The votes are in!

A few of the books we have read in the last year or two. Have you read any of them?

You may recall that I belong to a book club that’s been meeting on the first Friday morning of every month for more than 50 years. Okay, I’ve not been a member ALL that time, but many of us have been members for decades. We joined when our kids were toddlers and we could send them into the hostess’s basement with a sitter and enjoy adult conversation for a few hours. Now we are grandmothers, we drift in and out of the group with moves and job changes, members come and go.

But still we meet.

And because some things never change, we take one meeting a year to choose eleven books to read for the coming year. We’ve developed an efficient email system for nominating books using a brief description and the number of pages. We limit our choices to fiction. (There is a companion non-fiction club.) In our meeting we briefly discuss each nominee. After all discussion we vote using hatch marks on a whiteboard listing all the titles. (Old-school but it works for us!) Typically there are a few ties and we vote again on those books only.

This selection routine says a lot about this group of women. Sometimes there are as few as a dozen attendees, at other times 25 show up! Membership includes teachers, college professors, lawyers, business professionals, a few nurses and a doctor. Some have been members for decades, some just joined upon retirement and some, like me, were members, dropped out to pursue a career, and returned after retirement. We all share a love of reading, but also a quest to push our reading a little farther than the Best Seller list. Certainly it’s social, but we spend most of the morning discussing the book and the author. Often when we reject a book in these selection meetings, it’s because we don’t think it will make for a good discussion. I feel very fortunate to have found a group like this, that challenges my reading and my literary juices.

Back to the list…

Practice makes perfect, I guess, because although we considered 29 terrific nominees last Friday, we boiled them down to 11 choices in short order. Since many of you are readers, I thought I would share some of our list. See anything that interests you or that you have already read? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones are on just about every list I’ve read lately. I’m interested to see for myself what the buzz is about.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey is a mystery about a Scotland Yard inspector and a British Museum researcher investigating Richard III. Too curious to miss.

Swann’s Way (aka Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust is long, but our nod to the classics.

There There by Tommy Orange recounts the travels of 12 Native American on their way to the Big Oakland Powwow and their realization of their interconnections. I’ve also seen this on some “recommended” lists.

The Lake is on Fire by Rosellen Brown is the story of Jewish immigrant siblings who run away from a failed Wisconsin farm to Chicago in the 1890’s. It’s hard to turn down a book set in Chicago.

I just finished Clock Dance by Anne Tyler, recommended by a fellow book group member. I couldn’t put it down!

I’m looking forward to One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakarunis, in which twelve people are trapped in the office after an earthquake. To stay calm they agree to tell one amazing thing about their life.

We’re also reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson, White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lyn Bracht, The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, and The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Two that did not “make the cut” but I’m adding to my own list are Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro. I loved The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, also by See, and The Art Forger by Shapiro.

I don’t know about you, but I need a list of books, fiction and non-fiction, some long and some short, some light and some with more substance, so I know what I can read next. Like spare paper towels in the pantry or ground beef in the freezer, I need to be prepared.

What about you? What’s on your list?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again 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!

Lately: Reading, cooking, and decorating my way out of cabin fever

Spring can’t come soon enough.

I’ve lived in Chicago all my life and winter weather — including snow, ice and bitter cold — is something we just learn to live with. However, this year’s temperatures have challenged the hardiest of us. I honestly cannot remember a time when sub-zero temperatures and wind chill hit 50-below, when the Post Office announced it would not deliver mail and the garbage trucks simply stayed put and these lapses had nothing to do with two feet of snow on the ground.

As my grandson would say, it’s been epic!

Although we have certainly been able to get out for groceries, go to the gym, meet friends for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we have often done so in bitter cold or sloppy snow. With boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. This is fun and adventurous early in the winter, after a few months it gets old, at least for me. Most of all, there have been too many days when we just couldn’t go out. When no one could.

Cabin fever is no joke.

When I look back at what I have done lately, most of it has been centered on coping with cabin fever. First, of course, I read. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was a book club read and, like so many of them, it pushed my typical reading choices. This multigenerational story about Koreans living in Japan (where they were viewed as second class citizens) recounts one woman’s life decision and the repercussions on her family for generations to come. I knew very little about the history of either country, so this was especially eye-opening for me. Pachinko was a little tough starting, but ultimately a compelling read.

Then I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Never assume. This was appearing on so many reading lists, I thought it would be one of those best seller/easy/fun reads. It was all that, but more. Eleanor is way more complicated than the heroine I was expecting. Yes, she has an amusing lack of social skills. Then she crosses paths with co-worker Raymond. (I know, this is sounding contrived, right?) Slowly, their growing friendship begins not only to reveal her terrifying past, but also the importance of human connections.

I’ve moved on now to House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’ll keep you posted, but so far, so good.

