• Three Butters: Return to Death Valley

    From The Joys of Cooking: A Love Story
    by Judith Newton

    “There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” M.F.K. Fisher, Gastronomical Me

    My husband Bill and I sat in the dining room of the Furnace Creek Inn. With its arched windows, heavy wooden beams, and circles of metal chandelier, the Inn felt like the set of a 1930s movie. From our window, we looked across the stone verandah and miles of desert gravel to the Panamint Mountains. It was near sunset, and, against the rose-flushed sky, the Panamints had taken on that deep, smoky, lilac that eases you gently into a Mojave evening. Bill and I were eating Death Valley Date Nut Bread while we waited for our dinners. The bread was moist, nutty, and mildly sweet with date. As in my parents’ days, the Inn served this confection at every meal, but by March of 2010, when gourmet dining was routine, the bread came with three kinds of butter-—honey, herbal, something peppery.

    I ate the bread slowly as if presiding over a ritual, sampling each butter one by one, wondering if my parents, who lived and worked in this valley in the 1930s, ever ate in the expensive dining room of this hotel. I wanted to think I was fulfilling some Depression-era fantasy of theirs by having dinner in this fancy place, by staying in its nicest room; the one with the arched fireplace and the green and white Art-Deco tile.

    I had come to the Inn to be closer to my parents now that both were dead. I had come to find them as they were in their later twenties-— before my brother and I were born, before my mother’s distance from us, before the bitter fights over labor unions and Vietnam with Dad. I thought it would be easy to love them as they were back then.

    Palm TreesThe next morning I walked the date palm gardens, trying to find the cluster of three palms which they stood before in the wedding photograph from 1938. I didn’t find the trees, but as I wandered through the grassy, shaded grounds, I heard the rush of water in the garden creek and the spill of waterfalls. The wedding party had posed along those waters.

    Afterward Bill and I drove the thirty miles to Death Valley Junction, the adobe compound enclosing a derelict plaza where my parents once worked and lived. I walked in the shade of the hotel arcade trying to gauge the plaza’s size. (One-and-a-half times the length of a football field?) I tried to guess which of the boarded-over rooms had served as my father’s office when he worked for the Borax Company as stenographer. And I visited the Amargosa Hotel, where my mother, head housekeeper, had once overseen the hotel maids. The hotel was operating once more, despite the worn carpets, the musty smell, the dated furniture.

    At the far left of the plaza a new café had opened where the Lila C Café once stood. It was called T and T, for Tonopah and Tidewater, the railway whose long-abandoned tracks lay on the other side of the two-lane road. We talked with Marie, the owner of the T and T, who advertised “the best hamburgers” in the world. The café walls were covered with scraps of paper testifying to the glory of her burgers.

    “Aren’t those the old counter and stools from the Armargosa dining room?” I asked. I recognized them from a picture of my parent’s wedding breakfast. The wooden counter curved; the stools – red leather – were fastened to it.

    “I think you’re right,” she said, momentarily impressed that I knew anything about the Junction’s past. I told her about my mother and father in the 1930s and 1940s.

    “Did your mother know Pearl?” she asked. Pearl evidently worked in an earlier version of this café.

    “I don’t recall a Pearl,” I said. “Was she here in the 1930s and 1940s?”

    “Maybe,” Marie said, but she didn’t really know. Only some of the past was living in this wilderness and most of that was frozen into relics that lay miles away in Death Valley National Park-— Shoshone baskets, scales for weighing gold, wagons from the Borax mining days, the mineral display that had once belonged to my godfather, the date palm grove. The everyday life of the Junction in the late thirties and forties had vanished.

    “Which of the burgers do you recommend?” I asked Marie.

    “Actually,” Marie confided, “the best sandwich is the sub.”

    I said I’d take it and Bill did too. We ate them among the testimonies to her burgers in a room festooned with Christmas lights, though by then the calendar read mid-March. Like many deserts, the Mojave was full of mirages.

    After lunch, we walked to the adobe bungalows where Borax employees once lived. Two rows, three houses on each side; no sidewalks now, only rutted, sandy, dirt in between. Plumy Tamarisk trees grew wild, some bending to the ground, some leaning into the collapsing houses as if cradling them. At the end of the two rows my godfather and godmother’s two story adobe house still stood. My parents’ bungalow was upright too, though its windows were broken, its door unhinged, the white paint flaking badly from the adobe. I slipped into my parent’s house and paused at the sink where Mother had washed her dishes. I lingered at the dining alcove where my parents and I had eaten my mother’s wondrous pies. I felt tenderness for that place, imagined times when we might have been happy there, longed for those times, as if they existed, as if I remembered them.

    Old House

    We returned to the Park to hike Golden Canyon which was deep, rich, honey in the afternoon. Then we drove to find the wildflowers. The first flush had come and gone, but we stopped at the occasional haze of yellow, purple, white. We saw “Desert Gold;” yellow daisy-like flowers with golden centers; “Scorpion Weed;” pale lavender, yellow throat, long stamens; and “Gravel Ghosts;” white cup-shaped flowers with stems so slender that the blossoms seemed to float above the rocky rubble that locals called “desert pavement.”

