Overcast in Hvar
October 19, 2014
The lavender-covered island of Hvar, a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, enjoys a purported 350 sunny days each year. Today wasn’t one of those days.
My husband and I set out to explore Hvar Town, a twenty-minute stroll from the hotel along the pathway hugging the Adriatic Sea. The overcast sky didn’t make for great photos, but our legs thanked us for the opportunity to stretch out after four days on the motorcycle.
The evening before, our group—a mix of Americans and Canadians, a smiling quartet from Rio, and a pair of wise-cracking Australians—were whisked by water taxi to a local, family-run restaurant where we were wined and dined (perhaps overly wined, in fact) under the boughs of olive trees. So perhaps the lack of sunshine this morning was a good thing, helping us recover from one too many sips of the smooth, rose-scented rakia.
A line of umbrella-toting worshippers slowly walked the perimeter of St. Stephen’s Square. Our guide had mentioned the Michaelmas celebration. Having survived the various saints’ days that overwhelmed summer weekends in the Italian North End of Boston, I had expected celebratory music blaring, crowds of onlookers enjoying traditional foods, perhaps a cadre of raucous senior citizens hoisting a statue of St. Michael. Instead, the queue filed silently through the mist into the church, heads bowed.
Off the main square, we maneuvered through a maze of narrow pedestrian streets. Restaurants tucked in small alcoves, numerous art galleries, and fashionable clothing shops caught our eyes, but we were searching for something else. Up flight after flight of steps, we followed arrows that promised “Fortica Španjola.” Finally, the stairs ended… halfway to the top of the mountain where the fortress stood. We completed the ascent, catching glimpses of the sea and the Pakleni islands through the palm and pine trees lining the switchbacking path.
We spent the rest of the afternoon nursing cold Ožujskos and relaxing in the tangerine-cushioned lounge chairs along the beach at our hotel. Three bikinied English women, immune to the cool ocean breeze, padded past us and lowered themselves down the ladder into the waves. With their hair piled up in buns, they held their heads above the water as they doggie paddled out to the ropes marking off the swimming area. Despite the waves, the water was clear, allowing us to watch the small fish swarming about and sea urchins crawling across the rocky bottom.
Suddenly, one of the swimmers screamed. “Something touched me!” As they splashed their way back to the ladder, an Italian woman, half-dozing in a lounge chair near the ladder, calmly said, “It’s a diver.” Sure enough, a line of bubbles led from the spot where the women had been treading to a wetsuit-clad man hauling his tank aboard a small boat anchored not from shore.
The women giggled embarrassedly, shivering as the breeze picked up. As they wrapped themselves in orange towels that matched the lounge cushions a little too perfectly, the Italian woman looked up at them. “I told you so. Those bubbles were from the diver. Sharks don’t fart.” One of the English swimmer replied with a smile, “Maybe Croatian ones do!”
The Briny Star of Thanksgiving
The turkey’s red, white, and blue head lolled over the edge of the utility sink in my grandparents’ basement. Brown-and-white feathers fluttered down to the floor. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and my grandfather and uncle had fulfilled their duty of hunting down the bird. Now with rifles put away, they could sit back, relax, and pretend to watch football while actually dozing in their recliners. If only they had known, I had secretly wished they had gone shellfishing at the shore instead of tromping through the meadows of western Pennsylvania.
My grandmother spent hours preparing the turkey: After the gory process of transforming it from a recognizable creature into a bald, trussed-up carcass, she slid it into the oven to roast. There it sat for hours, beckoning her into the kitchen to baste. After all that effort, that bird should have been the star. However, despite my mother’s excitement about my great-grandmother’s rolls (dry and tasteless to my five-year-old palate), the most sought-after dish on the table was a simple dish of Saltine crackers, oysters, milk, and butter: scalloped oysters.
