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Food Memories I

We were eating lunch at an awful diner in Whitehall, New York. I thought that maybe this would be the last time that I would see my grandfather, and I was determined for him to order dessert: pie, ice cream, cake, anything. I wanted him to ask them to warm it up for him. Strange that my parents and I acted like it was normal to drive in the car, over an hour each way, to get to this place that he was supposed to call “home,” which was apropos of absolutely nothing in his life or ours.

 

For his last birthday, his ninety-first, we cooked the Seymour Dinner. If we’d had it our way, we would have had real mashed potatoes, fresh peas, homemade gravy and grass-fed beef. But I insisted, and we all knew, that Gramp wanted the Seymour Dinner, and that meant the same exact Seymour Dinner he’d eaten for seventy years. We bought eighty-five percent lean ground beef, canned peas, instant mashed potatoes, Brown ‘n Serve dinner rolls, and Gravy Master. I did defy the recipe’s call for a frozen store-bought pie and made a fresh apple one instead. I thought that this was the least I could do for him.

 

We served him his dinner on a tray, which he was used to by then because this was how he took all of his meals at the nursing home. He couldn’t see anything, and demanded that the food be placed as if around a clock, and presented to him by explaining that the meat was at twelve o’clock, the peas at three o’clock, the roll at six and so on.

 

“No, no, no, NO! I want the potatoes at six o’clock!” I’m sure he argued. We tucked a napkin into his collar and he was soon silent in his delight at eating, the only remaining physical delight in his life. As he ate his nose dribbled incessantly, and my brother brought him a box of Kleenex, which he pulled out and stuffed into his shirt pocket, one after another after another, coyly, as if none of us could see either. He assumed there was a wastebasket at his feet, and throughout the meal kept dropping his used Kleenexes to the floor; the dog’s ears would perk and all of us would sigh and say to each other with our eyes that it was okay.

 

The Poop Factor

The farm is no place for a hypochondriac. The barn is a collection of generations of dust, moldy hay, forgotten trash, rusty equipment, abandoned nests, old poop, fresh poop, composted poop, petrified poop, barn swallow poop decorating the posts and beams and corners. The pigs delight in being filthy. They make pig-sized depressions in the mud and roll, snouts first, until they look as though they’re wearing wetsuits. They smile their pig smile, proud of their improvised swimming pool. When they’re thirsty, they dive into the water bucket with both arms, immersing the entire front half of their bodies.

The house, despite our best efforts, is an old farmhouse. The mudroom is our storage for dirty barn boots and overalls. There are an inordinate number of resident spiders, filling the place with cobwebs within hours of a deep clean. The windows are perpetually fly-speckled, the plywood kitchen floor abused. The basement is dank and suspicious, the sort of place Indiana Jones might investigate. It seems to provide the upstairs with a constant supply of moldy air, hungry mice and a musty odor.

And so, for a person predisposed to worry, there is ample opportunity for discomfort. All of my distrust of germs comes from my father, who inherited his distrust from his father. He demands antibacterial hand soap, brushes his teeth for fifteen minutes at a time, and keeps his fingernails impossibly short.

When my family comes to visit the farm, my father stiffens. He steps from the truck and immediately into tall “mud” boots, which are spotless. He looks toward the barn suspiciously. My family always brings too much. My mother will have packed a cooler full of dinner, and another full of appetizers. They’ll bring armloads of pillows and blankets. They bring tools. My father brings his box full of paper towels, Dial soap and bottled water. It is as if they believe I need rescuing.

In the morning, they’ll wake up with me to come out for chores. My mom and brothers are good sports, bundling up and eager to help carry buckets of grain and water. My father tags along reluctantly, sulking like a child at having been woken too early. He brings along his mug of coffee, then thinks better of drinking from it after standing in the dusty barn. My brother grabs the bucket of feed from me and climbs bravely into where the pigs wait. They are on him in an instant, snouts smearing across his shorts and knees. He laughs, amazed at how quickly they’ve made a mess.

