Today the topic is Mother’s Day

Mom, shortly before she retired at 67.

Sometimes I struggle for a blog topic…

And sometimes I have too many.

That’s where I am today. Then I realized Mother’s Day really is “just around the corner,” so here I am. And here’s the truth: I have a love/hate thing going with Mother’s Day.

On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful that we stop, take a breath, and think about the impact of all the mothers in our lives. Not just my mom (whom I described at her memorial service as a “great dame”), but also my grandmother, who taught me so much about making room at the table (literally and figuratively) and my mother-in-law, who taught in a rural elementary school to pay her way through the University of Georgia during the Depression.

On the other hand, I think the Hallmark-card, gift-giving, Sunday-brunch side of Mother’s Day can be exhausting, expensive and — yes, I’ll say it — stressful. It’s about expectations, of course, and I’m as guilty as anyone. There were so many years when I was working and hosting a family dinner, buying presents, sending cards, and admittedly also being “feted” by my own kids (the free breakfasts at MacDonald’s really were the best!).

Later, when my kids were away at school and then off launching their adult lives in other cities, a friend expressed regret that they “would not be home for Mother’s Day.” That gave me pause; was she serious? Was it a “coming home” kind of holiday or a “don’t-forget-to-call-Mom-Sunday.” I vote for the latter. Let’s not get crazy about this. (As a mother, I was pretty proud of the fact that my son and daughter were out there succeeding on their own in the world.)

One of the really great things about my mom was that she was more than happy to dial back expectations. I took this lesson to heart. She understood how tough and “unnecessary” (one of her favorite words) some of this “fussing” could be.

Mom had a demanding career running a major department in a hospital. She was very, very good at what she did. She took her responsibilities seriously and often worked weekends and holidays. And she did it starting in the early sixties, when most women did not work outside the home. My dad always backed her up, but I think it was often a somewhat lonely stance. It took years for her friends and family to really understand and appreciate her professionalism. Mom, Dad and I learned years ago how to “bend” a celebration around other circumstances.

Celebrating the mother, not the day

I offered a glimpse into my mom, here, where I talked about her example of a lifelong friendship, and now you know a little about her career. Mom’s experience as a working woman was a huge support to me throughout my working life. She understood the ying and yang between family and work. She understood the pride in a job well done and the flip side, when you were having a truly horrible day.

One of my favorite memories of my mother’s work advice came on just such a day for me. I cannot even remember all that was going wrong, just that my day was totally off the rails and she happened to call me. I was pretty abrupt about what a bad day I was having and she sympathized.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, then added, “Maybe you could just crawl under your desk and hide for awhile.”

Looong pause.

We both burst out laughing, and suddenly I had my perspective back. A little Mom wisdom, a little Mom humor, then get back up, put one foot in front of the other, and move on.

I’ve remembered that afternoon call so many times since, especially the laugh that followed. It still makes me smile. Thanks, Mom.

Wishing you a wonderful Mother’s Day and a few quiet moments to remember the mothers in your life.

See you next time.

Nancy Drew, Louisa Adams & other smart women

Do you ever have one of those times when disparate things start strangely fitting together in the larger scheme? I’m having a week like that, with amazing women stepping out of the shadows to challenge my thinking.

On the first Wednesday in May the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn, Illinois, branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) holds its annual used book sale. This is a fund-raising tradition more than 50 years old that supports national fellowships and local scholarships for women. It’s also a true labor of love for the women (and men) who have now spent decades collecting, sorting and storing used books every year in anticipation of the sale, then unpacking and arranging the books at the Glen Ellyn Civic Center for the sale itself.

So, this is the week.

Despite endless box-schlepping, aching backs, associated and inevitable dust, long hours, and often tedious sorting into various broad categories, many if not most of us are happy to dig in. It’s for a cause we deeply believe in, we get to catch up with friends we may not often see, and perhaps even make a few new ones. And, we haven’t found a better fundraiser! We know how to do this, and after 50 years we’re pretty good at it. Book lovers and bargain-hunters know to look for this sale.

Most important, we have met and talked with the women these proceeds help. This is real empowerment.

