Category Archives: Farm Stands

Ode To A Sugar Shack

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‘Tis the finest time of spring, when all wend their ways into the hinterlands to observe the annual Boiling of the Sap, the Making of the Maple Syrup, and the Dining At The Farm.  One of the finest traditions of Western Massachusetts is the Sugar House, or the Sugar Shack: a place where you can experience the turning of the year.  There truly is nothing like wandering into the sugar house while the boiling is underway.  You drive miles on country roads, pitted by the winter’s plowing, with the rotting snowbanks, dingy and grey, lining the path.  The trees are naked, and the landscape is utterly devoid of even the hint of color.  There are no signs of spring…

…not until you round a bend, and spy a rustic wooden hut, with a small cupola jetting powerful clouds of fragrant steam.  You can’t smell it, not yet, but you know.  If you’re in Western Massachusetts, where we have a regional speciality in this sort of thing, you may find a large parking lot next to the hut, loaded to the brim with expensive sport utility vehicles, luxury sedans, hybrid hatchbacks, and snowmobiles – and in the right place – a hitching rail with saddled and blanketed horses attached.  These happy travelers are here not just for the joy of socializing with the sugar-maker, but for a fresh breakfast, farm-style, with eggs and sausage, and bacon, and waffles, and pancakes, and – if you are in the very right place – corn fritters.  All served with the freshest possible maple syrup, almost straight from the evaporator to your table.

There’s nothing like a cup of coffee, no matter how pedestrian the bean or the roast, that is served piping hot, with a drizzle of warm maple syrup to sweeten it up.  Even those who do not take their coffee “sweet” may find themselves adopting a new attitude when it’s a dollop of freshly-boiled maple syrup added to the cup.  There’s also nothing like a hot corn fritter, served with a small pool of the syrup on the side.

Last year, our favorite sugar house, South Face Farm, announced that it was their last year of operations for the breakfast business.  Roy and I felt as though a small light had gone right out of our lives.  The building, the staff, the coffee, the drive from our hometown, but especially, the corn fritters.  This place was one of those things that makes Mud Season in New England worth living through.  Imagine our joy when the local community rallied behind the operation, and opened the restaurant once again for the current season.  Unbounded, that’s what it was.  Ecstatic.  I ate four (4) corn fritters all by myself, just in a pure spirit of celebration.  It was a moment to inspire one to Poetry.  And thus, I offer you this:

An Ode To A Sugar House.

We ariseth from the winter’s shrinking grip
As growing daylight warms the air from chilling night
And snow-cover’d passages thaw, freeze, and slip
While suns’ rays set the heavenly dome alight.
Now in the growing days of spring
Does sap burst up in every maple’s core
While farmer tramps through softening snow
The brimming bucket full of sap to bring
Nectar, prime for boiling o’er a flaming pyre for
To shrink that juice into a tender sweetening flow.

And in that time of sweetly springing
Do folk long for pilgrimages rural
As birds anew are gently singing
Upon the gnarled maple burl.
And then, do farmers launch their toil
While waiting hand and foot at table
While pilgrims seek waffles, coffee, and cakes
The handy product of the farmers’ boil
All sweetened to the heights with essence maple
That with the work and boiling, farmer makes.

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Adventures in Locavoring

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Now, this is a somewhat…historical…account.  As in, it took place several years ago, and the names and places have almost certainly changed since then.  I don’t remember the original ones anyway, so if there are any Federal Agents monitoring my Internet traffic, don’t even bother, because I don’t know.

But I digress.

Back in the day, several years ago, Roy and I decided to take a short junket into the surrounding countryside and immerse ourselves in Pastoral Tranquility, with Lunch.  We headed out and eventually found ourselves in a town not too distant from our home base, a town with a reputation as a bit of an artists’ colony, and thus with the massive influx of New Yorkers that appears in any New England burg that gets a rep for being an Artists’ Colony, some possibilities for good dining.

Never let anyone say that New Yorkers aren’t good for anything people would want.  We all know they’re good for certain things, it’s just that many of those things are widely regarded (outside of New York) as Undesirable.  I’m here to tell you it isn’t always that way.  Where there be New Yorkers, there also be High End Coffee and Good Food.  I’m not sure whether this is fleas to dogs, or stink to – well, never mind.  The two come together.

