Cabin Fever

By this time of year many of us are experiencing Cabin Fever – loosely defined as “irritability, listlessness, and boredom from long confinement or isolation indoors.” That feeling of being trapped is generally caused by snowstorms when you can’t go out even if you wanted to – those severe blizzards where they’re telling people to stay home, off the roads and wait for the snowplows to do their thing – but it’s been made even worse this year by the pandemic lockdowns. 

Although we may be stuck inside, we have all the comforts of home – a warm dwelling, good food and plenty of entertainment available.  It’s even possible to ignore things altogether if you don’t look outside, especially if you have a cozy fire to sit beside, a hot beverage and a good book or movie.  Winter can be very hygge.

While I would normally appreciate these quiet January days after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, lots of time to read and write and putter about pretending to reorganize, this year when we’ve been cooped up inside so much already, it seems downright claustrophobic.   So let’s call it pandemic fever instead.  In fact the term cabin fever had an early association with typhoid fever and quarantine.

As the term originated with the pioneers who spent long winters by themselves, when severe weather and long distances from neighbors were truly isolating, let’s take a look at how people coped with cabin fever way back when there were cabins.

The Log Cabin

I often wondered how my ancestors survived their first winter here.   They came from Ireland in 1846 during the potato famine, three brothers and their families, and after jumping ship in the St. Lawrence to evade the cholera epidemic, arrived in Toronto, starving and penniless.   They had to borrow one pound from the Immigrant Land Agent (National Archives Document Oct 16 1846) to pay for water transport to the area where they would settle.  The land was all wilderness then, and arriving so late in the year, they would never have survived the first winter were it not for the help of the Indians and a neighbor who helped them build a hut dwelling and showed them how to hunt for game.  (Most likely they ate a lot of venison stew).  They were unprepared for the cold and the snow as the posters advertising Upper Canada boasted about its abundant game (true) and tropical climate (well maybe in the summer).   Did they even have any warm clothing?   My great-grandfather, who had stayed behind to go to school, arrived later wearing a straw hat.  They would gladly have returned to the misery of Ireland in those early years. 

The First Winter

Their first homestead was on swampland and the water was bad, so eventually they moved to a different site a few miles down the road, where they build a log cabin, similar to this one I blogged about in my Pioneer Village post.   

The inspiration behind the painting….

This cabin dates from 1870, and is fairly large, with room for a farmhouse table and a sleeping loft above.    

A warm stove…

Another cabin on the site of the local Heritage Museum is much smaller, and housed just two people, a widow and her young son.  

The original Tiny House…

It was constructed in 1857 of lumber rather than logs, as there was a sawmill nearby – the interior is pine. With only two rooms, this typical first home was built quickly, as more effort went to clearing the land and planting crops.

While small in size, it was snug and warm with the long stove pipe circulating the heat across the house.  There was an additional sleeping space in the attic over the kitchen.

The rope bed was covered with a straw or feather mattress.

While the quilt is nice, it does make me grateful for my comfy bed, with its deep mattress, soft sheets and down comforter, and there’s certainly not much counter space in that kitchen!   

Now the local heritage museum is fund-raising to restore another log cabin.  

This one has an interesting and well-traveled history.   Originally built in 1840 in the Goderich area, it was disassembled in the 1930’s and floated down Lake Huron to a lakefront property where it was used as a summer cottage. In the 1970’s it was donated and moved to it’s current site in a local park where it was used for community events such as Christmas in the Park, until it fell into such a state of disrepair that it was deemed unsafe and they decided to tear it down and build a replica.   A great hue and cry ensued from the public and the local historical society, so they relented and at a cost of $50,000 are paying to have it relocated to the museum site for future restoration.  I know, it seems a lot of money to spend on a derelict old building but they waste money on other things, and how many 180 year old log cabins are left?  This will be it’s third move, but just look at that solid construction.    

No chilly drafts would come through those thick walls, but they do need to do something about the broken windows.      

I’ve been feeling bad about my house lately. My renos remain undone, dust bunnies abound and I don’t seem to have the energy to give it a good cleaning. My cleanliness standards have slipped considerably since no one is seeing it but me. Hopefully in March I’ll be motivated to give it a good spring cleaning.

But after a look at these humble abodes, I’m appreciating my own home and hearth more, and feeling better about cabin fever. We have so many more creature comforts today and all the modern conveniences. Maybe it really is all about perspective.

With no internet or Netflix to occupy themselves with what did they do for entertainment back then?   Being Irish, I’m sure there was music – the fiddle – and story telling often took the place of books, and I hope there was comfort food too – warm bread and  apple pies and taffy treats.  

So perhaps some things haven’t changed – after today’s dose of wintry weather it’s time for some beef stew. 

Supper by candlelight…

PS.  While researching this, I came across two books, The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, a fictionalized historical novel based on the life of Susanna Moodie, a genteel English writer who immigrated to Canada in 1832. Moodie wrote about her experiences in the Canadian wilderness and subsequently published her memoirs as Roughing It In The Bush and Life in the Backwoods. I enjoyed the fictionalized book more, as it was rich in historical detail, although the first half in England was not as interesting. Both books depict a harsh life with many hardships and little in the way of fun or luxuries, a sobering look at the reality of pioneer life for many women.    

(1128 words)       

Bucket List – 2021

       It’s that time of year again – time to review last years resolutions (Bucket List 2020) and see what I’ve achieved over the past 365 days, and the answer is….not very much.   It’s not entirely my fault though – blame it on that little COVID creature we didn’t even know existed last January, or if we did, it was a mere rumor on the distant horizon.   While I was able to achieve some of my goals, most of them will be put back on this year’s list.     

