Authors Posts by Joyce Wagner

Joyce Wagner

Joyce Wagner
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Chef Merrick Carreiro finds time to cook at home with her son Nolan, age 8. — Bruce Kappel

Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants, and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Merrick Carreiro is one of those rare Island chefs who didn’t know from early on that she would end up cooking as a career. And, she took some detours before joining forces with Jenik Munafo and Jenik’s husband, Hocine Khelalfa, to create Little House Café in Vineyard Haven. Now, on the verge of their fifth summer, Merrick cooks for breakfast and lunch, and Jenik handles dinner.

How did you come to be on the Island?

Serendipity. I’m a Canadienne, but I have dual citizenship. I’d lived everywhere I could in Canada and had gone to culinary school [Stratford Chefs School in Stratford, Ontario], so I thought I would try the United States.

I really didn’t know anything about Martha’s Vineyard. My grandmother had a house on the Cape for 25 years and we had an old family friend who had a house [on the Vineyard], so we would come over for day trips. A woman at culinary school would go to Key West every year and her favorite restaurant was Pepe’s. She’d thought she heard that Tina Miller, the daughter of the owner of Pepe’s, was maybe opening a Pepe’s on Martha’s Vineyard and suggested I look into it. Well, there was no Pepe’s and no sign of his daughter being here.

I ended up getting hired at Café Moxie [then owned by Tina Miller] while Tina wasn’t even there. It was April and she was away at the time. I started working there and not even realizing that I was working for the daughter of Pepe’s owner. I was meant to be there, and that’s where I started my career.

How and when did you start cooking?

My first cooking experience was at a tree-planting camp in Canada in the early 90’s. It was reforestation. I was the cook’s assistant.

How did you come to be at Little House Café?

Not too sure how that all happened. Jenik and I knew each other at Café Moxie. I was the chef and she was a waitress. After Moxie I took a break from cooking. I got married. I had two children. I actually was the manager of the design center at Vineyard Home Center for about eight and a half years. I took a long break from cooking, but whenever I created a kitchen, I visualized myself right in that kitchen.

Jenik and Hocine came up with the idea [for the restaurant] and enticed me into doing it with them. It was just a collaboration of time and wanting a change and having the opportunity to buy the building. We opened Little House Café in July 2010. Everything we’ve done since then has been a full collaboration, but the original idea I will not take any credit for.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

My most memorable was actually in cooking school. I was taking an exam and had to make a shrimp bisque and I totally destroyed it and had to think about how to get out of it.

I deglazed with vinegar instead of brandy. I just did the wrong step at the wrong time. My instructor looked at me like, “I don’t know what you’re going to do.” Somehow I pulled it off and all I remember is him saying, “This is stellar.”

That was my first major lesson in learning to roll with the punches in the kitchen. If you make a mistake you have to make something else out of it.

What is your favorite Martha’s Vineyard dining memory?

My first meal with my husband at the Standby Café in 1999 when Joe DaSilva was the chef. The atmosphere at the Standby was so special. It was my first date with my husband-to-be. That was a special place then.

Favorite dish on your menu?

I have a lot of favorites, but I think it’s the Greek Lamb Burger because it’s my mother’s recipe. And there’s something about the smell that I find so rewarding when it comes out of the oven, just before it goes out to the dining room. It just makes me so happy every time. The presentation and everything about it makes me proud.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your husband?

[She laughs] Yeah, right. His favorite is lamb shoulder chops grilled on the barbecue. Oh, my goodness. He just licks his chops when I make them for him. He’s just died and gone to heaven.

You have two sons [ages 8 and 11]. What do they eat?

They’re at different stages. My youngest doesn’t really eat well at all, but my oldest is starting to branch out a bit more. They’re at that point that they’re eating the same vegetable or fruit (carrots and apples) all the time. They like to cook with me. They do enjoy cooking, but they’re not the most adventurous eaters. They will be someday.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Parsley, garlic, lemon, salt, and olive oil.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

A good sharp knife. You can’t beat it.

Any tricks of the trade that you can share?

Peeling ginger with a spoon is the best way to go. It’s so tedious using a peeler, but if you just use a teaspoon, it comes right off.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.

Local lamb with local fingerling potatoes, arugula, tomatoes, corn — one of those summer barbecue meals where everything is at its peak. You don’t even have to do anything to it. Just eat it fresh.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

[She laughs again] What’s that? Going to the beach with my family. When I can get to the beach in the summer, I’m having a good week.

