Saturday, August 8, 2015

SNAK Reunion

I recently returned from a special weekend—SNAK Reunion. SNAK as in “Sophomores Needing a Key,” not of the food variety. Let me explain.

Sophomore year of college, four friends and I all requested to live on the same hall but ended up getting a bad draw in the housing lottery. We were placed in a freshman dorm again, subject to all the freshman rules including needing to request an after-hours key if we wanted to enter the dorm past midnight (this was, after all, Wake Forest University in the early 80s). Not to be deterred, we dubbed ourselves SNAK (in part because we did indulge in our share of late night munchies) and proceeded to get around the rules by surreptitiously propping the door open, accessing the dorm through an underground tunnel, or other creative means sometimes involving Minnie Mouse. I need only to pay a visit to my daughter’s college dorm to be reminded of how times have changed.

The SNAK women—Cynthia, Lisa, Sonja, Jennifer, and I— met on our freshman hall and quickly forged a bond in our pursuit of fun, among other things (and academic success too,
 of course). These are women with whom I can say words like hard tack, sheep turd, crusty, lens cap, and shimmy, triggering the same memories and uncontrollable laughter. These are women with whom I not only laughed, but cried, struggled, questioned, and grew.

Although college, alas, came to an end, our friendship has continued, despite our living in different locations spanning Florida to Vermont. One way we have kept in touch is through SNAK gatherings at Cynthia and her husband Tom’s cabin near the NC/VA border in a place known as Wildwood. 

Tom (who also went to Wake) grew up nearby and his great grandfather built the rustic-chic cabin in 1928 as part of a fishing club. Cynthia has added her mark, 

including the 1954 cherry red tractor she inherited from her Granny Ruth. 

SNAK gatherings have happened pretty much every summer at Wildwood over the past twenty years, although I’ve only been able to make it to a couple of them. The last time I went was ten years ago, when the cabin was stuffed full with husbands and children numbering twenty-three people in total.

This year, only three husbands made it, and three kids (Faye, and Cynthia and Tom’s daughters), but a good time was had by all.

We arrived late Friday afternoon, except Lisa who rolled in around midnight having driven up from Florida with characteristic determination. At around 8:15, we realized we hadn’t even thought about making dinner, so caught up we were in conversation. But we pulled it together in less than an hour, thanks to Sonja’s CEO skills (evident in college and now a reality), and enjoyed a delicious salmon dinner. The next morning, Sonja commandeered a kitchen crew at the outdoor stove 

and whipped up a huge Southern breakfast of sausage, eggs, grits, gravy, and biscuits.

Then we were ready to sit for a spell. But not for long. Lisa and I went kayaking, 

some went for a run, and then later all the women made it across the lake to the dock on the other side. Chris and Tom swam across the lake too, and the next generation sunned themselves on the roof of the boathouse. 

Craige (who also happens to have been Chris’s roommate in grad school) relaxed.

For Happy Hour that afternoon, Tom turned over two minnow buckets and placed a board on top for a makeshift table. As tree frogs chirped overhead and the Carolina sun reflected off the lake, I realized how much I miss my friends. At one point Jennifer put on her playlist of heavily funkified dance music from that era and the memories came tumbling back.

The floor plan of the cabin is somewhat like a dorm, especially downstairs where Lisa, Sonja, Jennifer, and I were staying. As we flowed from room to room and shared a common bathroom, I wondered where the past 30 years had gone. Time, as it has a way of doing, had collapsed them. And even though the five of us only lived together for two short years, those years--chockful of new and exciting experiences as they were--seem long and brimming with memories. This is not to discount the 30 intervening years, themselves full with marriage and family, work and living life. But those years of emerging adulthood are especially vivid because it's the time when who you are starts to solidify. Now squarely in our middle adulthood, we’re all still very much the same, just more distilled versions of ourselves.

