When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing

I lived in New York City for twenty years. By the time I left and moved up here, my entire being felt as if it had shaped itself around the familiarity of urban life, so completely I hardly noticed any of it — traffic noises, sidewalks full of crowds, garbage trucks roaring and clanking at dawn, strong smells, 24-hour lights, the crash and squeal of the subways, the constant sense of millions of people around me.

Sometimes, in this isolated farmhouse, I catch myself feeling as if Brendan and Dingo and I are living inside a children’s book, a happy one. The view from the table where we sit working all day is wondrous: long, wild meadows surrounded by stone walls, stretching down in two directions to dense old shaggy woods, a lake, a beaver pond, and finally mountains that stretch back to the sky. Standing out on the porch, I saw a robin redbreast just now in the crabapple tree over by the lilac bushes.

This morning, a van drove by the house. This was the occasion for a lot of excited barking for Dingo, who lies on the window seat all day, on high alert for nonexistent intruders. He barks his head off at squirrels, passing cars, melting snow, the wind, and nothing. Every time, I let him out so he can race into the driveway and stand barking with his entire body, legs splayed, tail swishing, neck stiff, everything ready to spring. I stand on the porch and try to see what’s causing all the fuss. It’s usually invisible to me.

The other night, the raccoon got into the garbage; when I got up before dawn to pee and let Dingo out, I saw a dark midsized thing scuttling off toward the copse. He dropped something good; Dingo slunk to the wooden trash bins and scooped it up before I could stop him. He carried it off toward the barn and didn’t come back until he’d eaten it.

Today on our walk, we passed Michelle, a woman we know who does gardening. Her dog, Jenny, is a ginger-colored, gorgeous pit bull mix who loves Dingo. Michelle was raking pine cones. Jenny and Dingo flirted a bit until he got shy and came over to me. Dingo has absolutely no game with female dogs. He yearns for them (every day on our walk he checks the Fishers’ place for Jenny), and then, when they’re right in front of him and ready for fun, he gets flustered and shy and hides behind me and asks to go home.

In warm months, we sometimes go up Foss Mountain to watch the sun set. Brendan has done this since he was a boy. We take a bottle of hard cider and a bag of salted, roasted cashews in a knapsack, along with water and an apple or a treat for Dingo. We drive as far up the mountain as we can go, then park and get out and hike the rest of the way, ten or fifteen minutes up through a blueberry meadow, then a rock-rubbled path with a stream running down it, then a granite outcropping, all the way up to a lookout point at the top. We sit on a boulder and feel as if we’re on the windy roof of the world: all around us in every direction lies the old New England mountainous wilderness, dotted with the occasional farmhouse set into a cleared field. As the sun goes down, we drink cider and eat nuts and hardly talk. In the new dusk, we climb back down and drive down the steep, winding mountain road and come home to cook our supper.

Nights are very, very dark here, the kind of profound darkness that hardly exists anymore. The copse that spans the driveway is haunted. As a kid, Brendan would sometimes have to walk through it at night on the one-minute walk home from his friend Colie’s house. He has told me that the hair on the back of his neck would rise as he approached it, and he’d run as fast as he could through it, just for that short stretch of the road. When I first came here, I went out for a short night walk once, alone, and I felt it, too.

We eat a lot of childhood-type food here. Last night, we had grilled hamburger patties with ketchup, sweet potato fries, and sunchoke soup. Today, we had peanut-butter toast for breakfast and basmati-red lentil chili with mango salsa for lunch. For afternoon snack, we had herrings on toast with horseradish mayonnaise. For supper tonight, Brendan is making the most comforting, cozy dish in the universe: pasta with pea sauce.

When I make soup here, which I do very often, I use as few ingredients as possible, according to a working theory that the fewer the ingredients, the better the soup. Consequently, my soups turn out to be the kind of simple, nonthreatening food I loved as a kid. The other day, I made a stellar, addictive soup of nothing but aromatics, cannellini, herbs, and spices: 2 onions, a bunch of celery and carrots, and a whole head of garlic, all chopped and sauteed, with 2 bay leaves, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, smoked paprika, cumin, cayenne, and Worcestershire sauce, with salt and pepper, enough water to cover, and a can of rinsed white beans. We put parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil into each bowl when it was done. It was velvety and exciting, a deeply rich-tasting stew.

Another socks-knocked-off recent addition to our soup repertoire is “spicy bubble and squeak soup,” a recipe that came from my friend Brock, who lives in Ireland. You sauté a garlic clove and a chopped onion in olive oil, add three diced potatoes and 2 bay leaves, then cover with water or chicken broth. Simmer till the potatoes soften and then mash them in the pot with a fork or a masher. Add as much shredded Savoy cabbage as you want – he said a couple of handfuls, I added a whole small cabbage with no ill effects. While this simmers, chop up a spicy chorizo (no other sausage works as well; I tried it with chicken Andouille and it was lackluster) into small pieces and fry it until the red fat runs out, then add it with its juices to the soup and let it simmer a while longer.

The sunchoke soup we had last night was like something out of a fairy tale – magical, with the unusual, nutty flavor of this knobby strange-looking tuber. I chopped up a pound of well-scrubbed (but not peeled) Jerusalem artichokes, which are not artichokes at all, but the roots of the sunflower. I simmered them in chicken broth with fresh rosemary and a pinch of nutmeg, and then, when they were soft, I pureed them with a little light cream. I poured the hot puree from the blender into bowls and added caramelized onions and a handful of Parmesan cheese, and then we availed ourselves of the bottle of Cholula chipotle hot sauce. It was so good, we ate the entire pot, and when it was gone, we wished we had more.

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About Kate Christensen

eater, citizen, enthusiast, curmudgeon
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2 Responses to When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing

  1. Larry says:

    I grew up on a farm in Southern Indiana. Neighbors were miles away and I remember those almost too quiet nights. I read your post and started remembering back to those days.

    I’m a city boy (or man) now living in Covington, Kentucky – right acorss the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. While this isn’t New York, there are still a lot of people on the sidewalks and noise 24/7. This has been a way of life for me since 1973 when I moved away from the farm.

    After reading your post, I wondered if I wanted to go back to the country life. I’m glad you’re happy where you are,but for me – no. I like the noise. I like the people. I like the city.

    Look what I’ve become.

  2. Eve says:

    we do a cream of parsnip and sunchoke soup for thanksgiving every year. There is a nuttiness, but also an “essence of blown out birthday candle” to the sunchokes that I just love. We caramelize the parsnips in butter, add the sunchokes, stock to cover, a pinch of marjoram, simmer and puree to velvet. Add a little cream and milk, liberal pepper, and a sprinkling of raw crispy minced sunchoke to the top, to keep the mouth awake.

    Now I will try your pure sunchoke version. Perhaps at the quiet of the beach place.

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