I’ve been cooking

In fact, I cooked so much I had to start passing out “samples.” I made Ina Garten’s Winter Vegetable Soup twice in one week. It was just that good! I made the first batch per all of her instructions, minus the pesto which I did not have. The second time, I tweaked the recipe a bit, substituting potato for some of the squash. It was just as good! (I did take Ina’s suggestion to use homemade chicken stock, and I do think it makes a huge difference!)

Since we really can’t live by soup alone, I also made beef burgundy and a batch of meatballs. I would have continued, but the freezer was quickly filling with the soup, homemade stock, etc.

So I turned instead to decorating…

And I re-hung this gallery in the stairway to our finished basement. I am the only child/only grandchild and therefore keeper of family photos. My mother-in-law also passed along boxes of photos to me. These riches are compounded by the fact that my dad was quite the amateur photographer. He had a small darkroom in our house and he enlarged/cropped and otherwise tweaked his own photos as well as old negatives that my mom unearthed. It was a lot of fun for all of us. But it also resulted in a lot of photos. I’m really drowning in prints, often multiples of the same image (though I am increasingly successful at weeding those out!).

Some of these have been hung here right along, some have been displayed on tabletops, others were stashed in the back of closets, behind dressers, under beds — you name it. Would it surprise you to learn I have a few more to add to this? My goal has been to save the best and get rid of the rest. Let’s just say I’m making progress.

My Instagram feed

And, yes, I’ve spent far too much time this winter on social media, which for me is Instagram. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my IG feed is pretty narrow, no celebrities, few FaceBook friends, a lot of designers and lifestyle bloggers. I’ve saved some screenshots, so I could share my favorite finds.

Anyone who has successfully grown a geranium in a porch pot is desperate for spring and the garden season after a winter like this. If you love gardening or decorating, I encourage you to follow Jenny Rose Innes, from Bowral, Australia. Her home(s) are stunning and her gardens beautifully lush. I was initially struck by the brick path in this image (I love the way it periodically cuts into the beds on each side), but I also thought that if my garden just looked this good in green, imagine how it would look when those plants bloomed!

 

I often think that “go big or go home” is a good rule in decorating. Look at the impact this big but simple bucket of lilacs has on this room. It’s not overpowering (though the fragrance must be wonderful), it’s placed to be seen but not in the way, and it beautifully balances the stone wall, wood floor, and baskets.

 

Elizabeth blogs at blueandwhitehome.com. Both her blog and her IG feed are populated with beautifully-appointed, mostly blue and white rooms. She’s traditional, sometimes with an edgier feel, and her daughter, who also contributes to the blog, has a similar aesthetic. Elizabeth also generously introduces a number of her favorite designers, like Caroline Gidiere Design. (Yes, I’m a little obsessed with this room: the gallery, the blue and white and that green!)

 

 

James T. Farmer is an interior designer, gardener, author and speaker whose work is always infused with a gracious, southern sensibilty. His IG is as likely to feature photos of his dog, whatever he’s cooking or eating, and/or his extended family and friends as it does images of his design work. This image says it all! (Check out his latest book, A Place to Call Home.)

 

 

Wouldn’t you love to attend or host a dinner party featuring this lovely table? Enough said.

 

 

Finally, Joni Webb — whose awesome blog Cote de Texas is, well, awesome — posted this image (and several others) of an apartment belonging to the late Lee Radziwell. Is there anyone else out there, of a certain age I suppose, who heard a door quietly close at the news of her passing?

 

 

And that’s my lately. What are you doing to combat cabin fever?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

What I’m keeping in the New Year

I know. I’ve been missing for awhile, but now I’m back. And I’ve been thinking, where to begin?

My husband had unexpected surgery in mid-December. (Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And this is a guy who does not smoke, never worked in a coal mine or the chemical industry. His cancer was found as accidentally as RBG’s.) This was discovered very early, and Steve is making a phenomenal recovery. That’s most important. But our holiday took on a new shape. (Remember last year when I wrote this post about flexible holiday traditions?) There was no annual holiday open house and my traveling wineglasses stayed in storage. I never did send Christmas cards. Instead of the merry chaos of Christmas morning in Ohio with our grandsons, our daughter stayed in Chicago with us and we FaceTimed the rest of the family. (We also laughed, cooked, and opened presents.) It was simpler, and frankly I wouldn’t have had the energy for our usual festivities. It was a different Christmas, but certainly not a bad one. Sometimes you just need to roll with it.

What I’m keeping in the New Year

Moving on, I am admittedly abysmal at New Year’s Resolutions. It isn’t just that I don’t keep them, I sometimes forget what they are! So this year I thought about what I would keep in the new year, rather than what I would change.

