• Sweet and Sour

    I once attended a cooking conference at which the speakers described the difference in tasting abilities from person to person. They explained that some of us have more taste buds than others and are therefore more sensitive to overly sweet frostings or the sharp, sour taste of rhubarb.

    As with most people, flavor memories are as strong and complex for me as scents; to this day, the slightly sour mouth-filling sweetness of apple butter brings back a kitchen full of faces long gone: Floyd and Herbie, Obie and Marie, Bernie and Wally, suddenly alive again, all busy telling stories and then, without warning, sitting in complete silence, as only country people know how to do.

    As we were developing the recipe in this issue for tomato sauce, I rediscovered the complexity of taste. We found that with just the right sort of canned tomatoes, prepared in just the right manner, a rich, sweet tomato flavor would burst on the tongue, followed by a kick of acidity, a hint of garlic, an underlying layer of salt, a tongue-coating burst of olive oil, and the fresh scent of basil to finish. In cooking, we aspire to complexity, avoiding the consolidation of tastes and textures to achieve unexpected but rewarding marriages. It is this maturity of taste, a recognition perhaps that life is infinitely diverse and unpredictable, that defines a great cook.

    I am fortunate, as a parent of three children, to spend much time in the small Vermont town of my youth, the kids exploring the same logging roads and playing in the same barns as I did growing up. But last summer, I decided that my oldest daughter should learn a bit about hard work by helping out a local farmer. Her first job was to help us corral a few Belgian draft horses from the upper pasture above the old Lomberg farm so they would be ready for our horse-drawn Fourth of July parade. These were working animals, about sixteen hands high, and they didn't much like the look of our rope halters. We funneled three of them into a small spot by the gate, trees on one side and a steep bank on the other, but it was dangerous work, one of them spinning up on his hind legs, muscled forequarters up over the back of a second horse taking flight through the woods. It was no place for an eight-year-old, the men shouting, the horses with ears back and nostrils flared, the grain spilled on the muddy road, jostled by chestnut animals weighing almost a ton each.

    Sent far up the bank, by an old sugar maple, my daughter waited for us to finish, left out, not needed. I looked up, saw the tears just starting down her cheeks, and had a sharp memory of times on the farm when I was young, rebuked for running a tractor downhill out of gear, or pulling a fully loaded hay wagon; or standing helplessly by while the old-timers hooked up the teams to the old-fashioned mechanical mowers, snapping the ancient wooden hames around the collars, sorting out the tugs and traces, pole straps and lazy straps, whippletrees and eveners, britchens and back pads. It was a lonely time in those moments. I felt unwanted and painfully aware that I was just a kid.

    After the horses were safely in the barn, our family jumped into the pickup and went up to the swimming hole just past the Methodist church. It's not really a hole, but a series of pools and chutes, used by generations of town kids. It was late afternoon, the sun lighting up the crystal pools, turning the water a radiant green. I dove in, an icy baptism, came up to the surface, and saw the dappled leaves, the rush of water, a hint of trout and moss-covered schist in the stream's moist, fresh scent, the sour taste of the heat of the day gone in an instant. And then all three kids followed, my oldest daughter jumping into my arms, exhilarated, happy, immersed in the rush of the stream and the wildness of the moment, as if we had all been together forever, and would live on forever, suspended in time by the swirl of water, the sparkle of sun through the waving birches.

    It was a day of contradictions, of disappointment and pure joy, but, as it seemed later, the two events were intertwined, one needing the other. My daughter had tasted first of sour, then of sweet, the latter enhanced and made more joyous by the former. I remember that we all slept well that night, but I like to think that she slept best, having tasted the full measure of life on a day that ended with a full moon rising over the hollow, the sweet smell of fern in her hair, and a father who lay awake for just a moment, thinking of other summer days long ago.

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