Nun ist die Welt so trübe, der Weg gehüllt in Schnee

My mother and sister Susan and her husband Alan and their two sons are all in New Zealand right now, visiting my other sister Emily and her husband Campbell and their four kids for Christmas. They’ve been emailing me photographs of themselves. I send back photos of Dingo and the snowy view outside the farmhouse window. Not for the first time, I have been offering heartfelt thanks for the existence of the Internet, which prevents me from ever feeling isolated or cut off, no matter how deep in the countryside I may be.

Winter is my favorite time to be here. There is no better place to work productively, day after day, free of social obligations and distractions. Brendan and I sit writing at the kitchen table while Dingo guards the house on his window seat, ears pricked, eyes trained out the window. Outside, the world is muffled and still. Bare black branches drip in an icy rain. Fog hangs over the lake and shrouds the mountains. Snow lies in a thick blanket up to the first rung of the fences. The sky hangs low over the hemlocks on the ridge.

Every day we’re here melts into the next with a comforting repetitiveness that feels like childhood, like vacation, like being sealed off from the world in a little bubble. Our days have a reassuring sameness to their rhythms: we get up, feed Dingo his breakfast and let him out; make coffee; drink coffee and write emails and read the news; take a long walk at 11; work; eat leftovers for lunch; write and read until 6; open a bottle of wine; feed Dingo his dinner; cook; eat; watch “Jeopardy!”; build a fire and play “It Was a Dark & Stormy Night;” let Dingo out one last time; go to bed and read aloud from a book we both loved as children, currently “The Secret Garden;” go to sleep.

But two nights ago, the whole household was up and awake at three in the morning. We humans woke up first. Brendan went downstairs. Optimistically, I tried to lull myself back to sleep just because it seemed like the thing to do, but then it dawned on me that it didn’t matter if I got up now and then slept all morning. Suddenly hungry, I put on my bathrobe and went down to see what was happening.

Brendan was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, writing. He’d built a little fire, and the room was dark and warm. Dingo wasn’t in bed anymore, either; he lay on his window seat. He looked at me, thoroughly befuddled: why was it time to start his workday when it was still dark? Where was his breakfast?

I curled up at one end of the couch and started reading yet another memoir of life in Maine, a genre I’m unapologetically addicted to. (Who knew there were so many, and who would have suspected that they’d all be so riveting?) I was instantly sucked in. The room was aglow with firelight. Brendan tapped away at his keyboard. The logs crackled. Dingo snorted gently to let us know he was still wondering where his breakfast was.

Outside, it was absolutely dark. Inside, we were three solitary wakeful beings marooned together in a pool of light and warmth in a vast, sleeping landscape.

I suddenly remembered that I was hungry. Wee-hour hunger isn’t like other hunger, there’s no meal associated with four in the morning, so there’s no particular food you automatically think of to fill it. After pondering for a while, I realized I wanted a piece of toast slathered in butter and honey: nursery food. I brought Brendan one, too. Dingo got some venison jerky.

I read the whole book in three hours, then, yawning, my eyes almost shut, I climbed the stairs, got back between the flannel sheets, pulled the down comforter over my head, and fell into a deep sleep. I awoke to soft, snowy, late-morning light coming in the dormer windows and the smell of coffee.

Chicken Thighs with Lentils and Braised Cabbage

The other night, our provisions were getting low, but there was enough to throw together some sort of supper: a package of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, a small red cabbage, some onions and fresh dill and a box of clementines, along with some odds and ends in the cupboard and pantry.

I took out the small, nearly empty tub of duck fat I’d splurged on at Thanksgiving and melted a tablespoon of it in the big skillet and browned a sliced onion while I cored and chopped the cabbage. I added the cabbage to the skillet and let it soften for ten minutes while I melted another tablespoon of duck fat in a cast iron skillet and seared then cooked the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.

That seemed like a good start, but it wasn’t going to make a meal. I rinsed the cup of du Puy lentils I found in the cupboard then cooked them in two cups of chicken broth. Then I zested three clementines and juiced what was left of them. I minced all the dill, about half a cup.

I added a cup of balsamic vinegar mixed with red wine to the cabbage and let the liquid cook off. Then I added half a cup of golden raisins, the lentils, the zest and juice, stirred it all together, and nestled the thighs in. I covered this fragrant, vaguely French-ish dish and let it cook for a while. I deglazed the chicken skillet with more red wine and stirred up all the fat and browned bits until I’d made a glossy pan gravy. I poured it over each piece of chicken in the pan, sprinkled the minced dill over everything, and then it was time for dinner.

It was delicious, and oddly coherent, sweet with raisins and fruit and savory with meat and rich with duck fat, the cabbage velvety, the lentils toothsome, the dill piquant. Like most cupboard suppers, it was better than a lot of other things I make on purpose.

