The Beautiful Things (Hearty Cornbread Among Them)


This is the city at night, a strip of fireflies in the darkness. The blackness of the ocean beyond, and the blackness of mountains before. I’ve been getting my mountain time in lately, soaking up the chaparral and smell of sandstone mingled with oak leaves.

IMG_0700My mom and I had dinner with an old friend on Friday. He took us to the El Encanto, a fancy old hotel recently reopened after years of renovation. The waitresses sported gray, tailored cocktail dresses and the menu erred toward molecular gastronomy. We ate on the terrace, looking into the hillside. Mountain time. The silhouette of eucalyptus trees always makes me gasp, even if they are damned invasive.

Wally is an old-school business man who sold the family business into what he thought were good hands and watched it dwindle to nothing. He is eighty-seven; he calls himself a bachelor and then says, “a widower, I suppose, but I don’t like the sound of that.” When I ask him how he is spending his days, he tells me, “I don’t get out much. There isn’t a cure for the sort of malaise I’ve got.”

rosecandleSomewhere between the valet parking, the swirls of French butter, and the sound of the word malaise, I got the sense that I’d fallen into The Great Gatsby. My friend is perhaps the gentleman Jay Gatsby would have lived to be if he had learned to love less recklessly.

Wally says, “I only ever got really loaded once in my life: the night I got out of the army.” He asks me, “Do you know what they call a quantity of champagne?” I ponder, “…a Magnum!” He chuckles, “That’s just a little one. They go up and up. There’s a Methuselah and a Salma, Salma-something, and a Balthazar, and anyway, it was the biggest one.” A Nebuchadnezzar. Fifteen liters. I looked it up. He says, “There were twelve of us. We drank the whole thing between us. I remember coming home with that giant bottle of champagne. Well, it was empty by then. I don’t remember how I got home, but I remember arriving at home with that bottle.”

So perhaps not Gatsby in his drinking habits, but at least a bit in his lavishness and loneliness. He gives me a hundred dollar bill in a tiny envelope and a vintage Instamatic camera for my journey. I give him a kiss on the cheek and a promise to write him about where the hundred dollars goes.


As I pass through my days lately, the moments kaleidoscope together. Books I have read, people I have loved, trails I have walked, meals I have shared, cities I have known. My life has been rife with beauty. Positively teeming with it. And yet, wending throughout, there is the reedy melody of sadness. The purple whisper of a violin always in the back of my mind.

I don’t call mine malaise–wistfulness usually, or nostalgia–but the word feels familiar. I look at my friend, his tall back tilted over, his hands shaking despite his strength. I may have the camera now, and the places to take pictures of, but we are no different. We hearken to the places that feel like home, whether it’s a foreign country or a favorite restaurant. We mourn the loss of all the humans and hours that have passed in all such places, which we will see no more again. Then we take our sadness, and set it to one side, and carry on living. Carry on making more beautiful things for which we will surely mourn when they are past, but which, for now, hold our hearts in place.


Bread is a beautiful thing. It is simple and humble and can be shared. It brings a lot of joy, but the loss when it is finished is not so great; it’s easy to make more. This one is homey and earthy, made with a mix of grains and just a skosh of molasses for depth. I whip up a mini batch for days when I’m in the mood for multi-grain bread but don’t want a whole giant loaf. Being a quickbread, this is more fragile than yeasted dough, but I find it’s still a great sub for sandwich bread, especially toasted, open face.


Recipe follows…

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