Tag Archives: Paul Rest

Cooking for a Tibetan Lama: A Singular Experience

Chinese Buddhism

The photograph is from a web page titled “Chinese Buddhism.” The caption reads: “Gonpo Tseten Rinpoche transmitting the Yeshe Lama, Forestville, CA 1981” I’m almost positive this photograph was taken on the ranch that summer.

During the summer of 1981 I was living on a ranch in Northern California working on a writing project, which ultimately proved unsuccessful, however that’s a story for another time.

I rose early each morning to write before the heat of the day and would sit with my notebook, pen and typewriter on a screen porch off of the front of the house.

I had to abandon my little writing area by noon because of the heat and I’d spend the afternoon writing short pieces in any cooler nook I could find. I’d try selling these smaller pieces to magazines. While working I’d watch my daughter by the swimming pool.

There was a large barn on the ranch that the proprietor rented for events and receptions. The owner of the ranch approached me one morning during my coffee break in the kitchen. “We’re going to have a group of Tibetans here soon.” “Tibetans,” I asked? “Yeah, some Lama guy will be here for a retreat with his students.” “A Lama?” “Yeah, he’s apparently coming from somewhere like Tibet or India or Nepal. One of them countries over there,” he said point east, instead of west. “Cool,” I thought, “Tibetan Buddhist students,” and left it at that.

Soon the group began to roll in. Ten, twenty and twenty more. The final one to arrive was the teacher who came in with his translator. The first day or so I’d bump into them on the property and we would greet each other with smiles and palms folded together and that would be that. I thought, they’re nice people.

One morning while I was having my coffee in the houses’ kitchen, I overheard a couple of people of this group having what seemed to me to be an urgent conversation. Well, nosy me. I began listening in. The gist of what they were discussing was the Lama’s cook failed to show up for the retreat. Obviously no one to cook for the Lama was a crisis. “I’ll cook for him,” just rolled out of my mouth like warm honey out of an open jar on a hot afternoon.

“What?” they exclaimed together. “I said, I’ll be glad, actually honored, to cook for your teacher.” “Well, thank you…” “Paul.” “Yes, thank you Paul but cooking for him, well, it is considered something very special.” I continued to jump right in. “I’m a very good cook,” I said, maybe stretching the truth a bit. Well, all my friends had told me I was. An intense conversation between the three of us followed. It finally came down to that they would need to check with the core group of “disciples” yes, that’s the word they used, and they would get back to me.

I didn’t hear anything from them that same day but the next I was approached by his senior students. “This is very important, Paul, cooking for our teacher.” I replied, “Yes, I understand that.” “No one outside our tradition has ever cooked for him. Ever.” “It would be my honor.” “Alright, let me talk to Lama Gonpo and I’ll get back to you.” This was, I was to later learn, Gonpo Tseten Rinpoche, an artist, author, and renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, and someone venerated by thousands upon thousands throughout the world, and I had just volunteered to cook for him.

The word came down later that I was to cook a trial meal for him that evening. I asked what he liked and was told he liked barley, beef, and vegetables in a rich stew. I replied that I would go shop after lunch. “What time does he like to eat?” I asked. An important question. “Five o’clock I was told.” Okay, I’ll have everything ready by quarter to the hour. “Oh, and there’s one more thing.” he said. “He likes desserts.” “Desserts?” “Yes, something sweet.” “Okay, I can do that too.” And so it began.

I shopped that afternoon, sparing no expense for the quality of the beef. I purchased a locally raised Porterhouse steak and when I returned began cooking the barley, slowly adding vegetables. While the stew was simmering, I walked out to the barn and corralled one of the cows. “I know it’s a little early but I need some milk, Libby.” After about twenty minutes with a Libby who definitely knew that was not the usual time, I had enough milk for my recipes.

Returning to the kitchen, I strained the milk in a cheesecloth and poured a portion of it in an electric blender. A short time later I had butter and added to the simmering broth. I patted down the steak, added salt and pepper and placed it back in the refrigerator. Finding the garden strawberry patch, I harvested a baker’s dozen of the fattest, ripest berries I could find, returned to the kitchen,  cleaned, sliced and stirred in sugar. I made a graham cracker crust for the pie with the left over butter, baked it for about ten minutes,  poured in the strawberries and let it all set.

By quarter till the appointed hour, I had a rich  beef, barley, vegetable stew and a strawberry pie with a mound of fresh whipped cream laying gently on top. I walked up the hill to small house where Lama Gonpo was staying, gave the stew to one of his disciples and the pie to another. He was settled there with his translator, a young woman who was seated on his right. I was introduced and he said something, which was then translated for me as a greeting and thank you.

I closed my palms together thanking him for being here and left. I was informed later in the evening that he had asked for seconds of both the stew and the pie. I was also told in so many words that I had the job.

Each afternoon I cooked a rich stew for Lama Gonpo, varying the ingredients, vegetables and cuts of meat, and included a sweet, delectable dessert.  In the  following days  I was told how much he enjoyed what I had made and thankfully, the community reimbursed me for the cost of the food.

Rigpa Wikki

From Rigpa Wiki on the web. The caption reads: Lama Gönpo Tseten Rinpoche, photo taken circa 1979-1980 in the U.S.A. I remember seeing him as in this photograph at the conclusion of the retreat.

Soon the time came for the cooking adventure to end and I was informed the retreat would be over the next evening . I would not be needed to cook dinner on the last night. I was instead invited to their closing ceremony.

Upon entering the room, I immediately understood why I didn’t need to cook. There was a mountain of food, both fresh and prepared near where Lama Gonpo was seated. Wine beer and other beverages were plentiful as well and I was informed these would be consumed at the conclusion of the retreat. I sat there listening to he and his students chant. It was mesmerizing. Then someone who I believe was the senior student stood, and gave a brief talk about how I had stepped in to cook. There was applause and Lama Gonpo motioned for me to come forward. I did and he put a silk scarf around my neck. Once again, I folded my hands and bowed, walking slowly backwards to where I was sitting.

