our country home

Love thy neighbor

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In the summer of 1996, my sister, Janet, and I rented a house in Callicoon.

I was such a city girl at that point that it took me a while to realize more than a few facts of country life. One of the first was that the cows we passed on the way to our house, no matter how masculine-looking, were all female.

The corn growing right by the road would not be tasty—were we to feel an urge to grab an ear or two—as it was grown for animal feed.

 Nothing was in walking distance and a trip to the local supermarket could end up taking close to two hours between driving back and forth and strolling though a store where, as the years passed, we became acquainted with folks from the neighborhood with whom we would stop to chat. The lines to pay at the grocery store, pharmacy, post office, Agway and hardware store moved more slowly than they did in Manhattan, primarily because people living in a small town have connections with each other and take the time to acknowledge that intimacy.

When we first rented the house, there was not a stick of furniture in it, save for a plain wooden table we covered with Mexican oilcloth and shoved under a kitchen window. On it, we kept a vintage breadbox and toaster oven and used it to set down groceries when we entered the house, which was through the kitchen. The neighbor who’d told Janet about the availability of the house lent us some mattresses and furniture. And we soon spent weekends at yard and estate sales, auctions and antique shops looking to fill the house with chairs, coffee tables, bookcases and the like.

We quickly took to country living and asked our landlords if we could extend our time. Eventually, they suggested we rent it year-round and we jumped at the chance. Except for the winter months of January, February and March, when we retreated to our apartments in the city, we not only came up every weekend but also spent all of our vacation time there as well. Through the neighbor we knew, we met another couple around the corner and became close friends. They, in turn, introduced us to their friends, who were warm and welcoming. Though invited to gatherings and celebrations, we pulled back on socialization primarily because the house was a quiet and peaceful haven from the crowds and bustle of Manhattan. We looked forward to spending the weekends immersed in our hobbies; eating our meals outdoors; soaking up the beautiful surrounding landscapes; and enjoying sightings of deer, wild turkeys, donkeys, alpacas and other fauna in the area.

Food was always a unifying component of life in the country. Even though our time each weekend was short, I almost always invited one or another friend or small group for dinner. Any leftovers from meals I made for me and Janet were brought round to one of them. And may I say, my leftovers are nothing to sneeze at.

Sometimes, when we were on vacation, I would bake a savory breakfast dish and Janet would jump in the car and bring it, piping hot, to our friends around the corner. Whenever we or any of our neighbors were headed to the grocery store or farmers’ market, we would check with each other to see if anyone had requests. We looked out for each other. It was just how it was, and is, in the country.

Though we were weekenders until just four years ago, when we gave up our apartments in the city and moved to Callicoon full-time, we had, after more than 20 years, been feeling like we were more than part-time inhabitants.

We knew instinctively to drive more slowly than in the city, unlike the guests at the nearby Villa Roma, who often move on the winding country roads as if they are on a racetrack. And we always wave a hand out the car window when passing motorists or folks taking a walk.

 The farmers’ market has become almost a social outing, as we run into friends and acquaintances with which we share a brief conversation and maybe a recipe. We take the time to talk to the vendors about what they’re growing and how to utilize their produce to best advantage.

In late summer, last year, I bought big, purple-streaked radishes from Lucky Dog Farms. I pickled them, Asian style, in rice vinegar, sugar, sake, salt and sweet chili sauce and brought a small batch to the owner to show him how I’d used his crunchy root vegetable.

We spent this past winter in Oaxaca, Mexico, returning to find COVID-19 beginning to rear its ugly head. We were relieved that we had left the city behind and were safely ensconced in the relative isolation of life in upstate New York. Friends from the city reported surreal experiences there and were fearful of leaving their apartments. I eventually came to feel that we were almost living in a bubble; I felt removed from the more intense dangers lurking in the city.

We realized, a couple of months ago, that more weekenders were taking up residence in their second houses in our area and working from their homes rather than being stuck in the city with all of its horrors. Similarly, inhabitants of the Hamptons out on Long Island, Cape Cod, Provincetown and other areas popular for second-home owners were reporting a surge in the populations there.

Some year-rounders were angry. At first, it looked like the weekenders flocked to the supermarkets to stock up on (and perhaps hoard) everything from toilet paper to butter and milk. Others wondered what would happen in regard to our local health services and hospitals if they became overloaded with people contracting the virus.

I didn’t see these people as intruders. I understood their fears and anxiety regarding remaining in the city. And they had purchased a second home for a reason, if not necessarily this one.

But I will say, they don’t seem to have picked up on the culture of country living. Often, they don’t wave back when we extend an arm out the car window. Sometimes they ride their bikes in the center of the road, unaware that the road is for everyone. When stranded momentarily behind a tractor moving slowly toward its destination, they impatiently honk rather than sitting back to wait a moment when the vehicle can pull over to allow them to pass. There is definitely an etiquette to get used to when you make a home in the country. We were lucky that we adjusted many years back. Let’s hope the newcomers get the hang of it.

I continue to cook for friends, partly because it calms me, but mostly because it is who I am. Though socially distanced get-togethers might take a little more planning, it’s worth it, for I feel as the chef Eric Ripert does when he says, “I place food at the center of our humanity, as it nourishes not only our physical bodies but also our emotional and spiritual lives… I genuinely believe that food connects us all.”

Savory cherry tomato clafouti

Serves four as a side dish
This is a perfect breakfast or brunch dish, served with a fresh fruit salad.
1 cup grape or small cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup (packed) grated parmesan cheese
4 eggs
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons half and half, heavy cream, or whole milk
10 large basil leaves, stacked, rolled up tightly, then sliced into thin strips (this is called a chiffonade)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Butter for greasing the baking dish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a shallow ovenproof baking dish (approx. 9x6x2”) with butter. In a large bowl, beat eggs. Add flour and whisk to incorporate. Add sour cream and milk and combine well. Stir in basil and three-quarters of the cheese, salt and pepper. Pour batter into prepared dish. Plop in the tomatoes, spacing them evenly. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake for 25 minutes, until puffed and golden.

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