One recent hot, muggy morning, I went mushrooming in the woods with my neighbor, Dorcas. She and her husband live here year-round. We often see them out with their dog in all seasons, walking on the road by the lake, or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the meadows. Often, in the coldest months, we’re the only people along the road. We always stop and say hello and exchange news, a bunch of happy hermits, comparing notes.
Dorcas picked me up in her Prius after breakfast and whisked me off to her secret spot, a spot I’d sworn never to reveal to anyone or to revisit on my own. Mushroomers are jealous and possessive, and with very good reason.
We set off on foot through the woods on a well-kept path strewn with pine needles, soft and springy underfoot. It was cooler in the trees. A breeze lifted the hemlock and pine branches with soft whooshing sounds.
“Be careful where you walk,” she said. “It’s very hard to see them and easy to step on them by accident.”
I immediately slowed down and paid attention to the ground.
“Shoot,” Dorcas said after we’d walked for a while without finding anything, “maybe we’re too late, maybe they’re already all gone.”
Black trumpets are also known as black chanterelles and horns of plenty. They’re funnel-shaped, and when they dry, they’re inky black. Apparently, they’re one of the hardest mushrooms to find and also one of the most delicious, which explains why Dorcas is so careful about revealing her source.
We walked slowly along.
Dorcas is 74. She and her husband of 51 years recently took a six-day hike in the Dolomites, hiking eight or more strenuous, steep miles a day and sleeping in huts. She walked along as easily as I did, nimble and athletic. She never stopped scanning the ground right at our feet.
“Hey,” I called out helpfully every time I saw a mushroom or other fungus, no matter what kind, scalloped dun-colored fungi covering a fallen log, a dead-white toadstool with a neon orange underbelly. “There’s a mushroom. Maybe we’re not too late for the black trumpets after all.”
“The brighter the color, the more poisonous the mushroom,” she told me.
We continued on, slowly, searching every inch of pine needles, fallen branches, dried leaves, and earth.
“There, a whole patch,” she said. “But they’re dried ones again. The season may be over already. We got two big bags of them in August.”
I didn’t see them at first, and then I did: small black shriveled things against the dark ground, almost invisible, spreading for several feet along the path. They looked not even remotely edible, like bits of crumpled tarpaper or lumps of volcanic rock.
“They grow along the path,” she said. “I think they like a bit of sunlight.”
And then, at last, we found a patch of fresh funnel-shaped little mushrooms in a wet, boggy depression in the path: beautiful little horns on slender stalks, charcoal colored. We picked them all, a couple of handfuls – it had been a treasure hunt, and now we had been rewarded for our patience.
Back at the farmhouse, Dorcas pulled up in front of the barn and handed me the bag of mushrooms.
“I’m not taking your mushrooms!” I said. “No way!”
But she insisted. I knew how kind this was; such generosity does not come along very often. I accepted with thanks and took my treasures inside.
I cleaned the mushrooms by tearing them gently in half and shaking out the pine needles and bits of earth from their crevices and wiping them gently.They are very thin-skinned and delicate and velvety, and they come apart in long strips with an earthy perfume; they’re also called the poor man’s truffle. I admired them all afternoon there on the cutting board as I went about my day.
When it was time to cook dinner, I got out a large, shallow skillet, and in it, I sautéed 2 minced shallots and several minced garlic cloves in lots of butter and olive oil. When they were soft, I pushed them to the side and browned four skinless, boneless chicken thighs well; while they browned, I dusted them with sea salt, black pepper, paprika, and Old Bay seasoning. I removed them from the pan and added the mushrooms and cooked them for a minute or two, then put the thighs back in with a whisked-together sauce of about 1/3 cup each half-and-half and chicken broth plus a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I covered the skillet and let it simmer for ten minutes. I served this delectable dish over wild rice with a side of steamed, garlicky baby spinach.
The mushrooms tasted clean, faintly smoky, and very rich, and their texture was delicate and meaty. They were the best I’d ever eaten.
While we ate, a ferocious windy rainstorm blew in and washed away the heavy heat and was gone in twenty minutes; afterwards, the air was golden and almost chilly. Fall had come, just like that.
When we woke up this morning, the air was chilly and tinged with autumn. After breakfast, Brendan and I set off into the woods behind our house and, after about forty-five minutes, on a wooded path that will remain secret forevermore, we found our own patch of black trumpets. Brendan spotted them. They were dried and black, like most of the ones Dorcas and I had found, but the fruiting body was there to be checked whenever they’re in season.
On the way home, Brendan stopped to look at an enormous scalloped fungus growing at the base of a tree.
“I think this is a hen of the woods,” he said.
Looking down, I recognized it from supermarkets, where it’s labeled “Maitake” and neatly packaged and sold for around $20 a pound.
