Saturday, January 19, 2013

Jekyll Island

Nearly twenty years ago, my parents toyed with the idea of following several of their friends who had moved from the gray, snowbelt winters of northeastern Ohio to the warm sunny shores of Jekyll Island, Georgia.  Unlike most of the popular Atlantic-coast tourist destinations, development is strictly limited here.  This island used to be the summer retreat for the wealthiest families in the country--Goodyear, Vanderbilt, Morgan (as in J.P.).  So along with the usual sun-bathed beaches, there is a quiet inland full of dappled sunlight and moss-draped live oak trees.

Many of the historic buildings are still here, including many of the servants' quarters and other outbuildings, which now hold gift shops of various kinds.

It's a very pleasant place to stay.  Traffic is minimal, the population is restricted, and there's a sense of uniqueness and history that makes Jekyll Island feel special.  Of course, winters without shoveling snow and splitting firewood were inviting, too.  But what really made my mother settle her mind about moving was when she mentioned it to their doctor at the time.  "It will extend his life by fifteen years" was the assessment.  The rest is, at least for us, history.

Of course, living in a place is not the same as visiting it.  The limited population becomes a gossipy small town.  The temperate winter weather morphs into baking hot summer afternoons featuring burned skin and sand everywhere.  Even the arching shade of the live oaks harbors innumerable biting insects swarming in the humid air.  My memories of my visits there soon become full of sweat, sunburn and the constant smell of the marshes.

And yet, and yet...all it takes is one quick January visit; a few sunny warm days; a couple of quiet strolls on the nearly empty beaches...

Click to biggerize

...and I remember what there is to love about this place.

My parents live in a small neighborhood on the south end of the island, which is surprisingly isolated for a place that's only seven to ten miles long (depending on the tide).  As with all barrier islands on this coast, the surf is slowly eating away at the north end, and filling it in on the south end.  Much to the dismay of humans, the islands are slowly moving southward.

What this means on Jekyll is that the best beaches are also the least visited.  So when my father and I went down for a late afternoon stroll, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Even if the dunes are growing on this end, there is still an area being scooped out by the surf, so plenty of trees are being drowned, uprooted and turned into driftwood.

In the meantime, I am drawn by their stark beauty, by their attitude of implacable permanence in the face of an encroaching doom.

In other spots, the cycle is ready to begin anew.  A dozen yards further on, tough, salt-resistant sea grasses have sprouted up to hold onto the sand and create another line of dunes.

Closer to the dunes, evidence we are not the only visitors today.

Back past the big tree...this next picture makes me think of Gandalf and Bilbo.  (I wouldn't be surprised to discover some Hobbit blood in my distant parentage.)

Our long shadows presaged the sinking sun.  Less spectacular than many sunsets here, it was still worth dragging our feet a little to stick around and watch.

I just wish I'd remembered to bring my actual camera, instead of depending on my cell phone.  On the other hand, I sure am glad I had my cell phone!

The next day was a bit less inviting...cooler and very breezy.  I still felt drawn to the quiet and isolation of the beach, so I made a couple more visits.

The tide was just a bit higher when I stopped at the south end.

I wanted a different perspective of the ocean, so I drove up the island a bit to get onto the Atlantic side.  The South Dunes picnic area was full of that special dappled sunlight filtering through the twisted branches of the live oaks.

Click to biggerize

The beach itself, however, was a different story!  Listen to the wind trying to whip me and my camera down the shore.  (You can click through to YouTube to see a better image.)

(It was too bright to see the screen, so pardon the jerkiness!)

In spite of the cold wind, it was kind of thrilling to feel the elements at their most...elemental.  Still, Jekyll is not known as a surfer's paradise, so I'll leave you with a video I took down at the more protected St. Andrew's beach.  This is more typical of the quiet surf around here.  (The water is muddy brown because of the shallowness of the coast and the fertility of the marshes.  You can learn more about Georgia's coastal waters here.)

