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Deprivation is a bastard. These days many more of earth’s human inhabitants are feeling it than usual.

We can be grateful that nature gets us out of our heads. Think about it: Unlike catastrophes like war or flood or famine, which leave their unmistakeable mark upon the landscape and make nowhere a refuge, when it comes to this pandemic, you can’t see it outdoors — at least for the most part. Some wear masks. I spot the odd discarded plastic glove on the curb from time to time. But aside from that, nature doesn’t know we’re in crisis. The starling that just flew past your window, the chipmunk that high-tailed into the brush beside the lake, the wind nudging the sycamore leaves, the sea foam that just misses your feet — none of these have any idea that this spring is like no other spring. Getting enveloped by nature now is a benediction that wipes clean our minds. For a little while.

In the U.S., today is Memorial Day, when we remember troops who died in service to our country. They fought, at least in theory, to hold fast to our nation’s ambitious ideals — something about equality and the pursuit of happiness — and died trying.

Nearly every day since mid-March I have been exploring, often for miles at a time, sometimes with a plan and sometimes without one, and nature has been a hugely welcome affront to the caustic headlines. Our energy stores are fried, our hands are dried out from the bleach solutions that have become our daily modus operandi. And it’s a long way until election day in November.

But the lushness in nature is in stark and audacious contrast. The lilacs aren’t just fragrant, they’re triggering tears of relief; sycamore leaves aren’t just green, they’re Hobbit-shire magical. Maybe it’s just this spring. But I’ll take it.

Not sure how I missed that there’s a tradition of dropping flowers into water on Memorial Day. A Wiccan friend tells me this is an ancient method for offering gifts or honoring someone. Look at us, remembering something like that.

Today I climbed down a steep incline to drop a yellow poplar flower into the lake. I thought about the soldiers who had lushness in mind when they suited up and went to battle, that they were fighting for abundance, our right to plenty. They believed our ideals and that wish were worth it. I’m so, so tired, and that belief is a tiny candle flame inside me right now, but tiny counts.

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Does everyone have a white whale? Something we’ve looked for all our lives, or it definitely seems it? And on wildly rare occasions we find it, but most often we end up like Ishmael — living to tell the tale, but that’s it?

I think I may have found mine. I’ll know in a few weeks.

It started with a hot tip.

When I told my friend Sandy that I forage for Concord grapes, he gave me a memory: During gym class he and his high school classmates would run along the treeline behind the school and snack on grapes that grew there. This was back in the ’60s, but I sometimes I see shows at this school and know that treeline still exists, because the road to the theater runs parallel to it. Last week I took a half vacation day and drove out there. Concords aren’t ripe until late summer, but the vines stick around. I’d be able to identify those.

The back of this property is far off the road. Besides the homeowners on the other side of the fence and stream, who weren’t around, and the school groundskeeper, who idly waved and kept mowing, I was alone. Ideal.

The vines were still there, after 50+ years. And they’re easier to access than my usual beloved spot. This is good, because as nature (and the ticks and vicious wild rose canes therein) swallows up more of the path every year, picking Concords there will soon require me to wear clothes that cover every inch of bare skin. It’s not a thought to relish in late August, so I welcome a Plan B.

This recon mission would have gotten an A+ if the grapevines were all I found. But next came the crabapple tree and cousins.

(Just a quick aside to let you know I am not a science wonk, let alone a botanist, by any remote stretch of the imagination. Do you need an example? Here you go: In college I studied my butt off in bio, but could not coerce the data into my grey cells if I’d had a crowbar. I expected to flunk. When I learned I had been awarded a D- for the semester, I was elated. At least I wouldn’t have to take the stupid course again. That’s how crap I am at science.

So why, with empirical non-prowess under my belt, do I notice that mulberry trees and elderflowers virtually always grow near water? And why did I realize last week when I saw members of the Rose family growing together that they often enough tend to?)

