Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Pumpkins Ruled the World

In his book The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan makes a startling assertion: that we humans are not the masters of our universe. Not only does he forward the classical Darwinian thesis--that we are one among many, and all of us subject to the same forces (evolution, gravity, Google)--but that we are in many cases dupes of nature. The example he gives is grass. We think we are the ones wrangling the grass into neat squares with our mowers and weed control. But what we are really doing is beating back the forest, which is the enemy of the grass. The grass has convinced us that seeding it and mowing it and watering it is culturally important. And if you don’t believe that grass has us under its control, consider that the largest member of the grass family is corn, and that the United States has more acres planted for corn than any other crop. It sweetens our food, powers our vehicles, fattens our livestock, and sometimes we even eat it. But corn faces new competition from a fruit that is poised to take over the world: pumpkins.
Pumpkins are winter squash and they seem benign and vaguely artful as they lie arrayed in a crisp September pumpkin patch, exuding orange coolness. But they have totalitarian goals in mind. Pumpkins were cute when they allowed us to carve silly images on them, and could only be found otherwise in cans. Now their presence is relentless, and pumpkin season begins in September and runs all the way through Christmas, where pumpkins are trying to insinuate their way into our hard-won secular mythology by claiming a place on Santa’s sleigh.
Pumpkin is no longer just a canned fruit. It’s found in bread, cookies, pies, mousses, succotash, chili, soup, salsa, gnocchi, ravioli, waffles, pancakes, curry, chowder, butter, biscuits, fries, facial rubs, body scrubs, beer, cider, and oils. Pumpkins can be used as jack-o-lanterns, of course, but they can also be used as bowls and doorstops, and delinquent teens appreciate them for their ability to explode on pavement when dropped from a great height. If that’s not utilitarian, what is?
And all of this utility has resulted in a cultural shift in this country that produces endless pumpkin festivals. There’s the Pumpkintown USA festival in East Hampton, Connecticut, the Jack-o-Lantern spectacular in Providence, Rhode Island, the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta in Damariscotta, Maine, and the Keene Pumpkin Festival, which moved to Laconia, New Hampshire after college students, tripping from ingesting too many pumpkin products, rioted.
The pumpkin meme has invaded our culture, too: It can be traced back to Washington Irving and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where the image of a shattered pumpkin was associated with the Headless Horseman; Linus van Pelt (appropriately a Knickerbocker himself), the schizophrenic philosophy king of Peanuts fame, hallucinates a gourd in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; the students of Hogwarts played their own version of beer pong with pumpkin juice; and one of my favorite new wave bands of all time, XTC, penned the glorious "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," which is laced with themes of service, sacrifice, and redemption, all traceable to a pumpkin zeitgeist.
And we haven’t yet discussed the clearest sign that the Apocalypse is upon us: pumpkin chucking (also known as punkin chunkin, or punk chunk, or just PC). While pumpkins may not be the nutritional champions of the planet, who came up with the idea of launching food as a sport? And why pumpkins? Why not ears of corn, which could be rifled and fired with accuracy? Using a variety of medieval devises such as trebuchets, catapults, and slingshots, contestants send the orange fruit screeching into clear autumn skies. The world record is nearly a mile.
If you’re not convinced that pumpkins are actively seeking world domination, you’re not paying attention. The proliferation of pumpkins is the biggest threat to our Constitution, to religious liberty, and to the craft beer industry. The sad news is that it’s probably too late to do anything. Any day now we’ll be pulling up to gas stations and pumping pumpkin-diesel into our coal-dust spewing Volkswagen TDIs. Thanks, Obama.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Getting It

Last weekend my friend David asked if he could borrow my pickup truck. Of course you can, I said. When you buy a pickup truck, loaning it out to your friends is implicit in the sale. Read the fine print. I bought a 1986 Ford F-150 after I graduated from college, and I spent the next five years helping my friends move from apartment to apartment in Boston. My fee was pizza and beer. And friendship. It was a good deal for me.
            David paid me with a hug and a four-pack of Heady Topper from the Alchemist. He didn’t need to give me anything, but he gets it. He gets Vermont’s barter economy, where the spiritual value of the tender is as important as its commercial worth. This weekend, I cashed his payment, cracking one of the cans of Heady Topper. I looked at the can, and realized that David isn’t the only one of my friends and neighbors who gets it. Printed on the side of the can of Heady are the words, “Don’t Be A D-bag, Recycle This Can!”
            It would be nice to think that in the second half of the year 2015 in Vermont, U.S.A., potential litterers would not need the exhortations of a brewmaster to do the right thing. And of the top three kinds of litter found on the road (Dunkin’ Donuts Styrofoam cups—themselves unconscionable this deep into human evolution—McDonald’s bags, and Bud Light cans), empty cans of Heady rarely make an appearance. But still, Jon and Jen Kimmich of the Alchemist Brewery get it. It’s important to them that their customers aren’t just giving them money for beer, they’re responsible as well. Sometimes, what you are not is as important as what you are, and avoiding D-Bag status forms a critical part of the Heady Topper drinker’s personality profile.
            The term “getting it” is a tricky one to use, because it can mean different things to different people and cultures. But basically it means doing the right thing, as opposed to doing the thing right. We’re reminded of that at the inn during this busiest time of the year. Vermont’s fall foliage spectacular draws people from around the world hoping to experience the colors they’ve seen in the coffee table books. This year, the fall colors are a little late, probably due to a warmer than average September. And this has caused consternation among some folks.
            When someone plans the “trip of a lifetime,” and then it rains, or there’s a windstorm that rips the leaves off the trees, or the colors are delayed, they are naturally disappointed. The weather is the weather, and until we can forecast months in advance for local conditions, everything will be a risk. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it isn’t. To base the happiness of a trip on a single factor is to invite disappointment. And Vermont offers so much more to see and do; foliage can be a colorful backdrop to those activities.
            So why am I talking about D-Bags and “getting it” and the delay in fall foliage? I think I just outlined it. Last week someone with a multi-night reservation called several times, concerned about the news that the leaves were delayed in their changing, and that he would be disappointed. We talked to him at length, assuring him that if foliage wasn’t at its peak in our valley, it would be in the next valley over, or up the sides of the mountains. No use. He cancelled, and is now probably congratulating himself for prompt action in the face of potential disappointment.

