The kitchen will be done today, except for the stained glass window. It’s been a long, slow process, three months of hard, painstaking work for our contractors, three months without a kitchen for us. Everyone has been remarkably patient and cool-headed throughout, maybe because we all knew we were creating something beautiful, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Most of the materials we used were old, “repurposed,” they call it – the 1880s ceiling tin Brendan found for sale in Ohio and had shipped here, the first-growth pine floorboards from an old 1770s barn wall we bought from an old-wood guy in Cape Elizabeth, the maple the contractors used to build the kitchen cabinets and the wainscoting in the dining room, which came from a 100-year-old mill floor in Biddeford. We bought our appliances second-hand, cheap and in excellent shape, from a guy up in Poland Spring who has a barn full of barely-used, traded-in stuff.
The contractors never once quailed at these materials, never complained about the unorthodoxies of using them. They rose to every challenge, scraped and sanded and then painted the ornate old squares of ceiling tin they’d carefully jiggered into place and cut to accommodate the overhead lights, planed and sanded and endlessly poly’ed the rough, weatherbeaten dimensional countertop planks into smooth, richly golden expanses. The patinaed copper from the 1902 bathtub Brendan bought from a guy north of Waterville has been siliconed to the bartop with sandbags and clamps. The old copper was curved; they’ve subdued it and wrested it into place.
As of yesterday, the wavy sort-of-opaque glass is in the upper cabinet doors. The (new) porcelain sink has been set into the countertop and hooked up. The tall wooden door with beveled glass and carved details that used to hang in the front entryway is now a swinging door between the kitchen and the foyer. Right now, they’re downstairs, grouting the Mexican tile backsplash, replacing the glass in the door to the mudroom, shaping the copper edges around the bartop, and then, I think, they’ll be done.
Later this afternoon, when they pack up their tools and drive away, we’ll wander around the big, cavernous-feeling, dazzling room, slightly befuddled, dazed with the joy of having our kitchen and dining room, which were so ugly before, be so beautiful now, all one big room instead of divided, with two more windows and the brick chimney exposed, freshly painted a warm neutral buttery color, everything gleaming and rich with history, every detail exactly what we’d wanted all along.
The kitchen feels as if it’s been in the house forever; our aim was to have people walk in and assume that, feel it instinctively. Our house is old and tall and beautiful, and it wants to feel comfortable and attractive in its outfit; it also wants an outfit befitting its dignified age. Before, the kitchen was all pink granite and white melamine, white appliances and a hideous Brazilian cherry floor. The dining room was no great shakes, either. The walls were painted a cold sky blue. The huge side window was Sheetrocked over. The house chafed and protested against this bullshit with every joist and beam; we could almost hear it. Ridiculous as it sounds, I can’t help thinking that it’s rejoicing in its new duds, even preening a little, and I don’t blame it.
Tomorrow, we’ll unpack the boxes of cooking utensils and pots and bowls, baking pans and cookie sheets and wooden spoons, glasses, cups, plates, and the bags of staples, rice and lentils and pasta. We can slot the spices into the indented maple ledge built into the back of the island, empty the corner of the living room where all the kitchen stuff has been stored since February, move the table and chairs back into the dining room, rearrange the couch and armchairs around the fireplace in the living room, vacuum and mop and dust and hang pictures.
Once that’s all done, the inevitable question is sure to arise. What should we cook to inaugurate our new kitchen? What should its first meal be?
Our friend Rosie will be visiting this weekend. She is a brilliant, accomplished, knowledgeable cook, a famous bartender and inventor of cocktails, but despite that, she’s never intimidating to cook for or to mix drinks for, because she is impeccably philosophical. She wants to be pleased; she wants to enjoy our hospitality. A couple of years ago, I forgot to trim the strings off some sugar-snap peas I had sautéed with green beans to go alongside Brendan’s roast. And my Dauphinoise was too dry, because I hadn’t used enough cream. We ate our meal, picking peapod strings out of our teeth, putting away plenty of Dauphinoise despite its flaws.
Mid-meal, I broke down and apologized.
Rosie shot back, “Julia Child said, ‘Never apologize at the table.’ I never do. You shouldn’t either.”
And that was that.
Therefore, I know that whatever we make, Rosie will not complain; she will eat enthusiastically and without criticism. Even so, I’m not going to try anything new or complicated. I’m superstitious. It’s the First Supper. It has to be good. My mind keeps drifting to my current favorite standby, which is foolproof, easy, fast, no-fuss, comforting, and delicious: Haddock filets cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated in lemon juice and harissa spices, then added to a skillet in which chopped chorizo and leeks have been sautéed in olive oil and white wine. The fish is poached till it’s tender and cooked through, then this smoky, spicy stew is served over wild rice cooked in chicken broth, with garlicky steamed red chard alongside.
I’m already drooling at the thought of digging into a plateful tomorrow night; we’ll light candles, open the windows, dim the chandelier.
Once in a while, in the late afternoon or early evening, we get a wild hair and go up Foss. Going up Foss is a very old ritual that long predates my arrival in these parts. In a small knapsack, we bring a cold liter bottle of hard cider and a bag of roasted cashews, and water and a treat for Dingo.