We carried the whole beautiful, springy, fresh-smelling thing away with us in the plastic bag we’d brought; it weighed more than two pounds. When we got home, we identified it easily, since there are no known toxic lookalikes, and it looked textbook-identical to its photographs.
A little while later, we dropped our first-ever mushroom haul off at Dorcas’s with a note thanking her for showing us the way — a tribute to our mycology guru, and a sign of honor among thieves.
And now we have our own mushroom patches, two different kinds, to guard jealously and possessively.
We just came back from a wedding weekend in Budapest. It’s a city filled with wonders and the friendliest, most down-to-earth, kind people I’ve ever encountered in Europe — it was almost like being in Mexico.
We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, checked in, and crawled into the big, comfortable bed and fell asleep for five hours. We woke up feeling zingy and hungry and went down to the hotel restaurant; I had been worried about finding gluten-free food in Hungary, but the waiter understood what I was talking about, spoke fluent English, and guided me to order grilled chicken with cucumber salad. That was the beginning of an entirely successful culinary experience. Budapest is a city of excellent food and wine: Hungarian cheese is as good as cheese gets, and there are far more vegetables involved in the cuisine than I had imagined there would be.
After dinner, we met the wedding party down in the Jewish Quarter at a “ruin bar” called Szimpla, apparently the epicenter of cool in Eastern Europe, which made us laugh at ourselves for being there. It reminded me of Williamsburg in the 90s; it’s an old brick wrecked courtyard with lights strung and plants and glass window dividers, a series of bars tucked into various corners, enormous, packed with people young enough to be my children, and hazy with cigarette smoke. We left before everyone else and went back to sleep.
The next day, we had a lavish, lengthy lunch sitting outside at a restaurant called Mandragora. I had an amazing sour/sweet cold apricot and black currant soup, and a salad with slabs of sweet fried sheep cheese that reminded me of French toast. Brendan ate a curried carrot soup with truffle oil, which he normally hates, but this was made with real truffles, and meatballs; and mangalica, roast pork chops with a ratatouille. After that lunch and the long walk around Buda before and after it, we needed another nap….
That evening, we walked down the steep hill and across the river to meet the wedding party again, this time for a sunset cruise on the Danube. We stood outside at the very front of the boat leaning on the railing with glasses of champagne and watched the city flow by — the lit-up castle, the monuments, a glass-cube nightclub almost vibrating with pink and blue light and loud electronica, the grand facades of the big houses along the river’s edge on the Pest side, the cliffs of the Buda side. We got off the boat at the end and left everyone; we weren’t feeling especially social that night, too jetlagged and disoriented. We wandered around Pest, hungry again and in search of dinner, and stumbled on a young winemakers’ festival in the courtyard of St. Stephen’s cathedral. Beautiful young Hungarians hung around in chatty groups with glasses of wine. The winemakers’ booths were set up around the perimeter. We passed a couple of happy hours there on the cathedral steps, drinking excellent Hungarian rose. It was a warm night, and we watched people and spaced out… at one point we went and ate Thai food, and my curry was simple and sublime, zucchini cut thinly in a mild coconut/lemongrass sauce.
Eventually, we walked across the river and climbed back up to our hotel. It was called Baltazar, and we loved everything about it, including the food in the restaurant downstairs and the concierge, Daniel, who looked like Doctor Watson in “Sherlock” and who took extremely good care of us and had a sense of humor to boot.
It was late, but we were wide awake and up for another adventure, so we gathered up the bag of goat cheese and serrano ham and gluten-free bread and the cold bottle of rose we’d bought earlier and had intended for lunch the next day. We took it all up to the castle, which is built at the edge of a high, high cliff, and sat up in the top ramparts until almost dawn, having a midnight picnic, looking at the river and city spread out below. A violinist on the steps down below was playing Vivaldi, the only imperfection, so Brendan ran down and offered him money to switch to Bach. I was strangely almost in tears at this; it was so deeply romantic, and it was the kind of night that made me feel eighteen again.
The next day we woke up just in time to find some lunch. We ate at a sidewalk meat-and-potatoes place. The waiter spoke excellent English, understood my gluten problem, and brought us tiny aperitifs of a Hungarian apricot brandy called palinka. I ate an enormous garlicky grilled lamb chop with boiled potatoes and a cucumber and tomato salad, simple food, and so good my eyelids fluttered a little as I devoured every molecule.
Then it was time to gussy ourselves up in our finery and go to the wedding. The festivities began in a courtyard of the old Hungarian Congress Hall, a five-minute walk from our hotel, in a flowery garden with fountains, a string quartet, and champagne. We all gathered and chatted and admired the bride and groom, who looked splendid and glamorous and properly bridal. Suriya was Brendan’s high school girlfriend, and now she’s one of his best friends. She’s Indian, English, and Jewish, a willowy raven-haired long-stemmed rose with a self-mocking caustic wit, a foul mouth, and a razor-sharp brain. She’s a lawyer and a diplomat in the foreign service. Meanwhile, the groom, Krisztian, is a six foot four Magyar prince with a thick neck, a sweet handsome face, and a ferociously ambitious career as an international anti-trust lawyer in D.C. Suriya is nuts about him, and he about her, and who can blame either of them?
