This Crazy Joy

It was the pigs’ fault, I guess. Every afternoon, after a morning of recipe testing, I’d go bumpity-bump-bumping down the dirt road to a farm in Vineyard Haven, a bucket of leftover sautés and stir-fries by my side. As soon as I’d pull through the farm gate, Sally, Happy, Penny, and Harley would recognize the red Honda and come trotting down the hill. Well, not exactly trotting – it was more like a zippy jog, or maybe even a 5K pace. If you’ve never seen a four-hundred-pound hog jog, I can only tell you that it makes you smile.

I was charmed.

I’d timidly toss my bucket of leftovers across the fence to my enthusiastic taste-testers. The pigs liked everything – except lemons and fennel fronds – but they were especially fond of the creamy vegetable gratins. They’d snort and shove each other around to get to the good parts, and come up for air with their snouts covered in cheesy bread crumbs.

After feeding the pigs, I’d peer longingly at the rest of the animals on the farm. But I never ventured past the hog pen, thinking it wouldn’t be right to wander around. I barely knew Liz Packer then; she was simply a kind farmer who’d offered a solution to my leftovers problem. So I’d back up and steer the Honda home to Oak Bluffs. Or home as it was then – a cottage refuge where I’d come for a few months to rest, write, and cook.

I was working on my first cookbook. And working on my life. Back on the mainland, I’d brazenly left behind a successful – but highly stressful – career as chief editor of a national cooking magazine. And I’d not so brazenly tiptoed away from a faltering marriage. I didn’t know then that I’d only taken baby steps, that working through a big life change is like diving headfirst into a monstrous breaking wave; you’ve got to swim beneath the surface for a while, but when you finally come out the other side, the cacophony of your old life is soothed and washed away.

Why I came to this particular place, this Island, is still a mystery to me, but why I stayed has everything to do with the pigs, Liz, and an Island of food and farmers.

One day while I was feeding the pigs, Liz appeared at the top of the hill and called to me, “Come see the newborn lambs!” Newborn lambs? I hadn’t seen a newborn farm animal ever, I think, except maybe the chicks we hatched in an incubator in nursery school, if that counts. But baby lambs? Wobbly and wet, pink-nosed and pointy-eared, they were, to me, life and spring and warmth wrapped up in one seductive package.

That day – the day I slipped inside the farm to discover a world beyond pigs – was like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Many more magical days followed, days of poking around with Liz and her kids, collecting eggs, planting potatoes, walking the oxen. Piglets came and Sally the sow sadly went, retired after too many failed pregnancies.

Two months, then four months went by. I bought farm boots and sold my pink suede pumps at Martha’s Closet, the consignment shop in Vineyard Haven. I discovered farms all over the Island; looking for coolers of fresh eggs became a treasure hunt for me. I picked wild watercress and found freshly cut asparagus. All these years among food magazines, and I’d never gotten close to a newly harvested spear of asparagus. The crazy joy this asparagus brought me was a “Hello, Susie!” moment, a sign that I’d felt pretty removed from the source of my food, and that maybe a stronger connection to the natural world – and not a two-hour-a-day commute on I-95 – was a vital component of my well-being.

That summer, after a brief foray back to Connecticut, I returned to the Island and went to see Liz. Excitedly, she told me zillions of cherry tomato plants had sprouted in the hog pen. She was convinced the seeds came from the tomatoes I’d fed the pigs. Liz and her family harvested those tomatoes; I ate some too. Later that summer I got a taste of pig as well, at a pig roast featuring one of Happy’s litter from the spring. Yikes, now I finally understood how vividly the circle of life plays out on a farm.

In the fall, I didn’t go back to my old life. I found a little place to live in West Tisbury and dug a tiny veggie garden.

The next summer I had a bigger garden; I grew cherry tomatoes and even sold some. This year, I’ve moved to a rustic old farmhouse that sits on deliciously fertile soil. I have a farm stand, even laying hens and a bunny. No pigs yet. But plenty of cherry tomatoes.