The dimensions of wine country are complex and varied. The area could just as easily be called Old Truck Country or Bachelorette Party Country or Annoying Limos Everywhere Country. But none of those monikers compare to the No. 2 activity here: eating. If climate change hits and the wine business goes away, our region could easily be called Epicurean Valley. Food is as much a part of wine country as wine.
The tourists visit for the food and are always looking for the “unknown” special spot where there are no other tourists. The locals treat restaurant openings like the birth of a new baby and flock to see the new infant. The rock star chefs flock here to try new ideas and hope to get the spillover customers from the rock stars already here. The farmers markets and grocery stores are full of ingredients one doesn’t find on the shelves in Ohio. Reviews of restaurants are as well-read as movie reviews. At some of the top-tier restaurants, diners will sit for five hours, pay thousands of dollars and say THANKS! as they leave. At other semi-outdoor places, people will stand in line in the rain for an hour for a hamburger. And the restaurants are almost always booked so we have to eat at home.
Home cooking to some means firing up the barbecue. But in most homes the barbecue is not a kettle-shaped rusty Weber Grill with wet charcoal in the bottom left over from the last time. Most grilling here is done in what is appropriately called an “outdoor kitchen” and the actual grill looks more like a nuclear reactor than a barbecue. The outside area is great for the guy, talking sports or technology, drinking red wine and poking at something brown that is on fire. The inside kitchens are usually nicer than the outdoor kitchens because that’s where the “real” cooks reside. To my eye, the local home cooks can be divided into three categories.
First is the Double Black Diamond Cooks. They operate in a home kitchen that is full of marble, stainless steel appliances and brick pizza ovens. This type of cook is like a fearless conductor who treats a meal like a symphony. Not intimidated by difficult recipes or crazy ingredients like octopus ink, this cook will spend all day cooking very small meals like frisee salad with gizzard confit and lentils. I am not sure if I like some of the meals prepared by the Double Black Diamond types. I like to know what I am eating. Often, I leave these meals hungry.
The second local home chef is the Fraternity House Cook. I know this type best because I count myself in this breed. A fraternity house cook prepares basic meals for large groups of hungover people who are very grateful. The menu could include spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf or beef stew. A frat house cook must also be prepared to cook bacon and eggs for 20 on the morning after every holiday. Fraternity houses don’t actually exist around here, that I know of, but there are plenty of hungover large groups.
The third type of local home chef is the “Call the Caterer Cook.” For this chef no event is too large or too small to call the local caterer for a delicious delivery. I am not talking pizza here; this is the real deal for a real meal. Whether the home chef takes credit for the preparation of the meal is a variable based on who will be eating the food.
Some great chef once said, “If you can read, you can cook.” I guess in wine country it depends on what one reads.
Rich Moran splits his time between the city and wine country dreaming up fraternity house recipes.