Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Resolutions-Why Not?

I'm trying to resolve to do things all the year round but I love a clean slate so why not go public about it?
  • Children–More present and in the moment with our boys and more letters and visits with our daughter.
  • Communication–I want to be in better touch with people and I don't mean via email or Facebook: a letter or note, visit, tea, lunch, dinner party, or phone call (will take some work as I hate the phone). Consolidate: two basic cell phones and no land line more practical? (especially with satellite internet expense)
  • Computer–I will try to be on the computer for work or play only when my children are at school or asleep.
  • Cupcakes–Be a better book group (and blog) participant!
  • Exercise–More of it. Enough said. And let's start with walking all over this beautiful farm of ours as much as possible.
  • Family/Friends–See Communication, above.
  • Farm–Develop a working plan with my husband. What are we doing and when? A girl's gotta know these things.
  • Farmhouse–Same deal, even if it will be on paper for a while.
  • Food–Continue to eat only when hungry, not depriving myself but not going overboard, either. Balance indulgences with sprees of great health and limits. Be more proactive about menu planning.
  • Garden–Plan what can easily be tended and managed and remember the bounty in the next county. [No, I did not intend for that to rhyme!]
  • Hormones–Need I say more? Can't live with them, can't kill them. Continue to explore this new realm of sight and sound.
  • Houses-in-Order–This is a literal as much as figurative goal of mine...and on-going, always. Pick up, put away or pitch. Repeat. Clean often (yes, more often than I think).
  • Laundry–Laundry, laundry, LAUNDRY! And while we're on the subject, how about those two baskets full of ironing? (I should see it as a chance to catch up on all of those taped Barefoot Contessa and Dr. Oz episodes...)
  • Marriage–More time to pause and plan together.
  • Past Issues–Burn 'em or bury 'em; reconcile 'em or write about 'em.
  • Photos–Organize, copy, scan, duplicate, share (same with all family archives).
  • Recreation–Literally, "recreate": more reading and day trips and family pauses together.
  • Restaurants–Once in a while, like once a month in Lexington. Really. Home cooking so much better (and cheaper) and we have all of those freezers and stuff.
  • Sleep–While I seem to require less these days, no one is well served by my regular 2-4am bedtimes. So, I will try to be more of a morning person by going to sleep before midnight!
  • Song–Join the Pleasant Hill Shaker Singers in March and sing my little heart out several times a year, and maybe dance a bit, too (even if in costume).
  • Spirit–More "morning time" and find a church that moves and inspires and is good for the family.
  • Volunteer–Do more for others and more often. Find a niche and commit to it.
  • Writing-for-Blogs–More often or when inspired, but don't let it get in the way of other writing, too. Be more bloggy, if possible, and less of an essayist! (Save that for the books.)
  • Writing-in-General–Pick a project and work on it. Make a year plan. Prioritize. Enough of these ADD-driven snippets. Follow through!
  • Writing-for-Hire–Generate regular articles in a variety of new and old media and while we're at it, let's market those cases of books that are in storage to some museums and gift shops.
So there it is, everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. It helps to write it all down and be accountable, even if I forget to check the list from time to time.

Thank you, always, for visiting me here in the pantry!

Happy New Year to you and yours and may 2010 be all that you hope and dream.

Enjoy the rare New Year's Eve "Blue Moon" wherever you are. A great way to start a new decade and by New Year's Day it will already be waning again.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Power of Nostalgia

"Optima dies...prima fugit." The best days...are the first to flee. Willa Cather opened her novel My Ántonia with that Latin line from a poem by Virgil. The novel is infused with the power of sentiment and the changing world of the prairie as lived out and remembered by Jim Burden. Yet Cather isn't a sentimental writer and that can be a difficult feat when writing of the past. Usually when a book or movie is criticized as being too sentimental or nostalgic, I'm all over it. I never find too much of either to be a bad thing. Perhaps that is why the Christmas season can have such a delightful ache and longing to it. Even ad exec Don Draper in Mad Men, a television show I have watched on occasion, captures that feeling about nostalgia and its overt power in advertising: "It takes us to a place where we ache to go again." Exactly.

I don't know if you watch CBS Sunday Morning (or tape it as we do) from 9am-10:30am each Sunday but every week I find so many relevant stories: from the folksy to the topical. It's as if, for a brief time each week, the regular news format has been suspended or even upended into that nice soft underbelly of culture and information that you'd like to see more often. Topical stories are addressed but mostly it is the kind of piece on reinventing Sundays, or some odd festival or turkey-calling, or this recent segment on nostalgia in our culture that just bring me back, week after week, for more. There are also really humorous bits and movie reviews. [And I have to admit to having a secret nerd crush on Mo Rocca. I would even consider "tweeting" just to follow his hysterical "tweets" on Twitter–and I hope he becomes a regular on The Joy Behar Show because he is the kind of snarky, funny guy I can't get enough of (or often find) in life (and his panel-sharing with Sandra Bernhard the other day just proves that they need their own show). His humor hums with contemporary cultural references, those of the wry variety that sometimes you have to really listen for–what else would you expect from a former Harvard Hasty Pudding Club president?]

