Seven Fish, and a Cheese Log

We spent part of our holiday this year in Southwest Florida before heading north to enjoy the snow in Buffalo. While in Florida, we made a new (to us) dish called Cioppino for Christmas Eve. Cioppino is a soup/stew that features seven different kinds of seafood. It originated with Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco in the late 1800s, who were apparently inspired by an older tradition from their homeland. That’s a whole lot of tradition behind what might be a new tradition for us.

The story behind Cioppino is that unlucky Bay Area fishermen would walk around the docks and collect fish from the more successful boats, and then would add tomatoes and white wine to a large pot and make a stew from their random catch. They would expect to return the favor when they had better luck. Sharing a bit of one’s catch sounds like a “holiday season thing to do” no matter the time of year—and shouldn’t every season be the season of giving, anyway?

It was easy for us to get into a seafood theme in Florida, since you are never more than 60 miles from a beach anywhere in the state. A beach theme also seemed to go with the mellower pace of things here–although the calypso vibe isn’t as obvious when you see two people at the local mall fighting over the last cheese log. There are, I suppose, practical limits to the season of giving.

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My brother-in-law in mid-carve on a past holiday

My brother-in-law, who is a history professor, shared with us that the original Cioppino took some inspiration from an Italian dish called the Feast of the Seven Fishes that is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. In Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is called La Vigilia, or “The Vigil.” My brother in law is a fountain of Italian history; he really should do that for a living.

Our favorite seafood place in Southwest Florida is Skip One in Fort Myers, a locally owned market on Highway 41 that features fresh caught everything. Skip One is primarily a shrimping outfit, but they trade part of their shrimp catch with other types of boats to bring in a full bounty—sort of the commercial fishing version of Cioppino (ok, so that analogy is a bit of a stretch).

For our dish, we used a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, and for our seafood we chose grouper, snapper, sea bass, clams, shrimp, mussels, and scallops. In addition to the seven types of seafood, Giada’s recipe includes white wine, diced tomatoes, garlic, shallots, onions, and fennel. We added the seafood to the broth just ten minutes before serving in order to avoid over-cooking it.

We’re told that Italian restaurants in San Francisco serve a lot of variations of this dish, and some even provide a bib to their patrons (if you’ve seen me eat, that’s another hint for why we chose Cioppino). In the tradition of the city, we served our Cioppino with a beautiful loaf of San Francisco-style Sourdough bread.

All in all, Cioppino was a fun new recipe, pretty easy to prepare, and delicious. Tradition or not, it’s one thing we did this year that is worth repeating next year (but we’ll order our cheese log ahead of time).

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Fancy Beef Sandwiches

A few years back, I wrote about the amazing food scene in Buffalo, New York, a scene that is partly the result of the melting pot of immigrants from back in the day (and by “melting pot,” I don’t mean the forgettable fondue chain, where $100 buys you an appetizer and the need for a cholesterol check). Many of Buffalo’s best-known dishes are ethnic creations like kielbasa and pierogi, dishes which are now competing for attention with more recent additions like Buffalo wings and sponge candy.

I’d of course heard of Buffalo wings long before I met Souzz, but marrying into a Buffalo family means you get to learn about a lot of other new treats. One example is the signature sandwich of Western New York, a beef on weck. The beef on weck is a Buffalo classic: a coarse-salted roll with caraway, thin-sliced roast beef, fresh horseradish, and au jus.

“It’s just a fancy beef sandwich,” I once blurted out from under my newly purchased Buffalo Bills hoodie. Endearing yourself to your in-laws is difficult stuff, I soon learned, and no food in Buffalo is “just” anything. Dinner choices often have storied histories and serve to unite generations–regardless of whom your daughter might have just married.

Weck is short for kimmelweck, a style of roll that you don’t see unless you are in Buffalo–or are in a restaurant with chefs that wish they were. The sandwich’s origin is hotly debated (well, maybe not hotly debated, but people do occasionally talk about it). Some say the kimmelweck was adapted from a roll that was served at funerals in Germany, and others say that an enterprising bartender decided to salt rolls to get people to drink more (Seriously? Has lack of consumption ever really been a problem in Buffalo?).

