Pantry Portraits

Art imitates a very full life with puppeteer Grian MacGregor

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Grian MacGregor in need of an egg basket

PHOTOGRAPHS BY JENNIFER MAY

Grian MacGregor bustles about her Lake Hill kitchen, her hands a blur of motion as she blanches homegrown tomatoes for sauce. She grabs a few bright-red Romas from a shelf heavy with a rainbow of tomatoes in various stages of ripeness. Into the pot they go! My eye is drawn to the homemade heat shield that surrounds the pot—a series of aluminum pie plates held in place with wire that MacGregor has fashioned to help keep things toasty with minimum fuel. It is just the first of many inventions that make me wonder if MacGregor is secretly related to MacGyver, the ever-resourceful 1980s crime fighter from television.

As we talk, the steady blurp, blurp, blurp of gas escaping from the airlock in a carboy of fresh-pressed apple cider fermenting next to the sink punctuates our conversation. MacGregor picked the apples from a friend’s tree, filling a large cardboard box that she brought with her to another friend’s cider pressing party just down the road in the town of Willow the previous weekend. When she got home, she added some Champagne yeast to the fresh-pressed juice to speed the cider on its journey from sweet to hard.

My attention is caught by a million different details in MacGregor’s art and whimsy-filled home, a small, white house with a big yard in Lake Hill. A large, white enamel sign proclaiming “FREE DANCING” in black letters hangs above the picture window in the living room, and the kitchen windowsill holds three glass cloches, or bell jars, each graced by the perfect, bleached skull of a small animal.

Although MacGregor has numerous interests and talents, including writing, ceramics, sewing, basket weaving, mask making, gardening and beekeeping, she describes herself as “a puppeteer, first and foremost.”

In 1981, after the birth of her daughter, MacGregor left a career teaching art for the more fun, if somewhat uncertain, life of a puppeteer. She created the Ivy Vine Players, a one-woman show with a cast of 75 puppets, all made exclusively of recycled materials. Food is a recurring theme in her puppet shows and favorites include Home Grown Tomatoes, featuring Guy Clark’s famous song sung by “Mrs. Make-It-Do”, a grandmotherly puppet in plaid pants, and a voluminous sunhat who happily wields a hoe while extolling the virtues of home grown tomatoes. “When my daughter was born, I used her as my excuse to do all the things I’d wanted to do as well as the reason I couldn’t be scared of them. So I bought a canoe, I got bees, I became a puppeteer, and I started traveling with her,” says MacGregor.

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FEATHERED FRIENDS

MacGregor’s house is ceaselessly entertaining, however in the wilds of her garden is where the action is. We step out onto the little porch off the kitchen and MacGregor invites me to smell one of her orchids, which bestows the unexpected fragrance of vanilla.

At the bottom of the steps, I am greeted by the squawks of MacGregor’s flock—14 hens and two leggy turkeys. They rush over, hoping for a handout and pause briefly to satisfy their uneasy curiosity about me, the interloper. The flock has a long, fenced area in which to hunt and peck as well as two wooden runs that lead into a multi-roomed “chicken condo” MacGregor has built in stages. Inside, one wall is lined with nesting boxes made from buckets turned on their sides and screwed directly into the back of the coop. One of the nesting boxes is occupied by a hen that looks slightly uncomfortable about my intrusion and shifts around on her bed of wood shavings before turning her head away.

After a hungry bear smashed a window some time ago, snatching two birds and generally wreaking havoc, MacGregor rebuilt the coop, moving it closer to the house in hopes of discouraging future incursions. She points out the claw marks the bear left on the door and adds that she’s also had similar problems with foxes and raccoons. The fox was so persistent that she rigged up a Rube Goldberg-esque system involving a motion detector and a cord snaking all the way up to her bedroom—whenever a fox tripped the motion detector, her contraption would cause a fan to go on in her room, gently waking her so that she could come down to scare off the predator. “And it happened on many a night,” MacGregor adds.

When I ask about the two turkeys that stand high above the rest of the birds in the yard, MacGregor explains that they’re Bourbon Reds, a domestic, heritage breed—her first foray into raising the birds. “Every year on Thanksgiving, almost everything on the table is from my garden except for the turkey, so this year I found a farmer down in Gardiner who was selling fertilized turkey eggs,” says MacGregor. She purchased two eggs for $2.50 each and popped them under a broody hen who she says, “CRANKED it out,” sitting on them for the full 28 days required, despite the fact that chicken eggs take only 21 days to hatch, and taking excellent care of them in their infancy.

Beyond the chicken coop, a large tree house is firmly nestled among the branches of a majestic maple tree that graces the yard closest to the house. “That tree was worth the mortgage,” declares MacGregor.

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MacGregor and her squash delivery device in the form of a blue sled.

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GARDEN PROJECTS

A little past the tree house, the garden gate offers entry into a wild world of growing things. Running parallel to the fenced chicken yard, MacGregor’s garden takes up about two-thirds of the large, rectangular yard. MacGregor stops to show me the Mexican cucumber vines—a profusion of cukes that look like miniature watermelons and taste like sour gherkins. Every few feet, I stop to pick a handful of dusky raspberries from the rows of canes that stretch most of the way across the garden, enjoying their perfect mixture of sweet and tart.

