As August drew to a close, I escaped the city and spent a week in Bermuda for a change of scenery to help reignite my creativity. One of my goals was to find a place where water and a hammock were always within reach, and I accomplished that expertly. I packed more bathing suits than t-shirts.
The first half of my trip I spent at an historic old estate on two acres of land, which sounds like a lot and indeed is a lot on an island smaller than Manhattan. Sharing this land, along with the home’s owners and a honeymooning couple, were three dogs, a goat named Billy, a goose, and an egg-laying hen. Across the road lolled a small bay filled with bobbing boats, the water salty enough to make it difficult to swim but easy to float.
The sliver of a beach was small to begin with – perhaps three towels wide, maybe only two – and as the days drew to a close, the tide came in and the beach disappeared. I waded through ankle deep water to grab my shoes and coverup and silently thanked myself for the gift that was this vacation.
I ate most lunches in restaurants and used that time to explore a tiny bit of the island, while my mornings and evenings were lazy and filled with sun and sea and pool and books and writing and music. The rest of my meals came from the kitchenette in my room, which meant lots of coffee and yogurt and fruit. This was by design – not an effort to keep costs down, but an effort to keep effort down.
About an hour after landing, I eagerly agreed when my taxi taxi driver offered to stop to pick up some food before dropping me off at my home for a few days “What produce is local?” I asked innocently. The driver chuckled as as he eased down the narrow winding roads, tooting his horn at other drivers, waving at pedestrians. “The only thing we export is our smiles; everything else we import.” The produce aisle looked eerily similar to the ones at home, just double or triple the price.
One of the best meals of the week was sourced from the neighbors. First, fish. A red hind caught that morning and filleted before my eyes by Pete whose boat I could swim to from my beach. Next, the rest. The honeymooners in the other suite and I pooled our fridge contents. Dinner was cobbled together by the pool, with lemon-drenched grilled fish, a cheese omelette, sautéed cauliflower, and margarine-rubbed rolls. It was eclectic and bizarre and we ate it as it rained.
Midway through my trip, I took a ferry to St. George. The fact that everyone recommended the same two restaurants was less a statement on how good they were than on the size of the town and its food options.
Here I stayed in an apartment immaculately staged as the old sea captain’s quarters that it had been way back when. Wide plank floors. A dark wooden table surrounded by studded leather chairs. A telescope and a mariner’s spinning globe.
Perched high above town and overlooking the harbor, I waited out a storm my first morning.
In his September newsletter, David Leibovitz wrote about “a vacation where you work,” and that’s what this trip was for me. Sure, I’m back to making my living in healthcare, but I’m still writing for myself and writing for The Forward and with so many new cookbooks out this fall, I had a lot of catching up to do.
I had conducted some interviews in the days before I left so I spent a good few hours listening and transcribing. As a result, I replayed in my mind a story that Elissa Altman shared when discussing her most recent memoir Treyf. Her grandmother’s brisket, an “elemental” dish of just meat and onions, had seemed lost for years. The scrawled recipe referenced adding a glass of water, and she and her cousins had started with shot glasses and worked their way up to try to reproduce it. It was only when Altman was living in her late grandmother’s apartment, rummaging through her drawers, finding a five pound cleaver that her great grandmother had schlepped from Czernowitz, cooking on her stove in a kitchen tinged with schmaltz, that she looked up from the sink to discover an empty yahrtzeit glass. A perfect ten ounces, it yielded the brisket of her memory.
Altman told me this story to illustrate why in a memoir where food was featured so prominently, she didn’t include recipes. As a cookbook editor, she gets the need for precision and exacting measurements. But she felt that the food in Treyf was tied to place and time: “Food and the act of cooking is live, it’s organic, it’s ever-changing. And we actually have to take it at more than just face value, which is why when everyone asked whether I was going to put recipes in Treyf, I said no, there’s lots of food in it, but I don’t want to think about the food in the book that way.”
Soon after returning from Bermuda, I saw a photo Altman posted of dinner one night. She described it: “pan-roasted corn and zucchini with red chile and local sheep feta.” We then had the following exchange:
Me: I pretty much have all these ingredients – I think I know what tomorrow’s lunch will be!
This dish, one that I’ve repeated several times since and will continue to churn out as long as zucchini and corn are in season, doesn’t need a recipe. It captures place and time, a return to my own kitchen while eking out the last days of summer.