The ceremony was held up in the castle in the Fisherman’s Bastion, right near where Brendan and I had had our late-night picnic. We all sat in the ramparts; the sun began to set while they said their vows, in Hungarian and English, while Krisztian’s older sister, a tiny merry beautiful redhead, married them. After all the photographs had been taken, we had a parade back to the Congress Hall and entered the banquet room and took in all its grand European splendor. We feasted, toasted, danced, watched Hungarian dancers perform, talked, drank, danced some more. At 5 in the morning, we trooped down to the courtyard where it had all begun and released lit-up balloons into the sky, and then we all went home to sleep.
The next day, our last, was quiet and anticlimactic, after all the preceding excitement. We were sore from all the dancing and muzzy-headed from all the wine, so we went through the rain down to the Gellert thermal baths/spa on the Danube in a grand hotel and soaked in hot mineral pools with Hungarians as well as tourists from all over the world, languages all around us, interesting faces and bodies to ogle.
We got dressed again and walked through the rain, over the bridge, to St. Stephens cathedral to hear a Bach organ concert; but we were too late, it was just ending when we arrived. Brendan was so disappointed, even more than I was. So we took ourselves to a quiet, classic old Hungarian restaurant called Callas, near the State Opera, since the opera season hadn’t begun yet, another disappointment.The restaurant was beautiful, with tiled floors and arched ceilings and an old-world feel, so there was that. I ordered the duck breast, which was perfectly cooked and came with a fruity sauce and pillowy mashed potatoes, and Brendan ordered the “gipsy roast,” chunks of mangalica on a skewer grilled with vegetables and little sausages.
After dinner, it had stopped raining, finally; we walked over the dark, swollen river, back up the steep quiet wet cobblestone streets to the hotel. It wasn’t late, and we wanted to decompress a bit before we went to sleep, so we sat under the awning of the outdoor café and drank more of the light, dry, low-alcohol Hungarian rosé and talked for a few hours about it all – Hungary, the wedding, and our lives. I couldn’t stop ordering cucumbers in any form: cucumber salad, cucumber pickles. Cucumbers are, of course, hydrating and detoxifying, and no doubt that’s why I craved them.
The next day we flew back to New England. We landed in Boston in the late evening, picked Dingo up at Brendan’s aunt’s, and then, after a happy reunion, we all drove up to Portland together, stopping at a rest area for a half-hour nap.
It was good to be in our house again, as always, and so good to sleep in our own bed. When we woke up the next morning, the whole trip seemed like a long, wild, mutual dream.
I hardly slept the night before my driver’s test. I lay awake, going over parallel parking in my mind: cut hard to the right, reverse, gradually straighten it out to back in at a diagonal, cut hard to the left, ease it in, straighten it out… all night long. In my mind’s ear, I heard my hard-ass driving instructor (Brendan) saying, “What are you DOING!?” and “You have to pay attention!” and “NOOOO!!”
We got up the next morning at 6:00, which for us is pre-crack of dawn. I showered, then fed and walked a sleepy and perplexed Dingo; Brendan made coffee. There was a sepulchral silence in the kitchen as we ate our toast. Shaky from insomnia and nerves, I drove us the hour and a half from Portland to the DMV in Tamworth, New Hampshire. I made so many uncharacteristically nerve-wracked mistakes on the way that if it had been my driving test, I would have failed several times over.
“I’m going to flunk,” I wailed. Dingo, his head in the rear view mirror, ears at half-mast, seemed to concur, if his consternated expression was anything to go by. “I’ll probably hit a tree on my test.”
“You’ll be fine,” said my instructor. “You know what you’re doing. Just relax. I promise, you will pass.”
He later told me that he knew exactly what the test would entail: this was the same DMV where he got his driver’s license, sixteen years ago.
My examiner was a sweet, taciturn, portly man with a short white Afro who had me drive for fifteen minutes on gently rolling country roads. Remembering to signal, stop, check my mirrors, and obey the speed limits, I took a right, another right, a left, then a right, and another right. Then came the hard part: he asked me to back the car into a spot in an empty church parking lot. I couldn’t see the white lines I was supposed to park between and had no other cars to guide me, so I fucked it up not once, but twice; I’d asked for a do-over. After all that anxiety, I hadn’t had to parallel park at all; unfortunately, I’d practiced reverse parking exactly twice.
I drove out of the parking lot in disgrace, took a left turn onto the sleepy road, a right turn onto the two-lane route I’d started on, and suddenly, there we were, back at the DMV. It was over.
“I took some points off for your parking,” said the examiner. “Because that was…” He paused as if searching for the correct word. “Terrible.”
