Dear Susan Branch: How This California Girl Fell For New England
I can call you Susan, can’t I? I feel as if we’ve been BFFs for years. I still have the cookbook you inscribed, via your cousin and my-then boss, Chris Nichols, after my post-college move to Portland, Maine. Those three years in Portland were my first real taste of New England living, and it cleearly wasn’t enough. I cried the day my husband and I decided to head back to California — I wasn’t done.
It took 16 more years for us to find our way back east, this time to the seacoast of New Hampshire, and for this reason I write:
I feel as if I’d been away all my life and have finally come home.
People ask me all the time what a California girl is doing here in the northeast, and don’t I hate the winter, and how can I even stand it? I shrug. I don’t know, but I feel like I am home.
Pinching myself, I still sometimes whisper, as I’m driving along tree-lined back roads, past farmhouses, barns and shingled cottages that are my every day….I live here! I live here!
This isn’t a joke. This isn’t a dream. I live here.
It is, yet, surreal. That this land should feel so familiar to me, when it is so very different from the world I have always known and loved in the west.
I was born for this life, this seasonal climate, with ups and downs and in betweens. I was born for candles in the windows at Christmas and stomping through snow banks. I was born for forsythia in April, lilacs in May, and peonies in June. I was born for ice cream that is a priority, not an after thought, and seafood fresh off the dock. I was born for clapboards and shingles, Cape Cods, and salt boxes. I was born for graveyards by every roadside,
(But not poison ivy and mosquitos. No one was born for those.)
I will forever love that California sunshine, and there are days (like today — with snow on the ground — April Fools!) when I will dream of dancing on the beach in the middle of winter, but I am grateful, ever so grateful, to finally be home in New England.
While unpacking, I made a discovery that brought everything together.
I was just sixteen when we first met, or rather, when I discovered your cookbooks at the shop where I worked. On Friday nights when I was closing, I’d sit at the counter poring over the illustrations and beautiful words. You were the original lifestyle blogger before there were lifestyle bloggers. Before Martha Stewart, who painted a picture so refined that we, none of us, could ever attain, you painted pictures and words that made New England come alive. It was real and it was attainable. Even for a little teenaged girl in Sunnyvale.
You painted a picture of a world I had never before seen — autumn foliage in colors so bright it was like walking around inside a box of crayons. Clapboard cottages with black shutters, white steeples against a bluebird sky. And a love of food, family and opening a home up for the sole purpose of loving on others. I have dutifully followed your suggestions for hostess gifts and dinner parties, Christmas decorating (everything should sparkle), and champagne cocktails. We love the same things — England and Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter — and we still think fondly of Laura Ashley and how she simply made the world more beautiful.
Your influence over my cooking (which, I will confess, was rather lacking when I started out in the world) was invaluable. One of my standard mottos in life and baking: Susan Branch is infallible. Yours were the recipes in which I could always trust the outcome: Sole Meunière and Elaine’s Famous Sugar Cookies, coconut cake and lemon linguine. Cream cheese potatoes and cookies for Christmas Nuts. Stuffed zucchini (go to bed skinny!), beer bread, and the only — the only — apple pie that could ever hold a candle to my mother’s.
I didn’t write down her recipe before she died. Yours saved me.
You wrote about Farmer’s Markets before they were all the rage, and gave me the vision for a kitchen garden that would take me another 10 years to create. My babies’ early days were captured, each of them, in a copy of your Baby Love.
In the words of Anne Shirley, you’re of the race that knows Joseph.
With a bit of shock — I can’t possibly be this old — I see you’ve re-released Heart of the Home 30th Anniversay Edition.
All that is to say,
Why do I feel so at home in New England?
Because Susan Branch made it so.
From one California girl to another, thank you for helping me fall in love with New England. Thank you for casting a vision for a teenaged girl, who never knew anything other than concrete and asphalt, of a world where sun and sea and snow come togeyther in glorious communion.
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