I’ve never tried a long-distance relationship, unless emotional distance counts the same as air miles (I’m not naming names — please do not try to parse this post for clues). But when you share handfuls of common interests with someone — love of nature, oysters, all other seafood, all other food, socializing, wine, parties, adventuresomeness (there really is no better word), competitive party games, otters — you try to find a way to make it work. And while there might be a lack of the refreshing novelty of actually going on regular dates with the person you’re dating, it’s offset in a rather delicious way by a sense of anticipation and the fulfillment of packing a month’s worth of togetherness into one week. Sometimes it results in reckless behavior (a midnight drive onto a mountain of oyster shells?), sometimes it results in moments of sheer bliss that will be part of your life always (a midnight drive onto a mountain of oyster shells).
In our (so-far) three week off, one week on schedule, Oyster Man Dan and I usually try to cram three to five of our common denominators into the schedule, and on my visit north at the end of February, we managed to wedge them all in. There was a trip up the mighty Columbia River Gorge, consumption of land and sea noms, wine in friends’ kitchens and vodka in his, sleeping in a trailer in the rain, a shirtless bean-bag toss (him), a couple of small parties and one large one.
Playing in the rain at the Sou’Wester Lodge.
And if you count our party guests, there were even otters — OMD’s term for Homo sapiens with the characteristics of Lontra canendensis — playful and social — with a fondness for aquatic nourishment and probably an occasional trip down a waterslide.
Dan’s plan was an “Upstairs/Downstairs” party at his house, taking place near the end of my visit. We’d serve Oysterville Sea Farms oysters, of course, and I’d make a seafood stew,a stress-free centerpiece thanks to my recent Hipcooks class, using OSF clams and whatever else was locally fresh and available. Dan’s friends (and my PNW contingent of Hilary and company) — otters all — RSVP’d with a hearty “yes!” followed by “what can I bring/cook/do to help?”
Dan and I played during the week, but also did our daily work (his on the bay, mine on my laptop), and shopped and readied the house for the growing gathering — which included the reorganization of a not small quantity of furniture. And while not all party prep includes installation of a new toilet seat, every gathering is enhanced by a conversation starter. Food and sports are so jejune. A resin toilet seat embedded with fishing lures — that’s worthy of adult conversation.
Another thing OMD and I have in common is that we love to delight our party guests, but Dan knows how to achieve this on an industrial scale. Every morning of my visit, he would joyfully proclaim, “This party’s going to be huge!” and I added another pound of cod or bottle of vodka to the shopping list. I baked two Butterscotch Pudding Cakes in advance — the first one with the wrong ingredients, the wrong proportions, in the wrong kind of oven and for the wrong cooking time. It was edible but unpresentable. I’m a stunt baker — sometimes it’s accidentally brilliant, sometimes I crash. The second one turned out fine.
Butterscotch Pudding Cake Done Right
I have no idea the origins of this recipe, which has been a clipping in my recipe binder for 20 years. If you can claim it is yours, I would be happy to attribute.
1 (1 oz.) package instant butterscotch pudding mix
2 cups milk
1 (18 1/4 oz.) package yellow cake mix
1 (6 oz.) package butterscotch morsels
Prepare pudding mix in bowl with milk as directed on package. Stir in cake mix. Beat in eggs, adding 1 at a time. Continue to beat 2 minutes.
Pour into greased and floured 13×9 inch baking pan. Sprinkle with butterscotch morsels.
Bake 1t 350 degrees until cake pulls away from side of pan, about 35-40 minutes.
We consulted on the menu over a bottle of 14 Hands “Hot to Trot” Red in the kitchen of OMD’S foodie friends John and Virginia, who offered up Virginia’s famously delicious crab cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, and John’s Cajun-seasoned fish tacos. Somewhere in our conversation of seasonings, recipes and seafood selection, their 8 year-old son, Ethan, begged us to “Stop talking about your party, you’re making me hungry!” Yeah, we were getting hungry too.
The toilet seat securely installed, the day of the party was finally upon us. The “Upstairs” would be the main bar and gathering space, offering the sigh-inducing view of the Willapa Bay warmed by the reflected sunset. The “Downstairs” — well, besides living on the edge of heaven, Dan has one other thing I’m jealous of — a first-floor production kitchen, which has a day job as the home of his Willabay Specialty Foods. Here is where much of the party fare would be prepped, and outside would also be home to the kegs and buckets of wine, beer and sodas and proximity to the inevitable bonfire.
John and Virginia arrived early with enough equipment to outfit their own production kitchen — grills, gloves, aprons, knives, and an excellent playlist, and went to work on an assembly-line of party food.
RD Williams and Randy Finley showed up with a keg (11 liters!) of Randy’s Mount Baker Vineyards “Mountain White.” Besides producing excellent wine, Randy Finley is worth a blog of his own. Someday I’ll see that he consumes too much of his own product so I can get to the heart of his best stories — one of which involves an evening at Tippi Hedren’s house, two baby lions and a pair of Weimeraners.
