Back on my soapbox

My grandfather was a WWI veteran and a founding member of the William McKinley American Legion Post in Chicago. When he died in 1988, his friends from the post showed up to honor him as pallbearers. When the minister had finished his blessing at the cemetery and was about to send the mourners to lunch, one of the legion members, a little white-haired man (in his nineties I imagine, as Grandpa had been) with his legion cap at a rakish angle, stepped forwarded and admonished the minister to “Hold on sonny.” Then he produced a tape player, pushed a button, and played Taps. (And we all cried a little more. )

Several years later when my father-in-law died, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with military pallbearers and a 21-gun salute. It was a small, dignified and extremely moving ceremony. I had been to Arlington before as a tourist and I have been there since to bury my mother-in-law. It has never been possible for me to walk those rows of white markers without being silenced by the sense of duty, honor and loss that this military cemetery represents.

My dad was a WWII veteran and the only decoration on his grave marker, beyond his name and dates, is the insignia of the Army Corps of Engineers he so proudly wore. My uncle was also a WWII veteran and when he died a decade ago, my husband called the William McKinley American Legion Post, where he was also a member, and they showed up with flags and arranged for a sailor from Great Lakes to play Taps at his graveside. (Cue the tissues.)

None of these men were “suckers” or “losers.” Nor was the boy from across the street who played football with my son, went off to college and then joined the army. His job in Iraq was to locate and secure IED’s. He brought everyone on his team home safely.

They were soldiers and sailors who did their job. They were and are proud of the uniform and proud of their service. There are millions more veterans and service men and women, some surely more battle-tested than these.  And we are proud of all of them.

I have tried hard not to be political in this season. Politics don’t necessarily fit with my vision of Ivy & Ironstone. But the allegations from the White House, of “suckers” and “losers,” pale in the face of politics. And I understand that they are “allegations.” But, after the last three and a half years, is there any reason not to believe them?

Please vote.

Stay safe & see you again soon.

 

 

Cranky August

I have always had mixed feelings about August. On the one hand, summer’s winding down, the beach is behind us, my husband’s hay fever settles in for a week or two of misery for him. On the other hand, there are all the new pens, pencils and notebooks (I still buy a few for myself) and the prospect of a fresh start. Here are a few August 2020 ups & downs.

One good read

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson, turned out to be an especially timely choice for my book group to read and discuss last month. The title sounded a little quirky, but the story is based on fact. In the 1930’s the WPA recruited women from tiny Appalachian towns and hamlets to deliver books, magazines and any other available reading materials to isolated homes and schoolhouses. This was a poverty-stricken landscape, and the women had to provide their own mule, horse or donkey to help them travel their forested, mountain routes. Hazards included snakes, bears, weather and individuals who did not want their families to have reading materials. Couple those conditions with the fact that the main character, Cussy Mary Carter, is blue. She suffers from a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia. Her blue skin tone places her with the “coloreds.” In addition to poverty and illiteracy, Cussy Mary’s story also confronts racism head on.

(Hematologist Madison Cawein III eventually studied this condition and was able to treat some families with methylene blue, alleviating symptoms and reducing their blue skin coloring.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek could have been a difficult read, but most of us found it absolutely mesmerizing. And sadly its themes mirror much of what we have been grappling with the last few months. After 85 or 90 years, we still haven’t figured this out.

I know I’m not the only reader who has found it difficult to concentrate on books during the pandemic. Despite the fact that this book really captured my attention, as have a few others earlier this spring (you can read about them here and here  and here ) I have generally found it difficult to read many that I know I’ll enjoy later. I’ve read my way through Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and moved on to Dona Leone’s Guido Brunetti mysteries (They’re set in Venice!). Right now I’m diving into the fourth Harry Potter. One friend told me she re-read Gone With the Wind, “pure escapism,” she said. Escapism is good. Most of all I think many of us want to reach back to another time — maybe any time — even if its a tough time like WWII, Winston Churchill and The Vile and the Beautiful.

