Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Anti-Art of Blogging

I have night owl tendencies, even though my middle aged body is fighting against this well-worn habit. So several times a week I will watch late night television: the house is quiet, I am relaxed and in need of a good laugh, and I have sole rights to the clicker. [If I could turn this whole routine on its head, wake up in the morning at dawn, meditate for an hour, then get on the treadmill while doing the laundry--followed by a nice hot breakfast on the table at 7:30-- I would, but that would be like going against gravity. Besides, my husband would think I'd been replaced by a mutant from another planet.]

Sometimes if there is a boring guest or lull on Letterman, I will turn to Charlie Rose on PBS. The other night I happened to catch Nora Ephron talking about blogging. It sums up what my editor, Patty Poore, at OLD-HOUSE INTERIORS was trying to convey to me a few weeks ago, when I was rewriting her merging of three of my blog entries from "In the Pantry". She thought I'd edited out all of the immediacy of my blogging and she was right. [The "Musings" essay, "The Empty House", will appear on the back page of the upcoming fall/winter issue of EARLY HOMES, a newsstand publication by OHI.]

Because of the wonders of TEVO, I was able to rewind and pause until I jotted down this transcription:


Is there a secret to that (blogging)?


Blogs are different. Blogs are almost like a soap bubble. They're what you think at the very moment you're writing it.


So the thing to do is sit down and write and whatever comes to your head, do it.


Sit down and write and write it fast and if you've been working on it for more than an hour and a half, it's not a blog. It's something else.


It's an essay!


Well, I don't know what it is, but you've taken too long on it, because it should really feel as if its true at that moment, and then not much longer than that.

[I'm also with her on the turtleneck concept of hiding the middle-aged neck!]

Friday, November 24, 2006

Harvest Home


Thanksgiving has easily become my favorite holiday. There isn't the tussle and bussle and odd let down of the Christmas season, which seems to conjure up so much in its advent and wake. As another school parent I spoke with the other day said, "Thanksgiving is the last holiday that 'they' haven't commercialized." [If only Christmas were the same.]



Temple and I have had twelve Thanksgivings together, all but two in this house. They have each been different with a variety of friends and family, our children as they have arrived, and sometimes our parents, but always something resonates: food, fun, fellowship and celebration. I like to mix a formal, decorative table with campy decor (Beistle's turkey place cards are the best!) and seasonal treasures the children have made. The kids enjoy setting up the Indian and Pilgrim village each year with some original Indian toys made in northern Michigan that I got in the 1960s, as well as contributions they have made.



We did most of the table setting and much preparation in the two days before. However, the night before, at about 4:45pm, Temple shouted up the stairs, "we have ten minutes to get the pies that you ordered!"

"I didn't order any pies!"

"Yes you did, from Tenney Farms!"

And then I remembered on the way: I had a visual of checking off a number of varieties on a white sheet on a clipboard at the farmstand several weeks before. But in checking it off there, I had forgotten about it here. I rarely have time for making desserts--fortunately everyone brought one--and homemade pies sold at Tenney Farm are an excellent alternative (besides, it was the last day of the season and we wanted to throw a few in the freezer).

After the turkey went in the oven at around 8:30am (a 28 pounder), for which I came down to prepare the stuffing at 7:15, we had the entire morning to finish decorating, to organize serving dishes, the table, and everything. The entire family pitches in--especially my husband--and it makes it almost effortless but worth every bit of preparation.


I have never been able to arrange flowers very well and usually loathe the idea of buying a floral arrangement for a table. I've always managed to do different decorations at Thanksgiving, especially, when there are so many easy alternatives to flowers: cornucopias filled with Indian corn, a pile of squash, a Beistle turkey. This year, I had a cornhusk wreath from a while ago, plopped the pumpkin inside of it, and tossed around some gourds (painted with shellac) from our local farmstand, Tenny Farms. Oh, and I threw in some of those chestnut crabapples, too. In less than three minutes I had a centerpiece.

On our first Thanksgiving together, one of our older more traditional friends (who also liked to get a rise out of me) couldn't believe I had not ordered a table arrangement. The following year my father, perhaps trying to avoid another embarrassing moment (which I laughed off as it wasn't an issue for me at all), had an arrangement sent. It was lovely and it graced our table, but I far prefer grabbing my favorite pumpkins, gourds or corn.



As I've found with many of our large get-togethers, 13 is a lucky number (our youngest Eli and his dad sat together at the far end of the table, which was stretched to full capacity). For the second year in a row we had a buffet for both the main meal and the dessert. With the "groaning board" of so many dishes, and a tight dining room (even the table was put at a diagonal to accommodate for all of the leaves), it works the best. It allowed for a cozy informality that I prefer, but paired with an elegant table to sit at, contributed the best of both.


Food is always a mix of traditional items and special contributions from our friends. Here is our 2006 menu:

~ Fresh turkey & gravy w/sausage, apple & cranberry dressing (I also added chestnuts this year)
~ Mashed potatoes (my husband peeled & prepared a great vat)
~ Butternut Squash (ditto)
~ Little Peas (ok, Petit Pois)
~ Creamed Onions (from Judy ~ freshly cooked onions, not frozen!)
~ Succotash (Rosemary ~ truly the most divine ever, and no lima beans!)
~ Cranberry Relish (made by Henry & Eli)
~ Cranberry Jalapeno Relish (from the Bills ~ sublime)
~ Canberry (the canned stuff)
~ Heirloom Applesauce (Henry, Eli, Addie et al)
~ Chestnut Crabapple Jam (ditto)
~ Parkerhouse Rolls (thank you, bread machine)

~ Pumpkin Bread (Mrs. Hrones' recipe, an older friend of the family that I knew as a child)
~ Apple Pie (from Henry, who made it at school ~ we ate Eli's for my birthday)
~ Cranberry Tart (Judy)
~ Upsidedown Cranberry Cake (Rosemary)
~ Pumpkin Pie w/Bourbon (Rosemary)
~ Pumpkin Cheesecake (also with a bourbon infusion! The Bills)

and the absolute "living end": Le Fromage du Turquie, a turkey cheeseball conceived and crafted by Rosemary!


Rosemary, one of the best cooks I've ever met (come to think of it, most of my good friends can cook), always has a great presentation in everything she does (and her kitchen will be in the March 2007 issue of OLD-HOUSE INTERIORS, and her pantries in THE PANTRY book). Her concept of a turkey-shaped cheese log was the perfect addition to the meal: homemade and shaped by hand, she even made the little white thingies on the ends of its legs.



My husband, who hates to carve the turkey, looked around in a near panic for a volunteer. We had forgotten that Judy had done such an expert job of it last year--not only cutting up the bird in a surgical way (observed Dr. Bill Siroty, one of our guests), but layering the meat on a platter between layers of skin and fresh sage. The skin not only keeps the turkey meat warm but infuses it with a delicious flavor. [And she looks cute in that Amish-made apron.]


Meanwhile, Dr. Bill stirred the gravy and it was the first I'd made without lumps in a long time (either it was shaking the flour in water in a jar first, or his excellent stirring). His kitchen presence brought back memories of working at Barrett House many years ago in the early 1990s when they first moved here from New York. His partner, also Bill (Stelling), was the tour guide at Barrett and helped in the tea room on Sunday afternoons. Meanwhile, Dr. Bill could frequently be found in the kitchen washing dishes, as well as my husband-to-be, Temple.





This year we had a silent prayer at the table. Temple and I later remembered our fathers who were no longer with us, and other family members, too. We were a group with diverse interests and much to laugh and talk about (and we all toasted the recent elections). We were so honored that some of our friends could gather here with us this year. I'm bound to forget a future pie order, but I will remember this always.

Beta Blogging in a Google World

Ok, I signed on tonight to wax poetic about Thanksgiving and discover that I had to join the Google network which has somehow consumed I don't keep up with these things and I still don't even know what "beta" means (on computers, videos or anything) but I will assume that this is a good change. I do use Google on a daily basis for a variety of queries, even to research available research. But I ask, is Google taking over the world? Maybe we should do everything in the future with Google mergers: grocery shopping, college applications, carpooling. I'm all for that! But there is something unnerving about being somehow consumed by an unseen entity, a limitless void of Google. Does this mean I've been Googled?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Before the Feast


November is a busy time for us--sometimes we like to can fruits and make applesauce. I like to get the kitchen ready for lots of holiday cooking and activities with the kids. The counters, which have been piled for months with "stuff" get cleared off and polished.


We have a tried and true method for APPLESAUCE: cut and quarter a mixture of different varieties of apples, put in a large kettle, add about an inch of water and cook on LOW until mushy (stir occasionally). When cooked, pour mixture into Foley food mill and press out all of the mush. You don't need to peel or core the apples because the seeds and skin do not get pressed out. Retaining the skins on the apples will render a lovely blush color to your applesauce. Add sugar or cinnamon to taste (we never use sugar in it). It's the only kind of applesauce my kids will eat and it helps when they make it, too. [This easy method was the one my mother taught me, but hers, somehow, is always sweeter.] Freeze or can (in sterlized jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes) and enjoy! This year, my husband Temple gathered a mixture of heirloom varieties from Gould Hill so the blend is truly its own and likely could not be replicated twice.