Dinner that night was flank steak on the grill, which like the salmon was a big step up from the fare we cooked up in the dorm kitchen.

and lots of wine. Over the meal we made plans for a 50th birthday celebration, just the girls, one year overdue. At this point it’s looking like Costa Rica, and the wheels are in motion for a trip this winter. All I ask, ladies, is that the place has a good outdoor shower where I can suds up, preferably on the beach.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Whole Hog

As you approach the village in which I live, the peak of Mount Abraham rises above the Green Mountains in the near distance. At 4,006 feet, it’s the fifth highest peak in Vermont, and my favorite one to climb. I climb it every year, not only for the breathtaking 360 degree view at the top, but also for the climb itself.

Climbing mountains is used metaphorically in all kinds of literature and music, and for good reason: I made it. I did it. We did this together. I’ve reached a point in my life where I now have new perspective and clarity about where I’ve been and where I’m going. Standing at the top of Mount Abe, as locals call it, has brought all of these feelings to mind, and more, depending on the year in which I’m climbing it.

For someone who struggles with a fear of heights, as I do, standing on a mountaintop also can evoke anxiety. But for some reason Mount Abe doesn’t, even though for the last half mile or so you’re climbing up bald rock, often on your hands and knees. 

Maybe it’s because there are no cliffs at the top I could fall off of. Or maybe it’s because I’ve climbed this particular mountain so many times, leaving from Lincoln Gap and steadily ascending the Long Trail for 2.6 miles until I reach the summit.

The first time I climbed it was with Chris when we were newly married. We were with our friend Steve and his former wife, and it was cold and windy at the top so we huddled in the roofless stone shelter to avoid getting a chill. We’ve since climbed it with babies in backpacks, and with our daughters as young children, excited and determined to keep up. We climbed it for our friend Pam when she was dying of cancer. Faye chose to climb it to celebrate her tenth birthday. We often climb it for Father’s Day, or on Chris’s birthday in August. We’ve climbed it in the fall when the foliage on the surrounding hillsides is achingly beautiful. We’ve climbed it in light rain that turned to a thunderstorm forcing us to turn back. We have friends who climb it in the winter on snowshoes and in the dark to see the sunrise, but we have yet to attempt those. This year, the day we climbed it was a picture perfect summer day: blue skies with puffy clouds, no humidity, and a temperature hovering in the mid-70s.

The trail passes through three natural communities. First, a verdant spruce fir forest with ferns and wildflowers blanketing the floor. 

Next, near the top, krummholz with its distinctive miniature, wind-bent trees. 

And finally at the summit above the tree line, alpine meadow—low growing shrubs, rock dappled with lichen, open to the elements.

When we reached the top, we sat on the rocky ground and talked about the last time we reached this summit—last summer with Isabel—and about the coming year. Faye will be a senior and is thinking about colleges. Isabel, who’s been with us every other year we’ve climbed Mount Abe, is an intern in DC this summer. They both have many mountains yet to climb. But so do Chris and I.

Our dog Callie came along too, as she usually does. She’s a hardy little West Highland White Terrier and hiking is in her blood (although she needed some assistance on the bald rock). I often imagine her ancestors exploring the Scottish Highlands as she scampers along beside us. 

Her former sister Cooper, a Golden Lab mix, used to accompany us for many of her sixteen years. Both have been guilty of breaking the rule at the top, I have to confess, about not stepping on the delicate tundra vegetation.

The way down Mount Abe, for me, is usually harder than the uphill. Those who have knee issues will understand why. Climbing a mountain, especially one with as much bare rock as Mount Abe has, is much more challenging than hiking on winding dirt trails; the bare rock makes you very aware that you're scaling the surface of a mountain.  I recently bought some trekking poles, though, and what a difference they make. I have no idea why I waited so long to acquire some poles, but they will accompany me on every hike, big or small, from now on. 

By the time we’re nearing the bottom, our bodies feel the sense of satisfaction and exhaustion from having pushed ourselves beyond our norm. We’ve also worked up quite an appetite. Food always tastes better after exertion, and a few years ago we discovered the ideal place to enjoy a meal following Mount Abe: Prohibition Pig in Waterbury. It’s about a 30-minute drive down into the Mad River Valley on the other side of the mountain range, and what awaits at Prohibition Pig lives up to its intriguing name.

