Rural northern New Hampshire is a different country from New York City – open vistas, dense old woods full of spirits, farm stands, inns, and ski slopes bald in the summertime on nearby mountains. Some call this state “the south of the north;” it’s seriously backwoodsy and rustic up here. The people are English, Irish, Scots, Acadian – faces are sharp, hair blond, as often as not. English is spoken here, but it’s not inflected with Yiddish, Chinese, Spanish, ghetto, urbanese, or wiseass, it’s not undergirded with the three most urgent questions of New York parlance: how much rent do you pay? What do you do? Who do you know? In New York, I spoke a rapid shorthand patois. Up here, I’ve been slowly learning the local dialect: wry, understated, with a quick, merry fatalism that feels nineteenth century. The three questions up here seem to be: Who’s your family? How do you heat your house? Working hard, or hardly working? And when they hear I’m a writer, they make jokes about not telling me anything, or it might end up in a book — northerners are fiercely private; they mind their own business and trust that you will do the same, which is a soothing relief after the relentless gossip of the city.
The facts suggest that I’ve left New York. It’s been a protracted, heartwrenching process, and until now, I didn’t understand that it would end. In my mind, I’m still a New Yorker, just… an expatriated one. It’s the only place I’ve ever felt I belonged, and this is still true. When I go back, I’m a New Yorker again; I feel the startling relief of hearing my own language, and every block shimmers with a ghostly overlay of memories. And I was a New Yorker long before I got there — even as a ten-year-old, I dreamed of New York, the glittering metropole of movies and novels, and I couldn’t wait to live there.
When I finally did, in 1989, I was 27 and fresh out of graduate school and ready for my real life to start. I plunged into the city in a kind of ecstasy of drunken wonderment. During the 20 years I lived there, except for the occasional trip to Mexico or to visit family, I seldom left it – it’s hard to leave, even for brief spells. The city exerts a powerful centrifugal force. If you leave, you might miss something. And I loved the city with a deep, committed passion – first, the way you’d love a golden, enchanting, glamorous but complex lover, and then, after September 11th, as if it were a fragile, damaged, suddenly elderly spouse. I understood then how deeply I belonged to and in New York.
But one morning in late February of 2009, I awoke trapped in my bed, listening to clanking, roaring garbage trucks outside, choking on cigarette smoke from the apartment downstairs, sensing the seething millions of people around me, pressing on my skull. I saw the city clearly, suddenly, as if for the first time – it was loud, dirty, crowded, touristy, expensive, maddening. Had I changed, or had New York? Was it me, or it? It didn’t matter. From that moment on, I had to leave.
One month later, I fell in love with Brendan. We were instantly inseparable, and neither of us wanted to be in the city. We stayed in his family’s farmhouse, and, often using a massive cache of Frequent Flyer miles and offers of places to stay, we traveled – Amsterdam for two weeks, Italy for three months, a month in southern Germany, six weeks in Hawaii and New Zealand, another five weeks in Berlin and France; we’ve been all over the United States, top to bottom, east to west. The world is big and wide, and I had inhabited such a narrow strip of it for so long.
Every now and then – although not nearly as often as I would expect– I feel a stab of nostalgia for New York – dinner parties, late nights in good old bars. Most of my friends live there. But I can’t go back. We own a house in Portland. These days, while work is being done to it, we’re staying in New Hampshire again. Twice a day, Brendan and I walk Dingo, bemoaning the six or seven cars that pass us in one hour, some of them neighbors, some of them “outsiders,” taking the shortcut to Maine.
I love not seeing any lights at night. I love the deep, total quiet. The other morning we saw a coyote foraging for fallen crabapples; that night we walked down to the pristine, wild lake as the sun set and stood on a dock listening to the spooky, theramin-like singing of the freezing surface. On a faraway ridge, a line of shaggy old hemlocks looked like primordial beings, marching along up there. Yesterday, a hawk landed in the meadow below the house and sat in the sun for a while, apparently daydreaming.
Yankee Farmstand Chili
I have mixed feelings about some of the farm stands up here. On the one hand, they’re a bit of a scam – much of their produce is trucked from Vermont or even further, the same stuff I find at Hannaford but more expensive and not as consistently fresh or organic. On the other hand, their meat, especially their poultry, is the best and most flavorful available, and they have bins of heirloom dried beans, local maple syrup, and beautiful, varied, heaping piles of gourds and squashes in the fall. One day, at Sherman’s, I got a wild hair of inspiration and pulled together the ingredients for this spicy, excellent chili. I’ve made it a few times, and I would confidently enter it into a Yankee Farmstand Chili contest, if one existed….
When you wake up in the morning, add 2 cups of dry Jacob’s cattle beans to at least 12 cups of boiling water with 2 teaspoons salt. Turn off the flame and soak for a few hours, covered. At noon or so, uncover and bring to a boil again and simmer them until they’re soft. Rinse well, drain, and set aside.
In a big soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 1/2 cup peanut or sunflower oil. Add 2 chopped yellow onions, 8 chopped garlic cloves, and 3 chopped jalapeno peppers. Stir and add 4 Tbs chili powder, 1 tsp oregano, 1 tsp cumin, 1 Tbs paprika, a dash of cayenne pepper, 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp black pepper, and 2 medium bay leaves. Stir well and saute on low. When onions soften, add 1 lb. ground turkey. Stir and saute on low heat for 6-7 minutes.
Add 3 ears’ worth of fresh raw corn, removed from cob, and 4 chopped ripe tomatoes. Stir well. Add 1 chopped red pepper, 1 chopped yellow pepper, and 1 chopped orange pepper. stir well again. After a few minutes, add the drained, rinsed beans, 1 24-oz. can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, and 2 cups chicken broth. Bring just to a boil, then turn down. Let sit, simmering and uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours. Add more chicken broth as needed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with bowls of minced red onions, chopped avocado, sour cream, and chopped cilantro.