I’ve noticed, as I’m sure you have, that olive bars in the supermarket are as typical now as the salad bar once was. The IGA here in Harbor Springs has a great little olive bar that I perused closely the other night. It was a Friday evening, not many people out getting groceries up here at that hour, likely because they were home getting ready to head to the Rams homecoming game (the stadium is just up the hill from my house, and the roar of the crowd can be heard with most every play), or they were otherwise stoking up the homefires for the night. Yet I did run into someone I knew on the way in and again on the way out, which I’m noticing happens all over the place here despite the shrunken off-season population.

It happened on Main Street in Howse’s candy shop the other day (chocolate and black olives, my deep dark vices). And it happened just across the street from there in the bookstore, Between the Covers; I remember that name was on the building before the store opened many years ago, and I thought we were in for a shop of bed linens. I was pleasantly surprised it was, instead, books. The shopkeeper said hello, and that he recognized me from my essay (with a photo) in the Harbor Light recently. So we chatted for a bit and he told me how wonderful life is up here in the winter. That’s the difference between the townie and the out-of-towner. Countless of the latter have asked me if I’ve watched The Shining in preparation for winter in these parts, as if I’m going to find myself at my desk typing the same line over and over again while everyone thinks I’m hard at work. The townspeople (forgive me, I can’t help but call them—us—that) feel quite the opposite, as though they’ve captured a secret corner of the world very few have known the way they have in order to appreciate it.

Some days, a lot of days, I feel like I’m walking around on the set of a very good play. But what was remarkable for me about my date with the olive bar on a Friday night in Harbor Springs was that it felt…just fine. I didn’t long for my city self, who was dolled up and cocktailing at that hour for a lot of years. I didn’t even long for my cooking school self, who would be a Friday night whirling dervish, mastering techniques and making practice dishes in her kitchen in Pacific Heights, with French porch doors open directly to the outside with no need at all for a screen (so few bugs out there in San Francisco; must be la-la land). I didn’t long for anything, except the very thing I was doing. I just was, and felt like I belonged, and was aware of the contentment as I scooped up my olives and scooted out to burn some homefires of my own.

When you get to the store to select your olives, it need not be a Friday night full of awareness and contentment; I know, likely it won’t be. Practically speaking, saltiness may be a problem with the olives you get from the grocery. If they are over the top, give them a good soak in hot water in the sink—but careful not to let them go too long or you’ll lose all of the salt, and that’s not good either. You’ll be able to gauge by tasting the olives every 15 minutes, which ought not to be much of a hardship. My mother has always soaked her olives when she brings them home from the store, and then covers them in some oil. In fact, I had a message recently from a childhood friend who said he had a vivid memory of a massive bowl of black olives soaking in the kitchen sink at our house. Could that be right? He asked. Dead on, I said.

Pick up a few other simple ingredients for Lebanese olive salad—a red bell pepper, a tomato, some scallions, a lemon. And maybe if you strike up a conversation with the clerk at the check-out counter about any old thing on your way out, you can have an Our Town moment of your own, wherever you may be.

Lebanese Olive Salad

This is an easy but ultimately rather sophisticated dish. A little will go a long way on the plate, given the punch the olives pack. The dressing for the salad is typical Lebanese style: lemon and oil, poured right onto the salad. This salad is excellent with grilled meats, or as with all Lebanese salads, just eaten on its own with some flatbread.

½ cup sliced kalamata olives (pitted and quartered lengthwise)
½ cup sliced green olives, such as picholine (pitted and quartered lengthwise)
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped mint
1 tablespoon olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well.

And that’s it.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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