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Monday, February 15, 2010

Gold Country Travels and Eats: A Birthday Feast

Gold Country Travels and Eats: A Birthday Feast with a Four-Tooth Minimum

California is absolutely close to everything. From 50-foot swells on the coast (Maverick’s of recent bone-crushing mini-Tsunami fame) to 7800 feet of powder and a cornice slicker than greased owl shit (Kirkwood, the Ice Master), one can experience both in the same day if you plan your travels right. Jackson, Ca. exists in between both extremes, leaning a little closer to the mountains.

We are lucky to know a couple friends who own a nice little bungalow in Jackson. Jackson is a historic Gold Rush town with a rich cowboy and Native American history to back it up. It has lots of un-reinforced masonry in the form of old brick buildings from the 1800’s with fading paint banners right on the soft edged bricks boasting “Chicken – Steak- Rib Dinners!” and a myriad of antique stores all selling the same pink and gray Franciscan 8-piece dish set. Funny thing is, my mom has that dish set too and she is not parting with it.

Fat Freddie’s Hot Doggery jostles cheek by jowl with a crystal-fossil shop, and several foo-foo boutiques (Pronounced Boo-ti-cues by the local wags). Fat Freddie has a penguin mascot on the sign and the interior is decorated with all sorts of penguin memorabilia. I have yet to see a penguin in Jackson, but I seem to remember that the owner's daughter has a "thing" for penguins. The fellow behind the bar is a hard-bitten and hard-biting local in his 70s who says he can still jump over the bar and chase down a deadbeat bill shirker. He dared us to walk out on our bill so he could demonstrate. We politely paid and left. The hotdogs were decent, but certainly not worth fighting over.

Good food in the town of Jackson is hit or miss, mostly miss if you give in and frequent the chain and fast food restaurants. If you land at Swingle’s Meat Market, and are a serious carnivore, you’ll be a happy soul. Swingle’s has steaming chafing dishes of that day’s special meat or sausage brewing. Browsing shoppers can get a pretty good protein hit just sampling sausage or tender tri-tip, one toothpick poke at a time. Like the pusher on the corner said, “the first one is free…..” Garlic chicken sausage, or pesto pork or whatever, it is all good.

Swingle’s does have some of the best steak I have ever cooked, and a mix of interesting game meats too. They also have the heads of many exotic African animals mounted on the wall and staring over the meat counter with liquid, life-like eyes. They seem to beseech, “Help me! My body has been grilled and eaten and my head has to hang out here and look at the hungry pink faces of two-legged carnivores all day!” That creeps me out.

Zebras, wildebeasts, duikers, antelope – I would like to see those animals alive rather than staring reproachfully at me over the meat counter. Of course I thought the male meat master and shop owner was responsible for all these safari trophies, but a local told me his wife killed most of them. Now THAT’s a wife to make a country boy proud! She’s not going to flinch when the bear challenges her for the Hefty bag late at night. She’ll pull out her sawed off shotgun and it’s BOOM, lights out, Boo-Boo.

Pine Grove is a little pissant town 10 miles north towards the mountains and it boasts a huge old-fashioned Italian restaurant called Giannini’s’s. We decided to have a multi- course Italian meal there for my birthday Après ski.

Giannini’s’s is a huge, historic hulking house of a place right off of Hwy 88. It is cave-dark inside with glowing red vinyl booths and sticky plastic red tablecloths. Red is the color old-fashioned restaurants always used to be to inspire hunger. It reminds me of countless diners and fish restaurants of my youth and it tweaks me to order a fried seafood platter or a grilled cheese with pickles.

Mr. Giannini was apparently Mr. California, at some point in his career before he started slinging garlic-infused hash. The walls are adorned with signed photos of him posing with various town luminaries and other celebrities. In most of the pictures he is wearing a shirt several sizes too small or is full on shirtless, muscles bulging aggressively, his long lupine face grinning out into the blare of a flash. He is unabashedly handsome and the many pictures speak to the success of his restaurant. Perhaps people were afraid NOT to eat there at some point in his muscular career.

“Try the canolli if you know what’s good for yous!” I can hear him saying, but I digress.

Giananni’s offers both “light” and “Deluxe” Italian dinners. A light dinner will have salad, soup, bread and an entrée guaranteed to drop anchor on your innards. The deluxe dinner includes a “cheeseboard”, a wooden cutting board slathered with a lava flow of polenta, tomato sauce and cheese. Diners scoop this up with chunks of hot bread and apply it directly to their hips. It is delish, but hardly leaves room for the quarter of cow, or the metric ton of steaming pasta to follow. The “Deluxe” also includes dessert, to be applied to other weight-bearing parts of your anatomy.

