Big Sugar, So Many Cupcakes

Big sugar yellow cupcake chocolate frosting

Greetings from Los Angeles.

I spent a couple of hours this morning at my friend Lisa’s bakery, Big Sugar. If you haven’t been to Big Sugar, you are missing out. Pretty much everything Lisa makes is better than anyone else’s. Cupcakes, cookies, and especially her Buckeyes—those creamy peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate that look like chocolate eyeballs and taste like heaven.

big sugar buckeye dipped

I went to Big Sugar at 6 a.m. this morning and watched Lisa and her crew bake. A team of three—including Lisa—work a seven hour shift every morning to make several hundred cupcakes per day. Even more than normal today, because it’s Saturday—which is a big day for cupcake consumption.

Many women I know fantasize about how much simpler and less stressful their life would be if they started some sort of food business.

Simpler and less stressful, I laugh. About two-hundred cupcakes plus dozens of other treats per day. Not to mention frantic and desperate parents calling to say, “Today is my daughter’s birthday and I need a cake right away.”

From what I see, simpler and less stressful is not a valid definition.Big sugar cupcake batter

 

At Big Sugar, the cupcake baking process is fast and streamlined. Batter gets scooped a tray that holds twenty-four cupcakes. The filled tray gets popped into the oven. One batch comes out, another goes in. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s as smoothly choreographed as a ballet.

Big sugar red velvet cupcake batter

Big sugar red velvet cupcakes baking

Cooled cupcakes get iced. Lisa creates a perfect frosting swirl on the top of every cupcake. Her process is to plop a healthy dollop of frosting into the middle of a cupcake, then softly pat it down about nine times with a short, wide spatula to get the frosting spread evenly. Then she pushes the top of the spatula lightly into the frosting puddle and quickly gives the cupcake one complete twirl. The twirling creates a small, circular indent in the frosting that looks sort of like a moat surrounding a hill.

Big sugar cupcake swirl

Lisa’s final step is to give the cupcake a quick twirl in the opposite direction while pulling the spatula toward the center.

Big sugar cupcake final swirl

Ta-da! A perfect icing swirl.

The trick is to complete the swirl process in seven seconds—or less—per cupcake. Lisa does it so fast you can barely see what she’s doing. That’s what you have to do to have two-hundred or more cupcakes ready at opening time.

I watch Lisa frost tray after tray. She is fast and precise. There are no mistakes. Not a single cupcake needs to be re-frosted.

Big sugar cupcakes on tray

Some of the finished cupcakes get placed in three straight lines on white rectangular trays. These will sit on display inside a glass case near the cash register. Some of the cupcakes go into bleach-white boxes with Big Sugar stickers precisely adhered to the bottom right corner of the lid.

Big Sugar box

Hundreds of cupcakes plus donut muffins and scones and buckeyes EVERY DAY. My head spins. “How do you do it?” I ask.

Big sugar mini-cupcakes

“You have to be a tiny bit ill—OCD—to really excel,” Lisa says.

I’m tempted to try the frosting twirling when I get home, but I’m going to try to resist the urge. I just don’t think I have it in me.

It’s probably better to leave the cupcake baking to the experts.

 

Sultry, Sexy Savannah

Savannah square

Ron and I are visiting Savannah for three days. I can’t start to tell you how beautiful the historic district here is. Tall trees arch nimbly over public squares. Spanish moss dangles from branches.

Think New Orleans Garden District without the sleazy stuff.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil house

I can’t stop staring at the antebellum mansions. Tall columns sprout salad-like Corinthian capitals.

Corinthian columns Mercer House Savannah

Graceful staircases curl upward, connecting sidewalk to front porches. I imagine a Southern belle wearing a full hoop skirt a la Scarlet O’Hara. She steps out of a carriage, then regally parades her way up the stairs and into the front parlor.

Savannah wrought iron

And oh, the wrought iron! Gates and fences and balconies and window grates. They elevate the elegance level of the houses, the way the right scarf can make an outfit sing.

