Feeding Jamestown

This week when word came that Jamestown was experiencing a 100-year flood, I behaved at first like an ebullient school kid on a snow day. Believing all the water was just one more challenge of mountain living, I let myself feel elated because I wouldn’t have to drive the 20+ miles to work.  I pulled out my 1-burner camp stove, headlamp, battery powered lantern and candles, preparing for power outages and then let my imagination wander over the kinds of food I would make with the combination of propane stove and gas grill.  I’d write a blog titled:  “What to eat in a 100-year flood.”  My list?  Buckwheat banana pancakes, grilled Chicken with truffle salt and garlic, one-pot mashed potatoes mixed with (leftover) cauliflower cream, grilled Gorgonzola and apple pizza.  I’d start by using the things from my fridge that would spoil first and still manage to make terrific meals. It didn’t matter that the road in both directions was cut off; I’d build a fire, collect water, and make lovely food.

Then, as reports started to seep in of the absolute devastation being suffered by my friends and community just 4-miles down canyon, I lost my appetite.  Lost, I heard, was Joe Howlett’s home to a mud slide, and with it, dear Joey, the former owner of the Jamestown Mercantile for whom I cooked for many years.  More stories of wreckage and ruin poured in:  Houses disappearing into the current, others off their foundation; Jamestown Main street gone, replaced by a furious river running through town dividing survivors on either side. Helpless to do anything but stay put, I listened in the following days as Blackhawk

Photo by Ted Krohn for CBS News

helicopters slice the air overhead and lifted my friends to safety from what was now the ruins of the little town that has been both my home base for almost 20 years. Suddenly, my need to eat or not was replaced by the need to feed. In circumstances like this, the instinct is to reach for something familiar, and having something warm and home-cooked and prepared with loving hands can cover over so many wounds. 

For my friends, I offer the following, with the hope that I will see you very soon.

For Deborah whose lower main house is now surrounded by water and who has lost the most beautiful flower, medicinal herb, and sculpture garden in Jamestown, I would make a satisfying but light corn chowder made with corn de-kernaled from the cob and sautéed with and thyme, bay leaf, and chopped sweet onion. This, I would let simmer in chicken stock before cooling and blending until thick and smooth. The chowder would be served in hand-thrown Italian pottery decorated with hedgehogs and carousel horses because Deborah, an artist, loves beauty and whimsy. There will of course be lots of fresh-baked bread melting with sweet cream butter and a arugula salad with truffle oil, lemon and shaved Parmesan.

For Helen, still stranded in a remote part of Left Hand Canyon without power and phone, I would make something warm and meaty and comforting to welcome her back to the world, something like Basque Beef Stew with polenta which is rich and brothy and requires a whole bottle of wine. To make it, I’d pat individual pieces of stew meat dry and then brown them a bit at a time in a thick enamel cast-iron pan with olive oil before adding finely chopped garlic, carrots, celery, and onions to the pan to brown and gather the meat flavors.  I’d take my time, opening a bottle of wine, putting on some Beethoven or Debussy, and enjoy the cooking, the chopping, the sound of meat sizzling in the pan, the rich aroma of wine stewing the meat.  I’d let the cooking come over me, thinking of Helen’s look of surprise and delight at the first taste of beef, mushroom and wine soaked polenta. 

For Nancy, who did lose her beautiful blue house, I’d make buttermilk fried chicken from thighs and legs I’d soaked for 24 hours, and mashed potatoes made with Yukon golds and garlic and sour cream, and read poems about heartbreak and loss until we’d cried a river of our own, and then I’d get up and put on some the blues, starting with Billie Holliday and moving to John Lee Hooker, and and dance with Nancy until we fell exhausted on the floor. Then we’d pick ourselves up and start the business of rebuilding.

For Rainbow, one of the best cooks I know, who owns and operates the Jamestown Mercantile which is the heart of Jamestown, I’d make shrimp and grits from Oak at Fourteenth.  The ingredients are simple, but the taste is mind-blowingly good and that’s the kind of food Rainbow makes—things like seared scallops with a meaty beet juice or her famous rosehip chicken made with rosehips picked from James Creek.  The shrimp portion of this recipe is made from pureed and cooked fennel, carrots and celery with three kinds of chili and then simmered with broth from the shrimp shells. 

I’ve only had it twice and tried to approximate it once from memory, but I dream this shrimp and grits recipe made with Parmesan cheese and cream and bake for an hour.  The flavors or so good you want to slow down with every bite and let the flavors wash over you.  Tucked in for a yummy plate of this kind of soul food, I’d open a bottle of icy crisp Chardonnay and drink until neither of us could stand.

Three hundred people count Jamestown as their home.  As many as 50 decided to stay and stand their ground and begin the work of shoring up what’s left. There’s a lot of work to be done in the weeks and months to come before even the first evacuated residents will be able to get back to the homes that are left standing. And then there will be debris to be cleared, roads to build and damage assessed before rebuilding can begin. But once we’re back together there will be music, and yes, plenty of food.

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