I hate snow. I hate shovelling snow. I hate it when I have to get up at 0-dark-thirty to shovel out a spot of grass so the dogs can answer the call of nature. I hate scraping ice off my car. And I really hate it when the snow on the roof turns into ice dams and water leaks into the rafters to come out. . . oh, anywhere. When the hundred-year blizzard hit DC in 1996, I was attending a conference at Wilton Park in the UK. I came home to find all my upstairs window wells an inch deep in water. I hated that. I hate that people put salt on the sidewalk that irritates my dogs’ feet so I have to wash their paws whenever we come in from a walk. I hate people who think that just because there is snow on the ground, they don’t have to pick up after their dogs, as though the poop will disappear with the spring thaw. I hate leaky snow boots. Snow ice cream? Yuck. Snowmen? Depressing when they melt. And they always melt. I, ladies and gentlemen, am a snow Scrooge.
So why, whenever there is a big snowstorm on the east coast of the United States like the one this past weekend, do I get homesick? After all, one of the things I like best about living in Wellington, New Zealand, is that it never snows. So why, when CNN started warning, mid-last week, that a huge, hundred-year blizzard was headed toward Washington, DC, did I feel the urge to run to Countdown and stock up on toilet paper, white bread, and milk?
Why do I feel this longing to get my hands on a snow shovel? Why do I keep checking on washingtonpost.com to see if the Federal Government is closed? Why do I want to Scotty to beam me back to DC?
The truth is, while I hate the snow, I love the magic of a snowstorm. It isn’t just the old cliche of waking up to a wonderland dusted with icing sugar. It isn’t just that the sky is never bluer than on the morning after a massive snow dump. I love what a snowstorm brings out in people. Some of my best memories of my old neighbourhood in Annandale, Virginia, involved snowstorms, when everyone came together to dig out the parking lot and make sure our neighbours who were unable to shovel themselves would have clean and safe stoops and sidewalks. We built an iceberg in the cul-de-sac from the snow we cleared from our parking spots. It was a kid magnet. We were all in the same boat, and it was, for the time being, a boat that wasn’t going anywhere. You might just as well sit back and enjoy the ride. So we went to each others’ houses for supper; we shared snow shovels; we traded videos. We were neighbours, at least for a few days.
And the dogs. Every dog I’ve ever lived with got in touch with their inner wolf when it snowed. This wasn’t a surprise in the case of our two Samoyeds — Nikita and Piroshki. They were never far from their inner wolf. But Miss Peanut, Crackerjack, Shakespeare, and Cully all got a far away look in their eyes when it snowed, as if they were ready to hitch up the sled and go mushing.
Even crabby old Cindy Dog got her inner puppy on when it snowed. Granted, in his last couple of winters, Crackerjack, at 16, had decided that he was over snow. But, for the most part, my canine family always went just the teensiest bit feral when the snow began to fly.
I was born in a mini ice-age, between two historic nor’easters that hit the DC area in February and March 1958. I remember there being one or two big dumps of snow each winter in the 1960s. The biggest was in January 1966. I got a sled for Christmas the year before — a blue plastic toboggan that looked like a space ship. It was one of those Christmases — much like Christmas of 2015 — when the temperature hit 70F on Christmas Day. My ever amazing Dad pulled me around the yard on the toboggan, on the grass. So, when the snow hit, the sled had grass stains. Our house was on a steep hill — excellent for sledding and snow fort building. Not so excellent for shovelling out the driveway. And since we lived on a dead end street with only three houses, Dad had to shovel all the way up to Sharon Chapel Road. Dad — a son of Milwaukee and lake effect snow — didn’t love snow.
