Category: Vermont


SIX DEGREES AND SEVEN BACONS

January 26th, 2013 — 12:49pm

The scene: a dim, warm, red-toned little shop, usually redolent of exotic forms of chocolate, expanded for the evening into a booze-and-bacon bar. The salty, smoky aroma hits you right in the salivary glands as you walk in, pulling the door tight behind you to keep the cold at bay. Three salt-and-pepper-haired guys in cowboy hats are rocking the joint with Texas swing tunes. Welcome to Bacon Thursday at Nutty Steph’s Granola and Chocolate Shop, in Montpelier’s suburban sprawl of Middlesex, population 1,729, refuge-of-choice from a sub-freezing night in Central Vermont. Oh, and make that minus six degrees, and dropping fast.

Jaquelyn, a.k.a. Nutty Steph

Nutty Steph is the nom d’affaires of Jaquelyn Rieke, a thirty-something Midwestern transplant who started a homemade granola business in Montpelier about ten years ago now. (You can mail-order it, and you should; I’ve bought no other since discovering it).

Tall, bright-eyed, cleft-chinned, she’s presiding over the proceedings like a true cowgirl, in a Western shirt and bolo tie secured with a heart-shaped chunk of turquoise.

In honor of the band, Big Hat, No Cattle, we’ve been encouraged to come in Western wear. It gets you a dollar off your drink, so the place is full of people in Stetsons and tooled cowboy boots. Behind the counter is doe-eyed, smiling co-owner Josie Green, her hair in pigtails beneath a battered straw Stetson. She’s sporting a gingham shirt knotted at the midriff and, below the gap of bare skin, what look like a pair of  leather undies peeking out from a set of—chaps. Suede chaps. The crowd around the chocolate case seems disproportionately male.

I’m here with my fiddler friend Susan, who’s often in another band with Mike Ricciarelli, Big Hat’s guitarist/fiddler. She’s brought her fiddle since they’ve asked her to sit in. I plop the red felt Stetson I bought two decades ago in Park City, Utah on her head so she can qualify for cheap drinks. When she goes up to fiddle with the band, she fits right in along with leader Kevin Brown, standing bassist David Blythe, and her bandmate Mike, string player extraordinaire and expert repairer of musical instruments.

Kevin, David and Mike in mid-swing

Susan and Kevin are my two favorite examples of the “Renaissance Woodchuck,” a term coined by Susan herself. Besides being a songwriter, composer, landscape painter, trail runner, photographer, singer, teacher, and player of every string instrument known to man including the dobro and slide guitar, Kevin’s working on his fourth Vermont-based “mystorical” novel featuring sleuth Liam Dutra. You have to be a generalist in a small place like Vermont, but Kevin’s taken it to a high art form. And he’s good at all of it.

Susan’s a fiddler across all the genres (Celtic, Cajun, Western, and…Swedish?), a chef and caterer who used to run an international gourmet takeout place, a knitter of uncommonly beautiful lacy shawls, and organizer of a local concert series that brings in folkie and indie talent from as far away as the Scottish Highlands.

Besides hanging out for an evening listening to the alternately joyful and melancholy, mellowing music, we’re getting to pig out on Nutty Steph’s bacon sampler of the evening. Stripped from the usual breakfast eggs-and-toast context, bacon becomes a gourmet experience, though truth to tell I couldn’t tell the wood-smoked variety from the maple-cured kind in a blind tasting.

They’re all good, especially dipped in a little dollop of Fat Toad Farm caramel. This being Vermont, that sweet richness comes from the goat farm of Susan’s brother Stephen about twenty miles down the road. The wine is a blended red in the French style from Shelburne Vineyards, over by Lake Champlain. Vermont reds are nearly ready for prime time. If we could only grow coffee and cacao beans, we could be self-sufficient.

There are salt cravers and there are sweet tooths. Some of us are both. The counter case beckons with chocolate-robed shortbread, truffles, sea-salted caramel, orange peel, and dried pineapple as well as an array of fruit and nut barks encased in white, milk, and dark chocolate.

Truffles in mind

There are even pink chocolate elephants, which you might worry about finding on your kitchen counter after a night on the tiles. I play against type and go for the white-chocolate-dipped pineapple with toasted coconut.

Susan and I outlast the band. After they’ve gone, Jaquelyn steps out with her banjo-playing bacon chef and the two go into a couple of seriously bawdy numbers they’ve written themselves. Sort of a salted-caramel-habanero finish on the evening. We spill out with the warm gold light into the night, where the snow crunches like styrofoam under our feet and the thermometer’s heading for 20 below.

