I strive to be optimistic and I always attempt to look on the bright side of things, so when I moved back to Syracuse from Manhattan over a year ago, I had high hopes for a new life with my new job skills. Not only was I a writer, I could now cook professionally and speak with a more nuanced authority on the subject of food, dining and everything that accompanies it. I began to search in earnest for a full-time food writing job, but after months of making contacts and sending my resume and clips to various publications, it became frustratingly clear that not only was I not going to find a full-time writing job, I wasn’t going to find a part-time one, either. Freelancing has been my saving grace, and I remain extraordinarily thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, writing for publications I respect and hold in the highest regards. But my freelancing opportunities have not even begun to cover the necessary expenses one needs to live as a functioning adult in society, and I have grown disheartened.
And so a month and a half ago, I began looking for food writing jobs back in Manhattan. I figured it was Mecca, so far as the industry was concerned. My scars from my first New York attempt were just beginning to fade, and, lack of career aside, I had forged a happy life in Syracuse. But I convinced myself that to have measurable success – and by that I mean both financial satisfaction and big-name publications under my belt – I had to be back in New York City.
I traveled to the city almost every week, interviewing and sending resumes, following up and praying, hard. It was a grueling month, one that I threw my every effort into as my family and boyfriend watched with a confused sadness.
And then I read Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson. I read Summer in a Glass and everything changed.
Dawson’s book tells the story of the Finger Lakes winemakers who are creating the thoughtful, complex, beautiful wines that, without argument, are putting the region on the map as one to watch – and respect. He writes about their grape-growing methods and their history, which is as rich as its limestone-tinged soil. He writes about their tasting rooms and the awards they’ve won. But mostly, he writes about the people.
He writes with such beautiful, easy description that I found myself holding my breath throughout the book, tearing at the pages with insistent fingers. My hand flew to my mouth in fear as I read about Johannes Reinhardt’s struggle navigating unfair U.S. immigration laws, and my mouth began to water as I followed Tricia Renshaw through tasting tawny port, rife with butterscotch, toffee, mincemeat and nutmeg. But nothing struck me more than the story of Dave and Deb Whiting, the duo behind Red Newt Cellars and Bistro. Their brave and free-spirited attitude combined with a genuine passion for local wines done the right way and regional cuisine struck me as uniquely inspiring. And they seemed so, so in love.
I began researching the wineries in the area that struck my fancy, and when I landed on Red Newt’s website I felt a smile playing at my lips. Deb’s early summer menu was flecked with interesting, inspiring dishes made with local product. Rhubarb and garlic chevre ravioli, kissed with a lovage sauce and dotted with walnuts had me squirming in my chair, and a lavender-garlic free range chicken breast with Riesling sauce made my heart beat faster. Deb’s food indulged in comfort and played at sweet with the generous addition of herbs and fruit. Her whimsical descriptions and elegant pairings were right up my alley. I felt like I had found my culinary soul sister.
“I’m going to meet her,” I said to Stu as we sat, sipping dry Riesling from Ravines. “I’m going to meet her and work for her. I’m going to become her prodigee and then someday,” I took a breath, “I’m going to become the next Chef at Red Newt Bistro.” Stu rolled his eyes and I laughed quietly. He was used to my big talk and grandiose ideas. I laughed, but somewhere deep in my heart, I wondered if I might have really meant it.
The next week we took a Tuesday and made the short drive to the Finger Lakes Wine Region. We’d wanted to visit Red Newt but decided that because the bistro was closed on Tuesday, we’d wait until the next trip. I really wanted to try Deb’s food, so it would be worth the wait. And we were sure it wouldn’t be long until we came back, anyway.
Instead, our trip took us to Ravines, where we tasted a beautiful Cabernet Franc from Morten Hallgren, and Red Tail Ridge, where a Riesling dripping with wet stone and well-balanced acidity took my breath away. We ate lunch at the famed Village Tavern in Hammondsport, and as we entered the restaurant I felt a familiar pull, coming from my stomach and finishing with a thump-thump in my heart. “I know this place,” I said quietly.