Shortly after the celebration began, I excused myself and went to my writing nook where I jotted down as much as I could remember about what had transpired as his cook. I saw him once again years later in Berkeley, California when he again came to visit his students in California. We had a brief exchange where he remembered me and again expressed his gratitude. He passed on a date that he had predicted in 1991.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited by Karie Engels Giffin





New Orleans: Friday to Sunday, Food for the Gods

By Paul Rest

Well, obviously no gods were there, at least not any that I could see. But there was some magic that happened weekends in thousands of households in the Greater New Orleans area that made one feel as if one was transported to a heavenly realm of gastronomical delights.

It started like this: On Friday morning, the man of the house would leave for work a little early. He would then go to where he had placed (or in some cases hidden) his rowboat. Flipping it over, he would launch the boat and row to a favorite spot. There he would drop traps in the murky waters of the bayou. The bait would be pieces over-the-hill sandwich meat or other similar pieces of something or another, the more rotten the better. These would be dropped in the traps and left there until later. He would then row to shore and push his boat to its safe place.

seafood crabsThat afternoon after work, he would grab a six-pack of his favorite ice-cold beer and return again to his rowboat (this was usually made from aluminum, better to deal with elements), flip it over and re-launch it to where he had set his traps. This time however, he would have his fishing rod and bait with him.

Sitting in his boat, on a late Friday afternoon, before mosquitoes showed up, he would pop open a can of beer, bait his hook and begin casting. It usually won’t take long. Various catfish, maybe a Black buffalo, a bass (Largemouth especially), and trout would be pulled in and carefully detached from the hook. The fish would be placed in a metal canister that looked like a basket with holes scattered along the side. This was placed in the water and secured to the boat. Another beer would be opened. The hook would again be baited and the line cast in the water. Soon, another tug indicated another fish had gone for the bait (usually a worm, a night crawler).

When the bucket beside the boat was full and teeming with fish, the traps would be pulled up. These would be full of crayfish and crabs. These critters would be removed and placed in another metal basket. And another beer would be opened and slowly consumed as he rowed back to “his” spot on the bank of his favorite bayou. The baskets would be drained of water while placed on the bank while fishing gear was stowed in the car. The boat was again flipped over and the oars stored under the boat. (It seems folks there did not mess with other’s boats. You just didn’t do it!) All his catch would be placed in a foam (or something similar) container for transportation.

The man would arrive at home where his family, and in this case, a guest, me, were waiting. He would be congratulated on his catch and then the work began. One assembly line would be cutting potatoes that would go in iron skillets filled with hot oil to begin frying. A different assembly line cleaned the fish. (This was messy work but I enjoyed doing it. In fact, I became quite efficient at cleaning, scaling and filleting fish.) A third group prepared the crayfish (or crawfish, depending on how you pronounced it) and crabs.

seafood crayfishThe crayfish would be put in a “crayfish boil,” basically a bag of special spices dropped in a pot of boiling water. The crabs would also be boiled in another pot. And the fish fillets would be dipped in buttermilk and breadcrumbs and then dropped in another skillet filled with hot oil. Timing was everything. We were like members of a symphony orchestra all moving together towards the finale. No one wanted to arrive too early, or too late. The great orchestra conductor Gustavo Duhamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic) would have been impressed!

Since my cleaning task was done after washing my hands, I was assigned the next step. Dishes were placed on the table after I covered it with layers of newspapers. It was also a way I could quickly catch up with any local news I missed as I quickly scanned the pages of the Times Picayune. The table set, the food was taken from the stove and placed on the table. The crayfish were drained and simply thrown in a pile. The same happened with the crabs. The fish fillets and fries were served on a platter. And of course, there was plenty cold beer to wash every morsel down.

A feast for the gods. I remember that first meal. I was speechless, a rarity for me. I wanted to hug everyone at the table. I really couldn’t thank my dad’s grad school buddy enough for inviting me to join his family’s Friday evening meal and allowing me to become one of the family. “Wait till Sunday, Paul,” he said with a smile on his face.  What was left over became lunch on the Sunday table. It was and is called “Gumbo” which was a new word to me. Rue would be built and then more magic would begin. The leftovers would be stirred in (every cook in New Orleans had her or his own recipe for Gumbo, often a closely guarded family secret passed down from generation to generation). It would be served over rice or rice would be added.

The smell that filled the house when I arrived was different from anything I had experienced before. Following my nose, I ended up in the kitchen. We soon adjourned to the formal family dining room table. There we bowed our heads and after grace we, well, dug in. I discovered okra for the first time. And, probably other spices that were unfamiliar so I didn’t know their names. Needless to a say, I asked for seconds, and when I saw there was some left after that, like Oliver, I humbly asked, “May I have another.” My hostess, her face beaming, “Of course Paul, have another. I’m so glad you like my Gumbo.” My god, like it? I would have married her on the spot for cooking like that. (That obviously was out of the question, as my host and hostess had already been married for over twenty-five years. But you get my point.) And I was invited other times. I don’t know whether it was my enthusiasm for their table (food), or they simply didn’t want to deal with any leftovers?

As I met other people, I realized this was a local ritual that began Friday mornings everywhere in the Greater New Orleans and throughout Southern Louisiana that has its conclusion with the Sunday Gumbo. Well, maybe in other households other than my dad’s grad school buddy’s home there were leftovers from the Gumbo? I don’t know. But what I did know was my education about food was in full swing in this classroom called “New Orleans.”

