Category Archives: Around Town

Cheeky Monkey Is Coming. Let’s Invite Cafe Boy.

I always like how looking at my own blog statistics can feel like a sneaky affair. It’s like finding a shopping list, reading PostSecret, or following your friend unbidden on Twitter. It’s a mundane, sometimes compelling look at what people are craving and hoping to accomplish. Blog stats are like brain snapshots. Little electronic Polaroids of your brainwaves.cheeky monkey

The terms that have led people here are telling me that someone is earnestly looking for “Cafe Boy,” and has reached out to Google him more than a few times. Believe me, I understand. I have been looking for Cafe Boy myself, and many times losing him in one place, find him in another (only to lose him yet again). He’s elusive, but you can be pretty sure he has scruffy brown hair, a book in one hand, and a slight air of poetic sophistication that might be easily confused with Library Boy. Cafe Boy is usually alone and looks as though he would like nothing other than to talk to me. (Yes, me.) Please let me know if you find him.

It’s also obvious that a lot of people are looking for information about the soon-to-be-open Cheeky Monkey Deli in St. Paul. When I first saw the signs on the windows of the old Zander’s space, I stopped by Solo Vino to ask for more information. Last time, it was planned to open by the end of October. This week, I was told it would open by the end of the month. Peering in the windows at the empty space made me wonder if there would be another four-month extension, but we can hope for the best. From what I’ve heard, it’s a truly independent affair owned by none other than the proprietor himself, and wine will flow freely from store to store. I’m thrilled that the neighborhood will have a casual place to grab a bite of good food to eat. As it is, we only have the co-op, which I frequent, but usually to eat the same few things each time.

In the meantime, let’s bide our time with more entertaining brain snapshots from my stats. Care to imagine what these other people are looking for?

“Take a girl out for New Years.” A girl was daydreaming about the perfect New Years celebration her lazy boyfriend might orchestrate for her because she didn’t want to do it herself. This is a little passive-agressive if you ask me.

“Bean French tete.” Tête-à-tête? This person would like to have an intimate conversation over French lentil soup, or maybe haricot verts. In either case, I could be enlisted for that one.

“Guess what edible item is in the brownie.” I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like a game I want to play!

“Petite Lolita in gynecological visit.” Do I want to know what this one is about? I am hoping that a woman left her pocket edition of Lolita at the doctor’s office. Indeed.

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Milwaukee, Manhattan, and My Mom

It’s me, home again from a trip to Milwaukee for Christmas. It was fun, and perhaps this is a good place to share one of my favorite memories. My mom, a quirky woman who doesn’t cook that often (but does a fine job when she does), made a roast of some kind to serve to my brother and me on Christmas Eve. Along with it, she served store-bought au jus, which was way too salty, but afforded me this adorable moment.

Passing me the au jus, mom said, “Darling, did you want the du jour?”

I mentioned the right phrase to use and talked about how it’s weird that Americans have appropriated French prepositional phrases as nouns into our culinary lexicon. To this, my brother kind of grunted/smirked at me and said, “Yeah, that’s what I was just about to say.”

In my free time after Christmas, I met two dear friends for a few drinks downtown. Kallie and Shawn are Milwaukeeans who live in New York, which is perhaps subconsciously why I suggested Elsa’s on the Park, as the Elsa’s people also own the equally fabulous Bar 89 in Soho (pictured on the right). bar89

I have always loved this Milwaukee–Soho connection. Elsa’s and Bar 89 share a contemporary industrial vibe and a menu chock full of creative, never-pretentious burgers, chicken, pork, sandwiches, and salads. It’s as though the same lively party is going on simultaneously in Milwaukee and Manhattan. For a girl who started in one and aspired to the next, I always like to be reminded of how seamless these two restaurants are.

There’s two other distinctive traits these restaurants are individually known for. For better or worse, Bar 89 is remembered far and wide because of the loo. Everyone knows that if you are 1.) in Manhattan and 2.) want to take a memorable pee, you go to Bar 89 on Mercer. On the second floor, overlooking the open dining area, is a wall of bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that fog up only after you step inside and close the door.

