Just Show Up

Thirteen years ago I began working with a man who in his earlier life was, like Patrick Swayze, a ballet dancer from Texas. By the time I met him, he had made the transition to another form of performance, another way to give the public an outstanding experience that they spend good money for. If you doubt that being a food and beverage director requires a great deal of grace, dramatic flair, improvisation, reading your audience, and endless, creative accommodation of individual whims, you haven’t tried to be successful at this. Nor have you met the master of all such abilities.

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Scott Meynig had no qualms about saying that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tasted like cat pee. (How he knew what cat pee tastes like is a question I have no answer for.) Richard Hewitt, sommelier at the time, remembers the wine-tasting occasion when the wine/pee comparison was made. He also relates this story:

When Scott was running the banquet department I loved to throw him ‘ringers’ that would challenge him.

Scott: ‘Did you really promise the bride that the groom could ride in on a white horse dressed in armor’?

I would just reply that I was trying to up-sell the event.

Scott: ‘The horse and armor are fine but where are we going to get a lance?’

The 300+ people at Pippin Hill who gathered to celebrate Scott’s life on Tuesday of this week all had their own special admiration for him. Some remembered how he helped his family with their business, Family Ties & Pies, not only in the kitchen but also at the City Market on Saturday mornings (Charlottesville’s outstanding farmer’s market). Some remembered how he mentored them professionally. Some, his taking the time to listen to their personal bemoanings, followed by his ability to dole out wise advice in fifteen words or less. Some remembered his bottomless well of kindness and wit. Some, his get-the-job-done spirit and unbegrudging willingness to pitch in and move chairs and tables or whatever had to be done to make the event perfect for the guests.

I remember him saying that one of the most important things a person can do is just show up. The rest comes, but you have to be there. As much as one person could, Scott showed up. He never seemed in a hurry, but he got to where it mattered. His presence made the difference countless times to countless people. And everyone knew that if Scott was there, whatever was happening would be better. I never saw anyone take charge in such a quiet way. His teams were unfailingly loyal. Is it any wonder? Who wouldn’t want to get on board with this caliber a leader?

I am honored to have known him, to have worked side by side, to have gathered my own nuggets of gold from his masterful performances. I am so grateful he practiced what he preached, grateful that he just showed up, time and again, during the window of time we had, grateful to have watched him do the next thing with seeming ease, with unshakeable commitment, with spot-on humor. Many will miss him, none more than his amazing family.

May we all have a Scott in our lives.

Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange

I know there are people in the world who would feel, as I do, a twinge of sadness the day after a storm splits the gigantic chrysanthemum.

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Or who wish they could wander out to the garden to pick fresh oregano and purple basil for the homemade pizza about to go into the oven (see the basil in the box behind the rosemary?). Or who would like to make applesauce together from freshly picked heirloom Virginia apples. I suspect there are people who have some time – a few weeks or a few months – to explore a corner of the world that is surely different in some ways than their own and who wonder about my corner of Virginia.

I’m thinking this is Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange.

There’s always something going on around here: planting, harvesting, building, cooking, baking, (eating!), trying, creating, discovering, resting, marveling, playing, listening, digging, watching, learning, discussing, fixing, pondering.

There are my various gardens with herbs, vegetables and perennials. I’ve moved the azaleas in between the crape myrtles in front of the fenced garden. Turns out, the neglected bush that just got dug up in the front corner of my house was actually two bushes. This photo shows them moved, with their fresh dirt around them, but not yet trimmed, staked or mulched. I did that later in the day, after taking the photo. I had to take the photo when I did, and you see why. I did not ask little Coco to park herself there to enjoy the sunshine…

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We have got to do something about the blackberries that are going crazy inside the garden, and the tomatoes could be pulled and winter crops planted. The asparagus bed is none too tidy, begs for attention. One of the rudbeckia got smashed somehow and needs a little love. The front yard is a mess from the recent Big Dig, but soon we’ll be pouring footings and building a nice front porch.

My two custom-built chicken coops provide palatial accommodations for 29 interesting (some bordering on ridiculous) chickens. They need new mulch or straw when they’ve scratched through what we put down before, but they give lots of amazing eggs to make good food with! My lone araucana isn’t laying her greenish eggs any more though – could there be a reason? This black copper maran had a face-off with Coco yesterday. Both have curiosity, but the chicken less so. She just wants to get back to scratching in the straw. A white silkie came toward us to investigate.

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When the sun rises on a day with too much cloud cover, and it can’t quite get its rays to stream through the giant trees in my back woods, there’s always an otherworldly feeling and sometimes a glorious mist that sparkles on the leaves or in the air.