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And they wonder what we do for fun up here…

December 6th, 2012 — 7:30pm

Resplendent in a plum velvet coat, oversized bow tie and silk top hat, Montpelier’s book guru George Spaulding presides as the Mad Hatter over his eponymous Tea Party in the Children’s Wing. Under the Grecian friezes in the Fiction section, handmade truffles and heaps of chocolate-and-raisin-studded cookies lie in wait for the unwary. Down in Nonfiction, a pair of handsome men dispense red and white wine to a snaking line of women in beaded jackets and men in unaccustomed blazers, while other guests prowl the Periodicals room for treasures among the festively laid out silent auction items.

Mad Hatter and friends at the library gala

Welcome to An Evening at the Library, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s annual gala, the one time all year you see Montpelierites dressed up. Which is to say, the women pull out their silks, velvets, laces, sequins and palazzo pants while the men don ties and tweed jackets smelling ever so faintly—or is it mere imagination?—of mothballs. This year’s Gala honoree is the author and woodcut-maker Mary Azarian, copies of whose latest collaboration, a Christmas book with former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, are snapped up as soon as they’re laid out.

People who’ve missed one another through summer’s busyness and fall’s chores and early winter’s indoor retreat create a hum that rises to a buzz and then a roar, bringing library staffers into their section with diplomatic smiles and whispered requests to “keep it down a little” while the speeches are going on by the great white marble fireplace in the Library’s main room.

The Guest of Honor's artwork for Donald Hall's tale

I’ve trotted out an Eighties designer number picked up for a song at a vintage boutique in eye-popping swirls of black and white silk, something Alexis Carrington would have trampled Sue Ellen Ewing for back in the day, with the linebacker shoulder pads of that era. I ricochet from one old friend to another, trading sartorial compliments with the women, fetching up at the feet of ninety-something John Wires, who’s holding court by the hors d’oeuvres table between American History and Collectible Crafts. John, a tall, slim man with bright blue eyes, hasn’t made it to vigorous magehood by settling for small talk; he’s always got interesting observations on life and society.

When they close the silent auction, I’m only half-dismayed to find I’ve been too busy yakking with half the people I know in town to get around to making bids. Happily for the Library’s coffers, others haven’t. Many of the items are bid up past their market value, among them a tour of Brooklyn hosted by yours truly and beloved spouse, who’s had to settle for dinner at the New-York Historical Society’s Caffé Storico on Central Park West this evening since he’s not due back home to Vermont again until next weekend. The high bidder, I’m delighted to learn, is a friend and community benefactor who in January 2009 was the prime mover behind Montpelier’s own People’s Inaugural celebration at City Hall, when President Obama was sworn in—another even rarer dress-up occasion.

The Library gala was the central event of an early winter weekend which began for me with a slightly scary drive on still-snow-covered dirt roads to the southern reaches of nearby Northfield, where the ladies who run the Green Mountain Girls farm are hosting a “simple soup supper,” actually chili con and sin carne, all made by my friend Anna, who works here, from on-farm ingredients, which probably goes without saying since this is Vermont. It’s followed by what’s billed as “Community-Suppported Chamber Music” upstairs in their barn. Sixty-odd people crowd into a warm, nicely restored space to hear local talents—and they are prodigiously so—Mary Bonhag and Evan Premo join with Chicago’s Spektral Quartet for a program of modern vocal and string classical music. I confess I had to talk myself into this; I didn’t think I liked modern classical. But when Mary’s gorgeous soprano soars over mid-20th century composer Earl Kim’s settings of three French poems, I’m enchanted. Ditto for the string quartet’s rendition of “Arcadiana,” written by someone who was born when I was a college sophomore. And, by the way, is that New Yorkercartoonist Ed Koren sitting rapt in the row ahead of me, he of the “fuzzy creatures with fangs and bedroom eyes” whose work I adore, and who provided a Fat Toad variant of his signature beast for the labels and leaflets of my friend Susan’s brother Stephen’s goat-milk caramel business? It is.

Ed Koren's Fat Toad

The young friend I’ve talked into joining me enjoys herself too, but has to head home right after the concert in her brother’s borrowed car, hers having died with a big loan still outstanding. She’s got to be up and out by 5 a.m. to drive to her weekend job at Killington—a sobering reminder of how many people, particularly the young ones, must “moonlight in Vermont, or starve”. I go back to the barn and load up on Technicolor jars of the Girls’ heirloom tomato salsa and sun-gold tomatoes to take home.

