My plan this year was to spend May getting our yard into shape so we could begin enjoying it with friends & family as soon as weather permitted. But then the pandemic interrupted.
I stared at the the test results on my computer screen for several minutes. Positive. Then I asked my husband to come take a look.
After being fully vaccinated in March and being “crazy careful” as my friend Laura would say for the entire pandemic, I tested positive for Covid the second week in May. My doctor told me I was the first of his patients to have a “break through” case.
Now, how special is that?
And I don’t know how I got it. I have only been with a handful of people, all of them vaccinated, with the exception of my 7- and 10-year-old grandsons. And it doesn’t really matter except to say that somehow one of those little viruses snuck into my life.
Happily for me, my symptoms were pretty mild. (Though there were times in those first 4 or5 days when I would not have described them in that way.) I coughed, had body aches, a sore throat, and a mild fever. But most of all I slept — I simply could not keep my eyes open.
I had to quarantine, which meant staying in our bedroom for days. My husband moved into the guest room. He brought me tea and toast and soup on a tray. Then he tested positive too. Steve’s symptoms seemed milder than mine, but because we were both positive I no longer had to stay in one room. Less work for Steve, a little more freedom for me.
Was this an improvement?
So now we are recovering and waiting to get on with our summer. My quarantine ended and Steve’s will in a few days. I’m taking afternoon naps many days, because the fatigue has lingered a bit. Steve’s anxious to get his tomatoes and peppers planted in his community garden plot. We’re figuring this out day by day and getting better along the way.
So why am I telling you all this? It is a cautionary tale. We know that there are a small number of cases — maybe 3 to 5-percent — where the vaccine isn’t perfect. Steve and I were vaccinated by a major Chicagoland health provider at our local hospital. I know they were doing approximately 800 vaccinations at day at our location. Do the math. As many as 40 people could still get sick, but NOT AS SICK as they would have been. And that may be the key — we did not get as sick as we could have. So, yes, I cobtinue to believe the vaccine is everything. And presumably I’ll stop lookiong over my shoulder at some point, checking to see if some nugget of the virus is heading my way.
Early on in the pandemic, I told my daughter that I believed before it was over, we would all be touched by Covid. I had no idea it would get so personal!
How are you & how’s your week? It’s chilly and rainy here in Chicagoland, with the potential for snowflakesI I was working on a couple of posts, then realized I could just mash them into one. Hopefully a little something for everyone. Here for your reading pleasure are books, looks, cooks and gardens all in one! Enjoy!
Did you watch the 3-part Hemingway series on PBS? As an English major with a concentration in 20th Century American writers, I positively devoured each episode. (Plus, it’s produced by Ken Burns. How could you go wrong?)
Hemingway is all you would expect from the Ken Burns team — a deep dive into a man both charismatic and cruel, a brilliant writer in search of “one perfect sentence.” Many of his books were deemed instant classics, others suffered withering reviews. While still in his twenties, Hemingway and his first wife became part of the romantic group of authors and artists in Gertrude Stein’s “salon.” In fact, Stein read and critiqued much of his work and F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to his publisher.
What has always fascinated me about Hemingway the writer is how spare he is with words. Editing, revising, and editing more. Some of the most telling scenes of the series detailed his careful, endless editing of his own work, crossing out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs until he had the manuscript he wanted. He wrote books and short stories full of perfect sentences, but as the literary scholars and contemporary writers in the series point out, some of his writing was stunning, some just fell flat.
Hemingway the man was complex. He married fours times, falling in love with wives number two, three and four while still married to their predecessors. He adored his three sons but later experienced angry splits with them just as he had with his own mother. He drank too much, dared too much, inserted himself into two world wars and more than one foreign civil war. He loved bullfighting, hunting big game in Africa and designed his own boat for fishing the waters off Key West and Havana. He lived a very big life that was often depicted in his novels and short stories.
For me, Hemingway is both writer and cultural character from a significant period in American history. The series captures that history memorably. You need not be a book lover or Hemingway fan to appreciate the context.
(If you want to toast the new season with Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, you can get the recipe from David Lebovitz here, )
French toast perfection
For years I made the most basic pancakes and waffles — you can do just about anything with that box of mix, right? My husband, however, really likes french toast. His is pretty basic: sandwich bread dipped in beaten eggs and grilled. I just never saw (or tasted) the charm. However, our annual beach trips have always included at least one trip to a breakfast buffet I would describe as breakfast nirvana — chafing dishes of bacon, sausage, grits, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or — wait for it — french toast. This is thick, flavorful french toast, much more than eggs and bread. Earlier this spring, when my husband and I had way too much time on our hands and were hanging around the house waiting for vaccinations, we went on a quest for french toast perfection.
