Summer is still such a recent memory, I’d forgotten what it feels like to be cold. But we’ve had no heat for over a week and I suddenly remember. I wear double pairs of socks and shirts. I wear a scarf and a hat and gloves in the house. I’ve become like our fat orange cat who moves from window to window searching for a patch of sunlight slanting in through the window. The tea grows cold in my mug before I’ve finished it and at night, the dogs pull the blankets from our beds and lie beneath, curled up into tight little balls of fur.
Squints was in a cooking contest the other day. Four groups of people received an identical basket of food and cooked it according to their time period: The 1940s group used camp stoves. The Revolutionary group cooked over an open fire.
Visitors had to pay an entrance fee and, for an additional sum of money, could purchase one of a very limited supply of orange wrist bands that entitled the wearer to taste small samples of the food. There were tiny Dixie cups, dessert-sized paper plates and a handful of plastic forks and spoons set out for that purpose. The weather was cold and raw. Besides my family—we were more or less obliged to be there—only one man showed up. He wore a green down vest and a checked shirt and baggy blue jeans and boots. His orange wristband was displayed prominently. But nobody checked for it anyway.
Our money refused, we were invited to eat. The small, limited samples of food became enormous. Instead of a teaspoonful of chicken soup and half of a Brussels sprout, we ate the equivalent of two meals there, moving from century to century with abandon, tasting a bit of chicken cooked in a reflecting oven and moving on to chicken and dumplings. We tasted squash and scalloped potatoes and Johnny cakes and biscuits. We ate cabbage with sausage and apples; we ate eggs and sausage; we ate an apple and onion tart. Besides their obvious love of cooking, historical cooks love to talk: They want to educate the public; they want to talk about the methods historical cooks used. Food historians like to connect the past to the present. Most of all they like to connect to people. Having no one else with whom to talk, they talked to us: Staffers talked to us about the weather and the history of the place; a husband of a staffer, dragged along to help, talked to us about sports; a tag-along husband of a woman from the 1600s plopped down in the folding chair next to my husband and talked about trying to sell his house and moving to Kentucky, absently scratching his knee beneath his woolen pants.
In that room heated only by cooking fires, we ate the food of strangers and listened to the cooks exchanging ideas. We learned how a turkey feather makes a superior baster; We learned how to make a whisk from twigs; We learned how to tell the temperature of roasted chicken by touch; We learned how to cook rice inside a pumpkin. The caretaker came from his apartment with his own plate—a large wooden plate—upon which he heaped chicken and sausage and potatoes. A cat jumped into my lap and started knitting. “That there’s Albert,” the caretaker said. “Just showed up one day. He’s real friendly. Not like Yellow Cat.” He put a piece of chicken in his mouth. “Yellow Cat’s been here two years and still won’t let me get near him.”
Someone set a plate of chicken on the floor. Albert jumped from my lap and began eating. “We got a cat needs adopted out—a drop off,” the caretaker said.
“Tried to take him to the shelter, but he’s just a little bit of a thing. They told me that at his size, they take ‘em in the front door and haul ‘em out the back.” He shook his head. “I’d hate to see that happen. He walked to the door and paused there. “Wanna’ see him?”
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to see him.”“Cat likes to sleep on yer head,” the caretaker said. “Keeps me warm all night.”
Perhaps it was the thought of warmth that made us do it: We took him home.
We’re having tile installed in the basement this week. We had to remove everything and bring it upstairs. It’s disheartening to see how much stuff we’ve accumulated. It’s embarrassing, seeing it stacked up around the perimeter of each room. We’ve reacquainted ourselves with things we’d forgotten. We’ve made plans to get rid of things we don’t need. The tile guys showed up and I led them the basement. I split up the animals: One dog is relegated to the garage; another to a cage. There’s a cat locked in one bedroom; the second in another. The hamster, displaced from the basement, is now in the dining room, running a hundred miles to nowhere on his wheel.
I apologize to the tile guys for the lack of heat. I show them the bathroom and offer coffee, which they refuse. They prop open the screen door and leave the front door open, which I keep shutting when I know they’re done cutting tile for a while, not to be rude but because there’s a chill in the air and a wild cat with her four kittens roaming the neighborhood.
I do not speak the language of these men. I wonder, listening to their easy laughter, their chatter, their occasional singing along to the radio they blast in the basement, what they’re talking about. Yet, I cannot bridge the gap that divides us.
I feel I’m in their way. I hide off in a corner, try to be unobtrusive. For the moment, this house is theirs. I take my lunch in the dining room so they do not see me eat. They eat their lunch in the van, the ignition turned on for the radio and the heat.
I look forward to having my house quiet and in order again. But even more so, I look forward to the heat. Because a little patch of sunlight in the window is only so warm, and eventually, it disappears.
Besides, the cats have already taken the best spots.
Labels: Community, Consumption, Cooking, Culture, Sons