Wordless Wednesday – let your (photo)s tell your story. Summer storm over the lake.
NB: Photos are not mine – they belong to a friend who rented a cottage, but are too good not to share.
Wordless Wednesday – let your (photo)s tell your story. Summer storm over the lake.
NB: Photos are not mine – they belong to a friend who rented a cottage, but are too good not to share.
As Jane Austen famously said, “Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first.”
(Jane was writing to her sister Cassandra, who fortunately saved 160 of her letters, for they tell us much about her life in the early 1800’s. Unfortunately, she destroyed the majority of the correspondence, reputed to be in the thousands, after Jane’s death, likely to protect her reputation. Jane’s witty and barbed comments make for amusing reading now, but may not have if you were the subject of her satire.)
Caught up in the minutiae of her daily existence, Jane probably felt there wasn’t much to write about – much like my life at present. First there was the spring that wasn’t, then the summer that wasn’t and I’m sure the rest of the year will be more of the same. It feels like things are in a holding pattern, but this is the new reality of living in the time of COVID.
I started the Corona Diaries in May (link to first installment), back when the pandemic was still fairly new, with the intentions of recording a personal history of life during lockdown. Here’s a recap of what’s happened in the not-terribly-exciting months since then.
THE SCAVENGER’s MISTAKE: (otherwise known, by the grass-cutter, as that damn table….)
May 21 – While out for my daily walk I noticed a discarded table put out for pickup. It was at the end of a driveway along the river McMansions, so it was of high quality, solid cedar wood with a hole in the middle for an umbrella. (I live at the poorer end of town but like to walk there for the shade trees). Now, I’ve been known to scavenge the odd thing or two on garbage day. It’s truly amazing what people will throw away, like this corner picket fence, which ended up sheltering my rose bush from the snow plow,
and a wrought iron cart which found new life in my garden after a coat of paint.
Nobody seemed to be around but I noticed my mother’s grass-cutter doing a lawn nearby with his riding lawn mover, so I waved him over and enlisted his help in carrying this perfectly good table three doors down to his truck, and then later from his truck to my back yard. I did hesitate, because I remembered “The Summer of the Patio Stones”, but that was ten years ago and my back had been fine since and he proclaimed that it wasn’t very heavy and I didn’t want to be a wimp and I really wanted the table. I could envision it painted light blue under my shade trees, and a Jane Austen tea party in progress sometime in the COVID-free future.
(Maybe Serene Blue, like this chair I painted in chalk-paint?)
Was it worth it?
No! No! A thousand times No! I spent a miserable month with back pain, living on Tylenol Arthritis around the clock. As I could not sit or lie down comfortably, there was no blogging done and little computer time. I could not even focus on reading, so I lay on the couch like a tragic heroine from a Jane Austen novel (possibly the overly dramatic Marianne Dashwood, from Sense and Sensibility) and felt sorry for myself. Well, at least it isn’t COVID, I thought, trying to cheer myself up.
A COVID TEST IS MORE PAINFUL THAN YOU MIGHT THINK:
By early June I was dealing with a couple of other health issues, one of which involved a fever – intermittent low-grade when the Tylenol wore off. Despite a fever being such a rare occurrence for me that I can’t remember ever having one, even when I had the H1N1 flu, I was not worried about having COVID – fever, headache, fatigue and some abdominal pain, but no chest, SOB or cough and I could still taste and smell food.
On Day 4, after doing the COVID assessment test online and speaking to as assessment nurse, I booked an appointment at one of the drive-through testing centres – way more painful than I thought. It’s supposed to hurt the nurse said, when I complained, it means you got a good sample. It felt like he scraped the inside of my nose for ten seconds. I had to pull over on the drive home to see if it was bleeding. It wasn’t, but it hurt for about half an hour more. Luckily, the test results were available online within 48hrs – negative. Well, that was a relief.
A few more days of misery ensued, in which I suffer from both back pain and mystery illness, which seems to be getting worse. On Day 7, I started an antibiotic and felt much better after 48 hours, so likely not COVID as the response to the antibiotic was so quick.
Still, there was that nagging worry, reinforced by a nurse who said, everyone presents differently and my neighbor who casually remarked, how do you know you didn’t test too early? Is that the kind of thing you say to an already paranoid person? So, I got retested on Day 14, mostly for peace of mind so I could visit my elderly mother whom I had not seen for several weeks, and it was negative too. The second test hardly hurt at all, a mere pinch, by the exact same tester.
