Friday, June 25, 2010

"My Sara": How Sara Moulton Is Carrying Julia Child's TV-Chef Torch

I like to think of her as “My Sara” because, well, she’s just so doggone cute, and if I hadn’t met the true love of my life, I might indeed be off driving in a skeezy van, traveling the nation, chasing after Sara Moulton.

Noooo, I’m not a stalker or anything. That’s a joke, okay? I might be a little woo-woo with her, but it’s not like I’m anywhere near the level of “screaming-teenage-Beatles-fan”!

Okay, maybe just a tiny bit. But seriously, my not-so-secret adoration of Sara Moulton emerges from a completely innocent appreciation of her down-to-earth style, her approachableness, and her sincerity. She doesn’t act like a “celebrity chef”; she always seems like a normal person, like me and you.

Let me draw a comparison between her and another blonde TV personality famous for helping us all to cook better. You know who I’m talking about—Martha Stewart! Martha (like as if I actually knew her!) comes off as formal, maybe even chilly, and perfectionistic in the extreme—or at least, that’s what she’s come to symbolize.

There’s something to be said, of course, for perfectionism, but that’s not Sara Moulton’s thrust. Like her former boss and longtime friend and mentor, Julia Child, Sara’s philosophy is about trying new things, sometimes making mistakes, learning, improvising, having fun, steadily improving, and being “real.” (La cuisine bourgeoise, as Julia would call it—the food of regular people, done well.)

Let’s engage in fantasy for a minute: Say you’re cooking something in Martha’s kitchen, and you screw up somehow. Something’s burning, or the mayonnaise separated, or the meringue collapsed. Lumpy gravy! Or whatever. What’s your first impulse? Well with Martha, I think it would be, Quick! Hide the evidence! Fast! Before she sees it! (Aaaahhhh! Here she comes! Run like hell!)

But with Sara, you know she’d treat it as “just another routine kitchen disaster,” no biggie. You’d probably just laugh at it together, say “Aw, heck,” and then start over again—or rescue the project by sending it in a new direction. I like this scenario with Sara a lot better, don’t you?

I used to watch Food Network a lot in its early days, when Sara had her Cooking Live shows, which were truly live, and where “anything” could happen. It was fun, informative, and on several occasions she showed viewers how to doctor up dishes when things go wrong.

(I remember the notorious Chinese fortune cookie episode! That Sara had such a big “brain fart” live on TV made me feel soooo much better about my own mistakes. Recently I cooked a big pot of beans and totally forgot to add the ham hocks until the beans were completely done. But I didn’t sweat it—I figured out what to do, and nobody had a clue.)

To this day, I really don’t care much for any of the other “celebrity chefs” out there on TV; from them I have learned tips and tricks and have been entertained, but it was Sara who became a model for me, a chef to emulate.

Anyway, I was able to finally meet “My Sara” in Kansas City a few weekends ago. How exciting! She was travelin’ across America promoting her new book, Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010). Her book tour was sponsored by the German cookware company Chantal, so she was promoting Chantal pots and pans, as well. (And yeah, it’s nice stuff.)

I’d never been to one of these celebrity-chef-book-promotion cooking classes, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, apart from having an opportunity to get an autographed book. The event was titled “Master Class with Chef Sara Moulton.”

The venue was the Culinary Center of Kansas City, which is in downtown Overland Park, Kansas. They’ve got a demonstration kitchen with the angled mirror above so you can see what’s happening on the cutting board and in the sauté pan. The people in the class were all seated at tables in the center of the room.

If you haven’t been to the CCKC, I encourage you to check them out and support them. (Pryde’s in Westport was another sponsor—and surely you know how fun it is to visit them!)

Above is my only halfway decent picture from the class. I’m sorry that I don’t have a whole bunch of gorgeous photos to share with you, but I was busy paying attention, and my camera doesn’t do well in indoor light—and I didn’t want to use the flash because I didn’t want to distract her (taking pictures, I felt, was obnoxious enough). (Oh, sure, I got a great picture of her with a squinty “Gilbert Gottfried” expression . . . but I like her too much to post it.)

