September 3, 2014

Peace, Love, and Sushi

sushiIt’s 5:30 am and I’m rumbling down Route 195 to New Bedford in a fish truck with Rich Pasquill, who started in the fish business in ’83 with his dad.  Six years later he opened a sushi restaurant and fish market in southeastern Massachusetts that arguably has some of the freshest, best seafood I’ve ever tasted.  I wanted to learn how he does it.

Both Rich’s grandfathers were fishermen lost at sea – one in a bad storm off George’s Banks, and the other when a tanker hit his boat in the wrong lane.  Their names are on the wall at the Seamen’s Bethel, along with other local fishermen lost at sea, including New Bedford whalers.  “In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot,” wrote Melville about the chapel in Moby Dick.

“There’s no way my father was letting me go to sea,” Rich said as he backed up his truck to a large butler-like building on the waterfront.  We left our lattes in the cab and headed into the morning fish auction.  As we passed the loading dock Rich explained: for decades his father was in charge of unloading the fish down at the docks, and he learned the trade from him, starting out in high school working on the water boat – a tug that waters the fishing boats. 

“So many guys my age ended up on the waterfront because it was flourishing here in the 70s,” he explained.  “Guys down here were making more than a pro hockey player.  It was too tempting to not go to college.”

The fish auction doesn’t begin until 8, but he’s down here early 6-7 days a week, inspecting and sourcing 5,000 pounds of fish a week.  “Even on vacation in Puerto Rico in February,” he smiles, “I’m down in the hotel lobby at 6 am, talking to my guys about what looks good.”

We consider an enormous skate sprawled across shaved ice.  Looks good to me.  “It’s been out in the sun,” he says dismissively, flipping it over.  “Some of these day-boat guys don’t care about fish,” he says, pointing out the burn spots, and shrugs.  “Some do.”  He’s lifting up fish, shaking scallop bags, inspecting each box of seafood that was unloaded from 11 pm last night until 4 am this morning in this cavernous temperature-controlled warehouse that is spotless and doesn’t smell fishy, despite the fact that we’re up to our gills in it.  A guy is hosing down the floor, which looks cleaner than my kitchen on a good day.

“Deep water fish is healthier,” he explains, letting me in on a secret: the guys who steam out to Georges Bank or Nantucket Sound to trawl for scallops or catch fish are gone for a week, maybe more.  They catch fish every day they’re out.  Wouldn’t you want the fish that they caught yesterday afternoon, as they headed back to the harbor, as opposed to what’s been on ice for a week?  He knows these guys, went to high school with many of them.  He talks to the skippers about which load was caught at the end of the trip.  He buys that load.

 “Hey Fingers,” he nods to a guy sorting fish, then gives me a sheepish look.   The guy was missing most of the fingers on his left hand.  It’s dangerous work all around – from the sorting and processing, to fishing itself, where accidents happen – like the time a hatch was left open mistakenly on a boat in a 40 mph gale. 

We’re about to go upstairs to the fish auction, and he’s concerned; there’s no tuna that looks good.  “If I don’t have tuna, I don’t have a sushi bar,” he says matter-of-factly.   He introduced sushi at the restaurant in 2004 (“Ya think your dad woulda approved of a sooshee bar?” the old timers crowed at him), and he knows a thing or three about the freshest fish.

“Oh, good,” he interrupts himself, admiring a gorgeous fluke.  “That’ll be in the bar tonight.”

 He talks about the Portuguese fishermen he knew in the ‘70s, who worked hard seven days a week, often at more than one job, first cutting fish, then working their way up to owning a few boats.  They educated their children, did well, and now are retiring.  In recent years, there is a growing number of K’iche-speaking Guatemalan immigrants who have found work on the docks and in the commercial fishing industry– doing everything from cutting fish to sewing scallop bags. 

He tells me to feel some scallops.  The channel scallops, found among the rocks, are firm.  The mid Atlantic scallops are softer.  I ask him about New Bedford scallops – having grown up in a time when New Bedford harbor was polluted with PCBs, I was startled the first time I saw “New Bedford scallops” on a menu as though it was some prize.  He explains:  unlike Cuttyhunk oysters, say, which were probably caught or farmed just offshore this outermost Elizabeth island,  New Bedford scallops mean that a New Bedford fishing trawler brought them in  – they could have been dredged southeast of Nantucket, or off Georges Bank.

