I’ve been working on culinary writing today. Besides my cookbooks, I do short pieces for Relish Magazine, which is kind of like a food-only Parade, and has hands-down the two nicest, best-to-work-with magazine editors for whom I’ve ever written, Jill Melton and Candace Floyd … I’ve just finished, minus one recipe I still need to test, a piece for them on New Year’s Day brunch. Plus I’m working on a longer food project, a reissue of a book initially published in 1972. It was called then (and will be called again) The Bean Book, and it was the very first cookbook Workman Publishing ever brought out. The new version will have twice as many recipes, and…
But I don’t want to get sidetracked, nor do I want to write a long post. What I wanted to tell you about was the story of something which happened last winter. I think it came to mind because I was in food-writing mode today, as I was then.
It was probably back in January of this year. Couple of feet of snow on the ground. I was on the phone
with Tristan Toldedano, who owns the Riverview Cafe in Brattleboro, Vermont, because I was writing about the annual Localvore Challenge week the previous fall. He had catered the dinner which had kicked the Challenge off, using all local ingredients. (It had been held outside on one of those heavenly fall New England days, at the glorious Fair Winds Farm , one of those days which more than make up for the long months of snow-covered months… now we are having their intoxicating spring equivalent. We also go to Fair Winds each winter for one of the best celebrations of that season, too, their annual Solstice Sleigh ride. But I digress).
Anyway, I was trying to reconstruct with Tristan, using my notes and his memory, as to what exactly he had served and how he had prepared it.
My writing office is upstairs, and just to the right is a large maple; leafless, of course, at that time of year. Now, I don’t have the world’s greatest vision, but in the middle of the conversation, gazing out the window, I suddenly noticed that there was … something on one of the larger branches the tree. Something large and… owl-shaped. Owl-shaped? But it was the middle of the day! "Hey, I said to Tristan. "Do you mind if I call you back? I have to get my binoculars, I think there’s an owl right outside my window." "Of course, I’ll be here," he said cheerfully. (People in Vermont seem to understand that an unusual wild-life sighting gets high priority; I suppose they wouldn’t live in Vermont if they didn’t appreciate this sort of thing).
I get my binoculars. Sure enough: it’s an owl. I’m totally enraptured and fascinated. I watch the owl, which is maybe a foot, foot and a half tall, with buff and brown and white feathers and those fantastic otherworldly circles of feathers around those big dark eyes. I watch for as long as it stays on the branch, maybe 15, 20 minutes. The owl is turning its head from side to side, and boy, do they ever have range of motion in the neck.
I just can’t get enough of the sheer amazement of watching this owl.
Finally it flies away.
Before I call Tristan back, I do what any self-respecting observer of nature would do: I Google "Vermont owl." Sure enough, first thing that comes up is the very owl I have just been watching. I learn it’s a barred owl and that it’s "semi-nocturnal." This isn’t defined, but no need for it: okay, I saw it in the daytime and this is unusual, that’s what this means. (At times, being of unusual sleep patterns myself, I would say "semi-nocturnal" applies to me, too. )
I continue reading the description. How to identify the barred owl. The physical description of the barred owl. What it eats. Its habitat. Its breeding habits.
And then I come to its call.
If you are familiar with bird identification books (or sites), the songs or cries of birds are transliterated into human sounds, words, whenever possibly. For example, the sound of cardinals is often said to be "Pretty, pretty, pretty."
Well. Here is what the cry of "my" barred owl was described as sounding like:
"Who cooks for you! Who cooks for you-all!"
Now although this might be choice and apropos for anyone who works in the culinary field, remember that I am someone who is a relatively recent Yankee… I lived for 33 years, the majority of my life, in the South, in Arkansas. And there, "y’all" and yes, "you-all" are common prnouns, and I’ll add, extremely useful ones. (I still use them both here in Vermont, in fact. Nothing else quite works. "You guys" is an anemic and wholly unsatisfactory substitute).
Can you imagine?
How much more perfect could this be for someone straddling the Southern/Northern divide… someone who writes cookbooks?
I was just beside myself. (Well, of course. I was alone in the house. Who else would I be beside?)
I called Tristan back. "Was it an owl?" he asked. I told him it was. We talked about it, and owls generally, and his young daughter’s love of observing wildlife. Then we got back to whether he had glazed the Gilfeather turnips, a Vermont variety, with honey or maple syrup.
Both sweet, but not as sweet as my life at that moment.
Suzette Haden Elgin says
For an owl to come visiting you in the daytime — even a “semi-nocturnal” owl — is an honor. For that owl’s call to be custom-tailored for you is a miracle.
Just knowing that there’s an owl that has “youall” in its call makes this linguist happy.
Crescent Dragonwagon says
Yes! You ***got*** it!
I think this blog thing, now that, thanks to you, I’m actually doing it, is the equivalent of leaving a note in the hollow tree each afternoon, and running out each morning to see if anyone found it and maybe left one in return.
I love your image of leaving a note in the hollow tree… That is the spirit in which I write in my own blog, too. You never know what wonder might surface.
Your story about the owl — all the connections there, and the wonderful permission you received from Tristan to take time to observe (even though he must have been busy, too).
I like how you celebrate these moments that happen in the everyday.
Thanks for the owl connection! I had a similar visit on Solstice which gave birth to this blog of mine:
My owl sat there from sun up to sun down, right out my writing window.
Guess it’s not that unusual after all–but certainly no less magical!
Maybe it’s the same bird!