I also tried something new this year: CHESTNUT CRABAPPLE JAM. I was able to Google up (you see, I'm a regular) several crabapple jam recipes, as I didn't want to fuss with jelly as I only had a few hours to make it. I found several and used the most basic: 9 1/4 cups cut up crabapples, made into sauce (using the above method) and 8 cups of sugar added to that mixture, boiled for 20 minutes and then canned in jars. I decided to add about 6 cinnamon sticks to the mixture, too, while cooking it and that gave it just enough spice.


The amazing thing about chestnut crabs is that they are small apples, not the cherry-sized variety of crabapples (which truly make divine jelly). And, after tasting the jam, there is a subtle nutty taste with the sweetness--perhaps where it gets its name? They are also great for decorations and would be good in Christmas Della Robbia wreaths or table arrangements (I believe they are also called Lady Apples, but I could be wrong about that.)


Henry had his 9th birthday in the middle of the month, the kids had their Thanksgiving pageant, and we got in several cords of wood onto the porch. Between putting food by for the winter, stocking the freezers and pantries, and getting supplemental fireplace wood, it always feels like a cozy time of year.

Cell Phones R Us

For two years, I had a Verizon family plan. It did not serve to unite us but drove a wedge of miscommunication and frustration smack dab into the middle of our family. We had two basic no-frills phones, a basic plan, way too many minutes, and a teenage daughter who, whenever in crisis large or small, failed to call us or to turn the darned thing on. [And, who also got into a car accident while using one.]

In 1997, five months pregnant with our first son and allergy ridden from a house in renovation, our then 8 year old daughter and I spent a week in Ohio with my father. He drove us to all of my favorite childhood haunts and to neighborhoods we had never seen. In a Bob Evans restaurant I saw my first PDC (public display of cell phone). This guy strutted in and paced about in the line of people waiting to be seated and started commentating on the scene before us. Then he spoke about his day in great detail. I wanted to say, "Look turkey butt, we see you have a cell and a nice set of tail park them right on the bench and let the rest of us enjoy the wait in peace."

Two years later on a solo research trip to Ohio, now pregnant with our second son, I noticed a plethora of suburban women driving big Suburbans with cell phones firmly attached to their ears. What could they possibly be talking about? The sale at J.C. Penney's? A run on sauerkraut balls at the markett? Skipper's soccer game last night? A secret lover? Clearly they had a lot to say and I noticed they weren't very focused on the many lights of the metro region (as I warned my husband: yellow in Ohio means slow down, not drive faster as the lights turn very quickly--then again, we average about one stoplight per ten square miles where we live in New England).

I didn't think the cell phone would permeate into our rural pocket but I was wrong. Cell phone towers now dot our landscape but because of the hilly topography, few cell phones have consistent service. But that isn't why we stopped. I hate the phone and rarely use one in the house. Perhaps it is because I used to talk to my father back in Ohio for hours each week on the phone. It was our thing, our pipe line. After he died four years ago, I kept thinking of things I wanted to say to him and I'd go to the phone and remember that he wouldn't be there to answer.

Perhaps it is the amount of political surveys we seem to be bombarded with on an all too regular basis or the recorded calls that you can't shut off. I consider myself a well-mannered person so I tend to handle these calls with a polite but firm tone: "No thank you, I'm making dinner." CLICK. "No, I never give money over the phone even if you sound like a nice college kid from my alma mater." CLICK. "No, I really have nothing of substance to say--drop me an e-mail or let's have lunch." CLICK!

A phone is an intrusion into our home but I concede its necessity. I just ignore it behind the mask of a remote answering service (thank you, Verizon) or a husband or children who are more eager to answer it. Sure, it has been helpful to have a cell phone on long trips. If I traveled more, I'd probably get one again. But our daughter is going to have to buy her own plan next time. I won't be on it.

I'm convinced having watched this cell phone experiment--a husband who won't use it or doesn't know how, a daughter who doesn't use one for the reasons we got it for her--that a cell phone is not something we have to have in our society. Ok, maybe the president. But even they have an assistant or two that would have a cell phone on their behalf.

A cell phone has also become an anti-tracking device for our kids. If your teenager calls and says, "Yeah, I'm at Cindy's and we're watching a movie. I'll be home by midnight" they could really be three hours in another direction doing something else that you probably didn't give your permission for them to be doing. They must work just as effectively for adults who want to misbehave, too.

The woman at Verizon was a bit shocked when I came in to cancel our service. "Was there a problem with the reception?" she asked, while attending to two other people who were updating to some gadgety things and adding minutes.

"No, that was the least of our problems!"

I left the phone store--lined with shelves of Palm Pilots and Blackberrys and headsets and picture phones and who knows what else--and I'd never felt more free.

If only we could revive the time when our parents had our friends' phone numbers, when our parents spoke to other parents about their children and who they were with, on land lines to actual places, fixed and static in time. When I attempt to describe the thrill and joy of the fax and answering machine of twenty years ago to my daughter--I am met with a blank stare and suddenly feel middle aged. Yes, back when we didn't seem to be propelling so fast and far into the future, back when we couldn't always get someone or communicate something instantaneously. Back when we weren't so out of touch.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Grape Jammin'


Few things are as easy as making grape jam. Truly. You've heard the adage "as easy as pie," an old saying I could easily argue against from my own experience. Jam is not only simple to make but a long way from the annoyance of the fuss and extra steps of jelly bags. If you have a good pot and a countertop and a ready supply of grapes, you can make jam. But be warned, I didn't say making jam is not without a certain degree of mess but once you get organized, the process develops its own smooth rhythm. However, the unbelievable sensory experience of color, fragrance, and taste ~ as well as the satisfaction of lining a cupboard with jars of jam for gift-giving and family use ~ will make you glad for any bother. Kids will enjoy helping too ~ ours couldn't wait to be involved in each step. Everyone seems to love jam and remember that even Tom Sawyer had to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence because he'd been caught eating jam in her pantry.



Several years ago our friend Bill told us that you couldn't make grape jam (he and his wife were prolific jelly makers). It was a challenge I was happy to take. My husband, several years before we married, installed a grape arbor along two sides of our barn. He constructed it with slender granite posts that he cut himself and cross-pieces of wood above. It is a work of art. At first he planted a variety of New York grapes which proved too fickle in New England winters. He replaced them with the Concord, a reliant and hardy stalwart and true native fruit (along with the cranberry and blueberry ~ both equally easy to transform into luscious jam or conserve).



For several years we have not had many grapes due to damp summers, improper ventilation or whatever the reason. Last year my husband cut the vines back rigorously and this year we are enjoying the fruits of his labor. Bushels and bushels of them. There are probably still a few left on the vines but we are truly graped-out. We gave some away and still we had three big 5-gallon buckets full for ourselves. I made two into grape jam and had hoped to make a third but between being sick, having my pantry book galleys back to review and attend to (more about those later), there just wasn't enough time. This is my first major grape-making attempt in almost ten years when we last had a great grape year (a few since but often not able to find the time so we have given them to our Shaker friends in Sabbathday Lake, Maine or let others come pick).



The trick of any jam is to make it in small batches. Grapes have natural pectin and you can utilize that to its best advantage if you don't cook too much at once. I've learned from experience that as tempting as it is to quadruple your efforts into a large stock pot, it is best to go no more than double on a recipe. I've found my small blue Le Creuset is the perfect size for a double batch and contributes to a a good thick blend. Have your kids help with the mouly-ing! [My husband is an expert picker and de-stemmer, too.]



4 cups grapes (free of stems--no need to wash them if you don't spray)
3 cups sugar

Mix grapes and sugar in a sturdy stockpot. Bring to a boil on medium heat while stirring occasionally (make sure there are no pockets of sugar to stick to the bottom). Once boiling, turn down to low and cook for 20 minutes. Pour grape mixture into mouly and work through into a clean pot (the blade will turn and push at the same time). Mouly the mixture until pulp is pressed through: you will be left with a lovely and sticky goop of seeds and skin. Discard. Stir the thickened jam (the consistency of a heavy syrup or molasses) and pour into clean and sterilized jars (a dishwasher works great for this). Can in hot boiling water bath for 15-20 minutes according to canning instructions. One batch makes about 3 1/2 cups and the jam will thicken up as it cools.

The rich, full grapey taste will be like nothing you've ever had from the store. You see, easy as jam! Now, to better learn that pie crust so I can make a grape pie...another delight (but one that involves de-seeding the little pulpy things). Maybe next year.

Red, Ripe Apples


Last week it was "Apple Day" at my children's school. As our youngest is in first grade this year, it was particularly special for him to participate. The day is devoted to the wonders of the apple! The kids make apple pies to bring home, play games with apples, even write a newspaper about apples. A few days later I went up to one of my favorite fall destinations: Gould Hill Orchards in Contoocook, New Hampshire. They had not only saved a bushel of Winesaps for me but I was able to pick up some Rhode Island Greenings for pie-making (my friend Rosemary is planning to teach me her perfect crust technique--I am a miserable crust-maker but can make a sublime apple crisp). I forgot some of the chestnut crabapples and will just have to go back to get some for Thanksgiving stuffing.

