I started off the morning with a brisk hour-long walk around a lake. It was 22 degrees, and with the windchill, it felt like 12 degrees. I spent the next two hours coaxing my thighs and cheeks back to life. Those were the coldest parts; I think fat draws the cold in and holds onto it longer than other areas, like hands and lower legs.
Winter has finally suggested it is in the vicinity of New England. Saturday I joined three friends, new and old, on an early morning drive to King Arthur Flour in Vermont. A winter storm was in the forecast for that afternoon, but never was the suggestion made that we cancel our plans.
One friend suggested we take cutters to collect winterberries along the way. Another said that those branches break easy enough, so we wouldn’t need cutters. As for me, I wondered to myself, “What exactly are winterberries?”
We headed two hours northwest, through New Hampshire then just over the border of Vermont to Norwich. “Winterberries grow where it’s swampy, so watch for wet areas,” suggested the breaker of winterberry branches.
We were on four-lane interstate roads the whole trip, doing 65 miles an hour. The weather was clear and the traffic was light. Nevertheless, whenever bare bushes with bright red berries were spotted on the side of the road, there was too much traffic behind us to slow down and gather branches. And true to the forecast, all of the bushes were in low-lying wet areas.
As we drove along, my Midwestern brain said not to trespass on other people’s property. God knows, I never went looking for morel mushroom on a stranger’s property. Of course, Iowans may be more protective of their morel patches than New Englanders are of there boggy winterberry bushes.
Thinking about it, I remember Dad and neighbors being very protective of their land. No trespassers. Period. Why? Because it’s a major asset? Land in Massachusetts is rocky and seems unfriendly to plowing and sowing. With the ocean, on the other hand, no one dares pull up a lobster pot marked by a buoy that’s not their own. Each of those beautifully colored buoys is an identifier to the lobsterman who set out the cage.
As a kid, while I was dropping handfuls of protein on small piles of corn in the manger and then holding the cows’ tails so they wouldn’t switch Mom in the face as she milked, a little girl in New England was helping her lobsterman dad repaint hundreds of buoys to put out. First jobs for both of us, very different, hundreds of miles apart. While old milk cans provide decorative nostalgia in the Midwest, old buoys do the same in New England. And, I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that some farmers and some lobsterman find nothing nostalgic in those reminders of hard-earned livings.
Back to Vermont. At King Arthur, we donned aprons and claimed our spots in the front row of the kitchen classroom. One of my new friends mumbled something about attention issues and the front row. I felt a bonding moment with her over that acknowledgment.
We made three different kinds of crackers, not my first choice of baking class, but the words “Saturday, baking class, and Vermont,” plus the thought of an outing with friends, nudged me toward signing up. I went with an open mind and was awed by the three recipes we cranked out in three hours. Grissini, lavash, and almond flour crackers.
Becca, the woman who taught the class, seemed to have had a cup of zen before she started the day. We all followed suit, gently rolling the various doughs until they came together. Working out frustrations while kneading dough can lead to tough bread. She seemed to barely touch the dough; her hands glided over the surface and formed soft balls of yeasty goodness.
Incidentally, Becca grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas, approximately six hours southeast of Mom and Dad’s dairy and grain farm in northeast Iowa. And now, we two farmgirls live 1,600-plus miles from our homes. Some of her father’s wheat goes to a processing plant that supplies King Arthur Flour. Perhaps that’s why she had such a soft touch when she worked the dough.
After the crackers had baked, we proudly carried them to the car, along with our purchases from the King Arthur on-site store. That was when we felt the first flurry of snow. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the sky was already darkening to dusk. I took the wheel for the return trip to Massachusetts. And voila: enter snowstorm. At 45 mph, I kept an eye out for wetland and spotted a group of winterberry bushes within the first half hour of the drive. No one was behind me on the snowy road, so I slowed and pulled over at the next bright patch. Only one bush. Our lone winterberry gatherer exited the car; she was the only one with boots on. The snow was falling at a steady clip, and from the warm van, we watched her break and collect oodles of branches. “Now, she is a true Yankee!” declared one of the other women in the car.
And that made me think, what is a true Yankee? While there are many meanings, and not all positive, what constitutes a Yankee culture? A Yankee has a certain grit and get-to-it-tiveness, very similar to a cliche Midwesterner. However, I certainly didn’t feel like a Midwesterner that day: I had traveled from one state through two others to go to a baking class. From northeast Iowa, no one plans to travel two states over to Colorado to bake for a day.
The want or need to live somewhere with four seasons certainly has something to do with being a Yankee. Here, when school is canceled on a Friday for a snowstorm, it’s not uncommon for Massachusetts residents to pack up and head north to the mountains. If a vehicle can maneuver up ski mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine, it can surely move through a snowstorm in Massachusetts. In Iowa, I remember hunkering down as blizzard winds blew across the prairie. However, my immediate family here seeks deeper snow on steep inclines. We hailed from different parts of the world and dropped anchor in Massachusetts. So we follow suit in heading north/northwest during snowstorms…
No matter that I’ve woken up every day for the last 13 years feeling like a Midwesterner living in New England, I am getting closer to claiming to be part of the Yankee culture. And now… I have been the driver of a winterberry expedition van. That must count for something. I’ll pack boots next time I head north; my first successful breaking of a winterberry branch should cinch my inclusion in the New England Yankee culture.
Until then, I’ll identify more closely as a daughter of the Midwest.
To you, wherever and whoever you are, Happy Hump Day!