January is our rainy season, but it has not rained this year. Where usually by now green runs rampant, the ground is instead insistently brown. Hardy oxalis, usually so lush, speckles the bluffs with a faint whisper of color. Its yellow flowers are bright under the strange winter sun, the sky an eerily deep, cloudless blue. There are 40-foot waves a half-mile out, and wedged at the horizon is a gray so thick it looks solid, but the storms never reach shore; our CSA farmers had to water in their cover crops this year.
There is no rain and we have had record-breaking heat, but we find for ourselves some of winter’s coziness. In the murky morning light we sit at the kitchen table and paint pictures in our PJs, read an extra chapter, build and rebuild cities and dreams. No stranger to winter doldrums, I try to guard myself against the darkness. I ballast our days with citrus, I run an extra mile, I add honey to my tea.
Still I find myself inching toward something that is not quite despair but not totally unlike it, either. I am tired, Kyle is traveling, there is this weird relentless heat. One night I slump into the couch, unsure exactly what is happening. “I just feel off,” is the best I can do, Kyle looking at me searchingly. “I just need …” but I find that I can’t articulate it, this need I am feeling. Long after we have gone to bed, I lay looking into the dark. I have spent the evening encouraging Lucas in his new underpants, hugging Jacob in his over-tired meltdown, sitting with them until their breathing evens and they sleep. They are my first, best, truest thing. “Mom,” I whisper, and suddenly it’s obvious. My throat feels like it is closing.
The next morning I check the mail, forgotten last night in my couch-slumping. Amidst the usual nothings I find a thick manila envelope. It is stamped across the front in red, Handle with Care. It takes me a moment to recognize the return address, and when I do I am surprised. Inside the package, nestled in thin-worn tissue paper, I find a small book. The cover is red velvet, faded and soft. The note with it is concise but thoughtful. Cleaning out the basement … a sense of awareness … her tribute to her various influences … hand-written words on paper.
The notebook is my mom’s, from thirty years ago. I hold it up to my nose, hopeful, but there isn’t anything familiar in the scent. When I open it though, I start to laugh. Her handwriting, inimitable and perfectly her. The words are snippets and fragments, pieces of poems and songs and sermons, ancient sayings and psalms, wisdom that she chose to gather together and save. Paging through it feels like diving down into my own subconscious — so many of her heroes and influences and sayings have become part of me, some of them without my ever realizing that they were hers to begin with. I find Wendell Berry, Martin Luther King, Emerson and Thoreau and St. Augustine. There is Chaim Potok and Joan Baez, C.S. Lewis and Emily Dickenson. Words and ideas, names and images, all resonant in the way of things that are deeply familiar.
Over and over, I am struck by the improbability, by the wonder of it, by the soft velvet cover of the book. I picture her green-blue eyes on me, watching. A poem mentions lemon verbena, and I laugh as I run my finger over the word. She too would have loved this moment; the serendipity, the answering universe, the holiness of it all.
The clouds finally moved in today, and the temperature dropped. It’s cozy here in the living room, a fire in the woodstove, the red velvet book open next to me on the couch. My ears are tuned for the year’s first drops of rain. They’re supposed to fall before morning.
Living in the Open
by Marge Piercey
This afternoon I have been cutting
herbs for vinegar:
the spicy warmth of basil lifting raggedy
spikes, the pine dark ferns and yellow
umbrels of dill, the rampant dense mints,
the coarse grassy leaves of tarragon
ruffled with dead stubs at the base.
In that harsh acid, the savor will be
trapped and held.
I have been cutting herbs to dry
in the shed, making potpourri
and tea for winter, picking over
withered leaves from the racks.
The tedium of plucking into bottles
My fingers smell of thyme and lemon
Though the flowers of chives are
starry pink purple,
most herbs are weeds, flowers
small and habit sprawling.
Bees hang on them, drunk with odors.
Other insects pass by,
except jade striped catepillars
on the dill and fennel.
These menace me with short
sticky horns erupting matter
that would dissuade me
If I meant to eat them.
Herbs give sparingly. They will not
sustain you but tender palatable
what does. They will heal,
they will soothe, they will play
on your chemistry ringing small changes,
pleasure you in the bath
and scent your clothes.
Asking little and slowly giving
what no one needs
they thrive in poor soil
under the blast of the sun.
Servants of witches, they draw cats.
Under the lovage my Persian washes
a paw, my Siamese is lounging
debauched in the nepenthe, while
an orange stranger stalks a toad
through the parsley and lilies.
I brush rosemary with my scissors
the small things of this world are
sufficient and magical.
