Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.
Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.
But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.
Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.
Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.
A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.
We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.
Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.
Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.
Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.
HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)
The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.
The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.
It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.
The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)
Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.
Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?
Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.
In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.
But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)
I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.
Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.
If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.
Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.
Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.
‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.
This morning I lamented to anybody listening it feels like we’ve been in the car for three days. We have, kinda. Sunday afternoon we arrived road-weary at my ex-sister-in-law’s-but-still-my-sister’s Mt. Pleasant home (we just call it Charleston, it’s close enough) for a long overdue visit, first one in the flesh in too many years. One 23-y-o young man who belongs to me met us there in a questionable car, unscathed if rattled. My ex-sis-but-still-sis rolled out the red carpet for us with a proper Southern dinner set upon a gracious Southern table, vegetarian style.
Her co-hostess is the Best Black Lab in the World, all but impossible to photograph. This sweet Lab was also the most patient dog in the world, willing for a dog-deprived woman to wallow in her dog-ness for a long while. Good girl, Waco.
Yesterday morning three of us struck out for a longish, steamy walk while Handsome Chef Boyfriend undertook an ambitious jog from the house to the center of Charleston’s jaw-dropping Arthur Ravenel Bridge, about a seven-mile trek out and back in the heat, all told. Meanwhile I tried to capture the Spanish moss that is so defining of the landscape in the deep coastal South.
Our time there was delightful end to end, far too brief. We had only a little while after our walk for a geeky camera tête-à-tête (I’m still a newbie, pressing our more camera-savvy hostess for answers to hey-how-do-I-work-this-thing kinds of questions), and not much else before HCB gently reminded us it was time to hit the road. Again.
Thence to Wilmington, NC, the 23-y-o rattling down the road behind us in heavy traffic and persistent rain. Navigation misled us once, but we finally arrived, rumpled and weary. There was time only for the grocery, a quick dinner, and welcome sleep.
But today! Today was beach day. In the intervening years since my move to Vermont I have had occasion to walk the craggy beaches near Camden, Maine (a very different kind of coastline than North Carolina’s to be sure), and to sniff the surf of the Jersey shore once on a frigid day when I was miserably sick with a head cold. Being here with my boys—both of them—is restorative and wonderful. The skies rained on us this morning and then relented. We gathered our things and took off for nearby Wrightsville Beach.
We are eating well, too much, enjoying each other’s company and also indulging in the luxury of doing nothing at all, except being together. We have a few other things on agenda in the coming days, more stories to come.
The concept of the general store revealed itself to me the instant I had boots on the ground in my new home state of Vermont. Most small farming communities here have one (and so that would be most of Vermont, which is largely made of small farming communities). But their store offerings vary widely, to say nothing of what you can expect to pay for the stuff on the shelves. The most “complete” general store I ever patronized was Coburn’s, just over the mountain from my erstwhile home in Sharon, Vermont, on Route 132 in the small town of South Strafford.
Coburn’s is one-stop shopping in a vernacular white clapboard building like so many others that dot the landscape in these parts—you can find a decent selection of reasonably priced groceries there, dairy and not-bad-looking produce, and sliced deli meat at the counter in the back. You’ll also find a respectable bottle of Argentinian Malbec, sturdy work gloves, fire starter logs (important for a Southern girl whose fire building skills are wanting), a small newsstand, full-service post office and bank, and two gas pumps out front. Really, what more could anybody need, except possibly longer store hours?
Other communities are not so fortunate. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had a long-running joke about one general store in particular where we occasionally stopped for gas but avoided the inside of the store like plague because of its rotting produce, overpriced groceries, surly counter help, and general filth. If one of us had to dash inside for something, the other would ask, Need a box of seven-dollar Triscuits? Those folks are doing the locals a disservice and getting away with it because they’re the only game in town.
The best of these small businesses, if they are not running a smooth operation like Coburn’s, have evolved into a modern iteration of themselves, changing with the times if you will. Five Corners is one of them, not too far down the road in the Massachusetts Berskhires, at a busy Williamstown intersection. We had a couple of primo sandwiches there yesterday on our way to Pittsfield erranding. (And you can’t beat the beauty of the Berkshires on a gorgeous summer day.)
