I turned forty in 2011. It was a milestone, but as a firm believer in the notion that wisdom comes with age, it wasn’t one that I dreaded. The worst part of turning forty was the qualifier that people started adding to compliments:
“She’s in good shape for being forty.”
“She looks good for forty.”
The majority of these tainted comments were easy to ignore, because I felt good for forty, maybe even for twenty. I’m diligent and at times a bit obsessive about my health. My dad was a two-pack a day smoker and alcoholic. My Type II diabetic mom resembled Jabba the Hut from the thighs up thanks to an affinity for fast food, Hostess snack pies, and mindless eating. Both of my parents died when they were sixty-three.
This, I vowed, would not happen to me.
With a nod to Julia Child’s edict of “everything in moderation, including moderation,” I eat anything and everything as long as the ingredients on the label are recognizable, real foods, and I work out six days a week. Before you let your eyes roll back into your head, consider this as well: I drink two cups of black coffee every morning; I drink wine every night while I make dinner; and I have no shutoff valve when it comes to pizza or homemade ice cream.
My diligence has paid off. I’ve never broken any bones or suffered a serious injury. My experience with surgery and anesthesia is limited to having my wisdom teeth removed and a decade later a tiny, but painful bone spur in my hand.
Then, in my mid 30s, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease (DDD) in my lower back. DDD isn’t really a disease; it’s a condition that occurs when fluid escapes from the discs that separate the vertebrae in your spine. The discs act like shock absorbers for the vertebrae. As the discs lose fluid, there is less padding between the vertebrae, and they come closer together creating instability and sometimes pain in the spine. My x-rays indicated that this had happened to four discs in my lower back. And as my doctor put it, “You can’t get the jelly back in the jelly doughnut.” She recommended a traction machine, so I could hang upside down and relieve the pressure in my back. At her urging I limited my runs to four times a week and started practicing more yoga. She also gave me exercises to strengthen my core, a word that I once thought only referred to the part of an apple that’s not worth eating. Traction, yoga, core strengthening, they did the job.
And then I turned forty-one.
Late last fall, my back pain returned. Once or twice a week sharp pains in my lower back would wake me in the middle of the night. Sitting down for breakfast was often enough to make me wince with pain. I was certain my jelly-less doughnuts and obsession with running were to blame. Morning stretches to loosen the muscles in my lower back were added to my regimen and running was limited to three days a week. This helped, but by Christmas I was waking up with back pain four to five times a week. No matter how good I felt before bed, the pain returned while I slept. Simple yoga poses, especially balancing poses were getting noticeably harder and at times even painful. Worse still, my running pace was getting slower. Depression settled over me like dense fog. This is what it means to get old, I thought.
Greg frequently suggested I return to the doctor, but I didn’t see the point, not yet. On my last visit to the doctor she said that eventually my back pain would become intolerable and impossible to manage with yoga and traction. At that point surgery would be my only remaining option. Having watched helplessly from the sidelines as a close friend went through the same surgery over the holidays, I didn’t have the courage to make the call. Besides, the pain wasn’t unbearable, until it was.
Did you know that your hips move up and down as you walk or run? I did, but I didn’t know that only one of mine was doing this. According to my doctor my right hip had completely locked up and from the exaggerated asymmetry of my back muscles, which was the direct cause of my back pain, she was certain it had happened several months ago. She was surprised that I could walk let alone run.
So the excruciating pain I’d been experiencing for months had nothing to do with the lack of jelly in my doughnuts. And unlike my degenerating discs, the condition was treatable. My miracle worker had my hip unlocked after forty-five minutes of electric stimulation, acupressure, and joint manipulation. The knots and over-developed muscles that were compensating for my locked hip would take longer to goad back into their normal states. I was so relieved both physically and mentally that Greg’s litany of “I told you so”s didn’t even annoy me. But as they say, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The locked hip was likely the result of running on unyielding concrete sidewalks.
