of Valparaiso and empanadas

We ate well in Valparaiso, at Restaurant Montealegre, overlooking the vastness of the cityscape, colorful alleyways, precipitous streets, art houses, tucked away eateries, a young crowd, a hip crowd. With 250,000 people, it’s fame and glory enjoying a revival after being left in the dustbin of another century. Valparaiso was an important port for 19th century shipping. The Panama Canal cut off its much of its largesse, cut off its legs, tarnished the star of the Pacific coast. Yet, it endured. Strategically placed, blessed with ocean and mountains, natural resources and determination, a newer generation is overlooking its recent shortcomings.



We ate well. Someone suggested, and we six others acquiesced instantly, the taster’s menu, course after course of seafood, morsels of meat, exotic vegetables, sublime desserts, crunchy to creamy, savory to sweet. A round or two of pisco sours to start the festivities, then wine, of course, several bottles. It was just the right amount of everything.


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Afterwards, we trekked around the area, up one inclined street, down the near perpendicular next. Valparaiso is a steep city and there are fifteen public funiculars to transport people on grades too vertical for healthy walking. Along the way, shops, coffee houses, art stores, galleries, kind of a cross culture blending 1960-1980’s American pop and traditional Chilean/Indian ethos which combined for an imaginative reinterpretation of history, past and present.


IMG_0910We were in a nice section of town, perhaps “the” nice section. The streets were clean, not as much graffiti, loads of young people inhabited coffee houses and cafes, and there were oodles of boutiques filled with colorful bric-a-brac, tchotchkes and whatnot’s. Valparaiso is a UNESCO designated city, a city with pride and heritage.


Then we funiculared (okay, not a real verb) down to the plaza where driver Oscar and his tourmobile were waiting to start the two hour ride back to Casona Carrera, near Talagante. First though, a stop at the elegant Sheraton Hotel on the waterfront for another round of pisco sours while watching the sun position itself for a quick exit into the smog-o-sphere that envelopes the area. We drank well.



Snoozeville back on the bus, at least for some. I was glued to the wide window sponging up as much of the Chilean landscape as I could. When darkness finally conquered the remaining light, I glimpsed billboards, storefronts, cinemas, the pattern of traffic and roads redefined in halogen and neon.

Around seven o’clock, tour leader Mac suggested we stop for take-out empanadas as we would likely be hungry later. Oscar knew the perfect place. It was like a McDonald’s roadside fast-food eatery except they made and sold only empanadas. The place was jammed and there were three men in the lot directing cars to available parking spaces. Oscar and Mac came back with a covered box full of aromatic empanadas.

I have never been an empanada fan. I’ve found them to be nothing more than unflavored doughy pastry with scant filling. The Chilean version was a revelation. The flaky pastry was minimal and they were stuffed to the point of bursting. There was a half dozen flavors but I was filled to the gills after one. We polished off the rest at breakfast the next morning. We ate well.


A day at Quarryhill

Quarryhill Botanical Garden is just north of Agua Caliente (love the name of that village) on Hwy. 12 between Sonoma and Glen Ellen. 25 acres of flowering Asian plants and trees. A wildfire in 1964 scorched the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains of eastern Sonoma County. Within a few years, the area was dense with a thicket of native species.


In 1968, the late Jane Davenport purchased forty acres. She planted vineyards on the valley floor and began to develop the hillside above which, when cleared, revealed abandoned mines and quarries. The depressions were systematized into a series of ponds and waterfalls. By 1987, the site was ready for replanting and Davenport funded many scientific expeditions to Asia to collect seeds of rare and endangered species. Nearly three decades later, it’s a world renown repository for researchers, arborists, and the general public. Everything in the garden was planted from seeds.



And I had no idea until recently. Most of the species were oaks, maples, magnolias, dogwoods, lilies, and roses with a few rhododendrons and azaleas. Some of the trees were post bloom, many still abloom, and with a few species, the trees were just beginning to leaf out. Mysterious and strange flowers, tiny flowers on huge trees, huge displays on smaller trees.



One in particular species to see was the Magnolia sinica. There are only two of these trees in the US and fifty in the entire world. Ten remain in its natural habitat of SE Yunnan Provence. I have always loved the elegant curvature of magnolia trees and their winsome flowers. The Magnolia sinica though is straight trunked.


