When everyone at your table grasps at a basket of warm rolls as if they're hundred-dollar bills, they're either very hungry, very cold, or both.
It might have been sunny and 72 degrees outside, but inside a conference room at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza Hotel yesterday, the temperature hovered closer to arctic. A few dozen journalists had gathered for the Vermont Press Association's annual meeting and awards ceremony and, after a few hours of sitting through panel discussions, the rolls were the very welcome advance guard of our lunch, one that would almost certainly (I was told) end with chocolate mousse.
The rolls were also, indeed, vital warming devices; I was tempted to place one on my lap, but instead slathered it with Cabot butter and kept an anxious eye out for the main event.
The arrival of what appeared to be chicken breast coincided with that of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who took the podium as the plates were set down. This provided an aural conundrum: dig in and risk messy bites and loud knife clinks as the governor locked eyes with each of us, or leave forks untouched as we listened intently. Adding to the complexity was that the sauce atop the meat looked as though it might coagulate, given a few minutes.
Some plunged right in; others sat politely with their hands in their laps. As Shumlin railed passionately for single-payer health care, I took a hybrid approach: delicate, occasional slices and slow chews punctuated by long periods of fork rest and undivided attention. The meat — liberally slathered in a sort of a light lemon-butter sauce, chunks of artichoke, sliced black olives, and swirls of decorative dried parsley — was unexpectedly tender and moist, albeit bland. The sauce was a bit flabby and lacking in punch, but the olives offered up salty little hits of flavor, as did the sole sun-dried tomato I found on my plate. (Apparently I had lost the tomato lottery.)
Underneath the chicken lurked a mound of quasi-mashed (quashed?) potatoes that seemed blended with an entire stick of butter. It was comfort food for the rocky road ahead — the business portion of the meeting. More importantly, they were warm, as was the tangle of crisp — very crisp — green beans, shimmering with even more butter.
A handful of standard-issue baby spinach on the plate was untouched by knife, heat, dressing or sauce. Unsure of how to approach it — I hate the chalky sensation of raw spinach against my teeth — I left it behind, a sad little pile of green. Others had different priorities: some downed the spinach and left the chicken; others inhaled the meat and not the greens, and some — such as 7D writer Paul Heintz — had a full plate one minute (as the gov spoke, he neither ate nor clapped), and an empty plate the next.
"It was better than I expected," was the consensus of those who were still simply reporters and editors and not yet, say, Rookie of the Year (the Milton Independent's Jackie Cain) or the winner of the John D. Donoghue Award for Arts Criticism (7D co-editor Pamela Polston), both of whom sat at our table. I agreed — it was a decent, square meal, and certainly better than a sandwich from a vending machine or the bag of salt-and-vinegar chips I had lunched on at my desk the previous day.
And then it came: a chocolate mousse topped with a rosette of whipped cream. My editor unceremoniously ditched the cream onto her bread plate and then scooped out the rest of the mousse, of which not much can be said other than it was airy, chocolatey and impossible not to eat, even if it came with the kind of calories you later regret.
After hours of talk, the awards ceremony almost felt frenzied. Best feature photo? Bang. Best sports story, daily and non-daily? Bang, bang. Pots of decaf coffee arrived, eliciting a few quiet complaints ("I need more caffeine") but more welcome than the ice water that was the beverage de jour. (I thought I saw two older reporters nip into the hotel bar for a nip, then slink back in after the awards had begun. Smart men).
Did we leave sated? Yes. Some of us even left with awards —Seven Days won five. As for the governor, he disappeared without taking a bite.
Each week, Grazing highlights tasty, sometimes under-the-radar dishes and drinks that reflect the season. If you know of a local edible (or libation) worth making a fuss over, let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.