Long, dramatic tapers have a way of gauging the gatherings they illuminate. Fresh from the box, they stand tall, almost precariously so, but if the conversation flows, the laughs bellow and the wine…
As I entered the tunnel, a notoriously congested snag in an already flawed transportation system, her voice interjected. “Hello, it’s me. I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.”
By now, you can surely finish each and every word that follows, but in that tunnel, her greeting hit me for the first time. She sang directly to me, as if I had somehow landed the private concert of a lifetime! Adele’s booming voice seemed to fill the cavernous, concrete tunnel, as if it were an amphitheater echoing all the raw emotion of her lyrics.
I, like all the other listeners who kept her at the top of the charts for a record-breaking stint, hung on her every word, on repeat. She’s relatable. She’s passionate. She’s emotional. All of these explanations and reviews attribute to her repeatability, but it wasn’t until I heard a review on NPR (?) that the weight of her lyrics fully made sense. I’m paraphrasing, but he so eloquently distilled her album, “In a world that talks at us, Adele wants to have a conversation.” (Bonus points if you can find me this review. It escapes me now!)
Conversation- that act of listening, exchanging, growing, thinking and relating- is missing from so much of our lives now. We may have more opportunity than ever to keep tabs on each other, but how often do we listen and relate to one another? How often do we listen to those in need instead of judging them through fear?
This need for conversation, for tangibility, is also what led me to the beautiful, image-laden pages of Sift Magazine. It’s one of those magazines I page through while waiting in line at the checkout, debating whether or not to splurge. However, unlike many of its grocery store counterparts, Sift feels like a conversation. Unencumbered by ads, its beautiful pages beg to be collected. Each recipe is poised and ready for all the handwritten edits of ingredient substitutions and baking experiments.
My apron’s off to the forces behind the magazine (the employee-owned King Arthur Flour), who always seem to encapsulate the most earnest intentions and elevate the act of baking, such as this Holiday Issue introduction:
Flour, butter, sugar, and yeast are humble ingredients with great power: They from the alphabet of a family’s baking history and culture. This time of year finds experienced and neophyte bakers alike moving toward the kitchen, with the desire to continue their families’ traditions or invent new ones. Whether the food memory is of warm sweet rolls, an elaborate loaf, or a treasured holiday cookie, the act of mixing and kneading forms a connection with those who have gone before. When you live, breathe, and bake, you honor the gifts they’ve handed down while you create enduring memories, and exquisite meals, for those who follow.
It’s not enough to simply page through the enticing recipes, especially when splurging on a magazine, so I promised myself to put the pages to use!
Inspired by song and page, I made a conscious decision to return to our dining room table more this holiday, to catch up with old friends, to welcome new friends and simply eat dinner without staring at a screen. As I prepared these meals, I thought about how quickly and effortlessly my grandmother and mother made hosting appear, how happily they hid the stressful time management elements and planning behind a welcoming smile. I thought about the legacy my grandmother left behind- the most generous, helping hands and the most famous koláče this side of the Czech Republic.
This recipe, though new to me, felt rooted in tradition- roasted butternut squash and cornmeal- simple, humble ingredients that combine into something colorful, sweet, spicy and warm. This recipe is perfect for sharing, since you can prepare most of it ahead of time. It’s a perfect way to feed a full holiday table and still manage to join the conversation!
Butternut Squash & Ginger Polenta with Stewed Fruit & Mascarpone Cream
Adapted from Sift magazine (by King Arthur Flour)
About this Recipe: A perfect make-ahead treat! For ease, you can substitute a can of organic pumpkin puree for the roasted & pureed butternut squash. I added turmeric for nutrition and color. Make this vegan by using a non-dairy milk in the polenta and whipped coconut cream for the topping. Be sure to source unsulphured, dried fruits without added sugars. There are two options for final preparation of the polenta slices- baking or pan frying, depending on how many you are serving. Leftover stewed fruit makes a beautiful and flavorful accent on a wheel of brie for your next gathering.
