A Town So Nice

Posted July 23, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Do you know Walla Walla, sometimes referred to as “the town so nice they named it twice?” Fortunately I know it, I love it, and thanks to a very generous invitation I was able to spend this past weekend there,


attending the first annual Friends of James Beard weekend.*


The festivities began at the lovely old schoolhouse that is now home to L’Ecole winery, where at least 15 different bottles of wine were placed on each table “family style,” if you grew up in a wine-obsessed family. I took my friend Laura with me, and this is where she learned about dump buckets, as it was impossible to actually drink all of those wines, but imperative to at least taste them all.

DSC_8724L’Ecole alone could have supplied that many wines, but happily there were many wineries represented, and many winemakers on hand to be quizzed about and complimented on their wines.


Of course there was glorious food to go with all that wine,



prepared by, from right to left, Executive Chef of the Marc restaurant Antonio Campolio, his Executive Sous Chef Erik Johnson, and Chef Dan Thiessen, Director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute. Needless to say, we all left that first dinner in decidedly cheerful spirits.


We then spent three thoroughly enjoyable nights at the historic Marcus Whitman hotel. Here’s owner Kyle Mussman showing us a cool mural depicting not only the hotel but also other scenes from historic Walla Walla life.


The hotel is full of striking details, like the beautiful plaster-work on the ceiling here, made to look like carved wood.


I was lucky enough to spend a night in the cushy Eisenhower Suite. The interior has been completely restored, but President Eisenhower did sleep in this exact spot.


The next day we took a fascinating tour of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture, where director Tim Donahue showed us the ropes, and had us taste some student-made wine, which was surprisingly good.


Then Chef Dan Thiessen showed us around at the culinary program’s kitchen and dining room, where students were busy preparing our lunch.



They do nice work, those students. The wine and culinary programs are very interesting in that they aim to be entirely self-supporting by selling their products, through College Cellars, for the wine, and the culinary program actually runs a food truck from which it can do catering, as well as a student café.


Then Laura and I got a private tour of the stunning Corliss Estates facility,

DSC_8790where winemaker Andrew Trio showed us what winemaking looks like when a winery has all the money in the world, which I think Corliss pretty much does. In addition to the Corliss label, whose wines are indeed very good, they also produce another label, Tranche, with the idea of making an edgier product.


The Tranche bottling line was running while we were there. Tranche was my big surprise of the trip – I’d never heard of it before, and their wines turned out to be some of my favorites of the entire weekend.

DSC_8794Ending the weekend with a bang and a fizz, the chefs prepared a gin and plum sorbet for 120 guests, using liquid nitrogen. It had been scorching in Walla Walla the whole time we were there, averaging about 96°, and I can tell you that a huge vat of liquid nitrogen spilling and fuming onto the floor can really drop the surrounding temperature in a hurry. It made for a very cool finish to a hot weekend, in every sense. It’s a treat to be surrounded by so many dedicated professionals who are truly passionate about what they’re doing, and the delicious products of their efforts.

If you haven’t been to Walla Walla recently, and especially if you’ve never been at all, there couldn’t be a better time. Go, eat, drink, and be merry – it’s the Walla Walla way.

*Full disclosure: my trip was hosted by the charming Kyle Mussman at his beautiful Marcus Whitman hotel.

Moon Flies Free

Posted July 12, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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DSC_8693The super moon has gotten herself caught in the branches of this garden of earthly delights. Me, I wish I could find my way back to the garden from this, my lost place. I see it, but I can’t yet get there from here.

DSC_8698She rises above all terrestrial entrapments. She’s more buoyant than I am, I who see shadows everywhere I look, flickers out of the corner of my eye, presence in absence, no Shel anywhere but still, Shel everywhere.

DSC_8703She flies free, on her own path. I’m still seeking mine.

DSC_8713-001This is the first day since Shel died 14 weeks ago that I haven’t seen a soul. I’ve spoken on the phone, three times, but aside from people passing on the water, I haven’t seen another person. This has been my day to be super-alone woman, on the day of the super moon.

Thar She Blows

Posted July 6, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

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DSC_8607We’ve had a beautiful 4th of July weekend, our first without Shel. We kind of alternated between saying things like “Oh, Shel would have loved to see our new kayaks and see how Eric modified the boathouse to give them a snug home that I can get them in and out of” and “You know, if Shel were here, we’d never be eating lunch outside in the rain under the patio umbrella like the demented Northwesterners we are.”