With grape jam-making behind me (see separate entry), I can now focus on putting up quarts and quarts of applesauce! My boys won't eat any applesauce except the kind we make together. I can think of no better compliment.

Here is an excerpt from a recent article I wrote for the October 2006 issue of "The Occasional Moose", a monthly publication of The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript:


A few years ago we discovered Gould Hill Orchards in Contoocook while on the hunt for the Stayman Winesap (a small, crisp and spicy October apple—my favorite for sauce or pie). The orchards grow nearly 100 types of apples and other fruits, including many with endearing and old-fashioned names like Sheep Nose, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, and Blue Pearmain—even the diminutive and lovely Chestnut Crabapple. Now called heirlooms, these once prevalent apples were grown on American farms for different uses and have been revived for specialty markets today because of their distinctive tastes, color, and form.

In the farm stand each apple variety is described by taste and suggested culinary use and you can readily assemble a sampler bag of heirlooms to bring home for your own apple tasting. Gould Hill Orchards also press and sell an intoxicating cider blend. More familiar apples are also available and you can pick your own while overlooking a beautiful sweep of orchards and a panoramic mountain view to the north. Children, especially, will enjoy The Little Nature Museum in the large barn of this historic farm. Not far up from Henniker near Routes 202 and 89, you can call or consult their website for directions.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Writer's "Blog"

Let's call it writer's BLOG instead of block. I haven't blogged much this summer probably because I've been writing and editing--working on the revisions for IN THE PANTRY and also on assignment. It is exciting to have the book come together and now it is in the hands of the graphic designer, to be returned by Halloween. I can't wait to see what they come up with for font, book "look" and layout. So far the editorial process has been far from daunting. On my initial rewrite in June I was concerned that the concept was not being understood (it is by nature a history/design book with lots of quotes and footnotes) but I have not had that feeling at all in the pre-layout revisions. The editors have been a pleasure to work with--even though we are separated by thousands of miles. E-mail has been a salvation for remote accessibility--and for firing text and images back and forth. [I think Emily Dickinson might have published had she had e-mail and a computer--she certainly would have been an even more prolific letter writer! I am convinced she also would have avoided the phone, as I tend to do.]

Once over this odd-uneven transition time into the autumn I plan to blog more than I have been. It is still a week until our two boys return to school. Their private school, while lovely in so many ways, believes in late returns. I'm all for the day after Labor Day: late August is too early and mid-September is too late. This is about the time we get ready to ship our children off to the nearest bidder! [Or perhaps it is the time of year to plan on booking a long weekend somewhere, just the two of us.]

So I relish the time ahead when I will have at least six hours a day uninterrupted. But with our youngest child going off to first grade and his first full day, the time will indeed be bittersweet. Our oldest has already begun her senior year.

For all of us it will be a year of transitions in many ways. I have always regarded September as the beginning of the new year: even when we no longer have children in school, September begins a more inward journey, a more contemplative time. Even the earth has begun to pause and retreat into itself. The days have shortened considerably since mid-summer, the air is cooler and the leaves are beginning to change their color. The crickets are in a full-throttle 24-hour chorus, singing their lives to their conclusion. [There is nothing more fun than to have crickets come into the house, still chirping, holding on to what little life they have left--we always leave them to sing and find their way around.] Now I have begun to think of woodpiles, and filling the pantry, and being more domestic. I could have easily been a squirrel--scurrying about, bringing nuts back to the nest, organizing them and preparing for a long winter.

And there is nothing like donning a flannel night gown or pajamas and slipping into cold sheets piled high with blankets and the wind whistling around the loose old windows of an ancient draughty farmhouse. I miss that time when we heated with wood and you could warm yourself comfortably by the fires downstairs but know that you'd have the best sleep of your life in the chillier bedrooms. Old New England farmhouses were always like that: the kitchen or keeping room was the center of the home, providing warmth and light for working or sitting. Now as a culture we are separated by computers and remote pockets of media throughout households--some children are even allowed computers and televisions in their bedrooms. Houses, like people, are meant to converse and are meant to breathe: to expand and contract, to have some life in them. Like the rhythm of a year, a good house has its own dynamic and routine. It is the keeper of the flame, of the family spirit. And it really does all begin at home. I would not have made a very good pioneer woman or nomadic wanderer. I do enjoy travel, but less so than I used to. Mostly I'd just rather be at home.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Cricket Song

Yesterday I heard it--the first cricket of August and it is still July.

The cricket sound is mournful. It reminds me of the end of summer, when school or routine looms large, and the days are once again waning towards the inevitable shortest day.

Crickets are good luck--in the fall we allow them to come in the house and let them stay with us. They sing for several months in odd, unexpected places. And then they go away again--perhaps they sing because they know they only have a short time before dying.

Peepers herald the end of spring and the warmer days ahead. Fireflies are the silent beacon of midsummer, although we don't seem to have them around much anymore--not as when I was a child when they glimmered across the suburban lawns of Ohio and hovered over the new mown farm fields in New Hampshire.

Crickets announce that fall is near. Somehow this year it seems too early for crickets.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Keep Steppin'

I get the "urban word of the day" emailed from the Urban Dictionary and recently "keep steppin" arrived in my in-box. Its timing was pitch perfect. The term is defined as, "to move on from something bad" or, as used in their sentence, "Yo homie, don't worry '‘bout her, keep steppin!" It has become my new mantra as it helped provide clarity to a recent event and will now be my reaction to things that bother.

In July we went to a large family reunion in the Midwest. As my husband likes to say, "we drove almost 1,300 hundred miles for dinner," because the next day we turned around and came home. No sooner had we arrived when we discovered that our daughter, left back home with a friend so she could work at her summer job, got into a car accident and totaled her car. Speed and a cell phone were the cause. Fortunately the car did its job, the airbags deployed, and she only suffered a broken wrist. It could have been much worse as she just missed a large pine tree and had she gone over on the other side of the road she would have been airborne and launched into a pile of granite rocks—and more trees. The car was totaled but it was just a car and we are grateful to it. Our daughter is fine and her wrist will heal. (And I should have insisted that she come to the reunion with us.)

But the "push out the door" happened because, before the reunion had even begun, we were snubbed by a certain relation. We were to discover that this person had been informed about something to do with the other side of my family, not directly their own—a faction of the one back in New England. Ironically, this simple gesture from a person not even involved, and for whom I've always held in the highest regard, brought closure for me on a difficult few years. We realized that our family issues had morphed into more than the sum of their parts and that we were powerless to change that. "Keep steppin!"

A week after the reunion I attended a writing workshop sponsored by the New Hampshire Writer's Project. Its topic—Writing about Family—was as timely as that relevant word-of-the-day in my in-box. I learned that when one writes "creative non-fiction", or a memoir, that it shouldn't be motivated by revenge or self-serving purposes. Not that I have such intentions but I can imagine that nasty little "R" word all too easily creeping in if not left checked in the cloak room.

Annie Dillard wrote that "while literature is an art, it is not a martial art: no place to defend yourself from an attack, real or imagined, and no place to launch an attack." Contentious family issues are a simmering broth of emotion, upset, envy, and misunderstanding. To place all the blame on one person or event would be wrong. In our case, the unresolved issues from several generations, marriages, and unspoken expectations or wants all fell down in our laps. Did we contribute to the dysfunction of what likely can not be resolved or overcome? Of course we did—but that does not make us solely responsible.

It is not an easy thing to learn: to write with objectivity, perhaps with humor, but also personal experience and insight. All families are nuts in their own way and we all share our joys, our sorrows, and our battle scars. Perhaps that is why non-fiction out sells fiction now: people are fascinated by real lives. Memoirs by ordinary people are the literary equivalent to the "reality" television genre.

So now I'll just try to "keep steppin" over and around the stuff of life that tends to get in the way of really living it. And one day maybe I'll write about it: not dwelling on the bad but the good, the best of what resonates: what is clear, what is muddy, what was and what might have been.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Our Friend Dot

Dot & Eli--Easter 2005

One of my best, most regular readers (that I know about!) is our dear friend Dot. I am writing about her today because she always reminds me when I haven't written something new. She reads every one of my blog entries and I think she checks daily. She is more in tune with it than I am sometimes. She keeps me honest and keeps me writing. So, today, and so I don't hear "Catherine, all I am reading lately is about Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor!" when I next see her, I am going to write about Dot.

Ironically, as I type this entry on a beautiful summer day with puffy white clouds wafting across the blue horizon, and with Dot's house in the corner of my eye through my office window (Dot lives across from us on Main Street), I have just received an email "ding". Incoming from Dot! She kindly wrote to thank us for some spaghetti dish we sent over yesterday. I've decided to do "Meals on Main Street" but from our own kitchen and without wheels. I make so much food that rather than have things rot in our refrigerator, I'll make an extra helping or two for Dot. Sometimes she can join us here, too, but she is a woman with a full life and a ready meal, taken out of her fridge or freezer when convenient, is just the thing for her. Dot, in her own way and without even needing to ask, will also keep me honest and inventive with my cooking that, frankly, could use a jump start. My kids might settle for Spaghetti O's or Annie's Shells & Cheese on a regular basis--an all too easy "out" in the game of "What's For Dinner, Mom?" but I would never think of sending those selections over to Dot.

