Three to read and one from my soapbox

There’s always another read waiting on my bookshelf!

My road thru the pandemic has been paved with a significant stash of books. Reading has been (as it nearly always is) my salvation. Like many of you I often tilted these months at something a little lighter, or at least from another time period. I didn’t want to feel like I was reading the news. But along the way I also read three memorable titles.

Some books are challenging, but you still can’t put them down. There are those that are challenging to the point of troubling, but still compelling. I recently read three novels in short order that fit that description. Each had some uncomfortable moments and pushed my thinking — about the pandemic, African Americans, and immigration. And that, of course, is the “reader’s curse.” You read things that make you squirm, feel sad, maybe even make you want to walk away, but then you come back to see what happens next.

First, An American Marriage

I wrote briefly about the Tayari Jones bestseller here. It’s a popular title on a number of reading lists. The story centers on an upwardly mobile African American couple in Atlanta. They are married for just a short time when, on a visit to the husband’s family in a small town, the husband is accused of sexual assault. You can see where the story spirals. He is arrested, tried and jailed. And while he depends on her as his link to the world, she begins to move on.

I am probably over-simplifying here, but Jones does a remarkable job with characters whose life spirals in a predictable way, but one that is perhaps foreign to most readers. I read this earlier this spring, weeks before the death of George Floyd. If you haven’t read it yet, think about doing so now.

Then my daughter shared Valentine

Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut novel was one of Jenna Bush Hager’s recent picks for her Today Show book club. When she announced this title she noted that readers from West Texas will really get this book (and I’m paraphrasing here). Well, I’m not from West Texas, but this is one compelling read. I understand why my daughter couldn’t put it down, because I couldn’t either.

Set in the 1970’s the story revolves around women in a dirt-poor town in West Texas. They are thrown together after a fourteen-year-old girl — an immigrant from Mexico — is savagely attacked. Yes, there is violence, racism and poverty, but there is also strength, humor, hope and bravery. This is Elizabeth Wetmore’s first novel and I think she hits it out of the park.

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

.My book group is discussing this title on Friday at our monthly Zoom meeting. (Also a Jenna Bush Hager choice.) This book opens in Palestine in 1990 when seventeen-year-old Isra is married off to a Palestinian husband from Brooklyn, New York. Her sheltered life hasn’t begun to prepare her for the new home she & her husband share with his family. Isra quickly gives birth to four daughters — but no son — and is expected to shoulder most of the cooking and cleaning for the extended family. Her husband works long hours and she is not allowed to leave the house unchaperoned.

In alternating chapters Rum tells the story of Isra’s eldest daughter Deya, raised by her grandparents after Isra and her husband are killed in a car crash. Deya longs to know more about her mother and what happened, and she dreads the string of suitors her grandmother forces her to “sit with” as she nears high school graduation. Deya’s quest for the family’s truth makes for a good mystery, but the real story here is how a family clings to its cultural ways, no matter how restrictive and controlling. I suspect it’s the story of an endless number of migrant families.

I surfed the web for comments about this book, as well as reviews. A number of readers with similar backgrounds were painfully honest, saying, essentially, “This is what life is for Arab women.” Most of these women also said they were blessed to have families who embraced western customs. The bottom line: this book made me think about how little we really know about the rest of the world.

And now, a moment from my soapbox.

We know that masks, social distancing and hand washing slow the corona virus. Experts in communicable diseases  aren’t making this up. But inexplicably in this country that believed so much in science that we eliminated polio and landed a man on the moon, many have decided to ignore the experts. It’s boring. No one wants to be told what to do. It won’t happen to me. There’s always an excuse.

Now simple actions to slow the pandemic have become political footballs.

Meanwhile the pandemic numbers are rising to frightening levels. According to the CDC’s webpage, there were 52,228 new cases of the virus on Sunday, July 5th. More than fifty thousand in one day. It boggles my brain and it’s heartbreaking. I know we all have to work out our own comfort zone, but, please, wear a mask.

I hope you enjoyed a safe and relaxing holiday on this unforgettable July 4th.

Thanks for stopping by and see you again soon.

Nothing but pretty pictures

Some times, the less said, the better.

This is one of those times. I’ll be prattling on about cooks, books, travel, the pandemic and more the next time, but today I’m sharing images I’ve saved from Instagram and some I’ve taken myself. I’ve tried to put these in some sort of order or context. Enjoy! (I hope!)

Armchair travels to Paris

Anyone who knows me, knows I love Paris (and the rest of France). As I was skimming thru images on my iPad, I realized I save a lot of photos from Paris (this is a small sampling), so I thought I’d share just a few favorites.

This image of the Tuileries, left, reminds me of a grade school art class on perspective. It also captures the symmetry and order of Parisian parks. It  I love the way the plane trees are perfectly planted and pruned and the dappled shade they offer. The ground is just gravel and there are no other plants, at least in this view. But the effect is simply elegant.