DSC_8557-001The weekend started off with this procession of feathered friends, the baby goslings now almost indistinguishable from their parents, even though they’re just a few months old.

DSC_8589Then, early in the morning of the 4th, before Eric and Jessica and Jordan arrived, I thought I heard cries for help from out on the water. I went and looked, and saw a sailboat with several adults aboard, not going anywhere but not sinking, so I went back to my holiday baking. But then I heard it again, distinct cries of “Help! Help!” I went out with the binoculars and realized that the sailboat didn’t have any wind, and they also seemed unsure about how to set the sails, and their motor must have crapped out. Several motor boats passed them by, perhaps not hearing their calls, and then another sailboat, under motor, stopped to help them, and ended up towing them out of sight. First time I’ve seen something like that happen, and it really made me think about what I would have needed to do, besides call the Coast Guard, if they’d been in real trouble and no one else were around.

DSC_8598Once they were safely under tow I went back to my baking, and that baking resulted in this, an Internet baking meme if ever there was one. Possibly you yourself baked this patriotic cake too, whose recipe is here . I halved the recipe so that I could make it in a 9×13″ pan, since the recipe as written makes an enormous cake. Also I added a little almond extract to the batter, and the cake was pronounced to be delicious by those that devoured it.

But the most amazing thing that happened on the 4th occurred when I was too far from my camera to show it to you – the passage of two small gray whales right in front of the house. Jordan and I were on the beach watching Eric and Jessica give the new kayaks their maiden voyage, when WHOOSH, the spouts of two passing whales blew right in front of us. We were totally spellbound, and followed them down the beach for a while, until they swam out of sight. I’d heard that very occasionally whales come through here, but had never seen a single one. I’m so sorry that Shel didn’t get to see this – he would have been beside himself with joy, just as we were.

DSC_8631And then today, right after everyone had left, I was once again realizing that I live in the midst of incredible beauty, but I live alone with it. And I have to say that alone is probably my least favorite word in the English language right now. But suddenly I heard the unmistakable sound of a marching band, right outside my door. Astounded, I ran to look, and there, on the deck of a passing ferry, was in fact a band, playing a New Orleans kind of tune for what I assume were delighted passengers.

Thirteen weeks now since Shel died, the longest three months of my life. Time bends in the most peculiar way all around me, sometimes it seems that he was here with me just a minute ago, sometimes like he’s been gone for years. But right here and now there were whales, and a brass band, blowing me back into the present, which was a very great and much needed gift.

Slow Walnut Wine

Posted June 27, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: , ,

DSC_8552There’s a verb in French, patienter, that we don’t really have in English. It means to wait patiently, and you’re asked to do it often, like when you’re on hold on the phone with the notorious French bureaucracy, for example. The ATM will even tell you veuillez patienter, please wait patiently, as you’re waiting for your Euros to be dispensed. The French know how to wait.

And if you want to make this beautiful French walnut wine, called vin de noix, you’ll need to be patient too – actually, in this case what you need to do it hurry up and wait. Because you have to go pick the walnuts right now, meaning, in the next few days. The walnuts must be soft, easily pierced through with a needle, and in France the optimum day to do this is the day of St. Jean, which is June 24th. So I was already a couple of days late when I picked these this morning, but hey, the climate’s cooler here, and the walnuts are probably a little behind their French cousins. So, if you have access to a walnut tree, rush out now and gather 15 of  the small green nuts.

Making the wine is child’s play, and takes a matter of minutes. It’s waiting for the wine to be ready to drink that takes patience. First you let all the ingredients rest quietly together for about 40 days. Not so hard, right? But then you filter the wine and let it rest for another….year. And if you can wait two years, it will be that much better. So run right out and get the nuts, and then, veuillez patienter. It’s a lesson in French culture, both the waiting for and the drinking of, vin de noix, that’s completely typical and utterly charming. And yes, this recipe makes quite a lot, but you won’t be sorry you have it, and neither will all the friends you’ll delight with your bottled patience.

Abra’s Vin de Noix

15 green walnuts
3 large walnut leaves
5 bottles red wine (nothing expensive, but something good to drink)
1 bottle inexpensive brandy
3 star anise
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 pound of sugar

Cut the walnuts in half, or in quarters if they’re large. If they’re hard to cut, they’re already too old and the wine will be very bitter. Place the walnuts in a very large jar, or divide them among 3 half-gallon canning jars. Add the rest of the ingredients to the jar(s), cover, and place in a cool corner of your kitchen. Now wait for 40 days and 40 nights. The wine will darken in color, and if you want it even darker you can put it outside for a few hours on a sunny day or two and let it get a little sun. When the 40 days have passed, filter out all the solids and place the wine back into the jars, or into wine bottles if you like.

