Monthly Archives: March 2011

Day to day Day trips

Flattery. Simple Pleasure #4.

Filling the wood box, a frequent task, is satisfying. There, a chore is done. Chopping, slicing, sauteeing, blending flavors, and creating a healthy entree with flavor is another job that makes me feel good. Saturday morning was spent filtering through towering piles of envelopes, scraps of paper with now-mysterious telephone numbers and newspaper clippings that no longer seem of interest. There is once again room on the desk for a cup of tea. That felt very good indeed. All those good feelings were earned with hard work. It isn’t smugness that amplifies the good feeling, but a Yankee sense that is it deserved, no need for awards, ribbons, or a pat on the shoulder.

So how can one explain the light and simple pleasure that totally random flattery engenders? We return to our seats from the dance floor, and a young woman at a table nearby says, “You guys are great, we wish we could dance like that.”

We don our embarrassingly similar fur hats as the wind is cold. We toss hatchets and check out blacksmithing at the Cramer Museum in Camden. “I want one of those,” a stylish woman with a colorful cloth cap says, pointing to my husband’s warm badger hat.

“I love your boots, where can I get them?” a teenager says admiring my furry goat boots.

After parallel parking in a very tight spot, a passerby says, “Nice job.” I used to be able to do it in a space about three feet longer than my car, but years of living in Maine have blunted that skill, and I am pleased some of it lingers.

These comments from strangers make me glow. I didn’t have to get splintered and dirty lugging wood, or overheated in front of a stove to hear the honeyed words. My Yankee ethic says maybe I do not deserve them, but I love them. Some of this flattery is admiring skills, which can be justified as deserved, but mostly it is simply a compliment on choice of apparel or the cheese I serve.

What a simple pleasure flattery is. It conveys appreciation and approval. Sincere flattery is a gift any person can give to another. There is no cost, there is no effort, you simply open your mouth when you see some one doing something well, or looking great, or with an interesting piece of jewelry or artifact and tell them.

Flattery feels good from both sides. How lucky we are to have voices, to be able tell our fellow travelers on this planet that we see them, and that seeing them doing something, wearing something, making something, gives us pleasure. How lucky to be standing in the grocery line, and have the shopper behind us say, “those crackers look great, what aisle did you find them in?” reaffirming that we have good taste, made a good selection, and appear friendly enough that the person feels comfortable asking us about them.

What fun when an admiring comment generates a story. “Impressive,” I say to a woman balancing an armful of groceries. She laughs, and tells me she waitresses, and can line plates up her arm.

Give a gift and get one, flatter someone today.

And I, of course, think you are brilliant to be reading this blog.

Day to day Day trips Festivals Maine destinations

Spring snow, sweet syrup

Boots and shovels then tee shirts and rakes, stoke the stove and open the window, freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw, spring, winter, winter, spring—March in Maine is neither fish nor fowl.

“I’m ready for spring,” even the devoted winter fans have been heard to say as March shifts from cold to warm and back. Spring is a tease, revealing the creamy blooms of snowdrops one day, and then hiding them again under six inches of snow. The winter coats and mittens were boxed and ready for storage, but a recent snow flurry caused us to pull them out and bundle up. For those of us who really love winter, this on-again, off-again is a needed weaning period. We are happy to have one more chance to don our fur hats and feel snow on our faces. The hats were boxed up, but we really weren’t quite ready to stow them in the attic and admit winter was over.

This morning the world was white again. Knowing this may be the last snowfall of the year, we don’t wait, but get up and head right out to play before going to work. But while the flakes are wet and real, there is no threat behind this snow. The winter lion has been declawed. We laugh fearlessly in its face, coats on, but not zipped. We know, too, that the snowdrops and hellebores will come to no harm. This is spring snow, saying a gay farewell. It lacks the seriousness of storms at the start of winter, which bring their cold breath and warnings of long nights and a frozen world. It is wet, and even though it covers the ground, it will soon be gone.

