I mentioned in my homeschool newsletter last week that Wednesdays are peak-energy days for us. From the earliest crest of morning I am loading up the car with all sorts of things for the class I teach, reminding the girls not to forget their things, changing Esme into new, post-breakfast clothes and for once washing her face well, packing a group lunch and separate snacks, jumping into the car with my coffee half drank and chilled (but preciously, preciously saved for the drive). The day carries on in this way like a merry rattling wooden cart driving through a parade until we pull back in to our drive around 5pm and spill out, papers and crafts asunder, into Joe’s arms.
At which point I am ravenously hungry, tired, proud, and socially spent, already eager for 7am the next day when I won’t be getting out of bed.
In acknowledgment of the vortex of Wednesday, I’ve been treating myself (the cook) and us (the collective household) by making its dinner the night before. I make it alongside whatever I’m making Tuesday night. It’s twice the dishes, twice the sizzling pans on the stove, and often feels it, but then two dinners are done.
I’ve been making: Dorie Greenspan’s mediterranean shepherd’s pie.
October, a strange kingdom wherein I try to begin to care about the indoors–organizing, giving away, ordering shoes, check socks sizes. But the outdoors is still the most rewarding and wonderful. There has been weeks of drought here, so I took a chance and left the bedsheets on the line overnight. It rained for the first time in weeks!
a few things to share…
Foamed milk. I was reminded of the glory in a pan of warmed foamed milk with a touch of sugar when we stayed overnight with friends recently. There is something about the shared collective milk pan, tipped to top off each mug, a few extra moments of effort to make a cozy cup of coffee. Laura used a dansk butter warmer to do it on the on the stove, so cheery, and a basic $12 frother.
Getting better at toasting pumpkin seeds. Ideally making them taste like they’ve actually been toasted. Will defer to Heidi on this one.
The upper reaches of the United States are at fifteen and a quarter hours of daylight and counting. My day begins at 6am with the youngest child, and I typically kiss the oldest goodnight between ten and eleven pm. It’s not a period with much sleep, but the outdoors are stoked with brilliant green, the furious buzzing of bees and wasps, sneech kasnitches of the crickets, and the casual side-eye of the garter snakes that shyly circle the yard. Wild strawberries are just beginning to turn red, and if you walk very slowly, you will see their garnet teacups, the size of baby fingernails, peeking out.
The interior of the house slopes into neglect. Dishes gather around the sink, laundry quietly piles up, the floors seem gently rugged with grass clippings and chip crumbs. Walking in from the brilliant sunshine outside the kitchen looks dimly lit–sleepy hollow at noon. No matter how tidy, the sensation of the indoors is a damp envelope compared to the rolling plateau of the lawn and trees.
As a month June is generously supplied with biting insects of many kinds. They come out and disappear again at certain times of day, so the only way to be sure you’re not missing a wonderful hour outside, is to constantly wander out to check. You take the wonderful hours as much as you can get them.
Here I am, 35. Weaning my fourth daughter, thinking about buying a lamb. Saying “last baby,” in the way that people who believe in last babies say, because they want to see it coming and say goodbye.
Baking bread, simmering beans. Wish I cared less about messy corners.
Once I believed in no shampoo. Once I believed in all shampoo. Now I believe your body changes what it needs and you should look in the mirror and decide then.
Did I ask for anything for my birthday? yes. I asked for new slippers because I wore mine nearly every day last year and they simply gave up on day 360. I asked for oysters and a cake by mail. I received a handwritten book (“My Story” by Lux Ringenberg), a cherry wood platter sanded to gentleness by Joan, and a small box for my drawer of chaos crafted from wood and glue by Alma. There was also a sawdust cake topped with real candles and sprinkles (ferried away from the kitchen without my noticing), with frosting made from flour and water.
This week the girls learned about valkyries and watched The Ring Cycle opera which is available on the Metropolitan Opera’s streaming service. The fact that the Met has a streaming service is a thing I never would have bothered to google if not for this being week six of family quarantine. Thanks to Ronia (Netflix/Astrid Lindgren) the girls already love harpies. The valkyries seem to be an even fiercer inspiration for them to contemplate.
I did not watch it with them but I listened from the other room and overheard the selective reading aloud of subtitles. “Giant. I think that’s a giant? ‘Unless you are honest and keep your word. A simple minded giant tells you this–wise woman, heed what he says.'”