Elsa'sAnd for Elsa’s? This place is remembered far and wide for its diversity. Everyone knows that if you are 1.) in Milwaukee and 2.) craving lively and colorful camaraderie, you go to Elsa’s. One review called it “the UN” of restaurants. This picture was taken at 7, when the bar was almost full of cable-knit sweaters, long-sleeve denim shirts, and jeans (and apparently, lots of white people). By the time we left, every table, corner, hallway, and standing area was stuffed with people of every stripe, color, and fashion statement. I noted how rare it is that I get to eat dinner next to two black guys wearing full-length fur coats and heavy gold bling bling around their neck, and marveled at how any one restaurant could be so casual and fabulous all at the same time.

Elsa's foodWe weren’t there for entrees, so we shared water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and this salad. I’m pretty sure it was called Greens N’ Galette, but what’s galette about this? In any case, these flatbreads were covered with olives and bacon, the bacon was served with honey dipping sauce, and it was all so delicious followed by a glass of wine and lots of catching up with my pals.

The best part about this all? The smart people behind Elsa’s and Bar 89 also own Kopp’s Frozen Custard, which means the burgers and fries are always amazing. These restaurants are essentially two of the swankiest casual burger joints I know.

Elsa's on the Park on Urbanspoon

Bar 89 on Urbanspoon

"Minnesota Chic" New Year’s Eve Party

Given that I am a foodbuzz featured writer, I entered something foodbuzz calls simply “24, 24, 24.” It’s an event in whichwindow 24 bloggers produce 24 meals all within the same 24 hours anywhere around the world. The best part about it? Foodbuzz is the virtual host, so they pay for the event (with a cap, of course).

To be considered, bloggers pitched their best ideas for “the most creative way to honor 2008” and promised to write a great post about it. Based upon the fine merits of my proposal (ahem, tossed together at the brink of the deadline), I was chosen as one of the 24 bloggers. That means that I get reimbursed to throw a party. Yes, I believe you heard that right. We eat and be merry — and foodbuzz pays for it.

With a little help from my friends (hats off to Aaron and his admirable ecofootprint), I turned our event into a challenge. I proposed a “Minnesota Chic” New Year’s Eve party showcasing as many local foods as possible — which of course might get a bit hairy here in the heart of winter. Local food, local music, and local booze — all with my favorite local peeps around me to kick off 2009.

We have quite a few ideas brewing, including a Minne-tini (Peace Coffee and Shakers vodka), risotto, soup, and trout from Star Prairie. Bread from Rustica. Tortillas from La Perla. Who knows, really. The menu is up in the air until I gather some more information.

For now, please let me know if you have any ideas to help this night take shape. I’m defining “local” in a very lofty way for the evening — as thoroughly Minnesota as possible. What local products do you love? Where will I get the grains? What dairy farmers are still cranking in this deep snow? What producers are distributing frozen produce from the growing season? What local companies have products you are proud of?

Also, if you are a local eco-foodie, please drop me a line at ediblecities.msp@gmail.com if you’d like to be invited.

Two of the Peoples in My Neighborhood

Before the rain that spat on us today started to turn into ice and make the sidewalks impossible to walk on, there was plenty of time to take advantage of the day. I had to pick up the MFK Fisher books I had on hold at the library, get groceries, exercise, and generally get stuff done. (Speaking of practical, er, not, don’t ask me how I managed to have an eight-dollar cup of coffee downtown last night.) This particular Sunday was brought to you by…

Dunn Brothers on Grand and Snelling

If I’m on my way home from the gym or if Nina’s is feeling a little too genteel, I love to grab a seat at Dunn Brothers on Grand near St. Thomas. It has a great vibe and is probably the most social coffee shop in the area. Aside from the main counter, there is also a designated bean counter and cashier in the back of the store who packages up fresh pounds of coffee at your command. In the two hours I spent reading, about 15 people stopped to ask what was fresh and to buy a couple pounds. With the good selection, freshness, and the counter rapport, it feels like a place where the cognoscenti go to buy their beans.