How do we love Dot? Let me count the ways:

~ She has been like a mother to my husband for over 30 years when she and her dear husband Walt moved here in 1974
~ She has been like a grandmother to our three children
~ She makes a mean Martini (she is also a poster child for the ability to smoke and drink and how it can help longevity)
~ She makes a mean pile of Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple and the best corn meal mush (both suitable for slicing and frying)
~ She reads everything she can and volunteers her time at the town library
~ She sees and knows all from her kitchen window (and if you don't know about it, she'll tell you)
~ She lives in the cutest house in the village--just right for a Grandmother's House and it suits her well
~ She introduced us to two of our favorite people: Nancy and Barbara
~ She turns her lights off on Halloween so no one bothers her
~ She doesn't hesitate to speak her mind and she has a very sharp one
~ She is feisty and has a great sense of humor
~ She keeps my husband in line when I can't
~ She is exactly who I want to be when I grow up

We love Dot to pieces! So there, Dot: I've written another entry (well, my second since ELEANOR) and now YOU'VE been blogged! Like it or not! (Ok, well if you don't like anything, I'll take it out...)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Bunny Diaries: R.I.P Sniffles the 1st

The Country Bunny

The other day two well-meaning friends, our son Henry's godparents, sent our daughter home with a cage, dried hay for bedding, some pellet food, and a water bottle--oh yes, and a baby bunny. He was the most serene rabbit, soft and angora-like, with dappled gray and tan coloring.

"Henry, what are you going to name him?" "Sniffles," he answered, "because he sniffs." That seemed like a perfect name, especially for an on-the-spot decision for an animal whose nose rarely stops twitching.

Several days later our son Eli came down early, as he often does, to check on things. I, too, was up early (a rare occurrence). He came inside and with a look of terror, his eyes wide, he cried: "there is blood in the cage!". I tried to be calm, fearing the worst. "Eli, come in the house and stay in the living room." I went to the cage--oh, phew, the bunny looked first glance. He wasn't and I can't possibly describe the state he was in because I don't have that in me to describe, but I knew he was suffering. I found a cloth, gathered him up and held him close, and found my husband. Henry was still asleep and Eli, having heard the sound of fear in my voice, had remained upstairs.

My first thought was, this animal is not going to make it, my next thought was deep empathy for the wee bunny, and my final one was that Henry will be devastated. My husband came down, we went to the mudroom, and I just lost it. I couldn't hold back the tears. I felt like Fern Arable at the prospect of losing Wilbur the runt to the hands of farm fate. My husband, who grew up with more farm animals than I ever did, knew what to do so the bunny would no longer suffer. I knew that calling a vet at that point was not an option. It was clear that the poor animal had been tortured by a cat who could reach his long arms through the thin cage rails. In our ignorance at the cage limitations, we had left Sniff on the porch at night. Big mistake, even for a country village bunny like ours. [By the way, my favorite all-time Easter bunny children's book? THE COUNTRY BUNNY and the Little Gold Shoes by Marjorie Flack]

Henry soon came downstairs and we brought him onto our laps and gave both he and Eli the news. As it was Henry's bunny, we knew he would take it the hardest. My husband had buried Sniff under the arborvitae hedge where he (or she--it was too soon to tell) liked to play and hide, and placed a rock over his spot. The boys brought flowers to Sniffles for several days and we even had a small memorial service for the bunny. I remembered the many gerbils, turtles, chameleons, dogs and cats that we lost as children. But there is nothing like your own child's first pet death--an important lesson in life and love. These small tragedies in the animal world make us the humans that we are.

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after Sniff died, my husband went back to our friends who had the bunny litter and brought home not one but two more: one for Henry and one for Eli. It was a huge surprise for everyone. "Sniffles II" and "Bunny" as Eli named his white and brown-spotted bunny. Sniffles looks just like the first. I'll post a photo soon. Now we realize they may be one girl and one boy so separate cages will be our next quest...or we might be finding ourselves with a litter of our own.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


The other day, coming out of the driveway, I ran (almost) into my old boss and friend, Eleanor. We both live in the same town and as life in the country would have it, we haven't run into each other, so to speak, in several years. (Ironically, we also both grew up in the same local town, just south of where we live now.)

Eleanor worked for over twenty years as communications director at the New England branch of a national graduate school (ok, what's the big secret: Antioch New England). I was fortunate to work with her from 1991-1993 as her assistant and editor of the alumni newsletter. She and a team from the provost's office picked me from a group of over 90 candidates which was a big boost for the old ego at the time. The job also came at a time when my daughter was three and ready for preschool, when I had just finished graduate school myself, and needed a full time job with benefits. In many ways it was the ideal job and perfect nurturing environment.

I have never worked with someone as kind and compassionate as Eleanor. She had precision and a critical eye, both qualities of a fine editor. She knew what it was like to be a single mother, having had to return to work herself when her children were teenagers. She has personally overcome many health hurdles. Before becoming a mother, Eleanor worked with Thomas Hoving at the Met and I had nothing but respect for her talents.

I left Antioch because as a trained museum and history person, I was longing to return to the house museum world. On a whim in the summer of 1993 I applied to be an editorial assistant at the Getty in Los Angeles. I interviewed for that job and decided to step out of the running because upon further inquiry I discovered that my boss would have been a childless middle-aged woman who had risen the ranks and likely would not be too tolerant of single-parent issues. In sum, she was no Eleanor.

The same day I declined to be a part of the Getty process, I was offered a job as site manager at a small house museum in the Monadnock region, Barrett House, owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). This came at a time when Eleanor was scheduled to have major surgery. I faced a dilemma and decided the best thing would be to stay at my job through the end of the year while she had her leave.

When I saw Eleanor the other day I realized that sixteen years have passed since I left her employ but that she hasn't aged a day in my mind! She has retired and there is no more deserving person of a more relaxing lifestyle. Antioch New England was lucky to have her. Perhaps now we can finally have that elusive lunch we've been talking about for years!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Addie's 18th

Addie and Lucy

My oldest child is 18 today. It was on a beautiful summer morning eighteen years ago that she was born. The air was clear and warm and I woke up at 5:30am having dreamt of a woman rowing a small boat with a little girl sitting in the prow. It was a dream version of the Impressionist painting with a brunette-haired woman with a young blonde-haired girl. I had no idea I would have a girl--well, not through science--but I certainly knew instinctively. My dream of the painting would become both a prophetic vision for her "birth" day and the years to come. For many years we have rowed together, Addie and I, and the way has been both choppy and smooth. I awoke on the day of her birth to my water breaking. When I was 25 there were still many unknowns in my life--Addie helped define and shape the "knowns". In many ways, she became my glue.

It is true what they say about childhood passing in a blink of an eye, but it is all so important--each and every minute. Like Emily discovers in the Thornton Wilder play OUR TOWN, you can never return or go back and it all goes by too quickly.

"Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at each other. Oh, Mama, just look at me for one minute as though you saw me."

My advice to anyone with young children: LOOK at them. Be in the moment with them. Otherwise, these moments are gone.

"Live people don't understand, do they?" Emily later says to the omniscient Stage Manager.

"No, dear. Not very much."

..."Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every minute?"

The stage manager shakes his head.

"No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some."

I realize that 18 is not the end of our relationship as mother and daughter. But it is a big year for anyone. Addie now has her license and soon she will have a car. She is going to a foreign land to one of the world's most impoverished cities to help build houses. She will return to the relative comfort and prosperity of her life while being a well-paid, hardworking nanny for the summer. And her senior year and college await her...her whole life is ahead of her and it will be her life, less entangled with mine. But we mothers are allowed to savor the bittersweetness of this important threshold in a child's life.

If there is anything I hope to teach, or have taught, my children, it is that life is one glorious ride. There are good days and darker days but it is all truly wonderful if we embrace them fully. I hope my children will always embrace their lives and really LOOK at the people in them.

Thursday, June 8, 2006



There is a song on the new Pearl Jam album--their 10th and named just 'Pearl Jam'--that spoke to me today. I'm not one to quote song lyrics and haven't written any down since those adolescent girl scribbles one makes on the outside of a notebook.

While waiting in the car for my daughter I put in the CD again and read the lyrics and listened to the quiet and syncopated melody several times. [Eddie Vedder's deep and gravely molasses-coated voice is so seductive but there are times you can't understand each word, hence the need for the lyric book. The song is a counterpoint to the driving "World Wide Suicide," a rocking tune that is great in its own right.] In hearing "Parachutes" again while following along with the words, I think it is about mourning for another existence while seeking out the good that came from it: perhaps a lost love or a place or a family, with home used as a metaphor for loss and change. It's about closure--of doors, of hearts, of the past.

I long ago "left home" both in my mind and in the physical sense but I have been grieving for what I know will never be again. In my family of origin too much time has passed, too many untruths or hurtful things have been spoken, and much rancor has made us all lock and load into our respective positions. [I have learned the true meaning of the expression "Pride goeth before the fall."] In the process of what could have been great, a house and a place became an unwitting catalyst and focus point for everyone's "stuff". We've been trying to turn the other cheek for too long and not contribute to the discussion. Sometimes a retreat in "battle" creates the opposite effect: others are left with misinformation, misconceptions, distorted facts, and residual emotions that become as toxic as poison. I am a firm believer if you are part of the dysfunction or you can't fix it outside of yourself, then the best thing to do is to withdraw and go into self-protection mode: of self, of spouse, of family.

