I stopped for a manicure the other day, then realized, as I was heading back to my car, that Trader Joe’s (which shares the parking lot) had an interesting variety of pumpkins piled outside. Of course, I checked out the display and they were even more appealing up close, not to mention well-priced!
And that was the nudge that pushed me into fall.
In truth, I had already picked up a few cute pumpkins and updated planters with mums, the latter because the previous blooms had totally withered in the last of summer’s heat. Now, however, I was into the new season. I cut two big buckets of drying hydrangea blooms and arranged them into several plump bouquets.
More than that, however, I began my quest for my own pumpkin patch in the front yard. It’s a challenge to see how many different kinds of pumpkins I can find — green, pink, white, orange — and I also have to protect them from from nibbling by squirrels, rabbits, and whoever else stops by for a bite of pumpkin. And don’t get me started on how easily specimens with soft spots or tiny breaks in their skin can readily rot into messy, mushy piles. (If it sounds like I have had experience with this, you are right.)
This year I armed myself for serious pumpkin protection (or maybe I just need a hobby?). I washed them with soapy water seasoned with a splash of bleach. After they were dry, I spread them on a drop cloth and sprayed them with a clear coat sealer. I have no idea if these precautions will work, but they come from other bloggers who seem to know what they’re talking about. (Which really means they take their seasonal decorating much more seriously than I do.)
I’ve also done my best to spread some autumnal cheer inside. I have an admirable collection of dried gourds, collected over several years, that I rely on for inside scene-setting at this time of year, but they are currently trapped under the basement stairs behind bookcases and toolboxes re-located for the duration of our drainage repairs (which should be wrapping up in another week or two. Hooray!!). So instead, I’m using more pumpkins, fruit, fresh and faux leaves to set the scene inside.
Most importantly this has fed my puttering/tweaking gene, which spills over into a bit of fall cleaning, polishing and generally dusting-up. (My grandma would be pleased.) My house needed the attention and I needed the “therapy.”
My looks this month can be summed up in three words: Charleston window boxes. They are charming, creative, and put a welcome face on homes and businesses across this charming and historic city.
I think of window boxes as decorating/gardening details, the kind of exclamation point Charlestonians always add and the rest of us wish we had thought of. I love them all and I can’t stop taking pictures of them when I’m in Charleston.
When I assembled the photos I most recently took, I noticed that most of these boxes featured far more greenery than flowers, perhaps a nod to Charleston’s steamy summer weather? I also think a lot of people replant the boxes with the seasons. However, look at the color and texture they get without flowers!
I am a fan of ferns, so this box caught my eye right away.
And I thought this box mixed a lot of color although it uses limited flowering plants.
This one also used colorful caladiums as well as some substantial traling plants. Here they pretty much reach the sidewalk!
This box was at a business.
And I loved this against the brick.
What I’ve been reading
We have a new, independent book store in our neighborhood. That alone is good news, but it gets better: the staff is friendly, low-key and eager to help you find something you are going to love reading. In my case it was Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray. This was my beach read, light but lots of fun. This is a dual story that moves between a modern American woman grappling with a family crisis and her French grandmother who cooked and eventually modeled for Picasso during his stay in Juan les Pins in 1936.
This sounds contrived and it was. But we actually stayed in Juan les Pins while in France last fall. Picasso and his artistic contemporaries are inescapable there as well as in Antibes and Nice. We visited the Picasso Museum in the former Chateau Grimaldi, which also makes an appearance in the novel. We loved this part of our trip, so it was really fun to read a novel in that setting.
After Picasso, I needed to read Where the Crawdads Sing for my morning book group. Everyone is reading this, it has been on the best seller list for dozens of weeks, selling more than a million copies since its release last year. It was also something of an unusual choice for AM Lit. We don’t typically pick something that current; on the other hand, we assumed we would all be reading it, so why not read it together?
Author Delia Owens tells the story of Kya’s survival as a child essentially alone in a remote marsh of North Carolina. Kya’s story is both disturbing in that she is left alone to fend for herself and inspiring in the way she handles it with the help of just a few others. Owens alternates telling Kya’s story with relating the events surrounding a mysterious death several years later.
Crawdads generated a lively discussion. This book raises so many questions, not the least of which for me is the role of a celebrity recommendation. In this case Reese Witherspoon chose Crawdads for her book club. How much does that shape a book’s popularity and recognition with both critics and readers in general?
Then our discussion leader for this month pointed us to a recent article in Slate which detailed Owens’ role related to another murder. (And no, she is not a suspect.) If you have read the book, read this. It’s interesting to consider how this real life murder may have shaped the mystery in the novel. If not, wait until another time since the Slate article includes a spoiler about the book’s quirky ending.