We all get into the car and drive several miles back through the woods on dirt roads, through the tiny mountain hamlet of Eaton with its clean lake and 19th century town hall, past the turnoff to the Snowvillage Inn, where we had a long, decadent dinner last weekend with Brendan’s grandmother (“an orgy,” she pronounced it, and she wasn’t kidding) and then we head upward.
Foss Mountain Road has a few isolated houses with old barns and a working llama farm. The road is so steep, the car occasionally tips and jolts upward as the engine strains to heave us over the hump to the next flat spot. It’s rutted from frost and snowmelt, as grooved and corrugated as a dry streambed in places. We jounce slowly up through dense woods for a good long time. When we come to the tiny turnoff, we park and get out of the car and hike up through a big, scrubby blueberry field that leads us to a narrow path through a small birch wood. This path is studded with boulders and slick with fallen leaves and wet from an underground spring, so we have to tread carefully and occasionally grab a branch or walk on higher ground. Above the wood, we hit the huge granite outcropping and scramble up it to the top.
The summit of Foss affords a 360 degree view of the White Mountains and their valleys and lakes and woods. It could be 1802 up there, or even earlier. There are three or four houses visible in valleys far below, but no roads, no traffic sounds, no other signs of civilization. Once in a while you hear a distant hunter’s shotgun. Otherwise, it’s pristine and silent up there on that granite roof, just the wind rustling in the blueberry shrubs, the giant rushing peace of wilderness, the imperceptible ticking of sunlight on the rocks.
Every time we go up Foss, it’s a different landscape, depending on the season, the weather, the mood of the place. Sometimes on a hot, sunny summer evening there’s a small crowd up there, kids picking the ripe blueberries, running in a pack down the paths through the meadow, dogs forming their own pack and milling around, drinking from rain pools in the rocks and sniffing one another, adults gawping at the view, mostly silently, sometimes with quiet talk.
The other evening, Brendan and Dingo and I were the only ones there. It was a chilly, lowering sort of day, with a brisk fresh breeze and thick low clouds. When we got to the top, we were quiet for a moment, in frank awe. The land had a blue tinge, a strange cast, almost like an old photograph of itself. Suddenly, a sunbeam slipped through the clouds and lit the slope below Mt. Washington with a powerful shaft that made a distant lake shine like mica.
It felt like being in a giant cathedral, a reverent hush, an indrawn breath, mystical and strange.
We sat on our usual outcropping and opened the backpack and popped the cork out of the hard cider and had a swig each.
“I’ve never seen it this beautiful here,” I said finally.
“Me neither,” said Brendan, who’s been going up Foss for 30 years.
Dingo lay at my side, not saying anything.
The cider we bring up Foss is made from local apples, similar to the apples that grow on the old, gnarled little trees in the orchard around the farmhouse, sour, flavorful, tiny things that look like weird stones. The dry, deep, tart taste of that cider always reminds me of Foss; or rather, that’s the only place we ever drink it.
It’s part of a ritual Brendan had, growing up, with his childhood friend Colie, who was one year older and whom he knew all his life and played in the woods with as a kid, came of age with, remained friends with into adulthood. Colie died suddenly in a car accident in December 2010. Whenever I drink cider on Foss with Brendan, we toast to Colie.
The mountains were layered one after another back to the horizon all around us in every direction, in shades of grey and blue and grey-blue and dark blue, like a roiling, turbulent, wild sea in a storm. Mt. Washington turned into a massive giant wave about to send our little craft up its towering flank. We both saw it and shivered together in that pleasurable make-believe fear.
The wind died down. The sun stayed hidden. The granite we sat on felt warmer than I’d expected it would. It was dry up there – no rain pools in the rock for Dingo to lap at.
A flock of nine little birds, tits or pipits maybe, starlings, the tiny kind whose silhouettes look a bit like Piper Cubs, lifted all at once out of the brown, dry meadow just below us. They hurled themselves into the air high, high above our heads and, in a game of follow-the-leader, flew in a big circle, swooping and soaring around us, and coming to ground again, back where they’d started. A moment later, they performed the whole airshow again.
After that, it was time to go. We hiked down to the car, nosed it down the vertical road, headed home slowly with the windows open to let the fresh cool air stream in.
Back at home, we mooched around the fridge and cupboards a bit aimlessly, without much excitement, and then we took ourselves out to an inn just across the state line in Maine. We sat in their basement pub and ordered a bottle of pinot noir and a couple of burgers made with local organic beef and gluten-free buns.
The wine was just fine, but the meat tasted too clean, too wholesome; it had no funky tang, no gamey whiff. They might have butchered a healthy young animal just that afternoon and ground its most tender bits less than one minute before molding them into burgers.
“I like a little noble rot taste in my burger,” I muttered, salting mine and adding lots of ketchup.
“I like a lot of noble rot taste in my burger,” said Brendan, doing the same.
That night, I had strange dreams, dark and ominous, but I slept more deeply than I had in a very long time.