We interrupt these slow-moving meditations n the largest, deepest nature of food and eating (Part 1 and Part 2 of Will the Circle Be… with Part 3 still to come) o to bring you… garlic.
In Vermont, right around when we gardeners harvest squashes, dig potatoes, beets and turnips, and watch the forecast to get all the tomatoes in before frost — we’re also planting. Garlic.
This is simple to do: Break apart heads of garlic, put each clove root end down in the chilly soil, with a few inches between cloves. Cover back up with soil. One could do this in September; I rarely get to it until November. Sometimes the soil’s already bladed with small sharp shards of ice. This year, though we had one early snow before Halloween, I could be doing it now, in December.
Each of these garlic cloves becomes, eventually, a head. But not for awhile. Awhile that seems as far away as summer does right now, though I know, cognitively, that it was just 6 months ago that I last harvested garlic, some of it on a hot July day when I’d just come up from swimming in the pond.
It’s almost as hard to imagine, now, swimming in that ice-glazed pond which will soon be solid white, as it is to believe the garlic’s there, vital, hidden below inches, soon to be feet, of snow. In Vermont, there are many years when we may not see bare ground from December until April.
Look past America’s Thanksgiving iteration, Pilgrims-Indians-turkey, and you’ll find a praise-song lifted throughout the world: the harvest festival. Look past Christmas, the celebration of the baby Jesus’s birthday, to the pre-Christian time of Solstice. No one knows for sure at what time of year Christ was actually born; it was perhaps the original good marketing, on the part oof the early Christians, to slide it in at the time of the year when the earth turned back toward the sun, and dark was once again eaten by light; a time that was already celebrated in many cultures.
Such festivals always reference not only harvest and religious occasions but time itself. Barren winter becomes fecund spring, riotous summer, fall’s abundant multiplicity. Then, again, winter’s little death. The shortest day and longest night of the year, Winter Solstice, marks the return to the longest day and shortest night of the year, Summer Solstice.
Since I’m a cook and gardener, Thanksgiving comes naturally to me, much more so than Christmas or Chanukah. I easily enumerate the once-a-year Thanksgiving dishes I make: sweet potatoes, which I do with brown sugar and Grand Marnier. Mashed potatoes, which I do with celeriac, mascarpone, an unconscionable amount of butter. A triple-layer torte renowned in my circle: bottom layer, homemade green tomato mincemeat; middle layer, pumpkin custard; top layer; a shatteringly crisp glaze of bruleed pecans.
Too, Thanksgiving falls right around my birthday. About once every 18 years it falls on my birthday. 2010, the year I turned 58, was one of those years. The last time my birthday coincided with Thanksgiving, I turned 40. The next time will be in 2021. Assuming I am still on this mortal coil, spinning on our green globe — assuming the globe is still here, spinning — I will be 69.
I lived in Arkansas back at the time of my 40th birthday. I was not “just” a writer-cook-workshop leader but also an innkeeper-restaurateur. My co-innkeeper, to whom I was married, was also a hyphenated soul: an artist-writer-historic preservationist. We’d been together since I was 24, he 22. I spent my 40th birthday in our inn’s kitchen; he worked the front. Two seatings, 40 guests apiece, then staff Thanksgiving. Gorgeous food. My feet hurt by day’s end.
Was I happy? I think so, but I may have been too busy to notice. I was grateful, though: our inn and dining room were full of delighted guests; my friends George and Starr were playing hammered dulcimer and fiddle; I loved my husband and he me. Hearing the sounds, seeing the people, inhaling the roasting, simmering redolent layers of the familiar foods, the sage in the apricot-studded dressing, the roasting turkey: the incantatory repetitive power of that, again, in that place, was such that I barely noticed turning 40.
In 2000, five days after my birthday that year, my husband went out for his three-times-a-week bicycle ride. His bicycle and a small pick-up collided. He bicycled far, far away, up and into eternity.
When you get over a loss like this fully is never.
I’m no longer in Arkansas, no longer an innkeeper. For the past eight years, I’ve lived in partnership with another hyphenated fellow, David Koff, a filmmaker-social justice activist-writer. I live in Vermont now, as I said. I am here three weeks each month. On that fourth week, I get in the Subaru and drive four hours south and east to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to spend time with my mother, who is 96.
“Will the circle be unbroken?” asks the old hymn, the one I have referenced before on this blog. Grammatically a question, it’s is usually sung as a statement.
I wonder a lot about whether life is or isn’t unbroken, unbreakable, particularly around this time of year. Mostly, I think it is both.
Those who sit at our Thanksgiving or holiday table this year may or may not be here next year. I am grateful for them now.
I am grateful that I loved Ned in the past, too, and even in the present, though he is no longer around to receive that love. Time necessarily dims memory, a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. But I once loved him undimmed and was grateful then, in the past that was once a now.
And I know that though I lost Ned, I did not lose love itself. (Can love itself, not love of someone, be lost? How? Where would it go? I know that this is inexplicable, but I know, too, with the deepest gratitude and amazement, that it is true. )
Conundrum: I could not know and love David (and be known and loved by him) had Ned not died. I am grateful that somehow, I’ve been able to accept this unacceptable fact. Which makes possible an undimmed now. Not a now without troubles, challenges, difficulties (and plenty of them, to be honest) but still undimmed.