“Is there something you can do other that run outside?” my doctor asked without recognizing the gravity of her question. I’ve been a runner for twenty-five years, an outdoor, in any temperature or condition, treadmill-hating runner. I stared at her in disbelief as she naively continued, “How about the elliptical? Or even running on a treadmill would be better for your joints than running on the sidewalk.”
“But running is my thing,” I finally managed in spite of the giant lump that had formed in my throat.
“Well, I think you might need to find another thing.”
She didn’t get it. There was no other thing. Running is more than exercise for me. I don’t love it because of the cardiovascular benefits. It soothes me. It’s meditative, contemplative. My best ideas come when I’m running. Problems are solved when I run, big ones, small ones. I pray when I run. I practice gratitude when I run. I’m most alive when I’m running.
I’ll skip the part where this forty-something started to cry like a four-year old.
I agreed to give up running for two weeks while my doctor continued working on my back and the damage that had occurred from the locked hip. And my doctor agreed to let me try running again once my joints and muscles were in working order. It wasn’t my best case scenario, but it beat “YOU MUST STOP RUNNING, FOREVER.”
I got the long-awaited green light to run last Friday. Maybe it was because both hips were properly functioning or maybe it was my state of mind, but it was the best run I’d had in months. I ran again on Sunday. Two days later, I triumphantly returned to the doctor only to learn that my hip was partially locked again, even though I wasn’t experiencing any pain. Lying prone on the table with my face buried in a tissue-covered cradle, I waited for my doctor to deliver the bad news. At least this time she wouldn’t have to see me cry. My self-pity gave way to deep shame as I thought about the people who’d recently lost their legs in the Boston Marathon massacre; I could still walk even if I couldn’t run.
And then something surprising happened. “It’s not as bad as I expected it to be,” my doctor said. “In fact, your hip was pretty easy to unlock. Next week I can show you some exercises that you can do, so you can unlock it on your own.” I cried anyway as the tension gushed out of my rigid body. This old mare wasn’t ready for the bullet in the pasture after all. I would run another day. And I already knew my next run would be all about gratitude.
Strawberry Mint Springria
3/4 cup mint leaves
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 bottles of dry white wine
1 1/4 cups brandy or orange liqueur
2 pints of fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced, plus more for garnishing
- Make mint simple syrup: Chop mint. In a small saucepan bring sugar, water and mint to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Simmer syrup, undisturbed, 2 minutes. Let cool. When ready to use, pour syrup through a fine sieve, pressing hard on solids. Syrup keeps, covered and chilled, for 2 weeks.
- Combine the simple syrup, white wine, brandy, and sliced strawberries in a large pitcher or divide evenly between two smaller ones. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Pour over ice. Top with ginger ale and garnish with a fresh strawberry.
Instead of weaving some lyrical story for you that predictably ends with me in the kitchen whipping up a batch of this or that, I’m skipping right to the end. Let’s face it, once you see the words
strung together, does anything or anyone else matter?
No, I didn’t think so.
And then there’s the business about the bourbon. Uh, huh. You don’t have to be a whiskey lover to fall for this ice cream as my seven-year-old goddaughter can attest. (Lest you think that I’m in the habit of supplying minors with alcohol-laden desserts, it was a very small scoop.)
I like this ice cream with a few toasted pecans and a light sprinkle of flaky sea salt. If you dare, drizzle it with a salted caramel sauce; you’ll never be the same again. For maximum enjoyment, have a bowl, a very big bowl, alone. You can openly lick the empty dish, as you’ll be wont to do, without undue embarrassment. Besides, it’s too good to share unless it’s with someone you really, really love.
Now put down your smart phone or iPad. Step away from your computer. Cancel your afternoon appointments. Bribe your kids. Roll up your yoga mat. Lie to your boss. And hurry off to the store and fetch the fixings for a batch of your own Bourbon. Brown Sugar. Vanilla Bean. Ice Cream.
Bourbon Brown Sugar Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
2 cups heavy cream, preferably pasteurized rather than ultra-pasteurized
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1/4-1/3 cup bourbon
- Add the cream and brown sugar to a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean* into the pot. Warm over medium heat, whisking until the sugar has dissolved and any clumps of vanilla seeds are broken apart. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the milk and bourbon.