To be fair, this exquisite little place is no longer a general store in the true sense of the term. It’s got pricey, gifty stuff, and coolers stocked with high-end charcuterie and cheeses, but you can also grab a half-gallon of milk and a few other necessaries in a pinch. There’s a long, rustic table in the center of the main space where folks plunk down on a wide bench with their laptops and cuppa Joe (which is also top-shelf brew). The sandwiches are interesting (not your average ham and cheese) and the pastry is to die for.
I’m okay with this version of the general store—there’s no filth in sight, not a single head of expensive rusty iceberg, it’s a creative use of the space, and the building itself has been artfully preserved—it’s better than an empty, derelict building by a long shot, and there are plenty of those around here. You might not see farmers hanging out here, and you shouldn’t expect to buy groceries at this place between city trips to the supermarket. But there is still local community building going on.
It’s high summer here with the faintest hint of fall in the air, and the produce is exceptional. Which brings me to the Vermont farm stand, another venerable institution, not to be confused with the farmer’s market, which is also seen in abundance in New England communities. But the farm stand as it exists in these parts is new to me—what I know as a farm stand from my life in Tennessee is typically a roadside lean-to (or even the bed of a pickup) purveying a single item, or a couple, from a local farm. You can get incredible seasonal produce if you’re lucky enough to stumble on one of these at just the right moment.
What I’ve noticed in these parts is a bit more evolved, although the simple roadside farm stand lives here, too. But with the growing season as short as it is, the big, established farms set up seasonal retail shops in respectable quarters with regular hours. Clear Brook Farm is happily about halfway between home and work, a sizeable operation that offers local meat and dairy, lush produce, but also bedding plants, flowers, and landscaping supplies. Their stuff is at its peak about now; some time in late October or thereabouts they’ll close up shop ’til next spring.
I hate New England winters. There, I said it. Springtime in New England is not the prize, as some have suggested (they have not seen springtime in East Tennessee). This moment in late August—this moment is the prize. The impossibly rocky soil here produces a surprisingly robust and gorgeous summertime yield; it is ephemeral.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may (or hibiscus, if you prefer) and get thee to a local farm stand.
Annie Lennox urged me to pick up my feet and pick up the pace through sweaty ear buds, her lyrics suffused with emotions: love, loss, loneliness, joy, she knows each of them intimately, she sings. A perfect Vermont Saturday morning was the only other motivation I needed to run: success is measured in hot cheeks, eyes burning with salt, a soaked-through shirt, and happy delirium. It’s possible there is no better feeling.
But the day did indeed get better, as if that were possible: an afternoon in Massachusetts under a cerulean sky, lunch of prosciutto and mozzarella on ciabatta (barbecue and collard greens for Handsome Chef Boyfriend), a suspended moment on Pontoosuc Lake’s shore where water sparkled an early summer greeting and windmills waved hello from a distant hilltop, frozen concoctions at a roadside dive the afternoon’s finale on the way home, where we collapsed content on the sofa with a nail-biter on the telly. Plucking chunks of ripe cantaloupe from a plastic tub, licking juice from our fingers and playing footsie with our toes: life does not get better than this. It was a day beyond reproach end to end, the kind of day that explodes with so much guilty pleasure it almost feels wrong.
When I lived in Denver for a few years in my very early twenties a passel of ballet friends and I routinely found weekend fun at gay nightclubs: they had the best dance music hands down (the perfect antidote for classical ballet), the best deejays, and truly superb entertainment. There were bouncers who sized you up at the door, and if you did not set off the hostility meter you were welcomed.
I remember one club in particular for its phenomenal drag queens, where for a small cover charge you could catch an amazing show staged by people who had spent hundreds on costuming and hair and makeup, lip syncing the songs on the charts at the time: the music of British invasion techno bands, and healthy doses of Chaka Khan, Madonna, and Tina Turner—the likenesses were spot on.
I had a good friend who deejayed at that club, a young violinist in the Denver Symphony who enjoyed this work purely as an avocation—he was passionate about getting the technical aspects just right, measuring beats per minute, knowing how to line up dance tracks in a way that made perfect sense. I went to that club as much to see him as I did the shows because he let me climb the ladder up into the sound booth and sit there with him while he showed me the tools of the trade. I was duly impressed, and also had a spectacular view of the stage below.
I never once imagined I was in any kind of danger in that club, or any of the others, and the fact is my young friends and I, and the other club patrons and performers, were probably pretty safe. At least from the kind of violence Orlando saw last weekend and which seems so much a part of the landscape now it’s exhausting to feel the pain when the news stories break.
