Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pumpkin Time

I don't think I've been anywhere--and that includes parts of Europe and Asia--that wasn't beautiful in October.  To me, this glorious month never makes a mistake.  There's something about the lowering light, the glowing color, the crisp air .... I even wrote a poem about it once.

          The Mature Beauty of These Pumpkin-Colored Days

          In sumac shoes and scarves
          from the silk of Indian corn,

          in gowns of wildflower prints, shawls
          from challis-soft leaves of the tupelo,

          in goldenrod necklaces and rings of amethyst asters
          (her hair stuck up with scarlet pins),

          she weaves ochres, madders and siennas
          into honeyed dawns and gingered dusks,

          knowing the angels have charge over her
          and that her hour is nearly come.

And pumpkins, always the totally right color for the season, seem a jolly symbol whether they lie out in a field, are picked up, scooped out, and turned into jack-o'-lanterns (we used to spread the seeds on a newspaper to dry in the sun ... and then eat them), or are baked into a tea cake topped with an orange-flavored butter cream and a bit of candied ginger.  

A local farm, part of an apple orchard.  These outbuildings were filmed as the bunkhouse in "The Cider House Rules"

Same farm.

Outside a farm stand in another part of town.

How's that for a pumpkin!

A week ago, I found myself in the town of Keene, New Hampshire, population 23,000, just as they were getting ready for that weekend's annual pumpkin festival for which they've broken records for having the most lit jack-o'-lanterns in one place.  More pumpkins than population.  I've never been, not wanting to contend with the 70,000 on-lookers, but I did scout out their website which showed some impressive photos.  (Here's the link.)

Without crossing the busy round-about that encircled the town square, I got a couple of shots that show workers building what would become a tree-tall structure with planks to display as many jack-o'-lanterns as could fit. Others would fill the square and border the streets.

Getting ready for pumpkin time in the Keene town square.

The same square with its lit-up "Pumpkin Drop Off" sign.

What Makes October October

Attending a Sunday afternoon Bach concert
Finding that recipe for pumpkin muffins
Carving jack o' lanterns
Coming up with costumes for the little ones
Putting the garden to bed--hoses, flower pots, outdoor furniture
Getting the double-pane windows in place
In other words ... battening down the hatches

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Autumn in Oils

As one who enjoys painting landscapes, this is my time of year.  The colorist painter, Wolf Kahn, once said that in the fall, "nature gives you permission to use outrageous colors."  (Although whatever the season, he loves wild magentas and bold cadmiums ... turning tree trunks blue, skies pink, shadows violet.)  Though it turns out that he shares his time between our town in summer and NYC the rest of the year, I first saw his work when I lived in Santa Fe and walked into a gallery where I felt as if I were seeing a new Monet.

After living in Santa Fe, it took me awhile to adjust to the New England scene after I moved here.  So, in order to retrain my eye from the southwestern to the eastern landscape, I faithfully drove the back roads so that I could see my new land with its colors, not the Mexico-like ones still lingering in my mind ... or on my palette.  For one thing, I needed to adjust my vision to the multifarious blacks and whites of a northeastern winter, though it took attending a talk by Wolf Kahn, himself--he wore green trousers and a yellow T-shirt--to make me appreciate the varieties in grey.  Then, too, summer leafed into an omnipresent green with June and July the most difficult months to paint for their lack of nuance.  This state, after all, is covered with trees.  It was only during the change-over to spring and these powerful few weeks in early autumn that the landscape offered a painterly diversity.

Some autumns here are better than others.  Unfortunately, a highly wet spring and summer--peaking with Tropical Storms Irene and Lee--have dulled this year's display.  Regardless, here are some of my oils of the local scene from past years.

"Lowering Light"
"October Pond"
"Rice Farm Road in Autumn"
"Wind-row Afternoon"
"Rice Farm Pond"
"Autumn Hill"

 I have a batch in watercolors, too.  But I'll save them for another time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"Door Number Eight" at Six Months

I just realized I've now had my blog six months.  Time for a little assessment.  I started it as a creative outlet.  A nice cozy spot where I could write on any topic I wanted.  Which has happened.  I've very much enjoyed each posting though have spent longer on each than I'd have thought.  You know--coming up with the idea, doing a bit of research, doing the actual writing, finding appropriate illustrations, defining, refining.  Anyway, here is a breakdown of my thoughts.

