The Secret Ingredient

You might have noticed I haven’t been online much for the last few weeks. I told people I was “going dark” partly because it seemed mysterious, partly because I didn’t want to broadcast my life to any bad guys, and partly because it was only two words and I’m just that lazy.

In April I spoke at my favorite writers conference, then a couple of days later hubs and I were off on a two-week vacation to Washington DC and Virginia where our son is stationed and my brother and his family live. Unfortunately, the day I got home from the conference, we found out my father-in-law had suddenly passed away. After conferring with the family, it was decided we should go along with our original vacation plans and then, after a day at home, hop a plane to Los Angeles for the funeral and to attend to details.

As you can imagine, these three trips were all quite disparate but they had a common theme.


The Pikes Peak Writers Conference is a big event with banquet food often shared with a table full of strangers. You only need to have attended one banquet in your entire life to conjure up the memory of variations of bland chicken, fish, beef and pasta dishes. Despite that, I look forward to the meals every year, certainly not for the cuisine, but for the company. Every year at every meal I hang out with fascinating writers creating all kinds of delicious stories. Some folks I’ve just met, some I’ve known for several years. They’re from every spectrum of the journey — those just tasting the possibilities of a career spent writing, all the way up to the well-seasoned pros. I love chatting with all of them during informal bleary-eyed breakfasts and at the lavish banquet dinners.

Vacation food is different. You get to indulge your palate in regional delicacies. In our case we got a lot of seafood and southern cooking, 4-star restaurants and neighborhood dives, all yummy and delightful.

We ate more than once at the Zagat-rated Mitsitam Cafe at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian which specializes in native cuisine. We played Guess the Spice — Coriander? Anise? Saffron? — which tested our knowledge of geography, history, and ethnicity. Cedar Planked Wild Salmon with Grilled Corn and Cherry Tapenade … Labrador Tea Marinated Grilled Bison Loin with Bing Cherry Infused Pinenut Butter … Sautéed Chard and Spring Onions … Roasted Sunchoke and Nettles … New Potato and Fiddlehead Fern Salad with Green Tomato Vinaigrette … Hominy and Grilled Asparagus Salad … Mesquite Pinon Cookies … Pinenut and Rosemary Tart.  Elegant, award-winning, intriguing food.

But we also ate a couple of times at an intriguing hole-in-the-wall diner. We walked by it twice, deciding both times that perhaps we should come back after we confirmed our vaccinations were up-to-date. The third time we went in for breakfast and I was immediately sorry we didn’t go there every morning. It was run by a large and happy extended family. Most customers were greeted by name and others like long-lost cousins. They did a brisk carry-out business but we sat at an old-fashioned counter, sticky with maple syrup, faded and buffed by countless plates. It turned corners at every third or fourth seat, snaking geometrically around the diner. Each time we were there the conversations were public, everyone welcome to join in. We were asked about our travels and recommendations were offered as to what DC attractions were not to be missed. We were included in the wise-cracking between three manual laborers. The skinny guy didn’t believe that the big guy would eat everything in his overly hearty breakfast. I knew he could. Bets were made and accepted. It’s not a Zagat-rated restaurant, but probably only because Zagat never tasted their waffles and scrapple.

Like the conference, food was necessary but not the actual or complete experience. Vacation dining also allowed my husband and I to reconnect. Yes, we were tired and hungry after sightseeing all day so we needed to sit and eat. But we also got to talk. Despite the fact we are empty-nesters, we rarely make time at home to have a cocktail and a long, relaxing meal full of interesting conversation. Perhaps it’s because we don’t do or see as many interesting things in our normal lives. I mean, really, how often can you describe what you ‘did’ today? Yawn. Vacation dining allows deeper thought and discussion.

After vacation we had time to stop at home, do a couple loads of laundry and pay some bills before heading to Los Angeles to deal with Dean’s death. He lived eight decades, a life full of curiosity and adventure, many of them in the Congo in Africa. He died exactly as he wished, quick and mostly painless. He cooked himself Sunday breakfast in his own home, admired his vegetable garden, and by late afternoon he was gone.

Those of us left behind are consoled by the image of Dean eating his last breakfast at the same kitchen table he’d eaten at for 35 years. We gathered there too, without him. We shared food and drink and told funny stories about him. Again, the food nourished us, but it was more than that. It was comforting and ritualistic. It was no surprise to me that so many people wanted to take away kitchen utensils as tangible reminders of Dean and his wife Sarah, who we lost a dozen years earlier. The rolling pin. That set of bowls. The two-pronged fork. The tablecloth.

I guess these last few weeks have made me realize how much more there can be — should be — to the food we eat. We have a joke at our house when I make something with unusual spices. I ask, “Do you know what the secret ingredient is?” Inevitably someone will answer, “Is it love?”

Of course it is. But sometimes it’s also coriander.

May your meals provide nourishment, comfort, and as much adventure as you can handle.




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