Historically, nostalgia has helped a culture to sustain itself during hard times or transitions. As an architectural historian, it fascinates me that there was a huge revival in architecture and furniture styles throughout the nineteenth century, a time of great modern and industrial revolution and cultural changes in Europe and America. So we embraced the past, ancient past: Egypt, Rome, Asia and other cultures influenced the styles and tastes of growing empires. Even the Gothic style became secular. Later in that century we actually revived the Colonial, a revival that still morphs and changes from an era in our history that still resonates after two centuries. Handmade craft became big again in the late nineteenth century, a decided reaction to the industrial age of mass manufacturing. I would argue the same is happening now as a backlash to our technology and computer age: we embrace artisan crafts and breads, small-scale wineries, food grown and sold from small local farms, comfort food and comfortable homes. We crave local, vintage, primitive, retro, old, "new old" and historic. Human yearning is a powerful thing but what is it, exactly, that we are looking for? IMAGE from the book Time Wearing Out Memory–Schoharie County by Steve Gross and Susan Daley [W.W. Norton: 2007]

We've also been returning home as a culture: in our hearts, minds and lifestyles. This nesting trend has been going on since the late 20th century and as much as we create a post-modern home, we draw on old prototypes while infusing our homes and families with new conventions. It can be hard to filter stuff out and there is a backlash with some people to modernity: whether it is anti-feminism, our school systems, the trappings of a modern world. I straddle both worlds but can understand why many women want to be home again or, if they can't because of family economics, they feather their nests as best they can and "think home" whenever possible. It is a fascinating trend. Regardless, "the good old days" were never as great as we think they were but there is tremendous power in a memory or scent or photograph. And nostalgia is good for us: look how it helped people during the Great Depression and World War Two in movies like It's A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, where the ideas of home and never leaving it become powerful themes. PHOTO–My mother in her pink post-war Akron, Ohio kitchen, Christmas, c. 1964.
+ + +

NOTES on my Mother's Kitchen (or where my B.A. in Art History and inherent detective skills are actually put to good use or in which Catherine takes a really long aside–if you don't want to read it, scroll down to the next set of "+ + +"): If you click twice on the image of my mother in her kitchen (or any image in my blog entries), it should enlarge for you, because the details are of interest. We know the photo was taken at Christmastime because my Mom is wearing a Santa Claus apron (that I haven't seen since). Note the G.E. box (probably a new toaster opened that morning), with what I believe is a roll of Contact® paper right next to it. The Betty Crocker Cookbook and The Betty Crocker Cookie Cookbook, both mainstays in my mother's kitchen (and likely wedding presents–I also learned to cook and bake from these cookbooks), are in the corner. There is also the pink dishwasher front, the white Colonial Revival-style curtains with plants in the window, and the pink Pyrex® bowl (but I have no idea what my mother had in those jars!). The refrigerator, not pictured and neither is the breakfast nook in this small (probably 10x10) kitchen, was also pink as were many utilitarian features, like the soap dish. There is a trivet on the wall, to the left, which had a pink-ish design on it and was used as a decorative hot plate (trivets were big in the 60s). On the side of the cupboard is a fly swatter (if it is pink, I can not tell), alongside the folding metal towel rack.

"The things they carried..." Mom and I were just talking the other day about moving and boxes–many of ours are still in storage from our move two years ago–and how she moved several unpacked moving boxes from Akron, from our old farm in New Hampshire up the road to her new house several years ago. What is unusual about that is these boxes were from our Ohio house, packed in 1974 and kept in the barn for over 30 years, and likely full of things like trivets and pink kitchen things and seldom-used but well-packed wedding presents. Who knows? I do know that I have nightmares that the same thing will happen to me if we don't build our farmhouse soon...complete with attic, cellar and many pantries.

The linoleum floor of our pink kitchen, which I wish I could show you, was black with white and pink and gray confetti flecks thrown all over it in a random explosion. While crawling on that floor, I often pondered the vastness of space and time while looking at it. Being a highly visual child, I imagined infinity as a great wall on the other side of all of that confetti and blackness and remember asking my mother about what was beyond that wall: "Infinity goes on forever," she said. "Well, it must stop somewhere!" It was an exasperating thought but I guess it was the kind of "atomic" post-war pattern that could induce the philosophies of a three-year old. PHOTO–That's me in our pink Akron kitchen, at about two years old (c. 1964), probably trying to score some cookies.

Last summer a Norwegian historian contacted me about the image of my mother in her kitchen, that appears elsewhere in another blog entry at In the Pantry, for an exhibit called "Fiskeboller i karri" (Fish in curry) designed "to show that Norwegian culture (as any other culture) always has been affected by the rest of the world." They passed on the image, however, after permission had been given from my mother, because it was "too subjective" a relationship between the photographer (likely my father) and the subject (subjectivity must be very hard not to find in any shot of a woman in her kitchen, I should think!). I'm still scratching my head about that. PHOTO–1960s play food, like what I had in childhood, purchased last year on eBay for reasons and impulses I do not understand.

I remember this photo being taken, c. 1965 or 1966: my distant cousin Nancy Turner, whom I've only met a few times, and I are playing in my own pink kitchen under the basement stairs of our Akron home. The pink "appliances" were made of sturdy cardboard and the "food" in the foreground was made of hollow thin painted plastic. (I bought some just like it on eBay–that great nostalgic "attic".)
+ + +

I suppose the solution to too much sentiment and nostalgic pining is living more in the present: taking each day for what it is and making memories by living in the moment. I try to do that, every day, but the pull of the past is a powerful thing. It's striking the balance in my life that is the hardest reality. I have boxes of photographs and even more digital images (and carousels of slides–oh my) to go through this year: to organize, copy, catalog and share (from my immediate family and past archives from my extended family). It is something that has to be done: for myself, our children and other family members–even for some kind of elusive posterity. I almost dread the process because I know, with each image, I will dwell in memories and recollections, some painful or bittersweet. I also know that the process could easily overcome me: "It takes us to a place where we ache to go again." PHOTO–Ham awaits Sunday dinner preparations at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in New Gloucester, Maine, August 2006.

So here's to a New Year: a clean slate, a time to reevaluate and remember but also to look forward and reinvent. I will really try not to let the simple glories of the daily life I lead escape from my grasp by living too much in my past (blogging helps this more immediate need to document and reflect on the day-to-day). The novelist Thomas Wolfe, who often wrote of memory and longing, said: "Is this not the true romantic feeling; not to desire to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you?" It's just the human condition to do so and we are, after all, a complex species made of mostly water, intricate strands of DNA, and an invisible and highly individualized soul energy. But our unseen chords (and cords) of memory bind us to each other and to who we are: once in a while, we just have to play them. PHOTO–A close-up of some of my green vintage collection, as styled for a photo shoot for The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses [Gibbs Smith: 2007] at our former historic home.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiday Fare: Roast Beef 101

A hearty plank of roast beef served with Yorkshire pudding, oven roasted potatoes, and creamed spinach–all holiday traditions in our combined families.

