Embracing Winter (as opposed to Bracing for Winter)

Call me an outlier, but I have never understood why Vermont winters have such a bad reputation, or why so many snowbirds head south this time of year. Say what you will, but over the years I have come to love the days between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. Perhaps it is because I prefer being a little cold to being a little hot, a warm woolen sweater to a sleeveless tank-top, the radiant heat of a wood stove to the annoying hum of an air conditioner. Or maybe it has something to do with the happy childhood memories it conjures up for me: skating on frozen ponds, the comforting hiss of an iron radiator, the excitement of breaking off an icicle to lick and, of course, snow!

When I recall of the New England winters of my youth, what I remember most is lots and lots of snow. The more inches that fell during the night and into the morning, the better, because it usually meant a day off from school. On those glorious unscheduled holidays, my sister and I would sit glued to the radio praying for the name of our school district to be called out on the cancellations list. Then, we’d rush to the coat closet and drag out put our bib snow pants, bulky parkas, red plastic boots (the kind that slid over your shoes), hats, mittens and scarves, and venture out into the back yard. Waist-deep in powder, we’d tunnel under forsythia bushes that bent to the ground, beckoning to us. Winter’s white landscape offered a blank canvas for my youthful imagination. The year the film Dr. Zhivago came out, I remember pretending I was crossing the frozen tundra, my eyelashes and eyebrows painted with frost, “Lara’s Theme” wafting through my head. When daylight turned to dusk, and the dinner bell rang, we would trudge sadly up the back stoop, our handknit woolen mittens stiff as blocks, our toes so cold we could not feel them.

Some years after children outgrow their snow pants, their love of playing in the snow ends. Beset by adult responsibilities, any joy they formerly derived from winter melts like a snowman on a 40-degree March day, and at some point, it becomes socially acceptable to denigrate this most maligned of seasons. I have observed that what adults of all ages seem to complain about most often is the cold, as if they expect something different during the four months between November 30 and March 31, but lately I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t the temperature of winter that is so bothersome so much as the inconvenience of it all, particularly when it comes to driving.

Here in Vermont, most people rely heavily on their personal vehicles for getting around. In fact, their livelihood, if not their very lives, depends on them. We live in a predominantly rural state, where, for most of us, getting to a grocery store, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a doctor’s appointment, the hairdresser, the post office, our workplace, a coffee shop, a restaurant, you name it, involves getting into our cars. In the winter months, this takes forethought and preparation. First there is the need to “winterize” your vehicle: switch over to snow tires, get it undercoated, add dry gas to the tank, replace the antifreeze, make sure your battery can stand up to freezing temperatures, and top off the windshield washer fluid. All before you even turn the key!

And unless you keep your car, truck or SUV in a garage, every time you go out you have to allow sufficient time to clear the driveway, warm up the engine, brush off the snow, and scrape the windshield. And before you leave the safety of home, you probably want to have a bucket of sand, some extra weight, a tow rope or chain, and a shovel handy, just in case you encounter a perilous patch of ice. Because even if you never get stuck, you never know when you’ll called upon to help out someone else.

Hazardous driving conditions notwithstanding, I still believe that winter is something to be enjoyed, not endured; celebrated, not cursed. And not because I ski. (I don’t.) But I do enjoy snowshoeing. In fact, I enjoy many activities that Vermont has to offer at this time of year. (P.S. You won’t find them in the land of snowbirds.) Here are a few of my favorites:

Waking up to a winter wonderland.
Delighting in a male cardinal’s bright red plumage contrasted against a backdrop of white.
Playing pick-up hockey outdoors, at night, under the lights.
Sipping hot mulled cider around a bonfire with friends.
Curling up with my knitting next to a cast-iron wood stove.
Wearing all my beautiful hand-knit accessories: hats, headbands, scarves, neck warmers, leg warmers, mittens, etc.
Walking in a silent wood and looking for animal tracks.
Going on a horse-drawn sleigh ride.
Taking in the view of a snow-covered ridge after snowshoeing up a mountain trail.
Eating sugar on snow.
Catching snowflakes on my tongue.

What’s your favorite winter activity?

Send your responses to dweggler@gmail.com, and I will publish them here.


Breaking Bread: A Family Tradition

Several years ago I stopped cooking— literally. Having spent more than 30 years slaving over a hot stove, preparing meals for my family had become a mundane and uninspired duty carried out day after day, week after week, year after year. So I went on strike.

