The Barter System - What Gives?

Shortly after I started dating R during the summer of 2009, I offered to help his mother out by working the cash register at the sweet corn stand. About an hour into my inaugural shift, a woman approached the stand carrying a tray of cookies.

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"I'll take one dozen Bodacious, please..." she said, motioning towards our best selling variety of the day. "And these are for Deb," she added.

"Oh how nice, Deb will love them," I said, setting aside the treats for R's mother. "Good news, it's a bakers dozen!" I smiled, and quoted her the price.

"No honey, the cookies. They're for Deb," the woman replied. And then she took her bag of corn, turned, and drove off in her station wagon.

I was distraught! My first day working the corn stand, and I'd been hustled! When R's mom returned later that afternoon, I confessed my failure.

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"No, no," she laughed. "That's just Nancy. She likes to barter."

Thus began my initiation into the barter culture, a this-for-that means of commerce still alive and well here in rural America.

"But how did Nancy know you'd want the cookies?" I asked incredulously.

"Well, as long as it's a fair trade, we usually accept," Deb told me.

I imagined myself at the shoe store, holding a winter coat I no longer wanted: "I'll take the pink pumps for this down jacket...they're worth about the same." No way would that fly! As a teen, I bartered with my parents: "I got an A in Social Studies! I think it's about time you extend my curfew!" I bartered on a daily basis with my alarm clock: "Just ten more minutes, and then I'll get out of bed." But this was for real!

The more I thought about it, the more I was flabbergasted by the concept. It seemed so primitive and bygone...explorers bartered...Pilgrims and Native Americans bartered...cavemen bartered, trading woolly mamouth pelts for fire sticks. But this...Astonishing!

A picture of me, in warmer weather, at the farm stand
As the days and weeks rolled on, I began to get the hang of bartering. Hunks of homemade cheese, cartons of eggs, and fresh picked flowers were exchanged for the corn variety of the day. The trades were surprisingly pleasant, even for a novice like me, and felt oddly empowering.

In time, the etiquette of bartering began to make sense to me: it's OK to refuse, but try to meet people where they're coming from. Believe in your product or service and stand behind its value, but don't be boastful. Be flexible. Be generous. It all comes back around.

As with most of the country traditions I've come to understand over the past two years, bartering now feels natural to me. I'd even say I enjoy it!

Ones of these days, I just may figure out a way to barter a bit more successfully with that old alarm clock.


Celebrating Sweetness + My Favorite Cake Recipe

Of all the holidays, none is so fraught with baggage as Valentines Day. Maybe it's the sacchriney sweet jewelry advertisements that portend love is only true when spelled out in diamonds...Or the impossibility of finding a decent place to eat dinner without reservations...And let's not forget the heightened pressure to compare our own love lives to the romantic ideals played out in the movies...

With standards like this, for couples and singles alike, the
opportunities for angst are endless.

And yet, I truly adore Valentines Day.  From the depths of snowy February, Valentines Day springs forth in all its glittering, ruffled, candy-covered glory and thaws our frozen monotony.  Drug stores are bedazzled in crepe paper hearts, and empty milk cartons are transformed to become homeroom Valentine mailboxes.  Pink carnations, the most pedestrian of flowers, have their shining moment in grocery aisle bouquets, and chalky candy hearts engage in tiny conversation.

The moment I stopped allowing Valentines Day to serve as a litmus test for the state of my love life was the moment I started enjoying it. The farmer and I are very happily coupled this Valentines Day, but I've spent many alone, and that's when I realized it doesn't have to be a holiday for lovers. Valentines is a great holiday to spoil your grandmother, or best friend, or your beloved yoga instructor. Take her to lunch, send flowers, whip up a cake and have her over for tea. Think of it as a holiday to celebrate show love and appreciation via gluesticks and doilies. Once the pressure of the perfect romance is set aside, it's a lot more fun.

If nothing else, it's a great excuse to blanket life in a pile of pink frosting...

My Absolute Favorite Cake Recipe
I am not a fancy cook or baker. I've given up on aiming for perfection. But this cake is a real crowd pleaser, because from-scratch, homemade layer cakes are rather uncommon these days. I worked in a bakery as a teenager, and have had a place in my heart for homemade, excessively feminine, butter-laden cakes ever since. I've been honing this recipe for more than a decade. Start to finish, it takes three hours to prepare, including icing it. A real labor of love! 

3 Layer Cake
1 cup butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
1.5 cups self rising flour
1.25 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp almond extract

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one by one. Combine flours and add to mixture in equal parts. Add almond extract.

Divide batter into three and pour heart-shaped cake pans. Bake at 350 for 25 mins and check for doneness by inserting toothpick.

Chocolate Filling:
1 cup butter at room temperature
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Syrup
Add confectioners sugar to butter gradually, mixing chocolate intermittently (to keep consistency moist). Beat to desired consistency.

Outside Icing
1 cup butter at room temperature
8 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Add confectioners sugar to butter gradually, mixing in milk and vanilla intermittently (to keep consistency moist). Beat to desired consistency. Divide and add coloring.

Allow cake to cool completely. Ice two inner layers with chocolate and refrigerate 15 minutes, to allow filling to set. Ice outside of cake with a thin layer of frosting, taking care to smooth over any cracks on top and in between layers. Refrigerate for 25 minutes before applying second layer of icing. Smooth and decorate with piped icing.


Barnyard Boogie!

Aching backs, frozen fields, three foot snowdrifts -- no matter! The sun is shining high over Vermont today, and the icy landscape is literally glittering. Nothing to do but Boogie in the Barnyard...


Practical Clothing: Your Mother was RIGHT

I was chatting with a friend about the cold weather when it dawned on me: although it is regularly more than 20 degrees cooler here in Vermont, winters in Manhattan felt much colder. I realized this was because I was usually wearing skirts and heels, (practically naked by Vermont standards) a chic but flimsy jacket, and no hat whatsoever. Teetering back and forth to the subway in this ensemble, I'd curse the cold under my breath. And I wasn't the only one -- all the women at my office dressed like this. Some days I was so cold it actually hurt, but at least I didn't look ridiculous.

snow shoe duck feet
Things change. I now wear snow pants on a regular basis. That's correct, suspendered, puffy snowpants...the same variety worn, albeit larger, by drippy-nosed first graders on the playground at recess. I also wear snow boots every day, and my hair is permanently flatted by my pom-pommed ski hat. Long underwear is another standard. And no outfit is complete with out a pair of Darn Tough wool socks. I am a thermal, stay-puffed, down-insulated snow beast. In poor lighting, it's probably difficult to guess my gender.

But I feel warm! Which means I enjoy more of the winter. Skiing, snowshoeing, sledding...just like a kid. And I'm not the only one, all the women in Vermont dress like this. Some days I miss wearing chic but flimsy jackets and stylish heels. But I stick to my snow clothes.

Wearing anything else would be ridiculous.


Simply the Sweet Life: Getting Ready for Your Spring Garden

There's eight more weeks of winter until the "official" beginning of spring, and for eager gardeners, it can feel like an eternity. Instead of pining until then, why not get a head start on your 2011 garden?  For ten tips on how you can scratch your gardening itch as you count down to spring, check out my new post over at Simply the Sweet Life.