Food for the gods, and us mere mortals too who were allowed to sit at the same table.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com. You can read more of Paul’s food stories here

Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin

New Orleans: Harvesting Honey for the Soul by Paul Rest

by Paul Rest    March 13, 2017

I was living in New Orleans. Don’t ask me how I ended up there, it’s complicated. But there I was and soon I was loving The Crescent City. I just seemed to fit in. I really don’t know why? I didn’t sound like I was a local and I probably looked like I was from “up north” by the way I dressed. Of course I had an attitude about the way things were done in this still very socially stratified and segregated city, but the folks there seemed to take to me in spite of my quirkiness.

The food, oh the food, I was in the heart of a type of cuisine I had never experienced before. Talk about local. I had had some of this localness growing up, but nothing like what was about to happen. This was local before local was local. What people ate mostly came from within miles of where they lived. The vegetables, seafood, meat, herbs, hot sauces, breads, beers, almost everything, came from right there in and around New Orleans. It was a combination of French, Creole, African-American and Cajun cooking. These were tastes that were explosively new to my underdeveloped palate. And I loved every morsel.

Every week on my limited budget I was making new discoveries. There was a place deep in the French Quarter that I just happened to find one day about noon. I was starving and casting here and there for somewhere to have lunch (read, “inexpensive”) when I discovered this joint. Guy Fieri would have moved into the apartment above in a second and adopted this place as his own.

pastriesI entered the front room that apparently was a bar. It was dark and filled with clouds of cigarette smoke. The jukebox was playing 78’s (that’s 78 rpm records for those who aren’t familiar with vinyl). There was a curtain and on the other side was a serpentine lunch counter. A woman noticed me and commanded me in a firm voice, “Over here honey!” She was pointed to a just vacant stool. I saw down and ordered what I saw everyone else order. Red beans and rice with a smoked ham hock. Bread was included. I wanted to get seconds but realized there was a line out the door. I paid my two dollars including tip (this was a while ago) and thanked the woman behind the counter. After that, whenever I stopped in, she would see me, catch my eye and I would be seated as quickly as possible. I was known. And I didn’t have to order. She put my plate in front of me with a smile. “Here you go honey child.”

People would come up to me on the street and share their favorite “secret” places to eat. I discovered the amazing place on Tchoupitoulas Street that had this killer oyster loaf (think a whole French bread loaf sliced down the middle lathered with butter after being scooped out and then filled with a dozen of the most delicious fried oyster you’ve ever tasted). There was the oyster bar in the Pontchartain Hotel I was told about and where I from then on would down a half dozen just shucked oysters with a beer before jumping on the St. Charles street car as I headed back to my flat after a night with friends in the French Quarter. The truth be told, I had never eaten a real (i.e. raw) oyster before, but quickly fell totally in love with the local bivalves. Another time I was taken to a nondescript cinder block building on the shore of Lake Pontchartain where I had stuffed myself silly on soft shelled crab, fried oysters and freshly boiled crawfish. The large room had ceiling neon lights, long tables for family seating. Zero amenities.  For a room this size with probably a hundred plus people in it was very quiet. People were obviously concentrating on what was before them and not wasting energy on conversations.

And the beignets. A new friend I had just met took me there a few weeks after I had arrived. She and I went to the Café Du Monde. We were served our café au laits while waiting. And then this dish of heaven was put on the table before us. Growing up the Midwest I had had my share of donuts and delicious pastries, but nothing prepared me for that first bite, an explosion of confectioner’s sugar that covered my face and clothing. I didn’t care. The taste was out of this world. I quickly ate a second, then a third and a fourth. After, I must have looked like I was decorated for Christmas with powdered snowflakes because of all the confectioner’s sugar on me. Really. They do tend to explode when you take a bite. The Café Du Monde became a regular stop during the year I lived there. I took my parents there when they visited, and my sister, all my family. Everyone.

Paul Honey Okay, now about the honey. One of the families I met through a friend of a friend called me one day asking, “Do you like honey Paul?” I said yes and before I knew it was I was invited to help them harvest honey from their hives. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into but when I was told I could take home two-quart jars of honey I quickly put my reservations aside. I arrived at their home and saw that the kitchen table had been cleared of everything but an oilcloth covering. Before long, bowls of honeycomb began arriving from the hives outside. The whole room smelled of the richness of fresh honey.

“Like this,” my host said showing me how to break the comb apart into pieces. I grabbed a comb from the bowl I had in front of me and began following his example. Looking at the comb as I broke it apart, I realized there were still bee larvae in various stages in some of the individual sections of the comb. This was something of mild interest until I had one then another sensation. Bee larvae still in the comb were stinging me. Yet, the honey itself was acting as an astringent. There was no pain, just a slight sensation of the prick. The group around the table proceeded to break the combs into smaller manageable pieces that were then put in pre cut sheets of cheesecloth. Then we squeezed to force the honey out of the comb. It also acted as a filter, removing stray pieces of comb, dirt, bee parts and whatever else was there. It was work. I was sweating from the effort but enjoying every minute of this new experience. A second filtering with more cheesecloth produced a golden amber liquid. We filled jar after jar until a third of the table was covered with quart jars.

HoneyWhen we finished, we had lunch of local grilled Andouille sausages, French bread and a shrimp casserole washed down with cold beers. I looked at the far end of the table and saw the pieces of comb and detritus filled a number of bowls. My host explained that these would be left near the hives. The bees would recycle all: comb, unused honey, everything. “By tomorrow morning, nothing will be left,” he continued. He sealed my two jar of honey putting a piece of cheesecloth between the honey and the lid. The next morning, I toasted two slices of French bread, added butter and added the fresh honey. For the first time I had this sensation that I was eating something that came from my labors, from my hands (and thanks to the bees). It was and remains the best damn honey I’ve ever had.

