September 2009

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The Potato Hall of Fame

In addition to farming the sweetest oysters and mussels on the planet (the colder the water, the sweeter the meat, and believe me, it might only be September, but it’s already damn cold up here), Prince Edward Island grows a hell of a lot of potatoes. Something like 25 billion pounds or about 75 pounds of spuds for every Canuck in the Great White North.

Which would explain why the Islanders refer to themselves as spudheads. In fact, they’ve got a Potato Museum on the island, in the little community of O’Leary (there are Irish everywhere on PEI) which is surrounded by acres and acres of potato fields. If you ask a local how to get to the museum, they’ll tell you to just look for the giant potato, a fiberglass spud some 14 feet high that was put up by potato farmers without the least hint of irony.

The other thing they’ve got at the museum, besides the enormous spud, is the Potato Hall of Fame. I don’t even know what to say about that. I just imagine some little kid fidgeting around at the dinner table on some farm in O’Leary when his mom, who is standing at the porcelain sink paring spuds for dinner, says, “Hank, did you know that yer granfadder is in the Potato Hall of Fame?”

Is this then something Hank can reveal to his friends at school? And does this make him more or less likely to get pummeled on the playground? I just don’t know.

That aside, Andrew Morrison, the chef at the hotel I’m staying in, Dalvay By-The-Sea, made a fabulous potato dish last night from some PEI fingerlings. I asked him for the recipe and he just sort of waved me off. “It’s simple,” he said. Just boil up the spuds and rough dice them, then brown them in a little putter, sprinkling with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, then finish them with sliced green onions, crumbled bacon, fresh baby spinach leaves, and a couple of tablespoons of cream.

Definitely a recipe that should be in the Potato Hall of Fame.

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Perhaps because my physique is such that, until middle-age spread took over, I was regularly asked if I played football or basketball, I’ve always enjoyed the gustatory habits of large men. Like Andrew Chase, a Toronto chef and cookbook author who has the stature and girth of, as well as an eerie resemblance to, Big Bird. Minus the feathers and yellow coloring, of course.

Andrew loves impeccably fresh seafood. As do I. He’s the sort of guy that would (and did) ask me if I wanted to go in with him on a 100-count box of Raspberry Point oysters to take back to our hotel in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island in case we, you know, got hungry later that night.

This just after the two of us had stood chilled to the bone on an oyster barge in the middle of New London Bay eating fat malpeques, the queen of Atlantic oysters, faster than James Power, who runs Raspberry Point’s oyster farm near the pristine shores of Prince Edward Island National Park, could dredge them up off the muddy tidal basin floor.

James Power harvesting oysters in New London Bay. Photo by David Lansing.

James Power harvesting oysters in New London Bay. Photo by David Lansing.

The sea breeze cutting our faces like knives, we’d grab the icy oysters as they moved up a conveyor belt on the barge, quickly pry them open and slurp them down, marveling in their salty, clean taste and sweet finish.

How many did we eat out in the bay before our hands got so cold that it was difficult to even feel the slippery mollusks in our hands? Enough that James good-naturedly reminded us that it took him six to seven years to groom these little sweeties.

“Consider leaving a few for the spudheads,” he said, a spudhead being a local from Prince Edward Island. There’s a reason why they’re called spudheads, of course. But we’ll save that story for tomorrow.

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This is embarrassing, but when I was first invited to be one of the judges for the Potato Seafood Chowder Championship on Prince Edward Island, I said yes thinking it would also allow me to spend a few days in one of my favorite cities of the world, Vancouver.

Because isn’t PEI one of those places between Vancouver and Vancouver Island? You know, Salt Spring and Cortes and Prince Edward Island, right? So when I got my itinerary and saw that I had to fly into Detroit—Detroit?—I thought, That’s just wrong. Why would they fly me to Detroit to get to Vancouver?

At that point I googled Prince Edward Island and guess what? It’s nowhere near Vancouver. In fact, it’s on the exact opposite end of Canada. In the Atlantic, not the Pacific; near Nova Scotia, not British Columbia.

So what do I know about Prince Edward Island?


Except when you come over Confederation Bridge, Canada’s $1 billion bridge to nowhere (more than 40 percent of the islanders voted against building it in 1992), what strikes you are all the odd little provincial blue highway signs that don’t just point you towards Charlottetown or Cavendish but give you culinary information: Fresh Produce, Lobster Suppers, Afternoon Tea.

Imagine, you’re driving down this little two-lane country road and there’s a sign telling you where to turn for a lobster supper. I think I like it. Sort of.

Strawberry Man photo on PEI by Gary Boole.

Strawberry Man photo on PEI by Gary Boole.

With summer over and the tourist season just weeks away from shutting down, it seems everyone on the island is selling fruits and vegetables. Everywhere you go are little stands with homemade signs promising PEI potatoes or beets or pumpkins. Or, my favorite, a Humpty-Dumpty like strawberry sitting on a green stool in a cow pasture pointing the way to fresh berries.

Those not selling produce are, instead, offering up the sort of things semi-retired men whose wives prefer they not spend their free hours hovering in the kitchen make out in their wood shops: birdhouses roofed with old license plates, bright red Adirondack chairs, weathervanes shaped like cows or pigs or roosters.