Alternate freezes and thaws are also what makes the sap run. Collecting maple sap and boiling it down for syrup is a tradition for many Maine families. It requires little investment, just a tap, a jug, a pot and a fire.

Syruping fits smoothly into daily life here in the Creek. Half an hour or so to set taps for a few days, then collecting now and then between hiking and dinner, and then boiling in the back yard. When there was more family around, it was done on a larger scale. Now, we tend the fire while making a few starts at cleaning up the yard. An old burlap back is stuffed with the weeds we pull off the garden and becomes a target for a few rounds of archery practice. We swap stories. I tell of my dad boiling sap in the kitchen, and peeling the wallpaper off the walls. I hear of my husband at eight or nine years of age using quart canning jars, the ones that had wire hoop handles, to collect sap, and how he had to collect many times a day. His grandfather helped him make homemade taps from discarded bits of tongue and groove planks. They whittled a slice of the groove side, giving it a point to pound into the tree, and the sap would run down the groove into the quart jars.

While things have improved–we now use plastic hose that fits into an opening cut in the caps of recycled milk jugs–it is still very low-tech. That is part of its appeal. It is also a way to be outside and moving around. Snowshoeing is over, ice is not safe, and biking is only possible on particularly warm days and even then many of the roads in the park are still covered in snow. Tapping trees, hauling heavy buckets of sap, bringing in spruce to keep the fire going, these are all ways to keep from stagnating.

The season is short, too. It is over just before you get tired of emptying buckets and smelling like smoke. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to tap trees and make syrup. We might do it just for them. The jars of deep gold, thick, sweet syrup are just fringe benefits. Otter Creek Gold is maply, more flavor than sweet, slightly smoky because we boil it over wood, and the best maple syrup on this planet. Sugar, or rock maple trees have more branches and a greater surface area to produce sap. They also have a higher sugar content. Their syrup is sweet, and maply. Our syrup is maply, and then sweet.

But how sweet it all is. How satisfying to make flavorful syrup to pour on flapjacks, drizzle on ice cream, use in salad dressings, meat glazes and baking. We bottle some in tall elegant bottles, make Otter Creek Gold labels, and give them as gifts.

Syrup time is sweet. If you cannot tap and boil, you can certainly taste. Sunday is Maine Maple Syrup Day, and many sugar houses are giving tours and tastes. Go sample, then get yourself some taps.


Roe, roe, roe we gloat

Winter roe is never found on the menus of local restaurants. Never is a word to be treated with great respect and caution, and so it is a rare pleasure to use it. Roe probably does not appear on too many dinner tables, either, since it is also not generally found at the local market. In fact, I think I can say with confidence it is never found there.

You need a fisherman to get roe this time of year. Preferably, a fisherman who can also clean the roe sack out intact, as a punctured roe is a mess to cook. But a mess of roe is a wonderful thing. This is confusing, but blame our dynamic English language. The phrase “a mess of “ is something I learned from my mother-in-law, and thought it was one of her colorful Maineisms, like sprill ( fir needles) and oughts (compost), but a mess of goes as far back as the Old French, mes, a portion of food, and perhaps is even older. It then shifted from a large portion of smaller things, to an untidy pile of things, to a mess.

Raw yellow perch roe

Roe from certain fish is also called caviar, but that is not the kind of egg sac that comes from below the ice on our Maine ponds and lakes. Cod roe is commonplace in Iceland, served with a dab of mayonnaise on crackers. The roe from the American Shad is sought after, connoisseurs have been known to pay exorbitant prices to have it flown to their kitchens. I grew up eating shad as one of our rites of spring. The eating came after fishing with my father on the Connecticut River, but more often than not the shad and shad roes we ate came from the nearby Shad Shack, a seasonal booth selling fresh deboned shad and roe. I still seek shad roe out when the Amelanchier, also called the shad bush, serviceberry, shad blow and a few other names, displays its soft white blossoms. But that is a while a way.