I have to really crow about our roast beast this year. First of all, it was recently excavated from the bottom of our chest freezer on the back porch. That alone is something to crow about. Allow me to recap the scene here about a week ago:

SCENE: A small doublewide kitchen on a ridge in Kentucky, a few days before Christmas.

Tired Old Wife: "Remember, hon, when we got that huge roast at Kroger's last year on sale and we cut it in half?"

Tired Old Husband: "Um, I think so." (reading the paper, feet propped up, sort of not really listening)

Tired Old Wife: "Well, I'm almost positive it's in that freezer somewhere..."

Tired Old Husband: "I take it that means you would like me to look for you?"

Tired Old Wife: "Yes, but only when you have a minute..."

Tired Old Husband: "You mean, like 'right now,' don't you?"

Tired Old Wife: "Well, yes, that would be nice...thank you so much. You know, before I forget...I would go myself, but you know I'd fall in if I start reaching into the very bottom, being of gnome stature and all..."

Tired Old Husband tromps out to back porch. Fusses because freezer is covered with Tired Old Wife's cookie doughs in various covered plastic containers and a bunch of items that won't fit in the kitchen refrigerator, and a box of apples in various states of decay. Rummaging and fussing can be heard for several minutes.

Tired Old Husband: "Found IT!"

The old couple examines the 12 pounds of solid, boneless Delmonico roast. The old label was still on it and they'd paid about $110 for 24 pounds (about $4.58 a pound for excellent meat–at half price), which saved then about $120 with the use of their Kroger® card (the original roast was well over $200). It was double-wrapped in foil and had been placed in a zippered freezer bag (one of those really large ones). After a year in the bottom of their chest freezer, dread overcame the Tired Old Wife.

Tired Old Wife
(somewhat vexed): "Do you think it has freezer burn?"

Tired Old Husband
(somewhat annoyed but aware that his wife is generally prone to needless fretting): "We'll see–There's no sense getting yourself all worked up about it...yet."

Tired Old Wife sets up coffee maker and pats roast thawing on the counter for good luck before turning on nightlight and heading to bed.

Loud applause as kitchen set goes dark.

+ + +

We were supposed to have had it on Christmas Eve, late in the evening "Le Réveillon-style," after our deliveries of baskets of food and banana bread. But we were exhausted from that and my sensible husband suggested we have it Christmas Day at noon instead (our traditional Christmas dinner is usually served around 5pm but we were going to the Hursts for singing and the quilt-giving so I thought, this year, we'd have a French Réveillon, but served well before midnight).

When it thawed and I looked it over, there was not one bit of freezer burn to be seen or felt and the meat was still a lovely fresh pink. Maybe it had somehow "dry aged" itself in the freezer or maybe it was our "Christmas miracle" of the season. Either way, you'd never have known it had been frozen for twelve months. Vive le boeuf!

About ten years ago, after years of struggle and occasional blind luck, I finally asked a restaurant chef how they always managed to get pink, juicy roast beef straight through. "First I braise and raise (the temperature) and then it's slow and low," he said. All you need, apart from a really good roast, is a reliable roasting pan and an even more reliable meat thermometer. Here is my recipe for succulent, juicy, fool-proof roast beef (that is, if you follow the directions!).

Christmas Roast Beef
  1. Get the best cut of beef you can, ideally on sale: Delmonico is great but there are others. [Don't hesitate to ask the guys behind the meat department at your local box store, either. They love to be asked and will tell you all you want to know about meat and what the best cut is for the price you want to pay. Make sure it has some fat on it, but not too much. That marbling is what gives it the flavor.]
  2. Put the fresh, or thawed, meat in the pan, fat side up, to come to room temperature, several hours before roasting.
  3. Slather the meat all over with coarsely ground pepper, sea salt and fresh minced garlic and dried rosemary, if desired.
  4. Heat oven to 450 degrees and place meat thermometer in the middle of the roast, piercing it towards the center. Put just a bit of water in the bottom of the pan, perhaps 1/2 inch.
  5. Place roast in center of oven and cook roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes (make sure you set your timer).
  6. After 20 minutes at 450 degrees, turn oven down to 250 degrees (without opening oven).
  7. Cook until meat thermometer registers "rare" for beef or 60 degrees Celsius (or 140 degrees Fahrenheit), about 2 hours.
  8. Take beef out of oven, remove from pan to platter and put tin foil all over it. It will continue to cook slowly to "medium rare" while you make the gravy and/or Yorkshire pudding. [Transfer juice to another pan to make gravy if you plan on using roasting pan for Yorkshire pudding and return pan, with suet or lard in it (several tablespoons) to oven and turn up to 475 degrees, for 8 minutes**]
  9. If there are those who want more "well done" pieces of beef, give them the ends or stick a piece or two back in the oven for a few minutes.
**For Yorkshire Pudding recipe: follow the recipe for "Uncle John's Popovers" but triple the ingredients, as found in this blog entry, but put batter in the roasting pan (instead of individual cups), after you've melted a bit of suet or lard in it first. PHOTO–The Yorkshire Pudding should be suitably puffy and egg-y, as it crawls up the sides of your roasting pan. Slightly crispy on the bottom, and somewhat glistening on the top is also good. But never, and I mean NEVER use bacon fat as I did this year: always always use suet or lard in the pan before pouring in the batter–butter if nothing else.

NOTE: This dinner would also be a great option for New Year's Day or Eve. We traditionally do a big brunch on New Year's Day after just sort of lolling around at home on New Year's Eve with various hot and cold appetizers.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Christmas Eve in the doublewide–yikes, the tree really looks like it's ablaze!

An easy, quick centerpiece: some pomegranates, a cheap red candle, some potpourri and a pie dish from Tater Knob Pottery outside of Berea, Kentucky on top of a Zanesville "Country Fare" platter.

