August is for antiques & tomatoes

A recent Instatgram post by Delores Arabian of Vignette Design (one of the first blogs I followed) said, “August is like the Sunday of summer.” So true. The routine changes, no matter what your routine is. August just feels different. The light is shifting. People seem to move a little more quickly and with more purpose.

I’ve spent the last week deciding what to do with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes and looking for fall inspiration in a few antique stores.

Start with a bucket of tomatoes

First, a little background. A few years ago, we took our kitchen down to the studs for a much-needed renovation. Thanks to a great designer, who took the time to understand what Steve and I each wanted in a kitchen, we got all that and more. It looks great; more importantly, it really works! I can easily spend an entire day puttering around in my kitchen. In fact, yesterday I did. I started with a five-gallon bucket of fresh tomatoes from my husband’s garden (I think you could easily call this “high tomato season”), and things just kept going from there.

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This is not the first bucket of tomatoes this season. Despite a slow start, the garden plot has been prolific. It began with radishes and beets, then moved on to cucumbers and beans. Lots of cucumbers and beans. I gave them away, there were so many. Now we have buckets of tomatoes.

I think everyone has their own favorite ways of dealing with tomatoes. We love fresh tomato bruschetta and have been serving it to everyone who’s come to dinner in the last month. BLT’s are a regular feature on the menu. My grandma used to can tomatoes, in glass jars in a water bath. It was a hot, labor-intensive process. Instead I drop the meatier tomato varieties, like Romas, into boiling water for just a few minutes to facilitate skinning. After letting them cool briefly, the skins slide off and I slit them to seed them, then crush this “tomato meat” with my hands (As Ina Garten always says, clean hands are the cook’s best tool!) and pack in quart containers for the freezer.

Then, because there were more tomatoes, I made this fresh tomato soup recipe from The Cafe Sucre Farine (A delicious food blog; if you’re not into cooking, just enjoy the pictures!)  It was super easy. No skinning or seeding the tomatoes! Blending at the end takes care of that. (Hint: I did it in batches with my immersion blender.) It’s so yummy, I wanted to lick the bowl. You can find the recipe here.

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And, as long as I was in the kitchen, I made a pot of chicken stock. I know this sounds crazy, but I was using my last carton in the tomato soup. I knew I had the ingredients to make more stock, so what’s another pot going on the stove? Now I have cartons of fresh tomato soup, chicken stock, and tomatoes in the freezer.

Tomorrow I’m baking a cake!

When in doubt, go antiquing

Every so often I feel the need to spend some time shopping a few local antique malls. Sometimes I come away empty-handed, sometimes I find a new treasure, and sometimes I come home with inspiration to use what I already have in a new way. But the bottom line for me is that antiquing always fuels my creativity. And I’ve been looking for ideas for a bit of a “fall refresh” around the house.

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This display in one booth (above) stopped me in my tracks. My love for ironstone is “well-documented” so I studied this carefully. I have a number of similar pieces, but it was hard to tear myself away (and I’m not at all convinced I don’t need that stack of covered dishes). I did come away with this small ironstone tray and a few hand-painted pieces. (Full confession: I gave the footed bowl and saucer to a friend. It was made for her collection!)

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In another another booth, I found a few new blue and white transferware pieces. I’m especially excited about one plate, since a previous owner added this information on a small strip of tape to the back: “from C.C. Penney This came to America is 1830 Given to me May 4, 1969 (from Peggie)”. Isn’t that amazing? Now I’m wondering if I should do the same with a few of my favorite things.

What’s inspiring you this August?

See you next time!

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A sweetgrass story

DSC_0411I suppose there are people out there who don’t like baskets, but honestly, I don’t know who they are or what they are thinking.

I began collecting baskets because they are an attractive, useful means of gathering and holding a variety of things. (Remember my post about Mary Emmerling?) Things like plants, onions, and sewing projects. Next, I acquired a few antique baskets, which I treasure. They are often fragile, but I find ways to use and enjoy them, like on top of cabinets where they can be seen but not touched. Then I found new, hand-crafted baskets. They’re pretty sturdy. I especially like large, utilitarian ones that can hold magazines or paper trash beside my desk. That way I can enjoy the basket maker’s artistry every day.

However, my sweetgrass baskets from South Carolina are the rockstars of my collection.

SweetgrassCollection

Sweetgrass baskets are fashioned from tightly coiled grasses and long-leaf pine needles at the hands of a small group of artisans. Each basket is one-of-a-kind. They are beautiful and functional on their own, but more importantly to me, they are an art form that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 300 years.

A bit of history

In eighteenth-century South Carolina, the prosperous plantation lifestyle and its urban counterpart in Charleston owed much to the booming rice economy. And the rice economy depended on the labor and expertise of West African slaves, many of them rice planters in Africa before their captivity. They arrived in this country without personal belongings but holding close to the traditions and culture they had left behind, including basketmaking.

Originally made of bullrush and palm, which were prevalent in both Africa and in the South Carolina lowcountry, the basketmaking tradition allowed the West African slaves to continue an important cultural connection to their past. In addition, the baskets, like their knowledge of rice planting, were in high demand in the agricultural community. Flat, fanner baskets were used for winnowing rice. Large work baskets were used to store and transport a variety of materials.

