Once Upon a Kitchen Reno

Once upon a time there was an old castle in need of renovation, which contained an ancient kitchen which was an eyesore to the castle inhabitant, a crotchety old woman who was never home as she was out ruling her kingdom and when she was home she seldom cooked, (although she did like to bake cookies for the neighborhood children).   When the old woman retired from kingdom running she looked at the ugly kitchen and exclaimed, “Something must be done.”

Kitchen Reno Before Pic

The Before Picture

The original mahogany cupboards were thin and plywoody plus the U shape closed in the room from the adjoining banquet nook, and despite being custom build in the previous century, none of them were the same size.    Although the Castle Owner was aware that they might qualify for the minimalist look which was back in style, she was tired of them and dreamed of something Bright and Snow-Whiteish.  

The Vision:  

Kitchen

Vision Board – Thanks Oprah!

As per her 2019 Bucket List, The Castle Owner had envisioned a new kitchen for years, and it was time for action. 

The Previous Renovation Wars:

Now the old woman had been through her fair share of castle renovations, many with disastrous results and was wary of any more endeavors and in truth a bit low on gold bullion.   It could even be said that she suffered from PRSD (Post Renovation Stress Disorder), which explained why the kitchen was still in it’s dreary dungeon-like state. 

Years of renovating had worn her down.   First there were the new windows and doors, where the installer had cut the hot water heating pipe along with  the brick for the new French doors onto the deck, which required an emergency welder to be dispatched from another kingdom to fix stat on the eve of a major snowstorm.  Then there was the deck, a no-maintenance castle-gray Veka with white vinyl trim, a thing of beauty from which to survey the surrounding countryside and which had come at a very reasonable price as the newly hired sales rep had underestimated many such projects and was subsequently un-hired.   Unfortunately the inexperienced peasants installing, being illiterate of blueprints and such, had ignored the Do Not Dig hydro markers and plans, (in truth there was no actual reading involved just orange flags) and placed the pilings too close to the hydro line, so when the ground froze and heaved the following winter, the lights subsequently dimmed so that lanterns were required to find one’s way around the castle interior.   A temporary generator was hooked up outside by the Hydro Kingdom on a cold January night and then it was up to the property owner to find someone to dig a trench under the deck so the lines could be reconnected.   After interviewing NINE electricians from far and wide, most of whom were never heard from again, she finally found one who agreed to take on the job – for a price, thus turning the bargain deck into the Taj Mahal of decks.   (Where were those voles when you needed them?)    Then there was the roofer, a charming Jester who promised he would have his hand on every  shingle, who dropped two kids off on Monday and was not seen again until Friday when he returned to do the chimney flashing leaving it in such a state as to cause continuous commentary among all the male neighbors.   At 4:30 he tore out of the driveway like a bat out of hell to return the scaffolding to the rental company, never to be seen again.   Then there were the twelve dead ash trees which had to be removed from the castle grounds, and the tree cutting truck which got stuck in the mud of the Ides of March who tried to remedy the situation by putting down sheets of plywood AFTER it was stuck, and the resulting fortune paid out to the landscaping company to repair and reseed the lawn.   And last but not least, the new asphalt driveway, which became a moat of sorts as it wasn’t quite level near the garage so it turned into an in-ground pool for the birds every time it rained, and it rained a lot.   So much that Castle Basements had to be dispatched twice to fix the water pooling in the dungeon which required more trenching.

The Research:

So the crotchety old woman (she wasn’t even that old, but this explains why she was crotchety), was battle-weary and extremely leery of taking on anything new and proceeded with extreme caution.   She wasted the month of April with sessions and quotes from Ye Old Lowes and Castle Depo.   Ye Old Lowes was particularly pointless as after a whole afternoon of much pencil-erasing on graft paper, it was revealed the design employee was going for training the following week.    The quotes were all way too high, but more importantly they had nothing she wanted, which was old-fashioned white bead board with glass doors.  (see Vision Board)  Most castles now being into the minimalist look, the pickings were slim.   Finally, she decided to visit the showroom of Castle Cabinets, who specialized in supplying new homes and whose kingdom had been building custom cabinets for fifty years, and there on display were the cupboards of her dreams!     

After a month of consultation with the in-house kitchen designer and some tweaking, which went on for far too long as the Castle Owner was a bit of a perfectionist and indecisive too, a bad combination, which caused the  designer in exasperation to repeat the mantra, “It’s whichever you prefer Joni,” a final plan was decided upon.   

The blinding white cabinets of her dreams had morphed into a soft Cloud White.   The mullions in the windows became plain glass, apparently mullions are out.   On May 27, the contract was signed.   The Castle Owner had been told six weeks and was expecting a bit of a reprieve to enjoy the nice weather, but Castle Cabinets was not terribly busy as no one could afford new castles anymore, so the installation date was set for the end of June, thus leading to three manic weeks of appliance shopping for a dishwasher, Over the Range microwave, sink, faucet, and lining up an electrician, plumber, demolition crew and lastly and with the most difficulty, a painter, a rare breed – good luck trying to find one who wasn’t booked up for months.   Once found, the painter promptly did a disappearing act.   He said he would get back with a quote, a week went by, many messages were left, but he finally answered one night in Ye Olde Pub (the Raptors were in playoffs, there was a party in progress in the background) and yes he’d have that quote the next day, which came and went.   But eventually he agreed and squeezed her into his already hectic schedule and then he too came and went over six days, (strip wallpaper border, clean walls, sand, prime, ceiling, paint one coat, two coats).   It all went well, except for a few days when he never showed up at all, but the Castle Owner, being eternally grateful to have found anyone at all, refused to nag and eventually it was done.       

Kitchen Reno - Paint samplesSelecting the paint had been an ordeal reminiscent of Goldilocks.  Who knew there were so many different shades of beige.   This one was too gray, this one too green, finally a Benjamin Moore employee recommended Muslin (as in the Jane Austen attire), and it was just right.   The Google Kingdom confirmed it as the perfect neutral shade for a north-facing room.   

The Players

The Castle Owner met many nice people during the reno.   The electrician was a retired troubadour who played bass guitar in a band of merrymen and so had to leave early several times for gigs and band practice.   He was there 4 or 5 days, so you get to know a bit about your royal subjects from spending so much time with them.    The hydro had never been upgraded in the old castle and the circuits were not labelled and every appliance needed its own separate wiring.     The plumber, well known with a gruff but efficient manner, refused all offers of brownies and sweets.  He simply did not have time to eat, although he had time to critique the cute but cheap bathroom taps and the lack of a contractor.   He also installed two new bathroom sinks, having located the last remaining relic in a separate kingdom, (reflected in the bill as extra travel time).    The Castle Owner did not like the satin brush kitchen sink (she was expecting stainless steel as his secretary had emailed), and could a Delta faucet possibly be that expensive, but wisely kept her mouth shut.   A good but reasonable plumber is hard to find.   Finally, the prep work was done and by late June, the Castle Owner had been demoted from Contractor to Supervisor and Chief Baker – in addition to brownies, there was rhubarb streusel cake, strawberry shortcake and date-nut loaf to feed the hungry mob, all made in advance while she still had a stove.

As the installers did not wish to assume the liability of scratching the floor, Castle Movers were contacted to move the stove and fridge into the dining room, where the Castle Owner dined, sitting on a stool with the stove top for a table, digging utensils and plates out of boxes, the dining room table and chairs being covered with all The Kitchen Stuff.    There being no stove for two and a half weeks, she ate healthy salads and microwaved dinners and happily lost several pounds. 

Salad Meal

Lean Cuisine

In the last week the kitchen cupboards were emptied (with many treks up and down the stairs to the storage dungeon, exercise is good too), revealing flower-power shelf paper not seen since Woodstock.    

Kitchen Reno - Woodstock

Yellow/orange/lime green?

The demolition went well, despite being a king’s ransom for a few hours work on a Saturday morning. 

Kitchen Reno - Tear out

The crew was finished by 11, their donkey cart loaded for the dump, although two brownies were deducted for the snarky comment about the ancient dishwasher. 

Dishwasher

Harvest Gold or Avocado Green?

As in Shakespeare’s time (“It was the lark, the herald of the morn”), all the trades people started at an unholy hour.   The Castle Owner was not a morning person but she enjoyed taking pictures of the dew on the roses and thought she might get up early more often.     

Roses

Stop and smell the roses

After the demolition, there was a week of sheer madness when the painter and electrician descended to work their messy magic, resulting in the Castle Owner promptly turning into Cinderella each evening, sweeping up bits of plaster and drywall once again.   But weep not lady, there was a deadline to be met.   