Savannah wrought iron

As we leave our bed and breakfast for dinner, the sultry air hugs us with an earthy perfume. Harmonic insects engulf us in a symphony. Their melodic tsch, tsch, tsch swells and ebbs. I picture the orchestra as Disneyesque, an ensemble of tuxedo-clad crickets, all following the lead of their conductor—a preying mantis.

Savannah trees

This is perfect I think. Why can’t home be like this?

But maybe home is like this. We might not have antebellum architecture, but there are lots of cute bungalows nestled into a sub-tropical landscape. And we do have some of the same earthy smells and charming sounds. But there, I brush them off as ordinary. At home, sultry air equals nasty humidity. And I recognize the aural symphony as what it is: evil bugs eating away at the trees.

But here in Savannah, it all feels extraordinary. But then again, I’m on vacation.

Vacation isn’t really a time or a place. It’s a state of mind.

Personal Perspective-Aliens In Orchids

Orchid sea creature 2

A couple of weeks ago, I took a macro photography class at the Atlanta Botanical Garden with Charles Needle.

Macro photography is where objects are shot larger than life size. It’s really interesting to discover what you notice when you really look up close at things.

We got to shoot in the orchid house, which is an amazing place. Many of the orchids were varieties that I’d never seen before.

orchid squid 3

orchid sea creature

A peach-colored orchid that had a brown spot on its side that resembled an eye–and dangling white tentacles. It looked more sea creature than flower and made me think about snorkeling in Hawaii. When I emailed the botanist the following week, she said it was a variety of Stanhopa.

Alien orchid 1

I also noticed that many of the orchids have a part in the center that looks like a baby alien. The first one I spotted had angry eyes, a yellow gaping mouth (which reminded me the mask worn by the killer in the movie Scream), a well as the requisite oversized throbbing cranium.

orchid alien 2

Another alien had child-bearing hips and spindly arms that reached up and grabbed its head in an “oh no!” gesture.

What great movie premise! Alien embryos secretly deposited inside of Earth flowers grow to unnoticed maturity—then launch an invasion. Will Smith could star…

The rest of you see aliens when you look at orchids too, right?

Madeira Espetada: Spectacle of Meat

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

I’ve been thinking about how when I was a kid, my favorite restaurant meals were the ones where they prepared or served the food with a flourish. Pizza dough tossed to the ceiling, the spinning salad at Lawry’s, Steak Diane flambeéd tableside at the Hotel Roanoke (which looked like this).

Based on my enthusiastic response to the Espetada we were served at Restaurante Santo António on the island of Madeira, this is one aspect of me that hasn’t changed. I can no longer do a cartwheel and it’s been years since I have responded to the call of “Do the hustle.” But bring out the food theatrics—and I’ll push my way to the front of the line.

I gaped and giggled as our waiter approached with a 4-foot long skewer of beef. It was a real man’s man sort of presentation worthy of people like King Henry the Eighth, Neandertahl man and Hagrid.

Really, it was a 4-foot long skewer. With almost 18″ inches of beef chunks. If you don’t believe me, just look at the photos.

When the waiter got to our table, he hung the giant skewer pendulum-like from a four-foot high iron hook that rose out of the middle of our table. With the restaurant’s high ceilings, minimal décor and bulky wood tables, the whole thing had sort of a dramatic, mead-hall feel.

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

The only way it could have been better is if the meat had been served impaled on an actual medieval sword.

I almost wanted to stand up and salute.

Espetada is a traditional dish on the island of Madeira. Big nuggets of meltingly tender beef threaded with a little bit of bay leaf and grilled fast over an open fire. A small plate positioned under the beef catches the drops of au jus that slide down the skewer.

We went at lunchtime, so the place was filled with large, extended families—all happily jabbering away and enjoying their own Espetada.

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

I’d like to thank Joel, a Madeira native I stalked on the message boards of Chowhound.com for leading me to Restaurante Santo António. The restaurant is in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, a mountain village 15-minutes from Funchal. Ron and I got there by cab.

