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on the birthday of the world
The Storms Are On the Ocean, The Heavens May Cease to Be [recipe]
I am writing this from a quiet space in our longtime-rental Maine house.
The window in front of me faces out onto a thicket of native wildflowers — goldenrod, sweet pea, wild rose —and already, the wind has picked up speed and, like a hard cosmic cough, is violently blowing the flowers before returning to stillness. To my right is a sheltered pond — it’s hidden, and I rarely investigate or bring the dog there because it’s home to so much bird life; a Great Blue Heron lives there and has for a few years, and at every 5 pm, he goes fishing off the shore of the ocean that is, as I write this, about fifty yards to my left. Late yesterday, at low tide, we saw a family of Bald Eagles perched on a little sandbar that emerges twice a day off our rocky beach. We were walking Petey down to the water, and two women, one of whom grew up on this street, swimming in these ice cold waters, handed us their binoculars and said Have a look. We did, and there were the eagles, unmistakable and remarkable.
Where do you think they’ll go, Susan asked me.
No idea, I said. I think to them it’s just more weather.
This community — it has welcomed me and Susan and Pete for years now, and we expect to drop our anchor here permanently as soon as we possibly can; it is complicated with an elderly parent who cannot be moved, and no siblings to help — is getting ready for the arrival of Hurricane Lee, which is set to roll right past New York and smash into Cape Cod and coastal Maine tonight. No one here seems to have generators and are instead just doing what they’ve always done in preparation for a storm: water, batteries, food that can be cooked on a propane stovetop, bungeeing grills to decks, playing cards and puzzles and candles. Having lived through many big storms, Susan and I are oddly calm, and although we are from away, we have many good friends here and are taking our cues from them. Panicking is not a particular part of the Mainer DNA. Still, I found myself listening to the lovely Richard Shindell this morning, singing the old Carter Family song The Storms Are On The Ocean. Because right now, they are.
Does it not make sense that our egoist human tendencies and every sin that comes from and with them might be turned into nourishment for the mystical vertebrates who live in the darkest places we cannot see and do not understand.
When we returned to the house yesterday, Susan made us a honey cake to mark the beginning of The Days of Awe: the Jewish New Year begins tonight at sundown, and is always celebrated with sweet food, that the coming year may be a joyful and good one. It feels appropriate to be here in Maine for the holiday not because I’m formally observant in any way — I’m not and never have been; I have particular and private views about my Higher Power — but because to be so close to the sea is to be in a liminal place where the threshold between the comprehensible and the ineffable is thin as a reed. This is the way of the ocean, which ebbs and flows according to the phases of the moon; the Jewish New Year is calculated according to the lunar cycle, and on the first day of Rosh Hashanah the tradition — it is called tashlich— is to cast into the sea bits of bread representing our sins of the previous year, to be carried away on the tide. I’ve always imagined the bread of a thousand sinners being eaten by fish — the idea of an innocent creature swallowing my transgressions feels wrong — and then I come back to this place: does it not make sense that our egoist human tendencies and every sin that comes from and with them might be turned into nourishment for the mystical vertebrates who live in the darkest places we cannot see and do not understand.
We are in the throes of so much change — my mother is getting old, we’re getting older, Petey is so old now that he doesn’t quite know where he is every night and we are investigating medication for dog dementia, I’m finishing my next book and making notes for the one following it — that I spend a lot of time just standing in the ocean, in the gap, feeling the pull of the current and the undertow, and I know that if I don’t stand hard and bury my feet in the sand, I could easily be knocked over and dragged out to the tiny islands that lie offshore. We’ve never seen anyone swim off our rocky little beach, although once, during low tide, we watched a grown man stand-up paddle board his way out to the closest island, cool his heels a little while on the sandy beach, and then paddle back to where we were watching him, whereupon his ancient mother toddled down to the shore with a sandwich for him and a sandwich for her, and they sat down together on a rotting log and had a little lunch.
The man stood up, walked to the edge of the shore, and threw crusts of bread into the sea; all I could think of was sweetness and redemption.
Devonshire Honey Cake
Adapted from BBC Good Food
To be clear, this is not the honey cake of my people, which tends to be cloying and overwrought (but in the right hands, can be extraordinary when baked in a loaf pan, sliced the next day, toasted in a dry skillet, and spread with a thin lacquer of cream cheese as you would date nut bread), but it is by far the most elemental and delicious version I have ever eaten. (English friends, please let me know the history of honey cake in Devonshire.) Susan baked it in a cake pan and it rose far higher than we expected, so if you do the same be sure to put a baking sheet on the rack beneath it.
I wish you all a sweet New Year, whether you observe or you don’t.
Note: The recipe is converted from UK measurements and temperatures.
1 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup clear honey, plus 2 tablespoons to glaze
1/2 cup dark muscovado sugar
3 large eggs
2-1/3 cup self-rising flour
Preheat oven to 320 degrees F (not a mistake).
Butter and line an 8 inch round springform cake tin. Cut the butter into pieces and drop into a medium pan with the honey and sugar. Melt slowly over a low heat. When the mixture looks thin and liquid, increase the heat under the pan and boil for about one minute. Leave to cool for 15-20 minutes, to prevent the eggs cooking when they are mixed in.
Beat the eggs into the melted honey mixture using a wooden spoon. Sift the flour into a large bowl and pour in the egg and honey mixture, beating until you have a smooth, quite runny batter.
Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 50 minutes to an hour until the cake is well-risen, golden brown and springs back when pressed. A skewer pushed into the center of the cake should come out clean.
Turn the cake out on a wire rack. Warm 2 tablespoons honey in a small pan and brush over the top of the cake to give a sticky glaze, then leave to cool. Keeps for 4-5 days wrapped, in an airtight tin.