We both woke up feeling well-rested and chipper this morning. I made French toast with vanilla and cinnamon, custardy on the inside and crisp on the outside, and served it with hot wild blueberries with maple syrup. We drank big cups of coffee and then we took our usual 4-mile fast walk over hill and dale along the lake and through the woods. The sun was shining, there was a breath of warmth in the air, not one car passed us the entire time, and the road wasn’t too muddy.
We came home warm and a little out of breath. After we’d shucked our jackets and shoes, I opened a window to let the fresh air into the house, whose atmosphere is tinged with a winter’s worth of wood smoke. It’s not unpleasant, in fact it reminds me of BBQ potato chips, but it’s a decidedly wintry smell. And it’s time for spring.
Then we sat at the table at our computers, tapping away like industrious, wholesome little chipmunks, just as we’ve been doing nonstop for the past many months. We have our formation: I sit at the end of the table, looking at the long meadows stretching down to the lake and the hulking mountains beyond and the huge sky above. Brendan sits to my left, facing the short meadow that slopes down to the beaver pond, Dundee Hill rising behind it, the same huge sky above. My long meadows have the birch trees; his short meadow has the lone, ancient crabapple planted far from the orchard and a lone, short, handsome oak.
Dingo lies either sacked out behind Brendan’s chair, half on and half off the braided oval rug, off-duty, or vigilantly on the windowseat, keeping his eyes out for invading nogoodniks and dastardly porcupines. Sometimes he leaps up barking like a gunshot, giving us both near-heart attacks and causing us both to yell DINGO! SHUT UP! We shove him out the door to the porch, where he leaps onto the grass and rushes to the dirt driveway by the barn, barking so hard his whole body convulses. Sometimes it’s the beleaguered UPS man, sometimes it’s a car turning around at the foot of the drive, sometimes it’s a flock of wild turkeys, but mostly, there’s nothing there at all.
We’ve been calling this the Year of the Woodshed, but it’s turning into two years: two years of nonstop effort, paying for our ongoing house renovation, getting our shit together, working hard to get settled and secure and replenish our savings account, taking no vacations and hardly any days off, waking up every morning with a to-do list and a sense of urgent pressure, clenching our jaws at night in our sleep, lying awake in the early morning hours, stewing and worrying, wondering whether we can get it all done.
Of course, writing is the only thing we want to be doing. It’s our calling, passion, and ideal occupation. We’re not working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart for minimum wage. We aren’t forced to sell our bodies or drugs or pyramid schemes or fruit by the roadside or Jesus.
And we have this farmhouse to escape to when the banging and sawing get to be too much. We’re free and lucky. We know it.
Anyway, so there we all were, at just before noon today, everyone at his or her station, doing his or her job.
After a while, Brendan looked up at me. I looked back at him.
“I am so sick of this shit,” he said.
“I am, too,” I said.
“We need a vacation.”
“We don’t get a vacation.”
“Fuck that,” he said.
“FUCK that,” I echoed.
“I want tequila,” he said.
“It’s Saturday,” I pointed out. “So we’re allowed.”
“I don’t care what day it is,” he said. The car keys were in his hand and his shoes were on. Dingo and I caught up with him and then we were all in the car, off to town.
We came home with a bottle of Herradura Silver, some grapefruits and limes, a People magazine, and, because we needed it and therefore it sort of justified the gas we used to get to Hannaford and back, a 12-pack of toilet paper.
So now, here we sit at our computers, still in formation, me here, Brendan there, Dingo on his windowseat. But now, at our elbows are daytime cocktails: hefty slugs of tequila shaken over ice with the juice of one fat grapefruit and one juicy lime, poured with the ice into tumblers and garnished with thin jalapeno slices. Between us is an open bag of Lay’s Simply Natural thick cut sea salted potato chips. The only sounds in here are the clinking of the ice as we drink, the crunching of potato chips, the rapid-fire tapping of our computer keys, and the gentle, yearning exhalations of Dingo as he lifts his wet black snout to the tabletop, trolling for a chip or two.
It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. I’m sure that one of the primary warning signs of alcoholism is day drinking, especially of hard liquor. FUCK that. I’m going to run a hot bath and make another round of drinks and go and lie in the tub with People magazine.
Another Haddock Recipe
I can’t stop cooking haddock. It’s cheap and local, so fresh it quivers on its shaved ice in the store.
My new thing with haddock is the following meal, of which we are currently enamored:
Simmer a cup of well-rinsed red rice in 1 ¾ cups chicken broth.
