Measuring Days by Cup & Teaspoon

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

Somehow, the years have given me a set of cookbooks. They could have given me trust funds, summer houses, or a graceful sense of rhythm for the mambo, but the old calendars gave those to someone else and left me their cookbooks. My mother used the Campbell’s Soup Cookbook for those weekday nights when time was short and kids were hungry. In her Irish prudence, she liked the reliable authority and affordability of cooking with cans of Cream of Mushroom. My Uncle loved the extreme and the expensive. I have his notes in Pierre Franey, Craig Claiborne, and dozens of painstakingly hand copied recipes from Gourmet Magazine.

Lovely and generous women have given me cookbooks of our times, with circled pages, and loving hints. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest came from one, with an eggplant recipe highlighted. Another wrapped up and presented The Silver Palate Cookbook with a hope for Wild Rice Pilaf. Almost all relationships end; the left-overs age poorly. But years after the pans have been cleaned and the rejection digested, I remember those meals with generosity. I made such a hash of things, so burned, so undercooked, so ruined, but they sat with me and smiled and said all of the things you hope to hear. If you leave it on the stove long enough, the past reduces itself down to gratitude.

Winter is a season of the kitchen. The night rises in the afternoon and the wind sweeps you into solitary silence. The phone doesn’t shake with renters’ emergencies: nobody needs to know how to operate the TV or discover where the extra beach towels are in January. Those houses and hours are now empty. I once filled those hours like saucepans and fed my friends with my dancing.

Which isn’t to say that I have stopped cooking. Far from it, bay scallops are about to get surrounded by a white sauce and get baptised with a French name.. My kitchen reeks of garlic and history; one meal echoes back on its cousin in the past. The family resemblance, like a Roman nose, blesses each new plate. Its grandparents rise from the books and coo into the pot. I was thinking of my long line of dinners as I stood in a yard sale of my former dentist. He has bought a home off-island, in the wilds of New Jersey, and was selling everything he could instead of packing it up. Naturally, he was offering toothbrushes and gloves, but also the accessories of his life on Nantucket; fishing poles, scallop rakes, and beach chairs. As we are of a similar age, he had several of the same cookbooks as I did, but his were for sale.

I thumbed their clean pages, considered replacing the butter and chicken stock soaked pages of my own, before returning his books to his shelf. One dollar was too high a price to pay to remove my old books. But for ten dollars, I collected his brownie pan and a five gallon lobster steamer.

I found him wrestling an old microwave in the basement. We laughed about the past. We remembered the pain and the bleeding gums he has inflicted on me before he charged me for the service—but the pain never remains.

I shook his hand, patted him on the back, and paid him one last time.

I took a long lunch out in Madaket. I pulled into the parking lot to the left, eased up to the new cement blocks at the edge, and settled into the afternoon. On a stormless winter afternoon, the seconds pass somewhere else.

Somewhere else, bells ring and the school moves to another class, or the shift changes, or Harry Potter begins another session at Hogwarts on TV. Out on the edge of the world, you can eat leftover meatloaf with cranberry sauce to the slow tick of waves. Overhead, clouds hang like river boulders in a slow moving blue stream. The color has drained from the grass, the sea, and the sand. Far out, the horizon is trembling.

You would have had to have lived here a long time not to believe that the beach has always been like this. You would see where the storms have scooped out a hole near Hither Creek but not notice. The beach is always new and always old. It just moves in its own time.

But, perched on stilts, the Emery House hopes that time runs backward and fills the sand in under it. It rests and waits above an idle ocean. It won’t fall today. It won’t be tomorrow. But it will fall.

At my last mouthful, one black head popped up out of the water. It looked left, then right, then it began swimming west. Shortly it was joined by another seal and the two of them swam comfortably along; their sizable forms visible in the idle water. In an instant, something delicious grabbed their attention and they disappeared under water. I didn’t see them again.

Years and years ago, when I first came out here, I was on a bike with an old college friend of mine. At that time, the Madaket Road transitioned up a dune into a parking lot, complete with cement posts, a bike rack, and the plans for a bath house. The stilt house rested atop a sea of grass fifty yards from the edge of sand. We poked over Milly’s bridge, spun into the public landing and up to Mr. Roger’s house (he was not in residence that December) then returned back to the public beach. Then we rode with the wind back to my apartment, I sauteed some bay scallops in vermouth and butter, and she never returned.

I have not forgotten what I was like then, when the day came fat with an apple in its mouth. The minutes howled and raced by, tires screeching and engine roaring. I have no apologies for those faster and greener days. I do not need the sand to return to me; I would not trade those long lost hours for an additional set of years.

The days remain arrayed on quiet shelf, ready to be measured out, mixed, and baked again on a still winter afternoon.