I drive, carving a line from Pittsburgh through the Midwest, straight on like an arrow to St. Louis’ arch. Then down from there, a dive down into the Ozarks, where I’ll spend two weeks thinking and writing about food at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
I have my bag of snacks and a travel mug of coffee; I’ve loaded music on my iPhone. It has been ages since I’ve taken a solo road trip. I can’t wait. The idea of traveling alone differs so wildly from the hands-on experience of it. Beforehand, all I think about is caution and navigating difficulties, unknown, interactions and dilemmas. Once I’m in the car: I’m pure explorer. I’m as ready to sit alone at the bar and order a cocktail, as I am to ask directions in the shadiest of truck stops.
By the time I zoom through the maze of narrow, quick highways that lace around St. Louis, by the time I see the arch itself pop up before me like a pure little miracle, by then, I’m ready to have some adventures.
Then I’m on my way, down, down into the Ozarks — a section of the country I’ve never seen. Hills and streams mixed with outcroppings of rock interspersed with church revival signs and cave tour expeditions.
The Writers’ Colony in Eureka Springs used to be a bed-and-breakfast. There are still many of those flanking it on the narrow Upper Springs streets. Now, it’s a residency for up to six artists who want some quiet, secluded alone time to get their work done. The thing that made this particular retreat, this past May, appealing to me was that it offers a culinary studio, complete with a beautiful, private, fully equipped test kitchen. Nirvana for a food writer.
Months before, I had applied and was accepted and now as I zoom up and down the loop-de-loop highways that lead into Eureka Springs itself, I head toward the beautiful dinner prepared by the cook, Jana, just for me: A butternut-squash galette, a spinach salad made from greens pulled from the garden that day, and a chocolate tart. Home base.
The next morning, I set out to find the Eureka Market. An adorable health-food store with a small but well-thought-out bulk section. I’ve decided to do two things while I’m in Eureka Springs: I want to think about the idea of waiting as it connects to baking bread and I want to (finally) read Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on the Transcendental Gastronomy” (with an introduction by M.F.K. Fisher), a 446-page tome of mythic gourmand regard that I really already should have had under my reading belt. Brillat-Savarin is known as the founder of the gastronomic essay; the first edition of The Physiology was published in 1825. Fisher’s translation dates from 1949. So it is the action of baking bread and reading connected to the idea of waiting and writing about it all that takes me through my 14 days here.
But there I am buying pumpkin, flax and sunflower seeds; dried lavender, rye flour and potato chips. The friendly woman working the register — Anna, I would later learn — asks if I have a discount card with the Market. When I say no, she wonders where I’m from. I tell her Pittsburgh and by coincidence her daughter has just run the marathon the previous Sunday. Anna tells me that she and her husband had been surprised at the city’s beauty, that they want to go back and visit again soon.
I wind my way back up into the hilly hills — hills that remind me very much of my own South Side Slopes neighborhood — to get to work. I should make it clear that although my phone’s mapping app makes a valiant effort to navigate me through these impossible streets day after day, I get lost every single time I leave my studio. This day, the lady robot voice kindly instructs me to turn left down a gravel drive she calls Ellis Street, and although I do listen to her, I soon find out this thing I’m driving on isn’t really a road so much as a forgotten lane that hikers now use. White knuckling it to the too-skinny graveled bottom I finally find home base again.
Back in my studio Brillat-Savarin tells me: “Taste cannot receive impressions from two flavors at once.” He tells me: “a science which nourishes men is worth at least as much as one which teaches them to kill each other.” He tells me: that gastronomy “concerns also every state of society for just as it directs the banquets of assembled kings, it dictates the number of minutes needed to make a perfectly boiled egg.” And I think I might have a crush on him.
I crave the bread I wait for — watching it rise, anticipating its crusty texture and layered, pillowy interior. I know so much can go wrong in this long process. All around me on the roads I drive there are signs for the end times. I’m told they are coming on billboards and marquees. But soon, the bread is out of the oven. It’s round and plump, and I take a slice to Jana to share with her, to critique, before dinner. After dinner, as I sit on my deck and watch the stars and the night, old-time music rises up from some houses below. Soft and sweet and tangy. And I can’t imagine brimstone as the spring peepers join in.
I walk to town. Eureka Springs has been known for its healing waters since before the Civil War. The town was built around the water sources, and the streets waver and rise and fall like a babbling brook. Cozy storefronts sell homemade pottery and jewelry and there are ghost tours and underground city tours and a train tour. It’s a tourist town. I’d heard about the Mud Street Cafe from a good friend who grew up in this region. It’s one of the few places still in operation in the underground part of the city. I walk down some steep steps and make my way into its dim interior.
They’re known for their pie here, and even though I’m stuffed from the lunch I just ate, I order a slice. I can’t walk away from trying it. The server and I strike up a conversation, and I learn that she and her husband have just taken up bread baking. That her favorite aunt lives in Pittsburgh. She wonders if I live in Lawrenceville? She loves that neighborhood. Such a small world, we agree. She sets my pie on the table — coconut cream with a macaroon crust. Brilliant. The crust: inspiring. The creamy coconut custard is enhanced by the contrast of the sticky coconut-cookie crust. And something that Brillat-Savarin has written rings true to me: “The pleasures of the table are a reflective sensation which is born from the various circumstances of place, time, things, and people who make up the surroundings of the meal.” The experience itself, the restaurant, the pleasant conversation, the perfect dim lighting and dark wood interior give way to the taste of the pie. The experience makes the pie better, makes it into a memory, even as I wind my way back to my studio.
