Simple gifts

I believe it was Helen Keller who said, “”Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what sunflowers do.” Helen Keller, of course, couldn’t see at all—at least not with her eyes. Still, it’s pretty good advice, don’t you think?

A field of sunflowers is uncommon in my little corner of the world. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that hundreds of sunflowers had burst into full bloom in a nearby patch of  field,  little more than a stone’s throw from my house.

Everyday I see people of all ages stopping by to take pictures or just have a look as these wonderful flowers turn their faces to the sun. In fact, girasole, the Italian word for sunflower, and tournesol, the French word, mean exactly that: turned to the sun. The local restauranteur who planted the field hadn’t expected such an over-the-top response to something she thought would just be a fun thing to do. Even the local TV cameras showed up. Turns out that, without much expectation or even intent, she gave a fairly priceless gift to the whole community.

In a world that seems reliably crazier every day, the simplest gifts count the most.

 

Mystic-ism

I’d wanted to visit Mystic Seaport in Connecticut for years by the time we finally got there on a misty (sorry—I couldn’t resist) day a few summers ago. Mystic is a delightful trip back in time if you appreciate the American Colonial period, and a great history lesson for kids. It’s easier to enjoy in spring or fall, when the tourist volume is lower. Earlier today, I was going through my photos and thought you might enjoy these.

Mystic schooner

 

 

Garden bounty

I haven’t had a full-blown vegetable garden since the early 80s; but up until that point, the gardens I planted and tended were fairly successful—healthy and productive and free of all the bad stuff. I’ve missed gardening over the years, but I gradually learned to accept the fact that I couldn’t do everything, all of the time. Today, I confine my efforts to a patch of fairly happy herbs nestled against our garage wall. My daughter and my son, however, love to grow things. My son, as we speak, has a tree positively overladen with figs in his city garden patch. My daughter and a friend plant and tend a very bountiful garden. Thankfully, Hubby and I are blessed with many local farm stands that offer a steadily increasing variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which are grown organically.

As lovely as this bounty is, however, it doesn’t begin to approximate the quality and beauty of the fruits and vegetables that we found at markets in France. Each of our trips to France has been in growing season. It would be impossible to forget the gorgeous array of freshly harvested produce in the market towns we visited in Provence—no doubt the reason why Provence continues to be so celebrated by many of the world’s greatest chefs. And why I have at least five Provençal cookbooks on my kitchen shelf.

But other parts of France are equally fertile. I’ve mentioned before that one of the great joys of blogging is that it puts you in touch with other bloggers across the globe. One of my favorite discoveries is Our French Oasis, tales of country life in the Charente Maritime in southwest France that are rich with gorgeous photos. Susan’s most recent post tells the story of her potager, or kitchen garden.

Appropriately, potage means soup or stew; and one of the great delights of the growing season is a soup made with vegetables fresh from the garden. There is the legendary soupe au pistou,* of course, but with fresh peas in season, you may want to try this simple but lovely potage. My daughter often serves a small portion as a starter. A parfait or even a shot glass—for juste un petit gout**—makes an elegant presentation. The recipe below is from Ginette Mathiot’s I Know How to Cook (Je Sais Cuisinier), which is roughly the French equivalent of our Joy of Cooking. The massive cookbook was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Stephanie a few years ago, and it’s really one-of-a-kind. Still,  I owe my daughter thanks for introducing us to this lovely early summer soup.

*The link is to David Lebovitz’s recipe, but you will find many others online.
**”Just a little taste”

Cover photo: Glorious beets at Four Corners Farm in Newbury, VT.

Pea Soup

1 pound, 10 ounces shelled peas [My note: You can approximate the quantity; European cooks often cook by weight. Just don’t be stingy.]
6-½ cups any stock [My note: Summer is a great time to make vegetable stock from all your peels and other odds and ends]
salt and pepper
½ cup crème fraîche (sour cream will do)
croutons

Put the peas in a large pan, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. [My note: To maintain the vibrant color of the fresh peas, I would bring the stock to a boil first, then add the peas.] Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Pass the soup through a strainer into a tureen, season with salt and pepper, and serve with the crème fraîche and croutons.

peas

Sitting on the porch shelling peas or snapping the ends off beans is one of those meditative kitchen chores I truly enjoy.

i know how to cook

Here’s the book. You will find it comprehensive but short on specificity. Every time I open it, I think of Julia Child’s insistence on detail when she was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You can read about that in My Life in France. You can find both at your favorite independent bookstore, or on Julia’s Amazon page.

 

‘You’ll shoot your eye out!’

Before you read this, please note:
1) The following is NOT about my husband; but, just as in reading a great work of literature or studying a famous painting, you are free to draw whatever conclusions you like.
2) It may sound “sexist.” It is.

A hospital stay can really knock it out of you even when you’re not the patient. Running back and forth to the hospital is in itself exhausting even without the associated stress. When you get home, you still have to walk the dog, put the trash out, go to the store, and—worse case scenario–water the lawn or shovel the snow, depending on the time of year. All you want to do is sleep, but you are wide-eyed at 2 AM, watching Frazier reruns. You seek distraction in oddly considered chores. All things considered, however, this is not the best time to sharpen your knives or climb a ladder to dust the top of the refrigerator. No household needs two recovering patients.

You think you will be so much better off when your patient is discharged, but going home is even more challenging if your patient is a male.

You’ve seen those cartoons of the “ER for men with colds” circulating on Facebook. Annoying though a whiner may be, you are actually in more trouble if your patient is one of those stalwart soldier types. If you’ve twisted your face in chagrin to scream, “WHY ARE YOU LIFTING THAT?” to a husband recovering from hernia surgery, you will understand why I’ve adopted that priceless line from A Christmas Story, borrowed for the title of this post, as my own code for, “What are you, nuts?” Sometimes, it even works.