Much to my relief, my family adjusted quite well. With only one (vegetarian) teenager still at home and a very accommodating husband—both with extremely busy schedules—it actually made sense to have everyone fix their own meals. My job became one of making sure there were plenty of fresh, healthy ingredients on hand so that no one had to resort to ordering out for pizza or Chinese on a regular basis.

The following fall my teenager left for college and my mother-in-law came to live with us. Suddenly the “do-it-yourself” dinner plan no longer applied: I knew the expectation would be that the three of us would sit down each night to a hot, home-cooked meal.

I have to confess I dreaded returning to old routine. However, something quite unexpected happened: I started to enjoy cooking again. Maybe it was because I had had a break from the kitchen, but I suspect it had more to do with my mother-in-law, Evelyn. She loved my cooking. For her, it was a refreshing change from her own, and a welcome reversal from serving to being served. While I now had a new audience to whom I could show off my culinary expertise.

One by one I introduced Evelyn to my signature dishes, and to my great delight, the joy I’d once felt as a young wife preparing meals for my new husband began to resurface. By New Year’s she and I were planning menus together, sharing kitchen secrets, and bonding over meatloaf. By spring, what had for decades been a solitary—and often thankless—endeavor had become a rewarding team effort. And when the three of us—husband, wife, and mother-in-law—sat down in the evenings to eat, converse, and enjoy each other’s company, we shared the time-honored ritual of breaking bread among loved ones. Food’s gift of bringing people together—at a banquet, in a pub, or in my own humble kitchen, is one I will never again fail to appreciate.

Of Mice and Women

I am a killer…

of mice.

Seven to be exact, and counting.

I do not know how long the carnage will continue before 1) the hardware store runs out of mousetraps, 2) I run out of money to buy mousetraps, or 3) The vermin decide to wave the white flag and retreat to some other unsuspecting domicile.

It is entirely my fault that so many of these creatures have taken up residence in my home. Last fall, having decided that my bird feeders were attracting only crows who scared away the songbirds, I dismantled them and stored a nearly full bag of bird seed in a dark corner of the basement. As the outside temperatures dropped, my basement provided both shelter and food for the little critters, who came forth and multiplied. Once they had finished {or stowed) ALL of the birdseed, they began to venture out from the recesses of the basement in search of more food. The result is that we are now facing an infestation of mouse-u-mental proportions.

I considered buying a humane “catch-relocate-and-release” trap, having used one last summer when chipmunks became a problem in my garage. But I have less sympathy for mice. For one thing, they poop everywhere. For another, they build disgusting nests out of pink, fiberglass insulation and old woolen socks. They chew wires, destroy stoves, and die inside walls. One winter a mouse couple raised its family inside the base of our old upright piano. It created such a stink we had to take it to the dump (the piano, not the family; they were already gone).

When I am disposing of the dead mice, I try not to  think about Tom Thumb and Hunka Munka, the “two bad mice” from Beatrix Potter’s children’s book of the same name, or Aesop’s mouse that frees the lion from the hunters’ net. They are endearing but fictional, and the mice infesting my house are all too real.

As I said, I do not know when the carnage will end. In the time it took me to write this, two more traps were sprung in my kitchen, bringing the count to nine.

To be continued…



My Chinese Family

Six summers ago, I had the privilege of hosting two students from mainland China at my home for ten days. Middle-schoolers, they were about to enter ninth grade that fall in their home city of Chongqing, a megalopolis of 30 million people.

On the day we met, they proudly introduced themselves to me by their Anglicized names, given to them by their first English language teacher from grade school. Shy at first, they soon felt comfortable in my presence. The language barrier proved easy to scale, as they each had a cell phone with the Google-translate app.

I shared bits of my life with them—hiking on Paine Mountain, kayaking on Blueberry Lake, swimming at the Northfield Pool. We visited an organic farm in Waitsfield, the Montpelier Farmer’s Market, and my church. One afternoon, I taught them to knit. On the Fourth of July, I took them to see a pyrotechnics display at a friend’s farm. Invented in China during the seventh century, fireworks accompany all important Chinese celebrations, so it made me happy to introduce them to this most American of traditions.

Lying on our backs in the field, we looked up at the stars, as red, orange, pink, green, purple, blue, and silver-white rockets whistled and exploded over our heads. The bursts of light seemed close enough to touch, and the girls stretched their arms upward with outstretched hand as if to catch the sparks showering down from the heavens.

The days flew, and in much too short a time we were saying our good-byes. Standing by their luggage next to the bus that would take them to the airport, we held each other tight, posed for photos, and cried. We promised to keep in touch.

