Easy Does It
Floyd Bentley was a Vermonter who never did anything quickly. He was the common-law husband of Marie Briggs, the town baker, and they lived in the weathered yellow farmhouse just over the town line from Arlington. As a kid, I'd swing open the battered screen door and rush breathlessly into the dark front room, and there would be Floyd, quietly hunched over in the shadows, a lit cigarette in his hand. He'd look up at you with rheumy eyes and never utter the first word. When he did get around to saying something, it took time; it was like watching him take a slow backswing with a bale of hay, just to start some momentum before hefting it up onto the wagon. In those days, Floyd still mowed hay with a team of horses, making them turn on a dime with an offhand flick of the reins and a word or two uttered in the very back of the throat, almost below the range of human hearing. Mowing was slow work-- I can still hear the lazy clicking of the metal gears-- but that suited Floyd just fine. He was not susceptible to quick movements or fancy ideas. Slow work was honest work.
In those days cooking, too, was slow work. In that small yellow farmhouse, the roast was started early in the morning for midday dinner and was cooked over very low heat, usually in the woodstove. People had the time for a slow-cooked roast-- there was always somebody around to check on it. I hadn't thought much of those tender, moist roasts until a few years ago when my own mother started serving her slow-roast turkey for the holidays.
Her recipe is simple. She cooks the tightly covered bird at 300 degrees for an hour and then leaves it in the oven overnight with the heat turned down to 200. The results are spectacular: moist, tender meat with great texture. She based her recipe on Let's Cook It Right (N.A.L. Dutton, 1970) by Adelle Davis, the sixties health guru. The author advocates cooking any roast for one hour at 300 degrees to kill off surface bacteria and then roasting for up to twenty-four hours, depending on the size of the roast, at the final temperature that you want the meat (if you want a turkey cooked to 165 degrees, for example, cook it at that temperature). I went home and tried out the slow-roast method on two turkeys and a pork roast, the latter at somewhat higher temperatures, with fabulous results.
In the process, I learned that slowness has its benefits. In the kitchen as in life, some things take time. My most vivid memories are connected to times of inaction. Waiting for the cut and raked hay to dry in our lower meadow. Waiting in the frozen Vermont woods for my neighbor's beagle to pick up the scent of a rabbit. Waiting for the school bus with my six- and four-year-olds, our backs to the wind. Waiting in the hospital for my wife to give birth to our third child, a son.
Perhaps like the last of the old-time Vermont dairy farmers, slow-cooking has no place in modern times. You can't milk a herd of only twenty cows and get by; you can't take all day to roast meat, either. Neither is practical, yet with their passing we strip our lives of the subtleties, of those moments in life when we are freed from action and live for a brief moment suspended in the heightened awareness of expectation. A cake baking. A conversation about to be started.
The last time I saw Floyd was in the summer of 1968. His lungs were bad from the smoking, but, contrary to expectations, he had made it through another winter. It was the last day of summer vacation, and I had stopped by the yellow farmhouse for what turned out to be a final farewell. It was midday, almost time for dinner, and Floyd was hunkered down on the dull-green sofa with a cigarette. He looked up and didn't say much. He didn't have to. I knew he was busy taking his time.