You may be accused of sounding like a broken record (does anyone under 50 even know what that is?) or being a shrew, nag, or know-it-all. If he’s too polite and considerate to say any of those things (which the men in my life, fortunately, have always been), you will still see that sentiment very clearly written across his face. If you firmly believe you are always right in such circumstances, you are.

The behavior I’m describing has nothing to do with how smart they are; in fact, the smarter they are, the worse they are at applying common sense to situations involving their own well-being. They may tell you they just want to feel normal again, which I agree is understandable, or—much worse—they still think they can do everything they did at 17. Sadly, the restoration of health after illness or injury does not include time travel.

Fighting this battle does wear you down. After all, you are watching someone do exactly what sound reason and people who know better have said he shouldn’t do. As a result, you imagine one worst-case scenario after another—for example, checking repeatedly to see if he’s still alive when he falls asleep in the middle of The Ballad of Josie Wales. (Clue: If he falls asleep, it’s probably because he’s seen it 75 times.)

The only possibility of an end to this frustration is that at some point in the far distant future, your husband, father, or any other recuperating male in your care, may turn to you and say, “You were right.” And to a woman who knew she was right all along, that’s almost—mind you, I said almost—as good as jewelry.

Photo: One of the hospitals in our area. Sadly, even the Fourth of July dress can’t compensate for the fact that it looks like a computer card.

 

 

 

 

O Canada!

Next to France and Italy, which for me is a toss-up, I love Québec best. I won’t speak for Hubby, but I believe he feels pretty much the same way. Therefore, in honor of Canada Day, and all things Canadian, here are just a few photos from past summer trips. In the cityscape cover photo, you can see almost all of the walled Vieux Ville, the old city, with the Château Frontenac at its heart on the right, overlooking the St. Lawrence. It is all so lovely. If I could just wish myself there, right now…

 

Dutch country ‘Roots’

Even when you’re not completely #retired, there’s more time for spur-of-the-moment adventures.

Finding ourselves with an obligation-less day, on Tuesday we set out for the legendary Root’s Market in Pennsylvania Dutch country. There were other possibilities, of course, but Root’s is open ONLY on Tuesdays, and we knew it would be an easy ride that wouldn’t consumer the entire day.

Farmers’ markets are ubiquitous in this part of the world. Central Pennsylvania, once you get out of its small cities, is still replete with farmland even though much of it, sadly, has been sold off for development. In the summer months, we never buy fruit or vegetables in the supermarket—we go right to the source. There’s a farm market not too far away that has been in the same family for more than a century. More about that one on another day as it deserves its own post!

People have been telling us about the wonders of Root’s for years. Even though the best of the summer bounty is still a few weeks away, we thought that it might have something unique to offer.

And, in a way, it did: a cast of thousands. Shoppers, that is, purchasing everything from $1 boxes of assorted school supplies to fruits and vegetables to locally smoked meats  to flowering plants… and then some. Although disbursed through several buildings and the outdoor areas between them, the crowd was thick and slow-moving. And it was hot.

I made a few discoveries:

One is that even the Amish have discovered the selling power of designer coffee.

Another is that if you have a grandchild who likes matchbox vehicles, you can find them there, “at a good price.”

The third is that the larger the market, the larger the crowd, the more overwhelming the display, the less inclined we are to buy anything. Hubby and I are very much alike in that respect.

And so, we’ve done Root’s. Our next fruit-and-veggie buy will be at one of our local farm stands. And our next spontaneous day trip will probably be to a rose garden.

 

 

One in a thousand

It’s a gloomy Friday. While I appreciate the good things that rainy days do for the water supply, the bounty of fruits and vegetables our farmers will be harvesting soon, and the flowers and shrubs in my “dooryard,” as my Maine relatives call it,  I would prefer some of that sunshine we had a few days ago.

So I guess I’ll just have to create it for us, with a photo tour of our cruise on the 1000 Islands a summer or two ago.

The 1000 Islands, on the Canadian Border in northwestern New York, had been on my you-know-what-list since roughly 1971, when I worked with a well-known photographer whose family had a summer place on one of the islands. Stunned by his photos and fascinated that there were not one, but two, castles there, I determined to see them someday. More than 40 years later, Hubby and I were on our way.

To start with, it was an easy ride north, straight up 81. And every day after that was easy and relaxing as well. The St. Lawrence, which surely must be one of the most beautiful rivers on the planet, is one of the longest and most complex water systems in North America. The water is French marine blue and the air is crisp and clean. This is one of the few tourist boat excursions you absolutely should take—totally relaxing and well worth the price for the history and lore you hear along the way.

We always do road trips in September, to avoid the summer throngs. If you like more activity, such as summer festivals,  you won’t find much to do in the 1000 Islands after Labor Day, save to enjoy the considerable natural beauty.  That was fine for us, especially for a first visit. We stayed on the US side but did drive across the bridge to Ontario to visit the charming town of Gananoque. Yes, that’s a French name, and there’s a French festival in Cape Vincent, on the US side, every July. If we ever go back that way, I’d like to be there then, crowds or not, loving all things French as I do.

There are actually 1,864 islands in the archipelago; the qualification for island status, as you will find on the website linked above, is that the island must be visible 365 days per year and must have at least one tree. And yes, the salad dressing probably originated there.

If by chance your weather is as dismal as ours, or even if it isn’t, perhaps you’ll enjoy some photos from our cruise. Perhaps you’ll plan your own visit if you haven’t been there. The cover photo, above, is Boldt Castle.