My family used to spend our summers on the East Side of Keuka Lake, where my grandfather had a house and, to my and my sister’s delight, a small waterfront cottage. We spent weeks fishing off the dock, exploring the gorges and endless waterfalls, sampling local fare and swimming until our fingers and toes wrinkled. And also, I realized now, eating at the Village Tavern. The ceiling was decorated with dozens of model airplanes, a detail I suddenly remembered with striking clarity. But the wine list was new to me. As we pored over its pages, we both honed in on a ‘95 Dr. Frank pinot noir.
“It wouldn’t be good … right?” I asked Stu.
“It shouldn’t,” he said, but his lips were already curling up into a devilish smile. “We have to get it.”
We stuck our noses into the glass and immediately discerned wet leaves, damp earth and a whisper of dried currants and raisins. We tasted and were surprised. The wine wasn’t lively, but, I recalled Dawson’s words in Summer in a Glass as he tasted a rare aged Riesling, it wasn’t dead. And, as all good vintages do, it improved with our food. He’d ordered a softshell crab sandwich with remoulade; I had a white bean and fennel soup with a roasted beet and radish green salad.
After lunch we drove back the length of the lake. As I watched the passing scenery, voluptuously leafy trees and falling water, I began to cry. Hot, fat tears dropped quietly down my cheeks. I at once felt the enormity of the hole in my heart and the thin, soft threads that were beginning to weave together to repair it. I felt at home, like a vine in the terroir that is inherently meant for it. I thought of Evan Dawson and, for the first time, understood that success is measurable in good writing, in a sense of place and community.
At that moment, I knew that I would not go to Manhattan. I would stay in Syracuse, in the Finger Lakes, in Central New York. I would stay where I belonged and write about the food and wine of my home. I would introduce myself to Deb Whiting and see where things went. I would stay, because I did not truly believe in anywhere else.
Three days later, I opened my email and drew in a sharp breath. “No. No, no.” I repeated the word as I read about a car accident on Thursday night that took Deb Whiting’s life and injured her husband, Dave. “No.” I began to cry again, feeling the intense loss of a woman I never met, but felt a deep kinship with and respect for. Her death shook me to the core, in a way that was both surprising and frightening. Stu held my hand for an hour as we sat in silence, both thinking about the fragility of life and what fate means.
Later that night Stu opened a bottle of dry rosé. It was packed with ripe strawberries and orange blossoms, a puzzle for the nose and a joy in the finish. It made me think of summer nights on the lake, of fresh, bright picnic food. It inspired me to cook, and it made me think of Deb Whiting.
I prepared a simple French-style potato salad, laced with Nicoise olives, vinegar and Dijon mustard. Basil leaves gently warmed with the heat of the just-cooked red potatoes and scented the salad with their familiar licorice-sweet aroma. We ate it with orange and thyme-roasted fish and a crusty baguette, brushed with olive oil and placed under the broiler.
We ate slowly, enjoying the way the wine opened up and changed with each bite. I was frightened about my future, confused and sad over the loss of Deb, but the flavors were soothing to me so I ate thoughtfully and gave thanks for the meal. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Basil and Potato Salad
- 1 pound red creamer potatoes
- 1/2 tablespoon unsalted chicken stock
- 1/2 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup Nicoise olives, pitted and chopped roughly
- 1 generous handful basil leaves, left whole
- Kosher salt, pepper
Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Place over high heat and boil until soft and tender – a paring knife inserted into a potato should slide out easily. Drain the potatoes and let sit until just cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, whisk together the chicken stock, vinegar, orange juice and Dijon mustard. Drizzle in olive oil and whisk to combine. Taste and add seasoning to your preference.
Once the potatoes are warm to the touch, slice them in halves or quarters. Place them in a mixing bowl, along with the olives. Pour over the vinaigrette and mix gently to coat. Taste and adjust the seasoning once more, then transfer the salad to a serving bowl or platter and top with the basil leaves.