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Sweet Libby’s

queen for a day toddq

Queen For A Day painting by Nolan Winkler

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

There are days when things juxtapose so exquisitely, one can’t help feeling some sort of transcendent author is writing out the simultaneous arrival of related elements composing a harmonious whole greater than the sum of the parts.

To wit: on the very day Marcia read to me from the Anderson Valley Advertiser that Libby’s restaurant in Philo is closing, we received in the mail our Netflix copy of the Japanese movie Sweet Bean. Libby’s beans—if you have never dined at that incomparable Mexican restaurant—are not sweet, but the experience of eating Libby’s beans comingled on a fork with her delectable rice is a divine culinary experience—sweet in the sense of magnificent.

The 2015 movie Sweet Bean is based on the novel An by Durian Sukegawa, adapted to the screen and directed by Naomi Kawase. An translates as “sweet red bean paste” and is the filling for a favorite Japanese confection know as dorayaki, consisting of sweet red Azuki bean paste sandwiched between two small round sponge-cake patties. The quality of the dorayaki depends entirely on the quality of that red bean paste, and thereby hangs the cinematic parable Sweet Bean.

Yes, we loved the movie. Yes, the movie made me hungry. And yes, the loving care with which the elderly woman Tokue prepares her irresistible bean paste put me in mind of Libby’s beans and rice and flan and carnitas and spicy shrimp. I have long fantasized that Libby would open a Libby’s annex in Mendocino wherein I would happily dine multiple times per month. But now she is closing her restaurant, and those four or five times a year we made the long trek inland to gorge on Libby’s cuisine will be no more. I’m sure Libby has good reasons for closing her eatery, but we are already feeling nostalgic about the absence of her food in our lives.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

When I lived in Berkeley, I discovered Nakapan, a Thai restaurant just off University Avenue. For my taste, Nakapan was not only the best Thai restaurant in Berkeley, but the best Thai restaurant I had ever been to, and I have been to many good ones. Yet Nakapan was never crowded. Indeed, when I would go there with friends, we often found the place deserted, and we couldn’t understand why. The high-ceilinged room was warm and beautifully appointed, the service fantastic, the prices low, the food incomparable, and the servings so generous I often took home more food than I managed to eat while I was there.

Every time I dined at the more famous Thai restaurants in the Bay Area and found them inferior to Nakapan, I would return to that paradisiacal food palace all the more mystified that almost no one was there: the waitresses lovely and gracious, the chairs comfortable, the ambience perfecto. I eventually surrendered to my good fortune and went to Nakapan whenever I craved Thai food and had a little extra jingle in my pocket. The owner/chef of Nakapan closed her restaurant a couple years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino, which made my decision to relocate much easier.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

My late Uncle David was a successful restaurateur. In the 1980’s he opened the Beau Thai across the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the place was instantly successful. Until I stumbled upon Nakapan a decade later, the best Thai food I’d ever eaten was at David’s Beau Thai. The Beau Thai chefs were all recent arrivals from Thailand, having been assembled by David in Thailand to cook in a restaurant he was about to open in Chiangmai. When he was offered the location in Monterey, he couldn’t resist returning to the scene of his earlier and most famous success, the legendary Sancho Panza café. So he loaded those Thai chefs onto a jet and brought them to America.

I wish I could have dined with David at Nakapan. I would have loved to hear his theories about why that magical place was not the Mecca of Thai cuisine, while inferior restaurants won Best Of popularity contests and were filled to bursting with patrons. I also regret never dining with David at Libby’s in Philo. He would have loved everything about that unpretentious place, most especially the food.

In the movie Sweet Bean, the hero, a troubled man running the dorayaki shop as a form of penance, discovers that when the creation of red bean paste becomes a sacred ritual rather than a tedious obligatory process, all of life becomes sacred, too. Schmaltzy? Perhaps. But our hero’s transformation is so subtle, and the movie’s resolution so humble, I never felt my emotions being manipulated, but rather stimulated to respond in the same way we respond to good food.

At one point in the movie, as Tokue is sweetening her beans after they have attained perfection, she cautions our taciturn hero, “Not too sweet.”

He looks at her questioningly for a moment, and though nothing more is said about sweetness ever again, the entire movie is permeated with the subtle power of that moment of communication between them.

Now that Libby’s is closing, I aspire to cook beans that make my taste buds sing a similar tune to the one they sing when I eat Libby’s beans. And as I go about experimenting, I will remember Tokue leaning over her simmering beans and inhaling the scented steam, ecstatic to be part of unfolding miracle.

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Multiple Thanks

flower

Flower pen and ink by Todd

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“All the successful parents I have observed seem to possess one common quality: that of being able to visit with their children.” Marcelene Cox

The week before Thanksgiving, we pre-ordered our organic, free-range, successfully psychoanalyzed, thrice-blessed, kosher, Pulitzer-Prize-winning turkey from Harvest Market and then drove to Santa Rosa to spend a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving with Marcia’s mother Opal at Spring Lake Village, a groovy retirement community where Opal has lived for many years.