- Chill mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, for at least four hours or overnight.
- An hour before you’re ready to churn, place the mixture in the freezer, then freeze in your ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Makes about 1.25 quarts.
*note: Save the vanilla bean for another use. Consider making your own vanilla sugar. Add a couple cups of granulated sugar and the vanilla bean to a jar. Give it a few shakes, and in a few weeks use the sugar in your favorite shortbread, cake, or scone recipe.
The first seventeen years of my life were spent in a dilapidated, bar-on-every-corner, mill town in Western Pennsylvania. Insulated. That’s the best word to describe the childhood I spent in a single stop light town of fewer than five thousand people. We didn’t get out much. There was the almost annual birthday trip to the now defunct Sea World in Ohio that only took place if mom was in the right kind of mood to make the two hour journey. I remember exactly two vacations both of which were to Niagara Falls, Canada. The town’s smallness and the fact that everyone knew everyone else didn’t comfort me in the way that it did some. It was suffocating. There were no secrets. When officer Divens showed up at your house to investigate a “domestic disturbance” reported by the neighbor that complained every time your ball went in her yard, you could bet the news had spread from the corner store on the east side to the sub shop on the west side by breakfast the following day.
City living, the likes of which I only gleaned from watching too much TV, represented all the glamour and vibrancy I’d never known but craved. On long walks delivering newspapers I’d fantasize about riding alongside Ponch as a California Highway Patrol officer, hair blowing from underneath my helmet, mirrored glasses that screamed the kind of cool I was desperate to be, and the tall buildings whizzing by in my wake. Or maybe I’d join Cagney and Lacey on a gritty crime scene investigation in the heart of Manhattan. Their kind of who-done-its were a lot more interesting than investigating who threw the beer bottle at whom. Someday.
Eventually, I made my way to a big city—Chicago—where I’ve remained for over a decade and a half. My first years as an urban dweller were everything I’d longed for so long ago on my paper route, the towering buildings, the energetic pace, the diversity, and maybe best of all, the anonymity. There was something strangely comforting about losing myself in a bustling sea of nameless faces every morning on my way to work. Through the sharp lens of hindsight, I now understand that losing myself is exactly what I was hoping to do when I moved to the city.
Lots of growing up and a decade later I started craving a life in a different kind of big place. I wanted wide open spaces, a rolling landscape, and a meaningful connection to the earth. In 2010, I left Chicago and Greg behind for an opportunity to experience a rural existence. I spent six weeks working as a cheese making apprentice and awkward farmhand at Longview Farm in Washington County, New York. Greg was sure I couldn’t handle being away from the city, but there, living in the midst of strangers—strangers that would become dear friends—I’d never felt more at home. At Longview, then, and every time I’ve visited since, there is an immediate sense of belonging. Labels are irrelevant. I’m not defined or judged by my ability to have children, my relationships, or my career choices. There is an urgent rhythm to life on a dairy farm that cannot be controlled or denied. Animals must be cared for, and milk is impatiently waiting to become cheese. Everything else is secondary.
Tending to these incessant demands is hard work as our bleary eyed farmer friends Liza and Dave can attest, but there is an intrinsic simplicity that is intoxicating for me and Greg too. You don’t have to search for a quiet place to meditate there. You just put on your muddy boots and walk among the clucking hens. Or hike through the woods to the cadence of snow crunching under foot. Or slip on your running shoes instead and head west until the gravel road ends.
I return to Longview Farm with Greg in tow as often as our schedules allow, which is never enough. Reconnecting with Liza and Dave, their land, and their entourage of goats and fowl is like pushing a reset button on our lives. This year marked our first ever spring visit and our first visit during kidding season. Goats are curious animals and baby goats all the more so, probably because nearly everything is new to them and their data on the evil in the world is limited. That unconditional trust is refreshing and shockingly unfamiliar. My hot pink and yellow rain boots with their big buckles and my purple coat of many zippers made me the equivalent of a 5’-3” goat toy, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. The little goats, a black one here, an oatmeal one there, would jump on their hind legs and chew on the zipper pulls of my jacket, as their front legs left muddy hoof prints up and down my jeans. Later that night by the fire, my cheeks throbbed—from smiling.