With every parcel sent to friends and family this Christmas, I included a sprig of mistletoe from a large cluster that my boys brought to me a few weeks ago from our own farm. The white berries grow only on female plants.

Christmas was a quiet and special time for us–our second here on the ridge. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care and organic carrots from a Mennonite friend were placed out with a cup of milk and some cookies and a letter to Santa. (One year Santa got a glass of Bailey's® and some leftover cocktail shrimp...that was high-end living, I'll tell you what.) PHOTO–A gold-lipped, but inexpensive, trifle bowl is filled to the brim with old vintage glass ornaments.

My husband got me a "Sugar Devil" for Christmas (and some lovely silver bracelets and a pile of good books and cookbooks). This unusual tool was used to dig out dried stuck sugar or fruit in old store barrels. I'm convinced that every woman needs one! In fact, I could have used it a few days before to tackle a bag of brown sugar for my banana bread that had caked.

We were also finally able to pull off a surprise, six months in the making. On Christmas Day, after our roast beef dinner, which I was to have cooked on Christmas Eve but our elfing and gift-basketing got away from us, we headed over to the Hursts for hymn and carol-singing. Let me say that sitting around on benches and gathered around the woodstove and kitchen table in a cozy, well-kept farmhouse with about thirty other people (many who are closer friends) singing their hearts out, a cappella, is a magical experience (even if there are a few sour notes on occasion). The singing was the only sign of Christmas as Old Order Mennonites do not decorate or have a tree like we do. But their spirit is willing and, as with everything else, they pare it right down to the essence of the season. PHOTO–A snowman at a Mennonite farm the day after our "big snow" on December 19th. He didn't last long.

View of Hopeful Church: The weekend before Christmas we had a good bit of snow on the ridge but it didn't stay long.

It's odd but I was reminded of the Whos in Whoville who gathered on Christmas morning to sing, "Welcome Christmas!" For it arrives whether we are ready or not or whatever our circumstances. [I have recently been reading about the Appalachian tradition of "Old Christmas" but that's another blog: in fact, in this period of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" I plan to linger longer in the holiday reveling, so please bear with me. I like to stretch things until Epiphany, or "Twelfth Night," which is also the date of "Old Christmas" on January 6th.]

This log barn still stands in one of our fields and in the snow, for the first time, it reminded me of the kind of humble stable where Christ was born.

When someone started in on the birthday song (and it's a much different, more lovely and easier to sing version than we are accustomed to singing), Anna and I snuck off to get Temple's Friendship quilt which she had put the finishing touches on since our "quilting" in late October (here is my blog entry about selecting the fabric for it back in July). We walked in during the birthday song and he was truly surprised and delighted. He even nudged Melvin and asked, "Whose birthday is it?" (Temple's birthday is today, actually). [My satellite Internet access has been giving me fits for several weeks but I will post more this week and photographs from our "Quilting" now that it has been given and there is no chance of ruining the surprise! Just tonight I was able to upload photos with ease after increasing my bandwidth....ergh! DSL it is not!] PHOTO–Last year in the fabulous post-holiday sale at Gooseberry Patch I was able to score two Christmas Raggedy Anne dolls quite inexpensively: one for my mother and one for me!

My dear friend Beth-from-the-Crib (right) and I, taken summer of 1980 when we both painted cars in her backyard in Akron before I went off to college. We might be 47 now, but we feel 25! Right, Beth?

This weekend we were supposed to travel to the 50th anniversary celebration of two dear friends in South Carolina. It was not meant to be: exhaustion, a bit of a flu bug, and just needing to rest precluded our trip. (This Mom knows her limits, especially at the holidays.) So we sent lovely thoughts and wished them well from afar. "Aunt Sally and Uncle Dale" have known me all of my life, or at least since I was a babe in arms, and I grew up with their daughter, Beth, from the crib back in Akron. My own parents would have celebrated their 50th in 2011 but that will never be so I really had wanted to be a part of their celebration. We are also not used to traveling at Christmas and that is clearly another component of the "holidaze" that I had not anticipated! PHOTO–"Aunt Sally and Uncle Dale" who just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Saturday, sent us this ornament this year that I had sent to them in 1990. What a great thing to do one day: go through all of our ornaments and give them to children and dear friends whom we have known over the years. We put it on our "Kitchen Christmas Tree" (believe me, I have enough ornaments for trees in every room...but our two trees this year have our most special ornaments on them.)

This lovely red berry grows on bushes outside of our doublewide. The woman we bought this part of our farm from was a great gardener...but I have no idea what these are but they're festive!

This weekend we just did what we wanted to do and I did a lot of reading, catching up on needed sleep and recovered from the "wobblies", with the occasional movie; Temple split wood over at the shop intermittently with the boys; and the boys are endlessly happy and involved with creating large Lego things while listening to country music on Henry's new CD player (I never thought I'd hear country music in my home, but there it is: much more tame than what I used to listen to and still do in the car...or when alone. But Henry enjoys U2 and Talking Heads and Kings of Leon and The Killers as much as I do, so there's that.) Our daughter is working up in Vermont and we miss her but she sounds busy and happy and received all of her gifts in time for Christmas.

So this is the way I remember the Christmas afterglow: warm and cozy and that family spirit of harmony lingering still.

I enjoy collecting vintage Christmas items. I painted the "Noel" board years ago on an old barn board with stencils and the five angel bells were in my father-in-law's collection. The snowmen, below, were given to us from a friend's mother-in-law's extensive Christmas collection. [We've gone from nine mantels over nine fireplaces in our former historic home to just one so it does limit the Christmas decor I can put around now...]

NOTE TO MY FAITHFUL READERS: Here In the Pantry I try to keep things upbeat, but I do have the occasional introspective lapse. It is with that spirit of levity (and reality) in mind that I want to provide this link to another Christmas-related blog I posted this morning over at our virtual book group, Cupcake Chronicles. Kind of a point-counterpoint to this entry but of equal truth and measure to my Christmas experiences of recent years.]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

May Your Days Be Merry and Bright!