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When the wind kicks up such that those trees can’t help but engage in a wild dance, it’s a sight. The not-so-manicured trails through the woods are a pleasant walk leading to the beaver pond with its lodge and dam. The beavers keep making their pond a little bigger. I don’t get down there often enough.

When a fox trots in a wide circle around the coops, wishing (you know it!) that there was a way to get to those fat and surely delicious chickens, it doesn’t know how its red fur shines in the sun. When guests stay at my gorgeous Airbnb cottage, they just might see a mother bear and two cubs walk through the yard. A few weeks ago, someone did.

Recently I was in Seattle and met several enthusiastic, capable au pairs. I got to thinking that some people who would like to come to Virginia for a little while (but don’t necessarily have a friend here already) might prefer a household without small children, and might prefer a country setting. They might enjoy getting to know the plants that grow in this climate, or the way we lay decking boards, or the vibe of downtown Charlottesville, fifteen minutes away. It’s a vibrant university town with great restaurants and shops, exhibits and lectures, sports and music events. The Presidential homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are all within half an hour’s drive.

Over the years I’ve had short- and long-term visitors many times and would love to share my little piece of the world with some new friends. If you are thinking it’s a good time to do such a thing and have a little interest, you can let me know.

One Bag Only

I did it. I gave in. I packed a medium flat rate box and will ship it to my home from Sugar Land, Texas, tomorrow.

On this sixteen-day trip I flew from Charlottesville to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Boise, from Boise to Seattle, from Seattle to Houston, and tomorrow from Houston back home. I chose to fly the cheapest way possible, using the new option to take only what can fit under the seat in front of you. One bag, one bag only. Everything I need for sixteen days in various climates has to fit on my person or in my bag and under that seat. (It was 47 degrees when I left Seattle. At 10:06pm it’s still 82 here in Sugar Land.)  I like books. I brought two along. I won’t lie. My shoulder is not happy. It might be somewhat bruised from the weight I carried each time.

Everything was fine – all the airlines let me through with my one bag plus my purse — until the most recent leg to Texas on United. I get that the airlines have to generate revenue however they can, and capping the carry-on max so that they can charge for overages is one way to do it. I get that I should not have bought slippers in Berkeley or a book at the de Young Museum in San Francisco or allowed my daughter to give me two other books in Boise (though I left one of mine with her, the net result being four books instead of two). I get that my laptop is huge.

I put everything in my striped canvas bag that zippers across the top. It zippered without my having to pull it closed this last time, meaning there was room for more, right? I love this bag, but one of these days the zipper will fail or rip out. I have asked a lot of this bag over the years.

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I put the new slippers, my lunch and the book I planned to read in the plane in a small blue canvas bag (which worked better than my purse for these items) and walked up to the kiosk at the Seattle airport to get my boarding pass. They do not even let you check in via your mobile device when you have these cheapo tickets because they have to make sure you meet the luggage requirements.

The lady at the kiosk was skeptical. You have two bags, she said. This one just has my lunch and a few small things that will fit in the big bag, I said. She asked me to show her that my bag fit in the slot designated for poor travelers like me. It did! I smooshed down the top a little to show her there was room for the other stuff. They won’t let you through if everything is not in that bag, she said. You’ll have to pay $50. You might want to put your lunch in your pockets.

I did not like the stress. Never again, I said to myself. I’ll use a real carry-on like other people next time and pay for the privilege. But for now I was stuck, and you can bet your bottom dollar I wasn’t paying $50! But, yeah, getting that stuff in and getting the bag closed again without busting the zipper would be a trick. I might be able to do it, but it would be a squeeze to then get the bag under the seat, and anyway I had a better idea.

Already, to make this work, I was wearing two shirts, two sweaters, my scarf, my hat and my raincoat, so I figured Why not just wear more? There was no ladies room near my gate so I couldn’t do this as privately as I would have liked, but I stuck the slippers, side by side, into the waistband of my pants in the back – under the shirts, sweaters and raincoat – and the book into my waistband in front, under the shirts and the non-cardigan sweater and the scarf.

I just became a larger person temporarily. Lots of people are larger than I am. They get on planes.

I put my cell phone, my apple, my bread and my cheese in the pockets of my raincoat, got on the line (last boarding group, of course) and sailed through the checkpoint with my green striped bag over my shoulder and nothing else but the boarding pass in my hands. When I got to my seat near the back of the plane, I rearranged my weight. The slippers went back in the small canvas bag along with my lunch, and I sat and enjoyed my book.

(Outstanding book, by the way. Educated by Tara Westover. I will come back to this one of these days and tell you more about it.)

