Cooking with Charles Perry

Join me on my cooking adventure in Livingston, Montana where I was taught the true method of cooking couscous by a master. My next blog will be the menu we cooked along with the recipes.

Today, I am truly thankful I threw away all my good judgment and used 50,000 of my miles to fly to Bozeman, Montana at the last minute to act as Charles Perry’s sous chef.  Charles, a Middle Eastern food historian has a long standing tradition of putting on a series of international dinners for their friends in Livingston at his friend, Tim Cahill’s home.  My girlfriend from Montana has been trying for years to get an invite to one of these dinners and here I am hanging off her coattails with the opportunity to be in the bird’s eye seat; the kitchen!  In my humble opinion, I would have been crazy NOT to go!

Good experiences do not always come without angst.  While I consider myself an accomplished cook capable of helping any chef, somehow the whole persona of Charles Perry-a true renaissance man, intimidated me.  I am not easily intimidated but our guest chef is Princeton and Berkeley educated, speaks six languages including Sanskrit and Arabic, was roommates with Augustus Owsley (for you younger folks, the king of acid) while working as a copy editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, had pot lucks with Alice Waters and Jerry Towers (as he called him) and has traveled throughout the Middle East in search of the origins of couscous, saffron and preserved lemons.  He actually brought his own “pickled” lemons to Montana with him.  His tree dropped all its lemon at once, so what else should he have done but pickled them??  “It brings out the tarpons in the skin of the lemon causing the traditional piney flavor of many Moroccan dishes”, he said.  You see, Charles is also quite the scientist.  What would I have to offer this Renaissance man? 

It just happened to be my dishwashing abilities.  When I arrived at Tim’s kitchen, the sink was full of pots from the West African dinner party the night before, remainders of whatever breakfast they managed to grab that morning and a dishwasher full of last night’s plates, wine and shot glasses; my style of dinner party!  I found a sponge, some soap and was off to work without having to ask for a job. As I happily soaped and scrubbed, Charles entered the kitchen and I was immediately taken by him. 

 His cooking outfit was a starched white shirt with tie, kind of like me cooking in high heels, a bit inappropriate but oh so perfect.  I now limit myself to a two inch heel after I broke the metatarsal bones of my left foot running out into my garage to grab the sauce in my outside refrigerator (a little champagne could have been involved!).  At least wearing a tie while cooking is not as dangerous. 

Charles graciously offered me his recipes (most adapted from Paula Wolfert), trusted me enough to assign the job of cutting up a whole chicken and taught me the true way to cook couscous.  The box of couscous he brought had directions in English, French, German and Arabic.  All directions offered the traditional quick cook in water or broth version I am familiar with except the Arabic explanation had a picture of a double boiler indicating the real way to cook couscous; the steam method.  Thank goodness Charles is fluent in Arabic.  He created a make shift steamer with a stock pot and strainer then began to give me the Arabic version of making the most light, perfect separated grains of couscous I have ever eaten.  I will never cook couscous the American (or European) way again.

Charles prepared some pretty spectacular dishes that night, all recipes that were new to me that I will make and adopt for my own. I was in kitchen heaven, having a private cooking class from a charming man who was a fascinating story teller and I walked away with six new dishes to add to my repertoire.  Yet, my cooking experience that day did not stop there but truly began as we all sat down to enjoy the fruits of Charles’ labor.

I was lucky enough to be sat next to John Frye, a fourth generation Montana rancher who now runs his great grandfather’s book and general store in downtown Livingston.  He arrived on time, his handsome face in anticipation for the meal ahead and in honor of Charles, wore a starched shirt with a mini clip on tie, the kind you would put on your kid for Sunday school.  All of us girls were completely smitten.

 At lunch the next day, we saw him in his display windows, crawling around his books vacuuming and we ran over to take a peek into his classic store filled with beautifully displayed books, an unbelievable selection of coloring books and general tidbits that keeps you looking for hours.

John was kind enough to sneak away from his cash register to show us his father’s favorite things in the store’s basement.  This museum quality display showed a collection of saddles highlighting the progression of saddle making over the century along with his mother’s Western-Eastern hybrid version made especially for her.  Not sure what was more impressive, his gun collection and the stories behind them, or his Indian artifacts and the fact that he actually used the peyote fan at a day long (or was it a three day long) religious ceremony.

Richard Wheeler, a prolific Western writer was also a lucky guest.  Four of his novels won the Spur Award and in 2001 was the recipient of the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to Western Literature.  Next to him was Tim Cahill, our gracious host dressed in Montana ruggedness. 

 He is an adventure travel writer that also started his career at Rolling Stone Magazine, moved to Outside magazine and naturally began writing novels, his newest being Lost in My Own Backyard, A Walk in Yellowstone National Park.  He treated us like queens, setting us up in a quaint home around the corner from his with a bottle of his favorite Chardonnay in the frig.  We were set.

My deepest appreciation goes to Darla and Quinty for inviting me on this cooking adventure.  I came home and immediately opened my Moroccan cookbooks and searched for some new recipes to go with the couscous Charles taught me to make.  Keep posted, I will blog that menu along with Charles’s menu next.  Please place your curser over the pictures to see the cast of characters.

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