**IMG_1247A maple, Acer pentaphyllum, will be extinct in China within a decade. Quarryhill is nurturing fifty saplings. I am particularly fond of maple trees. I grew up in Illinois with maples and oaks, hickories and hackberries, black walnuts and wild black cherry trees. I have planted five Japanese maples in my backyard and have six more in containers. I love the softness of their leaves, the dense foliage, their graceful branches. I like hearing the breeze flow through the trees, a barely audible whisper that soothes my always jittery urban nerves.



I felt the same effect at Quarryhill but on a grander scale with less ambient noise in the peaceful Mayacamas foothills. The sun warmed my face, the pathways were an easy climb. I sat at the edge of one of the ponds and watched dragon flies, hummingbirds, dark-eyed juncos, nuthatches and a half dozen birds I couldn’t identify. I didn’t think of food but next time, I’ll pack a lunch and eat under a beautiful Liriodendron chinense at Quarryhill and dream away the day.







The Agony of the Odyssey

Jet Blue SFO to Vegas. Picked up the car at the Vegas Avis, engaged my Google maps audio who I long ago named Madeleine. Madeleine was a waitress I met in Malmo, Sweden two years ago who spent considerable time one un-busy restaurant evening diagramming and explaining pronunciation differences between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. It was extraordinarily nice of her, and she was part of the eye candy Scandinavian blond blizzard. I wanted to carry that memory forward, so Madeleine became my Google Maps app audio. We talk often.

It was a long drive from Las Vegas but I needed to stop at a grocer first and pick up a dozen bottles of water that would be essential on the all day excursions planned. There weren’t many towns where I was headed and thought it better to stock up rather than panic when I arrived. It was a 6.5 hour drive from Vegas to The View Hotel in Monument Valley. Definitely wanted to make it before dark and there was a time change between Nevada and Utah.

I-15 to St. George, then Madeleine guided me through a series of turns and a jumble of crisscrossing state routes. Crossed the Colorado River in Page, AZ. The Vermillion Cliffs loomed to the south, Lake Powell to the north, then nothing. Vast expanses of flatland, studded with chaparral, sagebrush and other low-lying wiry bushes, an occasional scrub-grazing cow or two. No trees. Formidable mountains loomed on the horizon. Traffic was meager.


Kaibito, Shonto, and Tsegi were alleged towns on the map, but in reality, they were but three or four poor Navajo farms that constituted the settlements. Route 160 was long and straight and I put petal to the metal as the sun eased behind the hills. The western sky turned puce, orange, pink, purple, then twilight as I entered the only real town in the area. Kayenta. The town of 5,000 had a Sonic Burger, McDonald’s, Hampton Inn, and a Chevron station. Left on US-163, twenty-five miles to The View Hotel. In the dimness, giant rocky monoliths dotted an endless expanse of tableland. Monument Valley. Spectacular.

Next morning, I made a beeline to hotel’s restaurant where the only food option was the breakfast buffet, and the next eating option was 25 miles away. Little did I know that breakfast buffet would be my undoing within 48 hours. Outside I met my guide for the day. Vernon was native to Monument Valley, grew up one of nine boys about three miles from where we stood. Monument Valley is off limits except to those with a Navajo guide or Navajo blood. I had arranged a private Jeep tour months before.

IMG_2646.jpg Dawn

Vernon asked what my interests were, noted the camera I was toting and said, “hop in.” He took me to John Ford Point with its sweeping panorama of the Valley, its impressive sandstone formations, buttes, spires, and towers – the geological oddities that gave Monument Valley its name – the result of millennia of erosion and uplift, water and drought, wind and volcanoes. The red sandstone cliffs and pinnacles were shaped 160 million years ago. It was vast and overwhelming to comprehend, distances incomprehensible, the sun and clouds closer than the other side of the Valley.

About an hour into it we bonded, and Vernon became more friend than guide. I think Vernon liked me because I showed interest in him, his family and kids – he had five daughters to balance out being raised in a family of all boys. The land was still home to dozens of Navajo who eked out a living selling jewelry to tourists, and raising small herds of livestock, mostly sheep and cattle. It’s a rugged life with minimal luxuries. Vernon said he lives “off campus” very much liking running water, indoor plumbing and electricity. We visited all the tourists stops. Then lunch.