Back in the house, as they pack, my father is uneasy. “DON’T get in the car with those shit-covered shorts on!” He tells my brother. “I’ve got a clean pair in my bag, in the living room.” My father goes nowhere without his canvas bag full of spare clothing.

It’s getting better with time. I’ve given in to the fact that the pigs will muck up my shorts, that the eggs are sometimes dirty, and that it’s okay to touch the chickens. Still, I keep my fingernails short.

On my way out for a jog, I always check the mail. I walk from the house and down the gravel driveway, warming up my legs. The mailbox is oversized and was painted blue by the last tenants. Carefully-drawn branches along one side frame the green numbers 5 and 0.

When we first moved in, the mailbox looked like it had been beaten up by high school kids: the post sagged with missing nails, and the box leaned out over the road as if about to puke onto the dirt. It didn’t have a door, and its angle helped protect our letters from the rain, but it took just the right touch to keep everything from sliding out. After living here for over a year, we finally got a notice from the Postmaster informing us that our mailbox was not up to par; an image of an “incorrect” box, which had the exact pitch and sag of ours, was circled in red pen. Beside it was an image of a “correct” mailbox, which stood erect and clearly the superior choice. Afraid we wouldn’t receive our bills, Jacob cut a door from a length of firewood and nailed the post back into place.

I pause to pull down the slab of wood and look into the cavernous mailbox, the size of a small trunk, because it buys time before I have to start huffing and bouncing up the road. Depending on what I find, I may be able to delay five minutes or more, standing at the end of the driveway reading letters from friends in faraway places, recipes from Cook’s Illustrated, or stories from a brand new issue of The Sun. There is almost no traffic on my “road,” which dead ends and leads to two other houses, both owned by old men who have lived on the hill their entire lives and mow their lawns every day of the summer. I can stand there at my leisure, pretending to stretch, and procrastinate all I want.

We’ve lived here for twenty months, on this farm in the northern Vermont mountains, and we count ourselves blessed to have the view, the quiet and privacy, the birdsong all year and the empty woods. We keep company with the cows and chickens, the pigs and the dog, and with each other. We have friends for dinner, and visits from our families, and cars to drive us too far down winding roads to our workplaces. We have Internet access and, sometimes, all four bars on our cell phones. Still, I relish my daily trip to the mailbox.

I like to see my mom’s cursive and the corny cards she sends to the dog on Valentine’s Day. I like the images on postcards from Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, and Italy. I read books on pages, and I tear into the packages whose senders I recognize from Amazon. Bills come on time, every time, and despite how quickly they seem to follow one another, they come with a certain satisfaction. Our mailbox is big enough to accommodate shoeboxes, and when my new sneakers arrive I put them on right away, surprised by such whiteness, and take off down the road to scuff them up.

I get a letter from my uncle, who read my letter, and who wants to visit. We get a Save the Date from Jacob’s childhood neighbor, and a wedding invitation from friends on a dairy farm in Idaho. We get a small package from North Carolina, with a handmade mug and a recording of our friends playing bluegrass tunes together. We get a letter from Alaska, birthday cards, and our retail license for selling pre-packaged meat.

Sometimes I stand at the mailbox in the sunshine, feeling as though I have plenty of time. Sometimes it is howling and sleeting, and I want to have my run over with and be back at the woodstove, but I am eager for news. On rainy days, and when the wind blows, and when sloppy snowflakes fill the driveway, I hunch over the door of the mailbox while I read. When I am particularly reluctant to run, I save something: a letter from home, a paycheck, a package with my best friend’s tall handwriting. I like to make a little reward for myself, a treat to collect on my way back up the driveway.

Washing Eggs

When she is leaning at the kitchen sink to wash eggs, the water is pouring constantly. She thinks of the barn in Salisbury, of the roosting boxes and the sheep, and now how its roofline sags. It won’t be long before she drives by and sees that it has gone the way of so many barns: slumped to the ground under the weight of neglect. They were always made to shower or bathe after being in the barn, their parents so untrusting of the poop and the animals and the dust in the air. Now she watches a small bit of poop on an egg, that way it sloughs off into the sink carrying hay and feathers with it.