Below, two cafes I can honestly say we have visited more than once on more than one trip. They are both on the Right Bank. Cafe Nemours, left, is just a block or two from the Louvre and perhaps more casual than Bistrot Vivienne. We have made more than one weary afternoon stop here in search of rest and refreshment. Tables are tricky, because it’s always busy. They’re also very close (not at all pandemic seating) and we inevitably strike up a conversation with someone on one side or the other. This is on a broad square, excellent for people watching.

         

Bistrot Vivienne and the adjacent Galerie Vivienne are in the 2nd Arrondisement. The Bistrot has charming seating on the street (for people watching) as well as inside (where we have had dinner at least once). In the back of the Bistrot, adjacent to the galerie, are several tables, all open to the sky and to the shops in the galerie, which include a legendary wine store whose name escapes me. We’ve also had dinner in this courtyard and it is lovely.

In the Instagram garden & mine

I often save Instagram images of gardens, although this can be more than a little frustrating. There is no way I can begin to replicate some of these plantings in my suburban yard.  On the other hand, if I could finally convince my husband to build me one of these tuteurs, below, it would certainly dress the space up!

 

 

I’ve always been a sucker for a picket fence, even better if it’s backed by a tumble of plants. I also like gardens that have a predominant color, like white (below, left) or purple. Aren’t the foxgloves gorgeous?

 

     

 

I’ve been working on my own white garden (except for those purple perennial geraniums that snuck in) for a few years. In fact, the astilbe and hosta are so well-established, I think I’ll have to move a few of them.

 

 

I’m one of those gardeners who takes an early morning walk around, often with coffee, clippers, or camera in one hand, to see what is or is not growing or blooming, I have found it’s a good way to catch up on small garden chores, like weeds before they get out of control and cutting back spent blooms. And honestly? I’m retired, this is a luxury I waited to enjoy. And sometimes you are rewarded for your efforts, like these daylilies still sporting morning dew.

 

 

Instagram inspiration

My IG feed is pretty limited, to places I like, gardening, decorating and collecting. (I think of FaceBook as the repository of everyone’s family vacation pictures.) Keeping that in mind, IG is like a daily magazine I flip thru for ideas and inspiration. There is always plenty to “like” and even comment on. Sometimes I save an image, though I’m not always sure why. Here are a few recent saves:

I like kitchens that aren’t too “kitchen-y” and artwork and silver are one way to up the ante.

 

Years ago our first house had a guestroom/den covered in 60’s brown faux paneling (and I’m being generous here).  A designer I knew suggested I counter the brown with a wedgewood blue area rug. In fact he found me a carpet remnant that I had bound to do the job. Wow! From cave to cozy! That was my introduction to blue. From there it was just a hop, skip and jump to blue and white, to transferware against brown wood, and so it goes. So I loved this room from Eric Cross with the blue and white on and under a dark buffet and those chairs upholstered with  blues and green on the brown background.

 

 

While we’re speaking of dark wood (and we are, right?) I just discovered Steve Cordony. Although his taste is a little edgier/modern than mine, I love the look of dark wood against pale or white walls. In fact I have liked and/or saved a number of similar shots. I  find that look calming and a great way to show off other decorative elements in the room.

 

 

Then I looked thru some photos of my own house and realized I was doing a lot of the same look.

 

And finally, let’s hear it for ironstone, especially decked out for summer’s patriotic holidays. I love the way this collector has unabashedly gathered pieces large and small, even piling tiny creamers into a bowl, and stacking tureens. What a happy collection!

 

 

So, that’s what you get looking thru my Instagram: armchair travel, garden ideas, and a bit of decorating thrown in.  I’ve probably said too much, but once a writer, always a writer.

What about you? What draws your IG or FB attention?

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe & see you soon!

 

A little cooking, a little gardening, and the remarkable Hayes girls

I was writing a lighthearted post when the coronavirus death toll passed 100,000. And while l was trying to wrap my head around that number, one man died on the street in Minneapolis. You know the rest. These have been terrible days and weeks. I am so sad about what’s happened, but also hopeful we meet this challenge. It will take a lot of work. I especially hope you are well. Personally, I just felt numb for a while. Here’s what I’ve been doing to get back on track.

Moving along

Our cooking adventures continue. Earlier this week I made steak fajitas from scratch using a recipe from the New York Times (My new favorite recipe source. I encourage you to sign up for their newsletter.).  First, this recipe was much easier than I expected and required standard ingredients from my kitchen. Who knew? The fajitas tasted even better than they look. (I should have tidied that serving board before snapping any photos.)

That is one of my husband’s tart margaritas in the glass. (He’s not fond of the sugar-y taste of other recipes and I think he has a good thing here!)

