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.
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.
Spring is being to seem like the “skipped season.” Winter stalked us right through April. Since then, the temperature has been fluctuating wildly: high 80s one day, then plummeting 20 to 30 degrees the next. I hate those wild swings. They’re as hard on my temperament (sorry, everyone I love) as they are on my bones, joints, and sinuses.
But who’s complaining? Our early rhododendron were the loveliest they’ve ever been. I had to replant rosemary and parsley, but all of the other herbs soldiered through the winter and are looking just fine. The Irish yews in the back, the ones Hubby calls “shrimpies,” are bolting. The roses are budding and stretching out across the trellises. The hostas are gorgeous. Everything in the pots looks happy and stable, at least so far.
Here in the US, the second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day.
We spent it with the kids. The plan was brunch, then an excursion to see the azaleas in full flower at Jenkins Arboretum. It was raining—not pouring, not storming, but the kind of slow, steady you’d beg for in mid-July. I wasn’t overly anxious to tramp around in the rain, but the kids convinced me. We’d been there before on Mother’s Day, several years ago, and I remembered well what a lovely place it is. We pulled out the umbrellas and set out.
Azalea Hill, it turns out, may have been ever lovelier than it is on a sunny day. First, we practically had the arboretum to ourselves. Other mothers, apparently, were not as willing to tramp around in the rain. Second, sunshine, much as we all crave it, can be a distraction. More than one gifted photographer I’ve known has expressed a preference for the subtle light of a cloudy day. The colors were not only beautifully vivid against the gray sky, but also impossible to miss.
Note to self: Even the grayest day holds pleasures. Don’t be an old you-know-what.
Note to readers: Jenkins Arboretum is a stunning, calming oasis. If you’re within a few hours of Philadelphia, check the link above and plan a visit.
Truthfully, of my 100+-volume cookbook collection, there are only a few I actually use with regularity, primarily for baking. I’m not precise or patient enough to use recipes for everyday cooking. But one that I do use is The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook. I love this modest but mighty cookbook, last mentioned in my Easter bread post, for more reasons than I can count.
Today, it’s all about the meatloaf. I realize that the weather is getting warmer at last, and that heartier fare is not on our minds so much this time of year. But meatloaf is a great thing to throw in the oven while you laze on the porch with an apero, as the Italians call it. Plus, it makes fabulous sandwiches, hot or cold.
My mother’s meatloaf was beef and pork, two eggs, a splash each of milk and Worcestershire sauce, about two tablespoons of ketchup, salt , and, of course, breadcrumbs (the kind you make from the ends of bread, left to dry out on the counter for a day or so), salt and just a pinch of pepper. She glazed the top with stripes of ketchup, which caramelized nicely to add a slightly sweet tang.
Over the years I’ve tried a few meatloaf recipes which, at the time, I thought might be more interest. 72 Market Street Meatloaf, named for the Venice, California, restaurant where it was a staple, is a much more refined meatloaf worthy of a special dinner; but the ingredient list is as long as your arm and you won’t put it, or the wine-and-shallots sauce designed to accompany it, together in five minutes. Ina Garten’s meatloaf isn’t bad either. It reminds me more of the meatloaf I grew up with.
Given the choice, however, my favorite meatloaf in recent years is the Italian-style Polpettone**, in the The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook.
This recipe is close to perfect as is, but I understand that some of you may not eat veal or pork. You can skip either or both, but make sure that the fat content of your ground beef is generous. Italian-style chicken sausage might be a reasonable substitute; turkey sausage would probably be too dry. If you eat only ground turkey or ground chicken, my advice is to find a recipe designed for those products.
As you will see, the instructions say to mix everything together on a platter. I tried that, thinking it might be easier; but in the end found my giant stainless steel bowl works better. Wash up well—you absolutely MUST mix meat loaf with your hands.
Just as an aside, Roseto is in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Adriana Trigiani has written about the town where her grandparents lived in several books. It is also the home of Ruggiero’s Market, where you can find Anna Marie Ruggiero’s marvelous cookbook. Or purchase it online here.
*Excepting Mom’s because to do otherwise would be heresy.
**Another version of Polpettone, a stuffed one, from Memorie de Angelina, an Italian food blog that I love (you will, too!), can be found here.
Dear Frances Mayes,
I frankly never thought anything else of yours could eclipse that smashing book—which really wasn’t about travel, of course, but about how travel changes us, fundamentally. Then I read, and was surprised at, your gut-wrenching memoir, Under Magnolia. Suffice it to say that if I had thought about it, I would have imagined your life-before-fame otherwise. We never really know what’s beneath the surface.
I finished Women in Sunlight yesterday, with tears streaming and that disconnected feeling of “What next?” that always follows on the heels of a book that knocks you silly.
You are—allow me to presume—among the best of the current crop of Southern writers, whom I have always loved for the richness of place in their work and their ability to make place a character all its own. Women in Sunlight has characters strong and multi-dimensional enough not to be subsumed in the glorious setting of a Tuscan village, or Venice, or Florence, or the Cinque Terre, or Capri. But Italy is the character, from the start, that brings them all together, in reality and in metaphor.
I love the intertwining of poetry in this book, the sense that, as in a poem, every single word was meticulously selected and weighty with meaning. I love the bits of poems interspersed here and there with the text. How brilliant—and full of gumption—to make the storyteller, Kit, a poet! One can sit on the surface, watching, or go deeper and deeper, just like Julia leaping off the cliff in Corniglia.
And there is that one stunning sentence—”I write in ink.” There is no undoing. Margaret knew that. Except, sometimes, if you are brave and your reach is wide enough, there is a chance at redoing. Camille, Susan, and Julia discovered that. Kit, too, in her new incarnation. I adored these characters, and also those in the periphery who egged them on.
How can I thank you enough for allowing me these two weeks in Italy, for introducing me to these fascinating people and allowing me to watch them grow, at a time in life when it would be all too easy not to?
Truly, you have outdone yourself.
Notes to readers: Full disclosure: I’m a reader, not a critic, not even a book blogger. But I do like to write about books that I find extraordinary in some way, with the hope that others will enjoy them as I have.Of course, I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, too. Please don’t opt for “I’ve seen the movie” because the books are so much more wonderful.