And then there is Nancy Drew.

Volume One of the beloved girl detective series, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published 87 years ago on April 28, 1930, using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The books, ghostwritten by Mildred Wirt Benson and later revised by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, were “the Depression-era Pokemon cards” says Theodore Johnson in a celebratory essay on the The Mary Sue. “They were collected, traded, bought and sold on both secondary and tertiary markets to the point where any kid, even those who couldn’t afford new books, would very likely get to read every adventure starring their favorite character within a reasonable interval.”

But more important was what the books showed readers that girls could do. As Johnson points out, “Nancy gets into fights, drives a car, packs a gun and relies on herself to get out of tough situations. She is mechanically inclined and at the same time doesn’t act like most people in the 1930s would have expected a teenage girl to act.” Nancy Drew’s heroics were just as important to my friends and I reading in the 50’s and 60’s as they were to the first readers in the 30’s. I’m sure I never realized what a great character/role model she was; I just liked the books.

I encourage you to read Johnson’s essay, here to appreciate his complete examination of the series — including its relationship to subsequent fiction. If you haven’t read Nancy Drew, what are you waiting for? And if you have, you can go back and reread one for fun. That’s what I’m doing.

But wait, there’s more.

I was connected with yet one more really interesting woman this week.

I love to cruise the Recommended, New Releases and New in Paperback shelves and tables in bookstores. I always find something interesting, sometimes a title I have been looking for or an author I especially enjoy. Louisa by Louisa Thomas looked interesting, but I had not heard about it before. Well, it was a great find!

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was the the daughter of an American businessman living in London and his English-born wife; Louisa became the wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law of John and Abigail Adams. After spending the Revolutionary years in France (her father was not especially welcome in British circles during that time), the family returned to London where she met John Quincy, who by then was on a diplomatic mission for the U.S. President.

Though their life, which initially took them to Berlin, Prussia and the court of St. Petersburg, sounds glamorous, it was also outright dangerous and remarkably lonely. She spent years separated from her young sons and her family. The newly established United States was trying to establish its foreign credentials. Louisa and John Quincy were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. If anything, Louisa’s British background and her years in France gave her easier entree into palaces than did John Quincy’s pedigree.

But that’s just the start of the story.

Louisa led a remarkable and challenging life, including a heart-stopping journey from St. Petersburg to Paris to meet her husband and, later, guiding his election as the 6th President of the United States in a “campaign” so remotely different from current politics you will be wondering if it was really in America.

So yes, I am a history geek. And yes, I love biography. But Louisa has the added perk of being a biography of a strong woman who witnessed and played a leading role in the formative years of our country. Win! Win! Win!

And this has been my week. Smart, resourceful women paving the way for more smart, resourceful women.

How’s your week going?

See you next time!

Never enough ironstone

Last winter when I caught up with my friend Laura, she whipped out the then-current issue of Country Living Magazine, with a feature on white ironstone. “Is it called ironstone because there is iron in the clay?” she asked.

Hmmm, I thought. This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. I had named my blog Ivy & Ironstone, talked briefly about my white ironstone collection, and now at least one person thought I really knew something about it.

I didn’t think there was iron in the clay, but I had to go back to some of my initial research to confirm my suspicions. And, I was right. “Ironstone” simply refers to the durable nature of this particular pottery. And I can see why; despite cracking and crazing and chipping, it survived daily domestic life in the nineteenth century. These pieces were the family’s plates, water pitchers, meat platters, gravy boats, and more.

Ironstone was first made in the early 1800’s in Staffordshire, England, as an affordable alternative to the pricier porcelains popular at the time. In fact many of the shapes and details like handles and spouts were designed to mimic more expensive dishes. Although much of this pottery was decorated with the transferware patterns I discussed in a previous post, what we commonly refer to as ironstone today is usually thought of as these white pieces. Charles James Mason acquired the first patent in 1813, but a number of other china producers also made copious amounts of ironstone. I have pieces identified as Wedgwood, Johnson Brothers, Mason, and Meakin to name just a few.