What about you? Have your reading choices changed during the pandemic?

My cranky mood

My husband and I set out on our morning walk recently when he mentioned that I seemed to be in a cranky mood. “Yes, I am,” I said, offering no apology. “So,” he said, “should I be heading in the opposite direction?” “No,” I assured him, because I enjoy this time together and it was one of those brilliant, blue-sky August mornings and not really at all hot. And by the time we got back, 40 minutes later, I did feel better. Fresh air and sunshine are therapeutic.

If we have learned anything at all from the pandemic it is to savor good days and time together.

My cranky mood, however, continues to simmer below the surface. And I don’t think it’s necessarily all related to the pandemic. This has just turned into such an ugly time. A pandemic should not be political; it should be about stemming the virus and saving lives. There is so much anger, most of it justifiable. As a lifelong Chicagoan, waking up on a Monday morning to once again see the windows smashed at Marshall Field’s (Yes, I know it’s Macy’s now, but to many of us the building will always be Field’s), I felt literally sick.

I have tried to counter all this with a little more socially distant socializing with friends, and my husband has even pried me out of the house to eat outside at a local restaurant. (Really, the first time sine March.) Being with friends helps. Being with strangers is hard.

How’s your mood? And if it’s at all cranky, what’s your antidote? I’d love to hear.

See you again soon!

 

Tomato, to-mah-to

Since my tomato day in the kitchen, the crop has begun to roll in. I’m guessing BLT’s for supper?

Most of us can agree that fresh garden tomatoes are one of the gifts of summer. Personally, I’m happy eating them warm from the garden, a tomato in one hand, the the salt shaker in the other. However, the cook in me knows there is so much more to do with summer’s best crop: sauce, roasted on the side, chopped for bruschetta. And then there is tomato pie or tart. This year I’m trying to take my tomato repertoire up a notch.

For some time now I have been eyeing various recipes for tomato tarts. They’re pretty and colorful, and seem like they would make a nice summertime appetizer, first course or side. And last week I needed a new kitchen project anyway.

Our garden tomatoes are just now ripening (this is Chicago, after all), so I supplemented with tomatoes from the store to test these recipes. My first try was this tomato tart from the New York Times. I have been having great luck with their recipes lately and this was no exception. The recipe called for heirloom tomatoes, but my grocery store didn’t have a good selection, so I settled for a smaller vine ripened variety.

This recipe starts with a fairly simple, blind-baked crust that is then topped with a thin layer of pesto (which I made myself from some of our garden basil), then mozzarella cheese topped by a simple egg and cream mix, then the tomatoes. We enjoyed this as a side with grilled chicken, but it could easily have been a light entree. It was certainly filling and fresh. Even my husband, who prefers his tomatoes in spaghetti sauce, endorsed it!

And I’m so sorry I didn’t take pictures along the way, but here’s the finished product. This recipe’s a keeper!

A few days later I made Ina Garten’s recipe for Anna’s Tomato Tart from Cooking for Jeffrey. This recipe has fewer layers, starting with a dough made in the food processor. After chilling the dough for about 30 minutes, giving you time to slice the tomatoes and prepare a seasoning mix of parsley, basil, thyme and olive oil (also using a food processor) it’s time to roll the dough into a rough 11 by 17 rectangle. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it bakes in a sheet pan, so you want to achieve that general shape.

After rolling the dough out on a floured surface and transferring to a parchment-lined sheet pan (per Ina’s instructions), I realized it would have been easier to roll it out on the parchment, then transfer the paper and dough to the pan. Next time. After baking the crust, it’s layered with a coat of dijon mustard, then grated gruyere cheese, then the sliced tomatoes tossed with the herb seasoning, more gruyere and a final dusting of parmesan. This all goes back into the oven to roast the tomatoes and melt the cheese. After cooling a bit, I cut it into squares and we ate it warm, though you could also serve it at room temperature. This was good, but very cheesy. As much as I like gruyere, I would use less next time.