Whatever I had was certainly strange and unusual, as I never get headaches or fever. While I was not sick enough to go to ER, and felt well enough to drive the fifty minutes to the testing center, what if you weren’t? It’s definitely not ideal for someone to be in the car with you, especially if there is a long wait time. If the tests only have some degree of accuracy, depending on viral load and whether you are testing too early or too late, is a negative test a positive reassurance or a false one? Even antibody levels may not be all that reliable as they are reputed to wane quickly after a mild case. Ten days seems to be the critical time period for many patients, where you’ve either recovered or end up in the hospital on oxygen. If my antibiotic response was just a coincidence at the ten day mark, and I did have a mild case where did I catch it? I had been at the hospital lab a few days before for thyroid blood-work, the grocery store and the hardware store where the teenage clerk sneezed behind the plexiglass before shoving my receipt into the bag. So many unknowns, it’s mind-boggling. At any rate, I slept a lot and was lethargic for another few weeks but am now back to my regular low energy-normal and grateful to be recovered from whatever it was, plus the back pain had departed by then too.
With the back pain/health issues/general lethargy/hot weather, there was no daily walking, no gardening and no flowers bought at all, as I couldn’t even lift a watering can. Also no table painting, or other painting projects, or deck cleaning or window washing either, and certainly no house work! Freedom 55 in a sense…it was a month of nothing.
THE VICTORY GARDEN WAS A BUST:
My total Victory garden expenditure was $8 – for three types of lettuce and one tomato and cucumber plant. The cucumbers were stunted, tough and full of seeds, but I still have hope for the beefsteak tomatoes. I harvested two of the lettuces, the third unknown variety was so bitter even the rabbits wouldn’t touch it. I prefer romaine but couldn’t find any, nor asparagus which I had wanted to get started this year but I was able to harvest my rhubarb for the first time. When I went to pick more, there was a nest of baby bunnies underneath the rhubarb leaves. As there was a lot of rabbit fur lying around and I’m not into sharing with the wildlife, I left the second crop for them. They eventually hopped away, but next year I need to replace the fence.
We had some pleasant days in June, perfect for reading outside on the swing, but I had nothing good to read, so I looked at pretty pictures in Victoria magazine. (I collect the back issues, as I find them inspiring. In my next life, I would like to work for this magazine.)
And then Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
THE LIBRARY REOPENS
June 9 – the Library reopened for Curbside Pickup and I got 6 books the first week. They brought them out to you in a little paper bag to minimize handling, so I now have a collection of paper bags to recycle. I miss the librarians, but it’s too hard to chat through a mask through a car window. I was still too miserable to read then but am back to reading one book a week.
June 21 – I had recovered enough by strawberry season to drive an hour to a farm to buy a flat of berries to make two batches of freezer jam. Normally I would go to the Farmer’s Market, but it’s overcrowded at the best of times. I took my mother along for the drive, as she needed to get out of the house. She enjoyed the drive through the countryside and remarked how green everything was, and I felt guilty for not getting her out more often, but where exactly is it safe to go when you’re 94? She misses going out for groceries. At least she still lives in her own home. Imagine all those seniors confined to the same small room in nursing homes for months on end, and the amount of cognitive decline. The retirement home we had toured last year, ended up with ten COVID deaths this spring and it was one of the better ones.
(pioneer provisions for the winter)
HAIRDRESSERS SHOULD BE DECLARED ESSENTIAL WORKERS:
June 26 – I was reunited with my hairdresser. We were both happy – I was happy I could see out of my eyes again, and she was happy to be out of the house, but as I was her only client for 2 ½ hours (cut and color) she can’t be making any money. The price went up by $10 to $75, but I would have paid much more. They’d only been open a few days so she did have to remind the other stylist not to come near the sink with her client while I was rinsing, and informed two customers, who walked in ignoring the sign, that masks were required. No more waiting room – you stay in your car until they come and get you. I do appreciate a strict business owner.
PORCH VISITS RESUME:
On July 1 Canada Day, I was well enough to receive my first porch visitor, (unless you count the bunnies). I brought out my blue Moroccan dishes and served key lime pie, chocolate chip cookies and a pineapple punch.
It was good to entertain again, even if not at a table. We sat on the deck, socially distanced, for four hours, as it was a perfect summer day, warm with a nice breeze. The remainder of July was so hot and humid you couldn’t even go outside, let alone entertain there. We’ll meet again someday, when it’s cooler…
(This song by Vera Lynn, who died recently at age 94, was popular during WW2 and could be our new COVID anthem.)
THE WEATHER: (every diary should include a good dose of complaining about the weather.)
Since then hot and humid has ruled the day. The majority of days in July were over 30 C (90 F), with humidex often close to 40 C, and not much cooler at night when the mosquitoes reigned. Two weeks of no rain meant I had to lug the garden hose around one evening, thus ensuring several itchy nights. What did we do without A/C? We wilted like Jane Austen heroines…..
SHOPPING RESUMES: (sort of….)