Who moved the goalpost?

Exercise – I was more successful at walking this year, except for the month I hurt my back lifting the Pandemic Picnic table and the two months in the summer when it was too hot, but I’ve been diligent ever since, even in sleet and rain and snow…well we’ve hardly had any snow – two small storms which melted faster than Frosty. It’s been a very mild winter so far with daytime temps above freezing – I haven’t even worn my down parka yet. Perfect weather for walking, which gives me a daily dose of fresh air and music, and helps with the Cabin Fever.  (next weeks blog).  

Cabin in the Woods

Renos: The house projects never got done.   I was deep into quotes for new window dressings (shutters versus pull down blinds) when the March lockdown happened.  Same with the bathroom floor.  You would think with the pandemic things would be cheaper, but business was booming as everyone seemed to be doing home renos, but the main reason I didn’t proceed was I didn’t want anyone in my house measuring and installing and spreading germs.   It was bad enough when I had to get the furnace fixed in September, a job which involved two subcontractors (gas leak and new chimney liner) and three service techs.  They were mostly good at wearing masks, except for the guy who who kept disappearing on smoke breaks.   

Purging Possessions: The closets got cleaned out, but as the garage sale didn’t happen, most of the stuff eventually found its way back to its place of origin, including a whole bunch of Christmas decorations.  I’ve decided not to do a major cleaning-out this January as I normally would, better to buy a house with a big attic or loft. This shift away from simplifying was provoked by a simple comment someone made, “Why are you giving away all this perfectly good stuff?” (see blue lights at the end, so pretty but so ancient it came with a cord). If I do anything this winter, it might be my clothes closets. Someday I hope to be able to dress up again, and wear lipstick.

As for the rest – the low-fat cookbooks never even got opened (we needed comfort food), the new camera never got bought (required a trip to the camera store), the short story never got written (so not inspired), and I remain the last Netflix holdout in the country – lots of books got read though, more this year than ever.  (Thank God for library curbside pickup).  As for the shorter blogs, things started out well under 1000 words, but lately they have ballooned up to the two to three thousand mark again – with not much else to do, I wrote.

One bright spot this past year, was that my mother’s art exhibit went ahead despite the pandemic.   It’s up until next April, and even if not many people have visited, they put it online virtually – although they did such a great job with the display it’s simply stunning in person, all that color against dark gray walls.   Just after we did some local press in December, the province-wide lockdown started again – bad timing, but I did my first LIVE radio interview with a national news show – a nerve-racking experience, especially at that hour. I’m not a morning person but I set my alarm for 6 so I would be fully awake and somewhat coherent by 7 am.    My mother refused, as she said she would be too nervous, but I wasn’t about to turn down a producer from Toronto.  So add that to my agent resume!  

2021 Goals and Resolutions:

My first goal is to try and not get COVID before my turn in the vaccination lineup.   Our stats here were so low for so long that it was easy to go about doing essential things without too much excessive worry, but now I think I’ll revert to my hermit ways and my big three-week grocery marathons.   I don’t see general public vaccination on any large scale happening here until May at the earliest, so it will be a long cold winter spent hibernating. I have plenty of things to occupy my time though, reading, writing, blogging, and I may sign up for an online art appreciation course. Maybe a bit of TV watching – if you are a fan of Masterpiece, the mini-series All Creatures Great and Small based on the James Herriot books, is debuting this Sunday Jan 10 on PBS.

January is often a time for quiet reflection and my goals this year are tending towards the more philosophical.

Lavender in the snow….

Time for Reflection:   One of the striking things about this year is how much less rushed life has been.   Sometimes it’s good to slow down and be still, contemplate life in general and sift through what needs to be done and what is just busyness. Think about what’s truly important. Give thanks for each day, especially the small things we take for granted, like smelling coffee and breathing.

Christmas Card – CWL

Talk Less and Listen More: I used to be a quieter person, but my job for many years entailed extroverted qualities.  Leading such a quiet life this past year has brought me back to my quiet centre.  I’ve ordered Julia Cameron’s (of Artist’s Way fame) latest book, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention. Creativity is a quiet pursuit, thriving on time and solitude, both of which we have in abundance this winter.   May this year be a creative one for all my fellow bloggers!

Have faith – there is light at the end of the tunnel….

(988 words)

A COVID Christmas – The Corona Diaries – Part Three

Bah Humbug!

            Like many other people, I’m just not in the mood for Christmas this year.  Call me Scrooge, call me the Grinch – let’s just fast forward to January.

Many years ago, I read a book called Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham.  (goodreads link) It was a departure from his usual legal thrillers and in this short novel, the protagonist, fed up with the fuss and expense and drama of their elaborate and ever-expanding Christmas celebrations, announces to his wife his intention to skip it altogether. Spoiler alert – of course, he didn’t really skip Christmas, they just had a scaled down version of it, a simpler celebration, more in honor of the true meaning of the season. 

Many people will be having smaller Christmases this year with just those in their immediate bubble, and some people will be staying home alone.   While it’s nice to have a bit of a crowd around at Christmas there’s something to be said for quieter times too.  Christmas is often a sad time for those who have lost loved ones or who are alone and lonely, but pretending to be jolly when you’re not, can be exhausting too.   If you have to get in the Christmas spirit, because other people are depending on you to be a merry little elf, this song may help, because we all need a little Christmas, even if it’s just in small doses.

For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older….

I love the lyrics to this song, “Haul out the holly, Put up the tree before my spirit falls again, Fill up the stockings, I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.”