In conflict, some things are insurmountable--others are just plain misunderstood. As objective as I try to be in life, I will never be able to unravel what has happened and I refuse to point fingers at any one person or event in the process. But despite the loss and the pain, there is still the memory of something good and I think that is why this song resonates for me now. My daughter, who will be eighteen next week, said: "MOM! You shouldn't listen to 'emo' music when you are feeling sad!" But I found it somehow cathartic and if you have a chance to hear the song it will remind you of a haunting Beatles melody. It may just stay with you.

With all of the untied aprons in the past year with certain relationships and to some degree my childhood, I have been fortunate to develop several new close friendships with strong women. One of them told me the other day that sometimes as we get older we make our own families--with our partner and/or our children but also with friendships, the kind that stay with you no matter what. "You are now my people," she said. Very few things have ever meant more to me.

In our lives sometimes we form new tribes in new lands, we move on and often just have to let go of what can't be fixed. With those with whom it will never be the same, I say: "What a different life had I not found this love with you." At the very least, I am grateful and thankful for that. But I am also sorrowful, and I am sorry.

Children parachute play

by Eddie Vedder

Why deny
All the troubles when combined
With the missing links
It don't feel like
Home now...

That you're gone
All the troubles
Suddenly explained infinitum
You're always wishing and
Never here at

All the dreams we shared and
Lights we turned on
But the house is getting dark

And I don't want to know your past
But together share the dawn
And I won't need

Nothing else
Cause when we're dead
We would've had it all

And died
I would've fallen from the sky
Til you
Parachutes have opened now

Heaven knows if there's a ceiling
Come so low with the kneeling
Please know that
I got

All the friends I'm needing
Before my light goes out
As the doors are closing now

And far away will be my home
And to grasp this, I don't know
But I don't need

Further back and forth, a wave will break on me today
And love,... Wish the world could go again with love
One can't seem to have enough
And war,... Break the sky and tell me what it's for
I'll travel there on my own
And love,... What a different life
Had I not found this love with you.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Back to Ohio: Part 3

Akron, Ohio is a place I can always write about. The city and its western suburban neighborhoods still enter my dreams and stay with me with a resonating chord of permanence. It is in my DNA. It is my childhood home and the place I returned for so many years to see my father, my grandfather and many friends and family after my parents divorced in 1974 (and when we moved to New Hampshire permanently). There is the place of a seemingly idyllic childhood, unmarred by divorce or the trials of adolescence, where everything is always green and lush and ripe with possibility.

Recently, on two separate trips to Kentucky since mid-April (more about Kentucky trip below) we found ourselves in Akron again. It makes the shortest trip from New Hampshire to Kentucky to go to Akron or near it and get on I-71 down to Cincinnati. On the map it looks like the longest route but to drop down from Erie or through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and the eastern Kentucky mountains is supposedly longer, more circuitous, but likely more scenic.

So on our second trip, this time without our children, we decided to stay one night in Akron on the way down to Kentucky and one on the way back (we'll reserve the more scenic route for another time). The first night came at the end of a long day across New York state and we only had time to hit our favorite antique mall (Medina Antique Mall), find a few treasures that I collect (mostly family-related from the rubber and pottery industries), and grab a burger meal at Swenson's (I'm proud to say that NEW YORK TIMES writer and Akron native R.W. Apple, Jr. agrees with me that they make the best burgers in America!). The next morning we bisected Ohio on the diagonal made by I-71 right through its center at Columbus and were easily to our central Kentucky destination within six hours.

On our return to New Hampshire we had a more leisurely day. We arrived back in Akron mid-afternoon, grabbed another Swenson's meal (the ultimate drive-in experience; you have to understand that cravings for Swenson cheeseburgers have at times been so severe that irrational thought kicks into the idea of a whirlwind weekend drive to Akron and back just to satisfy it), and settled into our hotel. We went to see my father's gravesite and planted a geranium, we drove past our old house and explored other neighborhoods.

I had intended to take a picture of 2024 Ayers Avenue. Everytime I see the place it gets smaller and the Japanese maple tree in front of the house, as old as I am, gets larger. The yard has shrunk, the house is less deep (it is likely about 20 x 15 when it felt like twice that growing up), and the neighborhood has diminished from an entire universe to a mere jumble of streets. This time the house looked sad: if houses can have emotion this one does. The grass was long and going to seed. There was no sign of life in front or back. The backyard, once abundant with my mother's effortless landscaping, was as it was when my parents purchased the place in the summer of 1962--a fenceless empty spot, dreary and desolate (it too is probably only a 20 x 15 patch of grass and space but as a child it was an entire limitless prairie).

I have never been tempted to knock on the door or ask to go in. The neighborhood has changed several times in the 32 years since we lived there. The last neighbors whom we knew died or moved away years ago. The street has likely had at least two generations of homeowners since 1974.

I realized on this last trip how remote those years now seem. The places we love often remain but are never the same without us in them, without those we love with us, too. Akron seems an empty place now that my father is gone, my grandparents have gone, and all of my childhood friends or their parents have left for another part of the world. How can a place where we have been so intimately familiar go on without us? Perhaps our memories are the only ghosts that haunt a place: residual emotions of the soul or actions in dreams that play themselves out in the memory of a place.

Once that small Colonial Revival house on its small lot in its quiet neighborhood was the center of an entire universe: where cicadas shrilled and mourning doves sobbed on the powerlines. Where approaching trains wailed their plaintive and lonely cries both coming and going, passing through on their way somewhere else. Where fire flies glimmered and hovered above our lawns on humid nights, as many as stars. Where we built whole towns of Lincoln Logs on the rug or found hidden pathways connecting suburban yards. Where five of us--father, mother, sister, and two brothers--lived our lives together for a brief blip in time, hovering on the edge of an uncharted place with all of its perilous chasms and beautiful valleys. Our world was a safe and secure place where the world beyond was vast and somehow far removed. Where in that once limitless and forever time, now only a moment, we all seemed happy. Is it too much to say that we might have been?

The Sun Shines Bright on My Old Kentucky Home

Take Me Home Country Roads

Right now there are no words so I will let the photographs do the talking until I can. When something becomes so fused within and feels so right, it can also be difficult to describe or process.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Penn's Store, Gravel Switch, Kentucky

Porch Pickin' at Penn's Store

Historic Beaumont Inn, Harrodsburg, Kentucky

Sunday, May 14, 2006

November In My Soul

November in My Soul

"Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," said Ishmael in Moby-Dick, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." I know what he means. There is a restless nature to melancholy and as much as I love the rain, in the Northeast we should probably start looking into cubits and ark-building. I don't remember the last day the sun was out. And this is a driving rain that leaves everything raw but very green. A State of Emergency was declared today and many schools have closed for tomorrow.

My children just need for us to clear out the living room and put in a wrestling ring. They are like caged animals! Two boys with energy to burn and two cranky parents and one teenage girl does not necessarily add up to a good combination over time. But despite the rain, it was a great Mother's day: breakfast-in-bed and an early dinner, all prepared by my husband and children. And I puttered all day which is a soothing balm for me--laundry and putter, laundry and putter. None of us got out of our pajamas.

Tomorrow I am giving a talk on the 'interior' life of Emily Dickinson at a nearby library. My friend Rosemary (a one-time professional baker and whose pantries will be in my book) is organizing it and has prepared lots of tea fare, including Emily's 'black cake' and gingerbread. Everyone is supposed to read their favorite Emily poem. Today this weather made me think about her largely indoor existence. She would have loved the rain, I expect. And tomorrow afternoon will be a fitting time to discuss her poetry 120 years after her death while we sip tea and warm ourselves with good companionship. There could be five people. There could be fifty.

I will likely post my talk on this blog in a few days, if anyone is interested.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Pottery Shawl


Last week I received the most extraordinary gift from a friend whom I have never met. Derald had e-mailed me several days before, having read an old blog entry--or perhaps my profile--where I mention knitting. He let me know that he was also a knitter and that he had just tried a certain kind of stitch in a yarn in "my color" which he had 'attached'. So I emailed Derald back and said that his photo had not come through with the email. It was all quite cryptic and I just assumed I had missed the photograph. Several days ago I received a small soft parcel in the mail with a familiar name in the return address.

"Ah, ha!" I thought. So THIS is the attachment! I eagerly opened it and soon unfolded the most beautiful lacy mohair shawl in a teal green blend. Not only is it a great color on me but it is evocative of the same color as the green in the "Country Fare" pattern by Zanesville Pottery that we both collect.

In fact, that is how we met. A few years ago I was trolling the Internet for any information I could find on this pottery pattern made by Zanesville Pottery in Ohio, under the direction of John B. Taylor (from the 1940s-1960s--later Taylor would sell his pattern to Louisville Stoneware but it wasn't the same product or glazing). This pottery is dark brown glazed with a lovely complimentary turquoise green. It is a distinctive green (see my beginning blog on collecting this pattern at, I started this blog a year ago this weekend!) and its pairing with the brown often results in distinctive glops of glazing. It was a prolific pattern and is now quite collectible. I have been a collector for years, inspired by the small mug and creamer in that pattern at my grandparents' farm--apparently their only pieces. In past years I have been one of eBay's greatest buyers but it all likely pales to Derald's extensive collection.

