When I began writing this blog, I expected it to be about the need to create some structure in retired life. Over time, however, blogging about the stage of my life and career —I am “demi” retired—became less interesting than writing about the pleasures and occasional frustrations of everyday life in general. Another way of putting this is that while time marches on, life around you, if you allow it to, also becomes more interesting, more stimulating, and even a tad freer… and age, in fact, matters less and less.
It’s always been my nemesis. Every few months or so, for years and years, I have taken everything out of it and discarded what’s outlived its usefulness or gone the route of what-could-I-possibly-have-been-thinking. I have meticulously cleaned out the drawer and the organizer and carefully put everything back in a tidy, logical way. Each clean-out always felt like an end to chaos… a fresh, new start that surely, this time, I would be able to sustain.
Nonetheless, in a matter of days, that tidy, logically organized drawer had morphed into a mess. Note the chaos in the photo above.
Yesterday, after poking through the mess to get my face on, I unwrapped the latest free-gift-with-purchase cosmetic bag, Then it hit me. Why not just pitch the organizer and use the bags to store the make-up? After all, those compartmentalized organizers come and go—they break easily and the nooks and crannies are hard to clean. And they’re plastic, which is really not such a good thing. Moreover, I always seem to have cosmetic bags coming out my ears.
I did the requisite cleaning and pitching, then cleaned out the drawer itself. I put lipsticks and glosses in one bag; mascara, eye shadow, and liner in another; foundation and concealer in the third; blush in the fourth; brushes in the last. Absolute inspiration.
Well, maybe. On day one, everything is still in its tidy little packet. We will see how long that lasts
When I volunteer to “bring something,” my contribution is invariably an “old chestnut” whose outcome is never subject to question. For July 4th, a chocolate cake seemed the logical all-American choice. Given a miserable heat wave and the three loads of wash in progress, you’d think I would simply have thrown together my go-to, never fail “easiest chocolate cake.” But in a wave of what I can only characterize as heat-induced madness, I didn’t. I found a similar recipe in my Canadian Living: The Ultimate Cookbook—which had never disappointed me—and went for it, fully confident that it would be perfect and delicious.
I can’t blame the recipe because I took liberties with it. Forgetting that chocolate cakes are typically sturdier, I used the Southern-style soft wheat flour on hand, whose selling point, delicacy, is probably the polar opposite of the texture I would have gotten otherwise. Still apparently in that heat-induced fog, I sifted instead of whisked.
The batter was gorgeous, but the cake split in the last five minutes of baking. Meanwhile, despite having the AC at full tilt, the whole house felt dense and muggy. I took the cake out, confident that I could cover the veritable gorge sufficiently with icing.
The cake was supposed to be cooled for 10 minutes, then inverted on a rack to cool completely, and inverted again on the serving platter to ice. I wouldn’t normally do this for a picnic–I would just leave it in the cake pan—but I wanted it to look nice and thought I’d give it a go.
I think you know what came next: the deconstructed chocolate cake, a messy plate full of crumbs and broken pieces. There was a time when I might have burst into tears, but at this point in life, I have finally learned the virtue of keeping calm and carrying on, as the saying goes. Plus, I knew I could rely on Martha Pearl.
My Mother’s Southern Kitchen was the first cookbook of the southern collection that I started back when Nathalie Dupree had a southern cooking show on the then-new Food Network. James Villas’ book is a loving compendium of his mother Martha Pearl’s recipes, the best of which is her coffee cake. I threw it together in no time at all, as I’d done a week or so ago for a neighborhood event. This time, I knew that the soft-wheat southern flour would be perfect. I substituted buttermilk for whole milk, and threw in some fresh blueberries instead of walnuts. I suppose you could also use butter instead of shortening, but shortening does something lovejly for the texture, so I never mess with it.
The coffee cake was a hit, as I knew it would be. Unless you leave something out, it’s one of those perfect old chestnut, never-fail cakes—as Villas describes in the narrative. We’re munching on the deconstruction today, while I look for ways to “repurpose” it. I’ll update you if I find something.
All is good.
The greatest charm of that now-near-vintage Christopher Reeve movie, Somewhere in Time, was the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, where it was shot. As Reeve’s character explored the hotel, he magically found love in another century, to the tune of stirring romantic strain of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Pagannini.
But my near-obsession with grand hotels goes much farther back. I will never forget my first glimpse of what is now the Omni Mount Washington in New Hampshire, in 1969. Oh, it was breathtaking!. We haven’t been lucky enough to stay there—not yet—but it remains on our list.
