We sit down at the table. There are six of us: our friends Mark and Gina who helped the evening stay glued together, Eliza who has been the intern at the restaurant and farm for the last nine months, and her mother Trish, up for a visit. The old-wood table that Caleb built a few years ago sits in the middle of the restaurant dining room and feels the weight of all the dishes that have been prepared for own after-the-party dinner: crispy pork, a huge platter of garlic beans, shrimp in black bean sauce, tilapia roasted with lemon grass, red-cooked tofu and coconut tofu, bowls of fresh sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, rice, mint, and basil.
Tonight, Caleb cooked Vietnamese dishes, a collection of recipes from our friend Rebecca’s handmade cookbook from a time she spent in that country, a kind of food he cooks for us in the privacy of our home or at staff dinner. Tonight, he has cooked these exotic dishes not only for our dinner, but this is what we served to a restaurant packed full of guests who were here to celebrate the launch of a new collaboration between myself and our friends Eleanor and Albert Leger of Eden Ice Cider: an aperitif cider infused with herbs that we have dubbed Orleans. In this name we wanted something French-sounding to evoke old-world bar magic and something that spoke of place. Eleanor and Albert live in Orleans County in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont where they produce their silken trio of winter-made ice ciders: Eden, Northern Spy, and a Honey Crisp for Champlain Orchards.
At the table, we are only missing Eleanor and Albert. They’ve had to return home tonight, a long two hour drive, as tomorrow they have to stop fermentations, and prepare for Albert to return to teaching for the rest of the semester. They are just doing the kinds of things that winegrowers have to do all the time. We understand the demands of being cellarmaster, yet we miss them all the same.
We are a little high and a little tired, or a lot tired as I watch Caleb hit the proverbial wall after his day of cooking all this beautiful food, intricate and subtle flavors that weave in and out of the dishes and paired with the somewhat exotic notes of the Orleans in its three different guises tonight: straight-up, with prosecco and lime, and a slightly racy version of a Ramos Gin Fizz, but with the Orleans as the featured player. The tastes married with the dishes in such a way as to expand and deepen the experience of the food when you put the two together.
Mark and Gina, who’ve played this game with us before, are the kind of good friends you can call in a pinch when you are in need, and they are there in a flash. Mark has even been called out of his bed late in the evening to taxi a table of diners visiting from Holland who had walked a couple of miles into town from their inn and thought they could easily get a cab home in our small town of Woodstock. The skies had unleashed a deluge while they were dining, and there are no cabs. We were too busy at the restaurant to spare one of ourselves to drive them. Mark, donning his Brooklyn heritage and persona played the role well, willingly chauffering the visitors to the inn.
Tonight, Gina washed and washed and washed glasses and dishes and forks as they rotated from kitchen and back out to the party. She wore one of the blue and white striped smocks that Caleb found in a uniform shop in Rome next to a haberdasher for priests and nuns. It covers her sleek leopard print top and pants which no one ever gets to see as she is in front of the sinks all night. I’ve asked Mark to tend bar because the third drink is a little complicated and takes time to make, and I know how these events go—there will be other things for me to do—greet guests, dry glasses and ferry them back to the bar, check that there are enough plates and silverware on the buffet, be the expediter. Eliza is stationed at the buffet serving and talking about the dishes, and Caleb is alternately cooking and checking on guests.
Of course, I’ve created a rather complicated cocktail for Mark to wade through with many ingredients and long minutes of shaking the shaker while chatting with everyone bellied-up to the bar plus pouring the other drinks while I’m not behind the bar with him. I could have designed something simpler, but this was the right drink for the right evening, and I’ve never been one to make decisions because it makes life easier. I’m sure Mark would be able to expound on this if I let him (this is the same man who thinks it would be far more sensible to buy slews of wine glasses each week and recycle them at the end of each night rather than putting up with all the handwashing and polishing we do…), but he is the perfect choice for bartender and soldiers through my demands with style and flair.
There was a buzz, a tangible frisson, on the floor tonight as the build-up of energy slowly rose as more and more people arrived, some from around the corner, some from a couple of hours away, until the hum of conversation and laughter reached pitch. It was a party, a true celebration, excitement and expectation were as real as featured guests. But who doesn’t like to have a reason to celebrate? But even more so, I think the evening was defined by the need for celebration. We have weathered through a long and very intense winter. The larger world is in disarray, perhaps more so than usual, and the transition from winter into spring is often painful and homely in northern climes. The once beautiful snow becomes crusty and dirty losing much of its sparkle and is not much good for anything besides re-adjusting the water table—too icy for skiing, too brittle for snowshoeing, and sometimes dangerous as it melts and causes rise for flood warnings—all a constant reminder that we still have at least six weeks before things really turn around. It is hard to embrace Winter when she looks spent and rather used. But the light has changed, it is more clear, more roseate, and softens the harsh reality of mud and discomfort. Something else undefinable has shifted—Axes? Or poles? Or phases of moons or stars or tides?–which has made us buoyant.
In the dead of winter, the sun goes down at 4:30, and tonight, the light is still filtering in the windows at 7pm. All around the restaurant we’ve positioned big vases of branches, recent prunings from our plum trees and they are studded with fat green buds. With the soft light shafting through the space and candles flickering, the golden colors of the Orleans in the glasses, the bright citrus perfumes of lemon and lime, the leafy greens of mint and basil, the voices ebbing and flowing, the heat in the dining room palpable, the evening shimmers.
We hold onto that shimmer at our own dinner. It is dark outside now, and almost time to go home just like everyone else. We raise glasses and tell jokes and talk about vacations. Someone laughs with abandon. It is the Ides of March, a craziness that marks a month that comes in like a lion, and supposedly leaves like a lamb, a month of wind and temperament, but also sun and seduction. We pour Orleans into our glasses for a final good luck toast, and we pour ourselves into this melting and groaning that will eventually lead to Spring.
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