With a dour expression, he handed me the score sheet. And then I saw that he had checked the box next to “Pass.”
I leapt from the car, giddy with joy, threw my arms around my strict, demanding, handsome driving instructor, who was waiting there with Dingo, and waltzed inside. As she took my beaming photo, the DMV lady told me, “Oh, honey, no one can park, we all park like crap. I practically hit my own garage every night.”
After that ordeal, the rest of the day was ours. Brendan drove us to the farmhouse. His parents made us a beautiful lunch: fresh pesto, cantaloupe with proscuitto, and a Caprese salad with ripe farm stand tomatoes. Sitting outside at the table in the grass, looking at the mountains, we drank the bottle of Taittinger I’d brought to celebrate.
Then, for an hour or so, I fell into a near-coma on the couch in the summer barn. Dingo, as worn out as I was, burrowed into a spot behind the couch and conked out, too.
Later, Brendan and his mother and I went blueberry picking up Foss Mountain. We settled into a patch on the flank of the ridge, hot in the sun, and picked handful after handful of the low-bush, perfectly ripe little berries, which fell off the stems into our hands. Dingo wallowed happily in a shady leftover rain puddle.
“FUCKER!” Brendan suddenly yelled at the wasp who’d stung his hand, dropping his box of berries and leaping about. As his hand swelled into a monstrous lobster claw, we decided the fun was over. We quickly consolidated all the remaining berries in the basket we’d brought and hiked back to the car, which lurched down the steep, mud-rutted dirt road. Back at home, we put on bathing suits and gathered towels.
We joined Brendan’s father down at the dock by Snake Cove, which thank God has no snakes in it anymore, that we know of. As the sun set, back at home, we sat outside and drank cold Frascati, watching hundreds of dragonflies trolling through the air for little gnats and midges and, we hoped, some of the wasps who’ve taken up residence this summer in every available crevice of the house’s exterior.
At the long table with candles lit in the summer barn, we feasted on steamed lobsters and lemon butter, corn on the cob, and asparagus. Dessert was maple-walnut ice cream from a local creamery with, of course, blueberries.
After dinner, Brendan drove us back to Portland: it was very relaxing to be a passenger again. But now, I’m a licensed driver, not just passive deadweight. Now, I am legally allowed to get into a car and drive it anywhere I want, alone! Look out, world.
Berries a la Susan
Tonight, a couple of friends, both excellent cooks themselves, are coming over for dinner. In hopes of impressing and pleasing them, I’m making a recipe my friend Rosie sent me: lobster paella with chicken thighs and chorizo. And dessert will be the blueberries I picked the other day.
When I asked my friend Susan, who lives in London but is vacationing right now in Jamestown, Rhode Island and living on local farm stand produce, for advice about what to do with them, she wrote back the following sort-of-recipe: “Last night I made strawberries and blackberries with whipped cream topped with almonds crushed a bit and toasted under the broiler. The nuts made it astonishing.” So that is what I’ll do.
Our friends Ethan and Lindsay invited us up to Phippsburg last weekend. They’re a quintessential pair of native Mainers if there ever was one; she’s a designer who works for L.L. Bean, and he’s the stern man on his lifelong friend Lawrence’s lobster boat, and he runs charters in the summertime.
It’s wild and beautiful up there, a small lobstering and fishing village right on the water. I drove us the hour north from Portland on a cloudless, golden early afternoon. We turned off Route 1 in Bath onto a curvy two-lane country road that took us down a peninsula through marshland, villages, and coastal forests.
We had lunch at Spinney’s, a low-key clam and lobster shack right on the Fort Popham beach. After lunch, we headed down the road to meet them at 3:00, as arranged.
“We have a situation,” said Ethan after we pulled up to the Fort Popham dock and parked. “My wife has been shanghaied by my father.”
“That pirate!” I said; it seemed appropriate.
“We have to go and get her,” he told us.
We all, Dingo and their dog Pepper too, climbed into the Guppy, a large wooden dory with an outboard, the smaller of Ethan’s two charter boats. We motored out through the harbor, past rocky, grassy islands.
“That’s my mother, in that boat,” he said as we approached the narrow gut that led into the open sea. “She and my stepfather live there.” He pointed over to nearby Georgetown Island, to a shingled house with big windows on the cove.
Out on Sheepscot Bay, we picked up speed and slapped head-first over the calm water. Ethan slowed when he saw another boat headed back toward the dock. He hailed them and spun around to meet them head-on.
For the next hour or two, we hung out on the ocean. Ethan’s father, Bill, who’s also a lobsterman, had just won a lobster boat race to Pemaquid, for which he’d “shanghaied” Lindsay and her friend, Jamie, a photographer who works with her at L.L. Bean, to be his “bow fluff,” which is just what it sounds like, along with Ethan’s lobstering partner and old friend, Lawrence, as crew.