Frequency.  I'd originally expected to do two postings a week.  Until I found the next deadline (self-imposed, mind you) coming up far too quickly.  So I decided once a week was plenty--for both you and me.  So I'm now posting each blog on Saturday.  Which gives me Sunday to come up with a new topic and start writing.  And the rest of the week to let the whole thing perk before I post it.

Subject.  My intention was to present a diversity of subjects which I feel I'm doing.  As well as some which reflect this "door number eight" eighth decade (septuagenarian) time in my life.  In addition, I had expected to include a lot more of my favorite poetry.  But then I came up against the copyright problem ... trying to figure when a poem reverted to the public domain.  Each writer's country of origin seemed to have its own rules.  All of which required comprehensive research.  Even then I wasn't sure if I'd get it right.  Or could I get away with assuming that enough years had passed that anything written before the 20th century was now fair game?  In my original thinking, too, I'd hoped to include excerpts from some of my writings.  Pieces about some of my rough-and-ready travels from years gone by.  But then I didn't think I could squeeze any one subject into one posting.  Which would mean serializing it.  Hmmm.... no conclusion at this point.

Addendum to subject matter.  I also decided to leave out such topics as the economy, politics, the world situation, etc., leaving that to the pros. If you want a good source for that sort of thing, try James Howard Kunstler's blog--he who describes ours as "an economy based on happy motoring, suburban land development, continual war, and entertainment-on-demand."  At

Blog comments.  I'd originally thought any reader could write a comment at the end of any posting.  You know, feedback.  But, with the one exception of a blog-pro (she has her own blog)--plus a couple of others who did, in fact, manage to get through--comments have been nil.  Maybe there's a technical reason.  Not sure.

Readership.  I have a small but faithful following whom I treasure.  In truth, I wouldn't want a large readership.  But to be quite honest, I don't know how the readership is going in terms of numbers.  Maybe a dozen a week.  But are they people who access it because they know about it and want to read it ... or are they looking for something else entirely and just happen on it?  You know, a quick click and then they're gone again?  Impossible to know.  I was amused one week when I had 26 readers from the Netherlands and 26 readers from Latvia.  Now what could that have been about?  But, the key here is not to write the blog for anyone but myself and then to be pleasantly surprised if and when anyone reads it.

Illustrations.  My hope, in dressing up each posting, is to include at least one picture.  Since I do not want to infringe on anyone's property, so far, I'm only using my/our own pictures.  A category which includes paintings and photographs.  I do hope they can't subsequently be pirated, but maybe they can.

Anonymity.  In all this, I seek to remain low-key.  I don't want anything to turn topsy-turvy, triggering some spin-off that's going to connect me, say, to some weird group of cyber-pirates, junk-mailers, etc.  So, I tread lightly.  And in doing so, I seek to keep the blog as anonymous as possible.  So that means not posting pictures of family members.  Or identifying anything more than is necessary.  Too ... in respecting others' privacy, I doubt I'll post many pictures of people.

But the blog is fun to create.  I lie awake some nights re-writing things in my head or wondering what subjects to include ... or what photos, especially when I have a non-pictorial topic.  I do think of all this as a conversation of sorts.  Which is why I love the two chairs idea.  One for you as the reader.  One for me as the writer.  The two of us conversing in whatever way we want.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Home Cooking in the Old Days: '40s and '50s Stuff

Maybe it's a result of my weekly grocery shopping--seeing so many tasty, organic, imaginative (also, expensive) food items--but lately I've been thinking about what we used to eat.  Simple fare.  What my mother made for us back in the '40s and '50s.  You know, stuff like Jell-O molds with canned fruit cocktail.  A supper of creamed chipped beef or creamed tuna on toast.  Chicken fried in bacon grease.  Boiled-to-bejezus vegetables.  So I got to thinking about the old food we don't eat anymore.  (Like the above.)  And the old food we do.  Baked potatoes.  Meatloaf.  Home-made split pea soup with ham-bone and a bit of dried sage. All of which seem like comfort food today.

We didn't know the term "stay-at-home-mom" then.  My mother called herself "a homemaker."  But it meant the same thing.  It was what the women in her family had been and were.  Her mother, grandmothers, aunts, cousins.  She was a pretty good cook, managed three meals a day (all made from scratch!), and produced a conscientious variety ... though once she said that if she had to think about all the meals she'd have to cook for the rest of her life, she'd never get out of bed again.  I think I was 11 at the time.