They serve Espetada at some of the restaurants in Funchal, but I never saw in-town skewers more than 12” long. Espetada light, after you’ve seen the super-sized version.

Ron and I tried a chicken skewer too, which had a light yellow curry flavor. Side dishes are salad, Bolo do Caco (a traditional round and somewhat flat loaf served with garlic butter) and Milho Frito—cubes of deep-fried polenta. Everything was really good. If I went back, I’d have the same meal again—maybe with the addition of their French fries.

Whatever you do, don’t touch the skewers. We found out the hard way that they are very hot!

(Get Saveur magazine’s recipe for Espetada here.)

A Quiet Mind? on Monhegan

(Flashback to my trip to Monhegan island this summer—which accurately describes my current ability to achieve a quiet mind as I juggle packing, work, and life)

Day off, quiet mind. That was my goal for my final day on Monhegan. After all, I’d come to this small Maine island to relax.

I’d written my heart out for the past four days—four blog posts completed—and now it was rest time. And not turn on my computer.

Yea! My first no computer day in as long as I could remember.

I lingered in bed until late morning, then climbed down the hill in front of my B&B and scampered out onto the wind-whipped rocks. I chose a sunny spot near the edge of the surf, stretched my legs out in front of me, and sat up as straight as my computer-slouched back would allow. The sun soaked rock beneath me radiated heat upward—nature’s own seat warmer.

I stared out to sea. Listen to the waves and breathe, I told myself. Listen to the waves…

Crash.

Crash.

Crash.

We say that waves crash, but they really don’t. Crash is too sudden, too hard. Crash is the shattering of something man-made—like a baseball through a window or a car slamming into a tree.

What other word can I use to describe for wave sounds? I wondered.

I rejected rumble as too guttural and roar as totally wrong. A wave sounds nothing like a lion.

I listened again and again. Finally, I distinguished three sounds: Whum when the wave started to break; Poom as the water splashed upward; and Kissh as the wave rushed the beach

Whum-poom-kissh.

Whum-Poom…Kissh. That was it. I gave myself an internal high five.

I shifted my seat and renewed my focus on the waves. QUIET MIND, I reminded myself.

Whum-Poom-Kissh.

Whum-Poom-Kissh.

What looked like a huge wave approaching in the distance caught my eye. Look at me, look at me, it called as it drew closer.

Impressive WHUM followed by a dainty-and-unimpressive spurt of a poom—and a barely audible kissh. It was bait and switch. A great-looking brownie that turns out to be not-so-fudgy tasting and kinda dry. I felt gipped.

I dated a guy like that once, I thought.

Whum. POOM. kissh. The next wave came in at an average height, then wooed me with a geyser of a splash. It teased that it would reach me and tickle my toes—but at the last second it turned and receded fast.

Came on strong and then ran. I dated him too, I giggled.

The next wave to roll in was huge. Wow on the WHUM, and oh, what a POOM. But it was the Kissh that took me by surprise. It was a fast blast—forward and back—as though the wave had changed its mind and couldn’t get back out to sea fast enough. It was the kind of wave that sweeps you off your feet, washes you out over your head—and abandons you there.

We’ve all dated him, I smirked.

After that, a very average looking wave moved in. Modest Whum. Respectable Poom. And then the best KISSH of the day—a blast of surf that swirled around my ankles, then lingered to embrace my toes. There was more going on inside that wave than I ever would have imagined by looking at it.

A real committer, I thought. Thank God I married that one. Only a man with patience and persistence could survive living with someone as high maintenance as me.

The next wave Whumed, POOMed, and kisshed. Another strutting peacock…

I stopped myself and laughed. So much for my day not to think. Perhaps some minds just aren’t designed to be quiet. EVER.

I took a deep breath and tried again…

(PS—In case you are wondering, I left the guys’ names out deliberately. I wouldn’t want to give those a-holes the satisfaction of knowing that I even remember them!)

Insect Approval

My desire for the approval of other beings has gone a little bit too far. I’ve turned to insects.