The eggs make her yearn for summer and the stressful Friday mornings preparing for the farmers’ market. Anything to take her out of this winter that won’t release its grip, this early-April lingering of bitter wind and an insatiable woodstove.  Standing there washing at the sink makes her crave open windows, the birds loud outside, louder than the wind. She dreams of her bare feet on this plywood floor that is impossible to make decent, warm air pushing through the house instead of the stale cold that rises up from the basement. In the summer it is so easy to ignore the haphazardness of this place.

The eggs are pleasing, in their blue and white and brown. They are the simplest of all the foods that they can provide for themselves on the farm. Each time she leans at the sink to wash a batch of them, she is grateful for having settled here, if only for a little while. How viscerally satisfying it is to bring these things into the kitchen: the eggs, the milk from a neighbor, the tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, kale, the parsley and thyme, the chicken and pork chops, the squash and garlic and beets.

The double aluminum sink makes her think of the kitchen in Salisbury, and the small sink in the corner that looked out the window onto the deck. She remembers the delight of opening it wide in the summertime, of her brother leaning in from outside to order take-out. The faucet of that sink curved like the elegant neck of a swan, and she remembers returning home from vacations and letting the water run so cold that faucet turned smoky with condensation. They would gulp the icy well water, brought up from deep in the ground, and remark at the good fortune of living in the country.

The smoothness of the eggs is irresistible. She handles each one carefully, picking it gently from the belly of the sink and turning it slowly beneath the running water. The shells are speckled, blue, turquoise, deep brown and clean white. Some are small, from the new pullets that just started to lay an egg a day. Some are massive, with shells that warp and bulge, laid by the oldest hens.

Washing eggs this morning makes her think of the corners of wheat toast dipped in yolks. There was a time in her childhood when she relished this breakfast: the beautiful, delicate skin to easily break open, the bright yellow, the sogginess of the bread. She remembers sitting at a kitchen stool in her thin cotton nightgown, because in the summer it is already so warm in the morning, and scraping the yolks out of that perfect circle of white. A full moon on her plate.


We are missing our little orange barn cat, Pierre. We’ve asked the neighbors, looked for him everywhere in the barn and shed, and called for him in the woods, but his food bowl on top of the haystack remains full. We haven’t seen him in almost two weeks, and have accepted the fact that he won’t be coming back.

Pierre came here just about a year ago. Tom Stearns brought him into the office at High Mowing and announced that the cat would be going to the shelter if no one wanted him. Jacob took one look and immediately thought, “My brother!” The resemblance was striking. He couldn’t turn the offer down.

Pierre was French. He preferred rustic baguettes and soft cheeses. He also went by Peter, when he was in trouble, Pedro when sporting his sombrero, or Pete when he and Jacob were out with the boys. The two of them were working on an impressive repertoire of tricks.

Pete had the greatest life. He had complete freedom, with a cozy bed in the hay to come home to. He roamed in the woods, scaled to the tops of our old elder trees, and hunted ferociously. Here’s a classic display of his adventurous spirit:

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Pierre was also a fierce cuddler; when either of us were around, especially Jacob, Pierre went after our love like he was starving for it. He would melt in our arms, purring, kneading his paws against the canvas of our barn coats, drool bubbling in the corners of his mouth.

He seemed unalarmed by the chickens, cows, pigs and dog. All summer long, he nestled into the hog pile to sleep, and no one complained. Each morning he would race into the chicken coop behind me, and sit around in a circle with the hens, lapping water as they pecked at it. They lined up that way, like siblings on school days gathering at the table to eat their breakfast cereal.

Pierre was a good part of the family. We miss him, but I’ll bet he’s off on a good adventure, wherever he is.