After the introductions and applause, Sara got right to work. She prepared four dishes from her new book: Ground Turkey and Mint Lettuce Wraps; Mu Shu Vegetables with Pancakes (actually, crêpes); Soba Noodles with Asian Clam Sauce; and Fruit Pot Stickers. Chefs from the CCKC also prepared the dishes so participants could sample them while she cooked.

I was intrigued by the selection—they all had an Asian theme, and thus were all potentially a “stretch” for a midwestern audience. But the entire book is about expanding one’s repertoire for the family meal, adding new culinary tricks (“How many of you have never made crêpes before? Why?”); new sauces and ingredients; and new techniques that can all be mix-and-matched by anyone with some basic cooking know-how.

Indeed, there’s a section at the front of the book called “Head Starts” that’s all about making some recipes ahead of time that can be frozen or refrigerated for later use. Things like flavored butters, garlic dressing (both “rich” and “slim” versions), broccoli pesto, a basic pizza dough, and so on. These well-described, versatile recipes alone might be worth the price of the book.

The goal with the book is to add to the family cook’s “bag of tricks,” so that one’s weeknight dinners can be more varied and interesting. And healthier—throughout, Sara has tended toward more veggies and whole grains, smaller portions of meat, and only moderate amounts of fat, salt, etc. She has also steered in the direction of sustainable foods, home economy, and healthy cooking methods.

In keeping with the aim of providing relatively fast recipes for weeknight dinners, Sara’s reinvented the way recipes appear. She knows that most people don’t prepare their mise all at once (that is, chop and measure out all ingredients ahead of time)—they chop the tomato, say, after tucking something else into the oven. So her recipes list ingredients like “6 medium celery stalks” and “1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano”; later, while something else is cooling, the instructions say, “Meanwhile, . . . slice the celery . . . and shave the cheese.”

I wonder what her editor had to say about this—editors tend to be conservative (“why change it from the traditional way that everyone’s already comfortable with?”)—but Sara explains: “This book incorporates several new ideas about how to cook smarter, faster, and cleaner. . . . Why not take advantage of the time required to cook an onion—about five minutes—to slice your red pepper?” And though it makes for more verbiage within each recipe, she certainly has a point.

Regarding the food, unless you travel a lot or live in some big metro area like New York, you might find many recipes and foods in this book that are new to you. You might look at a dish such as “Chicken Saltimbocca with Artichoke Sauce” and think “what the hell is a Saltimbocca?” and just skip over it. But fortunately, Sara has provided a paragraph or two of description before each recipe. And you know what? Chicken Saltimbocca with Artichoke Sauce is completely “doable.”

And what she says about preparing the chicken breasts in that recipe is an example of her wonderful way of blending practical information with a spin that is both enthusiastic and humorous:

The only time-consuming part of this recipe is the pounding of the chicken breasts. But if you sprinkle the breasts with a little water before bashing away at them with a rolling pin, they won’t stick to the plastic bag and shred. In any case, I tend to find the bashing part of the preparation strangely soothing, especially after a bad day at the office or a squabble with the kidlets.

Hmm, does that paragraph remind you of anyone—?

If you are a fan of Julia Child (and who wouldn’t be, after that book and that movie), you should pay attention to Sara Moulton.

As she cooked in the demo, she reminisced a little about Julia Child, smiling and calling her a “wild woman” and telling an anecdote about how the latter nearly wiped out an entire table of food that Sara and a colleague had prepped for filming when she suddenly tossed a “Dreadful!” loaf of Wonder Bread over her shoulder.

You know, there’s no question that Julia Child invented this cooking-on-TV scene; she defined it. As an educator, she hit upon the ingredients that cooking-show audiences crave:
  • A sense of “I can do it!”
  • Security; knowing that “screwing up” is no big deal
  • Clear demonstration of technique
  • Genuine enthusiasm for ingredients and tools as well as the final product
  • Education (learning how stuff works is fun!)
  • A teacher with a friendly, companionable personality and a sense of humor

. . . Although there will only be but one Julia Child, Sara Moulton is obviously carrying Julia’s torch—she’s running with it, and lifting it high.

(Go, Sara, go!)

