Farming with Book Club.

For months, or so it seems, the ladies of book club and I have been wanting to read Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, except we could never think of how to relate it to the previous month’s selection.  Generally, we try to have some sort of link from book to book; this series of connections started when we read…

  • The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, the story of a boy who burns down Emily Dickinson’s house, leading us to read…
  • Afternoons with Emily, a fictionalized account of a young girl’s relationship with the poet, bringing us to…
  • The Poet and the Murderer, a true-crime following a counterfeiter’s body of work, which included a forged Dickinson poem and a document signed by Abraham Lincoln, inspiring us to read…
  • Assassination Vacation, which briefly tells the tale of Lincoln’s box-mates at the Ford’s Theatre, who were not only the focus of…
  • Henry and Clara, but also step-siblings who married each other, causing us to want to read a more scandalous book about incest like…
  • Flowers in the Attic, which we were not able to thematically tie to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle at all, so we decided to start a new chain.

It doesn’t seem quite right to call this Kingsolver’s book, since she wrote it with the assistance of her husband Steven L. Hopp and her eldest daughter Camille.  Along with Kingsolver’s youngest daughter Lily, the four moved from their home in Tuscon to rural Virginia.  Before their arrival, the family had decided after much contemplation to spend one calendar year living almost entirely off of the produce they planned to farm on their forty-acres of land.  Since no one in the Kingsolver-Hopp household has a wholly unrealistic mentality, each of the four chose one non-locavore item like olive oil and coffee that he or she knew would be difficult to live without.  For the other things that the family was unable to grow or raise themselves, they resolved to buy exclusively from local vendors or farms.

Like I said, the Kingsolvers and the Hopps are reasonable folk; they completely understand that the lifestyle they adopted is one that most are unable to undertake.  I know I personally don’t have the ability to grow what I need to eat in my backyard, and no one in book club can say any differently.  What we did have, however, was an in with Barbara and Dwight Sipler at Small Farm in Stow — Dwight is Amanda and Darlington’s family, a relation we chose to exploit by hosting our meeting at the farm.  It was entirely in the same spirit as this month’s book.

I had been looking forward to our trip to Small Farm, but as it got closer I began to get a little anxious; it had been raining in torrents for days, and I was beginning to forget what sunlight felt like on my face.  The weather did let up a bit, but still — rain.

We lucked out when we first arrived at the farm with just a like drizzle, but rather than chance it we immediately started picking herbs and vegetables; I only gathered a few eggplants, some mint and a handful of lavender since I knew I would be receiving my CSA box in two days.  Amanda, Darlington, Melissa and Sarah picked lettuces, rainbow chard, peppers, herbs and beets.

We set up our spread under the tent behind the farm stand.  Our original plan was to make a handful of the recipes Camille Kingsolver included in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but Sarah was the only one who followed through by preparing what the book refers to as “Disappearing Zucchini Orzo.”  Amanda had made some beans — the same beans depicted in the cover art, actually; Darlington brought drinks; I had packed turnips, a special request; Melissa picked some greens for a salad, which she tossed with goat cheese, raspberries, cucumbers and a balsamic vinaigrette.  (She had also brought a bag of sweet bite-sized bread from Iggy’s in lieu of croutons, but I can’t recall exactly what they were called.)

Barbara Sipler sat with us while we ate; she had, coincidentally, just finished reading the book as well.  As we chatted, mosquitoes descended upon us — I guess we were too tempting a target to pass up, pretty much sitting ducks.  When I got home, I counted my bites: twenty-three, including one on my thigh that I had unknowingly scratched so hard that I gave myself an extremely lurid bruise that, come to think of it, looks a bit like an eggplant.

Here are some photos from the farm.

I have never been stung by a bee, and am vaguely terrified of them.

Doesn’t this look somewhat like an oversize earring?

A pair of pretty lettuces.

One of many butterflies.

I think this is called an amaranth, but I may be totally wrong.

As of today, Small Farm is still open for the season; if you’re in the area, definitely stop by.

Small Farm
184 Gleasondale Road
Route 62
Stow, Massachusetts 01775
978.897.5996
small-farm.org

Disappearing Zucchini Orzo, from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Makes four servings.

¾ pound orzo
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 large zucchini
olive oil
thyme
oregano
¼ cup grated Parmesan or any hard yellow cheese

  1. Bring six cups water or chicken stock to a boil and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions.
  2. Use a cheese grater or mandoline to shred zucchini; sauté briefly with chopped onion and garlic until lightly golden. Add spices to zucchini mixture, stir thoroughly, and then remove mixture from heat. Combine with cheese and cooked orzo;salt to taste.  Serve cool or at room temperature.

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Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews.