Speaking of inelegance, I’m still schlepping around in my yoga pants and t-shirts. I haven’t dressed up once this summer or been fun shopping, but I’ve expanded my repertoire of stores to include Michael’s (framing, but still out of canvas boards), the hardware store (home of the sneezer and special lightbulbs), Winners (had to use the washroom, one of few open) and the Dairy Queen (twice, once with my mother who enjoyed the treat), where the young man making my milkshake told me he liked my mask with the paw prints. (I didn’t even know they were paw prints, as it’s reversible). But horror or horrors, a visit to the Beauty Boutique revealed that they were out of Estee Lauder Night Repair, a product I have used for over thirty years. (Thankfully that face mask hides wrinkles too.) In common with so many other things, once it’s out of stock, it’s out for months. Lesson learned, I scooped up the last eight boxes of my favorite Yardley English Lavender Soap at Dollarama, and noticed a lot more bare shelves since my last visit there in March. I also popped into Reitmans to check on my missing (capris) order, before they go bankrupt, but I didn’t try buy or try anything on, although I saw some cute summer face masks. I resisted as summer’s already half over, and surely we won’t be dealing with this next year?
I’m still being cautious, mask and gloves and disinfectant, but am not as paranoid about going out as I was in the early days. I still hate grocery shopping, even more so now that the hot humid weather makes the mask more suffocating, but I’m going weekly now to take advantage of all the fresh summer produce, instead of every 3 weeks. I speed walk through the aisles during the off hours and try to avoid the nose-wiping-with-hand/nose-blowing-but-failed-to-disinfect cashiers. I know it’s allergy season, but medical-me is horrified by these things.
THE GREAT MASK DEBATE:
We can turn to Jane’s wisdom again for advice on this thorny topic.
Perhaps the matter can be simplified into two camps – worried pessimists (I’m sure I’ll get it and die), versus sunny optimists (the odds are against it and I’ll live). This debate has been settled recently by city council finally mandating mask wearing indoors in public spaces, with the inevitable protest ensuing outside city hall.
TO EAT IN OR OUT?
I’m tired of cooking and eating the same old thing. We’ve had takeout a few times but have not been brave enough to visit a restaurant patio yet…likewise dining in when that happens. One, it’s way too hot, and two, you can’t convince me (see above scenes) of the safety, when so many people have hygiene fatigue. Many of the pop-up patios seem crowded, and being surrounded by ugly wire fencing, barrels and a few potted plants in some parking lot is not my idea of an appealing atmosphere. Now I might be tempted if it was more like Paris, with bistro tables and a red awning, or something with a water view.
THE NEW VIRTUAL REALITY: (or think like a millennial)
July 16 – The museum curator emailed that my mothers art exhibit is still on for this fall, and she’d like to hang it earlier than planned. I’m surprised, as I had assumed it would be on hold until next year, but as we’re going into Phase 3 they are planning ahead on having galleries and museums open soon. (This is a 3 month show we had committed to last summer, as these things book up well in advance). I had already completed most of the prep work back in January and the paintings are finished, but I still need to do some framing and art cards, after the curator makes the final selection. (There is only space for 25 out of 40 paintings so I’m glad it’s not me choosing). Of course, thinking like an old-fogy, I can’t imagine anyone going to a museum right now, but she assured me that if we have to lockdown again in the winter, the exhibit will go virtual. Spoken like a true millennial! So, that’s something for my mother to look forward to – although there won’t be an open house, she might even get more exposure online. (For readers unaware of my mother’s amazing story, she started painting again at age 87 after she gave up driving. I entered her in a gallery contest for local artists and she was one of three selected, so she got to show her work for the first time at the age of 90. This will be her third exhibit since then.)
We have been lulled into a false sense of security here, not having had any COVID deaths or hospital admissions since June, and relatively few active cases. We were down to 5 cases, but recently climbed to 25 as more things reopen, but it is still manageable with testing and contact tracing. All of the nursing home outbreaks are over as well and visits have resumed. While things may be better stats-wise, it could flare up again at any moment. The very randomness of this virus is the scariest part – once it stealthily enters a place, one case can become ten and then a hundred and soon it’s snowballing out of control, and now the dreaded back to school decision is looming and with it cold and flu season not far behind.
July – All spring, appointments have been falling like dominoes, one after the other. I’m now in the process of standing them back up again – hearing, vision, dentist, medical tests. A trip to the hospital’s ambulatory care for a minor skin procedure was so efficient it should run that way always. (Absolutely zero waiting – screened, registered, escorted to room, doctor there two minutes later). I’m trying to take advantage of this little lull to get things done, as it’s better to get all these appointments in now before the next wave hits….because we know it’s coming.
Finally, if we have to go into lockdown again, after enjoying this bit of summer freedom, remember Jane’s words of wisdom….
Dear Readers: Thank you for still reading…..next week’s blog will be much much shorter, but Jane may be making more guest appearances in my blog, for she really has a quote for everything!
(All Jane Austen quotes and illustrations sourced from:)
There’s nothing as delightful as a summer breeze. It’s especially welcome after a long hot and humid spell, when the wind suddenly swings to the north dropping the temperature by over ten degrees.
