“Oh if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one–!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never you know had one.”
Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
Early January in London typically has very little to recommend it: in the first few days there is the dastardly combination of jetlag, unpacking, cleaning up the crunchy Christmas tree, more jetlag. Avery and I suffer particularly as nightowls. We stay up far too late, spanning those five hours’ difference we’ve lived with over the holiday, struggling to get up at a remotely decent hour.
John bravely carried on meeting at Potters Fields, I yawned through playing with my Home-Start babies, we even booked a fancy lunch at a swanky restaurant in the Shard, the tallest building in Europe. As you can see above, it was a spectacularly gloomy afternoon, even the fabulous view dimmed by rain. Somehow that greyness conveyed itself to all three of us as we sat at the table trying to have fun. Between courses, Avery’s head dropped slowly to the table.
We gave up and came home on the cosy little Southwest train to Barnes in the early twilight, feeling it would be better just to crawl into a burlap…
We are ensconced in the most impersonal, red/black/grey/silver hotel room on earth, a breath away from JFK in preparation for our early-morning flight tomorrow, awaiting a Domino’s pizza delivery.
In short, nothing could be in starker contrast to our last two weeks’ holiday at Red Gate Farm. And yet it’s strangely relaxing to be in an environment where I can’t do anything to make the experience more…memorable. I just get to sit quietly and review the lovely, lovely time we had over our Christmas holiday.
We were so happy to pop round, the day after Christmas, to see Avery’s darling protegee Jessica, kitten of so many summers ago now, beloved cat daughter of our friends Mike and Lauren. Jessica always remembers Avery.
Mike remembered “just coming by to say hello, and meet a kitten, because Anne said you had one,” and he fell instantly in love. The rest is history, and now there are Mike, Lauren, their darling girl Abigail, and baby Gabriel, irresistible to me, of course.
We left them feeling, as always, that there is some magical star hovering over their lives, giving their family some incalculable lucky dip. What lovely, generous, happy people. I wish we had much more time to spend with them, and learn their secrets to happiness.
The next morning, without room to breathe, we hopped in our car, packed to the gills with everything I could bring from home for The Most Important Dinner Party Ever.
We were away to produce my first-ever paid dinner party, for our Kickstarter superstar-supporters Kathleen and her family. She’s only the mother of Avery’s first lifetime friend. No pressure there.
And there wasn’t. Any pressure, I mean, once I arrived and my nerves settled down. It was just our long, long friendship, and the fun of being together, and of looking at the cookbook that Kathleen and her family had helped be born.
I made Kathleen close her eyes one more time and we donned our aprons, for the first time. What a thrill! Very teary-making, I have to admit.
I cooked through the long, dusky afternoon and evening, and her family arrived and we sat down to eat. Creamy red pepper soup, roasted chicken with goat cheese under the skin, roasted salmon with Fox Point, roasted carrots, butternut squash and beets with plenty of olive oil, cannellini beans cooked with garlic, Parmesan and arugula, and finally chocolate mousse. An evening to remember.
I made a tiny speech, trying not to cry. For me, the evening encapsulated my teaching days when as a young professor, I met Kathleen, a beautiful and talented artist so close to my own age, so inspiring, and Avery’s childhood friendship with darling Cici, our experiences in the very space where we were having dinner, on September 11, 2001. Prompted by Kathleen’s speech, I thought back to our lives together on Jay Street in Tribeca, the Book Club I gave to the little kids in Avery’s childhood group, my gallery days, her shows with me. What a rich, beautiful history we have.
We ate, we chatted, we hugged and kissed. We drove away. How is it possible to have such relationships across an ocean that must be left behind? It’s this reality that makes our Christmas holidays “home” so very rich, and yet so hard to leave behind. How we can have the multiplicity of lives — London, New York City, Red Gate Farm — so full of people we love, each of which must be left behind in order to have the other.
Sigh. This is what I contemplate, sitting tucked up in my anonymous bed on the outskirts of JFK Airport.
Jill’s family arrived for one last brunch together: eggs brought by Joel from the hens he’s been looking after over the Christmas holiday! My hens clucked over them before they were scrambled.
We sat around the dining room table, discussing the girls’ various schools, our jobs, we signed the cookbook — yay! — we tucked into Jill’s “awesome blueberry muffins.” How incredible that after all the years of planning, the book is finished, and on page whatever, Jill’s muffins appear. It feels a bit exhausting even to write this down. In every interaction of our Christmas holiday, the cookbook loomed, happy, laden with memories, with pride, with disbelief.
We played “I’ll be your hands” games with darling Jane and Molly, giving fake high fives to each other, not wanting to admit it was time to say goodbye. There was a final measure. I find it terribly touching and a bit sad that there isn’t a single stretch of the measuring doorway that shows all three: Avery, Jane and Molly. Molly is too small.
We drove to the mall for a soul-destroying trip of “I don’t want to buy anything, all these people are awful” sort of emotion, and came home to our lighted, cosy house with two trees full of precious ornaments, and a pot of oyster stew, a plate of roasted ham. I ran across the road to deliver two of Avery’s outgrown sweaters to dear Kate. Oh, the fun of a few stolen moments at Anne and David’s house, unburdening myself about maternal anxiety. Their response is always, “We know this is coming for us… how quickly it all goes.” There is something about that family in the “house across the road” that is magically comforting, loving, encouraging and precious to me. I walked home across the vaguely foggy, Christmassy road, feeling unspeakably grateful.
That night, late, after Nonna had thought she was packed and had said goodnight, we, plus Avery, found ourselves in the Christmassy sitting room, candlelit and lovely, with Avery covering her face with a cushion, simply dreading the weeks to come and the news they will offer, and yet feeling excited about that news, too. The Christmas atmosphere helped, in a way. There is a lot to come, in the weeks and months ahead, the magnitude of which bears not thinking of.
We packed up the house. Each morning of this task,we awake in denial that this involves untold loads of laundry, unmaking, washing, drying and remaking three beds. Last showers and THAT laundry. Last meals, cleaning out the fridge, and THAT dishwasher load.
I left behind a clean, empty fridge, of course, with brilliant Anne and David carrying away turkey stock, chocolate mousse, potatoes, lemons and onions. “Can we have that for dessert?” little Kate asks, pointing in the twilight to the chocolate mousse. She and Taylor displayed their Christmas American Girl dolls, which brought back a lot of memories of Avery’s childhood, so recent and yet so seemingly remote.
Oh, the Red Gate Farm twilight. The last sunset.
