August

A Respite

My reading this month included non-fiction, cookbooks, and audio books. To escape the ennui accompanying COVID-19, I listened to Provence 1970 Luke Barr’s account of a confluence of food writers in the south of France: James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones and Richard Olney, the sometimes cantankerous painter and cookbook writer. Although by all accounts his meals were perfect, his approach to instruction was to provide general directions such as how to make a vinaigrette and then list various ingredients for a salad, so readers can make their own adjustments. I decided to take him on using his instructions for Porc Rôti au Fenouil or Roast Pork with Fennel as the main course for a family dinner in my garden. We began with a traditional French appetizer, french breakfast radishes from the garden served with butter, followed by the Porc Rôti au Fenouil served with sautéed potatoes, green beans with thyme and lemon, and, finally, dessert, peach pie.

The pie is an adaptation of one I learned while living in France with family friends, the Brenots who introduced me to good food at their summer home in Sotteville-sur-Mer and their apartment in the 12th arrondissement in Paris.

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Sotteville-Sur-Mer

My sighs, my grunts of pleasure, the closing of my eyes as I swooned over most meals amused them.   I ate everything they put in front of me: whole fish where I learned to use a spoon to get at the sweet flesh just below the eyeballs, wild hare with its innards made into a terrine, gamey yet fresh from the addition of tomatoes.  It took me twenty years to figure out Mme. Brenot’s crab soup and although mine is good, hers was perfection.

At that time, French husbands had one dish at which they excelled and probably the only one they ever cooked. For example, M. Brenot’s brother’s was a mousse of octopus including the ink. Not my favorite. But M. Brenot made an unforgettable tarte aux abricots. Finding good apricots in New Jersey is practically an impossibility. But Jersey peaches in August work.

My daughter and I have spent many a summer enjoying the sun and food of Aix-en-Provence, a second home. The meal transported us as food can often do and instead of COVID-19, the conversation drifted to good food and Lyon, the supposed gastronomic center of France. I had just finished Dirt another book about food and France where Bill Buford in his late 50’s apprentices at a Lyon restaurant.

The pandemic can be a time for regrets. One that haunts me is leaving Paris to finish my degree: my parents insisted. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the one place that is home. For me it was Paris. Everything fit: I was free. What if I hadn’t been a “good girl” and stayed? Would I have been a “good” French housewife instead? French women had only gotten the right to open a bank account in their own name, not their husbands, in 1965. I’m sure many households held on to that tradition for decades. I often railed at my mother for the measly allowance my father gave her: $100 a week for years and then, after I had left home, $200. She never complained. She felt safe after having grown up in an unpredictable alcoholic family. So perhaps I wouldn’t have been free in Paris. Although I have bragged to my husband that “I’ve been a good French housewife” whenever I’ve managed to use up everything in the refrigerator.

Later in the month, on my son’s porch in Barnegat Light, we enjoyed another bounty from my garden, all the cherries I had picked made into one pie. After which we took our traditional walk at dusk. “Can the French make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Can they make a cherry pie charming Billy?”

IMG_8048 Barnegat Bay, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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WEEK 5-7 April 13-30

April 13-18

The vegetable garden is in!

The Original Garden Plan

At one end will be tomato plants. Potatoes and rhubarb at the opposite end. Potatoes slow the growth of tomatoes and tomatoes might cause potato blight. At another garden in another house in another lifetime, I innocently put the two plants side by side. I didn’t get potato blight, but they did cross pollinate: potato flowers bloomed on tomato plants. But no new vegetable.

In that earlier garden, I always sprouted my own potatoes. Three weeks ago, I placed three Yukon golds in the sunroom: nothing happened, not one eye. I called the local garden stores looking for seed potatoes. No go. Except for Lowe’s of all places. The next day to avoid contact with others, I was at the store by 7 A.M. No worries. I was the lone shopper in it’s cavernous environs. I bought red potatoes and sweet potatoes, chamomile and lemon verbena for the herb garden. At my local nursery, I found healthy rhubarb plants, a favorite food of mine. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve had rhubarb. I’m thrilled.

I went right to work. In my enthusiasm, I planted a month early. Every other year, I use May 15 to plant. Fingers crossed it all goes well.

April  19

A warm Sunday. The local deer agree, sunning themselves near the tulip magnolia tree, taking very little notice of me.

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After breakfast, as I often do on Sundays, I went food shopping. As soon as I entered the market, my anxiety spiked. This reaction isn’t new. In my very privileged town, I, sometimes, sense aggression emanating from my fellow citizens. Today, the virus ratcheted up the tension. The supermarket uses arrows to indicate one way direction for each aisle, an attempt at social distancing. Many customers ignore the arrows even though they are regularly reminded over a loud speaker. When I indicate that someone is going in the wrong direction, I’m often ignored. Today, I encountered the same person in aisle after aisle going against traffic. I lifted my shoulders in question and he responded with, “I don’t care!” But I don’t get it. Shouldn’t we be looking out for each other? From my sun filled morning with visiting wildlife, I’m plunged back into darkness.

April 24

Today another four legged visitor, a beautiful red fox, made himself at home in my back yard. In the front yard, the cherry tree has blossomed. Perhaps, there is hope.

I went ahead and planted marigold seeds down the center of the garden to ward off insects. Then butternut sqaush on either side with brussel sprouts in front of the potatoes. I added zinnias along one side and nasturtiums for color and eating along the opposite side. At the end where the tomatoes will live, are french radishes and lettuce.

The New Garden with Rhubarb

Perhaps it’s nostalgia or perhaps grief. As I worked in the garden, I recalled riding in the car with my mother before she died. As we crossed the bridge over the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania to Lambertville, New Jersey, I played Judy Collins’ version of Yeats’, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree. “

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Sligo, Ireland

Peace seems out of reach these days.

After listening to Collins’ version of Yeats, we talked about her relatives from Sligo. Grandparent Kearns, Aunt Honora. I miss her and her enthusiasm for the written word. Although not formally well educated, she was an avid reader of the better fiction of her time; Hemingway, Saul Bellows, Iris Murdoch to name a few. As we entered the garden state, she said as she often did, “I love New Jersey. I don’t care what anyone says.” She might have taken to one of my characters in a novel I set along the Delaware River.

He stood up from his desk, stretched his arms to heaven, walked to the window, and rested his elbows against its frame.  He leaned in, the glass cool against his forehead.

            The Delaware River was swollen from two weeks of unrelenting rain.  Fishermen in rowboats on the west side of the bridge sat and waited.  The shad were running.  Gary liked the routine of the seasons.  April meant shad.  He wondered about fish like shad and salmon that ventured between two diverse environments, from saline to fresh waters.  Looking across the river towards Pennsylvania, he thought how adaptable those fish were- more than he could say for himself.  

            Gary Monroe had lived in Lambertville, New Jersey for most of his life, over half a century, and still didn’t feel comfortable when he crossed the bridge to New Hope, Pennsylvania.  He was edgy, anxious to get back to Jersey.  People who knew him well teased him; they called him a Jersey junkie.  He secretly believed they admired his honesty: he admitted he wasn’t easily transported.  There were some things a person just couldn’t get used to.  He didn’t mind that leaving New Jersey was his particular nemesis.

I didn’t always agree with my mother’s view of Jersey. Another one of my character’s, a fifty year old itinerant lifeguard spending the summer in Ocean Grove, had this view of the Jersey shore.

The water was cleaner this year. He noticed the change immediately; although on the bus from Florida, he had read in a discarded science magazine that the ocean off the New Jersey coast was dead for fifty miles out. All that was left were jellyfish, a few mussels, and some clams.

Now there’s no escaping Jersey.