Rebecca Michels, Behind (MANY) Closed Doors


When artist, mama and native New Yorker, Rebecca Michels made a home in Madison, Wisconsin, it wasn't exactly love at first sight. But despite missing her creature comforts, namely the culture and food of NYC, she's eased in to country life. Now, with a family of her own, she embraces the agrarian culture that surrounds her, baking bread, simmering sauces and making nearly all from scratch. And while she'll always miss the galleries, lectures and dance performances of her hometown life, homesteading has taken hold. We couldn't wait to take a look inside her (many) refrigerators.

There was a time when I only bought a little. I used to manage... just, with an apartment sized refrigerator in my Brooklyn kitchenette. I stocked it with local delicacies from Sahadi’s and Court Street Grocers, and other favorites. And, as much as I trekked to the farmer’s markets, I often relied on take out. I didn’t have anyone to take care of but myself, and yet, I was often too tired (and cramped) to cook.

Then I met someone from the other coast, though he happened to live in the middle. And one day, we drove until we reached Madison. I still can’t believe I’m here, ten years later, with a family. And a proper refrigerator in a light filled kitchen, where I cook three meals a day (sometimes more). A full sized freezer and minifridge are fully stocked in the basement. The kitchen hall is lined with shelves and shelves of cookbooks.

It took me a while to find my way. (I still keep a Metrocard in my wallet.) But soon enough, I found the markets. Morning Glory greens, baby fennel, Little Doll watermelons, all beautiful. The farmers were friendly and we’d chat. I’d get to know them, and they, me. Rink came to know that I would buy as much radicchio as I could fit into my basket; Jim and Rebecca would take notes for special cuts of beef.

I had one child, then another, and I’d take them to the markets with me. Then Coco started school and it was Enzo and me. Then Enzo started school and it was... me, again. I cherish the summer days when we’re returned to our happy threesome, shopping together. Coco asks, “is it more fun with us?” “It is always more fun,” I say. I brace for another bout of missing them. September is here...

Coco brings her doll stroller and has decided that she will take a break to feed Bella at each stand. First, my corn ladies. I tell them about the soup I made the other night, velvety and sweet. They’re happy and proud to hear how much we love it. They kindly hold onto my heavy bag while we shop. Later, I deliver a dozen fragrant ears to the basement refrigerator.

I hand Nico my empty egg carton and we chat (or really I listen). His chicken hat amuses Coco and Enzo. After several minutes, he puts down his thermos of Mountain Dew and hands me a carton of pretty brown eggs. He tells me the blue ones go early in the morning. But I can never get there before 10:00.

We make our way to way to Eric, a master farmer. It’s the height of the season and everything is so pristine, it’s difficult to choose. Dragon’s Tongues, purslane, baby cucumbers, little heads of salanova lettuces, red and green, ground cherries for snacking, saladette tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes. I can’t buy too many sun golds. The children go through a pint as we shop. “Everything is better at the farmer’s market. Right, mama?”

We walk over to Angel for corn tortillas. Today, he announces that I am his best customer. Later, I’ll make a salsa with Eric’s tomatillos and some pepicha. I’ll finely shred bright purple cabbage to have with tacos all week.

I pay a visit to Will for the creamiest dark chocolate imaginable. The children are excited to try different kinds. “Don’t you have a special if you buy three bars?” He tells me he does, if I can remember what the special was. I can’t. And of course he gives it to me anyway.

A Thai stand displays some unfamiliar herbs. The young mother (her son is helping her today) does not know the English translation. She tells me new mothers are given them after childbirth for energy. I buy two bunches.

I load up on pint after pint of Door County cherries. After I finish the dishes in the evening, I sit down and eat them by the bowlful. Some of them will eventually be turned into ice cream.

I buy a pound of Heritage Red Fife Bolted flour. It smells nutty and sweet. Friday afternoon, I remove the challah from the oven and tap the underside: hollow. That evening, we eat soft and fragrant bread with a beautiful, burnished crust.

Before they retired, this past year, I received a regular delivery of hot dogs from Northwood Farm. I still have a (depleting: husband and son eat these) stockpile in our basement freezer. And I haven’t figured out how I’ll replace them when they’re gone. Enzo plans to open a hot dog stand before the end of the summer. “Do we have a hot dog maker?” he asks me. “You’re looking at her,” I say. “Which one mama? The one with the yellow? I can’t reach it.” I open the refrigerated case at the Co-op and help Coco retrieve the buttermilk. It’s unlike any other I’ve had. I’ll pour some into my einkorn berries to let them ferment overnight. It will go into the multigrain pancakes I make the children in the morning, or their blueberry muffins, or an herb dressing for greens. After we checkout, “Did you buy more than you thought you would?” They always ask cheerily and rhetorically, because they know I always do.

I have a rare moment to myself this summer and take a moment to breathe. Then I take a moment to eat. I heat my favorite skillet and pour in some olive oil. I preheat my toaster and then put in two slices of Expedition bread. I chop some red garlic from the market and soon it starts to dance. I slice shiitakes into thin bands, and break apart the coral-like lion’s manes. I separate the delicate yellow oysters (sometimes they are pink), so pretty. I run my index finger and thumb down the stems of thyme, and the leaves fall into the pan. I shower all of it with pink salt and black pepper. As always, I burn the tips of my fingers on the toast and fling it on to the plate. I divide the caramelized mushrooms onto both pieces.

I bring my dish out to the leafy screened-in porch. I listen to the birds singing. I take my first bite. I’m home.


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