THE DISCOVERY OF SLOWNESS
Most of the time when I was a kid, we lived in Fort Bliss, Texas, an army post on the outskirts of El Paso. But as many summers as we could, the whole family (Mother and Dad, four children) would pile into the Buick Super and head for New England. After a four-day drive, with a stopover in Boston to visit my grandparents, we would arrive at the dock in Portland, Maine. There we caught the boat to Long Island, out in Casco Bay. My father would then leave us at the family cottage until the end of summer, when he'd return to spend what was left of his leave before bringing us all back to Texas.
The cottage existed, like all summer places, in a world of slow time. Perched on a cliff overlooking the bay, it was bounded on all sides not by paved roads or even a sidewalk but by a sea of grass. The drinking water came from a well, the washing water from rain barrels set under the eaves. The food was cooked over a tiny camp stove; perishables were kept in an icebox, cooled with an actual giant chunk of ice. At night, games were played and stories read aloud by kerosene lantern; the last trip to the outhouse was lit by a candle in a jar, because flashlight batteries were expensive and we kids ran them down, shining its light for company all the time we sat there.
We had no radio, no television, no telephone. Here was here; there was somewhere else. Things traversed the distance between the two over the water, by boat, slowly. Even when the Gurnet or the Aucocisco had been sighted steaming toward usup the bay, there was still plenty of time to push the wheelbarrow through the woods and across the beach to meet it. Boxes of groceries, blocks of ice, visitors' luggage were all wheeled home in it slowly ... time taken to get used to something new.
Smart, but timid and easily panicked, I was a child who needed this slowness. My mind raced quickly but only really grasped the things it was allowed to take in small bites. This may be why, although I was naturally interested in treats, I wasn't all that drawn to food. Eating was just something else that had to be done too quickly. Lingering at the table or playing with one's food was not allowed. To get dessert, what came before had to be eaten at a rate that was the same as everyone else's, which meant not so much tasting as performing the necessary motions.
Learning to become a socially acceptable table partner is not at all the same thing as learning how to eat. Involvement with what went into the mouth was possible only for such things as cocoa or ice cream, food that was taken in small, contemplative mouthfuls and--unlike the monotonous plasticity of chewing gum--rewarded such patience by continuing to taste good.
On the island, however, ordinary rules of the table didn't hold. Eating, too, was incorporated into slowness. Blueberries and raspberries, for example, grew everywhere, and were to be picked, examined for bugs, and then eaten one by one. Or a whole leisurely morning could be spent picking them, until there were enough to be made into a pie or, even better, into preserves. Then one could watch their gradual transformation into an astonishingly clear and deep-colored liquid. This, dipped up in a spoon, could be turned by patient blowing into a quivering mass of fragile jelly, lustrous as a jewel.
Digging for clams, I found that they were not slow but surprisingly quick--just not quick enough once you learned to outsmart them. In any case, they could only move at all when burrowing through the sand. When fingers clutched them, they gave up like a victim at tag.
This was good, because crabs and lobsters were terrifying even in captivity, scurrying about so quickly, snapping theirclaws. I was upset by fishing, too, but for a different reason. I knew that the fish wouldn't hurt me, but its convulsive thrashing touched off an inner empathetic agitation. I felt too close to such spasms myself, as when cornered in math class by a word problem, on one side, that needed an hour to sort out and a teacher, on the other, insisting that I solve it that moment, at once, immediately.
Lobsters, at least, were made to be eaten slowly, each leg carefully searched for all hidden morsels before going on to the next. The big, juicy piece of tail meat, I learned, was to be saved for last, like the heart of an artichoke, to finally fill the mouth with as much as it could hold of the flavor that, until now, had been worried out in bits.
Clams were steamed in big pots full of clean seaweed, which gave them plenty of time to decide to open their shells. Those that refused escaped being eaten. Each of the others was taken from its shell, had its rubbery neck pulled off like a dirty undershirt, and was given a bath in hot broth. Then, finally, the soothing dip in melted butter ... it was like getting them ready for bed.
Although clams are often steamed right on the beach, I liked the fact that our family brought them home to eat. There, at the table, the beach that the clams lived and fed in could be held at a distance and considered with cautious pleasure. Contrarily, what I loved about eating on the beach was how it transformed what was, when we ate it at home, completely ordinary. Meals that would otherwise be made in a minute now took a whole afternoon. Food waited patiently in the big wicker basket while we edged into the icy water, taking our time to work up nerve for that first electric plunge. Then blankets would be spread, creating a room; rocks would be propped together carefully to make a fireplace, driftwood gathered, and a fire started. There could be no cooking done until the wood had burnt down into coals, and, since the fire wasn't started until everyone had come up from swimming, supper proceeded for once with exemplary slowness.
The sun slipped down behind the island. The breeze off the water blew no longer cool but chill. We sat around the burning logs, impatiently picking away the bark from our sharp-prongedcooking sticks, fashioning them to personal specification, until, finally, the last flame flickered away, leaving behind it a bed of glowing embers.
Each of us then impaled a hot dog and got as near to the fire as we could, dodging the smoke, which made us blind with tears. By practicing slowness, we could make our hot dogs first sizzle and then burst, exposing their bright, juicy innards. All the while, the rolls were being carefully toasted on a rock propped at the edge of the fire. Success meant a hot dog that was burnt black only in spots but leaking all over with steamy juices, slipped into its grilled roll and dressed with Mr. Mustard and plenty of piccalilli.
