I spent the second half of last week doing the first part of a residency at a sculpture park upstate. It’s a great, big, funky old farm just gearing up for the fourth season in its new incarnation, so there are lots of appealingly rough edges to the many buildings and facilities. The people are great, and everyone takes turns cooking a big communal dinner. Despite the serious physical exertion of getting my piece made, I nonetheless made dinner on two of the nights.
The first night, there were just three of us, since it was absurdly late and the others had gone to bed. My first day was easy, measuring and drawing on the field with one of those athletic paint striper things. This was pretty fun to play with, and it engendered all sorts of lawn graffiti ideas, not to mention the desire to invent several new sports.
I poked around the kitchen to try to locate the basics and see what might be interesting. There were nice fresh ocean perch, so I planned the meal around that; I spun a pretty good salsa out of tomatoes, red bell peppers, red onion, cilantro, and lime juice in the food processor (I was so glad they have one there.) I made some garlic mashed potatoes, and a salad of greens I had brought from our garden. Maria picked some of the monstrous rhubarb in front of the house and cooked it down with a little sugar.
Then the gas went out.
Nobody knew how to switch it over, and I had just arrived (turns out it’s ridiculously easy, but I had no clue it was even on a propane bottle) so we scrambled, lit a fire in the big grill outside, and cooked up some hot Italian sausages instead. Pretty good, even if we did end up eating at around 11:00.
The next day I spent pushing a heavy-ass rototiller around in the rain for the better part of ten hours. The best part about it- there were three, actually, apart from the rain which made what would have been pretty nice, crumbly soil into a dense black mud- was the fact that the engage lever didn’t turn off when released, so I had to lunge at the throttle if I wanted to stop, then manually flip the (way too close to the still-rotating tines for comfort) switch into the off position. In addition, the exhaust pipe was thoughtfully pointed right into my face, especially when I was bending forward both to relieve stress on my back and also act as a sort of anchor on the beast so that it actually dug into the wet turf rather than just sliding along on top of it.
And last, it had ergonomically diabolical handlebars- like it was a Schwinn with a banana seat and tennis balls in the spokes for cruising around your neighborhood when you’re ten- instead of a brutal, semi-controllable earth churning monster that you might actually need to operate with precision over a prolonged period in sub-optimal conditions, and thus a device for which one might desire a more secure, comprehensive, and comfortable hand-machine interface. It was at these moments, reading the “Made with pride in the USA” sticker on the handle (beyond which, the engine clearly said Honda) that I entertained myself, so desperate as I was for a massage, with fantasies of massaging the ass-clown who designed this machine with the selfsame machine to really emphasize the importance of good design. Remember how you really, really wished that the people who designed those butterfly ballots in Florida had choked to death on hanging chads? It was like that.
But I digress.
Insane though it may seem, after a shower I did in fact make dinner again. The gas had been sorted out (and explained to the others) so I made the fish: dredged in a mix of cornmeal and spices and crisped up in a little oil. The mashed potatoes plus an egg (they have chickens and ducks) a little flour, and some corn made little frittery-hush puppyesque starch cakes, and I sautéed spinach. Maria roasted beets, and blanched then cooked a big bag of fiddleheads in garlic butter. I do not love fiddleheads, but this method is as good as they get. Better late than never, we fell upon it like ravenous rototillers on hapless exhaust-loving middle managers who took a correspondence course in industrial design that one time. After dinner I even made a pie out of the rest of the rhubarb from the night before, using a wine bottle as a rolling pin.
And, just so you can see what this is all about, a picture post-tilling. It doesn’t look like much now, but just wait until the pretty flowers grow.