Last week, however, my daughter and I were lucky enough, however, to stay in another of New England’s gracious old hotels, of which, at one point, there were reportedly about 400. Wentworth-by-the-Sea near Portsmouth, NH. Check the link to read its history, which, of course, is part of the charm with these grande dames. Over decades, centuries even, important people walked their halls; and important things, sometimes not so nice ones, happened there.
We had a lovely two-night stay in this serene location overlooking the water. The weather was picture-perfect, and the shops, restaurants, and landmarks in nearby Portsmouth were, as always, a joy to explore.
Decor-wise, the hotel had an ultra-modern look that, against the backdrop of the 19th Century architectural deals didn’t quite work for me. Eclectic is fine when well done, and I have no objection to updating; but the modern furnishings seemed a bit odd and out-of-place, and the feeling of stepping back in time was completely lost in the execution.
The view and gardens are magnificent. Enjoy the photos!
Sometimes, a pretty picture is enough.
There’s a meadow near us that’s destined to become a township park. The acreage was graded clear some time ago, but since then tall grasses, thistles, and Queen Anne’s lace have sprung up, creating an oddly lovely border. Against that what-is-so-rare-as-a-day-in-June sky, the bright green contrasts so nicely with the patches of soil.
All of that graceful rawness against the cloudless, brilliant blue seems almost intentional. It’s ours to enjoy till the bulldozers return, to make it tidy and planned and useful, I’m grateful for the permanently preserved green space but will miss that bare-bones meadow, which this time of year is resplendent with fireflies. I expect we’ll lose that bit of magic when the park is complete. More’s the pity.
In 1962, John Steinbeck wrote this: When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing. From Travels With Charley: In Search of America (The Viking Press, 1962)
In 1990, Charles Kuralt wrote this: The interstate highway system is a wonderful thing. It makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the interstates. From A Life on the Road (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990)
Hubby and I love our road trips. We plan ahead with real maps and reservations. We use GPS in the car, and appreciate it, but we also wander off route, sometimes according to plan and sometimes on a whim. The typical GPS-sanctioned route is often the most nerve racking. If you’re traveling for pleasure, who needs that? We far prefer the workaround.
We limit our driving to about five hours a day, which leaves time to enjoy the trip and is much healthier for backs, bones, and joints. The routes we chart are often a bit longer but almost always far more pleasurable. Over the years we’ve discovered stops that have since become mini-destinations, each offering up its own little treasures.
Going off the beaten path led us to our now favored route north, from Binghamton, NY, to the Vermont border. Over the years we discovered the Carrot Barn in Schoharie County (breadbasket of the American revolution and home of the Beekman Boys). I think of my favorite Richard Russo novels when we’re passing through Troy and smile every time I get that first glimpse of the White Mountains ahead. Sure beats the nightmarish routes through New Jersey, the NYC suburbs, and Connecticut.
Coming back from a wedding in Nashville about ten years ago, we went rogue and headed for Kentucky instead of continue west to 81. We made a random stop in Bardstown, where I had possibly the best fried green tomatoes of my life at the Old Talbott Tavern. We were evidently following the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which of course we didn’t know at the time.
In Pennsylvania, on an alternate route to the western part of the state, in the postage-stamp town of Belsano, I spotted a historical marker noting the birthplace of Malcolm Cowley, one of the Lost Generation American writers who found a home in 1920s Paris with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Who knew? I wouldn’t have learned that on Route 80.
In Quebec, we might have missed that woolen mill, or the Baie St. Paul. And if we hadn’t been willing to get off the beaten path in France, we never would have seen the breathtaking Gorges de la Nesques or had lunch at that wonderful place in Lourmarin, with the fire blazing on a rainy autumn day.
As in life, on the road—or, perhaps, off it—are endless possibilities, especially on those less traveled paths.
Today’s title is actually the lovingly borrowed title of a song written by Sandy Denny in 1967 and recorded by a variety of artists over the years—the signature recording, in my estimation, made by silky-voiced Judy Collins.
As those of you who follow my blog (thank you!) have no doubt deduced, I have a time and discipline issue, which is one of the reasons why I haven’t yet written The Great American Novel. On paper, at least. I’ve been joking for years that I’ve written it in the bathtub a zillion times—the problem being that all of those words fly off to Neverland once I get to the typewriter. Yes, I have been making this excuse since I had that most wondrous of typewriters, an IBM Selectric that I got for $10 when the junior college nearby was upgrading equipment. Best $10 I ever spent.