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Seriously? Pittsfield? Where's the ocean? — Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

Some people just don’t get it. In a recent article on the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch website, an article titled, “Retire Here, Not There: Massachusetts,” proposed that there are more economical places to retire than Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. And they offer “natural beauty and plenty of cultural activities.” Author Anya Martin suggests four “reasonably priced” alternative areas for the golden years: Northampton, Barnstable, Pittsfield, and New Bedford. All really nice places. Really. And, no doubt, reasonable. But as any Islander will tell you “reason” has nothing to do with living here. Of course we know we can get more bang-for-the-buck almost anywhere else. How often are we told, “You can get almost twice the house for the same money in Willoughbytown Village, Mass,” or “If you lived on the mainland, you’d be paying a dollar less per gallon for gas”?

It’s a little like telling someone, “Don’t vacation in Paris. You can get more for your Euro in Minusculebourg.” Or “Rio? Save your reals. Much cheaper in San Não Encontrando.” Right.

So what do Ms. Martin’s reasonable areas have that can be switched out for a life on the Island?

Northampton

Ms. Martin defines it as a “college town with big-city arts, culture and amenities.” In fact there five colleges in the area. Oh, boy! Let’s retire where there are thousands of young adults away from home for the first time. We have Oak Bluffs for that. There’s also a mall, restaurants, bookstores, galleries, gift shops, and coffee shops. Other than the mall, we pretty much have the rest of those things in spades. And malls are kind of what we don’t want here.

Barnstable

Close, but no cheroot. It’s on the Cape, so there’s water handy. Beaches, hiking trails, fishing, bird-watching, oystering, and a huge mall. Got it, got it, got it, got it, got it, don’t want it. Houses are cheaper, though. Still, it’s not an island.

Pittsfield

Are you kidding? Western Mass? Berkshires? Certainly if you were thinking about living on an Island, this would be your best alternative. People who love water sports and ocean views naturally gravitate to cross-country skiing and mountains. It’s inland. Waaaaay inland. Mountains. Not even close.

New Bedford

Whew! We’re back to seaside. New Bedford is quaint and has a lot of the amenities of MV without the sticker shock, but still – it’s not an Island.

And that’s what they don’t get. There is something magical about living on an island that trumps all reasonable considerations. Poor people live here – people who would not be poor on the mainland. Whether retiring CEO of Megacorp, Inc., or washashore landed for a summer job, we’re here because we arrived here and fell in love with the joint. We heard the siren song of the Island and were hooked.

It’s not an easy life. We complain a lot about the isolation of winter and the hustle of summer. High prices. Small town politics. Having to go back to the mainland for certain services. But we don’t leave. The few that do, frequently find their way back.

But we’re calmed by the remarkable blue-tinted light that artists from everywhere come to paint. We’re lulled by the lap of water all around us. If it’s not in our immediate hearing, it’s in our souls. We’re amazed at the natural beauty that pops up when we drive around a bend in the road. And what could replace showering under the stars on a summer night?

So, Ms. Martin, I challenge you. Visit the Island. Stay for a weekend. I’d be willing to bet my rosa rugosa that you’ll be printing a retraction quicker than you can say, “Northampton/Barnstable/Pittsfield/New Bedford.” And it won’t be buried in the back of the paper.

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Even when not at his restaurant, The Grill on Main, Tony Saccoccia is often cooking. — Photos Courtesy of Tony Saccoccia

Martha’s Vineyard has lots of restaurants, and in each one there’s a top-of-the-line chef. Each week, the Chef’s Story will introduce you to these culinary wonders and share with you their stories.

Antonio Saccoccia, more commonly known as Tony, first owned and operated The Feast of Chilmark in the 90s, and currently owns The Grill on Main in Edgartown.

MVT: How did you come to be on the Island?

Tony: I think, like everybody who wasn’t born here, I came for a summer job and stayed. That was 26 years ago, in 1988.

How and when did you start cooking?

I grew up in the industry. My dad owned a butcher shop. So, as a child I was doing that kind of work. In junior high, I had worked in some restaurants. Then I went to a vocational high school. Baking and butchering was there since I was a child. I baked on my own in high school and junior high.

How did you come to be at The Grill on Main?

I owned another restaurant in Chilmark, The Feast of Chilmark, for 12 years in the 1990s. I sold that, and this location [Upper Main] was available. So I came here.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

I’ve had many. And you can say that. But the one I remember best was when I was delivering a wedding cake on a warm day. I slowed down [in the car] a little too quickly, and the layers slipped apart from each other. It was one of those days where it got to around 85 degrees in June. Between the car not having enough air conditioning and the icing and…well, it wasn’t too fast of a stop. Just too fast for carrying a wedding cake.

