California Sunshine

When I first lived in California, during grad school, it took me weeks to internalize the fact that when I needed a lemon I could simply walk outside.

Winter in California lasts about two months and consists of day upon day of sunshine and blue skies punctuated by rain storms rolling off the Pacific. These might lash the windows, flood some low-lying streets and down branches for a day or two before the glorious weather makes its reappearance. But even the short(er), dark(er) days of a California winter bring their own sunshine. In winter, the citrus trees go crazy; even small trees yield fruit by the basketful.

When I first lived in California, during grad school, it took me weeks to internalize the fact that when I needed a lemon I could simply walk outside. Our Berkeley rental, recently renovated but haunted — literally haunted, according to the home’s longtime plumber, a psychic who had a side gig assisting the police on especially tricky cases; (ultimately my roommates and I and our houseguests became believers, but that’s another story) — had a sole lemon tree in the backyard. The first time I was whipping up some guacamole against a dinner party deadline involving friends from Tahoe and found myself wishing for a lemon was a revelation. At first I upbraided myself for forgetting them at the store. Then I realized I didn’t need to go to the store. I tripped down the steps to the garden, then to the tree. I reached up, choosing one of the yellower orbs amidst sharp green leaves against a backdrop of blue sky. I grasped it in my hand and gently twisted.

When you cut into a lemon, its essence is released into the air. The citrusy tang meets your face in one exuberant, aromatherapeutic spritz of acidity and freshness — an instant mood lift. Citrus juice can elevate almost any dish, almost any cuisine, adding that high note to dishes that need a touch of the divine. And when you have too many lemons, limes and oranges to keep up with them by chugging juice or cranking out batches of lemon bars (both of which can be frozen), it’s time for marmalade or lemon/lime curd (both of which make great gifts and last for ages in the fridge). 

I’m far from my garden right now. It’s winter and I could do with the instant mood elevator. But I know when I return the trees will be waiting, dotted with color, promising light, no matter the weather. At this point I guess I have internalized the wonder of being able to walk outside and pick a lemon any time of the year. But I won’t ever take it for granted that even in a rainstorm, California sunshine is just a few steps away.

Writing on the Road

I still prefer to write at home, and while on the road find nonfiction easier to do than fiction. But having a borrowed desk in a quiet room with a view over the treetops certainly helps. 

When I was running Breteche Creek Ranch, a nonprofit guest ranch in Wyoming, I got incredibly lucky. I was able to talk acclaimed writers Pam Houston and Ron Carlson into coming to the ranch three summers in a row to teach a writing workshop.

Pam was an outdoorswoman, former whitewater rafting guide and all-around Colorado ranch gal whose 1992 book Cowboys Are My Weakness had captured the collective imagination. That first summer of our guest-ranch program, it seems like every guest who stepped off the plane was holding a copy of Pam's book. Today she's the award-winning author of short stories, novels and essays, and a speaker, teacher, and worldwide traveler living in the Colorado Rockies.

Ron Carlson is considered a master of the short story, his work having appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Harper's et al. He's also a novelist and poet, much decorated with awards and fellowships, and heads up the MFA in Writing program at U.C. Irvine. I'd lucked out in having Ron as an English teacher for two years in high school and I still consider him the best, certainly most inspiring, teacher I ever had. He entered the classroom every single day as though he couldn't wait to get there; he was incredibly funny, yet delivered any necessary criticism with unfailing kindness.

One thing that stuck with me from the writing workshops was Pam describing how she had trained herself to write anywhere; she would channel any stray bits of free time into her writing. She could write fiction in airport lounges while jet lagged between international flights on a travel-writing assignment. I am not quite there yet (I procrastinate a lot, and not just in airports), but I am working on it.

Today I'm writing about an ultra modern house in sunny LA while listening to the winter rain pour down outside an historic home in New England. Clearly that's one of the gifts of writing, and reading — to inhabit two realities at once.

Despite what they say about apple pie...

...pumpkin bread is about as quintessentially American as it gets. 

At this time of year I have an atavistic desire to bake, and that yearning often manifests as pumpkin bread. Although there are few recipes easier, and scores of variations available just a mouse click away,  I find myself reaching for New West Cuisine; Fresh Recipes from the Rocky Mountains, a cookbook I did with photographer Audrey Hall and Chef Amy Jo Sheppard, for the time-tested version from the Log Cabin Cafe in Montana. 

A lesson in simplicity, the batter can be mixed in one bowl in about 5 minutes. It’s placed into two oiled and floured loaf pans, baked for 50 or 60 minutes and served plain, (though the Cafe serves it grilled, with Montana honey on the side). 

The setting no doubt adds flavor. The Log Cabin Cafe is a an 80-year-old log cabin at the base of ridiculously vertiginous mountains; it lies one mile from the most remote entrance to Yellowstone National Park. In winter, the town of Silver Gate becomes almost completely cut off. The only way to reach it is a long, often harrowing drive through the snowy Park or ten miles by snowmobile to a parked car, (which hopefully will start; the average winter low is 5 degrees…). The cafe opens for the season on May 1st, when the mountain passes are still snowed over and wildlife is everywhere — deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bears, coyotes, eagles, even wolves. As the days lengthen, the animals move up higher into the mountains and the tourist traffic picks up, the cafe and its log cabin accommodations stay busy from dawn to dusk. 

