There are so many ways to know a person, it seems.
The sound of his high-pitched guffaw when he really lets go. The twitchy dance he does when it’s time to go to the restaurant. The touch of his fingers on mine as we drive in the car. The rapid tumble of words he uses to describe his day. The taste of a thick piece of salmon, seared on the skin side and juicy to the fork’s touch, which he made late at night after cooking all day long. The closeness in the dark, under the warm covers.
Every moment with him approaches a deeper knowledge of the man I married.
But I found an even deeper knowledge when we stood in the front yard of the house he once called home (“Big Brown,” his family called it, even though it’s now painted blue) and looked up at the mountains of Breckenridge. The quaint buildings, the small churches, the same people walking by every day. The fingers of land cut into the green trees, tiny ant people skiing down them. The peaks of the ten mountains arching up to the sky.
“No wonder,” I thought. “No wonder he is the man he has become.”
There is nothing like visiting the hometown of someone you love.
The Chef has a long, pale scar on his right forearm, etched into his skin. I noticed it, right away, and asked. When he was 13, he went ice skating on the pond downtown. He slipped, he fell, and broke his right arm, badly. The local priest had to take him home — six blocks away — and he was so traumatized by the experience that the Chef’s mother offered the priest a shot of whiskey when they walked in the door.
The Chef didn’t sleep that night. There was no hospital in town. The family waited until the morning to drive on icy roads to the nearest medical center — “That was the longest night of my life” — where the doctors said his break was so bad they had to operate. Poor Chef’s mother. Three of her five children were in the hospital at the same time. Pat had broken his collarbone, while competing for the US ski team. Kathy was giving birth to her first child. And the Chef underwent emergency surgery.
A few days later, he held his first niece in his arms, even though his right arm was in a cast up to his shoulder. He says, today, that he knew, in that moment, he wanted to be a papa someday.
And he has told me, many times, in grateful moaning, just how good it felt — three months later — that first night they removed the cast. “I’ve never slept so well in my life as I did that night.”
So there we stood, on the edge of the pond where all this started. I could see it, carry the image with me, instead of trying to imagine it. “You want to go ice skating?” I joked.
“No, thanks,” he said.
We walked off to find lunch.
It meant so much to him to be in Breckenridge with me. Everywhere we walked, down the snowy sidewalks and in all the local haunts, someone called out to him. He hadn’t been home in three years, but still everyone knew him. (Well, except for the tourists, but none of the locals pays attention to them.) His family? They seem to run the town. His parents before they moved to Arizona for the warm air had been the county assessor and town clerk. Before they left, the entire town turned out to roast them. (The Chef missed the party, because he was off at his first year of culinary school. Whenever he watches the video, he tears up.) Today, his brother is the head of the ski patrol. His sister-in-law is head of lift maintenance. And his sister works for the county, for the town clerk, in charge of elections. You can’t walk down the street without running into an Ahern.
Whenever the Chef turned around to locate the voice that called him, he smiled. He beamed, actually. Someone from his childhood, or his time working at the Horseshoe, or an old friend of the family reached out to hug him. “How are you?” they asked.
They could tell from the size of his smile.
And then he extended his hand and pointed to me, “This is my wife.”
I beamed too, every time.
All throughout the book tour, people came up to meet me. And then they’d exclaim, “Oh, it’s the Chef!”
I loved walking around Breckenridge by his side, playing second fiddle, smiling shyly and listening.
When I showed him this photograph of the two of us, in the reflection of the front door of the house where he grew up, he instantly declared it his favorite. There we were, the two of us, in his hometown.
Of course, Breckenridge has changed since he was a kid. Ten times more buildings crowd the small streets than existed when he was small. Main street has more t-shirt shops than I could count. Clutches of 20-year-olds toting snowboards throng the roads. This is clearly a tourist destination.
For gosh sakes, there are horses and carriages waiting for you, with plaid blankets in back to wrap around your legs.
Still, he could see the town he knew through it all. The place where the ballfield used to be. The firehouse. The wooden Catholic church where he waited on the steps for services to begin, when he was an altar boy. The parade that went through town on the Fourth of July.