I always intend to do more at this time of year or at least to do it sooner: it's that "perfect Christmas in childhood" syndrome. Christmases were to the max in childhood or maybe it was just that all I had to worry about was when Christmas would arrive. Our Ohio grandparents loved Christmas and they always hosted gatherings of their children and grandchildren at their Akron home on Christmas Eve, complete with roast beef dinner served Victorian English style, and a pile of presents in the living room for each of us. [Somehow, Santa stopped there early on his way to everyone's house and one year he actually did pay us a visit!] There were red glasses filled with ribbon candy on the side board. Gleaming glassware and silver and even finger bowls with small porcelain flowers in them (I was lucky to inherit those, even though I have yet to use them). Our Grandpa usually made a short but heartfelt speech after tapping his glass and I can hear the sound the crystal made when he lightly tapped it with his silver spoon. He also took a lot of photographs (thank goodness for those and my main project this next year ahead: sorting and filing and sending to family members at last).

There were our own quiet Christmas celebrations at home the next morning where we stayed in our pajamas all day–even our father–and our mother prepared a lovely breakfast and dinner later on. I just assumed that everyone did Christmas as we did. It wasn't that we each got piles of presents–there were just enough (usually something we really, really wanted and then other things we really loved, too)–but that all combined it seemed like so many blessings and love and happiness mixed into the food we ate, in the family time together, in the beautifully wrapped parcels and the lights and decorations all around us. My early childhood seemed just heaped with piles and piles of blessings and only as an adult and a parent myself do I better appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into "putting on Christmas." [So here's to all of the parents and grandparents out there who gather their clans together and do their darnedest to make things merry and bright for their children and grandchildren, no matter what their own circumstances.]

We brought many of the same traditions to New Hampshire to our grandparents' farm after my parents' divorced. Even though Christmas was never quite the same, it was reinvented once more. There we added the coziness of constantly burning wood stoves and often a balsam tree that we cut in our own woods. There were cookies, of course, and in Ohio days, Mom's banana bread baking and delivering (a tradition I have renewed here in Kentucky: in fact, last night I baked banana bread for deliveries today when we delivered assembled food baskets to larger families we know, or in need, and breads to friends). Last week on "Prairie Home Companion" Garrison Keillor called banana bread "the comfort food of Christmas" in the Midwest and it's true. Last year I found a new version, with added cinnamon, and I further tweaked the recipe this year. [I'll try to post it before New Year's.]

This morning I listened to the live program of "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" on NPR, something I try to catch each Christmas Eve while baking or working around the house. In England it was late afternoon, of course, but I enjoy hearing it simultaneously. It is so beautiful that I can even overlook the reality that men and boys' choirs still predominate in England (but there is no purer sound than a boy soprano before his voice has changed–and you can't beat tradition).

Two of my favorite carols were played together, "In the Bleak Midwinter" (which the commentator said was just voted most popular Christmas carol of all time), followed by my very favorite Christmas carol of all time, Personent Hodie. For a brief fifteen minutes I actually made my boys calm down and sit with me and listen, too, to the glorious message of Christmas and the beautiful music.

The English translation of the first verse of Personent Hodie is as follows:

On this day, Earth shall ring

with the songs children sing,

to the Lord, Christ their King,

born on Earth to save us,

peace and love he gave us.

Sir David Willcocks, King's College choir director from 1957-1974, will be 90 years old on December 30th and several of his carol arrangements were sung today in his honor. My father was a big fan and I have sung many of Willcocks' arrangements in various choirs over the years. It is likely that Dad even heard him perform here in this country as he was also a noted organist (and my father was also an organist so we all grew up with a rich musical tradition, especially at Christmas).

One of the highlights of several past visits to Britain were my treks to Cambridge and spending time in various college chapels, including King’s. Each has a splendid organ console, beautiful architecture–like the drippy perpendicular Gothic style that defines the interior of King’s and the era of King Henry VIII–and such history.

There is nothing like an English Christmas carol to get my Christmas spirit soaring, no matter what there is to do. Strip it all away and it is really about the gift of a newborn child who came here in the most human moment, in the most simple of surroundings and with the purest of intentions: "God with us." [I even held a newborn baby this afternoon (our friends Verna and Paul had a child earlier this week) and winked at another, too, across the room (that baby was sleeping, born last month to friends Norma and James).]

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him: give him my heart.

from "In the Bleak Midwinter"

Words by Christina Rossetti set to music by Gustav Holst

After we spent four hours driving around the countryside delivering gift baskets this afternoon, Henry said on the way home, "I really enjoyed that."

Blessings and a very Merry Christmas to all!


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Home for Christmas

Hearth and home…there's no place like home, no matter where it is.

Have you ever been homesick for a place or a person or a life you once led?
I was never homesick in college or on two academic stretches in England, or even three years working in Boston. It was probably because home was never really more than a few hours away–and in England I often felt like, in many ways, I had returned home or at least had been there before in many beloved books and interests.

Oddly enough, the only place I was ever truly homesick for any prolonged stretch–that gut-wrenching kind of feeling when you can't eat or sleep and you just want to cry all the time–was for most of the two weeks in my only stint of summer camp in my 11th year back in Akron, Ohio. I had stayed at Camp Ledgewood on weekends many times as a Girl Scout, but always with my troop and often with my mother there as troop leader. It was reassuring in that setting and it was safe, despite the ghost stories late at night in our bunks and the success at levitating poor Kathie Worrell right off a wooden bench after which we screamed so hard that we dropped her on her back (and one of the other women chaperones went home in the middle of the night). Being scared–and hysterical–just felt right with your mother and best school friends in the next bunks and the glow and warmth from the embers in the stone fireplace crackling and dying away.