I have literally been nagging my garden and potted plants to grow and bloom. I could use the boost. And — I think they are starting to listen. Everything is very lush and green. This bed beside the house has been literally overrun with daisies and perennial geraniums. The awkward patch of green in the front are black-eyed Susans which typically burst into bloom when the daisies are done.  There are also some daylilies along the foundation. If anyone has some advice for getting this under control and maybe some order — without sacrificing bloom — I’m all ears.

 

 

This garden on the other side of the house is the picture of control, almost. There is that one monster hosta in the back. I should have divided and/or moved it early this spring. However, the astilbe are ready to bloom and about the time they fade, the hostas will be flowering.

 

 

Those remarkable Hayes girls

Left to right, my mother-in-law Nelle, Lilian, Sara, Clydene, and Lenny.

My mother-in-law was the middle daughter in a family of five girls in a small, north Georgia town.  Their father (forever known as “Daddy” in true southern speak) was a rural mailman, originally traveling his route by horseback before acquiring a car. In the early thirties, as the second eldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, the principal and a teacher visited “Momma and Daddy” to explain to them that Clydene was really a smart girl and should go to college. They had no objections, but how would they pay for it? The solution was for Daddy to trade his mail route for one in Athens, Georgia, home to the university, so she could live at home and go to school. So the Hayes family rented their house and moved to Athens. Although the eldest daughter had already embarked on her adult life (and eventually ran the local Chevy dealer), the other four girls each graduated from the University of Georgia during the Depression. My mother-in-law actually taught in a one-room school to help cover her tuition on the way to becoming a teacher. Every time I tell this story I think about how devoted “Momma & Daddy” were to uproot the family and give their daughters the opportunity for a college education.

This weekend Sara, the youngest sister and the last survivor, passed away at the age of 98 (four out of five lived well into their 90’s). As the “Aunts” always pointed out, Sara was the tallest and, I think, perhaps the most mischievous. She was funny without trying to be and playful, which, of course, made her a favorite. Our kids loved her, as did our niece and nephew. The last time we were together she convinced my mother-in-law to play a duet with her on the piano in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in DeKalb, Georgia. Quintessential Aunt Sara.

I think of them now, reunited again, recalling pranks, telling stories, arguing over who makes the best Mississippi Mud Cake. I am honored to have been a tiny part of that family and so happy my son and daughter experienced their loving embrace.

There is a joy and strength in this story that makes me feel good, no matter how many times I tell it.

Thanks for stopping by. Take good care of yourself, and I’ll see you next time!

 

 

 

Five books by cooks

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this post…

A few months ago, I wrote here about recent books I’d read and included an enthusiastic review of Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl. After that, I started thinking about other books I had read that were written by cooks, and it  occurred to me that the book lovers/cooks among my readers may enjoy learning about them. So here’s a quick look at what that shelf in my library might look like. And — wait for it — here’s the funny thing: If you’re a bit of a Francophile, you’ve hit the motherload, because it turns out that each of these cooks have or are are working and cooking in France!

What does a 36-year-old woman do when she loses her corporate job? How about cashing in her savings and heading to Paris to attend the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school? That’s what Kathleen Flinn did, fulfilling a long-held dream. Then she wrote The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. Sounds romantic and it was, but then again her french was not good and her classmates were very competitive. Not only is this a recipe-laden personal memoir, it’s also the first book-length account of the experience of attending the famous school. The Sharper Your Knife did earn a spot on the New York Times best seller list and was included on a number of “best of” lists in 2007. Since then she has also written The Kitchen Counter Cooking School and Burnt Toast Makes You Sing.

Long before Kathleen Flinn took on Le Cordon Bleu, there was Julia Child. My Life in France recounts Julia and Paul’s early move to France, her discovery of — and passion for — french cuisine and her cooking adventures before, during, and after (including her own time at Le Condon Bleu!). Of course there are recipes, but I really loved this book for the story it told about Julia and Paul. The book is largely based on letters written by Julia and Paul Child to his twin, Charles Child, grandfather of co-author Alex Prud’homme. Julia’s uniquely pitched and enthusiastic voice is everywhere in the book. Most of us think of her as the dynamo behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which many say brought french cooking to America, and the subsequent PBS series The French Chef, both wildly successful. But Julia and Paul weathered more than their fair share of personal and professional challenges along the way, and they too are part of the story.

David Lebovitz is a former pastry chef, who spent 13 years in the restaurant fast lane at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse before heading across the Atlantic to Paris. (Don’t they all?) He writes a dynamite blog on cooking, dining, drinking, and life in France, begun as a website before there were “blogs” and intended to promote his first book, Room for Dessert. In addition to seven recipe books, he wrote The Sweet Life in Paris which recounts his move there and the ups and downs of adjusting to Parisian life. It includes recipes for everything from hot chocolate to spiced nuts, including Carnitas, Absinthe Cake, Fig-Olive Tapenade, and so much more. David Lebovitz is fun because his cooking is all over the map.