After reading V.C. Andrews‘s Flowers in the Attic for book club, I found myself practically dying of curiosity to discover what fate had in store for the surviving Dollanganger children.  I mean, after enduring three years in an attic (not to mention incest, possible rape, poison, religion, tarring, whipping, hair-pulling and Bible-thumping), what could Christopher, Cathy and Carrie possibly have left to face?

A lot, apparently.

Petals on the Wind picks up right where Flowers in the Attic left off, with the three Dollangangers riding a bus en route to Sarasota.  During the trip, the youngest child, Carrie, gets violently ill; a fellow passenger (who, strangely, happens to be a mute) brings them to the home of Dr. Paul Sheffield, for whom she works as a housekeeper.  Of course, Paul decides to adopt the children as his wards once he hears their story, and of course he falls madly in love with Cathy, who each day grows to be more and more beautiful, of course.  Then, of course, there is a seduction (it wouldn’t be V.C. Andrews without a handful sprinkled here and there, as liberally as arsenic on doughnuts) even though Cathy is a teenager and Paul is in his forties.  If that wasn’t enough, there’s a gorgeous (of course) ballet dancer vying for Cathy’s attention, and a brash and possessive attorney, who also happens to be the Dollanganger’s stepfather (of course).  Oh, and Chris is still desperately and sinfully in love with his sister, of course, who, by the end of the book, is in her thirties and the mother of two children by different fathers.  I won’t wreck it for you by saying what their parentage is.

Trust me, I’m not making any of this up.  In fact, when I was waiting for Keith to pick me up this past Friday after work, I was that odd person cackling to herself as she sat outside of Dunkin’ Donuts while reading a book.  How could I not, having read lines such as these?

I was fifteen.  The year was 1960, and it was November.  I wanted everything, needed everything, and I was so terribly afraid I’d never in my life find enough to make up for what I had already lost.  I sat tense, ready to scream if one more bad thing happened.  Like a coiled fuse attached to a time bomb, I knew that sooner or later I would explode and bring down all those who lived in Foxworth Hall!

…I wanted something…fanciful — and a mountain of it!  I wanted all my star-filled dreams of love and romance to be fulfilled — on the stage, where I’d be the world’s most famous prima balleria; nothing less would do!  That would show Momma!

Damn you, Momma!  I hope Foxworth Halls burns to the ground!  I hope you never sleep a comfortable night in that grand swan bed, never again!  I hope your young husband finds a mistress younger and more beautiful than you!  I hope he gives you the hell you deserve!

That’s not even the worst of it.  Like I said, I don’t want to wreck it for you.

On a side note, what is it about V.C. Andrews that gets readers going?  When they heard book club and I were reading Flowers in the Attic, I got three back-to-back emails (or IMs) about the author and related remembrances.

Oh, I was one of the many broads our age obsessed with V.C. Andrews as an early teen. You will be RAVENOUS for the book after Flowers in the Attic even though it’s not as good.  Seriously terrible writing, but it’s kind of like Stephen King — you can’t deny that you’re impressed with the outrageousness of plot.

— Marcella

I never read it, but I remember in seventh grade the girls on the bus would read it and get to really scandalous sections and then read them out loud.  It was awesome.

— Ben

Maybe it was high school that I read Flowers in the Attic. I went through a V.C. Andrews phase, but some of them are pretty disturbing.  I think I saw it on TV once too.  Listen for the woman singing in the opening…  still creeps me out to this day.

— Joann

Anyone else willing to share?

Movie Night with Book Club.

My book club has gone through a string of heavy, rewarding and highly-involving books; when it was time to pick the next title, we all were craving something lighter. We still wanted to have the next plot somehow connect to the one that came before it — Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara, was, amongst other things, about the relationship between brothers and sisters, so when someone brought up Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews we laughingly agreed that it would be a good fit. We decided not only to read the book, but to also watch the film adaptation. Only two of us had read the novel before (neither Heather nor Melissa could really remember the details), and none of us had seen the movie, so we thought it would be a perfect departure from our reading record, which has included such titles as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall, both densely-written books.

You just try and tell me that my book club isn’t the best ever.

I’m too young to recall the hoopla surrounding the book when it was first published in 1979, but I distinctly remember seeing copies for sale in the book aisle of ShopRite when I was a kid; its cover art completely drew me in, even though I had no idea what the story was about. There was an illustration of a house, and in one of the topmost windows was a cut-out — as if it were an actual window — through which I could see the picture of a blonde girl. (Honestly, I thought it was the coolest thing.) When I flipped open the cover, the second page revealed the blonde girl surrounded by a blond boy and two younger golden-haired children. Behind the four of them was an ominous figure approaching them from out of the shadows; all five had pallid skin, leading me to think at that young age that this was a scary book, possibly about vampires.