Though I left the island after only a short visit, I took with me some of the calm of my escape from the traffic and crowds of Charlotte.  I wasn't really expecting a vacation this time around, but it feels like that's just what I got.

Now, there was more to this visit than strolls on the beaches, but I'm leaving that for next time, when we'll explore a bit more about just how prescient that doctor was back in Ohio...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

That Time of Year

It’s a January evening in the Northern Hemisphere, and I just in from outside, wearing a t-shirt.  The temperature reached 72 degrees today, and they’re calling for slightly warmer weather tomorrow.  California is under a freeze alert, and I’m already experiencing Spring Fever here in North Carolina.




Perhaps it was the sudden sunshine earlier this week after 10 days of heavy clouds; perhaps it was reading Jenna’s blog at Cold Antler Farm, or Myriam’s at Mucky Boots; perhaps it was general post-holiday forward dreaming—but I had already planned to stop in at Renfrow’s Hardware in Matthews today after the farmers’ market, precisely with the idea of buying seeds.  I had also thought long and hard about just what I should purchase.

With each passing year, I’ve come closer and closer to a grand realization about our garden.  This fall I finally opened my eyes and accepted it—pretty much everything going into or coming out of the garden is fully my responsibility.  It’s mine to plant, to water, to weed, and even to cook and eat.  As much as Miss Chef does to support local food, for some reason she has a serious blind spot about the most local food available to her!

Now, she does deserve some credit.  She’s the one who originally chose the spot for our garden and dug it out five years ago.  By hand.  In heavy clay.



March 2007


And she surprised me with a, er, custom-made pea trellis two years later—she found the materials here and there in the shed, and knocked it together for me.


May garden 003

May 2009


She and a former co-worker also put a nice border around the bed the year after.


06 garden 01


So I have to admit that without her, my garden would probably be just a little less pretty and a lot less functional.  (I also have to admit that I had a really fun time going back through my old pictures, and I’m quite impressed with my green thumb—at least in the spring!)

However, my original point can be illustrated thusly: last year, as every year, I planted beets for Miss Chef.  I’m not a big fan of them, but she loves them so much I happily allotted a short row for them.  Of course, Miss Chef was busy with two jobs and working on an MBA, so after I harvested a few for her and they sat in the fridge, I went ahead and roasted them, too.  I put one on a salad or something, just for her…and the rest ended up sitting neglected in the fridge until they turned into compost.

So.  This year, I’m only planting what I’m willing to tend, harvest and eat!  I can never get enough peas or carrots, so I’m going to plant as many as I can fit this year.  The thin haricot vert is the only kind of green bean I really like—plus these are a bush variety not needing support, and beans actually help add nitrogen to the soil, so they’re quite welcome.  I was back and forth on the radishes, but the packet says this is a sweeter variety, and as Miss Chef pointed out, they’re very easy to grow—they’re also usually the first harvest, so they help satisfy that urge to pick something already!

Later, I’ll get some started plants for a few other crops—broccoli, tomatoes and maybe peppers.  And I’ll consider squash if I have enough room.  But that’s it!

What’s that you say?  Parsnip seeds?  In the first picture?  Um, yeah.  Well, those are Miss Chef’s.  But I looked her square in the eye and said “Are you going to plant them, and water them and everything?  Because I’m NOT!”  She nodded eagerly, and I pretended to believe her.

And then, shortly after we got home, I was standing by the front door when I looked up and saw this:




These are the packets she bought last year, when I swore they were entirely her responsibility.  Yup.  I’ll have to let you know about those parsnips.

Of course, the positives obviously outweigh any shortcomings my sweetie may have….while I typed the above, she was making these:


Thick-cut pork chops from Way of Life Farm, with a beautiful golden crust.  All is forgiven.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Old Year, New Beginning

“You haven’t written a blog post in a long time,” Miss Chef said to me the other night.  “How am I supposed to read about what I did?”