Honey to and from the soul.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin

In the Bleak Midwinter: Food stories from my youth by Paul Rest

snow-and-treesBy the time February rolled around, winter’s firm grip in our area meant the implementation of different menus. Meals changed from those during the late autumn and early winter months and often included wild game, nuts and lots of canned vegetables from the basement cellar.

Vegetables served for meals were canned or flash frozen and found in one of the freezer food sections at our local markets. To be truthful, the taste between the fresh vegetables and those from cans or frozen, well, it was night and day. My mother would attempt to add some zip to peas, string beans, carrots and the like by adding (I hate to say this) margarine. Melting a bit of margarine on top was her answer to the dull gray string beans, mushy peas and the like. Farmers would occasionally drop a slab of butter by but that was put aside for baking or meals with guests. My brother and sister and I were victims of the myriad butter “substitutes” available. We had no voice in the family food choices other than on our birthdays. That was it.

Fresh vegetables that time of year were slim pickings. Translucent iceberg lettuce, funky looking carrots and beets with wilted leaves. Of course, there were potatoes, onions and cabbages. Other “fresh” vegetables came wrapped in or packaged in cellophane so you really tell what it would taste like. It is probably what you would see now in the tiny vegetable section of your local mini-mart. Slim pickings indeed.

In the morning we would often begin our days with “pigs in a blanket,” which were sausages placed in the center of a pancake. This was served with apple butter and whatever sweet syrup was on sale at the local I.G.A. Sometimes mom would pick up a bottle of “Blackstrap Molasses.” This was a thick, dark syrup which was a change from the usual syrups. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, well, maybe you’ve missed something and maybe you haven’t. Br’er Rabbit was on the bottle. He was a figure in the racist “Uncle Remus” stories of the Deep South.

When not at school, lunch in those freezing months was made to fill our bellies. I’m not sure of the nutritional aspects of these meals.  But the filling the bellies part worked. We would often be served chipped beef with a rich gravy on white bread. The military has another designation for this so for you who are not familiar with this, the abbreviation for chipped beef, gravy on bread is “SOS.” We would be given a glass of milk and maybe the last of the Christmas cookies, now stone hard and needing extensive dunking in the milk to get them to a state other than having to make an emergency trip to the dentist. The “vegetables” served were usually pickles.

Years later, when visiting my parents, this is what my mom served for a lunch. I still got a glass of milk. They drank coffee as usual. I don’t know if this was in honor of my visit, or her just wanting to get lunch over with? I dutifully as the good son (which I marginally was) ate what had been put in front of me without nary a complaint. Thankfully that was the only time she placed that in front of me. The next day, my parents suggested we go out for lunch. At that time they were living in New Braunfels, Texas, a food paradise known world over for the area’s tradition of hickory-smoked meats. Oh boy, was I ever excited. Innocently, I asked, “Where we going dad?” “Your father’s favorite,” my mother answered. “Sizzler.” They loved that you’d get an entrée, salad, baked potato and dessert, then all for $9.99. All I can about that was that it was a meal that I wanted to forget about the moment my plate was put in front of me.

It’s not that they were cheap. Well, maybe a part of them still had thriftiness from growing up during the Great Depression? Even more so, they liked value. It was only after my father passed away that my mother (now gone too) would she open what was in her mind that Pandora’s Box of eating good, and eating what she liked. But more on that later.

Dinner at our family table this time of the year was often from a can. Chef Boyardee fulfilled that role perfectly. We ate his Ravioli, Lasagna, Beefaroni and Spaghetti. He became a regular addition to our family meals. Looking at his image on the can, Chef Boyardee looked like a nice guy. And I, in my innocent young years, concluded that all Italian men must look like the way he looks: mustache, toque, smile on his face, laboring in his kitchen just to make these “real” Italian meals to cheer us up. The food did look happy. Others notables showed up at our table too. Those nice ladies who made Campbell’s soups (as seen on TV and in magazines) were often a visitor. Soup was served with Nabisco saltines. My brother and sister and I would pile the crackers on, and I mean pile them on, partially I think to stretch the meal.

The basic reality here was at this time for where we lived: you ate at home. There was a Foster Freeze that opened in the late spring and stayed up until around the beginning of October before the creek flooded that whole part of town. When we’d drive to Saint Louis, there were hamburgers, fries and milk shakes at Stake n’ Shake. The then black and white interior reminded me of a barbershop. That was cool but what was the most cool were the yummy smells from frying burgers and fries cooking. To say I was in heaven is an understatement. My young brain was in overdrive, thinking that this would the perfect job for me. Here in Hamburger Heaven, flipping patties wearing that neat uniform with the paper hat.

The trips to St. Louis were sadly only twice or so a year events. My gastronomical vocabulary during this time of the year was short based on what I have written above. Oh, there were occasional cakes and pies and puddings. But the joy of food, with one or two exceptions, now resided mostly in my imagination and not my taste buds.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin


After The New Year – Sharing from the year before by Paul Rest


A Cold January Evening / Paul Rest

When I was growing up, the New Year began with a culinary change. Sadly the remaining Christmas tins were slowly being depleted of their delicious, sugary contents. Outdoors, the weather was often below zero with overcast slate gray skies and the streets a mess with slushy snow, now sprinkled with a coating of coal dust. When the Christmas tree came down on Epiphany, the “season” was officially over.

But then interesting things revolving around food began to happen. My mother would discover a jar of canned cherries from two years before, now extra delicious and syrupy, perfect on top of an angel food cake.  Our next-door neighbor across the street would drop off a venison roast from his kill during the last November’s hunting season. A venison stew slow cooked over the course of the day would be our stick-to-ones ribs dinner that night.

Another neighbor would bring by a brace of freshly killed and cleaned rabbits. After being braised in a cast iron skillet, these would be put in my mother’s oval roasting pan with cut vegetables, her home-made beef stock, a sprig of rosemary and cooked until juicy and tender. This would be served on a dinner plate piping hot with potatoes, carrots and fresh dark bread from the German bakery in town.