“It’s ok, they might have guns but we have flowers,” the father explained to his son, as the young boy tried to wrap his mind around the violence that had consumed his city.
Flowers and candles. Flowers to fight fears and candles to remember the fallen. The father and son’s poetic exchange, captured on camera, went viral because the world needed flowers and light during such a dark tunnel.
Paris struck a chord with so many because so many of us have experienced the capitol’s charms. However, instead of token post cards or cinematic moments, we francophiles found ourselves retracing our past adventures through unimaginable, horrific news footage. Vicariously, we felt the threats so many feel daily, and as best we could, we conveyed our fears, our sympathies, and our allegiance to the beloved city.
It was easy to feel for Paris. In my own case, I spent six months wandering the city’s streets, immersing myself in the language and daily life. I debated the best baguette while reading Émile Zola. I documented my routes on a worn map while trying to emulate slang expressions. I sipped coffees while admiring the perfection of the street fashion. As cliche as it was, I felt like I belonged there, like I had found my city. Though I departed, bidding farewell as an accordion player serenaded the canal, I guarded that connection.
I have not read Arabic literature in Beirut. I have not dined with locals in Bamako. I have not sat in a cafe and admired the rich textiles and traditions of Nigerian cities. I may not have a personal history with these places, but that doesn’t mean I should close my heart to them. I have not given the victims in these cities the sympathies they deserve. I admittedly have furthered the desperation felt in those nations by not cherishing their living, but it’s a wrong I want to right.
I recently sat in the audience for a screening of the film (T)error (which I can’t recommend enough!). At the end of the film, a Muslim woman, in the traditional hijab, addressed the director. “Thank you for making this film. Thank you for sparking a dialogue. I love Allah. I am a Muslim, but those attackers are not Muslim. They do not represent me.” She expressed the fear she feels when her eight children leave home after, hearing a man on the news say he wanted to shoot the next Muslim he saw. “I am human, and I bleed just like you.”
Several audience members made their way to the woman as the crowd dispersed. “Thank you for your comments,” they said one by one, touching her gently on the shoulder or leaning in close to her. Like the flowers and candles in France, this woman’s bravery was beauty in the face of fear. Her vulnerability turned fear into power.
Thankfully, I haven’t experienced a terrorist attack firsthand, and I hope I never do. I wish no one ever would, but certain evils are prevailing. It may be easier for me to believe in flowers and candles from my safe distance, but how else can we advance positively? I choose to believe in beauty and empathy wholeheartedly, and I will pay more attention to the attacks the media slights.
If my time in France taught me one thing, it was to appreciate quality– quality of time, quality of friends, quality of wine and the quality of a good meal shared. France taught me to slow down, to savor, to debate, to exchange and to defend time honored traditions. These luxuries are not universal, and especially in America, we ought to acknowledge and share our great fortunes.
As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches for those of us in the United States, it’s an apt time to remember how America formed, how generosity and gratitude gathered around a table and celebrated differences. As Thanksgiving draws near, I hope flowers and candles, beauty and empathy will prevail! I hope that our common fears will unite us and not tear us apart.
This is a recipe for sharing. It serves many, so extend the warmth of your oven to those close to you. I shared this lasagna with close friends who inspire me. Each fights, in his or her own way, for a better world. Each of these friends chooses beauty and empathy, and I’m grateful for it.
Pumpkin & Kale Lasagna (Gluten Free)
About this Recipe: Perfect for serving a group, this lasagna tastes like the best of fall! In the spirit of simpler preparations around the holidays, I used an organic canned pumpkin puree instead of roasting my own. The hearty green layer is a quick kale pesto. Use the leftovers wherever you would use a traditional basil pesto. Brown rice noodles make for more flavor, and they make this a gluten-free, crowd-pleasing option. Serve it with Wigle Whiskey’s Walkabout (whiskey + pressed apple cider).
The Christmas ornaments decked the halls at a comedic scale, as if plucked from the set of Honey I Shrunk The Kids. Greens and lights and velvety ribbons seemed to swathe the entire city. The iconic ferris wheel glimmered with extra holiday spirit.