The bread is essential. We tried an unsliced white country-style loaf that we could slice thicker. It was good, but I thought the bread should contribute more flavor. Next we tried a brioche, again in a loaf we sliced. This was too soft (maybe I should have let it sit for a few more days?). It did not hold up well to eggs or grilling. Finally, I found an unsliced challah loaf. This was our favorite, although I think it should also age for a day or so.
We also needed the right egg mixture. We took a look at some “fancier” recipes and began to tinker with each batch. We beat the eggs with cream instead of milk. (Typically the only milk in our refrigerator is skim and it just doesn’t work in recipes requiring a certain silkiness.) To boost the flavor, we added fresh orange juice, orange zest and a dash of Grand Marnier. (The additions in the restaurant recipe we used as a jumping off point.)
The first batch with the country white bread, juice, zest and Grand Marnier was a definite improvement over our old bread and eggs, but too orange-y. When we tried it with the brioche we skipped the juice and used the zest and Grand Marnier. Better flavor, messy toast. Our next effort used the challah and the improved egg mixture. This was the keeper.
We learned a few things from our recipe testing:
Using cream or cream cut with half & half gave the egg mixture a lot more body.
Beat eggs until they are completely smooth (no globs of egg white).
Zest is better than juice; a tablespoon of liqueur adds a subtle touch.
The bread is everything. It needs to be at least a day or two old and sliced 3/4 to 1-inch thick.
We dipped the bread in the egg mixture, flipping it over to make sure it was fully coated, then laid the slices in a single layer in a shallow pan. When all the slices were in the pan we poured the remaining batter over them.
As a cook, I enjoyed making this a few times in quick succession, tweaking the recipe until I had something I was willing to serve friends and family. But, let’s face it, this was a decadent experiment. We only added the bacon and fruit on the last try and each time we made this it was more brunch than breakfast. We used 4 eggs and 3/4 C of cream to make 6 slices, two of which we never touched.
So, we’re ready for houseguests, brunch on the porch and maybe even Father’s Day, but it’s probably best for our waistlines and our cholesterol that we’re vaccinated, the weather has warmed considerably, and we’re tackling a long list of outdoor projects.
Chicagoland gardening is slow to start compared to so many other parts of the country. But despite erratic temperatures, Mother Nature has been busy. Daylilies, daisies, hostas and perennial geraniums are greening up the beds. I have tulips and daffodils in all stages of bloom. And this redbud is getting ready to show off.
Although I am not at all good at starting annuals by seed, I did start one tray of marigolds and cosmos, and look! They’re coming up. The real trick, however, is making the transition from these nurturing peat pots into garden spaces. Fingers crossed!
I hope your garden is greening up, you’ve found something engrossing to read or watch, and — if all else fails — just make some french toast!
Welcome to Part 1 of an occasional series of armchair travel snippets, brief moments along the way that are memorable because they were teachable or funny or even a mini history lesson. I think of them as travel footnotes, not on the itinerary, but sometimes the best part of the trip.
I get a lot of questions about our willingness to travel independently and especially DRIVE in Europe. First, let me say we have only driven in France and Italy, where they drive on the right (as opposed to the UK where they drive on the left). Driving in another country is always a little unnerving. Highway signage is very much like it is in the US, but of course in another langusge. Speed limits and distances are posted in kilometers, not miles. But that’s just s bit of math. Parking, however, is always an adventure. After riding around the same block several times in Antibes, France, we did what so many others had and just parked on the sidewalk.
But, there are times when the independence of car travel on your own is a real advantsge. Since our first visit to Provence when we toured the remains of the Roman coliseum in Arles, I have been struck by the number and sophistication of those ruins. First, they demonstrate how far the Roman Empire reached (It was everywhere!) and, second, the ruins show how much the Romans knew what they were doing when they were building.
Pont Julien, originally built in 3 B.C., is perfectly preserved and remained in use until a neighboring bridge was built in 2005! Now it’s reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.This bridge is not a big tourist destination; we noticed it on a map of the area the night before we would be driving nearby and decided to try to find it.
We stopped here after our visit to Chateau Sercy.Pont Julien was built on the Via Domitia, a Roman road connecting Italy and Spain through what was then a Roman province, now Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence in southern France. There is a modest parking area and some low-key signage, but perhaps most importantly Pont Julien is simply a part of the larger, country landscape, much as it was when it was built. While we were there, walking the bridge and taking photos, I was thinking about the Roman soldiers crossing this bridge, their carts of supplies and animals rumbling over the stones, in a time before this was even France. Imagine!
