Full disclosure: it was the red flannel hash that lead me to Pam Houston, and not the other way around. Rebecca, one of my favorite customers at the butcher shop always comes up to the counter with a basket full of eggs, beets, and potatoes and asks for a pound of thick-cut bacon. It’s pretty easy to imagine what could be done with bacon, potatoes and eggs, but the beets always threw me. When I finally asked her what she was making her response was one of the loveliest food names I have ever heard—“Red flannel hash.” The name alone could warm you right up.
I had never heard of red flannel hash before, which is surprising considering I am a diehard fan of all forms of breakfast hash. As a kid I went through a Libby’s canned corned beef hash phase so intense my mom feared that I would die of salt poisoning. I wanted it on everything—mashed potatoes, chicken, broccoli. I looked for corned beef hash at every restaurant we went to and ordered it stuffed inside an american cheese omelet with a side of buttered white toast. I’m not proud of any of this, but we’re all friends here, right?
I told Rebecca that I’d never heard of red flannel hash before and she said that she had learned about it from Pam Houston’s short story “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had.” I knew there was a reason I liked this woman. Even more surprising than the fact that I had never heard of red flannel hash before is the fact that I had never read any Pam Houston. When Waltzing the Cat (the collection of stories that includes “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”) was first published in 1998 my older sister bought a copy of it at a Barnes and Noble because the boots on the cover looked like her Doc Martins.
Coffeehouse culture was still relatively new in 1998 and taking your notebook to a coffee shop to scribble slam poetry or curling up with your impressive, existential novel next to a soy chai was all the rage. The neighborhood Starbuck’s was the closest thing we had to a cozy, intimate coffee shop and my sister used to take her copy of Waltzing the Cat there and stay for hours, drawing creeping vines and crying girls and Ani DiFranco lyrics in the book’s margins. She was in love with the barista, a boy named Drew who had bored eyes and a safety pin stuck through his left ear, and she was forever hoping that he would ask her about what she was reading. Thankfully he never did because I don’t think she ever actually read a word of it, but she turned the book into a piece of her own artwork, a time-capsule of her youth and the tireless and hungry persistence for love that would follow her her whole life.
The book’s narrator, 33 year old Lucy O’Rourke, is as tireless in her pursuit of love as my seventeen-year-old sister was. Despite her myriad fails and countless rejections Lucy continues to throw herself into destructive relationships, each time falling back on her best friend, Leo for comfort. The intimacy and comfort between Lucy and Leo is clear from the very first sentence of “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”.
“A perfect day in the city always starts like this: My friend Leo picks me up and we go to a breakfast place called Rick and Ann’s where they make red flannel hash out of beets and bacon, and then we cross the Bay Bridge to the gardens of the Palace of the Fine Arts to sit in the wet grass and read poems out loud and talk about love.”
Houston, in her simplistic prose, is able to convey volumes, not only about Lucy and Leo’s relationship but about Lucy herself in this one tiny sentence.
In many ways, I’m glad that I hadn’t read this collection of stories until a week ago, because I feel like it came to me (as books often seem to do, don’t they?) at precisely the right time. “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” is as much a story about romantic and platonic loves, loves that destroy or heal or consume, as it is about the love of a place. Much of “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” is simply a love poem about San Francisco. In the last year I have lost three of my best friends to San Francisco, each one tiring of New York’s snow and grit and grind in what seemed a matter of seconds, and disappearing in a blur to build new lives far away from me. Each of these friends represents a very specific time in my ten years as a New Yorker, and watching them go always feels like closing a much-beloved chapter.
When Mo announced to me last week that she would be moving to San Francisco in only a few day’s time I had just picked up Waltzing the Cat. I cried because I would miss her, because I was happy for her, because ten years does feel like quite a long time to be in one place, and that night I read “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” four times.
I got drunk on the city at first the way some people do on vodka, the way it lays itself out as if in a nest of madronos and eucalyptus, the way it sparkles brighter even than the sparkling water that surrounds it, the way the Golden Gate reaches out of it, like fingers, toward the wild wide ocean that lies beyond.
I found immense comfort in reading about Lucy’s budding relationship with her new surroundings, not only because it allowed me to picture more fully the new lives of my friends, but also because it reminded me of my own love affair with New York, with Brooklyn, which is ongoing and ever-changing. This place destroys and rebuilds me on a daily–on an hourly basis, and I am deeply in love with it. This is my Valentine to Brooklyn and to all of you. Happy Valentine’s Day.
“The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” Red Flannel Hash
Makes 4 large servings
- 1 1/2 pound fingerling potatoes (I found purple ones!)
- 1 large sweet potato
- 1 clove of minced garlic
- 1 large yellow onion chopped fine
- 2 medium beets
- 1 smoked ham hock, shredded, or 1 pound of bacon, cut into chunks (or corned beef or brisket–whatever you like)
- 4 springs thyme
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 4 large eggs
- 1/4 cup white vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
Peel your beets and cut them into 1/2 inch cubes. Place them in a steamer basket over boiling water and steam them until they’re tender (about 8-10 minutes). If you don’t have a steamer basket you can place them in boiling water for about 5 minutes or until they yield to a form, they will lose some color but that’s okay. While your beats are steaming place peel and cube your potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. Melt butter in a cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet and add minced garlic, shredded ham hock, and chopped onion and cook over low heat. Once your beats are steamed, add them to the skillet along with all of the potatoes and 4 sprigs of thyme. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring often. If you feel like the potatoes aren’t softening put a lid over the skillet for 5 minutes, the steam with help them soften.
Now comes the part where you poach the eggs. People are always very scared of egg-poaching, but fear not, I’m here to show you that it’s actually very easy. First, fill a sautee pan or skillet with water (I like to use these instead of a deep sauce pan because the egg doesn’t have as far to fall). Add 1/4 cup of vinegar (this helps the whites firm and adds a nice flavor to boot). Do not let your water come to a boil. To poach an egg you want your water very hot but not boiling, or even simmering. You want it to be at that moment where all of those bubbles are forming at the bottom of the pan and steam is rising from the surface. Crack your egg into a ramekin, and create a whirlpool in the water with a spoon. Gently lower your egg into the water and let it cook for about 20 seconds. After 20 seconds you can start very gently nudging the whites up around the yolk. If the egg is sticking to the bottom of the pan just use a spatula to loosen it. Cook for about 4 minutes–the whites should look cooked but you should still be able to see the yolk wiggling around inside. Lift out with a slotted spoon, place on a paper towel to drain excess water, season with salt and pepper and serve on top of your red flannel hash. If you feel like you need some extra support, let The Breakfast Bachelor guide you through poaching. Our styles differ slightly but he makes a beautiful poached egg (and also he’s adorable).
If there’s a literary food scene you want to see come to life be sure to leave me a comment and let me know!