In a big skillet in plenty of good oil, sauté 2 chopped leeks and 2 chorizo sausages and 6 chopped cloves of garlic.
Cut 1 pound of haddock filets into chunks and marinate in the juice of 1 lemon and 1 tablespoon harissa spices (or paste). Add to the leeks and chorizo and gently poach on both sides. Stir well.
Meanwhile, chop as many cloves of garlic as you like and add to ½ cup chicken broth in a huge pot. Steam a pound of baby spinach, covered.
Serve rice, spinach, and fish-leeks all together in 2 big shallow bowls. Add hot sauce as desired.
The sun came out today. It was fiercely bright. All day, the sky was a mad, deep blue. We emerged from the house this morning blinking like underground rodents in sudden klieg lights. The air was so mild, I stripped down to a T-shirt by the end of our walk. My snow boots sank into the soft, mushy, wet skin of the road.
The streams are all running again. The air smells like water; that dry-ice quality of deep winter is gone. The snow is all porous ice from melting and refreezing and melting. Dingo’s fur looks mangy, clumpy: he’s about to blow his undercoat.
There’s a kind of bird around here I call the taxi bird – because they’re as ubiquitous as taxis in New York, and when I first came here four years ago, that was my primary point of reference. The taxi birds are back, singing their two-note descending call from treetops all along the dirt road. And right outside the window where I’m sitting, the little maple tree has buds on it, very little and very hard, but buds nonetheless.
A while ago, I knocked off work and went out with a glass of wine and sat on the porch in my jeans and socks and T-shirt and bathrobe – my winter writer’s uniform. This is always my favorite time of day, but today was especially nice. Dingo lay next to me, ears and nostrils all aquiver, but there was nothing going on for him to bark at. The sun was setting and the air was absolutely still. After days of howling winds and lowering fog and dripping eaves, the serene silence felt as shocking as the sudden warmth.
I came back inside and sat at the table again, looking out the window. When the light on Dundee Hill changed from hot pink to deep purple, I stuck a cookie sheet filled with cut-up new potatoes – as it happened, hot pink, deep purple along with humdrum beige — and whole peeled garlic cloves, tossed in peanut oil with black pepper and kosher salt, into a hot oven.
Marinating in a big glass bowl on the counter are skinless, boneless chicken thighs. Earlier, I made a sort of Spanish-y marinade of dry white wine, tomato paste, lemon juice, chopped olives, chopped garlic, a whole sliced onion, paprika, the rest of the sage that’s been in the fridge drawer since Rosie made her Thanksgiving stuffing, a whiff of cinnamon, saffron, and black pepper. I’ll brown the thighs first, then put them in a bowl while I simmer the sauce, then add them back in when the onions are soft and the wine has cooked off. Meanwhile, I’ll steam some broccoli in chicken broth, and then we’ll eat.
All day, in my head, I’ve been reciting the e. e. cummings poem that starts,
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful…
Actually, I’ve really just been thinking the words “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful” over and over, and the rest of it sort of fills in chockablock with a galumphing joyful rhythm around those two words, along with “far and wee.”
The other day in Whole Foods, as we were shopping for groceries to bring to the farmhouse for five nights, I said jokingly, self-mockingly, to the cashier who was ringing up our groceries, “Did you notice how healthy our food is?”
Instead of giving me shit for the heap of organic produce, the organic free-range eggs, the organic red rice and gluten-free organic pasta and organic steel-cut gluten-free oats, wild-caught Alaskan sockeye, free-range bison, organic free-range chicken thighs, and so forth, he said earnestly, “Oh my God, doesn’t it feel good to buy a bunch of food like this and go home and eat it?”
Caught off-guard by his fervor, I laughed.
“Yes,” I admitted, “it does.”
We paid $264 for five sacks of food, loaded it all into the Subaru, and off we went, leaving the contractors behind in our gutted kitchen to make loud banging noises all day. We drove the hour and fifteen minutes from the coast up into the mountains on narrow, sleepy, quiet country roads, pitted now with frost heaves and slick in places with refrozen ice. It was dusk. It always seems to be dusk lately, lingering late-winter twilight, a chilly pinkish-then-bluish waning light on glowing, slushy snow, a lowering fog through bare branches, and the mineral smell of water that somehow presages the sudden, mad, wild, manic, aggressively sexual explosion of life that means spring up here in the north.