Then came the actual installation day.    All went well, but of course not on schedule and it lingered on and on as is the expected course with these things.   The Castle Cabinets installer was a perfectionist but looked permanently tired as he had one-year old twins and a long commute.  (Fortunately he left every day at 4 pm, which allowed the Castle Owner to take a long nap – like Sleeping Beauty reposing on the couch,the smell of sawdust didn’t disturb her at all so soundly did she sleep).   The doors weren’t spray painted on time and required another visit the following week.   The broom closet turned into pantry shelves did not line up and needed to be re-cut.  One piece of floor molding did not match and had to be redone then resprayed.      

The Big Reveal:

Kitchen Reno

The After Picture

Finally, it was finished, and they all left.   The castle owner breathed a big sigh of relief the first day NO ONE was scheduled to come and she had her house to herself again and could sleep late and drink her coffee and check her emails in her PJ’s without the sound of pounding or drilling.   Except then she had to cart all the kitchen stuff back up from the dungeon and place it in the new cupboards.   A whole afternoon was spend looking for the perfect matching shelf paper, and then another with measuring and cutting it.   She tried to channel Marie Kondo and place only those items which were useful and which sparked joy back in the cupboards.    She was amazed at how cluttered her cupboards had been before, and how simple they looked now, with the aid of a few new accessories from Dollarama. 

Kitchen Reno

Dollarama treasure

She was also amazed by how much stuff she had that was never used.   She tried to sort through it all, putting things aside for the Goodwill or a garage sale (the gold coffers needed replenishing and that $35 once used French press coffee machine might bring in a few coins), but by late July she said, “the hell with this” and threw the rest of the boxes back down in the dungeon where they would sit until some frosty day in January.   There was still six weeks of summer left to enjoy.   

Beach umbrella

Overall the Castle Owner was satisfied with the way it all turned out.   Even the things she had dithered over for weeks, like the hardware pulls and the laminate, looked good.

Kitchen Reno - Cupboards

She wasn’t sure how her red accessories/curtains/rugs would go with the new look, but they were fine and saved the added expense of buying new ones right away.   Even the red and blue dishes blended well together.  Kitchen Reno - Red and Blue

Unlike some of her previous projects, (see Renovation Wars) she was pleased with the trades she had hired.  They were all nice and trustworthy professionals.   (Trades are in such short supply in this part of the kingdom, we should be encouraging more young people to consider them).    

The Castle Owner lived happily ever after in her new kitchen – except now everyone wanted to see her new domain and she was expected to cook more – for there can be no better excuse to entertain than a new kitchen – Gobble, Gobble.    Happy Thanksgiving from my kitchen to yours!

Tom Turkey - AMc- 2013

Some Bits of Advice:

Unless you have a contractor, or a plumber, electrician and painter lined up, allow yourself plenty of time between signing on the dotted line and the actual installation date, because all these trades are super-busy.   I was extremely lucky and used references from people I knew who had been through a reno themselves.   The plumber was frankly horrified that I had not hired a contractor, but I didn’t think I needed one – it was just kitchen cupboards, could it be that big a deal?   Yes it was, and it wasn’t like I was even tearing down any walls – although I wish I could have, I had to work with the small space available.    Line up as much of the other stuff (appliances, hardware, paint) ahead of time if you can, unless you want to spend a crazy stress filled month like I did. 

One of the most frustrating things was picking out the paint as I had expected to paint after the installation, not the week before.   How do you decide what color to use if you don’t know how it’s going to look?   In retrospect a darker wall color might have contrasted better with the light cupboards, but I grew frustrated with all the graige (gray-beige) samples which matched the the laminate in the store but not in the room, and opted for safe and neutral.   I painted the bulkheads the same Cloud White as the cupboards so they would not stand out.   

Don’t be afraid to change your mind.   I had carried around the idea of a blue and white kitchen in my head for years but practically I knew bright-white would not go as well in my house which is mostly beige and warm tone wood.    I even gave in on the clear glass cupboards and am happy with them, as the smallish cupboards would have been too cluttered for mullions.

Don’t stress too much about mistakes.   While I was happy with everything, except for the brushed satin kitchen sink, after awhile the mistakes didn’t bother me as much.   I can always buy a new sink at Lowes if this one doesn’t stand up.   In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff.   On the other hand, if something really bothers you, don’t be afraid to speak up – it’s your money. 

Do lots of research and budget wisely.   You don’t have to spend a fortune on a new kitchen, unless of course you want to.   Some of the quotes I got were crazy…..as well as ugly.   My small kitchen came in under budget for the custom-built cupboards with another $5000 or so for the trades/paint/appliances etc.   I did run over on the trades as my hydro had never been updated.   I still have to upgrade my fridge and stove to stainless steel, but frugal me hates to give up my old  faithful Maytags for those electronic models which barely last five years.  (I obviously jinxed things as the fridge is now making strange noises so I may be hitting the Black Friday sales this week).   The OTR microwave is also great and frees up counter-top space.   I’m happy to have a dishwasher again and am using it more than I thought I would.    

Kitchen Reno - Stove and Pantry

They wisely left me room for a bigger fridge with small cupboards above, which are basically inaccessible so therein resides seldom used items such as my liquor supply, one lonely bottle of rum for the Christmas cake.

Kitchen Reno - Stove & Fridge

Laminate has improved and is now a popular choice again.   It came with my package so I chose the best of what they had and although I wondered if it was a bit too busy, my choice (Spring Carnival) pulled the gray of the stainless steel and the beige of the wood floor together.   I had decided if I didn’t like it I could always upgrade later but as well as the extra $5000 for granite or quartz it would have added another three weeks to an already drawn out six-week process, plus travelling to a city an hour away to pick out a slab, another set of installers etc.    Be realistic about what your investment will return when you go to sell your house.   For me, trying to avoid trendy stuff was important and the  classic farm-house look went with my older cottage style home.    

Kitchen Reno - Dinette

Removing the one wall of cabinets opened up the space to the dinette but now my old table doesn’t match.  I draped my grandmothers lace tablecloth over it to hide it, but wonder if I should move my beige and and oak dining room table in there, although it’s really too big for the space.   I’ll live with it for awhile and decide later, always a wise option. 

Kitchen Reno - Lazy Susans

I’m very happy with the two Lazy Susans, even though at just nine inches they were a tight squeeze in the corners, and the pull-out shelves in the pantry, the best invention ever, and also the large drawer for pots and pans.    Splurging on these small things made everything  very functional and efficient and did not add that much to the cost.   The designer talked me into using pulls on the glass cupboards instead of pretty knobs, so as not to mark up the new cupboards when your hands are messy from cooking, a practical tip I had not thought of.    Because a kitchen isn’t just for show, it’s to cook in too! 

Of course, renovating one area, makes the rest of your house look old and tired.   I have to tackle window treatments next – I’m thinking shutters if they are not too expensive for those big front windows – really a house is just a money pit!

I was happy when it was over, and wished I had done it sooner, but never again.   Two conflicting thoughts – but anyone who has ever done a kitchen renovation will know what I mean!

PS.   Do you have any renovation stories/nightmares you wish to share?

  

  

 

 

The Literary Salon – A Modern Gothic Mystery

“It’s a dark and stormy night….the November winds are howling around the house as the last of the leaves go scurrying across the yard.   Inside, all is silent except for the sound of sleet pinging against the window.   It will be snow tomorrow.”      

Thus reads my journal entry for last weekend.   We had eight inches of snow on Monday, Veteran’s Day, a record for this early in the season.   It was the perfect day to snuggle inside and read a good book, preferably one with lots of atmosphere.

Gothic mystery is heavy on atmosphere – there’s always a haunted house with a dark history, a slightly sinister caretaker, an unexplained murder or two and some ghostly phenomena to set the proper tone of creepy ambiance.  Add in a determined but solitary heroine who confronts terror head on, and a dash of potential romance with a male of the strong and silent type, and the genre is complete.    Dauphne du Mauier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights set the bar high for this standard.    But if you want a modern update on the Gothic mystery then Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Turn of the Key, provides a modern twist – a haunted house with Smart technology set on the windswept Scottish moors…but maybe it’s not a good idea to be too Smart. 

The Turn of the Key - Ruth WareThe Publishers Blurb:

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unraveling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

About the Author:
Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game and The Death of Mrs Westaway were smash hits, and she has appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and New York Times. Her books have been optioned for both film and TV, and she is published in more than 40 languages. Ruth lives near Brighton with her family. Visit http://www.ruthware.com to find out more.
Why I Liked It:

This is the third Ruth Ware book I have read, and by far her best.   I blogged about The Death of Mrs. Westaway in last years post A Gothic Read for Halloween.   While I enjoyed that book, it took over a hundred pages to establish the protagonist as young, poor and alone, although she did an excellent job of describing what it’s like to live never knowing where your next meal is coming from.   While The Woman in Cabin Ten was more of a psychological thriller, her last two books rely on the haunted mansion theme to supply the needed atmosphere.   Her first book, In a Dark Dark Wood, was my least favorite but they were all good reads.   I do love it when I discover a new author and find she churns out a new book every year that I know in advance will be good.    So often I pick up a promising thriller in the library, start into it and then abandon it from sheer boredom.      