We watch the Alaska unload scallops, which have helped make New Bedford famous again.  With the largest fishing fleet in New England, for the last decade New Bedford has been the most profitable fishing port in the United States due to scalloping.  Just a day’s steam to Nantucket Shoals, Georges Bank and the Great South Channel, trawlers bring in nearly 50 million pounds of sea scallops each year – a $411 million business.   Those who work here are cautious, though – they remember what it was like when the commercial fishing industry collapsed in the ‘80s.  They also recognize that two centuries ago, in 1857, New Bedford was the richest city per capita in the United States thanks also to the sea – from whale oil.  The jaw-dropping architecture – block after block of Victorian mansions with widow’s walks and gardens and iron fences – is a faded testament to whaling wealth, and later textile manufacturing.

Despite the booming scalloping business, there’s much talk of the collapsed ground fishing industry and the Magnuson-Stevens Act (originally the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976), which governs fisheries management in the U.S., a direct response to overfishing and the desire to protect ecosystems.  Congress “needs to hit the reset button,” the mayor of New Bedford boomed at the press recently, attempting to rebuild a fishing industry that has lost 50 shore side businesses since 2004 and 300 jobs since 2010.   Despite the fact that it’s been more than 20 years since 200 Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the Whaling City aboard  Lady Diane and loaded into a U-Haul in the middle of the night, New Bedford remains a gritty place, plagued with drugs, poverty, and unemployment – and a public education system that many believe is failing its youth.  Despite a thriving Whaling Museum, and a small lively arts scene, tourism may not be enough; New Bedford remains “a tale of two cities,” according to one Boston radio station.  ABC News reported 24 assaults on teachers by students in 2014 at New Bedford High School. It’s an ongoing battle. 

Rich brings me into the auction room, where an electronic wall display, not unlike what you might expect to see in a commodity broker’s office, is listing the prices of fish by species and size.  Copies of National Fisherman are on the counter along with a pot of coffee that’s not too inviting. A few guys look up from their newspapers warily, waiting for the day’s auction to begin.  “She’s with me,” Rich answers the silence.  On the wall is a sign: “National Marine Fisheries Service – Destroying Fishermen and their Communities since 1976.”

When the auction ends, I ask about “Carmine Fish” Romano, the mafia crime boss who ruled Fulton Fish Market in New York until convicted of racketeering in 1982.  With a 12-year federal prison sentence, Romano was banned for life from working at Fulton, which had been run by mobsters since the 1920s.  Before his conviction, Romano had also run a bar (called Carmine’s) off the South pier at Fulton, where he’d take care of the New Bedford guys who came down to deliver fish; upstairs he rented office space upstairs to Local 359 (United Seafood Commercial Workers Union).  A member of the Genovese crime family (a codfather!), Romano got early parole and married a gal from New Bedford, moved up to Massachusetts and got back into the fish business until his death in 2011.  For years the docks flowed with “shack,” a waterfront tradition of cash paid for fish and scallops, its name derived from the wooden shacks that fish buyers set up on the docks decades ago.  Shacks and nightriders –boats that came in at night and were met by a guy with a truck and cash– are a thing of the past, says Rich, although he allowed that’s how a lot of these guys got started.  The old time fish buyers with names like Breezy and Doggy are gone.   But, as Rich points out, urban renewal hasn’t been kind to the city – a busy highway bisects the historic district and most of the city from the waterfront, which pumps money into the local economy but is walled off from it.  Crystal Ice – an ice vending machine under the bridge – runs 24 hours a day because of the scalloping.  The National Club, a seedy old fisherman’s bar where I wrote my first newspaper story in 1978 (about a snake charmer named Tina who performed with a live boa for the guys on Friday nights), still exists, though you won’t find it on Facebook or even in the phone book.  He looked slightly appalled that I knew of the bar.

   “The waterfront today is a tangle of contradictions,” wrote the New Bedford Standard Times.  “It has been maligned and celebrated, it has brought the city both riches and addictions, huge triumphs and massive problems. It still offers out the great promise of fishing anyone brave enough and smart enough to go and catch fish can will himself to a brighter future. The rewards from life on the harbor can be great– and the risks enormous.”  Though the days are gone when the safety equipment on a New Bedford trawler consisted of life jackets, flares, and eight strings of rosary beads, commercial fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Rich doesn’t fish.  He doesn’t go out on boats.  To relax, he likes to sit in a beach chair on his lawn in Mattapoisett, a good distance from the bay.  “I have my waterline,” he says, smiling.