Terrible timing in Aix
Our timing to visit Aix en Provence was terrible. We were there on a busy market day, the traffic was awful, we couldn’t find parking, and pretty soon Steve and I were both snapping at each other. (Which happens from time to time when you spend days in a car in a foreign country!)
We really wanted to visit Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix. It’s out of the way in a residential neighborhood (which turned out to be very congested). We decided we’d skip the old town crowds and limit our visit to the studio. Even this scaled back plan was a challenge. Aix is very busy with narrow streets and modern traffic. We got as close as we could, parked in a hospital’s public lot, and walked the rest of the way. We were hot & cranky and I wondered if Cezanne’s studio would be worth it.
It was amazing! Cezanne’s studio is as he left it a few days before he died in 1906. His brushes and paints, easels and props are as he left them.
A little background is important. Cezanne knew this would likely be his last studio and had it built to suit his needs. The first floor had basic living quarters and the second floor — essentially one large room — was his studio. The artist even had a slim, vertical door built into one corner to allow him to move large canvases in and out.
In October of 1906 the artist was working outside, a few miles away, painting one of his favorite subjects, Mont Sainte Victoire. An exceptionally cold, wet storm moved in, yet he continued to work. When he finally decided to return to the studio, the chill had already gripped him. He collapsed and died a few days later. After his death his family simply locked the studio. Later a writer acquired the space, but only used the first floor. Cezanne’s studio remained untouched. Eventually the property was put on the marketplasce, but a group of Americans, realizing the studio was still just as Cezanne left it, bought the space to preserve it. It remains today in its 1906 state.
What happened at Versailles after the revolution?
I visited Versailles with my son on our first trip to Paris; my daughter was there as part of a school tour. We thought it was just “meh.” Big, crowded, and lots of lines. However, by 2018 my husband and I had been to France a few more times and Steve thought it was time for him to visit this French landmark. It helped that we were comfortable taking the train there ourselves, thus skipping the tour bus my son and I had taken, an experience I was anxious to avoid repeating.
We thought it would be important to “skip the lines” at the chateau so Steve researched tours. The one that appealed to both of us was described as an inside look at the King and Queen’s apartments. But, we got so much more! What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, and obviusly knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. He didn’t just point out this antique and that chandelier.
For example, drinking glasses were not left on the dining table. If a guest desired a drink, he or she signaled the footman posted behind the guest’s chair (one was assigned to each diner) for the beverage and then the footman took the glass back. Can you say pampered?
We all hear about the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, and the exquisite furnishings, but what happened at Versailles afterthe revolution? Most of the furnishings were sold off. The new government was desperate for money. (I didn’t learn that in history class, did you?). When we visited the King’s grand and gold library, the guide pointed out this commode was acquired post-revolution by one of the Rothschilds. During WWII when the Germans confiscated the best of European art and antiques, the commode was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.) That has been the story of many if not most of the palace furnishngs. Versailles was literally stripped of everything worth money and those treasures have only trickled back. They continue to track them down & buy them back.
And here’s my lesson from Versailles: some sights are well worth a second, closer look. You always lesarn something new.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this bit of armchair travel. And I hope you have joined the ranks of the newly vaccinated, or at least have it on your calendar. Thanks for stopping by.
PS: Here’s a bit of serendipity. This picture of my favorite Parisian square, Place Dauphine, popped up on Instagram the other day. Have a great day!
Weather changes everything, doesn’t it? Ten days ago we were buried under well over a foot of snow and the temperatures lingered in single digits. Recently temperatures have crept into the 40s and the big melt is on. Welcome to March!
Two good reads
I just finishedreading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. (Skip this paragraph if you already read it, because it was published a few years ago). I have never found Kingsolver’s novels to be “easy reads,” but they are also very worth the effort. Unsheltered is no different. Like many recent books, this one tells two distinct stories, one modern and one dating from the 1870’s. The hook is that both stories unfold in a house at the same address in a small New Jersey town and in a period of social upheaval.
The modern heroine, Willa, an unemployed journalist, and her husband Iano, an underemployed professor, face the same unsolvable financial struggles so many Americans have been grappling with for the last few decades: job insecurity, caring for sick, dependent parents, adult children and a grandchild needing their support. I was a few chapters into their story before I realized that it was playing out against the last five years of polarizing politics in this country. Their story is sometimes uncomfortable, often raw, but an honest look at today’s middle class.