Regardless of how and where the sandwich originated, it is a Western New York staple. And the locals agree that the classic area restaurant for beef on weck is Schwabls, in West Seneca. Schwabls is on a non-descript corner that isn’t really on the way to anywhere, and yet it has been serving Western New Yorkers in one form or another since 1837. Its small dining room is perpetually filled with hungry locals that come to enjoy a sandwich or some other German-style dish. Schwabls also has a friendly staff, a stately dark wood bar, local brews, and a lot of seasonal drinks, too.

I felt very authentic walking into Schwabls over the holiday wearing my still-new-looking Bills hoodie. As usual, the place was packed, with a lot of folks enjoying beef on weck as well as their signature holiday drink, the Tom and Jerry (similar to egg nog, maybe like drinking a sugar cookie).

Our server asked us just exactly how we wanted our roast beef, and she meant every word. Beef on weck at Schwabls is hand-cut, in order to avoid cooking the roast beef more with the heat of a spinning blade. The care that Schwabls takes in preparing each and every sandwich is in itself worth the visit. Oh, and Tom and Jerry were nice to see, too.

It seems that every time I visit Buffalo, I learn a little more about the food scene, and maybe a little more about other things, too.  My meal was great, my brother-in-law shared a lot of history, and there was some good local color, too. I may have some more work to do to blend in up here, but at least I didn’t order a “fancy beef sandwich.”

Meeting Up With Irma

As we awaited the arrival of one of the bigger hurricanes on record, my 92-year-old mom had a question for me. While typing away into her iPad (she’s pretty high-tech), she asked “how do you spell the word hussy?”

To backtrack a bit, I came down to Fort Myers, Florida to visit my parents a few weeks back and decided to stick around to help out during Hurricane Irma. As expected, we were ordered to evacuate, so we headed across town to a friend’s house that was outside of the evacuation zone. Their fortress of a home (high ground, solid construction, hurricane shutters, generator…and incredibly gracious hosts) was a very welcomed refuge.

Our hosts generously took in several others in similar circumstances–so all in all, there were 17 of us (12 adults, five children) in a three-bedroom house, along with a dog and two gerbils (hey, what’s a hurricane without a few gerbils?).

The storm itself was pretty exciting for a Virginia boy, tons of rain and wind that left a lot of standing water and downed trees (it was worse elsewhere in the state).

Unlike areas to the south–and unlike Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Maria–we were fortunate to get through without much damage. We did a lot of prep beforehand, moving anything that could blow away, but we also got lucky with the storm track.

There was some flooding and damage in the surrounding neighborhoods, but for us the challenge was mostly about the long (several days) power outage, the seasonal heat, a shortage of gasoline, and a few health issues that thankfully resolved.

Through it all, I learned a lot from the locals, who know a thing or two about hurricanes. Here are a few random tips:

  • Back into the door: Garage doors are one of the weaker parts of a house, and bad things happen when the wind gets in under your roof. A trick is to back your car next to the door (from the inside), set the brake, and wedge in some wood (or whatever) between the door and the bumper to give the garage door more strength.
  • Strings attached: Our friends had a hanging light above their front porch that couldn’t be removed ahead of the storm. So they tethered it with parachute cord, tying it off to the front pillars on the porch. It made it through, which was nice–but we also know that some folks lost everything, so we tried to keep it all in perspective.
  • Keep water out, but keep it in, too: It’s old news that a filled bathtub means you can flush the toilets if you lose water, but tub stoppers often leak. Our friends put a little Saran wrap around the plug to help the seal. We never lost water, but we had plenty on hand just in case.
  • Give your freezer a quarter: Food safety is a big deal after a power outage, so one trick is to freeze a glass of water and put a quarter on top. If the quarter is still on top after power returns, the food in the freezer didn’t thaw and refreeze–and the meatloaf is ok to eat (although I still hate meatloaf).

