When we woke up yesterday morning, there was a chill in the air. The light was simultaneously more muted and more intense than the frank hot brightness of a summer morning, and the air was full of a very familiar, bracing back-to-school feeling. We ate toast with scrambled eggs, dressed a little more warmly than usual, and looked out at the sunlight breaking between clouds that neither billowed nor floated, as they do in the summertime. These clouds meant business. They looked like real weather.
Late in the morning, we set out on “the circle walk,” a 4 or 5 mile loop that starts along an empty, heavily wooded stretch of the road by the lake, then goes left up another, steeper road, then another left onto a dirt road that runs up and over the hill and between two beaver ponds, then yet another left onto another dirt road and over a white wooden fence, and a sharp left down the steep, marshy trail that leads us home. The whole way, we pass through thick, dense old woods. The only sky we see is directly overhead. We usually do a lot of parallel silent thinking on this walk: the terrain is not conducive to chattiness.
This time, though, we brought a covered straw basket with us, not unlike the one Red Riding Hood might have carried to her grandmother. Dingo trotted along just behind or ahead of us, sniffing and peeing and eating grass and trundling along, looking nothing like the wolf. Immediately, we found a patch of trumpetlike mushrooms by the old graveyard. From then on, we were on the scent; we occasionally headed off the road into the woods, on the trail of something neon yellow or otherwise intriguingly funguslike, scrambling over rocks and roots, distracted, then headed back to the road and resumed our walk until something else caught our eye.
“There’s another beer can,” I said. “There’s another one. Another one. There are as many cans as there are mushrooms. Oh my God, another one. Next time we should collect Bud Light cans. Who the hell are these people?” I had an image of a bunch of backwoods yahoos driving along the road throwing empties out their pickup windows and hooting into the quiet air.
“Hey,” said Brendan, heading for a clump of mushrooms. “Look at those.”
We tried to take only one example of everything we found, but couldn’t restrain ourselves if something looked particularly worthy. Walking takes on an entirely new dimension when you’re focused on other things. Back at home, I unpacked the basket and arranged our haul on the granite steps just outside the kitchen door, and then we stood and admired them for a while. We’d found orange horns that looked like tiny Victrola speakers with gills underneath, dead-white penislike obviously toxic deaths’ caps, bright yellow and soft brown clumps of waving fronds that could have come from a coral reef, a bouquet of conjoined, delicate little oyster-colored coins, long slender stems with big flat caps of pale green, pale beige, muted red, gentle yellow, and dirty white, a hobbitlike shaggy “old man of the woods,” and other wonders and curiosities. We couldn’t eat any of them, because we had no real idea what the hell any of them were, but we did feel a certain proprietary satisfaction.
We left them there and went inside and went about our day. In the mid-afternoon, we went to the beach. The road and path and lake were deserted – no cars, no other people, no kayaks or sailboats on the lake. We went in naked and yelped briefly at the water’s sudden chill before we took the plunge. The light was glinting and bleak on the water. The woods loomed all around. The mountains beyond the lake were lit by a peculiar gold-and-silver light through knots of clouds.
We were hungry when we got home. After I took a hot shower and changed into pajamas, I took things out of the fridge and made a sort of New England bouillabaisse: a savory fish stew with carrots, Old Bay, and smoked paprika instead of fennel, orange, and saffron. As the soup simmered, the rain finally came, first lightly, then hard, then harder, and then the wind came, as if it had been an afterthought, and slammed the rain all at once through the east-facing windows so we had to rush around the whole house, closing them.
New England Fish Soup
Mince 1 large onion, 3 medium carrots, 2 celery ribs, and 7 or so garlic cloves. In a big sturdy soup pot, heat a good dollop of oil. When it’s hot, add the vegetables with a dash of Old Bay seasoning, a teaspoon or two, and another of smoked paprika, and stir well. Thinly slice two or three spicy pork sausages, ideally chorizo, and throw them in. Add a dash of salt and another of black pepper. Turn the heat down low and let it all simmer, stirring often, for about half an hour, till everything is soft and melded into an aromatic wad of flavor.
Small-dice 4 small red potatoes. Add them to the pot and stir well. Pour in half a bottle of easygoing, dry white wine: pinot grigio works well. Turn up the heat till it bubbles, then turn down and let it simmer a while until the alcohol has cooked off and it’s reduced a bit.
Add a large can of fire-roasted tomatoes or a jar of very good tomato sauce, and a glass jar of clam juice. Add enough broth – vegetable, fish, or chicken – to cover the solids plus just over an inch. Bring to a boil and turn down and let simmer. Taste, adjust the seasonings, adding more broth as required.
Chop a pound of haddock or other firm white sea fish into bite-sized pieces. Peel and likewise chop ¾ pound of large wild-caught shrimp. Finely chop a bunch of flat-leaf parsley. When it feels like a nearly-finished soup, everything tender and the flavors just right, add the seafood and parsley to the pot and let it simmer, stirring a few times, for 10 more minutes.
Mince 3-4 cloves of garlic. Add them to a bowl with a dollop of good-quality mayonnaise and another of olive oil. Mix this quick aioli together and spread on 2-4 pieces of hot toast and cut them into triangles. Serve with big bowls of soup. Light the kerosene lantern and eat your hot supper while the rain lashes the windows.