August 23, 2009

On Supermarkets, Tater Tots, and Gardening

VERMONT“I have to go up to the farm and look at some firewood,” said Darren, rising from his stool.

That was about the best line I had heard here all summer. The farm Darren was talking about lies on a hill that overlooks the valley. It’s an organic dairy run by a guy by the name of Walt. Walt grew up in a New Jersey suburb. Then he went to farming school. Now he says things like “chores” and “puckerbush.” The wood was a barn high stack that apparently needed some chopping. And that’s the kind of thing Darren does around here: paint houses, build stone fences, chop wood. I’m surprised he even talks to me.

Before he left the café, there came the usual Sunday morning chatting that was wide-ranging and mostly pointless. But always there comes a moment when I learn some valuable piece of information. For a while we discussed the differences between the supermarkets in a neighboring town. It came up because Darren was also thinking about driving over to the Jameson’s, nine miles away. Jameson’s is generally regarded as superior to its rival Price Chopper across the street, which has been around years longer. Both are enormous big box supermarkets.

“You don’t just want to go to the Grand Union?” I asked. Our town already has a supermarket, a sad and shriveled not-so-Grand Union that always seems ready to shutter.

“They don’t have anything.” This was true.

“Jameson’s doesn’t have smoked mozzarella,” I said. I had become a fanatic for smoked mozzarella ever since Paul cooked spaghetti one night and added chopped asparagus, pan-crisped pancetta, and the smoked mozzarella, cubed.

“That’s not true,” said Darren, almost angrily, “I’ve seen them. Slabs of smoked mozzarella wrapped in plastic.”

“No, it’s smoked Gouda.”

“It’s the smoked Gouda? I was sure it was mozzarella.”

“I don’t think so. Unless they were out.”

“That must be it. They were out.”

“Actually, I think that Jameson’s is overrated and Price Chopper underrated. I like Price Chopper’s produce.” Produce was a touchy point with me, because the Grand Union sells aging, soft vegetables. Its biggest seller seems to be the fried chicken.

“The lines are longer at Price Chopper,” chimed in some guy sitting next to me.

“Maybe, but I’ve seen lines at Jameson’s, too.”

“Not at around three. There were like ten people in the whole store.”

“You know what you can get at Grand Union and not at those other places?” said Darren, looking wistful.


“A great assortment of tater tots.”

“That’s completely true,” said the other guy.

“In fact, they have those tater crowns.”

“What are those?”

“Just the top part of the tater tot.”

The other guy nodded. “It basically has no potato. Just tot.”

“So only the crispy part?” I said. This reminded me of something. “You know the best way to cook tater tots is to bake them twice the time the instructions say.”


“Yes. The outside gets completely crispy and the insides go to total mush.”

The barista had been listening to us, and now she spoke. “Jesus, guys, just grow your own vegetables.”

“I’ve been trying,” I said. “I have a black thumb. It turns out that plants want water.”

“What kind of plants?”

“Well, I have one of those hanging plants where the flowers cascade down? I thought it would look good hanging from the garage.”

She nodded, knowing what I meant. Everyone has them here. Hanging pots with gorgeous cascades of flowers pouring down. Mine had died within weeks. I had thought that the rain was going to give it enough water. When I complained to a friend about this after seeing his array of healthy plants hanging from his porch, he told me that “plants tell you when they’re happy.”

“What kind of flower is it?” the barista asked.

“I don’t know, white.”

“Kind of fluted?”


“Well, they’re probably petunias. They like water.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I work at a nursery.” She said this with great enthusiasm.

“I’m killing my tomato plants, too. Hey, maybe you can help me. My brother-in-law made me a garden in the backyard and he built a wooden frame for it. But I just read that if they’re made out of pressure treated wood, the chemicals will leach into the soil and get into the vegetables.”

“You should use cedar. It’s resistant to decomposing and getting eaten away by those little bugs.”

“Wow, thanks. So I should probably get that soil out, right? And replace it?”

“I don’t think so. So this is the garden’s first season?”

“Yeah. And maybe the last. Except I’ve never tasted arugula that fresh and pungent. It filled the whole kitchen.”

“Gardens rock. But I think you can keep the soil. If it’s new the chemicals won’t have gotten so deep in the soil and they’ll wash away over time. Just replace the frame with cedar and you’ll be great.”

Like I said, I always receive a bit of unexpected wisdom during those idle hours of circular chatting.

Then the other guy suddenly said, “Don’t ever get fish at Jameson’s though. Putrid. In that respect, Price Chopper is superior.”

Darren rose from his stool.

“I have to go up to the farm and look at some firewood.”

August 13, 2009

A Buddhist at Breakfast

VERMONT“What you need to be careful of, what you need to really watch out for is not to be duplicitous on yourself.

This was at the café, of course, but on the porch outside. Not Darren this time, but an older gentleman with shoulder-length silver hair, talking to a woman, a much younger woman who paid him rapt attention. The man was leaning back in a plastic chair, fingering the handle of his tea cup. I had taken a seat nearby with my coffee with the idea of reading the paper. It was a relaxing, warm morning, disrupted occasionally by a logging truck thundering through town carrying its corpses to the mill by the river.

“I know,” she replied, “duplicity is something I try to fight against. Against myself.”

“No, not against yourself.”

“No no, of course not. I didn’t really mean against.”

“More like with yourself.”

Into a notebook the woman wrote everything the man said. He sounded like a “Dan” to me. He had probably started off as a city dweller who occasionally retreated to the southwest and even as far as Nepal, possibly also taking classes and receiving certification in acupuncture. Dan might have had a guru, might have forced himself to take Bikram yoga, and if he drank caffeine might have taken it only in the form of green tea. Clearly he followed Buddhism.

“You take the two paths of a river,” Dan continued patiently. “You know how there’s that main part of the river and then a tributary will fork off? Maybe they go in the same direction for a while, running in parallel. That’s you, the two parts. One that needs to progress – life’s a process, right? – and another that’s observing this life process and trying to find its own way.”

Dan spoke his words with the mild strength of someone who took it for granted that he spoke the truth. Like a teacher or a doctor. Of course, his tone suggested, all this is self evident.

Right, we’re like two rivers,” said the woman.

“And then, you see, they merge,” concluded Dan, his voice modulating at the end in a way to make him sound pleased. With himself.

“They always merge,” the woman said dreamily.

I’d heard just about enough of this so I went to the post office down the road to get some stamps. As I headed back to the center of the village, I saw the young woman driving away from the café. Dan sat next to her. The young woman’s expression was intense, focused, as though she were following something. Dan sat as far away from the woman as possible. Facing her, he had pressed his back against his window.  I don’t know what had transpired between them, but as they drove past I could see that Dan wore a nervous – almost frightened – look on his face.