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!

 

 

 

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!

Fall started with a manicure

My husband gave me this bowl years ago, and I really do love it! It’s perfect for big, mixed arrangements.

I stopped for a manicure the other day, then realized, as I was heading back to my car, that Trader Joe’s (which shares the parking lot) had an interesting variety of pumpkins piled outside. Of course, I checked out the display and they were even more appealing up close, not to mention well-priced!

And that was the nudge that pushed me into fall.

In truth, I had already picked up a few cute pumpkins and updated planters with mums, the latter because the previous blooms had totally withered in the last of summer’s heat. Now, however, I was into the new season. I cut two big buckets of drying hydrangea blooms and arranged them into several plump bouquets.

More than that, however, I began my quest for my own pumpkin patch in the front yard. It’s a challenge to see how many different kinds of pumpkins I can find — green, pink, white, orange — and I also have to protect them from from nibbling by squirrels, rabbits, and whoever else stops by for a bite of pumpkin. And don’t get me started on how easily specimens with soft spots or tiny breaks in their skin can readily rot into messy, mushy piles. (If it sounds like I have had experience with this, you are right.)

Here’s the font yard patch: three different oranges and a pink (!!!) pumpkin.
This is my patch from a few years ago.

This year I armed myself for serious pumpkin protection (or maybe I just need a hobby?). I washed them with soapy water seasoned with a splash of bleach. After they were dry, I spread them on a drop cloth and sprayed them with a clear coat sealer. I have no idea if these precautions will work, but they come from other bloggers who seem to know what they’re talking about. (Which really means they take their seasonal decorating much more seriously than I do.)

Pumpkins getting the “preservative treatment.”

I’ve also done my best to spread some autumnal cheer inside. I have an admirable collection of dried gourds, collected over several years, that I rely on for inside scene-setting at this time of year, but they are currently trapped under the basement stairs behind bookcases and toolboxes re-located for the duration of our drainage repairs (which should be wrapping up in another week or two. Hooray!!). So instead, I’m using more pumpkins, fruit, fresh and faux leaves to set the scene inside.

I piled my ceramic pumpkins from Berea, Kentucky, along with some some baby boos and a few real ones here on the antique dresser in the living room.

 

Then I thought about how good orange looks with blue and white, so I tried this in the dining room.

 

Finally I paired one of my buckets of hydrangeas with these pumpkins on the back porch!

Most importantly this has fed my puttering/tweaking gene, which spills over into a bit of fall cleaning, polishing and generally dusting-up. (My grandma would be pleased.) My house needed the attention and I needed the “therapy.”

I’m so glad I stopped for that manicure!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

Looks, cooks, and books from May

One of my favorite perennials, these are much earlier than my Shasta daisies and far more prolific.

Perhaps you’ve noticed? I’ve been in a bit of a blog funk, waiting for a spring that teased rather than settling in, getting caught up in a big round of volunteer meetings, and more. But I’m back. And here are the looks, cooks, and books I’ve been up to lately.

Digging in the dirt

It happens every spring. Like the fans who love getting back to baseball, I’m eager to get out to my garden. The season is short in Chicago, so you need to make the time count. I love seeing the perennials push their way up each spring, unfolding and leafing out. I worry over gaps, where a plant didn’t survive the winter or where I made a note last year to fill in with another specimen. I love this! It’s like styling a bookshelf or tabletop, but with plants in the dirt.

This year the cool, rainy spring has been both blessing and curse. The good news is that many of the perennials like hostas, dallies, and astilbes have loved the cool, wet spring. They are bigger than ever and many need to be divided. The bad news is that it is absolutely squishy and muddy in most of the yard. It’s just too wet to work.

I’m also challenging the familiar garden pot recipe — a thriller, a filler and a spiller — in patio pots this year. I did some like that and then planted a few others with just one kind of plant per pot. I had this idea last year, but didn’t quite get it done, so this year I planted two pots with nothing but cosmos. And I filled another pot with three marguerites, though I also tucked in some alyssum around the edges. They’re doing well, but the plants need to get bigger to make more of a statement.

After I planted cosmos seeds in one pot, I found these at the garden center and loved the color.

I read Harry Potter!

You’re probably saying, been there, done that. Well, I didn’t. (And I didn’t watch the movies either. I was waiting until I read the books!) Now that our eight-year-old grandson has started reading them, I’m catching up. I totally understand what the fuss is about because these are wonderful characters and stories. Second, and even better, it’s just so much fun sharing this discovery with Jack! He’s well ahead of me (of course), but a great cheerleader so I’ll be catching up.

When I finished Harry, I went on to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was the choice of one of the readers in a small, informal book group I meet with. Our choices are all over the map: fiction, non-fiction, especially biography, and sometimes we skip a book and watch a film together instead. This is a page-turner, about an aging Hollywood legend telling her life story — which includes seven husbands! — to a much younger writer mysteriously selected for the job. Check it out!