But fear and loathing and intolerance were certainly there in Denver in the early 1980s. A short time after I moved from Colorado back to my home state of Tennessee I learned my violinist friend had been lured from the club by a man feigning interest in him, but who then beat him to a pulp and left him for dead. He spent some time fighting for his life in the ICU before eventually making a full recovery, lucky to be alive.
I have no cure for intolerance, fear, hate, oppression, or marginalization, but I know this: they leave their calling card at every single scene of carnage. And they absolutely detest love, can’t bear the sight of it.
I ache for the 49 people in Orlando, and so many more, who never again will see a sparkling lake or indulge in an ice cream on a sunny day. We owe it to them, and the people who went before them, and those who will go after them, to love, over a prosciutto sandwich, or a tub of cantaloupe, or however love insinuates itself in your life.
The adult luna moth lives for only one week. She has no mouth—her sole purpose is to reproduce. For this reason she has come to symbolize love. A beautiful specimen visited us early last week, a reminder: Be good. Don’t judge. Bury your fears. Say something nice to someone who needs to hear it, starting now, because your time here is short. Just, love.
Updates: I am pretty dang pleased to report my foot issues have not yet derailed this latest big effort to resurrect my beloved running habit.
I told somebody yesterday I’ve learned to view every glorious, temperate day in Vermont as a gift; last week there were several of them, and the temperature once even climbed into the low eighties. Nevermind the snow this morning. On Monday and Tuesday I ran, not exactly like the wind, but I ran, friends—two consecutive days because the weather insisted; I am on week seven of my C25K program and it is going very well indeed, better than expected. To make it work I must:
- Keep on going to yoga, as I do most Sundays and sometimes in the middle of the week.
- Take anti-inflammatory meds, and stay on top of them.
- Use Arnica gel on the foot before I go.
- Stretch hammies, calves, and Achilles, holding each about 45 seconds, give or take.
- Repeat #4 on the flip side of the run.
- Dunk the bothersome foot in an uncomfortable ice bath for 20 minutes when I return home; I usually Skype my son to take my mind off the burn.
- And for much of the day during the work week use a knobby roller on the offending heel while I sit at my desk and write; I would like to think this is helping break up scar tissue.
It’s a shotgun approach that seems effective.
Wednesday was weights class at the gym, which for me is like taking cod liver oil—I know there are benefits, I am not crazy about doing it. And on Thursday my bicycle came out of winter storage for the first ride of the season. The landscape in the photo marks my turning-around spot, close to the New York state border. Friday my bum hurt like heck from the unforgiving saddle, but soon I’ll be tough enough to forego the “butt shorts,” as I call them, opting instead for more comfortable cottony stretch shorts as I do every summer.
Life always seems a great balancing act, and I’m not there yet. I gain control over One Big Thing, only to turn around and find Another out of kilter. Like that game where you whap a critter on the head and then one pops up out of an adjacent hole; I find it infuriating.
I’ve put myself back on a nutrition plan, one that has been around since the 1960s and has worked for me several times in the past. Handsome Chef Boyfriend is participating by default; we’ve enjoyed some very nice benefits thus far, but this particular plan does require work—careful buying habits and a lot of meal preparation at home. It’s okay—I have a trained professional at my disposal.
Three and a half years ago I was thirty-five or so pounds lighter and ripped. And I was scared down to my socks and anything but happy. Now that situation is more or less flipped. There is much to be said for happiness; I shall keep pursuing the rest. Cheers.
It’s track and field season here in New England; maybe in other parts of the world, too, not sure—this is well outside my life experience bubble. ‘Tis also the season when Handsome Chef Boyfriend morphs from pastry chef by day to pole vaulting coach by afternoon and the occasional weekend, true story: he coaches invincible young folk who run like crazy with a long, bendy pole, then jam it into the ground and somehow try to heft themselves many feet up, up, up into the air, and then twist around, and clear a horizontal pole without knocking it off. Sometimes they actually make it.
For about a decade H(PVC)B has been coaching high school pole vaulters; this year he was asked to work privately with an individual student, a talented freshman at Southern Vermont College. There he is, the boy in the yellow jacket, young Isaiah. On Saturday Isaiah and one other SVC student competed in the New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, accompanied by a gaggle of coaches and some well-wishing teammates who did not make the cut for this event which in turn was a qualitfying event for a bigger meet next weekend: the Eastern College Atheltic Conference Divsion III Track & Field Championships.