The back end of the garden is taken up by a variety of tomatoes, including a striking “blueberry” cherry tomato that starts out green and turns a beautiful dark purple as it ripens. Next to the tomatoes, MacGregor has fashioned a wonderfully whimsical allée, or walkway, from cast-off bedsprings with an arched top made of two- by four-inch welded wire metal fencing that provides the perfect home for climbing plants like beans and squash. The rusted whorls of the bedsprings make a surprisingly charming trellis that inspire me to nab any and all discarded bedsprings I come across in the future for my own garden.

Delicata squash dangle from withering vines on the allée’s exterior while the inside is dominated by a truly enormous cucuzza squash, which resembles a cartoonishly elongated zucchini and hangs down at least three feet, swelling to a bulb as large as a person’s head at its end. “That one got away from me,” says MacGregor, “I just couldn’t eat them fast enough this summer. Now it’s a really great conversation starter.”

MacGregor has repurposed a blue plastic winter sled to haul winter squash and a basket of tomatoes back to the house, pulling it past more bedspring trellises laden with dried shell beans awaiting harvest, several beds of potatoes, two stout peach trees with full, glossy foliage, a lemon tree in a pot, kale plants, feverfew flowers, borage—“It’s my gift to the bees,” says MacGregor, a patch of sorrel, and even more raspberries.

Perched on a pole high in the garden’s center, a scarecrow wearing a faded purple dress surveys our labor. Her limbs are set in a pose that’s reminiscent of John Travolta’s classic disco move in Saturday Night Fever.

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“It’s all these different systems—
and they all hook together. What’s
left from the plants I grow in the
garden goes into the compost, which
gets run through the chickens, who
lay eggs for me to eat, and the shells get
crushed up to grow better tomatoes, and
their poop helps fertilize the garden.
And around again.”

READYMADE

Back at the house, we park the laden sled at the bottom of the porch steps and there sits an earthy cob oven on the stone patio. MacGregor built the charmingly rounded clay oven by hand over a period of three years using mainly found materials, including buckets of clay that had been thrown out by a local school and rebar that she rescued from a dumpster outside a nearby firehouse. The discarded clay was too dry to work with, but Macgregor, who used to work as a potter, reconstituted it by soaking it in buckets of water in her backyard before adding sand and molding it into the right shape by smacking it repeatedly with a wooden paddle she built specially for that purpose. “It was many nights of me out here wearing a headlamp going “WHAM, WHAM, WHAM” at it until midnight,” says MacGregor, who seems genuinely proud and delighted with the whole undertaking.

Inside the house, MacGregor transfers the rough squares of dough she had prepared earlier in the day to a floured board, spreading each with a spoonful or two of her homemade tomato sauce, dotting them with slices of fresh mozzarella and layering on slices of sautéed green pepper and fresh basil leaves from her garden, sliced shiitake mushrooms she grew on the specially drilled oak logs outside, and finishing off her creation with thin slices of marinated pork loin and a dash of salt.

We head back outside where she slides the pies into the hot oven; a few minutes later they emerge, ready to eat with deliciously crisped edges and bubbly, melted cheese. MacGregor adds a bottle of her own red wine—she’s part of a winemaking collective—to the feast, and we tuck in appreciatively, enjoying the view of the maple trees that form the boundary between her yard and her neighbor’s property as we munch and crunch our way through the warm, savory treat.

Ever resourceful, MacGregor taps these maple trees as the winter days begin to lengthen and warm each February, reducing the sap in an evaporator she built from her broken kitchen stove. “I went to the restaurant supply place and got one of those steam table pans like you see at the China Buffet and I cut a hole just the right size for it in the top of the stove,” explains MacGregor. When she’s gathered enough sap to boil, she fills the steam tray on top with the cold, slightly sweet liquid, opens the oven door and builds a fire right inside it, adding more sap as it steams away. She often brings it inside to finish it in order to have a bit more control over the final product.

Commenting about her own little ecosystem, MacGregor observes, “It’s all these different systems—and they all hook together. What’s left from the plants I grow in the garden goes into the compost, which gets run through the chickens who lay eggs for me to eat, and the shells get crushed up to grow better tomatoes, and their poop helps fertilize the garden. And around again.”

About 10 years ago, after leaving a job that had become unbearable, MacGregor began to pour her considerable energy into expanding the productivity of her home food loop—tripling the size of her garden, planting fruit trees, getting chickens, tapping her maple trees for syrup, drying herbs, canning tomatoes, freezing peaches, raspberries and more. “I just quit, no unemployment insurance, no nothing. It was like stepping into this huge vacuum and being able to fill it up with whatever I wanted. That’s when all of this started happening, and it’s so fulfilling and so… delicious,” says MacGregor of the shift.

Although she has not enjoyed the security of a steady paycheck in over a decade, it’s obvious that MacGregor finds ample reward in the life she has built. “I’m better than wealthy” says MacGregor, “because I can do whatever I want to—it’s such a gift.”

MacGregor’s enthusiastic approach to life is laced with humor and thoroughly grounded in the realities of life on this planet—busy bees, chicken poop, marauding bears, homegrown tomatoes, wily foxes and all.

The Ivy Vine Players offers puppet shows and workshops to libraries and classrooms throughout the region, many with an emphasis on health, nutrition and sustainability. Visit grianmacgregor.com to learn more.

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