The Roads (Not) Taken

We are driving along Interstate 69 on a Thursday night listening to Delilah, the syndicated radio DJ who offers a sympathetic ear to listeners calling to ask for advice and plays songs (usually love songs) to fit their dilemmas or fulfill their dedication requests.

I’d read about Delilah and her immense popularity years before, but had forgotten all about her until we pressed the “seek” button on the rental car radio in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the country. We’re just in time to hear a sad, sweet-voiced caller explain her dilemma and ask Delilah to show her the way.

Our trip is one of looking forward and backwards. It began in Chicago, where we met up with Jeff’s Boston-based cousin Deb, her husband Tommy and 13-year-old daughter Nell. They are favorite travel companions of ours, mostly because of their boundless intellectual curiosity, but also because Deb and Tommy always wake up first and make the coffee.  If you have a question about anything, Deb is right there with her iPad looking up the answer, suggesting books on the topic and, if you’re not careful, she will order you those books and have them shipped to your house with her Amazon Prime membership, before you have time to blink.

Scheduled on the fringes of a trip to visit family in Michigan, I relished our Chicago foray as a chance to expose our daughters to art and architecture and show them a college campus or two.  Daughter #1 will soon be in high school and Daughter #2 will be attending a new school next year. In preparation for the changes they’ll experience, I have been trying to plant the seeds of the future.  A future that belongs to them alone and may have nothing to do with the paths their friends choose.  We have had several conversations about the road less traveled.  We have also talked about the differences in people’s values and in their perspectives.

Aside from a quick detour off the freeway to taste deep dish pizza on a cross-country road trip in 1982, this is my first trip to Chicago too.   New places always energize me.  I’m fascinated to get my first look at a Great Lake (Deb whips out her iPad and cites the lake’s surface area and length and width) and can’t stop raving about the juxtaposition of old and new architecture.  My fragile neck doesn’t ache too much, though I am constantly looking up.

The egg and I.

We go to the Art Institute, where I am excited to show the girls the masterpieces that are part of the museum’s permanent collection.  I ask Deb if she remembers the now out-of-print 1970 board game Masterpiece, which was my first introduction to Degas’ bathers, Van Gogh’s sunflowers and so much more.  You can count on Deb to remember a thing like that.

To get into the spirit of things, I am reading Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s fictionalized story of the adulterous love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. What compels a person to defy convention?  What inspires a person to create a new art form?  How do people find the courage to do so when they don’t know how things will turn out?

Jeff was born in Chicago and he and Deb played together on the shores of Lake Michigan when they were toddlers.  But he moved away shortly thereafter and he hasn’t been back since.  Deb attended the University of Chicago Lab School, but this is her first time back in 30 years. Our trip to Hyde Park is a trip down memory lane for her.

At the Lab School, Deb is pleased to encounter one of her favorite professors and the kids are excited when he tells them he is a psychic who can see the future.  They are curious and finally he agrees to reveal one thing to each of them.  “Will I get a dog?” asks Daughter #2.  “Yes,” he reassures her.  “A Lab?” she presses. “No, a smaller, black, fuzzy dog,” he says.  (I silently thank him).  “Will I be happier in eighth grade?” Daughter #1 asks shyly.  “You won’t be happier until you get to high school.  You’ll have a much better sense of who you are then and your entire outlook will change.”

While we enjoy deep dish pizza at Medici,

Deb produces a copy of that fateful poem, which she surreptitiously bought at nearby Powell’s Books.  “Not the road less traveled again,” eye-rolls Daughter #1, but I think she’s secretly glad we have these conversations.  Or at least I not-so-secretly hope she is.  We deconstruct the poem.  I say that if Robert Frost were to present it in a writing class today, he would be critiqued for back-pedaling in the second stanza:

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

Was one road traveled more than the other or wasn’t it?

“I think the point isn’t that he took the road less traveled,” says Deb.  “It’s that you can’t possibly know, when you embark on a path, where it will lead you.  How could I know that Chicago would lead me to Boston, which would lead me to Tommy, which would lead me to Nell?” (Which would lead Jeff and me to great morning coffee and our daughters to a cousin-friend to share confidences, clothes, make-up, brownies and frappes with).

The girls’ bedroom is a jumble of shared clothes, books and jewelry.  Nell shows them the Hunger Games costume designs she has developed on the iPad.  Daughter #1 teaches them Japanese.  Daughter #2 demonstrates make-up techniques.  They are all so different.  They are just beginning to recognize who they are.  I wonder who they will become.

Later, in Michigan, the girls’ Abuela (a turkey-maker and a sweet-smelling woman) arranges tours for them of the university veterinary facility, where Daughter #1 learns you can have a career as a veterinary social worker, and the university basketball facility, where Daughter #2, an enthusiastic point guard, gets the hard sell for recruitment, though she is only 11.

That night, I order Masterpiece on eBay and text Deb to tell her what I have done.  She tells me she has already ordered the game for me (I’m not surprised) but later manages to intercept it and have it shipped to herself. “We’ll all play it together via Skype,” she tells me.

It is only later, when I am researching Robert Frost’s poem to write this blog entry that I understand the differences in my interpretation of the poem and Deb’s,  Like many people,  I assumed it was called The Road Less Traveled and the primary lesson it imparts to me is to follow your own chosen path, no matter what everyone else is doing.

But the poem is actually called The Road Not Taken.  My father-in-law told me it is about Frost’s decision to abandon farming in favor of the literary life.  Life is full of crossroads.

But hopefully not full of regrets.

