I am a steady rolling man.
Today’s adventures of Ralphie on the Road began in the second week of January 2008 with a simple grilled cheese sandwich outside of Willcox, Arizona and –- like a pungent aroma that leads you by the nose –- arrived at pedestals laden with fancy pants cheese 120 miles to the east in Silver City, New Mexico.
“A good, soft stinky cheese,” as M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her World War II memoir, How to Cook A Wolf.
On Friday, January 11 – with the Hollywood writers’ strike grinding forward, the first month in a year without steady work in which I crisscrossed the continent a dozen times –- I woke up in the back of my Tacoma pickup truck on the parking lot of a 24-hour House of Pancakes near Willcox. From there I drove east along Interstate-10 to Silver City, a town of 10,000 or so celebrated in a 1971 song by Ry Cooder about Billy the Kid.
To get to Silver City –- once an encampment for the Apache and then a small Spanish town known as San Vicente de la Cienega before American prospectors turned the volume up in the 1860s and named it for a precious metal -– head north on Highway 90 off of I-10 in Lordsburg in far southwestern New Mexico. It was while driving along Highway 90 that I learned my Aunt Betty had passed away in Berlin on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Betty Jones was born Elizabeth Feehley on November 11, 1929 and grew up catercorner from the Pratt Library Branch [circa 1886] on South Ellwood Avenue in Canton. She was the wife of my mother’s oldest sibling and only brother, Bill Jones. Uncle Bill took me to my first major league baseball at Memorial Stadium in 1967 and two years later brought me to see the first game of the 1969 World Series, the only one the Orioles won against the Mets, a 4-to-1 victory behind the late Mike Cuellar, a Cuban who once pitched for the Havana Sugar Kings.
As much as I remember the glorious baseball -– true Oriole baseball — I also remember Uncle Bill’s bottomless bag of homemade crab cakes, fabulous little balls of golden fried back-fin.
“I had a crush on Betty before I ever talked to her,” said Uncle Bill, remembering his days growing up in the 2700 block of Dillon Street near St. Casimir Church. “Once I was playing curb ball with my cousin Stanley, and she was walking down the street to visit a girl who lived on our block. Somebody hit a ball that when clear over my head when I wasn’t looking and Stanley says, ‘Either go talk to her or play ball …’”
Arriving in Silver City late on the afternoon of Friday the 11th, I pulled up in front of the Los Pinos Circle home of Eric Mithen, a Baltimorean who once painted a series of Dee Dee Ramone posters at my rowhouse on Macon Street. Together we published a handful of chapbooks featuring ourselves and other Crabtown writers, like one devoted to the recently departed Footlong Franks, stapled photocopies of content greater than the vehicle which carried it, pamphlets that I happily gave away at diners and gas stations on my treks across time zones.
I met Mithen in the spring of 2001 and before the summer was out his life had been changed forever through an immersion in the short stories of John Cheever. A few years and a marriage later, he left the humidity of Crabtown for the arid glare of the great southwest with his bride Andrea Riley, a Hopkins-trained nurse with a two-year commitment at a community hospital in Lordsburg.
“Baltimore’s last words to me were ‘Bitch Ass Nigga’ spray painted on the side of a moving van in Hampden,” said Mithen. “I waved it goodbye, and hit the gas for Silver City, a small, isolated town two hours north of the Mexican border. Once there, I began calling Silver a ‘one-Walmart town’ because of the bitter dependency we developed for the super store.”
Though mundane necessities in abundance at the Walmart on U.S. Route 180 — printer cartridges, cotton balls, DVDs nobody wants to watch, and cases of cheap drinking water – the cheese department is rather limited. But because Silver City has aspirations to be a mini-me of Santa Fe (an objective effectively blunted by the economy and an ornery streak in the locals) there is a gourmet shop downtown with the appropriately ridiculous name of the Curious Kumquat.
“We were happy to find a store that sold international foods in a town where auto parts shops outnumbered grocery stores,” said Mithen. “And no matter what I bought at the Kumquat, even if it was just pita bread, the owner would always ask what I was making.”
In time, the Crabtown expatriates would make the most of a Moroccan tagine, a clay cooking pot of various shapes (Mithen’s has a conical lid to circulate the steam) that lends its name to dishes found throughout the stories of Paul Bowles.
“Moroccan food requires a few ingredients you can’t get at Walmart, and the Kumquat had them all — saffron, pickled lemons, orange blossom water,” said Mithen, who used Kitty Morse’s Cooking at the Kasbah (Chronicle Books) to practice with his new cooking toy.
Before long, Rob Connoley, one of the Kumquat’s owners, was inviting Mithen and Riley to join a select group of Silver residents: the “Cut the Cheese Club.”