Happiness at Longview is a baby goat nuzzling my calf; an unadorned, tender, juicy chicken raised just a few yards from where it was roasted; and evenings by the fire with our friends, Greg to my right with a warm cat nestled in his lap. We trade stories and even share viewpoints on controversial subjects without offense. And sometimes we just sit in a comfortable silence that’s punctuated with the occasional snap of a burning log.
Will this life be ours one day? With each visit, we return home recharged and eager for a farm to call our own. In the meantime, I vow to find that same peace in my life, the life I’m currently committed to for the other 360 days of the year, but it’s a struggle. The earthy smell of the fermenting hay and the undulating vistas that made those long country runs feel too short, are replaced with stoplights and impatient drivers. We find happiness in Chicago too; it just requires more effort. Peace and quiet is harder to come by here. Spending casual time with friends and family must be scheduled weeks, even months in advance. Sitters must be hired. And if we’re going out for dinner, a reservation is often required.
We returned from our most recent visit to Longview farm two weeks ago. Not a day has passed that I haven’t thought about the simple joy those little goats brought me. I considered the contrast of life at Longview and life in Chicago as I meticulously cut out these cookies. They’re an uncomplicated shortbread that on the farm I would have simply scored with a dull paring knife and sprinkled lightly and quickly with salt. While they baked I’d have had just enough time to gather eggs from the barn. But in Chicago, I’m called to explore what’s possible with these simple cookies, to dress them up a bit, and to make them the darling of the savory cocktail cookie assortment I was preparing for a client’s party.
I started with a dusting of sea salt. Then I added pale blonde sesame seeds, imagining their satisfying crunch in contrast to the tender, crumbly cookie. Maybe my life doesn’t have to be either or at this point, I thought. I can divide my time between wide open spaces while still finding joy in this pulsating city now perched on the edge of spring. And with that I added the black sesame seeds to my now decidedly fancy shortbread and put them in the oven.
Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread
Adapted from Mary Cech’s Savory Baking.
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons water
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, black, white, or a mix
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until coarse crumbs form.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and water. Reserve one tablespoon of the egg mixture for brushing.
- Make a well in the center of the flour and add the egg yolk mixture. Bring the dough together with your hands. Press it into a 1-inch thick disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.
- In a small bowl, combine the coarse sea salt and sesame seeds.
- Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into any shapes you desire. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch apart. Brush the tops with the reserved egg mixture. Sprinkle with the sea salt and sesame seeds.
- Bake until lightly golden on the bottoms, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container.
Pay off the mortgage.
Buy a farm in Vermont.
Invest in finding a cure for Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Do more to end world hunger.
Buy a motorcycle and invent a riding suit made from the same material used to make “the little black box” on airplanes.
Pay Chip Foose of Overhaulin’ fame to turn our ’87 Ram Charger (a.k.a. Big Blue) into a living room on wheels.
Pay off my nieces’s mortgages.
That’s a smattering of the things Greg and I plan to do when we win the lottery. How we’ll spend our winnings is a topic of frequent debate on long runs, longer car rides, and romantic dinners for two when we pay someone else to do the cooking. The lists are never the same though paying off the mortgage and restoring Big Blue make it on every one. Sometimes we give a lot of our winnings to our families. Other times we give it to strangers. Sometimes the farm in Vermont is a ranch in Montana instead.
Squandering millions of dollars that we don’t have is a fun way for us to pass the time. Ironically, we talk about winning more frequently than we actually play the lottery. (Yes, I know, “you have to play to win.”) We’re not big gamblers, just big dreamers, and this dreaming out loud helps us align and calibrate our values and our goals, especially the big ones. When it comes right down to it, we’re pretty content with what we have, right here, right now, which is a good thing because Greg read that our chance of being killed (or killing someone else) on our drive to the store to purchase our Mega Millions ticket is nearly six times greater than the chance that we will win the jackpot.
