Typically late to family gatherings (or really any gathering for that matter), my wife and I made good time as we flew east down the interstate to Flushing, MI, for an early Easter dinner. The day was brilliant, filled with sunshine and strong, gusting winds. Leaves were already emerging from the trees after an extraordinarily warm (even hot) March. Upon arrival, the Masters (live from Augusta, Georgia) was on the big screen television in the living room. For me, the televised golf tournaments are harbingers of Spring, and their playing in the background has a totally relaxing effect: maybe it’s the hushed tones on the announcers, the pace of the game, the swish of the clubs, the intermittent applause, or the fact that it’s a sport played in a natural area–a man’s august garden. Whatever it is, I’m in love with golf (though I really don’t play…well). It’s extremely helpful, by the way, to ask ourselves from time to time why we love the things we love (which I find myself doing now as I think about golf). Why do I love Empire, MI, so much? Or the smell of a smoldering campfire? What about peaty Scotch whisky? It’s helpful to inquire of such things because, when we do, we grow in appreciation for them. And not only do we understand them better, but we understand ourselves better. It’s as if the universe outside ourselves and the universe inside ourselves simultaneously expand a bit with this new-found knowledge. It’s what lies behind the our sense of adventure; it’s the discovery of new worlds.
In retrospect, it was this impulse for discovery and adventure that laid behind our decision to take not the interstate home but Highway M-21 west to Grand Rapids, traveling the country roads toward the setting sun, passing through small towns and villages. (Adventures don’t have to be mountain climbing in the Tetons or an African safari, a lesson I must have learned growing up from the childhood magazine Your Big Backyard. In fact, these simple adventures likely predispose us for the greater adventures as it’s not likely that someone goes from the living room couch to hiking the Appalachian Trail.) Whenever something piqued our interest, we stopped and explored. The first of such points of interest was the unexpected discovery of Curwood Castle in Owosso. The “castle”, resting on the banks of the Shiawassee River, was actually the writing studio of the adventure novelist and conversationalist James Oliver Curwood. After peeking through the windows of this storybook studio and walking along the bank of the river we hopped back onto our car and continued west, the sun now obscured in the haze of cloud cover. We pulled off the highway a couple more times to troll down the deserted main streets of the villages of St. Johns and Pewamo. The brick architecture of these towns just has a way of bringing American history to life; it’s a very living connection with life a hundred years ago. Somehow these small towns just feel like the West, like the mountain towns of Colorado, which have always captured my imagination. The rest of the drive home passed through woodlands, curving roads, and along the riverfront. The only other stop was at a roadside gas station somewhere around Ionia. It was the picture on the wall there that stayed with me–that of the painting of an old filling station, rustic in appearance on some moonlit, wooded country dirt road.
Upon returning home, I researched the places we passed through along M-21 on Easter Sunday. That is when I discovered that St. Johns, MI, is the “Mint Festival City.” Perfect: Spring is the season in which lamb is traditionally served, and lamb and mint go hand-in-hand. Since I happened to have some extra mint left over from a lamb dish prepared the week before and was wondering what to do with it, my thoughts immediately went to the Mint Julep, a taste for which I developed after spending a few weeks in New Orleans in 2000. The Mint Julep is, of course, the celebrated drink of another Spring tradition: the Kentucky Derby, held the first Saturday in May. And since the Mint Julep requires Bourbon, I decided to develop a meal around these two ingredients of mint and Bourbon. The main course: Bourbon Marinated Skirt Steak. The Juleps were served as a cocktail prior to, with, and after the main course, and as accompaniments to the skirt steak, I served Orange-Glazed Carrots with Mint; and Steamed Spinach with Sauteed Red & Yellow Bell Peppers. It was a thoroughly Southern meal, enjoyed late on a Sunday night, a dinner that stretched well past midnight over more Mint Juleps and a bottle of Cabernet Savignon (we were also treated to good company this particular evening). The weather, too, cooperated with the Southern-themed meal, as the night was warm. The final touch: the music of Allison Krause and Union Station, whom I had the pleasure to hear perform live while living in Colorado. Colorado: it was there that I was first enamored by the West which continues to feed my imagination and which found its expression in this meal.