A raucous dinner party a couple of evenings ago with our farmer friend Rollie, his wife Judy and two of their sons, Christopher and Todd. Young Rollie was otherwise occupied (his firetorn house perhaps, or demanding swarms of bees behind Hannan Honey?), but we managed to talk over each other just the seven of us, all evening. And did we eat? I should say here: I have never before fed young farmers in August. Slightly elderly farmers in August yes, and slightly elderly farmers at Christmas and in February. But 20-something guys who’ve been up hauling hay since 3 in the morning? Nope. I have never seen food disappear so fast.
With this all I served sliced sweet peppers in all the colors: yellow, red, orange and purple. Confession: I can’t stand green peppers. Why?…
Oh my. I just went downstairs to revel in the quiet peace of the house tonight, the rest of my family asleep, thinking happily about our dinner party here this evening with our farmer friends up the road (more on that tomorrow), wondering if I could ever make a blueberry pie like Judy’s, and checking on the candles I moved from the picnic table to the front windows to keep David across the road happy in the late evening. But guess what I saw? The whole front of Stillmeadow, the ancient white saltbox house across the road, was completely lit up. Glowing from top to bottom. For a moment I was afraid! What on earth?
Then I realized it was the light of the full moon high above our back meadow, lighting up the house as if by a streetlight, only an eerie, glowing feeling. I wanted to go out to explore, but my city-girl nature (what happened to those formative years in Indiana? sorry, Mother and Dad!) almost kept me from it. But to see the full moon! I had to try.
I crept out onto the stone path I so laboriously weeded this summer (must find an eco-friendly way to prevent encountering those same weeds next July). What if there were toads on them like the ones we had on our terrace during dinner? I didn’t want to squash one under my bare feet! Or a snake, as visited Avery’s birthday party long ago, in the leaves beside the stone wall? Anyway, I got my courage together and ventured out. The trees here are so massive and so old that you are alternately grateful for their elderly and gentle shade, and definitely afraid lest their branches land on your house in a storm.
Tonight they were black before the glow of the moon. No faraway, romantic light this: no, this was an assertive, glittering, in-your-face shimmer, seemingly right THERE. I looked over again at the house across the road, illuminated quite sharply but with a funny, selective light that didn’t seem to touch the shrubs and trees nearby. Just the white clapboards. And since I’ve been spending all my summer reading time lately with the memoirs and cookbooks of Gladys Taber, the most beloved of all the house’s inhabitants, I felt in an odd way that she was here. Was she happy I was thumbing tonight through her My Own Cookbook (the crazy large-print edition that Anne, her granddaughter and my dear friend, had to loan me!)? Was she glad to see farmers and their children sitting at the table of the house across the road tonight, being fed as she fed countless farmer friends, exchanging recipes and gossip, laughing at each other’s stories as we do? Will she be pleased with the recipes I choose to reproduce when I edit her cookbook, and will she give me a helping hand when I try to describe her and her life and ways, and our place here in her world? I hope so.
Today was so peaceful. Well, first it was hot and sweaty while we played tennis. I love it! I think I’ve turned a corner. I can actually hit a serious forehand without fearing I’ll miss it altogether. OK, sometimes I miss it. But there are more and more times that the ball seems to just get hit! Which is a lot of fun. But from there we had a wonderfully relaxed afternoon, starting with the perfect lunch for leftover roast pork:
My friend Alyssa will laugh: this sandwich was inspired by one you can get at the I.P.N Deli on Greenwich Street in my old ‘hood of Tribeca in my now-long ago and misspent early middle age. It was and is the last holdout of non-chicdom in that fabled area of Lower Manhattan. It is peopled exclusively by residents of the rent-controlled council housing of Independence Plaza and the nearby construction workers whose numbers are overwhelming these days. And nannies. But for me, it was the place for a decadent, wicked sandwich on a day when I was headed for a non-remunerative and probably dull afternoon in our sweet little neighborhood park, Washington Market, playing with my child. Now, little did I know the days of playing in the park would be so FLEETING. I am ashamed now of how I let myself feel bored, now that I have a world-weary almost 11-year-old who needs me for so little! And we’re never bored. Mothers of small children take heart: the boredom is such a short-lived, sweet little gift. Not that it seems like it when you’re stuck in the park.
But my Cuban Sandwich would have been a nice improvement on the deli’s version. For one thing, Tony’s roast pork is a revelation, and who knows what they were grilling the deli version on or in.