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I have stocked my heart like an icy Frigidaire

I’m so tired of eating! It’s such a burden suddenly, that daily demand my body puts on me, which my soul usually greets with passionate enthusiasm. Now my soul feels bilious and bored, and my body feels like a gras goose’s foie, and we have nothing to eat in the house, anyway. But that means we have to go grocery shopping, which means thinking hard about food yet again. I just can’t face it. I wish I enjoyed fasting, I’d do it for a solid week and then subsist on lentils for another week, but it’s not in me. So we’ll haul out the cloth bags and hie us down to the supermarket to mooch around the produce section and seafood counter…

We got back to town yesterday afternoon, just in time for me to go to Pilates to try to recover a little dignity. It was quite a week, just Brendan and me in the farmhouse with Dingo. On Tuesday, we had harissa haddock with chorizo and wild rice. The night before Thanksgiving, I made a sumptuous moose loaf with green beans and roasted potatoes. On Thanksgiving itself, we humans had Maine oysters with shallots and vinegar, buckwheat-buttermilk blini with salmon roe and crème fraiche and chives and dill, more blini with a spectacular sheep’s cheese, and a fresh non-GMO free range organic lovely little chicken roasted with 5 thick slices of bacon draped over the top, stuffed with sage and lemon, with whole shallots and garlic cloves riding along, and a schmear of duckfat underneath just because. Brendan made sweet-potato gnocchi, light and soft and pillowy, drenched in brown butter and sage. We had steamed kale with golden raisins and lemon zest, roasted Brussels sprouts with lardons and a whisper of caramelized brown sugar. I made cranberry sauce with maple syrup, clementine zest, lemon zest, apple juice, and a minced apple. We had pumpkin pie with whipped cream, big strawberries lavishly dipped in melted dark chocolate, and a box of ripe little clementines we peeled and ate one by one by the fire. All week long, we drank whiskey-applejack cocktails called Autumn Bonfires, invented by Rosie in a bygone year, and bottles of beautiful wine, and cava with blood orange juice.

Good lord.

We tried to do other things besides eating and drinking. At 11 every morning, we dutifully took Dingo on the fast four-mile walk he looks forward to and demands. Every afternoon, I read a book, whatever book I wanted, up in a hot bath for hours while Brendan worked downstairs. One night, we even hauled out our violin and guitar and book of fiddle tunes and made some noises that weren’t altogether horrific. We read “The Secret Garden” out loud to each other. We played marathon games of “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” by the fire, the bowl of clementines dwindling, the woodsmoke tinged with orange peel. We listened to medieval choral music and sang happily along to a particularly sprightly Spanish one whose chorus goes, as far as we can tell, “Pickly pee, pickly pee, pickly pickly pickly pee.” We also sang lustily along with Martin Carthy’s darkest ballads, substituting Dingo’s name for all his doomed ladies.

But mostly, dear reader, we ate. We didn’t waste a scrap of any of that food we made for Thanksgiving itself. It fed us in one incarnation or another for four days and nights and two more days, and then on the fifth and sixth nights, we dined with Brendan’s grandmother and aunt and her family, who have a house nearby: bison ribs at the nearby inn, pork tenderloin with mushrooms at their house, rich delicious food we gobbled up as if we were starving, which we patently were not. Our last lunch before we drove away yesterday was chicken soup with parmesan-herb-black pepper crackers I’d made, and that was the end of all that food. I felt a perverse sense of accomplishment, almost as if we’d returned safely from a mountain-climbing expedition, battling high winds and oxygen deprivation, except that, of course, we’d just eaten the mountain instead.

Being sick and tired of eating is a conundrum for people who live to eat. It’s like losing our identity, our direction. We’re rudderless, adrift. Last night we went out for the lightest meal we could envision: a huge fresh simple salad with sesame dressing, and then a bowl of white rice with raw fish and delicately cut-up vegetables. But the sodium content of the tamari was so high, we both slept like crap and felt like we’d drunk a bucket of seawater.

So for the foreseeable future, it’s gonna be nothing but simple, easy, low-stress food around here. This morning, I boiled some Yukon Gold potatoes, which I’ll slice and serve with one poached egg each. Forget lunch entirely. There we go! Late breakfast, early supper, cut out the whole tedious third meal, and voila, a sort-of fast, if you squint hard and think about it.

Tomorrow, oatmeal with wild blueberries, then clear herb-filled broth with vegetables and chicken or fish. The next day, a piece of whole-grain bread with goat cheese, then a lemony, chickeny Greek rice soup. And the next day, maybe a breakfast of a cut-up apple with peanut butter, then after dark, a small mound of wild rice with a vegetable stew with some grated parmesan and pine nuts on top. Not too much wine: a glass, then a cup of peppermint tea.

