I’m writing this post at my writing table, which for most of its life has been a kitchen or dining table and bears all the markings to prove it. I’m writing in one draft, so there are sure to be typos and incomplete thoughts.
Under the table, a big baby of a dog, all hundred pounds of him, lies on top of a blanket that covers my feet. He’s pinned me this same way every time I’ve sat at this table for several days now, afraid, perhaps, that I’ll leave him again, as I did a week ago.
Last Saturday, when I would have been at this same table, writing about Valentine’s Day and cooking and projects children enjoy, it was 37 degrees inside my house. The power had been off for three days and counting.
The Thursday before, the day the ice storm hit, my daughter and I escaped to a neighbor’s house where we had electricity, a warm fire, and good company. We treated it like a spa trip, making the best of the unexpected interruption.
The neighbor was glad for the company, she said, having been in a quiet, empty nest since the fall when her now-grown children went back to school. We cooked, played games, and reminisced.
In theory, I could have done all the normal things I do on weekends, including writing blog posts, from her house. But being displaced felt like an opening, and it brought the unexpected benefit of nudging me to do things I’d been putting off, things that too often got postponed in favor of keeping routine. I sewed; I read; I wrote, by hand, in a notebook.
On Saturday afternoon the weather cleared, and we three, my friend, my daughter, and I, went for a walk through the neighborhood to survey the ice storm’s damage. We were careful to stay in the street, away from branches that were continuing to fall. We listened to birds and chainsaws, sniffed at wafts from diesel generators and wood-burning fireplaces alike.
As my daughter was quick to point out, we walked the same path, for the most part, that my neighbor, my daughter, and the other children on our block (including my son, who’s now in college) had walked on a warm morning in June, more than a decade ago, the first summer of “summer co-op camp” on our block.
That year we’d mapped out a plan, the mothers on the street, to each take a week or two with all of the children in our homes. We strung together enough weeks to bridge the end of one school year and start of the next. We named the summer “Camp Vinton,” and made commemorative t-shirts.
My son learned to cut vegetables with a sharp knife that summer, thanks to the neighbor who just a week ago taught my daughter to roll out pizza dough.
More than any particular skill, though, I can see now that what we all learned was trust.
“It would never happen now,” another neighbor said recently, talking about our co-op camp summers. Others nodded, lamenting the ubiquity of Ring doorbells and iPhone tracking and the relentless, intentional injection of fear, uncertainty, and doubt into our cultural consciousness.
Maybe they’re right, though I choose to remain (using a phrase I read this week), “bloatedly optimistic” that trust, in the end, will win out. Life, in the largest sense, is nothing but one long trust fall anyway. Learning who and how to trust, and in the process how to be worthy of trust, comes with skinned knees, cut fingers, and few bruises, all of which happened in our “Camp Vinton” summers and healed just as quickly.
When we returned from our tour of the ice storm’s aftermath, I checked the the utility company for an update on my power outage. When I saw “8:30 PM” I started to gather my things in anticipation. But the sun was already setting, and I quickly realized the wisest decision would be to stay another night, as my friend insisted.
We made dinner (notes about that will follow, at the end) and settled in to watch a movie, an adorable rom-com called “Love Hard.” By the time we got into our beds, the other side of the block was still dark. The utility company had posted an update: 11:30 PM restoration estimate. When I woke Sunday morning, that deadline, too, had come and gone with no change.
The novelty of the first two nights (“it’s like a mini vacation!” I’d said, to my daughter, on Thursday) was wearing off. I began to worry that we were imposing, worried that the continuing delay might go on for many more missed deadlines. “Nonsense,” my friend said. “You’d do the same for me, and we both know it.”
She was right, of course.
Fortunately, the power came back on Sunday mid-afternoon, before we could wear out our welcome. I hauled our things across the street. I vacuumed, did laundry, and put a pot of tomato sauce on the stove, all in hopes of helping the house regain warmth. I folded up the blankets my husband had piled up to keep from getting hypothermia while he remained in our house, uncertain about leaving the dogs alone.
Yet a different neighbor walked down and helped clear some remaining branches. As we carted the limbs to the curb, we watched the extension cords that had been stretched across the street, from the side with power to the side without, slither back into coils, rolled up and put away until the next time.