These nineteenth-century pottery pieces can be chunky (like the large bowl at the left) or delicate (like the brown-stained pitcher), detailed or simple.  Some pieces retain their glazed finish, others are crazed and stained. Ironstone lovers accept those imperfections as part of the package.

My collection began with pitchers.

Like many collectors, I had this vision of a long line of white pitchers marching across a shelf (or shelves). And then there were my decorating muses, like Mary Emmerling (remember my post here?) who also embraced white ironstone, often using it to contain other goods, like towels or cutlery. But once I started looking for the pitchers, I found all these other great pieces. A square, fluted bowl to hold apples or berries. Pitchers, of course, for flowers, but also sugar bowls and a charming sauce tureen. And then there are the platters, in graduated sizes, ovals and rectangles. I purposely collected them to add to my entertaining gear. They are my serving go-to for everything from cheese and veggies to dessert. (Yes, I really do use this stuff. Why not?)

Because I can’t imagine an “end” to the collection (although I may get pickier at what I actually bring home with me), I tend to totally zero in on displays in antique shops. Look at this great collection. Who knows what I may discover here?

 

In its heyday, ironstone was both popular and affordable and, therefore, abundant. The combination of mass production and its sturdy nature undoubtedly contribute to its wide availability today. It simply outlasted a lot of other, more delicate pieces. Thanks to its popularity, it’s also been widely reproduced. Although I prefer antiques, some collectors are happy to include more contemporary pieces.

Antique pieces invariably show signs of wear on the bottom, around the top lip of a pitcher or bowl, or the edge of plate. The glaze wears off in places where it was repeatedly handled, maybe set down on a rough surface or pushed aside on a shelf. So those areas feel rougher, and sometimes discolor or even chip. Antique pieces also have a distinct, softer luster. I always check new finds for a manufacturer’s mark on the bottom. (Full disclosure: I do this with all kinds of dishware, a throwback to my days as a giftware buyer.)  The mark identifies the maker and often the city and/or country of origin. Contemporary marks are just that — much more modern.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about my ironstone is the amount of detail and design incorporated into what initially seems like simple white pieces. Look at the detail on this sugar bowl on the left, above. The overall shape is rectangular, and although it’s hard to see here, the “corners” have a subtle ribbed look. I love the “collar” around the top and the shape of the handles. The details on the handles of these two pitchers are just as charming. Who needs color when you can play with shape and and scallops like this?

Mine is certainly not a large or discerning collection, but it’s fun. There’s a lot to be said for the “thrill of the hunt.” I’m always on the lookout because I love finding a new piece. I also use these pieces all the time. As I write this there is a small bowl cradling a gerbera plant by the kitchen sink and one of my tallest pitchers has been recruited to hold flowers on the island. If you follow me on Instagram, you saw one of my favorite pitchers filled with flowers on my Easter table. I used the square bowl pictured above with apples for dyed eggs.

There really is never enough ironstone or a limit to using and enjoying it.

See you next time!

Keeping my books, an anniversary, and FaceBook

I have recently come to a de-cluttering decision: I am keeping all of my books.

We have a lot of books at our house — on shelves, in cabinets, piled on side tables and chairs. Sometimes they even migrate to the floor. In the past I have agreed with my husband (who has actually bought a number of these books) that some books must go. However, I am an English major, a one-time English teacher, a writer and editor, and a devoted reader. My book collection is what it is. And it is part of me.

I have been known to cull popular beach reading from the shelves along with outdated textbooks, as well as some musty, frankly moldy books from the basement. (Mold, after all, is contagious — it just spreads from book to book!) But, absent certain specific conditions, I am keeping my books.

I never fail to find a “forgotten treasure” when I take the time to empty a shelf and dust it and the books.

And my books include some of my mother’s and father’s books. I’ve moved them around with me for decades, and I’m not giving them up now either. I recently opened one that included an inscription to my mother from a co-worker. The book must have been a gift; finding the inscription was a gift to me, like having Mom back however briefly to talk about what we were reading. (And the best reason ever to start inscribing gift books to the recipient, at least with a date and the occasion.)

