I’m going to be in Vermont for an evening and a day, which isn’t much. Joel picks me up and I tell him we should stop by the grocery store for flour so I can make artisan bread. He’s game. Halfway through scouring the unfamiliar shelves, I ask, “hey, you got any meat?”
“What kind of meat?” he says.
“Any kind,” I reply. “I’ve been staying with vegetarians.”
This statement puts Joel in the mood for a big slab of steak, so we track down some Angus tenderloins and local bacon, take it back to Joel’s cabin in the woods, flip on some folk music, and heat up the skillet. Joel realizes that we have nothing to eat with the steak, but I say no problem, and pull two Asian pears from my suitcase, purchased the day before at a Whole Foods in Boston. I tell him I’ll sautÃ© them in the juice from the meat. Joel wraps the steak in bacon and then realizes he has no toothpicks. So he goes to his woodstove and finds a thin spear of hemlock among the kindling, and makes two long toothpicks with his knife.
“Hang on,” I say “Hemlock, like what poisoned Socrates? Is that safe?” I feel vaguely that this must be incorrect, so I Google hemlock and discover that the conifer is entirely different than the poison hemlock plant. So Joel uses his handcrafted toothpicks to hold the bacon in place, sears the steak while I slice the pears thin, and then he pops the meat in the oven, preheated to about 450 degrees or something. I dump the pears in his still-sizzling skillet, turning them so they caramelize a bit but don’t get too soft. Joel takes the steak out while it’s still quite pink. Dinner’s ready in 15 minutes, and it’s delicious. The cut of steak is juicy and tender, flavored through with the bacon, and the pears are just as I’ve imagined them, savory-sweet and delicate.
“I’m pretty sure this is the best meal I’ve eaten at home in the last year,” Joel says. “Maybe ever.”
“It was pretty easy,” I point out. “You should cook more often.”
After dinner, we throw some hemlock on the fire and stay up late reminiscing about our high school days. Or, more accurately, homeschool days, because we were homeschooled within a few miles of each other in Northern Idaho. At one point, during a lull in the conversation, I start picking through the books on Joel’s coffee table to see what he is reading (or, really, if I can find anything I want to read) and suddenly spot my father’s handwriting. “Hey!” I say, and hold up the book.
In 1997, at the age of 19, Joel set out for a cross-country motorcycle trip, and my Dad gave him this, taped so it would not get dog-eared. Joel says he read it on the steps of a brick house in Richmond, Virginia. And then in 2010, he found it in a box of old books. Ironically, we had just started talking again kind of out of the blue after he e-mailed me to ask if I was OK after my divorce. And although the title has nothing to do with that kind of divorce, it all makes me smile as I lean into the heat of the hemlock fire in Vermont. I am far from my hometown, but I feel at home, and very well-fed.