I had to do a whole new one. I was delivering it early. I mean, you don’t want to be messing around in case something like that would happen. I was able to redecorate and pull together a whole new wedding cake. And I was on time.

What is your favorite Martha’s Vineyard dining memory?

The most spectacular thing was when President Bill Clinton came into my old restaurant. I don’t remember another night like that in my career. We found out he was coming only thirty-five minutes before. In fact, we had written it off. We kept thinking, “He could be coming. He could be coming.” That’s what a lot of restaurants were saying. Then we said, “Ah, I guess he’s not coming.” He tricked us.

It was in September and he came in late in the evening, so we didn’t have to close the restaurant. He ate warm goat cheese stuffed Anaheim peppers. We were very excited, but we realized that what was called for was professionalism – one hundred percent. We were all ready. Nobody blinked.

What is the single best bite you’ve eaten in the past week?

I would say a particular sauce I was experimenting with for a new free range chicken dish. I just did it on a whim and was really impressed with it. The chicken was pan seared, and I left it in the pan to make a pan gravy, old fashioned style. I put in pancetta, mushrooms, shallots, just a little bit of chicken stock, cream, butter, fines herbes [a combination of parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil, that together are the foundation of French cooking], and I just let it reduce for a second. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to detail, but it was just spectacular. It’s one of those things that should be good, but when you taste it – wow.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

We’re both on health kicks, so we’re cooking healthy dishes at home lately. What does she like the best? She’s either being polite or friendly, but – everything. You know it’s kind of special for a restaurateur having a night off and cooking food at home. It’s very unique. When we are cooking at home, regardless of what it is, it’s very special to be home and cooking together.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, pepper, butter, onions (or members of the onion family), and veal stock.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

The food processor. I have a Cuisinart. When I was receiving my professional training, they had just come out. I’m able to make certain short doughs in them. I can make great emulsifications, like salad dressings. That used to be such a task. That’s huge for me. Whisking by hand, you never had the same emulsion or, if you did, you really had to pay attention to it. Definitely chopping nuts. With the food processor it’s just so quick.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, and so forth, describe the perfect Martha’s Vineyard Feast.

It’s huge when the striped bass is in season – it’s such a short season, so it makes it even more precious. The oyster farms in Katama are fantastic. I’ve been dealing with Sweet Neck Farms for about 25 years – not just for oysters, but other shellfish. I’d serve the oysters raw on the half-shell or, my favorite all time, baked oysters Rockefeller classic. It still is unbelievable, even though the dish is close to 75 years old. I would pan sear, then slow roast the striped bass – a double cooking method. I’d keep the sauce simple – maybe a simple citrus beurre blanc.

In the summertime, I would grill vegetables. Summer squash and asparagus. For dessert, the one I really love over the Fourth of July, old fashioned strawberry shortcakes. On a biscuit with soft vanilla whipped cream. It’s so old, but so good. It’s honest. You know what you’re getting, and it’s so good.

What is your idea of a perfect day off, on Martha’s Vineyard?

Definitely, a good day off would be going sailing early, then taking it easy and focusing on a big dinner night. Or the beach. I do love the beach.

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Chef Max Eagan loves to fish and cook his catch. — Photo Courtesy of Max Eagan

Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants, and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Max Eagan has been cooking for Rocco’s for a year and is slated to be executive chef of the dining room at Isola (formerly Lattanzi’s) in Edgartown. Before Rocco’s, he was executive chef at Lambert’s Cove Inn for two years. Although he has no formal training, he achieved executive chef status at the age of 28.

How did you come to be on the Island?

I grew up here. We moved here when I was under one year, so I’m not a true Islander. I grew up in Edgartown and, when I was in fifth grade, we moved to Vineyard Haven.

How and when did you start cooking?

As soon as I could work – age 14. I worked at the Rotisserie in Edgartown and baked muffins at Mrs. Miller’s Muffins in downtown Edgartown. I did prep work, dishes, baked muffins and cookies — stuff like that.

How did you come to work for Rocco’s?

After working at Lambert’s Cove Inn, I was going to take a year off from the high stress level of fine dining cooking. I grew up with the son of the owner of Rocco’s and they needed an extra hand. I was giving them an extra hand while I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and…I stayed. I didn’t want to do it forever, but fortunately we’re taking on this new venture. (The owners of Rocco’s have recently acquired Lattanzi’s. The restaurant is scheduled to reopen in May, renamed Isola.) I’m going to be executive chef of the restaurant.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

I don’t think any chef hasn’t! I’m an avid fisherman so every time I get a chance I go fishing on the Island. One day we stayed really late (at Lambert’s Cove Inn) and got all our prep work done so we could come in late the next day. We showed up at 4 o’clock, just a couple of hours before service, and all the main refrigerators were about 80 degrees. All of our hard work and prep was basically destroyed and we had two hours to start from scratch before the first guest arrived. We made it work. We had to change the menu around, but we made it work.