Conundrum: a relationship — that of me and my mother, the children’s book writer-editor Charlotte Zolotow —that has always been loving but, equally, difficult, at cross purposes, irritating, and largely unsatisfying has come to peace in her extreme old age.
You don’t have to go live in a cave in India to “be here now.” Just live long enough. My mother has now mostly lost the past, so she can no longer pick over the scabs of all the real and imagined wrongs done to her by me and everyone else in her life. She has lost the future, so she no longer worries about what will happen, if there will be enough money, will everything be alright, will everyone get along. She resides in the present. She is one person now — not one for family, another for friends, another for professional associates. And that person feels what she feels and shows it, transparently. Most of the time, she is happy. She laughs and makes jokes easily. She teases and allows herself to be hugged and kissed and hugs and kisses back and is just… herself, without the wariness or vigilance that used to dog her (and drive me crazy).
I am amazed that we have lived long enough for this to happen: for us to simply love each other and hang out without any emotional impediment.
I am so grateful for that.
I am grateful, too, for friends, whom, I have heard it said, are life’s reward for family. Longtime friends like Starr and George, newer ones here in Vermont, like Gaelen and Rich, with whom David and I often share Thanksgiving (and for that matter Halloween and sometimes Christmas), at a table full of beautiful food.
Those tables full of food, often much of it I have made and fussed over, some of which I have probably grown (this year I did a turnip gratin, with my own garden’s Vermont gilfeather turnips, that was beyond over the top; everyone, and I mean everyone, went back for seconds and thirds). I am grateful for my gillies. I am grateful for all that sustenance and nourishment, for the sensual pleasure it gives the celebrants, that it can serve, for them, as the medium of benign connection… with each other, with me, with the earth and life itself.
Grateful, but always, simultaneously, with an inward kink: Who can forget that so many on this same earth have no food at all? Who can forget how many threats hang over this same earth, and not wonder how long life can be sustained?
We live with unanswerable questions like these because there is no other way to live. This being so, can we live in gratitude, anyway, no matter what?
I am grateful to my friend Shelley Olson, a composer-artist with whom II have been friends since we were in ninth and tenth grade respectively.
I am grateful for last Christmas. Which found me with my mother, and my mother without any of her regular and trained caregivers, when I had to take over with only the slightest idea of what I was doing physically. I am grateful that I could and did call Shelley. She and her husband Dilip, at fairly last-minute notice, hopped on the Metro North train from their home in the Bronx, and spent three days with the two of us. Together, we took care of Charlotte, and we did it well, though Shelley had even less knowledge than I did about how to do this (we watched You-Tube videos on how to safely do transfers, from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to toilet, and so on).
Together, against all odds, the four of us had a ball. It was one of the more improbable holidays I have experienced. But when my mother, who pretty much has to be feed, spoonful by spoonful, and who drinks only when cups or glasses are held to her lips, sat at the table, she engaged. All four of us had a real conversation. She teased and laughed and conversed — from an altered reality, true, but one anyone with a poetic bent could grasp.
And when it was time for a toast, her crumpled, arthritic hand, her arm, its flesh spotted and its thin tendons visible, rose slowly from her lap, a ghost of celebrations past. Somehow she reached for her wine glass. On her own. Unprompted by us, in any way. Somehow she gripped the stem of the glass. Somehow, tremblingly, she brought it to her own lips, and sipped.
I am grateful for that sight, which will stay with me, I believe, forever.
I am grateful that my mother now has caregivers I adore and trust. I am grateful for the memory of Shelley and Dilip’s extraordinary loyalty, work, and sense of adventure last year, and that, when they come out again this year, we will be able to eat together, giving and caring, certainly, but not caregiving (which, for my mother, who is non-weight-bearing and has a daunting number of medications, eye drops, and inhalers, is complex, and really does require people who not only love her but know what they’re doing).
So. Here I am, by luck, grace, karma, or chance. Here is my mother. Here are her caregivers. Here are my friends. At the feast.
We break. Yet the circle itself will forever be unbroken. That is a mystery which we can resist or accept, but with which we must live. Inherent in love is loss. Inherent in summer is winter. Inherent in endings are beginnings. Life’s terms are impossibly poignant.
Tall, pale green spikes will poke up in next spring’s messy, sodden garden. The first thing! There will probably still be snow on parts of the garden, and the mulch out of which those green stalks arise will be soggy and much worse for the wear of the winter it’s come through, blanketing the soil, and what lays hidden beneath it.
But will be, this spring, hidden no more.
Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life
Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.
|Date:||December 12, 2011 (after 2nd Saturday writing group, before 2nd Saturday evening improv)|
|Place:||Our Dining Room Table, Bemis Hill, Westminster West, Vermont|
|At the table with:||
David Koff, Judith Reichsman, Meredith Ruland, Norma Skorstad. Joanna Weiderhorn had to leave early (but with a full basket of supper, and having made a contribution)