Diving In The Couve, Or Charlie And The Chocolatte Store

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”



Diving in the Couve

What follows is the first of a series of conversations that I have with Charlie Hamer, an old friend of mine.  Charlie enjoys eating at restaurants, not as a food critic or a connoisseur, but as a simple working man who has learned to enjoy the pleasant things of life.  The title of this series comes from the idea of seeing the many places where a guy might get a plate of food in Vancouver Washington and surrounding areas, picking one and just diving in.  I hope that you enjoy the short stories and are inspired to try, or avoid, some of the places that Charlie mentions.


I had breakfast with my friend Charlie Hamer this morning.  That’s not an unusual occurrence.  Charlie is an old friend of mine who long ago paid me to help out on his construction projects.  I wasn’t much good at the construction trades but I poured a lot of energy into my work.  He paid me enough to attend and graduate from a community college with a degree in a much less physically demanding line of work than construction.  Charlie told me that he admired my dogged determination to be useful when it was obvious that the work didn’t come to me naturally, and I have been grateful for his generosity ever since.

Usually we meet at some restaurant or other around town.  Charlie loves to eat out, even though his wife, Carline, is a very capable woman in the kitchen when she has time to cook.  Charlie is best kept out of a kitchen.  He went through a couple of pretty rough years a while back, and a remarkable waitress at a remarkably unremarkable restaurant in downtown Vancouver played a big part in his process of rejoining the world of the living.  He has had a special place in his heart for restaurants, restaurant food, and the people who work in restaurants ever since.

On this particular day I had Charlie sitting at the small, square table in my small, square dining room.  I had cooked up some sausage and eggs, fried potatoes and collard greens.  Hey, I’m Southern, and that’s what you get at my place.  Charlie was just happy that I didn’t put grits and sardines on the table.

“I had some real food last night” he said, inferring that what I was serving him was not real food.

“Come on man” I retorted.  “You’re packing away my groceries fast enough, and this stuff is better than what Tank cooks for you down at Leroy’s.  I’ve eaten there once, and I know.”

“Don’t knock Tank’s grease and salt” Charlie said while pointing a fork menacingly close to my nose.  “I don’t know anyone else who can turn out a breakfast that you can either eat or use to lube your differential gear with equally gratifying results.  You oughtta show some respect.”

“Yeah, yeah” I said, and refilled his coffee mug.  “So where did you eat last night?”

“It’s a place called Rally Pizza.  It’s down in what used to be called Garrison Square.  You know, the strip mall that Caroline picked up for cheap back when we began dating?”  My blank look was all Charlie needed to see.  “It’s that place where we tore half of it down, restored the remaining half and rebuilt the first half from the ground up.  It’s called ‘The Mill’ now, and has a bunch of new restaurants and businesses there.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  It’s just west of Peace Health Hospital on Mill Plain, right?”

“Yeah, that’s the place.  Give me some more of those potatoes.”

“Man” I said.  “You got a hollow leg or something?”

“Shut up and give me the spuds” he replied.

I handed the bowl of potatoes to Charlie.  He spooned out the last of them onto his plate and returned to his main point.  “Anyway, there’s a pizza place there and I tried it for the first time.  Caroline and I took Lucas, her nephew.  Kid is a linebacker for Washington State and eats like a horse!  I ordered this thing called  Pizza Bolognese.  Lucas got a pepperoni and Caroline got a salad and some roasted vegetables.  She abstained from the pizza; said that she had to maintain her girlish figure.”

“Is the food any good?” I asked as I chewed the last of my sausage.

“Yeah” Charlie replied.  Pretty good.  The crust is thin, and I’m used to thick crust pizzas.  The toppings are thin too, but I found that I liked the combo a lot.  I didn’t think that I would, either.  You know how I like a small mountain of pepperoni and sausage and shrooms and jalapeños and so on.  Well, I wondered how this pizza was going to fill me up.”

I looked at the last of the potatoes which followed the eggs and sausage patties that had proceeded them into the bottomless pit that was Charlie’s stomach and wondered how a thin crust pizza could fill that void.  “And did it?”  I asked

“Yeah, it did.  I ate the whole thing, to be sure, but it was light enough that I didn’t feel like I was stuffed, and filling enough that I didn’t feel like I needed any more.”

“Humph” I grunted.  “Maybe I’ll try it.”

“You could do a lot worse” Charlie said.  “Lucas’ pepperoni was a little more substantial, but the same thin crust and tasty sauce.  He killed his pizza too, and had half of Caroline’s roasted veggies.”

“She didn’t eat any pizza?” I asked.

“Naw.  She ordered a Market Salad, and they brought a big bowl of salad that was meal enough for her, and a nice helping of roasted veggies; looked like sweet potato and carrot and stuff like that.  She couldn’t finish half of the roasted veggies, and Lucas polished them off.”

I picked up an armload of empty plates and bowls and carried them to the sink.  A fresh pot of coffee sat in the coffeemaker and I brought it over to the table and refilled our cups.  “So” I asked.  “You intend to go back?”

“Yeah, I’ll go back there.  You know, it’s not like a flavor explosion in your face, but it’s a good, mellow pizza at a good price.  The service is good too.  Yeah, I’ll go back.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a shot” I said.

“I recommend it” Charlie replied.  “Good drinks and desserts too.”

After that Charlie gave off a loud belch (“That’s old Walt’s influence on me” he said) and we went on to a different topic.  I made a mental note however that I would soon go to Rally Pizza to check it out for myself.