Though it's already mid-October, it felt like the first night of fall: a slight crispness to the air, perhaps even the scent of wood and leaves--the sort of weather that makes me walk faster, with a more determined step. It's been easy to notice the earlier darkness in my office, which becomes a little cave-like towards the end of the afternoon, illuminated by the same small lamp that I brought home from my office two years ago; as we walked across campus, it felt like people were scattering everywhere to gather in similar cozy spaces.
There is a lot of eating together here, and I was headed to dinner, for the third time in just over a week, this time to an awards banquet celebrating the "best freshmen and sophomores," whatever that might mean. I've been to about a hundred award events in my life, but still, somehow, I wasn't prepared for this: the round tables in a softly lit wood-paneled library (the first on campus), glass vases full of delicately orange-tinted roses, which matched the orange-brown iced tea already set at everyone's place, and the orange-paper wrapped books where each student was to sit, and even the bright orange mango-gelatine-topped custards which circled the centerpieces.
This? I thought--this is another planet.
Soon after we sat down, steaming bowls of deep orange butternut squash soup arrived. My first spoonful was like the culinary translation of the warm, intimate atmosphere in the library, a space to shelter from the gathering dusk.
I made small talk with the students, asking them about their activities on campus, about their research, about their homes, feeling a little uninteresting, myself. The names of the awardees were read, and I settled into my chair to listen to the speaker, the author of the book that was given to all of the awardees as their prize. And the atmosphere shifted.
He talked about Mozart, about grace and beauty, about the way in which Mozart manipulated music as its own language to communicate something more ethereal, about tension and letting go. As he played passages from some of the pieces I've known my whole life, I watched him shape sound in the air with his hands, leaning forward in my chair, my own fingers itching to play, finding myself nodding, Yes, of course; that's exactly how it's done. Just as it would be in poetry.
I don't know how many of the students felt as I felt that night, in the glow of the library, with soup and Mozart and mango dessert, suspended in time and space; I couldn't help but notice how differently intimate the intellectual community is from my own former roots, and I wonder what I would have turned out like, if I'd been a student here. The warm pool of light in my office is its metonym; I gravitate towards it, away from the darkness. I understand better what they mean when they talk about the "Bubble," now, I think: despite the tug of my children at home, I find myself wanting to stay here late into the night, too, holed up with these people, learning everything, drinking it in.
It is, in a word, seductive.
It's not all warm orange soup, of course. There are difficult conversations with struggling students, mis- and missed communications, challenges of technology. But I'm growing roots here. And I hope my children don't mind my being waylaid by the Siren's song too much.
Roasted Sweet Potato and Winter Squash Soup with Pears and Sage
3 lbs of sweet potatoes, washed, peeled and chopped
2 c. winter squash (butternut or other), cut into 1" cubes
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
6 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1/2 t. cardamom
1/2 t. garam masala
1 large onion, diced
6 pears, washed, cored, peeled and chopped
8 c. vegetable broth
1 c. white wine
2 T. real maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400; toss the squash and potatoes in just a little bit of olive oil and roast until beginning to caramelize, about 40 minutes.
Melt butter and olive oil over medium heat in a large stockpot. Add the sage leaves and fry them gently just until they become fragrant. Add the cardamom and garam masala, and stir for a minute or two. Add onion, potatoes, squash, and pears. Sauté for about 8-10 minutes or until the potatoes start to soften a bit. Add the broth, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes over low heat. Remove the lid, stir, and add the wine. Using a hand immersion blender, blend the soup until creamy. Taste to adjust seasonings. Serve sprinkled with some toasted nuts, or a sage leaf. And with more wine. And maybe a baguette.