On day eight of a twelve-day stay, I realized why they called the house “Treetops”. We had switched rooms – swapping the extra-large master bedroom with the other couple with whom we were sharing the house for a smaller one whose windows abutted the pines and maples along the back edge of the property. I awoke to the sounds of birds, seemingly inches away – flapping wings and melodic songs that would have been charming were it not 5:17 in the morning. I managed another hour or so of fitful sleep before waking and making a large pot of coffee, and then a slice of toast, slathered in almond butter and homemade strawberry jam. It also took me that long to finally relax into the rhythm of vacation – to accept that my time away from Boston and New York was meant to remind me to slow down and spend a little more time enjoying the all-too-brief northeast summer.
Treetops is a former carriage house, less than a mile from the beach in Little Compton, Rhode Island. We shared the place for twelve days with friends and family, hoping for delicious meals, afternoons in the sun, and a chance to stay in one tranquil place for more than a few days in a row. My husband and I usually tried to plan our vacations somewhere new or exotic – an adventure with multiple stops and elaborate potential restaurants and activities. In our ten summers together we had taken weeks-long road trips or flown cross-country or to other continents. Eating well has always been a priority on any trip, and no matter where we went local specialties were sought: green chile sauce in in the southwest; peperoni cruchi in Basilicata, Italy; farmer’s markets with exotic fruit and spices down south. But this summer, because of our bi-urban schedule, both our bank account and energy level were seeking something closer to home. So we had ended up at Treetops, in a town where we had never before been, barely an hour and a half south of Boston, at a three bedroom house we would be sharing with friends and family over the course of our stay.
We had loaded our cooler and tote bags with our favorite coffee and olive oil and a few other staples, knowing that the stores near Treetops were much smaller and often higher priced than what we could get in the city. But our friends who had been spending summers there for more than a decade assured us that we would pass a vegetable stand, seafood market and small grocery store within a dozen miles of the house. My parents, who were staying with us for a few days as well, would be bringing homemade wine and herbs from their garden, as well as a few local specialties from western New York, like maple vinegar and strawberry jam. My husband’s brother and his wife who were spending a few days at a nearby guest house brought luxurious condiments like truffle oil and cream of balsamic.
While I have long made local and seasonal produce and meat the primary source of the food I cooked at home, I also had felt a disconnect from my local markets in the previous year as we went back and forth between Boston and New York. We inevitably cooked less, and our schedules in each city did not always match up with the local farmer’s market. We had also been experiencing the food culture in our new neighborhood in Brooklyn – often eating inexpensive doubles and roti at the small Trini take-out spots on every corner of Crown Heights when our fridge was particularly empty. Meals for the past year had been mostly a mix of necessity (we needed something fast or something that used up some items in our fridge that wouldn’t last until we returned to that particular city) and exploration (on the rare night I could shop for ingredients and cook, I made something elaborate and exotic, often incorporating new flavors from the neighborhood). Thus, while we had brought plenty of provisions for a two week long stay, I was still anticipating cooking much like we often did at home – invariably improvisation would be necessary to keep making each meal interesting and different, especially while preparing adequate sustenance for eight people like we would be the first few nights we were all together. Even though I loved fresh seafood and vegetables, I still wondered if we would get bored with our options a few days into the trip. My mind racing as it had been the last few months of finishing my semester and my dissertation, I still tried to plan for every eventuality instead of relaxing into my needed seaside pause.
I finally was reminded that even during the start of the harvest season, mother nature varies her offerings quickly. We were in Rhode Island the last week of June through the fourth of July, and the first few days offered a few local tomatoes, squash and plenty of greens. We had also picked up local shrimp and halibut – the two proteins that had the quantity and relative price to feed a large party with ease. For dinner that night, I marinated the shrimp in olive oil, a little white wine and spices and we grilled both the shrimp and the halibut. Alongside we made a caprese salad with basil my mother had brought and locally made mozzarella, roasted the squash, and sauté-ed chard in plenty of butter until very soft. It was so simple, but so delicious. The shrimp were the shrimpiest I had tasted in a long time – the chard so perfectly earthy and silky (the latter helped in part by the amount of butter our friend – a caterer – did not hesitate to use), the tomatoes the most flavorful I had eaten since the previous summer. Nearly everything we served was locally sourced – yes – but even more so it was fresh. And completely of the spirit of where we were: sand was tracked across Treetop’s wooden floor and bathing suits were drying on the back line. The seafood had been caught from the very ocean we had been swimming in earlier that day.
As the week went on, corn started showing up at the market, along with some small cucumbers. And of course strawberries, finally sweet again as the ground dried out for a final large harvest after a wet spate in the middle of June. We grilled clams, dumping a few dozen onto the grate and covering them for five to seven minutes or until they opened, carefully transferring them to a platter with their natural liquor intact. They needed nothing – not salt or butter – to be the best I had ever tasted, perfectly seasoned by the sea itself. Scallops were pan friend and topped with just a drizzle of cream of balsamic; a few times we made a simple beurre blanc or beurre rouge for the swordfish or halibut or tuna that graced the table.
When we visited the farm stand on the second of July – more than a week into our stay and not long after the birds became my alarm clock – there were tomatoes in full force, and plenty of corn, along with broccoli and cauliflower. What a difference a week made in summer. Still we roasted the vegetables in olive oil and some combination of herbs or seasonings – a few times I added chopped local feta for saltiness in the last fifteen minutes. Corn was steamed just for a few minutes to keep its sweet bite. We had fresh strawberries – maybe over locally made ice cream, or with balsamic, or by themselves – when we had dessert. Few meals looked radically different from the one we made the first night: a salad, cooked greens, roasted or grilled vegetables, seafood served as simply as possible – but all were delicious. Leftovers were added to eggs for breakfast or topped salads for lunch. I thought I would want something different, something more, over the twelve days we had in Rhode Island. I never did. For the first time in a long time I had stayed in one place for more than a week and once again embraced the local food culture available to me. But even more so, I had allowed myself to slow down. I did not need to over plan my day or our meals – the lack of internet, I came to realize, was a blessing and not a curse. Besides an inevitable bike ride to the beach, the only task each day was to visit the market and choose whatever looked best for dinner.
I thought I would miss the excitement of a discovering a new region or culture during vacation – but I found that this one was more fulfilling in other ways. It reminded me of the simplicity of good, fresh food. Of what I loved about buying my meat and produce the same day I was to cook it. Of sitting around a table full of family and friends who had all had a hand in the meal before us, wine glasses never quite empty, with no place to be the next day. It seems only appropriate that it took a place almost half way between my two homes to remind me to slow down and eat.