Finally, I just finished The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin. And guess what? This is also a story told in two different time frames, but with an interesting catch. It begins in 2079 when the narrator and the youngest of the Skinner siblings is 102. I was totally unprepared for this opening, but quickly got caught up in the story. The plot is somewhat familiar: it centers on a group of four siblings who are forced to raise themselves after their father dies unexpectedly in 1981 and their mother takes to her bed for two years. They later refer to this as “The Pause.” Their bond is remarkable and the role each assumes in the family is unique. This engaging story caught me completely off-guard. I didn’t always like the characters, but I couldn’t put the book down.
What’s next on my list? My grandson has pointed out that I’ve fallen behind on my Harry Potter reading, so The Prisoner of Azkaban is next.
One quick cook
If you have not heard of sheet pain suppers, where everything is essentially roasted together on a standard sheet pan, you’re missing out on some delicious, easy cooking and clean up. Although a lot of these recipes are geared to larger families, I have easily modified them for the two of us. And it’s also easy to tweak the main ingredients to your preferences. My latest effort starred smoked sausage (my husband’s request) which I paired with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers and slices of polenta. Despite the fact that the cherry tomatoes pretty much cooked down to nothing (I think I might try halved or quartered romas next time), we really enjoyed this. We had never tried polenta this way, but it roasted beautifully. The peppers were delicious, and I would add more next time.
That’s it lately. Pretty quiet actually, but that’s fine with me. Thanks for stopping by.
So what do you think there are more of, leaves on the trees or blades of grass?
That was my eight-year-old grandson’s intriguing question as we drove home from one of his ballgames this weekend. Since the answer would take lots of Google-ing and probably some math, I left that to his dad and Grandpa. But I think Jack unwittingly summed up June. It’s just so green, so lush, so full of promise.
Speaking of grandsons and baseball, Steve and I spent the weekend in Ohio carrying our folding chairs from game to game, following the five-year-old and his T-ball team and the eight-year-old and his coach pitch team (who seem like pro’s after watching T-ball).
These games have not changed in 30 years. Players wave to parents from the field, play in the dirt, forget where they’re at to watch a low-flying plane overhead and are happily surprised when they get a solid hit or make the play at first or second base. Forget marching bands and flag-waving patriots, this is America.
Before heading to Ohio, I joined a friend on a “field trip” into the city to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center cruise along the Chicago River. If you are a history or architecture fan (and even if you are not), the “Great Chicago Fire” led to a building renaissance in Chicago. And what started after the fire in 1871, continues today.
The river cruises are led by volunteer docents from the Foundation. I know they have a common script that follows the boat route and they are well-trained to answer questions, but I believe you could do this cruise again and again and still learn something new, because each docent puts his or her own spin on the material. Maureen and I were part of a much larger group of Chicagoans, so this could have been a challenge to the volunteer. After all, we’ve all seen these buildings before and heard the stories behind them, and we have worked/shopped/visited them. Many of us had taken the tour before. But her passion for and knowledge of Chicago history and architecture was so palpable that she kept all of us totally engaged.
Separating history from architecture from the Chicago River is virtually impossible. Fort Dearborn, Chicago’s first settlement, was along the river. The engineers who worked with the architects solved the design issues, reversed the flow of the Chicago River, built more than a dozen movable bridges over the river so the city and industry could grow north and south. They replaced cast iron with steel and glass. The building and engineering continue to evolve. It’s a great story filled by the likes of Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe and populated by buildings as diverse as the Tribune Tower and the Willis (Sears) Tower. You don’t need to love architecture or history to respect the vision, engineering and problem solving that goes into each structure.
My garden is a little different every day
If you follow me on Instagram (you can do that here), you know I am a little obsessed with my garden, what I can cut or cook from it, other gardens, and so on. One of the great pleasures of a garden is that it’s a living, breathing entity and as such changes a bit every day. Something new is in bloom, there’s a weed invasion where there was nothing two days ago, I’ve solved the problem of rabbits eating the hostas but they’ve moved on to tulips, the daylilies have totally overgrown their space, or, this week, the shasta daisies seem stunted.
I tour the flower and herb beds most mornings, thinking about what I should do next. I pester other gardeners about how they treat various plant emergencies. My husband’s tomato plants have doubled in the last week. The daylilies in the garden are a sea of buds waiting for one or two more days to open.
In this photo, right, is an all white bed I planted about four years ago. I wanted to try a theme. It’s all about texture; I plan to add some Lamb’s Ears and Artemesia near the bottom of this photo. Beyond this bed, daylilies and Russian Sage are getting close to blooming. My Limelight hydrangeas, behind them, bloom later.
To have a garden is to happily anticipate the next bud, bloom, or fruit.
I hope the sun is shining and the gardens are growing wherever you are! Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!