I like when people agree with my choices. When someone tells me they like my shirt, I smile and stand a little straighter. Their compliment validates my choice and makes me feel just a little bit more savvy in regards to my taste.

Connie has great taste, so if she likes my shirt, I must have good taste too…

But insects?

Monhegan is a beautiful island, so of course I spent my first morning walking and snapping photos. First I tacked some big picture items like water vistas and panoramas.

When I arrived at the village, I turned my attention to smaller things. Especially the flowers in people’s gardens.

A clump of purple coneflower drew me in. I’ve always been charmed by the soft backward curve of the fuchsia petals. I have several coneflower plants growing in my own garden.

As I zoomed my lens in, I noticed that many of the blooms hosted Monarch butterflies. In fact, nearly every bloom hosted a butterfly.

I puffed my chest with pride. Monarch butterflies know their flowers—and therefore so must I.

 

Bee balm is another of my favorites, which I have also planted in my garden. It is the punk rocker of the flower world. Spiky petals, pure red, a subtle mint scent.

 

Several honey bees hummed their way from blossom to blossom, feasting on bee balm nectar. I congratulated myself again. If bees like bee balm (duh!), it just proves what a great flower it is.

 

But what about the other flowers? Were coneflower and bee balm the only worthy flowers in the bed?

Whew! I sighed with relief when a pure-white sea rose received the honeybee seal of approval.

Perhaps I need to work on being a little less needy.

Enjoying the Ride

My body had relaxed, thanks to my trip to Primo with Aunt Matoo. Now it was time to work on my head. Specifically my internal Chatterbox, the little voice that is always ready with a list of shoulds and coulds.

It was almost time to catch the ferry to Monhegan island. My chatterbox had ceased to scold, but continued to negotiate.

You can’t take a whole week off of work. What if you work a few hours every day—just to keep up? it said.

I hate you, I answered.

Matoo and I had a little time, so we explored Port Clyde. We walked around the cluster of buildings near the dock. We visited the General Store where locals and visitors congregate for morning for coffee.

Port Clyde is in what they call Downeast Maine. Downeast refers to the fact that to get there, you have to first travel northeast along Route 1—and then travel down a south-pointing finger of land. Maine’s jagged coast is composed of hundreds of these south-pointing fingers, each with its own rustic grey-shingled buildings, misty marshes and rocky coast.

Matoo and I continued our walk. We explored the dock at the Mosquito Island Lobster Company, inhaled briny air, inspected crates of captured lobsters awaiting their fate.

 

We inspected an old door that was broken in just the right places.

 

Felt rhythm in the way kayaks were stacked.

 

At 10 a.m., Matoo and I boarded the ferry.

Maybe just an afternoon or two of work, to complete the communications plan you owe Rob, said Chatterbox.

Just stop, I said.

The Monhegan ferry pulled out. Port Clyde shrunk in the distance.

 

Docks with tiny sheds dotted the shoreline. Seagulls cried quaw-squaw-squaw. Soft waves rippled with light.

 

Color engulfed me, from the lobster buoys…

 

…to the hulls and hardware of the commercial fishing vessels. In Maine morning light, even rust oozes character.

 

Just 30 minutes to update your to-do list, to make sure you’re organized when you get back, said Chatterbox. Chatterbox loves to-do lists.

I’m not listening, I said.

The ferry chugged past Marshall Point Lighthouse. The boat swayed with the waves. I heard the sea, inhaled sea spray.

 

Allen Island, which is owned by the Wyeth family, emerged from the mist. The big white house at the top of the hill emanated an ethereal feel. It looked like a painting—or a ghost of a building.

 

The ferry moved further out to sea. The sun warmed my hair, breeze ticked my skin. I leaned forward to glimpse a small school of dolphins that swam by. I eyed a colony of seals basking in the sun. They eyed me back.

 

In what seemed like minutes, the ferry arrived at Monhegan. As I headed up the hill toward my lodging, I turned to snap a photo.

Wow, I thought. And then I waited.

Silence.