            There’s a quote on my website from G.K. Chesterton that says, “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.” So we may have lost a tourist this week, but we hope to gain many more travelers in his stead. I might even share a Heady with one or two. After all, I don’t want to be a D-Bag.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Enjoy Every Sandwich

When I was a little boy, my grandfather would make me sandwiches. I would sit at the table and watch him prepare them with ritualistic reverence that at the time I thought was unique to him alone. He used Pepperidge Farms white bread and he carefully cut off the crusts with a huge knife that was stained black with age. The crusts were set aside, to be fed to the ducks at a local pond later. Cains mayonnaise was spread on and scraped off, the excess returned to the jar. I don’t remember him using mustard. A floppy leaf of iceberg lettuce, a thin piece of ham from the deli, and cheese, from a time before cheese was extruded from cellophane. The sandwich was cut into triangles and served with Lay’s potato chips and iced tea that he made in a big pitcher filled with lemon and orange slices and brewed by the sun while sitting on the railing of the front porch.

This story came up recently as I sat in the breakfast room drinking my first cup of coffee. It wasn’t 6 a.m., yet I was joined by a recently retired gentleman traveling with his children and grandchildren. He was a dedicated coffee drinker, polishing off several mugs long before breakfast began at 8. He tasted his first cup like a sommelier, aerating the coffee with a discreet sip, humming his satisfaction. We both agreed that the first cup of coffee in the quiet of the early morning was a simple pleasure in life that should not be overlooked. That’s when I told him the story of my grandfather and his sandwiches. He nodded solemnly and sipped, perhaps thinking of his own sandwiches.

Sandwiches have been on my mind. My oldest son and I traveled down to the flatlands to help my mom move into her new apartment. It was a long drive, and since neither of us are chatty, we simply enjoyed the ride and the music. I took the opportunity to foist my entire collection of Warren Zevon on him, sharing the wry and sardonic master of stories and unexpected chord progressions with a college student.

Zevon’s demise from mesothelioma was well documented, from his appearances on David Letterman’s show, to a VH1 documentary, to his final album, studded with guests like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. But Zevon remained resolute to the end, and when Letterman asked him if he’d learned anything about life as a result of his sickness, Zevon said, “How much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

Ever since I heard Zevon say that, I’ve thought about my grandfather, and that first cup of coffee, and the forgotten art of feeding ducks crusts of bread. I lost one of those little things this week when my old friend, Damon Kashar, died unexpectedly. He wasn’t little to look at—a big man, with a big personality—but we came of age together, mostly because we shared lots of little things. We shared lots of sandwiches.

We spent lots of time adorning the paper covers of our school books with the logos of our favorite bands. Mine were The Doors, The Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen. Damon’s were Human Sexual Response, the Jim Carroll Band, and Soft Cell. He routinely mocked my mainstream tendencies, and I have him to thank for becoming a musical adventurer. Our adventures weren’t confined to music, however. Once we skipped school and drove up to Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, where we joined by a few like-minded schoolgirls in plaid skirts. We spent the day in Boston eating food from street vendors. The whole thing was Damon’s idea; it was one of his sandwiches.

Sitting here in the middle of life I realize I might not be in the middle anymore. I make sandwiches for my sons, when they’re home, and my dad, when he visits. I’m glad for the sandwiches I’ve been able to enjoy—the sandwiches of my grandfather, the ones guests share with me here at the inn, the sandwiches Damon made for me—and I’m sad that I’ve missed out on some. But I’m not going to wait around for the right moment to have one. I’m going to take Warren Zevon’s advice: I’m going to enjoy every sandwich, and I’m going to keep you in my heart for a while.