Two from my kitchen

When it’s too rainy to be outside (and we’ve had a lot of rain, have you?), I play in the kitchen. I discovered this recipe for copycat Starbucks blueberry muffins on the Cafe Sucre Farine. I happen to love those muffins (and have eaten more than my fair share of them), so I decided to see how close they really come. Well. they’re awesome and they do bake up with these lovely puffy, crunchy tops. There are a few extra steps in this recipe, but I think they’re worth it.

I’ve also been perfecting this chicken dish, recommended by Elizabeth at Blue & White Home. It began as a Southern Living sheet pan recipe using chicken thighs and drumsticks. And in that incarnation (check their website for Lemon-Rosemay-Garlic Chicken and Potatoes) I agree with Elizabeth that it’s perfect for serving a family or friends.

I wanted to try using white meat (my husband’s preference) in a smaller quantity. I’ve now made it three times, tweaking a bit each time. I used two, skin-on, bone -in chicken breasts (more than enough for our dinner and leftovers for a salad or two for me later in the week). While the oven preheated to 450, I browned the chicken pieces skin-side down along with a few handfuls of small potatoes, halved, in a small amount of olive oil. Use a pan than can go right into the hot oven.

While the chicken was browning I mixed 1/3 cup of olive oil, the juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup), half of a 3.5 ounce jar of capers drained, 4 smashed garlic cloves, and a generous tablespoon of fresh rosemary. I also sliced up another lemon and added that to the mix.

When the chicken was browned on one side, I turned chicken skin side up, poured the lemon/oil/herb mix over all and put the pan into the hot oven. It took about 40 minutes to reach 165 degrees. (It could be longer if you have more pieces in a larger pan). When it was done, I took the chicken and potatoes out and added a generous splash of white wine and a pat of butter to the pan juices and stirred and simmered for a few minutes until both were incorporated. I spooned this “sauce” over the plated chicken and potatoes. Voila! Dinner is served.

 

Pretty pictures

Some days Instagram is so full of great images, I just have to save some. I have always loved a sunroom, especially with a black & white floor, but this one with the baby grand breaks all the rules!

 

And then there is this beautiful vintage frame, with the asymmetrical arrangement of blue and white. (Yes, I’m trying to figure how to duplicate it!)

 

And finally, I just can’t resist a pretty windowbox!

           

How was your May? And what’s your plan for June?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

Lately: Forcing cherry blossoms & re-reading books

Lately I’ve been obsessed with forcing these cherry branches I found at Whole Foods. Normally, I’m not big on forcing branches to flower, mostly because the forsythia that’s usually available just doesn’t “do it” for me. However, I had not seen the cherry branches before and one bundle had a few soft pink blooms already open. They certainly looked like spring to me!

However, I picked a different bundle because it was bigger and hauled it home. Then, because there were no buds open yet, I started worrying that they may not open. Yikes! So, I started checking the branches —  several times a day, worrying over them. I eventually realized that the buds had to fatten up a bit and then they started to open. Whew! Mother Nature is amazing. The bundle is taking over one end of our living room, and I may have to move some branches elsewhere (not a bad thing), but I’m loving the look.

Do you re-read books?

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I have been re-reading Reflected Glory, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Pamela Churchill Harriman, as she preferred to be called, was married briefly in the early years of WWII to Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph. Although the marriage floundered from the start, Pamela was a favorite of the Prime Minister and rubbed shoulders with an endless stream of notable figures including Harry Hopkins (Roosevelt’s right-hand man), Eisenhower, and even Edward R. Murrow. It was also how she initially met Harriman, a U.S. envoy to Great Britain at the time.

Pamela Churchill Harriman was a 20th-Century courtesan who enjoyed long-term relationships with a number of powerful — often married — men. She knew the right people, did favors large and small, and helped people make the right connections, often at her own dinner table. (The Churchill name and connections went quite far in London and Europe.) She even famously kept a small pad and pencil beside her plate at dinner to jot down notes about her guests, everything from their favorite cigar to questions about international policy. In many ways, Pamela was in the business of details, details to please those around her and details she could use to her advantage. She reinvented herself several times over.

Back to the re-reading thing. I first read this book in the early 90’s when she was the American ambassador to France, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Then, a few weeks ago, @markmcginesswrites on Instagram posted her photo (If you aren’t following him, you should. His comments about people and places, most often in Great Britain, are just wonderful.) His post piqued my curiosity and I rummaged thru my bookshelves to find her biography (yet another reason I’m not giving up any more books, as I posted here). I thought I may just skim a bit of it, but I’ve never been good at that. I’m rereading the book and enjoying it just as much the second time around.

In the great scheme of reading, when there are “so many books and so little time,”  reading purists might say this is not time well-spent. I disagree. In the case of Reflected Glory, I had been to France for one quick trip the first time I read it. Since then, I have been fortunate to return several times and made a handful of stops in Great Britain. I have a better sense of that slice of history and place. As reading whet my appetite for travel, travel has also whet my appetite for reading. In the case of this book, I am reading it from a different perspective.