I came in to watch a few minutes. “Mom, you’ll love this, it’s so cool. It’s freezing cool.” said the four-year-old who cannot read subtitles.
If you can’t make a list of what you love in life on your birthday, when can you? A few things:
I’m in love with the anti-fragility of google forms right now. I feel like everything wonderful has migrated to a google form of one sort or another. Sign up. Volunteer. Spread the news. Let me know.
example: This farmer in Southern Vermont grows the most beautiful and obscure flowering plants of all sorts in her greenhouse, and then sells them from her front yard. She has a google spreadsheet order form posted up for spring orders. Place the order, drive and get your plants sometime in May. Bunker Farm Plants (click the link in her instagram profile for the order form.)
Bon Tucson: such a classy shop that seems to carry only the most lovely things presented in the gentlest way. I so admire their style.
The cookbooks story on Tonke’s instagram account. What a pretty collection she has, and her reviews are wonderfully precise. It’s the most recent story listed.
Our monthly coffee subscription from my hometown coffeeshop Madcap (Grand Rapids, Michigan). It is the best most delicious coffee I’ve ever had, they strive to pay more than fair trade prices to their growers, they are obsessed with quality, and they ship three bags once a month. It’s been perfect for the last year and I’m so thankful for it.
Speaking of cookbooks, Tim of Lottie and Doof told me about Midnight Chicken and it’s one of the books I happened to have with me during quarantine. My quaran-team. A thoughtful reflective cookbook filled with short memory-essays and encouraging ideas. Extremely British. It is the single reason I buy more expensive butter for toast now (strictly for slathering) than I did before.
I’m carefully picking my way through spring tasks like thinking about the garden and typing up the girls’ portfolios for the year of homeschooling to send into Vermont state. The state office that oversees home studiers invites parents to begin submitting portfolios in March. Though most of my friends submit in the summer, last year I submitted ours in March and now I think it’s become a tradition for us. Something about acting like the year is already over helps me see how much we’ve done, and what I’d still like to do. And the change in perspective, the “this is all extra” reframes things as special and fun again.
Raising children has so much repetition, it’s so helpful to find these mirror-flip moments for yourself, catching the light and flinging it back on what you’re doing, in a new way.
Like when the four-year-old asks “to do potions” versus when the eight-year-old tells me she wants to do a science experiment. One sounds delightful and easy, the other sounds intimidating and fraught with possible errors. In reality, they are same experiment, the same work, the same amount of engagement.
Back to that other spring task: thinking about the garden.
I could list all sorts of things we did wrong in last year’s garden. It was neglected, beloved, dehydrated, crowded, and much of it was planted in too much shade. But upon looking through the seed catalog one last time before ordering, I realized I could at least claim to be totally different than the person who went through the seed catalog, for the first time ever, last year. I read for different details, paying more attention to things like days to maturity and transplanting than I did before. So even though I don’t think I’ve learned all that much, I can tell I’ve learned a little bit. And that’s how it goes.
Whenever I talked with the neighbors about the garden, I naturally listed all the things that weren’t going quite right. But then I always added, “I just love it though.” I noticed that all the time I spent in the garden, I enjoyed. It was a deeply relaxing place for me to putter around. it was a place that was quiet, patient, and tranquil, three attributes to which I constantly aspire.
In our part of Vermont, gardeners wait until the end of May for a last frost. People plan to plant on Memorial Day weekend. So I still have some time to get things going around here. Last year I learned that all of the major seedling sales are in May, so I’ll be prepared this year to buy things that I don’t want to start from seed, like broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, and pumpkins. Another thing I learned: those sales happen once, and then they are done! If you see them, it’s very nice to buy a few strawberry seedlings and put them in a container on your porch.
The other day my friend Bridget asked me what I will plant again, so here’s the list of what I’m thinking through. I link to Johnny’s because that’s who we primarily ordered from:
- Zucchini: I’m linking to the type that we planted, I loved it. It had lovely coloring and the blossoms were gorgeous. Several times I fried the blossoms up (never bothered with stuffing them) as a pre-dinner snack.
- Basil: I loved having several rows of basil. Such abundance! I could use as much as I wanted, and make as much freezer pesto as I wanted. I pinched off the flowers whenever I saw them beginning to appear and was able to eat off that first planting all summer.
