About Me

February

FEBRUARY

 

Just as I begin to think yellow—

a bowl of daffodils

some lemons

a little girl’s braids

bouncing in a game—

 

along comes more snow

where brown fields lie fallow

barren trees just budding

remain bereft as old maids

shivering in shame.

 

I know that spring is capricious in these northern parts of the country. Winter never left the Chicago-to-Boston-wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard, according to the nightly news; but a mild spell in the Pacific Northwest encouraged dogwood buds and purple crocuses to appear two months early. Last week I discovered a small scattering of violets, rather miniscule, peeping from the bracken in my front dooryard garden when I pruned the peonies. Then, like a slap in the face, winter returned with a vengeance, albeit mostly without snow, just fine mist.

 The winter of 2017, on the other hand, was the snowiest on record, it was said, seemingly never-ending. Three months of the white stuff was enough to drive me batty. All I wanted to do was hide under a quilt during those long grey days and awake only after dark settled when I didn’t have to look outside and imagine myself suspended in whiteness. Eventually, the edges of snow began to shrink and expose a bit of bare ground I forgot was there all along.

 Today’s mist is just that—a misting of leaf and blade and branch surfaces, merely dampening the streets and tops of cars parked in driveways. The only white surfaces in my garden are the glass table tops on the back courtyard. That’s enough for me. Who knows what March will bring but more wind storms.

In the meantime, I’ve arranged faux orchids amid graceful birch branches that blew down in last week’s wind storm, standing them in one of my blue and white porcelain planters. They seem to add a breath of sweetness to stale winter days indoors—or is this sweetness the fragrance of a gardenia candle on the tea table?

 

 

 

A Forlorn Plot of Grass

From a distance, it looked like an artist’s painting on the brick wall of the old Grady Building in Apalachicola, Florida. I first noticed it as my sister drove us down Water Street. My imagined artist had painted . . .

” . . . the hull in broad sweeps of dirty white, / a pilot house, once white, / rust hanging down from its windows / like ancient tears.”

Demosthenes George Margomenos arrived at Ellis Island in October 1900, with his wife Mary. A skilled craftsman, George built not only his own house but also designed and constructed a fleet of shrimp boats for his seafood business, the Standard Fish and Oyster Company.

Apalachicola Fish & Oyster Company, 1947. Image courtesy of The Florida Memory Project http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/55947

Sadly, a century after George came to America and, in due course, Apalachicola, his Venezellos was ordered demolished into smithereens by a modern self-proclaimed environmentalist.

“It was ugly,” he said.

Gone now is this lovely relic of Apalachicola’s maritime history, along with George’s fishing business. The old boat was not at all an eyesore but a piece of Old Apalach for visitors as well as townspeople to enjoy viewing. Only the picket-fenced grass plot that served as home for the boat remains, a forlorn site for a once storied past.

 

NOTE: This post was written in response to Word Press/one word prompt, “forlorn,” for January 8th, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Winter’s Garden

“For You, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits . . .” as my garden sleeps under snow fallen only yesterday. Not much, just enough to cover lawns and junipers and bare branches of birches, their bark already white and peeling bits of nature’s poems. My little dog gawped through the opened library door to the courtyard, then pranced out to frolic in the stuff, again and again.

This morning the sky is cerulean, sun bright. Christmas is two days hence. With temps climbing, the snow will not wait, but melt into the ground. We’ll have a deep South kind of Christmas this year while the Deep South itself was buried. Perhaps January will bring more? We’ll see.

Nonetheless, this year’s winter garden retains its own charms — bare branches stretching against blue heavens, as they do today, or a grey leaden dome leaking drizzles of light rain. The Colorado spruce and Mugo pines glisten. Chickadees and buntings sweep down from the Cascade foothills and finish off the dogwood berries. They ignore dried rose hips for now, instead flock to the gazebo bird feeder we try to keep filled with mixed bird seed. Dried perennials sway in a whisper of breeze, drop their own seed to sprout again come spring.

In an earlier post, I talked about bringing the garden indoors for winter, especially the geraniums and ferns, and harvesting herbs to dry on screens laid out on kitchen counters. In December, I send my husband out, armed with red clippers I gave him one Christmas, to gather evergreen branches to bring inside, first for the Advent wreath on the dining table, later for filling blue and white planters. I then add birch twigs and faux berries indistinguishable from fresh ones that make a mess when they dry and fall onto the floor. Every year I bring out the pine cones we used to gather from the woods when the children were little, and arrange them in the clipped greenery. Sometimes I insert juniper pieces among the Christmas tree branches to fill out gaps, and line the window sills with spruce and pine cones.