This restaurant gives the term foodgasm new meaning, especially if you have an appreciation for Southern food like I do—Southern food of the freshest, highest quality possible, made with local ingredients. Pork rinds, hush puppies, and fried pimiento cheese are all on the menu, along with Yankee-Southern mashups such as cheddar grits and maple baked beans. OOhhhh Baby.

Kale Salad is also on the menu, but this is not the place to order that (although I’m sure it’s excellent). If I’m going to go with a salad post-hike, it’s the Crisphead wedge that calls my name, covered as it is with bacon, Bayley Hazen blue cheese, and Mad River Valley Ranch dressing.

Chick’n Biscuits are another favorite, but since I had those the last time I was at Pro-Pig I decided to forego them this time for the specialty of chopped pork barbecue, “Eastern North Carolina style,” made from local Snug Valley whole hog. I grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line and went to college in North Carolina, so this particular style of comfort food is dear to my heart.

The Chopped Pork BBQ Plate features a pile of succulent pork seasoned to perfection with hints of vinegar and spice. It comes with hushpuppies and a choice of two sides; it was tough to choose but I went with the traditional collard greens (to keep it healthy) and grits. Although I’ve been told that true Southerners only eat grits for breakfast, I prefer mine with dinner, and these made good company with the juicy pork. And I mean goooood.

Faye likes a quality burger, and Prohibition Pig’s House Burger comes topped with a fried green tomato, pimento cheese, and bacon. Add to that shoestring fries and she was a happy girl.

Chris forewent his usual hankering for pork barbecue (he lived for two years of his life in North Carolina as well) and opted for the Pit Smoked Chicken. Burnished to a golden brown and deliciously smoky, this chicken is not your everyday chicken. Black eyed peas, hushpuppies, and shoestring fries rounded out his plate. All washed down with some local beer (Waterbury is thought by some to be the center of the craft beer universe), and Italian Barbera for me.

In the end, all that was left was a stray collard green. We can vouch that Pro-Pig’s desserts are swoon-worthy as well (especially the Key Lime Pie), but tonight we were more than satisfied.

Many mountains yet to climb. And many meals to savor.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My Home City

If I had to pick a home city, it would be Washington, DC. Although I was born in Baltimore, we moved when I was five to Pittsburgh and then briefly to Philadelphia before my family settled in Hagerstown, Maryland. The nation’s capital was about 90 minutes southeast, so when I was young, my family made occasional day trips there. And visits to the museums and memorials were also common destinations for school field trips.

But these experiences aren’t why DC feels like my home city. As soon as my friends and I had our licenses, DC exuded a magnetic pull. We ventured down any chance we got to shop and take in concerts at Wolf Trap and Merriweather Post Pavilion (the Eagles, Jackson Brown, and James Taylor were some of the highlights). Eventually, we explored the watering holes in Georgetown, since this was back when the drinking age was 18. I discovered on a recent trip that a few of my old favorites are still there: Sign of the Whale, Clyde’s, and J. Paul’s. Although I didn’t venture into any of these establishments on this trip, from the exterior they appear to be exactly the same. History, of course, is an important part of Georgetown, from the classic architecture 

to the picturesque C & O Canal, whose towpath is now a popular bike and running path.

My longtime friend from Hagerstown and fellow adventurer, Anne, decided to go to college in DC, so when I was home on vacations I often found myself back in the city—celebrating 4th of July with the masses on the Mall and New Year’s Eve at the Old Post Office Pavilion (where a giant postage stamped was dropped, if I recall correctly). The summer before my senior year in college I moved in with Anne and three other young women, all of us squeezed in a small apartment. I waitressed at the Old Post Office Pavilion (the same building where my father had once worked years before), took in the culture, and caroused—in Georgetown and also at new places on Capitol Hill that Anne had discovered and that also are still there today: an Irish pub called The Dubliner, and the Rathskeller, affectionately called the Rat, which a quick Google search identifies as a dive bar. 

On my recent trip, I didn’t make it back to any of these spots, alas. I was there to drop off my daughter Isabel, herself a rising junior in college, for her internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities. I suspect her summer in DC will be more edifying than mine was. Already she has lunched with members of Congress, while the closest I came to them was waiting on their tables or perhaps rubbing elbows with them after hours in one of the watering holes. Nothing is more gratifying than when our children turn out to be an improvement on ourselves.