We were fortunate to live in a part of the country where one could literally pluck fruit off the trees.  In fact, in one of our many houses (I think we moved 10 times in about 10 years), we grew persimmons, plums, apricots, tangerines, mandarin oranges, figs, cherries, strawberry guavas ... and we even had a jujube tree.  The landscape was filled with avocado and lemon groves ... walnut and orange groves, though many of those got bulldozed to make way for suburbia.
Lemon groves (with smudge pots for when the temperatures went below freezing).

So what were some of the things we ate?  I'll include a list at the bottom, but there are a few particular (even goofy?) items I want to mention.  The first was a lime Jell-O concoction (it had to be lime) with a ball of cream cheese tucked into each halved canned pear.  Sometimes my mother rolled the cream cheese balls in chopped walnuts.  If she then put a scoop of that onto a lettuce leaf (ice-berg lettuce), it was a salad.  If into a bowl with a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar, it was dessert.
No, those aren't marshmallows.
A serving of same.  Sometimes, my mother rolled the cream cheese balls in walnuts.

She was good about the toppings on things.  She liked things to be done well, to be pretty.   She'd put a dusting of paprika on top of mashed potatoes--always served in a serving dish, never helped out individually in the kitchen.  Chopped parsley on stuffed peppers.  (Grocery stores didn't charge for parsley.)  She always had lemon slices to go with glasses of iced tea.  And, while we're talking about things being done well, we always ate together at the table with napkins (sometimes napkin rings) and a full setting of table-ware.  And we children were admonished to sit tall and straight at the table, not hunched over.  Bring the food to us, we were told, don't go to the food.  We were shown how to hold a spoon, a fork, how to eat soup (spooned away from us, not toward) ...

Another special dish was what she called Eggs Goldenrod.  She'd had them as a girl and thought they were pretty elegant.  For this, she made a cream sauce, dropped in chopped chunks of hard-boiled egg whites, scooped it onto a piece of toast, and (here's the best part) topped it with the hard-boiled egg yolk which she mashed through a sieve to give the dish a sprinkly, sunny look.  She might then top that with a hint of paprika.
Eggs Goldenrod with all that cute mashed hard-boiled egg-yolk on top.  Oops, forgot the paprika.

Holidays, she stuffed dates with walnuts and rolled them in confectioner's sugar.  She rolled more cream cheese balls--plain and pimiento-flavored--in chopped nuts.  Her turkey stuffing was always the same--and what I prefer today:  stale bread bits, sauteed onion and celery, chopped parsley, melted butter, a bit of water, and enough poultry seasoning so that it smelled nice when still in the mixing bowl.
Walnut-stuffed dates for special occasions with a dusting of confectioner's sugar

I don't know if she made up the next recipe or got it someplace, but she liked to mix maraschino cherry juice with peanut butter, slather it on a banana slit down the middle, and put that on a lettuce leaf.

We only ever ate iceberg lettuce.  For pasta we only ever had spaghetti or macaroni and cheese.  Legs of lamb were always served with mint jelly out of a jar.  Chicken à la king (creamed chicken, mushrooms, peas) always elicited her memories of inviting her high school crowd over for dinner, then throwing the rugs back and dancing afterwards. We had no yogurt in the '40s and '50s.  No pizza until maybe 1956.  No fast food until a soon-to-be-popular company began selling hamburgers for 15¢ each.  And except for some olives my uncle grew and cured, we only ever ate black olives out of a can.  Sometimes, for the sake of economy, we had gravy on bread for supper.  And though my mother made good soups, we often opened a can of chicken noodle or alphabet vegetable.  Oh, and our hot dogs always came with classic yellow mustard and sweet pickle relish.

I continued some of these dishes when I had my own family.  (As well as era-specific dishes that have now gone the way.)  One family member was highly accepting of just about anything I cooked.  He was a good eater.  But there were two dishes from my childhood that he asked me to delete from my menu-planning.  One was stuffed peppers.  The other was stewed tomatoes.  I'd always sort of liked them but never made them again.