In the coming days, the Fort Myers News-Press was still delivering and was one of our main links to the community and the state!

Lastly, there are some things that I knew before the storm but that were good to see in action again:

  • You can’t have too much power (unless you are a dictator): Having a few UPS’s (uninterruptible power supplies) on hand is a good thing. The UPS’s work well for charging anything and the batteries last much longer than pocket-sized phone chargers.
  • Siphons suck: Spend a million dollars on a good one, as the gas in your car is a great resource to feed a generator (if you are fortunate enough to own one). Inexpensive siphons don’t seem to work well with newer cars, and sitting on 15 gallons of gas with no way to get it into a generator is a bad feeling (ask me how I know).
  • It’s dark, even when it isn’t: With spotty cell coverage, no internet or tv, and radio coverage that was hard to follow, it was amazing how little we knew about the storm. This was true both before, during, and after–even though we were right in the middle of it. At first we had cell reception and Souzz texted us images of the storm track. But the cell towers eventually went down and it wasn’t until days later that we heard details about the damage in the Keys and elsewhere across the state. Looking back, the lack of communications was equal parts unsettling and unburdening.
  • Reaching in: People from outside of the area wanted to help…and they did, simply by connecting on the phone (once our phones worked). Friends, family, the NMFA crowd, the 34th crowd, and Red Cross peeps, you know who you are. Connecting with friends by phone or text was a huge boost.
  • It takes a community: A neighbor that we had never met until the eve of the storm gave us five gallons of gas when we couldn’t get a drop anywhere. Shara and Kevin gave us gas and food and support, Dave fixed our generator the day before the storm (!), Janet from Publix grocery store offered hugs, Jonathan (the pool guy) gave us a big lift, and a total stranger stopped his car to help my mom, pretty cool.

For days, anywhere you saw people in town, Irma was all that they could talk about, and sharing stories was definitely a part of the process. I can’t even count the number of conversations that started with “how did you do in the storm?”

As we put things back together, we went out of our way to thank the employees at Home Depot or Publix or CVS–places that are filling critical needs in the community. Each of those folks had their own story, but they were out there helping us (maybe later they’ll write a blog that is more interesting than mine).

I also recognize that storms hurt even more for those with fewer resources, so we feel incredibly fortunate to have had so much help to bounce back. And our hearts go out to those that lost so much to Irma–and now to devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean–and we are contributing to relief efforts. Our little adventure was pretty manageable when you view it in the context of the areas that were hardest hit.

**

As for my mom’s question before the storm, she was posting an update on Facebook, and her post ended with “Irma, you hussy, be gone!”

 

 

Swiss Time

I’ve wanted to hike hut-to-hut in Switzerland for years, but planning such a trip always seemed like a daunting task. For starters, there are more than 150 huts in the Swiss Alpine Club system, which seemed totally overwhelming. And the language barrier for someone that doesn’t speak Swiss German is big, as almost all of the websites and information are in Swiss German (go figure).

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Looking down at the Terrehutte and the clouds

Enter our good friends Reto and Annika, who live near Zurich and know a thing or two about these huts. They helped us plan a three day trip of about 30 kilometers on the Greina Plateau in the south central part of Switzerland–and by “helped us plan,” I mean that they planned it. Best of all, Reto came along (perhaps he thought we could use a chaperone?).

 

Getting from Zurich to the trailhead near Vrin was ambitious enough, requiring four hours, three train rides, three cups of coffee, two bus rides, and a kilometer of walking up a village road.

 

From the trailhead, it was about 9 kilometers and 800 vertical meters to get to the Terrihutte, which is a beautiful stone structure on a point at the head of a valley.

 

The Terrihutte was built in 1925, although it has been renovated and expanded multiple times since. It has space for 110 in shared bunk rooms, as well as a full kitchen and a bar with cold beer and wine (as with most huts, restocking is done by helicopter). It also has electric power generated from the creek below, quite the luxury.

