We took a vacation last week. A vacation of barbeque, Southern food, friends and fellow writers gathered around a long table in a wine cellar, languid naps in a soothing hotel room, wine-blending classes, and 12-hour-slow-cooked pork butt sandwiches.
We needed this.
For the past few months, Danny and I have been hunched in front of the computer any moment our little one is asleep. (I've been here too many hours that she was awake, as well.) You've read some of that work here, and some at Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, but most of it you won't be able to read for another year. We have been working on the final edits for our cookbook, due out next fall. When we weren't making sure the language of recipes was clear as water, and re-working phrases for essays, we were in the kitchen, baking and cooking, again and again. We wanted to make sure everything worked.
Thank goodness for bacon and eggs in the morning. The great meals we have shared on this site helped get us through.
We finished, late at night, our eyes bleary with tiredness. We pressed send. We felt proud. Still, it was a long slog. For months, we spent too much time inside on beautiful days, and now it's winter in Seattle.
Three days of Northern California sunlight like you see in the photographs above? It was just what we needed.
(Thank you to the Hotel Healdsburg for making everything so beautiful, and thus so easy to photograph.)
We could never have afforded a vacation like this on our own, of course. Anyone with conceptions of bloggers being rich? Think again. Many of us on this trip admitted (and felt better for it) that our lives vacillate between these occasional perks and wondering if we can make rent the next month. This was a press trip, sponsored by the good folks at Kingsford Charcoal. They brought us, and a clutch of other food writers and bloggers (some of whom were our friends before we met in Berkelely on Tuesday), to Northern California for a three-day extravanganza of food, wine, and barbeque.
When Danny and I first learned about this, we thought, “Hell yeah!” We love barbeque. We love Sonoma County, where we spent the bulk of the trip. However, we didn't know how much we would appreciate the thoughtful effort of the Kingsford team in making this an authentic experience. Tell you the truth, we sort of worried we would be receiving a sales pitch, like people having to listen to the hour-long talk on time shares to get a free ski weekend. None of it. Instead, the Kingsford people assembled people who respect each other, put us together, and let us experience the joy of grilling and barbeque.
As Drew (the head guy we met from Kingsford) talked about the first night, over dinner at Pican in Oakland, there is something humble and lovely about a barbeque. No one feels the need to impress the way we do when we throw a dinner party, or go to a fancy restaurant. Instead, it's family and friends, gathered around a fire, talking about their lives. For a few moments, we forget the economy, the war, our difficulties at work. We just share our stories and wait for those ribs to be crisp and dripping with sauce.
Also, there's fire. Watching these science guys light the briquets at the Clorox Technical Center in Pleasanton made everybody happy. Sunshine, green grass (fake, by the way), and lighter fluid. After we had spent a couple of hours inside, watching super-smart chemical engineers make briquets from scratch and calibrate how quickly they lit, we were excited to be outside, watching the real thing.
However, I have to tell you, we were fascinated. As our fellow food blogger, Chef John at Food Wishes, put it: “I'll be honest, of all the things I'd always wanted to learn more about, charcoal briquets wasn't one of them. But I was honestly fascinated by the process, and what could have been a long morning went by quickly.”
Did you know that in the making of briquets nothing is wasted? The wood comes from waste wood that probably would have ended up in a landfill anyway, and the process constantly recycles waste products and puts them back into the briquets. Honestly, we had no idea about this. It made us both feel better to be supporting a product we already buy. (Most of us do. Kingsford dominates most of the charcoal market.)
Most of us were pretty thrilled with this trip already. Most food bloggers are geeks at heart. Give us food, graphs about food, and chances to take pictures of food, and we're set.
And then we went out to Healdsburg.
We spent the next two days at the Seghesio Vineyards, a family-run winery in business since 1895. Their zinfandels and Italian-style wines were a big hit with the group. But the gracious hosts, this wonderful family, made us feel so entirely welcome that no one wanted to leave after the end of the trip. (Thank you, Pete and Cathy.)
The chef at the Seghesio Vineyards, Jon Helquist, prepared wonderful meals for us, including making everything gluten-free for me. (That's pretty great when the last evening's meal meant grilling our own pizzas on barbeques. I never expected to be treated so equally there.) He worked for years at Chez Panisse, so you can imagine the food: great ingredients, simple preparations, rustic and wonderful.
Everything felt human and connected, filled with inspiration and the desire to make us feel welcome. The first night we were there, the evening ended with music under the stars and s'mores stations by fire pits within a circle of bales of hay. Our daughter danced to her first live music and everyone had smiles as wide as the sky.
And what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with pork?
Everything, of course. Are you kidding me? Pork is the best meat for barbeque. We ate a lot of fine pork on this trip.
Besides, Chris Lilly, who is a champion pitmaster and barbeque competitions across the United States, accompanied us on this trip. Listening to him talk about competitions, and how they make barbeque at his family's restaurant, Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, made this trip even better than we imagined. We can't wait to cook from his incredible new cookbook, Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book, including the recipes for rubbed and grilled pork loin with apple-barbeque sauce and turnip greens with smoked slab bacon. For goodness' sakes, one of the biggest chapters in the book is called Ode to Pork. We'll be sharing some of Chris's tips with you here.
One of the best parts of the entire trip was listening to Chris explain his process for cooking pork butt, low and slow. He injected it with a brine and cooked it for 12 hours. You should have seen the swarm of us photographers hovered over the dark-char crust on the pork butt, the way the marshmallows had looked when we pulled them out of the fire the night before. Then, Chris pulled out the bone as easy as pulling a book off the shelf. He put his hands in the meat, slid in his fingers, and everything simply melted. We all lifted up our cameras to say “Ahhhh.”
You'll have to wait for the photos, and the recipe. I'm hungry again.
At the end of the three days, we all received diplomas from Kingsford University. These were the best classes we had ever taken. And no homework!