I gave up my home office last week so that a spirited, just-6-year-old girl from the Bronx could have her own room for the first time in her life. Surprisingly self-sufficient Gabby (Gabriella Heugas) walked off the bus Monday afternoon toting her small rolling bag filled with skorts and matching Hello Kitty shirts and high-tops.
All the Fresh Air Fund asked is that we make this confident, joyful girl – whose single mom busts her back to barely make ends meet – an honorary member of our family for the week.
So my 3-year-old Theo, who morphed overnight into a whiny only child when forced to share his toys and parents’ divided affection and attention, gained a temporary sister, and my husband, Dan, and I learned how a second child saps your brainpower and energy, yet so fills your heart.
Gabby’s arrival made us again revere all we take for granted in our quotidian lives in Maine: playing barefoot in the grass on the next-door neighbor’s swing set; a generous spread of cheeses, salami and veggie dips on a friend’s cocktail cruise in the Belgrade Lakes; roasting marshmallows (for Gabby’s first time) over another friend’s fire pit on a private New Meadows River cove; picking high-bush blueberries and canning into jam some of the 40 pounds of low-bush wild ones we’d ordered (their delivery coincided with her visit), then freezing their juice into popsicles; and finding apples – Gabby’s favorite, wind-fallen yet wormless – that I simmered into instant applesauce the frantic morning she left.
Though it wasn’t required, we still felt compelled to give Gabby the freshest and most fun-filled air we could. We went on an hours-long walk downtown and back for snacks from the Brunswick Farmers’ Market, followed by “lunch” at Gelato Fiasco. We chased the sunset at Mitchell Field beach in Harpswell, finding the chilly water with our toes in the dark; we took a quick dip at Simpson’s Point; we even took the Rockland ferry for the hour-long, choppy ride to North Haven – a first island excursion for Gabby and for us.
“Maine has a lot of houses,” Gabby frequently remarked, getting car sick as we drove around the midcoast and out traffic-clogged Route 1. “You guys have a lot of rivers. This is a fun place.”
And what’s more fun that introducing kids to new foods, in the garden and on the plate? It’s my favorite aspect of motherhood. I cook for people to show I care. And so it was with Gabby. What Maine foods did our eager New Yorker enjoy? Which did she reject?
Lobster, tasted in a bite of a roll from Libby’s Market in Brunswick, wasn’t a hit; she was glad rain thwarted plans for a waterfront lobster dinner.
Carrots and hummus and farm-fresh scrambled eggs were winners. So was the Standard Bakery challah I now get to give our Fridays some ritual. “More Italian – nope Jewiss (sic) – bread please,” Gabby kept requesting. Pepperoni pizza from Flipside in Brunswick and the revamped Calderwood Hall on North Haven compared favorably with that of New York.
Gabby and Theo both loved corn on the cob, hot dogs and French fries, with ample ketchup. Gabby remembered ketchup comes from tomatoes, though she found ripe ones “too sour” when eaten raw. But learning the dark Vermont maple syrup that sweetened our blueberry jam came from tapped trees (“wait, don’t they die then?”) was a revelation.
Still, we wanted to taste Gabby’s cuisine, too. New York’s multi-ethnic smorgasbord is what Dan and I miss most from our few years there, where we met: Pierogies and borscht from the Polish luncheonettes in his Brooklyn neighborhood, the Jamaican patties and curries, Albanian pizzerias and Dominican roast pork (pernil) near the Bronx high school where I taught, and fresh-pressed Cubano sandwiches and Puerto Rican mofongo from La Taza de Oro near my walk-up in Chelsea.
Dan suggested we prepare one of Gabby’s favorite family recipes. When she lit up recalling the fall-apart oxtails she stews with her mother’s boyfriend, Yaya, I knew we had to go for it. Yes, oxtails – common in African-American, Latin and Asian cuisine, but less prevalent up here; it’s worth asking at your local beef source for this bargain.
Gabby’s mom, Cynthia Sanchez, 30, who grew up in Spanish Harlem, emailed me the recipe right away, made with her homemade version of sofrito. Sanchez says she constantly reminds her daughters they’re a team, with none of a privileged, helicopter mom’s parent-children hierarchy. She doesn’t have that luxury, and in many ways her daughters are more independent for it.