And a few five-mile runs, lots of Pilates, Dingo’s daily walks on the Eastern Prom…

Maybe some day I’ll be excited about food again, in some dim far-off future. Probably by this weekend.

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Have to believe we are magic, nothing can stand in our way

The other night, my friend Bill told me I have to write another post because he’s sick of reading about mushrooms every time he clicks on this blog. While I’m flattered that anyone still bothers to come here after I’ve spent so much time away, the truth is, I’ve been feeling as if I’ve written myself out. I’ve finished a draft of “How to Cook a Moose” and am awaiting edits from my editor, and meanwhile, I’m working on a couple of personal essays that feel like the end of this autobiographical half-century-mark phase I’ve been in. I’m good and ready to dive into a new novel I’ve been mulling over, which I suspect my other editor will be happy to hear. I’m excited to leave my own life back on shore and head down into the depths of an imagined world.

One of the essay assignments I’m currently working on concerns the New Nordic Diet, which I’ve been following for a month now, except for a lovely hiatus when I went down to spend four days in Austin, Texas for the Kirkus Award party and panel. Down there, it was 90 degrees and sunny, and I ate barbecue and breakfast tacos and drank tequila with wild, happy abandon; the New Nordic diet advocates eating local food, in season, and when are breakfast tacos ever out of season? And they’re definitely local.

Back in Maine, I’ve been hewing closely to the diet again. I made a hearty moose stew with Maine buckwheat flour, red wine, duck fat, beef broth, and root vegetables; I’ve been eating plenty of late-fall greens and wild-caught salmon and oatmeal with blueberries, and no processed food whatsoever. This is the way I like to eat, anyway, so it’s certainly no hardship. And now that it’s suddenly dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, and the leaves are gone, and the air is chilly and grey, this northern way of eating feels instinctive and comforting. Of course, I haven’t lost any weight, even though I’ve been exercising a lot, but then again, I’m hardly starving myself. The diet doesn’t involve any calorie counting or restricted portions.

Yesterday, as I do fairly often these days, I ran more than five miles without stopping. I’m proud that I can do this. I’m not going to break any land-speed records, but I’m in it for increased stamina and wind. I plug along like the tortoise in the Aesop fable, like the little engine that could, watching Brendan spin off on his long, fast, cartoon roadrunner, 32-year-old legs, leaving me far behind. But then, a couple of miles later, I catch up to him when he’s done sprinting and stops to walk, and then I leave him behind in my slow-and-steady wake for the rest of my run. He’s a sprinter, a poet, a screenwriter; I am a distance runner, a novelist. To each his own style, to each his own pace.

These days, I’m recalling, as I run, what training for the New York marathon felt like more than 12 years ago. I remember how fit I was at 40, how fast I whipped myself into shape to run a sub-four hour marathon, having never run distance before. I was still young back then, and much faster, but I’m stronger now because of Pilates. I can feel my upper back and arms and core working as I charge up hills, feel my shoulder blades spreading like wings as I pump my elbows. My whole style of running has become more efficient and aerodynamic, now that my top half is as strong as my bottom half.

Running is a lot like writing novels: when you get tired, speed up. When you’re winded, slow down. Hydrate, underdress, and don’t think about how far you have to go, just focus on where you are now. Don’t try to go too fast, but push yourself. It may be a stretch, but the parallels are clear and unmistakable to me.

The reason I’m thinking this way is that I’m ready to disappear into a novel again. It’s a whole different way of writing from personal essays, autobiography, nonfiction. Instead of focusing on what’s around me and inside my head, my memories and sensory experience, it requires me to create and build and sustain a parallel life that’s tethered to my head like a balloon I climb up into every day and stay in for hours. Or maybe it’s a bathysphere, to continue my metaphor of submersion in water.

I haven’t written a novel for a number of years, but like running, it’s something my muscles know how to do instinctively because I’ve spent so many sustained months and years doing it. But even so, starting a new one is always hard, like starting distance running after a long time away from it. At the beginning of a novel, I get out of breath easily. I can’t seem to steady my pace. I overheat. I pull muscles and get cramps and often need to take a break. I feel flabby and uncoordinated. I watch faster runners whip by me.

The only trick I know is just to keep at it. As with running, there’s no other way: slow and steady, every day, rain or shine.

Breakfast of Nordic Champions

In a covered saucepan, cook ½ cup organic steel-cut oats in 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Add a dash of maple syrup and another of cinnamon. Stir a few times while it cooks, adding more water as necessary. When the oats are almost done, add ¾ cup wild low-bush blueberries and stir well and let simmer a few more minutes. When it’s hot, serve in a big bowl with a handful of chopped toasted almonds.

