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Our little flock – originally 8 hens of mixed breeds – turns one and a half next month.  We’ve prided ourselves on not losing a one, despite the abundance of local predators.  We’ve enjoyed our fresh eggs, which are erratic in size, shape, color and frequency.  The last few weeks, the girls have been fenced in the garden, cleaning up bugs and weeds and winding down egg production as they prepare for their first molt.  But something was off about One Patch.

One Patch was one of four Barred Rocks in our flock.  They’re big, friendly birds, with that distinctive barred black-and-white plumage that seems such a part of New England farm life.  They lay generously sized brown eggs and they get along well with other types of birds, even though they can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake.

One Patch got her name in the usual way.  The Barred Rocks were hard to tell apart when they were chicks, so we hunted for tiny differences in their coloration and behavior.  Jumpy was the brightest and liveliest, with a big white “ J” on her head.  Lumpy had an odd-shaped beak.  And Two Patch and One Patch had white spots, right next to their eyes.

In the fall of last year, the hens were 6 months and nearly mature.  One Patch grew restless.  She began pacing the coop, going in and out of the nests I’d prepared with straw and wooden dummy eggs, groaning and whining.  She revealed what would be her adult temperament – grumpy, irritable, quick to peck – and harassed her flockmates when they too grew curious about the nests.   It was One Patch who was the first to lay, leaving a perfect small egg next to the dummy egg and then heading downstairs for a drink of water.

The other girls followed over the next three weeks.    By the time they were laying regularly, I could  pretty  much tell the eggs apart.  One Patch laid the smallest of the Barred Rock eggs, and it was sharply tapered at the top.  It became clear to me, as time went on, that One Patch was not a fantastic layer.  Whereas Jumpy, Lumpy, and Two Patch grew plump and docile and each laid 4, 5, even 6 eggs a week, One Patch only managed one or two, and she stayed small.  Still, she developed a canny habit of “fake-laying” – she’d sit on the nest for exactly half an hour and then come down for a sip of water, like an atheist stopping at the font on the way out from Mass.  She acted just as if she had actually done her job, and sometimes she would even sing a victorious, spurious egg song.

As this summer came to a close, One Patch started acting stranger than usual.  When the other hens took shelter from the midday heat, One Patch would stand in the broad sunlight, blinking.  She was slow to come at feeding time, and took to sitting in a corner of the enclosure, far from the other birds. She even stopped fake-laying.

A week ago, I noticed she could no longer make it up onto the roost at night.  She stumbled and limped, and could barely drag herself even a few inches along the ground.  The other hens watched her, in a group, silently, unsure, as if illness itself were a stranger and not to be trusted.  I brought One Patch inside to decline by the hearth.  There, in a Priority Mail box lined with straw, she lingered a few more days.  Yesterday, she began to “stargaze” –her neck twisted far back to look at the ceiling, which I took to be an end stage in her progressive paralysis.

It was likely to have been, in the end, a case of nerves – neural damage from disease, or a nutritional deficiency.  Whichever it was, the plain fact was that One Patch had become less animal than vegetable, and the kind thing was to dispatch her swiftly.  I am sorry to say that my first attempt was not a success.  It fell to Husby, with his greater fortitude, to bring One Patch’s suffering to a merciful end.

Often the last few days I’ve said to myself, “It’s just a chicken.”  That’s true.  But there are also the larger questions of pain and responsibility, of the compassion and anxiety that come with being “just a human”.  On my mind for a while will be: what makes a good death?  Because entangled in that question, after all, is the other one: what makes a good life?

one patch rip

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And…one more story today, though it ran a bit late on the NPR site.

I love a roast in the fall, and one of the things I love best is when there’s fruit – dried or fresh – in the roast, lending a syrupy, caramelized finish to everything it touches.

Click here to read Roasting with fruit  story at NPR’s Kitchen Window.

Browse all my Kitchen Window stories for NPR.

Most of the work I do for the Globe these days is cookbook reviews, but every once in a while I’ll take on another kind of assignment.

At the end of the summer, I was in Manhattan with my son, who was attending fencing camp in midtown.  I tooled around town on a Citibike (exhilarating, sometimes terrifying), re-visited a lot of my old food haunts, and hung around in Chinatown quite a bit.

While bopping around Canal Street, I got to re-connect with an old friend, Pearl River Mart.  If you lived in Manhattan in the 80’s and 90’s in a boho tax bracket, Pearl River was a life-saver.  You could get one-of-a-kind Christmas and birthday gifts for practically nothing,not to mention staples like cotton T-shirts, bamboo everything, and china galore.

Since those happy, thrifty days, Pearl River’s gone a bit more upscale, like everything in the city.  It still feels like a treasure box, though, and it’s worth a visit if you’re in town.

If you look carefully at the attached 15-year-old picture, you can see an assortment of paper lanterns from Pearl River – a steal for like $1 at the time.

Click here to read today’s story about Pearl River in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

I know what you’re asking.  “What, another Mediterranean cookbook???”  I wondered the same thing too.  With its vivid design and splashy, simple-to-assemble flavor profiles, Modern Mediterranean is easy to swoon over and makes a great gift.  On the other hand, if you’ve been cooking with Mediterranean flavors for decades It’s not a book that will teach you much you don’t know, and not every recipe is as tightly executed as it could be.

If you’ve already got an extensive Mediterranean collection, you can pass this one by.  But if you’re just starting out, it’s a pretty good entry point.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Modern Mediterranean’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app , you’ll find more data points and analysis of the latest cookbooks and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app in the country!  Love cookbooks?  Then CookShelf’s a MUST for you.  Available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices and updated most weeks.