Breadsmith, also on Grand and Snelling

Next door is another of my favorites, Breadsmith, close to my heart because it is a Milwaukee company. Even though Great Harvest is walking distance from where I live, I don’t like the doughy, undercooked taste of their loaves. Breadsmith, however, has it in spades, with toothy loaf of whole grain that I wouldn’t dexactly call humble. It’s as wide as a dinner plate and, when you cut it open, springs up like a jack in a box ready to show off its perfect texture. To make it even better, it has a price tag of just 4 dollars.

Inspired by the bread, I suppose, I made some of the most satisfying hummus I’ve ever had. I guess there was nothing unusual about it. Maybe I just brought all the usual variations together in the most effective way. The ingredients are large can of chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of tahini, the juice of one lemon, a few glugs of olive oil, two plump cloves of garlic, salt, cayenne, and dry basil, for fun.

My two preferred tricks in hummus-making are to first boil the chickpeas until they are warm. It’s not that the beans need to be cooked. It’s that putting warm beans in the food processor along with all the other ingredients heats everything just so and brings out the life of the party. Second, I save about a half cup of the cooking water (maybe less) to add to the hummus as it processes, which ensures a nice, creamy texture.

Et voilà, a couple of drizzles of arbequina olive oil and paprika pulls it all together in the end.

Dunn Bros Coffee on Urbanspoon

Breadsmith on Urbanspoon

W.A. Frost and the First Snow Fall

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In one of his short stories called Winter Dreams, Fitzgerald perfectly describes the scene that fell on his hometown of St. Paul this weekend. “The days have become crisp and gray, and the long Minnesota winter has shut down like the white lid of a box.” photo(2)

Intrepid gal that I am, I didn’t let the first big snow fall of the year box me in. This weekend, I hung out with friends at 20.21, The Craftsman, and Riverview Wine Bar. I caught the British Advertising Awards (tell me please, what’s the big deal?) and the new Woody Allen movie. I walked to Nina’s twice, once to meet Nathan for breakfast and book-shopping at Common Good. The second time to meet a new gal named R, who proved to be a fast friend with a considerable interest in the city. I also went to the gym, made soup, did lots of freelance work, and bought a new sweater at Macy’s. (Remember, there’s always free parking on Sunday!)

As if that wasn’t enough for one weekend, I also had a second date with PS. Last week, we met at Eli’s and had a nice time chatting at the front table by the window. On Sunday, he called to ask me out again. Rather than the usual back-and-forth that can be so characteristic of these situations, this guy simply said, “Hey, I made a reservation for us at W.A. Frost at 7.” Now that, I love. No asking. No dalliance. Just good, old-fashioned datemaking. I graciously accepted.

But Frost? Truth be told, I was hesitant to go to there on a second date, given that it is fabled to be the epitome of romance. But when the dating gets tough, I suppose the tough get dating. I flipped up my hair, put on the new sweater and my snow boots, and crunched my way there in the snow.

282977658_bee1fd19ac_oI know that W.A. Frost has won many awards for its food. I know it used to be one of those creepy old pharmacies. I know Fitzgerald probably stopped by for an ice cream and a bottle of Coke, and that perhaps Nina herself used the corner of Western and Selby to pick up some of her brothel’s clientele. But as beautiful as that patio, high ceiling, and lovingly restored interior is, when I’m at Frost, I just don’t feel like I belong there. Maybe I’m a little too much like Fitzgerald, living in flat after flat, moving from town to town, not so sure whether to accept or reject the landed gentry living it up in all those prestigious Summit Avenue homes. Or maybe I just need to spend more time at the bar rather than the dining room.

I finally confided in my date. “It feels kind of . . . pre-theatre in here, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course I do. We’re the hippest people here,” he said, not missing a beat.

And so it goes. To date well is to be a curator of moments, collecting those that stand out and tell a story about an individual. I liked this particular moment. It said he understood.