Note: only three pictures on this post are actually mine, the one taken at the class, the picture of the book in our front yard with peaches, and the picture of my own first crêpe; the rest were copied indiscriminately and probably illegally from other posts on the Internet. Okay, the one of the "Kitchen Destroyed by Hurricane Katrina" was lifted from here. No harm intended. If you're the copyright holder, I'll be glad to remove the image or provide credit. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sapodillas 101

Hello! Today I’m going to tell you about the other “new” fruit I brought home from Florida: a sapodilla, the fruit of Manilkara zapota. I bought it underripe from Robert Is Here (what a fun fruit stand!) and got instructions as to how to tell when it’s ready to eat. It was ready about a week after we got home.

Remember I told you about the football-shaped sapote in my last post? Well this little potato-like “spud” is in the same family, the Sapotaceae, and like the sapote, the plant (a tree) has a sticky, latexy sap.

In fact, the sapodilla was for years a major source of “chicle,” which was the primary ingredient in American manufactured chewing gum. Sapodilla is sometimes called “chicle tree.” Did you know that even the Mayans chewed chicle? They had the original Chiclets!

We don’t know this fruit much in North America, but I have no idea why. You can ship it rather green and hard, and it ripens just fine on a shelf. It’s not hard to figure out when it’s edible. It’s not hard to cut up and eat. And lots of other people in the world love it!

With the thin skin and small seeds, there isn’t much waste, either.

It is native to Central America and has been cultivated a very long time. Today, it’s grown in its home turf (especially in Mexico), plus in the Philippines and tropical south Asia, including extensive cultivations in coastal India, where it is called baramasi, chikoo, or tree potato. (“Chikoo”: I love it! Say it aloud, and you will love it, too!)

As with most tree fruits in cultivation for centuries, there are numerous cultivars with different flavors, shapes, maturation times, and other characteristics. I don’t know what particular variety of sapodilla I ended up with, but here is what it was like.

Pictures are worth thousands of words.

Superficially, it looked a lot like an Irish potato. The skin is a lot like a kiwi’s, only without the fuzz. Yeah, more potato-like—you know how potatoes can be smooth and kinda scurfy at the same time.

Inside, the flesh was a lot like a ripe pear’s. There’s a graininess to it (stone cells, I guess), but given enough ripening it is plenty soft enough. I can see where it would be problematic if you cut it up while it was still hard.

I understand that unripe fruits can leak milky latex. Bitter stuff. So make sure it’s ripe.

The usual deal is: Cut it in half (along the “equator”), then spoon the flesh out and eat out of the cup of the rind. A lot of people eat kiwis this way.

I wanted to include it in a little fruit bowl, so I cut it into chunks. It came apart naturally into nine segments, easy to pry apart with my fingers. It was pretty neat.

I picked out all the seeds, which are curious little things. One source I read said there are usually three to six of them, and sure enough, mine had six. Only two had matured; the other four were shrunken, aborted little things.

In the pockets where the seeds rested were little white chunks of hardened latex. I ended up pitching those latex flecks along with the peel and aborted seeds, but come to think of it, I should have tried chewing that stuff. Oh well. I know there will be a next time.

All the stuff I’ve read cautions sapodilla-eaters not to swallow a seed by accident. Supposedly, the little “hook” can make the thing get lodged in your throat.

“Supposedly” . . . but the “hooks” on the seeds I got 1) weren’t hooked, they were straight; and 2) had rather flexible tips. And anyway, they were large enough you’d have to really be scarfing that fruit down in order to mistakenly swallow one of these.

The flavor? Well, Robert Is Here described it as “like pears with brown sugar”—and that’s actually pretty close.

I guess that not a lot of people cook with these. From what I’ve been able to find on the Web, the most popular way of eating them is raw, alone or combined with other ingredients. Such as other fresh fruits.

The next most common thing to do with them, I guess, is to puree or grind the flesh into a paste to use in breads, drinks and smoothies, sauces, and other preparations. Most recipes don’t leave the sapodilla flesh intact; even a recipe for sapodilla “pie” mashes the sapodilla and incorporates it into a creamy pie.

