by Emily Portman
We started with bread. Then naan. Then flour tortillas. Accompaniments followed; curry to dip the naan in, duck prosciutto with the bread. And the food experiments continued from there: braised rabbit, homemade granola, Vietnamese pho. It was winter on Martha’s Vineyard and the kitchen was the warmest room in the house.
I grew up in New Jersey, and I’d always assumed our winters were as cold as any other; we had snow and sledding, drank hot chocolate and made soup and wore mittens. The ponds froze up every winter and our wet hair would icicle in the morning while waiting for the school bus.
But to my New England-raised boyfriend, I’m a ‘southern belle.’ Because in this part of the country, the roads are icier, wool socks are thicker, and school is only cancelled when the snow reaches mailbox height.
“Last winter was so mild, we hardly even turned on our heat,” I was reassured over and over again by countless Vineyarders. So when it came time to find a winter rental, my boyfriend and I cleverly chose a large drafty house where the wind snuck through the closed storm windows. Mother Nature’s housewarming present was a hurricane. Followed by a nor’easter.
For economic reasons, we kept the house at 60 degrees, although on more than one occasion, those days that required two pairs of wool socks instead of one, I caught the thermostat turned down an extra five-toseven degrees, a financial experiment to ‘see if I’d notice.’
So it only made sense to escape the cold next to a warm oven or flaming stovetop. And it was something to keep us busy once all the restaurants and shops had closed for the season.
We started simple, but the recipes got increasingly more complicated as the nights got colder and burned fingertips became more enticing than cold feet. The best nights were those when the kitchen was warm enough to tickle the smoke alarm but not quite set it off. The worst were the ones when a too-hot pan would fill the house with smoke, forcing us to open the windows and doors and undo all our hard-earned heat.
For Christmas, we had the idea to give out smoked bay scallops, preserved in olive oil with herbs and lemon peel, in cute mason jars. Crafty, local, seasonal. It was all very ‘Vineyard.’
We had seen smoked scallops for sale at seafood shops, but they were always frozen or refrigerated. We didn’t know if it was possible to preserve them for extended periods of time at room temperature. Google didn’t know either. So we headed to the Net Result to buy the scallops. Fortunately we had the foresight to start small, with a half pound of scallops instead of the four or five pounds we estimated we would need. One of the fishermen at the Net Result generously donated a bag of woodchips, the same ones he uses at home for smoking bay scallops.
The most integral part of the whole experiment was a smoker, which we neither had nor had made before. But we got the idea to take a Pyrex dish, lay down a few woodchips, cover that with tinfoil, arrange the scallops and then cover the entire container with tinfoil to trap the smoke. We had a gas stove so it seemed logical to put the dish directly over the flame.
We were patting ourselves on the back for our brilliance.
But unfortunately, oven safe does not mean fire safe. We learned this about three minutes into the process when the dish cracked in half, launching glass-studded scallops around the kitchen like deadly confetti.
We did manage to salvage a few from amongst the rubble. Slightly shrunken, with a coffee-stained hue, they tasted more like bitter rubber than the smoky essence of north Atlantic waters.
Though our initial project had been a failure, it succeeded in warming up the kitchen for the day. And for Christmas gifts that year, we decided instead to make a homemade liqueur, whose recipe elicited a more enthusiastic Google response, in slightly larger mason jars. The hints of cinnamon, clove and cranberries were more holiday-appropriate anyway.
The acrid, slightly fishy smell lingered for a few days longer than we would have liked, and the slippers I was wearing still have a faint scent of campfire. But if nothing else, our experiment made us forget, if only momentarily, the harsh realities of a New England winter. And while the snowy wind lapped outside the door, we poured a glass of cranberry gin and pulled our chairs up to the oven, cozy and content and only slightly wincing from the pain of picking glass out of our feet.