Although the cafe is locally famous for rainbow trout dinners and breakfast pancakes (made from a secret recipe jealously guarded since 1937), it is the pumpkin bread that can be enjoyed all day long, every day. At the Log Cabin Cafe, it is served with a smile amidst vintage decor: period handmade rustic furniture, old wildlife mounts, original Fiestaware pitchers, and menus from the ‘40s offering hamburgers for a dollar. Although you may not be able to replicate the setting at home, the pumpkin bread, thankfully, is within easy reach. 


Mix together 4 beaten eggs;  3 cups sugar; 1 cup vegetable oil; 1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree. 

Sift together 3 1/2 cups flour; 2 teaspoons baking soda; 1 teaspoon salt; 1/2 teaspoon baking powder; 1 teaspoon nutmeg; 1 teaspoon allspice; 1 teaspoon cinnamon; 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.

Add dry ingredients to wet, alternating with 2/3 cup water, mixing well after each addition.

Distribute in 2 oiled and floured loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, until firm to the touch. Cool on racks for 15 minutes then remove from pans and let rest before slicing.

If you are traveling near Yellowstone, be sure to take the less traveled road through Silver Gate and Cooke City (and do yourself a favor and travel the incredibly scenic Beartooth Highway, which Charles Kuralt named The Most Beautiful Drive in America). When you do, stop in at the Log Cabin Cafe. The pumpkin bread is served warm.

Kevin Box had a dream…

Kevin Box had a dream of opening a museum, gallery, educational space and artists-in-residence program when he bought land next to the Little Garden of the Gods along the ancient Turquoise Trail south of Santa Fe. So far, he’s achieved part of that dream, and when not overseeing installations of his art around the world, he's working on the remainder. He and his wife, Jennifer, are currently the only artists in residence, but their work is available to the public in a fascinating outdoor sculpture garden. There, Box’s pioneering methods for creating origami out of metal are on full display, in running horses, cranes and more. If you time it right, you might be able to see him at work.

To learn more about Origami in the Garden, Kevin’s backstory and the design of the home and studio in conjunction with the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, see the new book Rustic Modern, just released this month.


Iconic Big Sur

The dramatic stretch of Highway 1 sandwiched between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and running from Carmel to San Simeon is one of the most iconic and immediately recognizable landscapes in the world.  Sea lions, surfers, hairpin curves, California condors, beaches and one very beautiful bridge define a 65-mile stretch of highway known as Big Sur.

Summer is high season for adventurers driving from LA to Seattle, for day trippers heading to a surf break and a meal at the clifftop Nepenthe Restaurant, for sybarites anticipating a luxurious stay at Post Ranch Inn or Ventana, or for campers persistent enough to have snagged a coveted reservation at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The timing was terrible, then, when in February a series of winter storms damaged the photogenic Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, forcing the closure of 35 miles of highway. All hopes for some semblance of a summer season for Big Sur businesses were completely dashed when in May a massive landslide buried a quarter mile of Highway 1. Sections of the road may be closed for a year.

Ironically, if you can figure out how to get there (such as flying in by helicopter or navigating footpaths around the problem areas, where you can then catch a shuttle ride), this can be a good time to discover what drew Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, the Beat poets and midcentury celebrities shunning the limelight to Big Sur. Without the ceaseless traffic on Highway 1, it’s all about the ocean, the views, the wildlife, the night stars. When you go, look for Wild Bird, the iconic A-frame house that Architect Nathanial Owings of Skidmore Owings and Merrill built for his bride and which was recently renovated.

If you can’t get there, or want to wait until the road is open, read the full story on Owings' romantic proposal and Wild Bird's stunning renovation in Rustic Modern, pub. date August 8th, and available for preorder now.

Blue Sky Days and Flipflop Style

Summer is a time for easy apps, ones that are simple, quick and fresh. They speak to blue-sky days and flipflop style. Chilled (i.e., dips, ceviche) or room temperature nibbles are ideal, especially those featuring fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs. Even those of us living in fog-draped regions appreciate refreshing bites.

A bit of assembly is all it takes for these flavorful mouthfuls adapted from the cookbook “Entertaining Sun Valley Style”, a gift from my friend Sally Gillespie, herself an accomplished cook. She was involved with pulling the project together, along with a tireless team of staff and volunteers, while serving as Executive Director of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. Each July (this year, July 20-22nd), top chefs and winemakers from across the country gather for the culinary fund-raising festival that is the Sun Valley Center Wine Auction and this book (plus 50% of the Center’s annual operating budget) is the impressive result.

I love every recipe in the lead-in section, which features appetizers for a wine-tasting party. Bruschetta with strawberries and tomatoes, pistachio-crusted sea scallops, asparagus wrapped with crispy pancetta, a ‘martini tartare’ and chilled summer soups served in shot glasses are both pretty and perfectly accessible for any level of cook. 

For their Local Heirloom Melon with Duck Prosciutto recipe, don’t be alarmed by the ingredients; you can keep it simple and buy whatever melon smells the best at the market, as well as whatever prosciutto you can find. Fresh picked mint is key to both presentation and flavor. (If your mint is fresh enough you can forego the prosciutto, as I did recently in deference to our resident vegan.)

To assemble: 

Using a melon baller, carve balls from one melon. Wrap each melon ball with a section (the amount depends on your taste) of prosciutto, then place a mint leaf on top and impale the ensemble with a skewer or toothpick. The recipe calls for a drizzle of saba (a reduction of grape must, available at some specialty shops). If you can't find saba or are too lazy to look, you could use balsamic glaze or nothing at all.

Easy, breezy, as they say, and best of all it can be assembled in the morning and refrigerated ’til the doorbell rings.