Derald and I connected in cyberspace because of our love of this pottery. When I Googled this pottery there was very little mention of it but Derald had created a site devoted to it, as well as Provincial "Oomph" and other ancestry, including "Red Wing" (all close "but no cigar"). Last year Derald announced he would be giving this site up and I wanted to try and carry the torch for fellow pottery lovers but I've been sidetracked by the pantry book and other things. Derald even put me in touch with a woman in Pennsylvania who wanted to sell her collection prior to a move--and Ann and I have become friends (we even drove down her way to pick up the pottery in person). Because I live in the east and Derald lives in the midwest, we have never met in person. We have never even spoken on the phone. But we share a bond and a hobby.

When I opened the scarf and tried it on, I was consumed with such a good feeling. I don't believe I have ever received such a special gift. As I also knit, and always for others, I have never received another's handiwork. In our knitting group at church we knit "prayer shawls" for those who are convalescing or who are grieving. The idea is that each stitch, each thread, is imbued with thoughts and good feelings and even love for someone we may not even know--a prayer, a blessing, a meditation. Knitting is like that: each stitch brings one in the moment, taking our thoughts to our hands, away from our brains and our worries. It is soothing and therapeutic, as much for the knitter as for the recipient.

Derald and I may never meet in person, although I hope so. But his gift to me will hopefully always be with me and when I wear it (which has been all week in this cool, wet spring we are having), I will think of the time and care he spent making it while reminded of the pottery which connected us in the first place.

I will forever be amazed by how two people--or hobbies or interests or research--can meet or connect without speaking or without leaving the comfort of one's home or laptop. The Internet and the great limitless void of cyberspace, while one can argue its evils, is a fantastic realm. Derald's scarf (so lovely that my very fashion-conscious daughter wanted to wear it that very day) is a reminder of the goodness in the world. It is a tangible token of the intangibility of an Internet friendship. It is as if I went to an intergalactic wishing machine--like the Robinson family discovered in LOST IN SPACE, my favorite television series of childhood--and thought about something wonderful, and there it was, transported from another world. I am touched and warmed by the gesture that someone would take the time to make something so beautiful and practical and symbolic at the same time. I am a fortunate person in many ways but I have never received such a gift: a shawl woven from thoughts of pottery and good wishes for a friend in a galaxy far, far away. Thank you, Derald. I hope we will meet one day, either in this world or the next.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Simple Gifts

Abandoned Schoolhouse, Holmes County, Ohio

I have been a bit overwhelmed by the idea of writing lately, having spent so much time finishing my manuscript for IN THE PANTRY and keying photographs, etc. Now it is in the hands of my editor and the fun begins with the editing process and design. It will be fun to watch it come to life, so to speak.

My husband, two boys and myself have been on a trip since Wednesday, April 20. It has been our first since last summer and, as usual, we like to drive. I'm calling it our "Appalachian Spring Odyssey". Of course where we live in New England is technically "Appalachia" but spring is slow to come up there, especially in our cold hilly pockets. Down here we have watched the diverse palette of green change as we made our way across Pennsylvania, into eastern and southeastern Ohio, down into central and southern Kentucky, with a dip into northern Tennessee to see my uncle, then out into eastern Kentucky and down into the Smoky Mountains where we stopped in Asheville. Tonight we've landed in Virginia and plan to see one of my dear friends and her family in West Virginia (the panhandle) tomorrow night--we have known each other for almost 40 years having met as four year olds in kindergarten in 1967 in Akron, Ohio. On Saturday night we will be in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania at a favorite small hotel we like off the beaten track (right next to an Amish farm and run by Mennonites), Sunday we will be in upstate New York and Monday afternoon--MAY DAY--we will be home!

I do like to travel but I don't make a very good nomad--perhaps it is the exhaustion of point-to-point driving each day but there has been some consistency (like our favorite brand of hotel, for the most part) and the ever-changing scenery makes it all worthwhile.

Amish Pantry at Yoder Farm

We met an Amish family in southeastern Ohio who are selling their farm--they are "old order" Amish and do not wear pastel colors and their homes are built very much like the traditional style Amish dwelling (white with a whiff of plain Georgian) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was amazing to see their place: 100 acres of rolling farm land with a house and some barns--all for $180,000. They pay less than $1000 in property taxes. The house, and meeting the family--and husband and wife about my age--and their twelve children (the newest born two weeks ago), was an experience in itself. As it had been a warm early spring everyone was in bare muddy feet. The house smelled of cookstove and foods that had been sitting in the pantry and I was reminded of the many descriptions of early American kitchens--even those into the nineteenth-century--that smelled of all kinds of things. This, afterall, is a working farmhouse kitchen with no bunches of herbs or baskets hanging about. The only adornment on any wall was a simple calendar.

I even managed to see three Amish pantries--one was actually the summer kitchen of a preserved Amish farmhouse (now operated as a museum home--Yoder's Amish Home in Holmes County, Ohio) where canning was done and where now baked goods are sold, prepared by an Amish woman in the adjacent kitchen. It was an authentic space, complete with a Hoosier cabinet selling preserves. The other pantries were recently built and full of different kinds of food, all comingling into the kind of odors that pantries used to have before foodstuffs were refrigerated. They were not photogenic by any stretch because of the large plastic tubs of ingredients that they buy in bulk or used to store dried goods. But it was a treat to see them and they, as well as the vast storerooms of canned goods in the cellar, are clearly the pride of the Amish farmwife.

Hoosier at Yoder Farm

Several days later we had a chance to tour around Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, one of the largest and best preserved Shaker communities in the country (the only Shakers left are in Sabbathday Lake, Maine and there are only four). It was a beautiful sunny and cool April Sunday and few others were there. We were able to tour the great stone dwellinghouse and other structures at our leisure and even had a delicious lunch in the Shaker tavern. Several days later we would explore three farm sites (two just land, one with a surprisingly tidy and efficient "double wide"--or "double WAHDE" as they say down south) south of there in a hilly county populated by Amish, Mennonites, and just plain country folk. It was incredibly beautiful and hilly country and within ninety minutes of Lexington and about forty-five minutes from a major north-south highway. So I suppose it might work for part of our year (if I were to homeschool our children for the time we were there). It is much like our area of New England but the soil is less rocky, there is more open farmland, the area is unspoiled by any major changes, and the winters are short--really only January and February. And oddly, it is on the very western edge of the Eastern time zone that skirts its way through Kentucky.

Yesterday we drove through the Smoky Mountains and landed in Asheville, North Carolina for the night where we saw Biltmore Estate. My husband and I had been there twice before--this time we wowed and delighted our two boys, one of whom turned six yesterday. They both loved their tour of the nation's largest private home as did we (and I have to add that they have been incredibly good on this trip considering the amount of driving and activity we've had). We also took a special "behind the scenes" tour which included the two-story butler's pantry. The house is so vast that you could get your exercise just walking across it every day or up and down the many stairs. Their servants must have been in incredible shape!

The house, despite its grandeur (if you've never been, rent "BEING THERE" with Peter Sellers, one of my favorite movies), is not really a cozy place. But what a lifestyle for the Vanderbilts and others "back in the day" of the charmed and gilded age for the privileged few at the turn of the last century. Visiting all of these homes--some simple, some grand--has had me thinking about our own. It is great to tour our magnificent country (especially by car) but it is even better to drive back in the driveway of home. A woman home economist who, at the turn of the last century traveled and lectured widely encouraging the housewife in all women had this to say:

"I tell you what. Nothing gives me the marvelous satisfaction of feeling my own kitchen floor under my two feet!" The description says that she then "emphasized the remark by bringing one foot and then the other foot down emphatically.” [from "Come On Out Into the Kitchen,” by Emma Gary Wallace, AMERICAN COOKERY, June-July 1935, Vol. XL, No. 1]

That is exactly how I feel. So take me home, country roads.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Year In the Pantry

THE OLD PANTRY by Catherine Seiberling Pond
THE PANTRY at THERON BOYD's HOUSE in VERMONT (perhaps the oldest untouched and intact pantry in the country)

Today at Easter dinner, which because of the pantry book deadline (yesterday, but because like tax day it fell on a Saturday, it will be to my editor next week) we had a very low-key immediate family affair (and I have to say I've all but perfected the art of slow-roasting a leg of lamb with oven-roasted potatoes and creamed spinach--a side of mint jelly, some hot cross buns from the Kernel Bakery, a fresh fruit tart from a local market, and voila!), our neighbor and friend Dot asked me: "When is your book going to be done, Catherine?" and I answered "It's almost out..." To my editor, I meant, not from my hands or computer, but almost. [Sounds like birthing a baby, doesn't it? Well, it is a bit like that in the metaphorical sense of things.]

"The reason I ask," she said, "is because you haven't written in your blog lately!" I realized it had been a while as I've been in the home stretch with "the book", and yes, largely in fleece pants and T-shirt (it's getting kind of warm for Lanz flannels), and generally without benefit of shower (ok, so I haven't been out much!).