Willa’s nineteenth century counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, a teacher and disciple of Charles Darwin and Asa Grey, hired to teach science at a high school where he’s forbidden to use the term “evolution.” Greenwood, his wife, her mother and sister are living on the edge of poverty at the same address more than a hundred years earlier. He bonds intellectually with his neighbor, botanist Mary Treat, a historic figure in the company of Darwin, Grey and others. Caught like Willa in the winds of social change, he’s also in a no-win position, although his story benefits from Kingsolver’s scientific reservoir of botany & biology.
Unsheltered is much more than a novel. It’s history, science, and social and political commentary. It’s complicated, but so is life. It’s a great book to read in the company of a friend or two because there’s so much to discuss.
I also read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. I looked forward to this book by Kathleen Rooney, a memoir cum novel about a successful career woman, for a time the most highly paid woman in advertising in the 1930’s.Rooney based her character on a real woman, Margaret Fishback. The story line follows the 84-year-old Lillian’s New Year’s Eve walk around Manhattan in 1984.Lillian recounts her life’s ups and downs while walking past important (to her) landmarks along the way. This is a book both funny and poignant. I wish I knew more about Manhatten’s storied streets and neighborhoods. On other hand, as a former copywriter, I more than understood Lillian’s work.
Look! Stanley Tucci is in Italy!
Are you watching Stanley Tucci Searching for Italy on CNN? There’s a bit of a buzz about it and I can understand why. It’s about Italy, it’s about food, and Stanley Tuccihas access to the best chefs and their kitchens. This is fun: pretty people, pretty scenery, pretty food and a pace that moves viewers from kitchen, to field, to table. One of the things Steve and I learned on our European travels is the impact of local food sources on local flavors and farm-to-table cooking and eating. It’s a significant part of European culture and Tucci nails it.
After you’ve watched Stanley Tucci Searching for Italy, check out Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. Phil Rosenthal (creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond”) travels the country and the globe eating and taking in the culture. Good food in cool places.
My husband’s kitchen takeover
Yes, I’ve been temporarily “excused” from kitchen duty.
Steve has stepped up and he’s really good. Actually he has always had his specialties. Friends refer to his beef burgundy as legendary and I don’t make chili at all any more because his is so much better. He also makes a very mean meatloaf. But now he’s making chicken pot pie, spaghetti bolognese, and Stanley Tucci’s pizza (see above). Tonight he’s making my favorite salmon (as long as I talk him through it!).
This all started with me fainting a few weeks ago, something I have been known to do in the past and for no discernible reason (though my doctors have certainly tried to find one). We went to the ER where I fainted again (apparently I don’t truly recover from one faint so they often repeat) but this time I was plugged into all sorts of monitors and — ta dah — the doctors identified a brief but especially quirky heart rythm they describe as an electrical problem. After a few more tests the next day, I got a pacemaker to guard against that quirk. All this is is a very long way of saying I cannot lift my right arm over my head or pick up more than a gallon of milk for six weeks. (Yikes! Yes, six weeks.)
It’s been a bit of a challenge getting my head around this pacemaker, but fainting without warning and with no recognizable trigger is dangerous, so I’m also relieved. And while this is certainly a personal topic to blog about — I really had to think about it — this is life throwing the occasional curve. I think of you as my friends, and I need to put a good spin on this, lest I think of myself as too fragile. And wouldn’t that be boring?
Thanks for stopping by, for reading/listening. Stay safe, wear your mask and get your shot!
Do you decorate your house the way you dress? If you looked in my closet, you would see that it’s easily three-quarters black dresses, slacks and tops and the rest jeans (some of them black) and white shirts. I do have a navy dress and my spring/summer wardrobe is a little more colorful, but still built on black & white bones. So is it a surprise that this is the combo that’s catching my decorating eye?
In a season of design trends and color picks for the new year, I’m throwing a curve and going for black and white. It’s crisp, it’s classic, it’s terribly chic. And as I recently discovered reviewing my Instagram favorites and saves, I have been consciously or subconsciously collecting examples of black & white home style. Take a look at just a few of my Instagram favorites to see what I mean.
I first fell in love with black & white floors at “the house that got away.” I think everyone has one of these — a house they fell for, that was perfect but sold too fast or was too expensive. If you love houses, it always rests there, in the back of your brain in the “would have/should have/could have file.” This happened for mewhen we were buying our first house. My “house that got away” was a stately older home, part of which had been converted into a rental apartment (the only reason we could have afforded it). The space that made the house for me was a black and white checked marble floor in the sunroom off the living room. (Actually, in retrospect, I’m sure the sunroom was part of the charm.)