Although I have an e-reader and also read on my iPad, for the most part I continue to read traditional books, words printed on paper. That’s a bit old-school and contributes to my clutter issues, but I can’t stop. I dog-ear the pages, the spines get funky from leaving them face down, opened to the current page. Most of them bear coffee stains and the occasional smudge from snacking while reading. (Although, I am very careful with borrowed books!) I am never offended by these violations. I make my books my own.

A love of books and reading is a gift. One of my fondest childhood memories is of spending summer afternoons, sprawled on the floor, reading a book. Or reading late into the night, because the book was just too good to put down. Or going to the library to find something new. When my son and daughter were in elementary school, the PTA had a program that allowed each child to choose a book on their birthday to add to their home library. Despite the fact that Doug & Mags had lots of books at home, they were glowing on the days they came home with a new birthday book.

Remember how Marie-Laure LeBlanc treasured her Braille copy of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in All the Light We Cannot See? She read it again and again.

Don’t you just love how good you feel about making the right decision?

My love/hate thing with FaceBook

I have been thinking about “when FaceBook was fun.” I don’t spend a lot of time on FB; lately even less. Remember when it was just vacation pics, new babies and funny things you saw on the way to the office?

FaceBook is more work today. That’s not all bad. After all, one post launched the Women’s March in January. Pretty powerful stuff. It set so much in motion.

This — social media — is now a primary way to acquire and manage information. But for me it treads a very fine line. I’m a little tired of getting yelled at in all caps, “READ THIS” and “DO THIS NOW” although surely those posters find it important. And the language and name calling…yikes! What would your mother say about the language you used in that comment?

Most of all I wonder if we can really sum up the complexity of various issues in one post? Should we even try? There are so many conversations we need to be having, so much news to sort out, so many sources to evaluate. Can we just leave it to FaceBook (or another social media site) where we can say what we want, hit post and walk away? What merits a greater effort? Social media has its role, but I don’t think it ever replaces traditional communications (though many might disagree).

Finally, it’s been a year…

It’s been a year since I wrote “Ivy and Ironstone is the name of this blog because neither ‘Antique Silver & Zinnias’ nor ‘Hostas & Transferware’ had the alliterative cachet of ‘Ivy & Ironstone,’ and I am a writer at heart.” That was the introduction to my first post, and like so many bloggers, I am loving every minute of this occasional conversation with my readers and friends. I have even made new friends via the blog, certainly one of the best reasons ever to celebrate a year of blogging.

Thank you so much for joining me, for your thoughtful comments, for sharing my posts with your friends. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead.

See you next time!

Recipe gold, whipping cream and other kitchen thoughts

My kitchen is one of my happy places. I like to cook. I like to eat. I like to read cookbooks and food blogs and try new recipes. And once in awhile I strike what I think of as recipe gold, a dish worthy of adding to our regular repertoire, serving to guests and sharing with friends.

You may or may not follow Jenny Steffens Hobick at Everyday Occasions. She writes a fun, informative blog, often but not always about food, and has a wonderful online shop that stocks simple, quality homemaking goods like classic white serving pieces and cooking gear. I am especially smitten with her recipes. As a former caterer, Jenny is very good at easy and elegant, as well as assembling recipes for a complete menu.

Earlier this winter she shared her recipe for Slow Simmered Beef Ragu. I have now made this three times! The first time was just for us, testing it for an upcoming dinner party. It was a success the first time and at that dinner party, so I served it to company again last weekend. It’s delicious, hearty, comfort food (especially appropriate for this fickle winter!) and everyone loved it. This includes my friend’s Italian-born mother-in-law, a real honor.

This beef ragu is very much like a delicious dish we enjoyed at a winery in Tuscany last year. Even better, it’s easily made early in the day or a day ahead. In my book this makes it perfect for dinner guests.

I made it with short ribs, though the recipe gives an option for stew meat. And I have served it with fresh pasta from the grocery store, rather than making my own as Jenny does. It starts with a fair amount of chopping:

But look what you get for your efforts! Yum! Grab her recipe and try it.