The red-winged blackbirds are here. I keep thinking I’m hearing them outside the window, but then I tell myself I must be dreaming. It’s still too early, I ‘m sure. That one glorious weekend was a tease. It’s time to bring in more firewood and hunker down for a few more weeks.

But they’re here. They congregated in the yard this morning, a whole gang of them partying in the newly thawed brown patch between the house and the reluctantly retreating ice. The gray-bearded dog sat up and perked her ears, inspecting them. She even seemed to smile at their watery warble, the sound reminding her, too, of Little League and mud.

We’ve just barely begun to start the first seeds and it is nearly impossible to remember that it is only March. We have weeks before shorts and bare feet, before planting potatoes, before piglets and the first farmers’ market. But it is all starting again, and each time I fill a new tray with potting soil, my excitement grows.

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Fern and the Fence

For Christmas, I wrote Ella a book about the farm. It is based on a true story about Fern.

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An Undiscovered Joy

It is December and I am hoping, as I have for the past several years, for a white Christmas. When I was small it was winter by now and it had been for weeks. I wore snow pants and my Turtle Fur neck warmer to school, my nose and chin soaked and frozen from breathing into a wall of fleece. We bought ski passes at the Snow Bowl because it was worth it. Christmas was always white. The roads were bad on the way to church and we went sledding in the yard, my hastily-tied boots filling with clumps of snow that numbed my shins.

I think about skiing with my little niece, Ella. She will have skis barely longer than her bindings, and rear-entry boots with one buckle. She will want to take a break to drink hot chocolate and we’ll have to stuff hand-warmers in her mittens. I wonder if she will have enough snow days, if there will be storms that dump enough that she can jump off the roof into tall banks of powder.

On Monday night I put lights in the windows and listened to cheesy Christmas music on the radio. It poured rain and I kept peeking at the thermometer, trying to will the red needle to drop below forty-two. “Let’s get our tree!” I keep saying to Jacob. We could go into our woods, but I’m pretty sure we cut the only scrawny Balsam out there last year. I want to walk across the street, where families arrive by the vanload on the weekends to pick out trees. I am surprised that it is already December, that it is the 13th and Christmas is in less than two weeks. It doesn’t feel like it yet; maybe it’s the rain.

We renewed our lease and are staying on the farm for at least another year. The High Mowing catalogue came out and we are talking about seeds, about finding more CSA members, and about tilling up more space. I wonder about the weather. Our crops could have been twice as prolific had it rained. We don’t have an irrigation system, which many growers depend on regardless of rainfall. We watered by hand when we could, but our well is shallow and we often didn’t have enough water for the house and barn. Maybe we don’t need a bigger garden, I keep thinking. We just need some water in the soil. Next year could be just as dry, or drier. We could have more rain than we know what to do with. Maybe we’ll have a white fourth of July.

Next year’s weather is an unknown, but it always has been. We may not have as much water as we want, but we’ll have water, and our vegetables will grow. We will eat well. Our animals will be healthy and we’ll have eggs and meat. I worry, though, about what’s to come in five, ten and thirty years. I think it’s likely that the local food culture, at least in Vermont, is diverse and agile enough to adapt, albeit clumsily, perhaps, to rapid changes in weather patterns. I’m not so sure about what Christmas in Vermont will feel like; if our next generation will be able to teach their children to ski; if each new season will be as arresting; if sap will run from maple trees each spring; if the geese will come and go and the robins will pick at fat worms; if we’ll swim in cold, clear rivers and fall asleep at night to the sound of peepers singing through our screens.

