July 27th Lake George Reunion

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Sometimes I really am a princess. I never know exactly how to behave at big, multi-generational family gatherings because they weren’t part of my own childhood. It’s kind of like that feeling you get when you’re in somebody else’s kitchen—you want to be helpful, but it’s not your kitchen or your stuff and you don’t know where any of it goes, so you stand around feeling kind of stupid and useless. It is that feeling, on steroids. Yesterday was one of those occasions, the annual gathering of family (one finger of Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s large-ish one), on the western shore of beautiful Lake George. For most everyone there it’s a week of fun; our schedules right now—mine and HCB’s—allowed us one day, which is better than no days.

I fare better when somebody takes the reins and gives me specific instructions, which thankfully happened a couple of times yesterday. Sitting on a big porch in a delicious breeze, observing fun unfolding in the dappled sun on the lake, listening to the pretzel logic of young children at your feet, catching up with folk you have not seen in a year: it’s restorative.

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But what would typically have been only about laissez-faire summer togetherness this time was also about grief, about the recent and sudden passing of the family matriarch who “would have wanted us all to be together in her absence.” It was shocking news that reached us only a few days earlier.

So we were together.

There was a big hole without her we all noticed and felt, not least of whom her adult children and their spouses, and her husband. It happened to be his birthday. And as difficult as the day visibly appeared for him and others, there was also the unrelenting joy that comes with the gathering of young children whose hearts are filled only with love and celebration: that is what a birthday party is about, and kids remind us of that lest we should forget, even when we are hurting. Every single person there understood.

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And even when you are hurting from the inside out, you still have to smile at littles, first cousins still sticky from a day on the beach, maybe a little cranky and possibly sleep-deprived, some in their swimsuits, and at least one red-caped super hero, who are beyond excited to be at the lake and celebrate their granddad’s birthday, help blow out candles, and watch him open presents.

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And as difficult as it must have been to do that without her, you still have to smile at a cake made with only good intentions by enthusiastic young bakers, its chocolate gorge filled with dolphins and whales, observed from the cliff’s precipice by a pair of sparring tigers, surrounded by sugary sprinkles and jimmies. Candles counted, skeptical opinions voiced (you are definitely older than fifteen), requests for only cake, or only ice cream, or both, please.

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And when superheroes need a little backup, love always saves the day.

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It’s the Little Things

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I think it must be a function of age and want. I don’t recall ever getting so excited over ripe tomatoes. And crispy local green beans. And fresh ears of corn just arrived from Georgia, and expensive organic strawberries like the pint I bought as a special treat last Friday, and my Sunday morning yoga class. Three years ago, at the threshold of big changes, I was driven by fear and survival (mainly fear), the rug freshly yanked out from under me; those feelings were reprised just last October. The fear remains, but with cautious optimism I am savoring ordinary things with renewed ferocity, things I once took for granted.

It’s also life in Vermont. I love so much about this place, but the jury’s emphatically out on others, to wit: the sun never gets quite overhead on a winter’s day, and darkness comes early. I hate that. Hate. It’s a strong word that should be reserved for occasions when one really means it, like now. And it would be just fine with this Southern girl if we got about a tenth the amount of annual snowfall we get here. And ticks and deerflies—they contribute nothing to the world order except agony, and we’ve got them in droves.

But there is salvation in that tomato, which is almost as tender and juicy and sweet as a Southern-grown tomato. Almost. And when I returned home from my delicious yoga class this morning, I made a delicious salad with it, and a number of other beautiful ingredients, many of them locally grown. It is nothing short of a miracle, in my humble opinion, that the farm I pass twice daily on my commute to and from work was harboring the infant version of that beautiful tomato in one of its many greenhouses, when I was still sliding all over the icy highway using my slow-to-improve Vermontish driving skills. (See fear, above.)

See what I mean? It does not take too much to get me excited these days. Like this salad I made—this salad is pretty dang exciting.

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I will make another similar one and take it to a barbecue potluck in a couple of weeks. That’s exciting, too: being invited to a potluck with new New England friends.

And this is exciting:

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Those are the beautiful layers of pastry stratigraphy in the opera cake (yes, opera cake is a thing) Handsome Chef Boyfriend made and brought home for the second teenagery birthday celebration in the space of only a couple of weeks, this time for the 16-year-old. I think of it as high art. And I am duly impressed with HCB, not just because he can make something that gorgeous and delectable, but because he is also in a period of transition, self-motivated, doing some creative reinventing, moving into the culinary world of sweet after a long and successful career mainly in savory.

Which brings me right back to the little things. When you spend long hours on your feet poring over recipes, scaling out ingredients in a busy commercial kitchen, turning out beautiful baked goods right and left (things for which people sometimes drive long distances), you deserve some time to yourself enjoying the little things.

But HCB tends to latch on to the little things with even more ferocity than I.

Case in point: cake fails. You know the ones: once in a while some hilarious image of a badly decorated cake with raunchy pastry work and egregious grammatical errors floats by on social media. Sometimes it’s a whole collection of them, and I admit they often make me laugh. Yesterday I shared an especially awful one with HCB, which then inspired him to go find others. And others. And still others. This went on for some time; the giggling coming from the vicinity of his desk was contagious, long after I gave up looking at the cakes gone bad.

But then came the other obsession, the one that has gathered intensity of late: eBay.

