Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year

“So that’s winter too!” he thought. “You can even like it!”     
 - Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson

We could hear shots from where we stood on the ridge that ran through the mud flats. As the late afternoon dusk gathered in the damp yellow weeds and the wind drove another volley of raindrops through the tangled banks of wild roses,the bushes bare but for clusters of red and black hips that rattled and swayed, we could see the flock of ducks rise from the estuary on the shores of Skagit Bay. More shots.

The five of us convened on the path and weighed the pros and cons of continuing toward the rocky “haystacks” that rose from the Bay, or returning to the car and from thence to La Connor for a beverage and a snack. The rain drops spattered across my glasses refracted my already terrible low-light vision into a series of star-tipped bluish blurs. But I wasn’t necessarily ready to head in – the fresh air was delicious and I felt as though the sticky winter joints in my brain were loosening up a bit with the walk. And the shots were far off and not aimed toward our little group, probably, as we'd left our pet duck, Waddles, back at home. We continued along for another hundred yards and passed a low-lying field strewn with silvered logs, as though a giant hand had flung a handful of twigs from the water inland. To our right, we could just see the water of the Bay, to our left, the muddy fields of Skagit Valley stretched to the base of the Cascades.

The hunter approached along the isthmus, a mallard dangling from his left hand, his Labrador close by his side. The duck looked soft and terribly broken by the shot and long fall. Floppy. The dog was having trouble restraining herself from putting the duck’s head in her mouth. She was a young retriever.

In another era, one in which duck hunting was more for provisioning and less for semi-idle sportsmen, I’d like to think the dangling duck would have been roasted, served with rosehip compote, a stuffing of farro and roasted parsnips, and accompanied by a wine as clean and mineraly as a goblet filled with cold, wet stones.

Farro is an interesting grain. Also known as Emmer Wheat and sometimes mistaken for Spelt, Farro was cultivated by humans in the Near East, through North Africa and Europe until the heyday of the Roman Empire when durum and other bread-making wheats took the stage. McGee posits that Farro was probably the second grain to be cultivated, after Einkorn Wheat, the offspring of a chance mating between Goatgrass and Wild Wheat, which was the result of a blind date set up by Cattails. Farro is enjoying a renaissance right now, appearing on menus and in Farmers' Markets everywhere. The nuttiness of the grain is a great foil to roasted meats or fishes, and it takes to the addition of cranberries or tree nuts quite well.

I looked out at the muddy fields and continued musing while the others chatted with the hunter. He had been surprised to see us out there.

In a few months, the flat, wet fields will become vast squares of color as the tulips come up. As the weather warms even more, the Skagit Valley will yield tomatoes, peppers, greens, onions, potatoes – pretty much all the produce we’ll use in the restaurant this spring and summer could come from one of these farms. And then next fall, we’ll have squash and root vegetables, again, from the same farms. But right now, at the closing of the year, the fields are empty and bare but for puddles reflecting watery blue light.

The hunter walked back to the parking lot. We waited a moment to put a bit of distance between our little group and the man with the dog (and the gun) before heading back to our car. The sky darkened into the gloaming, the rain picked up. I was glad I'd worn wool.

As we walked, we talked about New Year’s Eve plans, what our Januarys will look like, what we wish for ourselves and our families for this next year. I thought about what I had planted in the past twelve months and what might, with some pruning and care, become a source of sustenance. The projects that need to be finished, and others that have yet to be begun.

I also thought about the work week: There isn't a busier corridor for a restaurant than the week connecting Christmas and New Year's -- a very Merry Isthmus! This is the week during which the differences between working in a kitchen and working in an office become more glaring. It's a flat-out run for much of the week, and the containers of prepped items vanish almost as quickly as I can make them. While there is no real danger -- except to my sanity, my hands, and my lower back -- the feeling that we are under attack never really goes away. (It's actually pretty fun.) But I am a fool to make plans for New Year's Eve, as wonderful as the evening sounds my Prep List will almost surely begin the peculiar, predictable stretch toward infinity as the night grinds along. Most likely I will be pulling 60 pounds of semi-frozen pig cheeks apart and dusting them with curing salts until 11:50. While my friends pour Champagne, I will crouch among the linen bags and dry goods, changing from my messy whites and sticky clogs into hose and a dress.

The walk drew to a close and we piled into the car and left the mud flats. The drive back to La Connor took us past farmhouses that were the very archetype of cozy: Warmly lit windows, a sense of community and preparedness for the long hunker ahead. I could almost smell the bread baking, the duck roasting. The farro over a slow simmer on a back burner, stirred occasionally with stock added as necessary.

As we drove into town, I realized that no matter how the actual New Year's night plays out, I am going into 2012 with a feeling of promise, as though the year ahead were a prepped field yet to be planted. I'm looking forward to the growth.

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