Sunday night, back in my own bed, I scrolled through the block’s group text thread and re-read the offers of coffee, grocery runs, spare bedrooms, generator hook-ups, and wine. The updates from calls to the utility company. Questions about cutting down trees. It was a deeply comforting string of check-ins, updates, and a few jokes.
On Monday I went back to my office, where the power and internet were restored but not phone service. A colleague — who hadn’t lost power in the storm — pinged me with a text about something I’d promised to send by the previous Friday, asking if I could get it sent that afternoon. No, I thought (actually, “Hell no,” is more accurate), and then I considered things from her perspective and softened what I wrote in response.
My team and I limped into the week with good cheer, even though some of them were still without heat or electricity in their homes, depending, like I had, on friends and family for whom they were grateful.
By Friday, everything was back up and running, at home, at work, and at my daughter’s school. Although a few people I knew were still displaced and waiting for heroic and tireless utility crews, by and large everything was back to relative normal.
The Mayor wrote, in his weekly email, about our power line predicament, noting the high cost of burying the cables and the now predictable weather challenges to come in years ahead, if not repeating this year. There’s no easy solution to the problem, nor is there a quick one.
But it is inevitable that we’ll have to face this same kind of challenge again. Like life’s more metaphorical storms — the illnesses, deaths, divorces, job losses, financial downturns and more that are part of being alive — another damaging meteorological event will occur.
Accompanying that event will likely be another widespread power outage, another display of sharp disparities that leave some children without food when schools lose power and close, while other families check into hotels, fly out of town to get away, or rely on the generosity of friends.
It is equally certain that when the next storm hits, fortune may favor or disfavor differently, giving people who escaped without harm this time a fresh perspective.
How should we weather that storm?
Together, of course. It is the only way forward.
And so, this Valentine’s Day weekend, if fortune smiles, then may we take time to feed and nurture the people who feed us in return, literally and figuratively. May we refill our own reserves not merely for our own survival, but in preparation of extending hands, opening doors, and carrying on, together.
The Communal Power of Food & Cooking
The friend who opened her home to us is a fantastic cook. Cooking for other people brings her tremendous joy, as does teaching other people how to prepare food. We’ve learned from one another, over the years, as we’ve traded recipes and served as stand-in grocery in a pinch. (There’s a sub-group of cooks in our block’s group text, and “Do you have a lemon?” “Anyone got a white onion?” are common entries.)
What I didn’t expect to learn, while we were camped at her house, was this: I’ve been cooking pizza (decades of pizza cooking) at the wrong temperature, setting that gauge at 450 when it needed to be at 550.
If that’s not news to you, then just skip over the rest. You won’t learn anything new, and you’ve already had your good laugh at my expense. The rest of you, my 450-degree people, are invited to stay.
A bit of background here. I make a lot of homemade pizza. Over many, many years I’ve tried sourdough dough (too much work), quick-rise dough (hmmm…) and countless other variations, before landing on a favorite, which I’ve recommended several times in other posts: Mark Bittman’s Basic Pizza Dough. It’s as reliable as Triscuit crackers and Cracker Barrel sharp cheddar cheese. It’s nothing fancy, and it doesn’t need to be.
I’ve made that dough, rolled it out, topped it with any number of toppings, and — until last night — have slid it onto a preheated stone in a preheated 450 degree oven, baking for 15-20 minutes, until the crusts edges started to color and the cheese looked right.
Last night I preheated to 550 (the highest setting on my oven), and I’m never going back to my old ways, except when to make (if I make) a deep dish, skillet pie.
See? Life is all about learning. And friends. And cooking.
What else did we enjoy at my cooking pal’s house?
This delicious green mole chicken stew (which she pulled from her freezer). The recipe’s proper name, in Food & Wine, is Mole Verde con Pollo. The preparation and ingredients look daunting, but the result is really wonderful — and, witness our experience, it freezes very well. My daughter, who is not always an adventuresome eater, asked for a second serving.
On the last night of our unexpected spa trip, my friend made something she calls “baked stacks.” There’s no recipe, so you’ll have to use your imagination: thick slice of butternut squash, thick slice of onion, thyme sprigs, slice of pancetta, thick slice of feta, in stacks, on a foil-lined baking sheet; olive oil drizzled underneath, in between layers, and on top of each stack; whole sheet baked in a medium oven (350 ish) for 30-45 minutes, until the cheese is lightly browned and the squash soft. Serve on top of a bed of arugula, with or without a little salad dressing. So delicious that I took a picture of it: