My little brother was terrified of bees when he was little. He was never stung by one, though he was present when a yellow jacket stung me, then chased me into the house and stung me again, after I had swept the driveway too close to its nest. Come spring, when carpenter bees burrowed into the shutters that flanked our front windows, into the molding on our front door; when drunken bees bumbled from flower to flower around our mailbox or along the streets, Danny remained ever vigilant. At the first sign of some buzzing menace, he ran, and our job was to get him the hell away from any and all bees.
Today, when I went to Whole Foods, I parked by a patch of bright red flowers, blooming like little red sea urchins, alongside the cart return. And bumbling from bloom to bloom were bunches of bees. When I see bees these days, I can’t help but cheer them on – “go, bees, go!” – but as I gathered my things and prepared to leave the car, I thought back to Danny, who I believe, were he still with us, would have moved his car somewhere closer to the building and far away from those bees.
As my sinuses grow swollen (even in California, I suffer the springtime allergies), as the flowers bloom, as the days grow longer, and as a spirit of renewal and newness seems to sweep through, the fragility of spring is apparent to me for the first time this year. Flower blooms are young. Shy grasses, hidden beneath winter snow (okay, not here, but other places), begin to peek up at the sun, squinting and becoming reacquainted with heat.
And I think humans are the same way. We greet spring happily – we made it through the winter! – but there’s a fragility in us too. It’s hard to put my finger on, but in chatting with a friend yesterday, we compared notes: with this new season upon us, we shed our winter layers, and we find ourselves as fragile as those pollen-heavy flowers.
When the fragility sets in, I head to the kitchen. We’re coming into the best time of year for produce – berries are more abundant; local Ojai pixies have returned to the market here in Ventura county; asparagus proudly stands in shallow pools of water, just asking to be lightly cooked in lemon juice and garlic and olive oil. Before too long, heavy tomatoes will fill our baskets, and our bellies. Somehow, all that newness and vulnerability of spring seems to make much more sense when one takes it all to the kitchen. I don’t feel the need to overthink a plate of asparagus; I do not fear tomatoes, cut into thick slices.
I made buttermilk cookies this week, taking them to a friend because the South is home to both of us, and I felt she needed a taste of home. Edna Lewis, whose mention of buttermilk cookies and lemonade inspired the staff at Gourmet magazine to develop the recipe (sampled here from Molly Wizenberg’s Orangette) for buttermilk cookies, wrote a marvelous book called The Taste of Country Cooking, which goes season by season, holiday by holiday, through the foods that Ms. Lewis grew up on, the ones she was taught to make, the ones she could set her calendar by decades and miles later, living in New York as an accomplished chef. She describes foods in that book that, though I’m from Georgia, I’ve never seen and wouldn’t know how to procure ingredients for. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the spirit of it, the deep knowledge of home, the easy familiarity with the seasons. It’s a shared language.
Buttermilk cookies are tender, lemony, and light, the perfect harbinger of spring. And this week, they helped me remember that with spring comes change, yes, and with change comes a nervousness about the future. But buttermilk will always yield the taste of home. And pollen season will bring growth, new vegetables and fruits and flavors we’ve waited months for. And with that growth comes the bees, who make me thankful for memories of my brother, running as fast as he could away from them. For me, I’ll stay put. I’ll cheer on the bees, and make my plates of cookies, and gently welcome the spring.