The farm has been teaching me all along that things change. The garden is constantly evolving, from snow-covered to bare earth to an unruly pattern of greens. Two weeks ago we had four pigs who scratched and ate and snorted. Now they are frozen, in neatly packaged pieces, and the cows have taken their place in the barn. The pile of firewood expands and contracts. The washing machine leaks and then it doesn’t, there’s water in the well and then there isn’t. The gray-bearded dog put on a scraggly winter coat and the cat in the barn is all of a sudden husky. The pasture is green and then it is brown, the pond is still and then it is frozen. Underneath it all is the comforting realization that this is the way things work, that this is the normal current of life. We may not have a white Christmas this year, and the roads may be frustratingly clear on the way to church. Maybe the holidays won’t feel exactly as they have in the past, and perhaps there is an undiscovered, comforting joy in the embrace of change.

I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen to the pigs. I will eat them, of course, in thick strips of bacon smothered in maple syrup. They will arrive back at our house in a pickup truck, a pile of frozen pieces marked with neon orange stickers that read, “Not For Sale.” Sausage patties of them will sizzle in our cast iron skillet. We will use a long, sharp knife to cut through one of their hams at Easter dinner. But before then, the pigs have to be killed. A man whose name I do not know will come to the farm and shoot them one at a time. When I mention this in casual conversations, it is as if I really believe in it: “Actually, I’m glad for the pigs that it will happen this way. I think it’s best for them,” followed by the statement that I don’t plan to be home that day.

Jacob tries to reassure me of the rationality of this process while we’re lying in bed at night and tears are welling in my eyes. “The others will know, when the first one goes, that something is up,” I worry.                                                                      “Katie, you can’t think of it that way. Their lives aren’t like our lives.”

When I wrangle myself up and over the half-wall into their pen, dropping down into the boiling sea of fatness, I have to brave the pushing and snorting and trampling, the smearing of muck-covered snouts across my boots and jeans. On more than one occasion I have been knocked off of my feet, their precious organic grain spewing into the dusty compost only to be ground out of sight by their high-heel hooves. If I can distract them, then jump in and rush to the trough before they arrive, someone’s mammoth hide will pin me in a wrestling hold against the barn wall. And as all of this is happening they are staring. Out of the corners of their beady, sad little eyes they are looking at me.

We tried to lift just one end of Mitt Romney a few days ago – Jacob on one leg, me on the other, just to see if we could get him off the ground. His face was buried in supper, and he seemed to notice us about as much as a dump truck would notice rolling over a grain of sand. As I firmed up my grip on the fat rolls and we attempted to lift, I got a blast of flatulence square in the face.

When Jacob was gone for a week in September, the pigs found their way through the fence five times. When I snuck out of town for twenty-four hours and Jacob’s dad came over to check in on everybody, I got a call reporting that, “the candidates were out again. Out by the pond. Yeah, they came running right back when I called.” Of course, like all of the animals on the farm, the pigs are trained to respond to the Keszey family whistle. If I’m lucky I need only to shake a little grain and whistle twice and they will follow back through their gate. “Whew,” they seem to say, “that was weird. Thanks.” Other times, I am far less interesting to them. If they have made their way out to the cows, they would rather socialize. If they have discovered a gold mine of chicken poop, they pretend they can’t hear me. If they would rather trot through the yard, take laps around the picnic table, and peek into our windows, I don’t have a chance.

“You should just take a sacrificial ham off of Mitt on Tuesday,” Matt says as he’s cooking dinner at the Bee’s Knees.

“They have another four weeks!”

“You never know, though. That could make the difference in the election.”

I am reaching up to the shelf for a Band-Aid and the tassels of my scarf are dangling too close to the pile of sausage Ben is processing. It is delicious, fresh sausage from the owners’ farm. Their pigs were slaughtered just a week ago, and we had a sample the next day. It was spicy and orange grease pooled on the plate. I thought, okay, this makes sense. You raise a pig, you get a healthy source of protein. This is how it is supposed to happen. Now, lying on the cutting board, the pile of meat is pink and raw. “This is what Mitt Romney is going to look like!” my mind is screaming. I turn, bandage my finger, and push through the swinging kitchen doors.

