Our white Vermont farmhouse sits in an old cornfield at the top of a narrow valley, which runs from the Green Mountains due west toward New York State. Most of our weather blows in from the west, and in the summer I sit with the kids on the narrow front porch watching great walls of rain sweep down Walnut Mountain or towering shrouds of mist that change color and shape as they slowly drift up our dirt road. But when the weather comes from the east, we know it will be a hard blow. Last March, we endured such a storm, a mini-tornado that ripped through our valley like a freight train, plucking out old maples and scattering the roofs of sheds and barns over the sodden, dormant fields.
After church the Sunday after the storm, I picked up my chain saw and went over to a neighbor's to help cut up three large sugar maples that were leaning precariously toward his house. When I arrived, I started up my sixteen-inch Stihl and got started on the first tree, which by this point had been felled by the local woodsman, Harley, a born Vermonter.
I started cutting down through the tree, and as the saw got toward the bottom, the trunk started to close in and bind my saw. After a few minutes, I noticed that Harley was standing right next to me with his own chain saw fired up. He started cutting through the massive maple from the bottom up, and as he neared the top of the log, the cut would widen, leaving plenty of room for the chain. After a couple of cuts, he went away. I then realized that he had just given me a silent lesson in chainsawing. He had quietly watched me do it the wrong way, and in the great tradition of old-time Vermonters, Harley had stepped in and taught me a lesson without a word spoken between us.
Most of what I have learned about cooking has come not from experts telling me what to do but from watching others. In the early 1960s, I learned how to knead bread by watching Marie Briggs, our town baker, work the rich, nut-brown dough back and forth over a plastic red-checked tablecloth, her shockingly pale arms full of hidden muscle and sinew. On those rainy summer afternoons when I was helping out in the kitchen, not the hayfields, she treated me like an equal, expecting me to learn by watching. She quietly demonstrated how to stir up the fire in the woodstove that baked the bread, to cut out doughnuts, and to roll out sugar cookies, but thirty years later, I can't remember one word of explicit instruction. All those engaged in hard work were treated equally and accorded a large measure of respect. My terrible fear of disappointing Marie was her great strength as a teacher.
Since that day in March, I have spent many hours thinking about other teachers. I have shared the immense benefits of a hard day's work with Charles Bentley, a local farmer; I have witnessed from Julia Child the invigorating pleasures of giving assistance to others; I have seen the vivid joy of faith in the eyes of ushers at our church; I have been energized by the great intellectual curiosity of my mother; I have been softened and humbled by the total love and acceptance of our children; I have learned to savor the idiosyncrasies of daily life from my father, who was a keen observer of the human condition. Good teachers share themselves with others, leaving behind a bit of their energy and enthusiasm even as we begin to grow and move apart. What remains is the sharing, not so much the instruction itself.
Perhaps that is why I find cooking not to be a solitary task. Preparing food is most enjoyable when we realize that each of us is both a teacher and a student in the kitchen. Cooking is about studying other people, watching their actions, not their words, and it is also about assuming the role of teacher, treating others with respect, the same way Marie taught a know-nothing eight-year-old many years ago in that small yellow farmhouse. Few of us today know what to watch for in life. But in a time when everything is explicit, what is left unsaid takes on greater meaning.
The lesson I most remember was taught to me by my wife, Adrienne, just after our first child was born. It was a tough labor, lasting well into a Sunday morning in June, which, by coincidence, was also my birthday. As the nurses handed Adrienne our daughter, freshly weighed, cleaned, and swaddled, she took her for just a second and then gave her, arms outstretched, to me. She was too tired to say much, but she wanted me to be the first one to hold her tightly and gaze into her eyes. It was not a casual gesture; it taught me much about selflessness and caring for others, and every year on my birthday, I remember a small child held out for me by her mother, a precious gift from my greatest teacher.