I praise the green power of fresh herbs
and the fragrant ghosts of the dried.
I praise things that remain themselves,
though cut off from what fed them,
[I copied this exactly as my mom wrote it down, without consulting the original poem; my apologies to Marge Piercey if there are any errors or omissions.]
Mad Hungry came into my life half way as a joke – it was published just as Jacob started really eating “food” more than nursing, and Kyle couldn’t pass up the “Feeding Men & Boys” subtitle. But I sat down and read it cover to cover. Of the many recipes we tried two remain in our constant rotation: the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (definitive) and this vinegar-glossed chicken. Lucinda says the recipe has been in her own rotation for twenty years, and so I guess it’s no surprise we’re going on five. It is simple, forgiving, elegant and make-ahead friendly. The vinegar glossing technique is also adaptable, meaning while we don’t make this precisely every week, we make something like it very often. (Some of our all-time favorites: sherry vinegar with shallots, champagne vinegar with orange juice and raisins, apple cider vinegar with thyme …). The vinegar mixes with the chicken stock and the rosemary with some of that more-than-its-sum kind of magic, and a flavor that Lucinda calls agrodulce (sweet-and-sour) emerges, and is excruciatingly sop-worthy. (Whatever else you do, be sure to serve this with bread, or as Lucinda suggests with polenta …)
After Lucas was born, we had a succession of house guests staying to help out. We also had our playgroup delivering multiple dinners each week, and Kyle’s parents making stir-fries and stocking our freezer with soup. (And then there was me, eating an entire lemon cake.) All that help meant weeks passed before I got around to cooking anything. When I finally did, this chicken was the first dinner that I made – my Dad held Lucas and chatted with my cousin Steve, Kyle played with Jacob, and I found myself at long last back in my own kitchen, staring into my biggest cast iron skillet. When Lucas started to cry urgently just as I was almost done, I refused to leave the stove; I made my dad walk around bouncing tiny baby Lu while I finished simmering the vinegar. I turned off the stove’s flame and felt somehow grounded again; I nursed Lucas while Kyle plated up dinner for everyone, and I felt life settling into its new normal.
So, for me, this chicken is one of those meals. The ones that can make even a crazy day feel alright at the end. A bottle of vinegar, a few snips of herbs from the pots, some pasta or rice from the pantry – and suddenly, newborns, toddlers, whatever is happening – even with life churning all around, the odds for dinner are looking pretty good.
Notes: Lucinda calls for five pounds of bone-in chicken pieces, which are excellent. Lately though, I usually use a package or two of boneless chicken thighs, which live in our freezer most regularly. Both ways are delicious. Also, we usually eat about a pound of chicken as part of a meal for our family of four – but the leftovers are stunners, reheating easily (loosen with a little water or stock) and pairing perfectly with everything from a roasted sweet potato to leftover rice to a big green salad. (Cut the leftover chicken into pieces and toss with pasta and spinach, and you have a whole second dinner, arguably better than the first.)
1 cup excellent red wine vinegar
3 garlic cloves, minced and smashed
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped (1-2 tablespoons)
2 1/2 pounds chicken thighs
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup chicken broth, plus more as needed
2 hours (or 15 minutes) before cooking, combine the vinegar, garlic and rosemary in a small bowl, so that the vinegar can infuse and the rosemary/garlic mixture can marinate.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Film your largest cast iron skillet with olive oil, then place the chicken in, skin side down. You want to brown the chicken, which means it should sizzle when it hits the pan, and the pan should not be too crowded. (Work in batches if needed.) Let the chicken really sear, then turn each piece so that you brown all sides. Don’t let the chicken burn, but do let it really brown.
Add the chicken broth to the skillet; it should come about half way up the sides of the chicken pieces. (Add water if needed, to get the chicken partially submerged.) Scrape the brown chicken bits from the bottom of the pan, bring the stock up almost to a boil, then lower the heat just to a simmer. Let the chicken simmer for about 15 minutes; the stock should reduce but not evaporate completely. Add the vinegar/rosemary/garlic mixture to the pan, and raise the heat to high. (Make sure your hood fan is on or your windows are open or both – you’ll get a nice vinegar-steam cloud!) Swirl and stir as the vinegar evaporates. In about 8 minutes, it will form a simmering glaze. (Because cast iron gets and stays so hot, I usually turn the heat off just as it is thick enough to coat my wooden spoon, then continue stirring over the residual heat in the pan for a couple minutes more.)
Serve immediately, or cover and leave on the stove; it reheats easily, though you may need to loosen the glaze a bit with water or broth.