Thursday, February 28, 2008

Today, I Find Inspiration in Everything

Today, the sun rises triumphantly over the fields next to my house. We have had few sunny days this winter, so the sight is breathtaking.

Today, I enjoy watching my dog chase a ball once or twice, then prance off to sniff more interesting things (she is not much of a ball dog).

Today, I notice the cool, soothing feeling of the milk as I eat my cereal.

Today, I silence the alarm bell on my email and respond to emails when I am ready, not every time I receive a message. I am not a slave to technology.

Today, I let the warm water from the shower linger on the back of my neck for just a few extra seconds.

Today, I dwell on happy thoughts and moments. I am present, relaxed, and alert, acknowledging the blessed life that I have.

Today, I give someone I love a hug and tell them how much they mean to me.

Today, I enjoy the sound of the scissors as I get my hair trimmed. The new, healthy strands make me feel refreshed and confident.

Today, I watch the birds at the feeder outside my kitchen window, grateful for their little noises and bodies. The world would be a very dull place without them.

Today, I Find Inspiration in Everything I can.

How do you find inspiration in your daily life?

Monday, February 18, 2008

My Budding Writing Career

Friends, today I wish to share with you my most recent article written for Hagerstown Magazine. It has been a pleasure to write for this outstanding publication, and to find a vehicle to enhance my budding career as a writer. I had the great fortune to do a dining story on the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant in my own town of Mercersburg. My husband, Ryan, was assigned the photography, and we had a great time working on an assignment - and eating delicious food - together. I highly recommend this restaurant to any of my readers in the area. The article will appear in the May/June issue (and it may be slightly different than the version below). Hope you enjoy it!

Photo © Ryan Smith
New Orleans Finds a Home in Mercersburg:
The James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant
By Larissa Chace Smith

It is a clear, cold night on the cozy streets of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania when I step into the handsome foyer of the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant. For a moment, I feel as though I am stepping into someone’s grand home one hundred and fifty years ago. “Home” is exactly what owners John and Deniz Celestin want your experience at their establishment to feel like. “We want people to feel they have a stake in this place,” says John, as he sits next to his wife at the table with us. This is, in fact, their home – they live in an apartment attached to the hotel – and they are thus accessible to their restaurant and hotel patrons around the clock. This profession takes a special person, or people, and the demands are unceasing. But Deniz and John are tireless, greeting customers with curious, heartfelt smiles. They even take the time to sit, chat, and eat with my companions and me.

As the food is served, the owners’ attention to every detail, ingredient, and gastronomical emotion gives me pause. Their love for food, and the experience of dining, is reflected in the thorough descriptions of menu items by the wait staff, as well as the delights that arrive from the skilled hands of Chef Andrew Thornton. Thornton was recruited by the Celestins, having grown up in New Orleans working in kitchens since the age of fourteen, and attending a top culinary school. The soft candlelight and air of antiquity in the room slow my thoughts and allow me to focus on the food alone as I try the first dish, a Roasted Corn and Crab Bisque, sprinkled with fresh herbs. Time is irrelevant in this place; the weight of austere tables juxtaposed with lofty pushed-tin ceilings give me balance as the rich bisque fills my stomach. This is what makes dining at the Pub better than home.

Deniz Celestin sits next to me with her hands folded, recounting the serendipitous tale that brought her and her husband from New Orleans to Mercersburg. Her deep, Turkish eyes add to the intrigue as she describes the sequence of events from the moment when Hurricane Katrina hit, to the couple’s decision to move to Maryland to be close to Deniz’s family. When they began to research potential properties in the area, the couple stumbled upon Mercersburg. They were immediately struck by its charm and semblance to a “Norman Rockwell painting,” and decided to look into buying a condominium at nearby Whitetail Ski Resort.

This is where they met Judy Bonciu, real estate agent and owner, at the time, of the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant. Judy suggested the Celestins eat at the Pub, and they were enchanted with how the building’s late-eighteenth century architecture and décor reminded them so much of New Orleans. While they were dining, they discovered that the establishment was for sale, and the wheels immediately started turning. “The idea happened fast,” Deniz says. “The conviction was strong.” Before they knew it, the Celestins were proud owners of the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant. They officially opened on May 30, 2007, offering a new menu, infused with New Orleans and European flavors.