Feeling better now…perhaps a bit more gleeful?

Part of the problem with getting in the festive mood this year is that so many of our yuletide traditions have been modified or cancelled.   Who would have predicted this time last year that we’d be in the middle of a pandemic, and simply singing a Christmas carol would be forbidden – all those droplets spewing forth possible germs – yuck.   Other activities have adapted, so in Part Three of The Corona Diaries lets take a look at a few of those old favorites and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same, or maybe even improved – yea more cookies for me! Fortunately the parts of Christmas I love the most, the lights, the decorating, the music and the food, tend to be COVID-resistant.

The Festive Special: 

Swiss Chalet has been offering their Christmas Special for over 30 years now.  It usually starts in mid-November as a kick-off to the season, in order to capture those hungry shoppers smart enough to do their shopping early.   This Canadian restaurant chain is known for their rotisserie quarter chicken dinners, and for three dollars more the Festive Special gets you a small scoop of (box) stuffing, a thimbleful of cranberry sauce and a gift box of five Lindor/Lindt chocolates.

Hey it’s a family tradition…..

This years TV commercial features a little girl excited to see Nana and Papa and then a shot of the family dining inside the restaurant, cut to the Door-Dash guy delivering a meal to the grandparents, and then the family zooming with them via an I-Pad on their respective tables.   Creative marketing at it’s finest.   Ours was take-out this year, and the cranberry sauce was as skimpy as ever, but the chocolates were good.  You can’t go wrong with Lindt Chocolates, even if you have to pay for the the free ones.

Musical Interlude – because mid-Nov. is still a bit too early for non-stop Christmas music. Anyone remember this song by the Queen of Soul? (youtube link)

 Nov 25 – Santa Claus is Coming To Town:

Last year’s nighttime parade….

The Santa Claus parade may be canceled, but Santa’s coming to a neighbourhood near you!   While many Santa Claus parades have become stationary drive-through events or are being conducted on football fields sans spectators and broadcast live (the annual Toronto parade), in the smaller cities and towns, the parade may come right to you.  I had forgotten all about this, until I heard the sirens and looked out and saw all the little kids in the neighborhood running down to the corner.   Kind of negates the idea of not congregating, but Santa can’t cover every street in town.   This year’s parade was really scaled down, only one float and two firetrucks, but Santa was on one of them.  Go Santa!         

Christmas Charities:

The Salvation army buckets are out in full force, but not manned this year, although some had the new tap and pay feature. Other charities have adapted too. Although there were no toy drive drop offs, just cash donations, Christmas for Everyone is still doing food and toy hampers, as the need is greater than ever this year.  The Legion and church offered take-out turkey and roast beef dinners as a fundraiser and sold-out in days – because who isn’t sick of cooking?   

Christmas Shopping: (or you’re a mean one, Mrs. Grinch)

I remember one year buying presents for 32 people – talk about insanity.  Only half of those were for family and the other half, friends or employees.   I was a department head and decided I would buy my staff a small gift, personally geared to their interests – I ran myself ragged shopping, and I don’t like Christmas shopping at the best of times.   I only did that one year, the next everyone got the same holiday candle and Tim Horton’s gift cards.  Work was always so busy that time of year that eventually I learned to shop early in the fall and would not go near the stores at all in December.  A hospital can be a sad place at Christmas and I can’t imagine how the staff are coping now, burnt out and exhausted, with all time off cancelled due to lack of staffing.  

I didn’t do ANY Christmas shopping this year – a few small gag gifts from the dollar store, but I did not go to any store for anything other than essentials.  Being retired now and our stats still good, I thought I had all kinds of time, but I left it too late and by then the numbers were ticking up and they were telling people to stay home. The few things I bought online had to be returned, so I just gave up, as Canada Post couldn’t promise delivery after Dec 3.   I don’t like online shopping anyway, preferring to actually see the item first, and on my one return-and-dash trip to the mall, it was so crowded I felt unsafe and left after half an hour. So this Christmas will be money stuffed in an envelope – not even gift cards.  I didn’t realize until recently that Visa gift cards expire if you shove them in a drawer and forget about them – yes after a year they start to subtract a monthly fee.   There’s nothing wrong with cash, you can take it to the bank and deposit it, and I had cash lying around I hadn’t used from the spring – so now it’s used up!    Easy-peasy!      

Dec 1 – Mad for Plaid:

My sole purchase for myself, as you need to treat yourself at Christmas too, was these plaid face masks.

I asked a neighbour where she got hers and she said Old Navy and she liked them as most masks were too big for her narrow face and these have side loops you can adjust, so I got a pack of the Christmas plaid ones on sale – $11 for 5.    Plaid is festive at Christmas and matches my plaid scarves from those new coats I blogged about last year, now sitting in my closet with no place to go.  (link to Joni and the Amazing Technicolor Coats).   You might think it’s too much plaid but style icon Kate Middleton wore one, so that’s good enough for me, and I find anything plaid immensely cheering.

Dec 9 – Baking:

Speaking of treats, we all have to eat, so why not treat yourself to Santa’s Favorite Chocolate Cookies (link to blog).  I only make these rich decadent cookies once a year at Christmas and normally would make several batches to give away, but this year I don’t have to!   I made my first batch in early December – 28 cookies I don’t have to share!  Well, I shared some…..but still…more for me!  Baking is also a good way to use up all that flour you stockpiled in the spring with the best of bread-baking intentions.