Food at the hut was simple but hearty. Potatoes, meats, soup, breads, butter, and salads are typical, all served family style in a dining room that offers ridiculous views.

 

The huts are also highly social places, even if you don’t speak the language. We were generally sitting across the table from someone who hiked the same hard kilometers that we did, which means we had a few things in common–including sore feet and tired legs. And, despite our ugly American language skills, many of our fellow hikers were gracious enough to reach out in English (which was a good thing, as hearing Reto and his family laugh as I tried to say the word for “three” in Swiss German wasn’t very encouraging).

 

The next day we headed up and over our high point at Greina Pass (2703 meters) to the Medelserhutte. It was a 15 kilometer hike, including some scrambling and a descent of a long snowfield. There were also some really fun glissades (the easy part) before a short ascent to the hut.

 

The Medelserhutte is in a saddle with a commanding view to the west. It is a smaller hut than the Terrehutte, with 55 bunks, but still plenty roomy. Despite an early-ish start to our hike, we didn’t get there until nearly 6pm–but that was still enough time to catch sun on the back patio and watch Capricorns (a type of bighorn sheep) run the hillside.

 

Looking back, Reto and Annika made it easy for us to do something that would have been very hard for us to do on our own (impossible?!), and for that we are very grateful. Visiting Switzerland with their help was priceless, spending time with them and their children before and after our hike was a treasure, and we are still glowing about our trip.

As for our time in the huts, I caught myself wondering how the Swiss built these places. But mostly I wondered why my legs were so sore. And then I wondered what another beer would taste like.

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The Agony of Defeat

Souzz and I are in the midst of a trip through Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. It’s been a great chance to experience new cultures, new cities, and new mountain ranges. We’ve also met up with great friends along the way in Henggart, Switzerland, and Lofer, Austria.

 

One of the things we’ve noticed during our travels is how much American culture is exported, and often it’s not our best. We’ve heard middling American rock music, seen ads for TV shows like Murder, She Wrote, walked past a Starbucks in a 16th century building, and spotted a lot of unremarkable American products. Interestingly enough, there are also a lot of foods specifically marketed as “American-style.” Don’t get me wrong, as I’m proud of a lot of what our country produces…but we didn’t find too much of that in our travels.

 

Perhaps a lesser known part of U.S. pop culture is the phrase that titles this blog, which American sports fans may recognize from the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it ran for nearly 40 years and featured sports that would rarely get air time in the pre-cable era—sports like pro surfing, track and field, whitewater kayaking, and ski jumping.

In the Wide World of Sports’ opening (click here to see a 30 second version from the late 1970s), a voice-over says “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition, this is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” As the words “agony of defeat” are spoken, an unnamed ski jumper falls and flies off into the crowd—and an American catchphrase for epic failure is born.

 

By now you might be wondering what all that has to do with traveling in Europe, which is where the small Bavarian village of Oberstdorf comes in. We had planned to visit Oberstdorf because it offers amazing hiking and is somewhat off of the beaten path–hoping for an authentic experience where locals wouldn’t respond to our terrible German in perfect English. So far it’s been just what we were expecting (and yes, our German is still terrible).

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As we were planning our day’s hikes via Google, we learned that the ski jump here in the village is where the “agony of defeat” crash happened during a World Cup competition in 1970. Thankfully, the Slovenian jumper that took that horrible fall, Vinko Bogataj, was not seriously injured. He returned to competition the next year, was later a professional ski instructor, and is now a very successful artist. It’s clear that he has not agonized much over that jump.

 

There are many reasons to come to Oberstdorf, including the incredibly friendly people, the charming town itself, the hiking from the summit of the Nebelhorn (2224 meters), and a lot of other natural attractions (including the Breitachklamm, a fantastic stream-carved gorge). Not surprisingly, none of the reasons to come here have anything to do with the history of the ski jump.