The Turn of the Key is told in first person, which is not my favorite, being so limited in scope, but somehow it works.  The young protagonist isn’t even all that likable, as many of her heroines aren’t, and they’re not always the brightest either.    If someone offered you a nanny position with high pay, but you knew the four previous nannies had quit, would you take it on?   You would if you were poor and struggling….and had another reason.     Scotland seems a popular locale for books these days but there isn’t even that much about it in the book.   At the center is the house with its modern Smart technology – the owners are IT/tech specialists who travel extensively (thus the need for the nanny), so the house is equipped with all the bells and whistles to control everything from lighting to music to locks.    Well, someone is controlling it….   

The annual hospital lottery Dream Home in my neck of the woods is equipped with all the latest technology, and although I intend to buy a ticket I’m not sure I would want to live in such a place.   It creeps me out knowing that Smart TVs and Alexa are listening in on our conversations, but perhaps I am too old-fashioned and you grow used to all these modern devices and wonder how you ever lived without them.   I’ve noticed that many of the protagonists in her books tend to have a wee bit of a drinking problem.   This is a plot device which started with The Girl on the Train but the fuzzy alcoholic memory thing has been overdone IMO.    Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the popularity of binge drinking among young women.   I don’t know, we never had the money or the inclination for that type of recreation.   (Note – the protagonist in The Woman in Cabin Ten is drunk throughout the whole cruise).    Other than that small criticism, the plot here is nicely revealed and the ending well done although perplexing in some ways.   Technology is great but it can sometimes make life more complicated.   Perhaps there’s something to be said for old haunted houses full of ghosts who aren’t too Smart….

Fairbanks mansion

They Shall Not Grow Old – a WW1 Documentary

They Shall Not Grow Old is a 2018 documentary produced by Peter Jackson which debuted last year on the BBC on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of November 11 1918.    Now available for viewing in North America, the film  was created using original WW1 footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archives.   Most of the video has been colorized and transformed with modern techniques and sound effects to better reveal the soldier’s experiences, rather than the sped up blurred clips of vintage newsreels.   Intended to be an immersive experience of “what it was like to be a soldier”, the film crew reviewed 100 hours of original film footage and 600 hours of interviews from over 200 veterans to make the film, including audio from 120 of them talking about their war memories.   The director Peter Jackson,  dedicated the film to his British paternal grandfather who fought in the war.  The title was inspired by the line, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old” from the 1914 poem, “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, which is often quoted on Remembrance Day, especially the famous fourth stanza.   The poem was written in Sept 1914 in the early days of the war when the first deaths were being reported…..there would be millions to follow.         

The Movie Trailer

Note:  I have not actually seen the movie yet, but have it on reserve at the library.   (Edited to add – it was powerful and moving to watch these young men go off to war as if on a grand adventure and to see the actual footage of the sad reality – I really have no words.)

I have blogged before about my Uncle Charlie WW1 Vet.   Like many of his generation, he never talked about his war experiences, other than being gassed and convalescing for six months with the Spanish Flu before being shipped home, but I have tried to reconstruct his war journey through his WW1 memorabilia.    (link – Uncle Charlie WW1 Vet)

Poppies - AMc

Being the faithful library patron that I am, the staff requested one of my mother’s paintings (above) for their Remembrance Day display.   I spied this book on the shelf and skimmed through it.   It’s quite gruesome in parts, so not for the faint of heart – but that is the reality of war. 

A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great WarA Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks

A collection of of personal WW1 diaries and letters, this book is an an unforgettable read for history lovers. Lest We Forget.

 

For the Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Welcome to Downton – A Movie Theatre Review

Downtown Abbey

At the risk of sounding like an old fogy, it’s been years since I visited a  movie theatre – 22 to be exact – the last movie I saw at “the show” as we used to call it, was Titanic.   Yes, the year was 1997 and those actors are now middle-aged.   There hasn’t been a movie since where I felt I could not wait the minimal few months for it to come out on DVD, or it isn’t even called that anymore – become “available for home theatre viewing.”

So it was with much anticipation that I awaited the opening of the new  Downtown Abbey movie.   For stalwart fans of the Masterpiece TV series it was like coming home again, for it’s been three long years since we last had a glimpse of the Crawley family and their downstairs servants.   (See my Febrary post – Downton Abbey Revisited for more on their famous world.   Ah, the food, the fun, the fashions….)

Downton Abbey

The old Cineplex theatre where Titanic last sailed, has been torn down and a new multiplex Cineplex built, as that was the most requested addition according to a recent mall survey.    As the average box-office movie-goer is now a teenage boy who is into Marvel/Star wars movies, that’s probably who they surveyed.   No one I know goes to the movies anymore, so we have only ourselves to blame for the dearth of watchable movies.      

We decided to attend the noon matinee on the opening weekend, thinking the crowds would be fewer, and they were as when we walked in there were maybe fifty people at most.   The set-up reminded me of an IMAX theatre, an enormous screen with the seats facing downwards, but at least no one could obstruct your view.   I remember the last time I was in an IMAX theatre, decades ago for a Grand Canyon documentary, definitely not a good idea for someone who doesn’t like heights.   Speaking of heights, I wondered why almost everyone was sitting near the top.    We soon found out, as wow – that surround sound is certainly loud.   Even my mother, who denies being a bit deaf, thought it was way too loud.   As she was unable to climb higher than five rows up we stopped there, and had a lovely conversation with the lady in the seat behind us, who had recently had knee surgery and also found the stairs a chore.    Although there was a space below to store her walker, these places are really not designed for the handicapped…..steep uneven stairs, a long reach to the side handrail, and an elevation requiring a sherpa to achieve.    I watched the people coming down afterwards, mostly an older crowd, and everyone was navigating slowly as if coming down off Mount Everest. 

The seats were fake leather, non-tilting and horribly uncomfortable – gaming chairs really.   They must have surveyed their 15 year old target audience. 

The lights dimmed – therein followed thirty minutes of previews – lots of dark intergalactic forces at work on the planet these days, plus one unappealing Christmas rom-com staring nobody I knew.   I didn’t know they still made rom-coms, but Meg Ryan would not be caught dead in a silly green velvet elf suit.   The only one I was remotely interested in was Judy, and I can easily wait the three months to see Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland, which I’m sure will be an Oscar-worthy performance.   Most younger people would not even know who Judy Garland was, nor maybe Renee Zellweger either. 

At least ticket prices are still reasonable…..$9 for a senior and $11 regular.  Big boxes of popcorn were $9 but small ones were $7 so you might as well spring for the larger size.    And what a variety of hot foods available, my lord – poutine at the movie theatre?   I happen to think poutine is a code word for future heart attack, but hey the target audience is invincible. 

Oh yea….I was supposed to be reviewing the movie. 

The Movie:   (no spoilers here)

There’s a big difference between writing a weekly series with an ongoing storyline and having to construct one from scratch in such a way that people tuning in for the first time are not hopelessly lost.   There were lots of intro scenes establishing the background and introducing the characters.   This probably accounted for the slow first half – I glanced over and my mother had fallen asleep, (1:30 pm is her usual nap time), but when I nudged her awake, she said she was just resting her eyes.   My eyes were sore too, as I found the screen way too close even from five rows in the midsection and wished we were higher up the mountain.   Where is a sherpa when you need one….

The characters seemed somewhat subdued.   It took them awhile to don their familiar roles, which is to be expected I suppose as when you are playing someone weekly it’s easy to slip into character again.  They were rusty – not Mary or Violet though.   Although everyone had a story, some were larger – Mary, Tom, Thomas and Daisy.   Daisy really seemed to be coming into her own.   Maybe they should give her a spin-off series?    Some characters barely had a part – Cora, Robert and Mr. Bates, and Henry just showed up at the end leaping of a car in time for a ball, although for a tall skinny guy he does leap well.   The plot line seemed thin and weak to me – but then I’m not really a monarchist.   It’s hard to get too excited about a visit from the King and Queen when they couldn’t even be bothered to make an appearance the past six years – much ado about nothing – but I suppose for the time period, serving king and country and all that.  Perhaps I am unfairly comparing it to the fast-paced series where scenes seldom lasted more than a minute or two and you were constantly left in suspense, wondering how things were going to turn out.  This ending was preordained.           