This year I decided to retain my autumn arrangements of dried materials from the garden and simply add snippets of spruce or juniper, a couple of small Ponderosa pine cones, an extra gold ball or two left over from tree decorations. Lack of early snow inspired me, especially since I was loathe to relinquish a long beautiful autumn season. Instead of red plaid ribbons and bows, I created an olive green and gold effect for the garland on the mantel and the wreath on the wall, reflected on the tree in front of the bay window. However, I succumbed to the traditional red plaid for outdoor wreaths and garlands in the front of the house because it shows up better from the street, and on the courtyard sconces and lamp posts. The birds don’t notice.

In the South, gardeners with magnolias gather fallen leaves turned brown and combine them with fresh green ones for wreaths and mantel arrangements. This month “The Enchanted Home” blog and the December issues of both The Cottage Journal and Victoria magazines feature this idea. Is this a new trend? Interesting, but not really my style. I prefer Florida oranges nestled in a silver bowl of juniper and pine clipping and set on the kitchen table, while a mince pie bakes in the oven.

This year, in spite of a three-week Advent season — or, perhaps, because of it? — I have experienced the most relaxed, non-rushed December of my life, beginning with a lovely Thanksgiving week without feeling any urgency to “get on with it.” The Christmas cake I baked on Stir-Up Sunday is resting, wrapped in an old linen kitchen towel, growing more pungent. I planned my preparations, step by step, week by week, and tried not to succumb too much to snuggling under a plaid blanket on those dreary grey days. Now, my house waits in readiness for the high point of my year. My soul in stillness waits.

The blessing of peace to you wherever you are!

 

 

 

Pearl Harbor Reflections

Today is Pearl Harbor Day, a “day that will live in infamy.”

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It was on this day in 1941 that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States had frozen Japanese assets and declared an embargo on shipments of petroleum and war materials to Japan, and the Japanese retaliated. On the morning of December 7, soldiers at Pearl Harbor were learning how to use a new device called radar, on which they detected a large number of planes heading toward them. They telephoned an officer who told them that the aircraft must be American B-17s, and not to worry about it.

Because it was a Sunday, there was a bonus ration of milk to go along with breakfast that morning. A sailor named James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity (1951), went down to the mess hall. He later wrote, “It was not till the first low-flying fighter came whammering overhead with his [machine guns] going that we ran outside, still clutching our half-pints of milk to keep them from being stolen.”

Ships began exploding and capsizing as Japanese planes dropped bombs and torpedoes. Altogether, over two thousand Americans were killed in the attack. President Roosevelt got on the radio, talked for less than 10 minutes, and spoke those now immortal words: “This is a day that will live in infamy.” Congress declared war the following morning, and the United States officially entered World War II, which it had stayed out of for more than two years, adhering to its policy of neutrality in Europe’s affairs.

That was the year of my birth. 1941. I was all of 4 months on that fateful Sunday morning in Pensacola, Florida. Mother sent Daddy downtown from our little house near the Bayou off Pensacola Bay to find out what all the “noise” was about — sirens, bells, etc. Some time later he returned, ashen faced. “We are at war,” he said. Thus, I lived those early years under the shadow of WWII, albeit coddled and protected. Later I learned that the grownups around me were more fearful of an attack on the Naval Air Station, not so much what was going on across the Pacific or in Europe.

 

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Even now, memories resurface in strange dreams: windows covered with wool blankets at night, one kerosene lantern in the “middle room” of our house, that resonant fireside voice on the radio reassuring me that everything will be all right, although I understood but few of his words. Once, in an American history high school class, I heard that voice again in a film clip — and those early years flooded back, for some reason wrenching tears from my heart.

Do today’s students hear these stories, read of these events in their history books, take to heart the lesson never to be afraid but always prepared to safeguard their future and the future of their unborn children? I can only hope so.

 

Snippet

Today’s word for WordPress bloggers is “snippet” as in a a snippet of news half heard on NPR, a snippet of fabric for matching to a room’s color scheme, or a snippet of embroidery thread with a pair of silver Victorian scissors. My grandmother owned a set of embroidery tools from England, although I never saw her use them. By then, her fingers could handle only crochet needles with any ease. She did, however, wield a pair of garden scissors to snip off faded geraniums in the window box skirting her front  windows.

I  have a pair of pink garden “snippers” I ordered from The Garden Girl, Ltd., in England. Unlike clippers with broad, curved blades meant for pruning shrubbery, these snippers are made with needle nose blades intended for deadheading not only geraniums but also roses and peonies, hydrangeas and rhododendrons. Mine are perfect for harvesting snippets of herbs.

