Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole, through Rose-tinted Glasses, and Afloat

You may think we live a rather plain and uneventful life here, what with the chickens squawking and the bees swarming and stinkbugs falling from the moldings and the flower bed full of rocks and playing badminton with carpenter bees as shuttlecocks and me staring at a screen all day long and imagining what words to fill it up with, but that is not quite the whole story: last Saturday we went down the rabbit hole and found ourselves in a floating wonderland of stripes, conchiferous patterns, double-yolk eggs, sweet popcorn, herringbone pistachios, a salad bowl nestled inside a life preserver suspended from the ceiling, not to mention a pendulous dining table. Did I mention that the sparkling water in our goblets turned variously pink and blue and green?

It happened thusly: Thanks to our dear friend Jane Evans, we were invited by the remarkable and magical artistic couple, Victoria and Richard Mackenzie-Childs, to dine aboard their home, the Yankee, formerly known as Hook Mountain, formerly as Block Island, formerly as League Island and initially as Machigonne. She is a steel-hulled ferry built in 1907 for the Casco Bay and Harpswell Line; she spent time during WW1 ferrying men from Boston to Bumpkin Island (not to be confused with Button Island or Hull Gut - a favored place of my youth) and back again. After the war, the boat changed names and venues from Ellis Island to the Hudson River to Block Island and to Rhode Island. Then in 1990 Jimmy Gallagher bought the dear tub and installed her at Pier 25 in Manhattan, an erstwhile home of the equally estimable and aged Klang II. Jimmy G began restoring the Yankee and even managed to live aboard while working on her, due to her National Register status and a loophole in the prohibition against boat-dwellers in NYC.
Then in 2003 Victoria and Richard bought the Yankee, and they have continued to restore her to their meticulous standards and in their quirky and loving aesthetic, which involves many more things than the salad bowl suspended from the ceiling. She is now berthed in Hoboken, next to a pier dotted with over 100 dirt filled & irrigated tires which will soon be sprouting a bounty of fruits and vegetables. What other pier can boast an allée of tall sweet corn leading from the edge of New Jersey to an unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline?

To start at the beginning. The first creatures we saw on the Yankee were the chickens on the stern, 5 or 6 Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island reds. Then Richard emerged from below deck and extended the gangplank for us. He was nautically attired in wide pants and a black and white striped jersey, which stripes I would soon come to realize as a theme deeply embedded in the Victoria&Richard style. Starters were served on the stern: an array of fillings for tacos and a basket of snack-size bags of Doritos, and a box of latex gloves. The idea was to pull on the gloves, then open the bag of Doritos and fill it with cheese, or olives, or lettuce or whatever struck your fancy, then shake up the bag to promote commingling, and then eat the results with your latex clad fingers. Fruit drinks dangled over the gunwales keeping cool in the Hudson. I found that stuffing a bag of chips, and then stuffing myself while wearing latex gloves, generated the kind of disconnect I might experience if I tried to perform an appendectomy while on a pogo stick.
The dining table – in what I assume was the main saloon when the Yankee was ferrying passengers - is suspended by heavy gauge rope from the ceiling. Given that the boat almost always swaying this is a very good idea: the table stays relatively flat while the waves lap against the hull. The first course consisted of soft – or perhaps hard – boiled double yolk eggs nestled inside exquisite egg cups, the handiwork of hosts, and popcorn in brown paper bags set atop silver chargers. (The eggs were indeed massive, but I have learned from our chickens that this does not guarantee a double yolk. In fact, we tend to get single oversized yolks. These eggs however had been candled to ensure their double-yolkness. That is the kind of attention to detail that marks everything on the boat and everything we ate.) Victoria was so busy flitting from galley to saloon that she rarely sat down; mostly she was a wraith in flowered embroidery and ribbons, appearing and then disappearing, like marine bioluminescence. When it came time for salad, Richard raised the lead weight that anchored the life saver/salad bowl with block and tackle, and caused the roughage to descend to the table. At the other end of the table, the life saver/breadbasket was likewise lowered. Meanwhile, Jacques the First Mate (we all came away with the sense that all our lives would be enhanced by such a First Mate) poured sparkling water into our goblets and we pondered life’s mysteries as the clear water took on colors. Is this what the guests felt like at the Wedding Feast at Cana? Of course they had already been drinking wine, and we had not. Have I mentioned that this was a temperance meal? In other words, no one’s vision of water turning color was clouded. Perhaps.
It seemed that the main course, a school of striped bass cooking in the oven, was not ready to be served, or eaten. Their fins were still aflutter. But such things do not dampen the spirits; they are opportunities. Victoria served the dessert instead. Perhaps more than anything all evening long, this serendipitous mid-meal dessert irradiated my own plodding normalcy. Cake before fish! Sacre bleu! And the ship did not sink! The fish, when it did arrive, could have sprouted wings and flown to our plates, and I would not have been more astounded than I was by the pre-fish gateau.
I would describe this cake for you if I could. It involved pistachio cream, seeds all the way from Iraq, barberries (but not the poisonous kind) polka-dotting the sides and Turkish pistachios making a herringbone design on the top, and a fringe of purple flowers. This picture does not do it justice.
The fish arrived in due course, pelagic and beady-eyed. CSB, known to regard dead marine creatures askance, graciously slid his bass’s head onto my plate.

And lest you have forgotten, the bubbly water continued to metamorphose. Because the honored guest was newly in love and interested in things matrimonial, she asked for the story of how Victoria and Richard met, fell in love, and married. Like our dinner, it was suspended and suspenseful, in random order, and exquisite. It involved a melted kiln, disembodied voices (I thought of Joan of Arc just then, but held my tongue) and stately elms of the now extinct variety. What did we think as we headed home, in our ordinary car, on the ordinary highway, stopping to buy cheaper-than-in-New-York gas at an ordinary New Jersey gas station? More things are possible than we thought possible. And water can turn lustrous colors, even while you are drinking it.

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