I left the plane with my green striped bag in one hand and my little blue canvas bag in the other. No one cared.

I have not bought anything in Texas to add to the problem, though I was sorely tempted today in Galveston to buy one on the 1900 hurricane, sorely tempted! Nonetheless, we stopped at the post office to get one of those flat rate boxes because I am not going through that stress again. I put all the books but Educated in the box, along with anything else that fit. I stuffed it full. It will cost me $13.85 to send home. I will be so relaxed tomorrow with one bag only!

Pigs in the Backyard

First of all, not my backyard. Not my front yard. Nor my side yard. Nor my woods. To anyone who knows me: Don’t worry. I do not have pigs and I am not getting pigs. I do like pork though, and thank God some people want to raise them. There is a fabulous little breakfast place on 2nd Street in downtown Charlottesville called Bluegrass Grill. The first time I went in there I knew I’d love it because the staff wore t-shirts with “Don’t Worry, We Have Bacon” on the back. They even have bacon jam! It’s on a menu item called Smokey Joe, and available in little jars too, to take home. You want to try this, believe me.

My neighbor Tracy has pigs in her backyard, two of them this year. They are gilts, not barrows, which I learned from her means female, not male. These are fine gilts, each about 80 pounds now in early July. They will get to be about 300 pounds by the time their short but wonderful life is over.

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Pigs love acorns, and acorns make very good pork. If you are going to raise pigs for meat, you had best put them where they can eat acorns. Tracy’s pigs live on prime real estate:

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What you see is a fenced enclosure skirting the tree line. Those are mature oaks producing a feast of acorns for two constantly-eating pigs. Here, have some more, I imagine the oak trees saying to the hungry pigs during a rainstorm or a windstorm when their acorns rain down. What do I need with all these acorns? Every few days, or however often she deems it time, Tracy moves the fence along the tree line, which is not as problematic as you might think. The fencing comes in 100-foot lengths and has stiff uprights every ten feet or so with sharp points you can poke into the ground.

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The beauty of the system is that she can make the fence any shape, she can go around or in front of trees or other immovable objects in the landscape, and she can contain the pigs in one part of it while moving another part. There is a solar-powered electric zapper around the perimeter to keep them from trying to escape, but seriously, if you were these pigs, you would not want to escape.

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They have sun, shade, mud to wallow in, a terrific bath for cooling off, acorns galore, bugs, grass, leftovers. Pigs’ noses are as sensitive as our fingertips so they find the best food even among the rocks, sticks and other natural inedibles.

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I met Tracy a few years ago after she and her husband moved in. We all have our busy lives – work, family, meals, rest, projects, outings – and I hardly saw her until a month ago or so when I needed eggs. What? I needed eggs?? I have 27 chickens in my coop and I needed eggs?

Chickens don’t start laying until they are 4-6 months old and mine hatched in early March. That makes them four months old now. I know I will be inundated soon, but I’m not yet, and I wasn’t a month ago.  Tracy has 14 chickens I think, and I was happy to pay her for some. A couple weeks later she asked if I wanted some for free because she was about to be overrun. I gladly took them and gave her a jar of my homemade strawberry jam in return. She mentioned the pigs, and I said Can I come see them sometime?

There are pigs practically in my backyard! I did not see the ones she had last year, nor the previous year. I did not see this year’s until I needed eggs. I could have bought eggs at the supermarket but farm eggs are better. Most people know this. I’m so glad I needed eggs, contacted Tracy and got hers. She’s really nice, and now, besides getting great eggs,  I have met her pigs, toured her garden, borrowed a book (Edible Landscaping by Michael Judd) and lent a book (Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier – she will love the chapter with the hog). I laughed when I asked her what those tall pretty flowers in her garden were and she said, “tall pretty flowers.” (None of us have to know everything!)

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I got two bunches of wild onions for my woodland garden (aren’t they beautiful?!) and learned something about raised bed berms – and she told me I am welcome to come get rocks for my stream bed. If you had six feet of stream bed left to lay and you saw all the rocks in Tracy’s field and you could go collect them, I bet you would, just like I am going to. Right?

Maybe today is a good day to contact a neighbor of yours. Maybe you don’t need eggs, but you can connect or reconnect for some other reason. Chances are good you have a neighbor who is really nice too, maybe someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Maybe your neighbor is on the shy side or otherwise hesitant to call you but would welcome a friendly hello.

Maybe your neighbor doesn’t have pigs (okay, most likely your neighbor doesn’t have pigs), but you will find something very cool to talk about anyway. And you might learn something, or exchange funny stories, or find something in common that you didn’t know about before. And it will be a better day.