Friends at My Table is a good example of a kind of British cookbook that’s popular right now – full of visions of rustic entertaining based on global flavors.  There are charming, old-fashioned sidebars – like how to play beach cricket, and an assortment of parlor games.

The food itself ranges from the simple to the overwhelming (in the mood for venison made in a fire pit?).  You could argue that that shows versatility, although in plain fact it may just mean this turns out to be one of those cookbooks where you use maybe 3 of the recipes regularly, and never open it otherwise.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Friends at My Table’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app , you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app in the country!  Love cookbooks?  Then CookShelf is a MUST for you.  Available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices and updated weekly.

last peach

As a family, we have never had much luck with fruit trees.  When we moved here as newlyweds 12 years ago, we were in love with apple trees as well as each other, and we planted four out back right away.   Two died almost immediately, so we replanted the next year, and the next.  When our daughter was born, we planted a couple of pears (I heard that was a tradition somewhere); we also tried peaches and Asian pears.  There were voles, and hard frosts, and overeager bears, and in the end, only 3 trees out of well over a dozen survived.  Dormant oil, conscientious pruning, organic kaolin powder -nothing seemed to help.  Once in a while we get some small pears or some wizened apples.  We try not to expect too much.

But the tree in the front yard is another matter.   Some 5 or 6 years ago, I noticed the young sapling, looking out of place among the daylilies and echinacea in our neglected bit of dooryard.  I had no idea what it was or how it got there, and in one of my periodic efforts in the direction of order, I took the lop cutters to it and tried to get rid of it.  It was a bit too stout, though – the trunk almost as wide as my thumb – and I gave up.

But the amputated stump put forth leaves again the following spring, and the next, and sprang another trunk or two, and grew in height.   I decided that, whatever else it was, it was now an “ornamental,” and we put away the loppers.  After another couple years, pink blossoms followed by green fruit began to appear.  The elegant, tapered leaves and the shape of the fruit roused our suspicions.  Wouldn’t it be funny, we mused, if it turned out to be a peach!  Not that it would be edible even if it were.  Anyway, the green fruit dropped to the ground by July, and we thought no more of it.

It took a couple more years for the tree to build up enough steam to carry its load all the way through the summer, and we watched as the fruit fattened and  turned yellow.  I tasted it mid-August – sour and puckery.  Oh well, I thought, at least it looks nice. By mid-fall, though, the remaining fruit had developed a deep rosy blush.  Wasps and worms swiftly overtook them, but I picked one anyway and cut away the bad parts.  We shared a bite and goggled.  It was, in fact, a peach – despite everything- and a good one.  Not that we were ever likely to get much of a crop.

This year, a mild spring sun shone on the tree, followed by steady rains and then weeks of June drought.  There were what seemed like endless humid days, and wave upon wave of mosquitoes.  The tree took it upon itself to fruit abundantly.  While the kids went to camp, the fruit grew heavy.  When they went back to school, the laden branches bent clear to the ground.  Again I tried one while it was still yellow, and that first fruit was as hard and sour as the one the year before.

A month passed without change – and then, just as the days began to shorten, something shifted.  A troop of inspector wasps arrived, and when I lifted one of the poor burdened branches, I found flattened, aromatic fruit littering the ground beneath.  The chickens had a carnival that night, and so did we.

So began a decadent fortnight: every day, I picked ripe peaches and cleaned up the drops for the chickens.  We ate what we could and baked the rest into cobblers, but still, there were so many and they were so perishable, I couldn’t keep up.  There was at least a bushel, but I doubt we ended up eating half.

Bit by bit, the branches began to unbend, rising gracefully – and, I thought, gratefully – off the ground, until one day in the second week of October there was but one peach left.   It glowed with sunset colors, it was already a little overripe, and everything that crawled or flew circled nearby, waiting for it to drop.  But it was mine.

I brought it inside the house, and its fragrance filled the quiet kitchen.  I ran my thumb over its slightly wrinkled skin one last time, and halved it with my paring knife.  The skin slid off like a silk chemise; the flesh was yellower than a mango, and just as juicy.  It was the last peach, and it was as full of life and sweetness as the first peach had been of bitterness, or futility.

I still don’t know how that peach tree arrived in our yard 6 years ago.  I suppose one of us was sitting on the porch steps on a summer afternoon, juice dribbling down our chin.  I suppose that one of us carelessly tossed a pit away, too lazy to go inside and put it in the compost, or too sticky-fingered to turn the doorknob.

I sometimes feel like apologizing to the tree – for not knowing how it came about, for trying to chop it down, for feeding it with nothing but doubt and surprise all these years.

But the tree doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a mystery, a fluke, or a symbol of forgiveness.  It’s nothing more than life itself – unasked for, unremarked upon, yet in the end, more than one might ever think to ask.

If you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you may know that I’ve been a huge fan of Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries since it came out in 2008.  Where 660 Curries was overflowing, the new book, Indian Cooking Unfolded, is relatively spare  – just 100 recipes, just 10 ingredients.  But Iyer remains unfailingly generous with tips and guidance; and while the flavors may be less painstakingly constructed, they remain clear and strong.  Foldout photograph sections are a big help with some basic techniques.

An excellent entry point for anyone interested in exploring this complex, fulfilling cuisine.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Indian Cooking Unfolded’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app , you’ll find more data points and analysis of this book, 200+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook zine in the country – and a MUST for cookbook lovers.  Available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices and updated weekly.

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