After lunch I indulged myself with “General Hospital” while undercheffing dinner. How I will miss my American soaps when we return to London on Saturday! Avery took a long cozy bath in the guest bathroom adjacent to the terrace and every so often one of us called to her through the screen in the window: “you still in there?” John tried (one knows not yet how successfully) to stem the population of yellow jackets in our vicinity, with a set of traps and some spray. All I can say is, nobody with wings visited our dinner party tonight.
Well, more on that tomorrow. Drumroll, though, please: this is POST NUMBER 300 of my blog! Happy birthday, or whatever… it’s been a lot of fun.
It’s a gorgeous blue-sky day in Connecticut, we’ve just come from a round of sweaty tennis and a swim. I’m thrilled: John said today, “You’re good enough now that it’s fun for me to play with you.” As opposed to the mind-bendingly dull job he had at first of simply… serving! Endlessly, since I couldn’t really hit it back. I love tennis, and I hope I can find a place to play in London. The pool was freezing again, however, so we chickened out and came home for lunch.
Which brings me to: recipes.
Now, I must say that I quake even to claim to reproduce a recipe by our friend Olimpia. I say this not because I don’t think I can cook, but because of an intriguing notion suggested to me by our neighbor friend Alice over the weekend. As I was describing what Olimpia had cooked for us, Alice mused, “It sounds almost like a kind of mystical thing you are suggesting, a sort of alchemy.” And that is exactly right. The other person in my life whose cooking strikes me this way is my friend Alyssa, whose matzoh ball soup is legendary, and with whom I have, as I have with Olimpia, stood at the kitchen counter, watched, taken part, written down, listened. And yet… when I try their recipes myself, while they’re all right, even quite good, they’re lacking something. And Alice may be right: it’s not an ingredient or a method, it’s the magic of the cook herself. And as John always believes (I don’t necessarily agree with him!) that if I love someone I think she’s beautiful to look at, it’s possible too that something of the love and admiration I feel for the cook permeates my taste buds right along with the garlic or chicken. Possible!
But I will do my best to tell you how to make what we ate so happily this weekend in the Catskills with our friends, Olimpia and Tony. And she let me cook with her.
(serves 4 as an antipasto)
2 medium zucchini, sliced round
olive oil to reach an inch up the side of your skillet
1 tbsp fresh olive oil for sauteeing
4 cloves garlic, minced
drizzle more olive oil
4 leaves basil or mint (we had mint, I’d like to try basil too)
1/4 red wine vinegar
salt and fresh pepper
Heat oil in skillet until a small piece of bread on the end of a fork sizzles immediately when dipped in. Fry the zucchini slices until soft, then drain on kitchen paper.
Discard the olive oil and wipe out skillet. Cook down a bit and add 1 tbsp olive oil, then saute garlic gently (do not brown).
In a pretty serving dish, layer the zucchini slices, sprinkle garlic and mint or basil, drizzle oil and a bit of the vinegar. Repeat this till all zucchini slices are layered. Salt and pepper to taste. Marinate for at least an hour before serving.
As you can imagine, it was just unbelievable. We reminisced about friends in common, old days in New York, our visit in February, our wishes that they come to us in London. Then too we exchanged lots of views on child-rearing (they are proud grandparents and great-aunt and uncle to Tony’s family), and it was nice to agree on everything! “Keep communicating, keep talking. You have to know where they are and who they’re with, and what they’re thinking,” Tony said wisely. A former New York City fire investigating officer, he has a most comforting demeanor of innate wisdom and sagacity that I just love. Not to mention: he built the kitchen himself! I adored the Wolf stove, and all the intricate and savvy little spice shelves, sliding drawers, several sinks and other luxuries that John and I filed away in our imaginations for the remote day that we might design our own kitchen.
Thank you, guys, for a great afternoon. I like to think of your dishes being made now all over the world! But missing, I fear, that spark of… Olimpia.