Even at summer camp, I shared a cabin with one of my best childhood friends. But in came the raccoons sniffing us at night on our cots and the shocked looks and whispers of the other campers when they heard from my friend that my parents were getting a divorce (remember: this was 1973 in a largely conservative suburban upbringing where these things hadn't really happened before). It just buckled my world and it became home that I missed, and the home that I thought I had had, and where I thought I was best understood: the presence of my mother and my younger brothers, the comfort of my bed and my things, our dog, and the hemmed in familiarity of our house and neighborhood. My father had moved just a mile away in a new apartment and my grandparents remained on the other side of Market Street in their large but welcoming home that always felt like family history and holidays and smelled of ashes and roses. That summer everything changed, including my self-confidence.

Looking back on that time I always figured that it was the recent change in our lives that had made me want to be closer to home: my parents had separated only a few months before and told us that they would be on a humid May night while I'd been watching Sonny & Cher. This is what I remember: the baby doll pajamas I was wearing, the gold fish in Cher's lucite shoes and one of my brothers asking if we'd still be able to go to see the Cleveland Indians games with our Dad. A month later I climbed into my father's lap to say goodbye. He was sitting on the green chair in the living room and it was the first time I saw him cry. Later that day we feasted on fried chicken, waffles and scones all prepared by Mrs. Wirth, the minister's wife down the street, after a full day at Play Land, a small amusement park outside of Akron. [And thus began my journey with food as comfort.]

In high school I was a homebody, too, feeling responsible while helping my then single mother. Ironically, in the last few days of camp when I was finally enjoying myself and not worrying about home (or my mother), I was summoned to see Cat, the head of the camp. I knew that something was wrong. She wouldn't tell me, despite my tears, and when my father picked me up a long hour later after I'd gotten my things together, I learned that my grandmother had died. The next day, sitting by my father as he played the organ at his mother's memorial service in the large church, I saw him weep quietly for a second time in as many months.

One of many Houses of Holidays Past, but the most recent and lingering in my memory.

Ironically, being in Kentucky feels like the first time I've truly left home, even though I've been married for over thirteen years and have lived in several homes, and locations, since college ended twenty-five years ago. Last winter I had persistent house dreams of former homes and I had waking homesickness for our last home, especially around the holidays: that house, big and old and full of history, was made for Christmas and all family occasions. It sat in the middle of a small New England village and when it snowed, you could swear you were part of a charming snow globe scene or in a winter remake of the movie Pleasantville. Of course, there was also the farm where I grew up and I am still reconciling that reality. Even though we were the ones to effectively obliterate it, it ceased being "home," in the welcome sense of things, over eight years ago. That would likely be the case today, even if we had never purchased it with the intentions of retaining and reviving a family homeplace.

In the past few years I have continued to make a new home: new friendships, new connections, new feelings for the land around me. It has been a gradual process but there are times, like today, where I feel the ache of loneliness for what I have left behind, especially the proximity of several great and easy friends, quite fluid and natural friendships, that were so welcome after not feeling a part of my own family any more. Good restaurants and small shops where everybody knew your name and were glad to see you. An ease, at times, of too much familiarity. A culture that fit versus a culture where I am trying to fit in while still being myself.

Perhaps the gloom of the time of year is just starting to kick in. December is a more inward time: we celebrate the darkest and longest night of the year on December 21st and then it is no accident that the days start to brighten again. Or that Christmas is the celebration of God's light on Earth–Emmanuel, "God With Us." I need to always remember that it isn't the house or the place, but the light within. But it certainly can be about the people, too: those we love and those we want to know better. As much as I love the people in my house, and the haven of my home, I realize how social a creature I am, too, and yet sometimes "barking up the wrong tree" is my fatal flaw. I would have been a great puppy dog who wants to please his master no matter how dismissively he is treated at times. Only connect! wrote E.M. Forster in Howard's End. [This is easier said than done at times.] PHOTO ~ "You are the Light of the World." A sheep in the barn at the United Society of Friends, Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

I am so blessed and I need to remember that, too. It is also good to always remember and visit with the Ghosts of Christmases Past but to not linger too long in their company. Last night I started reading a book that felt like an old friend: A Kentucky Christmas, edited by George Ella Lyon and published by the University Press of Kentucky [2003].

I bought it and had it signed by Lyon in November 2007 when I was a participant in the Kentucky Book Fair and peddling my pantry book in the year it was published. [Imagine my delight to also be a few tables down from the esteemed, and quite humble, Wendell Berry and have him sign some books for me. I also had the good chance to visit with other Kentucky authors such as David Dominé, and Bruce and Shelley Richardson of Elmwood Inn fame, who sat on either side of my table.]

Here is a poem from this Christmas-related collection from Kentucky authors. It resonated with me last night before bedtime and perhaps somewhat prompted this introspective feeling today. So, rather than brood and dwell and stew, as can be my nature, I wanted to pause during a busy day to write these feelings out and to share this poem with you. I will be excerpting other things from A Kentucky Christmas in the weeks ahead and will read it aloud with my family. I know, for some of us, that this time of year can be as much of a sorrowful time as it can be joyous. And that's alright. But I will strive to be happy and merry and, in the words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!"

Home for Christmas

I want to be there
but I no longer know the way.
It needn't be Tiny Tim
or a new doll
Not even snow
pine and cedar
or wood-smoke.

We know what it is:
a love that's in spite of
a gathering in–
because one must–
a Holy Adoring
a baby asleep
a star in the sky
a glow in the heart

It has to be here
I cannot go back
and back is not there
It has to be here.
~ Kathleen Hill Sterling

NOTE from A Kentucky Christmas ~ Kathleen Hill Sterling was born in Kentucky in 1914. She studied at her beloved Eastern Kentucky University, married her college sweetheart, Ed, reared her children and taught in the mountains of Harlan County, and retired to a Florida shore and a Kentucky lake. Throughout her life–whether laughing, loving, grieving, working, playing, thinking–she let her pen in on the secret. A poet and short-story author, she was foremost a mother and teacher of poets, encouraging her students to let their eyes sink deep and conjure up what was really there. She taught them to trust what they saw, felt and knew and to never be timid. She emboldened student poets, yet for modesty's sake, she tucked most of her own work between the pages of her journals. She died in 1996.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cocoa and Brownies

Today was the kind of day that I love: raw, cold and rainy. I've been doing a lot of puttering around and organizing this past week–much needed after two years. Call it delayed fall cleaning or pre-Christmas decorating frenzy (I've promised my boys Friday) but either way, I'll take it (as will my husband). When I clean and organize I do it right: I start with the bookshelves and work inward in the space. Just having my books dusted off, shelves cleaned with Murphy's Oil Soap® (love the smell!), and organized again, speaks volumes for me (hee hee!). PHOTO: Cocoa served in a favorite cup and saucer combo in the Country Fare pattern, originally made by the Zanesville Pottery Company in Ohio before it was bought, and somewhat altered, by Louisville Stoneware. The aqua and chocolate brown combination of color remains one of my favorite colorways. I have collected the pattern for about 20 years after remembering a few pieces in this pattern, and cocoa in them, at my grandparents' New Hampshire farm.