April 3, 2014

Ode to Hobie

P1020306

Hobie Alter died Saturday.

Known as the Henry Ford of surfboarding, he designed the Hobie Cat, the ultra-light fiberglass catamaran that put sailing on another plane.

I first sailed one in 1969. I was just a kid, but my older cousin Lynn (who drove a powder blue Mustang and was in college) let me sail her Hobie 14. It took off like lightning on the WeWeantic River where we summered, skimming the surface like a firefly. We all cracked up on the shore when she later took it out with her dog (a black lab mutt named Bufferin) and the webbing came loose on the trampoline-style deck and she and her startled dog fell through the canvas while the boat kept sailing on.

“Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf,” Life magazine wrote in 1970, “this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that Hobie was the first name of the guy who said he wanted to make a living without wearing hard-soled shoes, and whose philosophy of designing a new boat was to take it out in screaming 30+ knot winds, see what breaks, then fix it. Unlike the more august Hinckleys, Herreshoffs, or Bertrams, the right foot of the H on his logo underscored his first name with zeal. This was a rock n’ roller at the regatta.

It turns out my father, who knew his way around boats, once met Hobie Alter. An engineer, my father moved to Southern California in the late ‘40s, where he built kayaks in his spare time. He’d take them down to Laguna Beach to launch in the surf. Those were heady days, with other guys on the beach too who loved water and woodworking and were launching surfboards they’d built in their garages. One was Hobie, who built balsa boards for his friends. But then my dad got lucky that way – he once rode the train home to Boston and sat next to a guy who told him all about the polarizing technology he was developing – it was Edwin Land, working on his first Land Camera, which became the Polaroid.

Growing up, we lived by the sea and had more boats than family members, and when I eventually moved to New York City and then western Massachusetts, I mourned my land-bound lack of boats. The gravitational pull of clanking halyards and swells of the sea are strong. Then a dozen years ago, my husband and I were walking through the Minneapolis airport – of all places – and saw this spectacle that looked like a nautical bird on display, its sail flapping at the confluence of Terminals A and B. It was a Hobie Mirage Adventure Island: part kayak, part trimaran sailboat, part paddle boat. It could be loaded on top of a car and transported anywhere.

We bought it.

My father was skeptical (it was ridiculous looking) but it sailed like the wind. We can take our Hobie wherever there is a breeze – Shaftsbury Lake in Vermont, Somes Sound in Maine, Buzzard’s Bay in Southeastern Massachusetts. Slung low in the molded cockpit, inches from the waves, you feel free and fast as you skim across the water, your leeward ama chiseling into the water while the windward one goes airborne. You surf, you sail, you sing (well, I sing), you soar – you just can’t believe your good fortune to be out on the water, so close to the water, so influenced by the wind, on such a beautiful day.

It’s a blast.

Keep sailing on, Hobie.

March 20, 2014

The kindness of strangers

Image

I have a friend with three young kids (two of whom she homeschools) who is undergoing treatment for 4th stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  It takes my breath away.  She maintains a stiff upper lip, and keeps her friends updated with funny, noble, self-deprecating posts.  “I try to keep things in perspective,” she wrote recently.  “I try to help my friends by leaving out the mundane and the pathetic.  I have focused so hard on appreciating all the good.”

Her idea of good?

“I can eat and I walk myself to the bathroom (albeit slowly and without dignity).”

Recently, she told us, she lost her balance.  It was a tough day – too many hurdles for one person while waiting for her next round of chemo and the doctors who would tell her the next phase of her plan.  She was offered acupuncture while waiting, and during the treatment, the acupuncturist looked at her and told her to just cry and let it all out.  She bawled for 20 minutes.

Sometimes what seems modest to the person offering assistance makes all the difference.  It’s a good lesson to remember.  I’m reminded of the time shortly after my first husband’s death. I was taking the train to New York – a simple task, but for me then, often feeling on the verge of coming unhinged, it was a huge deal to go to the city.  I walked to the café car, and bought a Coke (victory).  I found a seat, sat down, took a sip and started to read (another victory…reading is impossible when you are consumed with demons whenever your head is quiet).  Then the train hit a bump and my Coke spilled.  I watched it froth and disappear into the carpet. I started to cry, then sob, the tears spilling down my cheeks as I bowed my head in isolation.

About ten minutes later a Coke appeared on my tray – the ticket taker had seen what had happened and brought another one to me quietly.  I mouthed thank you.  No words were exchanged.  I was so grateful for that gesture of kindness…I remember it vividly 25 years later, and am as grateful for it today as I am for the woman who did my friend’s acupuncture.