Since then the sun has come back out, and today the humidity is RAMPANT. We spent a sweaty hour on the tennis courts this morning, and a savagely cold dip in the community pool, and came home starving and hot. So today’s lunch was the ultimate summer cooldown feast. I call it “pink gazpacho”, for which I must give you the recipe because it’s sinfully simple and inexpensive, and aside from a cucumber and an avocado you can easily have everything on hand in your pantry. It was first made for me by my beloved friend Jeanne, and served in green porcelain bowls in the shape of lettuce heads:
In any case, we took Avery to Mystic, to reunite with her beloved friend Cici, made plans to come get her on Sunday (which turned out to be today, the days FLEW by!). On the way home from dropping her off, we turned off the road to pop into a local institution (no, not the one you’re thinking of, probably, with restraints and bars on the windows), but Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough”, a really, well, ROUGH place to have seafood. Cici’s mother had warned us against it, saying it could be horribly crowded, and I can see that if we’d gone at a more normal time to eat it might have been, but we ended up there around 4, and it was nearly deserted. You place your order and then go stake out a picnic table right on the water, looking out over what might be something like Mystic Sound? Lovely, sailboats everywhere. Then your number is hollered over a loudspeaker and you go pick up your food. Here’s my advice: look at the menu, for fun if you like. But skip everything else and go straight to the LOBSTER. We felt adventurous and ordered an enormous lobster feast, to share, so we could try some of everything. And try we did. But, I know this will sound harsh: everything but the lobster was completely forgettable. The clam chowder we used to get in Islesford, Maine, unfairly blows away any other, but even without that for comparison, Abbott’s was watery and dull, distinguished only by its temperature which burned the roof of my mouth.
Then the shrimp was fine, but ordinary, a tad overcooked as the institutional nature of the process might produce. The clams and mussels were fresh, but unremarkable, steamed as they were in the austere New England recipe of… water. I like my mussels in a nice garlicky wine-laden broth, call me decadent.
But the LOBSTER! The freshest we’ve ever had outside Maine, and cooked to perfection, so it didn’t take long for us to wash our hands with the insufficient little wet wipe and cozy up to the “Retail Deck,” manned charmingly by a nice young man who thrust his arm in a tank and brought up two madly waving specimens which we happily brought home and steamed. DIVINE. Run, don’t walk, to Abbott’s.
Let’s see, we spent the time Avery was away playing tennis (my new obsession, must find a place to play in London), and visiting… Olimpia. I will tell all tomorrow, but for now, can I just say that she sent us home with the most delectable meatballs and beef ribs swimming in tomato sauce, and guess what? She had already fed us lunch, a completely different menu. I will divulge as much of the magic as can be felt and experienced without Olimpia being here, which sad to say she is not. But I got to stand in her kitchen, and learn at the knee of the master, and I came away with… recipes. And leftovers! Quite the best hostess in the world, Olimpia is, with her loyal sidekick husband Tony there to roast the shoulder of pork and provide perfect conversation. But more on that later.
Suffice to say this evening, we’re happy to have our little chick home again, grateful to Kathleen and John for hosting her and feeding us such a delicious dinner tonight, and we’re missing our little niece Jane. Aren’t the two girls adorable together? A week from now will find us tucked up in our flat in London, so this week must cram in as much Americana as possible. And lunch with Olimpia, a bagel brunch with Anne and her brilliant violinist sister Alice, and a visit to the impossibly charming Southbury Historical Society all fill the bill. I have a lot to tell you.
Well, John’s parents have flown away, sadly. We’re huddling around a roaring fire, believe it or not, in August! Avery’s tackling the homework her teachers sent home with her for the summer, John’s at the dentist (ick) and I’m keeping a box of Kleenex close by as I seem to have caught the cold little Jane brought for her sleepover this weekend. But what a good time we had with her while she was here: jumping on the trampoline, playing on the teeter-totter, catching minnows from the pond, eating her favorite ham sandwiches, heading off to the library to trade in Avery’s huge stack of books for another huge stack of books. And the Elephant’s Trunk flea market in New Milford! If you can get there early there are real treasures (our teeter-totter, years ago, and a beautiful old mirror, I remember.) But this time we came away with a soccer ball on a tether for guess who, and she ate two bananas as she walked along! We had a ball. But all good things must come to an end, and before we knew it, it was late afternoon on Day Two under a gray sky and Jill and Joel were pulling up in the driveway to take her home. Anne stopped by for a minute to say hi to John’s parents and left with a couple of pieces of cake for David’s birthday. Happy Birthday!
Can you believe we had an owl visit! To add to our livestock collection here at Red Gate Farm. I was not awake early enough to see him, but John’s mom was. I just hope he doesn’t swoop down to get any of our chipmunks…
And Avery had her best riding lesson ever, I hear! Was I there? Of course not. That’s being a mother for you: sitting through countless forgettable lessons on both sides of the pond, traipsing through Hyde Park and the Bronx and Southbury in the dusty wake of this or that pony, but when it comes to the perfect pony, the highest jumps, I’m sitting at a picnic table at home eating a lobster roll, missing it all. Never mind: Nonna and John were there, and as you see, the pony, Bellehop, is a sweetheart. I did get to go the next day, and she was lovely to watch, a real carousel pony. What a beautiful place: the red barns, blue sky, green pines, white fences, so many memories of the hundreds of afternoons and evenings I spent up there either sweating in the sun or huddling around the wood fire, watching Avery and her friends ride, gossiping with the other mothers. Such a cozy place to be.
