Category Archives: friends

A hard day on a hard week (Monday thanks)

pear chocolate nutmeg muffin

It’s been a big week. Count me among the devastated. But the list of things bringing me quiet solace right now feels a mile long: the perfume of the thorny olive blossoms; lingering woodsmoke in my hair and my clothes; these aching blue skies; cold nights under goose down; my first efforts at fermenting milk kefir; stolen minutes (sometimes seconds) with my book; a fridge cleanout; this trusty soup and a half dozen friends around my table; the smell of the woods as the leaf mulch thickens and begins to decay; my fierce toddler and my tender 7-year old and our Twister mat spread wide in front of the fireplace; our inherited barn cat, half feral in the year we’ve been here, now ready for ear scratches; pulling another bag of July blueberries from the freezer for pancakes; naps. Not my own, alas. But my hilarious, determined, curious, headstrong daughter…maaaaan, the girl is non-stop. (I say it like Leslie Odom Jr. so I don’t forget to laugh!)

There was an afternoon last week when we stopped at the bay, just for a minute, just to see it was still there, just to remember to breathe. I parked at the end of the road and kept both hands on the wheel. I remember the tide was quite high. Both kids begged to get out and play, and I want to be the mom who forgets her to-do list and says yes to that, and I think I am that mom really, but this was a hard day on a hard week and I was aching for an hour where no one needed anything. So instead we went home, and my daughter napped, and I pulled The Homemade Kitchen from the shelf, because what I needed was a promise that if we keep sitting down to eat and listening while we chew, then things will be okay. Alana is very good at that sort of reminder. I randomly opened to her words about the peace she finds alone in a quiet morning kitchen, and I thought, I want that. I read her master muffin recipe and thought, I want those! And then I remembered that I make a pretty mean muffin myself, a muffin that has seen me through some other hard times, so I made those instead. I found a sad pear in the crisper, pretty bruised from a day (or maybe two) in the snack bag and with a bite already taken out of it. Perfect. I grabbed some chocolate chips, I grabbed the nutmeg, I got to work.

It’s not enough, the down comforters and the woodsmoke and the muffins. But it’s how I’m getting through the week. And while I measure and stir, somewhere underneath, I am figuring out what to do next.

Monday thanks, or, I can certainly raise my glass to that.

early autumn window sill

I spent almost a month in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest in late August and early September. It was a wild and wonderful trip, full of tasty food and even tastier conversations with people I have been wanting to hug in person for years and years, and Big Thoughts about the value of a less filtered life. Thoughts for another post!

When I was in Portland I discovered I had packed for late summer on the wrong coast. I had to buy two pairs of jeans and some shoes that were not sandals and I was thoroughly convinced it was time to dig up our hats and scarves and bake a lot of gingerbread. Then we flew home and sweated our way right through baggage claim and I thought, oh right; technically we’re south of the Mason-Dixon line and I guess (sigh) those woolens can hibernate a little longer yet.

But fall has found us at last, even here, and last Tuesday morning I sipped my second cup of coffee and flipped the calendar. November is here. On Saturday my son turned seven (!!). Tomorrow I am crowding into the voting booth with both kids. Later in the month one of my oldest friends will turn into our driveway and my kids will leap on her before she is even unbuckled because they adore this person who, after my beloved cousin, is the closest thing they have to an aunt on this coast. Together we will eat turkey and butternut something-or-the-other and cranberry sauce (this is the one; I’ve stopped searching now), and the next day we will have leftovers on good bread for lunch (either that or this turkey pho, which I haven’t made in a few years but which is really terrific) and we will absolutely crack open some porters and watch the new Gilmore Girls. A little over a month later she is moving all the way to Colorado. People seem to love it there and I wish the same ease and satisfaction in my friend’s fresh start, but I’d be lying to say I don’t also feel bereft. Colorado is much further away than her current home in the Hudson Valley.

But I’ll try not to think about it too much, not while she’s right in front of me to hug. I’m happier than I can say that she’s coming for Thanksgiving. I get to spend the holiday that puts gratitude front and fore with one of the people I’m most grateful to have found my way to in this life. I can certainly raise my glass to that.

I’m going to try doing it here too! It’s been seven months since I wrote here. There’s a lot I could say about why, but the truest and simplest answer is that I’ve been doing other things. I’ve been learning a whole lot of amazing things with my kids, and I’ve been reading a ton, and I’ve been curling up on the couch with my husband watching shows and movies featuring quite a lot of snow. What else? Crazy Eights, mornings by the fire pit, potlucks, the sometimes awesome/sometimes thankless/always necessary task of feeding my family. Walks along the bay. Making hummus and banana bread and meatballs with a group of awesome first and second graders. Chicken coop troubleshooting. A weekend trip to Annapolis. Hamilton!