We pulled the two boats together with our feet resting on each other’s boats to keep us from drifting apart. We pulled out cold beer and wine and talked as the boats bobbed up and down on the waves. The sky was blue, the air warm, and there was no wind. Usually, Ethan told us, there’s a breeze and it’s chilly and choppy on the water and partly overcast, but that afternoon was perfect.
Lindsay and I put our heads together and discussed our work. I told her about the book about Maine I’m working on, “How to Cook a Moose,” since the occasion for this trip was ostensibly research for it. She described the magazine/catalogue she wants to start, both print and online, well-written stories alongside beautifully photographed and designed pictures of various products made by hand in Maine. It would represent, she told me, the traditional, DIY, down-to-earth, year-round reality of Maine, not the elitist, moneyed, summer-people bullshit that predominates in so many publications now. I told her I’d happily write for it anytime.
On our way back to the dock, we stopped off at Seguin Island, which boasts the second-oldest, and tallest, lighthouse in Maine. Ethan stayed on the boat to make some work phone calls while the rest of us jumped ashore and lifted Dingo and Pepper over the waves. As we climbed up to the bluff above the rocky little beach, we ran into the caretaker, who was fixing the tracks for the little tram that hauls supplies up from the cove and beach for the lighthouse and living quarters. He knows Ethan and Lindsay because Ethan’s ferry service takes tourists over to Seguin, so even though it was after-hours, he generously offered to give us a tour.
We climbed the sandy path to the grassy plateau at the top of the island, where the main buildings are. It’s a great view from up there, over a hundred feet above the water on the last island before the open ocean.
The Seguin Island lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and installed in 1797. Its light is a modern-day electric bulb amplified by a many-petaled flower of very old glass, recently hand-polished by the caretaker and sparkling in the late-afternoon sunlight. We walked around the catwalk outside the cupola; far down was blue water, all around us, in every direction. Close by, we could see Monhegan and many other islands. The second inlet, far down the coast, was Casco Bay and Portland. It was a memorable view, both intimate and full of grandeur.
With the dogs, we climbed down to the beach and got back on board the Guppy and headed for the dock, where we got into our cars and drove to Ethan and Lindsay’s place. They live in an airy but cozy post-and-beam house on the water that Ethan’s father built in the 1970s; he now lives with his girlfriend in a newer house just up the cove.
After we parked by the house and got out, Ethan stuck his head into the basement storage space. Dingo followed him and flushed a stray hen from her hiding place. “There she is,” he said. “I knew she was in there.” He tossed her into the nearby coop to join the rest of the flock, who were just settling in for the night.
In the buggy, darkening evening, we picked vegetables from their greenhouse and garden. They apologized for the weeds, which they don’t have time to pick, but we were too impressed by the bounty to notice.
The men stayed outside and boiled the red potatoes just picked from their garden, in the same pot with the lobsters Ethan had just pulled out of one of his traps, on an old propane double burner cookstove. Meanwhile, Lindsay and I stayed in the kitchen and cooked, like good women. She fried the rest of a striper Ethan had caught the day before while I made a salad with the vegetables we’d just picked: cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, garlic, basil, green beans, and green pepper. While I made dressing, Lindsay sautéed the zucchini and garlic we’d just pulled out of their garden with olive oil from Ethan’s brother’s wife’s family’s place in Greece, which added a whole other level of homegrown to the mix.
“What should I do with the vegetable scraps?” I asked her. “Do you have a compost bucket?”
“Just throw them out the window for the chickens,” she said. “They’ll see and get excited for tomorrow morning’s breakfast.”
With perfect timing, when everything was just about ready, Bill, Jamie, and Lawrence arrived with a story of another adventure they’d all just had. We gathered around the table, heaped our plates, and feasted on lobsters, fish, salad, potatoes, and zucchini.
While we ate, I realized that the entire meal was food that Lindsay and Ethan had grown or caught; this was a real “farm-to-table” meal, gathered and served without fuss or fanfare. Everything was simple and perfectly delicious—the lobsters didn’t need butter, and the vegetables were still alive.
Afterwards, we all sat out on their deck, talking and laughing, looking at the gleaming estuary while the full moon rose and the tide came in.
Do we all fall into contemplative moods in the weeks leading up to our birthdays, or is it just me?
One thing I’m pondering is the fact that the neighborhood seagulls wake me up lately at 4:30 or so. They caterwaul overhead, starting before dawn, screaming bloody murder at one another in the sky. City seagulls! They sound like Southie mothers shrieking, “SEAN, you betta not end up like ya fuckin FATHA!!” and “Bobby O’Houlihan, if I catch ya I’m gonna SKIN YA ALIVE!”
When I look out the window, I can see one of them on the rooftop across the street, strutting along the peak, shrieking its head off, probably at another gull on another rooftop, waiting for a response, then shrieking back.