Anyway, like the mamey sapote we brought home (which was very very different, despite some external similarities, the family relationship, and similar names), this sapodilla was tasty and fun, packed with culinary promise. Perhaps someday it will take its place beside the mangoes, passion fruit, pineapples, and papayas in my beloved “weird fruit” section of the supermarket.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mamey Sapote Ice Cream

I just told you about our trip to Florida, right? And how we stopped at the famous tropical fruit stand in Homestead called Robert Is Here—right? So here’s more of the story.

Yes, I did get a few “new” fruits to carry home with me on the plane! I selected two different underripe fruits and got ripening tips from one of the friendly Robert Is Here staff.

One of those fruits was a sapote, a.k.a. mamey sapote, a.k.a. Pouteria sapota. Because I’m a botany junkie, I have to give you a little background on the plant. If all you want is the ice cream recipe, then scroll down to the bottom—but I contend you’ll appreciate your food more if you learn more about it.

Mamey sapote is a tree fruit native to southern Mexico but which is now grown and loved throughout Central America and the Caribbean. And south Florida. Latin Americans enjoy eating it raw or made into a variety of frozen treats—Wikipedia says: “milkshakes, smoothies, ice cream, and fruit bars.” The same source describes the fruit’s flavor as “a combination of pumpkin, sweet potato, and maraschino cherries with the texture of an avocado.”

The fruit I purchased was shaped something like a football, with a mildly rough-textured rind. I selected one that was still pretty firm and underripe, so I could transport it home in my backpack and still have time (about a week) for it to ripen.

I wonder: Why in the heck isn’t this fruit carried in more supermarkets? It can be shipped firm and underripe, and it’s tasty and easy to work with. (Send me out there. I’ll stand in the produce department, handing out samples!)

Here are some pictures of what’s inside the fruit. I highly recommend looking at this Web site, which is from the book Fruits of Warm Climates, by Julia F. Morton. Its treatment of mamey sapote is much more interesting than Wikipedia’s brief “intro-primer.”

The bit about the texture being “like an avocado” is spot-on, even though the avocado is in a different family (the laurels) instead of the Sapotaceae (sap-oh-TAY-see-ee), to which this species belongs.

One of the hallmarks of the Sapotaceae is that most members have a milky latex sap. The chicle tree is another member, and its latex became the original chewing gum. (Hey, care for a Chiclet?) Chicle sap was still being used for chewing gum until the 1960s, when gum companies switched to cheaper, synthetic sources of, well, rubber.

So keeping in mind that the sap of this thing is latex-ey, make sure your sapote is nice and ripe before you cut it open. The guy at Robert Is Here told me to wait until it’s quite soft and starts getting kind of shrunken and wrinkled—which I did.

It turned out beautifully. The buttery-smooth flesh was salmon-orange and scoopable with a spoon. There was one big, lovely, shiny seed in the center. It did remind me of cutting an avocado.

We tried some of the fruit plain and in a bowl, and yes, it had the same kind of rich, sweet taste that pumpkins and sweet potatoes have, but with an extra “fruity” quality. A very distinct flavor. Personally, I thought it was kind of “strong” for my tastes. Maybe adding a dash of lime juice, like you can do with papayas, would help a newbie like me get used to it. Or just including it with other fruits on a platter.

The fruit, which was about 8 or 9 inches long, yielded about 2–3 cups of flesh, I’d say. Taking a cue from the Latinos, here’s what I did with the rest of the sapote.

First, I ran the sapote flesh through my food mill, using the smallest holes, to remove extra fibers and make it all smooth. Then I put it in the fridge and drove to the store for ice cream ingredients!

The following recipe is a combination of a frozen yogurt recipe and a “simple” ice cream recipe, which both came from the booklet that accompanied my Cuisinart ice cream maker. Simple: It uses no eggs and requires no cooking. It makes about a quart of ice cream.

By incorporating the vanilla yogurt into the recipe, I added creaminess while decreasing fat. It also added a certain yogurty tanginess that combines well (I think) with the sapote flavor. (Instead of brown sugar and cinnamon, I prefer sour cream or plain yogurt on my sweet potatoes—and I guess that’s kind of the same thing.)