It’s a tough season for writing, but I love this space, so I’m going to try a gratitude practice here on the blog this month: Monday Thanks. It’s possibly too ambitious, if we’re to judge according to earlier efforts at this sort of thing. And I’m a little nervous to write here instead of in a more immediate and arguably more intimate place like Instagram or Facebook. But when it comes down to it, the stakes are pretty low and the potential returns (I get to flex my writing muscles again, I get to connect with some of you again, and I get to be happier because that’s what happens when you think about what makes you happy) are significant. So here we go!

Pigheaded hope

dispatch

It is, almost unbelievably to me, nearing ten years since I left New York City. When I lived there I worked as part of a small anti-poverty non-profit, accompanying families as they dealt with the compounding instabilities of housing crises, school frustrations, health issues, family separation, convoluted legal and criminal justice systems, and social isolation. These situations were simultaneously acute and chronic, in ways that left me sometimes angry, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes all fired up – but never desperate. I didn’t feel desperate because families took me in. We sat at kitchen tables drinking coffee and eating pork chops and laughing at toddlers. We read books and flew kites and made s’mores and clung to one another on ice skates and ate pie. I didn’t feel desperate because we took those struggles and worked to craft something beautiful and constructive and necessary from them: poems, speeches, books, campaigns, relationships. I didn’t feel desperate because I didn’t have a right to wallow or to pity or to sensationalize; I had a responsibility to bear witness, and not only to what was hard but also to the incredible knowledge and tenacity and resourcefulness I saw. I didn’t feel desperate because I was part of a community that shared an extraordinary ethos rooted in relationship and respect, and a vision of a world where every person is known and treated as a whole human being.

Frontinella communis 1

There’s a ghost. Mine. She’s pretty quiet these days, not too sad. But she still walks the fields of our old farm in Virginia, and I think maybe she always will. Blackberry juice stains her lips and fingertips. She crouches low in the grey half-light of dawn, studying the Frontinella communis and Florinda coccinea webs spangled with dew. She stands, puts one hand on my son’s shoulder, points out the wild persimmons ripening against a cloudless October sky. She stops to scratch my goat Lulu under her jaw, and then she’s off again, skirting a vernal pool filled with tadpoles, kicking off her sandals, crossing the creek. I keep her company sometimes, late at night usually, too late. These hours are untrustworthy. Good for writing, terrible for making decisions. These are the hours when the deep disappointment and disillusionment in articles like these (about the challenges of making a living at farming) resonate. Eventually, though, I sleep, and in the light of day, that sorrow evaporates, is replaced with a steadier, more discerning take on our story and on farming in general. My rested self finds the articles too grim, the blame too pat. My rested self is not angry. Sad about what we left behind? Sure. Probably always. Regretful? Probably not. We could have done without the financial albatross of a farm we sank a ton of money into and then struggled to sell. But what about everything those acres gave us? What about the hard-won but enduring lessons about how to (and how not to!) run a business with the person you love, efficiently and compassionately manage a crew, make sound decisions about equipment and markets and infrastructure? What about the food we coaxed from the soil to fuel our bodies and fill our baby’s belly? What about quiet nights on the back porch with a beer, listening to the CoolBot hum and the crickets sing? What about the high of a good day at market, when you’re running on four hours’ sleep and three cups of coffee and the heady potpourri of Ambrosia muskmelons and basil and the steady passing back and forth of tomatoes, cash, recipes, well wishes? What about the barter economy among food producers, our tomatoes for your strawberries and honey, our tractor to till your garden in return for a lamb shoulder from your freezer? What about the easy generosity of other farmers, the potlucks and equipment loans and shoptalk? What about trying your damnedest, getting some sleep, and trying again tomorrow? In the end, whether we’re hilling potatoes or writing grant proposals or soothing away nightmares or waiting tables or waiting on test results or teaching declensions, that’s what we all do, isn’t?

I am grateful for every bit of that. I wouldn’t unlive any of it to protect myself from the heartbreak of walking away from our farm. I do wish for: more discussion about the economics of farming, easier answers to hard questions about the costs of good health, every belly full every single night.

whelk egg case

I’ve been thinking about all this, about these places I’ve called home, about the fire inside me. In this season of my life I’m not facilitating writing workshops or speaking at the United Nations or hustling tomatoes or helping anyone cook their way through a seemingly interminable eggplant glut. I am at home, nursing my baby, roasting vegetables, learning about bivalves and monarchs and hawks with my son, thinking (and thinking and thinking) about how children learn and about what my role should be. This season is, all at once, quieter and more contained and so much deeper than everything that came before.