My favorite new gadget

I try to limit the number of gadgets I add to my cooking gear. They take up space and I find they are often just plain unnecessary. However, a recent acquisition is too fun not to share.

My daughter-in-law works for a small chain of charming, upscale restaurants. Jen does a bit of everything: payroll, wine taster, employee trainer, and much more. And, thanks to her familiarity with the food industry and her appreciation of my love of cooking and entertaining, she buys the best kitchen gifts ever.

My gift this Christmas was this mini dessert whip. So much fresher than cream in a can and easier than using the Kitchen Aid to whip cream. With this you add a cup of cream, a little powdered sugar and vanilla, screw down the mini gas canister and presto, change-o you have cream! Okay, there are a few tricks, the first being careful where you aim. (Yes, I sprayed myself with cream in setting up this photo.)

But, if you come to my house for dinner this spring, expect dessert to include whipped cream!

 

And while we’re talking about kitchens…

I think kitchens deserve the same design respect as the rest of the house. Artwork. Rugs. Accessories.  These recent pins illustrate my point (along with my willingness to dive deep into Pinterest for eye candy!). I love how these traditional pieces — gold frames and all — glam up these tidy, bright white spaces:

And has anyone else seen this gorgeous blue and white kitchen with the traditional red runner:

From homebunch.com

And then there is this hood mantle with the silver and transferware:

From Nell Hills

And this kitchen fireplace mantel from Patina Farm:

I’m not sure how or if any of this fuels my creativity, but it does make me think it may be time to freshen things up for spring.  In the meantime, what’s cooking in your kitchen these days?

See you next time!

Blue & white is just the beginning

Blue & white is just the beginning
nhillbluewhite1
Nell Hills photo.

My blue & white transferware collection started accidentally.

Back in the decorating dark ages, before Pinterest, Houzz, Instagram, etc., I studied design magazines in search of inspiration and ideas. When stacks of magazines threatened to overwhelm the various baskets, shelves and cabinets where I stuffed them, I would page thru each issue, tearing out favorite and/or appealing photos and drop them into a file. (Sometimes I wasn’t even sure why I liked them, but I saved a lot of pictures.)

Many photos were like the ones at left and below. Eventually, I realized that often the rooms I admired featured blue and white transferware and I decided then that acquiring some of these accent pieces could go a long way to getting the “look” I was after. So, when I saw affordable pieces at antique markets and second hand shops, I snapped up what I could.

faudreeplatescabin
Charles Faudree design published in Traditional Home.

What are we talking about here?

Transferware describes a type of pottery, most often plates, cups, vases, serving pieces and the like, decorated by transferring a detailed engraving from an inked copper plate to the blank pottery before firing. Although initially I was attracted to these pieces because of the blue and white color, I have come to appreciate the technique behind transferware. (Can you imagine the skill required to create the detailed engraving and then transfer it?) Lidy at The French Garden House offered a more expert explanation of this here. (The photos she includes of her collection are wonderful, and you can check out the pieces she has for sale on her website if ayou click on the “Shop” tab.)

The pieces of red and white transferware below illustrate the detail that went into many of the designs (I especially like when designs are repeated inside a piece as on the left). If you look closely at the piece on the right you can see that the design was not perfectly applied; it’s crooked on the bottom. I suppose it makes it a little less valuable, but I think it also reveals the hand-work that went into this piece.

redbowlinsideout redbowlsm

Most of the pieces I have collected are from England, but others are French and some are American. I think there are just greater quantities of English transferware in the marketplace. Many of these pieces were manufactured for the 19th Century’s growing middle class. Bigger, more elaborate pieces and designs were created for the higher-end market. (There’s always a higher-end market!)

transferwaregrapes

It did not take long for my transferware collection to reach beyond blue and white to encompass a number of red and white and brown and white pieces as well. I’m not sure why a particular piece “calls my name.” I’m often attracted to a plate or platter by the detailed border of the design or if a piece is shaped by scallops or fluting. These days I am searching out shapes beyond plates and platters. The compote in the image above is a new find. Some pieces are antique and others are reproductions. I guess I’m an equal opportunity collector!

