Past Perfect

11 Oct

Do you remember which emotion you woke up feeling on October 5th, 1987?

Third Avenue Festival, Bay Ridge

If you lived anywhere within 100 miles of Albany, you probably woke up feeling awed. That was the night upstate New York was hit by the earliest blizzard in its history.

When you’re a kid in snow country there’s certain aural clues that alert you to the possibility of a snow day. Hushed whisperings between your parents, the grinding of the snow plow on pavement, the whimpering of the dog who doesn’t want to go out to do his business in belly-high snow.

But on that Sunday I remember waking up and thinking, something’s up, everything’s too quiet.

I looked at my clock’s blank face, that meant no power. No power means a lot of snow. I sat up in bed and peered out the window and looked upon the most glorious winter scene I’ve ever seen. It looked like the world had been iced. Every surface was covered by an inches thick layer of wet, glittery snow.

The Midway

The house was still a little warm even though the furnace had quit working when the lights went out, and since we relied on a well with an electric pump there was also no water. My dad dragged the kerosene heater in from the garage and got it lit, at least the living room and kitchen would be warm.

It didn’t seem like a big deal, snow in October, until it became apparent that the DOT had made a huge booboo. All the plows were still snoozing away their summer siesta and each and every grain of salt sat giggling in a crystalline warehouse under lock and key, just waiting for someone to say “open sesame.”

Win A Fish! Or A Turtle!

All the roads in the county were closed and since no one expected a blizzard (didn’t they learn anything from Monty Python?) the usual pre-blizzard panic shopping hadn’t occurred. What you had in the pantry was what you ate. Refrigerated things had to be chucked and frozen things went out back into the snow on the porch, but with an electric stove and no electricity there was no way to eat them anyway.

I’m sure that there were other edible things in the house, but I only remember eating one thing the whole week: Spam.

I decided, in all my 12 year old wisdom, that Spam was going to be what I cooked on top of the kerosene heater to keep my family alive and nourished. I folded up some tin foil, sliced off some slabs of Spam, cooked them until they were sizzling and served them in a pool of A-1.

Or A Parakeet!

The roads eventually opened, the power came back and by the end of the week I was back at school, but those few days live on in my memory as the most magical days ever.

I made a makeshift harness for my dog who pulled me all over the neighborhood in an orange plastic tobaggon, picking up friends as we went (don’t worry, he was huge and he loved it). There were sleepovers and no baths, maple syrup candy made on snow just like in Little House In The Big Woods and lots of games of Life. It was amazing.

Karaoke at the Salty Dog

My freshman year of college I fractured a vertebra sledding. It was a long, boring recuperation during which I read many, many books. My favorite was one given to me by my stepdad, Mark Helprin‘s Winter’s Tale. I devoured it. It was about upstate, the Hudson and New York City, it was about love and fidelity and awe and the past and the present and every big, weighty, delicious theme ever worth writing about.  And the winter scenes in Lake of the Coheeries reminded me of that blizzard.

So many bouncy castles

It’s all of these things I was thinking about last week when the weather in New York City was more appropriate to July than October. We set a new record on Saturday the 8th. 87°F! On the 20th anniversary of the blizzard? 83°F. I don’t know if it’s global warming or living near the water or just a decision made by the weather gods, but I miss “normal” weather. Crisp in October, snowy in December, rainy in April, hot in August.

Sunshine On Sprouts

And so I decided to say chuck it all and cook something autumnal, even though it felt like summer (this happened last year too). I braised a blade roast of pork rubbed with ground ginger, pimenton de la vera, brown sugar and lemon juice from Flying Pigs Farm in grape juice and roasted Brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes.

Roasty, Toasty

The roast was disappointing. It was riddled with fat, in a bad way. We ate a few pieces and then pulled the rest for leftovers.

A few days later I arrived home starving and stressed. I looked in the fridge. All that stared back was the pork, eggs and a world of condiments. So I fried the pork in shatta and added two whisked eggs, cooking them until they clung to the pork. The final touch? A drizzle of sherry vinegar and a sprinkling of sea salt. I don’t know if it was hunger, desperation or skill, but this was the best off-the-cuff cooking I’ve done in years.

Rosated, Shredded Pork

That said, I’d give it up for 2 feet of snow, a kerosene heater and a slab of Spam coated in A-1 in a heartbeat.

P.S. The pictures are from Bay Ridge’s Third Avenue Festival. Due to some much needed running of errands, we missed the Ragamuffin Parade, which I’m kind of sad about. Next year for sure!

16 Responses to “Past Perfect”

  1. Kerosena October 11, 2007 at 10:15 am #

    Hi,
    I’ve been enjoying your blog for a few weeks now. I was inspired to order the middle eastern cookbook you wrote about. I ordered it from the Bookhouse at Stuyvesant Plaza. I, too, was 12 years old in Albany in 1987, but instead of spam with A-1 sauce, I cooked spaghetti-o’s in a cast iron skillet on the gas grill.

  2. Lydia October 11, 2007 at 11:12 am #

    Such beautiful photos of Bay Ridge! The festival looks like fun, and no way I would trade that for a blizzard and Spam!

  3. Kevin October 11, 2007 at 11:32 am #

    Hm. How about 1990 or so, snow in August? In 2004, my garden was buried on Sept 9th. I guess the difference here is that when it snows, life doesn’t much shut down, despite all my wishing that it would. Except in March, when it dumps a foot or two of heavy stuff, and you can’t get your car out of its parking spot…then you shut things down…

  4. s'kat October 11, 2007 at 1:15 pm #

    It looked good the first time, but it sounds like you really focused and found your chi the second time ’round!

