By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
It’s hard to believe this is my 50th column in the Reader. Fifty columns! Though I’ve written most from right here in Sandpoint, I’ve also tapped out words in several airplanes, an old Irish pub in Dublin, poolside in Florida, from rooftop apartments in Chicago and D.C. and creekside at a mining camp-turned rustic retreat in Montana.
While I try to incorporate a few stories about the local food scene, I’d originally planned to write more about our area eateries and offer reviews. Part of the reason I didn’t was simple logistics and timing related to my work schedule, but I was also reminded, as I listened to my buddy Beth Pederson and her musical partner Bruce sing the John Prine lyrics, “In a town this size, there’s no place to hide.” It is a small town, with a lot of hard-working restaurateurs trying to eke out a living in the highly competitive food business. I’m fortunate to call several of these folks my friends or neighbors, and there are many whom I’ve called upon repeatedly for donations that benefit our community. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen myriad social media reviews which are often biased, judgmental, and at times, downright hurtful, so I decided I’d steer clear of the review angle. If I have a less than perfect experience in any local eatery, I am quick to point it out, get it fixed and let it go. And I hope you’ll do the same.
I am often asked how I come up with story ideas and recipes. The truth is, I am full of stories, and most revolve around a food memory. Committing recipes (that mostly live in my head) to paper is the most time-consuming part of the process and involves a lot of recipe deconstruction. After I “eyeball” an ingredient’s measurement, I toss it in a bowl, measure it back and jot down the amount(s). Ryanne agrees that my baking time advice of, “when you can smell it, it’s done,” is probably not sound instruction for a column, so I often need to bake a batch of whatever to document the baking time.
The most daunting part of the process is the photography, and there’s only so much one can do with an iPhone camera. For years, my (lack of) photography skills have held me back from a fun, clever and insightful food blog, and I am reminded whenever I take a photo of Casey’s daughterly advice: It’s quality, Momma, not quantity.
My “home team” help with suggestions and a lot of unsolicited advice. I sometimes need to remind Casey, a former editor for the SHS Cedar Post (who once wrote for the Reader herself) that I am not looking for a James Beard award, I just need a quick opinion about something. She can’t. Her email reply is sometimes longer than the intended column. U of I journalism professor and son-in-law Russ dutifully reviews every single column before I submit it to Ben and Cameron, and his professor-wife keeps me free from story embellishment. In an early column about delivering food by helicopter, Ryanne suggested I tone it down. Clearly, I pointed out to her, I wasn’t leading readers to believe I was parachuting into a fire with a breakfast bag in each hand, but I did acquiesce to my oldest (and bossiest) child’s recommendation and did a little rewrite.
These kids are all filled with journalistic integrity, so it’s necessary that I keep my exaggeration to a minimum. After many, many years (and tears) in the food business, I don’t have to make this stuff up. The years I spent as a private chef, traveling with billionaire clients on private rail cars or in their vacation homes provided me with some great material. My ranch years are rich with food related memories, and even before that, as an inquisitive latchkey kid armed with a stove and my mother’s cookbook, “Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking” by Meta Givens (which I still have and covet), I discovered the world of cookery.
Committing these stories to paper is sometimes trying, though always enlightening, and I surprise even myself with some of my public disclosures. People often call me for recipes, so sometimes I work up an appropriate column simply to share a recipe I know someone would enjoy, including my own kids who’ve beseeched me with recipe requests. Though it’s been 20-some years since I left Missoula, I still have two friends who call at least a couple of times a year with a request.
When I was studying for certification through the American Culinary Federation, I devoured cookbooks like novels and discovered that as much as ingredients, the secret to most good recipes is technique. I have some great recipes I haven’t yet shared because it’s difficult to articulate the process on paper when I haven’t figured out how to incorporate the hand and arm gestures.
There’s always something cooking in my kitchen. As anyone who drops in knows, you’ll usually be met with a spoon and a directive, “Here, taste this.” This was a particularly busy week in my kitchen. On Sunday, I cooked all day long to prepare a few meals for someone who needed them. I am drawn to the comfort foods of my youth when I prepare nourishment for a friend, and the menu will usually include a batch of my own mom’s potato salad. As I dutifully measured everything for this week’s recipe, I was reminded of two things: I feel honored when called upon to share my gifts of food, and you can’t make good potato salad with cold potatoes. If you decide to make a batch, remember technique is important, so whip it up with warm potatoes.
Feeds a dozen or so potato salad lovers. Make the night before and use good, firm Russets and large, fresh farm eggs.
• 4 lbs Russet potatoes, washed and whole
• 1 dozen large eggs, hard boiled and peeled and diced
• Four stalks celery, washed, strings removed and chopped (save leaves for garnish)
• ¼ cup finely chopped chives
• 1 ½ cups Best Foods Mayonnaise
• ½ cup cream
• ½ cup thick sour cream (or Greek yogurt)
• 2 tsp salt (additional salt for cooking pot)
• 1 tsp white pepper
In a large pot, add potatoes in their jackets, and add enough water to cover potatoes, add salt cover pot with lid, boil potatoes until tender (about 20 minutes, when a knife will slide through with ease) Drain well and leave in the pot until they are cool enough to handle.
Slide skin off potatoes, cut out any blemishes and crumble into medium chunks. Place into a large bowl, add the diced eggs and chopped celery, toss to combine.
In a separate deep bowl, whisk until smooth: Mayonnaise, cream, sour cream, chives and salt and pepper.
Pour dressing over salad and mix well. Taste to correct seasoning. Chill overnight. Garnish with celery leaves and a sprinkle of chives.