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!

 

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.

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!

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?

 

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!

January words & reads

Sunshine and shadow last fall in Chicago’s McKinley Park. I’m hoping it counter-balances our ninth day of gray clouds.

Here we are, one month into a new year and a new decade and I have not cleaned out one closet, de-cluttered one drawer or reorganized my pantry. Perhaps more egregiously, I have not chosen my word or words for the year. Do you do that? Do you look for a word or phrase to guide you? It’s a charming idea, but hard for me to narrow down. There are just too many words. However, I did get a start with my mantra in December.

Do you remember when I said in a December post that my new mantra was “Have the party, buy the dress, take the trip and always, always eat dessert.” They are hardly unique or life-changing words, really just a promise I made to myself to operate more in the present. Life is short enough. Let’s skip the regrets.

After the mantra, I went on to “When in doubt, go old school.” When I wrote this (here) I was referring to falling back on old recipes, pigs-in-a-blanket, mac and cheese — the comfort food our mothers served until we all got a bit (or a lot) trendier. But then I reconsidered “old school” and I thought of a few more ways that it matters: hand-written thank you notes, please and thank you, wear the little black dress, and take a casserole. These were the rules my mother and my aunts relied on.

I know good manners never fell out of favor, but let’s be honest. Unless you have been hunkered down under a rock, we have all been living in a polarized and often isolated time. Everyone is a little angrier, the middle ground is harder to see, and sometimes life’s simple niceties are left at the curb. Perhaps it’s time we smooth off some of our rough edges.

First reads of the new year

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl has been on my list since it came out. The memoir of Reichl’s decade as the editor of Gourmet Magazine was the perfect Christmas gift from my husband and an engrossing read. Reichl was a food editor in Los Angeles and then a restaurant critic for the New York Times, before going to Gourmet. If you think this is just about publishing or food, think again.

This is the story so many of us could write about carving out a career while balancing home and family, finding the right niche for our passions, and working in a high-stakes corporate world. There is a lot about food and its evolving tastes and trends. But Reichl also talks about the impact of the internet on more traditional communications. For a former editor like me, it’s an inside look at the angst behind magazines —  the stories, photos, advertisers, and deadlines. The specialized trade publications I edited don’t come close to Gourmet, but the components are there.

And — she includes recipes! You have to love a book with recipes.

I’ve also been binge-reading Louise Penny’s Inspecter Gamache series of mysteries set in Canada’s Quebec province. I shared my introduction to Armand Gamache here. After the holidays and some admittedly heavier reads, I was happy to return to Three Pines and Penny’s intriguing cast of returning and new characters. I had already read the first three books, so I settled into the fourth book, A Rule Against Murder. I finished it late one evening and promptly downloaded the electronic version of the next. (I know, some people shop for shoes on a sleepless night, I download books!).

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the attraction to these mysteries. They are clever and quirky, but not too gruesome or scare-y. The continuing characters are likable or at least intriguing, and Penny weaves threads of their evolution from book to book. Plus, they dress nicely, eat well, and say please and thank you! There are about a dozen more to read, and frankly I could easily spend these gray winter days binge-reading all of them! Caution: If you decide to jump into the series, you need to read them in order. Start with Still Life. The stories and characters build on each other.

What about you? How would you describe your first month of the new year/new decade? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Looks, cooks and books in August

My looks this month can be summed up in three words: Charleston window boxes. They are charming, creative, and put a welcome face on homes and businesses across this charming and historic city.

I think of window boxes as decorating/gardening details, the kind of exclamation point Charlestonians always add and the rest of us wish we had thought of. I love them all and I can’t stop taking pictures of them when I’m in Charleston.

When I assembled the photos I most recently took, I noticed that most of these boxes featured far more greenery than flowers, perhaps a nod to Charleston’s steamy summer weather? I also think a lot of people replant the boxes with the seasons. However, look at the color and texture they get without flowers!

 

I am  a fan of ferns, so this box caught my eye right away.

 

And I thought this box mixed a lot of color although it uses limited  flowering plants.

 

This one also used colorful caladiums as well as some substantial traling plants. Here they pretty much reach the sidewalk!

 

This box was at a business.

 

And I loved this against the brick.

 

What I’ve been reading

We have a new, independent book store in our neighborhood. That alone is good news, but it gets better: the staff is friendly, low-key and eager to help you find something you are going to love reading. In my case it was Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray. This was my beach read, light but lots of fun. This is a dual story that moves between a modern American woman grappling with a family crisis and her French grandmother who cooked and eventually modeled for Picasso during his stay in Juan les Pins in 1936.

This sounds contrived and it was. But we actually stayed in Juan les Pins while in France last fall. Picasso and his artistic contemporaries are inescapable there as well as in Antibes and Nice. We visited the Picasso Museum in the former Chateau Grimaldi, which also makes an appearance in the novel. We loved this part of our trip, so it was really fun to read a novel in that setting.

After Picasso, I needed to read Where the Crawdads Sing for my morning book group. Everyone is reading this, it has been on the best seller list for dozens of weeks, selling more than a million copies since its release last year. It was also something of an unusual choice for AM Lit. We don’t typically pick something that current; on the other hand, we assumed we would all be reading it, so why not read it together?

Author Delia Owens tells the story of Kya’s survival as a child essentially alone in a remote marsh of North Carolina. Kya’s story is both disturbing in that she is left alone to fend for herself and inspiring in the way she handles it with the help of just a few others. Owens alternates telling Kya’s story with relating the events surrounding a mysterious death several years later.