I also read L’appart, the Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, which recalls in detail both painful and funny the story of Lebovitz buying an apartment he envisioned (really a large open kitchen) and one he can afford (a derelict space in an uncertain building). In addition to his endless stream of Parisian anecdotes, this book is armed with appealing recipes like Bacon, Green Peas and Tarragon Quiche, Beef Stew with Olives, and an intriguing cocktail called The Truth Serum featuring tequila and Izarra or Charrteuse.

Finally, I’m including The Cook’s Atelier by Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini. They think of it as a cookbook and I do too, but it’s also a coffee table book with it’s oversized, lush photos of the Burgundy countryside and their beautiful shop in Beaune, France. And then there is the story of how Marjorie ran a successful restaurant in Phoenix before following her daughter to France, and their search to build a successful family business around their Burgundian way of life in Beaune, and the business that grew and portraits of the  farmers, shepherds, butchers and more that complete their picture. The atelier’s philosophy is built around seasonal cooking, and the recipes are arranged accordingly. for example, Spring Dinner in the Wine Shop includes White Asparagus with Hollandaise, Green Garlic Souffle, and Rustic Apricot Tart.

Bonus! Virtual cooking from a Charleston, South Carolina kitchen. I’ve just discovered @BrooksReitz on Instagram. Reitz is a Charleston restauranteur and the man behind Jack Rudy Cocktail Company. He is, as he says, a cook not a chef, and his video recipes (filmed at home by his wife) are short, simple and use what you have in your pantry. (He’s big on frozen peas, eggs, celery, and whatever fresh herbs you may have.) But here’s the catch — they don’t taste simple. Reitz  layers flavor to make simple ingredients stand out and gives some great lessons in technique along the way.

So there you have a particular shelf in my “library,” part cooking, part travel and part biography. If I checked out your bookshelves (real or virtual), what would I find?

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’re safe. I hope you’re healthy.

See you again next time!

Making my case for baskets

Handmade, contemporary baskets that mimic antique designs and techniques..

When I wrote a post on collecting sweetgrass baskets, here, I was only telling part of my basket story. It goes way beyond those hand-crafted treasures from the low country.

A  bit of history: My basket “thing” started out simply enough as a single girl in my first apartment. Baskets were a cheap, cozy way to corral miscellaneous kitchen tools, makeup, whatever was loose and needed a home in a small space. (This was long before The Container Store had effectively organized all of us.)

However, as my space and resources grew, so did the basket collection. Eventually my taste changed. Craftsmanship topped utility. I trimmed my collection to make room for hand-crafted and antique examples. Although my current collection ranges from the utilitarian, (holding onions and potatoes in the pantry or spare soap and cold remedies in the linen closet) and includes a stack of large, handled baskets that held gifts of flowers or foodstuffs, it’s the old and/or handcrafted ones I am drawn to.

The handmade examples

In addition to my sweetgrass collection, I’m always on the look-out for hand-crafted baskets like the large, black round one, above, that I use to stash current magazines. I bought it years ago at a folk art show and am especially fond of the black paired with the yellow handle and rim. It’s the work of a modern folk artist. The taller, natural basket in the foreground is made by the same craftsman as the black one. It’s really very sturdy.  I’ve been using it as a wastebasket, but is it too nice for that? Finally, the one in the back, with greenery right now, came from the same folk art vendor as the other two. I acquired all three over the course of several years at a folk art fair  I used to attend. Unfortunately the fair no longer exists, but I appreciate the handmade treasures I bought there. And I’m very glad I bought them when I found them!

I’m beginning to look more closely at the basket traditions of other countries, often so different because the materials and aesthetic are distinct. Different materials mean different colors and textures.This french market basket is one of two I brought back from our last trip abroad. The squared-off shape and sturdy leather handles are designed to carry a shopper’s cheese, produce, sausage, etc. home from the weekly market.

This is a working basket. Many market baskets have a flared shape at the top, perhaps making it easier to hold flowers or baguettes, and some even have shoulder-length handles. When it’s not looking pretty styled with fresh or faux flowers and greenery, I can use it to scoop up miscellaneous books, papers, and mail if I’m trying to quickly tidy a space.  No wonder French homes have a stash of market baskets in all shapes and sizes!

Metal baskets?

I’m glad you asked.  Early in my basket-collecting life, a remarkably astute friend who knew how to choose the absolute perfect present, gave me this silver basket as a wedding gift.  She said she saw it in a window and immediately thought of my basket habit. This definitely put a whole new spin on my collection! I’ve used it to hold crackers or cookies and, often, to hold a plant. But it’s certainly pretty enough to stand on its own.

Along the way, I have acquired a handful of woven metal examples. I think the one below holding books is vintage as opposed to antique. Some are sturdier than others. I use this one to hold some books on top of a dresser. The much finer wire basket with the handles reminds me of French egg baskets, but I just don’t know anything about its provenence. The taller metal basket with the flared rim has an industrial vibe to it. I’ve been using it for paper waste next to my desk.