Well, I don't enjoy this kind of weather for days on end–maybe sometimes–as I do welcome the sun. As I have "November in my soul" I rather embrace our four months of November-like winter weather here in Kentucky, especially as we no longer experience the prolonged heavy winters of the Northeast. It suits my natural inclination to burrow in and nest, to not have the excuse of sunshine and gardens to make me feel guilty about wanting to be indoors.

All of our driving rain today–as Aunt Cynthia said, "It's raining bullets out there!"–is heading to the New England in the form of a big snowstorm. [All evening it's been raining so hard that my satellite Internet has been fading in and out–I'm hoping I can post this and upload photographs before bedtime**] I'm thinking of our daughter who is thrilled that they are finally skiing where she works in Vermont and of my mother and my friends all cozy in their New Hampshire houses with their wood stoves going and the snow falling down. Snow days were always a gift back home: a day of quiet when the world outside seemed to surround with more than a soft white blanket, but a needed pause and buffer. Here on our ridge farm we now have fences, even one enclosing a few acres around the doublewide, and it just feels so cozy and safe, even if our gate has a "welcome" sign on it. Add the rain and the wind and it's bliss on a December day.

I once wrote about this phenom in one of my first essays for the former Victoria Magazine and sometime I will reprint it here or include a PDF link to the original scanned article (it is not on-line as yet but I do intend to get links to all of my published articles over the years on my website). That essay spoke of how I organized all of the books at the farmhouse where I grew up, way back in the spring of 1988, and how that process both grounded and reconnected me with the people and places in my life. Then I was nesting before the birth of my oldest child; now I am settling in, finally, to my new life in Kentucky. That's really what it's all about: finding a place for everything and everything in its place–and finding a place for ourselves in the world. One closet, cupboard or room at a time–one book, one person, one experience, one moment at a time.

With the rain and gloom I decided we all needed a massive chocolate infusion! One of my favorite series as a child, and still today, are the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald (who also wrote the classic farm memoir, The Egg and I, about her chicken farm in Washington state). These kinds of, what I call, book memories are what I was reminded of today while I was making homemade cocoa and brownies for my boys when they came home from school:

Mrs. Foxglove was baking brownies. Thick chewey chocolatey nutty brownies. The kind her four children loved. She slid the last pan into the oven, lifted Solomon the black cat down off the kitchen stool where he was drooling up at Alma Gluck the canary, and sat down herself.

It was a very dreary February day. The sky was gray, the snow in the yard was gray and slushy and a cold raw wind was swooshing around the house...The brownies were baking beautifully. She switched the bottom pans to the top shelf and the top pans to the bottom shelf, then closed the door and put the milk on to heat for the children's cocoa.

From "The Crybaby Cure," Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald (1957)

Most of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories (in four collections–illustrated by Hilary Knight, of Heloise fame, and later by Maurice Sendak, with a fifth one added in recent years, reassembled posthumously) start with a cozy domestic scene in a family, with a stay-at-home mother preparing some sort of lovely snack or meal (the books were written in the late 1940s and 1950s post-War era that predates even my own nostalgic childhood). That image of domestic bliss is soon shattered by some kind of childhood malady which eventually requires the mother to break down and call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, the neighborhood "good witch" and grandmother-to-all who swoops in and solves all sorts of things with magical cures and her innate understanding of the childhood condition. What else would you expect from a woman who lives in an upside-down house filled with treasures, bakes constantly and whose husband was a pirate and buried his treasure somewhere in the back yard? [It goes without saying that she wears an apron and smells of vanilla and baked sugar cookies.]

So you can see that loving children the way she does, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle just naturally understands them even when they are being very difficult, which is of course why all the mothers in our town call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle whenever they are having trouble with their children. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle always knows what to do and then of course she has a big cupboard of magic powders and pills and appliances to help cure children's bad habits.
All of this is a usual long-winded preamble to a recipe! Here is my standard, without fail brownie recipe (it only fails if you lengthen the cooking time, unless you like dry brownies) that, if baked properly, replicates "baked fudge." But there is a fine line between underdone and overdone here so beware! Also, these only take a few minutes longer to prepare than a boxed mix but are likely more expensive in ingredients–worth every indulgence in extra cost (unless you buy your Bakers® chocolate and butter on sale, like I do).

If you can't decide between whipped cream or mini-marshmallows, by all means, please use both!

I always make the standard hot cocoa recipe on the side of the Hershey's® Cocoa box (also better than boxed cocoa mixes–and you can liven it up at Christmas with peppermint extract or Schnappe's®). I've probably posted these brownies here In the Pantry before (but I'm too tired to check). If so, here they are again–they are that good:

Brownies "Cockaigne" (from the mid-1970s edition of The Joy of Cooking)

  • 4 squares unsweetened chocolate (1 oz each)
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped nuts, optional (walnuts or pecans are best)
  1. Melt chocolate and butter together on low heat; cool until warmish but not hot.
  2. In the meantime, beat eggs, salt and sugar until light and frothy, preferably with an electric mixer.
  3. Stir in cooled melted chocolate mixture, but not all the way.
  4. Before chocolate is thoroughly mixed, add flour and nuts. Stir just until moistened.
  5. Pour into a 13x9" pan (or large jelly roll pan–although this will require a bit less cooking time and create a thinner brownie) and bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.
You can also make substitutions like peppermint or almond extract, or Grand Marnier, for the vanilla. Chopped up candy canes or Andes® or Heath Bar® pieces (all variations I made for a recent bake sale) also work well in place of nuts. You might try Cinnamon Red Hots at Valentine's Day or even a bit of cinnamon in the mix. Otherwise, there is no use messing with perfection!