I knew it wouldn’t last long, but for the moment, my chatterbox had been tamed.

 

Across the Threshold

Life is full of happy surprises. Here’s one: A couple of nights ago, I was desperately burned out so I thought that going to dinner might push me over the edge. Instead, it was just the thing I needed to transport me across the threshold from my typical state of stress into a vacation state of mind.

Aunt Matoo and I were on our way to catch the Port Clyde ferry to spend a week writing (me) and painting (her) on Monhegan Island. As we drove, I tried to ignore that I felt terrible. My head throbbed. My eyes hurt. I was used up as a soiled baby wipe.

Around dinnertime, we hit the proverbial fork in the road. Port Clyde, our B&B, and sleep were to the right. Primo, chef Melissa Kelly’s heralded mid-coast Maine restaurant, lay straight ahead. My body begged: turn right. But I knew Matoo wanted to eat at Primo “It’s my friend Barbara’s favorite restaurant in the world,” Matoo had said.

I continued straight.

Ten minutes later we arrived at Primo’s steep gravel driveway. As the rental car climbed upward, my head tilted back to face somewhat skyward. It felt like I was on a roller coaster, climbing the first big hill—looking up and wondering just how scary that first big drop was going to be.

But the big drop never came.

Instead, at the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a panorama. The restaurant, housed in a scrupulously maintained Victorian, stood to our left. To our right, ahead of us and everywhere else sat a lush chartreuse oval of farm—outlined by a curtain of forest and dotted with flower heads of red, blue and gold.

Matoo and I stepped out of the car. The air smelled of earth and meadow. The late afternoon sun painted golden halos around the trees and flowers.

 

We walked to the chicken pen. I eyed a little red hen through the wired fence. She eyed me back. Then she whipped her head to one side and gave me the stink eye. The way teenage girls do when they see you shopping in American Eagle or one of the stores that they consider their domain.

I grinned at her arrogance. The nerve–especially considering someday soon, she was going to be someone’s dinner. Obviously she hadn’t fully grasped the concept of farm-to-table.

In that moment, everything changed. My headache vanished. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to capture what it felt like to be here. The serenity, the beauty, the chicken-with-an-attitude. I sprinted back to the car, grabbed my camera and started snapping away.

For the next twenty minutes, Aunt Matoo and I roamed the farm. We admired the seedlings.

 

We ogled the chicks as they basked under their heat lamp.

 

We envied the tomato plants.

 

We laughed at the pigs.

 

We wondered if the brown and white birds stalking through the lettuce patch were pheasant or partridge or wild turkeys or something else. (I have to say that whatever they were, they were not cooperative. They wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to get a decent photo.) My friend Deb says they are Guinea Hens.

 

After our farm walk, we ate upstairs, in the less-formal portion of the restaurant. Exposed filament light bulbs emit a candle-like glow. The gently vaulted ceiling added warmth and intimacy.

We sat the far end of the copper-clad bar. I took in every detail and scent and taste.

Matoo passed a vase containing the longest, most delicate cheese straws I’d ever seen. I crunched my way from one end to the other, sunk into my stool and took a deep breath.

 

I giggled in delight at our amuse: a fresh cucumber slice topped with smoked trout and radish—waving a tiny fennel-frond flag.

 

I salivated at a waft of the fresh-fried batter encasing our ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms. Like all things fresh-picked—the squash flower tasted like a concentrated version of itself. Likewise, the arugula beneath was eye-openingly peppery.

 

Our salumi arrived, paper-thin slices stacked on a wooden plank: Coppa—a smoky, cured pork product made from the neck portion of the animal. Speck, smoked and cured pork leg. And mortadella with pistachios—finely ground cured pork sausage polka-dotted with small squares of lardo (thinly sliced pork fat).

I remembered the mortadella in the deli at Shop-Rite when I was a child. My little brother and I cringed at the little squares of fat embedded in the meat. Gross. But now, pork belly and lardo are in vogue—so mortadella has been able to climb its way to a much higher rung on the cold cut social ladder.