Perhaps that’s why he decided, a year later, to move us to Georgia, where he could be assured that there would be no blizzards. Now, it’s true there aren’t blizzards in Georgia, but there are ice-storms, which can be much worse, really. All the the cold and wet without the fun and, often, without electricity and cable. Once in a blue moon it would “snow” — which wasn’t really snow but accumulated sleet. And we did have snow days. My freshman year in High School we got an extra week of Christmas vacation because it “snowed.” My friend Andrea broke her leg sledding and spent the next several months in a full-leg cast. Usually, though, snow in Georgia meant some version of ice. Any Yankees who are tempted to make fun of how we Southerners panic at the first sight of snow, I defy you, or anyone, to drive on the sheets of ice that form on untreated roads in a Georgia ice storm. One year, during a particularly bad ice storm, one of the pine trees in our yard came down under the weight and took down our electrical lines. It was so cold in the house that our budgerigar and my Siamese fighting fish died. Dad, not one to take chances, and in revenge for the lost, cut down all the rest of the trees in the yard. Overkill? Maybe.
When the first wave of Snowmageddon hit DC in January 2010, I was in the UK, at a conference at Wilton Park. Sound familiar? Spooky, huh? Anyway, I managed to get on the first flight back from London — when we landed at Dulles, we sat on the plane for about an hour because no one who knew how to drive the gate had managed to get to work. Then we waited for another hour in customs. None of the baggage handlers had made it to work, either. That was nothing compared to Simon’s ordeal. My adorable new husband, bless his cotton socks, made what had to be a harrowing drive to the airport to meet me, and we slipped, spun, and slid home in his trusty RAV4. The experience was so shattering, Simon was never able to drive on the Beltway again.
As a newcomer to DC, Simon wasn’t up on the culture of panic pre-snow shopping, so for the next week or so, while the Federal Government — and hence my place of employment — remained stubbornly closed and our neighbourhood roads remained stubbornly unplowed, I became a pantry cook.
I always keep a sizeable stash of dried beans, flour, and canned things, so there was plenty to work with. I channelled my homesteading ancestors. OK, I didn’t have any homesteading ancestors, but my grandparents lives in Eagle River, Wisconsin during the Great Depression were challenging enough. I baked bread. I made long, slow cooking soups. I baked dog cookies. We shovelled snow. We watched a lot of videos because the snow had blocked the satellite dish — leading Simon to insist we get cable. They were golden days.
One of my blizzard rituals is to make a big pot of stock. This goes back to my carnivorous past, when chicken stock was a pantry staple. The store bought stuff is never as good as homemade, but making large amounts of stock presents a challenge when it comes time to cool it. It isn’t really safe to leave a pot of meat stock at room temperature for the hours it would take to cool down. But put in in your fridge and you run the risk of warming up the cold food faster than you cool down the hot stock. During a blizzard, you can bury your hot stock in a snow bank. It’s the next best thing to a blast chiller.
I don’t make chicken stock anymore, but snow — even snow ten thousand miles away — still triggers in me the urge to get out the stock pot. Instead of chicken bits, I gather up excess veggie bits — the tops of the enormous leeks, green onions and celery I buy at the market, onions, slightly dry mushrooms, carrots, a couple of waxy potatoes, the odd apple or pear, a parsnip, maybe a bulb or two of fennel, and garlic, always lots and lots of garlic. If I’m feeling industrious, I chop everything. If not, I just leave it in chunks. Add enough water to cover the lot, throw in a couple of bay leaves, a few black peppercorns, a handful of whatever herbs you have around, and some kosher or sea salt and bring it all to a simmer. If you want a dark stock that looks and tastes more like beef stock, you can caramelise some of the vegetables (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes) in a very hot oven until they are good and brown. Don’t let them burn, though. Brown is good, but burnt just tastes like burnt.
Caught in a blizzard without a fridge full of vegetable bits? Peel a couple of heads of garlic (yes, the whole thing), add a bay leaf, a spring of fresh thyme (or a teaspoon or so of dried), some black peppercorns, a bay leaf, a teaspoon of salt, a glug of olive oil, and two quarts of water. Simmer that. It smells heavenly and tastes just like chicken stock. I kid you not.
So, next time it snows, forget the white bread and Doritos. Gather up your veggies, add water, and just let the whole delicious mess simmer, and simmer, and simmer. Long and slow. Go outside and shovel snow. Build a snowman. Make a snow angel. Come inside. There’s soup for you!