The velvety strains of Bossa Nova dance around the warmly lit, but moody dining room, giving it a cosmopolitan air. Fleur-de-lis emblems on menus accent the room with a New Orleans flourish. Meanwhile, statues of monks, heavy candlesticks, drawings of wild game, and antique portraits in gilded frames provide old-world charm and the comfort of tradition and historicity. One really does get a sense of how many different beings and cultures have left their mark on this place. After the delicious Bisque, a cornucopia of appetizers are brought to our table, complimented by a basket of German ryes served with fresh-whipped butter and a dish of balsamic vinegar in olive oil for dipping, sprinkled with fresh parsley. It is the use of fresh herbs that makes each dish so outstanding, whether they are sprinkled on top or incorporated into the dish. Chef Andrew employs a host of local, seasonal foods, rarely using anything from a can; his attention to detail and respect for food are eminent in every morsel.

The Seafood Gumbo is my next epicurean sampling. Made with a dark, rich tomato-bacon roux, this New Orleans tradition features shrimp, oysters, crawfish, and fresh herbs and spices. A mound of white rice and fresh chopped scallions rests in the center. The restaurant offers a Gumbo Du Jour, synonymous with many New Orleans households wherein a different gumbo is made each day using whatever ingredients happen to be available. This delicious stew is followed by the Barbeque Crab Claws. Grilled focaccia triangles are angled artistically on top of the heap of claws, ready to be dipped into the perfectly spicy rosemary butter sauce. This finger food offers a medley of flavors that blends marvelously with the tender Blue crab claws, sprinkled with fresh parsley.

The Celestins offer me a glass of wine, and I decide on a glass of the Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc, based on the Chef’s recommendation for a crisp white to compliment the smorgasbord he is preparing for us. I eye the small platter of homemade Gnocchi Parmaggiano, sitting in a reduced cream sauce - a dozen or so round puffs of potato-y goodness. One by one they melt in my mouth, the shaved Prosciutto di Parma and pine nuts adding a welcomed bit of crunch to each mouthful. This is one of Deniz’s favorites; having lived in Italy for a time, she enjoys these hints of Italian authenticity in the menu. My own personal favorite – and one of John’s as well – is a special that evening: the White Wine Poached Eggplant. No ordinary eggplant dish, this delicacy is poached a creamy, ochre color, surrounded by a butter sauce. Crab, shrimp, and fresh parsley sit purposefully on top of the lovely eggplant slice. The flavor is utterly surprising – the eggplant provides a hint of melon to the rich sauce. It is a perfect mélange of European and exotic elements.

I am still swooning from the appetizers when three salads arrive: a classic Caesar with a peppery anchovy and raw-egg dressing, sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and crunchy croutons; a baby spinach salad with a light, creamy gorgonzola bleu cheese vinaigrette, topped with red onion, grapes, crispy bacon, and candied pecans; and a Mediterranean salad made with field greens, olives, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts, topped with large squares of feta and a light, fresh Cacik dressing – one of Deniz’s mother’s famous recipes. All the dressings are homemade, and the greens are fresh and brilliant. But there is more to come!

Our entrees arrive piping hot from the kitchen. We sample a delicious Bouillabaisse, made with shrimp, clams, scallops, and monkfish, sprinkled with fresh herbs. Accompanying toasts, drizzled with a zesty red cream sauce, are perfect for soaking up the buttery saffron broth. The Crab Cakes, served with a roasted red potato mash and buttery green beans, are made with huge lumps of crabmeat, with just a bit of crispness on the outside. A platter of Tri Tip Sirloin is served on a bed of sweet potato risotto and green beans. The meat, seared to perfection, has a hearty, natural flavor that blends wonderfully with the hint of sweetness in the risotto.

Meanwhile, our vegetarian companion enjoys a mouthwatering plate of Portobella Mushroom Penne in a pesto cream sauce, not yet aware of the surprise that awaits her. One of the many highlights of the evening is a beautiful vegetarian dish Chef Andrew has created just for her: a polenta cake topped with grilled tomato, beet cooked two ways, and fresh parsley, surrounded by a whimsical drizzle of a dark balsamic reduction. It is truly a sight to behold, and our friend cannot stop smiling as she finishes every last bite.

This is just one of the ways in which the Celestins – together with Chef Andrew – make the Pub a unique place to experience the joys of food and life. Though reception to the new ownership has been warm and welcoming, John and Deniz continue to work ceaselessly to quell any misconceptions people may have about Cajun food. After all, “Cajun” need not imply hot and spicy. A child and family-friendly establishment, John and Deniz welcome everyone to come to the area’s “home” for New Orleans fare and give their offerings a try. As Chef Andrew poignantly remarks, “Come with an open mind, and an empty belly!”