In the years since, through email correspondence, we have shared bits our lives with each other. In the photos they attach I have watched them grow from giggling middle-schoolers to sophisticated college juniors. One is studying film production at NYU and came to visit me in March during a snowstorm. The other is studying finance at a prestigious university in Chengdu, and in 17 days I will be traveling to China to visit her.

Six years ago I never would have dreamed of traveling more than 7,000 miles to a country of more than a billion people whose language I do not speak. But if two 14-year-old girls were brave enough to do it, then by golly so am I.


Happy Earth-Day (Rhymes with Birthday)

I have been away from this blog for some time. Too long it seems. But spring is here, at least on the calendar, and in the spirit of new beginnings, I am taking up my virtual pen to start fresh.

Today is Earth Day, and although I had not planned on marking it in any particular way, Mother Earth had her own plans for me, evidently.

Around 11 o’clock this morning I set out for a walk with Luna (my 6-year-old Karelian Bear Dog). Now usually I only bring one recycled plastic shopping bag (of the Tops or Shaw’s variety) with me, but today for some inexplicable reason there were two in my winter coat pocket (it was windy, what can I tell you). As Luna led me down South Main Street toward the center of Northfield Village, I noticed a flattened Pabst Blue Ribbon can in the gutter. Remembering I had two bags in my pocket (one for Luna’s poop and one to spare), I pulled it out and put the container in it. Feeling virtuous, I walked a few steps further and saw a styrofoam cup, also flattened. I scooped that up too. Next there was a a Laffy Taffy wrapper (blue-raspberry flavor), crumpled tin foil, and a styrofoam tray that once held a 3/4 lb. USDA choice beef top loin NY strip steak for $10.49, on sale at Shaw’s for a mere $6.37. Soon there was no stopping me. I found an empty 50 ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka, a grape Powerade label, and a Fireball cinnamon whisky nip bottle, also empty. In no time I had amassed quite a collection, and I had only walked a half a block.

It is amazing what appears on the sides of the road this time of year–the cumulative detritus of a long, cold winter–once hidden by melting snow and now coated with silt left behind by sanding trucks. It tells a story of what people were eating and drinking as they walked or drove to and from the village of Northfield. The sun was shining and I was kind of enjoying my little do-good adventure, and Luna was patient with me as I stopped every few feet to pick up each new bit of litter.

I continued my walk into town, crossed at the crosswalk, did a circle around Depot Square–where I found a Dunkin Donuts Drive-Thru bag with the receipt still attached, and a Depot Square Pizza receipt for a large, cheese pizza and a soda (which cost $16.30 including tax)–before heading back up South Main Street by the United Church.

As I made the long, gradual climb toward home, I gathered up wrapper after wrapper: one had held a Slim Jim, another a Jack link teriyaki beef stick, another a Werther’s original candy, and another a single serving of Duck Sauce. But not everything I found was food-related. I also came upon a broken rubber birthday balloon (lavender colored), a disposable hairnet, a drier sheet, a plastic label bearing safety instructions for a flexible light made in China (evidently cut off from its electric power cord), a piece of cardboard from which once hung a brand new 45″ Totes umbrella (for $5.00 no less), a package that once held 3 premium Dutch Masters cigarillos, and two empty packs of Marlboros–one bold flavor, one smooth original. There was also a 6-in. strip of masking tape, wet wipes (no longer wet), and three UPOs (unidentified plastic objects).

Before I reached home, Luna did her “doody,” so I took out my other plastic bag and scooped that up. I also picked up another plastic bag of containing some other dog’s poop that the owner had tied neatly in a knot and left at the base of a fire hydrant, presumably to pick up at some later time. In all, I picked up 67 individual pieces of trash. I confess I left behind some pieces of cardboard too big to fit in the burgeoning bag, or things that looked too disgusting to touch, including countless cigarette butts.

Incidentally, I just happened to look at the word count of this piece as I paused at the end of the last paragraph; by pure chance that number was 666. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything, but I believe there are no accidents in this life, or any other life for that matter. Everything happens for a reason, and the reason I had two bags in my coat pocket today was so that I could pick up trash and write about it in this blog, and maybe inspire others to do the same. We all share the same planet, the same Mother Earth. It is our one and only home, for now and for as long as human life exists. Let’s all pay her the respect she deserves.

Happy Earth-Day to you.


The Mercedes of Cookies

The woman who coined the phrase, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” never ate a homemade Whoopie Pie. These came out so amazing that I renamed them “Whoopie Heaven.” They took a long time to make, but it was oh so worth it! My husband calls them the “Mercedes of cookies.” I think they might be the Rolls-Royce.

