For the first time in my life, I can say that I am a professional cook.
Let’s not confuse my work with that of a professional chef. No, I am far from the geniuses you see on Top Chef or the millions you never see in the kitchens of your favorite restaurants. (At this moment, I am trying to rescue a pot of black bean chili that has been in the slow cooker all day, and yet the beans are still hard as pebbles. This, my friends, would not happen to a chef.)
When we moved to Portland, I wanted an apartment close to downtown, in a cool neighborhood, and a job working in the kitchen of a restaurant close enough to home that I could easily walk there. I had literally no experience working in a commercial kitchen (except for volunteering at one of the popular places back in Akhaltsikhe). Good luck.
Call it luck, call it will, call it whatever — but both of those things happened. We have a nice little apartment in a truly lovely neighborhood within walking distance of seemingly everything (although I know there is sooooo much more Portland to explore outside of this area). A couple of weeks ago, after putting out several resumes to CraigsAbyss — I mean Craigslist — I got a call for an interview. A couple of hours later, I was sitting in the owner’s office. He was looking for an experienced line cook. That was not me. But by the end of our brief meeting, I had somehow convinced him to give me a shot anyway.
The next day I started.
Over the last two weeks I’ve feverishly been getting up to speed in the kitchen at Kornblatt’s Deli, an old-school New York-style deli on the popular shopping and dining thoroughfare that is Northwest 23rd Avenue. It takes me five minutes to walk there.
We make lots and lots of reubens, hot pastrami, breakfast scrambles, french toast, bagels, lox plates, triple-decker sandwiches, knish, kugel, rugelach, whitefish salad… lots of stuff. And it is genuinely really, really tasty. Our pastrami and corned beef sandwiches are ridiculous. The place draws a huge breakfast and lunch crowd of regulars, tourists and shoppers.
I’m learning a lot and doing a bit of everything: prepping ginormous bowls of potato salad (after peeling 50 lbs of potatoes); making lots and lots of eggs, cooked every different way, and lots and lots of omelettes, and lots and lots and lots of sandwiches; slicing, dicing & chopping; taking orders; washing dishes; stocking the walk-in fridge; cleaning the stove; emptying the trash. Everything. Making countless mistakes, burning myself, cutting myself, spilling things, breaking things… And I’m totally digging it. The people I work with are unbelievably patient, supportive and good at what they do.
When I interviewed, the owner just didn’t understand what I was doing there. Why did I want a job like this, with my background in marketing, with my previous experience running a theater, with my MBA, with my Peace Corps service. Why did I want to shift gears at this point in my “career” and do something in the food business? Didn’t I know that it was a ton of work, that the hours sucked, that the pay sucked worse and that it was stressful? Why? Why?!?
Because I thought it would be fun, that’s why. And it’s experience I’ve always wanted to have.
And ya know what? It is fun.
I spend so many of my waking hours in a kitchen, either at work or at home. We’re making so much of our food from scratch these days. I cook something every day. The freezer is filling up with homemade stocks to use in soups and stews later in the year. The fridge’s “inventory control” is so precise that virtually nothing gets thrown out, nothing goes to waste. McKinze is baking all of our bread; we haven’t bought a loaf since we moved in. I dig it. I really, really dig it.
Life in Portland is great so far. So great, but so different from our lives a few months ago, camping across the country… or a few months before that, bouncing around Turkey… or the years before that, living in the country of Georgia…
Because of those differences, we wonder what sort of a role this blog will play in our lives in the weeks and months to come. We honestly don’t know.
When we were overseas, this was a great way to keep in touch with everyone at once, with limited internet access and so many “exotic” adventures and quirky cultural differences to share. Now that we’re back in the land that most of you readers are familiar with, surrounded by WiFi Everywhere All The Time, each of us with a new iPhone 5, we still have so much we want to say and share… but we find ourselves turning to things like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram more often than the blog. We don’t see that stopping anytime soon.
Where does that leave us? Well, the blog isn’t going anywhere; it’ll still be here. What direction it takes from here… well… give us time. We’ll figure it out. In the meantime, you can find us on Facebook (Sean / McKinze), Twitter (Sean / McKinze) and Instagram (Sean / McKinze).
Leaving the comfort of the hotel in Boise wasn’t easy, but after 24 hours of an actual bed, college football and laundry, it was time to move on to the last leg of the trip: Oregon.
Over 150 years ago, pioneers were making the same journey in a much less comfortable ride than a Subaru:
The Oregon Trail is a 2,000-mile (3,200 km) historic east-west wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon and locations in between… The beginnings of the Oregon Trail were laid by fur trappers and traders from about 1811 to 1840 and were only passable on foot or by horseback… From the early to mid 1830s and particularly through the epoch years 1846–1869 the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen and their families.
We stopped at the surprisingly fabulous Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, just across the border, and soaked up the history of Americans’ journeys through the frontier land both behind us and yet to come. It was compelling. We even sat through an hour-long movie, which is rare for us (attention span and whatnot)…
Our campsite that night and the next, at Emigrant Springs State Park, was lovely in every way, except for the proximity to the interstate (McKinze said to just think of the sound of trucks speeding by as a waterfall instead). We cooked, made fires, went on walks… I had a great time running through the woods… the weather was perfect…
The old west town of Pendleton was about a half an hour’s drive away. We went in on Sunday night to find a place to watch the Patriots/Ravens game, and ended up belly-up at the bar of a bowling alley bar with some locals. The down-hominess was warm and inviting; small town bars are the same all over the country, and that’s a good thing.