 

Some years ago, Vinko Bogataj was invited by ABC to join in an anniversary celebration for the Wide World of Sports, since his fall had helped open the show for decades. When he got the call, Vinko had no idea what ABC was talking about.

Thankfully, there are at least a few parts of our culture that we have kept at home.

Hollow Full of Memories

This weekend we joined good friends for a quick getaway to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains and a stay at the Rosser Lamb House. The house was built in 1915 as the home of Hiram and Lucy Lamb and their nine children, and it is now one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive (no power or water) rental cabins. It is located in Lamb’s Hollow (of course), adjacent to Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park was created during the Great Depression, and the formation of the park resulted in more than five hundred families being forced by the U.S. government to leave their homes. Many of these families had been on land that they had occupied for generations, and entire communities were uprooted and moved to the east—including some to a subdivision in nearby Madison County called “Resettlement Road” (seriously).

The Lambs had been in Lamb’s Hollow since 1845. Nevertheless, they got the word that they were to be one of the relocated families. But in a twist of fate, the U.S. government ran out of funding for the park before the Lambs were forced to move. So the park border stops just short of the Lamb house, and they stayed there well into the 1960s–when the house was eventually sold to be used as a hunting lodge.

In 1995, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club acquired the house and its surrounding property and began what became a 17-year project to restore it. The house has been described by a park historian as “a tribute to a mountain family living out the American dream in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” And a fine tribute it is.

We spent our weekend hiking on the nearby trails, enjoying the stream-side setting, cooking in the spacious and renovated kitchen, and imagining life here some 100 years ago.

Our visit was made even more memorable by some family history that was shared with us by Larry Lamb, a sixth generation member of the family and a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, and Kristie Kendall, who is a historian with the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Larry and Kristie were incredibly gracious in sharing the history of the house and the surrounding area, and both of their organizations are doing amazing work.

 

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A mill on the Lamb property. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb

Larry’s father, Thurman, was born in the house in 1925, and Larry visited the house often as a kid. He shared that his grandparents, Rosser and Rosetta Lamb, were “kind, humble people who loved the mountains and their home.” There were also stories of corn growing on the hillside, a smokehouse, a big garden, and family gatherings that featured banjo music and dancing the Virginia Reel.

As for food during our trip, we tried to use recipes that we thought might be common back in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day. Cherry trees were popular in the Blue Ridge, so we made a cherry pie. The Lambs made sorghum molasses, so we baked molasses cookies and muffins. They grew corn, so we had corn on the cob. They likely ate wild ramps, so we had some ramps. The streams in the park had wild trout, so we made a trout dip. They had a smokehouse, so we smoked some fish.

Of course, it’s a lot easier when you get your food from the local supermarket and keep it on ice in a giant cooler—a little different than in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day.

Later on the trip, we visited Far Pocosin Mission, which is about a two mile hike from the house. The Mission was founded in 1902, and historians describe it as the center of the community at the time. Now, 115 years later, the Mission is slowly fading into the forest–but there are old foundations, stairs, and chimneys that are still visible. Rosser Lamb attended church at the Mission, and his children went to school there.

I’ve enjoyed hiking and backpacking in and around Shenandoah National Park for more than 30 years now, and I confess that I haven’t always thought much about the human history. But we found the house and the mission to be powerful reminders of the people that were here before the park. The house is a fine tribute to the Lamb family, and to a lot of other families that lived in the neighboring hollows. I really can’t imagine what it must have been like for those that were forced to leave.

Lastly, it turns out that Pocosin Mission was founded by a very distant relative of mine, Frederick William Neve, a fact which was fascinating to me—but was either irrelevant or annoying to Souzz and our friends. After all, how many times can you listen to someone say “hey, I’m related to the guy that built this!” without wanting to scream?

Actually, I know that answer, and it’s four.