The sets and costumes were lavish as usual, as Julian Fellowes is one for details, but perhaps a wee bit less extravagant than usual.   As I had read it cost 1 million pounds/dollars to film each episode of DA, I wondered if  having already dismantled all the sets (except for Highclere), they had to make do.  Big box movies have a budget too.   If the substitute rooms didn’t seem as familiar or as opulent then maybe I have just watched too many episodes and know that the place settings would never be that close together for a formal dinner with the King and Queen, where Mosley makes a speech…..oops small spoiler.   The table did seem rather crowded. 

Will we get a sequel?   We could – there were a few unwrapped hints, Edith’s comment about missing her job, Tom’s new romance, but I suppose it depends on how much money is made.  

Most newspaper reviews have rated the movie a three star, but of course to DA fans it’s a five star.    I would tend to agree with both of them.  While I enjoyed it – it was good, not great.    Actually, I think I enjoyed any of the two hour spectacular Christmas specials more, except of course the one where Mathew died, a tragic ending so unexpected it made some people tune out permanently.    So don’t feel bad if you don’t have access to a mountain near you, you can easily wait until it comes out for home viewing…..and you can save on the popcorn too.

Overall, while it was slow to start, it picked up speed and finished with a grand, if somewhat sad, flourish – leaving us wanting more.  But there’s a small part of me that wishes he had just left them frozen in time at Christmas/New Years 1926 where everything was wrapped up neatly with a big bow.   

Postscript:  My apologies for not commenting on anyone’s blogs this past month.   Real life has interceded with the Cold-From-Hell (me), plus my mother was hospitalized for a week, she’s home now and on the mend, but I have not had internet access so I have not been able to read here at all.   

 Downton Abbey

 

 

The Harvestfest Supper

A few weeks ago I attended a harvest-fest supper prepared entirely from  locally sourced food.    Such meals have become commonplace the last few years due to the popularity of the 100 miles, fields to forks, organic food movement.    At $40 a ticket, it wasn’t cheap, but this annual event helps promote the local farmer’s market and also gives the community college culinary students some practical experience in food preparation and presentation.    (for the book review which inspired this post – see Part One: The Literary Salon – Eating Local).

I’ve now become someone I said I never would be – one of those people who  takes photos of their meal while eating and posts them online.   May I be excused for the less than stellar quality of the photos, as I was so hungry that I sometimes forgot and took a few bites, plus I was trying my best to be discreet with the cell phone, although I suspect from the odd looks I received that some of my table mates thought I was a reporter for the local paper. 

The Venue:    

The event was held outdoors at a local farmers market, which is basically just a large slab of cement with a roof overhead but open to the elements on all sides.   The first year it was held in late September and they had to bring in space heaters and put up screens to keep the wind out.   After a whole week of rain, we were hoping for a warm sunny day and thankfully the weather gods smiled on us.    It was actually a bit too hot, we didn’t need any of those layers I threw in the car.   This was the third year for the event and the date is picked to coincide with the harvest moon, which was mid-Sept this year, and what a stunning moon it was on Friday the 13th.

Harvest Moon  Harvestfest

Harvest Moon courtesy of the Weather Network.

The doors opened at 5 pm with a cash bar and some music playing on the sound system, as there was a band later for dancing.

They had decorated with cornstalks and large pots of mums and bales of hay around the base of the roof pillars, a festive fall touch.  

Harvestfest Decorations

The Presentation:

The presentation was well done for an outdoor event.  The  tables were laid with white linens and china with a red accent color in the napkins and chairs. 

Harvestfest Table

They even had matching party favors, as each place setting held a red candy apple with a tag promoting the October play at the local theatre, a cute idea.   

Harvestfest Place Setting Candy Apple There were twelve settings per table,

Harvestfest table

which was a bit too cramped in my opinion, as the meal was served family style and there was no place to set the bowls down while trying to take a portion, and those bowls were big and heavy.   It was awkward.        Harvestfest squash in bowl

Ten at a table might have been better, or buffet style.   They really didn’t have enough servers for our table either, maybe someone had called in sick?   300 tickets were sold, and there was a big lineup of people waiting to get in when the doors opened.   

Scarecrows

The hungry mob…

I was lucky and got my tickets on a cancellation the month before, otherwise I might have been one of those scarecrows in the park across the street.

The food tents were off on the side, facing away from us, so we were not able to see any of the fast-paced cooking action like on Master Chef.   The ticket price was initially only $30, but they upped it to $35 last year and $40 this year.  (I imagine next year it will be $45 – as just like in an auction the price increases to what the market will bear).   All of the food prepared came from the weekly farmers market, or was sourced locally within a 100 mile radius, including the beverages.   

The Happy Hour

Two local craft breweries and two Ontario wineries were represented, with Pelee Island Winery just squeaking in at a 95 mile radius.    It was hot, so the beer was flowing as you can see from the tabletop pictures.   Unfortunately, we had a few extra guests at the table, attracted by the brew. 

wasps

Uninvited guests…

 The wasps descended for happy hour, stayed for the the appetizer and then suddenly departed, just as the sun was setting behind the buildings.    It must have been their bedtime, or perhaps they were off to another venue (see more on the Merry Band of Wasps in last week’s blog).   We sat at a table with a group of people who all knew each other, and the row across from me had to eat with the sun in their eyes.   Next time we’ll know which tables get the best shade.   It was so annoying that I went to the car and brought back a sunhat.  I came prepared for all weather.  

Now you might be wondering – why is she dragging this out, lets get to the food.    I’m cleverly but somewhat cruelly procrastinating so you can imagine the whole experience of sitting and smelling the irresistible aroma of food cooking for over an hour, while constantly swatting at wasps and shielding your eyes from the setting sun, with absolutely no hope of any dinner conversation due to the din of the crowd. 

Finally, the opening speeches –   two political figures were there, our provincial member of parliament and our federal parliament member, (we’re having an election this fall, they need to see and be seen) and as well as introducing all the VIP’s the MC thanked the exhaustive list of sponsors.  They announced they had Epi-Pens on hand if anyone got stung – medical preparedness is always appreciated.    Eventually grace was said, and a proper grace it was too, fit for a Harvestfest meal, not that Bless us Our Lord standard we used to mumble when we were kids.    

900 words in and not even a sign of a bread crumb…Ah, here it comes.

Harvestfest Buns on Table

The butter was properly chilled, although not in those little foil packets that you sometimes get in fancy restaurants, although it didn’t stay cool long.   The buns from a local bakery were good – soft and doughy.   It’s a new bakery in town so I’ll have to check it out.   The bread rated an A but I was starving by then so stale crackers would have rated an A. 

Finally, the menu.

Harvestfest menu

 The Appetizer 

Harvestfest Salad

The Garden Fresh Mixed Greens Salad with Berries and house-made Balsamic Dressing – was delightfully fresh, however the dressing was a bit too plain and vinegary.   I always think this type of berry salad goes nice with a raspberry vinaigrette such as the bottled house blend I buy from a local restaurant, but then it has spoiled me for all others.    There wasn’t any soup offered this year, although other years they had a choice of homemade potato or tomato.   I love soup, even in summer, so I was disappointed, but still A for the appetizer.

The Main Course

Harvestfest Dinner Plate

A few minutes of silence while we dig in before critiquing…

The Meat

Roast Pork Loin stuffed with Apples, Spinach, Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese.

Harvestfest Pork Loin

It’s difficult for me to judge this as I’m not a big fan of pork loin.   I can eat it but I’d certainly never order it in a restaurant.   The traditional apple pairing was okay and I know caramelized onions are trendy, but I didn’t think they added anything special to the dish.   I couldn’t see much spinach, or taste the  goat cheese so they must have been subtle touches.   It was served on an enormous heavy platter and although it was pre-sliced there was nowhere to set the platter down while you wrestled a piece onto your plate, so I ended up with more than I wanted.   My consensus, just okay, although everyone else liked it, and the guy beside me took seconds.   That’s the thing with family style, they did replenish if you wanted more.   There was a short delay before they brought the rest of the meal so they were definitely struggling with the serving. 

Tender Chicken Breast with a Bacon Portabello Cream Sauce.

Harvestfest Chicken

Good old chicken, no matter how you dress it up, it’s the staple of catered meals everywhere.   It was tender as promised and the Portabello cream sauce was excellent, although I couldn’t taste the bacon.   (A plus).      

The Sides

Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Pave with Parmesan Cheese 

Harvestfest Potatos

I had to google to see what a Pavé  was –  “A flat piece of food, usually meat, cheese or bread.  Pavé is French for a “cobblestone.”   When used in a food context, it refers to a square or rectangular flat piece of food or dish.    I guess this qualifies as it was a layered dish of potatoes cut into triangle wedges for easy serving.  