But you know what: I missed the lesson last week because I was hanging around at home having a meaning-of-life chat with my father in law, and that doesn’t happen very often. He is like an old-fashioned sage: his blue eyes look out on the world with enormous perspective and wisdom, kindness and judgment, acceptance and optimism. He doesn’t offer his opinions unless you really ask, and even then he measures his words to make his comments as gentle as possible. We sat and ate lobster and crab rolls (just about the most magical leftovers in the world, in my opinion), and tomato and avocado salad, and chatted. I can’t say I would have wanted to be anywhere else.
Then the weather changed completely! The temperature dropped some twenty degrees, the wind turned and you could smell autumn coming. I’d really like to think we have another week or so of summer coming, but for now we’re bundled in sweaters. A couple of nights ago I found myself the only one awake, walking around the house watching the flames flicker in the living room, candles in the front windows, and I opened the tiny square window in the kitchen and stuck my head out to listen to the rain. This is the most pleasant place in the world, I think: peaceful and calm. I have to think of how to transfer some of this peace to our lives in London: it’s got to be possible.
Then we fulfilled one of John’s mom’s lifetime ambitions (she’s very easy to please!): a visit to Litchfield, Connecticut. It is simply the most beautiful town: all white houses with black shutters, wide green lawns, American flags everywhere. And my most favorite store for cashmere sweaters, R. Derwin on the Green. Just about four times in the past 20 years I have found myself in that store, and each time I find the perfect sweater, and have a nice talk with the two generations of Derwins who linger behind the counter. Quintessential New Englanders: bright eyes, corduroys and poplin, a happy inclination to gossip about Litchfieldans we have known.
Then it was onto a perfect old-fashioned candy store, for Avery. The Litchfield Candy Company at 245 West Street, crowded with all the old sweets I remember from childhood: Pixy Stix, Necco wafers, Lemonheads! And a soda that we couldn’t resist for obvious reasons: Always Ask for Avery’s! Can you imagine. I’m not one for old-fashioned sickly sweet sodas, but I can see that it’s the kind of thing you’d like if you like that kind of thing. John at least was pretty keen on the Birch Beer. We’re planning to pour most of it down the drain and use the bottles for flower vases. If I get a good picture I’ll post it.
But I think the best thing about Litchfield was our dinner at the Litchfield Saltwater Grille. Run, don’t walk, get a table out back under the nice white duck awnings (even in a driving rainstorm this spot was delightful!), and ask for Tracy, a bubbly and efficient waitress who brought us any number of fabulous dishes. The chef, one Albert Clugston III, has come up with some real winners. And our experience put to rest one of those old food rules: “Never order oysters in a month without an R.” Well, August at the Saltwater Grille is definitely an oyster month anyway, as they must all be. The Blue Points were perfect: freezing cold on a bed of ice, perfectly fresh, served with the requisite lemon wedges, horseradish and chili sauce. Yum yum. Then Avery had a chicken breast wrapped in bacon and topped with mysteriously delicious red pepper strips and crispy “matchstick” potatoes.
The seafood ruled, though: my mother in law and I both had enormous slabs of seared tuna with a peppercorn crust and some truly tasty mushrooms hiding underneath. We could easily have shared, so that’s something to think about for those with less than gargantuan appetites. John had a bouillabaisse that he decided later was the weakest of all we ordered, although good. The true star of the evening was John’s dad’s giant bowl of “Shrimp and Clams Newport,” swimming in quite the most divine sauce we had ever tasted (we unashamedly begged Tracy for more bread and all of us sopped it up). I think I’ll try to reproduce it later this week when Avery’s off visiting Cici in Mystic: we all diagnosed butter, Pinot Gris, parsley, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and… clam broth? Maybe mixed with a bit of chicken broth? Lovely.
Such wonderful memories of John’s parents’ visit. Long afternoons sitting in our ratty old folding deck chairs, pretending to read but really watching Avery’s endlessly inventive trampoline routines, named inexplicably after her favorite Archie characters. She narrates as she jumps, so the lawn rang with “Veronica, Veronica, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Veronica…” and endless games of Aggravation! John’s father, normally quite mild-mannered, turns into an absolute ogre when faced with the little blue marbles. And John has been known actually to make a move that is disadvantageous to himself if it can send someone else home! “Waiting for a one… You cannot tell me ones come up with anything LIKE the statistical frequency they should! You did NOT have to send me home!!” John’s mom happily accompanying me on numberless trips to the grocery store (why are we always fascinated by even the most boring lists?), chopping garlic for me. “Remember that first time we cooked together in London, Kristen, and you told me in no uncertain terms how fine the garlic had to be minced?” I must have been one obnoxious new daughter in law, that’s all I have to say.