So, since we knew that Village X had acquired a reputation for Artists we hoped that the influx of New Yorkers, and thus, Good Food, had already occurred, and we stopped there for lunch.

We found ourselves sitting outside on a wooden deck, overlooking a Scenic Waterway.  So far, so good.  I observed that the menu had four different microbrews on tap.  Another decent sign, although, really one wishes to see the number of local microbrews on tap in double-digit numbers, not just 4 of them.  But.  I noticed they had a Specialty Drink list.

I love Specialty Drinks.  I keep a huge liquor cabinet with eight different kinds of bitters on hand.  I have three cookbooks that consist entirely of cocktails, especially antique cocktails or those prominently featuring bitters.  It is the closest I come to being a Hipster.  I always ask, and check out, the Specialty Drinks for any bar or restaurant I encounter.

I am also a Brown Liquor Person.  In my world, people largely sort themselves out as either Clear Liquor People (those who like actual real martinis, and drinks made from vodka, gin, and tequila) and Brown Liquor people (those who prefer bourbons, whiskies, rye, and Scotch).  I am a Brown Liquor Person, and have a significant personal collection of single-malt Scotch, and keep three different kinds of rye on hand, and actually have all of the ingredients required to make a proper Sazerac (including the absinthe for rinsing the glass).

So when I saw that the Specialty Drink menu for this establishment featured something called a “Local Manhattan” my interest was powerfully piqued.  I love Manhattans.  I can do lectures on Manhattans.  Manhattans are properly made with rye, dammit, but in a desperate moment, Makers’ Mark or another decent bourbon is acceptable.  There is no substitute for the vermouth or the bitters.  They should have a cherry.  The cherry is the only non-alcoholic component of the drink.  They should be served in a martini glass. Drinking a Manhattan out of a highball glass makes you look like an alcoholic.  And so forth.

If some place has a Manhattan, or variant of Manhattan, on their Drink List, I will always order that.

So, hence, the Local Manhattan.  Featuring, as the menu said “local micro-distilled whisky”.

That’s funny, I thought.  I was unaware that this region had a Distilling Tradition.  But hey, we’ve got a malting floor so that the local beers can be truly “local”, we’ve got steadily increasing numbers of local microbrews, we have local cheeses, we have local maple syrup, we are basically a Locavore Paradise – as long as it’s summer – so why not a bunch of trust-fund hippies from Brooklyn setting up a “local micro-distillery”?

Why not?

I ordered it.  “Give me a Local Manhattan” I said to the waiter.

The waiter said “What?”

I said “A Local Manhattan.”

The waiter said “What’s that?”

I suggested that the waiter desist bothering me with these petty concerns, the thing is on the menu, and the proper response here is to take it up with the bartender. Blasted millennial snowflakes.

The waiter sloped off, and returned five minutes later with the waters we’d ordered.  They came in mason jars.  Mason jars, for the Uninitiated, are canning supplies.  When someone’s granny or mom is pickling things or making jams or “canning” what they’re doing is cooking things in a particular way, and pouring those things into sterilized mason jars, and sealing them up.  Mason jars are those glass jars with embossed things on the outside, and a lip that is threaded for a screw-on lid.  They have “Ball” spelled out on them in raised glass. I don’t know why they’re called “Mason jars” and not “Ball jars”.  It’s a Southern Thing.

This is a mason jar. It says “MASON” but it says “Ball” in bigger letters. It’s still a mason jar. Go figure.

So, anyway, our waters come out in a mason jar.  How very…rustic…I thought.  If I were dining at the sort of place that featured fried green tomatoes, or cornbread in any form, or catfish, or fried corn, I’d expect the mason jar.  I wasn’t expecting the mason jar at a gastropub in a New England Art Colony.

Still. I had hopes.

The drinks arrived.

Roy had a perfectly sensible local beer.

My “Local Manhattan” turned out to be 16 ounces of something clear in another mason jar.

I was…surprised.  Typically, Manhattans are made from Brown Liquor, not Clear Liquor.

As a long-time veteran of situations involving friends with pretensions to alcohol manufacture who stick cups of things in front of one and say, chirpily, “Try this!” I reflexively took a deep breath before sampling my Local Manhattan.

