Mission Inn

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How many times did I fly by on the 91, intent only on Palm Springs grooviness?

Impatient for warm breezes, misting margarita nights and mid century fabulousness?

It took a visiting friend, and the chance to show off a piece of Ron and Nancy Reagan trivia that finally turned me off the freeway and into historic downtown Riverside. Home of the amazing Mission Inn.

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The Inn occupies an entire city block. A fantastical melange of arcades and gardens and turrets and towers, it started life as a 12 room boarding house in 1876 and was “completed” in 1931.

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Over the years guest wings were added, along with cloistered walkways and gardens, music rooms and galleries, chapels, spanish patios, towers and restaurants and it became a major tourist destination for wealthy east coasters and europeans.

During the 30 plus year construction the eccentric & visionary owner, Frank Miller traveled the world, collecting treasures and now the artifacts have been valued at over $5 million.

Days Inn it is not!

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The St. Francis Chapel has 4 four huge Tiffany stained-glass windows and two original mosaics. The “Rayas Altar” is 25′ by 16′ across, carved from cedar and completely covered in gold leaf. And in the  “Garden of Bells,” Miller collected 800 bells, including one from the year 1247 described as the “oldest bell in Christendom.”

There are so many artisan touches it’s an instagram blowout: spanish tiles, iron gates, chandeliers, windows, art and antiques.

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To drop in is to experience a truly unique historic hotel.

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Ignore the valet parking and park just down the street.This re energized downtown is full of historic Californian architecture and it’s shaded streets and businesses are the cultural, urban hub of the Inland Empire.

With temperatures well above a hundred in summer, the cool, dark lobby and umbrellared courtyards are a perfect respite ….. the cafes are lovely.

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It’s worth bypassing the outlets or leaving just a little earlier to allocate a gracious hour on your way home from the desert especially if you can’t bring yourself to pull over enroute to Palm Springs!

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ps: Richard and Pat Nixon married at the Mission Inn and Nancy and Ronnie honeymooned there.

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Manitoga

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My first encounter with the industrial designer , Russell Wright came in the form of American Modern dinner ware …covered in dust and grime at an estate sale.

Stylish and organic in shape, the design was inspired by the colors and forms of nature.
Mass produced and affordable , they outsold every other dinnerware and when new colors or shipments arrived the Macy’s stores were mobbed!
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With best selling dinnerware, home goods and textiles, Russell Wright became the first american, celebrity industrial designer.

His 1950’s book ” Guide to Easier Living”, co written with his wife Mary, espoused a simpler, more casual approach to living well: Design as a humanizing and democratic element.

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Decades later Terrence Conran quipped that “everyone can have a great salad bowl”, echoing Wright’s belief that anyone can create an aesthetically pleasing home and life.

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In 1942, Mary and Russell purchased 75 acres of damaged and logged land high above the Hudson River to use as a summer retreat.
For the next decade, they lived in the existing bungalow, studied the seasons and vegetation, and embarked on a 30 year transformation of the site.

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Wright thinned old trees to create views, planted meadows and new forests, created miles of paths, dammed a small creek to create a large pool and waterfall and built a modernist home and studio.

Mary and Russell named it Manitoga, Algonquin for “place of great spirit.”

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The house is modern and geometric, a 2 story of glass and rock. It sits snug into the slope, above the pond with roofs covered in greenery, a tree trunk in the living room and boulders as steps and walls.
It’s harmonious relationship with the ecology and landscape ahead of it’s time.

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Russell Wright died in 1976, and sadly the buildings and landscapes have deteriorated.
It’s now owned by The Russell Wright Design Center, but restoration is slow with most effort focused on the home and studio.
Thankfully now on the World Monument Fund Watchlist, the landscape needs detailed restoration and the visitor experience can be unsettling.
Given the rock star status of Wright, the re-issue of his famous dinnerware and the esteem in which he is held one can only hope that the Design Center can mobilize funding and energy to restore this magical place.