I ordered pan-roasted Norwegian salmon with goat cheese risotto, bloody mary consomme, and petite herb salad. Everything about this entree came together nicely, especially the moat of consomme around the meal. PS ordered braised Fischer Farms pork belly with sauteed brussels sprouts petals, Vine Valley Farms butternut squash and miso broth, bacon-braised grits, and pickled pear. He also spoke highly of the bright rim of orange squashy stuff that surrounded his meal. The thing I like about Frost’s traditional plating is the always unexpected line-up of ingredients that accompany it. Bloody mary consomme? Pickled pear with a squash miso broth? Having a meal at Frost is a little like finding a wild outfit in your grandmother’s stately closet.

The entrees, though, were mere appetizers to the extraordinary dessert that followed. We shared a Meyer lemon cheesecake with gingersnap crumb crust, toasted pine nuts, Ames Farm honey, and candied Meyer lemon zest. Woo boy. I’m a lover of all things savory, and this dessert was almost like a third entree that was satisfying on so many levels. “Make sure you get a pine nut,” PS said. No problem.

I think I’ll be returning to Frost to sit on the patio in the summer or to meet the bartender, who seems to have a good reputation. I’ll be using it as a wine bar that has a most impressive list from around the world. I’ll be sitting by the big bar windows to watch the snow fall in such a lovely part of town. It’s a perfect winter spot, which also reminds me why I like the snow. It’s fun to say goodbye in. PS and I parted gracefully on the street corner as I donned my hat and walked back home.

W.a. Frost & Company on Urbanspoon

You Can Take the Girl out of Milwaukee

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Milwaukee, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Mil-wau-kee.

Oh wait, that’s Lolita. I’m getting my love letters confused!

Milwaukee, what I really wanted to say is this. You know I always loved you, but I just couldn’t stay. We had a good thing for awhile, it’s true. Maybe in my restlessness I said a few not-so-nice things about you, but we can chalk that up to growing pains. I was young and searching for something worthwhile, and I didn’t have it all figured out. I had to question our relationship because you were the only thing I knew. I would think you’d understand. We were both late bloomers with a thing or two to learn about how the world works and we kind of stumbled into it together. Plus, you had that whole thing going on with Water Street and all those silly frat boys, not to mention that little fetish for stodgy German food. You really could have done better than that. But, Milwaukee, I suppose you have.

You know what they say about relationships: timing is everything. My path has led me to Minneapolis, where I have a great life and all kinds of friends. It’s not that I don’t think about you. In fact, every time I come home, I wonder what it would be like to live in Bay View or the Third Ward. You take the best of charming historic architecture, like St. Paul, but add a wicked cool art museum designed by a world-renowned architect.

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A Whole Foods the size of Texas boasting a food counter of every kind. What was it? Two salad bars, fresh sushi and wok stations, something that looked like a full-service sausage bar, more olives that you can shake a skewer at, a bakery, and an automated wine-tasting device that takes your credit card in return for samples.Even the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle in Manhattan doesn’t compare to this.

whole foods wf_milwaukee

As of last week, you also have an underdog, and you know how happy that makes me. Good Harvest is a full-sized natural foods store in the Third Ward walking distance from the river, modern condos, galleries, boutiques, great antique shops, fine restaurants, and casual bars.

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Not to mention the Milwaukee Public Market! You wouldn’t believe how I felt when I first heard the news. I almost came running back into your arms. You can hang out on the second floor with coffee and free Wi-Fi.

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Or grab some food

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and head over to Wine Thief at the heart of the market, whiling away your time watching the people come and go.

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And then there is the matter of all those fabulous restaurants. This past weekend, over the holiday, I ensconced myself at the bar at Hinterland, your first gastropub, with my mom. (You remember my mom.) We had fish tacos and two glasses of red wine the size of our heads. The atmosphere was perfectly cosmopolitan and we overhead a conversation between two Chicagoans sitting amicably at the bar. They were in town for the night and choose Hinterland as their destination. They spoke highly of the restaurant and said they could even imagine living in Milwaukee one day.

Score another one for you, my friend. You’re obviously happy, which I suppose is what we both wanted all along. I only wish it was easier for us to see each other. Maybe we can meet for breakfast some day. I promise not to tell anyone.

Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub on Urbanspoon

One Wicked Sigh of Relief

How about that? I got so wrapped up in all the amazing victories of the past week that I didn’t slow down to write3013068061_4aff70d364_b about any of them, or even follow-up on my earlier post. Pardon my lateness, and allow me to indulge.

Last night, Aaron and his girlfriend Colleen invited Michael, Stefanie, Angela, and me over for a multicourse dinner of small eats, which of course turned out to be a wonderful parade of food. We hung out around the island as Aaron and Colleen dished out plate after plate, proving themselves to be the perfect prepping and cooking pair. We had a cheese plate with apples. Lavash with goat cheese, broiled figs, and honey (perhaps my favorite item on the menu). Corn chips with cheesy tofu, broiled corn, avocado, olives, and tomato. A perfect salad with Deborah Madison’s creamy shallot dressing. (The salad was made of field greens with celery, feta, hard boiled egg slices, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, and maybe something else, too. We loved it.) Seared tuna with saffron aioli. Beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce. Soba noodles with peanut sauce and cabbage. Blooming jasmine tea. And ice cream with homemade biscotti.

Can you imagine what a mess this would make in the hands of a lesser chef? Aaron, though, is a bit of a wizard in the kitchen, a fan of mise en place cooking, and also a conservationist through and through. In his charming fashion, his tidy ecological footprint carries over to everything he does. After serving this wild spread of food, his kitchen was perfectly clean, as shown in this picture of us, taken immediately after our meal.

DSC01034Another fun food night happened at my place with eight of us on election night. With the stakes so high, we were all on edge and unprepared to face the possibility of a McCain win. But many things did bode well. Stefanie showed up with her fabulous Obama cake, which sent out good vibes into the world as she was baking. Vanessa reported that astrologically, Obama’s victory was written profusely all over the stars. And although Tamas, Elysia’s Hungarian husband who has lived in the States for the three years, couldn’t even vote, he showed up sporting the proudest array of pro-Obama gear. Obviously, we are all thinking positively, so we tried to chill out, enjoy dinner, and follow the early lead-up to the final results.

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I made a spinach salad with goat cheese feta, pumpkin seeds roasted in chili powder, and dried cherries. This is a great combination that went over well, and I’m sure to make again.

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For the main course, I made had penne pasta with pumpkin, cream, parmesan, and sage, which was the first time I made a Rachel Ray recipe. So far, so good. I can’t complain about the girl’s food.

After dinner, we piled like clowns into one car and headed to the Crowne Plaza for the official DFL Victory Party, which turned out to be a historic and seriously inspirational event, with 1,000s of people of every stripe socializing in and out of hotel rooms and a massive central room with numerous stages, food and drink, big screen TVs, and barely any room to move.

One minute, we were ticking off states one by one, and the next minute, the screen flashed out an Obama victory . . . and elation took over the crowd. We cheered and rejoiced. We hugged strangers and started to cry. We drank out of some guy’s champagne bottle, and then we cried some more. We took a 101 pictures, and stood enthralled by our first black president’s victory speech. We got a little silly, but hey. We were erupting with pride, relief, anticipation, and hope. It’s November 2008, and Barack Obama is our new president.

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On Burgers and Bohemians

It’s late October, and I’m feeling like a seasonal creature, like a weathervane, almost, responding to the seasons as they come. All summer, I spend my extra cash hanging out on patios around the city with my friends. As summer fades, I end up spending all my drinkin’ money, so to speak, on a weekly supply of luscious heirloom tomatoes. Seriously, I need an extra allowance to support my habit, as I take them home pound by expensive pound. But if time is money, as they say, then why should I resist? Heirloom tomatoes are so ripe with satisfaction that the time it takes to slice them open is all you need to make a fantastic meal. I mixed one up (raw, of course), with pasta, fresh spinach, and a little cheese melted in some pasta water.