Sometimes you just have to go big!

When I find pieces like these, below, I pounce! I don’t know if either one of these is especially collectible or precious, although the wheeled basket on the right is unlike any others I’ve seen. It reminds me of taller versions used in France to hold baguettes in a boulangerie. I bought these baskets to hold spare quilts and pillows.

Do you remember the laundry baskets our mothers and/or grandmothers had for carrying wet clothes “out to the line”? I still have my mother’s natural wicker one as well as a newer white version (I have no idea where it came from). We’ve been tripping over both of them in the basement for years and my husband kept trying to sneak them into the “giveaway pile.” I just couldn’t part with Mom’s basket, but I found a solution. (That long blank wall in the finished basement needed a little something. Baskets to the rescue!)

 

Battered, brittle, & beautiful

Finally, I have a handful of antique baskets like these. They are not in really great shape (that would have made them far too pricey for my collecting budget), but they are lovable despite their fragile condition. I’ve had pieces of fiber snap off in my hand and I recently got a nasty splinter from one of them, so they just spend a lot of time on top of cabinets or bookcases, looking pretty, but not subject to excess weight or handling.

 

By now you have noticed that I use most of my baskets, some decoratively and others more practically. It gives me genuine pleasure to make these pieces part of my everyday life, to anonymously honor the artisans who fashioned them. I’ve thought a lot about why we all like baskets. Sometimes they’re just cute. They’re often purposeful whether they are serving chips or holding firewood. Some — like my french market basket — are also souvenirs. Their natural material is appealing and seems to work in any decor. In many respects, I think they have been an “accidental collection.” They started as utilitarian objects, but I kept refining the choices.

What about you? Do you have a collection that started unintentionally? I’d love to hear about it!

Thanks for stopping by to read. See you next time!

 

Five to share

A field of poppies in France.

How’s your week going? I was totally energized by warmer weather and sunshine early in the week. We’re in for steady rain today and tomorrow, but that’s okay since I have some indoor projects, too. My mind often seems kind of scattered lately (you too?), so this is one of those “bits and pieces” posts, but I have a few things I really wanted to share.

One: Recommended reading

You may have already read this New York Times Magazine essay (it’s about 10 days old) written by the owner/chef of a 14-table bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, but if not please follow the link. Gabrielle Hamilton writes, beautifully and with brutal honesty, about what it takes to shutdown her restaurant — which was also her dream. This is the inside view of the corona virus economic meltdown. This was not a new business. Prune was well-established and an award-winner. But these are exceptional times and this is no doubt the story of so many dreams.

Whether Prune comes back or not, Ms Hamilton is one of my new heroes.

Two: the non-graduation graduation

Graduation season is just around the corner, except, of course, this year it comes without the anticipated ceremonies and celebrations. Here’s my take: we’re living at an historic crossroads, most of us will mark much of our time as “before the pandemic” and “after the pandemic.” One of the big questions now is how will we be different, how will our lives be changed, after this? It’s a distinction the Class of 2020 should wear proudly.

Missing a ceremony isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a big change from the plan. And in some ways it makes you special. If you read my reunion post from a few years back, you may recall that my graduation was abruptly rained out just minutes after it started. “Most of the class received their diploma from a teacher, standing on a cafeteria table, calling out names. No speeches, no Pomp and Circumstance. Just a lot of wet students and parents milling about.” Fifty years later, we wear that non-event proudly. And I’m betting that in just a few years, the class of 2020 will too.

Plane trees along a road in France.

Three: I need to go to France

Okay, this is a bit selfish, but I need to go to France.

Not tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. But I need to go when we are able to put the virus and pandemic behind us. When we feel safe again. I’m willing to take whatever time necessary to put this behind us. And my husband agrees. France, it seems is one of our happy places. It’s part adventure and part comfortable. And maybe we’d just like to escape right now (wouldn’t we all?). We connect it with food, wine, history ,and sunny days getting lost on meandering, two-lane roads. We loved the people we met there, some of them french and some travelers from elsewhere in the world, we love the history, sitting in cafes with a coffee or an aperitif, the food, the wine. I could go on.

 Four: Bonus reading

This week I’m reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones so I can discuss it at my book group’s virtual meeting. It’s one of those books that’s been on reading lists everywhere and understandably so, since it’s a genuinely compelling read about a young husband wrongly convicted of a serious crime. But it’s also about marriage and race and have’s & have not’s. Have you read it? What did you think? Do you like the different narrators sharing their points of view? Do you think it’s just a little predictable?

