Sunday, June 05, 2005

Out on the Road

From May 31st to June 4th I was "on the road," though not far away -- just the East San Francisco Bay Area. Even ninety miles away is fun, however, as so much of my time is spent in front of the computer in Santa Cruz, so I feel as if it's a holiday when I'm doing book events. The best part of this trip was that I stayed with my daughter and son-in-law and my "job" was to entertain (and be entertained by)my grandson, Theo. He and I are so fond of one another that we play from the moment he wakens until he goes to bed, and it's always difficult to leave at the end of the visit.

Theo is just turning 16 months and he's determined to talk. He went to a birthday party while I did my event at Black Oak Books, and was served a cupcake. He doesn't get a lot of sugar, and so he was thrilled with that sweet taste that's a natural pleasure for us humans. His dad reported that he said, "Ummmm. Oh wow! oh, ummmm, wow, oh MAN!" Clearly he takes after his grandmother who has a full set of sweet teeth!

I did a reading and slide show in Berkeley Tuesday evening at Black Oak Books, and after, attendees were treated to an amazing dessert selection by Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse prepared two-bite sized eclairs filled with Chantilly cream and decorated with caramelized spun sugar, cat's tongues (a thin vanilla wafer cookie), and a remarkable tapioca pudding with a tiny scoop of a fantastic ice cream. I was so busy answering questions that I don't remember what the ice cream was flavored with, but it was all extraordinary. Vintage Berkeley Wines poured a delicious Moscato dessert wine.

As you can see, I don't do a standard book event. First I read some of the "wow" details about vanilla from the Introduction, and then begin a slide show that features the cycle of vanilla and the faces and places where it's grown. I always have an interactive table set up with our extracts and beans so that people can see and sniff for themselves the differences between vanilla of various origins. They can also taste our vanilla sugar, smell a bag filled with vanilla beans (a heady aroma, to be sure!) and enjoy a picture book with additional pictures.

The following day I taped a radio show for KCRW Los Angeles (an NPR station)from KQED in San Francisco, then enjoyed lunch right on the Bay with an old friend who is both interesting and extremely creative, a perfect companion to share a meal with. On the 4th I spent the afternoon at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley. The Pasta Shop event was a culinary extravaganza. They had three tasting dishes of Creme Anglaise (a thin pouring custard) flavored with the varieties of vanilla I carry (Madagascar, Tahitian, and Mexican),as well as carry-out containers of the custard, and a sampling of the Smoked Turkey, Cranberry, Cous-Cous Salad with Vanilla Vinaigrette from The Vanilla Chef along with carry-out containers of the salad. They also sell an impressive variety of pre-made foods, including salads, sandwiches, and hot foods, and gorgeous desserts, meats, freshly made pasta, breads, cheeses, and hard to find cooking ingredients. I was in heaven! Even better, there are several streets filled with small shops so it can be an afternoon outing to visit 4th Street in Berkeley. I discovered Tacubaya, a Mexican restaurant next to The Pasta Shop, and found they carry fresh masa. Since returning home, I've been eating fresh tortillas for lunch. Regretably, I don't have the technique down well, but even though they look like lopsided pancakes, they taste like Southern Mexico, and that's what really matters!

I signed books, visited with customers, and had my larger traveling display set up with samples of vanilla from around the world. Store manager, Porsche, a trained chef, answered questions about the many different items I've collected in my travels. More than just vanilla beans, there are woven containers for holding vanilla from Tahiti's Central Market, woven vanilla bean ornaments from Madagascar and Mexico, a clock made from a coconut and decorated with vanilla beans, coffee beans, and banana fiber from Bali, money embossed with vanilla beans from around the world, and even a display of the most commonly purchased synthetics from Mexico and the Caribbean. It's a true hands-on vanilla experience. And the best part is that people purchased not one but THREE bottles of extract, the foods, and the books. This is wonderful to see in the summertime when most people don't think about baking. My dream is to have everyone use vanilla year 'round (ideally, daily), putting it in summertime salads, lemonade and other beverages, in rubs and sauces for grilled meats and seafood, and in delicious ice creams and fruit desserts.

I'm back in Santa Cruz for a while though I may be off to Mexico with Alton Brown of Food Networks "Good Eats," in July or August. This is the hottest time of year in Mexico but it will still be great to "return home." I haven't been to Mexico in three years and I'm really homesick for the delicious small, thick tortillas, black beans and the culinary specialties of Veracruz, as well as to see my "family" of friends whom I love dearly.