We woke up in Portsmouth, a little tired, and very much grateful.
We had been on the road, driving around New England in a minivan crammed with fresh vegetables, food from our sponsors for our guests, and a whole lot of memories in our heads. The potluck tour (round one) had been like nothing else we had experienced. And we three were doing it together, meeting new people and eating good food everywhere we went.
But we were a little tired that morning. The night before, we had met a few people at a lovely old women’s club in Portsmouth, at a small gathering. There was miscommunication, phone calls I should have made but we were in Italy, and some mis-steps. So when we pulled up to the place, we weren’t even sure that anyone would come. But we sat around, sipping soup that tasted more like autumn than summer, and talked with the women who had arrived. Tell truth, I was glad for the quiet time. I have never talked so much as I did those two weeks. I had to be on every night.
(This weekend, friends of ours asked Lu how she liked our trip around New England. “Fun!” she shouted. And then she grew quiet and said, “It was a little boring, though, because my mama talked about the cookbook every night.” Fair enough, kid.)
This breakfast, outside a little cafe, was a relief. Danny read princess stories to Lucy while I ate my corned beef and hash, gulping down hot coffee and resting my voice. We had one more potluck to go.
We ended our journey in a good place.
Our friend Alana Chernila is a warm apple-maple chip, made with apples from her backyard. She’s kind and loving, soft-spoken and thoughtful, funny and real. She cooks every day, but she’s not pretentious about her food, convinced hers is better than yours. She’s just cooking. She and I had a conversation as we cooked together in this kitchen, about blogging and how artificial the life of food seems on blogs, about the joys and imperfections of cooking for your family every day, and how little the hard, humble work of making food actually makes it onto the internet. I’ve been thinking about that quiet, connected conversation that happened as we chopped vegetables and added cream to a fish soup, ever since. It changed me, the way a conversation with a friend can happen in glances as the smell of fresh ginger wafts up from the cutting board.
(And if you don’t know Alana’s wonderful book, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making, I suggest you grab a copy. Our copy is food-stained and well-thumbed. I turn back to it, again and again.)
When Alana found out about our potluck tour, she immediately offered us our home.
Having a party in a friend’s home was such a lovely way to end this tour.
And what a home. Alana has the kind of home I dream of owning some day. It’s humble and careworn and almost entirely kitchen. The kitchen is half the house, with a big space for people to gather for a party in the evening, shoulders rubbing against each other as they leaned into the big pot of soup for another ladleful. The windows steamed up quickly, the table groaned with all the food, and the laughter from the little library area rose higher as the girls had their own dance party.
I like our house now. I like it a lot. But being in Alana’s home made me realize this may not be our permanent home. I want a big, comfortable kitchen like this. We spend all day there anyway. Why not have a home that’s all kitchen with some bedrooms on the side?
(Maybe someday we’ll build it.)
Also, this spice drawer! Alana’s husband Joey (oh my gosh, we all love Joey, especially Lu), painted the lids of half-pint jars with chalkboard paint. We’re doing this soon too.
We had lots of vegetables left for that last party. Melissa’s Produce sponsored our tour and sent us fresh produce for nearly every potluck. We chopped and slivered and grated and zested and made dishes for the potluck all afternoon.
We couldn’t use it all, as much as we love fresh produce. Lucy ate most of the leftover red peppers. Raw. Not kidding. She eats them like apples, leaving only the seeds hanging from the stems. No one can believe she eats them all.
After we returned home, Alana wrote me an email: “Thank you for all the extra produce. I came in from the farmers’ market and spent the rest of the day making kimchi, pesto, roasted red peppers… it was awesome.”
Can you see why we love her?
And the people who filled Alana’s home were warm and wonderful too, including two of the people we had taught in Italy. (Hi, Linda and Scott!) It was the funniest, loveliest way to have our September marathon of traveling come to an end, from Italy to the Berkshires. We felt so lucky to have this life.
And there were people hugging us, and telling us what our work meant to them. And neighbors talking about the farmers’ market the next day. And nutritionists and cheesemakers and women who write wonderful blogs and bring Thai nut relish, which blew our minds and made us keen to be home in our own kitchen so we could make it and put it on everything we make. (I suggest you do the same.)
Toward the end of the party, one woman said to me, “It’s funny. When I thought about this potluck, I was confused as to what I could bring that would feel like the Berkshires. But when I look at this spread, I have to laugh. This is the Berkshires.” It was a table full of dishes filled with fresh vegetables, mostly organic, classic dishes with lots of reinvention, much of it right from the garden and created out of a sense of frugality and generosity, both. This potluck tasted like the farmers’ market. This gluten-free Berkshires food was a feast.
We didn’t want to leave.
But leave we did, the next morning. We fell in love with the Berkshires, the same way we fell in love with a dozen different places in this country that we could easily call home. We sort of knew this, but we learned it more deeply on this trip: we’re country folks. I love the thrill of cities, the rush of a new restaurant, the feeling of striding down the sidewalk and imagining all the lives around me. But I’m at home in rural areas, where people in small towns gather together in each other’s homes for potlucks, because there’s not much else to do, and they talk and laugh and leave late in the evening, happy and well-fed.
And there are enough trees around to see that autumn is definitely here.
So we drove into New York City, happy to see the tall spires against that blue sky. We said goodbye to the now-dirty minivan we had called a kind of home for two weeks and lugged all our stuff into a taxi to JFK. We were going home. We checked in as a piece of luggage that sign we had been carrying with us since Vermont: we want to hear your food stories.
And oh, we loved those stories. We loved hearing about friends making noodle kugel in New York the day after September 11th, Amish grandmothers making pie in Pennsylvania, seeing hands picking apples then slicing them for apple crisp, made gluten-free for a group of grateful people in the Hudson Valley, talking to a mother and daughter dealing with celiac in Vermont, seeing the new students at Danny’s old culinary school, watching Lucy and her friends dress up as garden vegetables for a parade in Maine, hearing the passion for coffee milk in Rhode Island, understanding why brown bread is important to someone who grew up in Boston and ate it every Saturday night with baked beans and bacon, talking about how gluten-free has been taken over by big food companies and people who don’t truly care about celiacs in Portsmouth, and listening to friends swap stories and recipes while holding each other by the arm in a kitchen in the Berkshires. I swear, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
That sign is in our new kitchen studio now, a new part of the adventures that lie ahead of us. As we cook spicy Portuguese kale soup and bake grain-free bagels, we look up at that sign and remember every day of that crazy, long, exhausting and wonderful trip. Even though it took us a good couple of weeks of October to recover from September, we can’t wait to do it again.
(Folks in the South? We’re coming to you in February. Midwest? March. We’d love to hear your suggestions of places we could hold gatherings and places we should visit, people we should talk to, and foods we really need to eat to make our next cookbook, American Classics Reinvented, into the best book it can be.)
Thank you, good folks in New England. We loved hearing your stories.
We want to send out a huge thank you and acknowledgment of the good companies that have come forward to sponsor this American Road Trip Potluck Tour for us all.
Melissa’s Produce is providing us with great fresh produce for every potluck. We love their fruits and vegetables!
Thank you to these companies for their sponsorship of this tour.