3sugarbowls

These sugar bowls are a great example of my haphazard collecting. They share a common shape. Although the red one is round it also has a fluted base and the red and blue versions both have interesting lids. Sadly, the brown piece is missing its lid, but I really admire the crisp detail in its design.  It’s much sharper than the other pieces. And look at the upswept handles on each piece! I’m crazy abut these details!

Sometimes transferware designs use more than one color. I found this fairly large bowl on a cold, sometimes rainy day at an end-of-season antique market. It’s less than perfect (you can see where it’s chipped). However, I loved the rich colors and the floral pattern which continues inside the bowl. I snapped it up for less than $50 (it pays to shop in the rain!) and it has been the star of the china cabinet for several years since. Or at least that’s the role it assumes when it’s not holding fruit or a holiday centerpiece.

multibowl multibowlinside

 

bluerustThis blue and orange plate is a more recent find. It’s proof that blue and white transferware rocks the orange/rust shades of autumn.  Unfortunately, it has no identifying mark on the back, but it shows significant age.

My attachment to transferware drove some of the design decisions I made during our kitchen renovation a few years ago. I insisted on the “mantle” over the stove so I could show off a few special antique pieces. And I chose the green tile backsplash because it looked so good with the transferware. (Yes, I shopped for tile with a small plate in my pocket!)

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I’ve been thinking about what drives this particular collection for me. It started with color and certainly that continues to play a role, but I also love the process behind these pieces and the fact that some of these designs are so well-loved, they are often revived in contemporary versions of their antique forebears. It’s also clear that some of my pieces are well-used, and I like to think that someone long ago set their table with the same plate or platter.

redplate

This is another favorite plate. It has the kind of details I really like: a fluted edge and that remarkable light and dark pattern that repeats on the lip of the plate. Lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to these design nuances when I find something new to add to my collection.

I should add a disclaimer here that not everything in my collection is vintage or antique. I do have a number of reproductions, including all of the ginger jars that I display with some of the larger platters.

lrtransferwareAfter I snapped this photo of a number of pieces I show off in the living room in my grandmother’s china cabinet, I realized that whether I consciously intended to or not, I continue to channel those photos I’ve saved. Compare this image to the one from Nell Hills at the opening of this post!

This collection is not especially valuable. I’ve acquired the pieces in a haphazard, whatever-is-affordable way. And, clearly, it has morphed considerably from my first purely decorative purpose. But like any collection — cookbooks, garden plants, quilts — it has been a joy to acquire and I can’t imagine our home without it!

See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laissez les bon temps rouler

roosterswithbeadsOr, let the good times roll (but it sounds so much better in french!). Fat Tuesday — the culmination of Mardi Gras for the uninitiated — is this week.

We are getting ready to celebrate.

Fat Tuesday was essentially unremarkable in our household until our son began attending Tulane and we fell in love with New Orleans.

And how could you not? The food, the music, the Spanish moss, the St. Charles streetcar running from Tulane to Canal Street (I must have ridden it a hundred times, trying to take in every detail of those remarkable houses along the way), but most of all the joyful essence that permeates this city (not the Bourbon St. vibe, which is certainly something to see), but the live music that pops up everywhere, the funerals celebrated with a parade, the food, the food, the food.

But, I digress…

It’s time for a celebration. January & February have been gray and surprisingly snow-less in Chicago. The post-election hangover lingers on and spring is still several weeks away. So we invited a few friends to dinner on Fat Tuesday and unearthed our trove of Mardi Gras beads, except I think they call them throws.

img_1135I am cooking up a pot of gumbo and we have a genuine King Cake (Google is a wonderful thing!).

Although I’m not big on themed parties, Fat Tuesday calls for extra oomph. In my case that means purple, green and gold feathers and beads and a vintage New Orleans souvenir tablecloth I bought years ago for just such an occasion.

fattuestable

At the heart of it all, of course, are good food and good friends.

This is the lesson of New Orleans and good times, why would you just cook and serve dinner when you can add a few more beans to the pot, invite the neighbors, and make it a feast! The perfect antidote to gray days!

Happy Mardi Gras!

See you next time!