My childhood bedroom faced south and I have memories of waking up on a June morning to a cool breeze, blowing the white curtains into the room like billowing ghosts. I still like the sight of gauzy curtains dancing in an open window.
Yes, back in the days before A/C, we used to sleep with the windows open all summer. The upstairs bedrooms in our old farmhouse would get pretty hot in the dog days of August, but I don’t remember it being brutally hot all summer like it is now. I put the A/C on the third week of May, and except for a few cooler days in June when I could open the windows and air out the house, it will stay on until late September.
On July 1, Canada Day, what’s more symbolic of patriotism than a flag snapping in the wind, beside a maple tree.
The sight of sheets flapping in the breeze is a lovely thing, with the added bonus of that wonderful fresh-air sun-drenched smell when you drift off to sleep.
While I may get refreshing north breezes on my back deck, I have to move under the shade trees if the winds are from the south – a perfect spot for dining alfresco. (table photo from Pinterest but see The Corona Diaries next week for my latest scavenger find)
Add in some poetry:
And some music: (The lyrics of this oldie but goodie paint a perfect picture – “Sweet days of summer, the jasmine’s in bloom. July is dressed up and playing her tune”)
And you have the ingredients for a perfect summer day. As Henry James proclaimed, “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon, to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
A swing or hammock gently swaying in the breeze can lull you to sleep while you’re reading.
A cool breeze on a hot day at the beach makes for awesome waves.
And what’s a sail without a good stiff south wind.
I was surprised they held the annual sailboat race this year, although there weren’t as many entries. The music and food festivals were all cancelled, but spectators could still line the shore and watch the parade of boats go by.
Finally, there’s nothing like sitting on the deck with a cold one when the heat of the day is over and an evening breeze descends to cool everything off.
Wherever you are, may the rest of your summer be a breeze!
Lyrics: “Summer Breeze” 1972 Seals and Croft
Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind
Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowin’ though the jasmine in my mind
See the paper layin’ on the sidewalk
A little music from the house next door
So I walk on up to the doorstep
Through the screen and across the floor
Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind
Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind
Sweet days of summer, the jasmine’s in bloom
July is dressed up and playing her tune
And I come home from a hard day’s work
And you’re waitin’ there
Not a care in the world
See the smile awaitin’ in the kitchen
Through cookin’ and the plates for two
Feel the arms that reach out to hold me
In the evening when the day is through
Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind
Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind
It’s been a bountiful year for lavender. I don’t remember ever seeing so many buds on my plants before – the bees are certainly rejoicing!
Lavender is an easy-care perennial, sun loving but can tolerate some shade, does well in drought and poor soil – exactly my kind of plant. I have about twelve bushes but admit the ones in the shady back yard,
are not as lush as the ones in the sunny facing front.
I’ve grown lavender for years as the fragrant smell has always appealed to me. It’s inexpensive at $5 a pot, and once established, it’s beauty can last for years. I usually plant English lavender as it is the more cold-hardy species. My few attempts at growing French lavender were not successful as it did not survive overwintering here in our Canadian climate. I also prefer the sweeter English lavender smell, whereas the French has a sharper Rosemary-like scent. French lavender has a longer bloom time and a darker purple flower. Someone brought me back some from Provence once and while it was nothing at all like mine, it would still be lovely to see someday.
These photos from my garden show the progression of color with the season, from the palest shade early on,
gradually darkening to a more vibrant purple.
In certain lights it can take on a blue tone,
but the softer light of early evening really makes the purple color pop.
Usually by the end of July, the buds are dried out but there are always a few spears still growing in September. Cutting them back is supposed to encourage a second flowering – I’ve never tried this but might this year as it is so abundant. While some people like to harvest early for best fragrance and dry their lavender bundles upside down, I prefer to enjoy the beauty of the plant and and strip the dried buds off later.
If you don’t have a garden, a pot of lavender is a nice alternative.
Lavender has long been known for it’s calming fragrance. Add a few drops of lavender oil to the bath water after a stressful day for instant relaxation.
For sleep-inducing properties, use a lavender spray or tuck a lavender sachet under your pillow. I often give sachets away as presents and one year my cute little 5 yr old neighbor insisted on taking one home for her shift-worker dad. Lavender can also be used in cooking, adding a subtle fragrance to baked goods like cakes and cookies. While I’ve never baked with it, I used to drink a brand of lavender flavored Earl Gray tea before I gave up caffeine.