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Just an hour north from New York City in the sublime Hudson River Valley , add it to your must see list.

kid food

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After years of roasting and grilling, sautéing and stir frying to make my favorite dinner staple, abundant big platters of veggies, I’m returning to the food of my childhood, boiled vegetables!

To be honest, with a twist but an interesting u-turn in my culinary journey.

It started in Northern England last year when we scarfed down fish n chips n mushy peas in the village pub.
What a revelation.
Not the khaki, grey-green gruel I remembered from a tin, but bright green smooshed peas, still with some texture, masses of flavor and a hint of mint.
A perfect sauce and condiment for crispy fried fish.

Then one night in Sydney, a few months later, we met up with friends at an old pub in the Rocks, a tiny noisy place nestled underneath the famous bridge.
It was pie night, the special being a Beef and Guinness pie served with mushy peas. $10.
Brilliant.
Once again, a vibrant pea puree, a delicious counterpoint to the buttery pastry and super rich meaty filling. The only accompaniment served.

Back home in California , mushy peas became our veggie of choice when we served baked barramundi, grilled salmon or little fried tenders of chicken.
Fun on the plate and so easy to make.

It really couldn’t be more simple.

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A couple of cups of frozen peas ( a medium bag)
1 onion ..white or brown , but even red will work
a bit of butter and olive oil
salt and pepper
some mint from the garden

Chop the onion and sweat in a pan with a little olive oil. Try not to color the onion, so keep the heat low. When the onions are soft, add a little butter to melt and add flavor.

Boil the peas for 5 minutes and drain.

Put the onions and peas in the food processor , add a tiny bit of water if necessary and pulse a couple of times.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add some chopped mint and pulse again.
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It can be left chunky or become a silky, smooth puree depending on what you like or are serving it with. Rustic or glamorous? Lots of mint or just a hint?
Lusciously extravagant with a little heavy whipping cream and fresh parmesan for a truly decadent and elegant side…

Kid food for grownups.
Perfect.

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owl time

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That not great moment when you realize you are a cliche….

I named my children Emily and Will, although Bodhis and Hazels will probably be in the same situation soon : most popular names of the decade.
I restored a vintage RV (actually ahead of the curve that time).
Cracked up over a funny story about a woman of a certain age who wore linen pants and red necklaces until I noticed I was wearing linen pants and a red necklace.
Did a detox retreat.
Love my Prius.
Started writing a blog

The final straw.
I have owls on my bookcase and I take photographs of signs when owls are featured.

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To be truthful I haven’t bought owl paraphernalia in at least 5 years but that’s because owls are EVERYWHERE.

Apparently the best selling design on children’s bedding, bibs and backpacks, owl designs are a slam-dunk twofer that work for boys and girls and help keep the design flow working in houses that don’t want to celebrate the neon pink Mattell decor or cartoon vibe. .Parents love the wise old owl and the thinking-caring, affluent-aware parents are so over the princess and pirate thing.

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Graphic designers can really work with a bird with big eyes and a round, round shape, and it’s a gift show truth that baby animals with big eyes are guaranteed to tug our heart strings, in particular white fluffy babies with big eyes. ( remember the white seal posters and the baby polar bears , oh and the snow monkeys)
Jonathan Adler , über potter and savvy marketeer knew what he was doing when he created dozens of iconic owl pieces. White design owls rule the cash register.

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A Pinterest page called OWL Designs has 494 owl pins and 515 followers.Super popular Ukranian fashion blog is actually called Owls are Awesome and there are Facebook pages devoted entirely to these charismatic creatures. I blame Winnie-the- Pooh and Harry Potter in that order.

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Last week I heard an owl hooting.So we ran outside, up the street trying to discover the source of the sound however the trees were so tall and wintery darkness thwarted our attempts to see a real live owl. A neighbor had a big owl swoop past her as she sat in the backyard and a birdwatching friend told me they are “everywhere” and I should be able to see one if I looked in the right place.