Need something to give a ten-year-old girl? Possibly the most successful gifts of the summer: the fabric markers and stencils for decorating t-shirts that John’s mom brought, and The Enchanted Dolls’ House Wedding Book from my mother. Perfect summer activities, thanks to the Nonnas. Thank you!
Well, I must close this mammoth post and make some lunch. I’m thinking devilled eggs. One thing I learned this summer, although I hesitate to disagree with the great Julia Child and her stringent instructions on boiling eggs (something about 17 minutes and a tight-fitting lid), my method worked surprisingly well: bringing the eggs to a boil in cold water and then forgetting they’re on the stove, having your husband turn off the heat and letting them sit there for an untold period of time until someone said, “Weren’t you going to make devilled eggs?”, shrieking and running them under cold water. Perfect.
Oh, and I succumbed to yet another example of homemade being better than boughten: I ran out of Hellman’s, needed mayo. I’m sorry to say: homemade is much, much nicer. Limber up your whisking arm and make some:
Avery’s grandfather is napping, Avery and her grandmother are lying on the trampoline far down the lawn between the pond and the stream, John’s deep in Exile, by Richard North Patterson, a good political thriller, he reports. We’re all slightly comatose from a mammoth lunch that hit all the right buttons for me: it used up leftovers so my conscience is clear, it cost almost nothing, and… everything looked and tasted delicious.
I have to tell you: my dear mother in law offered to get the meat off the hens for me, and while it was a sticky, messy job, there is a lot to get, so do go for it. And I don’t know if you can get the super-spicy Cheddar where you are, but it’s delicious in a slightly processed, borderline junk food way. Here’s a source for super-hot, and here’s a source for a milder version. I love it that there is a blog devoted entirely to hot things to eat.
Then too we had:
Let’s see, we’ve been finding that our vocabulary these days is greatly enhanced by… little Jane. She has a way of holding out her hand, palm up, when she talks, which lends an old-fashioned, earnest air to everything she says. “Aunt Kristen, I can’t stand on one foot in my Crocs. I’m not big enough, and it makes me very wobbly.” This she demonstrates by hopping wildly from one foot to the other, “Whoa!” Then a couple of days before her birthday party here, she saw a pile of present all wrapped up, on a bench. “Uncle John, are those packages for me?” “Of course, Jane, for your party on Monday, when your mommy gets back from her business trip.” “Oh.” Pause, then, “Uncle John, I’m thinking about opening those packages and do you know what? I can’t wait.” Hand outstretched in appeal. “Oh, we can’t wait either, Jane!” Another pause. “No, I CAN’T WAIT.” Avery observed sotto voce, “She’s not saying that idiomatically. She means she literally CAN’T WAIT.” And she was right. Every afternoon finds someone saying, “I can’t wait,” about something.
And she’s obsessed with things being “automatic.” Joel explained that this all began when she was exposed (quite literally, which was the scary part) to an automatic toilet at a shopping mall. Scared her to death, naturally! So now she is understandably a little skeptical of unfamiliar toilets, which do unexpected things that she hasn’t asked them to do. Things she’s not in control of. So over the weekend as she was seesaw-ing with Avery, the end she was on went too high, and she said suddenly, “Aunt Kristen, is this seesaw automatic?” We had to reassure her that no, Uncle John was in complete control (ish) of every movement it made. The dear girl.
And she pronounces “banana” “bahnahnah” after her favorite Kipper video! And according to her (and Kipper, apparently), people mow the “grahss.” And eat “tomahtoes.” Too funny to hear Avery switch to her full-on Queen’s English at that point!
Then we’re all finding ways to deal with the inexplicable influx of flying insects on our terrace. Whether it’s the watermelon rind we’re leaving for Gary the Groundhog, or the out-of-date pickles we threw behind the fence for the skunk, I don’t know. Oh, side story: I came home from the grocery with, among other things, a jar of pickles. “But Kristen,” my long-suffering husband objected, “we already have SO MANY pickles.” “No,” I said, “Avery says we’re out.” Silently he went into the kitchen and brought out… THIS MANY jars of pickles. How did that happen? I guess every time I shop I think we’re out. Eeek! But I digress. My point was, there are a lot of perhaps bees, in particular, flying around and neither Jane nor Avery likes them one bit. Why did it so crack Jill and me up to hear Jane say, “It’s too buggy; it’s not a good idea to eat outside.” She sounded so adult! I tried, “Don’t worry, Jane, the bugs say. We won’t hurt you.” But she wasn’t buying. “Bugs do not talk, Aunt Kristen.” “But if they did, they might say that, Jane.” “But they don’t.”
