Food plays a serious role in the life of our family. We use it for comfort and for celebration. Every season is marked by temperature changes outside and the china rotation inside. There are plates ringed with a cheerful colorful floral wreath for spring. In summer there are at least fifty dessert plates with eight or more patterns meant for light summer salads and rich little sandwiches made from the spoils of the garden. Autumn comes with its own Spode and this time the wreath is a toasty brown on a cream coloured background. And when winter comes Adam’s dresses the table with little scenes of snowy cabins and piney woods in the center of old plates that have heralded Christmas for four generations. The table always has candles and in fall there is a long natural swag of gourds and nuts, with little pumpkins and autumnal leaves curling in and around the old candlesticks that my Great Grandmother polished 70 or 80 years ago.
But it is the food itself which is the real centerpiece. The rest is just decoration and background for the star of the show. Every season has its own family favorites and you know for sure it is really fall not by the orangery light coming through all the windows, or the mud room floor covered with crackly wayward leaves, but by the steaming chicken pot pie which has been cooking one way or another all afternoon. Our chicken pot pie varies greatly front the traditional New England version. Somewhere along the way chocolate was added to the traditional peas and carrots. Dark chocolate and a little chili powder, with a bunch of tarragon make for a dark rich filling that fills the house with the definitive smell of warmth. Warm does have a smell and this good pie is it.
My mother had a pie bakery in our house when I was a little girl. I spent many hours rolling out my own pie dough alongside my mother’s. I made cinnamon rolls and doll sized pies every day of my childhood as far back as I can remember. We baked early in the mornings. My dad delivered them to all the local restaurants on his way to work. Then I remember later when I was a little older and learning the lessons of friendship the little food metaphors my Gram would use to try and teach me. “Promises are like pie dough, easily made and easily broken”. Having rolled my share of hundreds of pies by the time I was ten I understood completely that if you rush you will get dough all right, but it will break in your hands and never make it to the pan. She meant for me to take care with my promises and I got it immediately.
When we moved across the country we left our old friends and the various family that had been close in proximity all of our lives. We had already begun to build our own family holiday traditions, but with no known people anywhere within hundreds of miles we needed a whole repertoire of them for Vermont. I carefully packed the recipe file my mom had made for me when I moved out of her house for the first time. It carries the tastes and memories of my first life and over the years my husband’s grandmother’s Slovak recipes wound their way in too. Now her nut roll sits comfortably next to my grandmother’s divinity. John and I have added favorite Italian specialties begged from taverns and restaurants all over the Tuscan countryside. And there are hundreds of cassoulets and stews culled and practiced from our travels tucked in beside every kind of breakfast anyone could ever think up. The little overflowing box sits next to our big and still growing collection of cookbooks and adds tastes and twists to every new recipe we try. On Christmas our table is laden with the flavors of the south that somehow made their way to the Midwest with my great grandparents when they traveled north with their parents to fight for the other side in that old civil war. And our vegetarian daughter has required that we learn all the tricks of kale and squash, spinach and cauliflower. The bright flavors of rye and caraway come from John’s side and the goodness of butter and sugar are practically our religion.
I bake bread when I am worried just like John’s grandmother taught me, kneading and punching, and then setting aside covered and warm. I bake bread when i am happy and proud too. And pie dough gets made when we need the cheerful party feeling of apples and brown sugar or the reassuring comfort of a steaming pot pie. This week there will be apple pies and chicken pot pies too. There might be a Guniness stew or cheddar cheese bread with tomato soup. The new potato and green bean soup flavored with tarragon and sour cream might show up or it might be chili with five kinds of beans. Reubens were invented for cold sunny afternoons and there is a cabbage and noodle Kapusta with caraway filled sour cream and sausage that is just made for October. It’s autumn in Vermont and I am getting hungry.