So we sit, in our sterile and comforting hotel room, ready to fly home to London and whatever the New Year will bring. We have in our suitcase the one last “advance copy” of “Tonight at 7.30,” ready to show our friends who will be so thrilled to see it in the weeks before their own copies come. Most importantly, we have had a jolly, overwhelming, emotional, threads-tightening, family– and friends-packed Christmas that will give us something beautiful to think about in the grey, quiet weeks of winter to come. We are grateful.
When we planned to spend “twelve days of Christmas” here in Connecticut, I never dreamed they would fly by like cartoon days off a calendar. From the moment we arrived on the night of the 18th, we have been running around like mad people, simultaneously creating and trying to run from an avalanche of wrapping, food-shopping, cooking, hostessing and guesting.
First up on the agenda, however, after we lugged in our suitcases and greeted Rosemary who had arrived two days before, was a quick look at the cookbook, which I must tell you is even more beautiful than I expected.
Avery and I flicked through it a bit anxiously. “I hate that photo,” Avery said about a couple of them, and we realised that as the autumn progressed, she had had far too much of her own real life to be able to make final decisions about the book. A shame, but it couldn’t be helped. And of course the rest of us can find no fault with her work.
It’s just heavy enough, weighty and significant and velvety and smooth. We feel very proud, and everyone who comes over to visit gets to hold it and leaf through it. To think in January, 1000 of them will find their way out into the world.
I spent one long afternoon with John learning how to send out the e-book.
But Christmas waits for no man, especially not one with an inappropriately prideful joy in her own creation. I’m not sure which I’m prouder of: Avery or the book, and maybe they can’t really be separated, for me.
On the first morning, of course, we popped over to Judy’s brother’s farm to get our two trees, fragrant things of beauty so different from their fiendishly non-smelling British counterparts. Judy’s sister-in-law greeted us. “Hi there! Welcome home; I have your wreaths and garland all saved for you over here.” She explained that there is a new hybrid tree called the “Frasam” or “Balser,” she couldn’t remember which, with delicate needles and a heady piney aroma. They were perfect.
“What a beautiful job you have here,” I marvelled, “surrounded by this incredible smell all day long, all season long.”
“Really?” our helper mused. “I can’t really smell it anymore. I think I develop a, what do you call it, immunity. But I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”
It was such fun to open the dusty boxes of ornaments, brought up from the scary and hideous basement (“I’m NEVER going down there,” Avery says firmly, and I’d love to say the same). Glittering treasures, new and old, greeted us with gentle reminiscences as they do every year.
I described finding this last little fellow, a one-of-a-kind creation from the amazing craftsmen at Bombki, at the incomparably festive “Spirit of Christmas” fair at Olympia in London. “We should all go together sometime,” I suggested, and John promptly said, “That sounds very dangerous.”
All this loot was the bounty of our traditional trip to Walgreen’s to see what the American Mercantile Industrial Complex has dreamed up in the way of festive giftwrap. Cheap and cheerful is the way to go, we discovered, and brought everything home in the damp fog, to search through the house for sticky tape — we had 8 rolls stashed about — and scissors — not nearly enough. “Don’t come in here!” one or other other of us spent several days shouting, or “You can walk through this room, but QUICKLY and don’t look around you!” Finally all was in readiness under the tree.
It lasted only a few hours, less than a day really, but the feeling of mindless, childlike festivity that it roused in me reminded me what Christmas is really all about: sheer joy of that kind that makes you smile even when you can’t really explain why.
At Christmastime, even a bad thing pales in significance compared to the joys, so when one afternoon I had a dreadful stomachache, it was almost a pleasure to give in to it and sit quietly on the sofa, with a hot water bottle and a throw over my knees, watching John and Rosemary scramble eggs and assemble smoked salmon and bagels for their dinner, with Avery adding judicious helping hands. Is there anything more important to appreciate, and easier to take for granted than good health and loved family members? When you spend as much time apart from your mother-in-law as I do, it’s a life lesson to remember that when she’s within reach, it’s a gift. And that’s what Christmas provides, for me.
Family and friends within reach explode into chaos at Red Gate Farm at Christmas! Jill and her rambunctious, festive family arrived in a torrential rainstorm on Christmas Eve, followed shortly by Anne-From-Across-the-Road and her family, and with oyster stew and Joel’s famous pulled pork on the menu, I somehow decided that as well, we should invent some wontons, or “wantons” as I’ve decided to call them since they were spelled that way on a restaurant menu in London. After all, our family tradition when we were children was to order Chinese food on Christmas Eve. How hard could they be? Not hard at all, as it turns out, and a tremendous lot of fun. When I get back to London, I’ll try them again and produce a more official recipe, but for the time being, I give you:
Christmas Eve Wantons
(makes at least 2 dozen)
1.5 lb chicken breasts
1 tbsp peanut oil
2 bunches spring onions
2 handfuls bean sprouts
2 handfuls shredded carrots
2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage, separated into two piles
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and grated (not finely chopped)
2 cloves garlic, grated (not finely chopped)
juice of 1 lime
2 tbsps oyster sauce
oil for frying (either in deep frying pan or deep fryer)
24 square wonton wrappers
Put the chicken breasts through a grinder or pulse in a food processor until the size of small pebbles, then saute in the peanut oil until cooked thoroughly. Clean the grinder or processor and pass through the chicken again to make uniform pieces. Place in a large bowl.
Add all the vegetables, but only half the Chinese cabbage. Sprinkle over the ginger and garlic and lime juice, then stir through the oyster sauce and set in refrigerator until wanted. When ready to fry, add the remaining Chinese cabbage and stir well.
Heat oil to readiness.
For each wonton, place about a tablespoon of the chicken mixture in the center, then moisten edges with water on your fingertip and fold over edges to make a triangular parcel. Bring point together and press until stuck together. Fry for about 2 minutes, turning once if in frying pan. Drain on paper towel and serve right away, with any sauces you like: sweet and sour, spicy mayo, peanut sauce.
The girls graciously posed for one moment, before the little ones resumed their frantic race around our tiny house, pausing now and then to pound on the piano keys.
Christmas Eve wouldn’t be the same unless John made Molly cry, so he duly did, squeezing the life out of her, upside down. “Too tight, Uncle John, too tight!” Mommy comforts her. Very soon after, “More, Uncle John, more!”
Jane loves to see Molly cry, in her big-sister fashion. How well I remember it, the being-a-big-sister thing.
Kate always begins her evenings with Jane and Molly looking horrified at the mayhem, but then begins to smile admiringly.
Finally, she is firmly part of the clan.
We passed the wantons around and listened to Christmas carols in the background as we told stories about our various autumns, tried to keep John from killing the children, looked through the cookbook. Finally we trooped to the table for oyster stew, pulled pork and cole slaw.
Every bite was sublime, but really, surpassed by the simple happiness of having my family — some born, some brought in by marriage, some by neighborliness — around me.
