Every time I go on “vacation” I feel like a jackhammer pummels the buttresses of my known world and shakes loose the filaments that fetter my identity to Seattle, my career, and the choices I have made in life that make me who I am. I put “vacation” in quotes because I can’t remember the last time I had a real one. Every time I hitch a ride in a plane, train or automobile of late, the agenda eclipses the pleasure.
Is the camera battery charged and the memory card depleted of photos of goat cheese dappled by midsummer light? Because god forbid I should forget to photograph every wind turbine and plate of chili along the way in case I choose to feature something. Are the business cards packed? Did I secure the coveted reservation at the newest restaurant in LA and have I invited the correct coterie to join me? Should I change my middle name to Networking? Isn’t the high-profile chef who just got the glowing New York Times review going to be on the cruise? MUST make it a point to share a cocktail or ten with him one evening.
While they can be fun, my work-for-pleasure trips are frequently filled with seventy-course tasting menus where I have the pleasure of feasting on delicacies like cow eyeball prepared in such a way as to fool me into believing it is filet mignon. I am never fooled. Of course it is imperative to keep the virtual world informed of my every bite, thought and shit lest they exercise the fickle free will of the fleeting nature of social media and unfollow me, unfriend me or worse, unStumbleUpon me forever more.
So I left for Idaho with deep jade in my eyes and my twitter finger at the ready lest an antelope cross my path or a roadkill pattymelt grace my plate all in the name of being a good social media citizen of the world. And then I discovered something called the “Edge Network.” This is the network people with iPhones are stuck with when they are outside most metropolitan areas. What that translates to is such utter frustration with your phone not loading twitter, instagram or downloading emails that you want to heave it out the window and watch it get swallowed by an aggressive tumbleweed.
But after the frustration comes a sense of calm. You compose pictures by blinking and burn them into your own head instead of missing the experience because you are behind a lens. The music of your youth inevitably wells up inside and you realize after you’ve been belting lyrics for half an hour that you know every word Steve Miller has ever written. You catch a new gleam in your child’s gaze when your husband tries to teach him a made-up song about Yakima as you’re driving by and he devilishly jumbles the words into “yucky mama” instead- a phrase he warbles loudly countless times throughout the trip.
At the end of the leisurely two days it took us to get from Seattle to Sun Valley, Idaho, the town where my father and my husband’s mother live, I had shed a lot of my obsession with connectivity and begun to think about how important it is to balance our modern notions of social relevance with tangible experiences. I realized that perhaps I babysit too much with Dora the Explorer and not enough with a janky old plastic swimming pool filled with cotton-mottled water from the shedding Cottonwood trees that line the Big Wood River. Is it really so important that I share every little detail about every small thing I put in my mouth with the world? I mean, I tend to put cool shit in my mouth, like a dish called the “Doublewide” that consists of two side-by-side corndogs drenched in steak chili (look for a highbrow version of this in an upcoming post), but is it so worth documenting it at the expense of missing a wide-eyed smile from my child?
I fear I’ve become one of those obsessive recorders of history, and yet, they are not the ones who make the history, are they? Oh, the perils of the pen. Or the laptop, as the case may be. As if cementing my decision to disconnect, my laptop decided to utter its last wheezy breath on Day 1 in Idaho. I tried turning it on and it sounded like the alternator of a Chevy Nova gaining trying to gain enough steam to turn over. And then, nothing. I was temporarily livid- what about editor’s deadlines, book proposals, and this very blog? But I let it go, took in a rodeo and small town parade, and watched my kid have the literal best time of his life running around naked for three days straight. And I cooked for old friends. It’s hard to excessively fuss with ingredients when you are in what some say is a world-class resort village but is really a cow town. Still, I wanted to share my food with friends who may not know the extent of what I’ve been up to the past few years. So I channeled the spirit of Salty Seattle but paired it with the tempered simplicity the trip to Idaho- ten hours but an era away- had taught me.
I made watermelon salad. If I had been at home in my gadget-heavy, chartreuse Caesarstone-covered kitchen, I likely would have compressed the watermelon. Then I might have spherified some of its juices and foamed truffle oil for the top. But instead I cut simple circles and squares of golden and ruby watermelon and laced them with prosciutto, truffle oil, and black sea salt. Some version of these ingredients should be available in most parts of the world. The quality of the truffle oil may vary from place to place, but this is something that can easily be ordered online and will keep in the fridge for longer than it will take to use it up. I placed a few segments of watermelon on a hot, oiled grill to give them a nice sear and the salad some contrast. If you haven’t grilled watermelon, you’d be surprised how well it works. It gives the melon a meatier, carpaccio-like texture. I especially liked that it provided welcome temperature variation against the slick cool of the raw melon.
This salad is versatile. For a frou frou presentation, do what I did and cube or disc your melons and prosciutto. If you need it to be stable for a forkless picnic, keep the rinds on the melon so that people can grab them with their hands. If it’s festive summer party-style salad, just hack the melon into whatever shapes you like and toss it in a big bowl with the oil, salt and prosciutto. It’s really all about experiencing the unlikely combination of flavors that get down and do the jitterbug on your palate. This salad represents the simple sophistication I strive for in summer. I hate to ascribe food to metaphoric levels, but this salad truly marries the aesthetic of the metropolitan kitchen with the lazy backyard bohemia of small-town life.
Truffled Watermelon-Prosciutto Salad
Serves 10, takes 1/2 hour
- Squares, circles, cubes or wedges from ½ watermelon total- I use 1/4 red and 1/4 golden
- ½ lb thinly-sliced Prosciutto (or Jamon Iberico or Serrano) torn into thirds or cut into artful shapes
- ½ tsp white truffle oil (try to find a brand that uses real white truffle instead of artificial truffle flavor)
- Sea salt- I prefer black Hawaiian for the color contrast and crystal structure
- Acceptable garnishes: small shiso leaves, mint leaves, or nothing, as it really doesn’t need it
- On a very hot, oiled grill, sear ¼ of the watermelon pieces. You don’t want to sear too many as they are meant more as a complement to the majority raw pieces.
- Arrange a mix of seared and raw watermelon pieces on a serving tray. Top each one with 1/3 slice of prosciutto. Drizzle a drop of oil on each one and dust the dish with salt to taste. I use the black salt here because the high contrast lets you know exactly how much you’re using and you don’t get an overzealous hand. I used a few shiso leaves to garnish, which you can do, or perhaps mint, but it is not strictly necessary.