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It’s All About the Food

clam things at FINO

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

UPDATE, 6/13/2011: The Grange event in Sacramento has completely sold out! I am both excited and sad about this, because I know some people really tried to get a reservation but could not. If you live near Sacramento and can’t get a reservation for Thursday, I’d love to see you either Thursday, June 30 at Farmstead in Napa, or on Saturday, July 16 at Stella in Truckee.

UPDATE, 6/16/2011: Just nailed down my Billings, Montana book dinner! Will be at Bin 119 on Thursday, October 27. Details to come…

UPDATE, 6/23/2011: Just confirmed that I will be doing book dinners in Oklahoma City and Chicago! I will be at Ludivine in Oklahoma City on Sept. 6, and at the Michelin-starred Vie in Chicago on Oct. 20. Very close to confirming dinners in Cleveland and Boulder, too…

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It’s an odd thing, having your recipes served back to you.

As the servers began passing around plates of Clam Things — my mum’s version of clams casino — I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I had faith that the chef, Jason Donoho, would be able to recreate the dish. But would it be good? I know the recipe by heart, and have eaten the dish for close to 40 years. But this was its first public airing.

I took a bite. Buttery, rich with chopped clams and just a little tangy from the Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, it was everything I remembered. I stole a glance at the room full of diners, all of whom had come to FINO in Austin to eat my food and meet me — the whole concept of people traveling to eat my food and talk to me still seems more than a little surreal. Happily, everyone seemed to enjoy the clams. My shoulders loosened, just a bit. OK, maybe this whole book dinner thing will work out after all…

When I began designing this Culinary Mayhem Book Tour of mine, I decided early on that I was going to do everything I could to avoid That Which is Most Dreaded by any author: A book signing where no one shows up.

Other authors I talked with told me that signings at bookstores can be dicey; unless you get good advance press and have a strong local following in whatever town or city you’re in, things could get lonely. Hunt, Gather, Cook does have a built-in advantage: It is, at least in part, a cookbook. Food is at the core of both the book and this site — a good meal is the end result of all these weird experiments I do, all the hunts and fishing trips and foraging forays. I thought a series of food-oriented events might be a good idea. So I began asking chefs and restaurateurs whether they’d be interested in hosting me for a series of book dinners.

Each dinner, I told them, would focus on whatever was fresh, seasonal, local — and wild — in whatever region I’d be in. It would be a chance to showcase the wild foods of every area I traveled to, to create a menu unrepeatable in any other place, or at any other time. In some cases the dishes would come from my book, in others wild ingredients would serve as inspiration for the chef’s own creations.

I was met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. In short order, nearly two dozen chefs from all over the country had agreed to do dinners for Hunt, Gather, Cook. They range from Michelin-starred, modernist chefs in fancy city restaurants to journeymen chefs in small towns who just happen to have a penchant for wild foods. Each will bring a different take to both the book and the wild ingredients available to their region in the season I will be visiting.

How it would come off, I had no idea. Until last week.

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

We walked into FINO early. Early enough that chefs Donoho and Andrew MacArthur had just put on their whites, and the waitstaff were still filing in. Only then did I get a good look at the menu. I knew there would be squirrel on it, as my friend Jesse Griffiths and some of his compadres had saved some from the season to serve as an amuse bouche. You heard that right: A squirrel rillette amuse bouche. Possibly the first time that phrase has ever been uttered…

The menu was a hit parade of many of my more well-loved dishes: Spring crab salad, Clam Things, a Provencal Fish Bisque with saffron, my herbed wild boar sausage, a version of my Doves a La Mancha done with local quail, and a blueberry sorbet based off my mulberry sorbet.

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fried green tomatoes romesco

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Chef Donoho also included a FINO standard: Fried green tomatoes with a Spanish romesco sauce, a nervy combination of Texas Southern and Spanish comfort food. I was glad to see that he included some of his own dishes in the menu, and this one was a winner.