Being the consummate ballerina, I tend to notice bodies and there were some pretty, sinewy, lean ones in Massachusetts at Springfield College for Saturday’s meet. Being there among them made me wish I’d discovered the joy of running much sooner than I did in my late thirties, like maybe when I was a young college student. But even then I am almost certain nobody could have convinced me to pole vault.
Yeah, not so much.
But I digress. Saturday was cold, gray, rainy, generally unpleasant. There was a lot of standing around and waiting for things to happen, which I have learned to expect at these kinds of things. I parented a figure skating kid and was spared much waiting around at athletic venues, except for one weekend a year at the local ice rink; hat tip to parents who routinely tolerate it.
After an eternity the men finally had the so-called runway and “pit” at their disposal for practice vaulting ahead of the actual competition. And for the record, it is not really a pit; it’s a bunch of really big, squishy mats, and there are not enough of them in my humble opinion.
Isaiah had a couple of iffy practice vaults, and took a bad spill off the mats after one of them, injuring his shoulder. The track felt slippery to me (I can’t say whether it was actually slippery, but I did hear some grumbling about it from some of the athletes). And the ballerina in me wanted to put warm clothing on these kids while they stood in the long queue awaiting their turn. Some of Isaiah’s competitors walked in front of me when I was attempting to capture one of his practice vaults, and so I only caught a couple of awkward shots:
Pole vaulting is nothing if not awkward, though. And it was just one of those kind of days. Kids were falling all over the place—Isaiah was hardly alone.
When I could no longer feel my fingers I finally took my leave of the track meet and headed to the student union across the street for coffee. And as fate would have it, I missed Isaiah’s moment, the one we had been waiting for (not to worry: Coach Chef was there). Turns out on his third and final vault Isaiah not only cleared the horizontal crossbar, but cleared it by a mile, only to inadvertently knock it loose with his foot on his way down. He narrowly missed qualifying for next weekend’s big event.
It was a bitter pill for young Isaiah to swallow. And so it goes—we’ve all been there. It is another little chink of mortar to add to the bricks that compose us and make us interesting, small consolation when we’re in the moment. Chin up, Isaiah, it is but a blip on your timeline. At least, that is what my mom used to tell me when my lower lip was scraping the ground: life goes on and you do your best to make lemonade of lemons.
A long-awaited visit to Berkshire Mountain Bakery finished our Saturday. This interesting little place took the spotlight in one of four episodes in food writer Michael Pollan’s wonderful documentary series called Cooked. I think it is fair to say I am a Michael Pollan afficionado, even if I do not practice his food philosophy completely and earnestly all the time. But I appreciate his comprehensive knowledge of food history and love that his message about healthy eating is rational, never shrill.
The thing to distinguish the bread at this particular bakery is the absence of leavening—baker Richard Bourdon uses fermentation and ancient baking practices to create a product that is ostensibly good for the gut, even for folks with gluten intolerance. (You can watch the series on Netflix, and I enthusiastically recommend it—even if you have no interest in the underlying healthy food ethic, the documentary is thoroughly entertaining, as is Pollan’s narrative.)
Turns out the outlet in Pittsfield, where we had dinner, was just that—an outlet. It was not a bakery as we expected. So the atmosphere left much to be desired. But the product was every bit what we hoped for and more.
We left loaded down with a bunch of bread, thinking we’d make it last. We will not. And so it seems routine visits down to Pittsfield, Massachusetts will be part of our still-evolving landscape.
That’s some pretty dang good lemonade.
Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I drove past three sap buckets hanging on roadside telephone poles in Upstate New York; somebody’s got a sense of humor. HCB’s brother would enjoy that, I am sure; there is a longstanding dispute in this family about who makes the best syrup—New York (where brother S lives) or Vermont. Though I don’t really have a dog in that fight, I will stick out my neck and say Vermont is not known for its (ahem) superior maple syrup for nothing; behind every cliché there is always at least a kernel of truth and in this case, a whole lot more.
Maple sugaring has come early this year with record-breaking warm temperatures; the tree outside our kitchen window is more prolific than ever. HCB taps it every spring in an exercize that is equal parts science project and culinary fun.
