There’s a special romance that occurs at the intersection of food and memory. When we look back at our most important moments in life, it’s the sensory recollections — a dripping bite of a ripe peach or a bracing sip of an especially dry martini — that convey the sweetness of a particular occasion.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, two Amuse-bouche writers share very different stories of how one meal came to define their love. After all, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “if one has not dined well.”
My husband and I have no particular Valentine’s Day ritual — sometimes we eat in, sometimes we eat out. More often these days, we just forget the whole thing. But we never forget how a breakfast at Café Pasqual’s in late January 1998 changed our lives and paved the way for a move to Santa Fe.
It was a cold and snowy winter, much like this one. I had been housesitting on Camino del Monte Sol since just before Thanksgiving, watching the snow pile up on adobe walls and the ice thicken on streets and walkways.
I had been thinking about moving to Santa Fe and wanted to see what the city was like in wintertime. My husband, who was not really keen to trade his ocean-bound home state of Rhode Island for the mountains and deserts of Northern New Mexico, came for a one-week visit in mid-January. The weather and altitude did nothing to change his mind about moving here.
On the Sunday before his scheduled Monday-morning departure, we joined an old friend for breakfast at Café Pasqual’s. Sitting on the raised dais, with a brilliant sun streaming through the geranium-filled windows, we talked of things we had not had a chance to see or do during his short, storm-filled visit. “Why don’t you stay a few days longer,” my wily friend suggested. “What difference would it make if you went back to New England on Wednesday instead of Monday?”
On the way home, my husband, who rarely does anything spontaneously, stopped at a payphone at La Fonda (this was in pre-internet, pre-cellphone days), called the airline, and changed his flight.
On Wednesday morning, we took him to the Plaza to catch the airport shuttle. A few hours later, he was back, his flight canceled due to the weather. Another day in Santa Fe. He went back to the airport on Thursday, only to return once again, this time because his plane had to be taken out of service. On Friday, he called the airline to be sure his flight would be leaving — only to discover he had been rebooked for Saturday rather than Friday. Yet another day in Santa Fe.
“I Got You, Babe” wasn’t streaming in the background, but a daily visit by a carpenter hired to repair a door added to the Groundhog Day vibe: He arrived at the same time every morning just as my husband was preparing to leave, then returned over and over again to do more work on a door that would not stay fixed.
“So,” I said to the reluctant East Coast emigrant on Saturday morning, “it looks like Santa Fe will not let you go until you are willing to commit to a move here.” He laughed and did just that.
Twenty years later, we often return to Café Pasqual’s for breakfast on the anniversary of our move, a wedding anniversary, a birthday, or just because we want to acknowledge the restaurant’s place in our shared story. Nothing much has changed over the past two decades: the room still floods with morning light, the red geraniums still grace the windows, and we can still order the same corned beef hash, huevos rancheros, and bowls of cappuccino that we enjoyed on that first fateful morning.
“Panza llena, corazón contento” indeed!
— Patricia West-Barker
When buns met beer
Call me a cynic, call it the death of romance, but my husband and I learned from the experience of previous failed marriages that your relationship won’t be any stronger just because you drop a bunch of cash on a prix-fixe meal in a crowded dining room on a token day designated for romance. That’s how we found ourselves wandering the aisles of Albertsons late in the afternoon of one Valentine’s Day several years ago. After a much-publicized announcement in 2006 that Whole Foods would stop selling live lobsters, Albertsons was the last grocery store in Santa Fe that still stocked them.
Struggling to imagine a candlelit dinner with our dog and cats winding between our legs under the table — and recognizing that the formality of lobsters and champagne isn’t really our at-home style anyway — we devised our own, more casual variation: beer and lobster rolls, the star of summertime roadside shacks along the Maine coastline. We grabbed a bag of jumbo hot dog buns from the bread aisle and a six-pack of Miller High Life, the Champagne of Beers, and a new tradition was born.
Turns out Whole Foods does sell lobster — not live ones, for understandable reasons, but tails ($35.96 a pound) and frozen meat ($19.99 for 8 ounces). If you prefer to have a shipment delivered directly to your doorstep — or if you worry the store will sell out before Feb. 14 — whole lobsters, tails, and pre-shucked and -cooked tail, knuckle, and claw meat are available from various reputable online retailers, including thelobsterguy.com, jameshooklobster.com, and getmainelobster.com, all of which offer insulated overnight delivery. The popular website goldbelly.com even sells lobster roll kits — one of which also includes dessert (skip the crème brûlée and molten chocolate cake and have a whoopie pie instead).
Because chef Judy Rodgers’ mantra — “Stop. Think. There must be a harder way” — is basically our house rule, after the inaugural year of our new V-Day tradition, I vowed to make my own buns. This process is easier than it sounds, particularly if you have equipment and guidance from the whizzes at King Arthur Flour. In addition to selling a pan specifically designed for New England-style hot dog buns for $30 (kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/classic-new-england-hotdog-bun-pan), they offer multiple recipes for buttery brioche-like buns.
Lobster roll aficionados are divided as to how to dress the lobster salad. Old-schoolers prefer a mayonnaise base that involves a splash of lemon, perhaps; celery for crunch; and chives or celery seed for an aromatic lift. On the other hand, there’s the minimalist take, with glorious toasted rolls stuffed with lobster meat dressed only in sunshine-gold melted butter. Whatever your preference, the trick is to use a light hand with the dressing and avoid turning your Valentine’s dinner into a “globster roll.”
Crisp and highly effervescent, Miller High Life was introduced in the early 20th century, when bottled beer was rare. The translucent glass bottle — which mimics the sloping shape of Champagne bouteilles — was designed to showcase the beer’s clarity, and because of the vulnerability of hops to light, the brewery developed a proprietary hops that allowed them to continue the use of clear glass. High Life’s flavor profile is far from the complexity of most fine bubbly wine, but it definitely costs less. And by the way, for the 2018 holiday season, Miller released special-edition 750-milliliter Champagne-style bottles of High Life; as of this writing, Total Wine (3529 Zafarano Drive, #11) still has bottles in stock.
The point is, if you care about observing Valentine’s Day, do what makes you happy and create your own traditions. Whether you splurge on a romantic seven-course meal or stay home and eat sandwiches in your PJs, you’ll want to remember every bite. — Laurel Gladden
Buttery Hot Dog Buns
(adapted from the King Arthur Flour Company)
2½ tsp. instant yeast
8 oz. lukewarm water
12¾ oz. all-purpose flour
1½ tsp. salt
1½ oz. sugar
3 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup nonfat dry milk
½ cup instant mashed potato flakes or potato flour
1. In an electric stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine all of the ingredients until a smooth dough forms. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise until nearly doubled in
bulk, 60-90 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly grease the hot dog bun pan.
2. Gently deflate the dough and stretch it into a rectangle about 15 in. long and 6 in. wide. Place the dough in the pan, stretching it till it reaches the edges and covers all the indented bun molds.
3. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rise for 45 to 60 minutes until it comes to within a half-inch of the top of the pan. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
4. Grease a baking sheet and place it on top of the risen dough.
5. Put the covered pan into the oven and weigh down the baking sheet with something heavy and oven-safe, such as a cast-iron skillet.
6. Bake for 18 minutes, remove the weight and the baking sheet, and bake for 2 to 5 minutes longer until browned.
7. Remove the pan from the oven and cool the buns in the pan for 5 minutes. Turn them out onto a wire cooling rack, rounded side up, and let cool completely.
8. Slice each bun down the middle vertically, without cutting all the way through, and then separate the buns by slicing between them.