No time at Red Gate Farm passes without my feeling grateful at the fates that placed Anne and her family “across the road.”
We tucked into Anne’s beautiful German cookie display.
Finally everyone called “good night” and braved the awful, cold rain, which had prevented our traditional lighting of the Victorian candles on the hydrangea. “It’s too cold and rainy to go light them, and they will just go out in an instant anyway,” we agreed, but it was a bit sad.
The next day, Christmas Day, more than made up for this. Bright blue skies, crunchy frosty grass. We opened our presents in a leisurely fashion, enjoying every creative present, then cooked like CRAZY — stuffing, cheesy spinach, pumpkin pie — and motored — with “Cabin Pressure” to entertain us, especially, “Get Dressed, Ye Merry Gentlemen” — to Jill’s house. The kitchen smelled incredibly of roasting turkey, baking cheesy potatoes with celery soup and sour cream. Merriment ensued. Avery was given, memorably, a piggy bank labeled “Capitalist Pig.” “Do you know what Capitalism is, Jane?” she asked. “OF COURSE I do!” Jane answered indignantly. “I’m not dumb! It’s when the first letter of a sentence is bigger than all the rest!”
There were thumbhole running clothes!
Jammies! With feet.
The table was set by the local reindeer and elves…
Home late through the starry night, everyone to bed, except me, who stayed up late and took pictures of everything beautiful that I wanted to remember.
Waking up this morning, I thought more and more about the brevity of our time here, how much I love all the images I will take away from our holiday.
As I walk through the house, inhaling the precious aroma of balsam, Fraser, whatever amalgam has created the magic of this year, I wish aloud, “I want it to be Christmas all year long. Why shouldn’t I have you all around me, and this heavenly fragrance, all year long?”
Avery listens, and considers. “I’ll tell you why. It’s exactly what the tree-selling lady said. She becomes immune to the aroma.”
How very true. If we were allowed to have our families, and our gorgeous ornaments, and our beautiful trees, around us all the time, they would lose their power. It’s meant to be just once a year, so we can still appreciate it all. Or so I tell myself, to explain why life can’t be this perfect all year long.
More to the point: all the ingredients for life being this perfect all year long are in place all the time. I just need to learn to sniff, and appreciate them.
Merry Christmas, all…
It’s hard to believe that this time tomorrow, we’ll be approaching JFK and the Red Gate Farm part of our Christmas celebrations!
Life has been an absolute, unmitigated madhouse for our family in the last several weeks. It seems as if every possible “fast-forward” on every remote control in the world has been pushed.
Avery has survived, even thrived, during her university application process. She’s endured and even enjoyed her interviews, and has retained her sense of humor, if not entirely her energy level. She NEEDS a break, plenty of days to sleep and remember to enjoy life.
John’s triumphed in his plans to acquire the perfect plot of land to build our dream home, outlasting the most circuitous of council planners. 2015 will bring building drawings!
I’ve rung my last English bell of 2014, at a lovely wedding. Who could have dreamed, nearly four years ago when I first pulled a rope, that I would be able to be part of someone’s most important day?
We’ve taken a deep breath and decorated for Christmas. What could be more beautiful, and uplifting?
Every year, the old ornaments take me back to my childhood. How kind of my mother to take apart my baby crib’s mobile to give me this beauty?
Christmas in London wouldn’t be Christmas without the skating rink, of course…
I’ve been able to relax for a few days with the cookbook project, to create a couple of fantastic new dishes! Tiny, tiny squashes to cook with a creamy, garlicky, Parmesan sauce and surround with sauteed scallops and girolle mushrooms?
And one tired evening with a pizza ordered in made us all frown in disappointment, and for me to retreat to the kitchen to invent a pizza with — instead of a tomato sauce — a creamy truffled sauce inspired by the squash dish! You can put ANYTHING on this pizza, but be sure to make the crust with the lovely, smoky water infused with the dried truffles.
John has come up with the ultimate Christmas gift for Avery and me. Blessed as we are with unusual figures — each in our own way! — it’s incredibly difficult to find shirts that fit properly! Shoulders big enough for me will result in a shirt that billows. Not anymore. John’s suitmaker from banking days gone by has come around to measure us for shirts that will really FIT. And for no more cost than the Gap, if you can imagine. I just can’t wait.
Of course, what I want desperately to show you is an image of the darling, darling babies I have been privileged to visit, as a Home-Start volunteer. What fun that would be, to show you their little faces. I haven’t even minded the endless parade of upper-respiratory illnesses that have been my gift from my wintery time with them. Sitting in a room full of babies in a refurbished power station, shouting when the heat turns on and then lowering our voices when it goes off, wiping noses, sharing bananas, holding newborns when our little 1-year-olds suddenly seem so simple to care for. I LOVE it. But confidentiality rules, of course.
Late nights, with Avery working and me fretting over the cookbook’s waning days of production, we suddenly hear a yowling sound. From the cold midnight rain, we pluck Miss Cressida, visitor kitty extraordinaire.
In a holiday season usually filled to the brim with festive events, this year we just didn’t have the energy. There was too much happening during the days for us to have the reserves of energy to leave the house. So in fact, the best thing to do was have people in. My beloved graphic designer Briony came for lunch, such a cosy thing to do.
And one night we felt brave enough even to have cherished friends in for dinner! They’re going through the same university process Avery is, so we all felt completely understood, and relaxed, and grateful to have each other. Ham, potatoes dauphinoise, oranges and chocolate cake. And just plain happiness.
This afternoon brought the last London day. After a few days of utter, utter confusion and disappointment over the last few admin details of the cookbook, I decamped to my beloved St Mary’s to spend a couple of hours in the quiet, awaiting customers for the charity Christmas cards we sell each year. The tree smelled so spicy, the bell ropes swung tantalisingly, and Swedish school children practiced their Christmas songs in the nave. Heavenly, just to escape life for a moment.
After my hours in church, feeling restored, I came home to find that my mother-in-law Rosemary, safely enconsced a day ahead of us at Red Gate Farm for Christmas, had received a very important box. “Open it, please!” I said. And here is what emerged.
And so tomorrow will take us to Red Gate Farm. We are all ready to leave our emotional baggage behind us and take our real baggage — full of Christmas presents! — on the plane in the morning and arrive, ready for the holiday. Watch this space!
How neglectful I have been of my precious blog!
Believe me, I have cause. Let me explain.
I feel that my feet have not touched the ground in three months. Since late August, when the heat really turned up under the cookbook — the COOKBOOK! — I’ve been full-steam ahead getting it ready. It all began with the graphic design, with my beloved Briony of Bournemouth, a long process toward perfection.