First I spotted an ancient crabapple tree. Then it was wineberry canes (which fruit in July and are profoundly tart. Imagine a raspberry after it ate half a bag of Sour Patch Kids, watched the remake of “Cats,” and suffered the inevitable existential crisis). Then it was wild rose canes, which might be flowers and nothing more, or might be wild raspberries, or blackberries. Either way, giant family reunion. They’re all Roses.

And so is the little white whale, the shyest member of this family reunion. I looked down in the shade and thought it was a stray blossom blown down from the crabapple or rose canes; they all feature a similar flower. Then I saw the serrated triple leaves and just stared.

For years upon years I have been hoping to come across fraise des bois, aka woodland strawberries, aka Alpine strawberries. Powerfully, intensely sweet — called a delicacy and deserving it — and far better known in Europe. I don’t know if it’s because there are more there or because we no longer have a foraging culture here in the U.S. and just don’t notice them. But I’ve never come across a wild strawberry during my hunts, beyond yet another Rose cousin, the wild strawberries that begin with a tiny yellow flower and produce a tiny bland fruit.

Woodland strawberries begin with a white flower. And I’ve never seen nor tasted a sweet one until, maybe, fingers crossed, if the deer don’t get them first, inside a month from when I write this.

You’re picturing me parking next to them with a sleeping bag, like I’m on line for Stones tickets, aren’t you? You’re not crazy.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with a guy who lives most of his life as a hermit. He said the best way to get through monotony, as we do now during the pandemic, is to find something you can track. Foragers never stop tracking — seasons, rain, sun, groundskeepers. Strawberries fruit in late spring, Memorial Day at the very earliest. This was a cold spring. But June is on the horizon.

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Picture it: Interlaken, NJ, 1972. Or maybe 1973. I was really little. My mom had planted red tulip bulbs around the perimeter of the terrace that faced the front yard. The following spring, when I was toddling around the lawn, I peeked inside one of them and had an early communion with horror. It looked like evil looking back at me. How could something so cheerful and welcoming on the outside be so Hades-black on the inside?

Here in the northern hemisphere we’re in full spring, with all of the color and light and beauty that blesses us each May. We’re also in full pandemic, with all of the everything you know about, since you’re seeing the same headlines I am. It’s a cruel irony to be enveloped in the glories of sweet breezes, flowers and cerulean sky at such a scary and unstable time. T.S. Eliot wrote his masterpiece “The Wasteland” in the wake of WWI, which left all surviving participants in a state of profound disillusionment. “April is the cruelest month,” he begins it. The same could be said of this past April. May isn’t shaping up to be any great shakes, either. At least not here is the U.S.

It should be noted here that I myself am doing really well, though I miss a lot of people. And going inside stores. And going for walks not dressed like a ninja with a fondness for newsboy caps. My goal is to survive this. I intend to do it. And for the record, I have come to love looking inside red tulips; now, the blackness strikes me as thrilling, not terrifying.

But I remember the initial horror, what it felt like to learn that inside something that looks fine — beautiful, even — can be awful. That looks can be powerfully deceiving. I’m seeing it near and far these days — in those I know and those I don’t, on the news, in the streets. Disillusionment is something that threatens to be a door prize from this crisis. I can’t have it. I’m fighting it like I do to survive.

Sending you all peace.

 

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There comes a time in every C-19 lockdowner’s life when she can’t handle Zoom meetings, semi- or entirely tasteless virus fashion memes and washing her face mask for the 119th time and hies her bottom to the safety of the kitchen. Fine, okay, I confess I reached this point several weeks ago.

I’ve been baking so much that I’ve been telling people that I’m stocking up in case, God forbid, I get sick and can’t get out for food. That’s an incidental Plan B, but the legitimate truth is I can’t stop — and the more oddball and unlikely the recipe, the better.

Forgive the largesse of these; my pc says the resizing took, but the smaller pics are nowhere to be found on my hard drive. OY. Here’s a four-strand challah, right on the heels of that oy. The middle went a little wonky.

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Crumpets. Easy and absolutely addictive.

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Chocolate pudding cake. They have a delightfully ooshy middle. Recommended before 9a Zooms.