I have no idea if these shelves hold any of the books that fill the shelves at my house, but isn’t this a great space? From designer Eric Cross’s Instagram.

Sometimes, however, re-reading is just simply fun. Gone With the Wind was one of the first books I re-read. And I did so more than once. I loved the romance/drama of Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and Ashley. It was a wonderful escape until I began to realize what a carefully polished view the book was of a genuinely terrible chapter in our history.

There are other guilty pleasures I’ve re-read as well, often “beach reads” like Anne Rivers Siddons’ Islands and Peachtree Road. Last fall I re-read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I read and enjoyed it a few years ago but my book group was discussing it, so I dove back in. I was glad I did because there were some characters and plot twists I needed to review. In short, there was a lot more substance than I had initially given it.

Sometimes I get so caught up in “the story” that I just go with it instead of perhaps doing the more careful reading, following themes and character development. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. As an English major, I spent so much time taking notes on everything I read, reading for pleasure was an activity I had to re-learn.

So, what about you? Do you ever re-read a book? Or do you just move on? I’d love to hear what you think!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Keeping my cool

Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.

I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.

Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?

First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!

Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.

Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.

Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”

But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!

Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

The heart of a garden

Sometimes writing a blog post reveals more to me than it does to you. That may be the case here. I started out to write about “Getting my spring on” and how nice it has been to get back outside after a seemingly endless winter. But as I typed I began to see that for me, this year, “Getting my spring on” meant a whole lot more.

Forget lilacs and peonies. One of the sure signs of spring here has always been moving the wicker sofa from the family room (where it “winters”) back out to the porch. Then we bring up the wicker rocker and side tables from the basement and the chairs that fit around the dining table out there, and life is good. This is where we eat most of the summer, have drinks with friends, read the paper, check our email, plan our day over coffee.

But the best way for me to get my spring on is digging in the dirt. It’s creative to coax color and texture from seedlings and soil, to pick the right plants for the right spot, to pair colors and textures for the best effect. But it’s a lot more. Planting, pruning and even weeding has always been therapeutic for me, as I think it is for many others.

The power of digging in the dirt

One of my “renovated beds,” with new lilacs and transplanted daylilies.

Gardening is a nurturing process, caring for the plants while enjoying time outside, being nurtured by nature. This is a lesson I learned from my maternal grandfather, who always had a garden. I’m sure the vegetables began as a depression-era effort to supplant the family budget. Grandpa tended the garden; Grandma canned. This morphed into a larger “victory garden” in World War II; it was one way they could support the war effort and I suspect it kept them busy and managed stress while sons, nephews and friends were scattered around the globe.

In addition to the tomatoes, beets, beans, carrots, and more, there were always flowers: geraniums, dahlias, phlox, marigolds. (Thinking back, I wonder how he squeezed so much into that tiny, 25-foot Chicago lot!) Happily he passed that gene on to me! (This totally skipped my mother, whose garden was limited to whatever Grandpa planted for her and that was totally lost on my father, who efficiently mowed down more than one rose bush without recognizing what it was!)

This year I have found my garden to be especially nurturing.

I wrote a few posts ago about suddenly, unexpectedly, losing a very good friend. Her death left me reeling and I was unable to come to terms with it until I got into the garden. I am sure time itself had something to do with it, but the simple tasks of raking and cleaning up the beds, of digging up the weeds and dividing and transplanting some perennials, of dealing with the life of the garden, brought me some peace. (This would be easily explainable if she was an avid gardener, but it’s actually her husband who has a green thumb and has mentored my gardening efforts. Sherry just loved flowers and and for her the garden was a natural source!)

So, this is the year I discovered that gardens also yield comfort.

Daylillies and coneflowers last summer.

I am, however, still left with lingering weeds, the purple coneflowers gone wild, daylilies desperate for division, herbs that need tending and some ideas to renovate tired beds. After assuming I had finally nailed the basic landscape at our house, the light conditions abruptly changed. The large ash tree that shaded our front yard fell victim to the dreaded ash borer. Not only do we miss the shade, but a bed with a number of shade-loving perennials was totally crisped last summer. In the back yard we had a bank of upright arborvitae along the southern lot line. They threw a lot of shade, but they got way too big, and then damaged by a heavy snow a few winters ago. We had them removed & replanted that area with hydrangeas last year. It looks terrific, but it’s pretty sunny now. (Aha! A new gardening opportunity!)

I’ve now spent some time moving things from sun to shade and shade to sun. (I think of this as the gardener’s version of tweaking bookshelves or furniture arrangements!) I’ve also spent two fun mornings at my favorite nursery, searching out replacement plants. I can’t wait to see how this all works out. And I’m feeling a little more at peace with the world each time I dig in the dirt.

These are the challenges gardeners relish and the rewards they reap!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?