Big producers don’t use old-fashioned buckets anymore—everywhere in the Vermont countryside you’ll find roadside networks of the telltale blue plastic tubing that drains the maple sap and carries it from the trees to large collection tanks for serious syrup production. It is distinctly un-romantic, but still yields the sticky confection that is so magical in the mouth, ostensibly faster, better and more efficiently, and all that.
We still do it the old-fashioned way for fun. The thing is, buckets of syrup boil down to virtually nothing: when HCB insisted we had a bumper “crop” of sap this spring, my observation was something like, oooh, maybe we’ll get three tablespoons this year.
That is of course completely beside the point.
There really is not all that much to making maple syrup except collecting the sap, reducing it, straining it, and canning it. But you do have to keep your eye on the stove. It’s what’s been going on here for the past several delicious days.
There was so much sap this year the bucket was overflowing the first time around and HCB had to use a commercial pot in the beginning.
Our biggest stock pot held all the sap after many, many hours of reducing:
Thence to a smaller pan, just barely:
HCB watched it carefully from this point forward, observing its viscosity as he allowed it to fall from a spoon. For me the über-sweet aroma announced its arrival: at some point our house began to smell distinctly maple syrup-y.
Next came filtering, where the residue—particulate from the tree that eludes the eye when the sap is running—is really observable.
Our yield was phenomenal this year; one of us might have indulged already.
There really is no substitute for real Vermont maple syrup. Totally worth the expense, to say nothing of the sticky laptop keyboard.
New Year’s Eve 2015, a street corner in Saratoga Springs, NY.
My boy Bentley and his friend Billy have been with us for a week, headed back to their respective homes in Tennessee at an obscene hour tomorrow morning. We’ve had a great time together. I am always amazed how you can blink and it’s gone: eight days, just like that. I tried to arrange at least one Fun Thing for them each day they were here. Road warriors, those two: a thousand miles in two days to get here, and then run-outs near and far pretty much every day, to Londonderry, Manchester, and Bennington, and also Cambridge and Saratoga, NY. In short order they both figured out the singular truth about life in rural Vermont (Bentley already knew it): the correct answer to the question, Where is <fill in the blank>? is always, far, far away. Or maybe more appropriately: in a galaxy far, far away. Yep, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in one of the teeny local theatres a couple of days ago; the two of them have already hatched plans to see it in 3D when they return home.
Some things never change, to wit:
At any given moment during the past week the two of them could be observed with one of several electronic devices that followed them here. It cracks me up to observe them sitting in such close proximity whilst texting each other. Or me. At first blush, it’s ridiculous. But the conversation most likely includes things people nearby (including the patrons at our favorite fish and chips joint in downtown Bennington) may not want to hear anyway.
Saratoga was about as far afield as we ventured during our week together. In the process of searching for parking in a very crowded downtown on New Year’s Eve I came across this for the first time:
It smelled strongly of sulphur and looked like something out of a Harry Potter tome, one of our favorites, the boy’s and mine. Not so sure about the purported “digestive curative” properties. We much preferred these, at the Boca Burger around the corner and down the street:
I am still getting used to the idea that it is okay to buy my kid a cocktail—something decidedly more potent than butter beer. Yes, he looks fifteen. He is many years older and quite “legal,” although the waiter took some convincing. When he was finally satisfied the boy is more than 21 he quipped, Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it. (We’ll never tell.)
I’ve loved having my son glued to me for eight glorious days. Little boy smell was once replaced by middle school smell, thence adventure boarding school smell (requiring windows rolled down on trips home, even in winter), heavy smoker smell (an especially bad chapter for a much-too-young kid), and now a heavily perfumed smell <cough cough>, preferable to all the rest. He is downstairs snoozing, ready for the road tomorrow, a long haul home, part of which he’ll drive alone. I miss him and he is still here. I will be weepy when he is gone. And I will lament the things that are still not right, and I will worry about the future. I’ll probably chew my nails.
Sometimes it is hard to let go of the past, even when parts of it were truly terrible. There is still so much uncertainty and turmoil.
So, 2016, what’s it gonna be? Will you be pleasant and affable, or a royal pain in the ass? Will you cozy up and offer a warming glass of something nourishing, or a bitter drink that promised much but lost its fizz? Fair weather friend or a keeper of promises? Better be good.
So long, 2015: you played nice, mainly. And godspeed, dear Bentley. I love you more than you’ll ever know.~Mum