I prefer not to compare shad roe to two of our winter roes, from white perch and yellow perch. Perch roes are delicious now. Shad roe will be delicious then. I also will not debate the issue of invasive species. I wish the yellow perch were not in the ponds we found them in, but will not turn down their roe for political reasons.

White perch roe is about the size of my pinky finger, pale whitish grey, and very finely grained. The sac covering is very delicate, and needs to be handled with care. A tiny pinprick or two, a gentle rinse, and slide the roes ( you will need quite a few) into a cast iron pan with a shimmer of olive oil. After the heat firms them, add white wine, turn gently and very softly let them cook. Serve just like that or cool them, mince some garlic, add yogurt or mayonnaise and a hint of oyster sauce. Spread on toast.

Yellow perch are a bit sturdier, quite a bit thicker, as thick as a sausage. They are a lovely golden color, and can be cooked just like the white perch. They have many more eggs in the case, and are closer to the shad’s roe. Instead of olive oil, use ghee or butter. Three or four can make a meal, with a salad.

Yellow perch roe, not piglets

Many fisherman toss out the roe, or feed the entire yellow perch to the eagles that generally hang out where ice fisherman fish. They are looked at as trash food, just as mussels were not so many years ago. When I moved to Maine, mussels were not sold in the seafood market in Bar Harbor, and were not on the menu at any restaurant. I am not predicting yellow and white perch will become restaurant fare as they are not so easy to get, nor are they as plentiful as mussels, but perhaps fisherman will bring them home to enjoy with the rest of their catch.

Even if they don’t I will continue eat them, each bite a succulent, rich, o mi gosh moment. I will also continue to thank my fisherman who brings them, beautifully cleaned and glistening, to our kitchen. “Aren’t they complicated to clean?“ I ask.

“Slit the belly, give a push with your finger, and out they pop,” was the reply.

There are not many things about Maine winter’s that are that easy.

A fine mess of white perch


Looking for a sign

Rabbit tracks, the neat silhouette where a deer has slept, the sharp outlines of a coyote’s claws, these imprints are crisp and clear. After a long stretch of single digits and snow on top of snow on top of snow, the melt has begun. The now grainy surface takes an imprint as clear as the concrete in front of that Chinese theatre with hand marks of the Hollywood famous.

There is still a deep base covering the undergrowth in the forest, the dark tree trunks rise from the smooth expanse of snow, and there is no indication of a path or trail. With snowshoes, the woods are open in every direction. It is so free and different from summer walks, when paths are followed and trails lead around rocks and stumps. These obstacles are now deep beneath the surface we walk over.

There is so much to see. Years ago I took a class taught by a student of Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing. He emphasizes sign as well as track, and I find his big picture approach gives a more complete understanding of whatever animal we might be tracking. Instead of just looking for the next paw print, going where the animal went, we crouch to see what it saw, notice when it paused to eat, and where it sat and scratched, leaving a small tuft of fur.

One of my husband and my first dates was a hike up the Pot Hole Trail on the side of Cadillac Mountain. The trail begins and ends here in our village of Otter Creek, Maine. The pitch pines were shrouded in fog, there was ice along the rocks, and I bent to poke at coyote scat with a twig. He bent too, and together we speculated on this animal’s recent meal, and where it had been to find it. A bond was formed.

We hike regularly, as much for what we can see and learn as for the exercise. We spend this afternoon in the forest behind our house. A raven’s call causes us to look up, and we see a pair spiraling together. We sniff an astringent scent, and then see the straight focused path of a red fox. Signs are all around. Bright orange drops of urine dot the snow, possibly part of a courtship for snowshoe hares. One of a mating pair of will leap in the air, scattering the orange spray as the other hare runs under it.