The British aren’t coming. They have no predators to warn one another about, that I know of. The sun isn’t even up yet; what urgent news could there be to impart? How is this productive? How does this advance their cause in the world? Why aren’t they down by the water, catching fish and nourishing themselves?
Seagulls are mysterious, I conclude every morning. Then I put in earplugs, pull a pillow over my head, and go back to sleep.
Inside the house, during this fresh, sweet, blue-green-gold Maine summer, I’m passing my days with four solid goals in mind: train for the 10K race in September, finish the Moose book, judge the Kirkus literary contest, and get my driver’s license. Every day, I try to make progress on three out of four fronts. And it’s working. I’m learning to parallel park, and today I’m going to take us on the Interstate. I’ve knocked almost all the books off my third of the list and am about to move on to the other two judges’ picks and the late entries. I’m starting to write the chapter about lobsters in the Moose book, and, in a stroke of perfect timing, today we’re going up north to Phippsburg to go out on the boat with our lobsterman pal, Ethan.
The first time I ran, at the beginning of June, I kept losing my wind and had to slow to a walk till I caught it again. Every time I go out, I can run a little farther, a little faster. I ran four miles on Friday evening, from our back door to the end of the Eastern Prom and then back to Bam Bam bakery on Commercial Street, then I walked the rest of our daily route home; eventually, maybe by the end of August, I’ll be able to run all 5 ½ miles at one go, even the uphill part at the end.
In my experience, that’s how things get done: by increments and daily practice. I don’t know any shortcuts.
It’s not the most exciting summer anyone’s ever had, to put it mildly, but internally, it is life-changing, even radical. To focus so completely on four worthy goals at once, to have the time and liberty and discipline to pursue them all to the fullest, and to feel myself able and capable of doing so, is a profound experience of fun, adventure, and satisfaction.
As an unexpected consequence, other, necessary, important aspects of my life are shifting, changing, and improving—some in explosive bursts of revelation and almost involuntary action, others in a deep, underground way I’m hardly aware of until they manifest themselves, and some a combination of the two.
I’m turning 52 on August 22, and in all the years since I was old enough to drive, although I’ve had four learner’s permits and even learned to drive 25 years ago, I have never once taken a driving test; something always prevented me, probably my own fears. This time, I’m going to do it.
And this time around, I’m writing a book I want, rather than need, to write, a crucial distinction. I am very glad I wrote “Blue Plate Special,” but as I worked on it, I sensed, beyond the chronology of my own life, another interesting (to me) idea for a book about my happy life in New England and the current economic reality of food in this country and the intersection of those two things. I had to write that other book to get to this one, and I did, and now here I am. Writing this book makes me happy, excited; writing that one was painful and anxiety-inducing. But every book has its own trajectory, and nothing can be rushed.
In 2002, I ran the New York City marathon. I completed it in 3 hours and 58 minutes. I find it hard to believe now, but never having run before, I had set a goal for myself of under four hours, and I achieved it, in spite of a hospitalization for hyponatremia, IT band problems that required physical therapy, and severe pronation that was resolved finally with handmade, expensive orthotics.
And then, after all that trouble and expense and commitment, I stopped running immediately after the marathon—until now, 12 years later.
Training for the 10K race feels small by comparison, but it’s not, it’s something else entirely. The marathon was a one-off thing, intended to help me recover from a profound depression following 9/11. This upcoming race is not the point. Running is the point. And I hadn’t intended certain side effects of running, but I’m drinking much less alcohol lately (one ice-cold low-alcohol sorghum beer is nothing short of divine after a run and a shower, but that’s it, I’m done), eating differently and less (almost no red meat; two smallish meals a day), sleeping more deeply (seagulls aside). After the race, I plan to keep running and see what other good things might happen, even if it’s only increased wind and stamina. At almost-52, those might be the best things I could ask for.
And despite the masses of piles and rows of books around my clawfoot tub and on the downstairs bookshelves, I’m happy to spend a few months reading so many good novels and story collections. Running, writing, reading, driving. And Pilates, and smaller writing deadlines, and sneaking purely-for-pleasure reading, and walking Dingo. That’s my summer.
Meanwhile, I’m not cooking much, not thinking about food except as it relates to the Moose book. It takes a lot for food to recede from the forefront of my mind. I wonder how and when I’ll come back to my lifelong love affair with it.
When I do, I plan to make Moroccan chicken for Brendan with one of the intriguing spice packets I just got in the mail from Laura, a reader in Oregon, who made it for her now-fiancé, George, on their first date. She told me in her letter that when people ask when they’re getting married, she answers, “One of these days.” That’s what Brendan and I always say. That’s another goal, the best one.
