the official website for the writings of ralph robert moore
Vacation Dip is Copyright © 1998 by Ralph Robert Moore. All Rights Reserved.
Return to friends before food
friends before food
As I write these lines, in late May of 1998, Mary and I are on vacation, that periodic foretaste of retirement.
We take occasional Mondays off here and there, spacing them like rungs on a ladder to help us climb up through the year, but twice each twelve months, in May and November, we go for a full week and a day (one thing we've learned, which I strongly recommend, is that if you are taking a week off, also take the following Monday. It's only one additional day, but it makes a tremendous psychological difference to know the second Sunday doesn't end your idyll: you still have one day left. Try it once and you'll see how much different you feel as the days of freedom dwindle, and you reach that awful apex where the days you have left are fewer than the days you've already enjoyed).
While we were living in California, the first morning of our wonderful free time we'd toss some clothes in the trunk of our car, some traveler's checks in our glove compartment, and motor up to Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco and Sausalito, or motor down to Los Angeles. Once we moved to Maine, we had far fewer options. There are no good restaurants at all in Maine, so we took to spending our vacations in our apartment, loading up on good food and videos.
This tradition of staying inside during our vacation, of rolling that boulder in front of our door, has persisted into our move to Texas. In our own home now, surrounded by books, laser discs, CD's and artwork, with a large, peaceful garden out back, and pc and artist's brushes upstairs, we pride ourselves on not having to leave our property once we shut the front door on our arrival home the eve of vacation.
We start each vacation by driving after work for an hour and a half or so through hot, slow traffic to Edelweiss in Fort Worth, a German restaurant featuring live music. Inside, it's dark as a theatre (making it a shock when you emerge an hour or two later, and find it still light outside in the parking lot.). The ambience is strictly fifties: round tables semi-circling a dance floor, upraised stage beyond, everyone smoking and drinking. The food carried over to your table on wide, oval platters is meant to be eaten, rather than admired for the prettiness of its patterns, so that it is arranged functionally rather than artistically: meat in the middle, everything else around the rim (the first time Mary and I went to Edelweiss, we were surprised to find with the dinners we ordered, underneath the visible layer of food, a second layer). Mary starts with their roasted pork ribs, served unsauced but the best ribs we've ever had, followed by veal goulash. I open with herring filets served in sour cream, a fat pickle spear across the cold, snow-white top (so German!), then dig into their Mayfest platter, a mixture of roasted pork ribs, Bratwurst, Knockwurst, potato pancakes, heated red cabbage, sauerkraut, and little paper cups of mustard and applesauce.
All of it washed down with Spaten Optimator, a cold malt liquor brewed in Munich since 1398, tasting each other's dishes and standing up mid-meal to do the Chicken when the band strikes up.
Heading home, we call our cats from our cell phone, roll up the driveway into our garage, roll that boulder, feed the furry pigs, and collapse into bed.
Next morning, we start a 10-day joy of doing whatever we want to do, getting up when we want, going to sleep when we want, the world outside forgotten.
A lot of what we want to do is eat. Worknights we usually settle for something microwaved, since we get home so late, and weekends we're often too busy to spend the hours needed to produce a great meal. But during vacation we have that time, and the top of the stove, the back of the fridge, the middle rack of the oven is usually occupied with something perfecting itself for that night's or the next night's feast while we swing in and out from the garden, write stories or decoupage furniture, or sit in our living room, blissfully listless, stroking a cat and sipping a drink in front of an orange, brick-contained fire .
In preparation for these ten days, we spend the four weeks prior scouring a large number of markets and shops, loading up on farm-raised shrimp from Whole Foods, taramosalata (a wonderful Greek roe spread) from Siegels, squat jars of Dickinson's jams, a couple of boxes of Godiva truffles and chocolates, fresh fruits and vegetables from a variety of vendors, pound after sliced pound of garlicky, rare roast beef, smoked turkey, honey-cured ham, corned beef round, imported cheeses, heavy bottles of European olives, pickles and artichokes, etc. etc., storing them all in our pantry, fridge and freezer in preparation of that first Saturday when we roll over, awake, and decide where to start.
Although many of the meals we make then are somewhat involved (Hot Cheese Chicken and Sloppy Pierre's, both featured on this site, are examples), one tradition we've had going the past few years is to concoct a batch of the appropriately-named Vacation Dip.
There's a great joy to making a dish from scratch (I once considered writing a cookbook which would feature one recipe only, bacon and eggs with buttered toast and coffee, but which would tell how to make the dish entirely from scratch, starting with how to raise a pig, what to feed it to have its belly meat produce the right blend of meat and marble for bacon, what sort of wheat to plant and how to harvest it for the perfect flour, etc.), but there's also a perverse joy which arises from making a dish entirely out of processed foods, meaning cans and jars you open up, combine, heat, let marry, and eat.
Jane and Michael Stern, authors of a number of enjoyable books on American cuisine in the twentieth century, delight in finding this sort of ready-in-a-moment meal. In Square Meals, a collection of recipes from the 1920's to the 1950's, published by Knopf, they discuss Sunbonnet Baby Salad, which comes from the cookbook A Thousand Ways To Please A Husband. You arrange five canned pear halves, round side up, on separate lettuce leaves. The edges of each leaf should curl up around the pear half, much like a bonnet. Push cloves in each pear to represent the eyes, use blanched almonds for ears, and thin slices of pimento for the nose and lips. They write: "The expressions may be varied". Mayonnaise is arranged around the top of each pear half to look like hair, and a bow of red pimento placed under each chin. The recipe "makes 5 babies". They call it "a contender for the prize of Most Inappropriate Food to Feed a Man".
Vacation Dip has nothing to do with eating babies' faces, but it does use a lot of canned food.
To make the dip, you'll need:
Peel the plastic casing off the sausage, and let it droop into a pot (electric pots work well) set on medium-low heat. Using a wooden spoon, break up the tube of sausage as it cooks, so that you wind up with a pot of brown, crumbled sausage meat.
Add the two cans of soup, the can of Rotel, the can of chili and stir. Cut the Velveeta into fat cubes and let drop into the mixture, stirring frequently until the cubes are completely melted in the dip.
Refrigerate, and start enjoying the next day, carefully heating it up so it doesn't burn, transferring ladles-full to black bowls, and dipping into it with tortilla chips (the dip needs to sit at least 24 hours for the flavors to come together).
NOTE: like a lot of "just open a can" recipes, specific brand names are used (I suspect this recipe had its origin either at Campbell's or Rotel). Although the recipe passed on to us several years ago specifies Wolff's chili, you can of course substitute your own beanless favorite. For those of you who don't have a clue what Rotel is, it's a canned concoction of tomato and chilies, popular in Texas and the general Southwest. If they don't sell it in your area, take a vacation anyway. You need it.
background on the recipe
Vacation Dip is one of those addictive dishes that tastes better with each mouthful.
Because you're reheating the entire remaining dip each time, it's very easy to toddle back to the stove for just one more bowlful.
Make sure you have enough tortilla chips on hand. Running out while there's still dip left would be a tragedy.