I know that you are going to want to taste it at this point, and if you do, it will be horrible. Horrible, I say. Undrinkable. Don’t despair, don’t throw it out, veuillez patienter. Set it aside in a cool, dark place and forget all about it for a year or two. When you taste it after that long wait, you’ll be overcome by deliciousness. This is a wine to drink with a simple, unfrosted cake, or to drink all by itself instead of dessert. I promise you that your patience will be richly rewarded.



Heavy Traffic

Posted June 21, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America


DSC_8480Although there’s a ton of boat traffic past my door each day, every so often something truly amazing floats by. This baby was breathtakingly enormous, so much so that I had to run and look her up.

DSC_8482 She turned out to be the Rainier, and Wikipedia tells me that she’s a fast combat support ship and is 764 feet long, which totally dwarfs the largest ferry that passes by here and is a mere 440 feet long.

DSC_8500And then, just a couple of days later, this item went by. I call her an item because, really, what could she be?

DSC_8507She looked like nothing so much as a giant floating garage. Neither Google nor Wikipedia enlightened me, and it’s a sad day in info-overload land when I come up blank like that. Does anyone care to hazard a guess?

Glamping it Up

Posted June 16, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: , , , ,

IMG_8368Nope, this little baby tent is not glamping. This is hard core, crawl in, crawl out, miserable camping, for which I am decidedly too old. Nonetheless, this is what I’d inadvertently signed up for when I agreed to go camping so that I wouldn’t be home alone for Shel’s and my 19th wedding anniversary.

Before I left home to head out to Cape Disappointment, I walked around the house, saying goodbye to Shel for the umpteenth time. This felt different. For two months I’d stuck close to our life here, keeping the home fires burning. Now I was venturing out to a place he’d never been. And camping: no way he’d ever have done that. It felt like a big milestone, and I was determined to be brave.

So when I found myself on my hands and knees on an air mattress, trying to crawl out of my tent in the middle of the night to pee, I admonished myself: bravery at all cost. When I woke up several hours before Eric and Jessica and Jessica’s family, and had to sit in the drizzle reading and shivering, because we hadn’t discussed how to make coffee in the morning, and because I couldn’t sit upright in the tent anyway, I swore that I’d be a good sport about it all. But within hours, I’d abandoned the idea of tenting for ever more, and persuaded them to move campsites so that I could ensconce myself happily


in a park yurt. Oh so civilized, with actual beds! A table, a heater, and even an electric light!

IMG_8517Now that’s my definition of glamping, and I’m totally hooked. A good night’s sleep, a lesson in using the propane stove early in the morning, and damn the raccoons, full speed ahead. From then on out I had a glorious time.

IMG_8372Being right on the coast, we had to grill oysters two nights in a row, the essence of succulent freshness.

IMG_8369We also grilled salmon (just layer butter, sweet onion, sprigs of fresh rosemary and sage, slices of lemon, salmon, and repeat),

IMG_8383and asparagus, just about the last of the season and oh so delicious cooked over a wood fire. There was also Crack Pie (which you should definitely make, from this recipe), and Hummingbird Cake, and chili, and fajitas, and then, the infamous Cooler Cleaning dinners. I absolutely 100% love cooking outdoors, there’s nothing better, no matter how humble the dish.

IMG_8402When we weren’t cooking, eating, and drinking far too much, we were down on the beach, which had an amazing heap of driftwood,

IMG_8409affording Eric the opportunity to square off with his future father-in-law Don

IMG_8411and Jessica to demonstrate her independence.

IMG_8412The sand showed me how easy it is to be entirely swallowed up, and I thought about Shel a lot, so gone now, not yet returning to the earth, his ashes in the closet with Toby curled up sleeping right beside them.

IMG_8419We spent a gorgeous afternoon at Hug Point, where despite the warnings about sneaker waves and rip currents

IMG_8418and Japanese tsunami debris

IMG_8460we were able to enjoy a fabulously beautiful beach,

IMG_8434that boasts a road blasted out of the rock in the 1930s for wagon traffic to round the point and travel up and down the coast, albeit only at low tide.