Dec 12 and 15 – Deck the Halls:

I was late putting up the decorations this year, so I didn’t put up as much, either inside or out, as in a few weeks I’ll just have to take them all down again, and that’s always a downer. I’m keeping it simple.   A few wreaths outside, no lights, but candles in the windows.   I know everyone is going overboard with lights this year but they sold out early and I forgot to ask the electrician when he upgraded the hydro if I could still use the front outdoor socket.

Instead of buying those overpriced pine arrangements  I stole this idea from my neighbor, after watching her out my kitchen window one morning, hacking branches off her pine tree with pruning shears.  Saves money ($35) and the rustic look is in.   I just love the plaid ribbon, and the cattails were from a ditch. 

My mother’s evergreen tree willingly donated some branches,

It needed a trim anyway….

 so I did one for her with a few dollar store decorations from previous years.  

And then one for my front porch.

Personally I think there should be a law against those blow up decorations – if you’re already feeling deflated this Christmas, a sight like this doesn’t help.  

Charlie Brown looks so sad….

Someone in my neighbourhood has so many of them on their small lot that I lost count after thirty. There should be a bylaw – two per household, and only if you have little children.   

 A Charlie Brown Holly Bush:

My holly bush is keeping it simple too.   I planted four of these one year, one male and his harem of three, but two died and the surviving one is really just a Holly Golightly twig.   As they’re sandwiched in between a row of lavender and a row of rose bushes (not one of my better landscaping decisions) they never really did well.  But one sprig of holly is all you need for atop the store-bought Christmas pudding. 

Holiday Movies:

The Sound of Music (check), White Christmas (check), that one with the annoying kid with the BB gun (check) – my mother loves A Christmas Story, it reminds her of growing up in the Depression. I haven’t watched Scrooge or It’s A Wonderful Life, but they’re always on Christmas Eve day.   

Holiday Music:

I started listening early, as motivation to walk – fresh air and music.  As well as the usual Christmas favorites, I’m enjoying some of the old Christmas hymns I remember from Christmas Eve services.  (link to blog – Joy to the World – Christmas Playlist)   There won’t be any midnight mass here this year, certainly no choir, just an early service you have to register for online, and a video broadcast link later. We usually tune into the church channel with the Basilica from Washington DC, if they are allowed to have it this year?  

I always enjoyed this Christmas reggae song by Boney M – very uplifting.

The Reason for the Season:

If you’re feeling frazzled, like the jolly guy here, clinging to the tree, remember this too shall pass, and remember the reason for the season.   Keep those traditions you can and those that have meaning for you and let the others go for this year.   Peace and goodwill to all.  Wishing everyone a Merry Little Christmas!

PS.   Will you be staying home for Christmas? Are there any Christmas traditions you are especially missing? Any new ones you have started?

A Christmas Carol – Food, Glorious Food!

     I’ve written before about A Christmas Carol being one of my favorite books, and in part one A Christmas Carol with Recipes, I review the Book to Table classic edition of this perennial favorite. I had expected the recipes in that book to be related to what they might have eaten in Dickens time (1843) instead of the usual modern dishes, but after staring at all those mouth-watering photos I’m hungry, so in part two, let’s discuss the food in Dickens famous novel – food, glorious food!  

From the 1967 musical Oliver Twist

There are many glorious descriptions of food in A Christmas Carol – who doesn’t remember the famous goose or the pudding singing in the copper?

The first mention comes in the introductory scene where Scrooge is nursing a head cold beside his meagre fire.

I’ve often wondered about the gruel.   Yes, I know it’s that bland watery substance that Oliver Twist got in trouble over, asking for more, but what exactly is it and what does it taste like?  According to the dictionary, gruel is “a thin liquid food of oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water.” It was a staple for the poor in the past, peasant food for the masses. According to Wikipedia (link) it was on the supper menu for the third class passengers on the eve of the Titanic sinking. (How about that for your last meal?) No more for me thanks, I’d rather have Quaker Oatmeal, thick like glue with raisins and brown sugar, and maybe a hot toddy for my next head cold, or one of those hot lemon drinks designed to knock you out.   

The first major description of food and drink comes in the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, at Old Fezziwig’s work party and will have your toe tapping and your mouth drooling over the festive spread.   

Negus is a beverage made of wine, often port, mixed with hot water, oranges or lemons, spices and sugar – an old-fashioned name for mulled wine. Yes, to that and to the cake and mince-pies too. Mince pie is another tradition which many people don’t care for anymore, along with fruitcake, but I love them both. Port is a type of fortified red wine, often blended with a spirit such as brandy, making it stronger and more shelf-stable. My father used to have a class of port with a piece of fruitcake on Christmas eve, while watching midnight mass, and sometimes I would join him, but it’s a strong drink which would send me straight to bed. A tradition inherited from his Irish ancestors, that was the only time of year the bottle was brought out, so a bottle could last for years.

You have to admire generous old Fezziwig for having an open bar for his poor overworked underpaid employees. I like to re-read this passage as I don’t recall ever having such fun at an office party myself.

The next major food section takes place with the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the big jolly guy with the cornucopia of food spread out at his feet.

I’ve always wanted to make a twelfth night cake, twelfth night being Jan 5.   An old British tradition, it’s a rich fruitcake with royal icing into which was baked a pea or a bean or in modern days a trinket. Whoever gets the piece with the lucky charm is crowned King or Queen for the Day.  I found a package one Christmas in one of those overpriced boutique stores – basically it contained a dry cake mix and a gold foil- covered coin – a gimmick for $20 and probably not worth a trip to the dentist over a broken tooth, especially in these times of COVID precautions, but it’s an intriguing idea – perhaps more suitable for a New Year’s dinner some other year.