I swear, I think he grew up in a Frank Capra movie.
Here he is, in front of his elementary school.
When he was little, the Chef had crossed eyes. He wore a black patch on one eye, with a shock of brown hair sticking out around it. I saw the pictures on this visit — he looked like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn combined, with a little eye patch. Every morning, he did exercises to strengthen his eyes, following the path of a worn-down tennis ball swaying from a string in the kitchen. (It wasn’t until he turned 14 that the doctors realized none of it was helping and did surgery on his eyes.) His house was three blocks away, so he walked every day, at the last moment (“School starts at 8:30? I’d leave the house at 8:25.”). He was a rascal, a little troublemaker, but the teachers all loved him. And above the school, a significant slope, where the students sledded at breakneck pace, and then hiked up the hill to do it again.
Life wasn’t like this for me in Pomona, California, growing up. (But I did have huge thick glasses that made my eyes look small and watery.)
Now, here was the man, fully grown, standing in front of his elementary school, with tears in his now-straight eyes.
Love expands. Every time I think I love him as much as I can, I learn that I’m wrong.
Breckenridge is a ski town, after all. The Chef walked out of his house every winter, after school, with skis in hand, took a bus to the ski area, and skied all afternoon. I, however, have never been on a pair of skis. And frankly, I just didn’t want to start on this trip. (It wouldn’t do to walk into the Tattered Cover on crutches, after all.)
But we did ascend the mountain in the town’s gondolas ten minutes of soaring for free. The Chef’s oldest niece, Emily, the one he held in his arms when he had the cast, joined us on a break from her job at the ski area. We laughed so hard I thought the gondola might shake off its wire.
Seeing the earth in front of us, like that? I could suddenly see why people ski.
(However, the thronging crowds at the base of peak 8, most of them wearing ridiculous hats and an over-eager expression to attack the mountain again, made me comfortable with my choice.)
Perhaps one of the best times of our visit involved the mountain, darkness, and an enormous machine.
The Chef’s brother-in-law drives one of the CATS, a monster hulking vehicle that plows through the snow on the way up and glides a smooth path the way down. (Before we arrived in Breckenridge, I made the Chef laugh so hard he hit the floor, when I told a friend we might go up on the machine that “polishes” the snow. How should I know?) Joe took us up one early evening, when the snow was lightly following from a low cloud cover. Huddled together in the passenger seat, the Chef and I could not talk. Everything glowed white, the sky a yellowy shade, the snow settling around us. I felt like I was in a moving igloo.
Slowly, Joe moved the vehicle toward the top of peak 8, nearly 13,000 feet. We looked around and could see nothing else but mountain, sky, snow, and ourselves. I felt like we were on the moon. I felt utterly small, in all the best ways. We really are pretty insignificant.
The piercing headache from the altitude I suffered afterwards? Worth it. The insomnia and nausea and exhaustion that plagued me all week from being up in thin air, leaving me short of breath as I walked down the street? Not a problem. I had been up on top of the world, with the Chef by my side.
(And going down the mountain was an act of trust, as Joe pummeled down steep curves and sharp edges. “He knows what he’s doing,” I kept chanting in my head. And he did.)
As much as the power of the earth, and old memories helping me to know him better, were the forces of this trip, you know there was something else. Food.
It turns out to be absurdly easy to eat gluten-free in Breckenridge. The first day, we stopped at Empire Burgers for lunch. I asked for a burger without a bun, and I went through my spiel. Before I could finish, the waitress said, “Oh, is that gluten intolerance?” She understood. I didn’t have to finish.
Food Kingdom, which — let’s face it — is a really dinky little grocery store with half-empty shelves and snowboarder guys for checkout clerks, sold gluten-free pasta, flours, bread mixes, and brownies. What is happening? Are we finally moving into the mainstream?
And then we walked into Mi Casa, a middle-of-the-road Mexican place in downtown Breckenridge. It’s the kind of place where the lobby walls are lined with skiis and snowboards with snow still clinging to them. Mexican food is usually pretty easy in which to eat gluten-free. But when we peered at the menu, I nearly jumped out of my seat.