The job proceeded through a fog of admin: I’ve become the proud owner of an ISBN, and an importers’ license in both the US and the UK. I’ve learned to compile an index (that one was nearly the death of me).
I’ve approved the colour proofs, as you see above (THAT was an exciting day!) and seen the thrilling end of our Kickstarter campaign.
Very soon, yet another milestone will be achieved: the “ebook” will be uploaded to various sites as a phenomenon to be read on Kindles, iPads and phones, believe it or not! Tomorrow I’ll approve the cover, which will be terribly exciting, with its biographies, photographs and blurbs. It will feel very real, at that point.
And then it’s a waiting game. The holidays will come and we will settle ourselves comfortably in the winter wonderland of Red Gate Farm. We will all put the book out of minds, as best we can, to wait for its arrival in January. A real book, to hold in our hands.
Whenever I have felt vaguely, usually very late at night, that I just can’t learn another thing, accomplish another thing, I have been given a gift of some kind, of encouragement from my readers. I have permission from one reader to share with you her feelings about the book.
“So many things have happened since I first caught sight of your blog (way back in 2007). Numerous jobs, countless flats and… oh, I wasn’t even married back then! I can honestly say that there aren’t many blogs I’ve followed for so long. But somehow, I always come back to yours — it’s like the solid ingredient amongst all the moving parts of life. You have a way of writing that draws people in. And ‘wow’ to all your recipes, including one lamb recipe from long ago that even my (now) husband can’t forget.
When I mentioned I funded a kickstarter campaign to get a cookbook, he knew straight away that it must have been written by “the lady with that blog that had the lamb recipe”. I haven’t cooked that dish for years! It obviously made an impact!
Like many backers, I look forward to receiving the cookbook…”
But because life is never played on just one level, our autumn has been filled with every other conceivable delight.
I spent a heavenly weekend, when I was at the absolute depth of my “I can’t possibly accomplish this” mood, at Kingston Lacy, a sublime National Trust property, at a writing workshop organised by my brilliant friend Rosie, Writer-in-Residence, and taught by my equally brilliant mentor, Orlando. What a shot in the arm, a stimulus at just the right moment.
Two complete days of work on writing, no domesticity, no family, just pondering the future of my writing career under the support and love of Rosie and Orlando was just what the doctor ordered.
And then more happened.
The following week brought our half-term holiday, spent in the fairytale city of Prague. John’s lovely mom came all the way from Iowa to join us, and the four of us walked, climbed, shopped, and ate our way through this magical Czech city.
We visited the Castle, after a heavenly walk across the Charles Bridge.
Our glorious guide Irena introduced us to “Prague’s Most Dangerous Beverage,” a light and delicious “early wine.” What fun to toast one another, at one of Prague’s farmer’s markets, after a day of touring.
By far the most memorable food we ate in Prague was discovered by John on our very first night, at the stunningly simple cafe “Nase Maso,” or “Our Meat.” Quite simply, they serve steak tartare, chock-a-block with capers, onions and cornichons, served with traditional Czech rye sourdough. We WILL be back. We ate there twice more!
We visited the Kafka Museum, the Communist Museum, and refreshed ourselves with traditional rolled pastries, “trdelnik,” crisp, warm and rich with cinnamon.
We spent lots of money at the fabulous Shakespeare bookshop.
Then we ate at the popular restaurant Lokal, with delicious old-fashioned dishes like schnitzel, and the most amazing soup of liver and dumplings.
Avery’s contribution to our tourism was our late-afternoon visit, on our last day, to the Cafe Kaficko, with quite simply the most unusual hot chocolate in the world. An impossible combination of thick and lovely, intensely chocolatey.
As always, one of my favorite parts of a holiday was the time to spend with my family, time not given over to homework, property development, cookbook issues. Just time to enjoy life, which for Avery meant life with her Leica.
How we walked! Every night we collapsed at our flat with feet that felt they couldn’t take another step. Then the next day we were ready for more. John’s mom treated us to a magical dinner atop a roof near the city centre, with views you simply couldn’t believe were real. And fireworks! What a city. And how lucky we were to have Rosemary with us on our adventure.
Home from Prague, it was time for Avery’s birthday, her 18th. It was almost impossible to celebrate, with her Oxford University exam looming, with all the pressure that can possibly be exerted on these girls to succeed. We gave her her presents and remembered the olden days when everything was much simpler (although it didn’t feel that way at the time).
On the volunteering front, my Home-Start babes have turned one! I face the end of my time with them with equanimity this time, being slightly more mature than I was a year ago, facing goodbyes to my last family. They will be fine. I will miss them, and our weekly walks through the bright leaves of Barnes, as I talk to them, feed them, play with them during our afternoons together.
On the Eve of Remembrance Sunday, John and I took a trip to East London, to the Tower, to see the famous poppy exhibit, quite simply one of the most emotive experiences I have ever had. Airplanes from City Airport took special routes, to give their passengers a chance to see this unbelievable installation.
To add an almost palpable sense of excitement to life, Mom and Andy came to visit! This epic event had been hotly anticipated since summer, when Mom first bandied about the idea that she might be feeling well enough to brave the long journey. And she did!
What fun we had! I don’t think we could have crammed any more into the six days of their visit. A bus tour on a day that started out rather wet, but the skies cleared miraculously in time for us to enjoy the views, especially of the Weeping Window at the Tower, with the poppies still in place.
Tea at the Goring with Fiona and Kim!
Lunch with Sue at The Botanist, conversation simply unstoppable, and dinner here at home with Elizabeth and Maddie, for a late celebration of Avery’s birthday!
There were important birthday cupcakes, from Madeleine’s Boutique in Sheen. How would Avery have got through so much of the last year without television (lots of it really bad)?
We had lunch at the gorgeous Petersham Nurseries, too early for their Christmas celebrations, but still lovely with its climbing vines.
We popped in a cab and made our way to Tottenham Court Road to see “White Christmas,” a dream come true for the three of us, who together (and probably separately) can quote the entire film! Mom reminisced about her date to see the premiere, when she was in high school. An unforgettable matinee, “all that snow.”
She and Andy were here to view the proofs of the cookbook!
Andy himself had what I think was a fine, fine time. I had fixed him up with a B&B here in our little neighborhood, with a lovely lady who gives over her cozy summerhouse to guests. She and Andy hit it off straightaway, and every morning when he came to our house after his evening and breakfast with her, he was simply thrilled with his chats. She had been involved in the rock scene of London in the 1970s, which couldn’t have fit better with Andy’s life. He himself went on a rock and roll tour — including Abbey Road! — and to the British Museum, braving public transport and having a grand holiday. She sent him to a local memorial to musician Mark Bolan, who died in a car crash here in Barnes.