My “theory” is that you/I can come up with great ideas, improvements, interests or even skills any time during the year. And when they work for us, we should keep them. So, without further fanfare, here are my first five “keeps” for 2019:

#1 This Blog. Although I have been known to lapse a bit at writing, I’m not even close to giving it up. This is so much fun! I love my readers and I love writing. And, of course, it turns out I always have something to say! Steve and I are working on a few more travel posts (How I wish I was on the Riviera now. It’s so cold here). Then there’s some cooking and some reading. And sooner or later, there will be spring and a whole new season aptly named “gardening.”

#2 While I’m in an electronic mode, I’m also continuing with Instagram. I just genuinely enjoy this. Admittedly, I have curated my feed to things I like — food, travel, decorating, gardening and books. (And I suspect the abiity to curate what you see may be the attraction for me!) But, I have made a number of IG friends, some who share wonderful bits of history or books in their feeds, others who share the highs and lows of their gardening, decorating and cooking efforts. Look for more about them in an upcoming blog post. (Follow me here.)

#3 Traveling more and keeping it personal. Some of our best times in France (and travel tips) were the result of locals and other travelers. Rick Steves says it best here but learning to travel with an open mind and heart is so much more rewarding and fun than worrying about the best table at a restaurant or what constitutes a 4- or 5-star hotel (which in Europe at least will not be the same as it is in the states anyway!) I’m not big on checking places off a bucket list, but I do want to meet the people and see how they live,

#4 Closer to home, I have a confession. I honestly don’t like to clean house and so for now, I’ll keep my cleaning lady. Sometimes I think it’s just the two of us here, I can certainly make the time, I should save the money and do my own cleaning. But the truth is, I just don’t like to do it. And she is much better at this than I am.

#5 I’m trying my best to keep up with my book groups, as well as things that pop up on my own “reading radar.” Have you read Educated by Tara Westover? It’s Tara’s personal memoir of growing up on an Idaho mountain with her survivalist family. She was homeschooled for most of her life but eventually found her way to BYU, Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard. (If that doesn’t entice you to pick up this book, I’m not sure what will.)

That’s the high and the low of my keepers for 2019. What about you?

Thanks so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you next time!

Living in history

This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.

I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.

What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.

Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.

As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.

When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.

Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?

Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.

The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.

I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.

I’m so glad you stopped 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!

Sidetracked by a new recipe, a DIY and two unlikely books

It’s been hot. I’ve been bored. The blog post I’ve been planning just isn’t coming together. Like a kid getting sidetracked from a deadline on a school project, I find I’m easily distracted. And so this is what I’ve been up to.

The recipe

These are perfect conditions for me to start puttering in the kitchen. (Cooking requires you to focus on the task in front of you and take a mental break from everything else.) I had seen a recipe for Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce on Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog, Everyday Occasions . (Her recipes are delicious and she’s generous about sharing tips for success.) I was intrigued by this recipe, because it has only four ingredients! Check it out here; I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This sauce was delicious, easy, and so fresh!! I served it with penne, some meatballs from the freezer, and beans from Steve’s garden. Next, I want to try it with homemade meatballs and polenta, a fairly hearty appetizer we sometimes share at a local restaurant. I’ve been thinking that a slightly larger serving of meatballs and a vegetable on the side could turn that appetizer into an entree.

Polishing silver

Have you ever made DIY silver polish with a quart of boiling water, a tablespoon of baking soda and a foil-lined bowl? This is a recipe I saw on the web a few years ago. I tried it out with a bunch of silver-plate flatware I had forgotten about in the basement. I dropped a few pieces at a time into the hot water bath, and the results were amazing. Although I still use the traditional paste polish when I have the time, this has been my secret go-to when I need to clean a few pieces in a hurry.

It is especially effective with this woven silver basket. (Yes, I also polished some silver.) This was a wedding gift from a special friend in my earliest basket-collecting career. It’s a challenge to clean, so briefly dipping it in this bath has been a lifesaver. My basket used to make appearances on only the most special occasions; now it hangs out on the coffee table or a side table all the time!

Connecting the dots between books

I think I already shared with you that recently one of my reading groups discussed Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. We had all loved “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and wanted to learn more about Kay Graham. We came away impressed with what Graham accomplished, especially with regard to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Her father owned the Washington Post and turned it over to her husband, Philip Graham. Kay took over when Phil died unexpectedly. She make it profitable for the first time, stuck to the Post’s editorial principles and drove two of the most significant stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, making it one of the most powerful and respected papers in the country.

Hold that thought.

Next we read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post WWI novel that captures the essence of an era and a class of people. Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan were all about money — new money and old money. But they were incredibly careless people, and not just careless with things or money. They were careless with the truth and with people’s lives. Fitzgerald’s prose is magical but these are not likable characters.

Taken together these two books share so much about power and money done right and done wrong. What an interesting dilemma for the times in which we live.

It’s finally a little cooler here. I hope it is where you are, too. 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!