Now I see Avery and her Nonna have moved on to catching minnows in the pond, so I shall go join them before tennis lessons. Is there anything sweeter than a child and her grandmother playing together? It warmed my heart so to see Avery with my mom, discussing the infinitesimally tiny paper doll clothes Avery was designing and cutting out at the birthday party on Sunday. There seems to be a special brand of patience that comes with the generation gap. Or more likely, Avery’s two grandmothers are unusually nice people. Or maybe it’s grandparents in general: my sweet dad thinking of teaching her to play cribbage so he can send her a set for her birthday, John’s dad specially packing a bag of Butterfingers to give her for her treat drawer. I feel incredibly lucky to have had all four of them with us this summer.
Enough sappiness: minnows beckon. Really, Jane, they DO.
Well, even after as sentimental, wonderful and emotional day as I’ve had today, I do think I can tell people from salad. But telling people you’re blood-related to from people you just WISH you were related to… that’s another story.
It started this morning with the arrival of Alyssa and Annabelle and Elliot. I know I have to stop whinging about how much I miss Alyssa when I’m in London, because I am very lucky to have such staunch friends as I have there. Lord knows, in the early days I didn’t know if I ever would have friends. But even so, nothing stops me from missing the sort of sisterly (only we never bicker, as my sister and I used to when I was a nasty pre-teen) fun of a day with my old friend. And I am the greatest possible fan of her children, the ginger-sprouted Elliot, and Annabelle, the raven-haired show tunes maven. They are much more like cousins to Avery than mere friends, battling over how to include Elliot in games that, on the surface, are more suited to two girls than to two girls plus their mascot.
We had Katz Deli sandwiches! This has become a tradition for our summer reunions at Red Gate Farm (in my book, a good thing has to happen only once in order to become a cherished tradition: life’s too short to make things like that ferment, or mature or whatever. Go for it.). Then it was a long gossip session in the sun until John tore himself reluctantly away to pick up his folks at the airport. I have to share Alyssa with my husband, which can be tedious except that it’s so nice. Then we girls and Elliot were off to the pool in the brilliant, perfect afternoon sunshine, simply a glorious day more like June than August.
By the time we returned, it was time for them to go back to Manhattan. Hugs all around, with plans to see each other at Christmastime up here, although nothing will EVER top last year’s Christmas in London together. Is that what being middle-aged means, having so much of your happiness bound up in remembering things? Not a bad bargain, if so. As always, a terrific wrench to feel the last hug. If only I could take her back in my pocket.
But I had little time to feel sorry for myself, because the phone rang and it was John saying he and his parents were half an hour away! Oh my. A rush to create:
It’s almost a surfeit of delights to have so much family around so close together. I just barely got used to having had my beloved parents and brother here over the weekend, and whoops: here’s my husband’s family too. How I wish we could see them all, all year round. But the time-honored custom of seeing a car pull up containing John’s parents, and hollering like crazy, was honored tonight, in the approaching twilight, and then John and his dad walked the property, making sure it was all still there, and Avery and her grandmother trailed around making perfume and visiting the fairies, and I played around in the kitchen making sure we’d have something to eat, watching them all through the tiny-paned windows of our old farmhouse, thinking how unbelievably wonderful it was. To have family around. Another August at Red Gate Farm, another visit. Top THAT.
But John’s dad STILL beat us at Aggravation, no matter how fond we were feeling of him! Ah well, the visit is young…
Things are hotting up here with family, let me tell you. John’s parents arrive tomorrow evening, after Alyssa’s family is here for the day, and a day after my whole family was here for my mummy’s birthday. Got that? Just take a look at these granddaughter faces. What could be a better present (complete with yellow ribbon from the balloons decorating the seesaw)?
It was one of the best days EVER here at Red Gate Farm, long sunny hours spent chatting, some of us in the kitchen creating meatballs, some of us on the terrace creating paper dolls, some on the seesaw shouting, “not so high, Uncle John!”, and some using the trampoline as a most unexpected lounge lizard venue… yellow balloons everywhere (my mother’s favorite color), blue, BLUE skies, green lawns, red barns, glasses of ice-filled pink lemonade, gossip and four-parted conversations about all the same topics, and games of high-stakes Aggravation (New York rules!). The perfect day. More on that later, but suffice it to say: “Happy Birthday, Mona.” We love you.