As much as I loved all the special events I’d planned — ending with Mom hearing me ring and meeting my ringing friends, and brunch at the Olympic with John and Suzanne — the best was having her in the kitchen with me, talking over everything that we miss saying all the year long — what’s happening with Avery, our building plans, my friends, her friends, Days of Our Lives! Just time to be together, relaxed.
Before we could catch our breath, it was time for the school Christmas Fair! Always one of the happiest days of the holiday season, the culmination of months and months of work with hundreds of volunteers, all to flower on one day in November. John as Treasurer and I as helper in the “Vintage” clothing stall had our work cut out. Clothes folded, hung, tagged, priced and arranged, gossip exchanged with mothers who have been my friends for seven years — a bittersweet day because this time next year, everything will be so different. No more school. It was a day to remember.
This memorable autumn. How have we managed to get up every day and accomplish all these things! And managed, at the same time, to get homework done, to get Potters Fields to the starting line, to get dinner cooked each night. How we will have earned our Christmas holiday. And that’s probably where you’ll see us next…
What a whirlwind the last three weeks has been! “Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table” is ever nearer reality.
Thanks to YOU all, with five days to go, we are very nearly at 140% of our goal, which means Kickstarter has been un unbelievable success. Over 200 backers from every corner of the globe, over 500 books spoken for! Pop on over to the page to order yours, if you have had it on that list of things to do and just haven’t gotten around to it.
We are just hours away from choosing our printer, which means that the books will appear somewhere between 8–9 weeks from now. It will be an unbelievable thrill to hold the books in our hands.
Meanwhile, look what appeared in the post here in our London home this week!
My darling niece Jane is famous for not recognising me once when she came to Red Gate Farm because I was NOT wearing an apron! It’s a complete thrill to see this one, but I’m not going to put it on until the book has gone to the printer. I just don’t quite believe it yet.
I have learned more than I can possibly tell you, through this process. It’s been great fun hearing from people from all walks of my life: grade school right through grad school, bell-ringing, old theatre days and musical days, from former babysitters and current Lost Property volunteers. Everyone wants a copy of “Tonight at 7.30″!
Everyone has laughed with me over the story of the roasted turkey slithering to the kitchen floor during the filming of our Kickstarter video, and my loved ones have been very patient in their listening to my tales of the steep learning curve. More people than I could ever have dreamed possible have jumped on board with our project, with orders coming from as far away as Singapore, Australia and Denmark, as close to home as Chiswick and Ealing, and as homely and sweet as my childhood hometown of Indianapolis, John’s of Waterloo, and our precious New York. The most amazing thing has been the number of books ordered by people I’ve never met — virtual friends from Facebook and the blog world, friends of friends whom I feel I know because they’ve been such loyal readers and supporters. And then there are perfect strangers who have ordered the book.
I’m unrecognisable to myself in all the techy things I’ve learned to do! Who knew I could make a “screen shot”!
I sincerely hope lots of you will send me pictures of the book on your kitchen counter, spattered with olive oil and cream.
The next blog post will be about our recent adventures in Prague, where we took a few days away from the cookbook and savoured life as tourists. Until then, thank you ALL for your support and keep cooking!
After months and years of working towards our goal, the cookbook, our baby, is ready to become a reality.
The Kickstarter campaign has begun. Click here!
For those of you who may be new to Kickstarter (I was), it’s a “support the project” system where the general public gets excited about an idea and pledges support. You can choose your level of support (one book, 100 books) and then when the project is successfully funded — we’ll give it 30 days — the book goes to print!
Avery and I are incredibly excited.
A fabulous index? Check.
Everything measure properly in both American and European standards? Check.
All my efforts in writing, and Avery’s in photography, beautifully translated into a perfect format? Check. Our cookbook was designed with love by Briony Hartley, graphic designer to the stars (truly, she’s designed books for the Queen!).
Beautiful portraits taken by the best people photographer we know? Vincent Keith, thank you, CHECK.
Avery’s taken her last photograph: this perfect lavender blossom, and a little visitor, to illustrate Judy’s lavender cookie recipe.
What does this all this preparation and excitement mean? This means that you all have the chance to choose a level at which you want to be involved in bringing “Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table” to life!
Click on this Kickstarter link and start reading, and watching (there’s a really sweet video which I think I’ve watched about 100 times already). Then scroll down and see what you’d like: one cookbook for yourself as a little treat, or several to give away as presents?
How about a signed copy? (You’ll get a darling “Tonight at 7.30″ apron thrown in!)
How about splurging with some friends and inviting yourselves over for dinner, here in London, or at Red Gate Farm? Or hey, I’ll come to you, in New York or even in Indianapolis. (Mom can’t wait to see you.)
We are are thrilled more than we can say to welcome you to our project, so many loving years in the making.
“Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table.”
Bring on the fun!
Impossibly, we’ve been back in our London lives for two weeks. Thrown in at the deep end, it’s been about unpacking, first, with the help of our kitties. They missed us, I think.
We’ve had the first Parents Guild meeting, I’ve reunited with the Home-Start infants, now crawling, “like beetles,” their mum says, laughing. And of course I’ve been ringing. The putto at Chiswick, surveying us from on high in the ringing chamber, does not change.
We’ve been cooking, for ourselves and for the Lost Property lunch. Those ladies form such a beloved part of my life; I can’t bear to think of this time next year when my relationship with the school will be over. Must enjoy every bit of life right now.
But even as we take part in all these cherished activities, our hearts are heavy. Just as we arrived back in our London lives, we learned that one irreplaceable part of our American lives has gone.
Jeanne, one of our dearest friends for 25 years, my darling “other mother,” hostess to us for countless dinner parties and sleepovers, and most heartwarmingly hostess to Avery all of August this last summer, has died.
The only consolation, upon hearing the news from my “other sister” Cynthia, was to sit down with our piles of photograph albums and go back into the past.
Jeanne and Cynthia and I met when John and I lived in Maplewood, New Jersey for a year, during which time we got married. I worked with Cynthia at the local bookshop, and quickly found their beautiful home to be my home away from home. Over bowls of vichyssoise, plates of chicken Pojarski, hundreds of glasses of red wine far too fine for me, we became inseparable.
Sometimes I felt that everything we did together had happened in a novel. Jeanne had discovered, long before I met her, quite the most perfect way to do everything, and we were happy to fall in with her plans.
Avery in her turn christened Jeanne “Jeannemommy,” a name we all ended up adopting. “It’s not easy being a baby,” Jeanne told me more than once, and that sentiment helped me to see Avery’s childhood from her perspective, rather than that of a flustered, uncertain mother.