“We all take turns cooking, and we help each other with cooking on a daily basis,” texted Sanchez, who works nights as a receptionist at a city-run mental health facility, at the same time attending college and studying to be a social worker. “I need the help to be able to study and write papers.”
For this dish, Gabby and I dug up pitiful (but still tasty) potato pebbles in my garden and scored $2.99 a pound oxtails cut from the sacrum and tailbones of the premium beef that Bisson’s Meat Market butchers in Topsham. Gabby refused to enter the “bloody” meat market – “I’m staying in the car,” she declared theatrically. “I hate meat.”
Together, we checked out the cattle Bisson’s raises across the street.
Back home, she helped me braise the oxtails with equanimity. And she devoured the meal, showing us how to pick up and gnaw on the pieces like (well-marbled) brisket on the bone.
Flowers, and getting up close to the animals we didn’t eat – pigs (except for Canadian bacon), chickens (except for tenders) and sheep (hard to grasp how yarn and sweaters come from that wool) – were less fraught farm experiences for Gabby.
I finally took her and Theo to the bucolic pick-your-own fields at Crystal Spring Farm the Sunday evening before she left. I pushed them both on the swing set, and then we went to cut a big bouquet of bright marigolds, calendula, bachelor buttons, black-eyed Susans and sunflowers for Gabby to take, wrapped in a wet paper towel, on her seven-hour bus ride back to the Port Authority, and her strong mother’s arms.
“I feel like I’m getting married,” Gabby said, proud of her bouquet. “It looks like I’m marrying Theo,” she’d said earlier, cringing at a photo I took of the two, clutching magenta hostas in a sea of flowers down the road at the Bowdoin College. But that would be like Theo marrying his sister, to whom we do feel somehow wedded after one short, albeit intense, week together.
We’ll make arrangements to visit her, perhaps go see the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, when we’re next visiting Dan’s sister and Theo’s cousins in the city. In fact, it was their New York University–owned apartment doorman, Donald Berry, so animated telling me about his own Fresh Air Fund experiences as a Long Island City kid who traveled to Vermont and West Virginia to enjoy country life, eating venison, watching Little League and baling hay, who inspired us to take the plunge.
Meanwhile, “Gabby’s room” will be awaiting her return to Maine next summer (and beyond).
GABRIELLA’S FAVORITE BRAISED OXTAILS
In her Bronx apartment, Gabby, 6, loves to help cook this recipe with her mother’s boyfriend, Yasin “Yaya” Garnett. Gabby’s mother, Cynthia Sanchez, supplied the instructions for Puerto Rican sofrito, the green simmer-sauce also known as recaito. The family serves the oxtails over white or seasoned rice, often prepared by Gabby’s sister, Cyndi, 9. They all head to the playground while waiting for this four-hour dish to cook.
Serves about 6
FOR THE SOFRITO:
2 medium green bell peppers, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled
Half a jalapeño pepper, deseeded and chopped
1 bunch cilantro leaves
½ bunch recao or culantro leaves (or substitute parsley and fresh oregano)
1 to 2 large tomatoes, chopped
FOR THE BRAISED OXTAILS:
6 pounds oxtail pieces
Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
Goya Sazón or Accent flavor enhancer (contains MSG, optional)
About 12 new potatoes
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To make the sofrito, puree the green peppers, onions, garlic, jalapeño, herbs and tomato in a blender. Add adobo powder, salt and white vinegar to taste. Set aside.
Season the oxtails to your liking with adobo powder, Lawry’s and Sazón. (I lacked these, so improvised with salt and pepper, onion, garlic and chili powder, oregano, paprika and cumin.)
To make the braised oxtails, put the oxtails in the oven in a roasting pan or large casserole until they are well-browned, 1 to 2 hours. Meanwhile, cut potatoes into little cubes and parboil in water. Add the sofrito to the water, to taste, to make a sauce. Once the oxtails have browned, add the seasoned water and potatoes (and additional sofrito, if desired) to the pan and cover with aluminum foil or a fitted lid. Cook for another 1 to 2 hours, covered. The oxtails are ready when they are so soft they fall off the bone.