 

On Thanksgiving morning last week, I gathered a sprig of sage to stuff into the turkey instead of with dressing. Often I prefer to bake my dressings in a separate dish for a bit of crunchiness instead of inside the bird, especially if it’s made with cornbread.

Today a snippet of French thyme in a small jar of water adds a grace note to my kitchen window sill, alongside a blue square pot holding one geranium left over from summer. Tiny buds have begun to appear on weak flower stems. English ivy snipped from the garden and rooted in water now trails over the edge of the pot. Two faded geranium leaves need snipping, but I am loathe to remove those baby promises of pinkness in spite of my advice to the contrary in a previous post. That is, pinch back — or snip off — any new top growth to discourage the plant from becoming leggy during the winter months. Maybe this once?

 

Stir-Up Sunday

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This coming Sunday is “Stir-Up Sunday” when family members and any guests gather in the kitchen to make the Christmas pudding or cake, according to Old English and, subsequently, Southern tradition. The term derives from the opening words of the collect quoted above: “Stir up . . .” from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer for the Sunday before Advent begins.

According to British blogger Marie Rayner, “Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. This was quite liquidy, would need to be eaten with a spoon like a soup, and would have been a fasting meal during the preparations up to Christmas.” Not until the late 1500s did cooks begin to thicken the pudding with breadcrumbs and eggs, only to have their efforts toward celebratory foods banned by the Puritans in the mid-1660s as too frivolous for a solemn religious season.

George I of Hanover re-introduced Christmas merry-making when he ascended the British throne in 1714. He is credited with introducing the first meat-less version of the plum pudding to England. No “real” plums, however, as that was the English name for large sultana raisins.

Most old recipes for Christmas pudding stipulated that the steamed pudding — or fruitcake — had to be stored for several weeks to allow it to age. Presumably, then, this prayer read at Sunday worship would remind cooks that it was time to begin stirring up, not only their hearts to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, but also the puddings to be ready in time for Christmas.

The custom followed early colonial settlers to American shores with stark regional differences. For example, the Pilgrims considered Christmas Day as just another working day; only Sundays were paramount in solemn religious observances. Virginia colonists, on the other hand, eschewed the austerity imposed on their Massachusetts counterparts. Christmas encompassed a fortnight of celebrations spanning Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night on January 6th. Hence, the introduction of the Christmas pudding to America.

On the traditional “Stir-Up Sunday,” each person in turn stirred the batter. Everyone recited the “Sunday Before Advent” collect, in effect blessing the batter. Besides, the stirrers themselves needed all the stirred-up grace they could get for this hard work! The batter was thick with candied fruits, lemon and orange peels, raisins and currants added to a basic flour and sugar with butter and eggs mix. In most recipes today, the only moisture is vanilla extract, but rum or brandy is de rigueur  for a richer flavor. Moreover, liquor helps with the aging.

My mother’s older sister always baked our family’s Christmas fruit cakes. She followed Mama Nedley’s recipe, a dark sweet cake baked slowly in a tube pan. After the cake cooled and she had taken it out of its pan, she pushed a small red apple down the center hole, doused the whole thing with Madeira or Port, and wrapped it in a fresh linen dish towel. She then placed it into a round cake tin and stored it on a top shelf until Christmas afternoon when she served it at tea. I wish she had handed that recipe on to me, but she died with it still in her head, never written down.

I’ve made my fair share of various fruit cakes, but never a steamed plum pudding. I’ve also made fruit cake cookies, a delightful winter afternoon tea treat. This year, I’m thinking of trying Martha Washington’s recipe for her “Great Cake” as I continue to follow some of the old Virginia holiday traditions.

 

See also Marie Rayner at http://www.theenglishkitchen@blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Virginia Thanksgiving

“On the banks of the historic James River in Virginia stands a stately Georgian house known as Berkeley,” begins an article appearing in the November 1971 issue of Family Circle magazine. The manor house itself was built in 1726, but the first English colonists to settle this area arrived nearly 100 years prior to the establishment of this plantation. In 1619, a little ship named Margaret anchored near Jamestown colony, first settled a dozen years previously.