Starvation’s far away at the season’s first indoor session of the Capital City Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning, where colorful heaps of carrots, beets, and squashes compete for attention with locally made meads and wines, pickles and jams, fancy maple syrups, silver jewelry, soups, breads, and pastries. I load up a small root-cellar’s worth of soup ingredients and pick up a broccoli samosa to go with the carrot-ginger soup I learned to make courtesy of vendor Claire Fitts of Butterfly Bakery, my secret weapon in this year’s successful weight-loss campaign.

Sweetening winter at the Farmers' Market

I’ve resisted all the latticed pies, plump sweet breads and chocolate brownies on offer at the Unitarian Church’s annual holiday bazaar, where ladies in red gingham pinafores serve tea and proffer houseplants, bric-a-brac, and gorgeously decorated wreaths, one of which follows me home every year. I have not resisted a couple of bargain-bin fleece jackets, in cranberry and maroon, (size small, I might add) at Black Diamond Skiwear’s annual Warehouse Sale. I haven’t skied in years, but the clothing is Vermont standard and I’ll wear these all winter. From bazaar to Farmers’ Market to picking up a trio of poinsettias whose proceeds will help send a group of Montpelier High School Humanities students on a trip to Ireland, to the Library gala, Saturday’s been localvore from start to finish (overlooking the fact that the fleece jackets are actually made in China, but what isn’t these days?).

Sunday broadens my horizons a bit. I head over to Plainfield, aging-hippie capital of the world, for an art opening at the Blinking Light Gallery, which proudly displays my husband’s photographs and my first novel on its shelves. His membership has lapsed, so I sign him up again and proceed to enjoy the work of talented world traveler and photojournalist Teo Kaye, who seems far too young to have been to all the places he’s been.

One of photojournalist Teo Kaye's amazing shots

His roamings through Central Asia have produced a breathtaking portfolio of award-winning action shots that have graced, among other settings, the pages of Taiwan’s Chinese-language equivalent of National Geographic. Married to a Plainfield native, he’s returned to Vermont with her for the birth of their first child.

That evening, aforementioned friend Susan and I head to nearby Barre to set up at the Good Shepherd Church for a concert she’s brought together as part of the Attic Series she founded. The series took place in her actual attic until somebody ratted her out to the City building inspector. Now this floating entertainment series roosts where it can. Tonight it’s singer, songwriter and guitarist Frank Burkitt from Edinburgh, joined by guitarist Calum Wood, a proud Aberdonian, and local Vermont bagpipe hero Hazen Metro, who tonight confines himself to the flute and Border pipes because Highland pipes overwhelm small indoor spaces. Small world: Hazen learned to play the pipes from Iain MacHarg, who played at our wedding. Hazen’s just back from a long spell in my native Glasgow, and I’m picking up cadences of Lowland Scots that have crept into his Vermont speech.

After the all-acoustic, unmiked concert, a mix of lively Scots and Irish jigs, reels, sea-chanteys and romantic folk ballads, the band is hungry. They’ve been traveling or performing all day; there was no time for food. And now we come to the dirty little secret, the one respect in which my little corner of Vermont is manifestly inferior to my Brooklyn haunts: there’s nowhere in Central Vermont to eat late. Even Julio’s, which can usually be relied upon after theater performances and rehearsals for nachos and other snacks-that-will-do-as-a-meal-in-a-pinch, is closed on this rainy Sunday night.

Then Hazen has a happy inspiration: McGillicuddy’s Pub on Langdon Street will still be open, possibly serving food as well as drink, and so it proves. Susan and I order fries to be sociable while the band reviews its U.S. tour to date and gets talking about loyalties back home. When Burkitt and Wood square off over the relative merits of their favorite football teams (Liverpool vs. Aberdeen) and fall into what Hazen ruefully describes as a continuing argument that sometimes verges on fisticuffs, Susan and I bid farewell and leave them to it.

The acute attack of French-fry-and-beer-induced indigestion that hits me at 5 a.m. is a small price to pay for as full and rich of a weekend as I could wish for anywhere.

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Vermont Celebrates Independence

July 7th, 2011 — 7:23pm

It’s hard to beat Vermont for an authentic small-town July 4 experience. I’m not talking about the great metropolitan celebrations on offer in Burlington and Montpelier on the 3rd, in which relative fortunes are spent on fireworks in hope of convincing us (successfully, I admit) that we’re getting something back for our property taxes.