I was wrong, on both counts.

There is nothing scary about Flowers in the Attic, except perhaps Andrews’s unnecessarily abundant use of punctuation and her inability to write not only realistic dialogue, but a believable narrative in general. Here’s an example from the very beginning:

“Yes, Momma, I know exactly what you mean,” Christopher piped up. “You did something of which your father disapproved, and so, even though you were included in his will, he had his lawyer write you out instead of thinking twice, and now you won’t inherit any of his worldly goods when he passes on to the great beyond.” He grinned, pleased with himself for knowing more than me. He always had the answers to everything. He had his nose in a book whenever he was in the house. Outside, under the sky, he was just as wild, just as mean as any other kid on the block. But indoors, away from the television, my older brother was a bookworm!

For those of you are unaware, Flowers in the Attic is the story of the four Dollanganger children: Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie. At the beginning of the novel, which spans three years, Chris and Cathy are fourteen and twelve respectively, while fraternal twins Cory and Carrie are five. When their father is killed in a car accident, their mother Corrine moves them to her childhood home in Virginia, which isn’t so much a house as it is a sprawling mansion. Upon arrival, the children learn that Corrine’s parents have exiled her from the family for marrying her half-uncle; in order to get back into her father’s good graces — as well as to lay claim to her inheritance — Corrine conspires with her mother to hide the four children in an unused portion of the manor while she sweet-talks her father. The novel gets its title from the playground the Dollanganger children make for themselves beneath the mansion’s eaves, since they are locked into a room with attic access and are forbidden to leave. Over the years, Cathy and Chris become increasingly attracted to each other, even going so far as to, um, consummate their relationship.

It would be a flat-out lie to say that any of us enjoyed the book, though I do know that we all burned through it; Amanda says it was because she just wanted it to be over already. Even so, we were determined to watch the movie version when we met up at Heather’s adorable new house.

Before we assembled ourselves onto the vast sofa (which we kept on referring to as “the party raft”), we had to get down to the serious business of food prep. After all, in our book club, what we eat is just as important as what we read… one could even argue that it’s even more important, in some cases.

While Stephanie rolled out the crust for two pizzas (rosemary, red potato and smoked cheese; eggplant and goat cheese), Heather fried up some squash fritters, which she served alongside a zingy mustard dipping sauce. Darlington had baked some scallion-and-cheese biscuits, Melissa had made a mixed-berry pie and Amanda provided the drinks. Earlier in the week I had volunteered to make a mac and cheese because I had a craving, but I had been hankering for a specific version: my aunt’s.

(My aunt Hasmig is my father’s sister, meaning she spends her time hanging out on the Lebanese and Armenian branches of my family tree. The thing is, I was raised to address her with Tagalog word for aunt, which is Tita. But none of that matters though, because her mac and cheese is neither Armenian nor Filipino. It’s just tasty and, better still, can be eaten with your hands once cooled and cut into squares. This isn’t, of course, to say that you can’t use a fork and knife, but what I want to know is why would you?)

When we were settled on the raft with our heaping plates and overflowing glasses, it was movie time. For a while, we kept shouting out derisive commentary to drown out the dialogue — yes, the film is that awful — but after a time we stopped doing even that. In fact, half of us fell asleep; I think I might have been the first to close my eyes, come to think of it. None of this stopped us from looking up factoids about the film afterwards — Kristy Swanson won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Horror or Mystery Motion Picture, the exteriors were shot at Castle Hill in Ipswich — and it’s certainly not going to prevent me from reading the sequels. As terrible as Flowers in the Attic was, I just need to know what happens, the same way I just have to finish an open bag of Milanos: it’s unhealthy, irresistible and very regrettable indeed.

Tita Hasmig’s Mac + Cheese
Makes about twelve portions.

1 pound egg noodles
1 stick butter, plus one quarter
½ cup flour
4 cups milk (I use skim since that is what I drink, but if you can even use cream or half-and-have you want something richer)
1 pound mozzarella cheese
bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook egg noodles according package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  2. While noodles cook, melt butter in a large saucepan. Gradually stir flour into melted butter and cook over medium heat; whisk until a roux forms, then stir in milk. Whisk constantly until combined and sauce is free of lumps. Add cheese and salt and pepper; continue to stir until cheese has melted completely.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a large Pyrex or oven-proof baking dish, then evenly distribute breadcrumbs across the surface. Add cooked noodles to cheese and stir to combine. Pour noodle and cheese mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle the top with more bread crumbs. Cut the last quarter stick of butter into pieces and scatter across the breadcrumbs. Bake until top browns, about thirty minutes or so. Let cool, and cut into squares.