If you’d asked me a few years ago what I loved most (apart of course from family, friends, etc.), I would have told you books. The answer would have come as part of a lengthy diatribe, extolling the great humanity of Shakespeare, the brilliant passion of Dostoevsky, the piercing insight of Joyce. I mean but by GAD, have you read The Dead? That shit is better than real life! Fuller! Bigger AND smaller! Both at the same time! I couldn’t get enough of reading. Then, days of staring at a screen for twelve hours at a time began to take its toll on me. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home from a long day was spend time with tiny print.
Instead I’d relax by chopping, dicing, mincing, sautéing, deglazing, braising, roasting. I found it so comforting to be moving around, getting lost in the mindless, repetitive movements, the clear order of the recipe a perfect antidote to my chaotic day. I spent more and more time cooking, less and less reading, until now, I’m sometimes not quite sure which activity claims the coveted spot that closely follows my cat in order of devotion. But, you know, right when they’re neck and neck, and I’m unable to choose between sestina and saffron, I read something like “Fern Hill”, and I’m transported back to that girl who, a few years ago, wouldn’t have hesitated a moment before shrieking BOOKS.
Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
“Fern Hill” has the desperate enthusiasm of a boy tumbling down a hill, full of runs and breaks and spills. With an entire life in just a few pages, it’s a celebration of youth that is so joyful, and so precious with its aching recognition of inevitable loss. It’s a work that elevates this difficult theme above cliché. While others might make direct metaphors to fading flowers, Thomas gives you: I ran my heedless ways/My wishes raced through the house high hay/And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows/In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs/Before the children green and golden/Follow him out of grace
Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.
The last line always gives me chills, it’s a distillation of all the complex associations we feel when we consider our lives: the panic, the gratitude, the beautiful, tragic, knowing of it all. It lays, especially meaningful, over Thomas’ memorial in Westminster Abbey, inscribed into the marble.
So. Understandably, I wanted a dish that captured the tastes of a Thomasesque childhood, a Welsh childhood, and for me— who cannot claim the honor of being at all Welsh, but who has visited briefly and was enchanted by the mountains and the not-nearly-as-bad-as-they-say-in-fact-quite-good food—that meant lamb. Lamb that would not be (thank God) served with that unnecessarily tart yogurt, and would not be (sadly) crusted in mustard and sprinkled in rosemary and served purple-y rare, but instead cooked good and slow with the vegetables of its native land, and served alongside a vibrant mint sauce and an unctuous gravy.
I chose, basically, to prepare it Jamie Oliver style. His Slow-Roast Shoulder of Welsh Lamb and Spring Veg is a delicious medley of root vegetables, asparagus, herbs, mushrooms, and—of course—lamb.
I can’t say I deviated at all from Oliver’s recipe, and though it isn’t quite as simple as he boasts—there are enough steps to keep you busy in the kitchen a few hours—the result is tender and flavorful, comprised so all of the ingredients have time to shine. A dish I feel would be heartily appreciated by young Thomas, in after a long day romping in the fields.
Drink: A good beer or a red Bordeaux