Nearly 40 people showed up to the event, including a slew of my friends (Ryan, Paul, Georgia, Elise and Dianne, to name a few). This made my book dinner debut a lot more comfortable. I kept asking Jason and Brian, FINO’s general manager, what I ought to be doing — after all, I was not cooking. “Just look purty,” they said. Easier said than done…

What was surprisingly easy was mingling with everyone. Some authors I’ve spoken with say that this in-your-face interaction freaks them out, that they would rather hide than chat up a room. Not me. And I have my dearly departed step-father Frank to thank for this; Frank Kilpatrick could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and could charm a viper with a toothache. He was a helluva man, and this is his lasting gift to me. No matter where I am, I love meeting strangers, swapping stories and sharing laughs.

Hank Shaw signing Hunt, Gather, Cook

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Of course it helped that everyone at the dinner had a love for food and the outdoors. I met so many dove hunters at the dinner I really think I need to drive to Texas for the dove opener this year. Doves are to Texas what pheasants are to South Dakota, ducks are to Arkansas and striped bass are to Massachusetts: A cultural touchstone.

Sadly you can’t serve dove in a restaurant (although you could serve squab, which is pretty close). You can serve quail, and Chef Donoho cooked vast plates of grilled little birds, painted with bacon fat and dusted with smoked paprika. It’s one of my favorite recipes, but I’d never done it with quail before. It was a hit.

grilled quail

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

By the time the blueberry sorbet rolled in, I was on Cloud Nine: I’d signed a bunch of books, met some new friends, chatted with old ones, and the food was outstanding. Everyone seemed happy. If the rest of the book dinners are like this, book tour will seem less like a grueling, cross-country slog and more like a moveable feast among friends. I am crossing my fingers.

I’ve already done my second book dinner, an all-Sonoran Desert dinner in Phoenix at Rancho Pinot. It was another wonderful night, and I managed to bring home lots of desert ingredients to play with — so more on that dinner and desert food later.

Now I turn my eyes to Homecoming: Thursday I return to Sacramento, to Grange, where I’ve done the Duck Duel Dinners. Word is that the dinner service has already sold out up until 8:30 pm — so if you want to come, you will need to make a reservation fast, and eat late that night. (You can make reservations here.) Grange sold out Monday morning!

If you can’t get in, I will be in Napa June 30, Truckee on July 16, and up and down the Pacific Coast all summer. Then I head East again this fall.

These dinners have been so much fun I really hope you can make it when I am close to you. Here is the schedule as I know it now. Events in Seattle, Eugene, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Chicago, Montana and Colorado are still in flux:

  • JUNE 16 – Grange in Sacramento. (Click for reservations) SOLD OUT
  • JUNE 26 – Castagna in Portland. (Click for reservations)
  • JUNE 30 – Farmstead in Napa. (Click for reservations)
  • JULY 16 – Stella at the Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee. (Click for reservations)
  • JULY 24 – Forage SF in San Francisco. I will be cooking an all-wild tasting menu with Iso Rabins. (Click for reservations)
  • AUG. 18 – Sea Rocket Bistro in San Diego. This will be an all-sustainable, all-local seafood feast! (Click for reservations)
  • SEPT. 6 – Ludivine in Oklahoma City. (Details on tickets to come)
  • SEPT. 13 – Poole’s Diner in Raleigh. (Details on tickets to come)
  • SEPT. 20 – Bibiana in Washington, DC. (Click for reservations)
  • SEPT. 22 – Public in New York City. (Click for reservations)
  • SEPT. 28 – Craigie on Main in Boston. (Click for reservations)
  • OCT. 2 – Farmstead in Providence. (Click for reservations)
  • OCT. 5 – Eleven in Pittsburgh. (Click for reservations)
  • OCT. 11 – The Corner Table in Minneapolis. (Details on tickets to come)
  • OCT. 17 – The Drake Hotel in Toronto. (Click for reservations)
  • OCT. 20 – Vie in Chicago. (Click for Reservations)
  • OCT. 27 – Bin 119 in Billings, MT. (Call 406 294 9119 for reservations)

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