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Now that the scarves are on and the fleshy heirlooms will soon be gone, I’ve entered the next phase of hibernation. I bought a bunch of stuff for the kitchen. In one transaction, I bought all of the practical things I have been craving for months. The granddaddy of the purchase was a mandoline. I read that the OXO Mandoline Slicer is the best of them all, and after seeing Mario Batali describe it on the product’s Amazon page, I was hooked.

On the social front, I had a last hurrah to warm weather on the patio at Salut with Nathan, the bohemian woodworker. When I lured him over to this side of the river, I used the juicy lucy at The Nook as my bait. Unfortunately, so did everyone else. There was a 40-minute wait. As we drove around thinking about where else we could go, he kept teasing me by saying “The Nook!” oh “The Nook!” as though I was a Greek siren who lured him to eternal damnation in genteel St. Paul. Where else could I take my incorrigible friend?

I have strange reservations about eating at restaurants that feel even a little corporate, and Salut does, with its smorgasbord menu and concept decor. It wouldn’t be out of place next to P.F. Chang’s and Maggiano’s over at the mall. However. I’m getting older now, and who am I to complain? With Salut, there’s now a French restaurant with great service and a happy bustle bringing extra life to a busy corner of St. Paul. And I was eager to try their burger. Dara Moskowitz included it in her now-famous 20 burgers you must eat before you die list. So off to Salut we went.

We ordered a bottle of red called la piquette, which translates into “nasty wine,” and Le Cheeseburger Royale with aged cheddar, lettuce, and tomato on grilled ciabatta with hand-cut fries. Yeah, it was very good, but I couldn’t quite determine if it was list-worthy. I might say it lacked a certain je nais sais quoi, a certain God-knows-what. But did it matter? The fries were perfectly crispy and my company was among the finest. I would go back to Salut (almost) any time.

Salut Bar Americain on Urbanspoon

How to Make a City Love You

How long do you think it takes for a city to get you with its charms? When I lived in Manhattan, it happened the moment I walked out of my apartment and realized that Bleecker Street, Washington Square, and two-dollar falafel sandwiches were just around the corner. I was so excited. It was so easy to live at large.

When I lived in Chicago, it took longer to feel that connection. My job was located in the deep burbs (equally as inhospitable as the “deep south”) and I spent way too much time in my car. It wasn’t until I got to know a particular urbanist, Joseph DuciBella, that I was let in on the secrets of the city and started to feel truly at home.

If we created a simple list of charms, the Twin Cities wouldn’t easily stack up to the rest of my geographical resume. But still. After three years of living in St. Paul, I feel an almost surreal sense of having been here a long time. When I went to Manhattan, it was about a degree. When I went to Chicago, it was about a relationship. This town has been all about me. And that, of course, is an education unto itself. I feel like cultivator, layering people, stories, and experiences together in a way that makes sense to me. It helps that I have a cool job and great friends, and also that I am single. A few bars, neighborhoods, and restaurants have quickly become classic, and both cities feel like a foundation on which we all can do most anything we please. I often see people I know, and the baristas serve me without asking what I’d like. In MSP, everything always overlaps. I feel like I’m starting to live at large again, but this time in a totally personalized sort of way.

To make a city love you, you must first fall in love with something it offers. I started with those things that seemed special about MSP: coffee shops, co-ops, and Magers & Quinn. I’ve discovered some of my favorite books at Magers & Quinn as though they were shelved there specifically for me, and as an editor, I’ve attended a number of my author’s readings.

oct16aLast week, I went to Magers & Quinn to see Steve Lerach read from his new book Fried: Surviving Two Centuries in Restaurants. I also brought a date, which is another way to make a city love you. See a lot of people. My date asked the best questions during the Q&A, and after the reading, he introduced me to three or four of his friends who happened to be in the crowd. There was the quirky academic he used to work with at the Black Forest Inn, and they told some hilarious server stories. There was also the cool duo who co-host the Wednesday Spoken Word show at KFAI (where my date is a DJ).