I have chosen not to share much about our school plans here. And maybe that’s a mistake – so much hangs in the balance of that decision, and I’m so unsettled by that knowledge sometimes. The mama hive is rich with guidance, solidarity, and reminders to take a deep breath and just put one foot in front of the other. Maybe I should be articulating my biggest doubts here and asking for your help! But something in me feels this is not the space, at least not now, to talk about the details.

Still, I think I can say this: recently I am enormously comforted to realize that my current preoccupation with this big question is rooted in a deeply familiar instinct. The place where I thrive has always been the place where people come together full of pigheaded hope. This means I am right where I need to be.

Now who wants coffee?

October strawberries

farm stand

For two or three months this spring and summer I kept my camera close at hand in the kitchen and on the farm, with every intention of joining back up with Heather and others in the This Week in My Kitchen blog hop. I love the idea of these simple everyday photos of what’s happening in our kitchens – a record of what we’ve been cooking and eating, and inspiration for times when I have no idea what to cook. For someone who loves to cook and whose family pays the rent with farm income, truth is, those times strike pretty often. And as to my memory of what we cooked for dinner four days ago, much less this time last year? Burned off like so much early morning fog. Even a partial log of what we ate, of what worked and what didn’t, is truly helpful.

Thing is: I post here so infrequently. If I joined up with the blog hop every week or or even every other week, this website would fast become less about that hoary search for home and belonging and more about my abiding love for pancakes, frittatas, porters, and roasted anythings.

Still, I snapped away. And – inspired in equal measure by the blog hop, by the food logs I kept for my midwives during both my pregnancies, and by Jenny Rosenstrach’s dinner diary – I started keeping a list of our meals and snacks. I am not highly organized or disciplined, and I suspect this effort will fall by the wayside soon enough. But that’s okay. The blog hop photos I’m not posting and the food log have taught me a lot. I’ve learned we eat a lot of mid-day breakfast sandwiches at our favorite deli, where they know us all by name and come to chat with us at the counter when the lunch rush is over. I’ve learned I really do drink a lot of coffee. I’ve learned I don’t have much of a grip on lunch. I’ve learned rock star days in the kitchen beget more rock star days in the kitchen. I’ve learned that salmon no wait just-picked strawberries no wait pulled pork no wait homemade bread no wait tomato sandwiches with mayo and basil no wait a giant bowl of buttery salty green beans with a poached egg on top no wait PEPPERONI PIZZA is my favorite thing ever.

Also, I learned that I did not squander strawberry season, which made me very cheerful.

Alice Medrich's buckwheat shortcakes

Some of you might remember that last year we lived on a farm with vast quantities of rhubarb that I looked at longingly but didn’t manage to eat very much of. When my dear friends from Norway were visiting we made a simple rhubarb grøt (Porridge! Delicious plain or with a little cream. We spooned leftovers on top of Molly’s everyday cake and that was very, very good.). I half-remember making a pie for the Fourth. I know I drank a startlingly good rhubarb buttermilk soda when I was out to dinner once, one I wanted to try to recreate at home, but instead I just think about it all the time. I digress. Last year was very hard and despite the fields of produce staring at sad old me at every turn, I just didn’t manage to dig very deep.

My May and June 2014 food log tells a different story, I am happy to report: Alice Medrich’s buckwheat shortcakes with sliced strawberries and maple sweetened whipped cream. Strawberries with granola and yogurt. Strawberries on waffles, on pancakes, on French toast. Strawberries in salad. Roasted strawberry buttermilk ice cream. Strawberries on my mother-in-law’s famous poundcake. Runny but perfectly good strawberry jam on toast with coffee (PSA and Note to Self for Next Spring: making jam in the slow cooker is awesome, especially if you have little people about, and Pomona’s Universal Pectin is awesome, but ne’er the twain should meet, because the Pomona’s needs a boil to set the jam). Strawberry cake, twice, at my son’s utterly disarming request. Strawberries in my Gordon’s Cup. Strawberries straight out of the quart box in my lap on the drive home. Strawberries straight out of the fridge at the farm stand. Strawberries straight off the plant. Strawberries for daaaaaays, and days and days and days. It was awesome.

Strawberries!