This made a bigger recipe overall, so it may work better for a larger group. In the end, Steve and I decided we preferred the NYT recipe, but agreed that the Barefoot Contessa tart would be a fun — and different — party app. Bonus points since it doesn’t need to be served right out of the oven.

So, after all this tomato talk, what did I serve to friends who socially distanced with us over the weekend? Good old bruschetta. I  used a carton of red, yellow and green cherry tomatoes — quartered — seasoned with minced garlic and onion, a dash of red wine vinegar and generous doses of salt and olive oil. I do this by taste. I used toasted baguette slices for serving and this time, to avoid too many hands on the food, I assembled them ahead of time, spreading a thin coat of ricotta (or you could use goat cheese or buratta) on the bread slices, before adding the tomatoes. In pre-pandemic times, I would have served the toasted bread in a basket and the tomatoes in a pretty bowl.

Which leads me to another question: if you are hosting the occasional guests in these pandemic times, what are you serving and how are you serving it? I did beef sliders and individual ramekins of potato salad a few weeks ago. And I pre-plated it to avoid too much handling. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

Choosing my words

Dad and I on a summer day decades and decades ago. Read to the end of my post to see why he’s so important to the topic.

Words have always been part of my business, so of course the language of the pandemic has been interesting to me. It’s also over-used.

The terms we’ve been using to describe the pandemic — unprecedented, extraordinary, unparalleled  (and all the other “uns” like unheard of, unforgettable, unbelievable, unimaginable) — need a refresh. We need to come up with something else — historic (it will be), novel, singular, aberrant. The first synonym for aberrant is abnormal. Yes, this is not normal and in fact many of us are talking about the “new normal” — another one for the vocabulary.

I do like unthinkable. (Did you ever think you would part of a pandemic? It never crossed my mind.)

According to dictionary.com, aberrant means “departing from the right, normal or usual course.” That certainly fits. What about endless? In mid-March when Illinois shut down, it seemed “unimaginable” we would do that for more than three or four weeks at most. Here we are months later. Some of us are dipping our toes into “re-entry” (whatever that means, add that term to the pandemic vocabulary) more than others, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Virus cases are apparently rising more than not and so the race to reopen and expand our own comfort zones is stymied. The friends, family and associations around me are beginning to speak in terms of 2021 before we plan any group face-to-face events.

Catastrophic works. The hospitality industry — from restaurants to major airlines — has been brought to its knees. Any number of players, large and small, won’t survive. Even more grievous, individual households face collapse under financial and medical crises. Oops! Don’t get me started. We’re just talking words here. There are any number of reasons to look on this as a catastrophe.

Actually, for whatever reason, when all this started, the word pandemic had an old-fashioned connotation to me, as in “the black death.” According to Merriam-Webster a pandemic “is an outbreak of a disease occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” It was something I thought went out with the Spanish flu. But here we are.

On a personal level we all know the pandemic is alternately scary, worrisome, lonely, boring, and tiring. We don’t sleep well, our eating is indulgent (and I’m being polite here). We’re cranky (at least I am) and frankly depressed. Disjointed is a good word for right now. It’s a good news/bad news kind of time. Two steps forward and then at least one step back.

And why am I on this vocabulary quest? Two words: my Dad. He was an ad man long before I was ever a writer or editor. He loved language and finding new words. His pithiest writing advice to me was to skip the “50-cent word when a 10-center will work.” For years he wrote new words and their definitions down on 3 by 5 index cards. He did this as he read the paper, magazines, books. This drove my mother crazy. The index cards were everywhere — neatly stacked beside his empty coffee cup, falling out of sofa cushions, tucked into books and magazines. I’m sure she threw away more than half of what he wrote down, but still he collected words. Ironically, he suffered a small stroke in his late fifties that temporarily robbed him of language. He could talk but had no vocabulary. It took weeks just to get the basics back.

So, Dad, this one’s for you.

What about you? What’s your word for the pandemic?

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

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.