After a sandwich he said, “now we start the real tour,” Mystery Valley, where he grew up. The 4-wheel drive Jeep was amazing, through drifts of red sand, along wet and dry creek beds, up steep mountain paths, across the tops of mesas, forging our own road as we went. We explored ancient cliff dwellings where Anasazi Indians lived a thousand years ago, though there is evidence of a human population in the Valley for over 14,000 years. Vernon took me to fractured rocks where ancients painted petroglyphs of birds and antlered animals, hand prints and men with shields and spears.

More importantly, I learned about Vernon, his life and his family. By extension, I was learning about Navajo culture, how tied to nature they still are. Towards the back edge of the day, Vernon said he had one special place to show me. It was a large overhanging cliff with a significant cliff dwelling tucked inside. Our voices echoed when we spoke. Vernon produced a six hole wood flute and played, the sounds reverberated on the hardened sandstone and shale. Sacred music in a sacred place. The wood flute had a more hollow sound than a metal flute, primitive, guttural, and absolutely essential to that moment. Vernon told me not to tell anyone (sorry) that his flute was made by a Hopi and not a Navajo. “Just sounds better,” he said.


The View Hotel was populated with Chinese, French and Polish families. Kids, lots of unwashed kids in line for the self-serve buffet. Okay, I don’t know that they were all unwashed but it seems unlikely that parents would hose down the kids every night in a place like that. Desert, warm, dusty, informal to say the least. Germ carriers. They grabbed food, not impolitely, but the tongs themselves became bacteria conveyers.

I was in the restaurant early Friday, I wasn’t alone, I was backtracking two hours to Page, AZ. I signed up for an afternoon tour of Upper Antelope Slot Canyon. I had plenty of time and planned to drive south of Page to the Vermillion Cliffs area and Marble Canyon. It rained on and off, turning the ruby granite mountains a rust color instead. Still breathtaking though despite the inclement weather.

Then, lunch in Page though I wasn’t much hungry. I stopped at a Texas barbecue place but ate sparingly. Then tour time, and it poured for about fifteen minutes. Our guide herded 14 of us into a stretch Jeep and drove us twenty minutes west of Page then onto a red dirt road another ten minutes. Gloria, the Navajo guide/driver, said it was a blessing it had rained, it kept the dust down. One could only image because we were covered in red dust when we pulled up to the canyon entrance.

A slot canyon is formed by water rushing through relatively soft rock, usually sandstone. Slot because they are significantly deeper than wide. Flash flooding is always a danger and can germinate miles away before descending on the unsuspecting. We didn’t drown. Upper Antelope Slot was about 1/8 mile of dazzling beauty. Light filtered through the top illuminating the walls in crazy unexpected ways. Stunning and jaw-dropping are words that came to mind.


Two hour drive back with another startling sky, a distant rainbow, purple mountains, opaque sunlight, then suddenly sharp, shadows stretched to infinity. I was starting to feel unwell, not awful but strangely bloated and uncomfortable. Again, I put pedal to the metal and kept a constant speed of about 90-95. I needed to get back to my room and access my well-being.

I arrived at twilight, took two Excedrin and felt the slightest pang of hunger. In the dining room though, nothing on the menu sounded good so I opted for a cup of vegetable soup and a small salad. That was the last food I could face for the next six days. The next six I-don’t-ever-want-to-live-through-that-again-days.

Saturday, departure day. Drove two+ hours from Monument Valley to Moab, Utah, through Mexican Hat, Bluff, White Mesa, and Blanding. Incredible beauty and something to behold around every curve, over every hill, through every rocky pass. Not much traffic, the sky sapphire, the red rocks and formations otherworldly. Huge craggy formations, sometimes like huge discs piled up resembling the Necco Wafers I bought for a nickel at Baxley’s Grocery store in hometown Ottawa, Illinois a half century before. Amazing formations, arches and balanced boulders held up by the tiniest of stones that defined odds and gravity, the laws of physics suspended in this odd region of earthly terrain.


I skipped the breakfast buffet before checking out, not one bit hungry which was alarming since I hadn’t eaten much the day before. I didn’t feel bad, just kind of a hollowness in my stomach which I dismissed as hunger pangs. Pulled into Moab mid afternoon, gassed up, located the adventure tour operator I had signed up with. An all day private Jeep tour of Canyonlands on Sunday and an all day private Jeep tour of Arches on Monday. The owner told me to show up around 8:00 am and just bring water, they would pack sandwiches.

