The day we met the Pillemers we just needed tomatoes. We’d bought this silly quaint country store and our produce distributor was hell bent on sending us hothouse tomatoes. No matter how we begged and pleaded, the ugly tomatoes, the ones with all the flavor, never showed up at our store. I bought my own produce at farmstands along the side of the road. These were mainly happenstance places, and when the flag was up with the truck beside, you knew you were in for a treat. And then someone told us to try Pawlett. Head out to the Pillemer’s place they’d said. So John and I left one morning at around 7 for a meandering country drive. We had a goal in that we wanted to see what this Pillemer place was all about. But we were plenty happy drinking coffee and musing over the news at the store. It was early days, our second summer up here, and we were tickled with the place and our luck at buying the store. Peltier’s was moved to its current location in 1816, and there was speculation that it was New England’s oldest continuously operating country store. We found an older one on the Cape, but it had begun life as a Unitarian Church. Peltier’s was, and always had been, under various names and owners, a country store. There were even ledgers from its early days listing the price of nails and hay. We had bought a landmark, and American legend, and we were plenty proud of ourselves…well, at first. Now we figured we just needed some good tomatoes.
The ride from Dorset Vermont to Pawlett Vermont only takes about ten minutes. But they are some of the most beautiful you will ever spend in a car. This is not the drama of Carmel, or anyway not only that. Neither is it the paler quieter beauty of the Cape. It is rather an old beauty filled with stories. There are old dairies with new goats and hippie cheesemakers tending the land. There are fields of cows right out of the best kind of American photography. There are mountains of course. Vermont has these gentle round green high hills that up here wrap us snugly like a warm quilt and a cup of hot buttered rum. But Pawlett also has some craggier more dramatic ones, and the fields are filled with dandelions in the spring because nobody uses pesticides up here practically ever. On any summer evening the flats, as the wide fields between the mountains are called, are filled with deer nibbling at the farmer’s produce. You can see whole herds on your evening drive. There are foxes and owls, and critters of all sizes who come down to these fields to feed. The farmers don’t seem to mind too much. Or at any rate they don’t do anything that I can see to stop this natural daily feast.
We came into Pawlett and didn’t see any sign that said Pillemer. So we kept gong. This was when Peltier’s still had lots of employees and enough goodwill that we could miss a morning here and there. Pretty soon we were thinking of turning back, and then we spotted the sheep up ahead on the pasture alongside a rolling hill. We wanted a better view. There was a river, and a hill behind dotted with black and white sheep. The scene was so lovely and so quiet in the early morning that I felt sort of like I was in a church. The sheep were grazing, walking slowly round and baa baaa baaing like in a fairy tale. As we got back into our car we saw the Pillemer sign just across the road.
It was a big red barn next to a coop of friendly red hens. We walked inside and our mouths gaped at the freshly picked produce spilling out of baskets like a still life waiting for the painter. This little place would have made Whole Foods blush. The owners were a married couple. He’d been an oncology doc who chucked it all for his version of a new life. They had five children with them that day and I learned he had some grown ones besides. They homeschooled and I would come back to learn more about that as an idea began to take shape in my head. But for now we bought pounds and pounds of their wonderful food. Eventually we struck a deal to carry their produce at the store. And John and I would spend two summers driving there in the earliest still dark hours of the morning to fill our shelves.
Holding the baby on her hip Wendy would weigh and bag. Her husband, Eric would come in from the fields with big overflowing baskets which she would recreate into an ever changing palette the still lifes that would haunt my dreams. From their fields we made thick sauces, and bacon, tomato and basil sandwiches that were perfect with a little lemon mayonaise. There were spring strawberries so sweet that too many could make your teeth ache. I cooked them with her slender rhubarb into an ice cream sauce that made people beg for more. I made up a strawberry salsa with fresh cucumbers and one jalepeno that we would talk about deep into winter. We swapped recipes and they fed our family for two whole years from their land and hard work. Eventually something happened and Eric returned to medicine. Last year the farm was open a few days a week on an honor system with a jar for leaving the money. Eric was practicing in another city, and with five kids and teaching, working the stand took just too much time.
From the Pillemers I learned the value of growing what you eat or eating at least that which is locally grown. Never before had flavors burst into my mouth like these did. I liked knowing that no fuel was wasted delivering flavorless bright red tomatoes to my local supermartket. These people introduced me to what slow food and eating local really meant though none of our conversations ever used those words. They introduced us also to their friendly chickens, and let Eli and I play with theirs until we determined that we had to have a few of our own. On many mornings we talked chickens and homeschooling and rhubarb. Our conversations were as stimulating and as thrilling as any I had ever had after a big concert or an evening at the Speaker’s Series even when the speaker was Tom Wolfe or Margaret Thatcher. We talked about food and chickens and education in a way that was both practical and spiritual. My heart sang after every visit. Now I am making a garden. I want to be able to feed my family myself. I want to plan my dinner menu based on what I picked that morning. This, like our chickens and Eli’s homeschooling, is another legacy from all those mornings at the Pillemer’s