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Naan. The crushed coriander (right) was my favorite. My Indian co-worker gently scolded me for using olive oil instead of butter. I *would* have, but I was worried that I’d like it too much.

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English muffins. These are fantastic, but olive oil struck out here, too. They need a little time to cook on the stovetop, and the smoke point is too low with olive oil. When the smoke died down, I feasted.

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I made Everything bagels today and they were a total gas. The recipe, like the English muffin recipe, came from a mid-century Joy of Cooking that I am utterly enamored with. Every recipe in this book makes a heap of food; this made 18 bagels! I guess people had bigger families back then. And the authors offer serving suggestions, like toasted with cream cheese and lox or butter. Bagels must have been a new thing back then and they needed to give readers a leg up.

This morning I minced fresh garlic and a fistful of wild onions I pulled yesterday from the edge of a harrowed farm field and dried them in a very low oven for about a half hour. Then I mixed them with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and sea salt. I like a lot of stuff on my bagels.

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Are you all staying healthy? What are you baking? Tease me.

 

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So.

What’s new?

I’ve been cooking, baking, rationalizing my excessive dark chocolate habit, walking on the beach, foraging, fretting about my split ends, virtual chatting with friends near and far — you know, what I usually do in my day-to-day. There’s just the small matter of not being allowed to touch another human being. And no one knows for how long.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? I’m smack between the two, happily stepping foot over foot on the line between creative solitude and connection. I know it’s kind of in vogue now to complain about people — or at least it was until about three weeks ago — but I love people. Virtual communication is a profound blessing. If we think we’re climbing the walls now, imagine what it would be like if we were entirely shut off from anyone outside our homes. But sorry, Zuckerberg — compared to face to face, it loses by a country mile.

I miss slurping down pho with Teresa and gobbling appallingly sloppy cheeseburgers with Casey. I miss tearing through the crossover backstage to give a dancer her lost character shoe. I miss goofing off with fellow buyers in the line at Trader Joe’s. I miss being close enough to look into people’s eyes. At the last show I saw, the actors performed so closely that you could see a loose button on their trousers and the fine hair glinting on their forearms. It was less than two months ago; it feels like an eternity.

We’re learning how little we can get by on, and I suppose that’s a benefit. The atmosphere has cleared up remarkably quickly without all the cars on the road. But man alive, deprivation is a bastard. We humans are wounded, starving for connection. On my way to the beach I pass people getting their six-feet-apart breaths of air, and we all smile at each other, make conversation from across the street, down from balconies, across the jetty. We need each other so much. We didn’t know it until now.

The D’Anjou pears above were an Instacart delivery. They were in the bottom of the grocery bag — not a great move on the part of the shopper. Do I care? Not even close. I think they’re beautiful like this, and they’ll taste good sliced and spread with chunky peanut butter either way. They look the way we all feel right now — battered, but still standing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I love game — venison and the like — but I have zero clue where my affinity for it comes from. My family was into watching MTV or sitting on the flagstone patio eating Carvel ice cream while my dad puffed on a pricey cigar. We were not and are not sportsmen. Living a mile from the Atlantic, we were more inclined to have our bare feet in the sand, not in camo boots and sitting in a deer blind*.

The craziest thing I used to eat at as a grade-schooler was snails. Escargot. I genuinely have no idea what compelled me to order them at a restaurant; I wasn’t exactly an adventurous kid. But I adored them.

My mom couldn’t stomach the thought of game. Just the mention of it made her turn a delicate shade of chartreuse. Once I ordered pheasant at a French restaurant and she practically retched right there on the 400-thread-count white tablecloth. I’m not ashamed to say that was part of the fun of ordering pheasant in the first place. And it was pretty tasty to boot.

Since then I’ve had alligator sausage in Florida, moose and elk burgers in Colorado and most recently, venison here in the great state of New Jersey. Loved it all. The gamier, the better. My cousin’s husband is a fervent hunter and fisherman, and we barter deer meat and striped bass for baked goods.

