May 31, 2014


I remember learning the spring ephemerals in college - trout lily,  quaker lady, Virginia bluebell, violet. We'd wander through the woods behind some housing development with a notebook, crouching to study the flowers, hoping the latin would stick.

It didn't stick. I only recall a smattering of binomials: Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip tree), Polystichum acrostochoides (Christmas fern) because I like the way the words sound, their musical syllables. It's the same reason I started to play the oboe in 4th grade. Not because I was interested in the instrument so much as I liked the word: oh-bow. 

Like the flowers blooming there in the bright light under the bare branched but budding leaves, my memory, too, fades into a shadowy place. I wish I could remember more. 

A couple nights ago at a bar playing trivia there was a question about a famous dancer (from days of yore) and all I could think of was Isabella Duncan, the dancer who died at age 50 when her scarf caught in the wheel of her convertible, breaking her neck. This wasn't the answer, but it was what I remembered. 

Nature's first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold. / Her early leaf's a flower; / but only so an hour. 
Robert Frost

From poem I wrote in college:
The growth comes / as a stuttered dance— / a trembling push, / light and the little ants.
I get a little depressed in the spring, when there is so much beauty, change, growth, dance, light.

I cried as I chopped leeks the other morning, making ramp butter. No idea why I was crying, but I put the knife down and called my mom. This is a theme of mine come spring—my mother knows it well. We talked about change. I looked out at the maple tree whose chartreuse blossoms had all fallen to be replaced by leaves, all in a matter of days. In making this butter I wanted to slow the change - to preserve the ramps that only have a short season.

There is the preciousness that is painful about all the spring edibles - blink and you miss them, open your eyes and it's suddenly late July and all tomatoes tomatoes tomatoes.

But now May is nearly over and we shut the door on wild nettles, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, violets. This is what's contained in the word tender - this sweetness but also the pain that it will too soon be gone. I hate the word, in a way, for its saccharine quality, but love it too, as it describes how delicate something is, a tender leaf which if you handle too fiercely will bruise and wilt, decompose.

On Memorial Day weekend we made birch and violet cocktails. I used some Johnny Jump ups (technically an annual) to make a floral syrup, and boiled birch twigs to make a mixer. Boiled birch twigs yield a sweet flavor (remember birch beer?) not too far from maple syrup, but with its own minty quality. Combined with the violet and pansy syrup and nice cold vodka and a squeeze of lemon, you get an earthy-floral cocktail that tastes just like spring when the earth begins to breathe again after winter. May these flavors allow you one last excuse to celebrate our tender, loving spring season.

Violet & Birch Cocktail

1 oz good vodka
1/2 oz chilled birch water
1/2 oz vermouth
1 TB pansy syrup

To make the birch water:

Simmer a few birch twigs (about 1/2 cup) in 1 cup of water for 30 minutes. Strain and chill. 

To make pansy syrup:

Combine 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar and boil until sugar has dissolved. Add 2 cups violets, johnny jump ups or pansies. (Make sure they are free of herbicides/pesticides!) and simmer lightly until the syrup has reduced by half. Strain if you like, or leave the flowers in for added texture.

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