Isabel and I stayed for a few nights at the lovely Grande Dame The Mayflower located near Dupont Circle. This historic hotel has hosted countless presidential campaign launches and inaugural balls, and its fair share of scandalous trysts involving powerful men (JFK, Bill Clinton, and Eliot Spitzer, to name but a few). 

For dinner, we ate at some memorable restaurants in the neighborhood, such as Urbana, which serves creative Italian inspired dishes. We shared some cast iron roasted shrimp as an appetizer 

and each enjoyed grilled swordfish with fennel, blood orange, and pesto butter. 

The second night we dined at Pesce, sharing Bouillabaisse and a pan roasted whole Branzino. Isabel is the only other member of my immediate family who likes to share meals, so we’re very compatible dining partners.

By day, we explored the city by foot, covering miles and working up an appetite for these hearty meals. My goal was to give Isabel a feel for the city’s various neighborhoods and help familiarize her with the areas not so well known to tourists.

Once Isabel was settled in her apartment, I stayed in the city a couple more days to catch up with my friend Anne. She appreciates good food as much as I do. So after she met me at The Mayflower, we braved a thunderstorm and dashed through the rain to Firefly, a restaurant that specializes in upscale Southern food, one of my favorite genres. We shared creamy shrimp and grits as an appetizer, and then I had a crab cake served on top of a fried green tomato, a brilliant combination if I ever tasted one.

The next day we had planned to go out and about, but after breakfast at her house we talked for a few hours, then had lunch and talked some more, and before we knew it, it was time for dinner. One of life’s great gifts is those lifelong friends whom you’ve known since you were a child; those friends you grew up with. During fifteen important years of our lives, Anne and I laughed and cried and struggled and bumbled and triumphed and failed and laughed again. And now, more than twenty-five years later, we can pick up where we left off as if no time had passed in between.

That night, we dined in the new Mosaic District in Northern Virginia. At the Asian inspired Sea Pearl, we shared soft shell crabs as an appetizer (I can never get enough crab when I’m in the area), 

and then each had the restaurant’s signature dish, a melt-in-your-mouth roasted Chilean sea bass with shiro miso, jalapeno, and snow pea shoots. 

We also shared a bottle of chilled Muscadet, a big step up from what they were serving at the Rat back in the day, and talked some more.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Planet Lovely

May is the month when those of us who live in Vermont (or much of the Northeast for that matter) are transplanted from Planet Harsh to Planet Lovely. The world truly is transformed. For the next six months we live in a state of green, or of green green, as a German friend said to me yesterday, recalling a description from a childhood story. The young grass and unfolding leaves on the trees and shrubs are so vivid they almost glow. At this point early in the season, there are myriad shades of green, too numerous to count. But as the summer progresses, they tend to converge into a more uniform green, for which perhaps the state was named: vert mont, or green mountain from the French. My favorite patch of green though, my herb garden, remains a mosaic of different shades, from the bright shoots of Chives poking up through the ground

to the silvery gray-green Sage leaves soft as my dog's ear.

I’ve been gardening for many years and, much as I love my vegetable garden and flower beds, it’s the herb garden that I find most rewarding. I use herbs in virtually all aspects of my cooking—snipping them into salads and soups, rubbing them onto meats to be roasted or grilled, stirring them into sauces and marinades, and even baking them into breads and cookies. They elevate a mundane meal to flavorful and unexpected heights. Of course you can buy fresh herbs at most food markets, but growing your own is easy and brings bountiful returns. 

Herbs take the least amount of tending out of all the plants I grow, and they produce during much of the year, even in New England—from those first Chive shoots to the frosty Sage that I harvest in early winter for holiday meals. I planted both of these herbs around twenty years ago and every year they faithfully return. The same goes for my other favorite herbs: Creeping Thyme, French Tarragon, Garlic Chives, Greek Oregano, Peppermint, and Winter Savory, all of which are perennial in the Northeast.