Have you ever had a meal of yours that was part of a big event?

My sous chef at Lambert’s Cove Inn had a good friend who wanted to propose to his girlfriend. He was coming to the Vineyard and we tricked him and made a dinner reservation for Monday. We’re closed on Monday. We went out the day before and went fishing and foraging — I’m a big forager on the Island. They came into the restaurant and no one was there. They couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any other customers. We brought this big spread out of local stuff that we had caught ourselves. It was a pretty cool thing to do. He asked her to marry him, and they had the whole restaurant to themselves.

What was the best single bite you ate in the last week?

I just got back from vacation. I was on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and met an old lady who made me some fresh conch ceviche. I bit down and I thought there was a piece of shell in it. She was standing right next to me, wondering how it was. I said “Uhng” and said I hurt my tooth, and I spit out a conch pearl! I guess they’re pretty rare. And it was a nice one, they tell me. It was a little beach bar and they said I should buy everyone a round of drinks and they were parading around with the pearl and showing everybody. Although it was shocking, I would say that was the best bite.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, vinegar, any pork belly products (bacon, pancetta, salt pork), olive oil, and garlic.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

Besides a sharp chef’s knife, a nice serving spoon. I can use it as a spatula. I can do anything with that. I probably have over 100 serving spoons.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

This time of year, she really likes venison chili. She always wants me to make it for her. I do a venison chili with Guinness and dark chocolate.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.

This one’s easy. Self-caught spear-fished tautog (blackfish), roasted whole or salt-baked; dug up clams raw and on the grill; and a fresh tomato salad. That’s all I need. Dessert? I’m not a huge a dessert guy. My good friend, Kevin Brennan, brews hard cider and I make homemade wine berry brandy. I’ll take a shot of brandy and one of his local ciders for dessert.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

I do most of my fishing at night, so my day off would be waking up late and hanging out at the beach with my friends — and probably doing more fishing.

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Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

Yes, I am a little tan, thank you. Just got back from vacation. Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. My housemate (HM) has a timeshare there and has been after me to come with her for ages. This year, finally, I had both the time and the means to do it. Worth it. Totally.

For me, a lot of the excitement is in the planning. We determined, in the name of breezing through security and customs, to bring only carry-ons. The challenge was, how to bring a weeks’ worth of clothes in a small suitcase. This is dangerous territory for an overthinker – especially one who carried her passport on her person from the day we booked our flights, lest she leave it home. We decided two bathing suits (with coordinating cover-ups) each would suffice. One on, while the other was drying. One set of day clothes. Flip-flops. Easy-peasy.

But evenings! Dinners! Dancing! A whole weeks’ worth! In a suitcase that would fit into that little space designated on those airport signs that everyone ignores. And, depending on how crowded our flight would be and which “zone” we were assigned for boarding, we might have to check it anyway.

Since I recently moved from the mainland to the Island, I still have a lot of clothes that don’t really work here. Sparkly things. Fancy dinner things. Dancing things. What joy to dig those out, spread them on the bed and decide which would make the cut. Thus began the pre-vacation fashion show.

“How about this?” I breeze out of my room into the kitchen, and disturb HM’s work at her computer.

“You’re going to dress up that much?” she asks.

“How often do we get the chance?”

“Hmmm.” She’s already packed. “I usually bring one dress.”

“You can’t imagine what I thought you just said.”

She climbs the stairs to her bedroom and for the next few hours we model all of our summer finery, chanting our mantra, “How about this?”

Eventually, we narrow down our choices with slightly more than will fit, deciding to make the final cut (and suitcase choices) after we’re able to print out our boarding passes and find out our “zone.”

Shoes are an issue for me. “There’s dancing every night,” HM informs me. “If you’re single, the staff guys dance with you. They’re really cute.” Being somewhat a toothless cougar (still eyeing the prey but too tired for the leap) and a sucker for a good samba, I tap my Chapstick laden lip with a finger while I examine my footwear choices. I have a great pair of Capezios for Sunday night ballroom at Nathan Mayhew, but they’re actually too good. It won’t be a kept-clean no-street-shoes wooden floor that my sueded soles will be massaging.