I checked into the Gonzo Inn, a clean room and comfortable. I was hungry, though not famished, and there was a diner across the street. I played it safe and ordered a green salad with chicken, ate about half and headed back to my room. I barely made it. Diarrhea. Big time. Bad time. Incessant. It just wouldn’t stop, frequency increased as the night wore on. I got on the Internet and read up. If I had certain symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. I had those symptoms but held off until 6:00 am Sunday. It was all I could do to drive to the Moab Regional Hospital Emergency Room. I thank my lucky stars Moab had one, next hospital was hours away.

I was the only patient at that hour and was immediately ushered in and made as comfortable as possible by a male nurse. And ever so glad it was a male nurse because I could tell him the specifics about the assault on my body. I was in the ER all day, tended to by that nurse and a young female doctor. I had blood tests, urine specimens, stool specimens, blood pressure every five minutes because my BP was up and down like a yoyo. They inserted an IV and gave three units of liquid because I was dehydrated. I was still heading to the bathroom every five minutes now accompanied by the rolling IV.

Early afternoon the doc gave me a shot off Dilaudid, a morphine derivative, side effect, constipation. She said I might be a bit loopy for awhile. It had no effect. More blood tests, more blood pressure, pulse, temperature. Still jumped up every five minutes. Around 5:00 she gave a double dose of Dilaudid. Nada, at least in terms of loopiness. The saga continued but I was slowly improving. They discharged me but told me to come back if symptoms didn’t improve overnight. They didn’t.

Monday, I was back in the Moab ER having been in and out of the bathroom all night. I’m sure the ER staff cringed when they saw me drive up. Another IV, a CT Scan, blood tests, samples for the lab. Yet, through the ordeal I didn’t feel particularly bad, no nausea, no headache, no serious stomach cramps. It was peculiar.

The urgency increased as they pumped fluids in me. Around noon, I stabilized, more or less, at least not having to roll my IV with me into the bathroom. I was getting twenty minute breaks. Optimism. They discharged me at noon. I was supposed to check out of the Gonzo Inn. Fortunately, mid April, midweek, I was able to extend my stay. Had it been summer, I don’t know what I would have done. Moab is jammed with campers, backpackers, day hikers, white water rafters, sightseers. No Vacancy.

Gorgeous day. From my room, I saw the tops of trees with tender spring leaves, the bluest of skies, inviting mountains. I just wanted to go home. Canceling the remainder of the trip was a forgone conclusion. I notified the guides and hotels at Canyon de Chilly, Grand Canyon and the hotel in Vegas where I was going to spend two nights. Salt Lake City was my closest option, a four hour drive.

I called Delta and made a reservation to fly from SLC to SFO on Thursday. I was plotting. If I could drive to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, I could make it home in two jumps. I made a hotel res near the airport for Wednesday night. But how could I get there?

The hospital advised me to drink, drink, drink to stay hydrated but whatever I put in my mouth flashflooded through my body. If I had any chance of making it to SLC, I couldn’t drink, not a drop. I went cold turkey, water-wise on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, my throat was parched, my lips chapped, I felt more shriveled prune than man. But the urgency subsided. I checked out and headed towards Salt Lake City.

The route I took was part of I-15 for about twenty miles. Posted speed limit was 80, I’d never seen that before. For me, 80 was a suggestion, not a law. I cruised along at about 95 or so. Then off the Interstate and back onto two lane roads, drove them as fast as practical, through Utah coal country, over mountain passes, along snowy mountain tops. I pulled into the Courtyard by Marriott just after 3:00, checked in, took a mental diagnostic. It was okay, I was okay, I was going to make it home.


Touching down at SFO about 9:30 am Thursday, I hurried to get my bag, to my car and head home. I kissed the front steps, hugged the air inside my house, noted the familiar and appreciated it more than ever. Then, off to my doctor who was awaiting me with more tests, more samples, more possibilities checked off the list of what I had, or did have. Bacterial infection of some kind or another, we’ll never know. What I know is that Arizona and Utah returned to flyover states in my mind. No inking to ever go back and complete the odyssey.