    That evening Bill and I sat in the dining room again. We were not at a window table this time, but I could see the lilac smoke of the Panamints. Most of the menu before us alluded to the desert just outside; Death Valley done as new cuisine. “Molten Jalapeno Cheese Cake” came with Tri-Color Tortilla Chips, Prickly Pear Salsa, Frizzled Cactus. The Inn salad featured the Death Valley dates that my mother had once packed. A barramundi fish came with “Tortilla Crust, Cilantro-Ancho Remoulade, Bell Pepper-Jicama Tangle, and Fried Yucca Batons.”

    As Bill and I ate our Date Nut Bread with its Three Butters and toasted each other with a Sauvignon Blanc, I saw more clearly than before that this dining room, this meal, were my Death Valley, not that of my parents. I was living my fantasy, not theirs. I could even hear my mother complain, as she often did once I was on my own: “You live so high on the hog.”

    I thought about the Gravel Ghosts again, about their name, their seeming fragility, their ability to survive by clinging to desert rock. Of course I saw myself in them, but I saw my parents too. For, in the end, despite the distance, the differences, the conflicts, we were also alike. I may have wished for a different childhood; cozy scenes of maternal


    instruction in the kitchen in which cooking and learning how to cook were nurturing, less fraught with tension and ambivalence. I may have said “I went my own way” in cooking as in life. And what I said, in many ways, was true. But our histories are like Golden Canyon, where old sea floors have been lifted and twisted into jagged, sky-pointing walls. My own way was their way massively reworked. How else do I explain my love of deserts, my fondness for frontiers, my coupling of love, in all its forms, with cooking and with food? It seems true to me that when we enter a kitchen “we bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables and every meal we have ever eaten.” As with kitchens, so with life.

    Gravel Ghost Photo by Dawn Endico
    Citation from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.
    Recipes by permission of Chef Michelle “Mike” Hanson at The Furnace Creek Inn


    Date Butter

    1 lb butter
    ½ lb margarine
    1 c. pitted date, date paste, or chopped dates*
    2/3 c. honey
    1 T cinnamon
    2 pinches nutmeg

    1. Place room temperature butter and margarine in mixing bowl. Whip on medium speed until soft and fluffy, about 15 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl with spatula.
    2. In a food processor chop dates and add honey and spices until creamy.
    3. Slowly add date mixture to butter. Mix until well combined.

    *If you heat the dates in a microwave for about 30 seconds, they will blend more easily.

    Can refrigerate for 1 month or freeze for 3 months.


    Herb Butter
    (Use on meats and breads)

    1 lb. butter
    ½ lb margarine
    1 T minced shallots
    1 ½ T minced garlic
    2 T fresh chopped parsley
    2 T fresh chopped basil
    2 T fresh thyme, de-stemmed and chopped
    2 T. fresh chopped rosemary
    3 dashes Tabasco
    1 T lemon juice
    1 pinch black pepper
    1 tsp salt
    1 T Dijon mustard.

    1. Place room temperature butter and margarine in mixing bowl. Whip on medium speed until soft and fluffy, about 15 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl with spatula.
    2. Chop herbs roughly by hand.
    3. Place all ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth.
    4. Add processed ingredients to the butter and mix for 10 minutes or more until well combined.

    Can refrigerate for 1 month or freeze for 3 months.


    Poblano Butter
    (Use on meats, in soups, on breads)

    1 lb butter
    ½ lb margarine
    3 dried poblano chilies
    1 tsp minced garlic
    2 T chopped cilantro
    ¼ c olive oil
    2 T lime juice
    1 T chili powder
    2 dry New Mexico chilies
    2 c. chopped spinach
    Pinch of salt
    ½ tsp ground black pepper

    1. Place room temperature butter and margarine in mixing bowl. Whip on medium speed until soft and fluffy, about 15 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl with spatula.
    2. Place chilies on tray in 350 oven for 3 minutes Snap tops off and shake seed out. Discard seed and stem.
    3. In food processor add chilies, pepper, and chili powder. Blend until the powder is smooth.
    4. Saute spinach in 1 tsp oil. Squeeze out all the juice and discard the liquid.
    5. Chop cilantro roughly by hand.
    6. Place all ingredients except the butter mix in a food processor and process 2 minutes.
    7. Mix all ingredients into the butters for at least 5-10 minutes.

    Can refrigerate for 1 month or freeze for 4 months

    • I want your cookbook, with the stories! 😀

    • Judith, what a lovely story and the fact that for your own dreams to come true you had to visit the place where your parents started. It is the cycle from which we are formed for better or worse. It is our historical past. Lovely jaunt through your eyes.

      • Claire

      • March 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm
      • Reply

      I love the tone of this piece, both nostalgic and realistic, your imaginative attempt to get in touch with the past through the present, and your recognition of the difference. Lovely writing.

      • Judy

      • March 9, 2011 at 8:39 pm
      • Reply

      Debra, Madge, and Claire, thanks so much for reading and for sending your good words.

    • Ms. Newton,
      This column is as lovely as the desert’s red sunsets. I have driven past the building of which you speak, wondering about them, and the prople that lived there. You have lyrically filled in the blanks for me and I am forever gratefull. Thank you.

      • Judy

      • March 10, 2011 at 11:20 am
      • Reply

      Don, thank you so much for your comment. Until you wrote that I didn’t know how important it was for me to make that past live for someone who’d been by the Junction and wondered about it. It made my day and gave me ideas!

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