Crawdads generated a lively discussion. This book raises so many questions, not the least of which for me is the role of a celebrity recommendation. In this case Reese Witherspoon chose Crawdads for  her book club. How much does that shape a book’s popularity and recognition with both critics and readers in general?

Then our discussion leader for this month pointed us to a recent article in Slate which detailed Owens’ role related to another murder. (And no, she is not a suspect.) If you have read the book, read this. It’s interesting to consider how this real life murder may have shaped the mystery in the novel. If not, wait until another time since the Slate article includes a spoiler about the book’s quirky ending.

Finally, I just finished The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin. And guess what? This is also a story told in two different time frames, but with an interesting catch. It begins in 2079 when the narrator and the youngest of the Skinner siblings is 102. I was totally unprepared for this opening, but quickly got caught up in the story. The plot is somewhat familiar: it centers on a group of four siblings who are forced to raise themselves after their father dies unexpectedly in 1981 and their mother takes to her bed for two years. They later refer to this as “The Pause.” Their bond is remarkable and the role each assumes in the family is unique. This engaging story caught me completely off-guard. I didn’t always like the characters, but I couldn’t put the book down.

What’s next on my list? My grandson has pointed out that I’ve fallen behind on my Harry Potter reading, so The Prisoner of Azkaban is next.

One quick cook

If you have not heard of sheet pain suppers, where everything is essentially roasted together on a standard sheet pan, you’re missing out on some delicious, easy cooking and clean up. Although a lot of these recipes are geared to larger families, I have easily modified them for the two of us. And it’s also easy to tweak the main ingredients to your preferences. My latest effort starred smoked sausage (my husband’s request) which I paired with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers and slices of polenta. Despite the fact that the cherry tomatoes pretty much cooked down to nothing (I think I might try halved or quartered romas next time), we really enjoyed this. We had never tried polenta this way, but it roasted beautifully. The peppers were delicious, and I would add more next time.

That’s it lately. Pretty quiet actually, but that’s fine with me. Thanks for stopping by.

See you next time!

 

 

Lately: Baseball, architecture and how my garden grows

So what do you think there are more of, leaves on the trees or blades of grass?

That was my eight-year-old grandson’s intriguing question as we drove home from one of his ballgames this weekend. Since the answer would take lots of Google-ing and probably some math, I left that to his dad and Grandpa. But I think Jack unwittingly summed up June. It’s just so green, so lush, so full of promise.

Trip #1

Speaking of grandsons and baseball, Steve and I spent the weekend in Ohio carrying our folding chairs from game to game, following the five-year-old and his T-ball team and the eight-year-old and his coach pitch team (who seem like pro’s after watching T-ball).

These games have not changed in 30 years. Players wave to parents from the field, play in the dirt, forget where they’re at to watch a low-flying plane overhead and are happily surprised when they get a solid hit or make the play at first or second base. Forget marching bands and flag-waving patriots, this is America.

Trip #2

Before heading to Ohio, I joined a friend on a “field trip” into the city to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center cruise along the Chicago River. If you are a history or architecture fan (and even if you are not), the “Great Chicago Fire” led to a building renaissance in Chicago. And what started after the fire in 1871, continues today.

The Chicago skyline, looking west on the river.

The river cruises are led by volunteer docents from the Foundation. I know they have a common script that follows the boat route and they are well-trained to answer questions, but I believe you could do this cruise again and again and still learn something new, because each docent puts his or her own spin on the material. Maureen and I were part of a much larger group of Chicagoans, so this could have been a challenge to the volunteer. After all, we’ve all seen these buildings before and heard the stories behind them, and we have worked/shopped/visited them. Many of us had taken the tour before. But her passion for and knowledge of Chicago history and architecture was so palpable that she kept all of us totally engaged.

Separating history from architecture from the Chicago River is virtually impossible. Fort Dearborn, Chicago’s first settlement, was along the river. The engineers who worked with the architects solved the design issues, reversed the flow of the Chicago River, built more than a dozen movable bridges over the river so the city and industry could grow north and south. They replaced cast iron with steel and glass. The building and engineering continue to evolve. It’s a great story filled by the likes of Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe and populated by buildings as diverse as the Tribune Tower and the Willis (Sears) Tower. You don’t need to love architecture or history to respect the vision, engineering and problem solving that goes into each structure.

My garden is a little different every day

If you follow me on Instagram (you can do that here), you know I am a little obsessed with my garden, what I can cut or cook from it, other gardens, and so on. One of the great pleasures of a garden is that it’s a living, breathing entity and as such changes a bit every day. Something new is in bloom, there’s a weed invasion where there was nothing two days ago, I’ve solved the problem of rabbits eating the hostas but they’ve moved on to tulips, the daylilies have totally overgrown their space, or, this week, the shasta daisies seem stunted.

I tour the flower and herb beds most mornings, thinking about what I should do next. I pester other gardeners about how they treat various plant emergencies. My husband’s tomato plants have doubled in the last week. The daylilies in the garden are a sea of buds waiting for one or two more days to open.

In this photo, right, is an all white bed I planted about four years ago. I wanted to try a theme. It’s all about texture; I plan to add some Lamb’s Ears and Artemesia near the bottom of this photo. Beyond this bed, daylilies and Russian Sage are getting close to blooming. My Limelight hydrangeas, behind them, bloom later.

To have a garden is to happily anticipate the next bud, bloom, or fruit.

I hope the sun is shining and the gardens are growing wherever you are! Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.