All of which is a long way of saying, look at these floors:
The black & white entry floor, above, is classic, but also a grand space, not my style (or budget) at all. But those floors are hard to ignore. On the other hand, the kitchen below is not that big and carries the black and white into the adjacent dining area. I have always been drawn to black cabinets. Originally, I wanted my kitchen island to be black, then fell for the trendier gray. I still wonder if there are black cabinets in my future.
One of the things I’ve noticed in looking over these photos is that it would be easy to introduce smaller bits of black into an already neutral room. Picture and mirror frames, lamps and shades as well as other accessories can add a subtle or substantial impact, depending on their use. And of course there is fabric. The decorator friend that helped me with the house we did buy (after the one that got away) found me polished chintz curtains on a black ground (rejected by a client who clearly had a lack of vision) that I acquired “for a song.” Unfortunately I had to leave them behind when we sold the house.
The black & white in this kitchen is subtler, but appealing.
Actually, kitchens are a big commitment. How about a powder room or bathroom in black and white. What do you think? It’s a smaller “serving” of black & white, but with a timeless feel.
Black & white decor is not limited to kitchens & baths. How about this bedroom. The black bed with crisp white bedding is neatly balanced by the antique screen and table. If the entire room had been decked out in antiques as on the left, it might come off as a bit fussy. But the black bed and nightstand balance that. I wonder what the rest of the room looks like?
This hallway vignette is simple and contemporary, but hardly boring. I love the contrast between the traditional floral painting and the more modern vase and table. A transitional space like this is perfect for introducing a clean black & white arrangement. Sort of a visual palate cleanser.
I have always been a sucker for dark artwork in a light room. I adore the image of this small kitchen and have kept it in my idea file for years. I love that the dark background in the painting picks up the black in the ceiling lantern and the lamp on the counter. What genuinely thoughtful choices.
The same is true in the living room below, where well-placed accessories introduce a bit of black into an essentially light room. The black coffee table calls out the black trim around the firebox and a few black accessories on the bookshelves help tie it together.
So, now I’m prowling thru my house looking for more black & white and/or ways to incorporate it. And I have a start:
So, my plan is to add a little black & white throughout our house. I actually have a bit of a start in the living room. This lamp with the black shade was my mother’s choice (she was the real design maven). We purchased the two large prints on the street in Rome and had them framed in black. I think there needs to be something more on the wall here, but I just haven’t decided what, so stay tuned.
Thanks for stopping by and scrolling all the way thru. (I know I can get really carried away.) What about you, any decorating plans for the new year?
January has been a fun month in my kitchen thanks to some new tools from my family. And with new tools, of course, come new recipes and a few new lessons.
For starters, I have been wanting one of these Boos wooden cutting blocks since I worked on a smaller one at The Cook’s Atelier in France. Working on wood is much kinder to my knives than the vinyl and ceramic mats I have been using. This one is large ( 15” by 20”) and therefore genuinely heavy. I can’t just snatch it up with one hand, and I may have to re-think how & where I store it, but it’s a delight to work on. It stays in place on the counter and is roomy enough to work with large vegetables, meats, etc.
Wood boards are a bit picky about maintenance. They clean up with soap & water, but must be immediately dried. Wood can be sprinkled with salt, then wiped with lemon to eliminate strong odors (a.k.a. garlic); wiping with distilled vinegar disinfects the board after cutting raw meat. Treated to regular coats of oil, my board should last a life time.
I was eager to give the block a work out, so I launched a two-day soup-making marathon using recipes from Ina Garten’s new book, Modern Comfort Food, a gift from my son & daughter-in-law. Ina’s Chicken Pot Pie soup is fabulous, every bit as delicious as her recipe for the pot pies in Make It Ahead, but with a flavorful broth instead of white sauce. There are a few ingredients that give it an edge over standard chicken soups: leeks, fennel, tarragon and a piece of parmesan cheesed rind that adds a subtle but yummy flavor dimension.
Then, because I had a hambone left from Christmas and a bag of split peas, I made her pea soup, also in New Comfort Cooking. I love pea soup and this one is delicious and pretty much what I have always made based on my mother’s recipe which was my grandmother’s recipe. (As I write this I realize that my family recipe was never written down. I’d call Mom and say how do I do this and she would walk me through it. I’m sure she learned it from watching Grandma. Do you use recipes like this?)