Yesterday, Brendan and I took a break from working and had ourselves a party. We watched the last World Cup game with tequila-grapefruit cocktails and ham-and-cheese sandwiches on toasted gluten-free “rye” bread with a shit-ton of mayo and mustard. After the game, we took Dingo for a long walk down the road. We humans swam in the lake in the total solitude while Dingo lay on the beach under the picnic table.
We walked home, fed Dingo, and sat on the porch for a while watching the dragonflies troll through the air like beautiful, predatory machines, eating mosquitoes. While the huge moon rose, we sat at the table with the kerosene lamp lit and played a few cutthroat rounds of Spite and Malice with the two humidity-softened old decks of cards and drank cold vinho verde and ate pasta with fresh tomato sauce, again.
It was the best pasta of any kind I’ve ever had, hands down. Brendan made it, of course. As always, he used gluten-free penne from Italy and made a fresh tomato-garlic-basil sauce with lots of garlic, hot red pepper flakes, and grated parmesan. It was so good last time, silky and rich and garlicky and savory, but somehow, this time, it was even better; it was divine, superb, memorable. This time, he used ripe, flavorful Roma tomatoes instead of regular, and he swears that made the difference. Whatever the case, I moaned YUM and made other guttural animal noises as I ate. The cook took this as the highest praise, as he should have.
We were deeply asleep before midnight. I woke up at 7:45 this morning with a start; I had slept the entire night through, a rare and lucky occurrence.
Possibly because I was so well-rested, and possibly because I had set myself certain goals and deadlines, today, unlike yesterday, was a day of achievement and forward momentum. I reached the halfway point on my new book, How to Cook a Moose, which is about living in Maine, with as much local history, food lore, and information as I can reasonably cram in. I want to have a draft done by summer’s end, and now I think I can do it.
We also ran to the beach and back two times, once in the late morning, once in the early evening, for a total of six miles, and we swam twice, too. Our Scotch Club has decided to run a 10K race as a team in September. The race is appropriately (for us) named the Trail to Ale, and there will be drinking when it’s over, so of course Brendan and I have been training as well as we can for it. We want to uphold the Scotch Club’s hoped-for reputation as badass drinkers who aren’t afraid to sweat. So we’ve been sweating a lot this summer. Running on the unshaded sidewalks of Portland is harder than running the wooded, soft dirt roads up here, even though our route up here is much hillier; I get winded easily when I overheat, and the sun feels hotter when it glances off asphalt, and the breeze isn’t nearly as cool down in town as it is in the mountains, even on the Eastern Prom, on the trail along the bay.
So we’ve made a little bit of progress in our speed and endurance during our sojourn here in the farmhouse. However, true to the Scotch Club’s unspoken motto, “Run then Drink,” we have not cut back on our nightly consumption of wine. Nor have we slacked off on our ability to enjoy and consume a certain quantity of food, which we view as our reward for all that exertion.
Just now, after our second run and swim of the day, we came home to a barking-mad Dingo, who is too old to keep up with us when we run, and who overheats easily on muggy days, but who can’t understand why he can’t be with us every second of his life. He was mollified by his dinner; he’s still cool and wet from his bath, napping soundly at my feet under the table. The sky is cloudy; a thunderstorm is on its way, maybe not until tomorrow, but we can already feel it.
Brendan is making another vegetable pasta, because all this running is making us crave carbohydrates, or something: this time, it’s leeks and spinach, both of which we happened to have in the vegetable drawer, so instead of going out, as we’d planned, we put on the well-worn Paolo Conte CD (he’s a gravel-voiced Italian crooner who I confess can make me swoon a little) and poured some ice-cold Albarino, and then I sat down to write this blog post even though I don’t have much to say except that it’s summer, and this is a hard-working but lovely one.
And Brendan is making dinner again, lucky me. First, he steamed an 11-ounce package of baby spinach briefly until it wilted. Meanwhile, he chopped three cloves of garlic and cleaned and chopped the bottom halves of three leeks. Then he chopped the spinach roughly. While the water for Le Veneziane fettuce heated, he sautéed the garlic in olive oil and butter, then added the leeks. When they were soft, he added the spinach with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes. After five minutes, he added another bit of butter and turned off the heat.
“This dish wants fat,” he says. “It’s rich. Do not skimp on the oil and butter.”
He’ll serve it with finely grated parmesan cheese and a simple salad with a vinaigrette. I’ll shuffle the two decks of cards, which I can do as fast and expertly as a Vegas dealer (apparently it’s because I’m a first-born, says Brendan, although why that is I have no idea), and we’ll deal out a game of Spite and Malice. The moon will rise, we’ll drink more wine, and then, by midnight, we’ll be sound asleep again.
This summer feels like childhood again, back when school was out, and all I did was what I loved most: read, write, eat, swim, nap, laze around, and see friends. Tomorrow, our friends Emily and John are coming with their adorable two-year-old daughter, Tug, and the next day, Jami and her puggle, Sid, arrive, and although it’s supposed to rain while they’re here, there’s plenty to do inside in the summertime, especially with a two-year old and two dogs in the mix. We can drink cocktails, kibitz, play cards, cook, eat, and watch Tug, Sid, and Dingo all try to figure one another out. This will be fun.