A quick visit to Chile

8 of us. Barreling down some back road in central Chile singing “Why, why, why, Delilah?” at the tops of our limited capacity lungs. We obliterated the Tom Jones iPod rendition that blared over the speaker system in driver Oscar’s tourmobile.

Not exactly Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, we were too conservative, too old, and possibly too wise for illicit drugs. Nonetheless, it wasn’t quite noon and we were, if not shitfaced, then well on our way. We had already visited two wineries in the Maipo Valley that morning.


The Chilean wine makers were extremely cordial and proud of their output but, truthfully, their wines are still lightweights in the wine world, and nothing I tasted was worthy of laying down for more than a year. Yet, they were eminently drinkable, light, fruit forward, with alcohol levels a sane13.5 percent. The tasting rooms provided spittoons but we managed to slosh down whatever was poured in our glasses and they weren’t chintzy with their pours.

Thus our rather inebriated state by midday. Reservations had been secured at a little country restaurant where we drank three or four of more bottles, but with empanadas, avocado soup, and a hunk of beef on every plate with about a half pound of mashed potatoes sprinkled with paprika for flare, but not spice. I discovered that Chileans aren’t much into spicy foods, preferring sweet to piquant, much to my surprise and dismay. We didn’t sing in the restaurant but scarfed down whatever was put in front of us. It wasn’t fancy, it was hardy country fare, and served as a catalyst to sobriety.

The restaurant was surrounded by grape laden vines, save for the roadside entrance. As I peered out the windows, the Andes loomed sharply and not too distant. The Andes look different than the Rockies. More angular, steeper, yet more graceful, at the same time more foreboding than their cousins in the northern hemisphere. The Andes are the longest mountain range on earth and quite active with plate tectonics – volcanoes and earthquakes. In fact, while at one of the wineries, there was a small temblor. All the more reason to drink. Chileans are universally skittish, the 8.8 quake that blasted them in 2010 fresh on their minds. I can identify, I’m still jumpy from the ’89 quake in San Francisco. Any kind of rumble, my eyes widen and I freeze until quickened synapses cause my brain to identify the rumble as either inconsequential or run for your life.



Back in Oscar’s tourmobile, we napped part of the way back to our gem-like hotel tucked quietly away between Talagante and El Monte. Just outside Talagante, on a country road dotted with roadside produce stands, was an old man with wagon he pulled with his bike. He made and sold delicious bread, buns and focaccia from his mobile panederia. We cleaned him out. We knew we would need lots of bread to go with the half dozen bottles of wine we bought that morning and were compelled to drink that evening.



I grew up in pork tenderloin country. No, not the Iowa version, nor the Hoosier version, but the northern Illinois version, around Ottawa, 80 miles SW of Chicago. Farmland, industry, blue collar, but still mostly farmland in those days. McDonald’s hadn’t happened yet, no fast food other than a soft serve at the Tastee-Freez. For a small town though, at the cusp of the baby boomer generation, there were plenty of places to eat. The house specialty was usually fried pork tenderloin sandwich. The bigger the better, served like burgers, on buns, with all the condiments and, of course, a side of fries.

Living in San Francisco for decades, my palate has widened considerably. Yet, once per year, I trek back to Illinois to visit relatives and renew my appreciation for pork tenderloin sandwiches. There are many good examples in town but my current favorite isn’t in Ottawa but in a wisp of a village called Leonore, 18 miles SW of Ottawa.

Driving to Leonore is  pleasurable, especially in autumn when corn and soybeans are being harvested, pheasants are feeding on spilled corn kernels, ducks and geese migrate through the nearby Illinois River waterway, and oaks, hickory and maple trees are dressed in autumnal attire. The gently rolling farmland in the blackbelt country is something I never appreciated growing up.

Leonore's backyard

Then, Leonore.

photo population

And Smitty’s Bar & Grill.


Smitty’s Bar and Grill is about the only retail outlet in the village, certainly the only place for food and drink. There is, or was, a United States Post Office but I think it is passé after the latest round of postal belt tightening, but not much more. The main street is quiet day and night.