From Jeanne, I learned everything I know about feeding people, welcoming guests into my home. I will never be able to replicate her effortless way with guests, making us all feel that by being there in her home, we were adding something to her life.
And what a cook! The gazpacho (for which John used to jokingly — or not! — ask for a straw)… the buttery caramelized carrots, the macaroni and cheese, the paper-thin-sliced roasted ham at Easter. All vegetables were braised in chicken stock. The devil’s food cake, the brunch dish of creamy scrambled eggs with mushrooms, “oeufs interallies.” The endless parade of evenings spent at that kitchen table, sipping a single-malt Scotch, watching Jeanne puttering around, producing all our favorite things to eat.
She adored my husband, comparing him always to her own husband who had died just a few months before I met her. “John,” she said during our last afternoon together last month, “you are just the right size to hug.”
Our friendship was a mutual admiration society. I never tired of hearing about her childhood in Minnesota, her unbelievable adventures at the Manhattan project as a very young woman, her early married days, her experiences as a new mother. She in turn thought that my way of doing things was quite the best way of doing things, perhaps because as much as possible, I imitated HER way of doing things.
And so last spring, I spent a week visiting when Jeanne was not at all well, feeling that life without her was not something I could contemplate.
When I came home to London and spoke with her on the phone, she had just one thought. “I want Avery to live with us this summer, while she works in New York.” Cynthia, John, Avery and I had very frank conversations about this. Could it possibly be a good idea to add a month-long guest to a rather fragile household, one of whose members was not feeling very strong? But Jeanne was determined. She described the long talks she would have with Avery, the interest she had in her summer adventures, the fun we would all have on our visits to them over the month.
And so it was. Avery arrived, settled in to her airy bedroom at the top of the house.
She worked in New York all day and commuted to Jeanne and Cynthia each night, taking advantage of their perfect home, their listening ears, their advice and commiseration when life in the Big Apple was trying to say the least.
We visited several times, cooking dinner together in the big kitchen, feeling thankful every time we saw them together that they had had this summer, those evenings.
Finally at the end of August it was time to collect Avery and say our goodbyes. Jeannemommy cooked lunch for us, a last bowl of creamy pink ice-cold gazpacho, just like so many summers before. I knew in my heart it was the last time I would see her.
I will be grateful for the rest of my life that I had the sense to tell her how I felt about her, to hug her an extra time, to meet Cynthia’s loving eye and know that something of a miracle had happened to all of us. It was a feeling I can’t describe: the meeting, merging, connecting of generations, of people who bring out the very best in each other, an unnameable gift of my child coming to truly know and love someone who had been of the utmost importance to me, all of my adult life.
It was goodbye, and we all knew it. When Cynthia told me, shortly after we had arrived back in London, that her mother had died, it was with a sense of pure gratitude that I thought of Jeanne. Of course all our lives are worth living, I know that. But for me, I knew I had had the luck to know someone whose life was immeasurably worth living, and that with her death, a light had gone out of all our lives.
How was she so wise, to know that she wanted Avery with her this summer, that she could do it, provide one last summer of support and comfort?
We bellringers rang for Jeanne the day after we learned the news, and it made us all laugh that we rang very badly! After all, part of Jeanne’s magic was her unswerving acknowledgement that we all make mistakes, that we are here to learn from one another, that laughing at adversity is much the best way.
When I described her, and our friendship, to my vicar, he listened gravely. “I want you to be careful with your feelings, Kristen. Just because you know it was time, and you were able to say goodbye, doesn’t mean that there won’t be an enormous emptiness where Jeanne was. But there is this: when you describe her life, and her death, I know an awful lot of people who would say, ‘Yes, please.’”
We will never forget her. I am grateful to have Cynthia still there, to help us remember.
Goodbye, my dearest “other mother.” And thank you.
It’s always so hard to believe, when we wake up on the last day of summer, that the next time we get out of bed it will be in London. I’m too old-fashioned to think that’s normal, no matter how many summers (and Christmases) we go through the unbelievable transition. Change, and saying goodbye, is never my favorite thing.
We drove one last time to New Jersey, four weeks after the big Summer Experiment of 2014, to pick up Avery at Jeanne and Cynthia’s where she’s lived, high at the top of their celestial house, commuting to New York. Goodness, the experiences she has had, many of them she is anxious not to repeat, mostly of a commuting nature. South Orange, New Jersey Transit, the PATH train, Hoboken, Seacaucus, Penn Station, Grand Central, Bridgeport, Seymour. The MetroCard in her wallet can now be shelved. But living with Jeanne and Binky? That was heaven.
We arrived for lunch, bringing egg salad made from the eggman’s last delivery. But there was no one at home! I thought for a moment that they had all been beamed up by aliens (including Binky’s car). In a moment, though, we found that Jeanne was taking a quiet nap in the library, and then the girls came in from a most profitable trip to the consignment shop: glorious sweater bargains! We had our lunch, then said goodbye, feeling a funny cocktail of emotions: nostalgia for all the meals we’ve enjoyed around that kitchen table, relief that Avery’s summer of tri-state drama had come to an end with no bones broken, and sadness at saying goodbye.
Avery, in her end-of-summer exhaustion, growled out the window at the passing landscape. “Blast you, Newark,” and then slept peacefully all the way home.
At home, we raced to the farmer’s market to meet Mike, Lauren and their kids for a picnic from the Chubby Oven, a moveable pizza feast: but they had run out of food! A quick exchange of phone calls revealed that Mike and Lauren already knew this and were headed to Red Gate Farm armed with Di Palma’s pizzas, which we devoured on the terrace. As the sun set, we moved inside for some serious dollhouse time for Abigail, for me to hold Gabriel on my shoulder. Rosemary’s gift, left behind for Abigail, was a big success.
To think that we met Mike only because Anne-across-the-road thought he might be a candidate to adopt one of Avery’s shelter projects, the divine kitten Jessica. Four years, two kids and countless meals together later, they are a treasured addition to the cast of characters at Red Gate Farm. It’s good to have friends who are at a different (earlier or later) stage of life than where we are, fun to look back and remember, or look ahead and imagine.
The last days slipped by. Every day we said, “Isn’t it the most beautiful day?”, not minding the repetition.
You know how they say that if you stand by the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus for 24 hours, someone you know will pass along? Change that to five minutes, and you’ll have some idea of what our terrace is like, the last few days of our visit. Sometimes I think it is my most beloved place on earth.
I love Judy’s geranium waving pinkly, maple leaves falling onto the picnic table, the changing view high over head, a patch of sky between the trees and chimneys.
Judy herself stopped by as I was performing my usual futile and yet pleasant task of carrying stacks of books from one room to another, shelving, changing my mind, reshelving. Hot and sweaty, I was more than happy to sit with Judy and a glass of ice water and while away an hour or so, discussing the summer. Regina from the Land Trust saw us enjoying the afternoon and came to join us.
