Three Square—Spring 2008
Written onMarch 01 , 2008
Growing up in Vermont, I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura day lilies. When I returned recently, to live here full-time, I began to notice how often the conversation in Vermont turns to food. What’s for dinner? For the next few issues of Local Banquet, I’ll visit a variety of people at home, peer into their iceboxes, and find out what they’re eating and why. And because these can often be personal subjects, I’ve omitted last names.
Susan is chopping an enormous white radish. “You’re in the store and you think, why the hell would anyone buy this?” She laughs and holds up something that looks like a giant knucklebone. “For miso soup, of course.”
“I always liked to cook,” she continues, “but only really good food that people would compliment and ooh and ah over. It’s different now.”
Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2001. Her most recent treatment has run its course; she’s “between things” right now. She and her husband Gary live on a remote dirt road near South Windham. The woods are beautiful around the small house they built more than twenty years ago.
“There are so many toxic things to eat. We’re afraid of our food in this country. I eat macro now, the best I can. I eat a lot of greens, mostly kale. I grow what I can. I do try to buy local, eat local, but it depends on the season.”
From the front window I can see a vegetable garden and a fully stocked woodshed. At the end of the driveway is the forge where Gary makes his living as a blacksmith. Susan, who used to work at innkeeping, sometimes helps Gary in his work. But today she’s cooking.
She begins to grind sesame salt into a Japanese bowl, an Osawa pot, she calls it. She roasts the salt in the microwave for a brief time. Shaking her head she says, “No, this isn’t good, I shouldn’t use the microwave. But I don’t like the salt burned.”
“I was a vegetarian for a long time, a very dairy-dependent vegetarian. I had to have three kinds of cheese, two sticks of butter, some cream, and a lot of eggs. I don’t do that anymore. And even my oncologist admits the macro patients seem to do better. My daughter told me, ‘I’d rather die than become vegan.’” She laughs, and shakes her head. “Of course I can’t afford to see it that way.”
“Here,” she says, and goes into her pantry to bring out two well-worn books. They are Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything and Shiruo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.
“So you eat mostly Japanese food?” I ask.
“Things you can digest easily. Whole grains. Sea vegetables, ferments. Low fat, low fruit, low sugar. My macrobiotic diet is from the Kushi Institute. It was developed in Japan after World War II, for Hiroshima survivors. I eat this way because I’m sick. It’s not that delicious. And it’s socially isolating.”
I’ve started munching on some raw greens, and my appetite is stoked. I watch Susan moving around the stove like a dervish. She’s a small woman with graying hair and fine cheek bones. Her energy fills the room, a large light space that’s the entire downstairs of the house.
Susan grew up in Chester in the 1950s and 1960s, one of three children. “We ate out of cans,” she said, “although my mother was a good cook. She bought us the best cuts of meat, fresh jumbo eggs. She could make the perfect bacon. But she didn’t like to cook. When TV dinners came in, we ate those. Tuna rolls, hot dogs, hamburgers. I knew there was that dry stuff, macaroni, but I believe I mostly thought it was for craft projects. Our family ate Chef Boyardee.”
She opens a package of shrink-wrapped Korean sea vegetables and begins to add things to the boiling soup. The kitchen is steaming with good smells. She puts a hot bowl of roasted millet and brown rice in front of me, fresh from the oven.
“Try this on it,” she says, handing me the freshly toasted sesame salt. “It’s funny how you can change what tastes good to you. I used to have a passion for St. Andre cheese. It tasted so good I could eat it all the time.”
“What’s your favorite treat these days?” I ask.
She considers my question carefully. I can feel her editing out favorites from her former life. “Roasted sunflower seeds,” she says. “But you’re only supposed to have about a cup a week.” She shakes her head, and laughs. “What I miss is fat. I miss ice cream.”
We sit down at the kitchen counter to eat our lunch. Susan offers me twig tea, which I decline in favor of Vermont well water.
“And what will you have for dinner tonight?” I ask.
“Maybe some squash,” she says. “And some leftover beans.”
I toast her with my glass of water. The lunch is delicious.