*IMG_1747But Smitty’s isn’t, the place is crowded lunch and dinner. At lunch, it’s farmers and agricultural workers, truck drivers, and occasionally, a spot where women’s groups from nearby Streator or Ottawa  gather for a monthly luncheon. At dinner, the bar is more popular. Smitty’s is more than just a place to eat though, it’s face-to-face social media in rural America, where most workers and housewives have limited daily human exchange. A surrogate town hall, it’s the locus for making announcements of the upcoming community events.

inside Smitty's back-1


For me, it’s all about the pork tenderloin sandwich which is a lean piece of pork tenderloin, hammered thin with a mallet, dredged in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, then deep-fried to a golden finish. At Smitty’s the porker is $5.95, fries are extra. I’ve never seen anyone eat a whole one, nor should they. Smithy’s has a stack of take-home doggie bags.


When I go for dinner and the drive back to the B&B, the air is crisp and invigorating. I stand next to the car and breathe deeply, inhaling not only the fresh country air but drawing in a little of the land, the rich history of the area, and perhaps, recapturing a little of my own lingering history.  IMG_2073




And the airship glided into view, just over the shoulders of the husky blue-shirted crew waiting to tether the Zeppelin, run the portable stairs adjacent, and assist in disembarking the previous tour group cautioning us to watch our step while boarding. I was first on, boarded in the back of the gondola and walked to the forward seat, behind the female pilot. Woman driver? Well, why not.

The Zeppelin Eureka was spacious enough for the dozen of us, glass all around, single seating on either side, and an oriel seat in the back, all glass in the belly of the beast. Buckled up. Near silent engines propelled us upward. Afloat. Bird-like, less determined than a paper airplane, more like an oversized child’s balloon escaped from the birthday party.

A thousand feet over the Oakland airfield, over Alameda, the Oakland estuary and the Port of Oakland with its tidily stacked ocean worthy containers in orange, blue, red and white, over the Port’s giant cranes that supposedly inspired Lucas’s AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.   




Above the Bay. Light, not quite willowy, more a graceful Dumbo, and as well intended. The vastness of the great Bay of San Francisco and its subsidiary inlets remind how small the landmass is, how tentative our lives along the shores of infinite oceans and the deep fissures under our California homes.

We followed the route of the under construction span of the Bay Bridge and witnessed the engineering complexity of the project, over Treasure Island, around Alcatraz and bore towards the San Francisco waterfront. The City, a twinkling gem in the clear Sunday morning light, faultless and luminous, an oasis at the tip of a peninsula. Mecca. A city to dream about, dream in, a labyrinth of miniature streets and alleys, with green patches of parks and spiraling buildings, well-ordered neighborhoods that flowed into one another and hills that undulated gently in the genteel morning breeze.



We traced the City’s contour, floated past my house where I saw myself waving hello, past Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio. Turned broadside before the Golden Gate Bridge, drifted northward skirting Sausalito, Angel Island, then butterflied back across the Bay to Treasure Island, slid over the extinct Berkeley Pier, sailed above downtown Oakland, Lake Merritt, then descended mutely onto the Oakland airfield where the husky blue-shirted crew was ready to help us disembark while cautioning the next tour group to watch their steps.

I amongst the clouds, swooned, slack jawed, awed, at a loss, but amazed, enthralled, enthused, overwhelmed, charmed, eyes wide open, a once-in-a-lifetime view of The World, The Bay, The City and the reality I exist in, daily, without much cognizance, without reference, witless about that big picture but calmer now, in this cradle of beauty, this exquisite piece of the world.

Christmas in San Francisco

It was a plenty splendiferous holiday in good old San Francisco. No snow, of course, not even badly needed rain but spirits weren’t dulled. Ice skaters circled the diminutive rinks at Justin Plaza Herman Plaza and at Union Square, stores  bustled, school-free children were all smiles. Evening was the best time with twinkly lights from the enormous tree erected in Union Square

and from the dozens of lighted wreaths that festooned Macy’s windows.

Elsewhere, carolers strolled streets, restaurants and bars made spirits bright, cable cars clanged merry – most of them decorated with garlands and crimson bows. There was that indefinable holiday spirit in the air, a muffled cheeriness that is sadly lacking eleven and a half months of the year. On the other hand, if magic was the norm, we would neither recognize nor appreciate it. Special is special, dreamy, charming, mystic and powerful.