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Keep me searching for a heart of gold

One recent hot, muggy morning, I went mushrooming in the woods with my neighbor, Dorcas. She and her husband live here year-round. We often see them out with their dog in all seasons, walking on the road by the lake, or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the meadows. Often, in the coldest months, we’re the only people along the road. We always stop and say hello and exchange news, a bunch of happy hermits, comparing notes.

Dorcas picked me up in her Prius after breakfast and whisked me off to her secret spot, a spot I’d sworn never to reveal to anyone or to revisit on my own. Mushroomers are jealous and possessive, and with very good reason.

We set off on foot through the woods on a well-kept path strewn with pine needles, soft and springy underfoot. It was cooler in the trees. A breeze lifted the hemlock and pine branches with soft whooshing sounds.

“Be careful where you walk,” she said. “It’s very hard to see them and easy to step on them by accident.”

I immediately slowed down and paid attention to the ground.

“Shoot,” Dorcas said after we’d walked for a while without finding anything, “maybe we’re too late, maybe they’re already all gone.”

Black trumpets are also known as black chanterelles and horns of plenty. They’re funnel-shaped, and when they dry, they’re inky black. Apparently, they’re one of the hardest mushrooms to find and also one of the most delicious, which explains why Dorcas is so careful about revealing her source.

We walked slowly along.

Dorcas is 74. She and her husband of 51 years recently took a six-day hike in the Dolomites, hiking eight or more strenuous, steep miles a day and sleeping in huts. She walked along as easily as I did, nimble and athletic. She never stopped scanning the ground right at our feet.

“Hey,” I called out helpfully every time I saw a mushroom or other fungus, no matter what kind, scalloped dun-colored fungi covering a fallen log, a dead-white toadstool with a neon orange underbelly. “There’s a mushroom. Maybe we’re not too late for the black trumpets after all.”

“The brighter the color, the more poisonous the mushroom,” she told me.

We continued on, slowly, searching every inch of pine needles, fallen branches, dried leaves, and earth.

“There, a whole patch,” she said. “But they’re dried ones again. The season may be over already. We got two big bags of them in August.”

I didn’t see them at first, and then I did: small black shriveled things against the dark ground, almost invisible, spreading for several feet along the path. They looked not even remotely edible, like bits of crumpled tarpaper or lumps of volcanic rock.

“They grow along the path,” she said. “I think they like a bit of sunlight.”

And then, at last, we found a patch of fresh funnel-shaped little mushrooms in a wet, boggy depression in the path: beautiful little horns on slender stalks, charcoal colored. We picked them all, a couple of handfuls – it had been a treasure hunt, and now we had been rewarded for our patience.

Back at the farmhouse, Dorcas pulled up in front of the barn and handed me the bag of mushrooms.

“I’m not taking your mushrooms!” I said. “No way!”

But she insisted. I knew how kind this was; such generosity does not come along very often. I accepted with thanks and took my treasures inside.

I cleaned the mushrooms by tearing them gently in half and shaking out the pine needles and bits of earth from their crevices and wiping them gently.They are very thin-skinned and delicate and velvety, and they come apart in long strips with an earthy perfume; they’re also called the poor man’s truffle. I admired them all afternoon there on the cutting board as I went about my day.

When it was time to cook dinner, I got out a large, shallow skillet, and in it, I sautéed 2 minced shallots and several minced garlic cloves in lots of butter and olive oil. When they were soft, I pushed them to the side and browned four skinless, boneless chicken thighs well; while they browned, I dusted them with sea salt, black pepper, paprika, and Old Bay seasoning. I removed them from the pan and added the mushrooms and cooked them for a minute or two, then put the thighs back in with a whisked-together sauce of about 1/3 cup each half-and-half and chicken broth plus a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I covered the skillet and let it simmer for ten minutes. I served this delectable dish over wild rice with a side of steamed, garlicky baby spinach.

The mushrooms tasted clean, faintly smoky, and very rich, and their texture was delicate and meaty. They were the best I’d ever eaten.

While we ate, a ferocious windy rainstorm blew in and washed away the heavy heat and was gone in twenty minutes; afterwards, the air was golden and almost chilly. Fall had come, just like that.

When we woke up this morning, the air was chilly and tinged with autumn. After breakfast, Brendan and I set off into the woods behind our house and, after about forty-five minutes, on a wooded path that will remain secret forevermore, we found our own patch of black trumpets. Brendan spotted them. They were dried and black, like most of the ones Dorcas and I had found, but the fruiting body was there to be checked whenever they’re in season.

On the way home, Brendan stopped to look at an enormous scalloped fungus growing at the base of a tree.

“I think this is a hen of the woods,” he said.

Looking down, I recognized it from supermarkets, where it’s labeled “Maitake” and neatly packaged and sold for around $20 a pound.