And here, while entering this very quick blog as I promised Dot I would do for the sake of keeping you interested or hoping to hold on to those who do visit here, I realize I have had this blogspot now for almost a year: April 21st will be the end of year one and coincidentally (my new hobby--the art of coincidence!), my editor will have my IN THE PANTRY manuscript and photos and all of that hard work in her hands just before then (well, by a few days!).

My sentence structure is long and rambling in this post. It shows you the state of my mind! A bit frazzled. In my pantry research I unearthed a treasure trove of sources--too many for one book. So in the past few weeks I have been cutting and rewriting and rethinking certain things (this sidebar or that sidebar?) and choosing final images and photographs. It has been a wonderful process but an all engrossing one with lots of time outs to address some pressing health issues--even my computer got into the act with a "red screen of death" (thankfully my Powerbook G4 and I have been bonding and I'm tempted just to stay married to it and not stray with the latest iMac for the office but I have to say it is faster and bigger--but don't worry little iBook I won't forget you!).

The good news about all of that research? I easily have enough material for several more book ideas and a series of related lectures on domestic life. In fact, I was just asked to speak on Emily Dickinson (briefly, I said, as I am no Dickinson scholar) at a local library event in honor of the 120th anniversary of her death on May 15. So I am going to speak about her interior life and how it applied to her writing time and her "domestic activities" around the household. My friend Rosemary, who is organizing the event, is making some of Emily's "black cake" and gingerbread for the occasion and we, including our friend Edie (who first brought me to Rosemary and her pantries--and her wonderful baked goods--which will be in my book!), are going to be going to the Dickinson "Homestead" on May 12 to get a sense of her home and environment and to see if, perhaps, her pantry is still there. [For more on Emily and her pantry, see archived blog: "Emily Dickinson's Pantry", from April 22, 2005.] I promise another blog on her home, her 'interior" writing, and her pantry life.

So all of this is a way of saying thank you for stopping by the pantry and stay tuned for future installments on life, the universe, and canned goods. And thanks, Dot, for asking.

Monday, March 20, 2006

That's Flannel, not Chanel!

So I have to admit that one of the best things about being a freelance writer--whether full or part-time--has to be the wardrobe options. Let's see, there's polarfleece workout bottoms for winter with any number of shortsleeved T-shirts (I'm always warm); there's comfortable faded chambray "garden skirt" generally reserved for weeding but great for writing at the computer in summer or winter, again with requisite clean and roomy T-shirt. And the rolled up and knotted headband (from any number of colorful cotton bandanas) that helps keep my hair out of my face. Shoes and lipstick? Optional. So are morning showers. But brushing teeth and deodorant, yes. Even if you have to e-mail or speak with your editor, it's nice to know that at least you have clean teeth and smell good, even if they have no idea what you even look like! (And in working with different editors over the years I've only actually met one in person.)

Now that I'm in the last month of pantry book writing, and unable to drive, I'm really in the "relaxed dress" mode. When I had to go out for a doctor's appointment this morning, I honestly didn't know what to wear or where to find it. One has to look vaguely presentable in public and knowing I can't wear my usual work duds, I have to resort to fashion memory. Oh yes, that sweater does work with that skirt--and those shoes! At least it will soon be flip-flop season again.

The other day on CBS Sunday Morning I saw an interview with Anne Rice. Not only has the woman found Jesus--at least in her writings--she has discovered the joys of the flannel nightgown, presumably Lanz given the dropped yoke front on the one she was wearing. She literally slides from her bed to her corner desk/computer work station. Of course she doesn't have to first feed and dress her children and get them out the door; she probably only has to trudge to the kitchen to make coffee or tea. But once at her desk, she'll hum right along in her flannel nightgown.

That used to work for me in college. The Lanz flannel gown from Austria--had in variety of colors and patterns and 100% cotton, of course--was the evening wear of choice. By day many of us wore sweat pants--preferably those with our college emblazoned on the upper thigh--with polo shirts, shetland sweaters and if you really wanted to gild the lily, pearls and gold earrings. These were our uniforms--at a women's college which Wheaton used to be until 1987, we did not have to dress to titillate or please any menfolk and had the Brittany Spears look been around, most of us would have been doomed. Our clothing seemed to cover any bumps or bulges attained by the "Freshman 15" or the fact we weren't on the lacrosse team. Besides, it was just so darned comfortable! Many a late night spent studying or writing papers (pounding them out on our electric typewriters--only my college thesis was written on the computer and that was a huge mainframe "word processor"), sitting in the hall or lounge sharing popcorn, enjoying a leisurely sleep-in. Our Lanz nightgowns got us through many a stressful college day and many an "all nighter", too.

So I might just take a cue from Anne Rice and revisit that idea myself. There is nothing more comfortable: since birthing and nursing three babies, I just got out of the habit of wearing them (they are not designed for breastfeeding mothers!). Throw on my wool clogs and cotton socks and I'm set to go until D-DAY: April 15, 2006.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A New Stove


The stove at the JUSTIN MORRILL HOUSE in Strafford, Vermont dates from 1850. Notice the Gothic Revival arches on the doors (it is a Gothic house, after all) and look how low it is-perfect for cooks of short stature like myself!

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We've generally had people in our house-nice people but loud guys with hammers or the Howard Stern show on in the background and general mayhem-since October. It's just the nature of home renovation: it isn't a silent enterprise. My husband seems to like general chaos all at once and I'd rather pace myself in slow, drawn out periods of occasional disruption. First we had the parlors opened up (which I soon discovered was a lot more than just ripping the wall down!)-see Thanksgiving Day blog entry-and then we had windows taken out of the entire main house to have UV glass put in and easy-to-use storm windows (the old ones, at least 40 years old, involve wedging all manner of implements into them at great risk of losing limb or at least a general flesh wound...and that is just to open and close the screen windows). Those are now being painted in the cellar by our painter friends who like to listen to Howard Stern (and not that there is anything wrong with that, it's just now that he is on satellite he can say anything he wants to say).

In between those projects, as we had the parlor floor refinished any way, my practical husband thought: why not the kitchen floor? Well, that alone involved moving EVERYTHING out--and I have a lot of EVERYTHING in that kitchen--and storing it on the floor, on available tables, even on the staircase, so that the floor sander (yes, a fine dust veiled our entire kitchen, permeating into cabinets and finding out of reach cracks and crevices which still probably haven't been properly cleaned) could HAVE AT IT and then the floor could be given at least 5-6 polyurethene treatments (we like wood floors but we also like to "cure" them from hard traffic areas).

So I asked if we could delay getting our new gas stove and oven for the kitchen until after my book gets out! I thought it would be as involved as sanding and refinishing the kitchen floor had been. I just don't do well with constant disruption...or so I thought. Today I had my laptop downstairs while keeping an eye on my youngest son and being "present" near the kitchen in case the guys working on removing the old stove, etc. had any questions. Surprisingly, I tuned right into the computer and the task at hand and the ambient noise of drill or saw seemed to lull me into a deep writing mode. Perhaps I am trying too hard to be "too quiet". But I do welcome the day when we have our house to ourselves again but I don't think that will be until they are done repointing the four chimneys and redoing the roof later this spring. At least the work will be outdoors!

But a new stove! Can I gush for a moment? I have never had a gas range before. We were on our second glass cooktop and had tried to order a third since last summer. Our brand, wouldn't you know, is not something easily in stock and now has to be special ordered--we needed to find the same model to fit the same opening cut into our granite countertop eight years ago when we last remodeled the kitchen. So, we continued to use the glass cook top and hoped it wouldn't further shatter into smithereens as we really had no choice.

Then my husband had a "eureka" moment--sort of a mini-epiphany but when one is speaking about appliances it is probably best to imbue the moment with less importance than an outright epiphany (which is reserved for those life-changing, revelatory times and clearly getting a new appliance is not one of those times!). Why don't we get a gas stove? I recoiled in horror-GAS! But we will all die in the night or our house will explode! After a few basic gas-range lessons 101 I realized that the dials today are not what they used to be, pilot lights are easier to use and far more reliable, and that the reason gas has a SMELL is because it is added for safety. So while I am still a bit timid, I do know as a cook that the benefits of cooking and baking with a gas range far outweigh the unlikely problems.

On Monday next a six burner, 36" wide gas range from Viking will arrive and soon after they will fit it in, hook up the propane and we'll give it a test drive. I'm loosing some valuable storage space in the process so now I'm going to have to twist my husband's arm into letting me construct another pantry somewhere! Either that or it's time for an eBay unloading...