The story of how I came to farming has a lot of threads. For the purposes of this post it’s pretty important to tell the part of the story that begins along a sunny stretch of chain link fence in the courtyard of a shelter in southeastern Queens, where for a few months in 2004 I ran a gardening project with some families. We grew tomatoes and flowers and herbs in containers along that fence, and the kids conducted taste tests to compare supermarket and farmers market produce. The most formative part of the experience, for me, was the interviews the kids did with one another, with their families, and with some of the staff at the shelter. As they took careful notes about favorite foods, childhood gardens, and old family recipes, I began to understand that the dangers of food insecurity swell far beyond the physical. When families lose the intimacy of the family table for weeks or months or longer, when parents can’t teach their children how to make their famous rice and beans because they’re not allowed in the kitchen, when no one has the chance to ask for seconds or thirds of something delicious because dinner is always a thawed tray from an institutional freezer, warmed by someone who may be kind but is never family – the damage can be quite severe.

I began to wonder: is there a confluence of the family support work I’ve been doing and, well, growing stuff? Can gardening or farming support families who are struggling? I’d spent years working alongside families, but my ability to judge the maturity of a zucchini was about as refined as my ability to perform a root canal, teach Arabic, or gut a chicken, which is to say, I was completely incompetent. I decided to take a sabbatical. I wasn’t sure how it would all play out, exactly, but I imagined I’d spend a year – two, tops – working for farmers, before returning to the city to try to bring all these experiences together into some kind of job. I spent the spring of 2006 helping out on some smallholdings in France and Ireland and then landed at a working vegetable farm outside of Washington, DC.

I still remember the sweltering August afternoon when I walked out of the repair shop with some tool I’d been sent after, probably another nut driver or some hose clamps for an irrigation repair. I glanced north toward the hoop house, where this guy who was leasing some land from my bosses worked with his crew, sorting pony baskets of sweet peppers for the next day’s market. His brown arms moved fast and his easy laughter carried across the lawn. He worked with dispatch and good cheer and I realized how little I’d understood about the satisfaction of physical labor. Uh oh, I thought.

Gordon's Cup with strawberries

Leaves fell. Snow fell. The next spring I found a job on a livestock farm the next county over. By the end of that year we’d decided to marry and to become business partners, and a few months after that we closed on our own farm. We built a greenhouse, and laid out our fields, and hired a crew, and started a big CSA, and sold at markets, and had a baby, and watched him grow, and fed him from our fields, and put down roots, and wondered if the deep joy of building a community around our own farm was worth the financial struggles. I never forgot about the kids in Queens. But helping to keep our business afloat and parenting very small children took everything I had.

And now, well into my ninth year on a farm, I am finally catching my breath. My children are still quite small, but I’m not working on the farm anymore. I’m looking at it all – my plans, our plans, the merits of local agriculture – with a little bit of distance. And I am beginning to think we place too much import on seasonal eating.

Of course it’s meaningful. A tomato I picked right before lunch, an egg my chicken laid this morning, or the lettuce your farmer woke up long before dawn to pick in time for market really does taste better. And while, officially, the jury is still out on the matter, for me there’s no doubt that the nutrition in that dead ripe tomato I just picked is superior to the nutrition in a tomato grown in a hothouse in California, picked green and hard as a rock, shipped across the country, and gassed with ethylene so that it is a uniform deep red when it’s unloaded in the stockroom of my local ShopRite. The strawberries I ate in the field in early June made me smile the way you do when you remember a kiss. The giant strawberries in the 2-lb clamshell my son reaches for now at the supermarket taste flat and make me grumpy.

What a privilege! I can put the clamshell back down and tell my son October strawberries don’t taste very good, and we can drive to the farm where my husband works and pick sugar sweet Nelson carrots right out of the ground, or select a couple butternuts from the farmstand for our favorite soup. Or, for Pete’s sake, maybe I’ll just buy the damn strawberries. I’m sure the nutritional gap between those perfect June fruits and these October understudies is just a sliver, compared to the chasm between either one and the donuts or Goldfish he would also be quite content to wolf down. Do I fret too much?

It’s impossible to avoid these flights of contemplation as I survey the autumn bones of our garden or walk the farm, coffee in hand. Summer’s dewy flush is long gone. A few tomatoes will hang on until first frost, but their leaves are yellowing with blight. Most of the fruiting crops have been mowed and turned back into the soil, and my husband is planting grasses and legumes, to hold the soil in place, replenish nitrogen, suppress weeds, and improve tilth. The farm, so lush not two months ago, is about to get very brown and very muddy. Even so: autumn eating is my favorite. I could eat my weight in winter squash and sweet potatoes and kale. Stews and roasts and braises fill me right up. On the days when I manage to think about what’s for dinner before 5pm (which, frankly, is pretty hit or miss), I can start that soup in the slow cooker, or put a roast in the oven, or spend five minutes chopping cabbage and carrots for this braise (throw some chicken thighs and drumsticks in there too), and then boom, dinner cooks itself. I love that!

for roasted strawberry ice cream

It seems silly to ignore the pleasure that autumn ingredients and cooking methods bring me. It seems silly, too, to ignore the easy bounty of fresh produce that is always available to us. I think all families can provide something wholesome or formative for their kids, something that comes easy. Maybe you live in the woods and only have to open the door to get outside. Maybe you live in the city and there is no way for your kids not to take in all those bodies and colors and voices and kisses and think of them as normal. Maybe you have a great relationship with your in-laws who live across town and they watch your babies while you work. Maybe your husband is a farmer and the countertops are always heaped with whatever is growing. You know?

