30 July 2009


We eat lobster with unpracticed abandon. During this annual ritual we shed our summer seersucker manners and revel instead in the savagery of mere eating. It’s so easy to do in Maine. A walk to the lobster pound to pick out our dinner; with a long-handled net one of the workers scoops our selection into a brown paper bag and drops that into a plastic one. We hand over our cowry and the trade is completed; out we go and head back home. Into a large pot filled with a few inches of boiling water go the squirming crustaceans, brown, blue, sea-floor camouflage. The lid is closed and in just minutes they boil and steam to perfection. In the time it takes to set the table we stop thinking about them as animals and begin smelling dinner. We lift the lid and retrieve these fiery beacons of summer.
We tear them apart, pulling off legs and pecking at their bellies. Once we’ve sucked the small bits of flesh from the now-hollow legs we move on, hungry for more. The claws are the first fruit that begin to satisfy our craving. These once-wielded weapons are the easiest to break open, and we celebrate these plump nuggets with a mouthful of ale or a gulp of wine. After all the prying and tearing and pulling and biting we eat the tail, breaking it from the top and turning it over to open it. We feast on the tail, savoring and ripping the meat with canines, incisors, and molars. This is how our species evolved, nimble-fingered mammals capable of tearing and chewing other living things. This insect of the sea brings us back to Maine year after year, and whether prices are high or low we feast on them night after night. We eat few other things so completely and in such an unadulterated manner. No separation between us and our prey as we reach for another one-pound soft shell. It’s hard to imagine us ripping apart a chicken or pig and breaking its bones as we tear into its flesh. But on these July nights the smell of pines mingles with the smell of dinner, and we sit with a mound of shells between us – heads, tails, legs – all torn asunder and discarded, and we are satisfied, content animals.

21 July 2009

Chicken soup

Rain at the cottage: the kids are in the kitchen playing Monopoly, our youngest nephew is napping, us parents are reading newspapers, magazines, and old books left here from summers past, and the plash of rain through the canopy of towering maples soothes us all as much as the huge pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove. A cut up-chicken, a few extra legs from the icebox, a heap of vegetables - onions, celery, carrots; a few herbs, and salt and pepper.
Here with several of my siblings, all of us remember our mom's cooking and expansive love and generosity. And I think about all the changes in eating habits since we were kids. While processed food was available when we were kids, its widespread presence in today's American diet is something my siblings and I shake our heads at. One of my sisters has food sensitivities and this morning she was saying how hard it is to find half and half that doesn't have preservatives in it. "Why," she asked, "can't I find a product that's just milk and cream? Why does cream need preservatives? People use it quickly, and it doesn't need anything else in it." She spends more time reading labels than she'd like to.
Making food isn't as time consuming as food marketers want us to believe. I can make a tomato sauce in the time it takes the water for pasta to boil, so what time savings is there by opening a can of prepared sauce? The time it takes to make a rich chicken soup is negligible; a few minutes chopping things and then hours of good smells to whet the appetite. A few voices rise to challenge a play on the Monopoly board and threaten the little one's nap, but the slow gurgle of stewing broth percolates through the cottage, filling each room with the fragrant scent of herbs and stock, keeping everything on a pretty even keel.
Taking short cuts seems too prevalent in our society and it's especially apparent in our food choices. The cooking I grew up with wasn't haute cuisine and it didn't require much more than a few minutes thought and a little preparation. Prepared and packaged foods may get us to the dinner table a few minutes quicker, but when we consider the afternoon smells of a long-simmered pot of soup as a mere prelude to the meal itself, I'll take the long road to dinner every time, and spend that time with family and friends.

17 July 2009

Birthday beans

I first planted these beans in the summer of 2003. We went to Paris the previous fall and bought these beans, Facila is the variety, on our daughter's first birthday. When they grew that first summer, we reminded her that these were her birthday beans, the ones we bought in Paris. She ate them with relish right off the plant. I saved seed from the best plants and the following spring planted them again. And here we are, harvesting birthday beans for the seventh time. And they're still my daughter's favorite.
This, perhaps, is how things get named. When I list these beans in the Seed Savers Yearbook I'll document that the bean was originally named Facila, and that it's a variety sold by Vilmorin, the old French seed house that's taken over a large share of the world's seed trade, but I may call them Birthday Beans instead. It's as good a name as any I've heard for a bean. I love the story we tell each other every year, and how we say Birthday Bean with more enthusiasm than, say, "zucchini." Our daughter was born on 9.12.01, and the moment she was born I saw proof that life is irrepressible, that life itself will bourgeon and blossom and will not fail, even when people do. And as these beans grow and nourish us each year, we, too, are renewed each time we save seed and plant it; we midwife the seed from one generation to the next.
Last night I picked a bowl-full for dinner. I blanched them very briefly - they were in boiling water for less than 30 seconds - because they're so tender and fresh and I just wanted to brighten them up a bit. I quickly doused them in cold water and turned the burner on high. Into the saucier went a teaspoon of duck fat; as soon as it was hot I added the beans, fresh tarragon, and a sprinkling of fine sea salt. Two minutes from the garden to the table, full of green and family lore.

