Last year I broke my foot, and it never completely healed. For most of the last year I felt like I’ve been driving a Pinto with the left turn signal on waiting for the tiniest little ding to knock my appendage out of commission which made gardening last year a fantasy.
this year I’m getting equipped to make the fantasy reality, but I’m a little bit nervous about what mother nature’s planned. We can usually get peas and greens in by March and have first pickings before The trees are fully leafed out.
This year, however, Mother Nature may beat us to the punch, having given winter it’s pink slip already. I think she’s tempting us to get the peas in early.
You can buy prints and cards of this painting here.
The falling leaves are bathing Vermont in antique gold, and lately I feel as though I’ve entered a malfunctioning time machine that teases me with glimpses of the past. Leaves and, soon, snow are coming to cover the painted yellow lines on the asphalt, camouflaging the trappings of the twentieth century. But this only heightens my curiosity, not about the recorded history of the area, but about what life was really like.
In some ways, our off-grid, out-of-the way life gives us unique peeks into an older lifestyle – we heat and cook with wood, we grow and put up some of our food, we hang all of our laundry on the line. But every time I pop a tube of roll up cinnamon buns or hamburger helper in my shopping cart, I wonder how ye old housewives managed to do all of this by hand.
I loved the Little House books when I was a kid, and Farmer Boy, the one about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, as a boy, actually took place not too far from here – you can visit his homestead in upstate New York. The story of their family was fun, but my favorite parts were always the copious descriptions of how Ma and Pa put up a house, a garden, a bear they just killed.
It’s at this time of year when I’m freezing instead of canning the last goodies from the garden or when I’m nurturing my inner slacker mom in other ways that I most often think of Laura’s Ma, and the detailed description of Almanzo’s Ma – the original SuperMoms – raising a sizable brood of super-obedient kids in nearly pristine houses stocked with food they grew and furnished with homemade furniture covered with homemade quilts. I don’t just wonder what it was like to be them, I wonder if there was something magical in the well water back then. I get exhausted driving my saucy kids (no idea where they get it) to school, bringing home part of the bacon, and trying to keep the house just neat enough to keep from being condemned.
I don’t yearn for life in that “simpler” era. I like antibiotics and being able to vote. But I would pay good money to know their secrets.
One of the disadvantages of living in an earth sheltered house is that a lack of planning can cause unusual conundrums.
Today was the the perfect example. I was pulling things out of the fridge for dinner and noticed that we were out of propane. It is fall, and in our old colonial farmhouse I would have automatically fired up the woodstove and made a stew. Our current woodstove is even better for these situations – its massive oven and cooking surface make me feel like Ma Ingalls whenever I start it – but wasn’t the perfect solution in this house in this weather.
It’s jacket weather outside, but between the low-hanging sun blasting our house with heat and the three feet of earth on three sides keeping it in, the house was already 71 with no additional help. Lighting a fire hot enough to cook with would not have made the place more comfortable.
So now it’s 6:15 PM, and I’m standing in the kitchen of our earth-friendly, earth-sheltered house trying to decide between making sandwiches or doing the ultimate ‘un-green’ thing by opening all the windows and building a fire. I’m rationalizing – it’s going to rain tomorrow and the fire will give us hot water, so it’s not a total waste.
I’ve stopped pretending that our off-grid lifestyle is as environmentally altruistic as it is self-serving, but we do like being green when we can . Sometimes, though, figuring out how to do the green thing and still get dinner on the table and homework checked can be a real head-scratcher. I was still scratching my head when the Big Guy waltzed in the door and announced he had finished switching the tank on the stove. Tonight getting dinner on the table without wasting our wood heat became the green thing.
It’s the Big Guy’s birthday, and I’m making apple pie. He and Thing1 eschewed birthday cake in favor of pie a few years ago, so after a day of excavating our mudroom (perfect birthday activity), I pulled out the Joy of Cooking and started making the crust. I go back and forth between the Joy of Cooking recipe – is it possible to use that and not think of your mom – and the one in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, but, as I was peeling apples, I remembered I was out of the lemon called for by both of these recipes for ‘Classic Apple Pie’.
It’s amazing how your mind wanders when you’re peeling apples, and mine usually has a good head start anyway. I was on the 3rd or 4th apple I started wondering, not if I should make a dash to the country store – but how Classic Apple Pie became a classic. It’s the quintessential New England dessert in fall – every year we get so many apples that we sometimes have pie or apple-something every night for a mont. But, almost without fail, most Apple Pie recipes call for lemon juice.
Now, I know Joy of Cooking has been around for a long time, and it was certainly possible to find lemons in urban areas of New England even a century ago, but our town had year-round residents living the original off-grid lifestyle just 50 or 60 years ago. There was a country store – the one we still shop at – but it’s hard to believe lemons were a commonly stocked item then, and certainly not 100 or 200 years ago.
Now, I’ve learned not to use dinner guests as culinary lab rats, but I figured the Big Guy might want to eat adventur – I mean, authentically – on his birthday. I started thinking about what the earliest European settlers would have used for their Pie. I planned to google it later, but it was getting late, and I opted for experimentation over transportation.
I figured a mountain mom who made it to the country store every few weeks or so might have kept flour, sugar, and molasses, and maybe some kind of spices on hand. They would have had milk and butter, of course, and probably some kind of lard/shortening. But not a whole lot of lemon. Now, Julia Child’s mantra may be ‘Keep Calm, Add Butter’ (an admirable outlook on life), but in Vermont the rule is, ‘When in doubt, add maple syrup’. I figured that tradition was probably established early on and decided it was a good substitution.
Later, as I sat on the couch smelling the results of my experiment bubbling in the oven, I did a quick google and found that Apple Pie goes back in history as long as apples and flour were in existence. Some old recipes call for champagne in place of lemon, others were just apples mashed with flour. Apple Pie a la Mode made its first appearance at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County New York in the 1890s, and the phrase ‘American as Mom and Apple Pie’ was coined in World War II.
But whether it was mom or the cook in the castle kitchen, experimentation was the most common component. The pie pan emptied quickly, and in the end, the family decided that it was also the most delicious ingredient.