What if instead of winning the lottery (or dying a horrible death on your way to buy your ticket), you woke up to find $10,000 and a note relieving you of all obligations for the next seven days? The kids will be taken care of. So will your mother-in-law. All your professional duties have been temporarily suspended without affecting your pay and vacation day allotment. What then?
To my surprise, when it comes to spending fictitious money, it’s easier to spend millions of dollars than it is to spend what amounts to our annual property taxes. Harder still is deciding what to do with the days. Time seldom, if ever, factors into our lottery talks though there is an unspoken assumption that the living will be easy. Of course tending to our thousand acre Montana ranch while we’re curing cancer is likely to present some time management challenges. This must be what is meant by “high class problems.” But we’re not talking about the rest of your life. It’s just next week.
Should I stay or go? If I make it a “staycation”, I could use the money to buy lottery tickets (I’d walk to the store to purchase them.), and pass the days with Under the Tuscan Sun and Master and Commander on repeat.
Or I could sign up for the Regional French Desserts course at the French Pastry Institute, and spend my evenings enjoying over the top dinners in Chicago: Moto, El Ideas, Goosefoot, Schwa, North Pond, Black Bird, Gibsons. Whatever money is left will go the blind Latin guitarist that frequently serenades me at a redline stop in the Loop.
Maybe instead of blowing it all at once, I should consider gifts that keep on giving. I can get an eighty-pound wheel of Parmesan delivered to my front door for $1,250. A wheel of my favorite Pleasant Ridge Reserve is $220. Then I’ll need some wine to drink with my cheese. A few cases of Pride Mountain cabernet and Elyse Le Corbeau should do the trick. This option also leaves plenty of time for working through my mountain of “must read” books.
It’s more likely that I’ll hit the road leaving little to show for the money when the seven days are over. Tooling and drooling around Old Madrid, breaking up the day with stops for sherry and creamy croquettes would be hard to beat. Replenishing my vitamin D and sipping mai tais on the shores of Maui would be almost as lovely.
I considered taking Greg on my adventures, but he’s got a different agenda in mind: he plans to spend the $10,000 to hire someone to finish the interior trim while he’s hiking the Wind River Range, alone. Well, at least we can agree on the big stuff.
How would you spend $10,000 dollars and seven unfettered days?
Whole Wheat Soda Bread with Tart Cherries
I go on a soda bread binge at least once a year. And why not? It’s fast. It’s versatile. It goes with butter. It goes with cheese. And it’s perfect for breakfast with a generous slathering of peanut butter. This isn’t the sweet variety soda bread found across the U.S. that is anything but Irish. (Traditional, “authentic” Irish Soda bread is made using just four ingredients: flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and salt.) If you prefer the sweet variety, you might enjoy this one at SmittenKitchen.com.
4 cups white whole wheat flour, plus a few teaspoons for dusting
2 tablespoons millet (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup dried tart cherries
1 2/3 cups plain yogurt
1/4 cup milk or water
2 tablespoons honey
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat a baking sheet or dish with olive oil and lightly dust it with flour, or line it with parchment paper.
- In a large mixing bowl whisk together the flour, millet if using, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the cherries.
- In a separate bowl whisk together the yogurt, milk or water, honey, and egg.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry. Mix until the dough is too stiff to stir. Use your hands to bring it together in the bowl. Add additional milk or water one teaspoon at a time if it’s too dry. You want a stiff, slightly tacky ball.
- Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and shape into a round loaf. (Don’t over-knead the dough. Too much kneading will produce a tough bread.).
- Transfer the loaf to the prepared baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to make deep slashes across the top of the loaf, 4-6 cuts about half way through.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will sound hollow.
Or how about a boozy soda bread? Try this Rosemary Rum Raisin version.