**NOTE: I am posting this on Wednesday morning, December 9, after our storm ended and the satellite would let me do so–even this morning it is a struggle with the high winds. I miss DSL! There, I've said it. I also have never figured out what "Cockaigne" means, either.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Kentucky Mistletoe

Seasons Greetings to you all! Here for your enjoyment is a branch of Kentucky mistletoe from our farm and just brought to me by my two boys. This parasitic plant, which has much lore and legend surrounding it, was traditionally shot out of its host tree with shotguns. [Ours was cut from a dying and felled tree in the midst of our fencing–more about fences very soon.] Only the female plants produce the splendid white berries, enjoyed by many species of birds.

I'm getting my house in order before decorating and, as usual, doing everything else but! There never seems to be enough time to pause between Thanksgiving and Christmas, does there? (Shall we lobby Congress for Thanksgiving a week or two early?) So imagine my delight, while hoeing out my office today, when my youngest son presented me with this tree branch with mistletoe and berries. It brought a smile, a needed pause to my house "hoeing" and I had to post about it right away. We woke up to a dusting of snow today which has made us feel quite festive.

I will post more about this prolific Appalachian plant before Christmas. For now, enjoy your holidays, the love and warm embrace of family and friends, and the comfort of your home.

Blessings and thanks to you all,


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Turkey Noodle Casserole

Mmm, mmm, good! Turkey Noodle Casserole made without the addition of any Campbell's Soup® products, thank you very much!

At this point in the game, we're all fairly tired of T-U-R-K-E-Y! We kicked off turkey season with a hearty turkey dinner while our daughter was here visiting in October (as she couldn't join us for Thanksgiving because of the ski resort season back in Vermont), then we went to a benefit turkey dinner in Crab Orchard in mid-November, another turkey dinner at the children's school, and another at a pastor friend's Baptist church (try as he might, we probably won't join but we might pop in now and then–you see, we would like to find a church but we're sort of grazing right now). That is an average of one turkey dinner, with all the fixings, a week for the entire month before Thanksgiving!

So imagine our boys' delight when I announced in Liberty this evening after our chiropractor appointments (Dr. Michael Turner at Back and Body loves to see us coming and he is a dear person with great talents, a friendly staff and reasonable rates) that I had a turkey noodle casserole at home in the oven on timed bake! Oh, my, you could hear the hollerin' all the way home! There was a brief attempt at lobbying for Mexican food but I said if I get dragged in there one more time, I'LL go on strike! (Nothing against it, we have just dined there a little too often and options around here can be limited.) So we compromised: I'm going to Danville tomorrow with friends and won't be home until late, and Dad can take the boys out to the Mexican restaurant. Fine. Throw in the promise of a few after-homework chess games, and it's a deal.

The one thing I do get upset about is when I bake a casserole, no matter how creamy, it dries out. Perhaps I should have baked it for 30 minutes instead of the 45 on timed bake. I have always loved tuna noodle casserole, made with white tuna, so you can readily substitute chicken or turkey for that (especially if your husband grouses about tuna noodle casserole–some childhood memory). You can even substitute crab meat, langostinos (mini-lobsters in many freezer sections) or shrimp for the white meat. Last night I made "creamed turkey" with a white sauce and with the leftovers assembled this easy casserole for supper tonight. It's even kind of turkey tetrazini-ish (I suppose if you substituted spaghetti that it would be). But the best part is that, finally, a week later, the turkey is ALL gobble, gobble GONE!

Turkey Noodle Casserole a la Catherine
  • leftover turkey bits (about 4-6 cups, or more)
  • 1 bag of frozen broccoli bits
  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick)
  • 1 shallot or small onion
  • 2 garlic cloves minced (or more to taste)
  • 1 package sliced mushrooms (this was the one thing I did not have on hand!)
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 2-4 cups whole milk and/or half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 cups breadcrumbs (I make my own by lightly toasting crumbled bread)
  • salt and pepper (I also use paprika and dried chervil or parsley)
  • 4 tablespoons fresh parsley if you have it
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 16-ounces very wide egg noodles (or whatever your preference: I use Mrs. Miller's®)
  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Boil water and cook noodles according to package instructions. Lightly steam broccoli until just done (I do mine in the same multi-steamer pot with the pasta).
  3. While water is heating, make ROUX/White Sauce by melting 6 tablespoons butter. To this add chopped small onion or shallot, minced garlic, and mushrooms. Sauté for a few minutes. Add flour until blended and stir quickly. Slowly add milk/half-and-half and whisk gently until thickened (you must watch this part carefully). Add more liquid if too thick: you want a sauce that is like a good gravy in consistency. Add salt and pepper and other seasonings to taste (you can also add a few tablespoons of chicken stock base and there are many out there that don't have MSG in them). Take off heat once thickened.
  4. Stir in chopped turkey, chopped fresh parsley and sour cream and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese.
  5. Drain noodles and immediately toss back in with white sauce mixture. Add broccoli and stir gently.
  6. Pour into greased, large 2 quart baking dish or a 13x9 dish.
  7. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and toss with 2 cups of breadcrumbs to coat and any seasoning you'd like (if you use homemade breadcrumbs). Toss in the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese after you've combined the bread and butter. Sprinkle equally on top of casserole.
  8. Bake for 30 minutes or until slightly brown and bubbly.
To counteract all of that casserole-y goodness, serve with a tossed salad and a glass of good white wine!

PS The Casey County News ran my story on the sale of Hazel's Store today. You can read it on-line here.