- Beets: Our beets did not get big enough in time for the season. I cook with beets infrequently, and anyway I do like getting them from the farmer’s market, where they seem to spill over with abundance.
- Borage: an easy plant that shot right up and was soon covered with dozens of soft purple and blue edible flowers. The bees adored it and the kids did too. We’ll do this again.
- Kohlrabi: This is a forgiving cheerful little plant that we like to eat raw. I planted too much of it, and will likely just do a small row of it this year.
- Beans & peas: These were planted in an area with too much shade. I will try them in a new area this year.
- Tomatoes: I had terrible luck but I will try again, of course. Likely with the Sungold cherry tomatoes, which are so delicious
- Carrots: I spent quite a bit of time replanting carrot seeds after rain downpours, so this time I will buy pelleted seeds that (should be) easier to keep track of.
- Corn: The five stalks of corn that we grew did not provide us with more than a meal or two’s worth of corn, but it was so fun to watch it grow. The plants are fascinating, tall lean Abraham Lincolns standing stately in the garden congress. We’ll try a few more varieties this year, just for fun.
- Lettuce: I only planted one type and it thrived. I was totally bored of it within a week or two. I’m leaning into greens this year. They are so interesting and relatively easy to grow, mine seemed to do well because they got shade from the afternoon sun.
- Kale: Same as above, but I never tired of our kale, beginning in July on through September. It was so delicious.
- Herb bin: all the herbs, besides the basil, were in a container near the kitchen door, which was lovely. I encouraged the girls to eat whatever they wanted from the container. This year I will plant basil and dill in the garden, but keep parsley, oregano, mint, and chives in the handy container.
September was a cartload of treasures pulled by steady mule over the hill of suddenly bone chilling nights–the flannels did not make it onto the beds until the end of the month, replacing terribly smelly summer sheets–and creaked slowly to rest in the sunny afternoons.
The yard became strewn with crimson leaves. A sewing machine was finally settled on a desk cut to size, threaded with red thread and ready for projects. Maple soft-serve at the state fair, and the last bouquets of a flower subscription. Properly sized boots and warm tights were ordered and arrived in boxes. Woe to the generation (’tis mine) that killed off the storefront shoe shop where one could have (once upon a time!) walked in with three children and walked out with three pairs of shoes that fit. My due punishment are boxes of wrongly sized, misunderstood pairs of shoes, return to sender.
Old sweaters and cozy layers were pulled out of the closet to be washed and handed-down. I emptied drawers of one-size-too-small wardrobes, tsked the abundance of it all, and tucked these back into the very same boxes to be passed down next season.
Esme turned six months old and in the blink of a midnight chime, I realized I was no longer carriage, only pumpkin, and needed to sleep train her for our sanity. She began eating mashed food of all sorts with gusto. I offered these foods to her as a perplexed dining companion, entirely caught off guard by her early interest.
Bright and shiny sunflower maze.
Once more to the pond.
Homeschooling began and was scary, and then delightful, and then ordinary and soothing. I made new homeschool friends at local events and we made conversation about expectations, and savoring the little things, as is our way. I started a newsletter to write about homeschooling in more detail, so as to avoid attaching too many ribbons to my blog’s (already fitful) kite. You can sign up for that newsletter in the little box on the righthand side of this blog.
It is monthly and there has only been one issue, so you can catch up quickly.
Out for a walk.
Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has suggested the idea of a monthly universal basic income. The banality of those words universal, basic, income cause it to drift rather quickly into a divisive debate that you might find yourself arguing–does $1000 really matter? Wouldn’t all costs just become $1000 more expensive? Would we find raccoons lining up to demand their $1000 and if so, what would we say to them? And so on.
But behind Andrew’s theory is this wonderfully complex double helix idea of unobserved labor and the labor that is now, or will soon be, in the hands of robots (he mentions retail, customer service, food prep, and transportation as soon to go). One strand of the idea is the headache of society, a word that strikes fear in every political heart: unemployment. The other strand is the unobserved, unpaid labor that we rely on: merry volunteer coordinators, reliable child-rearers, cheery bake sale makers, careful wikipedia-entry custodians.
There is a delicious savor to unobserved labor, it silkens and soothes society’s function, it is the very butter to our brownie mix. It is behind every Why do you do this? -Because I want to help. We see it, of course, but how often do we not see it? And how does the person behind the unseen feel, from time to time? That is the intriguing prompt buried in Andrew’s proposal.