Because I am officially on a diet, we opted for the “light” Italian dinner. The salads are fresh and served with fresh-made Italian dressing, which is basically celery, peppers, garlic and garbanzo beans chopped up into oil and vinegar. It is a chunky dressing and is quite tart and heavenly. Soup that night was a plain brothy lentil, VERY salty, but savory. In times past, we got some odd soup brewed up from the pan juices of too many wild beasts with a few carrots thrown in for ballast. Not their finest effort, that.

The lentil soup was passable, but the lentils were a little undercooked and potentially packed a high fart-factor. It arrived in a huge (Fransciscan) bowl with enough soup for three bowls each. We eschewed second helpings both to save room and to lessen the afterburner effect.

We ate raviolis and tortellini as our entrees. They served us about a bucket of each with a heavenly, slow-cooked meat and savory tomato sauce that could only have been fresh-cooked and reduced from real fresh tomatoes. This is definitely their forte. They are the Gold Country Meat Sauce kings! Their pasta was tender, stuffed with fresh ingredients and truly a worthy vehicle for the sauce.

We had good intentions of eating half and taking some home, but the addictive sauce won out and we polished our plates.

Desserts are classic Italian for the most part: Spumoni, Zabaglione for two or MORE. I failed to see tiramisu on the menu that night, but I am sure it is a frequent visitor.

The friendly and garrulous waitress extolled the virtues of the special “Mudpie” dessert. We don’t do Mudpie. Period. We might order nice fresh slice of flourless chocolate cake maybe, or a crème brulee, or a heavenly custard but no Mudpie. Mudpie is a redneck dessert and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Even though I could have played the birthday card and probably scored a free piece, no Mudpie for me.

Just to be fair, I’ll finish this treatise off with a charming redneck recipe for RV Mudpie and you see what you think. No hard feelings, but no Mudpie for me. I don’t eat mud with my pie.

I did have a latte, but it was an effort. Ordering a “skinny” latte in this Old Family style Italian restaurant was like inviting the anti Christ to the all mighty altar of Frank Sinatra (which you can experience at the Beppo’s chain Italian family -style eatery ANYTIME, and even leave offerings – but I digress).

I heard the proprietress and the waitress scurrying around saying “Skim milk? We NEVER have any stinking skim milk!” I acquiesced and said any milk would do, but I was punished with weak coffee, thin milk and no sign of a crema.

A complimentary ride out on a hand truck would have been a nice perk, but alas, we had to walk our own lardasses back to the car. An entire day of skiing hard was negated by one depth charge birthday dinner. Happy birthday to MEEEEEE.

RV Mudpie

This is a dessert to make while camping ,when you don’t feel complicated, or have no one to impress and your guests are tolerant. It requires some ingenuity, but little skill or finesse. The better the ingredients you use, the better it will be. Or use cheap ingredients and serve it up to your four-tooth minimum friends.

9 x 13 cake pan, lightly buttered (greased)

10-12 ice cream sandwiches

6-8 Heath toffee bars

Marshmallow goo topping

Hot fudge topping or Hershey’s syrup in a squeeze bottle or both

Canned whipped cream topping or coolwhip, softened

Nuts – crushed peanuts, almonds or walnuts – your choice. Or make it vasectomy style and have NO nuts

Take the ice cream sandwiches, unwrap them and lay them out symmetrically in the cake pan. Cut the extras to fit to cover the entire pan.

Crush the Heath bars in a plastic bag and lay down a layer on top of the ice cream sandwiches. Pour whatever goop you like over the heath bars. Sprinkle a layer of chopped nuts. Slather on more topping – fudge or marshmallow. Spray entire thing with canned whip cream, or dump on the softened Coolwhip and spread it around. Top with nuts if desired. Heat some hot fudge, let it drip through fork tines and decorate like Martha Stewart. If you really want to dude it up, bust out the maraschino cherries and place them symmetrically all around the top, or be a minimalist and use one.

Freeze it a little, if you have a freezer, otherwise turn it loose at the campsite and start shoveling it into bowls. This dessert goes over really well with big scout troop parties and any group of people who have been smoking doobies all day.

Bon apetit! (I’ll bet Julia Child’s is rolling over in her grave on this one – or passing the roach)


  1. After reading your post, I'm hungry and I want to head to Jackson Hole. By the way, you are a darn good writer!

  2. Good advice for when we go to that your writing.