Taking a deep breath is vitally important when sampling Alcohol of an Unknown Provenance.  You never ever want to wind up taking a swallow of Foreign Liquor and then needing to breathe in immediately after.  That’s a good way to scorch your windpipe with Fumes.  No.  You always breathe in first, then swallow, and then breathe out, ensuring that any flammable fumes are directed into the external air supply rather than towards your lungs.

It’s a good thing I have these Instincts, too, because as soon as I took that slug of “Local Manhattan” from the mason jar, I knew immediately what the “local micro-distilled whisky” was.

It was moonshine.

White lightnin’.

Corn squeezin’s.

And there is no alcohol where it is more important to breathe out immediately after sampling than corn squeezins.  None.  You breathe in after slugging down white lightnin, you can send yourself to the hospital.  I’m pretty sure that moonshine is where I learned that rule.

Good thing, too.  I must have had a priceless expression on my face, too, because Roy stopped in the middle of a sentence and started saying “What? What? What is it? What?” over and over again.  I exhaled, and I was surprised not to be breathing flames across the table.

Local micro-distilled whisky.

I don’t reckon I’ve ever heard a description that was both so very accurate, and so very misleading, all in one short set of words.  And there was me, with a freaking pint of white lightnin’, the only beverage that this establishment was appropriately serving in a mason jar, sitting on the table in front of me. I related this priceless tale later to someone who – evidently not understanding the fundamental issue – wanted to know if I’d finished the whole glass.  What the hell do I look like, I said.  Uncle Jesse?  Daisy Duke?  Boss Hogg?  Who the hell drinks an entire pint of moonshine?  I certainly don’t know anyone who would.  No.  I drank as much as I could, for novelty’s sake, and then bailed out.

Years later, I am still baffled by questions.  How did the bartender get hold of enough moonshine to put it on the Specialty Drink list?  Where did it come from?  Who the hell, other than me, ordered this stuff?  And, of course, as an accounting professor, I have a persistent question in my mind about Excise Taxes…or, as I learned about it in my childhood, the Revenooers.  Inquiring minds want to know but, as the book says, one must get used to disappointment.

 

 

 

The National Cuisine of a New England Autumn

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It’s now that Most Wonderful Time of the year in New England: early fall.  The farm stands still offer up the last fresh corn of the season, bursting with sweetness; the last fresh tomatoes of the season, round and juicy; and without a freeze, the basil plants are still yielding up their best –  but to this mix they’re now adding the glorious treat of winter squash.

The leaves are starting to blaze with color – the reds of the sugar maples launching fire into the sky.

The days are warm and sunny, the nights bring on a chill.

New England cooks are warming up the roasting pans, the cocottes, the slow cookers, and still the grills are going.

The National Costume of New England is manifesting on the streets:  shorts, loafers, and long-sleeved shirts and light jackets.

The Wild Horse Wind has been blowing and lashing Huey, who is old enough to know better, into extending challenges to all comers – paddock races and bucking contests.

The long shadow cast by Johnny Appleseed over western Massachusetts brings us acres and acres of gnarled, twisting trees, fully loaded with ripe red fruit, ready to fall off into the hand.

Festivals and harvest fairs are breaking out in every small town and rural district, filling the air with the scent of popcorn and grilling meat.

The corn mazes are at a state of perfection.

Everywhere you turn, you find a roadside stand selling the National Fall Flower of New England: the mum.  In reds, and oranges, and whites, but – mostly – in yellows.  Three for ten dollars, plant them now, and they’ll overwinter and bring a blast of color to the garden next year too.

The pumpkin patches have erupted.  Beyond the traditional pumpkin patches that one encounters elsewhere in the country – with massive ripe orange gourds begging to be carved into a frightening face and lit from within – there are uncountable types of other decorative gourdes, enough to make Martha Stewart swoon with envy.  And the culinary squash, too, has arrived. Giant Blue Hubbards.  Sugar Pumpkins. Delicatas. Butternuts. Acorns. Kabochas. Kuris. Dumplings. Turbans. Buttercups. Carnivals.  Bins of them at every major farm stand.  Crates of them loaded onto the paneled farm trucks rattling down the roads.   Flat bed trailers piled high with every sort of pumpkin known to Man.  Heaps of decorative Indian corn, wired for hanging on the doorposts. Straw bales, corn shooks, all ready for creating a Festive Fall Display on the front lawn.