Again, I really need to emphasize that most people here don’t go looking for their food anywhere that doesn’t feature rewards cards. Many wouldn’t even venture to a farm — and this is the Garden State, no less. When I told my friend Brian that I buy eggs at a farm, he reminded me that Wegmans sells eggs, too.

I recently came into an old edition of Joy of Cooking that includes recipes and directions for large and small game. (The copyright page is missing; the publishing date is unknown. But in true Don-Draper fashion, the book’s first chapter is Drinks and it unironically offers several recipes for canapes, so it’s likely mid-century**.) And there are six pages devoted to game. They feature rabbit and deer along with opossum, muskrat, boar’s head, woodchuck, porcupine, beaver, raccoon, peccary — which, as everyone knows, is also called a javelina or skunk pig — and bear. There is also a page and a half devoted to airy and casual discussion of eviscerating the above, as if it’s something you’d mosey out to the woods and do before Don Draper’s cocktail party at six.

Never have I done this; never have I even seen this done. I was so unnerved at the thought of dissecting my fetal pig in Bio 101 that my college prof did it herself. But I am transfixed reading these directions.

Every piece of meat we omnivores eat comes from the big-box store’s refrigerator, wrapped in Styro and celluloid. Where is it from? Under what conditions was the animal killed and processed? We don’t know; we don’t want to know. We pluck chicken thighs from the fridge bin as dispassionately as we choose paper towels or shampoo. We cook and eat it the same way. From a connection standpoint, it couldn’t be farther from the source if was FedExed from Jupiter’s 37th moon.

Maybe explaining how to process and prepare an animal as something you and I can do, something people have always — directly — done, feels like reconnecting ourselves with our food.

Maybe — and I know I’m going into fraught territory here, but I’ve come this far — processing and preparing meat ourselves is the most honorable way to eat meat.

I came by this venison secondhand. But I can tell you eating it feels profound, even with that one degree of separation. I am reminded with every bite of its provenance. It feels right and proper. The gap closes.

As far as the pot pie recipe goes … there isn’t one. I winged it. To the farm carrots I froze last September I added potatoes and red onion. Found some wild chives on a walk to the lake and tossed in some dried wild purslane, also squirreled away from last summer. Browned the meat partway. Made a thick gravy with chicken broth, Worcestershire, malt vinegar, and hot pepper flakes. I loaded up my mom’s little 1970s earthenware pots, topped them with my pie dough, and baked them for half an hour. She’s nauseated, looking down. But I had a great, and grateful, lunch.

*Just Googled ‘hunting hideout.’ Do you sit in a deer blind or behind one? Are camo boots even a thing? I know my hunting prowess is shining right through. I’m practically Artemis.

**It’s apparently also a book that Point Pleasant Borough High School librarians have been missing for 24 years. I won’t name the perp, but I will say his homeroom was Room 207. Doing you a favor, Mr. 207. Shirley Jones’s Marian would have been all over Robert Preston’s case.

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Coming up for air after baking eight pies (sold seven, ate one) last week for Thanksgiving. Coming up for air, that is, just in time for Christmas baking, which is like going to a water park on Tuesday and on Wednesday thinking it might be fun to swim the English Channel. For some reason I’m not wired up to hit the bakery for holidays. I have in my collection recipes that wait politely all year for their moment in the (waning) December sun, and I can’t say no — sleep and sanity be damned.

This month I’m making profiteroles for a going-away party, gingerbread reindeer for gifts, and chocolate-Grand Marnier cake for New Year’s Eve orders. For me, I’m making Irish fruitcake, my former neighbor’s cinnamon chocolate-chip coffee cake, and my mom’s sour-cream coffee cake for Christmas morning.

But today I opened up the month with the stollen below: a very tender, not-too-sweet German bread made with toasted almonds, chopped orange peel, lemon zest, and raisins I soaked for an hour in my honeysuckle vodka. It’s supposed to evoke the swaddling clothes wrapped around the Baby Jesus, but I never get it right. It always looks rumpled, like he was caught off-guard and jumped out of the manger to validate the Wise Men’s parking. I ate warm wedges of it for breakfast, and luckily the flavor never fails.

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