When I was young the phrase “you are what you eat” conjured terrifying images. What child, after hearing the myth about eating too many carrots, doesn't anxiously inspect their face every morning to ensure it isn't slowly turning light orange? One night when I was eating a slice of yellow cheddar cheese, my sister warned me that all orange food could have the same color-changing effect. I hid the cheese in my bureau, only to have my mother scold me a week later when she was putting laundry away and found it molding among my socks. I grew up in a house folded into the hills of backwoods Vermont, surrounded by vegetable gardens and a barn with sheep that my family, to my chagrin, ate. In my favorite childhood photo I'm lying in the garden on fresh dirt in a pink party dress, fast asleep. The earth grew my gardens and fed my sheep, which then fed me. I was therefore, by extension, the earth itself. If you are what you eat, then I consider myself to be Vermont; I contain the vitamins, minerals, and water of the soil and embody Vermont ancestry dating back to the Civil War. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: I like to imagine that the life force of my ancestry flows through every inch of soil and is solidified in every rock. This is a comforting thought when I consider my grandmother, a strong, Vermont-born-and-raised woman who died about a year ago at the age of 96. I spent my childhood days at her house just up the hill. Instead of day care, my parents dropped me off there every morning when the steam from her cooking fogged up the kitchen windows and the sky was just beginning to show the pale blue light of morning over the mountains. My grandmother grew up in a poor Vermont farm family with four siblings, a situation that wasn't made any easier when the Great Depression hit. As long as I knew her she was intent on using every last bit of batter and would eat food past its expiration date. She didn't worry about how healthy the food she made was because there was never a need; she did so much work out in the fields that she was healthy and fit all her life. With her I developed a taste for black English breakfast tea, cherry jello mixed with cream, and dandelions. She also made the best baked goods in the world, at least in my opinion. Her cookies and breads were so good that visitors often stopped by for “a cup of tea,” which always included whatever confection she had hidden away in the cookie tin. The best time of year for my grandmother to display her baking skills was spring. My mother and father ran a maple sugaring operation out of an old wooden shack down the road from my grandmother's house. Long afternoons and nights were spent with my parents, older sister, and whichever friends and relatives were around to help. We would drive the truck down the road, lifting overflowing buckets of sap off the trees and dumping them into large metal drums in the back of the truck. The sap was taken back to the sugarhouse and pumped into a holding tank, where it flowed indoors into the giant metal boiling pan. This was my favorite part of sugaring; as we waited for the sap to reach the right temperature for syrup, the sugarhouse would fill with friends, family, acquaintances, and sometimes curious strangers. The shack would heat up, not only from the boiling sap, but also the many bodies packed into such a small space. Making maple syrup became a social activity and, in the midst of all the chaos, in would step my grandmother with her large white enamelware bowl filled to the brim with doughnuts. She would begin early in the afternoon, taking the pot of solidified fat she saved for just this purpose and heating it until it was liquid. She would have her doughnuts cut out and rising on a cloth next to the stove, so that when the fat was “good and hot,” as she said, she could drop them in. Only three or four would fit in the pot at a time, and they had to be constantly watched so they could be flipped when one side was a light golden brown. They cooled on old paper bags that, as she reminds the reader of her doughnut recipe, were turned “wrong side out.” She would then walk over to our sugarhouse carrying the bowl full of thirty doughnuts or so. We dipped them in fresh maple syrup my father had just drawn from the boiling pan, and the kids would have doughnut-eating contests; my sister's friend once ate fourteen. My grandmother made this pilgrimage many times, back and forth from her house to the sugarhouse, to replenish her doughnuts. As night fell, my parents would send me over with the empty bowl to get more. Walking along the dirt road in the pitch black terrified me – I'd often sprint the whole way – but it was worth it to get those doughnuts. When the sap had run well, my father and mother would stay up late to boil as much syrup as possible. As the sky outside grew darker and darker, the crowd in the shack would diminish, until it was just my family. I was too young to deal with boiling sap or hot syrup, so I would sit and watch my mother, father, and sister canning the amber liquid. The one job they allowed me to do involved a long, whittled stick with butter on the end. When the sap got too high and was in danger of boiling over, I would use the stick to gently tap the rising bubbles, immediately calming the rolling liquid. As the hour crept toward midnight, I would curl up on the bench in front of the hearth and drift in and out of consciousness with the sounds of fire crackling and sap bubbling as background to my dreams. The year after my grandmother died, my family sugared for what might have been the last time as a family. My mother and I did our best to re-create my grandmother's doughnut recipe. We brought them to the sugarhouse in the giant bowl she had used and ate them with fresh syrup just as we always had, but I'm still unconvinced that they were the same doughnuts. In fact, I'm positive I will never taste a doughnut that can compare to the ones my grandmother carried to our sugarhouse when I was little. If we are what we eat, then I am Vermont, raised by my grandmother to live off the land and taught that we cannot re-create our past, only strive to keep memories alive through remnants: books, pictures, letters, and doughnut recipes.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2014 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.