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January 6th, 2005

Turkey, Por Favor…

by Thom McVann

Thanksgiving is not my sweet Kate’s favorite holiday. It lacks the glitter, lights and many gifts that make Christmas bright. No helpful little elves, red suited fat man or singing mice to liven up the last Thursday in November. The day calls out for a slow cooked dinner requiring the expenditure of many woman-hours in the kitchen. This is inconsistent with Kate’s life mission of saving her and the rest of womankind from the torture of kitchen work. After twenty-five happy years of marital bliss I can report that she has had great personal success in this mission. The ancient goddesses of Lesbos are well pleased with their daughter. Imagine my surprise when the following menu appeared in Kate’s hand and I was told that she had already spent many hours working on our Thanksgiving meal. I quickly read a description of the feast to come

Salad of Mixed Greens
with Pumpkin Seed Dressing
Kumeyaay Roasted Corn Soup in Sugar Pumpkin Shell
Northern Tribes Wild Rice Pilaf
Naraganset Nokehick (Johnny Cake)
South American Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic
Cranberry Relish
Garbaanzo Bean Croquette
Braised Greens and Steamed Fall Vegetables
Maple Pumpkin Pie with Hazelnut Crust
Aztec Hot Chocolate

When I finished running my wondering eyes over the menu, two questions immediately arose in my perplexed brain. What was she up to? Why was there no turkey? Was this some trendy new diet called “The Turkeyless Thanksgiving Diet” being introduced at the new foodless restaurant “The Diet Inn” in fashionable Easthampton? So I asked my favorite reluctant cook if we had to go east for our Thanksgiving dinner? Her reply was just two words. “No, west.” “How far west,” I queried? “Three thousand miles give or take,” she replied, “we are booked at the Ranch for the Thanksgiving week. You know it only takes three hours to get there if you figure in the time change and don’t count the ride to JFK. You can’t say no, this has taken hours to plan.” “The Ranch” is not the ancestral home of Roy Rogers and Dale Evens, nor had we been invited to spend the holiday with George W.and Laura in the great state of Texas. The oldest health spa in North America, Rancho La Puerta is located just south of the border in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. “The Ranch” is an oasis of health and tranquility in the unhealthy and noisy desert of modern life where your favorite food critics go from time to time hoping to regain some of the youth that was wasted on them when they were young.

The beginnings of this classic spa date back to the nineteen forties when a forty year old Romanian scientist and professor named Edmond Szekely arrived in Tecate with his eighteen year old bride Deborah. Such was the Professors delight with his young bride that he decided to live forever. He created and pursued of a way of life here that enhanced both body and spirit. Word got out that this Romanian Professor was camped out in the Mexican wilderness seeking the secret of life. Others came and he rented them tents and sold them organic food. They discussed the secret of life. He sold enough health food and rented enough tent space to grow and flourish in the never-ending Mexican sun. One day in 1949 an inquiring newspaper reporter for “The San Diego Union,” chasing a feature story on what was then known as “Professor Szkely’s Essene School of Life,” crossed the border and was directed to the gate by a fat Mexican who asked “What you want with them screwballs? They no eat meat, not even ham.” Soon Rancho La Puerta was on the map. Discovered in the nineteen fifties by Hollywood it became the antidote for the stressful and debauch life led by the “Stars.” The Professor and his wife who had two children by now went north to follow their “Stars” and opened the Golden Door Spa in Encino California while keeping Rancho La Puerta for everyone else.

When at “the Ranch” the lithe and energetic woman of my dreams likes to be very active doing yoga, aerobics, circuit training, dance and similar activities which take place at the many gymnasiums scattered around the huge property. While I do feel that many of the young and shapely instructors are worth watching as they lead these active classes, I am more likely to be found sitting in a hot tub, stretching in the sun or sleeping in a hammock. The latter can be dangerous and my only ranch injury was the result of falling out of a hammock. I thought the experience was the most humiliating moment of the trip until I accepted a pugilistic challenge from my one hundred and five pound lifetime roommate.