The chocolate cake batter is pretty standard, but you will want to use an electric mixer for both that and the filling. The filling requires that you make a paste by cooking milk and flour together on the stove, and then cooling it before adding it to the shortening, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla. This is the secret to the filling. Anything else and it won’t have that authentic texture and flavor of a real whoopie pie.

Because I can never leave a recipe alone when I cook, I made two slight modifications. First, because I am not a huge fan of vegetable shortening (aka Crisco), I used only butter in the chocolate cake batter. And for the same reason, I substituted coconut oil for 2/3 of the shortening in the filling. (I am a huge fan of coconut oil, and use it a lot in cooking now.) If you want your whoopie pies to be nut-free, however, I recommend staying away from it. I also recommend using Hershey’s or another brand of dark, (Dutch) unsweetened cocoa powder. You will find that different brands will render different variations of chocolate taste, so experiment to find the one you like best. Here is a review of 7 brands:  I found online. http://food.allwomenstalk.com/best-brands-of-cocoa-that-every-baker-should-use

So as not to keep you on tender-hooks any longer, here is the recipe. It makes 20 large or 24 small pies:

Chocolate cookie batter:
1/2 cup baking cocoa (unsweetened powder)
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup soft butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 fresh eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder (Calumet)
1 tsp. baking soda (Arm & Hammer)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk to which 1/2 Tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar has been added. Note: Wait 5 minutes to give the milk time to curdle.)

Creamy Vanilla Filling:
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
dash salt
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 and 1/2)
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. In a small bowl, combine cocoa powder and water. Cool for 5 minutes.
2. In a large bowl with electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla and the cocoa mixture.
3. In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating well after each addition.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
5. Drop by rounded Tablespoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto greased baking sheets. (Try to make them as round and as uniform in size as possible. This gets easier with practice.) For best results choose a middle rack in the oven. If the sheets are too close to the bottom of the oven, you risk scorching the cookies.
6. Bake about 10 minutes or until touching one with your finger does not leave an indent. Remove and cool completely on wire racks while you make the filling.
7. In a small, heavy, saucepan, combine the flour and salt. Gradually whisk in the milk until smooth and cook over medium-high heat while stirring constantly, for 5-7 minutes until a thick paste is formed. Remove from heat, cover, and refrigerate until completely cool.
8. In a small bowl with an electric mixer, cream the shortening, coconut oil, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the flour/milk paste and beat for a full 7 minutes until fluffy.
9. Now comes the fun part: with a frosting tool, spread 2 Tablespoons of the creamy filling on half of the cookies and top with the other half. (I find it makes it easier if I match the cookies up by size and shape first before adding frosting). Store between layers of wax paper in the refrigerator.
10. Devour! These taste even better the next day, if you can believe that. So make ahead if baking for company.


Re-Experiencing Childhood Pleasures

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. (As far as I knew, there wasn’t any other kind.) One of the benefits to this arrangement was that I grew up eating homemade cookies. Every day on my walk home from school I looked forward to coming in the door and grabbing a cookie from the cookie tin kept high on a shelf in the kitchen. It was so high, I remember climbing up on a bureau to reach it.

Since there were five children in the family, the cookies were rationed. Every time you took a cookie, you made a mark by your name on a little piece of paper taped to the top of the tin. When you reached the designated limit, you were done. This may sound rather austere to some, but it was a brilliant system. It prevented fights (and the obligatory parental refereeing), it guaranteed that everyone got their fair share, and it taught me about delayed gratification: the more disciplined I was, the longer I got to enjoy my cookies.

My mother baked a huge variety of cookies and bars, always made from scratch. She would collect recipes from the Boston Globe, pasting them into the looseleaf pages of a large, three-ring binder. Two recipes that I remember with great fondness were meringues and honey yo-yos. These particular confections were very time-consuming to make. I know because sometimes I helped make them, adding sugar one teaspoon at a time to the egg whites being whipped up for the meringues in my mom’s Sunbeam electric mixer, or meticulously glueing together the honey yo-yo halves with raspberry jam.

But my favorite all-time cookies were whoopie pies: two rich chocolate cake-like cookies stuffed with creamy vanilla filling. If you have never had a real, honest-to-goodness, homemade whoopie pie, you don’t know what you’re missing. They taste nothing like the ones you see by the check-out at small-town convenience stores. For one thing, the filling in those is made with marshmallow fluff and god knows what else, and for another, I am pretty sure there is no butter in the chocolate cake.