Smoked swordfish fettuccine in puttanesca sauce arrived in a gloriously sculpted bowl. It was bright white formed into sort of a rounded diamond shape, somewhat like an eye—only less oblong. I ran my finger around the rim, cradled the cool ceramic in my hands.  (Villeroy & Boch)

I took photos of the exposed filament bulbs, the cheese straws sticks, our amuse, the unusually shaped pasta bowl. I saw—and felt—the considerable thought behind every detail in the room. Some one—probably several people—had cared intensely about the experience their customers would have.

On our way back to our bed and breakfast, I thought how very happy I was that we’d chosen Primo over bed. If I’d listened to my body, I would have missed out on so much. It’s not supposed to work that way. But this time it did.

Life can be so random.

 

Community, World Records and Umbrella Covers

Nancy 3 Hoffman is anxiously awaiting final word from the Guinness Book of World Records. Within a month or two she will know if her dream has come true: Nancy wants to hold the world record for the largest collection of unique umbrella sleeves in the world.

Umbrella covers? You ask. Yes. Umbrella covers—the fabric sleeves new umbrellas come in. “Some people call them umbrella condoms,” says Nancy.

The museum makes total sense if you know Nancy 3. Her middle initial—based on a typo on a form years ago—is a number. She makes up for her tiny 5’ stature by wearing psychedelic-patterned balloon pants. She plays in an all-accordion band called The Maine Squeeze. (She once frightened my friend Carol by whipping out her accordion on the deck of the ferry and leading the crowd in a spontaneous chorus of “Roll Out The Barrel.”)

And, Nancy curates the Umbrella Cover Museum.

Elsewhere in the world, Nancy might be one of those people you pass with a wide berth. The wacky woman you point at from across the street, try not to engage.

But here on Peaks Island she is a celebrity, one of Peaks Island’s treasures. She sings and plays piano at concerts on the island all summer long. She is a true friend, quick to volunteer whenever a neighbor needs help.

If Peaks Island were Seinfeld, Nancy 3 would be our Kramer. Wacky, outlandish—but most of all—beloved

(BTW—Michael Richards, who played Kramer stepped into the museum for about ten seconds when he visited Peaks Island summer before last.)

That’s why dozens of people showed up to support Nancy on July 7—for the official Umbrella Cover Count for the Guinness Book of World Records. Nancy is one of us. Part of the Peaks Island community. We want Nancy to succeed.

On the day of the official count, volunteers carried strings of umbrella covers and laid them in rows across the lawn.

 

Solid covers were grouped by color.

 

Patterns were grouped together. Geometrics. Plaids.

 

Animal prints—or as Nancy calls them “Sexy Covers.”

 

There were snacks and beverages. The Maine Squeeze performed.

 

Everyone got an “I Counted” sticker.

 

Nancy procured judges who had been previously approved by Guinness for their suitability to perform these official tasks. They were Dorothy Schwartz, former director of the Maine Humanities Council for 21 years and Paula Work, registrar of the Maine State Museum. Kim MacIsaac, director of the 5th Maine Museum served as steward.

The entire event was video taped for official Guinness Book review.

 

Scribe Elizabeth Nolan kept a detailed inventory to facilitate verification by Guinness. Every umbrella cover was matched against an inventory list. Any and all discrepancies were reconciled. Slow going at times—it took nearly three hours to complete the count. Guinness World Record counts are very serious events.

 

Prior to the counting the judges evaluated each cover to make sure it was unique. Color, size, fabric, stitching and decoration were all appraised. A handful of covers were eliminated that the judges deemed too similar to other covers.

 

After the covers were arranged and organized on the lawn, Nancy led the crowd in her official theme song. “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella,” she sang.

 

Then the counting began. 10, 25, 50, 100 covers…

The crowd cheered.

Nancy has been collecting umbrella covers for 20 years now. It started when she was cleaning out her house a found a few orphaned umbrella covers. Intrigued by this phenomenon, Nancy began to ask people if they too had orphaned umbrella covers. And if they did—what had happened to the umbrellas?