This Spanish fig treat, known as pan de higo, pushes a lot of my buttons–the good buttons, not the ones our moms or bosses push that send us into immediate bouts of self loathing. For me, pan de higo is all about rainbows and unicorns.
First it smacks my nostalgia button. With one bite I’m instantly transported to a cozy tapas joint nestled in the cobbled streets of Old Madrid. Then, as it softens in my mouth, my I Love Anything Figgy button lights up. The sweetness of the rich figs drapes across my tongue, while the spices cause it to gently quiver.
You’ve got a Fast and Easy button too; I know you do. You can make pan de higo in less than thirty minutes. Pop the ingredients into a food processor, give it a few twirls, add a splash of brandy, then mash it into any shape you like–voilà.
If it’s tightly wrapped and stored in a cool place, it will keep for weeks. Stow it away for an unexpected guest or offer it to your favorite hostess in lieu of a bottle of your go-to wine. I don’t have to tell you what that does to my Make Ahead button. Then, get ready for your Feel Like a Kitchen Rock Star button, also known as the Domestic Goddess button to start buzzing like crazy. Any time I can peek behind the curtain in Oz and learn how to successfully replicate something that I love that’s expensive to buy and/or hard to find, I feel, well, like a rock star.
Push a few buttons and make a batch. Eat one soon. Keep one for later. Share a few with your friends. Let your kitchen rock star shine, and remember, it’s less about being a kitchen rock star and more about feeling like one.
Pan de Higo (Spanish Fig Loaf)
Pan de higo, which in English translates to “loaf” or “bread of figs”, is a traditional Spanish way of preserving figs for the winter months. (For the curious, this blog entry illustrates how it’s made in Spain.) Slather a substantial cracker like a Carr’s Wheat Cracker with a creamy blue cheese or chèvre, top it with a slice of pan de higo, and if you dare, drizzle it with honey. Then pour yourself a glass of something festive and bubbly, because moments like these don’t come around often.
1 pound dried figs, stems removed
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon anise seeds
1 tablespoon honey
1 – 3 tablespoons brandy, as needed to bring the mix together
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and skins removed (or blanched almonds)
- In a food processor, chop the figs by pulsing 10 or 12 times.
- Add spices, honey, and 1 tablespoon of brandy. Process until a smooth paste forms, adding more brandy if necessary.
- Add the toasted nuts and pulse until they are are coarsely chopped.
- Choose your mold. You can make one large loaf or several small ones. Line your mold with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Spoon the fig mixture into the mold, pressing down hard. Secure the parchment or plastic, so the loaf won’t dry out. Place a heavy weight on top to compact the loaf–a cast-iron pot, jars of jam, a brick, a dumbbell—whatever you can find.
- Let the weighted loaf stand in a cool, dry place for 2-3 days before serving, so the flavors have time to meld together.
Last night at dinner Greg asked me what I planned to share here at Bob Vivant in my next blog post.
“Those smoky almonds that you fell hard for this weekend,” I answered, hoping my tone masked the “duh” that I was thinking.
“No, I mean what story are you planning to tell?”
“Oh, I’m feeling called to write about our trip to Punxsutawney,” I replied. The notion of a call to write needs no explanation for Greg, but I could tell from his face that the subject surprised him.
“Didn’t you already write about our trip?” he asked.
“Yes, but that was the before. This will be the after.”
“But that was almost two weeks ago,” he said. “Most people, even if they cared in the first place, have already forgotten about Groundhog Day.”
Greg was right. Most people don’t take the whole weather-predicting groundhog business as seriously as I do. The poor folks in the East who are still digging out from the weekend’s snow storm probably aren’t thinking much about Phil and his promise for an early spring, and if they are, it’s doubtful that they are thinking pleasant thoughts.
Ten days after our first-ever hike to Gobbler’s Knob, the magic of our trip lingers in a surprising, though pleasing way, like the smell of a good curry that wafts out the door to greet you three days after you served it for dinner. Rising at 4AM to stand in the bitter cold with thousands of strangers, many of whom are decked out in hand-stitched brown wool hats made to look like groundhogs, isn’t what most people would call a desirable equation for finding magic.