“Bars,” I’m told. “We’ll be dancing in bars.” Spilled drinks. Sand and dirt. Another option was called for. Unfortunately, my summer footsie collection consists of flip-flops and wedgie shoes that are difficult enough to walk in, much less dance. Found two pair of adequate shoes at Le Poulet Rouelle (Chicken Alley) and stuffed those into the suitcase along with a week’s ration of underwear.

Of course, there’s the matter of (gasp) liquids. Whoever made the rules for security really has no concept of what it takes to be a gently ageing ingénue. The rule of thumb for make-up – from washing the face to the final touch of mascara – goes like this: 1 hour, plus 10 minutes for each year over 40. That’s just for daytime and will only bring you up to code. We need cleansers. We need creams. We need foundations. We need industrial-strength mascara for thinning lashes. We need pencils in the colors our eyebrows used to be. And because the process takes a lot of coffee, we need whitening toothpaste AND gel whitener AND whitening mouthwash.

Shampoo. Conditioner. De-frizzer. Mousse. Squirrel. (Sorry.) Not to mention sunscreen with an SPF of 130. How is one supposed to fit all that into a baggie that would barely accommodate a container of Activa and a spoon?

By debarkation day, we had winnowed our trousseaus and cosmetics to manageable levels (although it took two people to close each suitcase), but we stretched the definition of “small personal item” (i.e. handbag, laptop case) well beyond reason. However, Saints Dolce and Gabbana and the fashion gods were on our side. We made it through security and were able to board both planes without having to check anything.

The flight, however, was a different story – one for next weeks’ blog.

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— Photo Courtesy of Danny Finger

Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants, and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Danny Finger arrived on the Island in 2008 and has been the chef at Lucky Hank’s in Edgartown since its inception a little over a year ago.

How did you come to be on the Island?

After college, I was working in Sarasota, Florida, at a restaurant called The Cork. One of the chefs knew the executive chef at the Harbor View and he sent me up here. I could make more money here.

How did you come to work for Lucky Hank’s?

I worked with Doug at the Harbor View. He’s the owner of Lucky Hank’s. We got along really well. He noticed that the food was really good when I was cooking. At the beginning of the summer before last, he called me and told me he had acquired a property and was opening a restaurant here. He wanted me to be the chef. It didn’t actually come together until after the season — mid-October. So, now we’ve been open a year and three months.

How and when did you start cooking?

I started cooking professionally when I was 14. I had to go to my guidance counselor in high school to get a permit to work. I worked at a little barbecue restaurant across town from where I lived in Richmond, Virginia.

What sparked your interest?

My mother and my grandmothers were really good cooks. Also, I traveled a lot when I was a kid. My parents took me with them to Europe and China. Also, I watched a lot of Emeril Lagasse and Julie Child when I was a kid. I made an apple swan when I was 13. There’s a video you can watch of Jacques Pepin making it for a decoration for a fruit platter.

What was the first thing you cooked?

My mom used to make me this thing she called “Hot Milk Toast” when I got sick. It was basically warm milk with buttered toast chopped up in it and a poached egg. I must have been six or seven. I poached the egg in the milk and chopped up the toast and threw it in there. It’s nice. It’s weird, but it’s nice. It warms you up.

What was the best food you ate in the last week?

We make these buttermilk biscuits at the restaurant. I had one yesterday with a spoonful of creamy sausage gravy and some fried chicken breast.

Describe the perfect Martha’s Vineyard feast.

I’d probably start with some kind of nice chowder. Maybe with a local white fish, Morning Glory corn. Some bacon. Chowder’s a big thing around here. I love it. I’d make a great big salad with some of the beautiful greens I’ve been getting around here. They have wonderful chickens coming from The FARM Institute. Really, really fresh. I would probably do a wholesome roast chicken with stuffing and lots and lots of root veggies. For dessert, I’d make a pie with some fresh cranberries and local apples.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Garlic, shallots, scallions, duck fat, and butter. You can take those and make anything taste delicious.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

My commercial blender — my Vitamix. It will blend things that would be unblendable at home. It has a lot of power.

What do you have planned for the Lucky Hank’s Valentine’s Day menu?

It’s a three-course dinner. We’re going to start with either lobster bisque or a crab, fennel, asparagus, and blood orange salad. As the main course, we’re going to do a bone-in veal chop with a foyot sauce (béarnaise made with a veal reduction) over fingerling potatoes and candy-striped beets or bouillabaisse — a saffron fish stew. For dessert, either Bananas Foster or red velvet soufflé with a white chocolate ganache.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

In my ideal world, I would be out on Cape Poge with some friends and a kayak and my four-wheel-drive vehicle. A small grill, and maybe some fresh fish.