From their pop-up village of log cabins, Germans shared their merriment through juicy bratwursts and donuty sweets swirling on skewers to golden perfection. Some of the merrymakers kept warm by whipping around the ice rink to holiday carols. Others, like myself, turned to the warm cups of mulled wine. London knows how to celebrate the holidays!
Having journeyed to London from conservative Pennsylvania, where public displays of wine drinking only happen in conjunction with communion, I gazed at each sidewalk wine vendor like a child beholding a candy shop. I relished each cup of mulled wine as if it were my last. With a warm cup of mulled wine in my clutches, my hands warmed, my spirit warmed, and I felt inspired to roam the vibrant city long into the wintry night.
Though the street-vending of mulled wine is still a ways away (at least for us in Pennsylvania), this warm indulgence is perfect for stateside holiday gatherings. Mulled wine is easy to make, easy to serve, and the heat and spices make this a sipper. Since guests can serve themselves, it’s the perfect drink to offer with a wine and cheese style spread. Below are some of my favorite Market Street Grocery picks for hosting a small holiday gathering.
My love for baguettes is deep, but when it comes to a holiday party spread, I like to pick a heartier, more flavorful bread like this Raisin Walnut loaf from Allegro Hearth Bakery. The sweet accent of the raisins pairs perfectly with the creamy texture and sweet-tangy balance of Humbolt Fog cheese and fresh fruit. Additionally, the delicate, edible ash layer adds more visual interest than a simple brie or goat cheese would.
Balance the sweeter notes of the fruit, cheese and wine with an olive selection. The colorful Divina Organic Greek Olive Mix includes a little olive leaf, a small detail which makes for an impressive presentation.
Incorporating fresh fruits into a loose garland is a functional way to decorate your table, and if the festivities continue long into the night, you can always cut up the fruit and replenish the cheese.
For those who do not drink, I like to offer Pellegrino Sparkling Water or carbonated juices, and I keep gluten-free crackers on hand just in case. For all gatherings, but especially for holiday gatherings, I want all my guests to feel included and partake in the festivities.
Even after guests have finished their mulled wine and the party has concluded, you’re likely to have plenty of wine and spice-infused fruit still filling your crockpot. One of the secret ingredients in this Mulled Wine recipe is Chinese Five Spice, a fragrant combination of anise, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and ginger, so don’t let that flavorful fruit go to waste! Stay tuned, and I’ll share a recipe for leftover mulled fruit and spreading even more holiday cheer.
“You in?” he yelled while already launching me forward.
“And this is how it ends,” I thought. “Death by homemade zip line!”
As the very questionable swing rocketed forward, I gripped fiercely and managed to scooch my bum into the very key area- the seat! The smile on my face shifted abruptly to an expression of pure panic as I beelined for the very solid tree directly in front of me. “Does this thing stoppppp?!?” I wanted to yell, but before I could form words, the swing yanked me backward in one jarring, whiplash-inducing motion.
Wooohoo! One more time!
Welcome to the Kunkle Family Reunion, Quelcy!
The Kunkles, the Urban Farmer’s family through his mother’s side, are titans of tradition! The family reunion I attended could have been any of the family reunions from the last 50 years. The faces may have aged, and new little Kunkle offshoots may have arrived, but the campsite was the same. The games and challenges were the same, and the spirit of good ol’ family fun was the same.
That family fun didn’t include technology either. I didn’t see kids scrolling on phones. I didn’t see iPads or movies. I saw rackets, gloves, tree swings, dogs and kids splashing in the creek, and middle-aged men competing against children with the seriousness of Olympic athletes. In a word, it was comforting.
The reunion was especially comforting because beyond the Kunkle family compound, “progress” threatens the beautiful hills, meadows, mountains and streams. Where families once hiked and swam freely, toxins and carcinogens now bar them from their own land. The promises of natural gas proved too good to be true, and the landscape of Western Pennsylvania is changing rapidly. In the name of “progress” so much has already been lost in our region (see these firsthand accounts if you don’t believe me).
