Yesterday we went into “town.” It’s an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive, door to door, from the farmhouse to our new house. The drive is entirely on small country roads through woods and tiny towns and farmland, past lakes and over rivers, from the mountains down to the coast. The only businesses you pass are old, unique – the Mediocre Deli, Kate’s Bait and Tackle, an old 1950s diner in a brightly painted salt box house, Smiling Hill Farm (which has a sign advertising Ice Cream Lunches). Even the gas stations look homey and singular. There are no chains, no fast-food franchises, no sign of the present-day corporate ubiquity.
Driving into the city itself is a continuation of this strange, time-warp landscape. It is permanently 1987 in Portland, Maine. One discreet Starbuck’s tucked in the old brick downtown and the superstores hidden down on Marginal Way – Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods –are almost the only indications of this new millennium. All the other coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, all the businesses, are what used to be known as Mom-n-Pop – run by the actual people who own them.
The people likewise look like they’ve been airlifted in a time ship from 1987. Everyone smokes. Almost everyone under 45 is heavily tattooed. Men wear plain jeans and flannel shirts, sweatshirts, jean jackets, leather jackets, and Nikes. Women wear leggings, denim skirts, vintage dresses with boots. In the bars, there’s a sense of unforced, easy warmth; people here all seem to know one another — when someone comes in, he or she is greeted by one or more of the big, friendly groups gathered hugger-mugger around small tables. The social posturing and intense, self-conscious attitudes of North Brooklyn have evidently not yet found their way this far north, not even close, and maybe they never will. Even on the sidewalks, watching people walk, I see how un-studied they are, how idiosyncratic, as if the farthest thing from their minds is how they might appear to anyone watching. A simple thing: everyone walks naturally here.
When we came into our house, our contractor and his crew were there, painting the built-in bookshelves in the upstairs study and framing out a new shower in the little bathroom. We spent an hour with Patrick, going over the work still to be done: insulating the basement, painting some walls, putting a tile inlay into the foyer floor where the old cold-air exchange was, installing a claw-foot bathtub in our bedroom. Dingo sat at my feet and yipped at me every so often, demanding to be told what we were doing in this strange place. Patrick was born in the same hospital as Brendan, and they are, as far as I can tell, pretty close in age. He’s honest, extremely smart, thorough, with an unerring aesthetic judgment and a dark, punchy sense of humor. We could have hung out with him much longer.
The crew packed up and left, Brendan put poor long-suffering Dingo on his leash and took him out, and I went to the Pilates studio on Spring Street, in the high-ceilinged, bay-windowed parlor-floor rooms of a beautiful, solid 19th century house. The machines sit on old wood floors next to carved fireplaces with ceramic hearths. My Pilates instructor, Meredith, is getting married in June to her long-time boyfriend. She’s impressively strong, curvy, beautiful, and has that same dark, punchy sense of humor that Patrick has; maybe it’s a Maine thing. She always puts me through my drills on the machine called a Reformer, constantly reminding me to breathe into my ribs, button my buttons, stay long and focused. I try, but then she picks a piece of lint off my sock or cracks a joke about slutty hips or demonstrates a move I can’t quite do, fluidly and gracefully, but with an accompanying patter so funny I can’t follow it because I’m laughing too hard. Pilates is extremely difficult and complicated, if you do it right, which I don’t yet, not even close, but my hour is always up before I’m even aware of the time.
Afterwards, I was starving, so Brendan and I went to J’s Oyster for an early supper. It’s a small, low-ceilinged, warm little shack in the Old Port, perched on the end of a wharf, with plate-glass windows looking out at the harbor and bay. The sailboats parked in the slip had a foot of snow on their roofs and the water was dark blue. We went in and sat at the crowded bar. We ordered glasses of red wine and were handed paper plates of free Happy Hour oysters. The oysters at J’s are working-class molluscs, no-nonsense, nothing fancy — big, clean, chewy, with a slight briny taste, in rough knobby shells. To go with them, we ordered a bucket of steamers – they arrive hot and tender, with bowls of hot water to rinse them in after you slip the black condom off their necks, and little cups of hot butter to dredge them in, the sweetest, freshest clams I’ve ever eaten, no-bullshit like the oysters, honest and good and full of flavor.
Full as ticks, we drove back to the mountains, talking about the house, staring out through the windshield at the dark narrow empty road, piles of snow on either side, lighted windows of old New England cape houses through the bare trees. We parked by the barn and got out of the car and walked through a hushed, cloudy, cold night, looking up at the moon, blurred behind a curtain. All the ice and slush underfoot had somehow resolved itself into a cohesive cushion. Far away, the moonlight lit up the snow through thick bare trees on a mountainside so it looked like a gleaming, furry humpbacked thing.
I’m flying down to New Orleans today for three nights to stay with my friend Jami, eat southern oysters, drink sazerac, and go to my old friend Michael’s memorial in the Bywater. My ex-husband will be there, as well as a lot of old friends I haven’t seen in years. Brendan and Dingo are staying here; whenever I leave they eat like kings, not that they don’t usually. Brendan claims that he cries into a pot and boils it for a lonely soup when I’m gone, but I happen to know that this is in fact not true.
Peel and cut into bite-sized pieces 5 medium yellow potatoes. Toss in peanut oil and salt and pepper and spread on a cookie sheet. Add 8 whole peeled cloves of garlic. Sprinkle with rosemary and paprika. Bake at 350 for an hour, till crisp and semi-brown.
Half an hour into roasting the potatoes, steam 8 ounces of baby spinach for 5 minutes, until limp. Strain and chop finely with a mezzaluna, then, in a pan, heat peanut oil with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and 4 halved cloves of garlic. When the garlic is soft, add the spinach and fry over medium heat for a few minutes.
Heat a good chunk of butter in a cast-iron frying pan. When the butter is brown and the pan is hot, sear a salted, peppered filet mignon on both sides. Broil in the pan for 3 minutes per side. Finish on the stovetop, adding 4 minced shallots and another tablespoon of butter. Cook for a couple more minutes, then remove the meat and keep warm. To the shallots, butter, and pan drippings, add about ¼ cup red wine and reduce until sauce is thick and the shallots are just done.
Heap hot roast potatoes, a mound of spinach, and the filet mignon, with sauce, onto a large plate. Stuff yourself and drink a bottle of red wine. Have leftover spinach and potatoes, if there are any, for lunch the next day.