Winter has layers, nuances tangible to those who welcome its weather and changeable light, who know how to ride out extended darkness on a sensuous raft of fine food, drink, and company. Shake off the compulsory madness of holiday materialism and the subtler pleasures of winter may open to you, offering a broader and more complex season. Long winter serves as a well of patience, perspective, and even healing. Its quietude becomes more complete, its experience more textured, and its rewards more sublime.
Pay attention to late winter, especially. Think of the first day you notice the afternoon lingering, the dusk staying later. At such times I like to rattle saved seeds in their paper packets, as if scratching their itches. Some day soon, maybe a Saturday when a heavy snow is falling, I'll clear the table, prepare an oversized mug of steaming java, and gather my notebooks and a few sharpened pencils. I'll draw my garden plan, revise the seed starting charts and greenhouse rotation, and make a priority list of garden tasks for spring.
The trick here is to practically and comprehensively imagine summer on this slight incline of winter's curve. One could go further to say that planning the garden in wintertime does more than imagine—that it actually creates the particular summer you will have. The melons, chili peppers, and squash that will burst with flavor on an August night are nudged toward being in those wintery moments.
It's yet another way to accept, even relish the ice and chill, both present and still to come. Winter can't be rushed, and I don't want to rush this one, though I'm pleased to be rising from its deep solstice trough. Winter reached its most chthonic during my a 10-day stay in a stone house in southeastern Pennsylvania on the grounds of the Newlin Grist Mill, built in 1704; our adjacent lodging, slightly more recent in construction, had an original wing dating to the mid 1700's.
We were informed ahead of time that it would be downright chilly all the time in our wing of the house, and we were correctly informed. But in exchange, we soaked in such remarkable authenticity—a well on the ground floor, not functioning but deep, deep. The cat loved to sprawl on the plexiglass cover above the tunnel laced with spiderwebs, a pool of water faintly glinting at its distant bottom.
But the real star of the show was a broad stone hearth that made up one entire wall of the kitchen. Our host, in her six months living there, had not yet coaxed that bad boy into action. Now we were as cold as she told us we'd be, and that motivated me to test whether a moderate fire on a good base of coals would infuse with heat the whole stone structure, store it there, radiate it. Those 18th century American builders knew winter more intimately than we do. Therefore, they knew what we don't: how to construct a proper hearth.
I checked the wide, stubborn flue, neglected for who knows how many years, and worked at it until it loosened. Then I used a long iron tool conveniently leaning nearby to lock it open at a 45 degree angle. A smoking wad of paper proved the draw was strong through the flue and we were in business. Did I mention the nearby shed was stacked head high with rows of seasoned wood? Within minutes we had a hot fire blazing, and within an hour a wide bed of glowing coals beneath the flames. In another hour, the whole 8' wide stone hearth had grown gently warm to touch. Not only did it radiate heat into the kitchen, it did likewise for our bedrooms upstairs, where the chimney ran up the central wall.
I accept responsibility for a necessarily elevated carbon footprint over those ten days. I'll make up for it, for sure. But how can I convey the loveliness of an entire day spent within a few feet of that hearth on the deepest week of winter?
The kitchen was stocked with an eclectic but impressive array of appliances and tools, intriguing and inviting. We made a big old pot of Potato-Leek Soup that filled the house with its aroma. We kneaded, braided, and baked a traditional challah, laid out a fresh salad, and in a toast to winter, raised selections from a dozen different craft beers, courtesy of an afternoon raid on one of Delaware's most amazing beer stores, embedded in a lively bar.
We came to the supper in a unique state: a pack of rain-soaked dogs, having hiked 5 miles of a wonderful rural park in a steady December downpour and temps in the 50s. Some of us had better boots than others, some had better coats, but in the end, every one of us was some kind of wet. Despite it all, laughter was the soundtrack and all had a rousing good time.
So you can imagine that after we peeled off our soaked layers and exchanged them for warm, dry clothes, it felt magical to sit down to big bowls of hot soup, knobs of butter-glazed crusty bread, a crisp salad, and those porters and red ales and IPAs—all served at a table beside that stunning hearth. That was a legendary meal, earned by embracing the heart of winter.