Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Back Porch

My back porch has lived a sadly unloved life. Totally protected from the cleaning properties of both rain and sun, it suffers from a build-up of dust and mold, and in fact is usually ignored except as a nice sheltered place to sit during a gentle rain. But: I have decided to reclaim it and make it a nice place to be.

To that end, Giles and the Composer humored me and took down the useless and ugly single rail that ran the length of the porch, and installed a new rail that has an opening in the porch center, and supporting verticals. They nailed down some loose boards as well, and I am embarassed to say, the Composer jacked a sagging corner up. Such is life in an organic (read "decomposing") older wooden house.

A brisk sweeping (a scrub is in the near future), a new pair of potted ferns, a vintage cloth thrown over my little castoff wicker table, and I am liking what I see!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Spicebush Swallowtails

Daisy inspects the spicebush for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars. Apparently spicebush, a small tree with spicy-smelling (imagine!) leaves is the only larval food for the grand, black and blue, velvety spicebush swallowtail butterfly. Hunting for the caterpillars is fun and satisfying for babies, because each caterpillar chooses a leaf to hide on, folds it over, and keeps it shut with a little flexible webbing. Once you spot a folded-up leaf, your mother gently pries it open, and there is the spicebush caterpillar, bright green with his big fake eyespots, looking up at you.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Minted Water

An entry in the So-Good and So-Obvious category: I picked a big bunch of spearmint this morning from the backyard, rinsed it, and stuffed it in a pitcher of water with a few ice cubes. It was so good! The mint infused the water with not so much an obvious spearmint taste, which I find kind of numbing anyway, at least in quantity, but more of a flavor both sweet and herbaceous. My big handful of sprigs stayed fresh all day, and flavored several fill-ups of the pitcher.

This is one I want to remember, and if I succeed at that, maybe try with a couple of slices of cucumber. Or basil leaves.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day Cookout

•Grilled Bratwurst with Spicy Mustard
•Broiled Chicken with Tamari, Honey, and Chili-Garlic Sauce
•Warm German Potato Salad with Bacon, Pickles, and Celery
•Crusty bread
•Green salad

•Homemade Raspberry Ice Cream

•Big brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew
•Swimming pool

French Blue Hydrangeas

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Sunny Saturday Pleasures

•Breakfast at the downtown diner.
•Opening morning of farmer's market: tiny turnips, fresh honey, baby bok choy and joi choy, yellow squash, and cucumbers.
•A swim by myself and a swim with Daisy.
•Felix and Clara *hard* at work learning lines for the children's musical.
•Watching the Composer finish building the new gate for the pool fence.
•Watering my hydrangeas.
•Cooking dinner--stewed chicken with garden new potatoes and turnips, sauteed bok choy, fried squash, biscuits, and strawberries (pleasure somewhat diminished when Nameless Child dumped entire bowl of squash on floor before dinner).
•Mark O'Connor's Elysian Fields playing in the kitchen.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cooking from the Mitford Cookbook

We love the Mitford books here at the Schoolhouse! Clara gets the books on tape over and over at the library, and we even included a trip to Jan Karon's real-life town of Blowing Rock, North Carolina, on a camping trip several years ago. One of the best things about the series are the frequent mention of food and what's cooking--and The Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader distills all of the best parts for the greedy reader (yes,that's me).

Now, this food is very, very Southern food. Lots of shortening, lots of butter. Lots of self-rising white flour, so you might not want to make these recipes everyday occurences. But oh, they are good!

Clara has adopted one has her own, and frequently makes us Cynthia's Heavenly Tea. I won't give the whole recipe away, in the interests of preserving Cynthia's secret recipe, but I will say that it calls for black tea, fresh mint, sugar, lemonade concentrate, apricot nectar, and almond extract. Even those who don't like sweetened tea (that's me too) will pronounce it heavenly (as long as they learn from my mistake and do not allow vanilla to be substituted for almond extract--yuck). Properly made, this tea will take you to heaven.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Toplighting can make anything look beautiful--even a mop bucket on the kitchen floor looks lovely under the skylight.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Neat and Dainty as a Flower"

"[Her] house was just as neat and dainty as a flower, and that without half the effort [that her aunt made], and no servant at all at present."

