The last time I went to the desert, I was four and had a lot on my mind. I took a road trip with my mom, her sister, my aunt’s new husband and their erratic cocker spaniel, Nathan, to Arizona where they lived. I watched as a thousand saguaro cacti went by out the window of our Chrysler LeBaron, listened to my record player, carefully moving the arm back to the outside track ad nauseum, and bought a geode from a Native American on the side of the road near a canyon, that was not, as it turns out, the Grande one. I learned to swim independent of milk jug floaties in their apartment complex pool, took my first trip across the border into Mexico, where, incidentally, I had my first sip of beer, came home with a piñata, a tricycle, and a sunburn. I must have learned to love the West then; that trip began a fascination with Manifest Destiny, pioneers, cowboys, mystics, and sunsets that has yet to be quenched. But, for some reason, I hadn’t been back out that way since.
Last week, I flew to Las Vegas and turned thirty-five. That night we ate steak and drank gin martinis with bleu cheese stuffed olives. We started by sharing an iceberg wedge salad, perhaps the Eisenhower Era’s greatest contribution to civilization. And with the porterhouse, sliced from the bone tableside, came a copper cup of truffled bacon creamed spinach. It was the most decadent, rich, red-blooded American meal, and perfect for my otherwise quiet birthday. The next day we woke up early and made sandwiches for hours. The downtown district is currently reveling in its sickly underbelly, more sad-eyed seventies coked-out Elvis than Rat Pack snazz. At nine in the arid morning the air did feel full of promise and I could almost imagine acting entitled to fate and fortune. It’s a fun fair of eternally recurring optimists. I think that’s why Malcolm likes it so much.
It was all as I imagined. Everything is noisy, shiny, dingy, enticing, glamorous, depressing, unflinching. And the more I think about it the more I like it. And I liked it a lot a the time. But not enough to stay more than two nights at the Stratosphere Hotel. So, when we found out we would not be going forward with the competition, we decided to get out of town. After staring out to the muted horizon from the highest point in Vegas we fled, into the Mohave, where there are kangaroo rats, tarantulas, sidewinding rattlers, rock formations made by glaciers, a few palm trees, and a deep breadth of light blue sky. We drove all through the day. We got out and took panoramic photos. We ran out of water. We waved at the other visitors to the Valley of Fire, mostly older couples in matching safari hats. I looked for artifacts in the sand and posed for pictures that I knew would become part of our posterity.
We stayed at the Westin on Lake Las Vegas, which was an oasis of Moroccan-inspired comfort without slot machines or cigarette burns. I took a long shower and wrapped myself in a white robe. I closed my eyes on a lounge chair shaded by palm trees under the sun facing the lake. We kayaked in circles. We swam and wrapped ourselves in pool towels with chlorine stinging our eyes like it did when you were a kid and tried too many handstands underwater. We spent one last night in the glittering city, part of a pack parading over bridges, down escalators, past pretty ladies in feathered headdresses and homeless men, drinking, dizzy watching the roller coaster at New York New York and beyond the beam of light from the Luxor. We drank more martinis in a bar at Planet Hollywood where dancers shake their perfect asses on platforms. I was relaxed and ready to leave.
I am always so happy to come home to Maine. Especially in autumn. On the plane I was plotting Thanksgiving and dreaming of the many cozy colors of New England. This soup will be the first course of our holiday feast. I think I will serve it in small bowls or demitasse glasses. Despite the cheese it is light, just the right amount of sweet and not too heavy, in consideration of the meal ahead. It’s velvety smooth and a little spicy from the grainy mustard. It tastes like the ending of fall, like orchards of apples and unearthed onions with a bit of nuttiness, vinegar and salt. With a green salad, buttered baguette, and local hard cider this is a lovely meal to have in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, or after. It is the essence of all that I missed and precisely why I love it here this time of year.
- 4 Honey Crisp apples, peeled, cored and cut into pieces
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 cup sweet apple cider
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup Gruyere, grated
- 1 tablespoon spicy Dijon mustard
- Preheat oven to 400. Toss apples with olive oil on a baking sheet, pop in the oven for 20 minutes, turning them after 10.
- In a large soup pot heat vegetable oil over medium-low heat. Add onions and garlic and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg; sauté slowly, about 10 minutes. Stir the roasted apples into the vegetables. Pour in broth, cider, and milk. Stir in cheese and mustard. Bring to a rolling boil, turn down the heat and simmer on low, 15 minutes. Allow the soup to cool then blend until very smooth with an immersion (or in a regular) blender.