Weary of institutional food, no matter how good the cooks, Opal was raring to go out to eat, so for supper we went to an excellent Thai restaurant and for lunch the next day, after a hearty breakfast in the Spring Lake Village bistro, we went to Opal’s favorite Chinese restaurant. You see the pattern: one meal leading to the next, with brief intermissions for billiards and sleep.

We are thankful for Opal, who is just a kick.

Upon bidding Opal adieu after twenty-four hours of fun, we timed our drive back to Mendocino so we arrived at Libby’s in Philo for a supper of the best Mexican food this side of anywhere. The joint was jumping and we marveled at the equipoise of Libby and her staff of tulkus reincarnated as unflappable bi-lingual waitresses. I had the carnitas—divine—and Marcia had the chile relleno. Yum city.

We are grateful for Libby and her fabulous restaurant and only wish she would open a second Libby’s in Mendocino so that we might grow fat on her beans and rice and chips and salsa.

“There are only two questions to ask about food. Is it good? And is it authentic?” Giuliano Bugialli

We arrived home to an invitation to join three friends for a vegan Thanksgiving feast at which our aforementioned turkey would not be welcome. Thinking fast, Marcia came up with the brilliant idea of attending the vegan feast, cooking our turkey the day after the official day of Thanksgiving, and feasting on tryptophan-rich flesh for days thereafter.

The vegan feast featured borscht, roasted chunklets of potatoes and yams, Marcia’s delicious lentil nut loaf, a big green salad, Brussels sprouts, something with cheese I couldn’t eat because dairy gives me flu-like symptoms, and a wild mushroom dish I couldn’t eat because chanterelles and hedgehogs make me violently ill.

Implausible but true: Because I am allergic to chanterelles, Nature reveals them to me in enormous quantities (both black and gold) whenever I venture into the woods. In related digestive news, eating gluten-rich food causes me to swell up like a stuffed turkey. I am also severely allergic to alcohol—a serious bummer because I love the taste of good wine and fine whiskey and that first long gulp of ice-cold beer.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

I was to bake the turkey and make mashed potatoes for our more traditional Thanksgiving feast, and Marcia was to concoct her delectable cranberry sauce and one of her legendary green salads. So on the day following the vegan feast, I dug up one of my late-planted potato plants and found two small potatoes thereupon. Based on that output, I calculated the twenty remaining potato plants would provide enough spuds for a big batch of mashed potatoes. But after digging up a second plant and finding zero potatoes, I sped to the village and found spectacular Yukon Gold potatoes selling at Corners for a mere dollar-a-pound.

There would be no stuffing (dressing) this year because…well, here’s the story. We’re not sure why, but several months ago we began to receive the magazine Bon Appëtit, a food magazine for rich people and for those who enjoy fantasizing about eating like rich people. Bon Appëtit is obese with ads for staggeringly expensive cooking tools including a diminutive knife made in Switzerland that sells for a mere seven-hundred-dollars and should go nicely with your thousand-dollar crock pot and your forty-thousand-dollar artificially intelligent polar vortex oven.

Marcia and I do not subscribe to any magazines (other than the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which is technically a newspaper), yet we receive Bon Appëtit, National Geographic (more ads than articles), Mother Earth News (virtually unchanged in thirty years) and Sierra (the magazine of the Sierra Club featuring ads for automobiles and expensive foreign travel.) We theorize these magazines come to us because of clerical errors caused by mutant logarithms.

In any case, when Bon Appétit arrives, we give it a skim, feel mildly deprived for a minute or two, and then recycle the glossy thing. However, in this year’s Thanksgiving issue—featuring mashed potatoes made with more butter than potatoes, and turkey stuffing (dressing) that sounds suspiciously like paella combined with duck liver chow mein—there was an article about the best (their words) way to cook a turkey, a way resulting in meat so delicious that those who eat such meat become instantly enlightened yet still feel fine about owning seven sterling silver omelet pans of various sizes and personalities.

The Bon Appëtit way to cook a turkey is called spatchcocking, a process involving the removal of the turkey’s backbone. This absence of a backbone allows the chef to flatten the entire turkey for baking in a big (platinum highly recommended) pan thing, which flattening allows all the flesh of the bird to rest (be) at the same altitude, or something. This flattening also allows for much faster cooking of the totality of the bird, and much faster cooking, according to Bon Appëtit, results in super tender flesh.

So I tried spatchcocking. I felt brave and daring wielding my cleaver and cutting out the backbone. I felt suave and sophisticated as I baked the flattened bird on a bed of vegetables, basting frequently with a medium of my own invention composed of water, wine, and things I can’t remember that synergized with the inevitable juices of the simmering bird. And the result? Well, as with traditionally baked unspatchcocked turkeys (breast down), the white meat was perfectly cooked long before the dark meat was done, the total cooking time was twenty minutes longer than advertised, and the meat was tender and delicious, though not discernibly more tender and delicious than turkey meat from unspatchcocked turkeys crammed with stuffing (more delicately known as dressing) and cooked for many hours.

Even so, this spatchcocking experience inspires me to cook our next turkey in the way we cook chicken, in pieces simmering in a superlative basting medium. As of this writing, we are enjoying a monumental soup made from the carcass of the highly evolved eleven-pound being who lived and died so we may live.