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man plans and God laughs
Fourteen Winter Days in Maine
To be offered a residency as a writer is an extraordinary gift; it’s a gift of time and space, of silence and uninterrupted writing when one is (usually) surrounded by the trappings of one’s work: manuscripts, books, journals. Some residencies are famous for providing attendees with meals, which is left outside the door of one’s cottage. (This is remarkable, but rare.) At the beginning of the month, I drove to Barnswallow in Rockport, Maine with a packed car filled with all of the above (and some clothes), enough coffee to keep me going for a while, roughly twelve books, three journals including a dog-eared process journal dated on its front page 11/24/13, and two pairs of boots and an ice scraper because: Maine in January.
It has been glorious here; I miss Susan and the animals a lot — A LOT — and still, this has been my work time, and I am profoundly grateful to Barnswallow for offering it to me. And I will be back this summer to do some residential teaching here on behalf of Barnswallow (please stay tuned for more information) and readings in their lovely barn.
Of course, though, one of my concerns while I started to get things ready for my journey north was (wait for it) my mother. The Mayor of Motherland. Trying to explain to an 87 year old woman who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder WHY I was leaving my home to drive five hours alone, to work for two weeks alone: well, good luck to me. Where her imagination took her: 1) I had moved out because Susan and I had broken up, and I was now living in an ice fishing shack on the edge of the ocean (or, as she put it, THE ATLANTIC OCEAN). 2) I was in the hospital in New York City, and I wouldn’t tell her which one, or why. 3) I was really in Europe. 4) I was in rehab.
The first week I was here, my mother called me roughly five times a day. I took to leaving my phone off and in another room, and checking it when I got up to make coffee. I figured if Susan needed to reach me, she could send me a text through my computer. Eventually, my mother clogged up my voicemail with eleven messages, all of which I deleted. After a week of this — what would I eat? would I drove off a cliff and into THE ATLANTIC OCEAN by accident or ON PURPOSE? WHY was I not calling her back — she began to quiet down, and I was able to work uninterrupted with the exception of daily calls to Susan to say Good morning I love you and Good night I love you. I cooked for myself the first few nights I was here, then went to one of my favorite restaurants in Camden, had dinner and then took out enough food for leftovers, had dinner with my dear friend Tara, and generally, all was fine.
Until it wasn’t.
For those of you who have never driven in the northeast during an ice storm here’s a bit of information: you can’t drive on ice.
The ice storm that hit last Sunday did so when I was about half an hour away from my residence. I wasn’t feeling terrific the day before, but I rallied on Sunday and drove to see one of my oldest friends, her lovely husband, daughter, and grandson for an early lunch, stepped out of the restaurant, and was pelted with shards of glass/ice that actually hurt. For those of you who have never driven in the northeast during an ice storm here’s a bit of information: you can’t drive on ice. Not with four wheel drive. Okay, maybe with tire chains, but those are now illegal. And if you do manage to make your way along slowly, you have to be careful of braking (you can spin), and you have to be careful of the people who are coming at you in the other direction, in case they spin. Last Sunday, it took me almost two hours to drive a relatively short distance, on ice, in the dark, praying not to end up in the Damariscotta River, or hit by oncoming traffic. I actually got on my knees when I got back to my residence. I don’t know who was on my shoulder, but whoever you are, Thank you. I decided not to tell my mother about this little jaunt because: why bother? The information I give her these days is very limited anyway, and while I would have told my dad (if my dad were still here), there was no way I was going to share it with Rita.
So, to her credit, Rita didn’t automatically call me the other night when she accidentally dropped her cordless phone, bent down to get it, and then couldn’t get up. She called Susan instead. And after much thought, Susan decided that she had to text me: did a neighbor have the key? What about the building? What about my cousin in Riverdale? I had left a set of keys with the building back in 2016 when she broke her ankle, but those apparently had vanished. So: no keys. Which meant that nobody could go in and help her up. Which meant that the building had to call the fire department of the City of New York, who had to break the door down, destroy the locks, and get her on her feet. Which they did, and for which I will be eternally grateful. It also meant that the next day, my Riverdale cousin, a New York City judge, raced down to her apartment and coordinated with Susan to get a locksmith to install a temporary cylinder in the broken-but-barely-workable door so that my mother could lock it until a new door was in place, at which time the cylinder and a new upper lock would be installed. So now, we are all waiting for the new door, and are praying it arrives soon. My gratitude to my cousin, to Susan, to the building, and to the FDNY knows no bounds.
She got into her car and pulled it out, scraping my front bumper and when I asked her for her insurance information she said HASTE MAKES WASTE, DEAR! and drove off.