So here's my list of Forties/Fifties food that we commonly ate:

Meat:  chicken à la king, creamed chipped beef or tuna on toast, chicken and dumplings, chicken dusted in flour and fried in bacon grease, leg of lamb with mint jelly, meat loaf, spaghetti, stuffed peppers, ham, hot dogs, hamburgers

Non-meat:  Welsh rarebit on toast, gravy on bread, baked beans, mac and cheese

Potatoes:  scalloped, baked, mashed

That good soup in the can with the red and white label ... I still love it.
Soups:  green pea, canned chicken noodle (plus all the rest)

Veggies:  boiled all to hell, stewed tomatoes, boiled green beans with bits of bacon or a glob of bacon grease, cauliflower with cheese sauce topping

Salads:  a wedge of iceberg lettuce with mayonnaise, Jell-O molds with canned fruit cocktail, potato salad, tomato aspic (see below)

Bread:  white bread, Parker House rolls (my aunt was particularly good at making these), canned Boston brown bread, home-made corn bread and banana bread

Desserts/candy:  fudge, brownies, oatmeal cookies, chocolate chip cookies, lemon meringue pie with graham cracker crust, apple pie, two-egg cake, refrigerator ice cream (made with gelatin)

Special:  canned black olives, dates stuffed with walnuts, cream cheese balls rolled in chopped walnuts, cheese-straws

Breakfasts:  Eggs Goldenrod, pancakes, homemade biscuits, waffles, bacon, eggs fried in bacon grease, porridge, hot chocolate

Sandwiches:  peanut butter and jelly, chopped olive, tomato and cucumber, avocado and mayonnaise, peanut butter and raisins, tuna, bologna

Here's her recipe for Jiffy Tomato Aspic:

     2 envelopes gelatin
     juice of 1/2 lemon
     1 thin slice of onion
     1/2 c. hot chicken broth
     4 drops Tabasco sauce
     2 T. Worchestershire sauce
     1/2 t. celery salt
     2 c. tomato juice
     1 c. crushed ice
Blend in a blender for 30 seconds.  Pour into a 4-cup ring mold, chill for 10 minutes.  Fill with vegetables or seafood if desired.  Then chill until firm.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cutting the Corn

Even as there is an apple crispness to these early autumn mornings, there is a softness to the day, to the wide land as summer's burst-to-bloom breathes a sigh that its work is finished and autumn's burst-to-glory can now take over.  The day lilies are gone.  The herb garden is in tangles.  The land, too, is softening even as it readies itself for its big show this month ... as summer's array turns to early autumn's disarray ... as youth's enthusiasm becomes maturity's last hurrah before its quietude.

Many days I walk out beside the West River--the water on one side, a corn field on the other.  Out to where early spring reveals old bittersweet berries and curls of wild grape clinging to leafless trees--the river a steely blue with as many ripples as the national debt.  Sometimes, late spring, I see a man in a red canoe fishing as birds chirp and frogs click.  Or a north-bound freight toots and, though it crosses the river down a ways, my legs seem to reverberate.  By early summer, the sun beams down on me.
River on one side, corn field on the other

But no matter what time of year, my eyes turn to that corn field.  I study it as the snow melts, it turns soggy, and Canada geese come and prowl.  If I'm lucky, I watch it being plowed, harrowed, planted.  I look for the first shoots.  By the 4th of July, I check that the corn's knee high.  And then I spend the rest of the summer watching it grow tall and sturdy.  (And though ears appear, no one picks them, for this is field corn, not sweet.  It doesn't end up in a farm stand's display baskets.)  Mid-to-late September, I witness the cutting.  It always takes a few days.

Before the cutting begins

Now, not long afterwards, you can see the cutting has started
Here he comes ...

After two or three more circuits

Finishing up for the day

But beforehand, sometime in early September, something else gets there first.  I can trace its path--along an animal "slide" from the river up to the road, across the road, and into the fields where it rummages, cuts, and hauls, leaving tell-tale stalks in its wake as it then returns river-ward.

Evidence of something rummaging in the field ...

... dragging the stalks across the road

... then using this burrowed-out path to slide back down to the river.  (Though this looks like an uphill shot, it's really a downhill shot.)

I once stopped a woman with a little white dog coming my way.  "I have a question," I said and pointed to the burrowed-out path.  "What animal is making this?"

"Oh, it's the river beaver," she told me ... cousin to the beaver that dams streams and creates ponds. "It builds its lodges down by the river.  You can see them if you ever paddle along here."

It times its lodge-building perfectly--after the stalks have attained a golden tinge and have dried a bit but before the farmer starts cutting.

By now, the first of October, both workers have finished their tasks.  The lodges are built; the corn is cut.  The field is now stubble.  And though the air is still soft, soon enough a fierce wind will come whistling down the river.  And everything will turn the colors of raw sienna, raw umber, or pewter grey--shadows, tree trunks, twigs, fluff, seed heads, bare branches, dead curled leaves.

I never tire of watching the process.  I always look out for the corn cutting.  By both the river beavers and the farmer.