Trips to our cellar under our house would then become an important part of our diets during these winter months. The truth be told, it was always a dark and mysterious place that scared the bejesus out of me more than once. There was only one low watt bulb that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room, which meant the room was in a perpetual state of semi-darkness. The walls were brick and the floor was earthen. There were three windows, think small, very small, covered with so many cobwebs and dust it barely emitted any outside light. The far wall was lined with shelves which was where my mother put all the vegetables and fruits she canned during the summer and fall months. Apricots, peaches, pears, string beans, peas and other foods from our garden were canned in labeled Mason jars.

On the floor were stones jars containing pickles, beets and other root vegetables awaiting our winter table. At times, cases of a locally made soft drink would be stacked in a corner where boxes of apples and bushels of onions and potatoes would be stored. The air was filled with a heady mix of what was upon the earth (apples) and under the earth (potatoes and onions). A basket or two of walnuts would later appear, to be used for my mother’s future Christmas baking or set on the kitchen table as snacks to munch on during an afternoon visit from a neighbor.

Occasionally we would receive jars of olives from our neighbor down the hill who had a cousin in far off Southern California. Or, a whole hickory smoked ham would be brought by and then hung on one of the gigantic nails that had been hammered in the cellar’s crossbeam ages ago. And on occasion, bottles of homemade wine (usually terrible tasting stuff) would show up on the cellar’s shelves. A gift from the gruff man who had a garden in the lot down the hill. My mother usually used this ungodly potion for cooking, adding a little sugar (maybe, lots of sugar) to help it along. It especially helped when she pulled a sinewy cross rib roast from the deep freezer. The liquid somehow transformed the almost uneatable into something that with a knife and fork and a little work yielded some good pieces of hearty meat when dipped in the rich dark gravy.

With the fields now fallow and laying under a blanket of winter snow, the local farmers would then start appearing at our back door with gifts of bacon, pork roasts, chops, steaks, sausages and other farm products. These were “thank you” gifts to my parents. My dad, a minister, was “on call” twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When someone became ill, after the doctor was called, the next call was for my dad. The phone was downstairs in the hallway and had this ungodly loud ring that would jar us all awake, no matter the time of the day or night. When those calls would happen, he would answer, quietly get dressed and leave, often for hours. Some times the crisis would pass and he would return early and other times there would be an announcement of a funeral at the following Sunday service. All of these visits he did were appreciated and not forgotten by the local farmers and tradesmen.

So the winter months, the beginning of the year, were months of hearty meat dishes for dinner, stews, casseroles and roasts served with potatoes, carrots and what the jars in our cellar would provide us and arrived from our neighbors and those in our small community. It was food that would keep our bellies full and our bodies warm until the days lengthened and we began to notice the crocuses and tulips popping their heads up through the last of the winter snow.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin




Adventures in Japan: What Am I Eating Part III by Paul Rest

Adventures in Japan Part I and Adventures in Japan Part II

japan-articleJapan is a mix of stunning unforgettable natural beauty, and a seemingly lack of consciousness about the environment. A storybook looking factory of some kind situated in a lush green landscape unfolding before our eyes yet with an incinerator in the back belching black smoke. Driving on a scenic highway winding our way up a mountain we would suddenly come to a curve where in some almost Jungian collective consciousness people threw trash out of cars—soiled diapers, food containers, garbage, you name it.

But on the same trip near the famous Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest fresh water lake, a stop on a journey south at an ordinary looking cluster of shops revealed some of the most amazing textiles. Jackets, scarves, shirts, bathrobes and more all made locally with designs and patterns that evoked classical Japan. A stay at the resort on the small rocky outcropping of Urishima, which reminded me of the James Bond movie “Dr. No” with its caves that were once probably lava tubes extending from the heart of the lava core to the ocean. The traditional tatami room with a futon, waves crashing from the Pacific Ocean outside the window, gave me one of the best slumbers I had in years.

Japan is at best a place of magic and on the other end of the spectrum, a place where you could purchase sake from a vending machine, hot or cold on the walkway to the Zen temple, Ryōan –ji (with the world-famous rock garden). By the time the bullet train arrived in Tokyo, I was ready for anything. After checking in our rooms, I decided to relax with a gin & tonic. The “ice tray” in the room’s small refrigerator had the tiniest ice cubes I’ve ever seen. I mean, almost microscopic.  So I did what one would do in America. I called room service and requested ice. What arrived was a chuck of ice, obviously knocked a large block of ice. Well, necessity is the mother of invention. I wrapped the chuck of ice, about the size of a cantaloupe, in a towel and proceeded to smash it as quietly as possible on the tile floor in the bathroom until I had pieces that would fit in a glass. (Later, this chunk of ice showed up on my hotel bill: $25.00!)

We watched a TV channel in English while we all enjoyed cheeseburgers, fries, pie and ice cream with tall neck Buds from the room service menu. The food was excellent. It was good to have my American taste buds in play again.  Our suite, which we decided to share to save money with separate beds, faced Mt. Fuji, something we had requested so I could view this mystical symbol of Japan. Except the smog and low clouds obscured the view and all I could see was an unending grayness.

Our last night there we decided to go out. My host said there was a great Italian restaurant that was all the buzz then. So we managed somehow to get reservations and off we went. The restaurant was a large rectangular room with a high ceiling with murals on the walls. There were two isles going the length of the restaurant. One each side and in the middle were rows of tables.  Our table was located on the right side when you walked in towards the back and close to the kitchen. The ironies began immediately. A group of Japanese musicians strolled around the restaurant singing “O sole mio.”  Yep, that was the only song they knew. If you just happened to look at them, they assumed you wanted them to serenade your table. Of course, when they were done they expected a tip. Now I love Italian songs, but hearing the same one over and over and over again. Mama mia! When they came to our table, uninvited, I gave them an American twenty-dollar bill and pointed to the table next to ours, which almost instantaneously got hit with our merry troubadours.

