When my brother’s daughter, who is a Junior at a college in Portland, Oregon, sent me a copy of a theme she’d written, I liked it well enough to ask permission to enter it here. What I like most about it is the sense of quiet contentment that pervades it. She and her friends remind me – I hope this will not insult them – of happy, wholesome, self-contained animals, something like otters.
I enter this not only out of pardonable avuncular pride and affection, but because I hope it will remind you of how we were long ago when we were that age. Or, if you are more like me and were nowhere near that contented, it will let you, like me, live vicariously!
On Saturday I was going to go kayaking, but it rained all night and all morning, so because of flooding the trip was cancelled. Of course I showed up at the school boathouse, bags packed, before they bothered to let me know, even though my cell phone number was on my insurance sheets which sat on their shelf.
Awake at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, I left a note for Elsa to fetch me when she went to the farmer’s market. She goes every Saturday, usually when I’m on the river with the outrigger club, but today by the time I left the school I was already too late to go paddling. Elsa has always bicycled downtown (partly, I think, because driving makes her nervous—while I, trained on a Suburban, feel a certain amount of invulnerability when I drive, even in downtown Portland) and she planned on biking down today, even though the rain which had canceled my river trip was still coming down. So we put on long johns and rain jackets, and as we rode down the yellow-leafed street with our basket and backpack I felt so lucky, so fortunate and blessed, to be friends with Elsa, and living with Elsa, who thought nothing of bicycling for 40 minutes in the rain to go buy fresh vegetables. I thought nothing of it, either, though I pretended to complain—but I doubt that any of my other friends, except maybe Chelsea, would have felt that way. In fact when we got back Steph told us that she and Marshall were driving to the hardware store when she had said, “I hope the girls aren’t biking down in this rain” and Marshall had replied, with his typical certainty, “I’m sure they’re not.”
But it was wonderful fun! The bike trail follows the railroad tracks all the way downtown until it crosses the river, and because it follows the tracks it is very flat; since it is so often used by bikers and joggers it is well-maintained. There is nothing else between the tracks and the river, so all the way down you can look left over treetops to see the grey Willamette lugging past below. From the bridge it is only a few blocks through town to PSU and the market. By the time we got there the rain had let up, but since we weren’t moving we got cold almost immediately, despite the long johns. Also within two minutes we ran into Caitlin and Isabel, who had come separately by car or bus. The four of us wandered the market for a while, browsing the stalls, and while we were split up I bought hot tamales—a two for one special—for all of us. We sat down to eat near a booth where pears and apples were being enthusiastically given away, so after a few frugal visits when I carefully selected one of each, I finally brought over Elsa’s backpack and competed for the best ones with a little Asian grandmother until the backpack was filled up to bursting with beautiful red pears and apples. Elsa’s big sack that she was carrying hardly fit into her bike basket. Both of us get a little trigger-happy when confronted with good prices on good produce (or better yet, free produce) and we were only really kept in check because we didn’t have room to carry more.
As we rode back the clouds parted and the sun came out, weak but cheering, and we both smiled and felt so good to be going along a beautiful easy path, with the beautiful river on our right and the sun ahead.
Once back at the house, we immediately set to work on our food. First we arranged all of our produce on the kitchen island, and photographed it. There was an impressive display of force by the pears. Then we began to put things away, finding that we didn’t have a basket or bowl big enough for all of our squash! Elsa began the actual cooking by mixing up butternut squash cookies, and I began slicing pears to dry in the dehydrator. We are both feeling a desire to stock up for the winter—Elsa with her cravings for “hearty” foods, and myself with my desire to preserve everything, whether by jars, bottles, drying, or simply by virtue of cold dark spaces. I cleaned the squash seeds and tossed them with tamari to dry in the oven. The cookies sat in the oven at a low temperature for as long as we could spare it. Then I began making gypsy soup, which involved biking to the store for more peppers, my old ones having gone bad. While I let the sweet potatoes simmer for the soup I dressed the pears for a pear pie and Elsa went back to the store for flaxseed and sour cream. When she got back she mixed up the dough for flaxseed crackers and we set it aside to ferment overnight, after which she made cornbread for dinner while I cut up the rest of the vegetables for the soup and got the pear pie ready for the oven. I went upstairs only twice, to change out of wet clothes, but other than that we both stayed happily in the kitchen. Sometimes we had music on, sometimes not—we talked about what we were making, or to offer help to each other.
As the afternoon wore on it started to seem that we were cooking a huge amount and diversity of food, and I felt sorry that we hadn’t invited a party of people over to share it with us—it seemed like too much for just ourselves. But Steph and Marshall wound up staying in for the night, contrary to what they had planned, and Elsa had invited Hilary over when she went to the store. So Steph made a salad and set the table nicely. Hilary brought over some delicious ginger cookies which she said had been inspired by mine, the first time we’d met, but which were actually much better. I brought down my desk chair so that we had five, and with our stubby candles lit and our lavender and squash set to one end of the table, we were very festive. The soup was bright, bright orange; the cornbread and honey golden; Steph’s salad was garnished beautifully with pale nuts and yellow pears. If we had thought to buy wine it would have been perfect, but at the time it seemed that we had everything we needed. For a while we all ate in silence, concentrating on our food, and then eventually conversation progressed from “please pass the vinegar” to longer sentences. The soup was finished—everyone was stuffed, and the pear pie had to wait to be eaten because we were so full. I felt full not only of food but of good feeling: the whole day had been flawlessly complete, perfectly harmonious, and dedicated only to the preparation of our local, organic fruits and vegetables, which we had bought and brought back with our own legs. All day, neither Elsa nor I had ever thought we had something better to do than to cook and bake. We had been perfectly content since the moment we set out in the rain, and it showed in our results. Everyone was delighted with the meal, and as we went around the table telling the “high points of the week” Hilary said that this was her high point—that her housemates were all out of town and she had been sadly anticipating a simple dinner by herself. Marshall and Steph had been planning on leftovers. But our table was overflowing with food, the company couldn’t have been better, and I felt abundant and rich.