Everyone does it.

And so it was that Roy and I made our Annual Mum and Gourd Run this weekend.  It is my habit to kill two birds with one stone, buy buying a massive quantity of beautiful winter squash…and then storing it by heaping it decoratively about the house.  My Interior Decor shrinks by the month.  Of course, we also have to get the mums (three for $10)…and then there’s the vitally important difference between Inside Pumpkins and Outside Pumpkins.  Inside pumpkins are there to be eaten, by us.  Outside pumpkins are there to be stolen by degenerate hipsters, or eaten by the squirrels.   Mums are to stay on the porch all season, but – and this is important – MUST be tossed out before the hard freezes set in consistently.  Otherwise, they freeze onto the porch and will still be there in the spring, looking vastly the worse for wear.

Roy is a tremendously good sport about all of this.  I don’t know whether he cares that the porch has pumpkins and mums. But he knows it’s important to me, and he hires himself along as the Brawn.

Besides.  It’s pumpkin and apple season and the other thing this means in New England is CIDER.  Specifically, Cider Donuts.  As they say in France, the specialite de la region.  So as we carouse from farm stand to farm stand in the quest for the perfect squash and mums, Roy is on the quest for the perfect Cider Donut.  It is at our last stop that he sees the Holy Grail.  Not only do they have homemade Cider Donuts…but this farm stand is also one of the neighborhood’s Sugar Shacks – source of all things sweet and mapley.  Which means they also have Maple Soft Serve.

As I execute the purchase of approximately 80 pounds of winter squash, Roy discovers that the marriage of the Cider Donut and the Maple Soft Serve is one that was surely made in heaven.  And, because he is amazing, he must share this with me.  Right now.  Despite the fact that my hands are coated in earth that has rubbed off from the hundreds of squash I am inspecting carefully for breaks in the skin and bruises.  So, bless his heart, he breaks off a piece of the donut, dips it into the soft serve, and holds it out for me to eat from his hand.  And here I thought all that time spent teaching him how to feed treats to Huey was wasted.

He was right.  It was insane, this combination.

Come to New England and find out for yourself.  In the meantime, here’s what we had for dinner last night.

Roasted Sausage and Squash
a good solid pound and a half (or more) of winter squash of your choice, peeled, seeded, and cut into small chunks.
2 big tart apples like Paula Reds, peeled, cored, and cut into smaller chunks than you cut the squash
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 lb chicken sausages, fried up and cut into slices about a half-inch thick
a head of garlic, broken into cloves, and peeled
3 T olive oil (I use the butternut squash seed oil from Zingermans)
palmful of chopped fresh rosemary
a generous tablespoon of chopped fresh sage
short palmful of chopped fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar

Heat oven to 450°F. Toss everything but the vinegar together, and load up into a large roasting pan that has been generously greased. I usually need two roasting pans. Roast until squash is tender about 30 minutes. Drizzle with vinegar. Serves 4.

Saturday Market

Yeah, that was right down the street.

Corn, Corn, Corn, Corn…Corn, Corn, Corn, Corn…

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Life with The Wonder Horse continues to be fraught with many thrills and chills.  Last week it was (we think) a badly stubbed toe and accompanying temporary yet frightening lameness.  This week, it’s either a reaction to wearing his protective neoprene boots for too long due to a miscommunication OR it’s sore legs from stomping flies and or running around like a loon after he exercised some poor judgment and removed his fly mask overnight.  It’s obviously one of those times when, as we say in the south, it never rains but it pours. Roy is hanging along for the ride with the Roller Coaster that is Horse Ownership.  The one thing I can say for sure about having a horse is that I never find myself sitting around, bored, and thinking that my life lacks Drama and Excitement.  Roy is the best possible sport about all of it, too.

