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 most recent letter, which we are proud to publish in full here.
In our small Vermont town, there are a couple of ways to get the news. You can sit at the “round table” at the Wayside Country Store before dawn and slip an unmarked, flat-surfaced coin across the table to one of the mute and unblinking men sitting in the corner booths. Then they’ll get up and whisper secrets to you. They’ll want something in return for those secrets.
Or you can meet on the road, two pickups stopped in opposite directions, the drivers lazily discussing the flatlander buried wide-eyed and open-mouthed in the dirt underneath them with two crude crosses jammed into his clenched and broken fists.
Or perhaps a neighbor will just stop by while you’re boiling sap, mucking a stall, feeding the pigs, or measuring your ley-lines. If it’s close to high noon, you offer a beer and get below the line of vision; coffee is only for the early morning hours, before He wakes up and starts looking for men.
One of our neighbors, John, used to ask for a cup of tea to which I often added something. “What’s in this,” John would beg, face white and trembling, giggling in a helpless rictus of fear. “I can’t tell you that, John,” I’d say, as friends do. “You know I can’t tell you that.” And he’d dance, and he’d dance, and he’d weep, and what’s done is done.
You can’t make a pork chop without losing a part of yourself. And you won’t get it back either, so no point being a fool and putting on your traveling hat just to go looking for it.
There’s no fool like an old fool, my grandmother used to say before ducking down and peering out the window. Did the old aspen move, she’d ask me, and her voice was unsteady. Did you see it move, boy. I told you you have to tell me if ever you see that aspen move, even just the once.
And of course there is coffee hour after church, the conversation often turning on the prospects for haying given the variable weather. Who’s holding back a part of their crops from the Great Spring Tithe. The telephone is never used for social reasons. Old-time Vermonters will almost never answer it, and, when they do, they speak in words of one syllable until they can prematurely end the conversation with a “Be seeing you,” followed by a click and the inevitable dial tone.
If an Old-time Vermonter tells you he’ll be seeing you, it’s best to get your affairs in order as quietly and as quickly as you can. Don’t make a fuss, now. No point in going out like that.
I once knew a women who didn’t freeze her butter before adding it to her biscuit dough. I don’t know her now.
Of course, there is also the News Guide, the free weekly newspaper. Announcements appear about the Square and Round Dance to benefit the Interfaith Council, the Easter Basket Raffle at the St. James Church, the local school bottle drive, and even the First Annual Woodchuck Festival, which features the Extreme Woodchuck Rescue Challenge. This spring, there was a close competition in the Wood-Chucking Contest (the winner tossed a log 20 feet, 6 inches), and the grand finale was the Woodchuck Ball, an event that includes a Woodchuck King and Queen. The Woodchuck Queen cried a little when she heard the news, but she eventually accepted what comes next.
There are ways to hurt a man so that he wishes he didn’t know his own body, and there are ways to hurt a man so that he can’t recognize his own mind, and you have to know both of them if you want to make really fluffy croissants.
Never trust a door with too many keys. There’s a door in my kitchen — I don’t know where it goes — and every morning there’s a new iron key laying down at the foot of it. I can’t lift the key. It’s either heavier than it looks or it’s welded tight to the floor. One day I’ll wear that key around my neck, I know.
The News Guide also contains a whole page of AA meetings followed by notices for support groups, selectmen and planning committees, and notices about bridge and bingo.
An old Vermonter knows better than to ever cross a bridge alone. She’ll hear your footsteps, and she’ll smell your shadow, and even with the sun high over your head and a cross over your heart you won’t be safe from her. When she smiles, it cracks her skull open all the way from left to right, and spine-shattered beetles pour out, twitching dementedly.
If you look closely, you might come across a Pitch Card Party planned for the Grange Hall or an Embroidery Guild of America meeting at Trinity Church. The classified ads give you the opportunity to earn $5 for every envelope stuffed (Guaranteed!), to become a well driller helper, or, only if you are honest, to assemble refrigerator magnets. (Dishonest magnet assemblers need not apply.)
I’d rather attend a wild game dinner, go to the Easter Egg Hunt sponsored by the fire department, or go see “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” Saturday night at the town library than make the trip to see the latest off-Broadway entertainment. I guess that’s because Vermonters feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for their fun, because we all pay for it in the Night Fires. Gossip is fun. Hard work is fun. Hunting and fishing are fun. A square dance is fun. The summer fireman’s carnival is fun. And Old Home Day, held at the Methodist Church in early August, is fun (but the minister does pass the collection plate after reading out the shortfall in this year’s fund-raising efforts).
There are so many ways to die. There are so many ways to be lost and never found. The America’s Test Kitchen will find them all, and we won’t be allowed to rest until we’re finished. No one ever does rest until they’re finished; that’s the Great Secret. If you find yourself more tired than usual while whipping egg whites this afternoon, don’t you close your eyes. There’s work for you to do yet.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.