We carried the whole beautiful, springy, fresh-smelling thing away with us in the plastic bag we’d brought; it weighed more than two pounds. When we got home, we identified it easily, since there are no known toxic lookalikes, and it looked textbook-identical to its photographs.

A little while later, we dropped our first-ever mushroom haul off at Dorcas’s with a note thanking her for showing us the way — a tribute to our mycology guru, and a sign of honor among thieves.

And now we have our own mushroom patches, two different kinds, to guard jealously and possessively.

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Menyasszony, vőlegény, de szép mind a kettő

We just came back from a wedding weekend in Budapest. It’s a city filled with wonders and the friendliest, most down-to-earth, kind people I’ve ever encountered in Europe — it was almost like being in Mexico.

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, checked in, and crawled into the big, comfortable bed and fell asleep for five hours. We woke up feeling zingy and hungry and went down to the hotel restaurant; I had been worried about finding gluten-free food in Hungary, but the waiter understood what I was talking about, spoke fluent English, and guided me to order grilled chicken with cucumber salad. That was the beginning of an entirely successful culinary experience. Budapest is a city of excellent food and wine: Hungarian cheese is as good as cheese gets, and there are far more vegetables involved in the cuisine than I had imagined there would be.

After dinner, we met the wedding party down in the Jewish Quarter at a “ruin bar” called Szimpla, apparently the epicenter of cool in Eastern Europe, which made us laugh at ourselves for being there. It reminded me of Williamsburg in the 90s; it’s an old brick wrecked courtyard with lights strung and plants and glass window dividers, a series of bars tucked into various corners, enormous, packed with people young enough to be my children, and hazy with cigarette smoke. We left before everyone else and went back to sleep.

The next day, we had a lavish, lengthy lunch sitting outside at a restaurant called Mandragora. I had an amazing sour/sweet cold apricot and black currant soup, and a salad with slabs of sweet fried sheep cheese that reminded me of French toast. Brendan ate a curried carrot soup with truffle oil, which he normally hates, but this was made with real truffles, and meatballs; and mangalica, roast pork chops with a ratatouille. After that lunch and the long walk around Buda before and after it, we needed another nap….

That evening, we walked down the steep hill and across the river to meet the wedding party again, this time for a sunset cruise on the Danube. We stood outside at the very front of the boat leaning on the railing with glasses of champagne and watched the city flow by — the lit-up castle, the monuments, a glass-cube nightclub almost vibrating with pink and blue light and loud electronica, the grand facades of the big houses along the river’s edge on the Pest side, the cliffs of the Buda side. We got off the boat at the end and left everyone; we weren’t feeling especially social that night, too jetlagged and disoriented. We wandered around Pest, hungry again and in search of dinner, and stumbled on a young winemakers’ festival in the courtyard of St. Stephen’s cathedral. Beautiful young Hungarians hung around in chatty groups with glasses of wine. The winemakers’ booths were set up around the perimeter. We passed a couple of happy hours there on the cathedral steps, drinking excellent Hungarian rose. It was a warm night, and we watched people and spaced out… at one point we went and ate Thai food, and my curry was simple and sublime, zucchini cut thinly in a mild coconut/lemongrass sauce.

Eventually, we walked across the river and climbed back up to our hotel. It was called Baltazar, and we loved everything about it, including the food in the restaurant downstairs and the concierge, Daniel, who looked like Doctor Watson in “Sherlock” and who took extremely good care of us and had a sense of humor to boot.

It was late, but we were wide awake and up for another adventure, so we gathered up the bag of goat cheese and serrano ham and gluten-free bread and the cold bottle of rose we’d bought earlier and had intended for lunch the next day. We took it all up to the castle, which is built at the edge of a high, high cliff, and sat up in the top ramparts until almost dawn, having a midnight picnic, looking at the river and city spread out below. A violinist on the steps down below was playing Vivaldi, the only imperfection, so Brendan ran down and offered him money to switch to Bach. I was strangely almost in tears at this; it was so deeply romantic, and it was the kind of night that made me feel eighteen again.

The next day we woke up just in time to find some lunch. We ate at a sidewalk meat-and-potatoes place. The waiter spoke excellent English, understood my gluten problem, and brought us tiny aperitifs of a Hungarian apricot brandy called palinka. I ate an enormous garlicky grilled lamb chop with boiled potatoes and a cucumber and tomato salad, simple food, and so good my eyelids fluttered a little as I devoured every molecule.

