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Taproot at Squam: Yes You Can!

The view from the Eldorado dock at RDC Squam

The view from the Eldorado dock at RDC Squam

I’ve been home from the Taproot Gathering at Squam for about a week now, and I’m still processing, but it felt like it was time to talk about a few things. Like the Maine cider at breakfast – oh, man, how good was that stuff, seriously? The cider I have access to here is just not the same.

But enough about the cider – although it did make me feel evangelical, I came here to talk about the classes. My focus as I registered was very much on what I’m coming to think of as hearth-work – a different sort of creativity grounded in the cycle of nature, our home, and our physical well-being. Before I left my full-time job in August, our household was undernourished in these areas, and both my husband and I were made miserable by it. When I registered for Squam in late April, we didn’t yet have a timeline as to when I would leave my job, but our hope was that I would be able to transition to lower-commitment contract work by Squam. I chose my classes with an ear to a shift towards mindfulness in our day-to-day lives, a change in rhythm that, though still a few months off, I was already beginning to feel.

Bench in front of Eldorado

Bench in front of Eldorado

I had a few goals going in, but by far the most important to me was to take back the kitchen. Simply put, both my husband and I hated how we were eating. With him gearing up for a doctoral thesis defense and me incredibly miserable with my long hours, we were doing quite a bit of convenience eating. I’d also developed stomach problems that were making it tougher and tougher for me to find things that I could eat without feeling ill, making it harder to cook new things together at home. These challenges exacerbated our sense of being disconnected from nature; we live in a very urban area outside D.C., so our days are filled with concrete buildings and paved sidewalks, and the cyclical nature of the world was very far from us. I’ve come to feel that being aware of that cycle is so important – to both physical and emotional health – and I believed that from-scratch cooking, using fresh, local ingredients, was a good way to bring a bit of the thread into our daily lives. After leaving my job in August, I really wanted to invest time and effort in slow food. I wanted both our meal prep and our meals themselves to be mindful, a time of connection with each other. Making this change has been huge for us, a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces, but one of the pieces was my canning class with Ashley English at Squam.

Ashley's books balanced on the woodstove during class.

Ashley’s books balanced on the woodstove during class.

I admit, when I got to Ashley’s class I was kind of freaked out. Most of the women in class were experienced cooks, and honestly, when I cook with produce I’m usually so scared of my own ingredients that my husband has to be my sous-chef and prep all the produce himself. This is what you get, I suppose, if you spend ten years eating Rice-a-Roni and thinking about virtualization and private cloud in your free time instead of actually seeing and eating fresh food. Still, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t put the time into cultivating kitchen skills that my classmates had. I was really very tempted to hide in the bathroom so that no one could discover that I had no earthly idea how to core an apple. Instead I stationed myself behind one of the women who had identified herself as an experienced cook, studied her technique – and then jumped right in. Sure, I was really slow compared to my classmates, but the thing about Squam? No one is judging you. It is a judgment-free zone. Even after three sessions I still need to be reminded of that. Despite my sometime embarrassment I made myself participate whenever I could, and at the end of class I sat in front of our jars of pickled beets, and I watched as their lids popped one by one. Studied the beets in their jars, knew I had helped chop them and fill them – it was wild! I know this probably sounds bizarre to women who cook often, but for me it was a total revelation.

Apple butter in Ashley English's canning class

Apple butter in Ashley English’s canning class

Canning was first on my to-do list when I returned home, but I can’t say I felt totally secure about doing it by myself, so I decided that I would bake fresh bread first to help me calm the bleep down. Right? Sure, baking bread from scratch for the first time will totally be a calming experience! If this isn’t evidence that someone has flipped the “I can cook” switch in my head I don’t know what is. All I can say is thank god for Beth Kirby; her soothing, straightforward directions made the whole thing easy. I started following her right before I gave notice back in July, and over the past two months I’ve learned that every time I cook one of her recipes, it will work. Like magic – which is what this bread is. Originally by Jim Leahy from “My Bread”, Beth wrote about it for Food52, where I discovered it. Two things to say about it: it really is that easy, and it didn’t last the night. I threw it in the oven before we started our batch of peach-lavender butter and we ate our way through the loaf as we cooked. First smoked salmon sandwiches while we were still feeling energetic. Then just black garlic mayo smeared on ragged slices as we got into our jam-making groove. We ended the night running torn heel pieces of bread round the inside of the emptied jam pan as our jars processed, smearing jam all over our faces and hands as we lifted the heavy, soaked bread to our mouths. Utter, total heaven. Such collaborative joy.

Bread, jam and tomato basil sauce

Bread, jam and tomato basil sauce

I still haven’t gotten over my produce management fear – bird by bird, right? – so at present, canning is a collaborative activity for us. We’ve done a couple of batches so far, always following the same formula. He washes the canner and lids while I sit across the kitchen counter with my knitting; we talk while he preps the produce for me and piles it high in my jam pan. I measure out the spices, the liquids and so forth, and then we trade. He takes my perch on the barstool and we go over the events of the day while I stir and blend and measure out our batch into jars. Sometimes he falls asleep on the sofa while the jars process. It’s precious time to both of us. I’ve never been able to come home from Squam before and so quickly integrate what I learned into my day to day; it’s been wonderful to do it this time. I would go so far as to say it’s really eased the transition back into my day-to-day life. I also took Holly Bellebuono’s class on herbal apothecary and will be blogging about that next.

Some final notes:

-I hate taking notes in class, so I bought Ashley’s canning book as a textbook of sorts and am so glad I did. It’s an absolutely wonderful beginner book – the instructions are thorough, clear and reassuring, and the recipe section is approachable in scale. The book is available from Amazon.com here if you’d like to get into canning as well.
-Also, if you’re interested in having a 360-degree look at the Squam experience, check out Ashley’s post on Squam here. I always love to set my own experience side-by-side with the teacher posts; on some level it fascinates me to dig into the experience from multiple viewpoints.

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