--Grave Livingston Hill in Where Two Ways Meet

Monday, May 22, 2006

Annabelle Hydrangeas

If it weren't for the fact that I love other hydrangeas just as much, the Annabelle hydrangea would be my favorite! The flowers, which appear in abundance, start out a lovely chartreuse, ripen to a creamy white, then stay on the bush till fall slowly becoming rusty and interesting. It is an unusual and long-lived cut flower, it spreads effortlessly and quickly, and it resists disease and dry spells surprisingly well.

Besides, with a name like Annabelle, we here at the schoolhouse could never pass it up.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Schoolhouse Campdish

A beautiful sunny Saturday, an open pool, and nine children here all day--no surprise then that at dinner time I had a weary, hungry family. I served them a dish that is a big favorite with the kids, and is easy for me too since it relies on pantry staples and is cooked all in one pot. No matter how much of this I make, they will eat it *all*.

I invented it several years ago on a camping trip notable for both the beautiful hike through autumn woods to a cave containing a waterfall, and also the freezing, freezing nighttime temperatures. The name has stuck.

*Schoolhouse Campdish*

In a large pot, brown:

1 1/2 to 2 lb. ground round.
1 diced onion (optional)

Drain off grease if necessary.


28 oz. can crushed or diced tomatoes
the empty can filled again with water
1 1/2 pounds elbow macaroni
1 t. salt
lots of pepper
big slug of Worcestershire sauce
garlic powder

Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Stir frequently and don't walk away, as it wants to stick to the bottom. Campdish is done when pasta is tender and most liquid is absorbed. If pasta needs more liquid, add a little water until it's done cooking. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

I like to serve with something fresh but also salty--maybe some stirfried asparagus, cabbage, green beans, or Bok choy, sauteed in olive oil, then doused with a little tamari sauce. And, of course, a big salad. Eat, hang around for a while, then hit the sack!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Almost Summer

All signs are pointing towards summer:

• Bella and Clara have finished their school work for the year (whew!). Giles and Felix only have a little science left. I know some homeschooling moms teach year-round but I tell you what: that would not work for me!

•Clara found a patch of ripe dewberries, those sweet early-ripening blackberries;

•Daisy hasn't had on real clothes in days;

•The state has run out of money to pay my invoices here at the end of the fiscal year;

and finally, and most importantly,

•The Composer has OPENED THE POOL!!!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Yes, Another Apron: Simplicity 4692

I can't stop sewing aprons--they are the most satisfying projects to sew, plus I use them every day and enjoy having lots to choose from. I can't pass up Simplicity's "retro-reprint" patterns and want to try them all in the delicious silly fabrics (eclair, anyone?) that I can't resist at the store.

Here is one I sewed last week. I love the rick-rack trim, the topstitched triangular yoke, and the smart pockets. I do love the design details in these old-style apron patterns--the scalloped hems, bound edges, and dart fittings make them delightful to sew and to wear.

Art Songs

We were all out late last night having a good time. A nearby university was having an art song festival, and the Composer's work was being performed. He and I dropped the kids off at Grandpa's and went over to hear a marvelous piano/cello/soprano trio perform a song cycle of his. Artistically it was not breaking news, as he had written it about seven years ago, but it was delightful to hear it performed so beautifully, in front of an audience.

Of course there is a backstory (isn't there always?): on our tenth anniversary he had presented me with these songs (best present ever). He had taken three poems I had written, all set at dusk, written transcendent music for them, and recorded musicians performing them.

Here is the text of the poem set in summer, "Drought":

At dusk we walk the gravel lane.
The red dog snaps the wild chives drying in the ditch,
the dewberries withered on the stem.

