the slow pace of neighbors

A knock came on the door. Lu and Danny and I were in the kitchen, whisking flours and making pickling liquid for the pile of vegetables left over at the end of the week. Danny wiped his hands on the kitchen towel he always has slung over his shoulder and moved toward the living room.

“Hey, thanks!” I heard him shout out, then some mumbled conversation and laughter.
“Wow, the UPS guy is in a good mood today,” I thought, as I gave Lu a pat on the back as I passed behind her.
Danny came back in, bearing two big bags. Heavy, obviously, from the way he strained to lift them. He set them down on the table and we all peered in.
Apples. Hundreds and hundreds of apples.

Our neighbors to the east of us have dozens of apple trees in their large yard. We watched them go from blossom to bud to tiny green fruits from the first days we moved into this house. Lu has been fascinated. Many times, she wanted to climb over the fence and pick apples, especially after we started reading The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree together. “Honey,” I have told her repeatedly. “Those aren’t our trees. We’re just lucky enough to see them.”

And then our neighbor showed up at our door, leaving bags of apples from his trees before walking back home again.

We feel so lucky to live where we do. Our neighbors to the west of us have become friends, their little ones just younger than Lu. We trade off feeding each other some weeks. When they go away for the weekend or holidays, we take care of their flock of chickens and the two goats who like to sit on the upturned picnic table and slowly turn their heads as we walk by. Lu loves entering the barn, coaxing the chickens inside, away from the dark, and filling up their water buckets. The goats butt their heads against our legs, eager for food. Within a few moments, we’ve collected warm eggs for the next day’s breakfast. Lu carries them back to our house in her hands, walking slowly to protect them.

Our neighbor across the way has a giant pasture and three gorgeous brown horses. Lu’s now engineered to go through a horse phase, especially when Marcia believes it’s time to let Lu climb onto one of those horses. We stop at the end of our driveway, when it’s not raining, and feed carrots to the horse who stretches his neck over the fence toward our outstretched hands. Marcia has worked on the ferry boats for over 30 years, one of the few women to work in the system in the 1970s. When we had her over for dinner recently, she told us in her soft-spoken voice that she was the only woman on the WSU diving team in the early 1960s. Lu’s eyes went wide when she heard that Marcia jumped off the high board and arced her body under the water. This was better than the horses.

And now we have a neighbor who leaves apples off his trees on our front porch.

There’s so much about a small town that’s funky, times it can feel claustrophobic. But I love living in a place where people can’t help but know each other. A place where you’re connected with each other, not because of shared passions or deep feelings of kinship, but because of proximity. In the last seven years or so, I’ve made many great friends on the internet, people with whom I can type fast in conversation because we feel so much alike. But I’ve also been left feeling spent by friendships that seemed authentic but burned out fast. Not being able to stand next to each other, listening to each other’s ideas over the fence, gave some friendships a distorted sense of connection. These days, I like the slow pace of neighbors, simple kindness, a few words together.

We feel like we’ll live here on Vashon for many years to come, perhaps all our lives. It feels good to know people, to share food, to stop and talk for a few moments about the weather.

We grabbed apples out of the bags. Lu took a bite and looked surprised at the tartness, the crisp skin. Danny started juggling a few of them, just to make her laugh. I started talking about pies and crisps, chunky applesauce and smooth apple butter we would simmer for hours. Lu liked the sound of that.

After a few moments, Danny started pulling foods out of the cupboards — dried cherries, some fresh ginger — and did what happens ten times a day in our kitchen. He started chopping onions. He began peeling apples.

Apple-cherry chutney with a touch of ginger. That might be a good thank you for the gift of apples left on our front porch.

APPLE-CHERRY CHUTNEY

We love this apple-cherry chutney on top of crisp polenta wedges. (And if you want a recipe for those, go here.) But it’s a great accompaniment to roast chicken or pork chops. I’d love some sweet potato fries or celery root fries with this. And plop some onto a roasted root vegetable hash, with some sour cream or thick yogurt? That’s a good breakfast.

1/2 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon allspice
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup apple cider
1/2 cup brown sugar
5 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 large nub ginger, peeled and cut into matchstick pieces
1 stalk celery, diced
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 cup dried cherries
1 tablespoon orange zest

Toasting the spices. Heat the oven to 450°. Put the cinnamon stick and allspice in a small skillet. Put it in the oven and toast the spices, shaking the skillet a bit occasionally, for 10 minutes. Put the toasted spices in a spice grinder and grind them into a fine powder.

Making the chutney. Set a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour in the apple cider vinegar, apple cider, and brown sugar. Bring them to a boil, stirring frequently, until the sugar is entirely dissolved into the liquids.

Add the apples, onion, ginger, and celery into the saucepan. Add the toasted spices and mustard seeds and stir. Cook, stirring, until the apples begin to break down, about 25 minutes. (You still want some of the chunkiness of the apple but you want a bit of creaminess too.)

Put the orange zest and dried cherries into the chutney and stir. Immediately turn off the heat. Let the chutney sit on the back of the stove until it has cooled to room temperature. It should last in the refrigerator for a week.

Makes about 4 cups.

Make ahead. Frankly, as good as this chutney is just as you finish it, the flavors blend together even better after a few days of the chutney sitting in the refrigerator. Make this on a weekend and use a dollop of it throughout the week for your dinners.

How can the kids get involved in this? Lu loves chopping apples and onions with her nylon chef knives. Since the final chutney has a rough-hewn look to it, let the kids go crazy with their ragged cuts here.

11 comments on “the slow pace of neighbors

  1. lil deli

    what a beautiful post. i live in paris at the moment and i miss having neighbours who i can talk across the fence to and share leftover baked goods with.

    1. Laura

      I’ve never had a fence, but I’m in Paris (France, not Texas) and would not mind sharing leftover baked goods. No, not at all. 🙂 I’ve been thinking about baking ginger snaps. Perhaps you’d like some? I’m in the 20th, but cycle to the 15th for work every day, so could be a “neighbor” in quite a large chunk of the city.

  2. Amy

    Has anybody told you that you made the New York Times? See “Removing ‘Sacrifice’ From ‘Gluten-Free’ ” by Catherine Saint Louis, Published: December 3, 2012. I saw it in the online edition on page two. She hosted a dinner party totally gluten free and didn’t tell anyone. Commenting on the pasta dish, she said, “Part of me lamented that I had not made the pasta, using the recipe from “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef” by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern.” Congratulations!

  3. Jenn Sutherland

    Ahhh, you make me pine for my own small-community upbringing…particularly the mentions of goats and chickens. I love the city, but I miss the comic characters of goats and chickens in the yard, and the casual conversation between neighbors. I’ll definitely put a pot of chutney on to simmer this weekend – and I’ve already made the polenta to go along with some leftover beef stew. Thanks for feeding us so well.

  4. Bethanie Hagues

    This looks so much like Christmas gifts, in recycled jelly jars, no less! Do the mustard seeds get toasted and ground with the other spices, or added at the end?

  5. Bethanie Hagues

    (I guess I was having a foggy day when I first read through the recipe, for now I see, plain as day, where the mustard seeds are added.)

  6. MBaldini

    Thanks for the example of a blog that I was able to use with my students. It was very easy to find on a google search. I hope to visit again when I have time to check out your amazing looking ideas.

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