Cooking for Giants…

The Art of Feeding Thirty at the Family Farm with Two Burners, One Oven, a Grill, and some Very Large Pots and Pans.

I walk down from the farmhouse when the sun is low in the west over the alfalfa field. The dusty light streaming through the Sumac on the fence line looks like a scene from the Serengeti. I’m up the back porch stairs, past the shelf of onions, tomatoes, peaches and cleaning supplies and through the screen door which always eases just almost closed before it smacks a loud WHAP!

It’s five o’clock in the afternoon when I enter the rambling board and baton cabin we call “The Camp”. This would be a little late for prep in a professional kitchen. But this is not your usual restaurant. This is my family’s farm.

The Camp includes a big house, three small cabins and a grey barn with a dorm up top where the kids sleep. My great uncles, the six Olmsted boys, came out here from Buffalo to fish the trout rich Hosmer. They originally camped in big tents but later built the cabins and then the main house above the cow paths down to Cattaraugus creek. That was in the early 1900’s. Their progeny, my large extended family, have been coming together here for summers ever since.

When I’m cooking for this crowd the first consideration is of course the music. My choices tonight start with the “Dreamland” album from Madeleine Peyroux…That song “Was I ?” absolutely kills me. Besides, she sings like my Aunt Judy which is always comforting. I’m telling you, if you want music that conjures late afternoon light warming the walls of  a big house bursting with the people you love the best…put on the “Woman Blue” album by Judy Roderick…I mean it. You won’t be sorry and you’ll probably cry. I usually do. This is why I’m starting off easy with Madeleine. I pour myself a glass of Pinot Grigio and begin.

I open the window to the south…The one over the wooden utensil box we call “the coffin”, on the zinc covered counter by the sink. It’s going to get hot in here and there’s a nice cool breeze circling up around the white pine from the pond down in Val Holler.

The back burner gets lit and I open the pan closet to look for a big water pot and some sort of lid that fits. The pot is too big for the sink so it gets filled from the back porch faucet where Connie is already soaking some lettuce from her garden in a green bowl. This pot has been here forever but that bowl was probably left by someone who came to one of our concerts in the country. Oh well, it’s ours now!

I lurch bow-legged back to the kitchen under the weight of the water and try not to spill on the worn wood floor. Though, a spill might be a good thing. This late in the summer that floor is already splotched with tomato sauce and raspberry juice. I make a mental note to maybe give it a wash down tomorrow before the flies find the feast. Maybe.

Up goes the pot on the burner. On goes the lid. The water is for corn on the cob because, believe me, there is always corn on the cob when you are cooking for thirty family members in August.

As they come back from the creek or come in to mix a drink for happy hour, various people stop in to give well meaning advice…

“Why don’t you get out of the kitchen?”

“We don’t want you to have to cook tonight.”

“Oh Honey, why don’t we just eat leftovers?”

I smile…I know their interruption is only temporary. They’re just passing through. I don’t really hear them anyway. I’m absorbed in my task; trying to light the temperamental broiler without taking off my eyebrows or setting my hair on fire.

The broiler finally lights with a whoosh and I turn my attention back to the stove top. I light the front burner and bring down the cast iron skillet from the rack above. The pine nuts toast quickly in this and I have to keep them moving by shaking the pan with two hands.

Sally and Isa come through with three dozen ears of corn, picked that morning, which Mom got up at Kings roadside stand on the creek road.

What shall we put the corn in?

I pull out a couple of plastic bags for the husks from the very Provençal bag holder that Grace brought us from France. It is losing its elastic and needs a little fixing. From the pan closet I pull two ancient roasting pans for the shucked ears. Sally rounds up a team of kids and they set to work out by the grownups carrying on with cocktail hour on the porch.

Jenny comes through to make up a cracker and cheese plate for the crowd. Mimsey likes the local cheddar that Tony brings. It is aged about three years and doesn’t cut, it crumbles. The cheddar packs a powerful sharp tangy zip which pretty much guarantees that the kids won’t touch it. They’ll stick to the potato chips. Mimsey’s cheddar is safe from sticky little fingers with creek clay under their nails. Everyone mixing a drink inside stops by to steal a handful of salted peanuts from a can in the pantry. We always have peanuts but they never make it out to the porch. “Too expensive for the kids”…sigh.

Grace Meibohm arrives with a fancy fresh baked Foccacia and herbs from the East Aurora Saturday Farmers Market. She’s brought another bottle of white wine…bless her heart. She and Yani are making the salad. They leave the kitchen and chat on their way past towel clad relatives in line for the Grey Barn shower. They are going up to Connie’s garden in search of some edible flowers.

