Labors of Love
We tend a small garden each summer on our Vermont farm, and I am fond of growing Red Sun potatoes. Although the potato bugs usually show up in early July and destroy the plants by the end of the month, I am still left with a splendid crop of moist, creamy "new" potatoes, some as small as marbles and others almost full-size. Once or twice a week, I head for the garden, shovel in hand, and call for my two daughters, who quickly abandon their swing set for a chance to help dig. We steam the potatoes for dinner, served with fresh Jersey butter and a handful of snipped chives from the herb garden out next to the stone wall. Unlike most potatoes sold in supermarkets, they have a fresh, loamy taste-- alive and sharp with flavor.
During my childhood and now with my own kids, I have noticed that life on a farm has a peculiar charm. Work becomes pleasurable. Even young children find more excitement in feeding goats or planting seeds than they do in store-bought games. Unlike most of my friends, I spent my summers milking, haying, shoveling manure, and mending fences, and found it vastly more satisfying than summers at camp or the beach. As a Maine farmer and writer, Henry Beston, once put it, there is something fine about family labor. It builds reserves of intimacy and cooperation, which get us through leaner times when the sounds of the whole family at work are only sustaining memories.
For most of us these days, cooking is perhaps our last opportunity to work together as a family, each member doing his or her own vital part. I watch my kids shucking corn, snapping beans, or whisking eggs, and I see little human beings discovering how far their skills can take them-- and discovering the joy of labor, a lesson that, once learned, pays rich dividends for a lifetime. They are also wide-eyed with the discovery of beginnings, being witness, for example, to how flour, water, salt, and yeast rise into a thick, country loaf or an elegant twist of dinner roll. The origins of things advertise their essential mysteries without explaining them. The action of yeast is never fully understood, but once made from scratch, a loaf of bread is no longer just a product; it is a bit of the enigma of life right in our own breadbox.
These beginnings, these links to the cycle of life, are as essential to the cook as to the farmer. Just as a good farmer must know about birthing and planting, so a good cook must know how to cut up a chicken or make a starter for bread. To eat the stew without knowing how it was put together thins the full measure of experience. And to cook or farm by oneself is to ignore the great blessings bestowed by community of purpose. Working together is the essence of farm life but has little currency today, when we are each cursed with maximizing personal potential.
In 1963, I spent most of a hot July day at Carl Hess' gas station at the bottom of the road that led up into our mountain town. The farmer I worked for, Junior Bentley, had a Farmall tractor that needed a new clutch, and he and I set out to do the job. Since I was just twelve, I fit easily under that tractor, doing a man's work-- slow, often painful, and full of false starts. It finally got done (the tractor and clutch are both still in operation), and we celebrated with a cream soda out of the battered vending machine. There wasn't a breath of air that day, and the goldenrod and thistle by the garage didn't show up any breeze, but it was fine work, a day that is still in my memory over thirty years later. Other days spent tubing down the Battenkill, watching horse draws at local fairs, or partridge hunting up on Southeast Corners Road are not as deeply fixed in my past, lacking the mortar of common purpose and essential work.
As my own children's past starts to form and take shape, my wife and I hope to help them build their own solid foundation. Standing side by side early Sunday morning in the dead of a dark Vermont winter, rolling out the wet dough, flouring the cutter, carefully dropping the rounds into the squat iron kettle, our family makes two dozen buttermilk spice doughnuts for church coffee hour. It is my conviction that the mystery of simple ingredients turned into puffed rounds, the ripe smell of fresh-ground nutmeg, and the sizzle of frying dough will be with them long after their childhood toys are gone. So many of us today avoid cooking because it is difficult and time-consuming, requiring skill and planning. But it is the blessing of common labor-- transforming simple beginnings into rich harvests-- that is the great joy of cooking and of any life well lived. And it is a joy that reaffirms our faith in the human spirit when it is shared with others, side by side, many hands busy with shared purpose.