Few of us are lucky enough to have a sense of history. I'm not talking about our country's heritage, but about something more personal-- a finger pointed out the window to signal where old Crofut's car ran off the road, or the overgrown path up the mountain, the one we would take as kids to explore the lake by the monastery. And there are still a few of us who remember when dandelion, milkweed, and mustard greens were all picked on the farm, a familiar place where vegetables were also grown, where milk was churned into butter and converted into cheese. In those days meat came from wild game and domesticated hogs, and fresh berries never appeared in the winter. Beef tongue was pickled, fruits made into jam and fruit butters, corn turned into succotash, and root vegetables kept down in the cellar.
If you ask an old-timer about the past he is likely to shrug it off at first, saying something about hard work and long winters. But if you are patient and stay awhile, he'll remember sitting in a wagon with his girlfriend, bundled up against the cold, taking the team over to a square dance, or the time that he walked into the yellow farmhouse and Marie Briggs sat him down to tea, offering a big slab of warm country white spread with a thick yellow frosting of homemade butter. He may not admit it, but he knows the past is often replaced with something of lesser stature, men whose bones have no memory of the rhythm of a horse-drawn mower or the feel of a wet cornfield in April, the ground spongy and stubbled. He has but to close his eyes to see the warm froth floating in a pail of milk or sit quietly to hear a horse chomping on a bit, or take a deep breath to inhale the moist, sweet steam that rises from the evaporator during sugaring season. These memories are hard won and better for their poor beginnings.
For most of us, it is the small details of daily life that make the sweetest memories. Long after the wedding pictures are filed away forever, a glance, a taste, or a subtle fragrance are unexpectedly intimate, their essence recalled and savored forever. On a farm, the senses were offered a groaning board of such moments from the daily menu of milking, plowing, mowing, and baking. Even the cities, with their rowdy mix of ethnic neighborhoods offered a full menu of sensory experiences to the venturesome pedestrian who wandered by the bakeries, the food stalls, and the varied storefronts.
But these are not intimate times; personal experiences become more interchangeable each day. Eating out, shopping at malls, driving to work, and watching television are impersonal diversions, one experience and one day blending seamlessly into another. As my father, an experienced traveller, once put it, "After a while, all cities look like Cleveland." Although I disagreed with him at the time (Cleveland does have the best diner in America), his statement is increasingly apt. How often have we visited a new town only to find the same 30 stores that we have back home? Where are the neighborhoods, the dialects, and the ethnic foods?
We now find ourselves, in our lifelong race to have everything, in the pitiable state of experiencing almost nothing. I often wonder if it takes a hard life to build character and intimacy, as if modern times are simply too soft for such heavy lifting. I remember Fraiser Mears, the town dowser, who would cut a forked branch from an apple tree and hold it in front of him with his arms crossed. The branch would pull downwards when water was near. He spoke to his rod as if it were alive, saying, "Tell me, Mr. Stick, how far is it?" or "Tell me, Mr. Stick, is it deep?" Fraiser is long gone, his peculiar ways a reminder of days when towns had "characters," immune to the lure of convenience and efficiency.
As we have replaced letters with e-mails, visiting neighbors with television, and home-cooked dinners with takeout, I suspect that we are growing hungry for lives that are a bit more personal, more worthy of thought and reflection as we age. The great gift of the kitchen is to provide a full measure of taste memories; the full, ripe flavor of peach preserves in January recalls the March pruning, the spray of red buds on the trees in April, the long, slow maturing of the fruit, the still, hot days of July, the cooler nights in August, and then the final act of canning, wooden spoons streaked with sweet jam and children spreading hot spoonfuls on homemade bread.
Cooks are architects, building a present that is worth remembering, investing time and energy in simple tasks that grow in importance as time passes. For most of us, our crop of memories is hardly worth preserving-a small, scarred fruit without a gardener and a cook to see it through its simple beginnings to its ripe fruition. The wooded acres are cleared, the sod long ago broken into loose topsoil, abundance strewn carelessly about like weeds, stealing moisture from the young trees. I often think that in cooking one can find all things: experience, hope, nourishment, and a simple faith in providence. But most of all, cooking serves up home-grown fruit alive with the scent and taste of life's possibilities.