This says a lot about the people who live here, don’t you think? They are clever, industrious—and have a lot of free time in the winter.

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Dinner in the Hogue vineyard

Years ago, I was invited to have dinner with Wolfgang Puck and his then-wife, Barbara Lazaroff, at their Malibu restaurant, Granita (which, unfortunately, closed several years ago). Barbara, who has a penchant for the dramatic, talked as if she were an actress in a Noel Coward play, always moving about and gesticulating with her hands. She told me how difficult it had been to conceive their first child (she’d take her temperature whenever she thought she might be ovulating and, if the moment was right, call Puck at Spago or wherever he was, demanding he come home immediately so they could have sex; afterwards she’d throw her legs in the air for 15 or 20 minutes hoping things “would take”). Then she told me how exasperating it had been to get Puck on a recent cruise, the main point of which was to have sex non-stop.

And what did Wolfie have to say through all this? Nothing. In fact, over a two hour dinner, I can’t remember Puck saying anything much beyond, “This dish is too salty.”

I’ve shared meals with chefs over the years, from Julia Child to Paul Bocuse, and I have to say that, despite what you see on the Food Network, chefs, in general, don’t have much personality. They’re intense, focused, creative—but not a lot of fun to be around (and please don’t tell me about Rachel Ray or Giada De Laurentiis; they’re not chefs).

The Count, on the left, and Frank Magaña, on the right. Spooky, huh.

The Count, on the left, and Frank Magaña, on the right. Spooky, huh.

But there are exceptions. And I met one of those exceptions last night: Frank Magaña. Magaña, who looks remarkably like The Count from Sesame Street, is the chef/owner of Picazo 7Seventeen, the only restaurant of note in Prosser, Washington. Last night, for our final dinner on this trip, Hogue Cellars hosted a spectacular meal on the lawn behind the winery that was catered by Magaña and his Picazo staff.

The meal was great, from the duck salad to the rack of lamb with a granny smith apple chutney, but what I really enjoyed was having Magaña around to talk about food, wine, and what it was like to run such a high-end restaurant in a tiny town like Prosser (difficult).

Dinner in the vineyard photo by Alicia Laury.

Dinner in the vineyard photo by Alicia Laury.

Towards the end of the evening, Hogue’s winemaker, Co Dinn,  just happened to find a bottle of Opus One inside the winery (hey, winemakers have to drink other people’s wines just so they are familiar with the competition) when Magaña brought out an artisan cheese platter to nosh on. I had so many questions for the chef that eventually Co got him a clean glass and poured him a little wine so he would sit down with us. As I sat there looking out over the darkened vineyard enjoying the wine and the company, it just seemed like one of those perfect summer nights I’ve experienced on many an occasion in France or Italy or Spain. You’re outdoors in a beautiful setting and you’ve just slowly enjoyed a fabulous meal and now you can just sit back in your chair, slightly buzzed, and grin like a perfect fool as you listen to the sometimes silly, sometimes profound conversations going on all around you.

A perfect end-of-summer European fête. In Central Washington.

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Hogue’s master winemaker, Co Dinn

So Elmer pulls the car to a stop in the middle of a vast vineyard on the Wahluke Slope (about the only way I can describe the geography here is to say that we’re not far from the Hanford Site where plutonium was manufactured for the Manhattan Project in 1943 partially because the area was absolutely in the middle of nowhere) and Hogue’s masterful winemaker, Co Dinn spills from the car and starts skipping up the dusty aisle between rows of merlot grapes and I just have to start laughing. I can’t help it. You look at Co in his silly floppy hat and rusty pants and think, Oh my god! He’s Scarecrow! From The Wizard of Oz.

I could wile away the hours

Conferrin’ with the flowers

Consultin’ with the rain

And my head I’d be scratchin’

While my thoughts were busy hatchin’

If I only had a brain

And that is so Co! Conferrin’ with flowers and consultin’ with the rain. We’ve spent hours and hours in the car driving from one end of Central Washington to the other and I don’t think Co has shut up for two minutes. He’s fascinated by every rock we see, every ridge we climb, every plant in the field. But unlike Scarecrow, this guy definitely has a brain. In fact, he may be the most brainiac winemaker I’ve ever met.

Co Dinn, winemaker for Hogue Cellars. Photo by David Lansing.

Co Dinn, winemaker for Hogue Cellars. Photo by David Lansing.

He comes from Tulsa of all places where he was once in the oil and gas business. Somehow he got into wine and took a few winemaking classes and next thing you know, he’s working as a winemaker at Trefethen Vineyards in Napa. And then, 13 years ago, he ended up in Sunnyside, where you can get the best damn peach in the world but little else, as head winemaker for Hogue Cellars.

Listen, I have spent time with dozens of winemakers over the years and I’ve never met anyone as enthusiastic about what he does for a living as Co. He seems to sample all of life the way he does a barrel tasting of syrah, sticking his prominent beak into it as far as it will go and then swirling its essence in his mouth before gleefully proclaiming, “God, that’s good!”

It may be 97 degrees out and we may be in the middle of a dusty field but when Co says, “Let’s go up to the top of this hill so we can have a look at the valley!” by golly, we all follow his jingle-jangle body up the yellow dirt road. Obviously for Co, life is nothing but a ding-a-derry. And wouldn’t we all like to be a little bit more like that?

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