Back in the kitchen, I’m catching up with Kay and Kim while they chop up some veggies. These will roast under the broiler with a little olive oil and nutmeg before they go into the couscous with broth from last night’s chicken dinner.

Grace’s bread gets wrapped in foil and goes into the cavernous second hand restaurant oven. For a long time that oven dial had no numbers. They’d worn off with years of greasy use. Until Connie painted them back on only a few of us remembered what the temperature settings were.

It’s six thirty and Jim passes through to get the charcoal briquettes and lighter-fluid to fire up the outside grill. Despite the open window, the kitchen is heating up. It’s time to plug in the fan. The contraption has been re-built, painted and bungee-corded by Bill into the window out to the back porch. The revolutions start with a sputter and a few clanks until the blades get whirring. This must be what the Wright Brothers heard every time they fired up their flying machines at Kitty Hawk. When the loud fan is on I have to get over there and turn up the music or I can’t hear Madeleine belting from the speakers on top of the bread box at the other end of the room.

We’re having lamb on the grill tonight. My grandmother used to get her meats from Jack Marsh on Route 39 on the way to Arcade but his store is long gone. Mom ordered this leg of lamb ahead and had it boned by the butcher at Tops. Bill Shelgren gave us the recipe and it’s been marinating for two days when I take it out of the big fridge on the back porch. Before my grandmother died we had a big white fridge and a small green fridge back there. Now the two refrigerators on the back porch are actually both the same size. Though they’ve been the same size for twenty years, nobody pays that much attention to new details like these and we still call the one the small fridge.

The lamb goes out to Jim on one of the bake blackened cookie pans. When Andy tries to go through the screen door by the kids table with the lamb and a beer the door tricks him. It starts with a smooth opening and then kicks back and hits his elbow to spill his beer. More drinks have been lost through that door.

Aunt Grace and Julie start setting the tables. They don’t pull that silverware drawer out to far or it falls out. It weighs about one hundred pounds so you don’t want that on your toe. The big round table seats ten and the extending table will fit 8 if you put it over by the couch and use the piano bench. It always takes a few minutes to figure out how to pull out those hidden table leaves.

The view of the valley and the creek through the big screen window looks like a Japanese painting. If we’re having hot weather all the moveable tables go outside on the lawn with red and white checked tablecloths and candles for dining al fresco. Tonight it is cool so we come inside and Jerry gets a fire going in the fireplace.

Susan gets the butter out of the fridge for the corn and bread. We always forget the butter until the last moment.

I top off my wine while I keep a close eye on the roasting peppers, onions and zucchini. I’m getting ready to choreograph because once that lamb hits the grill the “dance of dinner” commences. The lamb will be served seared but rare so we don’t have much time.

Yani and Grace put the finishing touches on their creation which is a blaze of nasturtiums and fills a wooden bowl the size of small canoe. The salad goes out to the buffet. Years of sunsets have faded the curtains above the wooden table to pale bone and no one but Mom can picture that they used to be yellow when Connie Stanton brought them to us from Guatemala.

The kitchen team filters back in to help out and the dinner dance goes Flamenco. The roasted veggies come out from under the broiler and go into the couscous. The chicken broth, toasted pine nuts and currants are added to the mix and the great red-enamel couscous filled casserole goes into the oven to keep warm with the bread. Annie starts plunging ears of corn into the hot-tub sized boiling pot of water on the back burner. I stop by to pour a generous amount of white wine in with the fresh corn to bring out the flavor.

The lamb is done and comes back into the kitchen to sit for a few precious moments before Jim begins carving it up for serving on the blue willow platter.

The bread comes out and Caitlin slices it up to divide into baskets and put out on the lazy Susan on the big table.

Bill gets more ice.

The lamb goes out. The couscous goes out. The corn goes out. The sun goes down.

From the outside in my family settles down to a cacophony of conversation.

3 Responses to “Cooking for Giants…A little bit about me”

  1. Lee Says:

    We need more, more, MORE ! !

  2. Dear Cousin, this is wonderful! I won’t forget that Lamb dinner. It was one of the best! Miss you all. Just sent my photo to be framed for my office of the farm.. Sending you much love, and to quote above. More More More!

  3. Anne Nevin McCartney Says:

    I can perfectly picture some of those you mention, Lia, wearing their 1940-50 faces. I have been to the Camp one delicious October. I was listening to k.d.lang when I began reading but quickly switched over to Judy. You painted a lovely picture just dripping with contentment and bursting with love.

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