These evenings we pray for rain.
The moon rises over the fading mimosa,
and we dream of waking to rain, to thunder.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Vintage Finds: The Homemaker's Encyclopedia

I uncovered this gem at the vintage book store a couple of weeks ago. Apparently it is one in a series of Homemaker's Encyclopedias--this one is "Food-Buying and Menu Planning." I adore it for its many photos of glamorous young homemakers in fabulous aprons looking happy in the kitchen, as well as its spot-on advice. Such as:
"Don't get gay and combine several part-full bottles of milk if they weren't all purchased the same day, or you may sour otherwise sweet milk."
"Every housewife knows that sinking feeling when she finds--much too late--the leftover chicken she'd planned to use for salad."
"Don't let your meal develop an all-white look through the use of fish, potatoes, cauliflower, and onions."
"A friendly cooperative attitude will make your shopping easier. Not that you should expect preferential treatment, but because your wants and needs will be accorded more interest and helpfulness where you are a regular and known customer. Even a store which features self-service can sense a friendly attitude. . ."
*Love* the middle picture of the young lady cooking in her suit (is she just back from court?) using a condiment which appears to be salt. . .

Monday, May 15, 2006

Hard Look at the Houseplants

How is it I can walk by, and even water, a houseplant over and over and somehow gloss over the fact that it looks *awful*?! I took a good look at the plants in the living room today and ended up throwing one away--it was so decrepit that the "temporary" drip tray I was using under it, a foil pie plate, literally crumbled in my hand! I also took a sad droopy ficus tree outside and gave it a new pot and new soil--still debating on whether or not it deserves to come back in. It does tend to drip stickiness, but on the plus side, it sits right beside Albert's cage (parakeet), where I fondly hope it provides him with the illusion that he still lives in the rain forest. Meanwhile it's having a vacation on the deck.

The whole houseplant sphere is an enigma to me. I water and Miracle-Gro all my plants the same, and have thriving Boston and asparagus ferns, shamrock, rose-scented geranium, and one big airplane plant in the bathroom. The others are sad, sad, sad. I think I will let natural selection do its thing and stick to these successes.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Waterfall Today

This morning after breakfast and a quick vacuuming of all the downstairs floors, we left for a hike to this waterfall. We drove for an hour, looked for the barn with an "E" on the side, then parked in the cow pasture and headed down the unmarked (but very clear) trail. This creek has the most amazing rock formation--it drops through a giant rock doughnut shape, a perfect circle, in a fantastic waterfall. Unfortunately, as soon as we got to it I peered down in and my sunglasses fell off my shirt, circled around a few times, and disappeared, exactly as if I had flushed them down an enormous stone toilet. Lucky for me the big boys were already at the next lower level and were able to fish them out from under the fall--after being offered ten dollars for a successful recovery (since the water was icy cold!).

That was our only mishap, however. The kids stayed down in the creek rearranging stones for an hour, and even Daisy, who was in a quiet, contemplative mood, threw in her share of sticks before we hiked back up to the road, enjoyed a picnic, and headed home.

Friday, May 12, 2006


For today's adventure, the children and I stopped in at the alterations lady's shop downtown. She has a great space right on Main Street, with huge windows which house rows of orchids, a series of really large downtown cats that live in her shop, and a few good toys.

While she pinned my new suit (jacket and pencil skirt in "espresso") into a more flattering shape, everyone found something of interest: Bella was using a lint roller on the big orange cat while Giles charmed it into submission, Clara and Felix were enchanted with the orchids, and Daisy swooped in on the baby doll and toy stroller, pushing them madly around the racks of clothes. It was hard to leave.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

"The Duty of Every Woman"

"It is the duty of every woman to attire herself as charmingly as possible, for the pleasure of her friends and all who come in contact with her as well as to aid her advancement in any calling. It is hard not to be self-conscious when unsuitably dressed. It is embarrassing to feel either that clothes are not becoming or that the costume selected is inappropriate for the occasion."