Let’s see. Both Avery and I have book suggestions for you. And I must say that these particular choices quite beautifully underline the complex, dare I say fascinating breadth of our personalities. Let me explain.
I was shopping at KMart for, I think, dishes to put leftovers in, or maybe a sprinkler. Or wasp and hornet hex juice. In any case, I sauntered past the book section (who knew KMart had a book section? maybe Sears insisted), and this book cover popped out at me. I do in fact judge a book by, well you know. As does Avery, and neither of us apologizes for it. Life is too short either to read a book whose cover does not appeal to you, or to take yourself to task for these little foibles. In any case, “Whistling in the Dark” is a wonderful novel. It reads like a memoir, in a major way, as did one of my all-time favorites, A Girl Named Zippy. Interestingly, both are accounts of growing up in the Midwest, and I feel seriously deprived that my childhood spent in much the same locality was not, apparently, sufficiently messed up to provide me fodder for a readable memoir, just enough to send me to the odd (believe me, very much so) therapist in this or that decade of my life.
No, these ladies, Lesley Kagan and Haven Kimmel, parlay their bizarre and sometimes heartbreaking childhood experiences into beautifully detailed anecdotes about sibling relationships, acutely observed parental distress and mayhem, and hilariously real dialogue. Kagan’s account (billed as a novel, and fair enough, maybe she changed all the names, but it still sounds very real) is at times quite dark and sinister (for this reason I wouldn’t recommend it for even precocious children interested in their parents’ upbringings), but lump-in-the-throat touching, as well, and very, very funny. You will enjoy it, especially if you have children or ever were a child yourself. These are, I feel, the book’s natural audiences. Buy two copies and give one to your sister. Except, oops, I didn’t buy an extra to give to my perfectly deserving sister. I still can.
Then, yesterday found me unexpectedly at the most charming bookstore I think I’ve ever encountered. We were driving through dismal, cold and raw rain toward my sister’s house in West Hartford, Connecticut, to see my parents and brother who have flown in for my mummy’s birthday tomorrow, when the lighted windows of a bookstore beckoned out of the grayness. Brick Walk Books and Fine Art (be patient with this link, as it seems to be only to the integral art gallery, but it provides all the right contact info), a little slip of a shop in a row of undistinguished other shops, with lovely small paintings in the window. Avery and I crept in while John tried to find a place to buy a throwaway watch, his real watch having died in the night. And there we found, well, countless things we wanted. Cruelly, the shop leads with its children’s section, so I’m afraid we were suckers from the very start. Many first editions, and lots of other old but pristine editions, finely illustrated, and most right around $25, which is a lot of money until you consider that a perfectly forgettable hardcover book from KMart will run you nearly $28 and for what? Something you’ll read once and then never think of again. But a fine copy of “BedKnob and Broomstick”? That is worth taking home.
I myself fell victim to a first-edition of my new absolute favorite book: Eating Together: Recollections and Recipes, by Lillian Hellman and Peter Feibleman. Oh, my, it is endlessly wonderful. All my favorite things in a book: there’s memory and anecdote from what was undoubtedly a fascinating life (living with Dashiell Hammett cannot have been pleasant, but it was certainly not boring), food descriptions and recipes, and a little heart-tugging friendship along the way. The book cleverly chronicles Hellman’s friendship with this much-younger man, through accounts of their bickering over food, recipes, dinner parties and potential guests (like Mike Nichols, Dorothy Parker or Leonard Bernstein, to name a few). And wonderful recipes. You’ll love it. It reminds me of all my favorite food writers: Laurie Colwin, Virginia Rich, Ruth Reichl, Nigel Slater, and the incomparable Elizabeth Ryan and her Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook. It doesn’t get ANY better than that.
The bookstore itself is just a joy, and I wish there were more people in the world like its proprietor, Kevin G. Rita. Doing what he loves best in the world, I’d bet, sequestered but by no means limited by his desk overflowing with the tools of his trade, eager to get to know his customers, full of enthusiasm for his wares. He even took down a French edition of “Rebecca”, opened its presentation box, showed me all its delights, and… had no idea how much it might cost! Just wanted to share the joy. What a lovely man, and a gorgeous shop. He does a mean internet business, too, so get in touch with all your wishes.