Also: I’m deeply proud of my husband’s work, and I deeply miss what our family life looked like back in our Virginia days. Eating the vegetables my husband grows, when he grows them, is a way to celebrate him and also the way we became a family.

This food feeds us, belly and soul. I know that. And yet – I don’t think it can feed everyone, and I know I feel uneasy about that. Without turning this into a sob story, I think it’s worth acknowledging that most small scale farmers struggle to make ends meet. But we’ll always have food on the table, which is just not true for so many people. Right now I have way, way more questions about food and hunger and community than I came to farming with.

Look: I know I’m speaking from a somewhat ragged place. We left a farm that couldn’t pay our bills, and I’ve written over and over again about how hard it was to leave our land and the rhythms our family life took on there. But I lost my community too: CSA members, farmers market customers and staff, fellow farmers with whom we shared equipment and shipping costs and pest control strategies and so, so many meals. I think I’m only just now understanding the cost of losing those daily relationships.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? The thing that’s so hard about moving, the thing that makes it worth forging through six pounds of CSA eggplant week after week, the thing about teaching your kids how to make your famous rice and beans: we belong to each other. In a chapter of my life when I’ve known a lot of loneliness, in a world where so many people are displaced by disaster or avarice, in a time when so much online grandstanding and so many incomprehensible injustices make it feel easier and safer to retreat than to reach out – I choose belonging.

And so today I went to the grocery store with my kids and I bought some coffee and cheddar cheese and three kinds of Halloween candy. And then we stopped by the farm for carrots and sweet potatoes and leeks and turnips. We drove home, and as we turned onto our street, we could see our friends from New York, here for the weekend, unloading their car. We hugged and carried the babies and groceries inside. My husband grew some delicious food, and tonight I put it in a pot with some oil and salt and heat. My friends handed me some braised beef they’d brought with them, the last roast from their own cow, and I added that too. Later we moved the pot to the kitchen table, grabbed some bowls, grabbed some beers, and ate. Together.

No fretting.

Three things: When you’re chewing on life’s gristle/Don’t grumble, give a whistle…

American persimmon/Diospyros virginiana. September 2014.

American persimmon/Diospyros virginiana. September 2014.

Here are some awesome things some friends of mine have been working on. I offer this particular list because a) these are compelling projects that deserve your time and love, and b) when I remember the powerful, hopeful work my friends are doing, it is hard to stay irate about things I can’t fix, like the way we insist on gendering our children’s lives from the time they are very, very small. Ahem.

1) ESSAY | Look at the Horses Did I first meet Cate at an informal lecture way up on the 35th floor of the curious and beautiful Cathedral of Learning? Or was it twenty minutes outside of the city in a quiet and icy barn one January night? I don’t remember the details but I do know we weren’t more than 19, teetering deliciously on the cusp of adulthood. Her essay about the plans we make and the places we come from is exquisite.

2) COLLECTIVE STORYTELLING | The Way They Worked Hilary and I go back even further, to the chalk dust and linoleum tiles and square roots of Ms. Presto’s early, early Monday morning pre-algebra class, seventh grade. She’s the motor behind a new project that collects the stories we remember about the work of our grandparents. What did your grandparents do? How did they feel about it? How did their work inform your own feelings about responsibility or family? Share a memory, with words or a photo or both – on the project’s website or your own website, or use the hashtag #TheWayTheyWorked on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram.

3) FREE E-BOOK | Artisans of Peace Overcoming Poverty The work I did in NYC is always at the margins of my writing. I struggle to give it its due. Family life, farm life, and Fourth World’s radical and inclusive approach to fighting poverty – these are my chorus, and I want so badly to write them into some kind of harmony. I’m going to keep trying, but if you want to learn more about what I was doing before the fateful day I first heard my husband’s easy laughter spilling between the tomato stakes, read this book.

What about y’all? Any good reads or powerful projects you’ve come across lately that keep you looking on the bright side?

Nothing says, “I miss you!” like garlic breath.

