Road Food Part 5: Fool’s Gold

In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, young Winfield gets mocked for thinking fool’s gold the real thing.

Having been on the road for 6 weeks, I’ve come to a similar conclusion about restaurant food: pretty as it is, in the long run it leaves me dissatisfied.

I didn’t get sick of gourmet right away. First, there was a glorious honeymoon filled with goat cheese, reduction sauces and amuse bouches. So before I sing a love song to simple food, here’s an ode to the most memorable meals I’ve eaten here in the rocky state of Colorado.

Take the Sicilian Castillo olives I tried at Eat! restaurant in Edwards. These little jewels took the term “olive green” and gave it a shot of tequila. A rich, bright jade, their meaty firm flesh dissolved into an almost lime-like linger.

Followed by a white bean puree-goat cheese-artichoke-tomato panini and a simple salad, the meal warranted a photo or two.

Over in Beaver Creek, the slogan “not exactly roughing it” came through loud and clear at Rimini gelato. Rimini, a town in Italy, is the center of the gelato world, and I’d be happy making this place the center of mine.

And then there’s Terra Bistro, who despite my cravings for simple home cooking, still has a corner of my heart.

On visit number one, the delivery of baked kale chips turned up the corners of my leaf-loving lips. Light as paper and shimmering slightly with olive oil, you can munch these in guiltless quantities without destroying your appetite.

On July 4th I stopped in just to see if they’d sell me a container to nibble on, and left with a box on the house. A mountain creek and an hour of solitude were the perfect companions.

As for the mains, on our first visit I wandered from my usual veggie fare and ordered the Amish-grown organic beef. Thin-sliced rare hangar steak came perched atop a blue cheese crostini, sharing the plate with an heirloom-boston lettuce salad drizzled in a thick molasses-balsamic glaze.

There was the the sesame-crusted salmon with carrot-tandoori tomato sauce at Paradigms in Eagle, and all the wholesome organic lunches at (the appropriately named) Eco Goddess over in Carbondale. The lake trout crusted in thin slices of baby potato at Kelly Likken in Vail was expertly crafted, and the halibut with grapefruit butter at Dish a morsel of perfection.

So what’s my complaint then, surrounded by all this wonderful food? How could someone like me, whose love for good food borders on obsession, turn down a great meal on someone else’s tab?

The choices have grown too cumbersome. I’ve become impatient through all the sitting and waiting. The disappointments are draining me, and the thrills remaining seem thin. I am ready for trips to the market, chopping, mixing, and knowing what I am putting into my body. I want to feel the slippery flesh of a mango, tear papery leaves of basil, and squish dough under my palms once again.

It’s been fun. The pampering, the service, the delight at new things. But I’m ready to go home.

Road Food Part 4: Meet the Virnigs

I’ve safely arrived in Eagle, Colorado, but before I get to the amazing food here, let me tie up the last few days of the Missouri leg. In my last post, I’d begun to wax poetic about how home cooking redeemed the area’s slew of chain restaurants.

The day after that amazing Indian meal, we found ourselves on the Virnig family farm. For the rest of our time in the Nixa area, we ate like queens around their harvest table. Healthy, organic, pasture-raised queens, that is.

Doug and Mary Virnig have eight children: Jessie, Laura, Emma, Madeleine, Tucker, Adelaide, Helen and Rachel. They live in an old farm house on the outskirts of Ozark, Missouri, where they raise beef and dairy cows, and tend an ever-expanding garden. We had dinner with them the Tuesday night before we left, and managed to squeeze ourselves into their lives for the next three days.

They won us over with their homemade burgers and fresh devilled eggs — which I had the pleasure of making, with the help of two pairs of little hands.

In the days to come, we feasted on homemade tostadas, guzzled kombucha tea (the kids were pretty excited to learn that I make it, too), munched on stovetop popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, and sipped raw milk around a fire.

The Virnigs haven’t always lived like this. Neither of the parents grew up on farms. They’ve morphed, in their life together, from town to country folks.

Their  journey toward self-sustenance is well thought out. This is no trendy organic dream. It’s a well-researched, tenderly executed dance with the earth God has set them upon.

As I lived and worked beside them for three days, the Virnig family became more than just a story.  From early-morning family time cuddled in blankets to outdoor labor to afternoon dips in the cold creek,  they refreshed me.

I know life isn’t perfect for them, but their joyful generosity imprinted itself on my heart. With grubby hands, skinned knees, and an a wide open door, I left feeling lucky to tell their story. It’s a debt not even our gifts of fresh fruit and Lola’s chocolate cake could repay.

Road Food Part 3: Coming Home

I should have known better. For all my disappointment at Missouri’s impoverished restaurant landscape, all I had to do was go home. In our last few days in the area, we found our appetites again— simply by following our noses down driveways and through front doors.

This week made up for all the bland burritos, dishwater coffee, faux-italian and “fusion sushi” (drenched in cloyingly sweet chili sauce). And thanks to my photojournalist colleague Mary, every precious bite was beautifully documented.  So beautifully, in fact, they deserve two posts. (I chipped in a few pictures, too).

My lesson for News21 summer trip #1: Real food in this part of the country isn’t broadcast on interstate signs. It’s strewn across scratched harvest tables and served up in suburban kitchens.

Our last Monday in Nixa, the family of a boy we’re profiling invited us for dinner. The spread included everything the Indian family calls everyday, and everything we call special.

There was pre-feast chai, homemade, with a thick sweetness that lingered through the afternoon. It was accompanied by cookies with the odd flavour of mango. Girl Scouts meets tropical lands.

And then there was one of my favorite snacks: the addictive mixture of chickpea-flour crunchy bits mixed with dried lentils, peanuts, and spices. Served up in a classic steel thali plate, the taste took me far from the flat Missouri prairie, and back to a toy train winding through the Indian Himalayas.

After dinner we had little cups of homemade pistachio ice cream, topped with threads of saffron. I ate mine, and then I ate Mary’s.

These were some of the happiest moment of my trip. Add to the mix gracious hosts, warm conversation, and a young boy whose story is worth telling the world, I went to bed grinning at the small things.

Part two tomorrow