I made cioppino at Christmas, have been for decades. I follow no set recipe any longer which makes my stews slightly different each year. If you are not familiar with this traditional San Francisco delight, here is a basic recipe:


serves six

3-4         whole crabs cracked and cleaned

2 lbs.      clams – smaller the better

1 lb.        mussels (optional)

2 lbs.      medium fresh shrimp – deveined

2 lbs.      red snapper or sea bass or petrale

2            #2 can crushed pear shape tomatoes or whole tomatoes

2            14 oz. can diced tomatoes

2            32 oz.  containers of clear chicken broth

12 oz.    dry vermouth

16 oz.    hot water

6 oz.     olive oil

2           medium onions

2           small carrot

5          sprigs parsley

4          kernels garlic

2          teaspoon dried crushed Italian herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram)

2          teaspoon salt

pinch   black pepper

4          whole bay leaves (for flavoring only – do not ingest)

2          whole red chilies – Sorrento, jalapeno or similar


Soak and scrub clams and mussels, let soak until ready to use.

Mince onions, carrot, parsley, chili pepper and garlic. Brown slowly in olive oil in 6 qt. pot, stir often.

Cut red snapper or similar white fish in 1″ squares add to sauté for 5 minutes. Stir.

Add crushed tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes.

Add chicken broth, hot water, bay leaves.

Heat and boil gently while stirring for 10 minutes.

Add clams and mussels, vermouth, cook 5 minutes.

Add crab, stir 5 minutes.

Add salt, black pepper, bay leaves, Italian herbs, and shrimp, cook 10 minutes.

Make ahead of time and reheat, the flavors marry better and seasonings have a chance to do their magic.

Serve with crisp green salad and hunks of French, Italian or sourdough bread.

Pair with a hearty red wine.


Beautiful and yummy.

Jamaica Plain

A mid November visit to Jamaica Plain, that Boston neighborhood whose origin dates back to the early seventeenth century, was a brisk affair with early morning temperatures hovering just above freezing. I walked the two blocks from Taylor House to the Jamaica Pond, which is part of the Emerald Necklace of parks and waterways designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead in the late nineteenth century.

Breezes across the sixty-some acre pond nearly took my California breath away. I brought gloves, thin as they were, and a scarf but no hat or ear muffs. The path around the pond was about a mile and half. I walked briskly and watched my breath vaporize in the chill morning. My pace slackened when I hit a sunny part of the path, quickened when in shade. On the east side of the pond, a small tree grew near the shoreline. I noted the winter fruit on a tree I didn’t recognize. Then I noticed a tiny nest perched in the dendritic branches.

The nest was deserted, a summer home for the eastern Kingbird, Black and White Warbler or a Myrtle Warbler’s family. The nest was too exposed for current occupation but was abstractly beautiful with the dangling winter fruit set against the sapphire sky.

Spent the afternoon at the New England Aquarium gazing at penguins and fish. I am a big fan of being on the dry side of the glass. Sea life is spectacular though and an aquarium gives a good, albeit minuscule, synopsis of what lurks down under.

That evening, I was guest of a prominent Boston architect who prepared a sumptuous salmon dinner.


Saumon a al Brett

Serves six, maybe eight.


3 lbs. Salmon of your choice, rinsed and dried

2 or 3 julienned carrots and zucchini

Very thinly sliced shallot

Very thinly sliced shitake mushrooms

Clippings of thyme and oregano

Handful of shrimp

Drizzle of highest quality olive oil

Large grained sea salt


Heat oven to 425.  If you have a convection, use it.

Cut a large piece of parchment paper and set salmon at one-third point of sheet.

Salt generously.

Arrange carrots, shallot and mushrooms artfully atop salmon and drizzle with olive oil.

Place herbs on top and drizzle again.

Fold parchment over salmon, creating an envelope with crimped edges and leaving one corner slightly open.  If you aren’t an origami expert, don’t be afraid to staple the edges.

Blow into open corner to inflate the envelope and then seal the corner.

Place in oven and cook until done about 15-20 minutes.

Remove from the oven, cut open the parchment, remove the herb stems and drizzle with more olive oil.

Let your guests admire your creation before serving.