The meal was great. A simple salad dressed with a divine olive oil began our meal followed by a perfect Ragú Napoletano with a bottle of excellent Chianti Riserva Classico. Or, maybe we had two bottles? I didn’t care. I was in heaven. And a spumoni for dessert brought me to new gastronomical heights and left me speechless it was so delicious.  The bill arrived and quickly brought me back to earth but still speechless. After all, this was Tokyo and we were eating at the one of the “in” restaurants.  The total bill with gratuity was what my total food budget was for a month back home, and probably my neighbor’s next door too. Oh, mama, mama mia!

We left with my thoughts focused not on the night sights of glittering downtown Tokyo passing by our cab’s window, but what my American Express bill would look like next month. Musing over a hot sake back in our hotel suite, still peering through the inky darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the moon shinning on Mt. Fuji I realized I just had a lifetime of experiences while visiting Japan. The food, the sights and even the incongruities of this very different culture that is closed to so many Westerners, with all this I was lucky to have been included by not only my host family but others and made to feel like more than just another gaijin.

And, after all, I was an honorary Japanese now: I had done the octopus gonads shooter and survived to tell the tale.

An interesting side note: A year after I returned, I began my now almost twenty-five year practice of the martial art Aikido. I had no direct contact with any martial artists while there, or at least that I knew about. I was near the hometown of the famous Aikido teacher Motomichi Anno Sensei on the way to Urishima and hop, skip and jump further south was O Sensei, the Founder of Aikido’s birthplace, Tanabe. I did drink water from the sacred Nachi Falls so all I can say is that is was probably, “in the water.”

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin


Adventures in Japan: “What am I eating?” Part 2 by Paul Rest

If you haven’t read Part I yet…here it is


Japanese Spider Crab / Wikipedia

After five days, it seemed like the sky opened and it would not stop raining. At one point it rained so hard it soaked through my umbrella. Waiting for a cab (on the wrong side of the street) I realized I was getting soaked to my bones. When we arrived at my host’s restaurant I asked for hot sake, thinking this would be the Japanese thing to ask for. She replied, “A glass of good whiskey works best.”

Japan was like that. I’d think I was getting the hang of things only to find out I had missed the boat once again. Here’s another example. There are these amazing long-legged crabs that are found in the Sea of Japan. They are called “Spider Crabs” and have longer legs than Alaskan King Crab. My host and her daughter took me to this famous restaurant in Kyoto that specialized in these crabs. Soon after ordering, the crab’s cleaned body and a pile of crab legs on a plate was put before each of us.

Now I thought my host would be a very typical Japanese eater of crab. When her daughter visited me in California, I once served our famous Dungeness crab. She meticulously removed all the meat from the shell, legs and claws, put it in a neat pile, discarded the shells and then and only then began to eat. She explained that this is the way her mother taught her to eat crab. So I was expecting a mother and daughter synchronized crab-piling contest. Instead, my host grabbed a crab leg, with a quick twist broke the red spiny leg in two and proceeded with her chopstick to push the meat out with one motion.

I was going to say something but decided to keep my mouth shut. It took me a couple of clumsy tries to master the chopstick-push-crabmeat-out maneuver. I eventually mastered the one motion action and began to enjoy the delicious meat. It was different from our West Coast Dungeness crab, not quite as sweet with a more tangy, salty taste of the sea. I enjoyed every morsel, picking up the loose pieces on my plate as best I could with my chopsticks.

A few days later the rain had finally stopped and I found myself with my host family next to the famous Gion district again; only this time my young host’s father was joining us. We all squeezed in a tiny elevator and rode up to the second floor. The building that looked like every other office building you saw in Japan, drab concrete with rectangular windows in an orderly row. When we emerged from the elevator there was a restaurant immediately to the right with tables filled with diners. To the left next to the dining area was a long fish tank, filled with hundreds of different kinds of fish and assorted shellfish unaware that they would soon be consumed by hungry diners. “You will like this Paul-san,” my host’s father told me.

We were seated and he then began to order. Dish after dish arrived washed down with copious amounts of beer. Then he ordered something that arrived in a shot glass. It was dark and inky. He said something to his daughter in Japanese who giggled and then translated. “My father says it is time for you to become a Japanese man.” I smiled as politely as possible after three plus Kirin’s, wondering what was next? More Japanese followed from my host’s father. “Please Paul-san, he says you must now swallow this,” she told me, again giggling. My host’s father was smiling like the Cheshire Cat. “What is it?” I asked. “Octopus gonads,” she replied. “You swallow all at once Paul-san. Then drink a glass of sake right afterwards. The two go together. It is tradition.”

Putting aside my squeamishness about the yucky looking stuff before me, my host’s family all smiling and looking at me, probably somewhat anxiously, I picked up the glass and like my first oyster let it slide down my gullet in one slimy action. I quickly grabbed the shot glass of sake and downed that with one gulp. Fortunately, I couldn’t taste much of the octopus gonads but what I could, I was glad the shooter of sake quickly followed removing a majority of the taste.

Slapping me on the back, “You now a real Japanese man, Paul-san,” my host’s father said to me laughing. The two women, mother and daughter, smiled and clapped in appreciation that I had succeeded in doing it while no doubt praying that I didn’t retch afterwards embarrassing everyone. For me, I did notice that afterwards the family warmed up to me incrementally more each day. So I guess I did pass a test of sorts.

But one more test was to follow and it was a doozy.

Continue to Part III

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin


Farm to Table: A True Story, Part II by Paul Rest

paul-iiIf you missed Part I, you can find it here.

