What I’m keeping in the New Year

I know. I’ve been missing for awhile, but now I’m back. And I’ve been thinking, where to begin?

My husband had unexpected surgery in mid-December. (Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And this is a guy who does not smoke, never worked in a coal mine or the chemical industry. His cancer was found as accidentally as RBG’s.) This was discovered very early, and Steve is making a phenomenal recovery. That’s most important. But our holiday took on a new shape. (Remember last year when I wrote this post about flexible holiday traditions?) There was no annual holiday open house and my traveling wineglasses stayed in storage. I never did send Christmas cards. Instead of the merry chaos of Christmas morning in Ohio with our grandsons, our daughter stayed in Chicago with us and we FaceTimed the rest of the family. (We also laughed, cooked, and opened presents.) It was simpler, and frankly I wouldn’t have had the energy for our usual festivities. It was a different Christmas, but certainly not a bad one. Sometimes you just need to roll with it.

What I’m keeping in the New Year

Moving on, I am admittedly abysmal at New Year’s Resolutions. It isn’t just that I don’t keep them, I sometimes forget what they are! So this year I thought about what I would keep in the new year, rather than what I would change.

My “theory” is that you/I can come up with great ideas, improvements, interests or even skills any time during the year. And when they work for us, we should keep them. So, without further fanfare, here are my first five “keeps” for 2019:

#1 This Blog. Although I have been known to lapse a bit at writing, I’m not even close to giving it up. This is so much fun! I love my readers and I love writing. And, of course, it turns out I always have something to say! Steve and I are working on a few more travel posts (How I wish I was on the Riviera now. It’s so cold here). Then there’s some cooking and some reading. And sooner or later, there will be spring and a whole new season aptly named “gardening.”

#2 While I’m in an electronic mode, I’m also continuing with Instagram. I just genuinely enjoy this. Admittedly, I have curated my feed to things I like — food, travel, decorating, gardening and books. (And I suspect the abiity to curate what you see may be the attraction for me!) But, I have made a number of IG friends, some who share wonderful bits of history or books in their feeds, others who share the highs and lows of their gardening, decorating and cooking efforts. Look for more about them in an upcoming blog post. (Follow me here.)

#3 Traveling more and keeping it personal. Some of our best times in France (and travel tips) were the result of locals and other travelers. Rick Steves says it best here but learning to travel with an open mind and heart is so much more rewarding and fun than worrying about the best table at a restaurant or what constitutes a 4- or 5-star hotel (which in Europe at least will not be the same as it is in the states anyway!) I’m not big on checking places off a bucket list, but I do want to meet the people and see how they live,

#4 Closer to home, I have a confession. I honestly don’t like to clean house and so for now, I’ll keep my cleaning lady. Sometimes I think it’s just the two of us here, I can certainly make the time, I should save the money and do my own cleaning. But the truth is, I just don’t like to do it. And she is much better at this than I am.

#5 I’m trying my best to keep up with my book groups, as well as things that pop up on my own “reading radar.” Have you read Educated by Tara Westover? It’s Tara’s personal memoir of growing up on an Idaho mountain with her survivalist family. She was homeschooled for most of her life but eventually found her way to BYU, Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard. (If that doesn’t entice you to pick up this book, I’m not sure what will.)

That’s the high and the low of my keepers for 2019. What about you?

Thanks so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you next time!

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The chateau that wasn’t & the wine that was

The vistas in St. Emilion are truly picture-postcard worthy. Narrow, cobbled streets run uphill and down and vineyards surround the town.

Did you hear the one about the independent travelers in France who made an unfortunate hotel choice, changed their itinerary, and discovered Bordeaux gold?

Before leaving for France this fall, my husband read somewhere that Paddy O’Flynn’s in Saint-Émilion is a must-see stop in Bordeaux for wine tasting and a cave tour, but with all the planning for our “great French road tip”, he forgot about it long before we left home. Then the fates intervened.

Wine tasting was always a part of our itinerary, so Steve made reservations for us to stay at a country chateau about 20 minutes from Saint-Émilion, and reserved tastings at two recommended wineries that were less than a stone’s throw from some Grand Cru Classé producers. We left our lovely hillside chateau in the Loire, stopped to learn about Cognac, and late in the day arrived at the country chateau. It was a spectacular flop, a one star disappointment rather than the three star country estate we had been expecting. So we kissed our euros goodbye (it was too late to cancel that reservation) and drove on.

(This was a first for us as independent travelers, and in retrospect, it had to happen sooner or later. Not every website review/picture/description lives up to its hype.)

This is a typical street view in Saint-Emilion.