Hero Worship

What do basketball and interior design have in common? It’s actually pretty simple. 

Starting in the 4th or 5th grade and continuing for several years, my basketball-loving son enthusiastically followed the career and athletic achievements of Michael Jordan. (Who am I kidding, in the late eighties and early nineties we all loved #43!) His basketball feats seemingly had no limits. There were gravity-defying gymnastics that invariably ended with a basket. But there was also the ball handling, the competitiveness and the work ethic. (I know this because Doug watched tapes of his plays again and again and again. They were the soundtrack of my life for quite awhile.)

Hero worship is something we all occasionally fall into, and, depending on the hero, it’s not all bad. We might learn some new skills and/or acquire some new interests, etc. So it’s hardly surprising that my love of dishes, fabrics, furniture, color and design — really all the decorative elements — have led me to my own group of decorating heroes.

The essence of French country, with the cheery (and cherry) reds, the check and toile fabrics, the curvy legs on the table in the foreground, charming accessories layered into the bookshelves and on the tables.

You may recall that I wrote here about the influence Mary Emmerling had on my early decorating, but she’s not my only design hero. If you checked my bookshelves, you would see that Charles Faudree is clearly a favorite. I’m not at all sure I have ever succeeded in recreating his lush, layered designs, but I’m happy to keep trying.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Faudree, he is an American designer known for his colorful take on country French interiors and credited by many for popularizing the look. I had admired a number of his rooms in magazines like Traditional Home for some time before I realized that they were all the work of one man.

 

You may recognize this from my post on transferware. Charles Faudree is the inspiration, at least in part, behind my collection..

 

Faudree’s designs feature a lot of center tables like this one, above, in a library (often the way he referred to an office or study) and, below, in an entry. The table tops are always decked with books, flowers and other meaningful brick-a-brack. I don’t have space for a center table, but I have toyed with similar arrangements atop our dining room table and on side tables.

Different spaces, same aesthetic

 

 

One of the things I appreciate about Charles Faudree’s designs is his ability to translate his aesthetic into different settings. The image above is a very traditional dining room, but the photo below features a more contemporary, voluminous space that still maintains his country French design.

 

 

Not all Faudree rooms are huge nor are they perfectly proportioned. I love the sunroon, below, but it’s clearly a narrow space.

And what wonderful rooms, furnished with beautiful antiques, plush couches and chairs always topped by a variety of pillows in a companionable array of colors, patterns, textures and trims (always trims — elegant tapes, fringe, tassels, ruffles, etc.). So many thoughtful details.

 

No room is too small or insignificant, no corner too obscure to escape his treatment. This would not work at my house, but I love the powder room below, especially the little Napoleon on the vanity, not to mention the sconces and wallpaper. Why shouldn’t a small powder room be so completely imaginative?

 

 

This transitional space, below, which could be clumsy in accommodating a distinct change of level, is instead totally charming; with chairs and a lamp it’s the perfect place to have a cup of tea or leaf through a magazine.

 

Despite his motto that “More is never enough,” Faudree often allows  a distinctive antique or piece of art to stand on its own. I think the Swedish secretary, below, is from one of his own homes. And look how he allows the brooding Lincoln portrait to dominate the space.

 

But that “appropriateness” just one aspect of his aesthetic. For me, the real art of Faudree’s talent is in his attention to detail, perfectly placed objets d’arts, picture frames, figurines, cache pots, mementos, etc., all chosen to reflect the interests of the homeowner as well as the overall design. Many are pricey antiques, others are family pieces or flea market finds. (Truth to tell, I think the tension between high end and low end in one room or even one vignette makes a powerful statement.) In his hands, all of this fits perfectly into the greater design scheme. It’s personal, it’s layered, it’s thoughtful.

 

I’m not advocating assembling and displaying “stuff” for the sake of “stuff.” And I don’t think Faudree was either. But I do think that rooms devoid of artwork, photographs, books, collectibles from a hobby or travel tend to have a very sterile look, as though anyone could live there instead of the individuals who do.

 

This was the back entry to his own mountain cottage, but look at the style and personality he paired with function here.

I never tire of paging thru his books, reading and re-reading his comments about how or why various elements combined into the finished design. I always learn something new, about wall arrangements or color or collectibles. I also find that I am more than a little charmed by his impish personality, stories from friends and associates about buying trips in France and his prankish sense of humor. This is someone I really wish I could have met.

Sadly, Charles Faudree died in 2013. (I know, think of the rooms he could have designed, the books he could have written!) But, you can enjoy his many books from new and used sellers and even the library. Titles include: Charles Faudree Home, Charles Faudree Details, Charles Faudree Interiors, Country French Florals and Interiors, Charles Faudree’s Country French Living, Charles Faudree Country French Signature, and Charles Faudree Country French Legacy. 

What about you, who or what inspires your interests?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!