A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 2011 Cackalacky sent something awful to the citizens of New England: Hurricane Irene.  In advance of the storm my neighbor and I checked the generators, secured water and parked our 4×4 trucks at the top of the road.  I pulled a good bottle of Oregon Pinot for that night’s porch sitting and storm stories.  We waited patiently for Irene only to be stood up.  She lost interest in us fast, though the Outer Banks lured her with its siren call.  Like a fickle lover, she kissed our coast, traveled out into the Atlantic for a little pick-me-up and slammed into New York and then Vermont with a vengeance that has still left its mark. Southern cousins still know how to teach Yankee relatives a thing or two, right?

All over parts of the southern end of Vermont and just outside of Brattleboro, you can see signs of the devastation.  Hiking boots with dusty mud streaks are sold at half price with a sign that reads, “Irene damaged goods.”  Whole sections of road have been closed or pushed further into the mountain or the hill by the River’s swell.

I was in Vermont to visit with my brother, whom I tortured to no end by shopping for antiques the better part of my first day.  On our way home, my brother’s mother (Ingrid) instructed us to drop by the farm stand to pick up a box of “livestock” apples, with a warning to ignore the box with the mostly rotten ones – that we did not want.  We were preparing for our trip to see the horses on Saturday morning.  So, off we went – he complaining about nothing in particular, me about the freakin’ cold.  We selected a box with a good variety of large and small apples with only a few rotten bits and paid six dollars for it.

I have a great respect for antique woodstoves and the generation of women and men who loaded, stoked and cooked on them.  Ingrid has such a stove that warms the kitchen all day long.  She originally bought it for $75 dollars from a friend (new ones cost anywhere from 1,500-7,000) and I was obsessed with it from the moment I entered the house.

I was dying to cook something on it.

When we got home with the apples and my brother’s aching back from hauling it out of the Jeep’s terribly engineered back seat, Ingrid informed us that we were going to cook an apple pie – in the woodstove.  I could see the look on my brother’s face, it said: for Pete’s sake, that will take the better part of an evening.  Dinner looked like it would come to us from a land far far away.

Not at all.  We put that pie together in 18 minutes flat and I am still marveling at the way we did it.  We washed, cored and rough chopped the livestock apples – super hint here: we didn’t need to take the peels off and besides, it’s more nutritious that way, right?  We used store-bought piecrusts – one for the top, the other for the bottom.  We then cut apples until the mound in the center looked just right and sprinkled cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and cornstarch on the top.  The woodstove was fired at about 375 degrees – in went the pie and we sat down to that night’s crock pot dinner – a luscious beef stew made with a variety of beef stocks held over from other culinary adventures.

The results were eaten a la mode and although there are many ways in which Jacques Pepin and Julia Child might have improved upon our pie, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  The apples were not too sweet and perfectly tart.  We ate and laughed and I marveled at what our ancestors could do and had to do to get dinner, and on those special occasions, dessert on the table.

The next day we took about 1/3 of the box of apples to the horses.  A cruel Vermont wind nipped at my too-thin Cackalacky gloves, but I held the apples anyway as Babe reached over the fence line for one bite to halve it and another to finish it off.  Satiated, with my hands now raw with cold, she stretched out her neck to investigate the newcomer; then she kissed me ever so gently with her surprisingly warm muzzle. When I was a child, I liked nothing more than to go to the barn at my school and be with the horses. Sharing an apple with my horse, leaning on his neck and thinking about nothing in particular still feels like heaven to me.

The river behind Ingrid’s house is closest to the guest bedroom and is slightly menacing, reminding us that a storm is always in the offing.  Bits of rubble from the Builder’s Supply up River still dot its banks, marking the place where the water rose during Irene.  In truth, a river does run through it.

May all our journeys into the madness of the holidays and out of them bring the love of a good horse, the tartness of apples and the smoky warmth of a woodstove like Ingrid’s in Vermont.

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