The thirty-nine people aboard, including one Richard Berkeley, carried a charter from the Virginia Company of London which stipulated, among other ordinances, that the day of their landing “at the assigned place for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

On that cold day in early December, the ship’s captain carried Bibles and the English Book of Common Prayer as he stepped ashore. Passengers unloaded muskets, tools, nails, and barrels of gunpowder, as well as food supplies such as grain, hogs, seeds for spring planting. To the musical quacks and honks  of wild ducks and geese calling over the river, they knelt under the pine trees and held a brief ceremony, completely religious, unlike the later New England Pilgrims’ event based on old English harvest festivals.

Every year at Berkeley, according to the magazine article, costumed actors recreate the landing of those first settlers from a replica of the Margaret moored near a clump of trees. The manor house is fully restored and furnished with 18th-century antiques. As late autumn afternoon sun glows through mullioned windows, candles are lit in silver candelabrum. Hot spiced cider in a silver bowl float small oranges studded with cloves. Blue and white Cantonware platters are carried into the dining room.

For the November 1971 magazine story, the editorial staff created what would have been a typical Southern colonial menu of turkey at one end of the table, a Smithfield ham at the other. Between the meat platters stood bowls of York River green beans with bacon, Tidewater sweet potato bake, and creamed onions. At least three desserts waited on the sideboard: fig pudding, fruit cake containing pickled watermelon, and pecan pie without which no Southern holiday dinner is complete.

THE RECIPES as adapted for the modern cook

Tidewater Sweet Potato Bake

2 cans (about 16 oz each) sweet potatoes or yams
1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 medium cooking apples, pared, cored, thinly sliced

Mash sweet potatoes in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and 4 tablespoons of the melted butter.

Combine remaining butter with brown sugar and nutmeg in the bottom of an 8-cup baking dish.  Spoon apple slices into dish. top with sweet-potato mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Yield: 8 servings

 

Creamed Onions

2 pounds small white onions OR 1 bag (20 oz) frozen small white onions
4 tablespoons butter 
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves [I substitute nutmeg; Hubby doesn't like cloves]
2 cups light cream [I use canned evaporated milk]
1/4 cup chopped parsley

Cover onions with boiling water for several minutes, then drain. Peel onions. Cook in boiling salted water 20 minutes, or just until tender. Drain and keep warm. Or cook frozen onions, following package directions.

Melt butter in a small saucepan. Stir in flour, salt, and cloves or nutmeg. Cook, stirring constantly, just until bubbly. Stir in cream; continue until sauce thickens and bubbles 3 minutes.

Spoon cooked onions into heated vegetable dish; pour sauce over onions and sprinkle with chopping parsley. Yield: 8 servings

 

Virginia Pecan Pie

1 9-inch pie crust shell [I make an English puff pastry. See below.]
4 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dark corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 to 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup pecan halves

Prepare pie dough: 1/2 cup flour, 6 oz butter; 4-5 tablespoons water. Mix together and turn onto a floured bread or dough board. Roll into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Dust with flour and roll into an oblong twice the length of the width. Fold 1/3 over, then the remaining 1/3 over that. Roll into another oblong, and repeat process, dusting with flour with each fold-over. Allow pastry to rest for 10 minutes between each fold and roll—three in all. This extra prep work creates a light, flaky crust.

Roll pie dough into a 12-inch round and fit into a 9-inch pie plate. With fingers, roll edges over and shape into a fluted pattern.

Beat eggs slightly in a medium-size bowl. Blend in sugar, salt, corn syrup, and vanilla. Stir in flour.

Pour into the prepared pie shell. Arrange pecan halves in a pattern on top of mixture.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes, or until center is almost set but still soft. Cool completely on rack on the kitchen counter or table. Best made a day ahead so that the pie can set up. Because of its richness, serve small portions of this pecan pie.

 

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

What are some of the rituals in your own Thanksgiving menus and preparations? Do you make pumpkin or apple pie? Or sweet potato pie? What kind of dressing or stuffing for your turkey? Or do you eschew turkey altogether? What wines do you serve? I’d love to hear from y’all! Reply to this post at http://www.invitationtothegarden.wordpress.com

Blessings to you wherever you are!

 

HONK

HONK is today’s word prompt from “The Daily Post” on WordPress. Honk if you love Jesus, the bumper sticker on the car in front invites me to do. I don’t. I love Jesus, I do, I just don’t honk to create confusion in other drivers’ minds, causing them to look around and question what they did wrong. They didn’t do anything wrong.

So, what do I do with this silly word?

One day last fall, I heard urgent honks outside. I abandoned my peach chutney, left simmering on the stove, and dashed outside to see what was the matter.

Must be a fire truck, emitting a series of deep blasts from its horns instead of the usual wail of siren. However, no traffic at all drove down our street, only Canada geese streaking above my head, barely clearing the peaks of houses in our neighborhood. I was the only person gawking at the sky.

