My Nepenthe is a magical book. In it are stories of Big Sur through the last half century, recipes that have satisfied movie stars, hippies, and bohemian artists, luscious photographs that both trace history and bring one of the world's most beautiful landscapes alive. Author Romney Steele tells her own family and food-filled story of growing up in and around the Nepenthe Restaurant, a Big Sur landmark since 1947. Her writing is so evocative, and the photography so awe-inspiring that reading My Nepenthe makes one nostalgic for growing up in Big Sur, even if one grew up elsewhere. Being raised in a restaurant, especially one with the history of Nepenthe, is also a guarantee of delicious recipes from the family cookie jar as well as the dining tables of the restaurant. Hats off to publisher Andrews McMeel for lavishing the best production values on this beautiful book.
This is a family story that reaches back to the adventurous Bill and Lolly Fassett, both from wealthy established families who overturned their comfortable ways of life to settle in a cabin on the edge of a mountain cliff. Driven by their own creative needs, they abandoned comfort. In Lolly's words: "We would lie on the grassy slope and plan - Bill had been trying to puzzle out how we would survive living in the country." Not only did they survive, they prevailed, despite the lack of electricity and sparse tourism over the newly built highway.
Nepenthe became a destination that reflected the cultural history of the United States. "Back in the day, people came from all over to soak up the life on the terrace, attend poetry readings, musical presentations, folk dance, meet interesting people, cavort with Henry Miller and my grandfather, and they still come today, but more to enjoy the view and the food and relax while en route. By no means was it always gay and carefree, though, and I write about this a little in my book."
In the beginning, movie stars were window-dressing, and Nepenthe became a setting for "The Sandpiper" a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when in the highly publicized phase of their ballyhooed romance. But the more solid life underneath was that of artists and what were known as bohemians, the rugged individuals who turned their back on the creature comforts of city life. Among the most famous was Henry Miller. As Ms. Steele tells us, there were also the stragglers and lost souls, and the family had compassion for them, even offering a bit of money at times.
Bohemianism belonged to a few, but the hippie movement was a cultural phenomenon, and Nepenthe with its wild beauty, its remoteness, became a lure for singers whose presence lured the young seeking the counter-culture.
Remoteness may be one of the aspects that has helped Nepenthe to maintain its standards and the quality of its food. The recipes reflect those standards in their purity and goodness, and many have derived from the early days of the family when guests were not only visitors, but welcome additions to the family table, and pleasing them as part of the group was paramount. But Nepenthe continues to be a reflection of the times, and today the food and wine experience has become important. There is an award-winning wine list and the chefs and service staff are highly trained.
The recipes are not presented in traditional chapter form, for this is book of stories about food. Instead they are interwoven with the stories and the beautiful photographs throughout the book. Most reflect tradition, many of them coming from the time-tested family and restaurant recipes, while others are from the chefs who now work at Nepenthe. Start the day with Buttermilk French Toast with Apple Pear Butter, or with Cafe Benedict, the special version of Eggs Benedict served at Nepenthe. There are recipes in all categories such as Chicory Salad with Lemon and Olive Oil, Chipotle Butter, Cilantro Chicken Skewers with Mango Salsa, Grilled Swordfish with Sour Cream-Caper Sauce; New Potato Hash with Poached Eggs, Chiles Rellenos.
Recipes for the sweet tooth abound in My Nepenthe. You will find Holly's Pumpkin Pie and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream next to Italian Wedding Cake and the more contemporary Meyer Lemon Tart. There is a Torta Caprese brought to Nepenthe by Holly Fassett herself, after living in Capri. And no restaurant is complete without a few drinks. Make a glass of Sangria or Mulled Wine, and raise in in to toast of glorious book.