Green Plum Cooking School – Sat, Dec 5th
I wouldn’t say I’ve been procrastinating writing this blog, it’s more like not wanting a good book to end, so you read it in extremely enjoyable chunks — not too fast, not too slow.
I keep thinking about them: Caleb & Deirdre, Deirdre & Caleb. Caleb Barber and Deirdre Heekin run a tiny restaurant in Woodstock, Vermont called Pane e Salute (http://www.osteriapaneesalute.com). My friend, Gracie Cavnar (founder/director of Recipe for Success, an organization dedicated to fighting childhood obesity – http://www.recipe4success.org), knows Caleb and Deirdre well and came up with the idea of having t’afia host a book signing with them when they came to Houston. Well, the book signing turned into an entire weekend of events with them and I was excited about the whole thing.
Caleb and Deirdre have an extremely small restaurant in Woodstock. They only have 8 tables and “turn” them once a night, meaning they seat and serve those 8 tables only once each night and then close it up. Caleb is alone in the kitchen except for a dishwasher (who washes every dish and glass by hand). Deirdre runs the front of house or dining room, acting as sommelier, waiter and General Manager. I always thought of their restaurant model as the perfect “retirement” restaurant for me when I’m done doing what I’m doing. We’ll see!
I connected with Deirdre before even meeting her through her book, “Libations: A Bitter Alchemy.” Reading it, I started to feel that we were twins separated at birth: she was born in December, I was born in December; she almost died in childbirth, I was named after a child who died in childbirth; she grew up Catholic, I grew up Catholic; she’s a lapsed Catholic; I’m a lapsed Catholic; she’s obsessed with bitter, I’m just bitter; her favorite drink in college was a White Russian, mine was a Toasted Almond (very close!). Well, you get the idea. I was worried about meeting Caleb, though –Caleb Barber, is he related to the Dan and David of Blue Hill fame? I never did ask.
By chance, I met an old high school friend of Caleb’s at t’afia a week before they came to town. This guy was in town performing in the Sound of Music. Two years ago, he was in town for a different show and didn’t have a chance to try t’afia. This time, he makes a point to get to the restaurant before the show closes. He has a great time and then opens his check presenter only to find us marketing for the Caleb Barber/Deirdre Heekin book signing, dinner and market class the next week. He’s flabbergasted! I always say it’s just two degrees of separation at t’afia. He vows to come back to see his old friend; I vow to relay the story of our meeting to Caleb.
As the time for their visit gets closer, the responsibility now seems daunting. I don’t know these people, they’re obsessed with Italy, I’ve never organized a weekend of events around visiting guests…what if no one comes? We’ve been communicating via email only – a back and forth exchange of excited ideas. We decide to dedicate our local market tasting menu the Friday night of their visit to Caleb’s recipes from his book, “In Winter We Ate Pears,” and pair each course with libations and wine suggestions from Deirdre’s book. I still haven’t completely read “In Winter We Ate Pears,” but I did read through the recipes. But the menu looks good and we’re ready to go. And then, the “Blizzard of 2009” hits on the Friday of their visit and the whole town comes to a screeching halt. Sigh.
But we have a nice group of die-hard foodies who make reservations and brave the winter weather to eat and meet Caleb and Deirdre. Of course, they’re used to Vermont winters so the whole weather thing is funny to them. They are troopers, working the floor all night long — meeting diners, telling stories and signing both books. It was a great night.
On Saturday morning, Caleb & Deirdre take over my Green Plum Cooking School class. They plan for Deirdre to do a reading from “Libations” and Caleb will demonstrate dandelions three ways from the cookbook. I’ll be second banana, a.k.a. Caleb’s Sous Chef.
Caleb starts the class. The first thing I notice is that it’s hard for me to focus on anything. I’m usually shocked when my audience misses key information that I’m imparting to them, but now I realize how hard it is to follow and process everything. There’s just too much going on and a lot of community spirit and banter to distract. When my daughter hugs or kisses me too hard, I tell her it’s too much love. She always responds, “You can’t have too much love!” But can you have too much convivial community? Probably not! I also immediately notice the pace of the class, which is EXTREMELY SLOW – this I adore. It’s like slow motion. Caleb is standing in front of two pots just poking at the dandelions he has overstuffed into my two-quart pots. He states, slowly and simply, that if he were going to proselytize about something, it would be dandelions, and then he proceeds to proselytize! I love it.
The gist of his sermon goes something like this: dandelions are under-appreciated; they are a healthy and nutritious food; they’re considered a weed by most but the entire plant is edible/usable; they’re extremely bitter… and he loves them. (It just so happens that I feel the same way about dandelion greens and that’s why I chose it as our logo for the Midtown Farmers Market – they grow like crazy here. You can also make a wine and a tea out of them.)
Caleb talks about how the cooks in Italy, mostly women, don’t really do much to their food. What they do, though, is pour ample amounts of olive oil in a pan and gently cook almost everything. My ears caught on the word “gentle cooking” when Caleb said it. In America, we’re interested in fast, easy, cheap, nonfat, empty yet huge amounts of food – pretty much the opposite of cooking in Italy (and maybe the rest of Europe, in general). In Europe, everyone has a garden or access to one, even though land is hard to come by. In America, we have plenty of land (too much!), but we don’t take care of it. We don’t appreciate it. I remember taking trains all over Europe when I was in my twenties and seeing small garden plots near the railroads; later I learned that people waited years to be able to lease these plots for their gardens. Their efforts to stay connected to their food were hard-won.
All this time the dandies are gently cooking under the pot’s lid. Occasionally, Caleb adds another huge handful of greens. Also, he slices the clove of garlic, rather than mincing it. The garlic is going to gently cook for at least 15 minutes, so by the time the dandies are done, our garlic will be sweet and soft. There is very little for me to do as his Sous Chef, interestingly enough. At one point, Caleb sends me downstairs for something and I jump- to; halfway down the stairs he screams, “Monica Pope!” and I turn about-face and, as I hit the top of the stairs, the entire class is looking at me and they start to laugh. They love me in the second banana role.
Deirdre reads an excerpt from “Libations.” I am very moved by the whole class. They are very unassuming, very humble. They remind me of what it was like trying to get any information out of my grandmother about how she makes something. Humility, gentle cooking and sharing our passions or obsessions — even if bitter sometimes — is a beautiful thing.
All photos courtesy Tommy Wolf