Envision if you will, a backyard bordered by a low stone wall. Above the stone wall slopes a hill of pine trees, pachysandra and rhododendrons. Two paths go up the slope, spaced about 25 feet apart, each set with a few stone steps.
This was my back yard growing up, and the hillside was an excellent place for adventure. It seemed the size of a mountain when I was young. I’m sure if I went back today it would look like a knoll.
The path going up on the left was, by some unspoken agreement, my brother’s path. Except in wintertime during a snowfall because then it became our sled hill. On a really good run you could launch off the stone wall and get some serious air.
The path on the right was mine. It passed by a flat space where the toolshed was built. That was not mine. That area was to be avoided at all costs. I did not acknowledge the Shed as part of my path. Unspeakably creepy things were in there: spiders and slugs and wasps’ nests and sharp implements and the lawn mower. I did not like the lawn mower. I did not like things that made loud noises. When Bert Rechtshaffer came to visit us on his motorcyle, I would flee the premises.
So the two paths went up the hill, and then they connected at the top in a small secret place surrounded by pine trees. This was prime real estate. This was a fort. My friend Julia and I would spend hours up there with our imaginations, anything we could find to play with, and one old cooking pot in which we’d make Forest Soup from stream water, pine needles, rhododendron leaves and dirt. We still talk about it to this day. If anything we cook turns out supremely bad, we laugh and say, “well, it wasn’t as bad as that Forest Soup.”
Forest Soup, Yard Stew, old-fashioned Mud Pies—these are delightful creations that kids make when exposed to nature. Sometimes I think it is a dying art and kids today don’t have that connection to the outdoors that Julia and I did in my backyard fort in the pine trees. Then one day, I’ll see Pandagirl and Redman outside with my old saucepan or some filched Tupperware, filling it up with water and then running around the yard to find things for the pot. It’s like Stone Soup come to life but on a purely imaginary level. Sometimes I’ll come across the birdbath, choked to the rim with grass, leaves, flower petals, chives, lavender, wood chips, gravel, and a plastic spoon or two.
When my vegetable garden is in season, things get kicked up another level. I grow a huge and varied garden and my philosophy with the kids is total hands-on.
“Mom, can we pick something out of the garden?” they will ask.
And I will say, “You can pick anything you want out of the garden.” And so into their stews go (depending on the season) peapods, cherry tomatoes, parsley, tiny matchstick green beans, zucchini flowers, nasturtiums and little baby carrots. Sometimes, some of the bounty gets rinsed off at the garden hose and they eat it. I encourage any and all snacking from the garden. Have at it. At the end of the day, it all gets tossed on the compost pile and the Circle of Life continues.
If you are acquainted with a child who loves outdoor cooking, I highly recommend, in fact I insist you get a copy of Mud Pies and Other Recipes (A Cookbook for Dolls) by Marjorie Winslow. It's seriously one of the most charming books ever written, and will get any child excited about finding the larder within the backyard, the woods, and the seashore. And it’s a nice little read for grown-ups too, a book to make you remember simpler times.
Here are a few examples:
This is a hot soup that is simple but simply delicious. Place a handful of buttons in a saucepan half filled with water. Add a pinch of white sand and dust, 2 fruit tree leaves and a blade of grass for each button. Simmer on a hot rock for a few minutes to bring out the flavor. Ladle into bowls.
Shred several marigolds into a pan and fill with water. Set in the sun to simmer. When the liquid has turned to gold, strain into bowls and put in the shade to cool. Serve chilled.
Mud Puddle Soup
Find a mud puddle after a rainstorm and seat your dolls around it. Serve.