It started innocently a few weeks ago with teenager number two and a particular piece of outerwear he wanted which costs a king’s ransom if you buy it off the rack in a store. Out of the question. So eBay it was: jacket located, auction won (hooray!), and we thought we were done.

Except when it came, it was not the material we thought it would be, and there was some question whether the teenager would like or want this particular version.

On to auction number two, where HCB once again enjoyed success, and the jacket was much closer to the mark. We gave the boy both for his birthday, and he seemed pretty happy.

Golf clubs, Super Mario Bros. toys (long story), Spanish saffron, car parts—he’s found all of them, and joyously, on eBay auctions. What I find the most entertaining about HCB’s new obsession with this particular flavor of e-commerce is his excited play-by-play description of what is happening near the end of an auction. It’s comical and endearing, even if I have to throw something at him to get his attention. Last night I said I would get a little bell and just whap it every time there’s a bit of auction news:

“I’m the high bidder again!”

<ding!>

“I’m waiting ’til the last 30 seconds!”

<ding!>

“I found a whole boxed set of Audrey Hepburn DVDs for you!”

<ding!>

“Wait, they’re from the UK, nevermind.”

<bummer.>

Tomatoes, eBay, cake fails, deep snow, short winter days, sometimes-sullen teenagers, ever shifting planets. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I are in it together, obsessions notwithstanding, and that’s no small thing.

Mise En Place

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Today I had a huge, long list of stuff I planned to do. Some was work related, some was house related (actually most was house related), and there was the usual catching up on correspondence. Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s mandate to me as he was leaving this morning: go out and pick up sticks. (Manly Vermonter translation: get ’em now, you are almost out of kindling, and don’t be whining to me about it when the lawn is buried under ten feet of snow.)

I did try to pick up sticks. I’ve been under the weather for the last week, though, and every time I swooped down to grab one my head felt like it was exploding off my neck.

So I did the sensible thing and went back inside and baked cookies.

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I had all the ingredients for molasses cookies and decided that since they have molasses in them they must be health food. (Ergo, cookies equal health food.) Lately my life has felt distinctly un-mise’d en place. During an afternoon phone chat I whined to HCB that I have felt unsettled for three years. Would I feel the comfort of being settled, ever again? He assured me I would.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies came out of my mom’s third grade cookbook. I remember that rumpled book, its faded blue pages held together with faded ribbon, a contribution from every member of the class therein. (Betcha anything she still has it.) We made those cookies all the time when I was a kid. The summer before my sophomore year in college I sat down with pen in hand and copied recipes I wanted, from that book and others, so I’d have them in my very first apartment. My own collection is looking pretty aged now.

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My mom did not own a stand mixer when I was growing up. We mixed the batter with a wood spoon and it was stiff as all get-out. This afternoon while I watched the mixer whir around, effortlessly blending the flour and egg and gooey molasses, I wondered about Mary Ann. What kind of a kid was she? Was she nice to my mom? (Was my mom nice to her?) Is she still alive? What did she do with her life? Was it a settled life? Did she marry and have kids? Did she divorce?

One thing I know for sure. That cookbook was a product of WWII-era Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where my mom and her family lived at the time. Her parents, and her grandmother (my great grandmother Gracie) all lived under the same roof in G.I. housing and contributed to the war effort in one capacity or another. My great grandmother was a librarian, and my grandmother was a lab technician, each of them at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the bomb that would end the war was in development. I am fairly certain their lives did not feel mise’d en place, either–probably not many Americans could make that claim.

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Another thing I know for certain. Neither mom nor Mary Ann had Silpat. What a glorious invention. Had the outcome of that war been different, maybe none of us would have Silpat. (All hail Silpat!) Have a molasses cookie, on me.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup shortening (it’s Vermont: use butter, dammit)
  • 4 T molasses
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t cloves
  • 1/2 t ginger
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt

Preheat oven to 375º. Mix and work with hands or mixer. Form into small balls. Roll in sugar. Bake 15 minutes.

Yield: depends. How big are your balls? (Ha.) And how much cookie dough did you eat while you were baking? (Please, no sanctimonious speeches about raw eggs–you know you do it, too.)

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Note: the cookie jar was made by a Memphis potter and sculptor named Ellen McGowan; my mom bought it at a crafts fair on the lawn of the Pink Palace Museum in the mid-1970s. (It says, Tomorrow I go on a diet!) My dad once told Gelsey Kirkland that we lived in the Pink Palace while he was schlepping her around town during one of her many guest appearances with Memphis Ballet. She believed him. True story.

 

Afternoon at a Vermont Bakery: Sunday Photo Essay

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Friday afternoon I had the great pleasure of looking over the shoulders of several of the staff at a particular Vermont bakery. I could not resist the design on this cakewheel, seemingly frozen in another era. Today I showed a very young friend of mine how I edit the photos I use on my blog. We did a few together, and then I mainly handed it over to her. So this is a guest post of sorts. May you find sweetness in the people around you today and every day.

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Mad Tom Apples: Sunday Photo Essay

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My Irish ancestors settled in the Tuckaleechee Cove area of the Great Smoky Mountains in the 19th century and made their living as apple farmers. I wonder how they would view New England’s landscape, where harvesting apples in the fall is woven into the fabric of life and where the topography is at times so evocative of the Smokies. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I and his family picked apples this morning at Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset: Honeycrisp, Gala, Empire, McIntosh, and Macoun tumbled out of our overfull bags as we moved through rows of still-full trees–it is early in the season. Home again, a family kitchen project yielded magic.

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