“Every other month they hosted a party featuring high-end cheese flown in from around the world and unveiled the night of the event. Club members could buy it wholesale – the only price of admission was a covered dish,” said Mithen, adding, with a sense of humor that finds Sifl & Olly on a par with Laurel & Hardy: “What’s not to like about good food and a fart joke?”
The club sometimes met in the courtyard of an apartment complex that had once been a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, the site selected because of Silver city’s thin, dry air at 6,142 feet above sea level. When I joined the group for a fromage unveiling on Saturday evening, the pageant of regal curds was held at Gallery 400 on Market Street.
In a note to my Mom back home in Linthicum, scribbled on the back of a disposable camera photo I took of the Buffalo Bar downtown, I wrote: “I bought a hunk of ‘Old Quebec’ for the road ahead. . .an Italian guy from San Francisco who runs a restaurant called ‘Spaghetti Western’ makes his own sausage using his grandfather’s stuffer . . . a long metal contraption. I told him about your Mom’s steer horn used to push kielbasa into casings … I’ve made some new friends and new readers … this is the life for me …”
[Old Quebec is an extra-sharp cheddar made of Canadian cow’s milk and aged a minimum of three years. It is not as crumbly as other aged cheddars and is fabulous when grilled between the kind of crusty bread baked at DiPasquale in Highlandtown, an experience far beyond the sandwich I got at the IHOP in Willcox. And far beyond even this: how often I have wished for cheese made from the rich milk of a reindeer mare – which provides no more than a cupful a day in the most productive part of the season – milk so fatty that when the cheese is made there is little trace of whey left over.]
The life for me: knowing I will enjoy reindeer cheese in the most unlikely situation if only I keep moving; a life of continually encountering the kind of people that Mithen and Riley didn’t meet as much as they would have liked before completing a two-and-a-half year commitment to New Mexico and moving to the shores of the Skagit River in Washington State.
Good people — both interesting and accomplished, even if the world has yet to catch up with those accomplishments; folks like Les Rubin and his schatzi Anette Wuensch, both of whom were “Cut the Cheese” regulars.
Anette works in mosaic and baked tiles in a backyard kiln that looks like a miniature Weber grill. Lucky for Mithen, he doesn’t get her kiln confused with his tagine. Silver City was good to Anette, with commissions for her southwest landscapes coming in from around the town and beyond. Though now in Seattle with Les, Gotham City calls her name.
Rubin -– an administrator who worked with Riley at the Lordsburg hospital — is what I like to call a “mitzvah-driven” man, someone who has chased good deeds around the world because the harvest is as fascinating as the workers are few. When I asked him about Jimmy Carter’s battle against guinea worm and other plagues, Rubin said: “Carter says exactly what he thinks. That’s rare today.”
Over three days in Silver City, I enjoyed three good meals with good friends, beginning the night of Friday the 11th at a restaurant combining the verve of southwestern food with the best of Italy by way of San Francisco. The place was called “Spaghetti Western,” and Jake Politte owned the joint, did the cooking, and ground and stuffed his own sausage. Politte’s roast chicken with rosemary and potatoes was about the best I’d ever had.
“I think Jake gets bored fast because in the two years we lived in Silver his restaurant closed and re-opened three times,” said Mithen. “At first the place was strictly Italian family style, where everyone sat at a large table, and you ate with strangers . . . you ate whatever he had decided to cook that night. You had to make reservations two weeks ahead of time to get in.
“He loved inviting people into the kitchen and dare them to name the ingredients in his new molé or custard. Every other month he left town to explore Oaxaca, shipping spices back to Silver. He once let me taste a red pepper that looked like a dark red pea. Dry and hard. I cracked it open and out came the type of seeds you find in any pepper. I tasted one seed, and the heat ruined my mouth for the rest of the night.
“Jake laughed and went out behind the building for a cigar … sitting back there in a lawn chair looking up at the sky, cigar smoke curling around him …”
Though Mithen often has a hankering for Politte’s pasta with homemade sausage, he doesn’t miss the guy who prepared those plates. The characters who continue to live in his imagination include Robert “Buck” Esslinger and Tim Rader.
Buck is a pensioner from Nebraska with a knack for finding petroglyphs –- images of snakes, deer, tricksters, and ghosts — scratched into rock by Native Americans back before white men began blasting through those rocks for silver.
“Tim Rader is on my list too –- he tells stories you can’t make up,” said Mithen. “He’s a Silver City native who moved around but always came back to Silver. When he was a kid, he would punch holes in a tin can with a nail and lay out at night looking up at the sky through the can — trying to line up the holes with stars in the sky . . .”
Photos: Macon Street Books