from the beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got here, (whatever “here” is: in Washington, in this small town, cooking in someone else’s kitchen, an author, a blogger, a chef) and been feeling like I want to explore the stories that brought me to this point.

It’s hard from me to do this chronologically – because I don’t think the human mind really works that way – but I will start back in the day.

A few weeks ago, I rode the Amtrak from Seattle to Portland and many memories were jostled inside my head. Mostly regarding the trip I took, when I was young and wide-eyed 19, around the country via the train in search of the right cooking school. Now, this sounds MUCH more poetic than it really was. I was actually just an anxious kid looking for a way to get out of the small town I grew up in. It should be noted that I never actually visited any schools during my month long trip.

Somewhere in my young life I heard about the Amtrak Rail Pass (still in existence, but a little different now) where you could ride as many trains as you wanted in a 30 day period for about $600. Seemed pretty damn epic at the time, actually it still seems pretty epic. Unlike the Euro Rail Pass, I couldn’t just hop on any ole train any ole time – I had to plan out my trip ahead of time and then get all the tickets printed out. But….I could change the tickets at any time during my trip. So really, effectively, I could get on any ole train any ole time.

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The first leg of my journey began through the Southwest – on the Southwest Chief. I got a sleeping car for this 27 hour trip (thank god) because of a slip up from gentleman that printed my tickets. It was the longest, and most comfortable, hours in a row that I would be on a train for the whole trip. After that I would master the art of taking up two seats to sleep across or finding a comfortable corner of the sightseeing car.

The sleeping car was more like a closet with two seats and a tiny table – flanked by a sliding door, and a huge window. Not a spacious and beautiful room you saw in old movies.

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At night an attendant came and pulled down a bed from the ceiling, making my sleeping spot, basically, a little metal train coffin that rocked back and forth all night. Truly one of the weirdest nights of sleep I’ve ever had.

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The first major stop on the line was Albuquerque. It was a “stretch-your-legs-and-have-a-cigarette” kinda stop. So I wandered off the train and around the rosy pink Spanish colonial style building, where native people were selling jewelry and wares as they must have been doing for quite sometime.

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This was my first time being in the Southwest and I had momentary culture shock, I certainly felt like I was in another country. The people, the buildings, the air – everything was so different. A little loopy, I hopped back on the train and we headed towards my stop: Flagstaff.

Flagstaff was actually just a way-station to my first real destination, Phoenix – but the train didn’t go that far south, so it required a short trip on a bus. I stayed a night in Flagstaff.

This little college town afforded me my first hostel experience, my first time in the mountains, and my first night on a long and mostly solo journey through the States and Canada.

As I laid extremely stiff in my tiny hard bunk bed, sore from a far too heavy pack and long walk, I thought, “Well, I guess this is it.”

 

 (the story continues here…)

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Old Cookbooks.

Oh, do I have a lot. Old cookbooks, that is. Before my recent move across the country – it was nearing the 700 mark. I know, it’s an illness.

I had the arduous task of whittling down my collection and then leaving it in storage for about a year. It has made me that much more appreciative of the weird stuff I have. These throngs of cookbooks usually serve as a inspiration, lots of flipping pages randomly.

I decided to finally start using the cookbooks as what they meant to be used, by cooking the recipes.

The first book I wanted to feature is appropriately the first Americans cookbook, called The Art of American Indian Cooking.

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Published in 1965, this book opens to a map entitled Early Explorers’ Dates and Contacts with American Indians – and sets the tone for the direction the book takes. This book divides the country in five parts (NW, SW, Plains, East, and West), details the native plants and cooking techniques, and (the part I find most interesting) goes over how the blending of Native and European cultures happen through food. The authors put the emphasis on how so many foods that are native to the Americas have changed the cuisines of so many cultures around the world.

I learned that the mash up of Spanish livestock and Native American open pit cooking techniques was the advent of BarBeQue; that the corn, potatoes, and tomatoes of the Western Hemisphere has changed the world in ways we could not quantify; and that the Native populations were generally extremely helpful and important players in the new settlers putting roots down in the New World.

There are about 3o recipes of interest that I marked, including Trout Consomme, Sunflower Seed Cakes, Adobe Bread, and Fried Cucumbers. But you have to start somewhere.

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I chose Green Pepper and Pink Bean Casserole from the Gardeners and Gatherers of the Southwest chapter. Mostly because beans and peppers were things I already had, but also becuase it is freezing in our log cabin and I will take any reason to turn on the oven. I made a few slight adjustments to the recipe: I added more ham, I used nutmeg instead of mace, I used a poblano pepper (assuming they meant a green bell pepper), I used pinto beans and a few chickpeas instead of the allusive “pink bean,” and I used canned tomato sauce (just tomatoes, no flavoring). Here is the recipe in a legible manner.

GREEN PEPPER AND PINK BEAN CASSEROLE

(makes 4-6 servings)

3 strips bacon, cut into julienne strips

1 green pepper, washed, cored and coarsely chopped

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon minced, cooked ham (optional)

1 cup canned tomatoes

1 teaspoon brown sugar

pinch mace

salt and coarsely ground pepper to season

2 (1 lb) cans pink beans, drained

1. Brown the bacon slowly, add green pepper and onion, and saute gently until tender.

2. Stir in garlic, minced ham (optional), tomatoes, brown sugar, mace, salt, and black pepper, and simmer, stirring, for about 10 minutes.

3. Mix tomato sauce with pink beans and transfer mixture to a 2-quart baking dish.

4. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes in a moderate oven, 350 degrees.

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This recipe was super easy. Plain and simple. I, obviously, started and finished the recipe in the same pan – making it even easier. And turned out really deliciously. Real smokey, salty and sweet, not too tomatoey. I had to fight the urge to cover or stir the casserole, for the fear it would get to dry on top. It did not get too dry, it was pretty much a perfect texture.

So, for a easy delicious nutritious warm winter meal (or side dish) this comes highly recommended.