4th of July, East Corinth, Vermont

I’m talking about parades with kids oohing and aahing over the town fire truck, sacred smoke rising from chickens being barbecued in the Volunteer Fire Department’s big meshed-over pits on the green, homemade rhubarb and blueberry pies, and the chance for a trip back into history.
You find these in places like East Corinth and Peacham, little settlements tucked away north of I-89 and west of I-93, on roads you’d normally never travel unless you knew somebody there or, as Robert Frost says, “let a guide direct you/Who only has at heart your getting lost.”
East Corinth (pronounced KrINTH, in case you go there and don’t want to sound like a flatlander) is the largest village in the Town of Corinth, chartered in 1764, population 1,367, which also includes the settlements of Corinth Corner, West Corinth, Corinth Center, South Corinth, Cookeville, and Goose Green, “so named,” says the Town’s website, “for the color painted on the feet of the geese being driven—as in, walked or herded—to markets in Boston.”
If you’re a Tim Burton fan you’ve probably seen East Corinth, the setting for his 1988 movie Beetlejuice. Vermont may be lily-white, demographically speaking, but Corinth was home to Alexander Twilight, the first African-American elected to a state legislature anywhere. And for all its small population, Corinth has two historical museums, entirely run by volunteers: the Academy Museum and the Agricultural and Trades Museum, which host musical “cafés” where you can attend the likes of a seminar on the Delta blues from a local resident who played with the old bluesmen on MacDougal Street.
On this sticky, sunny Fourth, we joined our good friend Lois Jackson, President of the Corinth Historical Society, for a chicken dinner from which we emerged replete if even stickier, and for an over-enthusiastic tour of the Society’s silent auction offerings. This netted us a foot-bath (a sort of portable, fully accessorized mini-Jacuzzi), two dishtowels depicting fuzzy Venetian palazzos and gondoliers, a pint of local Dark Amber maple syrup for half the store-bought price, and a CD of the day’s entertainers, the Wall-Stiles, four local rockabillies who write all their own stuff and make you want to dance and sing along. The youth softball team was selling sodas, kids were bouncing on an inflatable gym, and former farmers like my spouse were drooling over the vintage John Deeres.
North and west from Corinth to Peacham, we stopped in our tire-tracks at the edge of the town cemetery at the sight of a woman in nineteenth century costume, being followed by a crowd. She was leading the Peacham Historical Association’s twice-yearly Ghost Walk, which this year featured Civil War soldiers and their families. Locals in period costume read from the soldiers’ letters and memoirs.

Permanent Peachamites

We sat enthralled and horrified as the late Mark Wheeler of the First Vermont Cavalry, sitting in a cane-bottomed chair by his tombstone in a straw hat, collarless shirt and gold-rimmed glasses, told us of his time at the infamous Andersonville Prison. The original Mr. Wheeler survived the ordeal and wrote his memoirs in the 1880s, when he could at last bear to think about those days and the horrors he witnessed.
The tree-shaded Peacham cemetery, in the heart of the village, slopes gently northeast with stunning views of the surrounding hills. With all the rain we’ve been having and the season still early, the green almost hurt your eyes. It was nice to imagine that the ancestors of the present-day Peachamites were enjoying the Fourth too.
To cap the day off, we stopped at the Green Top Market on the Cady’s Falls Road in Morristown and picked up a quart of strawberries.
“Where are they from?” we asked the sales clerk.
“Not sure. An older gentleman from Eden. His name is Stub, or something like that.”
Could it be Ernest “Stub” Earle? By golly, it was.
Stub Earle, former State representative from the town of Eden, known to his colleagues as the Earl of Eden back in the late 1970s, had an Elvis pompadour, a Vermont accent you could cut with a knife, and sometimes carried his personal spittoon onto the House floor. He also had a knack for cutting through the fog of legislative rhetoric and saying, in words of one syllable, what everyone else was thinking but didn’t dare give voice to. He was probably a Republican, but back then such things didn’t matter much. In his old age, he’s taken to raising strawberries and vegetables and bottling his own brand of pickles.
It was heartening to know that Stub, like his pickles, has been remarkably well preserved. As have Vermont’s small-town July Fourth traditions.

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The Winter That Wouldn’t Die

March 28th, 2011 — 1:17pm

Lately, newspaper mentioned cheap air fare

I gotta to fly to Saint Somewhere

Im close to bodily harm…

This mornin’

I shot six holes in my freezer

I think I got cabin fever

Somebody sound the alarm…

–Jimmy Buffett, “Boat Drinks”

 

I can relate. We’re at the tail-end of March and there are still a couple of feet of snow in my front yard. The good news, I suppose, is that the Flamingometer is mostly pink—the male’s body, though not his legs, is visible above the crusty white, and you can see the female’s neck and back feathers (if plastic versions can be called feathers). Our pet herd of deer is having an easier time getting to the bird feeder, which they systematically empty as soon as it’s refilled.