(One final word: This recipe would work well with dang near any fruit pulp you want to use. It’s not rocket science!)

Sapote Ice Cream

2/3 c. heavy cream (chilled)
1/3 c. whole milk (chilled)
1 c. low-fat vanilla yogurt (use the costlier, creamier kind!) (chilled)
3/4 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. sapote pulp (that’s been run through a food mill or pressed through a sieve to remove fibers) (chilled is a good idea)

Dissolve the sugar into the liquid ingredients, being careful not to whip the cream (indeed, you could just stir in the cream after mixing the sugar), and then fold in the sapote pulp.

Freeze in your ice cream freezer per instructions.

I use a Cuisinart ice cream maker, and this recipe makes about as much ice cream as the thing will hold. Since I had about 2 cups of processed pulp to work with, I made two of these batches, each a day apart (the Cuisinart’s freezer-bowl has to be refrozen between uses).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Robert Is Here: The Frugivore in Paradise

The last full day we were in Florida was the day we woke up in Kendall (a western suburb of Miami—on the highway) and drove through Homestead to Everglades National Park. If you’ve never been to the Everglades, you should make a point of going.

Unlike other major national parks, which mostly seem to center around some kind of spectacular rock formations (mountains or canyons), this one shows you geological flatness. On the road leading into the park, there are signs giving you the elevation: “2 feet”; “3 feet”; “4 feet” . . . However, just a tiny change in elevation means the difference between swamps, prairies (“glades”), pine scrub, and mahogany and mangrove hammocks.

So although it doesn’t offer the mountaineer much to chew on, it is an excellent place to feed your inner biology nerd, to go botanizing, bird-watching, and much more. Including alligator-watching! (And yeah, if you want to see the nifty tree snails, you’ll need sunscreen and bug repellent!)

Apart from the day when all the hydromedusae and comb jellies were in the water near where we were staying at Captiva, this was my favorite day of the whole trip. Yes, because of the wonderful biological diversity of the ’Glades . . . but in particular because of our stop at the nationally known fruit stand called Robert Is Here.

Robert Is Here is a fruit stand located in Homestead, Florida, at a prominent intersection for visitors headed to the Everglades—where westbound FL Route 9336 turns due south onto local road SW 192nd Ave. (There! Now you can find it on Google maps!) It’s surrounded by orchards and crop fields.

There’s a fun story about the name of the stand—it started when its owner was six and sitting at his dad’s produce stand, and not selling anything. Then, a “light bulb” lit up above his dad’s head and he made a sign, “Robert Is Here”; the next day he hung it up next to the sweet little boy. The advertising worked, because people noticed young Robert and bought up his produce. That’s how it got started, back in the early sixties.

This was actually my second time to visit Robert Is Here (and the Everglades). My first visit was in July 1975, when I was nine! On that trip, we saw the liftoff of the Apollo portion of the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft linkup (remember the handshake in space?). My uncle was living in Florida at that time and invited my family to visit. (By the way, in the picture, that’s him waving from his sweet little Jensen-Healey.)

I have foggy memories of that visit, as they are all mixed up with the rest of my impressions of the entire trip. I do remember that Robert Is Here sold curiosities such as starfruit, mangoes, papayas, and watermelon soda. Even then, the tropical fruit stand seemed as much of a tourist attraction to me as the national park.

Now it’s thirty-five years later, and Robert Is Here has been featured in lots of national media, including my beloved Gourmet Magazine (May 2003), which singled it out as one of the few places in this country to get a decent selection of truly delicious mango varieties.

(Foodie geek: since Gourmet’s demise, and there were no "recent" issues to bring along, I plumbed my back issues for a few magazines to take with me on the plane. The Florida Keys issue, May 2003, was one I brought on this trip. How appropriate!)

Not surprisingly, Robert Is Here has expanded in the last thirty-five years. They offer a luscious selection of seasonal tropical fruits and cool beverages to a curious, hungry, and often overheated tourist crowd.