Five: What I’ve cooked

In the last several days I have cooked both high and low: Ina Garten’s homemade potato chips (delicious), Rice Krispie treats (because my husband found a box of cereal in the back of the pantry), roast salmon on fresh lettuces dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon (my new favorite way to serve fish), sheet pan chicken with garlic and cherry tomatoes (from the NYT), my favorite granola, a big batch of blueberry muffins (how did I end up with 3 pints of blueberries in the refrigerator) and chocolate chip cookies, because when the going gets tough, the tough make chocolate chips. Whew!

Perhaps I should have called this Friday Smiles; I  think it’s important to keep smiling right now. To look on the bright side. We’ve come this far, we can go a few more weeks, even a few more after that.

Stay safe & stay well. Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you again soon.

 

Looks, books and cooks from a pandemic, part 1

How are you doing?  Isolation is hard, but I honestly can’t complain. We’re healthy and so is our family. Right now, that’s everything.

I am  struck by the challenge of balancing the practical (stay in, stay safe) and the emotional (stay sane, keep busy) in every day living. Life right now, I think, is made up of small victories.  Here are some of the things saving me these days.

Conversation

Obvious, right?  But maybe we’ve been relying too much on texts and emails. I have long suspected that personal conversation is so much richer, and the pandemic has proven me right.  Phone calls from old friends and family members are golden, the highlights of the day. Those other voices really are reassuring. And then there’s FaceTime, Zoom and all the other platforms that allow us to meet face-to-face. In addition to our usual FaceTime adventures with the grandkids, we have been enjoying grown-up, cocktail FaceTime with friends.

On Friday my book group met via Zoom to discuss The Lake is on Fire by Rosellen Brown. Fifteen of us logged on to talk, check in with each other, share a few war stories about life in a time of social distancing, and then realized we really could not talk all at once. (This happens even when we meet in person!)

These women are challenging readers (as well as some of my oldest friends) and we did dive into the book. We got side-tracked by the history of Jews being re-settled on midwestern farms. And then there was the matter of Chicago’s colorful history on the near South and West sides. This was a challenging read, and it shared a wonderful slice of Chicago history.

Many of us thought it well worth reading. We agreed we’ll do this this next month when we read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and perhaps even in June when we meet to determine our reading list for next year. Thank goodness for books, and my never-ending list of what I want to read next and then after that.

Keeping busy

I learned long ago that tackling a new recipe in the kitchen is — for me —  a great stress-reliever. When I’m concentrating on measuring ingredients and following directions, I am able to put other cares in a better perspective. Like so many of you, I am cooking a lot. Our dinner repertoire now includes Frying Pan Spaghetti, my name for our version of a New York Times recipe that combines dry spaghetti, halved cherry tomatoes, a generous pour of olive oil and a quart of boiling water in a large, shallow pan for a five-minute simmer. Add a little green with a handful or two of fresh spinach or kale, short pieces of asparagus or green beans or even peas. Spice it up with fresh parmesan, parsley, and/or basil. It’s  a great “hip pocket recipe,” one that adapts to what’s in your pantry and fridge.

And speaking of your pantry and fridge, how are you keeping them stocked? My husband and I are learning the ropes of “click list shopping” online and then picking up our order in the parking lot. It is easy and feels much safer than braving the store, but it definitely requires much more organized list-making than Steve and I are used to doing. We’re making it work, but between our accidental omissions from the list and the grocer’s need to sometimes substitute, we’ve come to realize flexibility is key.

I’m embarrassed to say, this is my very messy cabinet of sewing curiosities.

Long before I fell in love with cooking, I found sewing and other needlework to be equally engaging. When I started shopping vintage and antique markets, I was quickly drawn to the vintage tablecloths and fabrics available. (And by this I mean I seem to have an inner sensor that detects barkcloth draperies, 40’s tablecloths, antique French grainsacks and linen towels before I even see them!) This explains the bundles of vintage and new fabrics I have stuffed in a cabinet downstairs. So, I opened the cabinet doors where I keep this stash, and I’ve been measuring, cutting, sewing and letting the creative juices flow. I have no finished projects (except for a few homemade face masks), but I’m having a terrific time. And I will share what I  eventually have to show for this effort!

Like so many of our friends, my husband and I try to get in a walk outside most days. And as the weather has improved here we have found ways to putter in the yard and garage, cleaning up the inevitable “winter residue” and settling on some space for vegetables in our yard since we aren’t sure when or if Steve’s garden plot at the park district will be available. This life is full of unknowns, isn’t it?

Too much news is just too much

I can be a real news junky, but I have sworn off much of what I used to watch. I still flip on the Today show first thing in the morning. It’s my check in with the world, to make sure we’re all still here. And I  try to catch local news to get what’s happening in Chicago. But I don’t let it run on all day.

I have mixed feelings many of these days. I miss simple pleasures like coffee with a friend or guests for dinner. I miss my adult children, self-isolating in their own homes. Although I’m keeping busy, like everyone else I also wonder:  How long will our isolation last? When will we be able to have friends over for Sunday night supper or take a trip? And then there are the big questions. Will we all stay safe and healthy? How different will life be in the post-pandemic?