In my readings I have encountered many descriptions of new stoves, of how the arrival of a cast iron wood-fired cookstove held great significance to a family that had been cooking on open flames in a hearth setting (just think of Ma Ingalls' delight when Pa got her an iron stove for her new frame house-especially as the poor woman had been cooking on a tin stove in her dug out at Plum Creek for quite a while). Other women have written about their battles with these iron giants-about the drudgery of keeping them fired, keeping them at the just the right temperature, cooking a variety of items while juggling various degrees of warmth and heat. Tending these stoves--and earlier fires--was practically a full time job. So I'm not complaining about receiving such a gleaming gift (we opted for black enamel as I think stainless is the greatest pain to clean) that I only have to "fire up" once or twice a day to get the family meals! I'm just a bit nostalgic for the cooktop it is replacing, just as I "mourned" the car that I totaled in my recent accident. And besides, the oven on this baby could potentially hold the biggest Thanksgiving turkey yet...and there is something to be said for that.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Back to Ohio: Part 2

Occasionally I will dream of it, the white 1930s (perhaps earlier?) Greek Revival-ish "four square" suburban house where I grew up in Akron, Ohio. It is still there on Ayers Avenue: the only evidence that we were ever there is the large Japanese maple tree that dominates the front of the house. It is as old as I am, planted there in the summer of 1962 and, like myself I suppose, it has become a thick trunk with a sprawling mass of different directions and odd cohesion. Other plantings and embellishments--like the fence which created our giant play pen in the back yard, the silver maple which grew too fast and was always losing limbs, the evergreen by the sign post out front, even the green yew hedge in front of the windows--all are gone. With the exception of the large tree out front, the yard and house and even driveway look as they did in 1962 when my parents bought the house. The cement "stoop" (in the midwest, the front step is always a "stoop", from the German influence no doubt) is still there, the black shutters on white aluminum, the white cement block garage. My mother, who has gardening in her soul and DNA, always planted red and white geraniums along the front walk and she turned her hand to the back yard, too. She had been raised on a vegetable and flower farm and she tried to infuse her 1/8 acre with all the greenery and floribundance that she could.

The entire lot size was not much bigger than a postage stamp. When I was a child it seemed park-like: the well-manicured lawn out front and the cozy fenced in space out back with its zinnia and tomato bed, its meandering trumpet vines and morning glories all over the fences, even a pumpkin patch which launched itself from behind the garage up into the trees. For one year we had dangling orange pumpkins! The swing set and a few other small trees--an apple and a silver maple--made up the back yard. There was even a poured cement patio off the living room and another smaller slab area with a "back stoop" off the kitchen where the milk man from Reiter Dairy left us milk, cottage cheese, and sometimes ice cream (It was years before I realized that my mother actually had to leave a check list for him!).

We left this house in 1974, almost thirty-two years ago, and yet I remember every detail of it: the cool plaster walls, the tiny bedrooms (again they seemed much larger then), the suburban efficiency of it all. Downstairs there was a living room that stretched from one end of the house to the other, comprising half of the box; the other half was made up of a small dining room at front, a small kitchen with breakfast nook and small closet in back and a staircase that bisected both sides up the middle. Beside that was a coat closet in the front hall and behind the coat closet was an even more commodious storage closet where brooms and cleaning supplies and some kitchen overflow was kept. Adjacent to the broom closet was a tiny half-bathroom across from the cellar door down to a cavernous basement.

The kitchen was pink and black: pink painted cabinets, a pink refrigerator, and black appliances. Even the linoleum was black with pink and white flecks on it. I used to stare at that linoleum pattern for minutes on end while my mother was making dinner. It reminded me of the starry night outside which we could occasionally see from our front lawn but much more clearly on our summer visits to New Hampshire. I remember asking my mother or maybe father in that kitchen: "What's infinity?"

"A universe that goes on and on." Remember, my mother was probably trying to cook something. Imagine such an intrusive question?

"Well, it must stop somewhere...where does it?"

"I don't know that it does."

"Wouldn't there be a wall at the end of the universe? But then, there must be something beyond that wall..."

I soon realized that the conversation that I was now beginning to have with myself would go no where and that the answer was probably not attainable in my lifetime. I was probably somewhere between three and five, when questions like that might occur if you were practically at eye level with black linoleum with pink and white flecks. It was probably also the first time that I realized my parents probably didn't know EVERYTHING and that infinity was probably something invented by God to drive us nuts.

I learned to bake and cook in that pink kitchen. For Girl Scouts, the Berlani girls and I made a four course chicken dinner, carefully attending to the side dishes, gravy and dessert. As I recall, the roast chicken wasn't quite done and we left the kitchen in total chaos. My mother probably cleaned up (the badge instructions for "Cooking" didn't specify cleaning up). I also would bake in my aqua Easy Bake oven for hours on end: chocolate cake with white icing in those cute little miniature Betty Crocker mix boxes (that, along with the aqua blue Easy Bake oven they don't make any more), white cake with confetti icing, miniature cupcakes, hey, it was a cottage industry for my dolls and I, who like Drusilla in the Raggedy Anne stories, lined her dolls up all around for a tea party with sweets and "sugar water tea". Later I would graduate to more complicated dishes but if it wasn't for those Easy Bake years--or the small pink assembled cardboard kitchen under the cellar stairs with its plastic food and endless hours of playing house--I doubt I would have wanted to bake or cook as an adult. Years later when my daughter was young, we got a second hand "microwave" model of the Easy Bake oven. I couldn't stand it and never took it out of its box. My daughter and I made a few things in the real kitchen oven of our apartment. In hindsight I think I deprived her of a pivotal childhood experience! Perhaps that is why she doesn't have the impetus to cook much more today than chips and salsa or buttered popcorn. I ruined it for her.

I dreamt last night of returning to that house but I will save that for another installment.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Coincidence and Crabapples


Lately I have had "coincidence" on my mind because an old high school classmate and I have become reacquainted on line and he pointed the whole idea out to me. First of all, his picture from 1981 had been in the paper along with the Carnival Queen, another classmate--a "Who are they? Where are they" kind of thing that the local paper does. I Googled both classmates names and got Steve's with an email address on an obscure website (it helps when the surname of the person you are Googling is not the norm). I emailed him in hopes I had the correct "Steve". It turns out I did.

Then he read bits of this blog and the whole conversation about coincidence began. It started with an op-ed in his local paper about the phenomena. It also turns out that Steve's wife grew up right next to the publisher with whom I am writing IN THE PANTRY. He and his wife also had just looked up Annie Proulx the same night I had--just out of curiosity (my previous blog, on the same night they Googled Annie, was on this author). He also mentioned my mention of Mitt Romney's comment about people keeping a year's worth of provisions--particularly the Church of Latter Day Saints (eg. Mormons). Steve elaborated about this tradition of "storage rooms" and "fruit rooms"--some quite sizeable--in Mormon homes (his wife was raised in the church). And then he put me in touch with his sister-in-law who pointed me to many online resources about this phenomena. And now, a new sidebar will be included in "the pantry book".

Meanwhile, my friend Sue and I have had crabapples on the brain since our photo shoot in October. This year, at Gray Goose Farm, the crabapple tree adjacent to the dining room had never been more laden. The fruits were a beautiful wine color--not quite claret, more of a blush tinged with bits of green. When ripe they were almost sweet and they hung like grapes from the c. 40 year old tree. I remembered when my grandfather used to make the most delicious crabapple jelly. We would have it with our peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk spread out beneath the nearby apple trees--every day a picnic when we visited our dear grandparents in the summer in Jaffrey! So, I wanted to replicate that jelly, especially "bittersweet" this, the last year the farm would be in the family. So I sent my husband on a picking mission because first I thought their red beauty would look great in blue-tinged Ball canning jars that I'd been collecting all summer here and there for our pantry shoot. We poured them into the jars, untouched, with the intention of my making jelly soonafter. Well, they looked great in the photo shoot here and there but I never did make the crabapple jelly.

The other day Sue sent me an essay by Nora Ephron in a recent NEW YORKER about cookbooks that have influenced her over the years. She was enamored with Lee Bailey, perhaps the first "style food book" person out there. Sue's friend used to do the photography for Lee's books (I have several: COUNTRY WEEKENDS and COUNTRY DESSERTS). Ephron was all excited about what she might serve Bailey and also the prospect of dinner with him. What he served was simple but memorable and for dessert? Baked crabapples!

So I Googled a recipe for them--no such luck. But I did find a recipe for Crabapple Pie in the most likely of places--another blog! I will list that blog here because it not only is it enjoyable, but it oddly parallels mine at first glance. Check it out (and I'll list in the sidebar when I have more time!):

If you want the crabapple pie recipe, go to the December 10, 2005 archive. She also writes about couches, Yorkshire pudding, and general domestic stuff. I e-mailed her as a new fan.

Meanwhile, I walked out of a major accident yesterday. I am fine, with only a small bruise where the seatbelt clenched. No one can believe I was unscathed let alone not dead. The car will likely be totaled. No one else was in the car or affected by it: just me, my sturdy Honda Pilot that likely saved my life, and a deep ravine. I don't doubt there were a few angels in the car, too. As I was going over the ravine edge I felt as if the car was being gently placed, like a chess piece on a board. It was not violent or jarring. I will never know exactly how the accident occurred or how it ended the way it did but I'm now a firm believer in fate and good fortune and in unseen presences that help guide our lives. I am still grappling with the events of yesterday and likely will be for a long time. Meanwhile, a chest x-ray as a precaution from the accident revealed a probable granuloma on a lung--probably benign but they want to check it out. And another growth was found a week before on another part of my body. Again, likely benign.

But the coincidence of these three things--an internal body that I have no control over and an external accident that should have been a fatality if not something critical--has me wondering about the grand plan, while appreciating the irony of it all and the day as it comes. Like the crabapple we take the bitter with the sweet and hope for the best.