By the time we roasted the last of them, the sun had gone. The beach was dark, and when the coals were prodded with our sticks, sparks scattered up like fireflies. Now my mother took out of the picnic basket the makings of her own favorite part of the meal: Campfire marshmallows, Hershey almond bars, and Nabisco graham crackers.
Each of the marshmallows, of course, was to be speared and then rotated cautiously over the fire until its exterior was an even brown and its interior melted through. The trick was not only to have the patience to wait for this moment but also to recognize it when it arrived--so that the marshmallow would collapse onto a graham cracker, not into the coals. The sandwich was then completed with a chunk of the Hershey bar and a second graham cracker pressed firmly on top of all. In our family these were called simply toasted marshmallow sandwiches, but, by whatever name they are known, this is the taste that calls up for countless American kids a certain kind of summer night--of fire, feeding, and the ragged festivity that comes from genuine happiness.
Of course, only as adults do we taste all this in the confection; as children, the thing itself was enough. Melted marshmallow pressed flat in its still-crisp crust, the softened chocolate, the salty, crunchy nuts, the dry, crumbly graham cracker ... it's on such as this that kids are permitted to get drunk. Soon, marshmallows are set aflame and waved about to raucous laughter, mouths get burnt, and adult good humor starts to wane.
For my mother, the most evocative toasted marshmallow sandwich was the one made exactly right. By showing us, her children, how that could be managed, she might see herself through her own mother's eyes. Here was a moment when my mother understood slowness completely. As I watched her in the darkness, patiently turning one final marshmallow over the dying coals, I was at last able to feel that growing up did not entirely mean speeding up, that ahead of me might also lie the ability to become stronger even in slowness.
Written in memory of my uncle Walter Brooks Favorite (1924 1990), who, of all my mother's generation, loved this place the most.
KITCHEN DIARY: RASPBERRIES
The British make a dessert with fresh strawberries, variously called Clare College Mush or Eton Mess, in which the berries are macerated in Cointreau and stirred into a mixture of whipped cream and crushed meringues. This is good, but I like it even better made instead with raspberries and a raspberry liqueur like Chambord, where the intense sourness of those berries makes a better contrast with the sweetness of the meringues.
3 large egg whites, at room temperature ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar Pinch of salt 1/2 cup sugar Dash of vanilla 2 tablespoons raspberry eau-de- vie or Chambord 1 pint fresh raspberries 1 cup heavy cream, chilled
Preheat the oven to 250°F. Put the whites into a mixing bowl, making sure no speck of yolk gets in with them, and whip until frothy with a whisk or electric mixer. Then beat in firstthe cream of tartar and then the pinch of salt. Continue beating, and add 6 tablespoons of the sugar, one at a time, sprinkling each spoonful in slowly. Do not rush this. Finally, mix in the vanilla. Beating at high speed, whip the mixture until it is glossy and firm enough to hold its shape when the beaters are removed. Drop tablespoons of this mixture onto a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake in a low oven for one hour. Then turn the oven off but do not remove the meringues for another hour. (If not using them immediately, keep tightly sealed in a tin.)
While the meringues are baking, pour the raspberry liqueur and 1 tablespoon of the remaining sugar over the raspberries, stirring gently but well. Leave this mixture to macerate for at least one hour. Before serving, whip the chilled heavy cream with the last tablespoon of sugar. Coarsely crumble the meringues and mix these and the macerated berries together in a large bowl. Fold in the whipped cream and turn equal portions of this mixture out into small chilled bowls. Serve at once.
COOK'S NOTE: If a raspberry liqueur or eau-de-vie is unavailable, crème de cassis or ordinary black currant syrup can be substituted for the raspberry liqueur, giving the dessert a pleasantly mysterious note. Finally, if making meringues is something that you never seem to get around to, amaretti di Saronno can be substituted, using three for each serving.
This cake is extravagant in its use of fresh raspberries, but you'll realize how worth the expense it is when, during the last ten minutes of baking, the kitchen is flooded with that berry's fragrant aroma. And the cake itself lives up to this advance billing, with its deep, spicy raspberry flavor, marvelously set off by the buttery richness and the sweet-sour savor of the brown sugar.
I found the recipe in Haydn S. Pearson's The Countryman's Cookbook, a very opinionated, very charming collection of New England recipes from the 1940s. The recipe as he gives it calls for canned raspberries and a flavoring mixture of clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Matt and I replaced the canned with fresh berries and two of the spices withfresh lemon zest, which we felt better brought out the slightly elusive raspberry flavor.
FRESH RASPBERRY CAKE
(MAKES ONE 9-INCH LOAF)
¾ cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted but- ter, softened 1 cup brown sugar, packed 2 eggs 2 tablespoons sour cream Grated zest of 1 small lemon 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted be- fore and after measuring 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon 1 pint fresh raspberries Whipped cream for topping
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lavishly butter a 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan; set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter well and beat in the sugar. Beat the eggs until frothy in a separate bowl and then beat them into the butter-sugar mixture. When this is light and creamy, beat in the sour cream and the grated lemon zest. Then sift the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon on top, and mix until smooth. Gently fold the raspberries into the batter with a spatula, mixing well but breaking up the berries as little as possible.
Turn the batter into the buttered pan, smoothing it evenly on top. Bake for about 55 minutes or until a cake tester or straw comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes before inverting the pan gently, letting the cake slip out onto the same rack to cool completely. Cut in thick slices and serve with whipped cream.