The next day we went back into Pendleton to explore a little bit. We ate pastries at a pie shop (that curiously did not have any pie). We visited the town’s namesake woolen mills (I want one of those blankets!). We shopped at stores lined with saddles and spurs, and at second-hand shops (McKinze scored a great pair of cowboy boots). Pendleton was fun.
And as we packed up our car on Tuesday, September 25th, and made our way along the ol’ Oregon Trail, winding along the Columbia River towards our new home of Portland, the similarities between our journey and the journey of those who literally paved the way for us long ago were not lost on us:
Seasoned travelers, leaving the comfort of what they’ve known, starting over in a new land filled with opportunity.
After Yellowstone and the Tetons, we made a pitstop in the resort town of Jackson, Wyoming. Amid the countless T-shirt and souvenir shops and real estate companies we found a great Yelp-approved hole in the wall for lunch (how ’bout some tamale pie?), had some maple walnut ice cream at another little spot, then hit the road for our next destination: Craters of the Moon National Monument.
We didn’t know anything about the place and had never heard anything about it from anyone else, so we weren’t expecting much more than a place to sleep for the night. In fact, both of us assumed that Craters, in the middle of southern Idaho, would be a desolate wasteland with just the two of us and our tent. The drive down there, through miles and miles of vast nothingness, only seemed to confirm our assumptions.
Turns out we were wrong.
Like the rest of the National Park/Forest/Monument system, Craters of the Moon is actually legit: busy, maintained and well-run. That night we watched the sun set over piles of chunky black rock, checked out a presentation about astronomy from one of the park rangers… and even went to our very first Star Party.
This Star Party was definitely not in the Hollywood sense of the word. About a dozen astronomy enthusiasts perched themselves on top of one of the higher hills in the park, each of them with a very large telescope. Campers like us could wander around and look at star clusters, galaxies and other far-off lands. Honestly, everything pretty much looked the same. But it was an experience nonetheless, and cool to see a small group of people get so excited about something and share it with others. Passion is passion. Gotta respect that.
I arrived at Grand Teton National Park with grand expectations.
McKinze’s parents go there regularly. McKinze and a friend went there a few years ago. All of them gush — gush — about how beautiful, majestic and amazing it is. “Wait til you see the mountains,” they say. “You’ve gotta see the mountains.”
After arriving and setting up camp, we hopped back in the car and went down the road a bit to the landmark Jackson Lake Lodge to put a plan together for the day. The view from the lodge was to be breathtaking.
When we walked up the staircase to the enormous lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows, what was supposed to look like this:
We’d been hearing about wildfires ever since Bozeman, where a light fog hung lazily over hills and mountains in the distance. When we were in Yellowstone, we knew that parts of that park were on fire. We also knew that the majority of the haze was coming from Idaho, where a sizable fire had been burning for weeks.
But the thickness of the haze at the Tetons was unexpected — and disappointing. It’s like going to the amusement park and all the roller coasters are broken, or going to your favorite restaurant after waiting all week, only to find out they were closed. To say that McKinze was bummed the whole morning would be an understatement. For me, while I was let down, I also didn’t know what I missing, so that cushioned the blow a little.
With our plans for mountain-view hikes derailed (the rangers said there was little chance of the haze lifting), we regrouped and replanned. Instead of staying for two nights, we decided to only stay for one and then move on to Idaho. We ate in the diner at the lodge, used the free internet in the lobby… and decided to book a rafting trip for that night. We still hadn’t seen any moose, and rumor had it that the rafting trip was a good way to spot them, among other things.
A few hours later, we were suited up, ready to float down the Snake River.
Our guide was awesome. He barely stopped talking the entire three hours, yet managed to not be annoying at all. Did you know that the state of Idaho owns the top 30 cubic feet of the Snake River in Wyoming? Or that ravens are one of the most cunning birds, actually possessing the ability to solve complex problems? Or that the Grand Tetons were named as such by French explorers who thought the mountain tops resembled boobs? We learned those things and about a hundred other facts about the Tetons, nature, birds and the river. Truly fascinating stuff.
We saw the sun setting. We saw bald eagles (ten of them, maybe?). We saw beavers. And although we didn’t see any moose, as the evening meandered on, the thick haze started to lift and we were finally able to see the shadows of the majestic mountains that had eluded us all day.
I had never been to Yellowstone before, but I expected to see bison, elk and (hopefully) bears. As McKinze reported, we weren’t disappointed.
I also expected lots of Beautiful Nature and scenes that looked like this:
What we didn’t expect were scenes that looked like this:
As it turns out, Yellowstone is actually one big dormant volcano. Sure, there are miles and miles of forests, rivers, waterfalls and wildlife. But there are also pockets of some of the craziest-looking craters, steaming pools, bacteria ponds and bubbling volcanic mud that I’ve ever seen.
One minute you’re in a lush wooded area, and then suddenly you’re on the surface of an alien planet. Humid steam floating above the landscape. A sulphuric smell, like millions of rotting eggs. Bacteria in green, blue, red, orange and every color in-between. Read about it — it’s really fascinating.
And one day, it’s all gonna blow again.
Between where we were…
…and where we’re going…
reaches a lot of big sky.
For a few days last week, we were living under it:
Friday night we pulled into Bozeman, where we’ve been spending the weekend in a rented country home. Outside are horses, mountains, a makeshift dirt bike track and, a little ways down the road, a nice little college town. Inside is high speed internet, a full kitchen and lots of football on satellite TV. And just the two of us.
This week: Yellowstone and the Tetons. Can’t wait.