By Sandy D’Amato | Photograph by Dominic Perri
As soon as the weather changed to the point where you could see your breath on a cold day, he would show up. The first clue was the front door bell, which when I was a kid rarely rang on a Sunday afternoon. I would answer the door and first see my aunt and cousin—a nice surprise. But lurking right behind them was “him.”
They all would walk in, conveniently right before supper. My mother, who always was an overachiever when it came to the amount of food she prepared, was hardly bothered, as she loved to see her sister and niece. But Uncle Bob, was a different story. With no acknowledgment, he would shed his heavy grey three-quarter-length tweed coat and fedora, pull his pipe out of his breast pocket, pack and light it, and plant himself in front of the bookshelves on the stairwell. He would pluck and peruse various specimens, as if he was alone in a library. This would continue until dinner was completely on the table. He would then eat everything within reach as he never passed or asked to be passed to. Not a bad word, not a good word, he just didn’t seem to have the time or energy for polite conversation. When dinner was done, Uncle Bob was already bundled and ready to leave before the dishes were cleared.
This scenario was repeated every week. In the beginning, I really resented this alien invasion into our lair. But as the years went on, his winter visits into our family—who tended to have few filters on their verbal opinions—introduced a missing commodity: quiet. The presence of Uncle Bob on the stairs, contentedly drawing and expelling wafts of smoke, eventually drew me toward him like a moth. I got up the nerve to approach him. How does that pipe work? He proceeded to empty it out and do a full tutorial on proper cleaning, packing, lighting, and drawing. That was cool. After that I couldn’t imagine a winter Sunday without my Uncle Bob. I would sit near the stairway paging through the Encyclopedia Britannica while we both waited for dinner to be set on the table.
Over the years I have been guilty of complaining about a particularly brutal winter stretch, or a week of 100% humidity. But I could never imagine living in a place with a lack of seasons. To have the chance to be reborn four times a year is an under-appreciated gift. And as a chef, it is no surprise that I find that each new season is intimately linked with food. In spring it’s all about the fleeting and fragile—ingredients like ramps, fiddleheads, asparagus, peas, and morels disappear as quickly as they pop through the soil. This is followed by the deluge of summer, when sun-kissed fruits and vegetables are in such a large quantity that gorging is encouraged and corn and tomato hangovers are commonplace. Early fall is amazing, when the late summer bounty crosses over with peppers, pears, apples, and all those roots that flourish and sweeten after a good frost. As the chill really escalates, it’s all about products breaking out their cold weather wardrobe and forming a tough outer shell to sustain them—and us—until spring returns. What I find gratifying is that, like a cantankerous relative, the tough outer armor usually protects a sweet delicious interior.
Right after we moved from Wisconsin to the Pioneer Valley, we were exiting I-91 at Hatfield and sweeping along Elm Street. We passed a large field of butternut squash on the right, basking in the low late-season sun. Our heads swiveled left and a farm stand appeared piled high with more of those creamy beauties. Fast brakes, a U-turn and a few dollars later, we were the proud owners of two hefty thick-necked squash.
As dinner approached, a dish started to take shape. I pre-boiled some Indian (Ojibwa) harvested wild rice that I had brought from Wisconsin, and sautéed it along with Valley-grown turnips, Brussels sprouts and the deep-orange squash chunks. Then I added dried cranberries, glazed with maple syrup (which have equal roots in both states), and a scattering of hearty sage. It’s a perfect blend of my past and present in a sweet, bitter, tart, nutty, herbaceous package.
As families grow and evolve, everyone has to find their place. In the beginning, it can seem like an intrusion when a new member appears. But as time goes on, they naturally infuse themselves into the growing tapestry with no perceptible seam. In my life as a chef I continually find that as a new ingredient stumbles into my world, within months it becomes as familiar and comforting as a quiet Sunday afternoon surrounded by the aromas of a coming supper. So with the Pioneer Valley awash with its annual butternut bonanza, there is no better time to make the move through that hard shell and discover what’s inside.