I do believe that we all need as many mothers as we can get, and I am very happy to have Judy in my arsenal, although she’s really far too young to be my mother. She is everyone’s mother.
Truth to tell, though, her starring role is as Little Rollie’s grandmother. She brought him by for a quick jump on the trampoline.
Once he got over his shyness, he popped up to the terrace to gaze adoringly at Avery, to watch the chipmunks and squirrels helping themselves to peanuts from the glass John keeps filled.
Fully confident, then, he began discussing with amazing specificity the various farm implements he had encountered on a recent visit to his great-uncle’s farm. “I saw a backhoe, and a brewer’s grain hauler, and a hay-baler…” Fourth-generation Connecticut farmer in the making.
Anne crossed the road with Kate and sat with us, strategizing our joint project of the cookbook and her plans to bring her grandmother’s writings into the 21st century. We both think Gladys would be happy to think of us talking about her work, updating her recipe for chicken liver pate, feeding her granddaughter in the iconic kitchen. I sit with my copy of Anne’s mother’s memoir of their childhood. Kate exists happily in the reflected glow of her ancestors.
How on earth did the whole summer go by without a trip to the pool? Excuse me, the Poo.
Years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the “L” blew off the pavilion (a rather grand name for the lifeguards’ hut). Yesterday I said in surprise, “But I thought you replaced the ‘L’. Didn’t I see it last summer?”
“Yep, but in the middle of the night last month, somebody took it off again. We keep meaning to put one back, but…”
“I like it that way,” I said stubbornly.
“Yeah, well, so does somebody else.”
Because school’s already in session, we practically had the poo to ourselves. A bronzed teenage lifeguard horsed around with his little clients, an elderly lady swam majestically up and down her lane. Avery read aloud from “Missing Susan,” one of our summer staples, and the afternoon progressed as all pool afternoons do.
We shared the absolutely necessary bag of Bugles, simply the best snack ever invented.
“How do you even GET 53% of your daily allowance of saturated fat into just 210 calories?” I marvelled.
“52%,” Avery answered, taking one.
We swung by Mike and Lauren’s house on a last, joyful errand: petting Jessica, who Mike captured and held for us.
And because it’s always nice to have something to look forward to, while we’re away this autumn, our friend Al will fix the windows in the Big Red Barn, a project that’s been staring us in the face since we bought the house.
Away we fly this evening with lots to think about: Mountain Station, “Fresh Out,” steamed clams and lobsters, American cheese, grams versus cups, the shady court, pizza delivered, 666, The Honourable Woman, chipmunks, squirrels, woodpeckers and goldfinches, moldy cars, a family reunion, grandmothers, yellow balloons, forgotten photographs, newly-cut wood, daddy-long-legs, corn on the cob, tomatoes, spicy mayo, hot dogs. See you in just four months.
Ten years ago this month, our family moved into Red Gate Farm.
It seems like just a breath ago, but also the place seems to have been part of our lives forever, this little white farmhouse sitting demurely in a dusty bend of Sanford Road. The moment we brought Red Gate Farm into our family, the house and its setting, its atmosphere and its aura of tranquility, began to nourish and sustain us.
I didn’t want a weekend house.
“I like New York on the weekends, when everyone else goes away,” I insisted.
“Have you ever thought that there might be a good reason that everyone else goes away?” my husband asked reasonably. “Maybe they’ve got something we haven’t.”
“Yes, traffic, and packing up the car, and weekend guests, and worrying about the house while we’re in town all week,” I said.
But I knew it was only a matter of time. My husband loves real estate. He loves to look at houses and apartments, any houses and apartments, whether he’s in the market to buy or not. But I could recognize that behind his insistence this time was a real impulse to have an escape hatch. So I went looking with him.
Weekend after weekend, we left behind the quiet, abandoned city and sat in the cars of real estate agents as they drove us all around the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, in case you’re not from there), and even venturing into the riotously expensive neighborhoods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We saw many, many terrible houses.
“This house was built by the architect who built Madison Square Garden!” chirped one enthusiastic agent, not seeming to conjure up a mental image of that monstrosity, the most hideous of strains upon the New York City skyline.
“Don’t pay any attention to the smell of cat pee, it’s only in the carpet,” caroled another optimistic go-between, leading me to wonder if other houses boasted pee in the walls as well.
“The kitchen is bigger than it looks, it’s just because it’s so dark inside that it seems small.” True enough.
After trawling these places for Saturdays and Sundays we struggled back in the home-going traffic while I tried not to think, “I told you so, I told you so.”
Finally I put my foot down. It was May. New York City was fresh and dewy and much more appealing than the highways where we were spending all our time stuck between SUVs and trucks filled with hydrogen. “This is it,” I said firmly. “The last weekend, and then we admit defeat, and just stay here, where we’re happy.” “Fair enough,” John said, and we headed out, with our little 7-year-old daughter in tow.
The day brought fresh disappointments, if fresh could be the word. In the minuscule driveway of one sad little dwelling, the agent reassured us, “I know this yard is awfully small, but think how close you’ll be to the road if you need to be plowed out!” At this, I shut my lips in a tight, thin line and John said, “One more house, then we’re finished.”
As we pulled off the felicitously-named Jeremy Swamp Road onto an unpaved bit in dappled sunshine, I admitted, “This is more like it.” A pervasive quiet hung in the air, as we came up a gentle hill. We stepped out, walked to the gate of a white picket fence, opened it. “That gate should be red,” I thought suddenly. “This is Nancy Drew’s Red Gate Farm, only the gate is white.” I looked up through massive maple leaves into a blinking blue sky, saw two red barns speaking gently to each other across an expanse of green, green lawn, a low brick chicken house in the distance, the depths and darkness of a pond enclosed by ancient stones. The house itself, a little white saltbox with a rambling, awkward addition on the back, sat quietly by a graying woodshed with wavy glass in the windows. Over all flowed a generous sense of peace.
“I don’t even need to go in,” I said. “This is it.”
John later pointed out to me the undesirability of this statement, from a negotiating standpoint. But he was smitten, too. And when we did go inside, it was a house made to order for us. Dark, original floors, white, white walls, and where there could have been a dark, unpleasant original kitchen, the Fico brothers who restored it had opened up the “borning room” into a double-height space of light and air, soaring but cozy. The bedrooms upstairs were perfect for us, with Avery’s tiny space being just large enough to picture two twin beds, and lots of laughing sleepovers.
