My work or various adventures have from time to time landed me at a great chef's table, whether at some grandmother's in Paris or a four-star luminary's in New York City. I'm lucky and very grateful. It informs my work as well as my life. But what stands out as one of the best meals I have ever had started with an innocent query to a jewelry maker about the pin I bought my wife for our anniversary. Hardly a common way to culinary bliss.
But my wife is really into Jungian archetypes--what appear as squares and circles to the rest of us--and I wondered if this craftsperson had them in mind when she made this wonderful square and circle-filled pin. So I managed to shoot her a brief email query because the gallery had provided me with her web site, and the answer was, in effect, a terse "no."
This was followed by an email a week later that might as well have been totally out of the blue, viewing our limited electronic contact. What she proposed, "she" having become Tess Doran of Kutztown, PA, was that we drive two hours from NYC into what is actually Amish/Mennonite country to eat with strangers in what she billed as "the first (of many I hope & suspect) Tess kitchen underground supper club dinners!" And oh, man, did her gustatory exuberance show through, with phrases like "gastronomic salvation" and "mildly chaotic dinner party." The only hint of practicality was a mention that there would be a charge, and that a great new B&B was nearby.
Now that did grab my attention, though we couldn't do anything in those next few weeks that she had in mind. And we never go away for stuff like that, not with out of state conferences and young daughter's auditions and so forth.
And then about six weeks later, with the kid at a sleepover and our anniversary still uncelebrated, I decided I should call and see if Tess was still doing her underground thing. Unable to contact her by email until Saturday morning, I was about to let it all go when she called me! I asked if she had something going on that very night. No, sadly--but then we got talking, and her outsized enthusiasm and downright open friendliness led her to decide not only to have us in for dinner that night, but just for the heck of it (if I brought wine) and she'd call all her friends and various local farmers and throw it all together! Mind you, this was only confirmed at 1:30pm for that night... My wife didn't even know, but when I told her, she was game, despite not having a clue who Tess was or where we were going. We just jumped in the car and took off.
Alas, during this time poor Tess had to arrange for her small kids to go with the in-laws, find the various foods she wanted, call friends, and then by chance Googled me and learned only enough to get nervous (I'm not a food critic, but I have worked as a chef, lived in Paris six years, and have a new book out on food that relates to her local food feelings). So she got a bit stressed.
Only two of her friends were available, so Tess made a small dinner party for two strangers! Just like that.
Well, one of the friends who did show was none other than Tim Stark, "The Tomato Man" of the NYC Greenmarket, whose heirloom tomatoes and peppers are the elixirs of all the top restaurants, and his buddy, Dan Sullivan, an organic food expert from the nearby Rodale Institute (talk about unique drop-ins for foodies!). Neighbors supplied fresh "button" shitakes and local goat cheese in feta and blue forms. She picked the last of the tiniest Brussels sprouts from her backyard, and when we showed up, we were greeted with roasted poblano peppers in oil stuffed with tiny heirloom tomatoes and goat feta, the whole thing bursting with flavor and equal parts of heat and soothing ooze. A unique and fabulous start.
She and Tim clattered about her tiny kitchen--a home kitchen but with an almost professional stove--and we proceeded to kind of introduce ourselves. We all connected, at least, and the party began. Tess, rushing around and focused, confessed in her fun Irish accent and phrasing to being too tense to eat but happiest cooking and serving and drinking wine and telling high-octane stories and shouting out comments as she connected with our lives, our personalities, and our experiences. She didn't cook from recipes but from a well-developed culinary sense that told her when to add lemon or oil or wine.
Among the six of us, usually three conversations happened simultaneously, peppered with cross-commenting on the various discoveries and loaded queries that we all heard from or added to the others'. It was loud. Very loud. It was not what we would have experienced at a major restaurant nor even with old friends, by far. Some of the links were quasi-professional: Tim's first book ("Heirloom") was just out; I've written seven, the most recent of which is on the polar opposite of his, artificial ingredients ("Twinkie, Deconstructed"). They hope to teach at Haystack, in Deer Isle, Maine; my wife worked there 30 years ago and we hang there each summer. We're all involved with teaching art to our own kids.
On to a dreamy potato-cerlieac soup with a touch of caraway of the strength that I'd only seen my mother use. Pretty surprising. A fish course of poached haddock with lentils, larded with Tim's exquisite tomatoes and roasted mild red and yellow peppers and a hint of tomato paste as well as an exotic spice blend that a friend brought back from the South Pacific (another long story). Fun contrasts of bland and tasty. Then some local guinea hen in a light, miniscule bit of white wine sauce, of course with some small soft, loudly-tasting tomatoes served with a sweet potato/turnip mash that surprised us all because it looked so yellow. The sauce and tomatoes neatly offset the dry hen.
It was like being back in France, for me, because I didn't sense the volume of food, talk, or wine, at all. Had plenty of room for the three (3!) blue cheeses - one local goat, one Gorgonzola, and one sheep's. Poor Tess still felt she had to do a desert, only a mere set of individual chocolate fondant cakes lightened with plugs of light, baked pear. The crust was delicate, the runny part just gelled enough to hold it in place.
Many of the stories were food-centered, like the time the great chef Daniel Boulud was visiting the tomato farm, and had kindly brought a bottle of wine that they were enjoying. It was worth $1000. And Dan, pouring, nearly knocked over Daniel's glass. That was a $250 "oops" - but he saved it with a leap and a grab. Your typical dinner party with strangers gabfest, not.
The only break we took was prior to the hens coming out. Tess's husband, David Jones, took us downstairs to the jewelry studio where we admired, among other things, his whimsical animal sculptures and his almost invisible soldering. And a load of squares and circles.
A two-hour drive for local food. Strangers turned into friends. At midnight, we waddled back down Main Street to the endlessly intriguing, newly-opened bed & breakfast, wondering how this all had happened. A pin for my wife, that's all. I'm glad I got it for her. I like this underground kitchen stuff. A whole lot. I'm going to keep looking for more.....underground.
Steve Ettlinger's most recent book is "Twinkie, Deconstructed." His website is www.twinkiedeconstructed.com; email is email@example.com, Tess Doran's email is firstname.lastname@example.org