No, I do not think the world needs another tzatziki recipe. But it is, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, the right time of year to eat it. My friend Wesley and her family recently returned from a trip to Crete, and her ten-year old daughter made tzatziki for us all when we went to dinner at their place in North Carolina last week. When I got home our little raised bed garden in the front yard was a gorgeous jungle, with plenty of sweet little pickling cucumbers ready to go. I remembered I’d shared my own recipe on our farm blog back in our Virginia days. I dug it up, and we made our first batch of the season tonight, and we put it on burgers and on top of roasted eggplant too, and it was so damn good. What the world needs, I thought, is more ten-year olds who know their way around a kitchen. What the world needs is a way for all of us to eat this well and to eat this happy.

Last summer I started migrating a few of my farm blog posts over here. I didn’t get very far with that project, I don’t think – but as I licked the food processor bowl clean tonight, I thought, heck, let’s try again. Let’s show up here a little bit and then figure out how to show up some more. Nothing says, “I miss you!” like garlic breath, right?

chooks in cukes

(I’m reposting this recipe almost exactly as I wrote it for our farm blog in 2011 – I’ve taken out just one or two confusing references, but am otherwise leaving the words as is. They speak to a different time in my life, and as I continue to explore what and who make a place a home, here on this site and in my life, it feels valuable to look back on where I’ve come from, even if I’m just talking about cheesecloth and lactobacilli. The nearly word-for-word repost also explains all the first person plural pronouns.)

Tzatziki is a classic Greek appetizer made from strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and herbs, and similar dishes are made all over the Middle East and Mediterranean.  It manages somehow to be both refreshing and substantial at the same time, which is exactly what I’m after these days.  Heavy braises and long slow roasts make me sweat just thinking of them – but these hot sticky midsummer days are tiring, and a girl needs some fuel!  Enter tzatziki.

Our only caveat is that you need to plan ahead here.  The recipe is straightforward and easy, but you’ll need to strain your yogurt, and salt and drain your cucumbers.  And ideally you stick it in the fridge for a couple hours after you mix it up, to let the flavors blend.  So it’s not something you can whip up at the last minute for a potluck or to accompany a Sunday dinner outside by the grill – although it would be right at home in either of those settings!

cutting cukes

Tzatziki

1 quart yogurt (preferably full fat with no added stabilizers or sweeteners – just cultured milk; or, substitute 2 1/2 cups Greek yogurt and skip the yogurt straining step)
2 large cucumbers (or 3 picklers), peeled, seeded, and chopped (instructions below)
1 tablespoon salt
juice of one lemon
one clove garlic, chopped
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or mint or both
additional salt and pepper to taste

First, strain the yogurt. We use a nylon nut milk/sprouting bag like this, but you could also use coffee filters or cheesecloth.1 If using a nut milk bag, hang it into a large jar (a half gallon or one gallon jar works well) and secure with a rubber band.  If using coffee filters, line a colander or large strainer with two coffee filters and set the colander/strainer inside a large bowl.  Cheesecloth can be used either way. Carefully pour the yogurt in.  Whichever method you use, you want to leave room for the whey to drain out of the yogurt, so be sure the bottom of your bag or filter isn’t touching the liquid as it drains out.  Some whey will drain out immediately, but be patient; the longer you can wait, the creamier your tzatziki will be.  You could probably use the yogurt after 45 minutes or so, but wait about two hours if you can.  Or strain the yogurt the day before you make the tzatziki and store it in the fridge overnight. When we use a quart of Dannon All Natural Plain Yogurt, we end up with a little over two cups of thick strained yogurt and a little more than a cup and half of whey. We’ll try straining our own yogurt later this summer, and anticipate the ratio of yogurt to whey will be a bit different.

(Don’t pour that whey down the sink! It’s full of good healthy stuff including lots of Lactobacilli, which are said to be good for gut health and general immune health. It will last for about forever in the fridge. You can add it to a smoothie, use it in place of water or other liquids in baked goods, use it as a starter culture for all kinds of lactofermented fruits and vegetables and beverages, use it in soaked grains like overnight oats … most recently we’ve been using it in a our daily almost-no-knead bread and in a pickle recipe.)

Next, prepare the cucumbers. This process takes about 45 minutes, largely unattended.  We pick our cucumbers quite young and of course never wax them, so we rarely peel or seed them for any recipes.  However, tzatziki really does benefit from cucumbers that have had a lot of the liquid removed.  First, peel the cucumbers.  Then seed them.  You can cut them in half lengthwise and run a spoon along the seeds, scooping them out.  Or quarter them lengthwise and use a small paring knife to cut out the seeds.  Next chop up the cucumbers and place them in a colander, place the colander in a large bowl, and sprinkle the cucumbers with about a tablespoon of salt.  Toss.  The salt will draw water of out of the cucumbers.  Let them drain for about half an hour.  Press to release any remaining water, and then pat them dry with a paper towel.

