A Letter From Chris Kimball -The Toast

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Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 8.30.15 PMPreviously: Merry Christmas.

Each issue of Cook’s Illustrated begins with a folksy letter with news from down on the old Vermont farm by founder and editor-in-chief Chris Kimball. These charming, old-timey updates remind us all of a slower, simpler way of life, where neighbors stop to swap plowing tips out by the trading post and run when they see Old Henry coming. Who’s Old Henry? Why, what a question, stranger. Old Henry knows who you are. That much is certain. Old Henry knows who you are just fine. 

The Toast has received an advance copy of Mr. Kimball’s March letter, which we are proud to publish in full here.

Folks used to have common sense. They didn’t plant their potatoes too close together, lest they develop strange habits not native to root vegetables, and learn to speak to one another when their stalks swayed in the night winds. They never burned an old rabbit dog before the daffodils came in. They parked their cars facing toward home when they went in the Old Forest, so they didn’t offend anything that still moved in there when human eyes weren’t looking. They never killed a cow twice and they never made hay without spilling blood on the threshold, and they never spilled blood on the threshold without nailing the house-spirits into the wall behind the chimney. They kept their shoes in the walls and their virgin bones buried in the foundations. They never opened a bottle unless they were willing to make a deal with the witch who lived inside. They kept their unguents separate from their elixirs separate from their tonics separate from their balsam physics. It was always spring, then. Always spring after spring after spring after spring, and the people stayed young and happy and their throats never sank into their breasts and their smiles were painted onto their lips and never came off, never never never.

It’s not like that now.

Do you know what comes after spring? Do you know what comes after spring? Do you know what comes after spring?

I don’t. Nobody does. Something different’s coming after spring this year, something that isn’t named summer, something that casts a long shadow and laughs without making a sound.

You can kill a cockatrice, but not before it screams out every lie you’ve ever told to the one you love best.

People didn’t used to leave their houses to go see what lay on the other side of the hill. If I’ve told you what’s on the other side of the hill once, I’ve told you what’s on the other side of the hill a thousand times: a perfect and exact replica of this very town, right down to your very own double, with one small but noticeable difference that you can’t quite place your finger on, and you must never go there and must never look your double in the eyes. The town on the other side of the hill isn’t your home, no matter how much it looks like it. Don’t listen to the beautiful girls who stand on the edge of the town on the other side of the hill and call out your name in plaintive and lovely tones. They have murder in their voices.

There’s a girl made entirely out of nails who lives in the ceiling. Don’t look up; she’s very shy.

I’ve never seen a Vermonter run for anything. They just figure that whatever it is, they’ll eventually catch up with it, or it’ll catch up with them. No point moving so fast you catch something’s attention, out here in Vermont, where the hills bury any sounds a body can make. The hills like for things to stay quiet, here in Vermont, and the hills have been around long enough to know how to get just what they want.

You ever look in a painting and see a little dark man in the background who wasn’t there a minute ago and disappears when you try to look closer? I see him. I see him more and more with every passing year, but he delights in dancing just out of my vision. There’s always something behind me on the stairs, too. I hear it, but I don’t see it. But I hear it. And I know it hears me, and it sees me too.

To a Vermonter, or any country person, common sense is what keeps you alive. Common sense keeps you from angering the sheela na gig or teaching a seventh son to read the letters carved above the stairs.

And shall-meet desert creatures with jackals the goat he-calls his-fellow lilit she-rests and she-finds-rest and there-she-shall-nest the great owl and she lays (eggs she lays eggs) and she-hatches and she-gathers under shadow the hawks and also they-gather, every one with its mate.

A man who is not dependable is no good in the sugar house. A man who’s no good in the sugar house must be returned to the soil, even if he doesn’t want to go. The sugar house won’t tolerate fools.

Common sense is just another way of saying you learn from your mistakes. Some people don’t. They end up going to Old Henry. Some animals don’t. They end up with the sheela na gig.

Take a horse. Some will shy away from a puddle of water in the road every time—they keep thinking that it might be ten thousand feet deep. They might be right, too. A horse can’t trust water. If you lose a horse to the water, you have to walk home.

What if a demon crawled up limbless out of the earth, and writhed after you, sending up clouds of red dust as it hitched broken-back behind you, calling out to you in your loneliest loneliness, and say in a red and in a dead voice this is the life you will live once and again and innumerable times more and you will feel this way always you will feel this way when the sun burns to a cinder and starts itself anew and your heart will be a wall and every thought and every sigh and every gnashing of the teeth you have ever had will come again when the hourglass becomes the wheel, and if you looked back at him his spine would splinter into fragments and dust and he would scream in crippled agony and bleed out into the white and stricken earth, what would you do then?

Chickens don’t bother to look up at the sky, and that’s why they make a good meal for red-tailed hawks. And how many times will a dog chase a skunk?

Every man keeps a demon wrapped around his wrist; that’s all a watch is.

When I was young, I didn’t learn from experience. I’d go fishing in the middle of the day when the suckers in the Battenkill were easy to see but uninterested in feeding. I’d put up a tree stand without knowing whether a deer would ever walk by it. And I would go hiking in strange woods without a compass, a flashlight, or something warm in case I had to stay out all night. Now I owe strange and silent debts to the Men Who Move In The Woods, and I am burdened almost down to the ground with a secret sorrow. I would go back and throttle the past, if I could.

But Time is a wheel that flings us into the furnace of death. Time is a wheel, and the furnace burns, and we will all feed it.

Now that I am older, I am more likely to think about what happened the last time I tried to mow that wet corner of the lower field or let the International 404—the one with the broken emergency brake—idle on the top of a hill. There is a sweet spot there somewhere, halfway between lessons learned and adventure. It’s the sense to know when to pack your bags and when to double down; when to speak up and when to shut up; when to read the signs and when to ignore them. I hear something behind me on the stairs. The Men Who Move In The Woods have come to collect, and I am a man who pays my debts.

Don’t cross the river and go to the other side of the hill. Pay your debts and never open anything if you’re alone. I have loved you all.

Chris Kimball

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