  5. izzy's mama October 11, 2007 at 11:00 pm #

    This whole weather thing is awfully confusing, especially for little ones. Izzy thinks summer is starting again and is wondering why we didn’t have winter. I had a slight yearning for autumnal fare but the high temps have kept me from the kitchen. Too bad about that pork roast I didn’t think anything like that would come from the Flying Pigs though I once got a batch of sausage from them that was less than toothsome.

  6. Toni October 12, 2007 at 12:51 am #

    I’m bummed that the pork didn’t turn out as good as it sounded! I was eager to try it – ginger, pimenton, brown sugar and lemon juice? Wow! I was salivating! I wonder how it would work with chops instead of a roast. I’m thinking I’m going to tinker with this idea….

    I grew up on Long Island, and I remember the blizzards of my childhood. I remember the lights going out, and we had candles and flashlights, and we sat around and played games. I loved it when the world got quiet and we didn’t have school and could play all day in the snow.

  7. ann October 12, 2007 at 7:02 am #

    Hi Kerosena! — I love Book House! I still try and go there every time I’m home visiting my mom. It’s such a wonderful store. I hope you like the book too. I love the mental image of spaghetti-os in a cast iron pan too. That’s awesome!

    Lydia — Hehe, yeah, you’re probably right, I probably wouldn’t either. It was such a fun festival, until people started getting really drunk that is. Silly adults!

    Kevin — Have you ever read Snow In August by Pete Hamill? GREAT book, especially if you love NYC or the Dodgers. And snow in September that didn’t shut everything down? Just shows you Canadians are made of stronger stuff.

    S’kat — Must have been the panic ;-)

    Izzy’s Mama — Huh. I never thought about that, but, yeah, you’re right… All this weird weather would have made me miserable as a child. Poor Izzy! At least it means most of his favorite produce will be around longer!

    Toni — Fun memories, aren’t they? I feel like such an old timer when I grouse about this kind of stuff, “You call that a blizzard? When I was in school I once had to walk a mile to the bus stop in waist high snow… You kids today..” lol!
    The rub and the juice weren’t the problem, it was the pork and I bet if you go easy on the ginger, it would be awesome on pork chops! If you try it, let me know how it goes!

  8. Susan in Italy October 14, 2007 at 7:57 am #

    It’s good to know you admit your culinary mistakes, they can be more interesting that the failures. (But shatta sounds intriguing)

  9. Denzylle October 15, 2007 at 6:24 am #

    I’m in the UK, so I don’t recall the date you mentioned, but Londoners have their own memory of only 10 days later, the Great Storm of the Night of 15 / 16 October 1987. Today is the 20th anniversary so it’s being talked about a lot in the media.

    I do remember a gigantic snowfall on my first visit to NYC in January 1984 (more seasonal) when it seemed like I was the only person walking around out there, taking photographs in the 20s and 30s East of Lexington.

  10. ann October 15, 2007 at 8:00 am #

    Susan — It’s delightful stuff. The guy that runs the gourmet Middle Eastern/Mediterranean takeout joint sold it to me when he told me it’s better than harissa. I was sold!

    Denzylle — Hi! I’ll have to turn on the BBC then and see if they say anything about it. Snow in NYC is pretty magical. I bet your pictures are gorgeous!

  11. Julie October 15, 2007 at 9:35 am #

    I still get a thrill of excitement over snow, especially a big snow that actually shut things down. I love the way everything is transformed, the quiet, and the neighborhood camraderie it creates as we all dig out afterwords. But I prefer snow in December, January, February — not October!

    Good lord, a blizzard in October is some crazy stuff. And I’m sure your little 12-year-old self loved it. OK, my much older self would have loved it.

  12. Terry B October 15, 2007 at 12:59 pm #

    Another lovely story, Ann. Regarding your off-the-cuff cooking success, I think of that as an actual level in cooking skills. It comes after successfully following recipes and then successfully tweaking recipes to make them your own. When you can start with an ingredient or handful of ingredients and call on techniques you’ve developed in following recipes to create something on your own, you’ve arrived at a whole new place. I know you’ve been at that level for some time. Still, it’s always just as satisfying every time something you make this way turns out so well.

  13. Kate October 16, 2007 at 2:54 pm #

    the light in your rooms seems to be fantastic. u got a really nice shot of the pre cooked meal. hehe and its at times like these that new master pieces are created.

  14. ann October 17, 2007 at 7:12 am #

    Julie — I thought you’d be a blizzard loving kinda gal. It is the stillness, the serenity, the slowing of pace, the feeling that time has become somehow suspended that I love so much about blizzards. Being less terrifying than hurricanes doesn’t hurt either ;-)

    TerryB — I agree 100%. When anyone asks me how to start cooking I tell them to master a recipe and then riff on it. Just like learning to play jazz, isn’t it?

    Kate — Thanks! I loved the light that day too. My pictures would all be so much prettier if only I ate dinner at lunchtime ;-)

  15. tanabutler October 25, 2007 at 12:16 pm #

    I know exactly where I was on that day, and remember it vividly. We lived in a little trailer in a park in the Catskill Mountains, and watched all the glorious autumn trees fall, crash, and lose their leaves. And we lost our power and drove up the road to our friend’s house in Lanesville. She had a generator and a fireplace.

    It was the year without autumn.

  16. ann October 25, 2007 at 7:34 pm #

    Tana — Wow! That puts my memory to shame! A year without autumn… Kinda reminds me of this year, but the exact opposite.

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