The art of seeing is a part of Rezendes’ book title, and it is a phrase I am cognizant of every day. I extend it to the other senses, and as we walked the distant rhythmic crash of waves was constant. I hear it now. We passed a ledge that had spent months deeply encased in frozen water, and was now dripping from a thousand tapering points of ice. Quick high-pitched splashes kept beat with slower louder drops. There was the smell balsam fir as our heads brushed a branch. And for touch, there was the spongy softness of a new polypore. This is the season when they grow on the sides of birch, and their creamy freshness stands out brilliantly, a contrast the to white snow and black bark. And we are back to sight.

We went seeking signs, and found them, but they also they found us. As I left the woods for our back yard I passed a dead poplar trunk, broken off about five feet high. There was a thump on my arm and a whinnying call, and I watched in amazement as a downy woodpecker flew past after hitting me, and landed on the branch of a nearby tree. The small round hole she came from was two feet from my shoulder. I left quickly, hoping she will return and nest there.

We saw sign- scat and fur and stained snow and hare chomped twigs. Late winter is a time of connecting with the world out there, and I am not ready for this season to pass. The downy woodpecker gave me an irrefutable message however, for she is surely the sign of spring.


Change of scene

There is comfort in the familiar. I wake every morning and before rising I can lift my head and view the profiles of Dorr and Cadillac Mountains. They are landmarks in our village of Otter Creek, and are part of Acadia National Park. The asymmetrical gap between the two is called The Notch. I see it every day. It is a constant in my life, though no mornings are identical.

There may be snow dusting the flanks of the hills, or wet rocks gleaming. Each dawn brings a new, never seen before combination of color and light. The sun rises behind my house. Its light first hits the top of the mountain, and then grows, deepening as I wake. It eventually illuminates the valley. I am up and out by then. I know not everyone wakes to sunlight on mountains, as I do. I cherish each morning as unique, and yet constant.

So why go elsewhere? I have a morning view that leaves me at peace, content, and ready to meet the day. I do not think I will ever grow tired of it. Yet off I trot to an alien and less predictable space. It is February, and D and I go on our annual ski trip to Quebec. He was doing this long before he met me, and now we go together. He introduced me to a place that I share a heart with. It is a change of scene.

This yearly trek, skiing at Mont Sainte Anne and sleeping in the stuffy elegance of the old world Frontenac Hotel, has become familiar. But it is not the same familiarity I have at home, with the cat at the bottom of the bed, soft brown flannel sheets, and my morning mountain view. Instead I wake to diffused daylight, angular rooflines, and walk cobbled streets for an almond croissant I would never normally consider as breakfast. Things are different.

I hear French, and speak a bit. It does not fall smoothly from my tongue. The mountains here are bigger than in Otter Creek, and the city full of noises. The whispery sighs of the electric bus, the stamping of horse hooves on stone, the tinny music from the speakers at the skating rink, these are the reasons I come. Everything is fresh and new. I cradle the deep handle-less bowl filled with hot chocolate. I spin through the revolving door twice just for fun. I exclaim over the jewel-like quails eggs in the market. Different noises, tastes, smells, my senses go into overdrive to take it all in, and I know I am not taking it all in.

I never feel I am blasé about the magnificent scenery in Otter Creek. I believe I really every day appreciate what we have here. It takes a change of scene to show me I have indeed gotten just a bit less sharp in my perceptions.

A change of scene changes the way we look at things. It frees us from our everyday responsibilities and habits and allows us to see how different everything is. What is no doubt everyday in Quebec, the man strapped and clinging to the high roof to pull off snow, the seconds counting down on a display at street crossings, a door panel with women’s figures, are to us novel and exotic. We are delighted with the handrails on the buildings, to which we cling as we climb the steep icy sidewalks. For those who live here they are as mundane as our guardrails.

Quebec is a destination for skiing, the exhibits at the Museum of Civilization, or watching the bateau races on the St. Lawrence. These are all good reasons to go. But I go for a change of scene, to find novelty in someone else’s commonplace, and to remind my senses just what their purpose is.