While Scrooge is out wandering the streets, he comes upon a poulterers, home to the prize turkey, and a fruiterers shop.   

Fruit and nuts were a rarity in Dickens’ time, in much the same way as older folks remember getting an orange only at Christmas.   When I was growing up on the farm, after the dishes were done (by hand, no dishwasher with well water) and the table cleared, a bowl of fruit and a bowl of mixed nuts was set out to be nibbled at leisure, for no one was truly hungry after the main feast. The nuts were in their shells (hazelnuts, walnuts) and they required work to get at the meat. We’ve lost this old tradition, but I still have the silver nutcrackers and the slender picks. The Cratchits put a shovelful of chestnuts on the fire after their feast, but I’ve never tried roasted chestnuts before, although I’ve seen them in the grocery store this time of year. Which brings us to the grocer’s…    

Not sure I would rhapsodize about grocery shopping like this, as it’s still my least favorite essential activity, but I am grateful for the ability to buy food.

Not my grocery shopping experience….

I particularly like his descriptions of the good cheer expressed by the shoppers – I’m not sure that is still applicable today, when people pummel poor sales clerks over having to wear a mask or fight over the last Sony Playstation on the shelf.   

Scrooge pays particular attention to the dinners of the poor, for not having an oven of their own their meals would have to be conveyed to the Bakers to be cooked, and then fetched back home again.  

Some of that pixie water might come in handy….

There was much hunger and poverty in Dickens time, with poor houses and work houses being common experiences for many. The ghost warns of the dangers of Want and Ignorance in the two malnourished youths at his feet.   

It’s heart-breaking to see those long line-ups of cars at the food banks during the pandemic, many of whom have lost their jobs and have never had to use such a service before.   

The Cratchits were a “working poor” family, and of course Dickens most famous food scene is that of their Christmas dinner.

It was tradition then to have a goose for the feast, and my parents, being rural people recall having goose for Christmas dinner in their younger years. Most farms had a goose on the premises which could be sacrificed for the cause, whereas a turkey was a rarer bird.

Photo from 1920-30, sent from Seattle relatives after a visit home.

Although turkeys are mentioned in the book – the prize turkey hanging there still which the remarkable boy goes forth to purchase for Scrooge – they did not become the more popular Christmas fare until later.

And oh the pudding, born aloft in a blaze of holly and fussed over as to the quantity of flour, and Bob Cratchits compliments to the chef for pulling off such a grand feast on such a small budget. This is one tradition I do uphold but this year my plum pudding will come in a box complete with prepared sauce, although normally I would make the sauce.

And at the end of the book, a reformed Scrooge extends an invitation to his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchit, to share in a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop punch.

Smoking Bishop was another type of mulled wassail drink, with the lemon or orange spiked with cloves and roasted over a fire before being added to a mixture of port wine and spices. (Wikipedia link)

As Tiny Tim proclaims at the end, “God bless us every one!” 

Wherever you are and whatever you are eating this holiday season remember to give blessings for the food on the table and the company around it.  And if you happen to be home alone, as the young Scrooge was reading by the fire, then a book such as a Christmas Carol is always good company.    

PS.  Portions of this were adapted from A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life – Dec 2018.

A Christmas Carol – with Recipes

A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books, and I make time to re-read it every December.  In fact I’ve read it so many times I have entire sections memorized. No matter how Scrooge-like I’m feeling (especially so this year), it never fails to get me in the mood for Christmas.  I came across this beautiful hardcopy on the bookoutlet site recently, one of the Book to Table classic series, and decided I needed a new edition – because who doesn’t like a new cookbook too!

Publisher’s Blurb:  A deluxe, full-color hardback edition of the perennial Christmas classic featuring a selection of recipes for your holiday table from Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Trisha Yearwood!

Have your book and eat it, too, with this clever edition of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol featuring delicious recipes from celebrity chefs. Plan your perfect Christmas feast with a carefully curated menu of holiday dishes, from succulent baked ham to smashed root vegetables. And top it all off with fruitcake cookies and pecan pie. Celebrate the holiday with a good meal and a good book!

Book includes full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, interspersed with recipes, food photography, and special food artwork.

My Review:  It is a lovely book, there’s no doubt about it, but I must admit I was a bit disappointed in the recipes.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, perhaps something from the Dickens era?  What’s in a bowl of Smokin’ Bishop punch? (see Part Two) Or at least a recipe for plum pudding?

My turkey breast is never that perfectly sliced….

Instead, it’s the standard holiday fare, turkey, baked ham, mashed potatoes, with an assortment of the traditional side dishes, cranberry sauce, candied carrots, buttermilk biscuits, pecan pie. The recipes for spinach salad and asparagus with hollandaise sauce look good, but that’s spring-time food in my opinion! There are 13 recipes in all, grouped according to starters, entrees, side dishes, and desserts.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying something new, and these recipes by Martha & company look delicious, but this is the time of year we crave tradition, even more so this year, and there’s comfort and joy in having the same menu year after year. Besides, every family has their own version of these old favorites, a time-honored way of preparing the potatoes or the stuffing. In my dad’s big Irish family, the  dressing/stuffing was made outside the bird, in pans so there would be enough to go around and the recipe is pretty basic – sauteed onions in butter poured over stale broken-up bread crumbs and sprinkled liberally with savory, and a pinch of thyme and sage, cooked in the oven until soggy and then re-heated later.   We still make it that way, but in a white Corning-ware casserole dish.   From my maternal grandma, we inherited mushy peas – smashed peas with butter.   No green bean or sweet potato casseroles here in my Canadian family, nor pecan pie – that’s southern fare. Our other vegetable is squash – acorn only. And although the buttermilk biscuits in the book look good, we must have the same soft white dinner rolls bought from the same bakery, but only for the holidays. (I wonder what we’ll do if they ever go out of business.)

