Mother's Day is a time to celebrate the women who raised us, and today I'm paying tribute to my mother and how she taught me to live, and appreciate, a handmade life.
This story was published in the spring issue of Sift magazine, where I tell the story of growing up on a farm in Maryland with three sisters, a troop of farm animals, and plenty of homemade pizza.
“Running a farm wasn’t a choice; it was a privilege,” my mother tells me. She's taken care of our farm for 25 years – but not for business or profit.
Farming isn’t in her blood. Raised in a small town in Maryland, she graduated from Princeton University – one of the first female mechanical engineers in the school’s history – before moving to Boston and meeting my father. When I was 2 years old, they moved to the farm to be closer to my dad's job. With three children under the age of 6, and another baby on the way, she knew nothing about how a farm worked, much less how to milk a cow or fix a tractor.
A glance at where we moved, deep in steeplechase country in northern Maryland, and you can see the allure. Picture a spring day soaked in sunlight. Six hundred and fifty acres of cornfields and cow pastures stretch in every direction. There’s a tractor winding across the fields, swallows wheeling high overhead, and the buzz of insects in the air. Wide green fields spread out like a blanket over gently rolling hills.
This is where I grew up. We had a pet Yorkshire pig, three sheep, a new flock of chickens every spring, a Shetland pony, and a herd of five Jersey cows for milking. Over the years, animals came and went: barn cats, twin goats, two more pigs, and a few short-lived roosters.
As children, all of our meals had a story. We made bright yellow butter from our own milk. Eggs came from our chickens. There were zucchini and sweet corn and raspberries from our garden, and honey from my dad’s beehives.
Most vividly, I remember the baking. My mother made everything from scratch: white sandwich bread, seedy crackers, and cheese drop biscuits. She'd let us punch down the bread dough after the first rise, then give each of us a pinched-off piece of dough to shape into a miniature loaf, fill with dark chocolate, and bake until crusty. We'd carry them out to the porch and break them open while still hot, oozing with melted chocolate.
When I ask her how she learned to do it all – raise chickens, make hay, grow tomatoes – without someone to show her, she laughs and says it was trial and error. She’s resourceful: When she bought our first Jersey cow, my mother checked a book called Keeping a Family Cow out of the library, renewing it over and over again to page through the chapters.
“I learned a lot,” she says. “I thought of myself as someone who loves the land, and I taught myself. I feel proud of that.”
Capable and smart, she likes to know how things work, which is evident in her myriad hobbies. She’s a skilled woodworker. (Since high school, she’s been building a large-scale dollhouse complete with electric lights.) She can diagram a sentence, cook a perfect roast turkey, and bale hay.
Nowadays farming is trendy. Modern Farmer magazine sits on the newsstand next to Vogue. Urban beekeeping is cool; farm-to-table restaurants are everywhere. But it's a surface interest; few people seek out and appreciate the value of building a life with their own two hands.
My mother points out that people often don't understand her path to stay-at-home farmer. “A hands-on life – whatever form it takes – is seen as less. Less busy, less intellectual, less challenging,” she says. “I think that we have forgotten that these physical pursuits aren’t second-class uses of time.”
That could be one of her most important lessons to me: Showing me that a hands-on life can enrich us just as much as reading a philosophy book or getting a degree.
I asked her why she always wanted to figure out how to do it all by hand: make her own butter, or bale hay, or milk a cow?
She pauses, thinking about the feeling, and then smiles. “Picture it,” she says. “You’re out there sitting on that three-legged stool. You hear the sound of milk hitting the bucket. You look out into the pasture, and maybe the mist is rising off the fields. And you know that you’re going to use that milk. That’s the cool thing about milking: it’s a real, tangible product.”
This cuts to the core of farm life: For better or worse, there’s nothing between you and the land. You get your hands dirty.
Part of the magic of growing up on a farm is that every day is an adventure. Once my mother woke us up in the chilled, early hours of the morning to spread blankets on the dewy grass and watch a meteor shower. Another day might have brought the sheep-shearer, sweaty and shirtless, to wrestle our ewes to the ground and cut off their oily wool. Or we would have made ice cream in our hand-cranked machine, spilling rock salt and ice over the porch while we churned.
Everything was homemade. We made our own applesauce, pasta, and yogurt. Lots of nights, my mother would make pizza dough and let us pile on our own toppings: sliced peppers, canned tomatoes from our garden, and soft homemade mozzarella. Her recipe (find it here) uses white wine to make a crisp yet chewy crust.
Life is complicated and full of twists. Yet my mother has figured out how to appreciate the importance of small, daily moments: a mug of tea in the morning, hanging laundry on the clothesline to dry, the taste of the first ripe cherry tomato. If asked, I think she’ll tell me this: The littlest things in life are often the most important. And eat more homemade pizza.
For more stories, recipes, flavors, and inspirations, check out the spring issue of Sift magazine.