Potato Pave Harvestfest

It’s always a dilemma how to serve potatoes in a manner which keeps them warm but not gluey, and it was certainly a cut above a few potato puffs.   It was tasty, although I didn’t notice the Parmesan cheese, but then I can’t taste the difference between Yukon Gold potatoes and regular old spuds either.  As I’m Irish and never met a potato I didn’t like, I’ll give it an A, but you really can’t get too excited about potatoes.  

The Vegetables:

 

The roasted squash was one of my favorite dishes, so flavorful.  You never know with squash, it can be good or it can be bland and watery.   The cauliflower and carrots were tasty too.   Both were plain, not doctored up with anything, so the flavor came through – they stood on their own, a testament to good soil.  (A plus). 

Harvestfest Plate

The meat portions were generous – it was certainly a lot of food, and checking around, a fair bit of wastage, as people who had stuffed two rolls in (you know who you are), could not finish their meal.   I was full but not overly so, because wisely I had saved room for my favorite part.  

The Dessert

I had been craving a piece of cherry pie and had heard so much about The Famous Pie Lady.      

Harvestfest Pie and coffee

Although the crust was good and the filling plentiful, I‘m not sure how you can make a cherry pie without sugar?  There should be a law against it.   It was so sour I couldn’t eat more than a few bites.   As there was lots of pie leftover, I decided to try another kind when I went to refill our coffee cups, hoping no one would notice – plus it would be a shame to waste the leftover pie when things were wrapping up.   There were lots of choices. 

Harvestfest Pie

This time I grabbed a slice of apple pie.   Um….interesting – apple pie with no sugar, plenty of fruit and cinnamon though.   The apples mid-Sept are hardly ripe enough for pies yet, but  apparently sugar is now the new evil.   Maybe I’m spoiled, having grown up on a farm where homemade apple pie was a fall staple, and many people today just don’t know what good pie is.   But the guy beside me was disappointed in his pie too – pecan.   I didn’t ask why.  Should I try the lemon meringue – no, that would be piggy, so I gave up, secure in the knowledge I had a backup plan stashed in the car.   The pie was the disappointment of the evening.   (C plus) 

Plan B – B for Backup Dessert

Luckily I had stopped at the town’s grocery store before the event and bought a cherry pie from their in-store bakery.   I’ve had it before and it’s a perfect balance of sweet and tart, and I consoled myself with the thought that if I was still craving a piece later I would cut into it, instead of freezing it like I had intended.   Certainly the pie was a let-down especially for a dessert diva like me.    

After Dinner Speeches

The M.C. introduced and thanked all the chefs and cooks (who came out of  hiding in the side tents), raffled off an auction prize (a catered dinner for six which went for a bid of $410), thanked absolutely everyone again from the bowl makers to the man in the moon,  

Harvestfest Moon  Harvest Moon

sorry for the tree in the way…

and then introduced the band. 

Harvestfest Band

The Music  

The band was the house band from the local summer theatre which was currently showcasing a country music production, so they kicked off with Sold – The Grundy Valley Auction song, which is good in a cheesy way, as a cheese course is always nice after a meal.   Then Bad Moon Rising (CCR) because it was by then, (see above).   Then Old Time Rock and Roll – Bob Seger (okay), then they started to deteriorate into Billy Joel and two other songs I did not recognize, but then I am not up on the current stuff.   The band gets an A, as they were trying for a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll.  The crowd was mostly an older one, the baby boomer set, and there were people up dancing as lots of beer had been imbibed by then.   I always admire couples who are first on the dance floor, especially when it’s at the front with everyone watching.   Let’s give the dancers, an A too, just like Dancing With the Stars.  

Overall, it was a good meal, except for the pork and the pie, but those were influenced by my personal preferences and expectations.   I had been expecting a turkey and beef dish, (as per the first year), not two white meats, plus a lot of people can’t or don’t eat pork, even though pulled pork is all the rage.   Was it worth the price?  Maybe.   The fifty dollar per ticket meal at the swing dance last year was better, with a portion going to charity, but even it went up to $75 this year.   I guess food prices are increasing overall.   Did they make a profit or just cover their costs?  I don’t know enough about the catering business to say.   Thirty dollars, as per the first year, might have been a more reasonable price, especially in small town Ontario, considering this was not a charity event, and I expect most of the cost of the decorations, party rentals and band would have been covered or subsidized by the sponsors. 

The Backup Meal 

I had been craving a roast beef dinner, which I got the following week when I took my mother to the monthly seniors lunch at the same retirement home I mentioned in my Woodstock Revisited post.   We had a garden fresh salad with ranch dressing, a nice tender slice of roast beer, mashed potatoes with a tasty gravy, diced turnips and a decent piece of apple pie – all for $10.   The portions weren’t huge as it was for seniors, but it was enough, and they do a nice turkey dinner too, although the rest of the meals can be hit and miss.   That’s the thing with restaurant reviews – a good meal may surprise you anywhere!  (Hey, I wonder if I could get paid for this?) 

Thus ends my short career as a restaurant reviewer.   I did have a piece of that bakery cherry pie the next night, warm with vanilla ice cream, but I froze the rest.    The apple in the candy apple was so sour I couldn’t eat it, but I took a few bites for nostalgia’s sake, as I’m sure it’s been fifty years since I had one the last time I went trick or treating.   

It might be fun to host your own Harvest Moon Supper sometime, there’s another one coming up October 13, and the apples will be riper by then too.   I think I would prefer caramel apples for the party favors, and maybe some butternut squash soup for a starter.   I also saw an advertisement for a Full Moon Boat Party cruise with a band on board, which I’ll file away for next year.   I’m sure they’ll be playing Neil Young’s classic – Harvest Moon.  

 

   

 

The Literary Salon – Eating Local

(This months Book Review may motivate you to eat healthier…..or you may just crave a piece of cherry pie.) 

A few weeks ago I attended a Harvestfest supper prepared entirely from  locally sourced food.   Although I had intended this post to be a restaurant review of that meal,  it grew too long so this will be the literary review for the month.      The books discussed here are older ones but they inspired me to try and eat better.   If you’re not into books, please feel to skip right over to the main menu.   (see Part Two for The Harvestfest Supper).

Harvestfest menu Many of us have the desire to eat healthier, but in today’s fast paced world it’s becoming more difficult to do so, hence the arrival of all those companies who will conveniently, albeit for an outrageous price, send you weekly pre-measured food preparation parcels – voila, supper in 30 minutes, as if a grown person wasn’t capable of going to a grocery store, buying food and preparing it just as quickly.    Perhaps there are fewer left-overs, but aren’t leftovers a good thing and would you really enjoy all those recipes they send?   As well, a large percentage of debt-ridden people eat out several times a week, a major hit to the family budget, and now you don’t even have to go out as those grub-hub apps will deliver the meal right to your front door.  And then there is the ever present lure of fast food restaurants so conveniently located along strip malls everywhere.   No wonder we have all forgotten how to cook, or in my case never bothered much.     

For many years eating local was the standard way of life.   When half the population lived in a rural environment you ate what you grew or raised.    My mother says that in her early married years, she only visited the grocery store for a few staples, which she bought with the $8 twice weekly cream check.   My father had dairy cattle so cream, milk and butter came from the cows, meat, chicken and eggs were all raised organically on the farm, and a large fruit and vegetable garden supplied canned goods and jams over the winter.    Self-sufficiency without delivery – although the breadman and milkman did make home deliveries.   

Things started to change in the mid-60’s with the arrival of processed food.  For an understanding of this shift in food production, I found a series of books by author, Michael Pollan to be excellent reads.    His 2008 book, In Defense of Food, is famous for it’s mantra, “Eat Food, Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.” and “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize”. 

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

In his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses how food scientists thought they were improving food stability and palatability by adding chemicals and preservatives and such.   And while no one would argue that organic vegetables don’t stay fresh as long and bakery bread does tend to grow mold after a few days, if you look at the long list of unpronounceable ingredients on a box or can in the grocery store, it does seem strange to want to manipulate food from it’s natural origins to a more chemical state.   

Perhaps their intentions were good, and Tang orange crystals did supply the astronauts with vitamin C (although I remember it as tasting rather artificial), but starting in the 60’s the processed food revolution had begun – with snack foods, frozen TV dinners, cakes from boxes and fast food burgers – and there was simply no stopping it.   It was convenient and it tasted good – who cared if it was good for you.  