Dessert is plum pudding served with rum caramel sauce, and occasionally mince or apple pie.  When I was growing up, dessert was just sliced fruit cake and cookies, served on a gold glass cake platter and a big bowl of fruit jello, red with bananas and grapes and topped with whipped cream – because everyone was just too full and what kid lingered at the dinner table when there were new toys to be played with! Back then the turkey was a twenty pounder, straight out of Norman Rockwell, as there would be turkey pies and stew later.   My mother would get up at 5 am to put it in the oven as we would eat at 1 pm after church. Now with a smaller number, a double turkey breast is better and far less messy, while still leaving plenty of leftovers of white meat, which is all we like anyway.

Since I won’t be making a fruitcake this year, I might try the fruitcake cookies, but I don’t need 5 dozen.

and the apple-cranberry crisp might be nice on a cold January day.   

Overall, it’s a visually appealing book, and if you don’t already own a copy, it’s well worth the discounted price ($9 vs $34 Cdn), plus it would make a nice Christmas present for someone who likes to cook.   

PS. What are some of your traditional Christmas recipes?

PS.   Charles Dickens was a master of description – so if you’re in the mood for some more food, hop on over to part two – Food Glorious Food – for a sample of his fare.

California Dreamin’ – Soundtrack Saturday

The Mamas and The Papas – 1965
All the leaves are brown…
and the sky is gray….
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day….
I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA
California dreaming on such a winters day.
Stopped into a church I passed along the way….
Well I got down on my knees and I begin to pray….
Let this pandemic please go away…..
California dreaming on such a winter’s day…..

Chill November

     November is a dreary month with nothing much to recommend it.   Bare trees, gray skies, and chilly temperatures with nothing to look forward to except perhaps the Black Friday sales (we had our Canadian Thanksgiving in October) and the jingling of distant Christmas bells.   This year we had several pleasant weeks of t-shirt weather with record breaking temperatures, followed by sweater-weather perfect for yard-work cleanup, but now we’re deep in the chill of November. 

Unlike their human equivalents, the snowbirds, who are stuck here in the wintry north this year, deprived of their annual jaunts to Florida, Arizona, and all places warm, the Canadian geese are honking their way south.

Honk if you’re heading south….

This photo is courtesy of Linda, who recently blogged about a Canadian Goose Convention. It has always amazed me how the geese can elect a leader (hopefully without all the current drama), adopt a flight plan (ideally bi-partisan) and wing their way south in a perfect V formation to a better place in the sun.   But knowing how cantankerous geese can be, I doubt it’s all smooth sailing.   Anyone who has ever sought to capture geese in-flight has eventually given up, as by the time their loud honking announces their presence and you whip out the camera, they are long past.   We do have some geese who overwinter here in a park, where an industrial plant ejects warm waste water into a nearby creek, but they are annoying creatures who deposit green goop all over instead of winging their way south like good little geese should.     

This painting “Chill November” depicting the annual migration of the geese against a frosty background, was painted by Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, in 1916-17. 

Chill November – Tom Thomson, 1916-17, oil on canvas.

After WW1 had ended, a group of local women, who had been part of the Red Cross volunteers raising money for the war effort, decided to form a committee, known as the Women’s Conservation Art Association. Their aim was to purchase art for a public gallery they hoped to open someday in the city.  After four years of war and with the Spanish flu still raging, perhaps they dared to hope for a brighter future?

Their focus was on acquiring Canadian art, and at the forefront of this movement was the now iconic Group of Seven, (see Wikipedia link), an association of male landscape painters known for their scenes of the Canadian wilderness, especially Algonquin Park.  Tom Thomson (see Wikipedia link), although often included in this famous group, knew several of the members but died tragically before it was formed.    There is much mystery and speculation about his death during a fishing expedition in 1917. The official report was accidental drowning – his canoe found adrift and his body 8 days later with a large gash on his head – but was it an accident or murder, suicide or revenge – the tall tales abound.  He was only 39 and as often happens, the mystique surrounding his early and sudden death only added to the value of his work.       

“Chill November” was one of the art committees first acquisitions in 1920.   Last spring I attended a hundred anniversary exhibit of the painting, which was accompanied by artifacts surrounding it’s purchase and a preliminary sketch on loan from another gallery.

Wild Geese – preliminary sketch for Chill November – Tom Thomson 1916

The small (8X10) preliminary sketch Wild Geese, was painted “plein air” in the summer of 1916 in Algonquin Park and served as the model when he painted Chill November in his studio in Toronto the following winter as was his custom, for the wilderness trips were not suited to larger canvases.

I like to picture Tom lying in his canoe on a dark and chilly afternoon, studying that V formation, as the geese pass overhead – maybe having a sip of whiskey from his flask, for he was known to have a drink or two…

Chill November, is a large piece at 34 X 40 inches. This is not the best shot unfortunately, as the lighting was soft in the gallery with the spotlights making it too dim for picture taking. The painting itself was sacred of course, as anything of artistic merit is, but as a history lover, what I liked most about the exhibit was the historical documentation of the purchase.

Here’s a copy of some of the correspondence, as Dr. James McCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and early patron of the Group of Seven, tries to steer the art committee, towards this particular piece.     

