It's a good thing I'm not afraid of heights because I'd have been in trouble last week. A large group of us gathered at the home of Rachel and Kevin Spencer for the Seymour Center's Sustainable Seafood Fest. We met on the deck with a dizzying view of the Davenport hills and the Pacific Ocean. It was the next best thing to hang-gliding.

Truly, this is one of the most fabulous homes in Santa Cruz County, with a sumptuous garden, a huge greenhouse, big open rooms, a kids' suite with a central playroom, and a kitchen with a distracting view of the bay. Kevin was a movie set designer, so you enter the home by crossing a Golden Gate Bridge replica, which he built.

But last Sunday, it was seafood chowder that took center stage. Chef Tom McNary of Carried Away in Aptos created four incredible dishes that had us pleading for more. First, we dipped into a light Thai fish soup with lemongrass and coconut milk. It had a wonderful tropical flavor enhanced with bits of jalapeno, cilantro, green onion and ginger. I hoped for a second serving, but there were other delights to try.

Next, we tasted a halibut and shrimp stew with rouille — a mayonnaise-based topping flavored with roasted bell pepper, saffron, basil and garlic — which we stirred into the stew for a total change of flavor. It made a major positive difference.

Mussel chowder was next, with bacon and shiitake mushrooms. I thought this would be my least favorite, as I'm not a big shellfish fan. But this was different. The luscious mussels picked up the flavors of cream, clam juice, fish stock and vegetables. A dash of Tabasco put it over the top.

Last, a Southwestern fish chowder treated our tongues to a blend of salmon, corn, Yukon gold potatoes, cream and vegetables — onion, celery, carrot and bell pepper. By afternoon's end, we were fed to the gills and ready to vote for our favorite. It was difficult, but my choice was the Southwestern chowder. I got way outvoted by those who favored the mussel chowder. Tom was nice enough to provide the recipe see below.

Book event

This Saturday, from 6-8 p.m., a new cook book will be introduced at Alma Gifts & Culture, 1705 Mission St., Santa Cruz. "Mexicocina: the Spirit and Style of the Mexican Kitchen" features text and recipes by local author Betsy McNair.

She will be on hand to sign books, chat about recipes and answer questions about Mexican cooking. Recipe samples will be available to taste.

More food memories

Here are more responses to my request for your favorite food memories. Lou Caviglia, owner of Clouds Downtown, said, "I remember waking up early to the smell of tomatoes or fruit cooking. My brother and I helped peel tomatoes, giving them to my mother, who did the cooking and heated the jars. When we finished, we got a treat from my dad — a brandy cherry that he had put up the year before."

Lois Ackerman Lawson wrote, "My grandpa worked 60 years as a baker for Bubble Bakery in Berkeley. He would unwind when he got home by cooking into the wee hours. We made root beer once and for a long time after we would hear bottles exploding beneath us in the basement. Grandma made a moist heavy dressing that she called mutton. Does anyone have these German recipes?"

Penny Carless grew up in England during World War II, with strict food rationing. "Somehow Mom made a tasty stew and I still salivate when I think of how good the gravy was — particularly for breakfast with a piece of bread to mop it up. Chocolate was almost unheard of, but when we had some, my mother covered plain cookies with melted chocolate and made my favorite chocolate biscuits."

Georgie Guyer lived in Pensacola, Fla., where she loved fried catfish and hushpuppies at a restaurant her father affectionately called The Cat House. "But I especially loved bonding with my younger sister over Spam, mayonnaise and cheese sandwiches when we would come home after weekend dates."

Terri Sowers of Grass Valley recalls the hot chocolate her grandmother made, though she can't duplicate it. "I think the cocoa mix doesn't exist anymore — I vaguely remember it in a red box. She made a paste of the cocoa mix and evaporated milk. Then she added hot whole milk, making a wonderful, thick, creamy cocoa with foam on top."

Gail Mowatt remembers spring in Wisconsin. "Every yard had a big rhubarb patch. As the stems shot up and the leaves uncurled, my mother would make stewed rhubarb, but we kids couldn't wait. When the tiny stems reached three inches, we ate them right out of the ground, wincing at their tartness."

Finally, my cousin Rosemarie Pajack of Syracuse, N.Y., says, "When I was 4 years old, I helped Grandma make escargot. I'd push them down as they rose to the top of the pan. I thought they were so cute and actually ate them, though I hate them today. I would still love to help Grandma clean fish and veggies and make pasta."

Contact Donna Maurillo at sentinelfood@maurillo.com.

Recipe of

the week

Yum, yum, yum. That's all I can say about this recipe from Chef Tom McNary of Carried Away.

MUSSEL CHOWDER WITH BACON AND SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS

1 cup dry white wine

2 lb. black mussels, scrubbed

6 oz. bacon, finely diced

1 cup yellow onion, diced

½ cup celery, diced

½ cup carrots, diced

2 med. Yukon or red potatoes, peeled and diced

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

8 oz. fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 Tbsp. flour

2 cups fish OR chicken stock

1 cup clam juice

1 cup heavy cream

2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Tabasco sauce

In medium pot over high heat, bring wine to boil. Add mussels, cover and cook 8-10 minutes or until mussels open. Remove mussels from shells. Discard shells. Strain and reserve liquid.

In a large pot, brown bacon over medium-high heat. Reserve bacon and pour off most of the fat. Add onion, celery, carrots and potatoes. Saute about 5 minutes. Add butter and mushrooms. Saute 5 minutes. Sprinkle in flour. Saute 1 minute to coat vegetables. Add stock, mussel juice, clam juice and cream. Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes until vegetables are tender. Stir in parsley. Add mussels and bacon. Simmer 1 minute. Season to taste. Makes 6 servings.

Tip of the week

To remove candle wax from a tablecloth, put the stain between two sheets of paper towel. Then run a warm iron over it.