Both recipes gave me plenty of chopping and dicing practice on my new board, but making the pots of soup also exhausted my supply of homemade chicken stock. So a few days ago I got out the pot, a cut-up chicken and the requisite fresh veggies to make more. This time in addition to a few quarts of stock for the freezer I also have frozen, 2-cup blocks of stock thanks to these silicone soup blocks, also from my daughter-in-law. Each section holds up to 2 cups of liquid. After freezing, you can pop them out of the tray (like ice cubes) and keep them frozen in a bag. They should be the perfect quantity for recipes calling for a lesser amount of chicken stock and they take less freezer space. Win/win!
I hope you are’t too bored yet because I have one more tool to share and it’s this kitchen journal from my daughter. I have wanted something like this for some time, initially to track menus and what I served and to whom and when. Sometimes it would also be nice to refer back to how much of a given dish/appetizer/dessert I served. (As in, what cheeses were the favorites on the cheese board and what did everyone pass on?) It’s perfect for recording those unwritten recipes, like Grandma’s pea soup, my stuffing recipe, and how I prep and freeze summer vegetables.
There’s probably an app to track this on my computer, but since I am a paper and pen girl at heart, I love the idea of writing it down.
I know these are essentially small things, details perhaps in the grand scheme. But I am grateful to have this interest to fall back on during the continuing pandemic. Cooking is creating as much as painting, drawing, knitting, sewing, and all the other pursuits so many of us have adopted to stay engaged, to look forward.
What about you? What’s keeping you going these winter days?
I had planned to talk about the to-be-read and to-be-cooked lists I’ve been compiling for the new year, along with a few stabs I’ve made at de-cluttering and the other ways in which I was planning to entertain myself while we wait out the pandemic. (In the county were I live the Health Department describes the risk of infection as “substantial.” I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound good, does it?
Then, on last Wednesday afternoon while I was on a Zoom call, my husband passed me a note that read, “The protesters have breached the capitol, and Congress is under lockdown.”
When my call was over and I joined my husband in front iof the television, we both watched, jaws dropping, at the sight of protesters over-running the Capitol Police inside that space. What a stunning violation in the seat of our democracy!
My husband and I have personal connections to the Capitol. Steve grew up in suburban Washington D.C. and spent a fair amount of time working summers on The Hill. I spent a semester off-campus in Washington, where my roommate and I had little blue passes that got us into the House and Senate visitors galleries whenever we wanted. As political junkies we spent a lot of time there. Obviously security has necessarily grown tighter since then, but Steve and I have visited with our son and daughter more than once. On our last visit, my daughter actually led the tour as a summer Senate intern.
I can’t explain the sinking, sick feeling I had when sign-carrying protesters, some of them wrapped in flags, wandered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat in the Speakers’ chair, and pushed and shouted their way thru Statuary Hall. I can count a number of friends from both political parties who I’m sure had the same gut reaction. It was so out of time and place. But that was just the beginning.
Sadly, as the news continues to unfold, the dark, dangerous intent behind this protest becomes darker and clearer. And that raises even more questions. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, ugly and frightening.
This blog is intended to weigh in on life’s lighter side — on looks, cooks, books, and occasional travels — and I’ll certainly get back to that soon. But January 6, 2021, is a seminal moment in American history, as stunning as 9/11. This time the enemy came from within. That it was endorsed by a sitting president makes it unspeakable.
I realize we all have a lot to unpack and sort out here. I just had to pause.
The reading app that I use on my iPad gave me a remarkable report the other day: I’ve read 27 books on my electronic sidekick this year! Trust me; I’m not a numbers person. (I can’t even tell you what a loaf of bread or gallon of milk costs!) I don’t think I’ve ever tallied my reading before. This number just popped up, so I went thru the list. Yep, it’s right.
Most of this has been what I would call my “pandemic reading,” more than a dozen Louise Penny mysteries and, when I ran out of Louise Penny, I went thru the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries that I had missed along the way. No surprise this worked for me. There are some similarities: both series feature likable detectives and charming casts of returning characters. I find them remarkably easy to slide into and escape current events.
But there’s more: I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I usually downloaded these books late at night when I really needed new reading material and found the $6.99 to $8.99 price tag a bargain versus looking for a sleeping pill. (Have you suffered from insomnia the past year?) Of course, there is the chance I got so engrossed in the books, that I read longer than I should have. But that’s another post.
