Monday, June 11, 2012

Fran Gage by way of Sitka

You can't buy frozen peanut butter and jelly cake.
Fran Gage devotes a chapter of Bread and Chocolate to her food-loving hairdresser, Jerome, who taught her to make tamales. The stories about Jerome are sweet, but the tamale recipes leave something to be desired.  I made his family's classic tamales a few weeks ago and they were glitchy, so I knew there was potential for trouble with "Jerome's" tamales. To make his twist on the classic, you mix the masa with coconut milk and butter rather than lard, use chicken breast and roasted anaheim peppers for filling, and wrap the tamales in big, glossy banana leaves.

Well, the tamales were a mess. The banana leaves kept shredding into thinner and thinner pieces until some of them were but threads. The chicken was dry and underseasoned, the wrapping instructions didn't make sense to me, and maybe I just wasn't in the correct, calm tamale-making space because I had to get up at 4:45 the next morning to fly to Alaska. In any case, I do think tamales require very detailed instructions -- maybe even diagrams -- and this is not the book where you'll find them.

Fortunately, dessert that night -- peanut butter-and-jelly cake -- made up for everything. Gage devotes another chapter to Elizabeth Falkner's now-defunct bakery, Citizen Cake, which was located a few blocks from where I used to work in San Francisco. Like Gage, I was a fan. I used to walk over there sometimes at lunch and buy one minuscule, exquisite cookie, or a tiny cup of ice cream, and eat it very slowly as I walked around Hayes Valley. Nothing was cheap, but it was all so good.

Falkner's cake is wonderful, though you should be prepared for a dessert that really does taste like a lunchbox peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. You make a flat, peanut butter sheet cake, cut it into rectangles and sandwich with jam. Frost with peanut butter-flavored whipped cream. Yummy. Do you want the recipe? It's really easy and I can type it out when I get home.

As I mentioned, I'm in Alaska. Business, but business that is a pleasure. Saturday, I caught a beautiful king salmon.
a "before" picture for the paleo diet?
You know how proud I must be of the salmon that I posted that picture.

Sitka is extremely lovely and interesting, with a rich Tlingit-Russian history I knew nothing about until I got here. Such mountains. Such totem poles. Such lush and colorful gardens.

I like.
Not everything is pretty, though.

I like less.
The Pioneer Bar sits right outside my hotel room window (innocuous beige building in that photograph) and people reel out of there, screaming and sobbing, and I'm not just talking about girls. At 1 a.m. they plop themselves down on the curb to have a smoke and slur out their life stories at the top of their lungs for the next hour. They chase each other. They shout obscenities. I guess there's not that much to do in Sitka at night.

I don't actually mind, although I've heard other hotel guests complaining. I have trouble sleeping in hotels under the best of circumstances and you'd probably find me falling off a stool at the Pioneer Bar were it not for Netflix streaming and books.  In the the last two nights I've watched Girl Cut in Two (B), Marwencol (A-), When a Tree Falls (B), Tuesday, After Christmas (A), and A Very Long Engagement (C+). I finished Gone Girl (A-) and am a third of the way through Buddenbrooks. Hotel insomnia is Buddenbrooks-proof, Ambien-proof, everything-proof. Time to go home to cookbooks and sleep and roasting that gorgeous salmon.


  1. I was going to comment that you look quite slim in that salmon picture. But perhaps your slimness standards are more stringent than mine. Are you going on a paleo-type diet? Do tell!

  2. Too funny--I thought you might have been in Ketchikan instead. There too is a Pioneer Bar with the same type of clientele!

  3. Well, who looks great while fishing in the wilds of Alaska? I think you look good for your activity. Are you really going to bring that salmon home? Yum!

  4. That is a kickass salmon. Right on!

    Have you read "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon. It's set in Sitka -- I have a thing for reading books set in the place I'm visiting. You might like it!

  5. Actually, your description of what happens when the bar closes sounds exactly like what we went through when we lived downtown (in Madison, WI) only the people sobbing, screaming and slurring out their stories were UW students. This would end after 2 a.m. to be followed by the trucks that would come to empty the dumpsters at 6 a.m. and we would hear a jillion zillion beer bottles clanking and smashing. Thanks for bringing it all back to mind. I did get a used copy of Bread and Chocolate and will try the PB&J cake.

  6. Sitka is gorgeous - when the sun is out. Otherwise it seems a tad depressing. Not too different from Seattle that way.

    My dad used to go up to Sitka every summer for a fishing trip, now he says the cruise ships have made it nearly impossible to get a charter. At any rate, the best salmon I've ever had came from those fishing trips. Enjoy yours.

  7. Call me a purist, but there are few variations I allow in tamales. We make the chile from scratch but are lazy and pick up the masa from the Mexican market down the street (the lard is already mixed in; I've learned the hard way that the ratios are finite). Pork butt is basically the only meat allowed, but I do love dessert tamales, too.
    Also, that is ONE GORGEOUS fish! The Husband wants to go fishing in Alaska someday; my godfather goes every summer. Maybe someday.
    Enjoy your trip!

  8. That salmon is beautiful!

  9. I am assuming that the salmon will be on the plane home with you...beautiful fish and would love to hear that story! After the third 100 degree day in a row I am ready for a little Alaska...

  10. Buddenbrooks-proof is a very high bar.

  11. That salmon is breathtaking.

  12. Fantastic fish! Very impressive. How do you get it home?

    YES send the pb and j recipe.

  13. I loved A Very Long Engagment, never heard of any of the other movies. Buddenbrooks is on my lifetime to-read list but the Germans are pretty far down toward the end.

    And I snorted when I read about your hotel experience -- I went to Paris about five years ago, and I stayed in a delightful small hotel on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. It was wonderful except EVERY NIGHT a drunk man would yell at the top of his lungs at about 3 a.m. Not sure if it was the same drunk or a succession.

  14. Please post the PB&J Cake recipe, if possible. It sounds delicious.



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