One year I tried to make my own lavender oil, with disastrous results. There were two methods suggested – the first extracting the oil with oil required steeping the leaves and flowers in a crock of olive oil and repeatedly pressing, straining and adding more buds every 24-48 hrs, repeating the process 6 to 8 times. The second method, solvent distillation, which involved extracting the oil with alcohol to make a tincture, sounded much easier. They recommended ethyl alcohol, but if you couldn’t find it, vodka was acceptable (but not rubbing alcohol). For a non-drinker like me this required a trip to the liquor store where I was surprised to find even the smallest bottle of vodka cost $20. The lavender buds were soaked in the alcohol in a jar, in a process called maceration, meaning steep or rest, an old pharmaceutical term I remember from my school days, as in the extraction of a drug by allowing it to stand in contact with a solvent. The jar was placed in a dark cupboard, with instructions to agitate it once a day. I missed a week while I was away unexpectedly, but it just looked darker and murkier. After several weeks (2-6 wks), you drained the liquid off by straining it through a cheesecloth filter and froze it in a suitable container. The lavender oil was supposed to congeal on top of the alcohol, which does not freeze, and could then be scraped off and placed in a glass bottle. I ended up with about 3 ml (half a teaspoon), of a strong lavender-like but somewhat foul smelling brown liquid, not enough to fill even half my dropper bottle, which eventually got thrown out during one of my cleaning binges. My advice – drink the vodka instead and just buy a good quality essential oil. Some products have fake lavender scents, but I’ve found this to be one of the better brands, and at $12 it’s reasonably priced.
Storing a lavender spray in the fridge to spritz on a hot summer day is a refreshing trick.
The calming scent of lavender soap can help you pause and relax while performing that all important frequent hand-washing activity.
It’s nice to scent your drawers with a lavender sachet. Wedding favor bags from the party store are great for this purpose.
I admit the lavender bushes aren’t quite as pretty when the season is over and they’re brown and dried out, but the smell is still lovely, especially after a summer rain.
My lavender is almost ready harvest. With such a bumper crop this year I may have to hire help!
Book of the Day:
Visiting a lavender farm has long been on my bucket list, preferably one in Provence but even here would do. For those who dream of living such an idyllic life, a memoir of the reality by a New York city writer who moved to Texas with her National Geographic photographer husband to start a lavender farm. I read this when it was first published in 2008 when I was interested in making scented products. As I recall, they lasted about ten years, including time to get the plants established, before they gave up and moved to Mexico. (Rating 3/5 stars.)
Song of the Day: (and Source of Blog Title) Lavender’s Blue
This song is stuck in my brain after watching a Disney movie last week (2015 Kenneth Branagh version). I always liked Lily James as Rose in Downton Abbey and she did a credible job as Cinderella. Okay, I wasn’t really watching it, but it was on TV while I was editing photos. An old English nursery rhyme/folk song from the 17th century, it seems faintly familiar.
And last but not least, one of my mother’s paintings:
This is the first year I haven’t bought any garden flowers – no hanging baskets, no geraniums, absolutely nothing. It was cold with snow flurries until mid-May so the pop up nurseries had a pathetic selection of small and withered looking plants. We went straight into hot humid weather and I was waiting for them to go on sale but then never made it to any of the big box stores or nurseries.
On the plus side I don’t have to water, especially welcome in this record breaking heat. On the minus side, I miss the beauty of having baskets, even the humble geraniums, but I’m trying to focus on my hardy perennials. Due to the late spring it was a bad year for lilacs (exactly 3 blooms) and peonies (a poor showing, only one or two on the new bushes) and some of the rose bushes did not fare well. The ones on the north side are very sparse and two had to be dug out entirely. On the other hand, the rest of the roses were abundant and the lavender was so plentiful it deserves it’s own blog.
Here’s a recap since May. A carpet of blossoms on my daily walk.
My 50 cent purple iris was a beautiful bargain once again.
The daisies showed up early.
Second year for the prolific purple clematis.
The older purple clematis is still hanging in there.
The fuchsia clematis.
Purple salvia and pink roses make a colorful contrast.
The heirloom roses were bountiful.
And so were the Pink Knock-Outs,
and the newer lavender bushes are doing well.
Stay tuned for The Lavender Blues next week…
And speaking of blues, the hydrangeas were more cooperative this year – some lavender hues and my favorite blue tones, aided by a generous dose of aluminum sulfate to acidic the soil. I wonder how much you have to add to get that brilliant blue you see in gardening magazines?
The garden is my backyard oasis, a tranquil respite from this crazy COVID world. How is your garden growing this year?
Let your photo(s) tell your story. The fresh air smell and sound of sheets flapping in the breeze on a summer day.
Not everything airborne is bad….
This month’s recipe was inspired by a book. Recipe for a Perfect Wife, by Karma Brown, is a quirky look at the lives of two newly married women living in the same suburban house sixty years apart – Nellie, a typical 50’s housewife, who is trying to get pregnant, and Alice, a reluctantly transplanted New York City writer, who is trying not to. Told in alternating voices, Nellie 1956 and Alice 2018, with quotes of outdated advice at the beginning of each chapter and lots of 50’s recipes, it’s an interesting look at marriage, then and now.
Link to the publishers/GoodReads review.