We got to the farmhouse just after dark, backed the car up to the porch on the snowy lawn, and unloaded the groceries, Dingo’s bed, our backpacks, and the sack of books I’m supposed to read. I put everything away while Brendan turned the water back on and let it run in the pipes, turned up the heat, checked the wood supply in the cabinet by the fireplace, and made a fire. We drank red wine to go with the red dinner I made: baked salmon with harissa spice rub, steamed red chard, and red rice.
The next day at lunchtime, yesterday, I mixed the leftover salmon, rice, and greens all together and tossed them with a little mayonnaise for a madly delicious instant fish salad. Last night, Brendan made moist, dense, meaty, slightly gamey bison burgers, Yukon Gold wedge oven fries, and a heap of steamed baby spinach; I made a sauce of (organic, Omega-3) mayonnaise, stone-ground mustard, (organic) ketchup, and Cholula chipotle hot sauce to go with everything. We ate the burgers on springy, bready toasted gluten-free hamburger buns.
After a breakfast this morning of steel-cut oatmeal with maple syrup, cinnamon, and enormous frozen blueberries that tasted like distilled summer, we had the same bison burger meal again for lunch, this time with steamed chard, so tonight’s supper is just vegetables: meaty round “Frost Kist” artichokes and sliced baby zucchini sautéed with a bit of chicken broth and plenty of fresh tarragon, with olive oil and kosher salt.
Meanwhile, I have a pot of Jacob’s Cattle heirloom beans soaking for tomorrow’s baked beans, which we’ll eat with steamed broccoli and organic chicken Andouille.
I keep thinking about what the fresh-faced, wide-eyed young guy at Whole Foods said. He really meant it, without either ironic hipster self-mockery or smug hippie self-righteousness: “Doesn’t it feel good to eat this way?”
On our walk this morning, the same fast, hard four-mile walk up and down hills to the end of the dirt road and back that Brendan, Dingo, and I take every morning at 11:00 when we’re here, I chuckled to myself at how wholesome my life has become, realizing that I haven’t eaten any junk food in more than ten years. I’ve had plenty of potato chips and dark or bittersweet chocolate and gluten-free ginger cookies and Red Hot Blue corn chips, but they’re all made with organic or at least healthy ingredients; they’re not what I’m referring to.
Back in the years when I ate gluten and occasionally smoked cigarettes when I drank booze and lived in industrial Brooklyn and thought I’d live forever, I used to love to scarf a sack of White Castle jalapeno sliders with onion rings and fries, late at night, drunk and starving. God, they were good. I used to love to go to Coney Island for fried clams and Nathan’s hot dogs. I cured my frequent hangovers with a deli breakfast: either a fried egg with melted American cheese and nitrate-laden bacon on a toasted, buttered roll, or a greasy Western omelet on toasted rye with 8 packets of (non-organic) ketchup. If that didn’t work, I went to a hot dog cart for lunch and inhaled a couple of obscenely juicy, tasty hot dogs fished out of filthy water and served with onions and mustard on stale industrial buns. And I drank a can of ice-cold, bitterly bubbly Coke.
I loved French fries. I still love French fries, but now they have to be gluten-free and fried in oil that’s gluten-free, which is not easy to find, so I rarely eat them anymore, but back then, I ordered them every chance I got. I used to cure my severe bouts of PMS with Little Debbie peanut butter bars and Hostess Ding-Dongs and Entenmann’s chocolate cake. I would rush into a deli, any deli, grab a cellophane-wrapped sugar-and-chemical sweet, and stomp moodily, crabbily, despairingly along the sidewalk, shoving the thing in my mouth and barely chewing it, ripping the spongy, soft, gooey, sugary, artificially-flavored thing with my molars and swallowing it as fast as I could. My mouth exploded with animal satiation. It always worked.
That was twelve, fifteen, twenty years ago. I’ve been gluten-free since 2002, for eleven years; my eating has shifted since then from a purely pleasurable and decadent and fearless gourmandise to something else. I don’t regret this, and I don’t ever miss any of that stuff. I’m older now; my appetites have changed in many ways. I’ve known since my fortieth birthday, when I went through a sort of existential crisis slash spiritual awakening and became viscerally aware for the first time of certain basic but terrible facts of human life, that I am certainly going to die. My fiftieth birthday last summer arrived with even more dire news, but this time it wasn’t a crisis. This time, being older and more seasoned and accustomed to bad news, I absorbed it without flinching: Not only am I going to die, but I’m going to get old.
Dingo already is old. The world as we know it also feels old, and dying, and drastically sick.
So yes, sweet, wholesome checkout man at the Whole Foods in Portland, Maine: It feels very good to eat like this. I’m grateful that I can.