When I would visit my my mother’s mother, my grandmother, things were different from my home life. This is where I first really learned about farm to table, although it wasn’t exactly “farm” to table, it was more like “garden and hen-house in the back” to table.

When the bank’s collapsed during the Great Depression, many people all over America lost all of their savings. As a result, there simply wasn’t a lot of money to go around, and out of necessity people quickly learned how to become as self-sufficient as possible. What was harvested from the back yard is what showed up on the dinner table, and what you didn’t have in the pantry, was bartered for.

Shoes were repaired since money was not available for a new pair. Tires had to be patched and re-patched, so services and goods were traded/bartered. The cobbler traded his services for bushels of corn. Your tire was patched by the service station man in trade for a week’s supply of eggs. You had this and your neighbor had that, so you trade. It all happened locally, probably within a mile or two as the crow flies.

What little money was available went for staples like salt, pepper, sugar, cooking oil and similar items. Grocery stores sold a lot on credit, praying that one-day the economy would return and the banks would again reopen. Later, during WWII, backyard gardens became “Victory Gardens,” supplying families with as much as possible so farm goods could go to the war effort. By the time I came along, my grandmother could still be found in her garden with her rows of corn, beans, lettuces, tomatoes, squash, carrots, beets, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, potatoes plus various herbs. She would go out in the morning after breakfast and walk up and down the rows either talking to what was growing or just checking everything out. Maybe she was doing a bit of both.

After morning chores, she would return to the garden and begin harvesting for lunch. A glorious salad would soon appear with a simply oil and vinegar dressing. My assignment was to wash the lettuce and tomatoes and then dry them. Lunch might be sandwiches with cold cuts (luncheon meats) with cheese from the market down the street. Or, it could be cold left overs from the night before. Lunch tended to be non-stove use time to keep the heat level down in the house. After lunch and dishes were washed, dried and put away (I was the dish drier), my grandmother would do more chores and would disappear for a while, probably to take a short nap.

Around 4 o’clock she’d call out my name, summoning me from wherever I was hiding from the sweltering afternoon heat and humidity. Walking behind her with a basket under my arm, we’d move down the rows again. Corn would be selected, but only after she peeled  back the tassels on an ear to make sure the corn’s ripeness suited her. If a vegetable wasn’t ripe enough for her, she’d often let go with her most powerful expletive. “Land of Goshen!” It was as if the vegetable hadn’t performed to her expectation. Strangely, it was usually ready (and ripe) the next day. A squash or two would be picked and added to the growing weight of my basket. About this time she’d turn to me and say, “Here honey, let me take that.” Pulling her hand hoe from somewhere under her apron, potatoes would be unearthed. Finally, we’d move to the radishes or beans. There were string beans and yellow beans and lima beans, all climbing on polls way beyond my reach.

A galvanize tub was filled with cold water and I was instructed to begin washing the vegetable with a brush by the kitchen door. A black hose was put in the tub to provide an ongoing flow of fresh water. While I was going this, sitting on this old creaky old wooden stool, she would go in the kitchen and begin boiling water. About the time I was tackling the potatoes, she would emerge and walk towards the hen-house. A chop or two later, we were one step closer to a fried chicken dinner.

The chickens would be held upside down and then brought over to where I was sitting. Another galvanized tub was brought from the basement. Walking to and from the kitchen, the tub was filled with hot water. The chickens were dipped in the water and she began pulling the feathers out. After she was done with most of the feathers, my next job was to get the hard to get ones. Apparently she thought my smaller and more nimble fingers were best for this job.

After I was done, I’d wrap the chickens in a clean towel and bring them to the kitchen where she’d clean and then cut them up before drying the pieces off. Next, the potatoes would be peeled and cut up and put in boiling water. I returned to the outside and my creaky stool where I shucked the corn. These would go in another pot of boiling water. By quarter to six the chicken pieces had been dredged in flour, salt and pepper and were in the cast iron skillets frying happily away. Soon the potatoes would be drained and mashed followed by the corn. A salad of cut vegetables covered with apple cider vinegar, salt, paper and sprinkled with sugar appeared on the table. At 5 minutes before the hour I’d be handed a big bowl of mashed potatoes with a small lake a melted butter on top. Next a big bowl with the ears of corn would be handed to me followed by a small bowel of the radishes in ice-cold water. Finally, a small mountain of fried chicken stacked on a platter would be put down on the table.

Exactly at 6 o’clock, my grandfather would walk through the kitchen door. “Dinner ready Eve,” he asked, using his name of endearment for her. Right after my grandfather entered, my parents and brother and sister would appear. After grace, we’d dig in. Oh, the time she was gone, it turns out she made a strawberry pie, now cooling off on the far counter mostly out of my eyesight (she knew me all too well). And there was whipped cream in the refrigerator too.

This is how I learned farm and garden, to table. And boy, was the food ever delicious. A big hug to you Grandma for giving me this gift– wherever you are.

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin

Farm to table: A true story by Paul Rest

Part I

paulDecades before there was what we know of today as “farm to table,” most Americas lived that way.

What I mean is, there was little separation from what showed up on the dinner table because of where we lived, and what we ate. Outside of big cities like New York, Chicago and St. Louis, what we ate came from what we grew, or from  neighbors and friends.

Shopping involved buying supplies like flour, oil, salt, pepper, what were called “essentials.” What we now purchase when we shop like eggs, butter, meat and poultry, vegetables and fruit, these were all seasonally grown and harvested then. Most houses had both a pantry where items were placed so they would be handy, and a cellar where canned jars of tomatoes, fruits and other items were stored for later use during the winter months. And of course there were crocks of pickles, beets and other root vegetables waiting for just that right moment.