The whole night became a reflection of the book we went to hear about. Part of why Steve Lerach is credentialed to write Fried is that he has lived and cooked in Minneapolis for thirty years. Thirty years! He told us how his book started out as a master’s thesis on the history of restaurants as far back as the French revolution. But the more he dug into the past, the more he saw parallels to the people he has worked with throughout his career, and this cast of cooks and sous chefs took over the focus of his writing. Eventually, his story became their story instead. Their story demanded to be told.

And that’s another way to make a city love you. Let the story of its people become your story, too, whether you have lived there for three or for thirty years.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper and a few other muses

Just a few weeks into this and I’ve learned what all bloggers already know. Life is busy, and I didn’t DSC00715need a new writing outlet to help me reaffirm that. I spent the weekend at my cousin’s cabin in the Wisconsin woods, enjoying the newly orange leaves and eating more than token amounts of food. We hiked, posed for impromptu photo shoots, and roosted at the local bar called the Eagle’s Nest for a wax-paper-in-a-basket type of feast. Back at the cabin, I served up a casual mix of food I prepared for the weekend. Pear, apple, butternut squash dip with gorgonzola cheese. Chicken salad with fresh herbs and grapes. Wilted spinach wraps with portobello, peppers, and parmesan cheese darkened slightly on the grill. It was the ideal weekend spread, paired perfectly with wine and friends.

Now it’s midweek, or at least nearly so, and Angela and I are busy preparing for our Ghetto Gourmet this weekend. We’re comparing our recipe designs, counting the guests, and gathering enough tables and chairs to make the whole thing work. It looks like we’ll have about 15 people, both old and new, and we’re really happy with that. Who are we to think our kitchens can accommodate any more than that, anyway? And do we have enough utensils to move food from stove to table and table to mouth? And how will everyone fit in her small house?

Beyond the usual list of questions, we’re still tinkering with the food, of course. Always with the food. We’re thinking about cioppino for the main course, but should we pair a tomato-based stew with our fall menu? Will the squash, pear, gorgonzola dip (an intended re-do from the cabin) taste OK with tomato-y mussels and fish? I love these questions and I consider myself a happy slave to detail for the sake of a convivial experience. However, I still know that it’s always best to come back to one main question: Does all this fuss really matter? With entertaining, as with most things in life, perfect decorum is not where it’s at.

DSC00625 If in doubt, look to the experts. Last Thursday, I went to see Lynne Rossetto Kasper at Room & Board in Edina at an event showcasing her new book, How to Eat Supper. One of the first things LRK mentioned is that her famous cooking broadcast The Splendid Table is all about one main ingredient: irreverent people. Bless her. She and Sally Swift, her producer, proceeded to inspire us with sound clips and their own commentary by and about a whole series of irreverent muses.

Nora Ephron, author of many books who Sally Swift called “a lusty food person,” reminisced about fabulous New York City dinner parties with Lee Bailey, a cooking and photography expert. When asked her tips about making a dinner party swing, Ephron said, “Booze. A well-oiled group always has more fun.” She also said, “Never serve fish. It’s too easy to eat,” and because of it, the whole dinner ends too quickly. Instead, serve something guests have to cut. Make them work and your party will be the better for it.DSC00628

Josh Wesson, a then-young sommelier who wrote Red Wine with Fish: The New Art of Matching Wine with Food, broke all the wine-pairing rules and offered a new perspective that is not bound by tradition. Not only might he say it’s OK to pair our herb squash dip with cioppino, he might suggest a wine to go with it.

Isaac Mizrahi, style guy and author of the forthcoming How to Have Style, bookends his dinner parties by making sure the drinks and desserts are fabulous. “Just like hair and shoes,” he said. “If the drinks and desserts work, everything else will, too.”

Amy Sedaris, author of I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, says you really have to “cast” your party. That means don’t invite anyone who might been seen as an anchor. “It’s OK if you want to entertain a barnacle on a one-on-one basis, but don’t invite any to your party.”

The event was quite brilliant, in fact. The series of sound clips mimicked a bawdy group of “well-oiled” guests at a super cool dinner party, and like a good host with a mischievous twist, LRK dished up the best of their irreverent wisdom. I could really like these people.