Monthly Archives: December 2010

I left my heart in 05444.

My husband and I spent the past week in Vermont, celebrating Christmas with my family. Flying back, as I watched the snow-covered Green Mountains and thin ribbons of traffic-free roads shrink away, I thought: I must be nuts.

The place where I grew up is so small that you’ve probably never heard of it—and if you have, well, we probably already know each other. Cambridge, a village of about 500 people, is marked by a few dozen houses on either side of Route 15. There are two churches (one of which was pastored by my father throughout my childhood), a post office, a drugstore, a community health center, and a pizzeria I’ve somehow never been to. There’s a general store with a couple of gas pumps and a basic selection of groceries, across the street from the skeletal remains of its competitor (hmm, maybe zoning laws wouldn’t be such a bad thing).

One of my favorite things in Cambridge is this view of Mount Mansfield, visible from a hill just beyond the village center, in what’s called Pleasant Valley. My mom gets to see it almost every day while walking their dog, Skye.

Mount Mansfield, and Skye the border collie.

Of course, the flipside of bucolic bliss is that you have to drive at least half an hour to find a major grocery store, and almost an hour to find a shopping mall—or a job, in the case of many people who work in Burlington, the closest city. But my parents are so used to it by now that they barely blink at the notion of driving to and from the airport several times in a row, as they had to when we got bumped (twice! hooray for free flight vouchers!) from our flight back to D.C. because the airlines were playing catch-up after a blizzard snarled everyone’s schedules. Even Skye is happy to ride around in the car all afternoon.

My parents' old barn, framed by icicles.

If you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods for some reason, stop at the Boyden Valley Winery, on the outskirts of the village. Their multi-generation family farm saved itself from the fate of other struggling Vermont dairy farms a few years ago when it started milking more than cows (i.e. grapes; trees; tourists). They’ve built an impressively diverse business making and selling wine, grass-fed beef, maple syrup and ice cream, and in summer their hay barn is in hot demand as a rental space for wedding receptions.

Across the road from the Boydens, there’s a newish coffee shop called Brown & Jenkins that I haven’t had a chance to check out yet, in what used to be a snowmobile salesroom. And if you like maple treats (including creemees, the local term for soft-serve ice cream), keep going a couple miles on Route 15 toward Jeffersonville, where you’ll find the Vermont Maple Outlet.

Since journalism jobs are hard to come by back home (or anywhere, these days), I’ll stick with the city life for now. But I hope the new year brings me back often to this place where I spent so many earlier years.

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What some of us want for Christmas.

The sculpture garden outside the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn modern art museum has this nifty “wish tree” installation created by Yoko Ono. It’s a simple idea, but brilliant: Invite visitors to tell their wishes to the tree, either by whispering to it or—even better for visual eavesdroppers like me—by writing down their words on whatever medium they have on hand and affixing it to one of the branches. I like to stop by every now and then, to see what the world wants these days.

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Now I understand why my mom was never quite as excited about baking Christmas cookies as I was as a kid.

Remember those cookies I stayed home to bake? Yeah, never doing that again. I’m still finding bits of flour and dough in random places like the toaster-oven knob!

The gingersnaps were fairly easy, and I discovered a little trick for making the tops get that nice crackly look: Brush the tops of the dough balls with maple syrup, then dip them in granulated sugar, before placing them on the sheet and baking. I think I used a gingersnap recipe from the Bon Appetit cookbook, but to be honest, I can’t quite recall.

Maple-glazed gingersnaps.

But the “Moravian White Christmas Cookies” were definitely not as easy as The Gourmet Cookie Book made them look/sound.

They lost me at: “Add sufficient flour to stiffen the dough.” (How much flour would be too much? How stiff is stiffened? Argh! Vague recipes drive mediocre bakers like myself crazy.) The first batch I rolled out stuck to the counter like paste. The second was only slightly better. Hearing my grunts of frustration getting louder, my dear husband intervened just as I was about to throw the whole mess out.

By the last batch, we’d worked enough flour in to make things more manageable, and had figured out that it was best to keep most of the dough in the freezer while rolling the rest. The points of the stars kept getting caught in the cookie cutter, resulting in lots of re-rolling and more grunts of frustration.

Sherry-flavored Moravian Christmas cookies from The Gourmet Cookie Book, before icing.

Still, in the end they looked decent with some basic white icing (confectioners’ sugar, corn syrup, water, and a few drops of sherry to match the cookie flavor). I took them to a friend’s Christmas party the next day, where they got added to a platter with approximately 17,000 other types of cookies. About halfway through the party, I crossed paths with a woman I didn’t know who was surveying the spread of sweets.
“I’m on a diet, but I’ve decided to let myself have just one cookie, so I’m trying to decide which one I want the most,” she said. Guess what she picked? 🙂

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Turning the Page

It’s pouring outside, and I’ve called in sick simply because I wanted to stay home and bake Christmas cookies.

This is when it hits me: Food has become more than a professional interest in the two years since I founded Food & Think, a blog about food history, science and culture for Smithsonian magazine. It’s become a personal obsession, too.

I’m leaving Smithsonian soon to become an editor at another amazing magazine*, but I don’t want to give up food writing. I don’t want to lose the connections I’ve made to so many of you who also care deeply about food and its role in our lives. So this blog will mirror my own explorations in terms of food, people and places, and the connections between them.

My other obsessions may make an appearance, too. Language and literature, for example. Travel. Wine. Photography. Dogs. Craft beer. Maple. The wishes of strangers. Old trees. Funny typos.

I hope you’ll stay with me.

–Amanda

*It probably goes without saying, but this is a personal blog, unconnected to that magazine (which is why I’m not even naming it. But it has a yellow cover, if you must know!) and any editorial opinions expressed are mine alone.

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