Around the table we passed the Pyrex baking dish of shellfish, slightly burned on the edges–just the way I liked them. I made sure to take a heaping serving because I knew the dish wouldn’t make it around a second time. When we reconvened for dinner that evening and lunch the following day, we’d make turkey sandwiches to go with leftover mashed potatoes, but there would be no more oysters. Not until next Thanksgiving, at least.
I still make scalloped oysters for holiday dinners. Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom are gone, and the rest of the family is scattered, celebrating far away. Yet, when the rich, briny aroma with a hint of the buttery Saltines wafts out of my kitchen, I’m back at the family table, waiting impatiently for my cousin to pass the oysters.
1 ½ cup Saltine crackers
½ pint oysters, drained, reserving 2 Tbsp of liquor
3 Tbsp milk
3 Tbsp butter
Salt and pepper, to tast
- Grease a 10-inch glass baking dish with butter.
- Crush the Saltine crackers until in ¼-inch pieces, not too fine.
- Warm the milk and butter in a pan until butter is melted.
- Place a thin layer of cracker crumbs in the bottom of the prepared dish and top with a layer of oysters.
- Sprinkle more cracker crumbs over oysters, then lay remaining oysters in another layer.
- Top with remaining cracker crumbs, then drizzling the milk and butter mixture over the whole dish, making sure the liquid gets down to the bottom layer.
- Drizzle the reserved oyster liquor over the dish.
- Bake for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees, until top is golden.
Rebirth in the Intervale
As I drive down Prospect Street through the campus of the University of Vermont, my dog, Archie, stares intently out the windshield, whining in anticipation. A few blocks from the busy academic scene of backpacked students and the intrepid bicyclists, braving the slushy streets with studded tires, we descend the winding road into Burlington’s 700-acre, not-so-manicured version of Central Park: the Intervale.
This farmland-cum-conservation land represents that clichéd Yankee thriftiness, the drive to fix what’s broken rather than discard it, to make something work again. The floodplain here has been farmed on and off for at least 4,000 years. It had become an informal town dump until the mid-1980s, when the area was reborn as the thriving farmland and conservation center is it today.
My car bumps across the railroad tracks as we pass the flagship store of Gardener’s Supply—purveyor of plants, tools, and other ingredients for creating one’s dream landscape—whose founder was responsible for the Intervale’s rebirth. Next door sits an old-yet-sturdy red farmhouse that houses the Intervale Center, steward of about half of the land as well as coordination center for the numerous farmers who toil here. Behind it looms an incongruously new barn, still smelling of freshly planed wood, built last year to hold produce for a popular year-round community-supported agriculture (CSA) program the Center runs.
A quarter-mile down the washboard road, I park my car across from the now-dormant community garden and clip on the dog’s leash. With several excited barks to announce our arrival, Archie takes off, setting a pace that is hard to sustain with snowshoes shuffling through the fluff.
The path wends its way through snowy fields, with tarp-covered tractors and empty greenhouses waiting for spring. The outbuildings sport wavy water-damage marks—reminders of the floods that ravaged these fields, first in the spring of 2011, and again in August of that year when Tropical Storm Irene roared through Vermont. Some farmers left the Intervale for higher, drier ground, but most remain, dedicated to ensuring the success of this agricultural renaissance.
After a bend in the trail, we follow along the ice-edged Winooski River. I can smell the cows on the opposite bank long before I see them—it is farmland here, after all, not rose gardens.
Near a row of birch trees lining the river, corn stalk stumps poke jaggedly out of the snow. In the warmer months, refugees from Bhutan and Somalia tend their gardens, their vibrant clothing with bright, geometric patterns providing a blast of color to the muted green vegetation. Under the guidance of an organization called New Farms for New Americans, immigrants use this six-acre plot to grow food for their families as well as to sell at local farmers markets. This collaboration has helped the newly settled families create a successful new life in Vermont using the old farmland.
Heading back to the car, with a tired German shepherd following in my oversized snowshoe prints, I feel reenergized from our trek through this reminder of second chances and community-supported success.