Now, however, it was Friday night, getting dark, and we had no place to stay. Trustworthy hotels in Libourne and Saint-Émilion were full. It took a couple of hours, but we ended up with a room at a clean, comfortable, chain-style hotel about 40 km away in Bordeaux. We had some dinner and started over on Saturday morning. And we tweaked our itinerary over breakfast.

As a bit of background, Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with Romanesque churches and ruins along its steep and narrow streets. Vineyards were first planted there by the Romans in the second century. Eventually, monks who settled in the 8th century launched commercial wine production. Today it is one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux, producing primarily merlot and cabernet franc grapes.

Isn’t this charming? Saint-Emilion oozes charm at every turn of its narrow, cobbled streets.

Because our hotel was farther afield than planned and we were now traveling a slightly different route, we cancelled our tasting reservations. We would get to town too late for the first one, and would be moving on to Sarlat-en-Canada (where we had new hotel reservations)  mid-afternoon and miss the second one. But we would get to do some tasting in Saint-Emillion.

On our initial picture-taking walk through town and purely by accident, Steve saw a small building with some signage in English and walked up to read it. A man on the inside greeted him through the open window and invited Steve in to talk wine. And that was how we met Paddy O’Flynn. If you read about him, Paddy came to Bordeaux from Ireland many years ago to source wines to sell back home. His first store opened in 2000 in Limerick (Now he has several stores in Ireland. They’re on our list when we finally make it to Ireland), and in 2014 opened his store/tasting room in Saint-Émilion.

Paddy is friendly, funny and a wonderful story-teller. He also knows wine. Much more than a salesman with a storefront,  Paddy knows the vineyards and producers, does blending for some of them and himself, and reputedly has some of the best wine caves in Saint-Emilion.

Steve and I with Paddy O’Flynn and Pilar.

Given that Steve was just another guy who walked past the store, Paddy spent significant time with us talking about his love for wine, offering tastings on excellent wines from both Burgundy and Bordeaux. We also met Pilar, his partner/fiance. (Interestingly, they were leaving in a few weeks to get married in Pilar’s hometown in Spain. Timing is everything. If our trip had been a few weeks later, we would have missed a great wine experience.)

The wines were, as a reviewer put it, extraordinary at ordinary prices. After a couple of hours of visiting and tasting (and buying) we decided we’d taken up more than enough of Paddy and Pilar’s time. We went off to find lunch. (Where we ran into a delightful couple from Wales who also have a home in France.)

We still haven’t toured any of the caves in Saint-Émilion. Guess we’ll just have to go back again.

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

 

 

Stopping in Cognac for cognac

Like vineyards everywhere, these were really gorgeous, especially in the fall. We visited in mid-September and workers were picking and pressing grapes during our visit.

My husband, Steve, wrote this post. He discovered we’d be close to the town of Cognac and the opportunity for cognac tasting. It was a delightful detour, spent with a charming couple and offering insight into French culture. I hope you enjoy it!

Every once in a while, you get to do try unexpected and it’s totally fun. Okay, this wasn’t exactly unexpected since we had to plan cognac tasting several weeks in advance, but the decision to do it was not on our original “bucket list” for France.
Cognac grapes still on the vine. They taste really sweet!

After planning our itinerary, and rearranging, and re-planning, and re-rearranging some more, I noticed that the drive from the Loire (chateau country) to Saint-Émilion (for wine tasting) passes right by the town of Cognac, home of cognac, the drink. I have never thought much about cognac. I was vaguely aware that it is a type of brandy and we have recipe or two that call for flambé-ing a small amount of brandy. Since I am kind of a pyromaniac and enjoy flambé recipes (or torching creme brûlée, but that’s another story) we always have some brandy on hand. But we really just use it for cooking. That’s about all I knew about it.

We were planning on wine tasting in the Bordeaux region and I started thinking: Cognac is a spirit, Scotch is a spirit. If we were going to Scotland I would no doubt stop at a distillery for a single malt, so why not find out what cognac is all about. 

So I did a little more research. I thought we would prefer to visit a smaller producer instead of one of the cognac big boys (Courvisier, Hennessey, Martel and Remy-Martin). We enjoy doing the same in Napa for wine tasting. I found a half dozen small producers who had excellent reviews (both for visits and for product). I settled on Cognac Bertrand mostly for the product reviews.

Bertrand is out in the country about a half hour south of Cognac, surrounded by fields of grapevines. It was one of the few places that Google maps got us to on the first try. We were greeted by Thérèse Bertrand whose family has been running the distillery since at least 1731 (per the earliest records). She turned us over to her American husband, Seph, for the tour and then she took over again for the tasting. 

Since we had never really tried cognac as a standalone drink, we had no idea what to expect from the tasting. Janet and I agreed if we didn’t like it at all (and it would probably be bad form not to buy anything), the worst case scenario was that we would buy an inexpensive bottle for cooking. 