Like many farm women, my mother was a wonderful cook, of the plain meat/potato/vegetable type and we had plenty of homemade cakes, pies and cookies.     So while I may think I grew up eating healthy nutritious meals, and most of the time I did, by the sixties we also had penny candy and weekly trips to McDonalds on grocery shopping days and Saturday night treats of potato chips and pop (usually Coke) while watching Hockey Night in Canada.  Of my poor student days I have absolutely no recollection of what I ate, (did I eat?) other than residence food the first few years which was so bad I lost ten pounds.    Once I had an apartment with a kitchen we still never cooked but ate cheap meals like beans on toast, (never KD though), grabbed yogurt and grilled cheese from the student cafe, and drank endless cups of mostly vile donut shop coffee.   Our idea of splurging was an occasional trip to Bloor Street – Swiss Chalet (chicken), Steak and Burger (tough steak but warm apple pie) and Mr. Submarine (still the best subs IMO).   When I started working I had to contend with decades of hospital food, some of which used to be quite good when it was prepared from scratch, (I remember our cafeteria serving Seafood Newburg in the early 80’s before the discovery of cholesterol), but which eventually turned into those cook, chill and reheat meals which are now standard hospital jokes – if you’re well enough to complain about the food, you can go home.    I usually brought my lunch, except for the soup – as they always had some kind of homemade soup, probably loaded with salt.    After I changed jobs I was often too busy to eat, and lunch would be chocolate milk or half a sandwich grabbed in the staff room, and I would arrive home at night ravenous and eat whatever was in sight.    BTW, the invention of microwaves in the 80’s was a godsend, as then you could quickly reheat leftovers. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly scared myself with a review of my poor dietary habits over the years, I resolve to do better.  The Michael Pollan books have made a big influence on my food choices.   I read food labels now.   Buy as little processed stuff as I can and generally try to eat better, except for deserts, in moderation.  And isn’t that the more sensible way – everything in moderation.    It’s why diets don’t usually work – if you crave something, eat it, a small portion.   I craved cherry pie the other day, so I had a piece and froze the rest. The French way of eating, including lots of walking, is based on this principle.  As eating is one of the pleasures of life, why deprive yourself.  

Recently they have changed Canada’s food guide to emphasize fewer meat and more plant sources of protein, but I wonder how practical that is – are you really going to get people to eat more tofu, legumes and nuts?   It is accessible or affordable?    Maybe – those vegetable burgers seem to be very popular, but aren’t they just another form of manipulated processed food, fried on the same greasy grill as the meat ones?  

I’m certainly more of a foodie now than I used to be, but in moderation, not like those food network shows which drive me crazy with their pretentiousness – it’s just food folks – no need to have a melt down over a slightly burnt creme brulee when half the world is starving.    But I have become more selective in my eating habits.   When I eat something now I want it to be nutritious as well as delicious.  As we get older we worry more about maintaining our health – and as the saying goes, you are what you eat.  If you are in need of motivation – check out the books.  

Enough of the discussion, on to Part Two – The Harvestfest Supper.    As Julia Child used to say, “Bon Appetit”! 

 

The Adventures of Mr. Vole and the Merry Band of Wasps

(Don’t be scared, it’s just a harmless little children’s book followed by a discussion on the creative muse – based on a true life story).Vole cartoon

Mr. Vole was on a mission to dig up every bulb in the Home Owner’s garden.  He didn’t eat the bulbs although once in a while he had one for dessert, but took them back to his home under the deck.   Mr. Vole was a vegan and there was lots of other food to eat in the garden, although he was sad the lettuce was done.  He had watched the squirrels storing them up for winter and thought it was a great idea.  He pictured himself with a big fat tulip bulb and a cup of hot cocoa, in his cozy den while the snow piled up on the deck above. 

Although he was a vole, he had a lot in common with moles, as he loved to dig.   He was fast at it too.  He was big and fat like a mole too.   Sometimes he would dig up a bulb just for the sheer joy of spreading all that dirt on the sidewalk and annoying the Home Owner.   She would get the broom out and sweep up, and a couple of hours later he would dig it all up again.   He could tell she was annoyed, but that was part of the fun.    The Home Owner was retired, so she had lots of time to sweep.   She lived on Easy Street and fancied herself quite a gardener so there were lots of bulbs around too. 

swarm of bees wasps

Mr. Vole wasn’t the only one annoying the Home Owner as one day a Merry Band of Wasps moved in above the deck.   They were busy building their hive which was tucked up under the siding in a hidden spot.   Their constant droning and swarming was annoying sometimes, and he could see why the Home Owner came out and sprayed them with something smelly.   While a few fell suddenly to the ground, the net effect was just to increase the sound of the construction noise – as then they were angry and the buzzing grew louder.   Things quieted down at night when they were all tucked up safe in their nest above deck, and he was able to sleep soundly below deck in his.   

Some summer nights there were loud parties in the neighborhood, with bonfires and hotdogs, and he liked to stay out late on the deck and listen to the music.  He was a big Bruce Springsteen fan.    The wasps would join him, as they were always up for a “jam” session.  With their constant buzzing, they learned to harmonize quite well and made good backup singers, but he was more the lead singer type.    Sometimes the wasps had too much “hard cider” from the fallen crabapples and couldn’t keep their dance moves straight and what’s a boy band without dance moves, but they still had fun.      

One day the Home Owner boarded up all his nicely dug holes and he had to build new ones, which didn’t take long.   It was a big deck, with lots of sides to dig under. 

Boarded Up Deck

Sometimes she had company over to show off her new kitchen, and the wasps ended up spoiling the party.    She made desserts and they loved anything sweet, so they hovered around making a pest of themselves and waiting for the crumbs.   

Party on the Deck

One night, she came out very late in her PJ’s and tried to duct tape the opening of the wasp nest.   Big. Mistake. Lady.   The next night she came out and ripped it all off, as those sneaky wasps had found an inside venue to play in.   

Things continued on in this manner for several weeks.   One day a man showed up wearing a spacesuit with a huge hat with netting over his face.   He meant business.   Mr. Vole had noticed the car with the Pest-Bee-Gone decal on the side and quickly ran around the corner to warn the others.   He climbed up on the railing and shouted as loud as he could –  MayDay MayDay!  (It was August, but they knew what he meant).   One of the worker wasps darted inside and soon the whole swarm had exited and flown away, with the Queen B (not Beyonce) in their midst, protected on all sides by her entourage.    He saw the man in the suit spray some not-exactly-fairy-dust inside the hole but they were already safely away. 

BeeKeeper Guy Pest Control 

Mr. Vole decided he had better move on too.   Although he hated life on the road and would miss his cozy home under the deck, it was too dangerous to stay any longer.   The Merry Band of Wasps were so grateful he had warned them that they told him about a mansion nearby, and he quickly found “new digs” under the deck of a larger house, one with younger owners and an in-ground swimming pool.    He was now into rap music, like everyone else.  The young owners worked long hours to pay for the big mortgage and were never home so he could cool off in the pool, a cold beverage in hand.

pool chair

 Soon he was the one hosting parties on the deck every night.   The wasps were keen on anything Drake, but the Queen B had departed for a solo gig.  They played together so much they got better and better, and the very next spring he decided to take the show on the road.   The wasps were excited about a world tour, but he wanted to stay closer to home.    He could see the marquee now – his name in flashing neon lights.  (When you’re famous you only need a first name).   Onward to Fame and Fortune (and only pink tulip bulbs in the backstage rider please).  

 Voley (in big letters) and the E-Street Wasp Band (in smaller letters).   

Coming soon……to a neighborhood near you! 

The End

(If you want to know the real ending, see the postscript below.  Warning – not for the faint of heart).

Discussion on the Creative Muse:   

It’s a curious thing what can spark the creative process.   I find it interesting to read biographies of famous writers, to see where they got their ideas from.  Did they spring fully formed from thin air, or was it a gradual process, a thought here and there scribbled on a napkin in a coffee shop and laboriously reworked for years, or maybe a combination of both.  The whole creative process is a fascinating subject.  

And what a wonderful thing it must be to be able to create a whole world out of nothing but your imagination – like J.K. Rowling did, not just once but seven times.    Do writers have a more vivid imagination than other people?   Are worry-worts more likely to be creative, having spent so much time dwelling in the world of “what if.”   What makes one person more creative than others.  Genetics?  Practice?  Or are we all creative beings, in one way or another?  Can creativity be learned, or even analyzed or is it something that just is?

My children’s story was inspired by a number of things.  Firstly, my frustrating “critter woes” this past August, and secondly by fellow blogger Linda’s tales of Parker, the squirrel in her neighborhood park, and our subsequent discussions of children’s books and the children’s television shows we had watched as kids.  (see Walkin’,Writing’,Wit and Whimsy for Parker’s guest post). 

Squirrel - AMc

The Famous Parker as painted by my mother…

 In the eyes of a child, all animals are God’s creatures, great and small.   It’s only adults who consider some of them vermin – a nuisance to be disposed of, of which I admit I am guilty as charged.       