People began giving Nancy their covers. The first was a golden one from a friend in Miami. The friend, an Audubon member, had purchased an umbrella with a duck head for a handle. The umbrella was accidentally left on a bench when the friend boarded a boat to Bermuda. But the cover, which had never made it out of the closet, remained.

At first, Nancy pinned the umbrella covers to the wall of her kitchen. Each cover was accompanied with a note documenting who had donated it and an anecdote chronicling the cover’s story. “It’s about elevating something that is nothing and raising it up and making it into something,” says Nancy.

Nancy, who obviously loves performing, thrilled at peoples’ responses to her collection. She wanted to share it with as many people as she could. After three or four years she moved her collection to the front room of a house near the ferry and turned it into a museum.

The Guinness record attempt count continued. People cheered at the big milestones: 150, 200, 250…

In 2008 Nancy first approached Guinness and asked them to create a new category for umbrella covers. Understandably they the just didn’t get it.

Nancy persisted. And explained. And persisted and explained again—before she finally convinced Guiness. “It took them awhile to wrap their heads around it,” she says.

The counting continued. 300, 400, 500…

 

Nancy told stories about some of her favorites. “This cover was found by the Hanley family in Ireland—while Hilary Clinton was passing by. We have no idea if it has any actual connection to Hilary or not,” she said.

As the count continued, a few people left. But the core group of Nancy’s supporters remained. 600, 700, 715 covers…

Nancy saved her specialty covers until the end. There were ultra-large covers made for patio umbrellas. And a paper cover from a Japanese paper umbrella.

Another unique specimen was donated by Marissa MacIsaac, who works in the U.S Foreign Service. It was cylindrical, black and felt like rubber. “This one is an old one from Czechoslovakia. In the old Soviet Union, they had one standard-issue style of umbrella and this was the cover,” said Nancy.

720, 725, 729…

 

The final umbrella cover was a plastic case. Nancy held it up, whipped the umbrella out of the cover and opened the umbrella.

730!

The crowd cheered and Nancy joy-dove right into the middle of her beloved covers.

Soon Nancy will hear whether 730 umbrella covers is enough. Frankly, she’s a shoo-in since there is no existing record to beat. But she’s taking it as seriously as if she had dozens of rivals.

All of Peaks Island is behind her.

Regardless of the outcome, in my opinion, Nancy 3 has won big. She’s built something that has brought her great joy. And she’s found a community that supports her in all of her quirky, accordion-playing, umbrella condom-collecting glory.

Does it even matter what the Guinness people say?

Sheep, Cheese and Envy

Passion entices me. Watching Vermont cheesemakers at work—and seeing how much they love what they do—thrilled me and made me wish for the same level of enthusiasm in my own life.

I wonder if that’s even possible.

Ron and I left for our Vermont cheese tour on a Monday morning. After three hours of driving through gray and drizzle, we arrived at our first creamery: Vermont Shepherd. As we pulled up the dirt drive, the clouds parted and the grass and trees took on a surreal glow.

It was a cheese miracle.

And then I spotted them: the sheep. Lots of sheep. An entire hill dotted with them.

I waded through brush and high grass to the edge of the electric fence with my camera. I stared wide-eyed like a toddler on her first farm visit. “Look here,” I commanded the flock. One awkward ewe—who looked to be all elbows and nearing the end of her milking years—glanced my way for a second. She then returned to grazing in what I can only describe as a definitely unladylike manner. Ewes, it turns out, are not very cooperative.

Our next stop was the lamb pen to visit the just-weaned youth. In comparison to their gangly and worn moms, these guys were fluffy and friendly and huggable.

The ewes watched us as we walked up to the fence.“Bahh,” said Ron. All of the lambs stopped eating and looked up. At once. Together. I giggled and made Ron bahh again. This time I was ready when the lambs looked; I shot a picture.

