft beer taproom. However, she was unsure how her coworkers would respond.

“The next day I went into work and my new name was listed on the schedule. Everyone was accepting of me,” Dominick said. “I didn’t want to give up my dream job. I feel like I was Sloane since I began working at Kansas City Bier Company. They have been nothing but supportive.”

Dominick suffered from depression for years. After making the announcement and sharing her new name, Sloane, she felt relieved and knew it was the right decision.

“I’ve known my entire life. I’ve been working on this since I was a small child,” Dominick said. I tried to bury it and focus on other things. But it’s like putting the wrong fuel in the car. It won’t run right. For twenty years, I’ve known something wasn’t right.”

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“I didn’t know that transgender was even a thing until I was 13 or 14,” Dominick said. “I had to find information on a computer and find out myself.”

Growing up, Dominick didn’t like to be made to play sports or placed into a male gender role.

“I just wanted to be me. I didn’t understand until I figured out the word for it,” Dominick said. “For ten years, I buried it. Bottled it up. Sometimes, something would trigger me and I would express it.”

Long before coming out as trans, Dominick saw a therapist to address her feelings.

“The therapist gave me bad advice,” Dominick said. “I went back in the closet. I kept it hidden as  a teen. I felt guilty about what I was doing. I told my mom when I was around 22, but nothing came of it.”

Later, Dominick told her mother about being transgender a second time. “I told her that she knew. She did,” Dominick said. “She’s been accepting of me and uses my name and correct pronoun.”

Dominick explained that the pronouns “she” and “her” apply to her as a female. “I’ve never been anyone else.”

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Dominick first took estrogen on September 8, 2017. Before taking the prescription, she was required to see a therapist. Then Dominick was referred to an endocrinologist.

“The whole process took three months,” Dominick said. “It was the hardest three months I’ve ever had.”

Initially, Dominick wasn’t sure how quickly the estrogen would affect her. She had planned to transition socially at first. The physical impact of the prescription would take time to manifest, but the psychological response was more sudden.

“Twenty years of depression were gone when I took estrogen,” Dominick said. “I thought, ‘This must be what normal people feel like.”

Dominick’s figure began to develop more curves. She said, “I began to see myself how I wanted to see myself. The depression was gone. I finally was allowed to be myself. My brain runs better on estrogen.”

To formalize the gender transition, she legally changed her name to Sloane Dominick.

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Kansas City Bier Company continues to be the place where Dominick clocks into her dream job. She also works a second job as a draft technician at The Belfry taproom and helps owner Celina Tio with beer and spirit tastings, dinners, and events.

Naturally, she continues to be a fan of craft beer. “Beer is so interesting and enjoyable,” Dominick said. “It has so many flavors.”

Socially, Dominick feels at home within the craft beer community.

“The Kansas City community is cool and accepting,” Dominick said. “It’s good to feel part of it.”

Dominick actually didn’t drink until she was 23-years-old and started drinking vodka and whiskey.

“I caught onto craft beer about four years ago and got into it as a hobby,” Dominick said. “There’s so much to discover. It’s interesting. There’s a sense of community, where I can hang out. There’s always something going on.”

Now, Dominick favors saisons, wild ales, and sours. Lambics and brett.-based beers were some of the first she explored.

“Boulevard Brewing’s Spring Belle was a formative beer,” said Dominick, referring to a 2015 seasonal Belgian-style saison made with flowers.

Dominick continues to expand her role at Kansas City Bier Company. She proposed a collaboration beer with Bier Station dubbed Wrong Place Radler. The beer will feature two syrups made by Eric Jones of Bier Station that may be added to Kansas City Bier’s hefeweizen.

Dominick said, “I came up with the name and concept, then pitched the idea to John Couture at Bier Station.”

That’s the beauty and heart of craft beer. As one of mankind’s oldest beverages that predates even St. Valentine of Rome, beer is not trapped in traditional styles and roles. Craft beer continues to evolve and grow. The talent, creativity, and imagination of skilled brewers and collaborative partners defy limitations. Similarly, the community of craft beer grows stronger by resisting limits and being true to each other and to the social and inclusive nature of beer.