--from Charlotte Rankin Aiken's 1922 book, Millinery

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fairy Rose in Bloom

My fairy rose is in full bloom! This bush, like so many of the plants in my garden, came to me from a friend. I have found that other gardeners are truly my best gardening resource, since whatever they are growing and sharing is:
•successful in this microclimate, and
•likely to spread;
otherwise they wouldn't be freebies! Long ago I figured out that asking to "come over and see your garden" was a fail-proof way to load up on everything from uprooted and unwanted phlox, to chunks of hostas that needed dividing, to baby hydrangeas. I continue the tradition by never letting gardening guests leave empty-handed--I always load them down with starts and babies. And I travel with cheap plastic pots in the trunk during the high gardening season; I never know when I might need to stop and "see" someone's garden!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Scrubbing Madness

The back story is that during last week's routine mopping, trying to get a piece of gunk off my pine kitchen floor, I scrubbed with the bristly brush on the back side of my sponge mop. To my consternation, I realized that I had actually *cleaned* a patch of floor, taking off a layer of grime I didn't even know was there. (Hey, it was wood-colored!) After eyeing that clean spot for a week, I decided to do the whole floor today. Ouch. I am hurting, and I've only done half--but the kitchen is truly huge.

Giles sank a bunch of muscle into it as well, and together we dirtied countless buckets of soapy water. (By dirty, I mean that it looks like Bella took the bucket outside to one of her play kitchen spots and filled it with dirt and a little water!!!). Apparently we have stripped the floor down to its essential pineyness, unadorned by varnish, finish, or any of those effete substances. We are enjoying the pale wood color (of the half we have finished!), and waiting to see how badly it gets messed up in the days to come.

As soon as my muscle spasms subside, I'll finish the room.

Big-Eyed Daisy

Monday, May 08, 2006

Front Yard at Dusk

On Not Driving Around

I don't think of myself as having a large family (what is five children when you had fourteen brothers and sisters?) but I know five strikes some moms as a lot. I think, putting myself in the shoes of a mom of one or two, that I might have qualms about the large amounts of laundry, or the quantity of cooking. But I have recently noticed that what parents of small families wonder about it is: How do I drive all my children around everywhere?

Of course the answer is, I don't. Unlike children in smaller families, my children aren't all on sports teams, taking multiple lessons, and living high-performance lives. Clara does have a cello lesson once a week, and on the same afternoon Bella goes to gymnastics. As for the boys, team sports, scouts, music lessons, etc., have all been tried (one at a time) and found wanting. I am grateful that right now neither Giles nor Felix has to go to an Activity.

The children seem to be turning out okay in spite of their curtailed lives. Giles is turning out some razor-sharp photographs (see his blog). Felix can't find enough time to do all the bird-watching he would like. And everyone seems pretty peaceful--even me.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Sunday Dinner

My mother made beautiful, abundant Sunday dinners which were served after church and fed fourteen or so people. My cooking is a pale shadow of hers, but I have been mastering the art of preparing and serving Sunday dinner as best I can. Here's what I've learned so far:

1. I set the table before we leave for church. Actually, Clara usually does this for me as she totally appreciates the fun of getting out a nice tablecloth and the Sunday dishes--Mikasa's Rosemeade china. We use a white cotton Battenburg cloth which is tossed in the washer and dryer--it comes out totally wrinkled but I don't care! I like the rumpled charm. We use ironed napkins too--pink cotton or ivory damask, or sometimes the transparent embroidered white voile. Why own things too good to use? Use them.

2. Before leaving for church I put in a roast--a pork loin, or a pot roast, or two roasting chickens--often with carrots and potatoes around it. I make a salad or a big luscious slaw with peppers, radishes, and cucumbers. Sometimes I cook and refrigerate vegetables for quick reheating after church.

3. Hot bread? Yes. I'll either mix biscuit dough up to the point of adding the (rice) milk, ready to quickly finish and pop in the oven after church, or put a batch of roll dough in the bread machine, which I run to the point of rising. Then I take the dough out and refrigerate it--when we get home I quickly shape it into rolls and pop in into a very hot oven for wonderful rolls. Either way, butter, honey, and preserves definitely belong on the table!

4. Make dessert on Saturday. Clara at bat again, as she dearly loves to bake a good cake. Today she did a Rose-Raspberry Layer Cake which is gorgeous: layers of white cake baked in pans lined with rose geranium leaves, stacked with raspberry preserves, and iced thickly with sweetened whipped cream mixed with more raspberry preserves. Over the top? Yes.