Recently on the first Sunday of Lent, the Reverend Peter Elvin of St. John’s in Williamstown told his congregation that when Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, he was ministered to by angels.  He went on to say that, when one is sick or suffering, there are angels.  We just don’t always see them.

May 21, 2013

Harry Potter was here

7588I got a call yesterday from my step-mother.  She was selling my father’s car and wanted to know if I wanted his license plate.

My father was named Harry Potter Trainer Jr., and his license plate was HPT.  After the Harry Potter books came out, he got tremendous mileage out of his name, especially with his young grandson.  He even had labels printed up, and when he was out and about in his 80s – to the doctor’s office in Boston, at the local barber, in his grandchildren’s bathroom  – he would leave behind a sticker announcing “Harry Potter was here.”

HPT was more than an acronym, though, for throughout my father’s life, words and letters (not to mention cars) were an opportunity for play and  humor.   Every word had the potential to be a pun.  Like a catcher at home plate, he’d wait and watch us (or any other unsuspecting pitcher) lob a word.  He’d watch the ball head for home plate, then at the last minute he’d crack some pun that sent it out of the park, leaving me groaning, my mother rolling her eyes, and my grandmother tittering delicately.  We knew he was about to lob a doozy when he’d sit silently, like a cat, not participating in the conversation.  When my uncles were around, the puns could go on for 20 or 30 sentences (especially if fish were mentioned.)  But I won’t carp on that.

Cars figured into the mix. When my father married my mother (a 9th generation Yankee) and moved her to Texas for a new job, his father-in-law called him, half-jokingly, “RHB.”  (I was told it stood for Red Headed Bum; it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I learned that my grandfather meant Red Headed Bastard.)  My father upped him by making RHB the license plates of his first sports car, a dandy cream-colored Fiat with lipstick red leather upholstery whose road worthiness was so questionable that when he first took me for the first spin at age 4, my passenger door swung open as we took a sharp curve heading to Handy’s Boat Yard for ice cream.

So in the annals of our family, my father became RHB, and he in turn named my mother FOB, which stood for Feisty Old Bitch.  My mother was indeed feisty, and he meant it in the most loving way.  Dad was restoring an old Model T Ford (he named it Henrietta), and I half thought he’d get FOB for the license plate when he put it on the road.  But he was also a swamp Yankee, and one doesn’t stick one’s neck out too far.

When my mother passed away at age 73, though, he had it inscribed on her tombstone amongst the morning glories and ivy.  She loved the water, so he also had it put in the corner of a brass plate on a bench in her memory at a small waterfront park.  We always thought it was our private joke.  When the bench fell apart, the local land trust told me they’d replace the plaque if I’d pay for it.  I squired my young children and nephew to the park in kayaks, hoping to make the installation of the plate (my father would have called it a screwing ceremony) a memorable moment.  Unfortunately, the wind blew up and I realized we’d never get home, since we’d have to paddle into the teeth of the wind.  The elderly gentleman from the land trust who was installing the plaque asked me quietly if I knew what FOB stood for, as he loaded our kayaks into his truck.  I could tell my family was of questionable character in his eyes, and to be caught in a momentary lapse of nautical judgment sealed my fate.  When dad died, I had RHB inscribed on his tombstone, which was next to mom’s.

Throughout my father’s life, he did keep one license plate number, 7588, and when he passed away I got into a tug-of-war with the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep it.  The license plate had been issued to my grandfather (the first Harry Potter Trainer) in 1905, two years after Massachusetts became the first state in the union to issue license plates.  My grandfather was 11 years old, 4’ 11” and I know this because my father saved everything, and I have a clipping of the Boston newspaper that ran the 1905 story: Eleven Year Old Boy Runs Big Auto.

“He can be seen guiding his big machine through the streets of Brookline,” wrote the reporter, calling him a ‘lad’ and including a photograph of my diminutive grandfather next to his father’s outsized Stevens-Duryea.   My father inherited the plate, and as we moved around a lot (we lived in three states by the time I was seven) he’d let a cousin use it until he returned to his beloved Massachusetts.