Now consider this, you’re standing so close to a brilliant fireworks display that it feels like the exploding colors are raining down on you. Then as the fireworks end you watch the sky lighten with the rising sun. The estimated crowd of 30,000 people begin chanting, “Phil, Phil, Phil.” And a few tipsy onlookers scream, “show us the hog.” This enthusiasm is infectious. You’re no longer a bystander; you’re a part of this pulsating, merry mob. After an eight-hour drive from Chicago and four hours of restless sleep at a Motel 8, there I was on Gobbler’s Knob, my own voice ringing out in the joyful cacophony. Would Phil, the World’s only prognosticating groundhog, see his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter? If he didn’t see his shadow, everyone who’d gathered at the Knob in their groundhog finery would be promised an early spring, something that in 127 Groundhog Days had only happened fifteen times.
There’s a big stage with a stump in the center where Phil will soon make his appearance. People on the stage are singing and dancing, some of it’s good, some of it’s not great, but it’s all entertaining and more entertainment than I’m used to at 6:30AM. At last, it’s time for Phil to make his prediction. At nearly half-past seven Punxsutawney Phil, “the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators,” saw no shadow and declared an early Spring. The crowd erupted in deafening cheers. The sea of people I’d so recently considered strangers, now felt like friends. They hugged each other tight while bouncing in circles as though their team had just won the Superbowl. I turned to see my own groundhog-hat-wearing husband jumping up and down, spouting, “early spring, early spring.” In a word, it was unforgettable.
If you go to Punxsutawney next year that is what you will likely find, shadow or no shadow. I began to realize that the devoted crowd that had hiked to Gobbler’s Knob that morning, enduring a sub-zero wind chill factor weren’t tied to the outcome; they were tied to the tradition. Then I thought about the man who wrote the movie Groundhog Day, Danny Rubin, who was an honoree at the Groundhog Banquet we attended on the previous night along with four hundred other guests. Some people believe that writing can’t change the world, but I’m convinced that it can change, or in the case of Punxsutawney, save a town.
As a kid growing up in another small Pennsylvania town a hundred miles west of Punxsutawney, I’d huddle in bed listening to the live coverage of Phil’s annual prediction. We never drove to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day or any day for that matter. My parents weren’t the traveling sorts. But if we had, we wouldn’t have found a crowd of 30,000 people, or even 3,000. In the 80s Punxsutawney was a mere shadow of the thriving coal-producing town it had been in the early 20th century. As the steel industry in Pittsburgh collapsed, so too did the economies of small towns, like Punxsutawney, that relied so heavily on that industry.
With the 1993 release of the movie Groundhog Day the town of Punxsutawney was thrust into the spotlight even though the movie was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois. Today the town’s economy is largely driven by the Groundhog Day tourism that Rubin’s movie has helped fuel for twenty years and counting. It’s estimated that local businesses generate more than half of their annual revenue during Groundhog Day festivities. (We did our part, returning to Chicago with two groundhog hats, a cookie cutter, a surprisingly tasteful t-shirt, and countless other impulse buys all bearing Phil’s image.)
Would the tradition have survived if not for the movie? Probably. Would the town of Punxsutawney have survived? Maybe, but we’ll never really know, because today the movie that helped save a tradition and a town has become a part of that tradition. If you would like to experience the magic for yourself, make the trek to Gobbler’s Knob next year. You may also want to bring along these sriracha almonds to snack on while watching the morning fireworks and waiting for Phil.
Smoky Sriracha Almonds
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika
2 teaspoons sriracha sauce
2 cups whole, raw, unsalted almonds
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Melt butter in a large skillet. Add salt, paprika, and sriracha sauce. Sauté for one minute, until fragrant. Add almonds, stir until they’re shiny. Pour almonds onto a large baking sheet.
- Bake for 7 minutes. Gently shake pan to redistribute the nuts. Return almonds to oven and bake for five more minutes.
- Let cool completely on the pan. Store in an airtight container.