Now you’re ready to mix it all up! Put the strained yogurt in a large bowl.  In a food processor, blend the cucumbers, the lemon juice, the garlic, the herbs, and a few grinds of black pepper until well blended.  Add the cucumber mixture to the yogurt and stir to mix.  Taste to see if you need additional salt; we don’t find it necessary. Tzatziki tastes best if you put it in the fridge for a couple hours to allow the flavors to meld. But we won’t tell anyone if you dig in right away.

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Serving ideas: Use tzatziki as a dip for vegetables like carrots or cucumbers.  Spread it on crackers or nice bread.  Use it as a spread in a sandwich with other summer vegetables.  Add it to falafel in a pita.  It’s also a great side dish or dipping sauce for meats and fish. (2014 update: So good on top of beef or lamb burgers. Great on bean or grain based patties too, like these little quinoa patties, or fritters like these. Delicious on salmon. Perfect on top of an eggplant roasted until charred and meltingly tender and split in two lengthwise.)

  1. I actually prefer using jelly bags like these now. []

The dust begins to settle.

A week ago we moved into a little green cottage by the sea.

fog

For real.

To say 2013 has been a wild ride is putting it mildly. It’s been just over a year since we announced our decision to put our Virginia farm on the market, and less than nine months since our move to the Hudson Valley. In many ways they haven’t been easy months, but for a long while we enveloped that stress in a kind of peace. Moves are difficult, we reasoned. Let’s not pretend otherwise, but do let’s try to be patient. Let’s keep digging in this good earth. Let’s have margaritas on the back deck and watch the fireflies. Let’s take the train into the city lots. Let’s make popcorn and start watching Planet Earth, and let’s go out for breakfast because hey! we finally have Saturdays off, and let’s build a sandbox. Let’s make a baby even.

We did all that, and we laughed, quite a lot, but we couldn’t really shake the feeling that some things weren’t getting better. About three months ago we realized: this is not the stress of transition – it’s the stress of a bad fit. And so we started looking, again.

I lived in Virginia for seven years. It would be dishonest to say I felt at home there right away. But love made me stay, and then a bigger kind of love kept us going, gave us the strength to marry, to buy a farm, to build a business, to bring a child into the world, to weather financial uncertainty, and then, to walk away. By the time we did that, Virginia felt very much like home indeed.

Leaving was really hard, and as I’ve said, so was adjusting to our new farm. Our new region, though, felt really good right away. Partly it was moving to a part of a the country so dense with resources. The Hudson Valley is beautiful, for one: I took to its rivers and its glaciated ridges and its mossy forests zigzagged with old stone walls with a child’s sense of wonder and delight and freedom, my own child at my side on every expedition. (Three turns out to be a pretty fantastic age for daytrips.) And so many people! Some have called the area home forever. Others came to be near New York City, and still others left the city behind – but not too far behind. They still needed to buy the things they knew, and to earn a living from making the things they knew, and to sing their songs and fill their bellies and teach their children. Which meant: Diners! Bagels! Playgrounds! Festivals! Farm markets! Creative approaches to school!

I loved it. I loved all that. Our immediate situation was not really working, but more broadly, I was settling right in. Until we moved to New York, I didn’t realize how much I missed the Northeast. And in truth, for all its riches, it’s not that it’s more special than anywhere else. It’s that I grew up there. So even as things were really very hard, I was steadied by the familiar.

It’s a funny thing, the call of home. Sometimes, when I’m feeling very out of place, it’s a high and lonesome sound, a plaintive cry I can’t soothe. But more often, it’s a lullaby. It’s the thing that takes my fears and worries and eases them back into place among all the good and hard that I am living.

feather

It has been a very strange year: unsettled, uncertain. My mind has often been with the families I grew close to during my years in New York City. Many of them were quite expert at dealing with the chronic ache of insecure housing. They said too many goodbyes to dear friends and neighbors. They dealt with the incredible red tape of transferring school records. They crowded in with relatives or friends where it was a challenge to find a pillow to call their own, let alone the quiet to take a centering breath. Or they navigated the city’s complex shelter system, where most often they were crammed into tiny apartments and where dozens of people made rules for them about when and where and what they were permitted to eat, and about where and how they could spend their time, and about who they were allowed to welcome. The shelters provide a place to sleep, and the best of them have patient and respectful staff, but none of them are easy, peaceful places to live.