Then it was time to gussy ourselves up in our finery and go to the wedding. The festivities began in a courtyard of the old Hungarian Congress Hall, a five-minute walk from our hotel, in a flowery garden with fountains, a string quartet, and champagne. We all gathered and chatted and admired the bride and groom, who looked splendid and glamorous and properly bridal. Suriya was Brendan’s high school girlfriend, and now she’s one of his best friends. She’s Indian, English, and Jewish, a willowy raven-haired long-stemmed rose with a self-mocking caustic wit, a foul mouth, and a razor-sharp brain. She’s a lawyer and a diplomat in the foreign service. Meanwhile, the groom, Krisztian, is a six foot four Magyar prince with a thick neck, a sweet handsome face, and a ferociously ambitious career as an international anti-trust lawyer in D.C. Suriya is nuts about him, and he about her, and who can blame either of them?

The ceremony was held up in the castle in the Fisherman’s Bastion, right near where Brendan and I had had our late-night picnic. We all sat in the ramparts; the sun began to set while they said their vows, in Hungarian and English, while Krisztian’s older sister, a tiny merry beautiful redhead, married them. After all the photographs had been taken, we had a parade back to the Congress Hall and entered the banquet room and took in all its grand European splendor. We feasted, toasted, danced, watched Hungarian dancers perform, talked, drank, danced some more. At 5 in the morning, we trooped down to the courtyard where it had all begun and released lit-up balloons into the sky, and then we all went home to sleep.

The next day, our last, was quiet and anticlimactic, after all the preceding excitement. We were sore from all the dancing and muzzy-headed from all the wine, so we went through the rain down to the Gellert thermal baths/spa on the Danube in a grand hotel and soaked in hot mineral pools with Hungarians as well as tourists from all over the world, languages all around us, interesting faces and bodies to ogle.

We got dressed again and walked through the rain, over the bridge, to St. Stephens cathedral to hear a Bach organ concert; but we were too late, it was just ending when we arrived. Brendan was so disappointed, even more than I was. So we took ourselves to a quiet, classic old Hungarian restaurant called Callas, near the State Opera, since the opera season hadn’t begun yet, another disappointment.The restaurant was beautiful, with tiled floors and arched ceilings and an old-world feel, so there was that. I ordered the duck breast, which was perfectly cooked and came with a fruity sauce and pillowy mashed potatoes, and Brendan ordered the “gipsy roast,” chunks of mangalica on a skewer grilled with vegetables and little sausages.

After dinner, it had stopped raining, finally; we walked over the dark, swollen river, back up the steep quiet wet cobblestone streets to the hotel. It wasn’t late, and we wanted to decompress a bit before we went to sleep, so we sat under the awning of the outdoor café and drank more of the light, dry, low-alcohol Hungarian rosé and talked for a few hours about it all – Hungary, the wedding, and our lives. I couldn’t stop ordering cucumbers in any form: cucumber salad, cucumber pickles. Cucumbers are, of course, hydrating and detoxifying, and no doubt that’s why I craved them.

The next day we flew back to New England. We landed in Boston in the late evening, picked Dingo up at Brendan’s aunt’s, and then, after a happy reunion, we all drove up to Portland together, stopping at a rest area for a half-hour nap.

It was good to be in our house again, as always, and so good to sleep in our own bed. When we woke up the next morning, the whole trip seemed like a long, wild, mutual dream.

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Think you better slow your mustang down

I hardly slept the night before my driver’s test. I lay awake, going over parallel parking in my mind: cut hard to the right, reverse, gradually straighten it out to back in at a diagonal, cut hard to the left, ease it in, straighten it out… all night long. In my mind’s ear, I heard my hard-ass driving instructor (Brendan) saying, “What are you DOING!?” and “You have to pay attention!” and “NOOOO!!”

We got up the next morning at 6:00, which for us is pre-crack of dawn. I showered, then fed and walked a sleepy and perplexed Dingo; Brendan made coffee. There was a sepulchral silence in the kitchen as we ate our toast. Shaky from insomnia and nerves, I drove us the hour and a half from Portland to the DMV in Tamworth, New Hampshire. I made so many uncharacteristically nerve-wracked mistakes on the way that if it had been my driving test, I would have failed several times over.

“I’m going to flunk,” I wailed. Dingo, his head in the rear view mirror, ears at half-mast, seemed to concur, if his consternated expression was anything to go by. “I’ll probably hit a tree on my test.”

“You’ll be fine,” said my instructor. “You know what you’re doing. Just relax. I promise, you will pass.”

He later told me that he knew exactly what the test would entail: this was the same DMV where he got his driver’s license, sixteen years ago.

My examiner was a sweet, taciturn, portly man with a short white Afro who had me drive for fifteen minutes on gently rolling country roads. Remembering to signal, stop, check my mirrors, and obey the speed limits, I took a right, another right, a left, then a right, and another right. Then came the hard part: he asked me to back the car into a spot in an empty church parking lot. I couldn’t see the white lines I was supposed to park between and had no other cars to guide me, so I fucked it up not once, but twice; I’d asked for a do-over. After all that anxiety, I hadn’t had to parallel park at all; unfortunately, I’d practiced reverse parking exactly twice.

