Just One Moment
I recently received a call from a Vermont neighbor, Jean, who said, "The fourth squirrel is in the freezer. See you Saturday night." For months, I had seen her hunkered down by the chicken coop at the side of the road with a .22 rifle loosely held across her lap. When queried about her objective, she admitted to a keen interest in squirrel hunting, but after she had bagged three fat specimens, the local population had been sufficiently decimated for it to take three months to bag the fourth and final quarry. As I soon found out, all of this small game hunting was in preparation for making the classic American dish, Brunswick stew, comprised of fresh lima beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, toasted bread crumbs, and, of course, squirrel.
Besides bagging the required number of squirrels (one per person), Jean had to skin them. She found directions in the Joy of Cooking, which instructed her to cut through the tailbone, make cuts in the back, turn the squirrel over, and while stepping on the base of the tail, pull on the hind legs until the skin came free. All of this took some time. Being thrifty and keenly devoted to living off the land, however, this was perfectly natural for Jean.
When Saturday night arrived, my wife Adrienne and I walked down our driveway past our lower field, where we often pick wildflowers. We headed across the dirt road past a few grazing sheep and then up the hilly path to Jean's home, a white clapboard farmhouse perched on top of a steep embankment.
Inside, the house was still, with the simplicity of a true Vermont home. The dining room has a wide-plank wooden floor painted gray and partially covered with a braided rug made by Jean's mother Dorothy. There are no curtains; the windows open onto a vast field of alfalfa framed by mountains. The table was simply set with a small glass dish of bread-and-butter pickles, ironstone china, an antique caster, and two beeswax candles. Just before dinner was served, there was a brief moment of silence. It captured the essence of one Vermont cook, a blueprint for frugality and plain living defined by the food, the room, the view-- as if all the details of her daily life had been perfectly arranged in one posed snapshot.
The stew, incidentally, was excellent; squirrel is mild and lean, reminiscent of dark turkey meat. After a second helping, a simple salad of spinach and wild leek, and a thick slice of coconut cake, it occurred to me that few of us are blessed with such a moment, when everything we stand for as individuals comes together in a confluence of place and time. It is no wonder that great cooks are consistent in outlook and deeply devoted to their culinary views. Whether it is simple country cooking or the finest white tablecloth fare, the best of us have our moment, an instant in time when a picture of our lives emerges clearly, fully developed for all to see.
As in the kitchen, when all the small details and all the decisions we make when preparing food finally add up to a whole meal, I sometimes wonder if the same isn't true about a life well lived. If we are true to ourselves, the moment finally comes when we emerge clearly from the consuming back-and-forth of just getting by.
Once in a great while, these moments also happen to nations. Many of us remember the train carrying the Kennedy family to Washington, D.C., after the assassination of the president. We were all touched by the thousands of mourners who stood quietly by the side of the tracks. Their devout stillness, their waiting in the cold to bear witness to his life and a shared hope for our country, was such a moment, in some ways as moving as the indelible image of John and Caroline at their father's funeral.
But most of all I remember such a moment from Harper Lee's book To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus Finch, whose client was a hardworking black man accused of raping a local white girl, had just heard the guilty verdict given by an all-white jury. At that moment, the spectators in the balcony rose in silence to honor a man who had risked everything-- including the lives of his children-- to defend a neighbor who could find no other champion. As Atticus walked down the center aisle of the courtroom toward home, Reverend Sykes took hold of Atticus's daughter Scout and whispered, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."
As a grown woman, Scout recalled that moment as the instant when her father's life came into focus, when all the difficult day-to-day decisions added up to a man who transcended the tired old town of Maycomb one hot summer. As cooks, as parents, as friends, it is comforting to remember that the details matter, that it all can add up to something after all. The thought of a neighbor taking your child in hand and saying "Stand up, your father's passin' " may be more than we can hope for, but it is no more than we should expect of ourselves.