What advice would the families have for me, I’ve wondered? I think they’d remind me that it’s okay to feel angry and sad. I think they’d remind me that you do get through stuff. I think they’d remind me not to go it alone – to call my mom, to have a meal with a friend, to laugh with my kid. I think they’d remind me that at some point the dust begins to settle.

morning dune

Will I miss the Hudson Valley? Badly. I will miss our long drives, fertile farmland spilling away from the open road in every direction. I will miss the dairy we drove to every three or four days – the way the new calves stretched their necks as I scratched their jaws, the no-nonsense stare of the Jerseys as they grazed, the clink of the glass jars as I wedged them between the carseat and a bag of books. I will miss mornings with a kindred spirit, frying bacon or chopping tomatoes or rendering lard as our boys squabbled and played and sorted their way to sweet companionship, and our afternoons too, foraging wild blueberries or fording creeks or talking about our midwives. I will miss living so near to one of my oldest dearest friends, and the way she’d arrive on a Friday after work with ice cream and freshly roasted coffee and (before I got pregnant) my favorite porter. I will miss the deep joy of living near my aunt and uncle and cousins – the sweet company of people who have known me all my nearly 36 years, and the reassuring rightness of seeing my boy get to know his own cousins. I will miss my kind and wise midwife, and the plans we were making to welcome this baby. I will miss cider donuts and real New York bagels. I will miss walking across the back deck and down the steps and across the backyard to pick eggplants for dinner or sun golds for now. I will miss running out of eggs and wrapping myself in a scarf even as I’m already halfway to the chicken coop.

That last one is so big. I didn’t grow up on a farm, and for close to ten years before meeting my husband I was a very content city gal. But we’ve lived on farms our whole life together. And all those even rows and freshly tilled fields and wide open spaces and cedar windbreaks and border streams became, well, how I parent. When we were grumpy from too much time inside, there was no searching for keys, for shoes, for diaper bags, for pants even! There was only opening the door and unfolding into the wide and busy world out there. When he was a baby I laid a quilt beneath the giant sycamore just east of the house, where he napped (a little) and nursed (a lot) and grabbed fistfuls of grass and clover. As he became more mobile we’d collect eggs, or look for frogs and snakes in the creek, or visit his dad and the crew as they seeded carrots or snipped garlic or dug potatoes. For someone who grew up in the suburbs, and then lived all those city years, never craving escape, the power of those fields and woods to shift our perspective and to ease open those tired and lonely hours of new motherhood was startling and deeply soothing.

And now, for the first time in eight years, we are living off-farm. When we were searching for a better spot we cast a pretty wide net, looking as far afield as Oregon and Minnesota and Georgia. Many farms didn’t offer housing – what a shift from something that had come to seem part and parcel of my definition of home. How could I give that up? It was too much.

But you know? We’ve been here a week, and already I’m reminded that a farm is hardly the only sweet environment in which to raise a happy inquisitive child, to create meals and messes and connection in the kitchen, to find peace. It’s hardly the only place to make a home.

For all its gifts, a farm can be a lonely place for someone like me. For the most part, in these last eight years, I’ve staved off the worst of it by getting out there in the middle of things – exploring with my son, hanging out with our crew, hauling the harvest back home to the kitchen – and by knowing when to get off the farm too. But it was always with me, that loneliness.

Last weekend I drove to our new town from the mountains of Western North Carolina, where I’d spent some sweet days with my family before the move. It was a long drive for a very pregnant woman and a 4-year old, but gorgeous too – the smoky blue ridges of Appalachia and then gently rolling farmland, punctuated by small towns and big cities, and then at last the broad coastal plain of our new home. There is so much to learn and say about the sea so near, and about the new farm, fifteen minutes south of our little green house. But what struck me most as night fell last Saturday, our new address at long last looming close on the GPS, was commerce, density, stoplights. It could not have felt more different from the rural expanses I have called home for so many years. But what I felt was certainly not loss. It was a giddy good cheer. Has all the open space and abundant unspoiled nature and quiet of the last near-decade profoundly impacted my parenting and been deeply restorative? Yes. Have I felt it in my bones? Yes. And do I madly love a human landscape? I do, I do, I do! Here, there are neighbors raking their yards and calling out, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” There is a 7-Eleven a mile and a half up the street, a sweet blessing indeed those first three mornings here, when I rose early for coffee and writing and searched the mountains of boxes in vain for my own beans. There are Christmas lights twinkling sleepily at me and the dog as we head to the bay for a walk every morning after my husband and son wake. I know that any given day might hold some leaf pile jumping (a brand new experience for our little guy – one does not do much raking on a farm), or a trip to the library (one mile away!!!!), or a second and perhaps third visit to the beach, or a visit to see Dad at the new farm. It’s all so close at hand.

Here’s to home.

morning flight