More of Everything
In early spring, just when we were aching for a little sunshine after the cold season, our family did the wonderfully irresponsible thing and skipped town for New Orleans. The trip was to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday, so snubbing work and the kids’ school was justified. For five days, our extended family indulged in the Big Easy, walking the Vieux Carré, taking in the abundance of jazz, street performers, and local food. Oh, the food . . . po’boys under the tent at Parkway, pillowy beignets at Cafe Du Monde, Deanie’s peel ’n’ eat shrimp (so worth puffy eyes the next day). . . . Just about every meal was memorable. But the best of them all, the one that fed my soul, was the crawfish boil at Clesi’s. If you haven’t partaken in a low-country boil or admired one from afar, it’s the one-pot wonder of wonders. Picture a picnic table piled high with boiled shellfish, potatoes, corn, and sausage, all of it dusted with Old Bay, and your favorite people standing around eating it mostly with their fingers. The whole experience is great fun—messy, a little spicy, and inexorably Southern.
Or is it?
Now, back to that Vermont spring. The transition in the Green Mountain State from winter to summer is slow. So slow. It’s. Pain. Ful. But sometime in late May and early June the trees finally leaf out, and the world wakes up. On comes a rush of energy so ebullient it’s almost tangible and Vermonters come out from their dens with a healthy appetite for life—they crave community, warmth, good times, and, as always, great local food. I’ve observed there is little that will stop them from having their fill of all of the above.
Which brings me to the afternoon of June 14th. My husband and I had just picked the kids up from their last day of school and were coursing up onto Route 89 in Burlington headed south for Waterbury. It was raining. Hard. But we were armed with raincoats and a summer-vacation optimism that was also virtually waterproof. Everyone in our family was ready for a party, and this one had been in the books for some time.
Georgia and Jeremy Ayers, our friends and owners of 18 Elm, had planned the event with Eric Warnstedt, celebrated chef and restaurateur who’d recently acquired Prohibition Pig, the brewery and eatery a literal stone’s throw from 18 Elm in downtown Waterbury. Together they were hosting their take on a low-country boil. With Pro Pig handling the food and the Ayers managing the event, we knew we weren’t signing up for a questionable appropriation of culinary culture. (Believe me, my Texan husband loves his Southern food and his bar is set quite high.) This was undoubtedly going to be a delicious, special community event. For obvious geographical and geological reasons, they rebranded it a high-country boil. Tickets sold out before the date.
Headed east toward the mountains saturated in their signature color, we left the clouds behind and by the time we pulled up to Elm Street the party was very much still happening. In one corner of the open courtyard the cooks busied themselves over giant steaming pots and a chuffing smoker. At the back, stationed inside a three-bay garage, was a cash bar offering two Pro Pig beers: I Took a Pilz in Ibiza and Mosaic Blonde. Just inside the historic yellow barn was the makeshift stage for musicians Ryan Miller, Brett Hughes, and friends, who were playing what was billed as “a mash-up of Morrissey and Merle Haggard in honky-tonk style.”
The audience was also a bit of a mash-up, a multigenerational crowd that felt somehow familiar. . . . I’m guessing there were only two to three degrees of separation between everyone there (oh, Vermont). We caught up with friends, and their friends, and friends of their friends as our kids zipped around, stopping only once to beg us for money to buy an ice cream cone* from the Udder Guys cart. Seeing as it was their first night of summer freedom, we agreed, even though dinner was pending. This spirit of reckless abandon was captured perfectly by Miller and Hughes with their rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The nod to Cyndi Lauper was timely: just weeks before she had received an honorary doctorate at Northern Vermont University-Johnson (previously Johnson State College), where she attended in 1973/74. “Oh, when the working day is done . . . they just wanna, they just wanna . . .”
As the party grew so did the clouds, and that pesky nimbus which had hung over Burlington was gaining on Waterbury. Folks pulled out their parkas as it began to drizzle. The steam from the outdoor kitchen intensified, along with our anticipation of the meal.
At last, when people clustered around the long farm table, I slipped around to an opening at the back to get a good look at the food: mounds of peel-on shrimp, potatoes, sausage links, corn, clams, mussels, hunks of zucchini, all of it shimmering with a paprika hue. Every few feet, the table was anchored by whole pig shoulders that had been mopped and smoked for hours. It was a marvelous site, much like the scene at Clesi’s but more.
With a set of tongs, I gave a gentle tug to one of the pork shoulders, pulling it apart with no effort. Others skipped the utensils entirely. And so began the peeling of shrimp, slurping of mussels, etc. etc., and all the while the rain came down, just adding to the messiness.
“This is a rugged crew,” one friend commented with a grin. It was true. No one as far as I could tell was complaining about the weather. In fact, we all seemed to be smiling bigger as we huddled closer together.
The word authentic is so over-used these days—from food, to politicians, down to our IG feeds, it’s the gold standard for just about every damn thing. And while, yes, being authentic and genuine is a positive thing, I honestly find the 2019 obsession with it a tad exhausting. That being said, this gathering of the high-country boil nailed it. Not in a Southern way or even in a Vermont way (although, yes, that too) but in a way that felt true to the moment. Was it the green of spring, the exceptional food and eating with our hands, the music, the old and young, or the rain on our skin—maybe it was all of these things mixed up, much like the ingredients on the farm table. Something about the evening sparked just the right amount of spontaneity to foster connection, community, and a pervading feeling of happy-to-be-alive.
When the steady rain finally came, my husband and I gave each other that look: the sensible one that acknowledged we were legit wet and still had to drive home. (Yes, we brought our raincoats but were not wise enough to wear them.) With full bellies and well-oiled smiles, we rallied the kids and bid goodnight to friends and acquaintances. It was a reluctant departure because the party was far from over. Clearly, these Vermonters would seize this soggy evening and feed their appetites with more rain and revelry, food and fellowship. More of everything.
*Sustainability life hack: This summer take the Cone-Only Challenge! Buck the single-use cups and spoons and order your ice cream in a delicious edible vessel . . . a cone!