By the 1970s, low license plates were a sign of political favoritism and patronage (my father was offered $1000 for the plate in 1972) but Massachusetts license plates remained uncluttered by icons or slogans until Democratic Governor Dukakis succumbed to the slogan craze while governor in 1986.  Lighthouses, the Red Sox, and Cape Cod decorated plates as the Massachusetts Miracle went bust (remember Taxachusetts?) and one Republican pundit proposed a new license slogan: Stay and Pay.  Dukakis initiated a lucrative lottery system for low number plates in 1987, and began reeling them in, making it impossible for the political patronage to continue.  Last year I spent the better part of a day at the Department of Motor Vehicles in New Bedford with my step-mother, trying to explain the plate’s history and that we’d like to transfer it.  The attendant was clearly bored and suspicious.  She looked at her computer records.  “An Elinor Trainer owned it in 1972,” she noted.  “That’s my mother!” I exclaimed, unaware of the lottery system.  She was nonplussed. We went through all the hoops she threw at us –  3 notarized forms, a letter from my lawyer, a letter from my step-mother’s lawyer, two copies of the title.  Four hours later she gave up trying to wrestle the plate away from us.

The Fiat came and went, though other cars would take its place, including a ’57 Austin Healey that my father spent several years puttering over and meticulously restoring in his garage when he retired.  In his later years, as congestive heart failure took its toll, he had a hard time shifting and clutching.  So at age 80, he sold it.  Two days later he bought a BMW convertible, and put on the HPT plate.  After he died my 89 year old step-mother kept it, even though she needed a pillow to see over the wheel; last November she got pulled over for speeding while heading home from her son’s after Thanksgiving dinner.  When the cop peered into the window with his flashlight, he exclaimed, “It’s a little old lady driving the beemer!”

And now she was calling, telling me it was time to sell the beemer and did I want the HPT plate.  We laughed about the tussle we’d had at the DMV over the last plate.  I thought about it, and declined, explaining that it didn’t make sense for me – JTT – to have HPT plates, since that was his name.

“Oh, didn’t you know?” she said.  “Your father called it his High Priced Toy.”

I told my 15 year old son the story this morning, and he asked if we could transfer the plate.  I asked why.  “Because I may want to use it someday,” he replied.  And so it goes.

February 6, 2013

The Best Valentine’s Gift?

ImageWhy, hot sauce, of course.  So easy to make, you can pour it into a bottle and name it after your favorite partner in heat.  I love Caribbean-styled sauces, which provide a sweet heat, and are made with scotch bonnet peppers (also known as Mrs. Jacques’ Behind in Guadaloupe).  Here’s an easy one, excerpted from HOT SAUCE! (Storey Publishing).  I call it “She Simmers” (I also make a Caribbean-styled sauce called Jump Up and Kiss Me — which works.)

6 fresh Scotch bonnet peppers or habaneros

1/2 cup fresh OJ

1/2 cup cheap white vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice plus 2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon fresh nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Stem and seed the habaneros, reserving the seeds.  Whirl all ingredients in a blender and puree until silky.  Taste and add seeds if you want to ratchet up heat.  Simmer in a saucepan on the stove for 10 minutes or so, then let cool and poor into bottles.  Makes 2 cups.   (Note: given the heat of the capsaicin that is contained in the membrane of the chile and its power to sting your eyes, etc., it’s best to use rubber gloves when working with chiles, or at the very least washing your hands thoroughly afterwards and being careful not to scratch where it itches!)

October 1, 2012

Shaking Your Booty in Baltimore

Image

Yesterday Joe woke me at 6 am.

“Weren’t you supposed to have left already to catch your flight?”

Those dreaded words.

My flight was at 7:30 am, which meant getting to Albany at 6:30 am, which meant leaving the house at 5:30 am.  I threw on clothes and was out the door in 7 minutes.  Careful to drive only 6 miles over the speed limit, I gripped the wheel and talked to myself most of the way, trying to instill a calm I didn’t feel and reminding myself it wasn’t a tragedy if I missed the flight, although it meant missing a televised talk and cooking demo at the Baltimore Book Festival that had been scheduled for months.

Miraculously, I made the flight (no traffic, short security line, and Southwest Airlines doesn’t close the gate early).  It wasn’t until I was seated in the middle of the back row at 7:29 am that it dawned on me that I looked like hell.  I had thrown on clothes that would have been perfect for a summer church picnic:  flouncy dress, sandals, no sweater or stockings.  The stewardess reported that the current temperature in Baltimore was 53 degrees.  It was an outdoor event.

