One of the things we enjoy most on our trip is visiting family and friends along the way. Four weeks into our yearlong adventure and we’ve already visited five sets of family and friends in three states.
With more to come.
Most recently, we spent a delightful day with friends we knew in Phoenix years ago who now live in Pensacola. It started with Mike giving us a daylong tour of the city known as the “cradle of Naval aviation,” including a lovely walk through a special Veteran’s Memorial Park.
It also had Georges enjoying the 21st hamburger of his life at Maguire’s Irish Pub. It’s easy to keep track of the number because even after 38 years in this country he’s not much of hamburger fan. This is due largely to the difficulty he has in getting a truly rare burger, as is his preference, and to his disdain for the “cotton ball” buns they are commonly served in (as opposed to French baguettes). But Maguire’s chef knows his business: G pronounced the very rare sharp-cheddar-and-bacon burger “one of the best!”
We got to eat in the newly redecorated Blue Angels Room, draped in memorabilia to commemorate the service of Manager Perry Hunter’s late father and other Blue Angels. An added attraction: the estimated million-plus dollar bills hanging from the ceilings of the large and rambling restaurant.
But the highlight of this visit was dinner at Mike and Margaret’s home in Gulf Breeze that evening. We had nabbed some fresh salmon at Joe Patti’s Seafood market, a bustling counter of fish on ice that runs practically the length of a small cruise ship. It’s where all the locals go to buy the best and freshest fish. We’d brought some spicy headcheese pate from Louisiana for the appetizer, G stuffed the salmon with Brie for the main course and we finished the evening with a light and delicious tiramisu.
It was the dinner’s guest list that most impressed. Joining us was Margaret’s delightful 90-year-old mother, Marjorie, visiting for the winter from upstate New York, and Pensacola’s new bishop, Father Bill Wack, just promoted from his South Congress Street parish in Austin, Texas. Until very recently, Bishop Bill, 50, who would fare well in an Anderson Cooper look-alike contest, was the nation’s youngest bishop.
(Turns out there were personal connections beyond Texas; prior to Austin, Bishop Bill ran the Andre House, a Catholic ministry to the homeless in Phoenix, the city where I worked for nearly 23 years prior to moving to Dallas in 2002.)
We talked about everything around the table that evening – social customs, the joy of travel, religious traditions, racial tensions, political frustrations. Everybody was fully engaged, sharing experiences, asking questions, offering opinions. At the dinner’s conclusion, Bishop Bill blessed Mike and Margaret’s newly built home, per their request. It was a special moment.
The evening flew by. We bunked back in our Casita parked nearby (we prefer that to moving our clothes and toiletries back and forth) and were off the next day, armed with Mike’s tips and travel recommendations. As he predicted, the morning we spent at the Gulf Coast National Seashore between Pensacola and Navarre beaches was the scenery highlight of the trip so far.
G and I talked about that dinner, and how impressed we were by Bishop Bill’s aspirations, energy and openness, for days. What a pleasure to have spent time together that blessed evening.
Visiting friends can be a bit of an art form, of course. It’s wonderful to have time together, to reconnect with one another’s lives. There are stories to tell, challenges to confide, laughter to share.
But while we enjoy our friends’ hospitality (and laundry facilities), we’re careful not to impose or overstay our welcome. Our goal is always to bestow as pleasure as we receive, if not more.
As with my cousins in South Texas, Mike and Margaret in Pensacola, Colin in Vacherie and Jim in Mid-City New Orleans, Judy and Dave near the French Quarter of New Orleans gave us a real run for our money in that department.
It was 13-14 years ago that we we’d last visited Judy and Dave – pre-Katrina. Their home wasn’t as damaged as some, but still required renovation. I’d worked with them at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix years ago and kept up, loosely, with their careers since at the New Orleans Times-Picayune while she was the food editor and he the TV critic.
We enjoyed introducing Judy and Dave to our friend, Colin, with whom we were staying for a few nights in Vacherie, an hour west of New Orleans. Colin is my husband’s former business partner, a Louisiana native, dedicated Francophile and general all-around bon vivant.
G and Judy love to create in the kitchen. They started the evening by whipping up some good old-fashioned guacamole as an appetizer while Dave, Colin and I chatted in the other room, trading views about the world, the state of journalism, good books and bad movies.
In the kitchen, G looked for suitable pan to transform Judy’s port tenderloin from Costco into porc dijonaise with cabbage, bacon, apple and fingerling potatoes. G’s eyes lit up at the heavy orange pan in the back of Judy’s cupboard, the one from her late mother’s kitchen.
He recognized it immediately as Descoware, a precursor to Le Creuset, made in his native Belgium. G is as passionate about his cookware as race-car drivers are about their engines; these heavy porcelain-coated cast-iron pots and pans are his favorite for their even distribution of heat. (He takes special pride in having snagged a smaller yellow Descoware pan similar to this one years ago at a swap meet for $5.) It was even stamped “Made in Belgium” on the bottom.
We all enjoyed a special dinner that evening. We caught each other up about family and friends, reminisced about the past and speculated about the future — fueled by red wine, six kinds of cheeses after the main course and, finally, bananas flambé.
At the end of the evening, Judy handed G her mother’s pan and said simply: Take it.
I can’t take a pan that was your mother’s, G said. Yes, insisted Judy. My mother never used it; it’s too heavy. And I don’t either; it’s just taking up space in the back of my cupboard. Please take it, use it, enjoy it.
My husband is not often speechless; at this moment, he was as silent as a cloud on the beach. For a quick moment, tears welled.
We’re forced to travel light on this yearlong adventure in a 17-foot trailer. But we’ll make room for this pan. It will join four others tucked tightly into our cabinets. We’ve already enjoyed many a lovely meal from its bounty since our laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler soirée.
Every time Georges cooks with this pan, he smiles. I do too. We think of Judy and her mom, and it brings us special joy.