The honest-to-goodness truth—in the event that you’re not already way ahead of me on this one—is that I am highly unlikely EVER to write The Great American Novel, partly because I’m better at character than plot, and partly because I struggle terribly with focus. This blog keeps me writing, and that’s a very good thing. Writers, even those who are not destined for greatness or even for publication, need to write. Perhaps naively, I had thought that once the crush of intense, deadline-driven work assignments had eased, I would have no trouble finding time to write. But here’s the simple truth: I am now both busier and lazier, and the fact that I no longer have to obligate all of my day to work has made it much easier to obligate it to nothing at all. And so the time goes by—a little of this, a little of that. I am busy. Household chores, time with family and friends, playing around in the kitchen or garden, binging Euro and Brit TV (which, actually, is a good thing since it keeps me accustomed to hearing French, Italian, or German).
While there is great freedom is knowing that I don’t HAVE to do anything on a particular day because I don’t HAVE to be anywhere or do anything that day or even the next, there is also frustration that I haven’t been more productive, and that time is not slipping, but flying by.
Meanwhile, I have a paper folder stuffed with aborted writing attempts, some from nearly 40 years ago, that are probably worth revisiting. Plus an electronic file of remnants from the last 25 years. I used to say that I wanted to complete one fairly solid piece of fiction in my lifetime. The only obstacle to that goal is my own commitment. Thanks to the blog and Twitter world, some personal acquaintances who are accomplished and published writers, and to wonderful books like Parting the Curtains, I have no illusions about that the nature of that commitment. It is deep and unequivocal and definitely not for the faint of heart. Or the lazy and unfocused. You don’t play at writing.
Well, I may give it one last go. We will see.
Many moons ago, in another life and after something of a rough patch, I rang the doorbell of a modest, flat style home to present myself to a prospective landlady. I’d just seen the listing for a three-bedroom apartment in a solid city neighborhood, with church and school and people I knew all within a few blocks.
I was greeted by one of those smiling “map of Italy” faces so common in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She invited me in and excused her appearance—she’d been baking. Noting that the upstairs apartment was identical in layout, with a flourish she pointed me to the living room. I almost said yes on the spot, not because of the apartment or the affordable rent, but because on literally every surface in front of me were lined cookie sheets and platters full of gianette, the Italian anise cookies that in my family always signaled a celebration, always in the spring. They were iced in a rainbow of pastel colors, and the unmistakable perfume of anisette was everywhere.
Of course, my future landlady offered me a cookie. Of course, I accepted. That sealed the deal. True confession: I never told Mom that my landlady’s gianette were just as good as her own.
I remember that day, that experience, as a “Godwink“—a little message from heaven that this was a good fit, and that everything would work out just fine. When I shared the tale of the gianette with my parents, who lived several hours away, I could almost hear them trading worry for delight.
We lived there for five years before I bought a house a few miles away. There was a lot of up and down the stairs—sharing food, recipes, stories, landmark moments for the kids, the ups and downs of jobs and relationships, and a penetrating, real-life sadness when our landlord became very ill and passed away. I was glad we could be there for them then, and that my children had this valuable, if painful, life lesson. My landlady is gone now, too, but her darling daughter is raising her beautiful family in that same house.
Last week, I spent most of a day making two big batches of gianette for a family First Communion. They’re shaped like tiny doughnuts or little knots, then lightly iced with an anise-flavored glaze (I opted for anise oil instead of anisette—anisette is more authentic, of course). My mother often added colored sugar or sprinkles, but I’m all about not gilding the lily. In some Italian-American communities, they’re called Nonnie cookies, by the way. That’s pretty precious.
I packed the lion’s share of the two batches for the luncheon and most of the remainder into goodie bags, which I delivered to some of our neighbors early Sunday morning as a Mother’s Day treat. A dozen or so went into the freezer, to be tapped one-at-a-time to quiet the occasional craving. Giving most of the bounty away assures me the pleasure of baking without the danger that Hubby and I will consume all of that sugar and butter on our own.
Alas, you won’t find a recipe, or even a link to one, in this post. There are several different gianette recipes in my collection, but I’m still not sure on which, if any, my mother relied. Although the cookies I made this time were delicious, I’m still not entirely satisfied that I’ve absolutely duplicated Mom’s texture—or my landlady’s. When I find the right one, I will be sure to share it with you.
By the way, if you like to give away the goodies you make, consider signing up for King Arthur Flour’s Bake for Good initiative. For everyone who pledges to bake something to give away, King Arthur will donate the cost of a meal to the Feeding America organization. Funding for more than 41,000 meals have been provided since KAF started this program. Just another reason to love King Arthur Flour.