Over the next few days, I bake a mix-seeded lavender-rye bread and some yeasted crackers, a loaf of seeded spelt followed by a spelt honey, which is my favorite of the mix.
I search the Internet for more potential food adventures and come upon Copper Run small-batch distillery. An hour-and-a half drive north, it seems like a good way to spend a Tuesday afternoon. Again, I zoom around these crazy curves. There is no direct route anywhere in the Ozarks and no one drives slowly. You must circle and corkscrew and skirt around your destination (probably getting lost on a very lovely rural route partway there) until, suddenly, in the middle of sunny farmland, surrounded by cows and crops, there is Copper Run distillery — a pretty little farmhouse with old-time music playing on the porch. Brillat-Savarin has reminded me that it’s a purely human trait to drink without thirst and so I order a four-glass flight sampler of moonshine and whiskeys.
I quickly discount the moonshine. Its turpentine lean has never done much for me. I feel that I need to have Southern roots to fully understand its fermented corn undertones. But whiskey — whiskey is something I understand. Wheat I get. And Copper Run’s hop-washed barrel-aged whiskey is outstanding; the white-oak barrels themselves are made right here in the Ozarks. The two young women behind the bar are fun and friendly, and I soon learn that the one who is trained as a pastry chef, who has brought in homemade cupcakes for the staff today, is from York, Pa. She says she knew from the get-go I wasn’t from the South. She could hear Northern in the way I asked questions. Just like the alcohols in front of me — we assess each other’s undertones and overtones and then we make friends.
They give me a list of restaurant recommendations and say not to miss the Farmers Market of the Ozarks on Saturday. And then I uncorkscrew and corkscrew my way back to my studio again.
Almost every residency offers an opportunity for the artists to read or show their work. Near the end of my stay, there is a potluck reading called Poetluck, open to the community in the living room of the main building of The Writers’ Colony. I read the opening pages of the long essay I’ve been working on, and I bake some black pepper grapefruit shortbread — a big hit with this kale-loving, couscous-loving, wine-drinking art crowd. Brillat-Savarin notes that poetry and music should be part of every meal, that long ago the minstrels sang of “friendship, or of pleasure and of love, with a grace and harmony which our own hard dry tongues can never match.” A woman here that night says she has been meaning to come to one of these readings for 10 years, but when she saw the reader was from Pittsburgh she made an extra effort. I say that’s me, the reader from Pittsburgh. It seems Margo’s whole big extended family stretches from the South Hills to the North Hills and every neighborhood in between. She talks longingly of the city she rarely gets back to visit. She has lived in Eureka Springs for 10 years but always considers moving back.
And so, after two weeks of bread and words and the Ozarks, I load my car and head north, back toward St. Louis to retrace my route up and over to Pittsburgh. On the way out, I stop at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield, Mo., where I browse the many gorgeous vegetable stands and listen to the live music, and buy two generously sized tamales, which I eat with a passion somewhere around Indianapolis. Food escorting me home.
2½ cups spelt flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter, unsalted, at room temperature
1 teaspoon honey
3⁄4 teaspoon yeast
1 cup warm water
Mix together the flour, salt and butter in a large mixing bowl. Combine honey, yeast and warm water. Add to the dry ingredients. Mix until combined. Let sit for 10 minutes and then knead 8 times quickly, keeping the dough in the bowl.
Do this same 10-minute wait, 8-time quick knead 2 more times.
Let the dough rise 1 hour in its bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a clean dishtowel.
Punch down, and then knead lightly to form a round. Place onto a parchment-covered baking sheet. Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise 30 to 40 minutes.
Pre-heat oven to 475 degrees. Place rack at middle. Place an empty roasting pan on the floor of the oven.
Bring the oven down to 425, and then pour 1 cup water into the now-hot roasting pan.
Place your bread on its baking sheet onto the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 30 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Makes 1 small loaf.
-- Adapted from Bob’s Red Mill (http://blog.bobsredmill.com)
Black Pepper-Grapefruit Shortbread
3⁄4 cup spelt flour
3⁄4 cup white flour
1⁄2 cup, plus a little more, powdered Sugar (I use raw cane sugar and pulverize it in a coffee grinder)
1/3 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
Dash of cardamom
1 tablespoon grapefruit zest, minced
3⁄4 cup butter, unsalted, at room temperature
2 egg yolks
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter. Add the egg yolks and then, by hand, form the dough into a flat round. Wrap in plastic. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the chilled dough from the fridge and roll to 1⁄4 inch thick (or desired thickness).
Use cookie cutters or a drinking glass to cut shapes. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven when just turning golden brown. Cool on rack.
Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies.
-- Adapted from Cinnamon & Thyme (cinnamonandthyme.com)
Sherrie Flick is a fiction and food writer living in Pittsburgh (sherrieflick.com); reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.