Lucky Hank’s is located at 218 Upper Main St. in Edgartown. For more information, call 508-939-4082 or visit luckyhanksmv.com.

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Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

I’m in the locker room at the Y and I hear one woman tell another about some specific ache or pain she’s experiencing.

“Whole grains,” recommends her communicant. “Cut whole grains from your diet.”

Great, I’m thinking. We’ve now officially eliminated every food. We’re down to nothing.

I realize that there is a lot wrong with food, especially food that is corporate farmed. More people seem to be allergic to more things than ever before. Wheat, a dietary staple since the Pharaoh wore knee pants, is now a gluten-glutted bad guy. Children who normally would consist of three-quarters peanut butter are deathly allergic to goobers. And beef? It’s no longer “what’s for dinner.”

If you read and believe everything that’s on the internet, discussed on Good Morning America, and attributed to Dr. Oz, you would end up subsisting on naught but home-filtered water and the occasional gulp of air.

And, yes, I do believe we need to be careful of what we eat. And, yes, Monsanto’s executives probably have hearts the size of the smallest flea in fleadom. Farm animals should be raised humanely. But here’s the thing: we’re obsessed. The subject of food and additives and nutrients and lack of same infiltrate every dinner conversation, party banter, and locker room yakfest. We bring our apps to Stop & Shop, Reliable, or Cronig’s and scan for goodness. We pour over articles and Facebook entries that warn about the newest and worst. And, instead of putting together the healthiest meals, we settle for least harmful.

But why the obsession? Why does culinary consumption worm its way into almost every conversation? Perhaps it brings us common ground. One more topic to gnaw on after we’ve exhausted the weather.

Or maybe it’s the disparity of lifestyles. Certainly there’s a great gap between those who emulate the lupine lifestyle of Michael Pollan and viewers of “The Chew” who would never hesitate to spend an extra fifty cents to add bacon. People on both sides of that gastronomical ferry ride proclaim, “I would never eat like that.”

In some ways it can be worse on the Vineyard. From E-town to Aquinnah, Islanders on one side of the coin are blowing their summer rental income on pricey meals at the best Island restaurants. They track the movements of chefs like gambling junkies perusing the ponies. Admittedly, Island cookeries tend to use fresh, healthy, local ingredients, but are not averse to slathering on a creamy sauce. And, the whiter the chowder, the better. Meanwhile their counterparts are praying at the altars of their CSAs, ahhhing over the greenness and  freshness of this week’s broccoli and discussing what, exactly, makes it organically grown.

Might it be control issues? We’ve become a fear-based society. Fortunes are made by companies who lull you into thinking you can prevent bad things from happening. Insurance companies like you to think that if “the worst happens,” (you die) your family will wave a brief farewell and be able to go back to business as usual if only you sign on their dotted line. Even the name, “life insurance” hints that a policy will prevent your demise. We slather anti-bacterials on our hands and kitchen counters, lest some microscopic germ invades. (By the way, we need some of those germs.) Home security systems assure that loved ones will remain safe if the other “worst” is attempted (home invasion). We buy cars for “safety features.”

And we obsess about what goes into our stomachs, fearful that if we eat the wrong thing, we’ll get cancer, we’ll grow old prematurely, our hair will lose that healthy glow, we’ll tire too easily, we’ll have trouble sleeping at night, we’ll have trouble waking up in the morning, our skin will flake, our paint will peel, our dog will get mange, the NSA will tap our phones, and the IRS will audit our taxes.

Me? Right here? Also guilty. I had to laugh when I realized that in a freight ferry conversation about this very thing, I ended up also discussing the latest news on the latest food baddie. And I sensed surrounding travelers itching to join the conversation.

So, if we’re talking about food so much, how much of our lives are we dedicating to planning, shopping, preparing, and eating? How much cranial real estate is branded “MEALS”?

I’m trying. I’ve decided to spend a little bit of time each week planning healthy meals and grocery shopping – concentrating, as a friend suggested, on the outer aisles. I’m going to try to make it balanced – more greens and veggies, less sugar and fat. Nothing fried. Fewer Nonni’s Biscotti for dessert. And, if I occasionally split a Black Dog Mousse Bomb with a friend, I’m not going to beat myself up.

We need to let go. No matter what we eat, some of us will get cancer. Some will get heart attacks. Some of us will have car accidents. We’re all going to die. We are not going to control everything that happens to us.

So, can we talk about something else for a while?

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Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

Now that the dust has settled on the roundabout – at least temporarily – some people are finding it more efficient than they expected. Traffic flows a little more quickly and a surprising number of drivers have figured out the pecking order of entering.