Sometimes a visual aid can spark an idea.   While I was searching the basement for my old Seventeen magazines for the Woodstock blog, I came across a children’s book I used to read to my young niece when she visited the farm in the summers.     

The Adventures of Mr. Toad (3)

It was a Walt Disney abbreviated version of the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, and in the manner of small children everywhere who find a particular book fascinating, we would have to read it over and over again, night after night, until I’m sure I had the whole thing memorized.   I don’t know what was so appealing to her – perhaps it was the gypsy-cart, or the motor car or the general reckless behavior of Mr. Toad who was always being rescued by his friends.   Certainly as a city child, those rodent-type characters were not anything she would have encountered in real life.   They weren’t even anything I ever encountered on the farm, as we had dogs and barn cats whose job it was to “take care of things like that”.

I’ve never read the full version of Wind in the Willows so don’t know how it compares, but there were more chapters and adventures in the original, as the Walt Disney book is a very condensed thirty or so pages.   The copyright having expired, I suppose I’ve taken the liberty of adding another chapter, although the main characters in the book were Mole, Rat, Toad and McBadger, plus the Weasel Gang.    It was written in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame (link), initially as a series of bedtime stories for his young son, and was inspired by his childhood spent along the river banks in England.    

The Adventures of Mr. Toad

Flipping through the book that day, it was this fireside scene which helped me imagine my visitors, the vole below deck and the wasps above, all cozy in their respective nests.  While I was entertaining on the deck I was also thinking about how my guests were unaware of all that unwanted company down below. 

Perhaps Ally of The Spectacled Bean’s catchy title, It’s a Party in the Parsley about caterpillars, inspired the deck party?   Definitely I was thinking about music, and my subconscious mind must have recalled reading Daisy Jones and the Six earlier this summer, and their struggle over whose name came first on the billing.   But perhaps the true spark came from lying awake listening to the music from a street festival one holiday weekend, so loud I could hear the words of the songs from blocks away, long past midnight.   I’m sure there was some Bruce Springsteen involved, and doesn’t that rap music often sound like a whole lot of droning going on! 

I may have been thinking about children’s books, because I had been hearing lots of buzz recently about Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers (movie trailer below).   What wonderful children’s programs we had back then.   As a Canadian child I grew up watching Romper Room (Do Bee and Don’t Bees), Captain Kangaroo and a show called The Friendly Giant, who always placed miniature chairs around the fire for story time – here’s a chair for someone to curl up in and another rocking chair, before he asked you to look up, way up, and see the Friendly Giant.    How calm and measured their voices were – so soothingly and reassuring to a small child.   It looks like an interesting movie, but now the song “It’s A Beautiful  Day in the Neighborhood” is stuck in my brain!    

Creativity is a strange and wonderful thing.   Who knows what goes into any creative idea – it’s a mishmash of things we’ve heard or seen or remembered all jumbled up in our minds, and hopefully something beautiful or at least somewhat entertaining comes out of it all.   The most important thing is to pay attention, write it down and have some fun. 

PS   I had such fun with this, I’m now working on a fairy tale, Once Upon a Kitchen Reno…

 

The Real Ending: 

(not for the squeamish, but useful information if you ever have to deal with a wasp nest in your siding).

I’ll spare you the details of the vole’s demise as I could not watch.  (My grasscutter whacked it over the head with a shovel).   I have not seen any of his brethren lurking about, although the Pest Control man warned me there might be more as they reproduce like rabbits, but his company did not deal in voles.   The bulb digging has stopped, but I’m hoping for a Polar Vortex Winter in case there are more.     Should you have voles, HappyHauteHome has an informative post on How To Get Rid of Voles in Your Yard or Garden. 

If you have a wasp nest in your siding call the exterminator right away.   Do not tape up the entry hole as they will just find another way out and into your house.   Wasps can chew through drywall and crawl up small spaces beside radiators and hot water heating pipes.   Do not waste time buying useless sprays from the hardware store which will not reach the area involved and only have contact but no residual action.   As the wasp nest cost $170 to spray with pesticide powder, I delayed until after Labor Day weekend thinking I could save money and do it myself, but it had grown so large over a mere three week period, that I have been stuck with the smell of decaying wasp larvae in my bedroom for weeks.   The smell is so bad I’m still sleeping in the spare bedroom.   Apparently this putrid odor is normal, especially if it’s a big nest.   As the guys cleaning the mildew off the siding alerted me to the problem on Aug 16, I was surprised it got that big so quickly.  (By the time they got to Woodstock they were half a million strong.)   It smelt like dead rodents, to the extent that I wondered if the Vole Brothers had somehow managed to crawl into the space between the wall and the floorboards to party with their Waspy friends, although that would be impossible, wouldn’t it?  (I’m in need of some reassurance here).   I’m at a loss for what to do now as the exterminator advised me to just wait, as tearing up the floorboards or drilling into the wall trying to find the nest would be an expensive proposition requiring a contractor and most would not be interested in such a small job.   Nor is it covered by insurance, although it would be if the nest has pushed the insulation aside and the pipes freeze.   I can only hope that the weeks of unseasonably hot and humid weather we have been having will help accelerate the decaying process and it will be over before I have to turn my hot water furnace rads on. 

The strangest thing was a few nights after I had quarantined the bedroom trying to air it out, there was a Hoot Owl outside the window – who, who, who. 

Owl

I’m going to a Hootenanny…

If it hadn’t been 2 am I would have gone out and tried to get a picture of it, but the sound was enough to identify it.   The Wikipedia people say Hoot owls prey on small animals so maybe they wanted a midnight vole snack (or maybe The Who was attracted by the foul stench and just dropped into Woodstock Revisited)!    It’s certainly not a pleasant way to end the summer, and I hope never to have a repeat performance so I’m going to caulk silicon all around the house as an ounce of prevention.    Has anyone else had problems with wasps or voles this year? 

PS.  I went to a country musical theatre production this past weekend – lots of square dancing and fiddle music, which got me thinking – there could be a book sequel at that hootenanny…

 

 

 

                                                 We’re with the band…..

 

 

 

Plein Air Painting

          Last Wednesday I joined a group of local artists for a plein air painting session.    They meet once a week during the summer, always at a different location, (garden, park or water view), paint from 9:30 until noon, then break for lunch and social hour – and show and tell if you wish to participate.   I did not, as my mother is the artist in the family.   I was only there as the driver and unofficial brownie-baker.   I never took art in high school, can’t draw a straight line and have no desire to learn.  The few times I have attempted to paint I sit there with a clenched jaw, frustrated that the end result does not in any way resemble the vision in my head.    My mother on the other hand, finds it pure bliss, and paints almost every day, although she has no formal training.   Still, plein air painting looks like fun, if you enjoy dabbling with a brush.  

Plein air is the act of painting outdoors.   Artists have always worked outdoors, but in the mid-19th century, the en plein air approach became more popular as painting in natural light became important to groups such as the Barbizon schoolHudson River School, and Impressionists.      In Canada, the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson are examples of en plein air artists.    (Wikipedia source)

The invention of a portable box easel which held paint and palette, as well as the availability of paint in tubes, made this outdoor activity much more convenient.   Previously oil paint was made from pigment powders mixed with linseed oil.   As there was no photography to record a scene, if you wanted to paint a landscape you either conjured up the image in your head, or went straight to the source, be it harbor, garden, or field of wheat.   

Monet

Impression, Sunrise – Monet

For the Impressionists, like Monet and Renoir,  it was all about the Light.  How the play of light affects and influences a painting was important to them, especially if you were lolling about in the south of France where the light is reported to be particularly inspiring.   Imagine a sketching tour there!  

Monet painted his famous Haystack series (25 paintings) after visiting a wheat field near his home at all hours, seasons and weather conditions, in order to capture the effect of different variations of light. 

Haystacks - Monet

Haystacks Series – End of Summer – Monet

Below is my favorite Renoir painting – a testament to natural light, shade and color – plus it looks like a fun outing.  

Luncheon of the Boating Party - Renoir

The Luncheon of the Boating Party – Renoir

No problem getting your friends to pose for hours if you ply them with enough food and drink and a boat ride down the Seine.

The Group of Seven were Canada’s first famous artists, painting outdoors in Algonquin Park in the early 1900’s.   They would often take summer tours where they would do preliminary sketches in the great Canadian wilderness, then return to their studios to finish the work over the winter.   

The Jack Pine - Tom Thomson

The Jack Pine – Tom Thomson

Our Canadian summer is almost over.   It’s cooler now in September and nice weather can no longer be depended upon.   This outing was the last of the year and an add-on for a session which was rained out earlier.   

Germain Park Garden

While not Monet’s famous garden,

Bridge-over-a-Pond-of-Water-Lilies - Monet

Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies – Monet

the park we visited is known for it’s gardens.   I here to photograph the flowers, which are at their fall peak. 