We joined cheesemaker David Major in his cheesehouse. From the outside, the building looked like a shingled shed. On the inside, it was a science lab—white walls, stainless steel surfaces and tools, and pairs of green rubber gloves. Even in an operation this small, food safety and purity are taken very seriously.

David and his wife, Yesenia, milk their 300 ewes every morning and every evening. They store the milk in old fashioned canisters, then deliver it to their cheese house. Talk about fresh—just like the other small farms that use their own animals’ milk—the raw milk sits less than 14 hours before becoming cheese.

David showed us the roughly 4’x4’x4’ stainless steel tub where he heats the milk and adds microbiological cultures that start fermentation and rennet, an enzyme that causes the milk to separate into solid curds and liquid—which is incidentally called whey. (Aha! moment relating to Little Miss Muffet.) When the curds start to form, David, or whichever farmhand is making the cheese that day, runs what looks like a giant wire cheese slicer—with multiple parallel vertical—wires through the cheese to break up the curds and to release more whey. After more heating, the whey is drained and a layer of cheese, which looks like a giant slab of tofu, is left at the bottom of the tub.

I watched David cut the curds into 28 eight-pound rectangles. I couldn’t believe that it had taken 2,240 pounds of sheep’s milk to get to this 224 pounds of cheese. (Leftover whey is usually either fed to the pigs or returned to the fields as fertilizer.)

Each rectangle went into a plastic bowl with holes, sort of a homemade colander, to drain. David pushed and pressed the rectangles, pressing out more moisture, until the curds conformed to the wheel shape of the bowl. Then he flipped the cheeses over, pushed and pressed some more.

David told us that he grew up nearby. He chose this valley, sheep, and a farmer’s life as his own. “Growing up, we always had sheep,” he said with a smile. Cheese was not part of the original plan. It came later when the U.S. wool market tanked and David had to figure out another way to make a living from his flock.

I wondered if I could be that resourceful if I had to—to hold on to a lifestyle or to stay in a place I loved.

(And so much for my assumption that becoming a cheesemaker was all about the cheese.)

David continued flipping the wheels of cheese and pressing out more whey, his practiced movements streamlined into almost a dance. He wrapped each cheese in cheesecloth and placed a homemade weight—pvc pipe filled with salt—on top. The cheeses were then left to set for a few hours. Next they would bathe in brine for two days. After that, they would age in the cave—an onsite underground temperature-controlled room David has built—for another three to eight months until the desired flavor characteristics had developed.

I asked about David’s schedule (he gets up at 4:40 am) and how he decides which lambs to keep (the daughters of the best milkers). David answered each question with animation and pride. Amazing, really, considering he’s probably told the same story to visitors hundreds of times before.

The one question I didn’t have to ask was whether or not David was happy with his life. The skip in his step and the smile lines etched around his eyes made it very clear that he is.

Before we left, Ron and I bought samples of Invierno, the winter cheese David makes from late summer and fall milk. (The summer cheese is sold out and won’t be available until this fall.) We tried two samples—one a year old and the other two years old. Both were amazing, but had very different moisture levels (the longer a cheese ages wrapped in cloth, the drier it gets). The one-year Inverno begged to be snacked on in chunks while the two-year Inverno was more parmesan-like—a perfect texture and slight bite that would have been excellent grated over pasta.

We didn’t have a knife, so we bit directly into both of them, the way you would eat a sandwich or an apple. They made a great lunch—even if it wasn’t exactly what you call a balanced meal.

As we drove away eating Invierno, I realized that I was just a little bit jealous. It must be amazing to do a job you love that much. I can certainly write and take pictures every day. But making a living off of it so that I could make writing and photography my primary focus—that is something I will probably never experience. And even if I could, would I ever be as happy as David?

I suspect that I’ve been programmed since birth to always want more, and to never believe I’m doing enough—or doing it well enough. I’m not sure if it comes from nature or nurture, but it’s the way I am.

I don’t think people like me are capable of reaching David’s level of contentment. We just aren’t wired that way. We want it. And then we don’t recognize when we get it. Because we’ve already raised the bar higher.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do I do this to myself?