Drive Left, Eat Right

Souzz and I just took a quick trip to Ireland, and we crammed a lot of touring into four days—including visits to Connemara National Park, Galway, Aillwee Cave, the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle, and Dublin. Our itinerary required a fair amount of driving on the “wrong” (left) side of the road, but that was about the only thing that seemed wrong about our visit. We hiked, went horseback riding on the beach, visited a lot of historic spots, and enjoyed some fantastic food (of course). It’s hard not to have a good time in a beautiful country filled with friendly people.

Ireland isn’t generally known as a foodie destination, but the overall scene has expanded in recent years. Fresh seafood is everywhere, chefs are bringing in flavors from all over the world, and there are a bunch of new craft breweries and distilleries. We ate and drank very well on our trip.

Our best meal was at a restaurant on the west coast in Dingle (population 2000) called Idás. Chef Kevin Murphy brings a strong emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients, many of which he forages himself. Idás opened in 2014 and gets rave reviews, including a recommendation in the 2017 Michelin Guide. They fill up their intimate dining room most every night, and it was easy to see (and taste) why.

Our meal at Idás was five courses spanning land and sea, with some dishes a work of art and others plated in stark simplicity. Chef Murphy is trained as an artist, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the presentation is very important to him. And the smallish portions with intensely contrasting flavors conjured up loose comparisons to molecular gastronomy–which was not what we were expecting to find in Dingle.

Chef Murphy clearly has a passion for his work, telling us at one point in a serious tone that “you must respect the radish,” and later joking that “foraging through the local fields brings us free ingredients, and then our customers willingly pay for them.”

Of course, we didn’t spend all of of our trip at fancy restaurants, as enjoying a pint of Guinness at one of the local pubs is de rigueur in Ireland (oh, wait, that’s mixing French and Irish, something that the Napoleon tried in 1798 that didn’t go so well, never mind).

The pub scene is memorable not so much for the Guinness or the music, but because of the habit of locals to strike up conversations. We literally made new friends every night.

In Galway, we met a cheery guy named Colm at a pub called Tig Coili (“Coili House” in Gaelic, after a family name). Colm insisted on buying each of us a pint before sharing a lot of friendly advice for our trip. Soon the conversation expanded to include Dessie, an older guy in a ball cap who clearly came for the music. I confess that I don’t even really like Irish music, but I found myself captivated by Dessie’s enthusiasm and knowledge. He is a musician himself, and we guessed that he must play regularly at Tig Coili.

Later, we saw a poster in town with a familiar face and realized it was our new friend Dessie O’Halloran. The poster was of his 2001 album called The Pound Road, and it turns out that Dessie is a very well known musician that has played with the likes of Sharon Shannon and Willie Nelson.

Seeing that poster was almost enough to make me want to buy some Irish music…but impulse buys after visiting a pub are almost never a good idea. So I had another Guinness instead.

Time Travel

My buddy Rick and I just got back to Virginia after spending a week touring the Yukon by dog team. Friends of ours, Wayne and Scarlett Hall, run a dogsledding business out of Eagle, Alaska, called Bush Alaska Expeditions, and they hooked us up with a great tour. Even getting to Eagle is a bit of an adventure, requiring a ride on the mail plane out of Fairbanks. Once in Eagle, we met up with another friend and guide, expert musher Nate Becker, before heading for the hills.

The country around Eagle has a long and interesting history, including a number of different Athabaskan tribes, fur trading dating back to the 1700s, and the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush that started near Dawson City (150 miles upriver). During the gold rush, people came north with big dreams, and some made (and lost) fortunes. Place names like Last Chance Creek, Bonanza Creek, and Hard Luck Creek tell a part of the story.

Our trip felt like a moving tribute to the hardy souls that lived and thrived up there a hundred years ago, almost like time travel. Back in the day, the frozen Yukon River was traveled by legends like Percy DeWolfe, who carried the mail back and forth between Dawson and Eagle from 1910 to 1949….when it costs 3 cents to send a first class letter. Another notable resident was Harry Karstens, nicknamed the Seventymile Kid, who came from Chicago to prospect for gold before becoming a “packer” hauling mining supplies for other prospectors. Karstens went on to lead the first ascent of Mount McKinley (now Denali) in 1912 and later became the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.