5. Relish plate. Raw carrots, celery sticks, pickles, olives. I love having one on the table, and the kids all think it's special too.

This used to seem like a lot of work to me but the more I have done it the more it goes smoothly and quickly. Now I consider putting Sunday dinner on the table one of the most enjoyable times of the week. It's a privilege to serve a luscious fattening meal to my beautiful growing children and wonderful husband, and realize the blessings of another week together.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Key Limes

I've never seen these live and in-person before, so when Giles and I saw bags of them on display at the Walmart Supercenter, we impulse purchased. They are only as big as a walnut! So far we have:
•squeezed them on vanilla ice cream
•squeezed them over grated carrot and pineapple salad
•cut them open and sucked on them.

Tomorrow in the true Key Lime spirit I will be making:

*Upside-Down Frozen Key Lime Pie*

Do not make this in a pie plate. Use dessert dishes, margarita glasses, sherbet cups, etc.

Into large bowl:
Squeeze out 1/2 C. key lime juice.
Grate 1 T. peel.
Stir in 1 can condensed milk.

In a medium bowl, whip 1 C. cream until stiff. Fold the cream into the lime mixture a big spoonful at a time. Distribute among 8 serving dishes (see above--I always use my big stemmed green margarita glasses).

Make or purchase a graham cracker crust. Break it gently into large pieces, aiming for eigths. Stick about an eigth of the crust in each glass in an artless fashion. Freeze glasses for a few hours. When ready to serve, garnish with extra whipped cream and some more lime zest.

I love this!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Real Vintage Patterns

I have taken the plunge and ordered two charming dress patterns that are really, truly vintage! The one on the left is a great forties' dress (love the bodice gathering up into the shoulder yoke in front!), and the one on the right is a "beginner's side-fastening frock" from the thirties (which is a close approximation of my dream garment, so far found only in the Sears' Catalog Everyday Clothes of the Thirties book, the Hooverette dress, a wraparound cotton garment with frilled organdy trim!!!). Both of these are available at the Vintage Pattern Lending Library website, a resource with treasures abundant though not well-organized. I have been cruising around looking at vintage sewing patterns both original and facsimilated, and these are pretty good prices--and the patterns are complete.

It's hard to find vintage patterns with larger bust sizes so I was thrilled to find several to choose from. The ladies in the old days were slim and elegant indeed.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Early Morning Kitchen Chores

When I got up this morning we were getting a heavy rain, which makes the house so cozy. And dark--I didn't think anyone would wake on their own and I was right. I so enjoyed having an hour to myself. I had my tea and some of II Corinthians, then started my list of kitchen chores--Tuesday is Kitchen Day. I keep up during the week, but I like to set aside a day for things like:

•wiping out the cupboard where we keep the compost bucket.
•scrubbing the stovetop.
•dusting the light fixtures.
•cleaning everything on the counters--breadbox, salt/pepper/sugar shakers, cookie jar, toaster oven, etc.
•cleaning and refilling the soap dispenser at the sink--why *is* it so dirty?
•cleaning the microwave.
•scrubbing all the countertops with Bar Keeper's Friend.
•and so on, wherever grime collects.

It was nice to knock so much off my list before the day really started. I kept my cooking projects for afternoon (rhubarb cobbler and four loaves of bread), and in between went to court. Split shift, sort of. I think I do a lot of that!

Last Light of the Day

The sun sets in the valley behind our house and only the tallest trees catch the last light. This is my favorite tree in all the world, a white oak beside our driveway.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Home Cooking

Laurie Colwin snagged a great title for her first food-writing book, Home Cooking, followed of course by More Home Cooking. These are two of my favorite food books, and are filled with wonderful recipes and truly funny stories, many of which I have read to my children and are now repeated around the table every so often, just as though they are family memories.

I especially love the chapters "Kitchen Horrors" and "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir." And I've loaned the books to friends who have loved and profited from them-- Carol has even built a reputation for fried chicken lifted straight out of the "How to Fry Chicken" chapter. Delicious!

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