14 July 2009


We picked blueberries on Sunday, twenty-three pounds of them. My wife and I said to each other, "Wow, ninety-five dollars is a lot to spend on fruit." I thought about all the pancakes we'll eat, all the pies I'll bake, and thought "Hey, my pies are probably ten-dollar pies, maybe even more when I use a lard/duck fat crust."
We'll get our money's worth. We'll stain our lips and eat pie before bed and then again for breakfast. I'll pour a blueberry compote over roast pork and bake whole berries into muffins; in March we'll still be eating blueberry pancakes on weekend mornings. They're all in the freezer now, two stacks of ziploc bags on the bottom shelf. Cup by overflowing cup and bag by bag, we'll eat July the whole winter long.
We picked on the very first day of the blueberry season because last year our vacation coincided with the season and when we returned it was over. We head to Maine next week and we'll pick wild ones along the mountain trails; the lure of them has turned my youngest into an avid hiker. She'll keep going if there are blueberries ahead, even if the trail is a difficult one.

07 July 2009

Anticipating corn

Last year I wrote about corn and wondered why we don't have a deep tradition of corn-based recipes for the month of August. If corn was native to China or France, I feel certain there'd be a whole cuisine that revolved around its seasonal abundance. And while I love corn on the cob, there ought to be richer food traditions that everyone knows and participates in. I know there are people out there who swear by a recipe or dish they know, but my question is, "Why don't all of us know it?" Why haven't we been able to forge a lasting culinary tradition when we're surrounded by mountains of corn for four weeks each year?
Corn season is just around the corner. I'll be making my corn chowder, you can be sure of that. And eating it fresh off the cob. But what else should we be doing with it?

05 July 2009

And it's July

And it’s July and I’m thinking about food. I made pumpkin pie for the 4th of July and a cold slice with fresh whipped cream tasted great. And baked beans and watermelon. We got beautiful lettuce from our neighbor’s garden and made a big salad. Grilled vegetables and plump hot dogs, too. Meaghen asked why I don’t make baked beans more often. This batch has pancetta instead of salt pork, and less molasses than usual. I think I’ll make the next pot with lemon grass, coriander, and honey and see if I can convert my wife, who likes her beans with cumin.
Today we sat in the back yard and ate cold, red watermelon when we were hot from lugging and cutting, hauling and tossing. Watermelon might be the most refreshing food ever grown.
This evening Meaghen made an omelette with pieces of pancetta the size of pats of butter, all sautéed and giving up their fat so the omelette could sizzle and float on a clear, fragrant film. I made swiss chard and used our last frozen tomato from last year’s harvest – wow, only a month until we start eating them from the garden again!
I’m sore from working outside much of the weekend. I’m still trying to improve the rabbit cages and chicken housing because I don’t have a good system for managing the urine and poop of the rabbits. I’ve suspended the rabbit cages so the cage floors stay clean, and currently the waste is falling onto a big sheet of 6 mil plastic, which I haul out every few days and dump. It’s a bit messy, and when we go on vacation in a few weeks the set up is pretty awkward for the neighborhood kids who will water and feed the animals.
After much talk we finally got more chickens. We have just four pullets (immature hens) now and we look forward to eating fresh eggs in a few months. But their housing isn’t finalized, either. What we currently use is fine while the weather is nice; I just keep them in a big cage and move it around every day, but we have such cold winters in Minnesota that better housing is needed for half the year. And with only four birds they won’t keep each other very warm. So, with both the rabbits and chickens, it’s winter that makes things more complicated. A urine-and-poop collection system that works in July may be unmanageable when it’s -20°F outside.
Our rabbits are due to kindle (give birth) any day now. I put the nesting boxes back in on Friday and the two does are beginning to pull fur from their chests and make the boxes, which are lined with hay, cozy and comfortable. Meanwhile, the ten bunnies that were born in May still aren’t large enough to butcher; I thought they’d grow a bit quicker.
Finally, I’m frustrated with my favorite fava beans. We inevitably have a spike of very hot weather sometime in late May, just when the favas are flowering. This leads to many dropped flowers and half-filled pods. I’m a little confused. Favas are grown and eaten throughout the Mediterranean basin, much of which is as hot as any weather we have here. Why aren’t they more heat tolerant? Do we only have varieties that were developed for England’s long, cool spring? I’d like a few varieties that tolerate the heat better.