Dominick summed up her connection to craft brewing as a simple yet powerful statement.

“Craft beer is part of my life’s calling,” Dominick said. “I was meant to be in beer.”

Expedition of Thirst Beer and Book Release Series

Expedition of Thirst Beer and Book Release Series

To celebrate the release of Expedition of Thirst, author Pete Dulin contacted and collaborated with seven Kansas City breweries featured in the travel guidebook. Each brewery will make a limited-release beer and host a beer + book release party at their taproom this summer. Pete will be at the beer+book release events to sell and sign copies of the book. Drop by, pick up a signed copy of the book, try these unique beers, and say hello.

 

Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri

Crane Brewing Company
Style – Thai IPA with Thai basil, pineapple and Thai chili
Thursday, June 14 – Beer Release date – June 14
Friday, June 15, 4-7 PM – Book signing and beer release party

Martin City Brewing Company
Style – Confluence Belgian Saison with Local Barley
Wednesday, June 20, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing at original Martin City Brewing Pizza and Taproom
Thursday, June 21, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing at Martin City Brewing Pizza and Taproom – Mission Farms

Colony KC
Style – Uncharted Territory Pineapple-Pepper Ale with Lactose
Thursday, June 28, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing at Colony KC, plus a Beerded Man’s Kitchen food special

Stockyards Brewing Company
Style – Stockyards White Ale with Galangal and Toasted Jasmine Rice
Friday, June 29, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing

Cinder Block Brewery
Style: Coconut Hefeweizen
Wednesday, July 11, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing, brewery tour

Torn Label Brewing Company
Style – Rough Draught Series: Kansas Heirloom Wheat Wine
Thursday, July 19, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing

Double Shift Brewing Company
Style – Gully Towner Sour Grisette with Lemon Verbena, hopped with Blanc and local Chinook, with local oats, wheat and spelt.
Release date – Wednesday, July 25, 4-7 PM – Beer release and book signing

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.”

Kansas City Star Reviews Expedition of Thirst

Kansas City Star Reviews Expedition of Thirst

A couple years ago, author Pete Dulin hit the winding roads of eastern Kansas and western Missouri in his red Ford Focus. He visited 150 wineries, distilleries, and breweries to research his fourth book, a travel guide titled Expedition of Thirst. Writer Anne Kniggendorf’s reviewed Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries Across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri for The Kansas City Star.

She shares facets of the book’s dive into the winemaking and grape-growing culture in Kansas and Missouri. Kniggendorf chose this quote of mine that sums up how much there is to explore in Expedition of Thirst which was published by University Press of Kansas.

“We think of wine and terroir in France, but the bi-state area also has these distinct regions and climates and types of soil that will have a significant impact on the flavor and aroma of wine and the grapes that are grown,” Dulin said during a recent phone interview from Thailand, where he was visiting family.

The review shares how I drove more than 2,000 miles across eastern Kansas and western Missouri to visit multiple businesses in a day. After a long day of driving, talking, and tasting wine, beer, and spirits, “taste-bud fatigue” can set in, Kniggendorf wrote.

She cites some of the many off-the-beaten path destination featured in the book, such as Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in Sylvan Grove, Kansas. Those looking for a day trip might consider a jaunt to Columbia, Missouri, where the city has a distillery and multiple breweries.

Kniggendorf does a fine job of capturing the spirit and intent of Expedition of Thirst. It’s a fine, thorough review. Visit the link to read the full review of Expedition of Thirst.

The 288-page book has many color photographs that I shot to accompany the travel guide entries on the 150 breweries, wineries, and distilleries. Signed copies are available by ordering directly from my site. The book is also available at local retailers and major online retailers.

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.

http://www.whatitmeanstobeamerican.org/places/when-kansas-was-americas-napa-valley/

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/02/05/kansas-americas-napa-valley/ideas/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.