I drove out of the parking lot in disgrace, took a left turn onto the sleepy road, a right turn onto the two-lane route I’d started on, and suddenly, there we were, back at the DMV. It was over.

“I took some points off for your parking,” said the examiner. “Because that was…” He paused as if searching for the correct word. “Terrible.”

With a dour expression, he handed me the score sheet. And then I saw that he had checked the box next to “Pass.”

I leapt from the car, giddy with joy, threw my arms around my strict, demanding, handsome driving instructor, who was waiting there with Dingo, and waltzed inside. As she took my beaming photo, the DMV lady told me, “Oh, honey, no one can park, we all park like crap. I practically hit my own garage every night.”

After that ordeal, the rest of the day was ours. Brendan drove us to the farmhouse. His parents made us a beautiful lunch: fresh pesto, cantaloupe with proscuitto, and a Caprese salad with ripe farm stand tomatoes. Sitting outside at the table in the grass, looking at the mountains, we drank the bottle of Taittinger I’d brought to celebrate.

Then, for an hour or so, I fell into a near-coma on the couch in the summer barn. Dingo, as worn out as I was, burrowed into a spot behind the couch and conked out, too.

Later, Brendan and his mother and I went blueberry picking up Foss Mountain. We settled into a patch on the flank of the ridge, hot in the sun, and picked handful after handful of the low-bush, perfectly ripe little berries, which fell off the stems into our hands. Dingo wallowed happily in a shady leftover rain puddle.

“FUCKER!” Brendan suddenly yelled at the wasp who’d stung his hand, dropping his box of berries and leaping about. As his hand swelled into a monstrous lobster claw, we decided the fun was over. We quickly consolidated all the remaining berries in the basket we’d brought and hiked back to the car, which lurched down the steep, mud-rutted dirt road. Back at home, we put on bathing suits and gathered towels.

We joined Brendan’s father down at the dock by Snake Cove, which thank God has no snakes in it anymore, that we know of. As the sun set, back at home, we sat outside and drank cold Frascati, watching hundreds of dragonflies trolling through the air for little gnats and midges and, we hoped, some of the wasps who’ve taken up residence this summer in every available crevice of the house’s exterior.

At the long table with candles lit in the summer barn, we feasted on steamed lobsters and lemon butter, corn on the cob, and asparagus. Dessert was maple-walnut ice cream from a local creamery with, of course, blueberries.

After dinner, Brendan drove us back to Portland: it was very relaxing to be a passenger again. But now, I’m a licensed driver, not just passive deadweight. Now, I am legally allowed to get into a car and drive it anywhere I want, alone! Look out, world.

Berries a la Susan

Tonight, a couple of friends, both excellent cooks themselves, are coming over for dinner. In hopes of impressing and pleasing them, I’m making a recipe my friend Rosie sent me: lobster paella with chicken thighs and chorizo. And dessert will be the blueberries I picked the other day.

When I asked my friend Susan, who lives in London but is vacationing right now in Jamestown, Rhode Island and living on local farm stand produce, for advice about what to do with them, she wrote back the following sort-of-recipe: “Last night I made strawberries and blackberries with whipped cream topped with almonds crushed a bit and toasted under the broiler. The nuts made it astonishing.” So that is what I’ll do.

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O are you a pirate or a man-o-war? cried we

Our friends Ethan and Lindsay invited us up to Phippsburg last weekend. They’re a quintessential pair of native Mainers if there ever was one; she’s a designer who works for L.L. Bean, and he’s the stern man on his lifelong friend Lawrence’s lobster boat, and he runs charters in the summertime.

It’s wild and beautiful up there, a small lobstering and fishing village right on the water. I drove us the hour north from Portland on a cloudless, golden early afternoon. We turned off Route 1 in Bath onto a curvy two-lane country road that took us down a peninsula through marshland, villages, and coastal forests.

We had lunch at Spinney’s, a low-key clam and lobster shack right on the Fort Popham beach. After lunch, we headed down the road to meet them at 3:00, as arranged.

“We have a situation,” said Ethan after we pulled up to the Fort Popham dock and parked. “My wife has been shanghaied by my father.”

“That pirate!” I said; it seemed appropriate.

“We have to go and get her,” he told us.

We all, Dingo and their dog Pepper too, climbed into the Guppy, a large wooden dory with an outboard, the smaller of Ethan’s two charter boats. We motored out through the harbor, past rocky, grassy islands.

“That’s my mother, in that boat,” he said as we approached the narrow gut that led into the open sea. “She and my stepfather live there.” He pointed over to nearby Georgetown Island, to a shingled house with big windows on the cove.