As so many if us have said lately, “This too shall pass.” And, I would like to add, “We live in interesting times.” What about you? How are you spending your days in these social-distancing times? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

 

My favorite kitchen tools

I don’t know about you but, but I’ve really needed to take a step back from the pandemic. Uncertainty is hard, and this is uncertainty on steroids. Not only is it reshaping our lives for the foreseeable future, but I think we can’t help but be somewhat changed when it’s over. I need a “news” break, so I’m heading for the kitchen where I think a lot of us have been hanging.

In fact, my kitchen time got me thinking about some of my favorite cooking tools, the things I reach for again and again. Do you have favorites too, things you rely on to make some cooking chores a little easier?

When I snapped this photo a few weeks back while I was making pimento cheese to take to an informal dinner party, i realized I had a few of my favorites in this shot. First, the six-sided box grater is a real champ. It makes freshly grated cheese a snap. (I’ve found that “freshly grated” can make a big difference in the finished product. I’m not sure why, but it does.) This grater is especially nice because it has this bottom piece that easily slides off and on to contain the grated ingredients. And because the six sides are each different, you can also zest carrots for a salad, fruit for baking, etc. It also cleans up easily in the dishwasher.

I also captured two of the small prep bowls from these larger sets of nesting glass bowls. (Yes, I have two sets, perhaps that’s overkill. On the other hand, when I really get cooking, I use more of them than I leave in the drawer.) They’re really designed for mise en place cooking, when you gather and prep all your ingredients before you start. I wasn’t always that organized, but my daughter cooks like that and it’s also the system most cooking classes use. Once I started gathering and measuring all the ingredients ahead of time, I realized I was not spending more time cooking but I was doing a better job! (And I also could know ahead of time if I had 4 eggs and 2 cups of sugar!)

These glass bowls have the advantage of being microwave safe, and in a pinch you can use them for serving. They’re easy to clean and since they nest for storage, they don’t really take up that much space. My daughter-in-law gave me this set of small steel prep bowls (below) with lids that are perfect for prepping ingredients ahead of time and popping them into the refrigerator. I especially like them for nuts or herbs I’ll use later for serving.

I also use this smaller zester all the time for adding a bit of lemon or orange zest, to grate whole nutmeg, or even a bit of Parmesan cheese before serving a plate of pasta. Like my box grater, it also cleans up easily in the dish washer.

Have you noticed that these favorite tools are particularly helpful for prepping and/or using fresh ingredients? I think of “fresh” as a cooking super power. Somewhere along the progression of my cooking skills, I began to use fewer prepared foods and more fresh ingredients. I just think that if I’m going to spend the time cooking, I really need to use the best ingredients I can to get the best outcome. So, I buy whole garlic and chop it and use fresh lemons instead of bottled juice, etc. You know the drill.

What about you? Do you have a favorite kitchen tool? A spatula you use every day or a pot you can’t do without? Or have you become a fan of the newer Insta Pots and are re-thinking your favorite recipes to cook in one? I’d love to hear how and what you’re cooking these days.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping  by. Stay home & stay safe. See you the next time.

Avoiding the rabbit hole

I’m doing all I can to make lemonade out of the lemons this virus has handed us.

Last week my daughter told me one of her co-workers had gone right down the rabbit hole over the coronavirus. In the co-worker’s scenario, everyone was quarantined, their clients’ businesses failed, subsequently my daughter’s employer let everyone go, and they all lost their health insurance.

Whew! Time flies when your imagination runs away with you.

So, how are you dealing with this? Are you taking it in stride or stocking up on hand gel? Learning all you can or avoiding the news altogether? Last week was a tough one. In addition to the spreading virus and the stock market free fall, our favorite neighbors announced they are moving to Arizona at the end of the month. Does bad news come in three’s?

And of course the rabbit hole continues to deepen. More victims, More talk. More uncertainty. I’m thinking about an asphidity bag (an old-fashioned “cure” of various herbs tied in a piece of cloth and worn under your shirt). My best friend and I had a running joke about them growing up, largely because her uncle was certain that as a child he never got the Spanish flu because he wore one. Barb’s mother insisted that its only medicinal value was in reeking so much of garlic that no one came near him.

But, then again, it’s one way to maintain the recommended 6 feet between you and everyone else.

See what I mean about the rabbit hole?

I think it’s important to be informed, but I also think it’s important to keep both feet on the ground. So here are some things that are saving/distracting me right now.

Sunshine. Seems simple, but it’s been in short supply. I’m “cashing in” when ever it’s available. I’ve been walking more outside, but the really good news is that I’ve been able to work a bit outside this weekend too. It’s a little too early for a major clean-up in the yard, but not for cutting back the hydrangeas I never got to last fall as well as cleaning out planters so they are ready to go.