These were the books I read when I couldn’t concentrate on anything tougher, and I make no apologies. Like so many others, I found that the pandemic, civil unrest and the charged political atmosphere made for some very unsettling times. I have often thought of reading as an escape or the roadmap to information and answers. My iPad reading list reveals just how much I needed to escape!
On the other hand, as you may recall from other posts, I did truly enjoy some meatier reads in 2020. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner is one of those books that has stayed with me. I wrote about it hereOne of my favorites was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. This book was based onreal events and had an especially meaningful message about about racism and bigotry. I wrote about it here I wrote about three more great reading choices here, Check them out.
I think, however, my favorite was Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile recounting Churchill’sfirst year as Prime Minister. Larson’s writing seamlessly marries the details of aircraft, strategic planning and internstional diplomacy with lively details of everyday life drawn from his impeccable sources. Churchill surrounded himself with a colorful cast of characters, and his family was equally entertaining and plays a significant role in the book. For history nerds like me, it was totally engrossing. (A member of my book group confided that she was only permitting herself to read a limited number of pages per day, to make the book last longer!)
I just finished The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict. Like The Sound of Gravel and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, this story of Hedy Lamarr’s (Yes! That Hedy Lamarr!!) role as a scientific inventor (with composer George Antheil) of a “frequency-hopping” radio communication technology that eventually was linked to the development of our wifi is a well-layered tale. Before she was Hedy Lamarr actress, she was Hedy Kiesler, young Austrian actress and then Hedy Mandl, married to Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, pro-fascist Austrian arms dealer and munitions manufacturer.
Lamarr’s escape from Nazi Austria to Hollywood stardom is more than enough to make for a good read, but her struggle to be accepted for more than her beauty and glamour makes it a contemporary tale as well. Author Benedict has a talent for telling the story of women who broke the rules of convention by moving well-beyond their expected roles. The Other Einstein recalls the life of Mileva Maric, a brilliant physicist who just happened to be the first wife of Albert Einstein, and Lady Clememtine, wife of Winston Churchill, both of them also often “the only woman in the room.” (These last two are also both good reads.)
Looking back at the year in books, instead of what I missed because of the pandemic, I realize I am genuinely lucky to enjoy the riches I’ve found in reading. Hopefully you can look back with a similarly thankful heart. Looking ahead, I sincerely wish you a healty and happy new year. And plenty of good reading material!
How are you? I know it’s been awhile. Frankly, I fell into a bit of a mental rabbit hole and needed a break — time to escape with a few Sue Grafton mysteries, watch old movies, and putter around my kitchen.Has this happened to you?
By now you probably have your tree up, most of us do. But you may not, or you may still be perfecting the decoration of it, or maybe you decided you didn’t really want a tree this year. This “Covid year” is a challenge in so many ways and we have a few more months to go.
As I was scrolling thru Instagram last night (and I am always scrolling thru Instagram!), I started thinking about what a personal statement a Christmas tree is.
For some it’s a slice of personal history, ornaments the kids made (you know, the beloved popsicle stick Santas). Many of those trees are also decked with signs of a family’s interests — mini Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty souvenirs, tiny replicas of golf bags, basketballs, and sports cars, tiny picture frames with tooth-y grins, salt-dough figurines.
We hang a lot of ourselves on a Christmas tree.
Some of the Instagram trees are a decorator’s masterpiece. Color-coded glass balls with matching garlands of ribbon and flowers. I’m frankly dazzled by these trees, but if I committed to a theme, I’d also have to eliminate all the ornaments that didn’t fit. Or, decorate a second tree!
Others are artfully spare, just a tree and some lights. Some trees are propped in rustic buckets or boxes, others strike a more glamorous pose on a table surrounded with coordinating decor. One of my favorites, below, is one of the 12 trees by Courtney Allison @frenchcountrycottage with lots of lights, a veritable party of ornaments and sitting in an antique bucket. Her stylist touch is one of the prettiest and most natural around. (This may be my tree goal in 2021).
I’m personally attracted to tiny trees, like my bottle brush forest, which grows annually.
But then there are others, deceptively simple in their charm. I love the simplicity of this tree, below. For me it holds the same magical promise of the season as the sparkling lights and ornaments on our own tree in the living room.
This is one of those years — and we all have them — where tradition goes out the window and we have to improvise on the holiday. We didn’t have family and friends around the table on Thanksgiving, and we won’t be descending on my son and daughter-in-law for Christmas. My forty-odd year string of holiday open houses has been rudely interrupted. Anyone who knows me knows I’m missing all of that. But, we are all healthy. For that I’m very grateful.