Germain Park Garden

We arrive a bit late, as it’s a fair drive from home, and I’m not an early riser.  These artists are all morning people, but I suppose it’s cooler then for painting in the summer.    Today is overcast with a cold north wind, so we are all bundled up in sweaters and jackets.  It’s a large park, basically deserted at mid-week, and the painters have already scattered along the paths and picked their solitary spots.  

Zen Garden

There’s a separate Zen garden with a tranquil waterfall but no one is painting there.    Maybe it is too Zen?

Zen Garden

I wander around the flower beds admiring the fall colors, 

fall flowers Germain Park

and stop to visit with several of the artists, marveling at their talent. 

Plein Air Painting

Fall Flowers - mums

Most of the artists have been painting for years, but some, like my two friends, are relative beginners, 

Plein Air Painting still learning the tools of the trade.

Watercolor and oil are best for painting outdoors, as acrylic dries too quickly in the hot sun.

At noon they break for lunch, (brownies anyone?) in a spot sheltered from the wind,

Plein Air Painting - lunch

and afterwards, show and tell.   They pass each painting around the circle and I’m totally intimidated by then. 

Plein Air Painting

 And also grateful for that thermos of hot coffee.  

One of the artists points out a white squirrel which frequents the park, so I pursue a picture, although I only have the zoom lens on my cell phone, so it’s not the best pixel-wise.  

white squirrel

White squirrels may be albino (with red eyes), caused by a mutation of a pigmentation gene, or they may be a very rare variant of eastern gray squirrels.    He was a strange sight – and definitely an antidote to all that color.  

After lunch, I’m in desperate need of a nap.  All that fresh air is so tiring – makes you sleep like a baby – maybe I will dream in technicolor? 

Fall flowers - Germain park

PS.   Although it was an enjoyable day, I think I’ll stick with my writing gig for now.   

A Garden Teacup Craft Party

Making a garden teacup is a perfect excuse for having a group of friends over and a nice way to spend one of the last summer-like afternoons on the deck.  You can have a tea party after, and best part is they can brag about what they made.   Think of it as having the guests make their own party favors!    

tea cup craft

Teacups were once the sign of a civilized age and household.    I remember my American aunt coming up for visits in the summer and one of the first places she would want to go would be a china shop to add to her collection, because tea cups were used back then, not just for show.    I cringe now to think that I once gave my sister a bridal shower where everyone was asked to bring a tea cup as a gift – I thought it was a good idea, as she already had everything else.   My mother had a set of good china, white with gold rims, which she used for holiday dinners, but she didn’t have enough matching teacups, so out would come the fancy teacups for coffee, tea and dessert.  Each one would have a different pattern, color and style.   Even the guys would drink their coffee in them, and what grandchild wasn’t pleased to be served a milky brew in a real china cup just like the grown-ups.    I have a few of these special ones left, which I would not part with as they hold memories as well as tea.

Teacups

Although I still occasionally use tea cups, and have a very pretty set with a matching teapot, I know I am in the minority.    We are a mug society now.

We all have teacups collecting dust – they may be a collection we have inherited from our mother or grandmother, but even if you live like Downton Abbey, there are only so many tea cups you can use and the thrift shops are full of donated cups.   So this simple and inexpensive craft is a nice idea to put them to good use.  

Tea cups (3)

 Garden tea cups can hold a tea light, birdseed or water for a mini bird bath.   I have seen the birds enjoying mine on occasion after a rainstorm.  I have also given them as small homemade gifts.  I made two for a friend who was retiring and loves to garden, a stop and smell the roses pink one, and one with the bluebird of happiness on it.    Now that they have been popular for awhile you can find them at art and craft fairs everywhere, but I bought my first one in the gift shop of an art gallery several years ago.   It was expensive at $25, but I fell in love with it as it was so pretty and blue, my favorite color. The woman selling it very kindly told me how to make my own – for a lot less money. 

tea cup craft

These are the craft supplies, and price-wise it works out to be less than $5. 

craft supplies for teacups

You can have your guests bring their own special teacup, or supply them with ones from a thrift shop, or donate some of your own.   I buy long half-inch diameter copper rods at the hardware store, and because I am a frequent customer there, one of the employees cuts them for me in the length I desire.  I use a 12 inch length for planters, and longer ones for placing in the ground among the plants. tea craft project

I also buy matching short half-inch ends the same width as the rod which will be glued onto the bottom of the saucer to hold the rod.  

craft supplies for teacups

Using a piece of rough abrasive paper (grit cloth as below) or sandpaper, rough up the bottom of the saucer in the middle, and also the same area underneath the saucer.   This makes the glue adhere better.

sandpaper cloth

This Goop glue was recommended to me, but you can use any kind which bonds china or ceramic. 

Super goop

Using a Q-Tip apply some glue to the bottom of the teacup and place it in the centre of the saucer, wiping up any excess glue around the bottom rim.   If you wish you can also glue a tiny teaspoon on, as an added decoration, but I found they tarnished quickly as most are silver.   These can be found at thrift shops for pennies.   Let it set for a few minutes – perhaps go and put the kettle on for your tea.    

Turn the bonded teacup and saucer upside down, and apply the end piece to the bottom of the saucer with a bit of glue, and set the whole thing aside for the rest of the afternoon.   Leave it upside down, preferably for 24 hours.  The next day you can insert the copper rod and turn it right side up and place in your planter for the birds to enjoy.    

teacup craft

While it is setting, you can continue on with the food and beverage portion of your tea party.    This craft takes very little time, perhaps thirty minutes at most, depending on how long you spend roughing up the china and waiting for it to set. 

patio party

After the tea party…

See how the late afternoon shadows are slanting as the sun loses it’s warmth. Summer’s over, but at least everyone has a lovely souvenir to take home as a memory of a fun party and something useful for next year’s garden. 

PS.  Continuing with our September theme, this is the craft portion of Arts and Crafts (because wasn’t that always one of our favorite parts of back to school).   See Plein Air Painting next week for the arts portion.

A Colorful End to Summer

I was looking at my big fat beefsteak tomatoes the other day and it struck me how very green they were, so I thought I would do a photo essay of  summer ending – by color.   Color my world –  just like we used to back in grade school, with the big 64 pack of Crayolas.   I just happened to have a box with my craft supplies in the basement and they have the same waxy smell I remember.  

Crayola crayons

The Crayola company first began selling crayons in 1903 and since then they have made over 200 distinctive colors.  (Wikipedia link)  Although many of the original colors are still around, I believe they are a bit more inventive with the names now, so I’ve decided to help them out, (see brackets).

The very green tomatoes.    (Lean Green Tomato Machine, because what tomato plant isn’t this time of year)

green tomatoes

The purple clematis is blooming.   (Purple Rain, as in the Rock Star Formally Known as Prince).  

purple clematis

The neighbors yellow Black-Eyed Susans nodding hello over the fence, (so very Mellow-Yellow).

Sunflowers

The orange tones of fresh summer fruit – melons, nectarines and peaches. (Fruit Salad Palette)  

Ripening tomatoes.   (Red Hot Salsa)   

Red tomatoes

The Last of the Pinks.    This  Dipladenia was the best plant I bought this summer, water and drought resistant (we had both) and no deadheading.  It’s still hanging in there as if it was in the tropics, which it felt like some days.  (Caribbean Dream Pink).

Pink flowers

The first bouquet of fall flowers – yellow and green and pink.

Autumn bouquet

White for the clouds of late summer, towering and cumulus, but looking fall-like.    (Cumulus Cloud White)

seagull and clouds

Blue for the water and sky and sailboats.   (The original Sky Blue can’t be beat).   

Sailboat

And beige for the sand and the last trip to the beach.   (Sandblaster Beige)

beach towel

Let’s say goodbye to the last (Psychedelic Sunset) over the lake.   

Sunset over the Lake - AMc

The first signs of fall are already here – the sound of crickets at night, sometimes on the hearth – the first drift of wood smoke in the air – the maple tree with it’s leaves dipped in paint – that first chilly morning when you have to reach for your chenille housecoat and it’s not because of the A/C – and that dreadful/wonderful/your pick pumpkin spice which saturates the season! 

Class dismissed – put the crayons away and go outside and play while the sun is still high in the sky!      (Sky High Blue-Green)

seagull

apples

PS.  Red for the apple for the teacher and for the harvest coming in at the farmer’s market.   Speaking of farmer’s markets, I’ll be doing a restaurant review soon on a locally sourced Harvestfest Dinner (link) – so get your forks ready to join me.   I hear there will be pie – as in (Very Cherry Red)!    

Harvestfest Pie and coffee