Probably, I remember thinking, they were rushing to be first in line to peck in the mud flats around the pond at Randall Park, along with mallards.

When my children were young, I used to drive them down to Randall with little bags of stale bread to feed the wild geese and ducks. In more recent years, my daughter and I took her young children down with their own bread bags. However, the park authorities no longer allow visitors to feed these beautiful greedy creatures. Wildlife must rely on nature for sustenance, then move on. That is only right, of course, but I don’t have to like it.

Continue reading “HONK”

And Now It’s November

Left-over gold and red leaves cling to wet tree limbs like bits of watercolor paints applied over charcoal sketches on art paper, while clean-swept lawns retain their summer green. Garden beds have been covered with most of the fallen leaves and pine straw, while late fall rains hold down the mulch so it’ll not blow away down the street in the next wind storm. Fresh birch logs cut last month rest stacked against the side of the house, alongside old apple wood. A soup pot of salmon and shrimp chowder steams on the kitchen stove. And Southeastern Conference college football is playing on the television.

On this Veterans’ Day Saturday, Hubby and I enjoy pajama day, lounging in brand new sets of matching flannel plaid in black and grey, matching house slippers, and oversized grey sweaters. Well, it’s a grey month, November, and rightly so, as it’s covered in heavy dark clouds and washed in gentle drizzle. November is a time for indulging myself in gentle pursuits of escaping into a good story, writing my own story, snuggling on the library sofa with a sweet Cocker Spaniel who’s just been bathed and groomed the day before. His coat feels like my new flannels.

And November is a special time of remembering past Novembers in the country, of Thanksgiving  holidays with beloved late family members gathered to celebrate, and to retell the old stories around the table. At our place in the Florida Panhandle, Mama and Papa, of course, were already there, living in their little cottage on the estate. Sis and Frank usually arrived on the Greyhound Bus from Mobile. They got off at the highway corner and walked down our clay road to the front gate, bringing simple little presents for my sister and me, such as a new coloring book or a sample sheet of wall paper for my dollhouse.

All three women—grandmother, aunt, my mother—shared the cooking preparations. Mother roasted the turkey at the main house. Mama and Sis baked the cornbread the day before, partly for the oyster dressing, partly to serve dripping with sweet butter at tea. Mama baked the pies, probably not pumpkin but always pecan. “Only Yankees eat pumpkins,” she’d chuckle. Sweet potato pie is Southern, and sweeter, especially with marshmallows toasted on top.

When I married and moved downstate, I carried on the tradition as much as I could: my new (Yankee!) husband insisted on pumpkin pie. He still does. I learned to adapt my tastes to his while retaining my allegiance to my Southern roots. Soon, I began to develop my own recipes. One year, an issue of Family Circle magazine featured a Williamsburg Thanksgiving dinner, complete with candlelight table settings, with turkey at one end of the table and a ham at the other, green beans and root vegetables served on pewter platters. I loved that idea, so I adapted it for our family table and brought out the wedding silver.

The article included all the pertinent recipes. Instead of the modern American sweet potato soufflé, for example, “Sweet Potato Bake” began with sliced apples, sweetened with brown sugar and cinnamon, sautéed, then added to the bottom of a baking dish, then the mashed sweet potatoes spread over the top. Without marshmallows, which probably didn’t exist in the colonies in the 1600s, this apple/sweet potato staple was baked in cast iron pans in a brick oven. Sometimes pecans were added as a topping.

Hubby didn’t like it and insisted on white potatoes, boiled and buttered, with a bit of parsley. That was too ordinary, I complained, not fit for a feast. Over nearly 50 years, however, we’ve learned to accommodate each other’s tastes. Eventually, Bon Appétit magazine taught me to oven-roast root vegetables, combined together and seasoned with lemon pepper and thyme and drizzled olive oil—potatoes, onions, carrots, beets—along with the turkey, or any other roast meat such as pork or lamb. The flavors mingle and become richer, not to mention emitting a rich aroma wafting throughout the house from a single kitchen oven.

This year, since we’re fast growing into old fogies, I’ll purchase Stove-Top Dressing. I’m the only one who likes it, anyway. We’ll “stuff” the turkey with a split onion and fresh sage from the herb garden. And I think I’ll check with Johnson’s Orchard up the road to see about ordering a pumpkin pie from its bake shop. But I’ll make my own pecan pie, thank you, and cranberry chutney. No one else does it the way I like.

NEXT: Thanksgiving Recipes from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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