Some notes from around here:
Two of my favorite women each just had a baby, and my family went to The Fair. (Though not necessarily in that order, that is certainly how their importance is ranked in my mind.) And they have both, for good reason, put my mind on a children-and-traditions sort of path.
Every single time someone I know has a baby, I am immediately rushed back to my own early experiences with motherhood. All those little details that made up the bulk of my bleary, milky first and second and third days as a mother, and then a mother again — the fiercely protective cocooning impulse that descends on the house, the funny way that nursing and my own thirst became urgently, critically synchronized, stroking the satiny tops of my babies' heads and their rumpled fingers, the strangeness of being utterly exhausted yet also too paranoid to sleep soundly — all the things that never flash across my mind during the regular goings-on of my life, they all seem suddenly and completely relevant again and in need of a good reminiscing. As if it was me who had just given birth, I am driven to obsessively rehash my own labor and delivery stories, their individual challenges and triumphs, even — or especially — when my only audience member is the appreciative voice inside my own head.
And then once I've really fleshed out my own transformation into Mama, I start thinking about my boys, and what their experiences as members of this family have been like. Wondering what things they'll remember, what in particular is going to stick out of the busy whirlwind of early childhood. Their own rambling chatter suggests that they've been paying close attention.
"Do you remember when I was a baby, Mommy, and I always wanted you to read me Oh, The Places You'll Go!"
"When I was very little, I didn't know how to say scavenger hunt."
"Wylie, when you were a baby, your favorite food was avocado. You mushed it everywhere."
So yes, they notice things. In fact, at this age their memories of their childhoods are probably sharper and brighter than mine are, mine which have already been smudged around the edges — and in some cases obscured altogether — by the competing need to multitask my mothering with the rest of the demands of adult life. There's just no way to retain it all. And yet I am always chagrined when they ask, "Remember when I was little and I . . ." and I don't. I don't remember. I wish I did, and I am so thankful for their reminders of the things I've let slip. Seriously, I am often surprised and touched by how many small, seemingly insignificant things they do remember.
And that's where I think traditions come in. For helping all us aging grownups to remember, and to connect, again and again, with our loved ones. Repetition, you know? Because while I thrill in watching my boys enjoying and looking forward to the traditions we've created for them, it is certainly me who finds a deeper meaning in it all, and who feels the burning urgency to keep these customs going. As much as I want my kids to experience the security and sacredness of family traditions, even stronger is my own desire to want to remember my boys taking part in them. I need to remember. And I want to know that the heritage I am passing on is one rich with established practices, ways to mark the year that say, repeatedly, this is who we are. I want to know that we did these things together.
Which brings me to The Fair. The Common Ground Country Fair began in 1977, making it just barely a year older than I am. And while I haven't attended every year, it's safe to say that I've been at least twenty times, probably more. Certainly long enough for it to be established, as securely as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, as yet another way in which we celebrate and mark the rhythm of our year. And just as The Fair itself has morphed and evolved over the years, so too has my experience of it, culminating in this year, when Kalen emphatically informed me that, when you have kids, the whole point of going to The Fair is to spend as much time as possible in the Children's Area. Seeing as much of what I remember about my own early Fair days are children's activities and entertainment, it would seem that he's entirely right.
So while this year I may have missed out on some excellent presentations, didn't really shop at all, skipped the sheep dog trials, and never even set foot inside the main building to ogle all the prize-winning vegetables, I still had a brimming-with-tradition Fair experience. The garden parade, fresh-cut potato chips, live music, wagon rides, ice cream, face painting . . . it was all there, just as I'd remembered it, just as I want my children to remember it. Because while going to The Fair is fantastic in itself, it's the memories of being there with my growing family that sustain me throughout the rest of the year. That help me to remember all the other Fairs I've been to in my lifetime, and that, most importantly, bind me to the friends and family I've shared them with.
One thing that always says "Fair" to me is warm Indian pudding, with barely-sweetened whipped cream melting down its sides in milky white ribbons. For some unknown reason Indian pudding, although a traditional New England dessert, has never played much of a role in my life outside of The Fair. I treasure this fact, since part of the charm of The Fair for so many of us is eating foods that we only encounter that one weekend a year. This year, though, due to the confluence of my traditional dish of ice cream and an I'm-hoping-becomes-traditional fish taco on a freshly-pressed corn tortilla with homemade sriracha, I didn't have the appetite for more than a couple bites of Indian pudding. This resulted in me moaning to the boys, days later, that I didn't have nearly enough Indian pudding to get me through to next year, and so we were going to have to make some. This went over well enough until we dug into the first servings, at which point we all realized that what I'd made was not the Indian pudding from The Fair. (Keep in mind, I never make Indian pudding. I didn't know what I was doing.) So Round One went into the trash (it was way too sweet, with a texture that was equal parts broken custard and watery syrup), and after significant alterations to the recipe, I landed on a dish that we all agree tastes and looks much more like the one ritually eaten every September. It was just what I needed to close out the month. And while the technique — more polenta than pudding — might not be historically traditional, it wins points for being an entirely stovetop affair. A keeper for sure, even if I hardly ever end up making it again, in order to preserve Indian pudding's special status as an annual Fair Treat. I wouldn't want to break too much with tradition, after all.
834 grams whole milk
133 grams heavy cream
140 grams yellow cornmeal
170 grams maple syrup (preferably grade B)
150 grams molasses (use blackstrap molasses for more authentic "Fair" flavor)
30 grams unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
In a large heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, scald the milk and cream. Rain in the cornmeal, whisking constantly to prevent clumping. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring, for 10 minutes or until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of thin porridge. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk to thoroughly combine. Cook at a low simmer, whisking every 10 minutes or so, for up to 2 hours. You're looking for the pudding to be quite thick and reduced, and when you scoop out a spoonful for testing, it should firm up as it cools. Once you're determined that the pudding is thick enough, it's ready to be served right away topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream, or transferred into another baking dish, plastic wrap pressed on the surface, and chilled for up to three days. The pudding will be very firm when cold, but can be gently reheated over low heat and stirred to return to its creamy state. And to state the obvious, it makes a fabulous hearty breakfast on crisp Fall mornings.