My worry was for naught. The distillery setting was very picturesque, Thérèse and Seph were friendly and gracious hosts, the tour was interesting and informative, and the Bertrand Cognacs were excellent, no make that spectacular. My only regret was that I couldn’t be sure the suitcase would hold more than one bottle.
This is the Charentais copper alembic still required by law to distill cognac. The French government is very protective of the traditional cognac process.

A little cognac background: Cognac is only made from a specific list of grape varieties. In order for it to be considered a true cru, the wine must be at least 90% Ugni blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano), Folle blanche and Colombard. The remaining 10% of the grapes used come from a longer, specific list. Unlike wine grapes, Cognac grapes are harvested by machine, pressed and allowed to ferment for two or three weeks before being distilled to extract the water. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper alembic stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol. It’s important to note that this entire process is shaped by french law, which therefore protects french culture.

These are some of the barrels in the early stages of aging,

After distillation comes aging. By French law VS is aged a minimum of 2 years on Limousin oak (I have no idea what Limousin oak is or what makes it the wood of choice for the barrels, but they were very specific about it) and VSOP for 4 years. Napoleon and XO used to have the same requirement of 6 years but that changed just this year and XO is now aged for at least 10 years. Those are minimum aging periods. Bertrand’s product is aged 5,10, and 20 years for the VS, VSOP, and Napoleon Cognacs, and 30 to 35 years for the XO. Interestingly, Bertrand sells roughly 90-percent of its product to one of the big cognac producers after the initial aging, keeping the remainder for its own label. Thérèse and Seph told us that most vineyards/distillers do the same thing.

Decades of barrels are stored in this building, one of the oldest on the property.

We tasted the VS, VSOP, XO, and a Pineau. We had never heard of Pineau before. It is a blend of grape juice and eau de vie (eau de vie is what the they call the result of the distillation, which means water of life). Pineau is served as an aperitif and was too sweet for our tastebuds. The VS, VSOP, and XO are a different story.  No two are the same, the aging definitely changes the taste. Each one in the progression was better, richer and more refined than the one before, the XO being my favorite. Thérèse explained their view of the best use for each cognac: VS for cooking, VSOP for cocktails, Napoleon and XO for more serious sipping (like in old movies, by the fire, in a balloon glass).

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, the distillery, the cognacs, Thérèse and Seph, all of it. I can’t recommend this side trip enough. It’s one of those places you might never consider and drive right past, but it gave us a wonderful look at french life and culture. I guess the road less traveled comes to mind. It happened for us several times on this trip.

Happy travels!

Two from the road in France

Most days in France began in a local cafe. In some places, we had a favorites we went to daily, like this cafe in Beaune, where the waitress began to recognize us and our order!

If you follow me on Instagram, you know my husband and I are just back from a month in France. (I know, a long trip with the luxury of time, something one doesn’t often do. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity.)

Briefly, we flew into Paris, picked up a car, and headed to Giverney (Monet’s home and garden), the Normandy beaches (D-Day landings), Mont Sainte Michele (more history), Bordeaux (to taste wine), the Loire (for chateaus), Antibes (the Riviera, the Mediterranean and the art trail), Beaune (we love it) and finally Paris (always a good idea). In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll bore you with too many tales tales and too many pictures, but for now I want to share two “travel shorts” to give you a taste of our trip.

First, Normandy

If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share. We took a highly-recommended D-Day tour, which I’ll write more about later, but now I want to share just one stop. Angoville-au-Plain is one of the tiny towns beyond Utah beach where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. The military assignment was to control the nearby Cherbourg to Paris route important to German defenses. The terrible weather the night of the drop, however, meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets.

The church in Angoville-au-Plain, France, that housed a first aid station for Allied and German soldiers on D-Day. Some pews still bear the blood stains of injured soldiers. Two German soldiers hid in the bell tower for two days before surrendering to the medics.

Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields the Germans had flooded. Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.

We heard many amazing stories during that tour, but for whatever reason this one really touched me. I used to think of D-Day as a single, heroic, necessary event, but when you look closer (as so many professional and amateur historians do), it’s also thousands of acts of bravery, heroism, determination and ingenuity.

(Both Wright and Moore continued to serve throughout the war and have returned often to D-Day observances at Angoville-au-Plain, where the immediate community, and the wider D-Day community, has been generous in preserving and restoring the church.)

Behind the scenes at Versailles.