I recently decided to try my hand at recreating these New England-based delights from my childhood. I didn’t have my mother’s original recipe, and it took several online attempts before I found the right one, that is, with the same creamy vanilla filling my mom used to make. But find it I did.

I gathered together the ingredients, and rolled up my sleeves.

To be continued…


Have a Heart: Conclusion

Well, Houdini has won, at least for now. I have decided that the last remaining Animalia Chordata Mammalia Rodentia Sciuridae has earned the right to spend the winter in his burrow in the back yard. I am out of peanuts, having wasted the last of them setting the trap multiple times, only to have the bait taken and the trap sprung, but no one inside. Again, I personally don’t have anything against chipmunks. I even did some research to see if they make good pets (not recommended). But at this moment my dog is trying to scratch her way through the back wall of the garage, convinced that Houdini is in there, perhaps hiding nuts or maybe preparing his winter residence for hibernation. I apparently did him a great favor by removing his siblings so he can claim the territory as his own. And he apparently learned from their mistakes. At least I hope it is a he. If Houdini turns out to be a she, I may be in for another Have-a-Hart summer.

Have a Heart, part V: Houdini

I check the trap this morning–it is tripped, and the peanuts are eaten, but there is no one inside! Apparently this last chipmunk is living up to its species’ name as being excellent escape artists. I get more bait and reset the trap. I am thinking that, instead of Alvin, I may have to name my next catch Houdini.

I go out later in the morning. The trap is undisturbed, but as I am looking at it, I hear a little chirping noise, just barely audible. I look in the direction from where the noise is coming, and I see a little face and two shiny black eyes peeking out at me from the slate rock wall. Aha! I have discovered the opening to the den. This must be their summer home, and the walls of my garage are the winter home. Or maybe the parents have kicked the adolescents out and they’ve taken up residence in the earthworks behind the wall (it is a retaining wall, about four feet high). Little fur-face and I have a staring contest for a while, and then I put a couple of peanuts on the rock closest to the den opening. He (she) disappears into the dark recesses of the wall. I am reminded of the story The Little Prince and the taming of the fox. Maybe the chipmunks and I are taming each other.

To be continued…

Have a Heart, part IV: Catch and Release

I’m on a roll now. Just a few hours after releasing Theodore, I catch Simon. Simon is a little bigger than Chip, Dale, and Theodore, but not by much. Same scenario–I transport him in the trap to the forest’s edge, only this time, I decide to release him a few feet away from the big pine tree where the others seem to have headed. He disappears into the crotch of the tree. I leave some peanuts nearby, as a friendly gesture.

So now I am curious about these little creatures, and decide to read up on them. Here are a few things I learned (thanks to the wonders of the internet, naturally).

“Chipmunks are small, striped rodents of the family Sciuridae (Squirrel family). Chipmunks are found in North America, with the exception of the Siberian chipmunk which is found primarily in Asia.
Gestation period31 days
“Chipmunks have a lot of predators due to their small size. Main predators of chipmunks are snakes, hawks, owls, weasels, bobcats, raccoons and coyotes. Chipmunks are omnivores (they eat both plant- and animal-based food). They usually eat nuts, seeds, berries, fruit, fungi, insects, frogs and eggs.
“Chipmunks are part of the squirrel family, and while they look similar to their bushy-tailed cousins, chipmunks are actually smaller, with alternating light and dark stripes along their cheeks and backs.

“There are 25 species of chipmunk, 24 of which live in North America (who knew?!?!). Chipmunks are excellent tree climbers and swimmers who live in a variety of habitats, including plains, mountains, forests, and deserts. Chipmunks like to live alone in holes or burrows called dens.

“Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather, which means they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. One chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. In just two days, a chipmunk can collect enough food to last an entire winter, although chipmunks typically hoard much more food than necessary.

“Chipmunk young are born in late spring, and stay in the nest for up to six weeks. Female chipmunks have one or two litters per year, each with four or five babies. Chipmunks are 7.2 to 8.5 inches (18.5 to 21.6 centimeters) long including their tails, which can account for nearly half of their length.”

So based on the last paragraph above,  there could be as many as 10 offspring living in and around my garage, plus mom and dad. If that is true, I am going to run out of names pretty soon. Alvin is taken, but I am soliciting suggestions.
Stay tuned for more adventures of the furry kind!
Here is a lot more information about chipmunks, some of it really fun and interesting. https://www.pets4homes.co.uk/pet-advice/fun-interesting-facts-about-chipmunks.html
PS Thank you to Russ for pointing out the mistake in my earlier post. I have corrected it.