Dreams of a late lunch

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 6/17/2020 11:48:10 AM
Modified: 6/17/2020 11:48:02 AM

In The Invitation, contemporary poet Charles Simic reveals his plans to “serve a late lunch for a few friends in the garden.”

On a beautiful spring day here in Norwich, I am ready to say yes. Even now, I’m sorting through my closet for what I’ll wear and imagining the colorful garden flowers that will be on view from the luncheon table. Simic’s menu is mouthwatering:

We’ll start with cold squid salad,

A pot of black and green olives

And a loaf of homemade bread to wipe

The garlic and oil off our plates

When we are not sipping the wine.

Poetry is one of my indulgences in these stay-at-home days, and so is good food. Though I am not quite the epicurean that Simic is in this poem, I have eaten well and paid attention to what’s on the table nearly all of my life.

As a child in Iowa, I had grandparents and parents who gave over much of the spring and summer to nurturing their gardens; fall was devoted to harvesting and preserving the bounty for use throughout the winter. Garden season began with asparagus served nearly every day and included, a few weeks later, strawberries picked fresh in the evening for dinner. And all summer, every vegetable we ate came from one garden or another in our small Midwestern town. One grandfather spent his retirement perfecting his local wine made from the Concord grapes that leaned on a fence separating the vegetables from the potato patch at the rear of the garden.

My grandmothers and my mother knew a lot about food, both growing it and cooking it. All of them were bakers: bread was made at home and so were cinnamon rolls, lemon meringue pies, and cookies of all kinds.

One of my childhood favorites was ice cream. It was occasionally cranked laboriously outside in the driveway for a party, but more often it was purchased — hand packed into a paper container — from a small café downtown. Blue Bunny was our brand, and Butter Brickle was the best flavor they ever made. Bringing it home for an evening treat, my father stood at the kitchen counter scooping the creamy, crunchy magic into bowls as I watched. The sweet taste lingers still.

Leaving Iowa as a young adult, I took with me this focus on food. I could be basic when I had to. As a graduate student couple in Manhattan, we spent only $10 per week at the Co-op on Amsterdam Avenue. My repertoire back then included scalloped potatoes with hotdogs instead of ham, and a sherried chicken and artichoke casserole as a splurge for guests.

When we gave up city life for my husband’s job in a suburb and I had become the mother of two young daughters, I became even more deliberate about what I put on the table.

I gravitated toward raw milk from a nearby farm, made yogurt and bread, helped my husband with the vegetable gardens and bought only locally raised meats.

As time has gone on, I have expanded and adapted my cooking capacities. Living in London, I learned about British “jacket potatoes” and took the concept far beyond a large baked potato finished with canned baked beans heated on the stovetop. During summers in Maine, I’ve become adept at steaming both lobsters and clams to perfect doneness, and I love using a thick layer of newspaper as the table covering for those seafood dinners on the porch of our cabin. I’ve discovered in later years, with our daughters going off to create homes of their own, how to prepare appetizing meals for just two of us. And I’ve come, finally, to appreciate leftovers because they make my job as a cook easier.

Simic’s poem also reminds me that beyond essential nourishment, food served attractively is a deeply sustaining connection with others. Whether it’s a one-dish meal of paella at our house or a dinner party with neighbors nearby, a meal shared is a joy for everyone involved.

For now, gathering around the table with a group of friends or family, in the dining room or outside on the patio, is a pleasure we’re missing. These days, the cold squid of the poem, along with the pot of olives and the homemade bread to sop up the garlic and oil left on my plate as I sip my wine, becomes a fantasy to be savored.

Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.

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