A special gluten-free menu?
When our waiter approached the table with the chips and salsa, I said to him: “I have to eat gluten-free, but I can can have the chips, right?”
“No,” he said, waving his hand. “There’s something in them that has gluten. I’ll find out why. But just don’t eat them.” And he scooted away to find me an answer.
I looked over at the Chef, and we both had tears in our eyes that time. I always feel so grateful when someone feeds me safely. And he was moved that someone in his hometown actually understood.
Turns out that the restaurant makes its own chips, and they fry them in the same oil as flour products. (Can I just say wow? That they had thought about it that deeply?) But he felt bad that I couldn’t eat anything with the salsa, so they grilled up some corn tortillas for me.
He got a big tip.
The food? Great. A soft pork tamale with the meat spiced so well I wanted three more. Fish tacos. Beans and rice. And the warmth in my belly from knowing I was eating well.
We asked the waiter, “How did this happen?”
Turns out that one of the locals has celiac. He came in every night and asked for chicken wings, naked, and a taco in a corn tortilla. The staff started asking why, and he informed them about gluten. And then they noticed that other people, in steady streams, were coming in, and asking for something gluten-free. The kitchen manager went out to every table, when a gluten-free request came in, to make sure they were fed safely. But when he had to do this three times a night, he asked the owner. “Can’t we just have a gluten-free menu?”
That’s all it takes. All of us who have to avoid gluten? Tell every restaurant you know. Go back to the ones that feed you safely. Who knows? They might just make a special menu for us, one day.
Wouldn’t it be an awakening if every one of us could go back to our hometown and eat gluten-free, safely?
The food fed us well. Every night, we ate dinner with the family: pork roast with horseradish-sour cream sauce; a tasty Mexi-bake; barbequed chicken; a tender beef roast with smashed red potatoes. No problems there.
But on this visit, believe it or not, the food was only a secondary note, a high harmony in the background.
Instead, this visit was about home: returning there, and finding him there, and knowing it for the first time, and new again. We were alive under the sky, holding hands. I know him better now, for walking through the streets of Breckenridge.
And I love him even more.
Avocado Ranch Dressing
One afternoon, the Chef and I ate lunch at the Kenosha steakhouse, which advertised itself outside as: “Bbq. Booze. Burgers.” Well, I like truth in advertising, and I was craving some meat. (All that fresh air, I suppose.) We sat down, and a chipper young waiter — who looked like a younger version of Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” — came to take our order.
Not only did he understand the gluten thing (again, astounding), but he made it his job to oversee my entire meal. I ordered this steak salad. What kind of dressing? Well, I said, which one is your favorite of the dressings I can eat.
His eyes lit up. “Avocado ranch.”
He was right. Oh god, as soon as I was done eating it, I craved even more. So I came home and made some.
Now, let me tell you about this recipe. I made it up as I went along. I used my taste memory, and the inspiration of several recipes I read for ranch dressing, and it all happened in the moment. I’m only putting down measurements reluctantly, because I want to encourage you to try your own version. But this one, served with seared salmon and red quinoa, worked just fine for us the other night.
1 medium shallot, rough chopped
1 clove garlic, rough chopped
1/4 cup dill, chopped
5 sprigs, lemon thyme, leaves removed and chopped
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoons each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
5 tablespoons dry buttermilk powder
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sour cream
2 avocados, peeled and pitted
Put the shallot, garlic, herbs, mustard, and salt and pepper into a blender. Whirl them up.
Slowly, add in the two oils, while the blender is running. This will help emulsify the dressing.
Add in the buttermilk powder, milk, and sour cream. Blend it all up. It should be thickening at this point.
At the last moment, put in the avocados and whirl it all up to a thick, lovely green dressing.
This dressing goes well on spinach salads, steak salads, as a topping to fish, or a dip for vegetables. Really, you’ll want to eat it.
Makes enough for 2 people for a week.