The match of the century took place right before tennis and we were both wearing white so it has gone into the legends of “the Ranch” as the “Thrilla in Vanilla.” The cardio boxing class was well attended that day and “Kid Kate” was in tip top shape and lightning fast, but I landed a solid left jab to her ribs which turned out to be a big mistake. I had forgotten the first thing I learned in our marriage. Never get the lady mad. She came at me like a polecat with its tail on fire. I was terrified of causing her any further pain for fear of increasing her fury. When she was done thumping me and had raised enough lumps to feel better she was declared the winner. I now live in the ignominy of having been defeated in the first round by a woman who is half my size. The days passed quickly. Each day was cool in the morn and eighty degrees by noon, then down to forty degrees by bedtime.

Wednesday morning was our turn for the morning breakfast hike. A four-mile hike through the low undulating hills brought us to ?ɬ´Tres Estellas,’ the ranch’s six-acre organic farm. There farmer Bill and his wife made a superb breakfast for the twenty or so hikers who showed up ready to eat. We no sooner sat down to breakfast when Kate spotted a little kitten no more than two months old. Within minutes they were fast friends and sharing a feast of huevos rancheros and soymilk. The kitten, now named Lavender because of her graypinkpurple coat, was soon purring softly. Kate was asking to be photographed with Lavender so she could show her to the seventeen or so felines that inhabit our Westhampton Beach property and refer to Kate as “Big Cat.” We left ?ɬ´Tres Estellas’ and returned to the ranch for a day of exercise in the sun. As we left Lavender was blissfully sleeping in the warm morning sun on a straw pile in the garden.

I awoke to a truly awesome sunrise on Thanksgiving Day and set off on a five-mile early morning hike to Skull Rock in the shadow of Mt.Kuchumaa, which is the crowning glory of this high chaparral country a few miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The rest of the day passed quickly and in the late afternoon during my daily message, while looking out the window, I noticed a red glow in the hills to the East near ?ɬ´Tres Estellas.’ I knew that the sun always sets in the West so it was not the red was the glow of the setting sun. Fire! Fire at ?ɬ´Tres Estrellas’ and coming this way. The hot and terrible beast of Mother Nature’s dark side was loose in the Mexican countryside. The ranch was under a full frontal attack by a raging wild fire. Towering walls of flame driven by the Santa Ana winds licked at the very edges of our ever-shrinking world.

The guests began to flee. Southern Californians rembering the San Diego fires of September left first, followed closely by the faint of heart. Next, those of good sense packed up and boarded waiting buses for the trip to a Northern beach resort, safe beside the cool wet sea. Only the stubborn remained. The ranch workers and some local men wearing hard hats and carrying shovels and axes formed the fire brigade. Kate kept asking the firemen in English and broken Spanish if any one had been to ?ɬ´Tres Estellas’ and seen a small gray kitten (“ola bombaro tu biste mi peceno gato gris?”) Just as she was about to set off into the burning fields toward ?ɬ´Tres Estellas’ a smiling young Firefighter reached into the large pocket of his yellow slicker and produced a squirming fluffy gray ball. “Lavender!” cried Kate. “Muchas gracias mi bombero” exclaimed my suddenly bilingual wife as the precious young life was transferred into her waiting arms.

Guess who said that no piddley little fire was going to spoil her Thanks-giving Dinner? Yup, sitting on the dining hall steps, stroking the kitten in her lap, was my now smiling Kate, knife and fork in hand, talking to the chef de cuisine. The winds were shifting, blowing the fire away from the ranch. Thanksgiving dinner was just sitting in the kitchen waiting to be served. She was hungry. “So, how about it El Chefo, let’s eat!” After some discussion with the powers that be it was decided that she was right. The danger had passed as quickly as it had begun. Dinner in the main dining room, in one hour if the favorable wind held, for those brave souls who refused to be daunted by the fire. The big dining room seemed both quiet and empty, as only thirty or so of the expected one hundred and seventy five had remained on the Ranch for the feast. The meal was perfect. Each delightful yet healthful dish was followed another even more mouthwatering example of kitchen artistry. No Thanksgiving meal in memory, sorry mom, could compare for taste and satisfaction. The Mexican fire-gods had shown their power and majesty and then permitted us poor mortals to enjoy the rich gifts of the soil. Thanksgiving is after all the holiday that reminds us to be grateful for the bounties of the earth and this life. I took my Aztec Hot Chocolate outside and sipped it under the bright desert sky. The stars above were a million points of pure white light. I felt truly thankful for all I had-the good food, my good health and my sweet Kate.

For anyone interested in more information on “Rancho La Puerta”, check their website at www.rancholapuerta.com

Thom and Kathy McVann

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