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Owls are prehistoric , feared and revered in ancient and contemporary cultures,solitary and nocturnal but apparently not as smart and wise as we imagine.

But damn if they aren’t the coolest design icon ever…at least for now.

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Beryl’s Scones

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My mum, Beryl, loves nothing better than a good “Devonshire Tea”…

I can’t measure the miles we’ve driven or the times we’ve travelled to out of the way craft shops and cafes in small towns ‘cos mum heard they “did a good afternoon tea”.
And understand that “good” is more than just good – it’s an all encompassing concept that includes the tea, the presentation, the staff or owner, the cups, saucers and plates, and finally the scones and cream!

Good afternoon tea: 2 fresh scones, whipped cream, option of butter and homemade jam. Nice cups and saucers. Good sized teapot, preferably one not individual pots. Tea strainer if needed. Cosies optional.

The irony is, rarely are the scones anywhere near as good as mum’s.
Too often dry and chewy (heresy) or gummy and heavy (sigh with disappointment) we spend almost as much time discussing the dreadful attempt as actually enjoying those that pass the test!
“Most people just can’t make a decent scone these days”
This is followed by remembrance of bad scones past and the worst offenders if known by name.

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Beryl downplays her cooking, and scones in particular, with a ” Well…..I don’t do that much now” which reduces the rest of us to out loud laughter. Open up the kitchen cupboards and there are tupperware boxes with little jam drops, pastry cases for lemon curd, coconut or shortbread cookies and maybe a slice or two (hopefully the caramel one, but there’s an almondy apricot one that runs a close second).
Then in the freezer at least 6-8 scones from the last batch “just in case someone pops in”.

No greater sin than having to offer a store bought biscuit to accompany the cup of tea. Better to go the savory route with cheese and tomato on crackers than plate the Iced Vovos or Kingstons for company.

Beryl’s tips for scones: make them quickly with as little handling as possible (easier said than done!).
And note that the recipe is just a starting point as she doesn’t use commercial measuring cups but rather a particular tea cup and spoons from the drawer.

2 cups of self raising flour
2 dessert spoons of caster sugar
1/2 cup of cream (heavy whipping cream in the US)
1/2 a cup of milk
1 egg

Beat the eggs and sugar till creamy. Beryl uses a hand mixer.
Stir in the cream and milk.
Add the flour, mixing w a knife.

Flour the counter and gently pat out the dough.

Cut out the scones w/ a cutter (or a teacup or empty tin can)

Place on a tray, brush with an egg wash or a little milk, and bake in a 200 degree C oven for 12-15 minutes (fan forced/convection). Serve with freshly whipped cream (absolutely no sweeteners or flavoring) and good jam.

Hierarchy of Jams:
Dark, rich berry jams like blackberry, raspberry, strawberry or blueberry. Maybe a goopy sticky apricot. Or go avant grade w tropicals like mango-ginger or pineapple guava. Lemon or passionfruit curd may be ok (and in our mind a little pretentious) but never a marmalade, which are just for breakfast and toast!

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A visit to the UK and exploration of Devonshire and Cream Tea haunts confirmed what we already knew: the aussie bush version was better. Mum didn’t take to the clotted cream, or heavy triangular scones we had in Scotland but she did love that everywhere we went there was strong black tea in a pot, served with milk and sugar and a pretty plate of cakes.

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Special once in a lifetime pilgrimages to Fortnum and Mason and Claridge’s were amazing, beautiful and ritualistic with silver service, petite sandwiches, specialty Darjeelings and tiered cake stands full of eclairs and petit fours.
Never to be forgotten, but we couldn’t wait to get back home and have scones from Beryls oven, dollops of whipped cream, yummy home made jam and bolstering amounts of Liptons tea.

Afternoon tea heaven.

And from across the other side of the Pacific  I think maybe any afternoon tea with my mum is heaven 🙂

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