Meanwhile, it’s late July in New England, and the corn – despite the dreadful weather of the earlier summer – is starting to arrive in cartloads at every market and farm stand.  This enables me to engage in the Time-Honored Approach to Worry:  Distraction Through Cooking.  What we have now are the season’s best tomatoes, the early corn, peaches, and blueberries.   So this week, in lieu of an entertaining story, I’m going to share my favorite High Summer recipes.  YMMV, but these are all in my Permanent Record.

Corn and Peach Bisque
6 ears corn
1 onion, diced
2 good cloves garlic, minced
3 large ripe peaches, peeled, pitted, and chopped (peel these like tomatoes, cut an x in the skin and blanch in boiling water)
6 C chicken stock
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 C heavy cream

Strip the kernels off of the ears of corn, and put both the kernels and the cobs in a large stewpot. Put the onion, garlic, peaches, stock, and cayenne in the pot and bring to a boil.  Turn down to a fast simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes.  Cool, then run through a blender to puree. Stir in whipping cream and serve warm.

Tomato and Basil Soup
2 T olive oil
3 medium carrots, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
Generous palm-ful of fresh thyme
2 T minced garlic
1 bay leaf
3 pounds of fresh tomatoes, peeled (cut an x in the skin and blanch in boiling water to peel)
1¾ C chicken stock
big bunch chopped fresh basil
½ C heavy cream

Heat olive oil in heavy pot over medium heat.  Add chopped vegetables and saute until they soften.  Throw in thyme, garlic, bay leaf, tomatoes, and stock;  simmer until tomatoes fall apart.  Add chopped basil.  Working in batches, puree soup in blender.  Mix in cream and season with salt and pepper.  Warm in cleaned pot and serve hot, sprinkled with more chopped basil and tomatoes.

Cucumber and Avocado Soup
1 large hothouse cucumber, peeled and diced
2½C buttermilk
1 avocado, pitted peeled
4 T chopped red onion
2 T chopped fresh basil
½ C seeded chopped tomato
2 t fresh lime juice
4 T plain nonfat yogurt

Combine cucumber and buttermilk in blender. Chop 1/4 of avocado; set aside for topping. Cut remaining avocado into chunks. Add avocado to blender; then add 2 tablespoons red onion and 1 tablespoon basil. Blend until very smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Cover; refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour. Mix remaining 1/4 avocado with remaining onion and basil, tomato, and lime juice in bowl. Serve soup cold, topped with a tablespoon of yogurt and a spoonful of the tomato-avocado topping

Corn Bisque
4 T butter
2 C chopped red or sweet yellow onions
1 large carrot, diced
1 large stalk celery, diced
kernels stripped from 7 or 8 ears of corn (about 7 cups)
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped
dash of cayenne pepper
6 cups chicken stock
1 C half-and-half
1 red bell pepper, chopped

Melt 3 T butter in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrot and celery and sauté until the onions begin to become translucent. Add 5 cups of corn, the rosemary and cayenne, and sauté until fragrant. Add stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender and liquid is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

While the soup is cooking, melt remaining 1 T butter in heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper and sauté until almost tender.

Purée soup in blender. Return soup to pot. Mix in half and half, remaining corn, and the sauteed pepper. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

huey01

Into every life, some horse-generated excitement should fall…like hailstones.

They Call It Mud Season

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And rightly so. The snows come, they cover the ground and look beautiful, and then – when the temperatures warm and rain begins to fall from the sky – they melt.  Onto frozen ground, at first.  Frozen ground doesn’t absorb water well, so the puddles of melt fill up all of the low-lying areas.  And then they freeze.  And they thaw and they freeze and they thaw.  Eventually, the ground also begins to thaw, and when it does, it releases whatever water fell on it in the fall before the frost set in.  Usually, while this happens, we get the “March coming in like a lion” and “April showers” that sound so delightfully poetic, but really mean days and days of leaden grey skies dropping mixtures of cold frozen and liquid precipitation, and finally, going to all rain.  Which combines with the thawing earth and the runoff problems to create giant natural tanks of mud.

This isn’t the nice kind of mud that rich people pay bazillions of dollars to be covered with by spa personnel.  This isn’t even the nice kind of mud that small children make mudpies from and get filthy.