Avery’s also hugely enjoying Oscar Wilde’s Epigrams, addicted as she is to “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Kevin was so enchanted by this choice that he gave it to her! “My daughter, Phoebe, who’s about your age, finds books to be… let’s see, what was her exact description, LAME. It breaks my heart.” Phoebe has, however, her own section of the bookstore, all her own choices, for which she gets the proceeds. “Oh,” I said, “then she does care, a little,” and he said, “Oh, no, it’s purely the capitalist in her.”
Then, when I went back to the Brick Walk Bookstore this morning to tell Kevin how happy we were with our acquisitions, he was so happy that he said, “Wasn’t there something else your daughter was looking at? Such a self-possessed young lady… Yes, here it is! I have to love a girl who reads both Wilde and Trollope.” And out came an elegant leather-bound copy of “The Way We Live Now,” which Avery got hooked on after watching the fabulous miniseries on the BBC starring, of course, my crush Matthew Macfadyen.
Then Avery would tell you that everyone needs to read Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, by Lesley M.M. Blume, a very touching account of a girl about Avery’s age (nearly 11) who protects herself from her famous pianist mother and their unhappy home life by using the most difficult words she can find. Until, that is, she meets her new next-door neighbor, an elderly lady who takes Cornelia in and entertains and comforts her with anecdotes from her unbelievably glamorous past. It’s by turns funny, educational (lots of long words!) and sad. Avery especially enjoyed the accounts of adventures in Paris and Morocco, as we’ve traveled to both in the last year, plus of course there’s some action in London which is our backyard during the school year.
Well, that’s what we’ve been reading. Maybe it will keep you all out of trouble for what remains of this glorious summer.
And food, can I tell you? For some reason we’ve been on a seafood kick. Lemon sole sauteed in plenty of butter, nothing wrong with that. My favorite scallops in parsley and garlic? Love it. But then there’s the perennial favorite: steamed lobster. From a quirky, unappealing-looking fish truck plonked unceremoniously down in a parking lot on Woodbury, up the road, descended from Maine every Thursday. I’m not making this up. Give him a try, should you be in Woodbury.
Then, one sad afternoon came with the Maine guy ran out of lobster by the time we got there, but never mind, he had salmon.
Then, night before last I practically blew our heads off with a spicy shrimp dish that I’ve told you about before (be patient and scroll down! someday I’ll organize these recipes, I promise). But somehow, this time, the only chili sauce I had in my fridge was UBER hot! We could hardly eat it. But we managed to put away nearly a pound of the little guys. I’d highly recommend the sauce, from Huy Fong, if you can bear to blow your little spicy mind.
Well, other than eating and reading, we’ve been playing tennis (I don’t know why I have missed tennis until now! I love it), Avery’s found a new riding instructor, Deb who runs Bouncing Pony Farm out of nearby Red Horse Stables in Southbury, and my family have arrived! Tomorrow’s the big birthday party for my mum, so stayed tuned. Watch this space for all party reports! But in the meantime, I’ll get my brother in law to give me the fabulous recipes he cooked for us last night: parmesan chicken and tomato risotto. Yum yum… You’ll have them when I do.
We had a lovely power outage tonight: what a nice interval to find ourselves unable to watch the final episode of whatever scary reality television competition Avery’s got attached to since we got back to America… absolutely wonderful to have no recourse but to light every candle we could find, including this lovely lamp that I light (and its twin on the next chest of drawers) every night, and watch its rays reflect on the dormer ceiling of our little farmhouse. How cozy is that?
That plus lighting the candles in the four front windows (two in the parlor, one in the entry hall, and one in the guest room) for the across-the-road benefit of Anne and David… I adore that tradition, every evening. I often walk through the rooms downstairs in the evening, after my early-bird child and husband have gone to sleep, and think what a peaceful place it is to be: no worries, no bad memories, only good feelings and a prevailing sense that a lot has happened here in the past 200+ years that puts most of our experiences into perspective.
We finished the fence and gate today! I painted the gate in between “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital,” and Avery kindly kept me company by reading her Nancy Drews from the library on the front step, between the geraniums and the begonias, while John napped upstairs. Then, while we were at the pool, John painted the last four feet of the fence. So when we returned, EVERYTHING was perfect, and finished. So lovely.
Tomorrow will see us scraping and painting the teeter-totter! How exciting is our life here… Exactly what the doctor ordered for the August before school starts up again in London, and everyone’s blood pressure goes straight back up. My mother, father and brother will be here on Friday, and I can bask in the fun of family, summer, and fun.