Sunday, December 29, 2013

In the time of the two-headed god

After the storm
Bringing in the tree

We are taking down the Christmas tree today; packing away the ornaments we have made and collected over nearly four decades. It is time to take out the tree that we cut and brought in during near blizzard conditions.  We will deck it with strings of cranberries and hang a suet block on it to tempt the downy woodpeckers, chickadees, and the shy whisky jays who just this year have begun venturing from the fir trees and into the yard, lured by seeded suet hung in the small birch and apple trees.  I have taken the Christmas cards that we received down from the mantel, made note of the friends who sent them, and packed them away to be turned into gift tags and other crafts for next year. 
Beyond the windows, the sky is low and gray, the wind out of the southwest, promising another storm adding inches to the smooth blanket of white spread across our piece of the world.  Fifty-four inches of snow have fallen thus far this year, according to my husband who carefully measures and records each accumulation, and though much of it melted away earlier in the season, the nearly two feet that are on the ground make for difficult travel without snowshoes, skis or good snow tires.  
Dog in snow
The pace of life slows, and is marked by bringing in sled loads of wood every couple days to keep the fire burning and checking the weather sources so we can plan our trips to town around the storms.  The dogs hunker down, content with a mad dash around the snow-covered, subzero backyard before bounding back inside to stretch beside the hearth or curl up on the bed buried in fleeces.  Life slows.   It is a time of common chores and limited activities, and a time of reflection: looking ahead and looking back.
Janus, the two-headed Roman god, appropriately provides the inspiration for January, ushering out the old, welcoming in the new.  We look back on that which the past year has brought us, and look forward, sometimes foolishly, to what the next year will bring.  When I was young, I was sure that such things were within my control. All it took was a simple resolution and good things would come to past.  The years have taught me that although well intentioned, such thinking is not true. Life is bumpy, messy, and the best made resolutions often come to naught. And so we bid a relieved goodbye to the passing year which has been filled with trials and triumphs, joy and sorrow, success and failure, and we move forward, cautiously optimistic of success and braced for disappointment.
My mom on Christmas
This past year has been difficult, full of change and realization. My mother, who lives right next door to us, has struggled increasingly with the challenges that aging brings.  Her memory has faltered and time has become elusive and capricious.  Five minutes, five days, five years are all the same to her. Names of old friends and loved ones slip away without warning and the impact affects those who love her most and are closest to her.  Her physical stamina wanes with each day, and she naps more often, cares little for the knitting and other activities that once filled her hours. Cumulatively, she is alternately sad and enraged.  Watching her struggle makes us mindful of our own vulnerability to aging, and we rush about our own daily tasks with new determination to somehow hold off the inevitable advance of days, while knowing that somehow, no matter our commitment, we too will face the abandonment of things we love simply because of the frailty of being human.
But all is not lost as this beginning of yet another year brings joy and planning for the future, too.   The snow buntings have arrived, and every morning a breakfast club of about thirty of these small birds gathers in out driveway to feast on the seed we toss out for them.  Cornell University’s ornithology lab advises that these are birds of the High Arctic and snowy fields. I guess on both counts we near qualify.   Mostly white with hints of gingery buff and grey, these little birds are often called snowflakes because a flock of them seem to drop from the sky when they settle to eat or gather grit from the sand the town puts on the road to counter the icing that inevitably occurs. 
The breakfast club
Before the snow buries the dried heads of weeds, the birds fling themselves against the stalk to knock down the seeds, and then burrow into the snow to find their fallen food.  We spend hours watching them, and over the years, they have become so used to our feeding them that if Bruce does not get out early enough in the morning, they light in the popples across the road and raise a cacophonous clatter, quieting only when they see the garage door rise.  We’ve been told that their coming within a dozen feet of the house is unusual as they are shy birds, and they are easily spooked if we pass too close to the windows while they are feeding.  They rise together in one smooth spiral and wing back to the popples where they sit and complain until they are sure it is safe to return. We spend hours watching them.
The day that the mailman brings the first seed catalogs is a day of rejoicing, a sure promise that as the days grow longer and the cold grows stronger, spring too inches its way into our daily lives. Years ago, a guaranteed Christmas present was a new box of colored pencils and a pad of graph paper so I could plan out the summer garden.  Recently we’ve become more efficient, using large sheets of graph paper to plan, and saving the plans from one year to another so we can rotate various vegetables through the garden.
Because we grew for the farmers’ market for several years, we get a several dozen seed catalogs, but we are picky about where we get our seeds. They must be organic and non-GMO, both because we aren’t convinced that modifying what we eat does not impact our health and in honor of Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater who championed the GMO fight against Monsanto.  We’re blessed to have one of the best, Fedco Seeds, here in Maine, but we also buy from High Mowing Seeds in Vermont, Southern Exposure Seed, Seedsavers, and Richter’s out of Ontario, Canada.  This year, daughter Kasey sent a link to a list of heirloom seed companies ( that I will peruse too. 