On a Sunday morning in Baltimore, there are no clothing stores open.  Even the malls are closed.  I was desperate enough to comb BWI airport for a Gap, but no such luck.  I asked the cab driver to drop me near St Paul’s, the historic neighborhood where I had to be in two hours, and started walking the streets for a store that was open.  I found an Indian home decorating store and briefly considered swathing myself in silk fabric, but they were closed.

Then on the 2nd floor of a side street, I spied what looked like a costume shop.  The Doll House.  It was closed, but a woman briefly appeared in the window.  She disappeared.  I tried the first floor door.  Unlocked.  The sign said they opened at noon. I couldn’t just walk in.  I went back on the sidewalk and looked up again.  She peered out again, scowling.  I mouthed my predicament.  After a long moment, she shrugged like I do at my kids when I’m too tired to resist, and motioned for me to climb the stairs.

She’d been up all night preparing for a trunk show that was starting at 4 pm.  All the clothes were fantastical – Edwardian theater meets space age.

“Nothin’ here for you,” she summed up.  Near her was a sequined suede dress whose back was cut all the way to Annapolis.

In the corner was a rack of clothes that had been shunted aside, ready to be rolled to the back room during the show.  It was their “regular” stuff (which was still pretty over the top).

On it I found a pair of dark denim waist band jeans that I had to be zippered into and a silky red top the color of Tabasco that was adorned with vintage buttons and mini cloth marshmallows.  Perfect.  But the pants were alarmingly tight and my panty line showed.  I fingered the ridge line in self doubt.

“Girl, your booty looks good,”   she said.  Then her eyes landed on my sandals.

“You need closed toe shoes with those pants, but there ain’t nothin’ we can do ‘bout that.”  She was warming up to the subject.

“But the clip’s gotta go.”

I had pulled my hair back into a clip, not having time to style it, and knew that, if released, my hair would look like Cruella de Vil’s.  I still had an hour, and let her in on my plan to find a hotel nearby with a beauty salon that might be open on a Sunday morning.  She gave me a withering look.

“You know how to use a straight iron?” she asked skeptically, but not unkindly.

How different could it be from a curling iron?  “I think so.”

“I’ll set you up.”

“It’s fate,” she pronounced when I emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later with bigger hair.  It turns out she rarely walks by the store’s picture window.  When she did that morning and saw me, she thought, ‘what the heck’s that woman doing staring up at my shop?  Surely she’s not gonna try and come in – it’s 9:30 in the morning!’  When she peeked out a few minutes later and I was still there, she took pity.

As she was ringing up my purchase, she offered me advice on how else to wear the pants and top, which it turns out she had designed and sewn.  I wished her luck on her trunk show.  We hugged goodbye.  I went off to my show, feeling grateful that a stranger in Baltimore had my back.

September 7, 2012

Wilco and the perfect egg

Image
It was lining up to be a perfect night.  My favorite band was performing at MASS MoCA, and we were going with our kids and friends.  As a treat, I let our hens free range for an hour – from 6 pm (when I left for a pre-concert dinner) until 7 pm, when my girlfriend Janette would swing by the house to close up the coop and bring her kids and mine to the concert.  The hens could have fun, too, pecking for worms  in the yard on a beautiful Berkshire evening.
     In the middle of dinner Janette called me: she was at my house, where there had been a chicken massacre. All but one were dead. Several hens had been decapitated and the others were missing, the only evidence being feathers scattered across the lawn. Hoodoo Voodoo?  My 14 year old son disposed of the remains without complaint. I was so grateful to him.     The next morning, the one hen remaining was clearly traumatized. Cheddar’s feathers were standing up on-end, making her look like Phyllis Diller. She stopped laying eggs, and let out nervous squawks from her perch. She wouldn’t leave the coop. Her eyes got glassy. Her poops (pardon me) got sickly. I cradled her in my arms in a warm sweatshirt every evening. She was at her window, sad and lonely. I thought I might lose her.
     A few weeks before, a neighbor had offered me 3 chicks and I’d demurred — I called and they were still available, but they weren’t big enough to leave her coop for another 2 weeks. Meanwhile we were going on vacation.  I asked Janette (who also has chickens) to take Cheddar for two weeks. I knew if Cheddar were alone – even if someone fed her — she’d die of heartache. I drove Cheddar to Janette’s, and when her golden retriever came out to greet us, Cheddar got panicky. Aha!  She’d seen dogs before and never overreacted.  It may have been a dog.  But it didn’t really matter. I put her in Janette’s coop with the other chickens and she was standoffish, looking like an awkward teenager who had just started middle school in a new town.  Though she did get a bit of her groove back, pecking at chicks who came near.
She remained a loner for the two weeks we were on vacation  – snubbing her new neighbors, squawking disgruntedly, refusing to lay eggs.
     Home from vacation, I dashed over to pick up Cheddar and was delighted that she came to me (that had never happened before).  She squatted (I love how they lift their wings as though raising long skirts) for me to pet her.  She ‘bawwkked’ in a low gravelly voice, her protestations unenthusiastic. I worried about transporting her loose in the car – my 9-year old would have nothing to do with holding her, and I didn’t have the heart to put her in a box – but she was so calm that I seated her in my lap and drove while she sat quietly and let me pet her feathers, acting like a purring old cat.
     When we got home, I held her to my chest and – I swear to God – she tucked her head into my neck and nuzzled me once with her beak. Then she let out a slow quiet “baawrrrk”. It was the damndest thing.The baby chicks were in our coop already, nervously clucking about her arrival. Unphased, she ignored them.  She was too busy scratching the floor of the coop, scratching in the yard, preoccupied with surveying her territory.The next morning she laid an egg, her first in five weeks.
     It’s just that simple.
June 12, 2012