On the other side of the spectrum generationally and agriculturally, but with the same dedication to artisanship, Erik and Michelle Svendsen arrived with five gallons of their small-batch craft brew which was developed for a local restaurant that’s launching its own brewery. We were lucky to be able to preview the St. Helen Scottish Ale — dark, rich and caramely and which goes down just a bit too easily. I usually start out with beer and move to something distilled — this night I went the other way — Erik’s brew drinks as smoothly as cream soda. It’s a true craft beer and I know it will be a hit when it premieres in early April at the Lost Roo.
Soon guests began arriving in clusters. Bill and Lynn showed up with Bill’s incredible duck and goose jerky and a box of fixings for his famous margaritas. (I thought mine were the best but I have to admit that his are finer.) Charlene brought a divine appetizer of brie, tomatoes and basil served with a fresh baguette; the Olympia/Seattle crew came bearing a kale salad and beautiful platters of cheese, fruit and desserts.
Dan passed trays of his impeccable oysters which he’d shucked and steamed, serving them chilled with just a dab of cocktail sauce.
Why yes, we are dating.
I set out plates of bacon-wrapped dates — again, adapted from my Hipcooks class: pitted Medjool dates stuffed with a candied cashew, a dab of fresh goat cheese, wrapped in bacon and broiled. These hot, creamy, salty little sugar bombs are easy to make and hard to stop eating.
Virginia made a grand entrance with plates of her delectable crab and salmon cakes — the most meltingly tender I’ve ever had, with their homemade roasted red pepper mayo. The salmon cakes were made with John’s hand-canned smoked salmon — an addictive treat that deserves a spotlight itself (next party, perhaps?).
Hipcooks instruction, this seafood stew was incredibly easy to make without a recipe. I used red, yellow and orange bell peppers, green jalapeños, a few yellow onions, a head of garlic, a bag of beautiful, tiny ruby potatoes, three bottles of Trader Joe’s saffron (cheap and delish), some water and a liter of Fetzer white wine. For seafood, besides Dan’s clams, I’d found fresh rockfish, a beautiful filet of Alaskan salmon, and a package of frozen razor clams, which work just fine in a stew.
Two things I learned in the prep — always slice your onions before you put on your party makeup, and always wear gloves when chopping large quantities of jalapeños. The mascara got repaired, but my hands throbbed all night!
John and Virginia set out the blackened tilapia, which we served with corn tortillas, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce and cabbage and two sauces — remoulade made with mayo, Creole mustard and seasoning, hot pepper sauce, horseradish and a squeeze of lemon, and chili lime milk/mayo, for Baja taco purists (me).
Things that were funny early in the evening got funnier (toilet seat), things that shouldn’t have been funny got hilarious (the reclining sofa was good for 20 minutes of giggles). I was missing Dan but when I looked out the window into the peninsula pitch black and saw the flickering birth of a bonfire, I both knew I’d found him and that the night hadn’t yet drawn to a close.
Satiated guests eventually trickled out, a few diehards willing to stand the chill and fan the bonfire. It provided just enough warmth to keep us outside in the brisk air, allowing us to to gaze at the light show — the Milky Way blanket of stars in the infinitely deep northwestern sky.
The next morning, there was so much food left over that I sacrificed the first cake, tossing it in the yard for the birds. We watched the workers arriving at the cannery and ate hot bowls of Caldeirada as we recalled the frivolity of the night before — Dan seeing folks he hadn’t seen for too long, my meeting his circle of friends and being able to draw my dear ones into it, both of us feeling blessed by their presence. We watched the crows and seagulls fight over my bad baking experiment and Dan said, “We must be rich — we can throw away cake!” Rich indeed.
Stew with a view
The party was like a compressed version of my visits to Oysterville — the anticipation and buildup, an intense period of fun, the afterglow which makes the mornings or days after pass more happily, if not more quickly.
I’m finishing this post as I’ve returned from a second visit north two weeks later — a month apart was too long. And while cramming two weeks of missing into five days has been rich and rewarding, I wonder how different it would be if we were seeing each other daily — why shouldn’t it be the same way? With any kind of relationship — lover, friend or family, shouldn’t we always try to access those moments of joy and pack as much life into our lives as we can? Easier said, perhaps, but definitely easier done when you’re surrounded by the generosity of otters.
OYSTERVILLE UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS PARTY
Shucked, Steamed & Chilled Oysters with Cocktail Sauce
Virginia’s Crabcakes & Salmon Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Bacon-wrapped Dates stuffed with Caramelized Cashews & Goat Cheese
Charlene’s Brie, Tomato & Basil with Crusty Bread
Bill’s duck & goose jerky (and margaritas)
Elayne & Sarah’s fruit & cheese
Sally & Ty’s kale salad
Caldeirada with garlic croutons
Cajun-seasoned Tilapia fish tacos with chile/lime/mayonnaise and remoulade sauces
Hilary’s Ina Garten Lemon Cheesecake & Salted Caramel Brownies
Butterscotch pudding cake