Many of us are even thinking, as we pass through Five Corners, or the mess where Vineyard Haven Road meets State Road and Look Street, or the entrance to the bathroom of our summer rentals, “This would be a good place for a roundabout.”

As Islanders, we’re not very gung-ho about change when it’s proposed, but rather accepting after the fact.

Although roundabouts, their pumped-up cousins, rotaries, and the rarer “traffic circles” proliferated in the late 90’s and the early part of whatever century we currently enjoy, they are not new to the U.S. It’s rumored that the American Revolution began a few minutes late because Paul Revere missed his exit into town and had to hoof around a few extra times. Minor skirmishes were avoided during the Civil War through strategically misplaced signs. Boston, with little room for roundabouts, was forced to confound travelers by one-waying already confusing streets.

Europe, however, pre-dates our wagon-wheel configurations with ancient squares, plazas, piazas, places, and such. Built in front of churches, they tended to be in the center of town, with the streets and alleys radiating from the hub. This became the means to populate the villages and burgs as visitors, unable to find their way out, tended to settle in.

The first true modern roundabout is considered to be the one that defines the architecture at Bath Circus in Somerset, England. This was completed in 1768. The largest, and perhaps most confusing, is the Place de l’Étoile (now called “Place Charles de Gaulle”) that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In true French fashion (national slogan: Confrondez toujours!) it currently joins twelve straight avenues in a flurry of traffic that would dizzy a seasoned astronaut.

In fact, the reigning country for roundabouts is France, with more than 30,000. I personally experienced some of these on a recent trip. My travelling companion and I drove around several in mid-town France. Fortunately, we brought GPS. Unfortunately, the French outsmarted it by adding shopping center entrances, bike paths, driveways, and slug trails to the mix. So, when our GPS suggested we take the next right onto L’autoroute Déstastre, it took more than a few circuits (and impromptu shopping trips) to reach our destination.

My first experience with the American roundabout genre occurred when I moved to the Island in 1994, wherein I was welcomed to Cape Cod via neatly maintained flora many more times than was necessary. The sign for the Martha’s Vineyard exit was approximately the size of a Dollar Store notebook and not very readable at the standard rotary speed. My then 18-year-old son, always helpful in these situations, repeatedly repeated “You missed it again!” until I began rethinking my objections to corporal punishment. I finally slowed to a crawl and navigated through honking cars to the correct exit and we were happily on our way – until, of course, the one after the Bourne Bridge. Same drill, but without the welcome.

I’m afraid the apoplectic road system soured my city-bred boy to the beauties of New England and when we reached Vineyard Haven the following month, he promptly left to return to Chicago. I still occasionally hear from him in the form of post-cards from the Bourne rotary.

Our own shiny new Vineyard roundabout has only one lane and four exits, so I suspect it’s not going to be the problem for visitors that the off-Island counterparts have been. Once they learn that the vehicles already in the circle have the right-of-way, they may find it rather convenient. And once it’s planted, it may even be kind of attractive.

So maybe, just maybe, the roundabout might prove to be a good idea – all around.

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Family time in Italy: Justin and Emily made dinner for Emily's family during their 2010 trip.

Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants, and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Justin Melnick moved to the Island to cook for The Terrace at the Charlotte Inn in 2012. His wife, Emily, is the pastry chef for The Terrace. They have a two-year-old daughter, Amelia.

How did you come to be on Martha’s Vineyard?

I moved here in September 2012 from Dallas. We lived there for six months. We moved out there and they decided to close the restaurant four months later. Before that, I was at Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough for six years. There was a mutual connection that I had with Ann and Gerry (of the Charlotte Inn) — Chip Coen, a vice-president at M.S. Walker, a wine distribution company. I knew him from a previous restaurant. I gave him a call and told him what I was looking for. It coordinated really well.

It was one of those funny things. I was in Southborough for six years and in order to get to the Vineyard, I had to go to Dallas. If I had to do it over again, I definitely would if this would be the outcome.

How and when did you start cooking?

Before I could drive. I started working professionally at 15 when my best friend’s family opened a restaurant in Amherst and asked me to help out. At first I just did prep and dishes, then on the line for breakfast and lunch, then for dinner. It was a nice kind of situation to be thrown into the ranks fairly early on.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

In culinary school — I went to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York — I and another guy were in charge of banquet and catering at American Bounty. It’s one of the last restaurants you work in before graduation. We were making a braised pork dish of some kind. We were braising it in the oven all morning long, getting it ready for a dinner for 30 or so people. About 15 minutes before serving it we discovered that somebody accidently turned the oven off half-way through. So we had to do a sort of quick braise on the stove. That was a good learning experience.