Cool Cocktails: Mojito

Image

This classic Cuban drink is all about the fragrant mint mingling with the rum, lime, and sugar.

1 teaspoon powdered sugar

1/2 lime, freshly squeezed

4 peppermint leaves plus 1 sprig for garnish

2 ounces white rum

1 ounce club soda (optional)

Put the sugar in a highball glass and squeeze in the lime juice, stir to dissolve. Add the mint leaves and crush against the side of the glass until the aromatic oils are released. Add the lime rind. Fill the glass with crushed ice, add the rum. Top with club soda. Garnish with the mint sprig.

Serves 1

Note: To make a pitcher, multiply the ingredient quantities by the number of guests. Mash the mint and sugar in a bowl with a wooden spoon, then add the lime juice and rum and stir until the sugar dissolves.  Strain the mixture into a pitcher. (The recipe can be made up to this point several hours ahead and kept refrigerated.) When ready to serve, stir gently, and pour the mixture into glasses filled with crushed ice. Serve with a sprig of mint and a wedge of lime.

May 30, 2012

Sleep Away Camp

ImageI’m sending my kid away to sleep away camp this summer, and it seems a bit weird to me.

I didn’t grow up in a camp culture.  I don’t know the Keewaydin camp song, or the Grand March at Camp Lincoln.  I can’t imagine putting my kid on a bus in midtown Manhattan and waving goodbye for 8 weeks.   Growing up in Indianapolis in the ’60s, I spent one week at a day camp where we caught crawdads in the creek and sweated it out in the 100 degree heat.  I didn’t think it was terribly fun.

When I was in third grade, my parents — both Yankees who had only known Cape Cod summers – feared I might turn into a Hoosier so decided to ship me off to my aunt’s for six weeks on the Cape after school got out in June.  I vividly remember my mother taking me to the airport to say goodbye, and walking across the tarmac with her to the jet, the words Pan Am looming large and scary in the shimmering heat.  When I kissed her goodbye and my eyes welled up, she looked at me and said “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”  Those words set me free.  I boarded the plane in stride, took a seat next to a stranger in my new matching outfit from Sears, chatted with her the entire flight, enjoyed the attention of the stewardesses and the pilot (those were the days), and looked my six week adventure dead in the eye.

I spent the next five summers at my aunt’s.  It was a blast.  My cousins were 4 and 6 years older, but they’d appear when it was time to go water skiing, which we did every day that the weather was good to middling (sprinkling rain was ok) and the tide was up.  I lived in three bathing suits: the one I was wearing, one that was wet on the line, and the one that was dry on the hook on the back of the bathroom door (the cottage was too small for me to have my own bedroom; I slept on a cot on the porch (coed, of course).  At low tide we played hours of canasta with the kids next door (one stormy summer using  8 decks of cards so it would last all day), made walkie talkies out of cans and string, and got slightly bored until my cousin and I figured out adventures in the eel grass and mud flats.  Weekends were exciting — Uncle Jack was home, more cousins came, and there’d be fishing (which I did only once, because it required arising at 5:30 am and scaling my own fish), sailing, picnics, and family cookouts.  There was no TV, and on Sunday nights my aunt Peggy would break out her guitar, and we’d spend the evening singing.  Calling them ‘hootenanies,’ we sang Broadway show tunes and folk songs that are now dubbed ‘roots music.’  It was plenty indie.  They were some of the best summers of my life.

