Winter in New England is full of unforeseen challenges. The New Hampshire farmhouse furnace, which is about three decades old and has been limping along for the past five or more years on replacement belts and magic, has been officially pronounced dead today, or rather, it’s cracked, and the carbon monoxide it’s probably giving off would be dangerous, if the house were better insulated, or insulated at all.
And our house in Portland is home to four humans, two dogs, a cat, and an indeterminate number of squirrels. These past few weeks, according to our tenants, who live upstairs, the squirrel population has exploded and expanded. Before, according to Abby, they could hear a family of squirrels talking, fighting, having sex, giving birth, celebrating, and dying, leaving their excretions and carcasses within the walls of the house, and that was bad enough. But this winter, the squirrels seem to have quadrupled in number and expanded from the walls into the ceiling. And now, she and Tom can also hear their vigorous chewing, of the house itself.
A dangerous, dead furnace, a rapacious infestation of squirrels: both are problematic, potentially expensive, and time-consuming to deal with. A new furnace costs a small fortune. Exterminators charge as much as $75 per squirrel; who knows how many are up there? More are born every day, evidently.
The guy from White Mountain Oil & Propane is downstairs in the cellar right now, testing the carbon monoxide levels. By law, he had to shut the furnace off, which leaves us completely without heat in the middle of February. There is a Yotul woodstove in the middle downstairs room, but we’re low on wood; we weren’t here this fall to buy another cord, so we’ve only got a few sticks left. It’s a balmy 35 degrees today, but next week is going to bring another polar blast. We won’t be here, fortunately, so we can shut off the pipes and skedaddle out of here, but we’re coming back in mid-March, and it will still be full-on winter then. So we’ll have to figure something out, soon.
When we go back to Portland, we’ve got the squirrel problem. I’d consider camping out in a lawn chair with my .22 (I do not own a .22 but would happily buy one for this purpose) and picking the squirrels off one by one as they came down the fire escape. I have no ethical problem with this, because I would then dress, cook, and eat them. Friends who’ve done so assure me that aside from having to pick buckshot out of your teeth, they’re delicious. Squirrel pot pie, braised squirrel stew, deep-fried squirrels with cream gravy, we could eat free-range, organic meat for weeks…. But too bad, it’s illegal to shoot a gun within city limits. And catch-and-release in the dead of winter is cruel; they would freeze and starve to death. So we’ll have to have them killed somehow.
Ah, the joys of life in the far north! At least we have plenty of water and food. At least this house is nicely porous, so we didn’t die from carbon monoxide poisoning while the old furnace was exhaling its toxic last breaths. And at least those squirrels haven’t chewed through any electrical wiring and set our Portland house on fire. Yet.
My older sister Caddie is the one who pointed out that the oil smell from the furnace was probably not all that healthy. She lives over in Vermont, and she had a week’s vacation, so she motored across northern New England on Monday afternoon and parked her Subaru next to ours in front of the barn. She brought a big bag filled with delicacies from her part of the world: apple butter, cider jelly, a round of soft, mild goat cheese, boiled cider, apple cider syrup, two bottles of French wine, butternut squash seed oil, tea, and a tin of almond thumbprint cookies she’d baked for us.
Caddie and I sat by the fire while the sky got dark, talking away, while Brendan made dinner: a leg of lamb, roasted with rosemary and garlic, with his grandmother’s Italian curry – two each of yellow onions, green peppers, and peeled red apples, minced and sautéed in plenty of olive oil, then simmered in 2 1/2 cups whole milk, with 2 heaping teaspoons of curry powder and 2 tablespoons of flour, whisked in until it thickens – along with broccoli rabe and Arborio rice. This meal, one of my top three death-row choices, is always served with Major Grey’s chutney. This time, it was perfect: the lamb was tender and perfectly flavored; the curry was delicate and sweet and luscious with the soft rice and vinegary chutney; and the broccoli rabe was bitter and garlicky. We sat at the candlelit table and feasted, talking and drinking wine.
Afterwards, we watched the Olympics, suffering and kvetching through the bobsled races to get to the ice dancing, which we all three loved. While we watched, the furnace blew its evil oil smell upstairs. It’s been doing that for a while, and we’ve just sort of ignored it, since we don’t have any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, headaches or nausea or dizziness, and Dingo is fine, too. But there’s something about an older sister. She is indeed the boss of me. When Caddie pointed out the potential dangers of this situation and told a story about her own long-ago brush with carbon monoxide poisoning, driving a rusted-out car that she finally fell out of, unconscious, all my denial disappeared.
So we’re without heat for now. And when we go back to town, we’ll see those squirrels sitting outside the kitchen window, staring in at us. They look like they’d taste delicious in écureuil au vin.
Caddie’s Almond Meal Thumbprint Cookies
Those cookies were so good, the entire tin was gone by the next afternoon. We’re not sweets eaters, but these were sublime, so I made her give us the recipe, and here it is.
2 c. almond meal (Bob’s Red Mill can be kept in the freezer for quite awhile)
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2-3 Tbsp. date, maple, or brown sugar
(mix these dry ingredients together)
¼ cup honey (or honey/maple syrup)
¼ cup coconut or organic corn oil or melted butter
2-3 T. whole or almond milk
½ tsp. vanilla
(mix these ingredients into dry ingredients…should be gooey…)
Roll into lovely little balls, dip the tops of balls into an extra bit of almond meal, place on greased baking sheet (thick one if possible…and/or line with parchment paper – these guys brown on the bottom easily)
Press down in middle with a thumb or the back of a coffee scoop.
Can be filled with jam before or after baking… I filled with plum jam…but the imagination can take over here… (chestnut spread? chestnut/chocolate? fig jam? ooh, ooh.)
Anyway, I digress… Bake for about 10 minutes in a 375 degree oven.
Let them cool a little before taking off the rack… They’re very crumbly when hot, and stay together nicely when cooled off a bit.