And gratitude is an important thing because I easily could have been hurt the next day, when a 90-year-old lady drove her Rav4 into the same bank parking lot I was parked in, and pulled her SUV in alongside me like I wasn’t even there, which I wasn’t—I was in the bank. No hyperbole: she was so close to me that I couldn’t have opened the driver’s side door if I tried. Somehow, she managed to pull her SUV straight in a parking lot of angled spaces, and somehow, her car overtook my car, as if my Subaru were completely invisible. I went back into the bank and said Um, who belongs to the Rav4 and this very comely lady said Oh dear, that’s ME! and she got into her car and pulled it out, scraping my front bumper and when I asked her for her insurance information she said HASTE MAKES WASTE, DEAR! and drove off. So I returned to my residence with the plan to work into the evening — I was in the middle of one of the essays in my new book — but instead spent an hour on the phone with Avis, reporting the damage, and then my credit card company. I then got back into the car and drove to the Rockland Police Department, where I filed an accident report; they declared it a hit and run, and promised to get me the insurance information from Haste Makes Waste, which they did, and texted it to me. I then went back to my residence — it faces the most beautiful sunsets — and called my car insurance company, who opened a claim for both myself and Haste (same company), and, to quote my grandfather from the old country, Lord and Behold: here we are.
My mother doesn’t have a new door and her lock barely works. I bring the rental car back tomorrow in the late afternoon; I’m leaving early in the morning.
I’ve just packed up my books, having read three of them. I did some very good work here, but about 5000 words less than I had planned on. I ate some extraordinary food and saw some of my dearest friends who live in this part of the world. And I discovered that I still know how to cook small meals for myself in an unfamiliar kitchen, and do my own laundry (Susan doesn’t let me do our laundry because she’s convinced I’m colorblind) and all in all, I still do pretty well.
I even know how to drive on ice.
My Favorite Minestrone
It has been very cold here in Maine, as it should be, but it (apparently) does not keep Mainers from doing the things that Mainers do, like put on a pair of ice spikes and go for five mile hikes with their dogs (there’s a great path right outside the door of my residence), or do cold water plunges in the Gulf of Maine (I’m not there yet), or drive to the coffee shop in a snowstorm because, coffee (I did that, this morning). This is the perfect soup to have on such a day, and if I wasn’t leaving tomorrow, I’d make it: it’s a longtime favorite from the great Emiko Davies. Note: Often, we will soak dried beans for this dish, cook them, and reserve the cooking liquid, which we’ll use in place of or in addition to the vegetable stock (the volume, 4 quarts, should be the same).
From Food52/Emiko Davies:
This recipe is inspired by the minestrone recipe in Artusi's cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891), in which Artusi himself instructs is adaptable to your own tastes and what you find in the vegetable patch. More than a recipe, Artusi's is a description of what to put in it. He actually calls for "a little " tomato passata (or paste) but doesn't say how much. I do love that about old cookbooks, though—how recipes are really just guidelines.
The idea here is to take advantage of fresh, seasonal ingredients rather than looking at this as an opportunity to clear out the sad-looking scraps at the bottom of the crisper drawer in the fridge. This is a soup that you can make beautiful no matter what the season: If the greens aren't in season, use other vegetables such as fresh peas in spring or more root vegetables in winter.
If you want to make this more substantial, use beef stock as the base rather than vegetable stock. A little trick to add some flavor to a vegetable soup is also to throw in the thick rind of Parmesan cheese when you can no longer grate anything else from it: It adds lovely flavor and when it’s softened in the warm soup, you can eat it, too (strict vegetarians, just be aware that real Parmesan cheese is made with real animal rennet). If you want something lighter, stick to vegetable stock and you can also leave out the beans and the pasta, rice, or farro. —Emiko
1 handful of parsley, both stalk and leaves, chopped finely
3 slices of pancetta or prosciutto, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
1 small onion, diced
1/2 stalk of celery, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 small potato, peeled and sliced or diced
1 small zucchini, diced
2 big handfuls of greens (cabbage, spinach, chard, or a mixture), rinsed and roughly chopped
one 14-ounce (400-gram) tin borlotti beans, drained (or a handful of fresh borlotti beans, simmered until tender)
Half of a 14-ounce (400-gram) tin of whole, peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped (or 2 or 3 fresh Roma tomatoes)
1/4 cup rice, farro, or small pasta such as risoni, stelline
4 cups (1 liter) vegetable stock
salt and pepper
grated Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
toasted slices of bread for each bowl, for serving (optional)
extra-virgin olive oil
Gently sauté the chopped parsley, pancetta, and garlic in 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot for 1 minute. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and bay leaves and continue cooking until the onion begins to become translucent.
Add the rest of the vegetables, beans, tomato, and rice (or farro or pasta). Season with salt and pepper. Cover with stock, bring to the boil and place a lid on top and cook until the vegetables are tender. Check for seasoning.
Serve the minestrone with a piece of toasted bread in the bottom or on the side of the bowl, and sprinkle over grated Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Artusi likes to put the Parmesan directly into the pot at the end rather than serve it on top.
Note from Elissa: This freezes beautifully.