I want that feeling — a deep love of summer, the water, the outdoors, and no schedule — for my children.  But kids just don’t hang out much anymore.  Driving in my small rural town on a weekday morning in the summer, I don’t see kids (or dogs, for that matter) running across lawns or playing games in the driveway.  At the beach, you see renters on a mad dash to squeeze everything into a two-week vacation, but few kids hanging all summer at the beach with no commitments.  They race home to squash camp, theater camp, and summer enrichment.  I wonder if those hazy crazy lazy days still exist.

A friend of mine suggested Camp Dudley, an old fashioned sleep away camp, for our boys this summer.   It’s different from what I’ve known, and it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea.  But my son was game.  The camp is old fashioned – there’s no ‘theme’ and kids choose from a multitude of diversions– but they are expected to pick a few activities daily, and I’m wondering what kids do if they simply want to retreat under a tree and read for 5 hours.  Maybe they let them.  I love the ‘no electronics’ rule, but I’m also mindful that, when I calculate what this camp costs per week, it’s the equivalent of an Ivy League education for us to achieve such simplicity.  On the other hand, I’m intrigued that they have a quiet time every evening — 15 minutes or so when a cabin counselor leads the boys in each cabin in a thoughtful discussion before bed.  When I was a kid, our most meaningful discussions were whether we could talk Aunt Peggy into taking us go-karting or the Kool Kone after supper. 

Last month, driving home along route 91 through the Adirondacks from Montreal, I noticed that I was about to pass the exit to the camp.  Excitedly, in the dead of winter, I pulled off and drove two miles to Camp Dudley.  The camp director was there and greeted me warmly.  Even with snow, you could see what the place was like — fantastic rustic cabins along a lake, a big welcoming field for all sorts of activities, and an ancient ‘mess hall’ hung with banners that looked right out of a Harry Potter movie.  The boat house was buttoned up tight, but looked ready to spill out onto the lake.  I checked out the cabins and was in awe; they were clean, cozy, and cheerful, with water views and a fireplace, which the director said they gathered around each night for their talks.  (Mental note: pack sweatshirts and pants.)  Icould envision the boys talking around the fire about where they most wanted to travel, or what they would do if faced with a particularly difficult challenge.

I could imagine that maybe, just maybe, this was a place to make a friend for life.  Or at least for the summer. That was as good as life then.

It wasn’t bad, not bad at all.  Just different.

May 21, 2012

On the Trail in Delaware

Tattoos…bikers…great flavor…questionable clothes…all in the name of Heat.

I spent the weekeend in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, at the Peppers at the Beach Tailgate Party, the brainchild of Luther and Chip Hearn.  Thirty years ago, looking for a way to draw in customers year-round, they opened a Bloody Mary bar at a local beachside restaurant, featuring 48 hot sauces customers could shake into their drinks.  People went nuts; by 1999 they had over 600 hot sauces to dress up Bloody Marys.  The Hearns started selling the sauces, too – first they bought a shed at Sears and stuck it behind the restaurant, but outgrew it in a few months.  They got a bigger shed…and a bigger one…until they eventually ditched the restaurant and opened Peppers, arguably the largest hot sauce shop in the world.

The store is inspiring.  Although there’s a bit of chile pepper ephemera – plastic chile lights and porcelain dip trays and the occasional raunchy apron - it’s the sauce that draws the crowds. Thousands of hot sauces line the walls (there’s even a ‘collector’s corner’ with sauces I haven’t seen in 20 years –Miss Anna’s, or the second label version of Tejas Tears).  A mecca for chileheads, these guys can distinguish Scorned Woman from Dave’s Insanity, or Inner Beauty from Capital Punishment; Luther’s personal hot sauce collection exceeds 9,000 bottles.

The weekend before Memorial Day, the Hearns put on a festival that’s a good-time wing-eating contest (the guys in the photo, sporting some of the attire seen at the Festival, are distinguished gentlemen in the industry).  There was even a scorpion ghost pepper eating contest, and some guy that the crowd called “the Machine” set a Guiness world record – I kid you not – when he ate eight of the world’s hottest peppers (49 grams, folks) in less than a minute.  The crowd, which had been chanting “U-S-A!” in a nod to the fact that the previous world record holder was German, went wild.

Never a dull moment on the trail of flame.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.