Need to Know…
James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant
15 N Main Street
Mercersburg, Pennsylvania

Hours of Operation:
Lunch: Tues. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 2 p..m.
Dinner: Tues. – Thurs. 5 – 9 p.m., Fri. – Sat. 5 – 10 p.m.
Brunch: Sun. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Closed Monday

Friday, February 8, 2008

Where Is Your Water?

Photo © Ryan Smith
Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire begins: "This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome - there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment."

When I was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 90s, my lyric writing teacher, Pat Patterson, began every semester by asking each of his students where his or her “water” was. He would explain that salmon have a homing device inside their nasal cavity that collects a tiny bead of water from the stream in which they are born. As they make their way to the ocean, then begin the long journey back to spawn in fresh water, this bead allows them to know when they have reached their home waters once again. Though I am not sure as to the scientific evidence of this, I am still drawn to the idea of each human having a “water.”

During the two semesters I took lyric writing with Mr. Patterson, I would invariably say “Mercersburg, Pennsylvania” when asked where my “water” was. At the time, I was dreadfully homesick for my hometown, and the life I had left behind, and these emotions only strengthened my homing instincts toward this place. Since then, I have had the great fortune to add several other locations to my list of “waters.” I am open to the idea of having several, though if I had to pick one, Mercersburg would be it. It is my one true home.

This place holds all the dear memories from my childhood, growing up in the most wonderful family, with siblings I enjoyed playing with (so much so that when we would have a snow day and got to stay home from school, it was the thought of getting to play together all day that made us squeal with delight, not necessarily the snow). My mother would have classical music playing, or my father jazz. The smell of cooking food floated through every cranny of the house. All was right in the world when we were together in our house on California Street. This was before the tough years of college, when I couldn’t understand why I should leave my family who I wanted to spend every moment with, and the town I loved so much. It was before the realization of many big dreams, and enormous responsibilities. It was the simplicity of living that I have sought ever since. It is the reason I returned again and again, and now the place in which I wish to stay, possibly forever. But I had to swim to the sea to know this.

Other locales that are near and dear to my heart?
  • Highland Lake, Warren Center, PA - a magical summer home for my whole family, relatives, and cousins on my mother's side. I have spent whole summers there, or just a week at a time, throughout my life. This place is literally and metaphorically one of my most precious "waters." It's a close second to Mercersburg.
  • Bainbridge, New York – hometown of my Mother, and the place where I continue to spend my Thanksgivings and Christmases. It is the Currier and Ives, picture-perfect image of Yankee winter holidays, and a place I continue to develop a relationship with.
  • Walton, New York – hometown of my Father, where my Grandparents’ big, white house was the muse for big imaginations, lots of baseball games, picking blueberries, and walking through sunny fields and gardens.
  • Moscow, Idaho – where I finally escaped the confines of city life in Boston and experienced for the first time the vast, natural beauty of the Northwest, met wonderful friends, explored my hippie/outdoorsy side, and learned about the many inner workings of the two-year-old (12 of them at a time, actually).
  • Austin, Texas – my second “hometown,” where I still live in my dreams, longing for the excitement of this charming city when life on the “farm” seems slow; where many long-term friendships were formed, and where my relationship with Ryan was given the room it needed to blossom into a marriage.
Of course, I can think of many places I have traveled to or visited that sparked a flame in my heart, but never had a chance to get to know beyond a brief, albeit lovely, encounter. Regardless, I am continually piqued by the instinctual nature and influence of the homing sentiment in our lives.

As Pat Patterson would say, “Where is your water?”

Friday, February 1, 2008

Poetry For A Cold February Day

Sadie and I hiked the Gedney Creek
trail today right off the Selway
after riding through potholes behind
a big truck of woo hoos, each guy
with his girl, chubby hands
holding – thighs groping.

Finally at the trail head – walking
deeper into solitude, the smell of
green filling me so much I could
climax – and the glacier white creek
flying reckless over humble boulders –
I could smell that too.

And suddenly I see the mountain,
ghostly and making me hold my breath,
wanting to reach it but deciding instead
to stay in this rainforest and waterfall
land, plunging into more of that green.

© Larissa Chace Smith
Selway River, Idaho, May 25, 2002