Have you ever created a meal that impacted a major event?

My wife (then fiancée) and I took a three-month sabbatical to northern Italy. We started in Umbria (where she has family) and travelled through nine out of the 20 regions of Italy. When we got back to Umbria I made a six- or seven-course dinner for 20 people in her family in Emily’s cousin’s basement kitchen. I did cuisine from the other regions of Italy. The guest list ranged from a 92-year-old grandfather to a 4-year-old niece. It was interesting to cook Italian food for Italians that they never heard of before.

Using local ingredients, what would be your ideal dinner?

Creamy butternut squash soup; seared bay scallops with pasta, olive oil, lemon zest, and fresh herbs; and my wife’s chocolate caramel tart — made with local eggs and chocolate.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Eggs — they’re crucial to a lot of different things. The eggs from The FARM Institute are the best I’ve ever worked with.

Flour — for pasta we use double-zero (finest ground) and semolina.

Olive oil

Vinegars — we do a lot of pickling.

Fresh herbs, for sure.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

Hands. I try to do everything by hand — even making pasta and aiolis. I teach cooks how to do things without machinery first. You can lose power or you may be somewhere where you don’t have it. I never make aioli or vinaigrettes in a blender. I never make pasta in a bowl with a hook in it.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

To have one! [he laughs]. We tend to take a drive around the perimeter of the Island at least once a week — not as often in the summer. We see something interesting every time. We have what we call “aha moments.” You see the sun rise or the sun set. We saw a harbor seal on South Beach. All those things that most people don’t get to experience — especially on a daily basis. Then a nice meal with family at the end of the day.

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Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

Raise your hand if you remember Karaoke at the Atlantic Connection. Hmmm. How about at Season’s? Anyone?

About twenty years ago, I used to meet three of my women friends weekly for Bad Singingstock at Seasons. Not regular churchgoers, and needing a uvular outlet, we carpooled, two and two, every Wednesday night. One would scurry in to secure a table and snatch a handful of the Xeroxed and third-cut slips of paper where we’d write our names and our choice of song. A plastic-enclosed song list already sat on each table. The first in got first choice.

Right around eight, the lights dimmed and we’d pull out reading glasses, pens and a flashlight. The list was in mice type, it was dark, and they only supplied one pencil per table. We knew each other’s preferences, as well as the other regulars’ and seldom chose a tune that we considered “reserved.” If, however, a regular didn’t show up, his or her song was fair game. We’d time our drinking, sipping more quickly at the beginning of the evening to fortify our courage, then carefully rationing to maintain our false bravery without becoming too drunk to read the lyrics.

Our favorite was “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. One of us sang the lead, while the other three squeezed behind her on the tiny platform for back-up. We had the moves. We didn’t have the voices.

Some of the regulars were five or six special needs people and they usually performed as a group. Because their reading skills were usually not follow-along worthy, it was purely accidental if one sang a word or note at the same time as another. One of us would frequently join them, singing loudly in an attempt to corral the dissonance into a cohesive whole. Although that didn’t often work, the attending year-rounders would applaud as if it were John Denver himself performing “Country Roads.” The tourists turned to each other with confounded expressions. “It wasn’t that good,” they’d whisper to each other.

A guy named Mike, now long gone from the Island, presided over the proceedings. I don’t know what they paid him, but it wasn’t enough. There were many participants who might be referred to as “Perpetually Displeased.” He didn’t call them up soon enough. He called them too soon. He let someone else sing their song even though their slip was in first. He supplied the first note, even though they knew it or he didn’t help them get on key when he should have. When there was a contest, it was never fair. “I was much better than her,” someone would complain. “I think he’s dating her,” someone else would snipe. Please. We were all bad. The contest frequently came down to who wasn’t too drunk or awful.

I won – once. It was a total surprise because I know I am not a good singer. “Oh, you’re just being modest,” you pooh-pooh. No. Although I have my days, it’s pretty much agreed upon that I will never be a famous warbler unless bad singing suddenly becomes a trend. I have a half-octave range and I don’t know how to use it.

I won because I was funny. When I mounted the stage to sing, I said something like, “That’s a hard act to follow. I guess the best I can hope for is Miss Congeniality.” (And now you heard that line and I can’t use it again.) Also, it was a slow night, and the only other person who came close to qualifying had won the last three weeks in a row. But I agreed to believe I won for singing talent.

The prize was, get this, dinner for one at Seasons. Of course you’re going to bring someone else. Clever, these Americans.