A fair question.  The answer feels like, “I haven’t had time.”  That’s only a partial answer, though, as I haven’t had much desire lately to be anywhere on the blogosphere.  The holidays have taken their toll, and I have to admit I’m a bit happy and relieved to see the backside of them, so to speak.

After Christmas, I went straight back to work, alone for two days more before Miss Chef came home.  We decided to hold our own Christmas morning the following Sunday, complete with gift exchange and an evening feast shared with good friends.

Before our Christmas, however, lay another celebration.  A good friend, Michele of Bosky Acres, was marrying off her eldest and only daughter, and she had asked Miss Chef to cater the wedding.  It would be pretty simple, as such affairs go—passed hors d’œuvres for 40 people, plus an open bar with drinks provided by the hosts.  There were a few dietary considerations, as a few of the guests are gluten-free, but Miss Chef is very happy and able to make such adaptations.

Of course, it was assumed all around that I would be her assistant.  In the months preceding the wedding, my main job consisted of nagging: “Have you called about rentals yet?”  “Did you get back to Michele?”  I don’t think I was very effective, however.  In fact, after several weeks, and with the approach of the holidays, I eventually put it out of my mind.  After all, Miss Chef knows what she’s doing.

So it was with a bit of surprise and alarm that I realized after Christmas that the date was quickly advancing, and I still didn’t know much about what we were doing.  Miss Chef’s plan was to return from her Christmas travels Thursday, then spend all day Friday in the school kitchen, prepping with the help of Leondrus, a student she had already recruited.  Saturday morning we would meet at the school, finish some last prep, then load up and head out to Lancaster, SC to set up for the reception.


craig house

Click image for source


The ceremony and reception were both to be held at the historic Craig House on Craig Farm…located on Craig Farm Road, naturally.  Miss Chef had been out there a few months ahead, to meet the owner Johannes, and go over the facilities and restrictions.  Johannes is a Dutchman who came to the US in the early seventies, where he enjoyed a successful career as chef and culinary director in both New York and California.  He was even the head chef at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the ill-fated World Trade Center towers.

Eventually Johannes moved here to restore and renovate both Craig House and Kilburnie Inn, which sits right across the street from the house (read more about Kilburnie here).  Johannes and his partner live in the house full-time, and Johannes serves the “two-course gourmet breakfast” at the inn.  And of course, rents out the house for weddings and other events.  (From the website where I gleaned the above picture, I think the actual farm is still owned by ancestors of the original Craig family which built the house.)

Saturday morning we left about 10:00 for the school, where I got to see all the prep that Miss Chef and Leondrus had done the day before.




This was the least of it.  There were two large coolers full of ice, several racks of glassware, a tub of dessert plates (we’d be serving the cake made by the Secret Chocolatier), serving trays, pitchers for water, and supplies like trash bags and plastic gloves.  We filled up Miss Chef’s mighty little car, with a little left over for Leondrus’, and off we rolled, more or less on time.

Once at the site, we started to unload into the kitchen.  Miss Chef said she’d be waiting for months to work in here, even though she’d only be using the oven to reheat things.  We found out later from Johannes that we were the first event to use this newly expanded and renovated space!



Those are cooler drawers under the far counter, and you can see a nice wine fridge in the back, under the glass-fronted cabinets and marble counter.  The range is a professional-level six-burner gas cooktop.  The idea behind the design is that the central area inside the islands is a “no-fly zone,” where the chef has everything he needs, while guests are free to roam the perimeter without interfering with the work at hand.



Miss Chef returns from inspecting the reception room.  I didn’t get a picture of the double wall ovens to the right.  We learned later that the china cabinet by the door was original to the house, and only recently was willed back to the original property.

As lovely as it was, I would not be working in the kitchen—I’d be stationed in the reception room, manning the “bar.”  Don’t think I was suffering for all that, though.