But these external threats and unraveling traditions made the Kunkle Family Reunion all the more special. Real people. Real connections. Real traditions preserved and passed to the next generation of Reunion Presidents, Vice Presidents and Treasurers. Like a grandmother’s beloved recipe baked by her granddaughter, these ritual handoffs deserve to be celebrated. So, without further ado, I bring you this glimpse into the past, and why it stuck with me.
The legendary Kunkle Reunion Base Race kicked off the events of the day. The competitive nature of this event quickly became apparent when the historical scoreboards came into sight. The discolored boards of the 80s marked the key year when the bases were moved, lest any performance be judged unfairly by the distance differential. It was also worth noting that Mike Shoop’s slowest time was the result of a knee injury, not a lack of athletic ability.
Julep and I watched with pride, awe and maybe even a heart flutter or two as the Urban Farmer dug deep and delivered the overall winning base race score of 9.3 seconds, a far cry from his score of 39.1 seconds in 1986!
“Quelcy Kogel to the plate,” the man in suspenders announced. “Oh no…no, no…no,” I objected, but all eyes were on me. I had come merely to watch, but the Urban Farmer had thrown my hat in the ring. He had entered my name without my knowing!
My palms were sweaty, my heart was racing, and off I went! Every competitive nerve in my body was tingling.
I fell short of my main squeeze, so don’t be surprised if you sporadically find me running bases in the off season. Next year, I’ll be prepared, but I sincerely hope the official time-keeping uniform never changes!
Young and old kept the tradition alive, and after such exerting work, it was time for swimming in the creek, which first requires jumping from a rope swing (and requires leaving cameras safely on dry land).
As happily overwhelmed as I was, my Julep was overwhelmed in a way that gave us all quite a scare. Between the other dogs, the commotion, the anxiety of watching her papa tethered to another human and teetering in a three-legged race, the poor little one overdid it. As the Urban Farmer and I held her close and tried to decipher what exactly was causing her to drool, pant and tremble excessively, so many family members came to our side.
Family members who I barely knew rallied to offer any help they could. Closer family members overlooked dog drool and wet fur to help us ice down and comfort our poor dehydrated fur baby. They showed such sincere concern for our Julep, and I’ll never forget it.
I had come simply to observe and relish the Kunkles’ traditions, but in the end, I felt so connected to the Urban Farmer’s family. As our Julep rehydrated, refueled and showed signs of her normal self, the rest of the reunion adjourned to the campfire for silly songs, s’mores and the rest of the evening’s time-tested agenda. Though we left early, the day left me with a lasting impression.
The Urban Farmer, like his family’s reunion, borrows from the past in an effort to preserve tradition. He worked tirelessly this year, through rainy spells, dry spells and rampant groundhog spells to stay true to his farming convictions. He believes in tighter ties to our food, and more connections with the makers and growers. He believes in a self-sustaining local system, and he won’t stop until he achieves it.
As the autumn settles upon his farm, the tomato vines have given one last burst of bright red fruits. Like base races, old truck rides and creek swims, summer tomatoes are worth preserving.
In an effort to truly preserve the flavors and the spirit of summer, I returned to America’s classic condiment- ketchup!
As a Pittsburgh resident, it may be blasphemy to offer an alternative to the beloved Heinz 57, but I find it blasphemous to masquerade high fructose corn syrup as an American tradition (though sadly, it is becoming an American tradition).
This homemade ketchup won’t boast the exact ruby redness or perfectly smooth texture of store-bought counterparts, but each dollop of this condiment will impress. Make your own ketchup, and every winter burger or oven roasted french fry will become more satisfying and take you back to summer grilling and tomato harvesting in the heat. There’s something to be said for preservation!
Here’s to traditions, memories and delicious condiments!
“One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.” ~ Henry David Thoreau In the middle of August, we gathered to celebrate the farmers, the fields…