Out on Sheepscot Bay, we picked up speed and slapped head-first over the calm water. Ethan slowed when he saw another boat headed back toward the dock. He hailed them and spun around to meet them head-on.

For the next hour or two, we hung out on the ocean. Ethan’s father, Bill, who’s also a lobsterman, had just won a lobster boat race to Pemaquid, for which he’d “shanghaied” Lindsay and her friend, Jamie, a photographer who works with her at L.L. Bean, to be his “bow fluff,” which is just what it sounds like, along with Ethan’s lobstering partner and old friend, Lawrence, as crew.

We pulled the two boats together with our feet resting on each other’s boats to keep us from drifting apart. We pulled out cold beer and wine and talked as the boats bobbed up and down on the waves. The sky was blue, the air warm, and there was no wind. Usually, Ethan told us, there’s a breeze and it’s chilly and choppy on the water and partly overcast, but that afternoon was perfect.

Lindsay and I put our heads together and discussed our work. I told her about the book about Maine I’m working on, “How to Cook a Moose,” since the occasion for this trip was ostensibly research for it. She described the magazine/catalogue she wants to start, both print and online, well-written stories alongside beautifully photographed and designed pictures of various products made by hand in Maine. It would represent, she told me, the traditional, DIY, down-to-earth, year-round reality of Maine, not the elitist, moneyed, summer-people bullshit that predominates in so many publications now. I told her I’d happily write for it anytime.

On our way back to the dock, we stopped off at Seguin Island, which boasts the second-oldest, and tallest, lighthouse in Maine. Ethan stayed on the boat to make some work phone calls while the rest of us jumped ashore and lifted Dingo and Pepper over the waves. As we climbed up to the bluff above the rocky little beach, we ran into the caretaker, who was fixing the tracks for the little tram that hauls supplies up from the cove and beach for the lighthouse and living quarters. He knows Ethan and Lindsay because Ethan’s ferry service takes tourists over to Seguin, so even though it was after-hours, he generously offered to give us a tour.

We climbed the sandy path to the grassy plateau at the top of the island, where the main buildings are. It’s a great view from up there, over a hundred feet above the water on the last island before the open ocean.

The Seguin Island lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and installed in 1797. Its light is a modern-day electric bulb amplified by a many-petaled flower of very old glass, recently hand-polished by the caretaker and sparkling in the late-afternoon sunlight. We walked around the catwalk outside the cupola; far down was blue water, all around us, in every direction. Close by, we could see Monhegan and many other islands. The second inlet, far down the coast, was Casco Bay and Portland. It was a memorable view, both intimate and full of grandeur.

With the dogs, we climbed down to the beach and got back on board the Guppy and headed for the dock, where we got into our cars and drove to Ethan and Lindsay’s place. They live in an airy but cozy post-and-beam house on the water that Ethan’s father built in the 1970s; he now lives with his girlfriend in a newer house just up the cove.

After we parked by the house and got out, Ethan stuck his head into the basement storage space. Dingo followed him and flushed a stray hen from her hiding place. “There she is,” he said. “I knew she was in there.” He tossed her into the nearby coop to join the rest of the flock, who were just settling in for the night.

In the buggy, darkening evening, we picked vegetables from their greenhouse and garden. They apologized for the weeds, which they don’t have time to pick, but we were too impressed by the bounty to notice.

The men stayed outside and boiled the red potatoes just picked from their garden, in the same pot with the lobsters Ethan had just pulled out of one of his traps, on an old propane double burner cookstove. Meanwhile, Lindsay and I stayed in the kitchen and cooked, like good women. She fried the rest of a striper Ethan had caught the day before while I made a salad with the vegetables we’d just picked: cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, garlic, basil, green beans, and green pepper. While I made dressing, Lindsay sautéed the zucchini and garlic we’d just pulled out of their garden with olive oil from Ethan’s brother’s wife’s family’s place in Greece, which added a whole other level of homegrown to the mix.

“What should I do with the vegetable scraps?” I asked her. “Do you have a compost bucket?”

“Just throw them out the window for the chickens,” she said. “They’ll see and get excited for tomorrow morning’s breakfast.”

With perfect timing, when everything was just about ready, Bill, Jamie, and Lawrence arrived with a story of another adventure they’d all just had. We gathered around the table, heaped our plates, and feasted on lobsters, fish, salad, potatoes, and zucchini.

While we ate, I realized that the entire meal was food that Lindsay and Ethan had grown or caught; this was a real “farm-to-table” meal, gathered and served without fuss or fanfare. Everything was simple and perfectly delicious—the lobsters didn’t need butter, and the vegetables were still alive.

Afterwards, we all sat out on their deck, talking and laughing, looking at the gleaming estuary while the full moon rose and the tide came in.

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