And it was on my mind when I considered that of the thirty dinners hath September, I made 26 of them for our family of five. I say that not as a compliant, but rather an observation of something that was not noted on my calendar and may therefore go unreflected upon. We went out to eat three times, each was a spot I’d meant to bring the family all summer: pizza by the pond, fried clams by the river, and a fancy meal on the patio behind a hotel in town.
Hammering petals into fabric.
We were making a pavlova—that wonderfully messy dessert that looks like a dried cloud on your baking pan, fingertip crunchy on the outside, soft and marshmallowy on the inside. The pavlova was for friends who were coming for dinner that night, but as we made it—whipped the eggs whites in the thundering mixer for minutes on end—thoughts turned to cake in general, and then desserts on the whole, and we began to discuss the type of birthday party for which a pavlova would be the perfect cake. It looks likes a cloud…a rock…a mineral. And there we had it, our theme for the collective birthday party for the two older girls that summer.
The rocks and minerals theme went exactly as far as thus:
+ jello made with chilled hibiscus tea that shimmered with gemmy iridescence. We pompled this with rock candy bits that looked amazing; and promptly melted into puddles once outdoors. The kids didn’t notice but I wouldn’t recommended the additional step of pompling to you. I would recommend the tea jello—I added some sugar to the chilled tea, the kids loved the color and I could use what I had in my pantry tea cupboard.
+ a table strewn with our collection of rocks, and a rocks and minerals handbook, plus crayons and paper for those less inclined to fling themselves into ruckus group games, one of which seemed to be cheerfully shouting hello? hello! at each other for ten minutes.
The rest was very simple–play as you wish, run around outside, let the moms gather on a picnic blanket to chat in that sleepy afternoon way that they do, let the babies trip in the grass, let the older brothers look bored, munch on handfuls of white cheddar popcorn, spill pink lemonade, sing, sing twice because the three-year-old was on the couch with a fever and felt terribly left out.
Eat pavlova colored with sedimentary lines of food coloring and sharp pink raspberry sorbet, open presents. Go home.
Do you open presents at your birthday parties? When we were in Boston it had largely fallen out of favor. The gifts were typically huddled in the corner to be opened after the party, almost as if we were collectively embarrassed by their grandness. But I remember loving that part of parties as a kid. I loved seeing the different things my friends would receive. It was like wandering the aisles of the most personalized shop I could imagine. And I couldn’t wait till they opened my present and I could bask in the joy of believing I had given the perfect gift.
So, we do it now. The kids gathered into such a tight cluster, I could barely see what was happening, but I could see the smiles of pride on the giver’s faces as theirs was unveiled because they would look up and around for a moment, as if to catch the spotlight they were sure was searching for them.
For the meringue:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the meringue: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer). Mix on medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks, then add 3 tablespoons of cold water and continue beating until the whites again hold soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and add the sugar and cornstarch mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. When all the sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more.
Add the lemon juice and vanilla, increase the speed to high, and continue to beat the egg whites until they hold stiff, glossy peaks, 5 minutes more. Transfer the meringue to the prepared baking sheet and, using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, gently spread into a circle about 8 inches wide, slightly higher on the sides and with a slight depression in the center.
Bake the meringue until pale golden, about 45 minutes. The meringue will have a crust on the exterior but still be soft inside. Turn the oven off, crack the oven door slightly (stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it propped open) and let the meringue sit in the oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Once cool, run a spatula under the meringue to free it from the silicon baking mat or parchment and transfer to a large plate. The meringue is best made the same day you plan to eat it. If you prefer, you can make individual meringues; prepare two baking sheets, then spoon four equal-size mounds of meringue onto each of the baking sheets, for a total of 8 meringues. The baking time is the same.
I added a tiny bit of food coloring (the gel kind) to the mixer at the end, then swirled in more food coloring with a toothpick once the meringue was on the pan, just before baking. The cake pictured above was the recipe made three times. I portioned all the ingredients ahead of time and mixed and baked the layers one after another. It fed twelve kids and six adults.
I just ate a lunch of cold chicken and pickles, dollop of dijon. All prepared one-handed because the baby wanted to sit with me. Cold, perfectly bitter coffee to my left, some leftover chocolate torte that I didn’t make correctly–the crust was like butter gravel–but no one noticed. There are at least five glasses of water strewn across the table.