By the way, there are a ton of fruit stands in the area, many of them apparently owned by Cuban immigrants, and they probably offer lower prices, but I suspect most of them don’t offer the huge extravaganza of products, or the “experience.”

Mangoes are a specialty, but Robert Is Here offers a huge range of tropical specialties—avocados, sapodillas, papayas, key limes, tamarind, water coconuts, and on and on. When we were there, the oranges and most other citrus weren’t in season. But they do sell homemade key lime pies!

And their milkshakes were incredible! There was a big sign for key lime milkshakes, but you could get just about any of their fruits mixed in. Sue and Dad had the key lime shakes, as advertised. The creaminess of the shake made it taste kind of like a key lime pie—a stupefyingly delicious combination of tart and sweet, juicy and creamy. I can’t think about it without my mouth watering.

Mom had a strawberry-key-lime milkshake. I didn’t try that, but you can imagine how yummy that must have been. When it came time to order, I was in a momentary crisis. I wanted to try all of them—they had something like twenty different fruits posted, most of which were curiosities like sapote, dragonfruit, longan, and so forth.

“Jackfruit” caught my eye, so I ordered that.

I’d never tasted jackfruit before. I was drawn to them in the fruit stand because of their tremendous size and unusual bumpy rind. While waiting for our order to be made, I scored a sample of jackfruit as some of the workers were cutting up one for a customer. (They will cut the fruit for you—how nice is that? Not every tourist is adept at dismantling novel fruits, you know.) It tasted like . . . smooth, creamy pineapple, or pineapple without the “bite.” The texture was also like pineapple, but more slippery. Or maybe like a banana crossed with a pineapple.

Botany nerds: Jackfruit is in the Moraceae (mor-AY-cee-ee), the mulberry family. So is our local Osage orange (which is not edible but shows promise as a source of mosquito repellent). The interior of the jackfruit fruit is structurally very similar to that of the Osage orange (if you’ve ever broken one of those in half)—both are “multiple fruits.” Jackfruit has been cultivated in India for perhaps six thousand years.

Anyway, after my little sample, I was confident of my choice! In the milkshake, the jackfruit was mellow, and it added an intriguing flavor that was just . . . “tropical.” Yum!

Sorry that there are no pictures of the actual milkshakes, but it was starting to rain, we’d spent the whole day traipsing around the Everglades, and we still needed to drive clear across the southern part of the state and get to Naples in time to find our motel and get dinner.

And I haven’t even told you about their fabulous selection of honeys. They had samples available of each. There were “flavored” honeys (ginger, key lime, tangerine, cinnamon, etc.) as well as those whose flavor actually comes from the nectar source. Of the latter, I was intrigued by the mangrove honey, as well as the goldenrod, palmetto, avocado, mango, and (of course!) tupelo. (We brought home some mangrove honey.)

And then there are the preserves, jellies, salsas, dressings, and other relishes and sauces. All this stuff, including the fresh fruits (when in season), is available by mail order:

There was more—live music, some lovely parrots to visit out back, vintage trucks in front, and flowers and souvenirs for sale. And yes, Robert himself “was there,” cheerfully helping customers and offering advice alongside his many young employees.

Of course, the biggest attraction for me was the heart of the business: the incredible array of strange new fruits. Such possibilities! I wanted to bring home a sample of each, even a big ol’ jackfruit!

Decisions, decisions. (I’ll let you visit their Web site to see the list and all the pictures.)

What a fun place!

Robert Is Here on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What’s Up?

I’m home, that’s what. And I haven’t been posting like I’ve wanted to. The problem is, I went on a vacation, then came back, and of course the price for all that nice relaxation and stuff was the predictable reckoning when I came home: Work, work, work.

The truly hot Missouri summertime weather finally hit while we were out of town. The yard has transformed into a jungle, complete with mosquitoes and chiggers. Even the grass has been pretty much out of hand, since it’s been raining so often.

To make things even nuttier around here, we’ve had some interior finishing experts at our house to destroy and then rebuild our sunporch ceiling. So all the stuff from the sunporch had to be moved; the second floor is a maze of furniture. You might remember me talking about the sunporch ceiling, and all that mess before . . . it got a lot worse before it got better.