Soon these baskets were incorporated into more domestic uses and new designs, like covered sewing baskets and bread baskets, began to appear. Basketry was an important skill in the slave community. There is evidence to suggest that some slaves were allowed to make and sell some of their wares.

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Despite the eventual decline of the plantation economy, the basketmaking tradition continued, though the products were smaller and more suited to household use. Sweetgrasss began to replace the bullrush and long leaf pine needles were added to make the coiled designs more interesting. In the early thirties, when increased car travel brought more tourists to the Mount Pleasant area just north of Charleston, interest in the craft increased and the first roadside basket stands appeared. Many of them remain today. Contemporary basketmakers also sell their wares at the Charleston City Market and at the “four corners of the law” at Meeting and Broad Streets (above). I’ve probably bought most of my baskets at this last location.

Putting a value on tradition

There are no written instructions for making a sweetgrass basket. This is a tradition handed down from generation to generation, and the basketmaker’s wares are distinguished by his or her expertise and personal style. Each of my baskets was handmade by someone who learned her craft from a mother or grandmother, who learned it from her mother or grandmother and so on. This is what makes them so valuable to me. Watch a basketmaker at work (and they are always working on another basket) and you can see what a painstaking project each basket is and the skill required. Even the simplest designs can take a dozen or more hours to complete. Larger designs take much more.

Although many basketmakers make what seem to be the same styles (probably dictated by what buyers want), the closer you look, the more differences you see. Some are woven tighter than others, some have little knots as embellishments, many are clearly designed to hold popular casseroles or baking pans.

I tend to favor simpler designs, that will still offer some utilitarian use. My first pieces of sweetgrass were actually two trivets. (Twenty-plus years later, we continue to use them almost daily, which I suppose says a lot about their sturdiness and usefulness.) This year I spent some time at the City Market (at the Meeting Street end) talking with basketmakers Corey Alston and his sister Charlene. They pointed out some of their work with newer, “fancier” designs and a few much more traditional pieces, including an almost flat fanner that I continue to dream about but just could not afford.

Sweetgrass1

Sweetgrass baskets are what my mother would call “pricey.” Few fall in the $50 range and many designs are hundreds, even thousands of dollars. I looked at baskets for years before I bought anything beyond my trivets. Eventually I set aside birthday money and added to it to purchase one of the designs I had been eyeing. (It was all downhill for me after that!)

In addition to the time and skill necessary to make each basket, the sweetgrass (which really has a distinctive, sweet or fresh smell when you “stick your nose into a basket” as my husband says) itself is harder to come by. Once plentiful in the lowcountry marshes, the plants have been threatened by growing development, although now I believe it is somewhat protected.

Many basketmakers are willing to negotiate prices for serious buyers, especially on expensive pieces. While I always negotiate (it’s part of the fun), I do so when I am committed to a purchase. I don’t negotiate a lower price, then walk away to “think it over.” I am very conscious that I’m not just buying a basket or even a significant African-American craft. I’m investing in a one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted piece of art, part of a tradition that will hopefully continue indefinitely.

I’m also aware that I’m very, very lucky to collect these woven “rock stars.” Do you have a “rock star” collection or one you would like to start? I’d love to hear about it!

See you next time!

Charleston snapshots

We just returned from what has become our annual week on Kiawah Island, just 20 miles from Charleston, South Carolina. We love the broad sandy beach and the quiet pace of the island, which is a private, planned community committed to preserving its natural setting. I have always thought of it as the ideal respite from our otherwise busy suburban life. We also love Charleston — the history, the architecture, the gardens.  And although today it is a top travel destination in the U.S., I think my family believes that after 25 years of summer visits we have a more personal claim on the city.

This year our visit came in the midst of a record-setting heat wave (which is saying a lot since any summer day here is typically hot and humid). However, my intrepid daughter and I still managed to take our own walking/photography tour of Charleston. I thought I would share some of what we saw.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the genuinely grand houses along Charleston’s Battery, but this may be more typical. It’s a little more modest and obviously well cared for. I love the piazzas and those beautiful doors!

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More piazzas, this time behind a brick wall topped with greenery. I’m sure there’s a wonderful garden behind that wall!

More brick walls. The walkway on the left was “calling my name,” but it clearly went to private property. I love the detail, all done in the same simple brick, in the wall on the right.

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This image is a little fuzzy, but I had to share. Isn’t this charming? I imagine it may have started out as a kitchen house on a larger property. Today, it’s the perfect “tiny house.”

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Look at the gaslight on this porch. Many homes have them. I think it’s just one of the details that sets these homes apart. And it’s the details that matter in Charleston. Look at the window boxes below.

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The good news/bad news about wandering in Charleston is that there is always another alley or lane that beckons! Love this green “wall” backed by palmettos.

 

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No walk through Charleston south of Broad Street would be complete without stopping to admire the sweetgrass baskets for sale on Meeting Street. The baskets are woven by hand from local materials using techniques that have been passed down for centuries. Stay tuned for a separate post on these beautiful collectibles.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little walk thru Charleston. It’s really more eye-candy than a history/house/garden-loving photographer can take in!

See you next time!