We sit around a scarred wooden table, hovering like moths within the only pool of light. All around us is the soft charcoal of night, the distant sing-song of peepers (an eerie sound that seems to seep from the very pores of the earth). This is the latest we’ve eaten dinner in as long as we can remember, nearly eleven o’ clock. We sip wine from jelly jars, my friend’s teenage daughter sings in a haunting soulful voice and strums her guitar. The meal unfurls like a vivid and collective dream.
First there is trout, each one pink, poached and perfect in its foil wrap blackened by the grill. On every plate we’ve placed a spoonful of our garlic & dill fromage like a little whitecap beside the fish. The tumble of the river, the smoke of hot coals, the calm of the cows, the gardens of last summer all collide on our tongues.
Then the homemade sausage arrives, haloed, as if born of a supernatural realm. Glorious yet unpretentious in seared links that spiral on the platter at the center of the table (all dinner dreams should have sausage in them). This night’s flavors are a blue cheese with rosemary and a garlic paprika with cayenne and red wine. We seem to have struck the perfect ratio of fat to meat—the sausages are moist without being greasy. I swear I can taste the sweet tang of the whey these pigs were raised on.
We walk down the side of the road with fishing poles propped on our shoulders. The robin song drifts around us in the air, enclosing us like some sort of ethereal architecture. It is a warmer day than most of April has been, warm enough for fog. It blows slowly across the tops of the trees. My friend’s daughter picks up a frog. It crouches in her palm, still and wonderful, until she places it gently in the bushes.
We cross the bridge, and I can feel the river pulling us down, down into the needled woods, down the bank through archways of alders, beckoning us to its frothy edges and slow-swirling pools. The road, the world, falls quickly away as we weave through the trees on the river’s steep bank, slipping further and further into another place, another time. The five of us spread out like a constellation come undone. We find our own quiet places and pause. I bait my hook with a curling worm, and cast carefully across the stones and ripples to a shadowy pool. A dollop of foam spins on its surface like a lazy cloud. I imagine the trout below, dreaming the dreams that trout dream.
We all catch fish, my friend on her first cast, but we do it in silence. It is a silence born from both reverence for the cathedral of the forest around us and the awareness that we are, in fact, “hunting” these wise fish who will slip away from disturbance, leery of our baited hooks. I look upstream to see my husband reel one in. It is a flashing blade of silver at the end of his line. He grabs it from the air where it dances frantically, and the fish goes still in his hand, as if suddenly calm or already dead. The give and the take.
Later, as my friend’s daughter guts the fish we have caught, I hold one in my palm. It shimmers, all spotted with shades of dark green and flashes of pink. It is like the river itself, like light falling through branches and dancing on the water’s skin.
Homage a Fromage
What comes before that kiss of garlic and dill-infused cheese poised beside the grilled trout on our plates? There’s the Creamery, clean and bright and striped with yellow bands of afternoon light. I see us all there, hovering over a large pot of milk like midwives attending a birth. We speak in hushed tones as we sprinkle the culture that will work its tiny miracle, transforming liquid into curds.
But wait, before that even, there are the cows. I see them dotting the tender green pasture, curled into their own pockets of sunshine, chewing their cuds, flapping their ears, and sighing into the earth, as song sparrows play call and response from the shadbush nearby. How does a cow experience the return of spring? Does it notice the wild geese gathering in the fields? Does it long for the new grass that is pushing, pushing its way up to the light? Or does a cow dwell outside of our concept of time–where there is only Now, this angle of light, this song sparrow, this smell of grass in the air?
An Ode to Pigs
Pigs are the most joyful of all creatures. I didn’t know this until I had pigs. Now I sit on my living-room couch with a cup of tea and gaze out the window at pigs frolicking in the backyard. And, yes, frolicking is the only word (well, I guess you could also try the words rollicking, or gamboling, or romping, or merry-making). They buck and run on short squat legs, tumbling into one another (yes, they even “pig pile,” forming a porcine heap in the afternoon sun). They love to roll up ribbons of sod with their amazingly strong snouts, and they always appear to be smiling. They are “piggy” about their food, pushing and crowding and squealing around the trough. They also chew very loudly with their mouths open, smacking cheerfully away in a rude, but oblivious and winsome fashion. When I romp (I can’t quite frolic yet) through the pasture with them, they follow me, like a gang of happy and mischievous children. And like toddlers they put everything in their mouths. When we were building the shed in their pasture they made it nearly impossible to get anything done. They rubbed their fat bodies against the ladders as we teetered precariously above. They chewed on the chainsaw, carried away the hammers (luckily we hid the nails), and generally wreaked havoc. I couldn’t help but love them.
This intimate knowledge of the inherent joyfulness of pigs has made it very painful to think of all the pigs who are not allowed to frolic free in pastures, root blissfully, or chase each other in games of piggy tag. To think of these same pigs trapped in stalls too small to move in, never seeing the light of day, spending their entire lives scared and suffering is devastatingly sad to imagine.
This is why we raise pigs the way we do. Why I would consider it the only way. And, yes, we do raise them for meat (hey, I love sausage–and long ago made peace with the idea that life on this earth involves death), but their lives, while they live them, are good lives, happy lives, and natural lives. We allow our pigs to be pigs, and this is the most important ingredient in good sausage and good stewardship.
Later, you can roll squares of meat and beautiful white cubes of lard with pungent crumbles of blue cheese, intoxicating handfuls of rosemary and crushed garlic. You can dribble sherry on them as you sip white wine. Knead this mixture together with clean bare hands, joke about dancing on it with your feet, but continue kneading until the pork seems to have absorbed the heady flavors. Then, feed them into the sausage grinder four cubes of meat to one cube of lard, and try not to hold your breath as the shriveled casing swells with ground goodness and spirals larger and larger and larger, dwarfing the table. Then twist this giant serpent of sausage into whatever size links you want and . . .
Have the campfire ready, coals burning low and hot. Sit in a circle around the fire under a distant wash of stars. Listen to the strange lullaby of the peepers. Listen to the sausages sizzle, drip, and speak. They will tell you when they are ready. Then eat them of course, but better yet, eat them with shimmering trout from the river, and local fromage doused with herbs, and friends. Best of all, eat them with friends.