We like these old fashioned varieties because they remind us of the food we ate as children and usually have better flavor.  I can spend hours pouring over colored photos of emerald broccoli, ruby tomatoes, golden corn, and a wealth of others. We grow much of the food we eat year round, organically, and want to make sure we get great yield and great flavor.  The efforts are never disappointing, and it’s a wonderful way to spend a day like today.

Outside the skies are low and gray, and a large squall that dropped another half inch of snow has gone past, heading east to New Brunswick.  Crown of Maine Weather, which we often turn to for accurate forecasts, shows that tonight into tomorrow may be rough with more heavy snow, so we bring in a bit more firewood and plan a hearty supper.  There is bread in the machine, and homemade beef pot pie on the menu.  While this sounds difficult, it’s really quite easy and is so soul-satisfying that everyone should try their hand at it.  Best of all, we’re using leftovers from Christmas dinner to put it all together.
Beef Pot Pie
One 9-inch pie crust
1 c. turnip, cooked and in chunks
1 c. cubed potatoes, cooked
1/2 cup frozen peas
I c. carrots, sliced and cooked
1 stalk celery, minced
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced

6 Tbls. butter or beef drippings
6 Tbls. flour
2 c. burgundy wine
2 c. brown beef stock
Leftover beef gravy if you have it

3 strips good bacon, chopped in pieces
2-3 lbs beef, in chunks

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large pot over medium high heat, sauté the bacon pieces, stirring often, until crisp to render fat.  Remove from pot and set aside.  Brown beef chunks if necessary, then remove and set aside.  If you have leftover beef roast, you do not have to brown the beef. 
Sauté celery, onion and garlic in bacon fat for 2 to 3 minutes or until just tender.
Add butter to pot and melt, then mix in flour to create a roux. Add in burgundy and then the brown stock, and whisk to blend well, and stir until it comes to a boil.  Reduce heat.  If you have leftover gravy, add it now, and return sauce to a gentle boil. Cook until it thickens a bit more and then remove pot from heat. Stir in beef chunks and then turnip, potatoes, carrots, and peas. Stir to mix Adjust seasonings and pour into a large heavy casserole (10-inch diameter by at least 3 inches high.

Cut vents in the pie crust and lay on top of beef/vegetable/gravy mix.   Place in hot oven and cook until crust is golden brown – about 45 minutes.
Best served with warm crusty bread to mop up the gravy.

This dish is somewhat thrown together, so take latitude with both the ingredients and the preparation, but don’t by-pass the beef pot pies of childhood simply because the preparation looks complex.  I have known some to use canned gravy and frozen veggies to throw this together and the results have been wonderful.
Beyond the window, a few flakes are falling, and the western sky is low and dark. Bruce has laid the fire and the dogs doze in their chairs, paws twitching in their dreams.  The house smells of beef and gravy and yeasty bread.  We are prepared for whatever this next storm brings, but we think of the linesmen still out in the cold, racing to get power back to homes that have been dark now for as much as a week.   We offer a silent prayer to the storm gods and hope that all get home before the gale begins, and as we inch toward the New Year and new possibilities, we wish you all the happiest of dreams and hope that all your dreams come true.

For me?
Did I hear sleigh bells?

Back woods tree

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