This is Special Mud.  It’s black and slimy and has the consistency of a well-chewed Jujube.  To say that it is sticky is an understand of grotesque proportions.  This mud…sucks.  It will suck your shoe off.  It can even suck your boot off.   Popular wisdom says it sucks the shoes right off the horses, although my farrier and trainer don’t agree.  If you’re unlucky enough to be wearing those ultra-comfy looking ragg socks under your wellies, or duck shoes, the mud can even suck the sock right off your foot.  Really.  I’ve seen it happen.  There’s nothing quite like  standing out in a sucking mud covered horse paddock with the March wind screaming right through your skin and tickling your bones before it leaves out the other side with rain and sleet sheeting down sideways, trying to halter a horse that is High On Life and doesn’t want to be caught because it’s bored and this?  To a horse?  Some of the finest entertainment available.  And then the horse slows its rodeo down for one minute, you step forward softly so as not to set the blasted thing off again, and realize instantly that while your foot has risen from the mirk, your shoe has not.  And the mud is starting to fill in the hole where your shoe was last seen.  And now there’s no place to put your sock-clad foot.

Those moments are when you really know you’re alive, I tell you.

So, yes, Mud Season works.  I just feel that it is so much  more, this season.

For instance, it is also Chuckhole Season.  We didn’t have this issue in Texas.  We had other issues.  But this one is the one where the snow comes down and piles up on the roads, and in order for anyone to get anywhere, like ambulances and fire trucks, something has to happen to get the snow off the road.  In Texas, we called that “waiting an hour”.  In the north, we call that “a plow”. Here’s the thing about plows.  They’re made of metal.  The truck part is metal and the big scoopy scrapy blade is also metal.  I’ve actually seen a plow blade throwing off sparks from contact with the road surface.  Talk about a seriously cool sight.

Having a massive truck with a gigantic metal blade scraping the snow off the road at 30 mph sounds like an awesome idea until you stop and actually think about what it’s scraping against.  Asphalt, up here.  And asphalt is a surface known for being pristinely flat and smooth for about 5 minutes, until that huge truck with the giant wheel that flattens the road when it’s being paved moves 10 feet down.  After that, asphalt is known for its artistic texture.  And that texture?  Doesn’t neatly match the bottom of that giant metal blade on the plow.  Which means that the plow has a choice:  either leave a layer of snow and ice in any low-ish or wavy spot in the road, which is 1,000,000 per square yard of asphalt OR it can scrape the hell out of the road to get all that stuff off.  The problem with option 1 is that the road still isn’t safe to drive on, which is kind of the whole point of the plow.  The problem with option 2 is that any edge, angle, or loose bit of asphalt, which is only 10,000 per square yard, gets ripped right out of the road.  And deposited on the margin, where it can be found 2 years later with grass growing up through it.

I once had an entire clump of chives relocated 3 feet away by a plow.

So the plows, in performing their extremely valuable service for the safety of mankind, chew up the roads when they do so.  And what that does, it makes more low spots in the road.  See above, under March Like A Lion and April Showers to grasp the enormity of this statement.  And the road crews can’t patch all that stuff up until it’s warm enough, or dry enough, or both…I’m not sure, but what I do know, is they don’t patch that stuff in March.  Or April.

The upshot of all this dynamic physics is that by this time of the year, every road in town has had every patch from last year’s road repairs ripped out of the ground, and those holes have expanded from freeze-thaw cycles, and then the plows have created a fresh crop, to boot.

Every thoroughfare becomes a slalom course.  Unless you want to blow a tire (which I’ve done) or blow out your suspension (ditto) by driving over the holes.

We have chuckholes on my street that could eat small children.  We have chuckholes that have extended families, and they’ve all come for a long visit.  We have chuckholes that could hide the national debt of Greece.

It’s Chuckhole Season every bit as much as it is Mud Season.

It’s also Maple Season.  The nights are freezing, the days are warm, and the sap is flowing.  Farmers are out working the sugarbush with complicated arrangements of taps and hoses.  Farmers are out working the sugarbush with vats and snowmobiles.  Farmers are out working the sugarbush with metal buckets that wear pointy hats, and bringing it in with a horse-drawn sledge.  Farmers are staying up until 3am boiling the sap to make that maple syrup.  Farmer’s families are operating small seasonal restaurants and serving brunches comprised of rustic food like pancakes, waffles, and corn fritters, and bringing bottomless cups of coffee and pitchers of hot maple syrup.

