While Holly’s Honey Wheat Berry Bread dough rises in my warm kitchen, let me tell you of a good book about the California coast which provides three things: Intimate Authenticity of the place, a History about how and why people settled at that location, and snippets of Experiences with the Coast Road. My Nepenthe, by Romney Steele, also forks out exceptional recipes from the restaurant’s kitchen.
My Nepenthe is a cookbook memoir written by Bill and Lolly’s granddaughter, Romney Steele, who menu planned, cooked, and served at Nepenthe’s Cafe Kevah. Romney’s family harkens to old California, back to the second-half of the 1800s, when her great-great grandfather, Albert Gallatin, built the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. Romney’s great-grandmother, Jane Gallatin Powers, grew up in the mansion, and then married San Francisco attorney, Frank Hubbard Powers. Frank and Jane established the artists’ colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea and invited artists and writers to reside there to paint and write.
In 1949, Frank and Jane’s granddaughter, Lolly, together with her husband Bill Fassett, created Nepenthe atop a projection of Big Sur’s steep land, situated a few hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean. Bill and Lolly commissioned Rowen Maiden, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, to develop their plans. Romney writes, “My grandmother imagined an open-air pavilion for good food, dancing, and Sunday afternoon concerts, a place for people to come and forget their worldly cares. She worked closely with Maiden to achieve her ideas.”
Nepenthe functioned as both home and restaurant. ”Bats and termites called the cabin home when they (Bill and Lolly) first saw it, and deer and rattlesnakes hovered. My grandmother planted a grapevine that continues to trail up the front arbor. My grandfather took jobs in the highway and in construction. The creation of Nepenthe Restaurant, a poet’s paradise carved from the hillside and formed to be one with land and sea, would follow.”
As a memoir, My Nepenthe tells us of Big Sur through the lenses of each decade:
- In the 1950s, “With a newly-minted highway and recovering economy, and Henry’s (Henry Miller) emerging fame after the ban on his Tropic books lifted, people flocked to Big Sur and hence, to Nepenthe.”
- “The vigor of the ’60s brought a surge of interest in the coastal hamlet of Big Sur. Hearst Castle in Cambria opened in 1959, bringing tourists from the south, and in 1962, the Esalen Institute opened its doors to the Human Potential Movement, drawing its own illustrious crowd.”
- The Nepenthe Cheeseboard and the Vegetarian Chef Salad appeared on Nepenthe’s menu in the ’70s. ”The minute a waiter carried it (the Cheeseboard with generous hunks of cheese, fat slices of dark black bread, and fruit served on a board and accompanied by a glass of port) out to a table, surrounding tables asked for it too.”
After reading the book as a memoir, a memoir of Big Sur’s changes, a memoir of the restaurant Nepenthe, and a family memoir, you too will be inspired to cook. My kitchen smells heavenly when making both, “Day At The Beach Minestrone Soup” and “Holly’s Honey Wheat Berry Bread.”
The Nepenthe telephone booth’s history is noted in My Nepenthe. Lolly worried that they would be burdened with constantly answering the phone, “Everybody will call call to see if there was fog or not.”
Buy My Nepenthe.