Food Matters: A return to the shared dinner table
Celebrating family after many, many moons apart
It was just dinner. And yet it was everything, I think, to all of us.
A couple of weeks ago, my parents and I convened at my brother’s place in Los Angeles to celebrate his birthday. My folks flew in separately from New England. When I arrived on May 22, it had been 16 months and 3 weeks since I last saw them, two days after Christmas 2019. That’s 512 days without face time with my folks. (Or FaceTime, since neither of my parents have cellphones capable of that—and happily so.)
I picked a modern Chinese joint for our first meal — it’s a family tradition. We kicked it off with “New York Style Egg Rolls,” naturally. They were the size of soda cans and easy to slice in half. The Oriental hot mustard served alongside made all of us tear up suddenly. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.
While our meals during the long weekend trip were a balanced combination of sisterly Virgo planning and Gemini-brother spontaneity — in between visits to his decade-old company headquarters and manufacturing facility in Van Nuys, the La Brea Tar Pits and Santa Monica Pier — the celebration for Jason on Sunday evening was born of careful consideration and enhanced with a sprinkle of good fortune.
I made a reservation weeks in advance at a spot tucked up in the hills of Burbank: The Castaway. The views of urban sprawl and the Los Angeles skyline would be spectacular, the drive 30 minutes or less from Valley Village, and the menu approachable. Steak is always an easy choice in our family.
At first, I was miffed that my request for an outdoor table didn’t pan out. The OpenTable disclaimer had been clear: tables are first come, first served, no promises on choice of location. Regardless, our indoor booth provided the best of both worlds: it was tucked inside the mellower dining room but with full views through open doors to the patio and city beyond. Clear plastic screens, installed during the pandemic, further separated the booths, and helped to contain our conversation. We had a private dining bubble that wasn’t totally closed off.
When I called my mother to fact check this story, I asked about her favorite food moment. In conversation, my mom and I can dissect food for hours. She was my main consultant on “The Aspen Cookbook,” and during production last spring and summer during the pandemic we spoke multiple times daily, which is unusual under normal circumstances. That was a main source of comfort for me as I toiled away on the project in isolation. She would offer updates on her prolific backyard vegetable gardens and I’d relay tales of the latest kitchen disaster from a broken recipe, which she’d help me troubleshoot.
I’m so glad I asked her about this recent excursion, because she remembered something I hadn’t: “When I think back, I would say that whole thing around that hot pepper and the sauce …”
Hot pepper and the sauce?
“At the Castaway, you take a bite of the thing, chew it, and then dip it into the sauce …”
Suddenly, I remembered. “Oh, the spilanthes flower!”
Four little fuzzy flower buds had arrived on the platter appetizer platter. Our server instructed us to pop the pink and green pods into our mouths first, chew them, and feel what happens. Then we would dip the lobster corndogs into the relish and enjoy the rest of the dish.
I had recognized the curious amuse-bouche. A few weeks ago I saw the plant up at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute on Basalt Mountain. Founder Jerome Osentowski told me that the medicinal flower is thought to enhance appetite by stimulating salivary glands (see sidebar, opposite page) and gifted me a bottle of homemade tincture. Compounds in the tiny flower (or tincture) seem to explode and tingle on the tongue — like the flavor of a Szechuan peppercorn. Unlike that fiery mustard we ate with the egg rolls, it’s more sour-juicy-prickly.
Later, Mom told me that our server sold her on taking the first bite, even though she mischaracterized the sensation as being “spicy.”
“I was so fascinated with her description and also wondering … I didn’t really think Dad would do it,” Mom confided. “Shocked. That was the one thing that stuck out.”
I’m reminded of our family reunion in Los Angeles, and a renewal of shared customs put on pause for the past year-plus, as I see all the new faces — and so many families — out and about in Aspen this past Memorial Day Weekend. (Unmasked, at last!) Many of these people, I imagine, are reuniting for the first time, post-pandemic. What a wonderful place to come together again.
Our family didn’t have time for a morning meal before I left for LAX, but that was fine. We packed a lot of quality time and good eats into a quick trip. Still, since they were departing the following day, Dad gifted me the remainder of the boutique coffee he bought for his morning ritual using an in-room coffeemaker.
When I unzipped my suitcase back in my Aspen apartment, I caught a whiff of the aroma of ground coffee beans. It’s a smell I always associate with our home kitchen, 1,750 miles away in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook,” a fundraiser for local restaurant workers: AspenCookbook.com. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fresh flowering para cress plant, Spilanthes oleracea, toothache
“Spilanthes is one of our bestsellers,” Jerome Osentowski told me, handing over a small, dark dropper bottle of liquid. The founder of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) grows the medicinal plant in one of five greenhouses on Basalt Mountain and prepares alcohol-based tinctures, sold through Jerome’s Organics. “It’s antiviral, antifungal, antimicrobial. Spilanthes is one of our biggest cash crops.”
Commonly called the “toothache plant,” “electric daisy,” or “buzz buttons,” spilanthes acmella has been used throughout Asia and South America for its anti-inflammatory, diuretic, and aphrodisiac effects. Eating the flowers brings a mouth-numbing, pain-relieving effect and is noted to stimulate taste and improve saliva flow. If you’ve ever eaten a Szechuan peppercorn, that’s the feeling: a prickly anesthesia.
I enjoy a few drops of spilanthes tincture before digging into a home-cooked meal. As farms begin to flourish and farmers’ markets reopen (Aspen Saturday Market on June 12; Carbondale Farmers’ Market on June 16), those meals will include more fresh fare from the Roaring Fork Valley.
CRMPI, you might be surprised to hear, is among the local producers, though the property draws income mainly from education, demonstration workshops, and consulting.
“(We) use our greenhouse and garden beds and turn some of the green into cash,” Osentowski explains. “We are not the typical market farm because we cannot produce volume, but by working with (chefs) we can grow out specific crops, fill out some of our unproductive greenhouse and garden space and use the whole experience as a backdrop for education. Everything should be connected in a permaculture world.”
Read Amanda Rae’s story on Jerome Osentowski and his legacy at CRMPI in the forthcoming summer issue of Edible Aspen, on newsstands soon. Learn more about Jerome’s Organics: crmpi.org.
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