Every country road features a small outbuilding with an oddly ventilated roof, huge stacks of wood, and steam pouring out through every hole in the building.

Maple syrup is expensive, no question…but if you’ve ever seen what it takes to get it from the tree into the plastic jug, you won’t blink at the price.  It would be cheap at twice the price.  This stuff was a specialty item in Texas, hard to come by and priced like an ounce of gold.  Here in New England, buying it from the farmer, it’s much less expensive, which means that one doesn’t feel compelled to “save” it for a special occasion, and one can cook with it freely.  I had a maple-brined turkey breast this winter that required the use of one whole pint of maple syrup.  This would have been unthinkable in Texas.  I might as well have filled a tub with 14K gold leaf to bathe in it, as use two cups of maple syrup for a single meal.

It was unbelievably good, this dish, I will say that.

So, hot farm breakfasts, boiling sap, and – of course – plenty of mud, and this is also Maple Season.

It is also Shedding Season.

The Wonder Horse doesn’t make much of a winter coat.  He makes some winter coat, but not like some of the horses at the barn who look like ultra-cute plush toy horses at this time of the year.  One of the horses that was at the barn last year?  Grew a winter coat four inches thick.  I swear it.  Huey doesn’t get a gorgeous fluffy winter coat.  He just looks…scruffy.  He gets a beard, which makes him look old.  Mysteriously, in the last month, he manufactured a beautiful set of curly strawberry blond feathers on all of his fetlocks.  Why curly?  Why blond?  Why now?  I don’t know.  I do know they are seriously cute, though, and I’m going to be sorry when they either fall out or have to get clipped off for a show.  The beard, I will not miss at all.  It makes him look like the guy who sits around under the railroad trestle all day with the bottle of Schlitz malt liquor in the brown paper bag.  I look forward to the disappearance of that beard.

This is the time of year, I read recently, when riders are covered in mud up to the waist, and with hair from the waist up.  True, because as the days quickly grow longer, it is the time to say “Adieu” to whatever winter coat the horse managed to put on.

A source of perennial amazement to me is how – despite the fact that Huey’s “winter coat” is barely perceptible – he still managed to shed like an over-stressed Persian cat.  It is a prodigious volume of hair that falls off of him.  And, usually, sticks to me.  This time of year, you can tell when I’ve been to the barn, because I shine red, all over, in the sunlight.

Of late, Huey’s coat has been notable mainly for the presence of large quantities of dirt, dust, and dandruff.  He is filthy.  Not in that fun photo op way of being entirely covered in mud.  No.  He’s just dirty.  It’s almost not worth brushing him, because the brush only brings up more dirt and then moves it around.  We are well past the point of brushes actually removing dirt.  The only thing that is going to remove dirt at this point is a large quantity of water, preferably from a hose with a squirt nozzle, a big bucket of shampoo, and another hose-driven deluge.  This, of course, requires temperatures that we’re unlikely to see any time soon, so I have to just remind myself that my horse really is red.

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This is the horse I was issued at the factory.

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This is the horse I have now. Note the scruffy beard, the filth, and the surly look in the eye. What you can’t see from this picture is the gummy texture off the mane.

One happy thought occurred to me this morning.  The dirty hair is falling out, yes?  And the hair that is replacing it clean, yes?  Then maybe he will be a Self-Cleaning Horse.

Yeah, I know.  I used to think if I lay out in the sun long enough, I would get so many freckles that they’d all blend together and make an awesome tan, too.  Spring blooms eternal in the hopeful breast.

So it is Shedding Season.

The last, but certainly not the least, is Spring Skiing Season.

Spring skiing is that bittersweet time of the year when the snow is at its absolute best, and the sun smiles down at the earth, and the cool breezes caress skin that has not been exposed in months…but it also marks the Beginning Of The End.  We have, at best, one more month of skiing, and then it’s back to the Ninth Hell of No Skiing for another 8 months.  It’s just so unfair.  It gets great right before it dies, just to make the sorrow of parting that much more painful.  I can’t dwell on this very long or I’ll go into a depression.

But it is also Spring Skiing Season.

Here are the goods.