In addition to perennial herbs, a few annuals I couldn’t do without and so I add them every year: Rosemary, which I dig up and keep in a pot inside during the winter (with mixed success); Lavender, which sometimes overwinters; Cilantro and Dill; and three kinds of Basil—Spicy Globe, which is small-leaved and compact, Genovese, which is the best for making pesto, and Purple Basil for its color (the latter two I grow in my vegetable garden because I like to have several plants of each and they need more room).

Growing herbs in pots on a windowsill or balcony is rewarding too, but if you’ve never planted an herb garden and have a small, sunny spot, it’s well worth the minor effort it takes to start one. First, although herbs are quite resilient, before putting any in the ground, it’s a good idea to consult a Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out which herbs are perennial in your area. Planting them in a protected spot, such as along a wall or fence, can improve their hardiness, but be sure that they get enough sun. Most herbs like full sun and well-drained soil. Other than that, they’re not very picky and can thrive in a wide variety of locations and soil types.

Still, it’s important to prepare the soil by turning over the top eight inches with a shovel, removing the sod, rocks, and weeds. Healthy soil is friable, meaning that it feels crumbly if you pick up a handful. If it’s sticky and dense, there’s too much clay and it won’t drain well. Adding organic material, such as composted manure (which you can find at a nursery), will improve the soil and enable your herbs to thrive. 

Herbs vary in terms of how much space they need to grow, so follow the planting guidelines for each herb. Some, like Globe Basil, are compact, whereas others such as Peppermint like to sprawl. Herbs can be grown from seed, although buying small plants will ensure that you have foliage to harvest the first year. Water the plants when the soil becomes dry, but be careful not to over water them. If your soil is healthy, you won’t need to fertilize very much. I apply an organic fertilizer around every three years and my herbs couldn’t be more robust. Once your herb garden is established, it’s very low-maintenance; all I need to do throughout the season is some light pruning and weeding.

Now for the best stage of the process—harvesting. You can start harvesting your herbs as soon as there’s enough foliage, and continue as long as at least two sets of leaves remain on the plant. In general, though, don’t remove more than one third of a stem’s length. Most herbs grow quickly, so it won’t take long for you to have more than enough. It’s best to cut herbs in the morning, with a pair of scissors, after the dew has dried but when the plant’s essential oils are still abundant. To strip the leaves from the woody stem, run your thumb and first two fingers along the stem in the opposite direction from which the leaves are growing, et voila!—they fall right off.

The flowers of many herbs are edible as well, and to me are sometimes the best part. Chive and Garlic Chive blossoms, in particular, provide several weeks’ worth of tasty and pretty blooms; just pull off the blossom and then remove its base to separate it into florets. 

Lavender buds, probably the most well-known herbal flower, are versatile in both cooking and baking, and a sprig is also a fun addition to a summer drink. Some herbs though, like Basil, become slightly bitter after they flower. If you pinch off the bud as it starts to form, that will prevent the flavor from turning.

Once you start using fresh herbs in your cooking, it’s hard to return to dried ones (one of my least favorite aspects of living on Planet Harsh). Fresh herbs are more subtle and pure in flavor and have a softer texture. If you’re in the habit of cooking with dried herbs, though, and like a strong herbal note in your food, you’ll need to use around three times the amount of fresh herbs to achieve the same strength.

It’s easy to dry your own herbs harvested from your garden to have on hand throughout the year. The best time to collect them is just before they flower. Gather a few sprigs, wash and pat them dry, and then tie them together with twine. Hang them in a warm, dark, well-ventilated room, and in about two weeks all the moisture should have evaporated. Pull the leaves from the stems, crumbling them if you’d like, and store them in labeled, airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place.

Freezing herbs also works well. I store them in labeled baggies (press out all the air before you seal them), and then pull them out to add to soups and stews all winter long. You don’t need to thaw the herbs before adding them to the pot. I prefer this technique to drying my herbs because they’re closer to the taste and texture of fresh herbs. 

With so many opportunities to incorporate fresh herbs into your cooking throughout the year, herb gardening is well worth a try. The benefits in the kitchen are huge, not to mention the pure pleasure of sitting outside near your herb harden on a warm afternoon and having the breeze carry its fragrances to you. Planet Lovely, indeed.