Versailles is the over-the-top palace used by a string of French kings who tired of life in Paris. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Paris, or you can take one of a variety of bus/van/private tours there. I visited 20-odd years before on my first trip to France with my teen-age son. We took a bus tour (which we both hated). It was a cold day, and Versailles was crowded. Frankly, it was nothing I wanted to repeat, so on subsequent trips, Steve and I always talked ourselves out of Versailles. However, we thought early October might be a better time and Steve found a “skip the line” tour of private rooms offered by the chateau for a mere 10 euros each.

This was the best investment we made on the trip!

What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms in the chateau was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. And we learned a lot!

The Versailles commode that found its way to a Rothschild collection, then to a German general, and now back to Versailles.

One of the private rooms we visited was the King’s library. It was, of course, grand and gold, but our guide brought it to life by pointing out this commode, made for the palace but sold off with all the other palace furnishings after the revolution (the new government was desperate for money). It was acquired by one of the Rothschilds. But then, during WWII when the Germans began confiscating the best of European art and antiques, it was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.)

Some of the King’s book collection is behind those glass doors next to the commode. Our guide pointed out that the volumes include Captain Cook’s diaries from his explorations of the new world. (I considered pressing my face closer to the glass to see better, but was afraid I would set off an alarm! On the other hand, Captain Cook!!!)

Can I just say that these are the travel moments I treasure, little vignettes that make history or culture come alive. Along with memories like the starchy French waiter who cracked a bawdy joke, the Brits we shared an al fresco lunch with in Ste. Emilion, and hands-on lessons in French cooking, they are the best souvenirs.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

Field trip!

Singer Sargent’s charcoal portrait of Mrs. Marshall Field III (Evelyn Field) was actually done in New York in 1905. Though many of his subjects and collectors were Chicagoans, he did not complete many works in the city.

Last week Steve and I finally went to see the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. It’s a relatively small show compared to others mounted by the AI, but with a interesting cross section of his work. After reviewing his work and doing a little more research, I’m struck by how “American” his work seems, although he spent most of his life in a variety of European cities. Tell me what you think.

Most of us think of Sargent as the painter of Gilded Age portraits. And these he did beautifully. The facial expression, body language and clothing in each is remarkable and distinctive. No wonder he was so “in demand” from a relatively early age.

But before Sargent began accepting portrait commissions, he honed his skills on other works. Street in Venice, 1882, below, is one of several paintings he completed while painting there. (Although Sargent was American-born, his parents took him to Europe as a young child; the family remained there permanently.) I think it’s impossible to escape the moodiness here, or not wonder about the stories behind these three characters.

 

 

La Carmencita, 1890, is a more glamorous portrait of dancer Carmen Douset which captures her haughty (or is it defiant?) expression as well as a theatrical pose in equally theatrical dress.

 

When I think of John Singer Sargent portraits, I think of traditional works like this, Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son Livingston Davis, painted in 1890. I like the crisp black and white here and the silky texture of her skirt versus the somewhat rumpled suit her son is wearing. And, most important, I think the pose looks totally natural: Mother with her hand on her hip, son just leaning into her.

 

 

Two years before the Davis portrait, Singer Sargent painted this portrait of Alice Vanderbilt (later Vanderbilt Morris) of the Vanderbilts when she was just 13. This seems a bit more traditional, but together with the Davis portrait, above, they are a clear representation of what we think of as “Gilded Age” portraits, from a time when new American money could buy the trappings of old European aristocracy.

 

 

Shortly after the turn of the century, however, Singer Sargent stepped way from his successful portraiture commissions to spend more time in pursuit of plein air painting. Many of these pieces feature vivid watercolors, including a number of paintings from Venice. The Gondoliers Siesta, 1904, is a beautiful example.

 

 

One of my favorites from the AI exhibition, The Fountain, Villa Tortonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907, captures Sargent’s transition from portraitist to plein air painter. The couple are Wilfred and Jane Emmet de Glenn, professional artists and friends of Sargent.

 

Sargent painted a series of watercolors much later while staying at the Florida estate, Vizcaya, of his friend and benefactor James Deering. One from the AI exhibition is The Terrace at Vizcaya, 1917. Here the color is much lighter, more “Florida.”

 

Despite living most of his life in Europe, John Singer Sargent never gave up his American citizenship, and painted many of the American political and industrial greats of his time. When I look at his paintings, especially his portraits, they seem to be very American: straightforward poses, not a lot of background, pretty much an American sensibility, but perhaps with the added polish of European training. What do you think?

The next field trip

Right now we are packing bags and maps before leaving on a long-awaited “road trip.” I hope you are following me on Instagram. I’ll be away from the blog but try to post often on IG!

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time – and on Instagram!

 

 

 

 

 

Living in history

This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.

I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.

What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.

Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.

As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.

When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.

Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?

Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.

The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.

I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.

I’m so glad you stopped by. See you next time!

 

August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!