At that time, $600 was a fair bit of money to spend on one painting, but they did, and here is the cash ledger book recording the purchase, and incidentally not a bad return on their investment with today’s current value at one million plus.   

There was lots of other historical information on display including a booklet documenting how it was loaned out over the years, for it was a well traveled painting, plus information about the artists life.

He displayed no early artistic talent – his painting evolved from his job as a graphic designer and his love of the great outdoors. From 1913 on he spend his summers working as a fishing guide in Algonquin Park, and once a fire ranger, sketching on the side, occasionally sponsored by Dr. McCallum who owned a cottage on Georgian Bay. Predominately known as a landscape painter, he was well into his 30’s before he sold his first painting (1913) and in his short career produced 400 oil sketches on wood panels and 50 larger oil canvases. Known for expressing self-doubt, he would sometimes give away his sketches if someone admired them – one was recently unearthed in someone’s basement and sold for half a million. A turning point in his career came in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada began to acquire his paintings, a recognition unheard of for an unknown artist. His love of color and broad brush strokes remind me of Van Gogh, although his subject matter was the wilderness – trees, skies and rivers.

Dr. McCallum’s history of first meeting the Painter of the North

He does look like a lumberjack in that picture, but he cleaned up well.

His most famous painting, The Jack Pine, an iconic image of the Canadian wilderness, resides in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (Wikipedia link)

Jack Pine – Tom Thomson 1917

The women’s art committee continued to raise money and bought several other Group of Seven paintings, which along with Chill November, were part of the 25 pieces they donated to the city library in 1956 when they disbanded.  I remember going to visit the art room atop the main library branch, and being underwhelmed.   All the good stuff was stored in vaults for security reasons.

In 2012 the city finally got it’s own art gallery, to the tune of 9 million dollars worth of fund raising.  It was a case of either having a proper temperature/humidity-controlled environment or getting rid of all the art.  Much public complaining ensued about wasting tax payers money, especially when they renovated an old heritage building downtown, but with the aid of government funding and corporate donations plus a large benefactor after whom the gallery was named, they met their goal, a hundred years late. (They now number 1253 pieces in their permanent collection, many through private donations). There was a lot less complaining after the Beaverbrook Masterworks exhibit came through in 2015 (a major coup for a small gallery) and the public got to view the famous 13 foot high Salvador Dali painting, “Santiago El Grande.” – truly an awesome sight. Even those who haven’t had much exposure to art, can learn to like it, myself included.  

I had little interest in the art world until my mother started painting (age 87) and exhibiting (age 90), and even now I sometimes find it to be a strange and foreign land. (When I was in school you were either an “artsy-type” or a “science nerd”, now known as a “STEMi” but never both, now most colleges want a well-rounded individual). If someone had told me decades ago that I would be hanging around the fringes of the art world in my retirement I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m still puzzled about why one painting is worth so much, while another, much nicer, is not. Art tends to be subjective, while science deals in reality. Abstract painting seems to be very popular, but is the genre I struggle the most to appreciate and understand, as well as art installations which may be thought-provoking but sometimes just seem too weird. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in my younger years, left me baffled over the display of a solitary three-dimensional fence post, similar to the weather-beaten ones on my parents farm. I recall taking a picture of it to show my dad.  

So that brings us to the question – what place does art and culture have in lifting our spirits in troubled times, for 2020 has definitely been a year of gloom and doom.   If you don’t have art, music, books, movies, or whatever form of culture you happen to enjoy, aren’t the days all just the same – work, eat, sleep, repeat, with nothing to look forward to and nothing to soothe your soul. (Books are my preference, but lately while walking, I have Moonlight Sonata on endless repeat. It seems the perfect soundtrack for these gloomy November days).

What possessed those women one hundred years ago to spend their left-over funds on art?  They were war-weary, and pandemic-weary. Certainly, there were more worthwhile and practical causes to spent the money on, with returning soldiers unable to support themselves and the Spanish flu leaving many families without incomes.  Or did they feel the world needed some culture instead, a glimpse of hope for a brighter future?  Maybe they felt buying a piece of beauty was the better purchase, something to lighten their days and to last for always.  

Here is a letter documenting the turnout to view the paintings in 1920, (hopefully they wore masks).

The Library building was crowded and hundreds of people came to see the paintings….

Even if you’re of the opinion that Chill November is a rather gloomy picture, you have to admire it’s very Canadianness.  It’s the way the country was, a land full of wilderness….and geese on the wing!

What will be remembered of us, a hundred years from now?   Time will tell…..in the meantime – bundle up.  It’s chilly out there!  

The Jane Austen Society

This month’s literary salon pick, The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, is a novel set in post-WW2 England about a group of villagers determined to maintain the legacy of Jane Austen by opening a museum at Chawton House, the cottage where Jane spent the last eight years of her life and the most productive period of her writing career.  

Who would have predicted that Jane Austen would still be so popular 200 years later, with her face on the ten pound note, dozens of biographies in print, and entire museums devoted to her fame, not to mention the whole tourist trade to places she visited, lived, or described in her novels.  

It’s a further testament to her continuing popularity that An Interview with Jane Austen remains my most read post, at 150 some views, from every country in the world, with several more added weekly.  Yes, some frivolous little piece I dashed off for Valentine’s Day two years ago is more popular than any post I’ve slaved over for days.  But to give credit to Jane, other than the interviewers questions, most of the words are hers, famous quotes from a book I received for Christmas that year, The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen.   The post itself was inspired by a question – which dead person you would most like to interview?  I can’t imagine my small blog of 300 readers is high up on any google search list, so I can only surmise that it must have been shared by a Janeite on one of the many Jane Austen websites.

