I had an English teacher in grade 9 who I remember well. First, he was a huge Arlo Guthrie fan. While donning his leather jacket, he would play Alice’s restaurant in class as a reminder of what a generation influenced by Guns n’ Roses and Poison was missing. At the time I thought he was a bit of a dork but as I matured I gained a greater appreciation for the folk rock of the 1960-1970s.
The reason I mention this was the fact that I remember this same teacher introducing me to the magnificent works of e.e. cummings, the American poet who died a decade before I was born. From what I recall, cummings was known for his descriptive verses which elevated the feeling of an experience to new levels. In particular, I remember the phrase “puddle wonderful” which describes a feeling that really can only be compared to hopping in a post-storm pool of water with an indescribable bliss. He was also known for his preference for lower case letters which may subconsciously be the reason why I sign my emails with a small ‘s’.
Like many things in high school, I doubted I would ever have the need to pull it out my memory vault but it surfaced when I attended a wedding in Napa Valley (I’ll get back to this), specifically at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. This beautiful property boasts one of the most unique and coveted culinary programs in the United States. It is also a perfect venue for a wedding and I was lucky enough to be invited to one in May.
The wedding was small and had some stereotypical but also a few surreal elements. There was an Irish priest named Peader who was either really funny, really drunk or both. He was pretty close to a Simpson’s character. The ceremony was outside so his voice was somewhat muted by a flock of birds who chirped as they watched from the crevices in the old building in the backdrop. It wasn’t creepy in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way….more like Cinderella when the animals united to fix her dress in time for the ball. Instead of the traditional bible readings, one of the passages was “I carry your heart” from the gospel according to ee cummings which brought back high school memories that I found to be puddle-wonderful.
After the ceremony, the festivities moved inside where one could roam around and look at a variety of cooking utensils and hundreds of corkscrews on display. It was a foodie zoo (would that be called a foo?). There was also a stellar market place that was in plain view but guarded by glass walls and a less than enthusiastic security guard who looked more inclined to drink bourbon with us than make sure we didn’t steal spatulas. While I began down the path of mild intoxication we were treated to a few starters including a delicate scallop which swam in a delicious and spicy puree and a mini bulgogi soft taco which didn’t disappoint. There was also a duck empanada (not pictured) which rounded out the delicious and diverse hors d’oeuvres.
Growing up, in addition to learning about the literary merits of American poets, I was exposed to many Northern Ontario weddings which involved rubber chicken dinners and cash bars. The closest thing to culinary innovation was half a dozen Parisian potatoes to complement the prime rib and green beans. Move the venue from Sudbury to the Napa Valley and make the wedding couple a pair of urban foodies instead of a blue collar uncle on his third marriage and watch the sparks fly. In this case, the food was presented in four food stations which were chosen based on the ethnicity and preferences of the bride and groom. There were French, North African, Filipino and Korean posts. My objective was to try a little of everything. The first station featured a salmon en croute but with a twist; the addition of black cod (since it is the bride’s favorite fish) served with an herbaceous salsa verde. There was also an arugula and endive salad. I love black cod and will be first to admit it would be tough for it to hold up in both taste and texture in a en croute preparation but it was saved by the salmon. The salsa verde was brilliantly fresh and a perfect condiment for the delicate cod. The addition of the bitter greens was a smart contrast against the sweet whitefish.
The North African station featured spiced game hen with a tajine of quinoa and spring vegetables along with a dollop of preserved lemon and olive tapenade. Personally, the hen was my favorite dish of the night. It was moist and bursting with flavour. The quinoa let the hen shine but didn’t disappoint on it’s own. I love preserved lemon and I loathe olives, so I was curious to try the tapenade. The olives won but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a smart combination for those that enjoy the nasty little fruit.
The focus of the Filipino section was suckling pig which was complemented with truffled mac and cheese and a chilled spinach salad and pickled vegetables. There was also a pineapple mayo and some fish sauce to add some sweet and salt respectively. The joke at our part of the table was whether the truffled pasta was authentically Filipino or a creative interpretation orchestrated by the groom. The pork by itself was a little underseasoned but the diverse flavours which surrounded it were more than enough to compensate. I thought the spinach salad and pickled veggies were brilliant.
The final stop was Korean which featured short ribs as the headliner. I was intrigued by the loosely defined “risotto” which was a porridge of multiple types of rice along with barley. The station was rounded out with a sugar snap and sprout salad and kimchee as a traditional condiment. The ribs were a bit flimsy but well seasoned. I am typically not a risotto fan but I enjoyed its complexity and mouthfeel. The salad was fresh but I would have loved a little more crunch from a few more snap peas.
Each station was paired with a California wine which included a Charles Krug Sauv Blanc at the French station, the Morgan 12 Clones Pinot Noir for the North African offerings, the Caymus Conundrum for the Filipino food and the Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel partnered the Korean fare. I thought the choices were quite complimentary. I’m still a little naive when it comes to all the elements of the marriage between wine and food but I could appreciate these pairings. I had tried the Caymus in the past paired with pasta and was excited to see it on the list. As for the Ravenswood, I liked it so much I sought out and purchased a bottle when I got back to Ontario.
Dessert (or mignardise) followed the choose your own adventure theme and offered a variety of trendy confections including macarons, eclairs, truffles, creme brulee and chocolate covered strawberries which hit the spot in between the IPAs and the 90’s pop blaring across the dance floor. The wedding cake was a stunning croquembouche.
I was quite keen to attend this wedding in Napa Valley even if it meant a cross continent flight and I wasn’t left disappointed. Beautiful scenery, great food and a good group of people made for a fun weekend. I think this is a good blueprint for weddings whether the couple of honour are a pair of foodies or not. A short ceremony infusing a stereotypical Irish priest, the infusion of the works of an modern American poet in addition to the typical biblical stuff and visually stunning surroundings was a great trifecta. As for the reception, the wide variety of sentimental and meaningful food choices was brilliant. The idea of wine pairings replacing the typical chardonnay and cab sav house wines at the table elevated the experience even more. I tip my hat to the CIA Greystone for great execution of a rather complicated meal. Most importantly, I would like to congratulate the bride and groom and wish them all the success in their future endeavors and I selfishly encourage them to consider revisiting this concept again in the future.
In sum, I’ll use the same Virginia Woolf quote that was scripted on the back of the wedding program; “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”. I couldn’t agree more.