This book appealed to me because of it’s unique format, plus I thought it would nice to read about what life was like for my mother’s generation – my mother had 4 children under the age of 7 by 1960. (It’s exhausting just thinking about that.) The book was immensely readable, but not quite the light fluffy read I had expected. While it started out okay, it soon took a dark turn and ended up with a strange ending. I didn’t really like any of the characters, dishonesty seemed to be a common trait – hard to base a marriage on that, even back then when people often didn’t know each other well before becoming engaged. Of course the author was trying to make a point, and it would make an excellent choice for a book club discussion. You could even make some of the 50’s recipes like Baked Alaska. I always like it when the book club dessert matches the book club selection.
My recent Hermit Cookies blog, sparked a discussion about family cookbooks, Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer being old favorites, although my mother’s bible was the Purity Flour Cookbook. Growing up on a farm in the 60’s, my family meals were invariably our own home-grown vegetables and meat, and of course no meal was complete without a potato. No rice or noodle casserole dishes for us, and spaghetti was simply pasta doused with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. My mother did not experiment with recipes like Tuna Noodle Casserole or Chicken A La King because my dad and brothers would simply not have eaten them, and I myself was a picky eater, although she did make a good meatloaf and macaroni and cheese with bread crumbs on top.
For many modern housewives that era saw the ushering in of convenience foods, instead of made from scratch. Although we had boxed cake and brownie mixes, my mother made enough homemade pies and tarts to feed a threshing crew and just once that glorious Sixties Desert – Baked Alaska.
Perhaps I remember this momentous event because of it’s rarity. It was not for a special occasion, but simply on a summer evening, a couple of hours after supper to ensure that no one was too full for dessert. If you go to all that trouble, you want to make sure your masterpiece is appreciated.
For those of you unfamiliar, Baked Alaska is basically a mold of frozen ice cream and cake, smothered with a layer of toasted meringue.
Although both my (2009 reissued) Purity cookbook recipe and the one in the book, call for white sponge cake and strawberry ice cream, my mothers version was reminiscent of this Martha Stewart creation, with chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.
It was a marvelous sight to behold, with the meringue all puffy and peaked, and who would believe you could put ice cream in the oven! Perhaps I also remember it as chocolate cake was always my birthday choice growing up.
Baked Alaska can be complicated, if you want to mold it into a perfect dome shape, or use tea cups to make individual portions as in this Martha Steward recipe which calls for strawberry and vanilla gelato and of course, being Martha, she’s making the cake from scratch. What exactly do you do with all those separated egg yolks?
But it can also be easy if you just cut your cake and ice cream in a slab, layer it up, freeze it hard, and then smother it with meringue, as per this recipe in my mother’s 1965 version of the Purity cookbook.
Maybe not as fancy as the dome-like creation, but wouldn’t it be the same thing? I even wondered about using a carton of liquid egg whites but some sources said the heat from the pasteurization process would negatively affect the egg proteins. (Cream of tartar is included as an acidic stabilizer to keep the proteins in the egg whites from sticking together thus enabling a smoother stiffer consistency. Alternatives are lemon juice or white vinegar.)
So, I did a grocery run yesterday and bought a carton of liquid egg whites, and decided to experiment last night, and they whipped up just fine. I used lemon juice as I couldn’t find any Cream of Tartar at the store.
I forgot to buy cake, so I used two portions of Mug Cake mix from the pantry, not the best idea as the shape was not ideal and there wasn’t enough cake.
I froze two portions of vanilla ice cream in teacups (a la Martha above), and assembled them over the cake, and then added the meringue.
It wasn’t bad, but plenty sweet. I made the mistake of putting the assembled product including the meringue in the freezer for about ten minutes (as it said you could), while I cleaned up the mess, but I wouldn’t do that again, as it made the meringue hard and cold, and then it took too long to brown and by the time I took it out the ice cream was melting. Better to just put it in the oven as soon as it’s assembled. Of course I also stopped to take a few pictures, so that didn’t help.
If I was to make it again for a crowd, I’d do the slab cake, and maybe strawberry and chocolate gelato, which isn’t as sweet. Maybe when I can have people over again and hold a book club under the trees. It’s so brutally hot here this week, 35 C (95 F) and 42 (106 F) with the Humidex, that any ice cream served outside would melt lickety-split.
Despite my love of all things vintage, especially fashion, I don’t think I would have wanted to live in the fifties – it seemed very much a man’s world. I posed that question to my mother, and she said – it seemed okay at the time. Like many things, some decades are best viewed through a veil of nostalgia. I’ll leave you with some marriage advice quotes from the book – relics from the past….
Postscript: Have you ever made Baked Alaska?
Cleaning out – that’s what many of us have been doing, making productive use of our time during our COVID staycations. No matter that there’s nowhere to take the stuff now that the dump, Goodwill and thrift stores are all closed and the whole idea of holding a garage sale is frankly horrifying. Somehow the idea of pawing through someone else’s junk/germs is not very appealing, when even the library is quarantining returned books for 72 hours before disinfecting them for re-circulation. I did my annual house purge back in snowy January and the stuff is still sitting in the basement and the gardening items are still in the garage, set aside for the spring horticultural sale, long cancelled.