Wow.  The place smelled like a museum, with odors of wood polish and oil paint from the expensive originals hanging on the walls.  (The two on the left are reproductions, in case there are any art aficionados reading this).  I took this picture after we’d arranged the cakes on the table under the Duc de Quisait* there on the right.




We all loved the pine cone topper.  How simple and adorable!

Miss Chef and Leondrus returned to the kitchen, while I set up my bar area.  It was in a well-lit passageway leading from the main part of the house into this room and the library beyond.  Here’s my setup, more or less:




Several times throughout the day I silently thanked Chef Adam for allowing me to work at his restaurant.  It helped me understand how service would go—I’d need to have empty glass racks easily accessible to flip onto the full ones as I put used glasses in them.  I’d need a trash bowl, and I’d need to easily grab any of the three glass types at need—wine, beer and water.  I managed to set myself up fairly quickly and efficiently, and then had some time to take a few more pictures.

My view from the bar.




The Chefs!




A panoramic view taking in the huge mullioned windows on either side of the passage.  On the right you can see the first guests seated on the folding chairs.  The ceremony itself took place on the entrance porch to the room—meaning not only was I trapped inside during it, but I also had one of the best “seats” in the house!




At one point I started playing with the “Magic” settings on the camera.  The “soft focus” one made the room look all dreamy, perfect for a romantic wedding.




But the “sparkle” setting was so fun it made me giggle!




I just had to try it out on all the glassware sitting in the sun behind me.  Check out the glimmer on the Stella.




Of course, I put the camera down once the wedding ceremony started.  I had met Ivy several times, but her fiancé David only once.  It was quickly apparent that the officiant was a good friend of theirs, and I learned a bit more about how the two of them had already started building a life together in their last year of college and since.  There was a great deal of laughter during the ceremony, which I think is a good sign for the future.

There was a lot of laughter during the reception, too.




That’s Ivy’s dad Matt on the right…last time I’d seen him, he’d been shoveling goat manure into bags for me!

I didn’t mind being the hired help, actually.  It was nice to have a job to do, rather than making small talk with strangers.  Plus, having control of all the alcohol (and water) meant that I got to meet just about everybody…and they all liked me, of course.

At one point, Miss Chef came and spelled me, so I could nip into the kitchen for a bite to eat.  I took the opportunity to snap a few photos of what remained of the food.

Carmelized onion tartlets with Michele’s own goat cheese.  (Notice the crustless ones for the gluten-free guests.)


Catering (1)


Pork belly sliders on homemade bread, with chipotle aioli; ginger-lime crabcakes; and beef and mushroom skewers.


Catering (2)


Potato, leek and feta quiches.


Catering (3)


The rest of the story is much less glamorous—collecting and dumping full glasses, scraping cake icing of of dessert plates, carrying heavy coolers out to the back lawn to dump the ice, sweeping, wiping, stacking, hauling.  Miss Chef and her colleagues often roll their eyes at the many students who say they want to go into catering, because they think it’s easier.  Not only did we have to make sure the hosts and guests were happy, but we also had to satisfy Johannes’ standard of cleanliness.  Every bit of garbage generated had to go with us.  Miss Chef was a little nervous we might get pulled over with about eight cases of clinking, empty alcohol bottles!

But we did it.  Michele and Matt were very happy with the food, and Johannes said it looked like we hadn’t been there, which is just the way he likes it.  We didn’t get home until about 9:00 that night, but we somehow ended up with a nearly full bottle of champagne and a few extra beers.  Not to mention enough excess for Miss Chef to make us four full-sized quiches and two lasagnas (Michelle had her make some for the guests that were coming back to her house afterwards).

Now maybe it’s a little clearer why I’ve been laying low for the past few weeks.  I’m hoping as I climb back into my “regularly scheduled programming” I’ll be up for some more fun adventures worth sharing here with you.

Happy New Year!

*For those unfamiliar with French, ”Quisait” means simply “who knows?”  Don’t go looking for the Cháteau de Quisait on Wikipedia or anything.