But I’ve been up to some fun things, too, since I’ve been back. I’ve even taken some pictures to share with y’all, but I just haven’t found the time to, you know, simply write about any of it.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with all my snapshots of Florida, but here are a few, so you can get an idea of what the vacation was all about. We stayed on Captiva Island. (No, there was no oil washing up yet when we were there, though all the folks there were getting ready for it.)

Yeah, it was an excellent trip. We had perfect weather, and we spent most of the time on the beach or in restaurants or museums or sight-seeing.

The last two days of the trip, we traveled east to visit the Seminole reservation and then to Everglades National Park.

Alligators, dolphins, manatees were seen. Sea turtles were seen, too, and one night, a sea turtle laid her eggs on the beach not far from where we were staying.

And I had forgotten how, even though you may not move from the same beach location over a period of several days, the ocean gives you new things every day. One day, it’s calm and warm; another, it’s cool and choppy. Or one day, the ocean’s full of weird little jellylike hydromedusae; the next, it’s throwing all kinds of seaweed up on the beach, and another day there’s a large amount of some particular kind of shell being washed up.

And I had forgotten how the ocean reaches out from its depths and hands its objects out onto the beach, and then a few hours later reaches along the slant of the beach and drags it all back.

If you live near a coast, you are truly lucky, and you should visit the beach as much as possible, I mean it. Even if it’s a cold, windy place with a lot of rocks instead of sugar-white sand. Just do it.

Anyway, it was a good vacation, and now I’m back, struggling to retain some of that relaxation, the joy of discovery, the broadened mind, the readjusted notion of what is “important.” Alas, it’s fading fast.

So much to do . . .

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Coolness Lost

This isn't a very happy post, you all. Two things have happened here that have made life less cool.

1. Goodbye to Felini

First is that Felini, one of our favorite restaurants in Columbia, has shut its doors. I wrote about this restaurant earlier; you can see that earlier post for more about it.

I found it an uncommon type of restaurant, for the Midwest. The food was creative and delicious without being "trendy." The presentations were elegant without being ostentatious.

The menu was varied enough so that there was something for everyone in the party, and there were some items you can't get anywhere else (Kosovar-Albanian specialties such as Tava Sautee, Qoftethes, and their unique style of kebobs; their Greek and Italian dishes included an unusual and addictive tuna calzone, Domate Supa, and Galaktobureko).

The ambience was pleasant, relaxing, "nice," without being hoity-toity. The service was attentive, gracious, and friendly without being in-your-face. The prices were very reasonable.

Felini opened my eyes and palate to a new cuisine, and it renewed my memories of the great dinners we would have at my Grandma Schroeder's house--first-class food made with love, the good dishes, good wine, and yet so comfortable, with plenty of room for ebullient conversation, even singing. I found Felini a tremendous inspiration for my own cooking and entertaining, and I already miss it.

(Wonder how I can get the recipe for their tuna calzone? Man, that was great!)

2. The Tour of Missouri

Well, this is just a damn shame: Governor Nixon and the Missouri Tourism Commission have nixed the funding for what would have been the fourth annual Tour of Missouri bicycle stage race (which is a lot like the Tour de France). Each summer, from 2007 to 2009, the world's top cyclists--professional athletes on a level with Lance Armstrong--have come with their international teams to compete in a progressive race that took place all across our state.

They rode in Kansas City and St. Louis; they rode in Gallatin and Taos. The races were broadcast on the Web, and cycling enthusiasts worldwide learned about Missouri, saw our beautiful landscapes, our rolling hills . . . and many came as tourists to follow their teams for the whole week.

There are a large number of stage races worldwide, but the Tour of Missouri quickly rose to become one of the most significant apart from the Tour de France. It is ranked as one of the top 5 races outside of Europe. The biggest pro teams were attending. People were really paying attention to this race.

Both public and private money sponsored the Tour of Missouri; this year, the Tour was asking for $1,000,000 from the state. The total event budget was $3.5 million, and much of the corporate and city funding has been tied to the assurance of support from the state.