Diving into a good book. I’ve continued reading through Chief Inspector Gamache’s mysteries as told by Louise Penny. (I’m on #10!). I’m about to finish Marie Benedict’s Lady Clementine, an historic novel as told by the title character, who happens to be the wife of Winston Churchill. I suspect it’s a little light on historic truths, but I’m listening to it on Audible. The narrator has just enough of an upper class British accent and her imitation of Churchill’s bluster is entertaining.

My book group just read and discussed The Overstory by Richard Powers. Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s in a whole other category than my other reads. The novel is populated by truly distinct characters who are individually introduced, by their own stories, in the first section of the book. They merge into a more complex story later. This is why I’m a member of this book group. I would not have chosen this book off the shelf, but it is such a beautiful read that I would have missed something special.

Ina Garten’s parmesan thyme crackers are like a slice-and-bake cookie. Mix and refrigerate or freeze the dough, thaw and bake when you need a quick appetizer.

Mixing it up in the kitchen. As you know, my kitchen is my happy place. I spent an entire day this past week re-stocking my pantry with homemade granola, the freezer with Ina Garten’s parmesan thyme crackers, and making a homemade pizza crust (and then a pizza) based on Martha Stewart’s crust recipe in the March issue of her magazine. This recipe uses yeast, which I’m not good at, but the recipe was so simple even I got it on the first try!

Next up? Retail therapy. When in doubt, shop for shoes.

How are you handling these crazy weeks? I would love to hear your thoughts. It looks like we’re going to be in this — together — for awhile.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Saving February

I did my part in February to organize and reshuffle shelves and cabinets.

Is February a bore? The holidays are over, but in Illinois, Spring is is still far off. This year the weather has been oddly warm and way too cloudy. Now the sun is out, but it’s bitter cold. (Although honestly, if I can have only one, I’ll take sunny over cloudy whatever the temperature.) The more I thought about February being a bore, the more I realized it wasn’t. I was just sitting in a mental slump. Does this happen to you?  I think I was letting the calendar play mind games, especially on all those cloudy days.

And now, just to prove February’s not a bore, here are three fun things from the month.

A is for Audio

As an avid reader/book lover and participant in more than one book group, I have listened more and more to fellow book readers enumerate the virtues of audio books. They listen while they walk or ride the train or do the laundry. On one hand, it’s a great way to spend otherwise “mindless” time. On the other, the purist in me — the English major — thinks it can’t possibly be the same as actually turning the page, marking a passage, etc. (Yes. I write in my books and even dog-ear the pages. I like to really own them and reread all or parts of favorites.)

Last year my husband and I listened to a book on our drive to the Carolinas. It was a good way to spend the time, though we often got caught up in the drive or a conversation and lost track of the book. Recently, however, my son gave me a really cool pair of wireless earphones for my birthday. (I’m always late to the technology party.) I love them, and I’m becoming a devotee of Audible. I can listen while I walk, “read” in bed without disturbing my husband, and I can’t wait for a plane trip to try them out. I’m certainly not giving up on reading a “real” book, but audio books do help me enjoy more reading experiences. However, I do find that I’m listening to one book while reading another. Do you do that?

Instagram gardening

I was cruising thru some of my Instagram favorites the other day and realized that I’ve been saving garden shots, lots of them. Hmmm. I think I’m getting anxious to get outside, get my hands in the dirt, enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. My garden is not big and, if anything, I aim to simplify the tasks that go into maintaining it. But, my daily morning walk outside to check on plants (and weeds!), deadhead a few spent blooms, snip a few more to bring inside, and consider what more needs to be done nourishes me mentally and physically. But as 
I write this, it’s 12-degrees out, so enjoy a few photos I’ve saved as I plan ahead for spring.

How’s this for lush?I’m a sucker for vines.

 

I’ve never tried foxgloves, so this may be the year.I love the contrast the upright flowers have with the mounded greenery.

 

I also really enjoy somewhat monochromatic colors. I think a single-color garden shows off the diversity of the greenery.

 

This birthday cake

My nine-year-old grandson is currently obsessed with Rubik’s Cube. He has solved not only the original 6-sided puzzle (which leaves me in the dust!) but also the other multi-sided versions. “It’s all about the algorithms,” he explains. I actually looked into its history and the puzzle was designed by a professor who wanted to teach students about solving spacial problems.  For Jack, it’s really all about today’s math. It may not be Grandma’s math, but it sure does look like fun.

Back to the cake. My daughter-in-law always tries to tie cakes into the honoree’s interests. (I should have known what was coming when she ordered a globe-shaped groom’s cake for the rehearsal dinner.) She searched around and found ideas for Rubik’s Cube, then baked a 4-layer cake and carefully decked it with color-coded M&M’s. Is this not awesome engineering? (Okay, one corner is a little wonky, but that’s because the finished masterpiece sat in the fridge for a day!)

What about you? What’s kept you going in February?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!