When I sit beside our tree with morning coffee or a book in the afternoon, or Steve and I have a glass of wine there before dinner, I relish the sense of calm. Christmas comes with its own brand of magic, peace, hope and memories. It’s nice to be surrounded by the familiar in an otherwise strange, even scary time. And there is a little light ahead at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The vaccinations have begun. That’s something to hang on to. A kind of hope. Maybe like the Christmas star?
I hope your days ahead are filled with joy, hope, something good to eat & drink and — most of all — good health. Happy, happy holiday!
Hello! How are you doing? We’re doing well here, but if I’m totally honest it takes more effort some days than others.
The pandemic numbers in the Chicago area are going in the wrong direction, disappointing but not really surprising. The experts warned there would be a second wave (or is it the third?) this fall. It has made us rethink some of the small steps we were taking to get out & about. The temperatures here have taken a real dive — into highs in the 40’s — making social distancing outside a really chilly option.
So I’m counting on simple pleasures to brighten the days.
The Zebra Cake
When the going gets tough, head to the kitchen and make something chocolate. Actually, you may have already read about this Zebra Cake on my Instagram. Martha Stewart showed off the cake and demonstrated the technique on the Today Show a few weeks ago. Steve and I were both intrigued. (Okay, it doesn’t always take much to catch our attention lately.) So, I made the cake, which shall forever be known as “the cake that wrecked the kitchen.”
I’m not the neatest cook in the world. My theory is pretty much cook now, make a mess, and clean it up later. But this was exceptional. I have two sets of nesting glass mixing bowls and I used both of them.
This cake makes two 9″ layers. That’s a lot of batter. Then you divide the batter and make half of it chocolate. Next you alternate adding quarter-cup measures of white and chocolate batter to each pan until you have used up all the cake batter. The result is amazing and delicious. (Note: you will need any and all left-over clean bowls to make Martha’s decadent chocolate frosting if you use her recipe.) This would be fun and dramatic to serve to guests, but time-consuming. Find the recipe here.
Remember those days when you just killed a few hours (or more) at the mall or maybe shopping some local boutiques? Sometimes you came home with purchases and sometimes not. It was just fun to escape your home or office, see what was new, maybe stop for a coffee and/or lunch. The pandemic has really changed that dynamic for me. I’m just not comfortable shopping for the sake of shopping. However, online shopping is a whole other thing. I recently went on a bit of a shoe shop online. (There’s always a way top shop, right?) These boots were on a terrific sale at Talbots and the leopard print Vans came highly recommended by Mary Ann Pickett at Classic Casual Home (they’re so comfortable — thanks for the tip!). The white Supergas — a mainstay in my wardrobe — were on sale. They may seem a bit out of place now, but I’ll be thrilled to pull them out in March or April. I realize we aren’t going out much, but at least my feet will look cute in the grocery store!
Watching & reading
Have you noticed that “what are you watching” and “what are you reading” are big conversation topics whenever you Zoom or FaceTime with friends? We’re all so eager for recommendations.
Like everyone else who loves Paris, I watched “Emily in Paris.” Did you? I thought the Parisian scenery was gorgeous, but the story was pretty thin. On the other hand, I just started watching “The Queen’s Gambit” about a young orphan who discovers chess as an escape from the everyday. She’s an outrageously gifted player and begins to play in competitions. I’m not a chess player and know nothing about the game, but I’m hooked. Both of these limited series are on Netflix.
If you haven’t seen Pete Souza’s documentary, “The Way I See It,” look for it on MSNBC. Souza is a photojournalist who was the official presidential photographer for Presidents Reagan and Obama. His insider’s view of both administrations is revealing, but even more important, he views his role as documenting history. He certainly has a gift for getting the right shot at the right time. You’ve no doubt seen many of his photos, but hearing the backstory is fascinating.
I just finished reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. It’s a short, beautifully written novel, the kind of book where every word is measured and important. Strout is an award winning novelist (have you read The Burgess Boys or Olive Kitteridge?). Now I’m reading The Daughters of Yalta, by Katherine Grace Katz. The history nerd in me is frankly fascinated by this story of that fateful 1945 conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, as seen largely through the eyes of Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, Sarah Churchill, and Kathy Harriman, daughters of President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U. S. Ambassador to Russia Averill Harriman respectively. All three women are well-educated and accomplished, used to traveling in heady political circles but also trying to absorb the Russian personalities and the war-torn Yalta landscape. What an amazing view of history they had!
And that’s my world right now. What about you? Keep wearing your mask, and I’ll see you here again soon!