 

A couple of weeks ago

 

 

But, really, at this point we’re supposed to be solidly into Mud Season, that last purgatorial stage before true spring, which in these parts generally arrives in late April. Picture a kid trying to roll his tiny Matchbox car through a pan of uncooked brownie mix, and you have an idea of car travel on Vermont’s dirt roads this time of year. On the paved ones, it’s more like the Cyclone at Coney Island, bouncing you between yawning potholes and towering frost heaves that make you wonder if maybe we’re in an earthquake zone after all.

Mud Season reliably begins most years on or around the Ides of March. We slog and bounce and suffer through about a month of it before seeing the slightest fuzzy hint of green on the trees and shrubs. It’s the price we pay for maple syrup: cold nights, sunny days, the thermometer up and down like a yo-yo, getting a nice pumping action going in the tree trunks that gets the sap dripping with a pleasant “ping!” into the metal buckets still used by traditionalists. Daytime temperatures flirt with forty, and there’s enough sunshine to begin recharging the body’s Vitamin D supplies.

But this year the thermometer is just down, there are daily snow flurries, and Mud Season, demoralizing as it is, hasn’t even started. Everyone I know is grumpy, but there’s no point in complaining, because it’s happening to all of us. And, besides, compared to the poor folks in Japan whose world was literally swept out from under them, or the brave citizens of the Middle East rising up against their ruthless oppressors at last, we haven’t much to complain about, really.

That said, I could only shake my head when I stopped in at the local florist’s to buy some daffodils to add a little bright color to the surrounding monochrome. “My distributor hasn’t had them for a couple of weeks,” she said. We’re a month away from daffodils of our own, and you can’t even buy them in a store any more!

“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot famously began “The Waste Land,” his ode to the dissolution of Civilization as we Knew It. He’s commonly thought to have been writing about the trenches of the Somme. Northern New Englanders know better: he was holed up on some back road in Vermont, before the invention of Netflix or even the VCR. This year, it looks as if the cruelty is going to stretch into May.

 

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You Gotta Love This Town

February 16th, 2011 — 11:45am

The Valentine Phantom has struck again!

If you woke up grumpy in Montpelier on February 14, there’s no way the foul mood would have survived a trip downtown. Just about every storefront along State and Main, and even the City Hall clock in its tower, was plastered with red paper hearts.

Valentine Phantom loves the toy store

The Phantom, or Phantoms, since from the sheer square footage of hearts, there must either be a crew of helpers or the Phantom is on speed—has been practicing his or her brand of benign, joyous vandalism in Montpelier since 2002. One suspects the Phantom’s identity must be known to the local authorities, but they aren’t talking, and neither is anyone else.

We like it that way, and so, apparently, does the Phantom, who seems to live by the Biblical injunction about doing one’s good works in secret, as well as that bumper sticker which tells you to “practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.”

There’s something magical in the notion of a ghostly, anonymous figure, perhaps wearing an old-fashioned burglar’s mask, flitting from one store window to another in the freezing dead of night for the sole purpose of bringing smiles to people’s faces. The Phantom does not seek fame or credit or thanks. She, or he, is Santa Claus without the commercial PR machine—the embodiment of love, as Santa is the spirit of giving.

A big part of the fun, of course, is the clandestine and mischievous nature of the enterprise. The sense of transgression, the thrill of not getting caught must have been part of the attraction for the incurably romantic perpetrator(s?) in the first year or so. This has long since become a cheerful fiction in which the Montpelier Police Department is happy to play its part, for surely any number of night patrols could have caught the Phantom, uh, red-handed if they had any inclination to do so.

As it is, the Phantom now has his/her/their/its own Facebook Phantom Phan page—put up with the prominent disclaimer that the creator is not the Phantom but a non-anonymous Montpelier resident who just wants to celebrate the Phantom’s work and give people a place to express gratitude—or wistful envy, which was prominently on display in the comments from people who don’t live here.

National as well as local media have been running the story: AP, Bloomberg News, USA Today, Fox News, even ABC7 in Chicago. There’s even a Wikipedia page labeled “Valentine Phantom,” which notes that the Phantom is sometimes referred to as the Valentine Bandit, though the only things stolen seem to be the hearts of those who enjoy the results of the Phantom’s work.

Phantom strikes the craft shop

Montpelier doesn’t always feel like the ideal place to live, especially when you’re navigating icy sidewalks and paying property tax bills during its long, often dark winters. But on Valentine’s Day morning, we who know and love the place are reminded of our town’s prodigious store of social capital. More than one resident waiting to cross the State and Main intersection has been observed looking around at the sea of red hearts with a big goofy smile, saying, “God, I love this town!”

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