Feels like it’s time for a June garden update.
Maybe the girls will remember the first summer their parents gardened. When their mother invited them individually to see orange cherry tomatoes, as if one tomato every three days was enough to satisfy any appetite. When their dad marked the distance before planting the strawberry seedlings we got from the local parks commission. When the wild grass grew up so quickly around everything we planted that you had to tramp it down just to check on the plants.
When only two of the carrot seedlings came up, and none of the cucumbers.
I reseeded both for a second try; hoping for a very mild early October around here. I’m such a novice that I often read the back of the seed packets three or four times before planting, carrying a ruler with me to get the spacing right. I have two gardening manuals, one Vermont specific and one hardcover from my Maine gardening guru, Barbara Damrosch. I over-research the simplest things, it is my way.
I visit the hall of wonders at the farmer’s market. I cannot believe what they have. We have a single carrot sprout the size of a blade of grass and they are selling bundles of carrots for $3. “They’re probably using row covers,” my friend says. STILL.
-This is AMAZING, I say to one of the vendors.
-I think so, he says, pleased.
The peas haven’t given a single hint that there will ever be actual peas to eat, but the plants themselves are adorable gangly teenagers that Joe and I check on every morning. We find them entangled with each other and any wayward grasses that crossed their path, eager tendrils wrapped around each other’s necks. “Fair Romeo,” one whispers.
One variety that I picked out of the catalog for its garnishing ability has frizzly spastic threads, as if they brushed themselves with an electric hairbrush.
My favorite time to go out is in the evenings after bedtime. Bedtime is a light term here, meaning children have been tucked into their beds, but are likely to chatter and pull books off their shelves for the next two hours. In the morning when I wake them it looks like it rained books overnight; books drip gently off the edge of the beds and pool together on the floor.
The baby isn’t really into daytime naps, so when she goes down for the night a light, loving load lifts off my shoulders. I love to sneak out and pull weeds for fifteen minutes of actual productivity; frowning at what I think might be onion strands emerging at last.
Now I know why people fall for zucchini! It’s so cheerful and easy to grow. Their leaves crisp softly between your fingers like toast. I planted it for its blossoms but the seedlings have come up so beautifully I’ll probably end up with zucchini bounty, just like the rest of them.
The three-year-old styles herself like a member of a local ladies pie society. She and I both love the peppery nasturtium blossoms we planted near a stone wall. It feels wild plucking the blossoms off the plant and munching the soft, brilliantly orange petals between your lips; like a horse eating clover.
The milkweed in the field is about to blossom and I’m so excited to see how the butterflies like it. They’ve been making do with the wilted lilac and the cheery but tiny purple catmint flowers (pictured here). I can feel my excitement for their satisfaction in the new nectar, that’s how much I’m looking forward to it.
We planted a little strawberry patch that will give fruit next year, but all the wild strawberries we’ve since found in the fields have made it feel a little silly. They are scattered everywhere; I love hunting for them. A few patches have reddish ants that have claimed ownership of them. These ants greet you with a numbing-sting bite if you touch their strawberries.
But they haven’t found all the patches.
And there is a snake who loves to soak up sun on the path to the peach trees I bought on clearance at Home Depot last Fall. The peaches, though they were likely raised down south, have set out fruit after their first Vermont winter.
My holiday armchair mystery novel ended all too soon, a natural consequence of tucking into oatmeal flannel sheets and reading far too late into the night. The days till Christmas still seem long and calm though I have a few more aspirations: homemade marshmallows, sparkling sugared cranberries, salt dough ornaments. This morning the windows were etched over with frozen snowflake glass and after breakfast of toasted english muffins and two fried eggs with melted cheddar (a meal I am totally addicted to and eat every single morning), I bundled all the girls to the three-year-old’s pediatrician appointment. “And do you eat fish or meat?” asked the kind pediatrician. “Dogs eat fish,” Alma cheerfully replied. “Would you like to finish drawing the eyes on this face?” she asked. “You can draw the eyes,” Alma replied.
I love looking at these foggy photos from finding a tree earlier this month. A quiet muddy Christmas Tree farm, an hour before closing on a rainy day. It was so muddy Joe had to hop the girls individually off into their socks before they got back into the car.
Christmas Trees of Vermont Springfield, VT.