Posted on June 3rd, 2011
Big Sur is where I’d go mad, if that was how it had to be.
Big Sur is almost like a madness, in and of itself.
These were the two things that I was thinking, listening to the boom of the surf through a hole in a wall of rock, surrounded by the arthritic gnarls of a wind-bent evergreen, cold sand between my toes, the sense that I was being watched by something somewhere putting little cold hands between my shoulder blades as I sat on a sea-thigh of driftwood. Fog and spice. Sea-sharpness and deep green breath. Full-bladdered tangles of kelp, spelling things out in the sand in a language only for the natives to know and understand. Big Sur, I thought, was like visiting the moon.
When my boyfriend and I had decided to go on vacation, the only destination that we knew we had to hit eventually was San Francisco, where we were meeting up with my parents for a few days. Save a layover outside of L.A., I’d never properly seen anything of California. Redwoods were on the menu. The coast road, naturally. And, I insisted, Big Sur.
I’d just finished reading The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook—I am already the sort of person who reads cookbooks from cover to cover for entertainment purposes, but, those who are less inclined to get their jollies from the poetry of lists of ingredients would do well to take a gander at this volume. It is more than a compendium of recipes. It is a window that opens onto the heart of a place, and lets you fantasize, for the length of time that you are reading it, that you possess the stubbornness to become a native of those pages. I had lain in bed, propped up on pillows in the winter, looking at the crazy tilt of rocks on that stretch of Californian coast, and dreamt of being the sort of person who slips down to the empty sand at dawn to take fish from the salt waters for lunch later in the day. Somehow, miraculously, I would achieve a tan. I would make jam. We’d get chickens. And always, omnipresent: the susurrus of the sea, sleeping and waking, all of its sentences mine. And of course, I would become a regular at the Bakery.
There is a danger in actually visiting any place that we worship from afar, whose contours we’ve mooned over in photographs—there are travel experiences that are like nothing so much as online dating, where weeks of frenzied emailing and castle-building collapse inward upon themselves the instant reality steps in with its sharp elbows and wrong smells. You believe yourself so perfectly suited to the imagined landscape, that nothing prepares you for the strange heartbreak of simply not loving it after all—or, in the case of this trip, of suddenly feeling yourself inadequate to the task of loving it properly. The abrupt drop of land into the ocean. That ocean itself, wilder than anything I’d ever seen on the east coast, harrying the shore with muscular waves. The one thin road, clinging to the cliffs in an impossible way, asphalt as out of place here as neon. We had no business being here, I thought. No business at all—and the land knows it. Big Sur is a geography that tolerates you—even as it reminds you, at every turn, how very small you are.
Which is why the Bakery is important. When, on a fog-socketed morning, we finally made it there, it was clear that it was more than an eatery, a gathering spot, a community focal point, a tourist beacon. It was a chance to feel human again. To be able to grasp a coffee cup scaled to the size of your hand, and not the size of a jutting rock. To sit at a worn wooden table in a low-ceilinged room, and feel yourself taking the room on, like a shell, safe from the too-muchness of what lay outside beyond the fog.
And, it was, and is, a chance to eat—to be fed in a way that echoes the warmth of the human-sized rooms and the nourishing intent that drives the kitchen. You are always a guest in Big Sur, I believe, ultimately—even the natives. The landscape belongs to itself. But, for a while, eating the most perfect slice of frittata, and a revelation of a sugar-bronzed morning bun at the Bakery, you can believe yourself local, and capable of loving everything as it deserves. Grandly. And with great appetite.
Potato Frittata, from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook
(ed: You don’t have to have spent the morning on an empty windswept beach watching the tide thunder through a hole in a giant boulder in order to enjoy this, but, I will say that it helps. Maybe it’s the salt left on your lips. Experiment.)
5 tbs. rice bran oil or canola oil
1 small yellow onion, sliced
5 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8 inch-thick slices
3 tbs. unsalted butter
freshly ground white pepper
1 tbs. Minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tbs. Minced chives
2 whole scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced.
Serves 6 to 8
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Heat a medium saute pan over medium-high heat and drizzle 2 tablespoons of the oil into it. Add the onions and cook until they’re caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes. De-glaze the pan with ¼ cup water, scraping any brown bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon. Cook until the water evaporates and the onions take on a uniform brown color, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onions to a roasting pan and toss them with the potatoes. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and the remaining 3 tabelspoons oil to the potatoes. Season them generously with salt and white pepper. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Set them aside to cool for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.
Meanwhile whisk the eggs, herbs, and scallions together and season them with salt and white pepper.
Add the potatoes and onions to the egg mixture. Heat a 9-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in the skillet, and add the egg and potato mixture. Cover the skillet with aluminum foil, transfer it to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 10 more minutes.
Slice and serve directly from the skillet, warm or at room temperature.