Babies Love Oysters

Okay, maybe it’s a leap of faith but ….*

mmmm, good

Babies in particular love oysters, especially babies that can’t yet fight back. I’m talking babies at least six months to one year old to be on the safe side.*

Take this baby for example. While he’s chewing, he’s contemplating the nutritional value of the oyster, a mere 41 calories and a good source of Vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorous, protein, Vitamin B 12, iron, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. He’ll grow up to big and strong, be a fisherman or an astronaut.

Applesauce and pureed peas are fine for a baby, but really, shouldn’t mothers also be concerned with developing baby’s taste buds, imbuing him with an educated palate and igniting a lifelong passion for the finer things in life?

If handled properly mightn’t baby’s first words be “Tiffany,” “Lafite Rothschild,” “Louis Vuitton” or “Roth IRA.”  Why not? Any baby that learns to appreciate oysters, well, the world is her pearl forevermore.

Start baby with Kumamoto’s,  one of the plumpest, sweetest and mildest flavored oysters. Kummies (not to be confused with kusshi’s), as they are affectionately called around the sandbox, originated in Kyshu, Japan but are now grown all along the western shores of North America. Best of both worlds too, mom. Kumamoto’s, are organic and sustainable, good for baby and good for the world baby will inherit.

And mom, if you are concerned about shucking junior’s oyster, check out this video. See, it’s as easy as pie. Practice makes perfect, of course, by your one hundredth oyster, you’ll have it down cold.

Some of the best Kumamoto’s are grown by Hog Island Oyster Company in northern California,  Oregon Oyster Farms in Newport, and Taylor Shellfish on Puget Sound in Washington.

Another thing to consider is that babies are allowed in bars, oyster bars, that is. This one in particular loves babies.

Hog Island Oyster Bar at the Ferry Building in San Francisco affords sweeping Bay views, top notch service and perfect Kumamoto’s for baby to tooth on.

* Please check with your pediatrician before feeding baby any raw shellfish.

Towards Oyster Country

golden hills

I drive Lucas Valley Road and its winding subsidiaries from just north of San Rafael towards Point Reyes Station. Weekday traffic is irregular. The golden summer hills are about to segue to a verdant tarragon green with the coming winter rains. Flush banks of fog loll on the higher hills as if deciding to either cascade or evaporate altogether. Hawks and turkey vultures alternately appear and disappear into the gray mass patiently awaiting sight of their next meal.

Around serpentine curves, the road flattens temporarily into pasture land. Lethargic cows sit on their haunches, too content to move elsewhere, and why should they? Burnt orange California poppies will soon be prolific up the sides of hills. Purple lupines will intersperse with Tiburon paintbrush. Queen Anne’s lace, blue-eyed grass and mustard will blanket both roadside and hillside. But for now, the golden knolls prevail.

There is a strand of redwoods just before Lucas Valley Road merges into Nicasio Valley Road. The majestic trees have no height limit and likely tickle low slung clouds as they pass overhead. The canopy repels all sunlight. Even on the clearest of days, ground level is dense and dark and dotted with ferns and sorrel. Where shafts of sunlight do break through, wood roses are abloom. No flowerbeds here, just a few cabins with wispy smoke drifting from chimneys and the maverick roses.

A rafter of turkeys peck in the dust just north of the Nicasio’s one room school house. They ignore the sound of traffic and overhead predators. A tom keeps watchful eye though as the hens fatten up on seeds and insects. A doe and her fawn stand at the edge of a thicket just beyond the Platform Bridge Road turnoff. They too, are occupied with foraging and pay little heed.

North of Point Reyes Station, the topography changes. The hills are flatter and more cultivated on the right hand side. To the left is the shoreline of Tomales Bay, reedy, swampy, muddy, a tidal plain that supports shore birds as well as gulls and occasional pelicans. Cranes, herons, and stilts stand motionless for long periods as if meditating, but they are watching and listening for organic morsels.

Low tide

Low tide this morning exposes the skeletal underpinnings of waterfront shacks. Old scows rest atop mudflats just south of Marshall. The wood derelict boats suggest something from a Hemingway novel. I would not be surprised to see Bogart and Bacall hitchhiking near Tony’s Seafood restaurant. Beyond, Tomales Bay appears serene but severe. Breakwater isn’t quite visible from my vantage point. Tomales Bay stretches about two more miles before it meets the Pacific. Despite the still early hour, I think it’s time to locate some fresh oysters.