So, I wasn’t much interested, when in my first curbside pickup of library books, there was one I had ordered eons ago – Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter. But after I had read it, I thought – where were you last winter when I needed you!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Decluttering. A parent’s death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country-or even halfway across the world-to people and places who find value in what we leave behind.
In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?
Secondhand offers hopeful answers and hard truths. A history of the stuff we’ve used and a contemplation of why we keep buying more, it also reveals the marketing practices, design failures, and racial prejudices that push used items into landfills instead of new homes. Secondhand shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and what really needs to change to build a sustainable future free of excess stuff.
Why I Liked it:
This is not one of those how to declutter/reorganize/change your life manuals, but rather it’s an eye-opening look at what really happens to the unwanted stuff you donate. It certainly motivated me to rethink my “possession of things” in ways that those other books did not. Maybe it’s the current COVID crises and morbid thoughts of sudden death, but really in the end, it’s all just stuff and you can’t take it with you. So keep what you use and enjoy and get rid of the rest, and try not to buy as much in the future!
The author, Adam Minter, has done a great deal of research into the global secondhand industry, and being himself the descendant of junkyard owners, is well qualified to tell the tale. He also wrote Junkyard Planet-Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, a 2013 bestseller.
Much of the book involves his travel in places like Mexico, Southeast Asia and Africa – countries where the secondhand economy thrives, and where the stuff which doesn’t sell here is often destined. That old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is true. While there’s a widely circulated theory that by sending our clothes and electronic waste to third world countries we are harming their homegrown economies, the author debunks that myth. While undeniably some of it does end up in the dump, much of it is recycled and repaired to be resold to people who would otherwise have nothing. The author follows a container of discarded computers, cell phones and tube TVs to Africa and it’s thriving electronic repair shops – shops who would much rather have older recycled goods than new cheaper ones because they last longer and are made better. In one story, Greenpeace installed a GPS tracking device on a discarded TV in a shipment bound from England to Africa and then send a reporter to reclaim it at the other end, thus proving, according to their report, that it was destined for a digital dump. But it wasn’t – it would have been brought to a repair shop and then resold to someone who had nothing.
There’s a chapter on emptying the nest (professional estate cleaning crews), secondhand clothes, wiping rags (a whole separate industry), and why appliances don’t last, (remind me to buy a Speed Queen if my thirty year old Maytag washer/dryer ever wears out). Simple fixes such as making manufacturers release repair manuals for older models would do a lot to keep older electronics out of the dump.
I once donated an old 80’s radio/cassette player to the St. Vincent de Paul and the clerk thanked me as there were some seasonal workers in the store who were looking for a radio. They were Mexican, here to help with the pepper harvest. We smiled at each other. I was pleased too, as when we drop things off at the thrift shop, we hope they will be reused and appreciated by someone else – if not here than perhaps in some other country. In this world of have and have not, it’s comforting to know that sometimes happens.
PS. I’ve been thinking about my garage sale stuff and wondering – if things continue in recovery mode here and we don’t get a second fall wave – if I could just put some of the stuff out at the end of the driveway on a table some Saturday afternoon with a sign, Free for a Small Donation to COVID relief fund? That way it won’t sit in my basement until next year. A lot of what I have is winter stuff, Christmas decorations, wreaths, sweaters, etc. I only had a garage sale once, (advertised) and I remember people coming really early, like before I was awake!
Lily of the Valley is one of my favorite garden perennials – it’s delicate white flowers herald a unique fragrance which I always associate with the first days of summer. The scent is sweet, although not overbearing like that of honeysuckle or wisteria.
A woodland species, lily of the valley is not actually a lily but a member of the asparagus family, and is considered to be poisonous to pets and people.
It flowers in June here in Canada, although in other countries earlier in the spring. In France, May 1 is considered Lily of the Valley day, where vendors set up their stalls in the streets to sell bundles brought in from the countryside.
I inherited my now thriving patch from a free clump given to me by a fellow gardener.
Warning – it is an invasive species, spread through underground rhizomes, something I always appreciate in my garden where so much withers and dies, usually from neglect. A hardy plant, it can take care of itself, although it prefers a shady spot.
Often a favorite of bridal bouquets, like Kate Middleton’s, even a spray or two adds a delicate touch of white.
I like to put a few springs in a bud vase and perfume my rooms. While the smell may only last a few days, you can recapture the mood with scented products. I remember wearing a fragrance by Coty called Muguet-des-bois, many years ago.
Scented hand soaps are nice too – especially as we’re washing our hands so frequently – a little dose of springtime year round!
In the language of flowers, lily of the valley means the return of happiness, perhaps a signal of sunnier days ahead.
PS. The third week of May, this beautiful blue flower bloomed right in front of my lily of the valley.