On the radio, the sad, sweet-voiced caller waits for Delilah’s advice.

“I can’t tell you what to do,” says Delilah.  “You have to follow your heart.”

“But I can play you a song.”

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Spring Awakening

“Until I moved to the ranch, the coming of spring had been a gradual and painless thing, like developing a bust.”

Though I’m not sure pubescent girls would characterize bust development as “gradual and painless,” I’ve never encountered such an evocative description of spring as Betty MacDonald‘s in her 1945 classic book The Egg and I. 

If you are from Washington State, you’ve likely heard of MacDonald and of this very funny book, which describes her experiences living on a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula with no running water and no electricity.  Ma and Pa Kettle (modeled after MacDonald’s slacker neighbors) originated in The Egg and I, and were featured in its 1947 film adaptation, starring Fred McMurray and Claudette Colbert.

They may also have originated the concept of the “spin-off.”

Ma and Pa Kettle (film)

Ma and Pa Kettle (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I didn’t realize until reading The Egg and I, is that Betty MacDonald was a trailblazer in the art of food writing.

“..there was so much of everything and it was so inexpensive and so easy to get that it was inevitable that we should expect to eat like kings,” she writes of Pacific Northwest bounty, such as fresh field mushrooms, clams, oysters, steelhead salmon and Dungeness Crab “We’d go on regular crab sprees –eat cracked crab with  homemade mayonnaise well-flavored with garlic and Worcestershire, until it ran out of our ears. Have deviled crab, crab Louis and crab claws sauteed in butter and served with Tartar sauce.”  At the time, she notes, she could buy a gunnysack full of Dungeness crabs for $1.

Sadly, she was not a fan of geoduck.

It's the largest burrowing clam in the world, and a local favorite.

Still, all that natural bounty from the garden and berry bushes could be oppressive come canning season.

MacDonald describes herself as “lyrical with joy” when her pressure cooker blew up.

“I was free! Free! F-R-E-E!”

Her practical husband calmly picked up the Sears Roebuck catalogue and ordered her another.

Global warming notwithstanding, MacDonald’s 1945 description of Seattle springs holds true today:  “Seattle spring was a delicate flower of the pale gray winter –a pastel prelude to the pale yellow summer which flowed gently into the lavender autumn and on into the pale gray winter.  It was all very subtle and we wore the same clothes the year around (note that this was written long before the invention of fleece – our native dress) and often had beach fires in January but found it too cold for them in June..”

From Tim Jones' (a self-described minivan-driving soccer dad) blog "View from the Bleachers."

What she means is that despite the changes in season, we can be cold here, all year round. I write this, wrapped in a blanket, looking out the window as sunlight strobes on and off my plum trees, which are already past their bloom.  It hailed last week, and all this week the weather has ping-ponged from lion-like to lamb-like and back.
So it’s lucky that we have seasonal bounty to warm and sustain us and especially lucky that we can leave the growing to the trusted professionals, yet still eat like kings and even can at our discretion.
Like most Sundays, this past Sunday I walked to the Ballard Farmers Market to see what was new for spring.

My favorite fish guys.

 I emerged with beets, radishes, stinging nettles, jerusalem artichokes and freshly caught salmon and had fun all week cooking lighter spring fare.  David Lebovitz was generous enough to share on Facebook that Amazon was offering a special promotion of Dorie Greenspan cookbooks.
 I was among the lucky who nabbed Around My French Table and Baking: From my home to yours for $10, including shipping.  We ate Dorie’s salmon with tapenade and Jerusalem artichokes roasted with garlic, and Three Beet Caviar with Endive and Goat Cheese and Nettle Frittata with Garlic and Ricotta (the latter two recipes from Deborah Madison’s inspirational book “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets”  Urged by Dorie Greenspan, I whipped up a batch of creme fraiche, and while I was at it, replenished my supply of preserved lemons.
I’m ready for spring.

A tulip field in the nearby Skagit Valley.

Though Jeff is resigned to the fact that you won’t find me working in our garden (I’ve finally had to stop bragging about the 50 bulbs I planted on Daughter #1′s first day of pre-school 11 years ago), you will find me happily in the kitchen.
Soon the sun will become a more familiar presence and our markets will abound with fava beans (the fresh ones are labor intensive, but great in so many ways, especially with pecorino cheese) and pea vines and fiddlehead ferns and shoots of all sorts and morels, glorious morels.
I first learned about Betty MacDonald when my kids were little and we read the hilarious Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, in which kids were cured of their bad habits by this magical woman who lived in an upside-down house (my favorite:  the kids who refused to take a bath and was allowed to get so dirty that her parents were able to plant radishes on her).
When daughter #1 started kindergarten and I was perhaps a little weepy, I decided that, like the mothers MacDonald wrote about, I would greet her after school with a freshly baked cake.
It didn’t last long, but over the years I’ve tried various recipes for French yogurt cake, which along with tartines, is a popular after school snack a la francaise.  
Dorie Greenspan has a recipe in her baking book, which I made this week, and Molly Wizenberg has a nice, lemony recipe which first appeared on her blog Orangette and can also be found in her book A Homemade Life.  I’m including it here.
It’s a nice pick-me-up when the sun goes behind the clouds or you are agonizing over the gradual and not always painless emergence of your bust, or for that matter, the inevitable drooping of said bust at mid-life.
Bon appetit.
If you are interested in having a modern version of the Betty MacDonald experience, check out my friend Joshua MacNichol’s Urban Farm Handbook:  City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading and Preparing What You Eat.