IMG_8443We saw all the usual, magical, beachy stuff like anemones,

IMG_8445bright seaweeds,

IMG_8453mysterious patterns drawn on the sand by the ebbing tide,

IMG_8465a gull eating a starfish bigger than its own head,

IMG_8471a handful of some kind of peculiar eggs that Jessica collected,

IMG_8475and the crazy artwork made by scurrying sand fleas.

IMG_8481We also admired beautiful rock formations,

IMG_8484including a jetty that took 30 years to build, and that narrowed the mouth of the Columbia River by several miles, in an attempt to reduce the number of shipwrecks that occurred there regularly.

IMG_8490The mouth of the river is four miles wide now, and is crossed via the prodigious bridge that joins Washington to Oregon. We spent our anniversary doing things that Shel would have enjoyed, going to the Maritime Museum in Astoria and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment, and I think that we all felt that he was with us.

IMG_8480But I have to confess that the feeling isn’t enough. I want to be able to get in my time travel machine and journey back to the days when Shel was healthy and happy, and bring him back home with me into these times, where we grope for his memory. Sometimes it’s just unthinkable that he’s not here.

But I know that if he were here I wouldn’t have gone camping, not even glamping, and that really was fun, sadness and all. And so I perceive that slowly I’m starting a new life, all the while wanting my old life back again. I might have to kick Jessica off that see-saw.

Show Me A Sign

Posted June 11, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , , ,

IMG_8507Shortly after Shel died, my friend Jenny brought me a candle shaped like a starfish. She told me that it came from Brazil and that it had been blessed by a shaman. I waited and wondered about when to burn it, and wondered whether it had any special powers, even though I’m not sure that I even believe in special powers.

This weekend I went camping at the coast with Eric and Jessica, and I’ll tell you more about that later. For now, I want to talk about the candle, and about Eric and Jessica. If you’re new to French Letters, Eric is Shel’s son, my step-son, although I think of him as my own. Our reason for being at the coast, I thought, was to be away from home on June 10, Shel’s and my 19th wedding anniversary. I wanted both to avoid and celebrate the day, in that complicated way that bereavement engenders. So we took the candle, and four regular votives to represent me, the two of them, and my son Jordan, our little family, with the starfish standing in for Shel, down onto the beach near sunset.

IMG_8509And of course, being us, we took a bottle of wine and some good cheese. We talked about Shel, and about love, and I cried more than I’d planned to. I said that 19 years ago we had said “so long as we both shall live,” and they reminded me that thus it had been. And I said to them that I so wished for a sign from Shel, because I hadn’t had a visitation, or a dream, or a vision, or any little thing that indicated that it wasn’t just a black hole into which he, and we all, disappear. And we watched the wind take the flames and still them, one by one, and we talked about how one day only one of us would be left, the last of us, until only one flame was left burning, and that one was Shel’s.

IMG_8431 Eric and Jessica have been together for seven years, since she was just 20 years old, and as couples do, they’ve had to go through a lot to get together,

IMG_8426but mostly they’ve landed on their feet,

IMG_8497and have remained high on each other, even in the very lowest times, like while Shel was dying. So I don’t know whether it was the wine, or the candle, or the sand between our toes, or the realization that life is so terrifyingly short, as we watched one candle after another blow out in the gentlest of winds, but this happened.

IMG_8510Eric and Jessica got engaged, with a beach grass ring, and me as their witness. And Shel, of course, in the form of that Brazilian shaman-blessed candle. So now, June 10, the saddest day of the year since Shel left me, has taken on a new meaning, now it’s also the day of hope for a new life, a new family, a new commitment to love everlasting.

But back to that candle. As I left the park today, headed for home, knowing that Shel wouldn’t be there waiting for me, a russet-colored bunny appeared by the roadside, just by my car. And even though I’m not a person who talks to herself, I said aloud “Oh, bunny!” And as the words flew out of my mouth I realized how many times I had said exactly that, because, now that Shel’s not here to chastise me for telling you this, I used to call him bunny, my bunny, only in private, of course.

I suppose that bunnies are a dime a dozen in the park, although we didn’t see any other in the four days we were there. And maybe red-haired bunnies are a dollar a dozen, but the fact is that we burned that Brazilian candle in Shel’s name, and a red-haired bunny looked me right in the eye, and Eric and Jessica decided to marry and have children and begin a whole new family.

I guess that sometimes a candle is just a candle, just as sometimes a bunny is just a bunny. But possibly, sometimes, it’s more than that. Sometimes it’s a beach grass ring, and a kiss in the sand, and hope for a new life.



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