A midwestern perspective on Eat Retreat, Malört & the Thanksgiving meal

A conversation with Rachel Adams

Rachel Adams is a food writer and two-time Eat Retreater. She documents her cooking projects on the blog Dinner Was Delicious. We caught up with Rachel to see what she’s making for Thanksgiving dinner in her hometown of Chicago.

Tell us about your blog and what inspires your posts.

Dinner was Delicious is about food and cooking it. I develop the recipes and write the dumb food puns while my best friend and partner in crime Lucy Hewett, an amazing photographer based here in Chicago, helps make sure things look good. We started the blog in 2012 as a way to cope with a lack of creative fulfillment in our day jobs. Like most food blogs, it’s written with home cooks in mind—folks who deeply appreciate food but are still finding their bearings in the kitchen. Our focus is on walking the line between doing stuff “right”—sustainable, seasonal, nutrient-dense, forward-thinking—and making food accessible for those that don’t have a culinary background.

You had your first oyster at Eat Retreat. What are some other memorable moments?

In general, I think that my sleepy midwestern palate (that had been further dampened with a history of eating disorders and generally fucked up habits) finally woke up at Eat Retreat. It was like I was actually tasting food for the first time. It changed how I cook, how I approach food and the way that I eat in such a massive way that it is not even quantifiable. Even thoughI would have considered myself a proficient home cook before Eat Retreat, my mind was constantly blown at the event. It was a sincerely life-changing experience on all fronts.

Learning from Heather about chicken slaughtering, and the look on Mirit’s face when she stuck her hand into a freshly decapitated chicken carcass. Talking about coffee with Stephen and feeling like I understood the drink for the first time. Walking through tasting olive oil with Kathryn and really getting the nuances in texture. Same goes for Tammy’s salt tasting, that was really fucking cool.

One of the fondest memories is from my second Eat Retreat is driving cross country with Marsh to the Finger Lakes. You know it’s a well curated group of people when two strangers can hop in a car, drive 18 hours and not turn on the radio even once. Just constant conversation. Rolling into Eat Retreat late the night before it officially started was pretty memorable, too. The wood-fired heat was in full-effect, so everything smelled like summer camp and there was our personalized mason jars full of good red wine. It was the second furthest I’d ever ventured from Chicago, but the closest I’d felt to coming home in a long, long time.

Spending four days together in the kitchen, you get to know your fellow Eat Retreaters on a level so authentic that you can’t help but kind of love them. After all, what is a family other than a group of people who love each other despite probably knowing better? It bypasses the awkward teen years and cuts straight to grown-up Thanksgiving dinners. Rachel Adams

Eat Retreat is probably the biggest consumer of Malört per capita outside of Chicago, right? Explain.

Oh Malört. Never before have I seen such vast and enthusiastic consumption of that glorified kerosene. I almost feel bad for schlepping those first few bottles to Los Altos Hills and dragging all you wonderful people down with me. It’s more experience than beverage and, despite my better judgement, I love it. The fact that Eat Retreaters love it makes me love them more.

For the uninitiated, Malört is a wormwood-flavored liquor similar to Aquavit. At first sip, it’s pleasantly woodsy. All bay leaf and rosemary with a floral, grapefruity nose. But that loveliness quickly turns to urinal cake. Used. And lit on fire. That sudden, pungent betrayal generates a phenomenon known as Malört Face and no one, not even me, is immune. It’s part of the fun. You go in knowing it’s gonna be bad but secretly think “oh, my palate is too evolved, I appreciate the intensely bitter and complex. I won’t make the face” but everyone—Everyone—puckers, contorts and winces. James Collier did an amazing job capturing these grimaces in a series of “Malörtraits” at Eat Retreat Finger Lakes.

I think Malört Face is what makes it such a special drink. There are so few things that provoke such a universally strong reaction. Like any other low-grade trauma, it creates an instant bond amongst survivors and gives you something to laugh over as you belch the noxious fumes the rest of the night.

What are you cooking for Thanksgiving?

Fellow Eat Retreat alum and chef Ali Banks is joining me in the kitchen for Thanksgiving. This is the first year I’ll have some help cooking, and I couldn’t be more excited. Our planning spreadsheet is a thing to behold! It’s a great big, delicious mess of Ali’s French training and Italian roots, and my comfortable Southern inclinations.

We’re feeding about 20, so a lot is on the docket. We’ve ordered a beautiful turkey from Butcher and Larder and will red wine braised legs and thighs while the white meat gets the sous vide treatment with herbs and butter, butter and butter. There’s going to be fried okra and cardoon, salted hazelnut tart with caramel and chocolate, garlicky broccoli rabe, a pretty mainstream green bean casserole (why fuck with perfection?), gateaux basque with cranberries and pears, shaved salad, an accidentally vegan mushroom stuffing, roasted parsnips and carrots, cranberry mostarda, 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (four of which are butter), buttermilk biscuits and way too much mulled wine. Also: Jiffy Corn Bread Pudding, straight from boxes and cans, because I’m a sucker for nostalgia and can’t help myself.