I don’t know what it is and don’t even remember planting it – possibly it was from the horticultural sale two years ago — but it’s unfortunate they didn’t bloom at the same time, as blue and white is always a lovely color combination. It’s nice to know that even in this time of COVID monotony, the garden can still hold surprises.
PS: Speaking of old and new, I’m still on the old editor. When I decline, not now, it allows me to continue with the old, but I’m not sure if this is a permanent thing or if I haven’t been switched yet? Is anyone else still using the old? I would have thought they would have migrated everyone by now?
Since many of us are still living like good little hermits these days, I thought Hermits cookies would be a good topic for this weeks blog – which might also be my last blog for awhile depending on how well it goes with the new WordPress editor next week. I didn’t like the new Block editor when I tried it last spring (see Blockheads post) and am not in the mood for a new learning curve. Wordpress might think this is a good time to switch (or begin the migration as the Happiness Engineer called it), because we are all stuck at home, but call it computer fatigue or lockdown fatigue or whatever, I need less not more screen time right now.
Back to the Hermits – Webster’s dictionary defines a hermit as: “a) one that retires from society and lives in solitude especially for religious reasons : recluse, b) a spiced cookie.
Hermits are an old-fashioned recipe dating back from to the mid-1800’s in North America, or even earlier, possibly originating in the hermitages of the middle ages. They refer to any kind of spiced cookie containing dried fruit such a raisins, currants or nuts. They may have white or brown sugar and come in either bar, square or drop cookie format. They’re made from ingredients you might already have in your pandemic pantry, which along with the addition of cinnamon, cloves and spices produces a soft cookie which keeps well. Nutritionally, their sweetness comes from raisins and dates, and nuts are a good source of omega-3’s and protein.
There are various theories about the origin of the name. Some sources say they were called hermits because they looked like a hermit’s brown sack cloth, (the ones containing molasses). Others say the spices become more distinct with age, making the cookies taste better if they have been hidden away like hermits for several days. Very likely the oldest recipe goes back to the 12th or 13th century religious hermitages, where the basic ingredients would have been in common use at bakers’ tables. The terms for those abodes— “hermite” from the Old French or “heremita,” from the medieval Latin — may have been assigned to this treat by their inhabitants. Another possibility is that the Moravians, a German Protestant religious group known for their thin spice cookies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, were sometimes called “herrnhutter” in German or Dutch, and that might have sounded like “hermits” to an English-speaking cook. At any rate, they are spiced cookies based on raisins and nuts…..so let’s get to it!
My recipe today will be from my mother’s bible of country cooking, the Purity CookBook, first published by the Purity Flour Company in 1911. Her edition dates from 1945 and is well stained, and is in fact held together with that old Canadian standard – duct tape.
As well as main courses and desserts, it contains a large section on canning vegetables and making various jams and jellies. Nothing of course is low in fat or calories as those were not deemed important back then. When it was re-issued in 2009, I bought a copy for myself, which you can see is still in quite pristine condition.
Here’s the recipe:
and the ingredients…nothing fancy, although this version includes dates.
I used butter instead of shortening, and not as much, 1/3 cup. My Allspice container said it was a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, but allspice can also be a spice (from a plant berry) on its own. If Allspice is not in your spice rack, Google has plenty of references for substitutes, including one on one cloves, but I find cloves strong, so best not to overdo it.
The finished product:
My mother was not much of a cookie baker, as my dad preferred pies and cakes, so I don’t remember her making these very often when I was growing up but I always enjoyed them when she did. (She was more likely to make peanut butter or chocolate chip). Back in the 1990’s, I worked at a rural hospital where the dietary department still made much of the hospital food from scratch. Hermits were often on the cafeteria menu for morning coffee break, as were scones and homemade cinnamon buns. I hadn’t had hermits in years, so imagine my delight on seeing them at the bakery in my local grocery store last year. They’re baked up fresh, although from a mix ordered in, according to one of the staff, and they have regular customers, mostly older folks like me who remember them from childhood.
Of the three versions I’ve sampled, they’ve all have been a bit different, mainly in the spices department, but I think the bakery’s is the best, and probably comparable in price to homemade, ($5.49 for 12 large cookies), nuts and raisins being fairly expensive here unless you go to one of those bulk bin places. The key is the right combination of spices. Despite buying two dozen from the bakery, we ran out before the next grocery run, so I had to resort to making them from scratch. Mine did not taste the same as the last time I made them but I suspect my nutmeg was too old. That would have required a trip to the store, and I’m more like a hermit crab these days, scurrying around doing my essential errands quickly so I can return to the safety of my own home.
We all might be getting a little crabby these days from too much sheltering in place, but a sweet treat always helps! Remember to savor – according to the Petsmart website, hermit crabs take small bites and eat very slowly, usually at night. Enjoy!
Postscript: Do you have a favorite cookbook you use or may have inherited?