Yesterday, we came to New Hampshire for the weekend. I drove us here, because this is the summer when I will finally get my driver’s license – I am determined. I did all right, although I’m still fine-tuning my steering technique, and I got honked at in a roundabout for being daft. After being a passenger all my life, it’s refreshing to be honked at for being daft. For decades, I’ve made fun of other drivers from the safety of the passenger seat, exactly in the spirit of a non-soccer-playing fan opining on the World Cup. It served me right to be honked at. Once I’d threaded my way out of the roundabout, I pulled over to the right with my blinker on and let five cars go by me, feeling the presence of karma in the hot, humid air.
Finally, I pulled our old algae-colored Subaru into the spot in front of the barn, put the car in Park, and turned off the engine, having successfully completed the single longest drive (an hour and a half, with a quick stop at Hannaford, during which I practiced parking and unparking) of my life. Dingo mooed with excitement until we let him out of the car; this is his favorite place on earth, as far as we can tell.
As we carried groceries and bags toward the house, we saw the view of Dundee Mountain’s lush green slopes, just past the barn, tiger lilies in the foreground – I think I might have made a little happy mooing sound of my own. We haven’t been here since March. We came into the house, which was stuffy and smelled faintly of wood smoke, and went around opening curtains and windows, stowing our stuff, putting groceries away, looking out the windows at the mountains, the unmown fields, the familiar landscape so radically changed from the black-and-white sepia-tinged scene of ice and snow of a few months ago.
After we’d eaten a quick lunch of leftover black lentil salad with the pickled jalapenos, red onion, and radishes I’d made to go with chicken tacos last week (a winning combination), we put on our bathing suits and set off toward the lake. We turned off the dirt road onto the steep path to Brendan’s aunt’s dock, walking downward through clouds of blackflies and mosquitos. At the lake, we stripped off our clothes and ran to the end of the dock and plunged into the clean, chilly-then-warm water, which was full of little wavelets and covered with a thin scrim of pollen.
Dingo plumped himself down on the dock and watched us, and then, once we’d swum away, he retreated to the shrubbery, where I could see his triangular head and bat ears as he spied on us through the shifting leaves; he won’t swim, no matter how hot it gets. He used to bark at us to come back whenever we went into the water, but in recent years, he’s evidently become resigned to our demented behavior. Now he just sighs with disapproval to himself from a distance.
By the time we got back to the house, we were hot all over again. The afternoon stretched out, the haze deepening, the heat baffling our ears like sound insulation. We took cool showers and dressed in as little as possible and tried not to move. As the sun went down and we got hungry, we tried to imagine what we could possibly want to eat on such a day.
“I know,” said Brendan. “I have the perfect thing.”
He put a big pot of water on the stove and poured us each a small glass of rioja with several ice cubes. When the water boiled, he plunged ten medium-sized ripe tomatoes into it for three or four minutes, until their skins split, then he took them out and peeled (but did not seed) them. Meanwhile, he peeled and chopped a heap of garlic.
In a deep skillet, he poured some of the olive oil retrieved from the stash of bottles in the cupboards over the fireplace; it comes from his family’s olive trees in Tuscany, and it’s the best I’ve ever had, and every time I eat it, I feel insanely lucky.
I sipped my wine and spaced out, looking out at the mountains, while Brendan sautéed the garlic for a scant minute, then added the chopped tomatoes along with all their juice and some salt and pepper and a smidgen of crushed red pepper. He let the sauce cook down for twenty minutes or so until it thickened, then added a handful of chopped fresh basil at the very end.
He tossed the sauce with a pound of gluten-free penne rigate, made from rice and imported from Italy (Rustichella d’Abruzzo, but Le Veneziane, or really any gluten-free pasta from Italy, is also incredibly good).
While he threw together a simple salad, I poured us some more rioja and added ice. We sat at the table in the pressing heat and devoured everything with moans of pleasure until the pasta dish was empty and all I could do was run a finger along its bottom to dredge up every molecule of that sweet, savory, beautiful sauce.
After dinner, cool air started to blow in with far-off thunder and lightning. The storm was slow in coming, and its approach was dramatic. We went outside and watched from the porch as the darkening sky became saturated with electricity, echoing booms of rolling thunder and white-hot lightning cascading through the high clouds, blinding explosions of streaking brachioles of light that illuminated everything for several beats then faded. Over the fields, fireflies were winking and glinting.
When the hair on our arms prickled from the combined chill and electric charge in the air, we figured we’d better go in. We turned off all the lights and went into the downstairs bedroom and sat in the bay window seat, watching the light show, gasping like theatergoers at a great production of “The Tempest.”