When the pigs are loose in the barn, they saunter into the chicken coop like four obtuse women clip-clopping into a parlor for afternoon tea. Their hooves on the bare barn floor, their butt cheeks bouncing with each step. In my mind, they wear lace-covered hats and clutch wrinkled leather purses to their bosoms. They saunter in with such entitlement, four beastly sisters bored with each other’s company and wanting to get the whole thing over with. “Ladies! We’re here. Give us some shortbread.” The poor startled chickens must be younger cousins, forever bullied and barged in upon.

Ron Paul has a perm. The other three have straight, wiry hair, but Ron’s coat is thick and wavy. The others are an orange-brown with an occasional spatter of black. Ron is so red he is almost mauve, and he is tinted white. He is the only one who hydrates mid-meal, and consequently is by far the smallest. I sometimes wonder if things would be different had he won the primary.

By December, we will no longer have pigs to feed morning and night. We will no longer spend seventy dollars a week on Morrison’s Organic Swine Grower. I will no longer have to brave jumping into the snake pit of fat. We will have a freezer overflowing with neatly packaged pieces of Mitt, Ron, Rick and Newt. I think I will miss seeing them out there rolling in the mud, smiling out of their contented eyes.

October Report

Happy Fall! Our CSA and farmer’s markets are over, and we’re busy putting the gardens away for winter. Here are a few shots from the last market on October 5:

 

All of a sudden the leaves have fallen. The garden has frozen, thawed, and frozen again. The onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash have been harvested and are curing in preparation for winter storage. The freezer is full of chickens, tomato sauce, pesto, blueberries and blackberries, green beans, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, kale and chard. Jars are lined up on whatever kitchen surfaces we can find, full of pickled green beans and cucumbers, tomatoes, and pears. There are carrots and beets awaiting more permanent storage in the root cellar. The garden is nearly empty, save for a few beds of hardy fall crops- kale, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kohlrabi- tucked inside cozy tents of row cover.

Over the weekend, we pulled out the corn, sunflowers, tomatoes, leeks and peppers and tore up the ten beds of plastic mulch that kept all of our squash (nearly) weed-free. We still need to clean out the last few beds – herbs, flowers, carrots, and beets, and finish planting a cover crop of winter rye and clover. There’s talk of tilling up more space for next year, in the pillowy meadow that Jacob mowed on Friday just north of the big garden. And we’ll need to plant garlic before too long. The days are short now, and there are no more evening projects that can be tackled after Jacob’s long drive home from work. The mornings stay cold, and the gray-bearded dog and I have to bundle up before we go out to the barn for morning chores.

It’s been difficult to prioritize this work of putting the gardens away; there’s other fall work that needs doing and there are new seasons to think about. We still need to cut more firewood and see the pigs through these last few weeks of their happy lives. We need to better secure our barn for winter: last week an intruder snuck into the chicken coop and killed half of our birds. The remaining ten walk around quietly, still traumatized, waiting to meet the new laying hens that we still need to find. There is chimney cleaning and a siding project on the house. The list is long and but the days are short, and we are trying to make autumn last as long as we can. There are friends visiting from out of town. There are hikes to take and pumpkin pies to bake. There are jobs at the Bee’s Knees and High Mowing in the meantime. We are even starting to dream of a winter visit to the Tetons…

Last weekend we spent two days in Middlebury with my family and my brand new niece. She slept and cooed and took her first trip to the apple orchard, a little tiny bundle of cheeks and button nose and skinny legs. Soon it will be time for her to make a trip to the farm. She’ll have to bundle up and come out to the barn with me, boots squeaking in the snow, to bring Ophelia and Fern their hay. Someday. For now, I am enjoying the warmth of the sun and the smell of woodsmoke, surprising and wonderful all over again each autumn.

                                                      Pig Face

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Ophelia, Enjoying the Sunshine

Fall Cows

Corn and Squash Garden

Empty Corn and Squash Garden!

A Few Remaining Beds of Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Kale and Spinach

…and again, without Tomatoes, Sunflowers and Leeks!

 Beets, Carrots and Greens Covered Up for Fall