During the course of our week, the rich history of the Yukon revealed some of itself to us through the cabins along the river. A few of the cabins we used were historic, a few were relatively new, and a few were somewhere in between–but all were remarkable in their own way. The one constant is that they were generally spaced about a day’s mushing apart–which was good forethought by the folks that built these places.  Cabins along the Tatonduk River, the Nation River, and the Seventymile River were a welcome sight after a long day on the trail, just as they would have been in the early 1900s.

I’m sometimes asked why I am so captivated by Alaska, and I answer that it’s because it’s the way the world used to be. During the course of the week, it was easy to wonder what it must have been like back in the day–and each time that I stopped to warm my fingers, I was reminded that I probably wouldn’t have had what it took. I have no idea how people thrived in this land 100 years ago, before fancy down jackets, goretex gloves, and bunny boots. That said, it was also inspiring to spend time with the people that are thriving there now, like Wayne, Scarlett, Nate, and Nate’s wife Ruby.

Our wonderful hosts obviously made this trip possible–but it’s also important to call out the true stars of the the week: those incredible canine athletes. One thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed in the last 100 years is that Alaskan huskies are phenomenally fit, loyal, and eager to run. They are also incredibly reliable, as a dog team never breaks down on the trail (unlike a snowmachine…or snowmobile, in case you don’t speak Alaskan). Each morning, those huskies were ready to take us anywhere that we had the skills to go, and they also seemed completely impervious to the cold. As I adjusted layers a thousand times on the back of the sled, I remembered that my dog team was wearing exactly the same thing that it had on last summer.

After an amazing week, Rick and I came back from the Yukon with a new appreciation for the way the world used to be, and the way that it still is…at least up there.

Holes on the Menu

As we planned our menu for an upcoming backpacking trip, Souzz reminded me that she “basically grew up on doughnuts”—which was a shocking revelation coming from somebody so fit. Apparently her hometown of Buffalo has a long (or round?) doughnut heritage–with Freddie’s, Paula’s, Tim Horton’s, and Zen’s (her family favorite as a kid).  Doughnuts were (and are) such a part of the Buffalo scene that hometown hockey hero Jim Schoenfeld once famously screamed at one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”

The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight to Kepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.

The hike started out along Cedar Creek before finishing on a long ridge, covering about five miles and 1000 feet of elevation. There were several great campsites up high, as well as a nice “improved” site on Cedar Creek with benches and a huge fire pit. We headed to one of the sites on the ridge, bringing a gallon and a half of water along with a bunch of good food (winter camping, even on a warmer weekend, should always be about food).

It was too bad KB couldn’t stick around for the evening, because dinner at our camp overlooking the Shenandoah Valley was fabulous. We started with an appetizer of local ham, smoked trout, and cheese, and then followed with beef tenderloin, gnocchi with tomatoes and garlic, red wine, and frybake chocolate chip cookies. We don’t lose weight on these trips.

The day’s mild temps eventually dipped into the high 30s, and then morning dawned warm and sunny….perfect doughnut weather, right? We learned soon enough that backcountry doughnuts really are pretty easy. We’d made the dough ahead of time using a Betty Crocker recipe, and we didn’t really need a lot of extra stuff on the trail–just an instant-read thermometer, a pair of tongs, vegetable oil, and cake doughnut toppings (chocolate, cinnamon, and powdered sugar).

While the oil was coming to temperature on our cook stove, we rolled out the dough and cut it into shape using the top of a Nalgene bottle and a cap from a Diet Coke. Then we dropped the dough into 375-degree oil for about two minutes a side. From there it was a quick dunk into the topping of choice and it was time for our Zens-like moment(s).

With several miles of walking ahead of us after breakfast, it was pretty easy to justify a doughnut. There was less of a case for the next four.

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Picking A Cake

My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?

“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.

My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”

“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.

“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”

“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”

When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.

Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”

My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.

We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.

As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.