The part I can't understand is how the great benefits of the Tour of Missouri can be so summarily discounted: For the state, there's an estimated average 20 to 1 Return on Investment for this event. Tax revenues are estimated at $3.8 million. Numerous world-famous Tour de France winners, Olympic medalists, and other top cyclists appeared on Tour of Missouri podiums. Our event was broadcast in 173 countries, and Versus, Fox Sports Midwest, and Fox Sports Kansas City provided daily telecasts to American viewers.

Visitors from 42 states and 15 countries came to Missouri, dined, and slept in motels here. There were 790 million circulated impressions of the event with Missouri by-lines. This was the most international sporting event Missouri has hosted since the 1904 Olympics.

At the starts and finishes, festivals provided promotional platforms for more than 20 sponsors, plus Health and Wellness Expositions; these festivals were attended by an estimated 300,000 people. Included were things like safety clinics and bike-helmet giveaways for kids, information on ways to improve your diet and get more exercise, and much more. An accompanying educational curriculum reached 250,000 students in the state.

Yes, I know that things like "exposing people to healthy ideas" and "getting kids enthused about bicycling" are rather intangible--how can you put a dollar value on an incentive that may or may not bear immediate fruit? But people need to be reminded of health and fitness constantly, and this is one, fun way to do that. Not every kid is going to be "reached" by baseball, football, or other sports (I certainly was not)--but I can understand cycling. You don't need a team to be a cyclist, and cycling is one sport that definitely is very open to women, and to people of all ages, too.

It's also rather intangible to talk about how people all across the world saw the St. Louis Arch, or the Pony Express in St. Joe. How do you quantify the value of a picture postcard? Where is the immediate payoff? . . . As with the health and wellness benefit, it is collective. It might take the thirtieth such "postcard" to inspire someone to come visit our state and spend money here. So to my thinking, the Tour gave us a lot of bang for our buck--cycling fans tuned in every day for a week, so that's seven doses of "Missouri postcard" right there!

But set aside the intangibles: In 2009, the total economic impact by spectators during the seven-day event was $38.1 million. The previous year, that was $29.8 million in 2008, and in 2007, it was $26.2 million. This baby was growing!

Now, when you stop to think that the State was asked to provide ONE million dollars, in order to bring probably $40 million into our state, and it didn't see this as a wise way of spending our tax dollars--well, it's no wonder we're in a recession, no wonder stuff is screwed up, with this kind of thinking.

And yes, I'm a big ol' Democrat, but I'm simply pissed off at Governor Nixon about this. I can't help but think this is some kind of asinine political foolishness on his part, since Lt. Gov. Pete Kinder, who is likely to challenge him in the next gubernatorial election, has been the top politician supporting the Tour of Missouri. Indeed, this race is one of Kinder's proudest projects. And he deserves to be proud.

Governor Nixon has really missed his mark on this decision. The Tour of Missouri is too good to be a political football. In many ways, Nixon's and Kinder's stances on the Tour of Missouri seem to swap the usual positions of Democrat and Republican. Stereotypically (if I can make sweeping generalizations), Democrats are willing to spend public money on the "intangibles" concerning community spirit (including small towns) and promotion of public health and wellness; the Republicans seem most likely to refuse public dollars for, well, anything public-welfare-related. Republicans usually refuse to allow public money in any projects constructive for the common man, insisting that private sources fund it all. But here the roles seem reversed, with Kinder backing this popular, public-private cosponsored, do-good, feel-good, everyone-wins project.

It takes more than a shrewd politician to know when to support his opponent's good works--it takes someone who really cares about the state. And so I have doubts about Governor Nixon. This really smells like partisanship. I haven't ever voted for a Republican, but I have to admit: Nixon's stand on the Tour of Missouri is making me reconsider.

Will the Tour of Missouri return in 2011? If a last-minute change on the part of the Tourism Commission and Nixon doesn't save it for 2010, then probably not. So goodbye, Tour of Missouri, you were really inspiring, and you made me proud of every corner of our state, from the smallest rural towns to our largest cities.

And so Missouri has had, and lost, another really cool thing, and my friends from out of state will have another reason to say, "How can you live there? What a backwards state! That place must really suck." And yeah, sometimes it really does.