     I would not describe myself as a Janeite, having only ever read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and watched the movie versions, the dashing Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth, and the petulant Gwyneth Paltrow who forever spoiled Emma for me, and the classic Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.   Other than Pride and Prejudice I find her life more interesting than her books.  

        JA was born in 1775 and lived most of her young life with her large family of siblings at the rectory in Steventon, where her father was a clergyman.   Upon his retirement, they sold everything (including a thousand books, for hers was a well-read family) and Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra.   Bath was a very social place and it’s widely assumed this change in residence was partially intended to find marriage partners for the daughters, but that was not to be, for despite rumors of several failed romances Jane never married.   After the death of their father and the rental of diminished living quarters, her wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by a childless couple in need of an inheritor, eventually offered his widowed mother and sisters the use of the steward’s cottage on his large estate and so they moved to Chawton House in 1809.

The cottage was a large L-shaped building, quite near the street and a busy crossroads, so the thundering of coaches passing by offered little privacy,

but there was a large private garden at the back and they were grateful to finally have a permanent residence of their own.   

Although she had written earlier drafts of her novels, this was the scene of the final revisions and the long hoped for dreams of publication, starting first with Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously with the seventh and last, Sanditon, left unfinished.  (Although never published, PBS filmed a horrible adaptation of Sanditon last January which was universally condemned. Jane would certainly never have approved of the unhappy ending.)

Jane Austen’s writing desk

She wrote at this small desk, still a fixture of the museum today, placed by the window for maximum lighting as she wore spectacles, and was known to cover up her manuscript if there was an unexpected visitor at the door. From her niece’s recollections we have an image of Jane sitting by the fireplace and laughing, as a sudden thought occurred to her and she leapt up to write it down. Much of her early writing originated as a means to amuse herself, and her family, as there are only so many samplers you can embroider before you die of boredom.    

   After her untimely death in 1817 at the age of 41 (of Addison’s Disease), her mother and sister lived on in the cottage, with Cassandra dying in 1845. Although Jane lived long enough to enjoy some initial publishing success and literary fame, it was after the publication of a biography by her nephew in 1850, that her literary reputation was revived, and it has remained steady to this day.   

      Today Chawton House is the site of the Jane Austen Museum. (link to a virtual tour of the house). As well as original clothing and furnishings of the period, several of her letters are on display, as well as some jewelry (two topaz crosses) given to the sisters by their naval brother. The nearby great house houses a JA library with first editions of all of her books. Jane memorabilia is in such high demand that one of her handwritten letters was recently auctioned off for $200,000, a four page missile to Cassandra, dealing with fashion trends and family news. It saddens me to think of a future with no such memorabilia, only emails and texts which we blithely delete. I’ve never been to England but Chawton House would be high on my list of historical sites to visit. Although thousands of tourists frequent Bath every year in search of Jane, I’d prefer to see where she wrote, not where she went bathroom dancing.

Now back to our book club selection. 

Here’s the publishers blurb: “Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.”

About the author:   “Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.” (Goodreads profile)

Quite a distinguished resume, but what’s so interesting about Natalie Jenner is that in her 30’s she wrote five unpublished books – Five. Unpublished. Books.   There’s a lot of tenacity there.   After her husband developed a serious illness, she turned to re-reading her favorite novels for solace, including the JA novels.  Later, when he had recovered, she was contemplating writing a novel set in a great house similar to Downton Abbey but decided to change it to a fictional novel about how the JA museum came to be.  For research she took a bucket list trip to a Jane Austen Festival in Bath, (yes there are many of these conventions) as well as the village of Chawton, in order to immerse herself in the world of all things Jane.  

Discussion:

This was an enjoyable read, even if you aren’t particularly a JA fan, in much the same genre as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the Chilbury Ladies Choir.   I’m sure the movie rights have already been sold.   In true Jane Austen style, the author manages to pair off most of the characters, some more successfully than others and some in a politically correct way, although I had difficulty getting a sense of the two characters who were mirrored after Emma and Mr. Knightley.   A minor point, but there’s one graphic scene (me too/movie starlet on the casting couch) which seemed out of place. This was noted in a a Goodreads review, and it’s like when someone points out a flaw, you can’t un-see it.   The reviewer said she quit reading after that, saying that such a jarring scene had no place in a Jane Austen-like book.  I wouldn’t abandon the book over that but subtle allusion might have been more appropriate, or perhaps some gentle editorial guidance.  

This book debuted on the bestseller list, as any book with JA in the title is bound to attract attention due to the sheer number of her fans worldwide.    (I wonder if I changed my website to The Jane Austen Homeplace, if I might attract a few more followers?)

Jane Austen must have had a strong belief in herself, and a premonition that her works would live on, as she left the bulk of her estate (400 pounds, the proceedings from her books), to her sister Cassandra, with the unusual request that 90 pounds, a considerable sum back then, be set aside for a burial at the prestigious Winchester Cathedral, instead of the local churchyard where her family could visit.  Her brothers made no mention of her literary life on the tombstone, perhaps deeming her novels too inconsequential to note, but thousands of tourists flock to her grave-site every year to pay homage to her literary greatness.      

The extraordinary endowments of her mind!

#Maple Leaf Montage – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story. Autumn went out in a blaze of glory.

Autumn Blaze maple tree
Yellow maple
Fiery red
Orange crush
Yellow sunshine
The inspiration behind….
The painting……Autumn Trees
A magic carpet ride
A colorful montage
All the leaves are down…..
Crunch crunch on my daily walk…..
The glory days have passed us by…
A preview of what is to come….