That was that. We bought it. And scrounged around in our storage spaces for antique (and just plain old) furniture we had put away in favor of the modern pieces in our New York apartment. There was everything we needed, except beds, which ended up coming from LL Bean. Every object we brought into the house seemed to float into just the right spot, benches sitting happily under windows, leather chairs flanking a little old fireplace, mismatching bookshelves finding ceilings of just the right height, old rugs brought back from Russia settling onto the wide-beamed floors as if they belonged there.
So Red Gate Farm became our weekend haven. And because Southbury has always been intelligent enough not to become fashionable, traffic posed no problems for us. We sped up there every Friday evening without fail, longing to arrive to the peace and calm, after the craziness of the city.
Of course the peace and calm brought with them their own plagues.
“Was there always a hole in the dining room floor?” I asked in some panic, late one Friday night.
“There! It’s as big as my fist, going down into the basement.”
Our neighbor farmer Rollie, who would soon become one of our closest friends, came by to investigate. “That’s from a country rat,” he said knowledgeably.
“How’s that different from a regular rat, like we have in New York?”
“Well, it lives in the country.”
And there was the evening we arrived to find that the pound block of butter I had left out on the counter had been thoroughly gnawed into a neat little pyramid, teeth marks clearly showing. Country rat again, no doubt.
And the skunk that slithered out from the garbage bag I had left on the kitchen step for a moment, and the mouse I just stepped on in my morning-bare feet, but not quite enough to do him in. And the bat we discovered in the barn one chilly October day. I poked it with a stick, sure it was dead. When it wiggled to life, Rollie said slyly, “Happy Halloween,” amid our screams.
So many girls, from babies to teenagers, have shouted with laughter on the trampoline under the big maple! Avery invented an elaborate game of complex jumps named for the characters in the venerable Archies comics, so the sticky summer air was often filled with cries of “Veronica, Veronica, BETTY!” Minnows without number have emerged from the pond to be inspected and thrown tenderly back, and it’s also been transformed into a perilous skating rink one winter.
“Do you think this ice is thick enough to hold Avery?” I asked our neighbor Anne one winter day when the air made icicles inside your nose.
“Oh, sure, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said blithely, and tested it herself. When we all heard cracking sounds, we scrambled to give Anne our hands and get her out in time.
In recent years, as our daughter became less of a player and more of a thinker, our shelf space and floor space and in fact, any horizontal space, have become burdened with her books, and mingling with my books, provide a revealing glimpse into our lives: “There is No Such Thing As Society,” “Les Miserables,” “Lord Byron and His Circle,” “How To Eat Supper.”
Also as Avery grows up and away, John and I have learned to create our own patterns of quiet life at Red Gate Farm, with long days of work on the terrace, in the forests cutting the wood for a Christmas holiday, in the kitchen watching “Days of Our Lives” and scrubbing the floor, in advance of guests to come in the months we’re away in London.
The Aggravation board, and unfinished jigsaw puzzles, lie in wait for the unwary guest, and John’s beloved goldfinches crowd the bird-feeders, an exercise in tranquillity for anyone willing to collapse on the terrace and watch for a minute, an hour, an afternoon.
Of course, because I am a cook, when I think of Red Gate Farm, I think of food. And guests, and parties, and people I have fed. These memories bring great joy.
There have been countless meals at Red Gate Farm, whether lobster feasts at the picnic table on the terrace (a terrace lovingly built from local stone by the last owner’s husband), or blueberry muffin breakfasts at the little blue kitchen table overlooking the big hay meadow, or enormous turkeys for Thanksgiving in the cozy, candlelit dining room. I remember one summer feast with my friend Shelley during a power failure, surrounded by candlelight from tall holders and tiny votives, watching the rain lash the curvy old window glass.
Family and friends have streamed endlessly through the doors: some choosing the muddy springtime path to the back door, some the treacherous snowy walkway to the front of the house. Lighted candles have twinkled from the hydrangea tree every Christmas Eve, and we’ve established a treasured tradition at the table once the lights are lit: every year, Anne, David, Alice, Connie and little Katie troop across the road for a creamy, garlicky, celery-laden oyster stew, complete with round, dusty little oyster crackers to pop in the bowl and scoop up with a silver spoon.
Red Gate Farm has seen long, lazy visits by my precious parents-in-law, birthday parties for my mother, August half-birthdays for my niece Jane, and Camp Kristen weeks with lots of little girls rushing in and out in bathing suits, shouting, “Who has my goggles?”, piled in sleeping bags in the guest room eating popcorn and watching “The Pink Panther.”
There have been sad days of illness, and days that were a gift because illness had retreated, and days where the house itself provided a cocoon of comfort to those of us living with loss and bereavement. The house has seen and welcomed the birth and babyhood of my two nieces and our dear Katie across the road. I often think of Avery, her cousins and their neighbor Katie leaning over the fence, long after we are gone, exchanging gossip, and maybe even recipes.
Sadly for our love of Red Gate Farm, we moved to London just a year and a half after we bought the gorgeous place. A year and a half of peaceful weekends was in our past. But the future brought Christmases there, and summers. Now, although we feel quite English and happy to live in our new home most of the time, each December and June we find ourselves reaching out to Red Gate Farm, pining for its serenity, imagining the glories we will find when we arrive.
There is the new tradition of driving wearily up the road in the dead of night, jetlagged, the car packed to the gills with everything we need for our holiday. We approach the house in the dark to see its lights blazing, since Rollie, Judy and Anne have made everything ready for our arrival. They vie, sweetly, for who can turn up the heat, who can stock the refrigerator before the other gets a chance. How lucky we are in our neighbors.
We stagger up the walk under our luggage, push open the front door that sticks with age, drop everything on the floor and simply drink in the atmosphere: a mixture of old books, ashes in empty fireplaces, woolen rugs and leather chairs. We feel both the weight and the lightness of the generations of people who have opened that door before us, we sigh, and are home.
Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves 8, with leftovers)
6 tbsps butter
3 tbsps plain flour
8 pints shucked oysters, in their liquor
6 stalks celery, minced
2 white onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
celery salt to taste
Tabasco to taste
lemon juice to taste
In a very large, heavy stockpot, melt the butter, add the flour and cook together until bubbling but not browned. Add the celery, onions and garlic and sauté until celery and onions are softened. Pour in the oysters and their liquor and stir them constantly over medium heat until their edges curl firmly. Heat the milk in a separate pan and just before it boils, add it to the oyster mixture. Whisk until flour is thoroughly incorporated and the broth is creamy and smooth. Add the cream and then begin adding seasonings to taste. Taste continually as the broth heats through and get the balance of flavors just right to suit you. Serve with oyster crackers. The flavors intensify over time, so you may make the stew ahead of time. Just be sure not to reheat it too intensely as the oysters will become tough.