The continued flow of produce and fruits at our local market is the miracle of transportation that sources from different growing climates. When it is winter here, it is summer somewhere else. Containers, often filled with inert gas(es), are flown and shipped from one point to another on the globe. It appears we have an endless summer when we walk through the vegetable isles in our markets. The same is true with fish, poultry and meats. It is always there, displayed before our eyes, either wrapped or unwrapped. From feed pens to the slaughterhouse to the butcher to our table, the supply chain has been built to offer us, the consumer, a cornucopia of beef, pork, chicken and fish.

Somewhere around the 1960’s, perhaps this had to do with the growth of suburban sprawl, consumption became more about shopping than asking where or how this all came to our grocers. It was easier to move down the isles, selecting this cereal or that can of coffee or this package of meat based on convenience and price. Those in the grocery business and food supply chain knew what we wanted and provided it. It was all so easy.

I grew up in a small town in Missouri and our household was filled with seasonal fruits ( cherries, peaches, plums and pears) and vegetables brought over from the neighbors’ surplus crops.

My dad loved rhubarb pie so we had a patch growing down along the fence in the lower yard. Summer and fall canning were a yearly ritual, and our neighbor across the street hunted and fished. He brought over squirrel, rabbit, deer and fillets from sturgeon and bass. Everyone shared.

At some point, I remember my mother beginning to rely more and more on the local I.G.A. and Kroger stores for shopping. It was the growing trend at that time and at just a five minutes drive, it was convenient. Frozen vegetables, frozen fish, bread baked in St. Louis and brought by trucks along with milk and dairy products (including eggs) from distant locations became part of our diets. The I.G.A. market may have had local meats, but the Kroger store’s meats probably came from Chicago or Kansas City. The “local” was disappearing from our table and from the tables of our neighbors.

I don’t remember all the particulars of this happening. But I do remember what we ate began to taste differently. Now I realize what this was: It just didn’t taste as good.

Read Part II here!

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Sometimes traffic problems can be a blessing by Paul Rest

Thank you WikipediaThe local radio station announced that there was a major accident on the Golden Gate Bridge and northbound lanes were closed. Fortunately, I was still on route, taking a short cut as a snaked my way through the San Francisco’s notorious rush hour traffic. What I would often do in situations like this is find a café or restaurant I hadn’t tried and stop there for a light snack and glass of wine while waiting.

I was driving north of upper Fillmore Street, a then (and now) trendy area of the city. The street went south to north, up and down a number of San Francisco’s famous hills ending up in the Marina District close to the San Francisco Bay. Driving slowly and looking left to right I noticed a new place that advertised oysters and fresh seafood. That caught my attention immediately. And the parking gods were smiling when I saw a car pull out right in front of where I was.

Entering the restaurant, apparently other commuters had heard the same message. The place was packed. I managed to find the only available bar stool. Squeezing in, I scanned the wine list and decided on a Louis Jadot “Pouilly Fuisse” to start. Suddenly, the woman next to me turned in my direction and announced, “So you’re finally here!” I smiled and responded, “Yes.” She continued, “We were wondering when you’d finally arrive.” The two guys next to her and girlfriend looked at each other and then turned away from the women and shortly thereafter left. This beautiful woman whispered in my ear, “We’ve been trying to get rid of them. Thanks for helping. Hello, my name is April and this my girlfriend Michelle.”

We sat and chatted for a few minutes. I was about to turn away and begin scanning the bar menu when April said, “We’ve ordered a dozen oysters. Would you like to join us.” Oh my, my traffic woes were now quickly fading from my mind, replaced by the platter of delicious oysters put in front of us. Another dozen followed the first dozen oysters, and then a basket of the most delicious fried calamari, done with the most perfect batter I had ever tasted arrived and was gone all too quickly.

Just about the time I thought it couldn’t get better, a young man and woman walked in the door. I noticed he had a bottle under his arm. A larger looking bottle from what I could see. The barstools next to me had just been vacated. He asked if he could sit there and I replied, “Of course.” I then turned to April to answer her question about the purpose of my trip to the city. But my sentence was interrupted by a “thump.” The young man had put the bottle of wine under his arm on the counter. I looked at it and my mouth dropped open.

I was a magnum of Pétrus Pomerol. “I figured it was time to drink it,” he said looking at me and smiling. “Would you like to join us?” I replied that of course I would and then thought to myself,  “Would he like for me to vacuum and wash his car too and maybe do his laundry for a week too?” I’m not sure how much they restaurant charged him to open the wine but before you can say “Bordeaux wines” the bottle was open. The dark wine colored cork looked like it could tell a story by itself. But the cork didn’t have a chance to speak as the first glass was slowly poured and handed to the young man. He sipped slowly and then told the bartender to pour four more glasses (and one for himself)– one for his lady friend, and one for me, April and her friend Michelle.

And oh my, did we revile in that wine. The first sip was extraordinary. The second was almost beyond words. Deep flavors of plum, cherry with flashes of caramel, tobacco even coffee and then a feathery stroking of the back of the tongue with sensuous hints of mint and mineraly earthiness. We were all quiet. Not speaking. We were in Petrus heaven worshiping the wine. And then we burst forth with a cacophony of words trying to find things that made sense to describe this incredible nectar of the gods.

I later read that the wine is rated 98 or 99 on a scale of 100. I can understand why. After the last sips were drained, we five knew we now shared a special bond, united by our experience with this wine. As we departed, hugs and business cards were exchanged with promises that we must meet here again, and soon.  But alas, it never happened. I’m always the one to organize these things so perhaps I dropped the ball?

Fifteen minutes later, driving across the now opened Golden Gate Bridge and heading home, I turned the classical music station off and just thought again and again and about lucky I was to have caught the traffic report, found a place to park (always a problem then and now in San Francisco), enjoyed delicious oysters and then a stunningly magnificent bottle of wine with strangers. “Oh my,” I realized, “sometimes traffic problems can be a blessing in disguise.”

(Unfortunately, over time I forgot the year of the magnum)

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.


« Older Entries