Friday, December 13, 2013

Apple pie

Sometimes you get old recipes right the first time: you decipher the flowery language, you make the right substitutions, you determine the correct proportions. And sometimes, well, you don't.

This is a story of when I got it wrong.

We begin in apple season. I've been buying apples nonstop at the farmers' market every Saturday, and sometimes my friend asks me to pick up her farm share for the week and I wind up with a dozen more apples besides. A few weeks ago, I found myself with more apples than I knew what to do with. So I decided to make a pie. Easy, right?

I turn to my newest cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Mrs. Hannah Glasse, originally published in 1747 and updated in 1805. Hot off the presses! Verbatim, here is what she tells me about how to make apple pie:
"Make a good puff paste crust, lay some round the sides of the dish, pare and quarter apples, and take out the cores, lay a row of apples [t]hick, throw in half the sugar you design for your pie, mince a little lemon peel fine, throw over, and squeeze a little lemon over them, then a few cloves, here and there one, then the rest of your apples, and the rest of your sugar. You must sweeten to your palate, and squeeze a little more lemon. Boil the peeling of the apples and the cores in some fair water, with a blade of mace, till it is very good; strain it, and boil the syrup with a little sugar, till there is but very little and good, pour it into your pie, put on your upper-crust and bake it. You may put in a little quince or marmalade, if you please."
This raises several--okay, many--questions. First, I need to find that puff paste recipe. Second, how many apples? What kind? I suppose I can wing the seasonings, but really, how much sugar should I design for my pie? (And why on earth is this recipe so poetic?)

The recipe for puff paste is no help:
"Take a quarter of a peck of flour, rub in a pound of butter very fine, make it up in a light paste with cold water, just stiff enough to work it up; then roll it out about as thick as a crown-piece, put a layer of butter all over, sprinkle on a little flour, double it up and roll it out again; double it, and roll it out seven or eight times; then it is fit for all sorts of pies and tarts that require a puff-paste."
Upon doing a bit of research, I discover that a quarter of a peck of flour is 2 dry quarts of flour, or 8 cups. This tells me several things: First, this will make WAY more puff paste than I possibly need for one pie. Second, this is probably because most women make a lot of pies and tarts at once (on baking day, for example), unlike our silly modern methods of making one pie at a time when we want it. Third, I need to know how thick a crown-piece is.

Happily, I have some help in the form of Fresh from the Past, a collection of modernized recipes from 18th-century London. The book contains recipes very similar to Mrs. Glasse's puff paste and apple pie, so I set to a makeshift sort of preparation, combining and substituting where I see fit. For example, I design 1/4 cup and 2/3 cup sugar for my pie (divided for that layered effect) as recommended by the modern book. The most troubling part is where I make a syrup of the apple peels, water, and sugar. Most likely this is meant to extract some of the pectin to help the pie gel, but my syrup winds up more watery than pectin-y. Nevertheless, I pour it over the apples, cover the whole thing with a top crust, and bake. Thanks to the mace and cloves, the pie smells heavenly.

And it tastes heavenly, too. The problem? The watery syrup turns the whole dish into pie soup. It never gels, perhaps too because I used a mixture of sweet and tart apples rather than sticking entirely to tart Granny Smiths.

Josh makes a lot of fun of the pie, and I vow to redeem myself later with a new pie. (It's semi-successful.) And I settle down to enjoy the tasty pie soup served over Greek yogurt, which I highly recommend should this happen to you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: The Tavern Club

Happy December! I've just returned from a whirlwind trip home to Cleveland for Thanksgiving, and it was wonderful to see family and take long walks and eat lots of delicious (modern) food. Around the holidays we often reflect on the past--not only our recent past and childhoods, but the "family past," stories about my grandfather's grandparents and early Cleveland. Occasionally trips downtown are involved. Yes, I come by my history obsession genetically.

This time around, my sister and I had the chance to visit the Tavern Club, a venerable men's club in downtown Cleveland. Our grandfather is a long-standing member of the club (and he owns the striped tie to prove it!), and he escorted us to the club's yearly Father-Daughter Tea the evening after Thanksgiving. This is the one time women are allowed in the club, and while we weren't allowed to take documentary photos, I took careful mental notes to report back to you.

(Cleveland Area History, 1904)

Back in the 1890s, when Cleveland hadn't yet experienced its troubles of the mid-twentieth century and was still home to millionaires like John D. Rockefeller, many well-to-do men belonged to clubs. As Warren Corning Wick, chronicler of Millionaires' Row, noted,
"Membership in these clubs was carefully noted in code next to a man's listing in the Blue Book, the Bible of high society."
Just as in England (where Cleveland men most likely got the idea), a man's club told a lot about him. And in the 1890s, the sons of prominent Cleveland families decided that none of the available clubs were quite right; they were too stuffy, too grown-up, with not enough emphasis on horse-racing and squash. So they got together and founded the Tavern Club in a humble house, though it quickly moved to its official, current building in 1904. The new building, "an adaptation of Elizabethian architecture," included squash courts upstairs, lockers, and plenty of dark rooms for playing poker and smoking cigars. While the squash courts have been improved, the building still looks remarkably like it did in 1904.

Founder and first president Henry K. Devereux (Heritage Pursuit)

My grandfather gave us the grand tour, and we took our time poking around. Dark wood paneling and chinoiserie accents make you feel immediately like you're in a turn-of-the-century club, and there's a massive fireplace surrounded by comfy leather chairs in almost every room. The walls are covered with tasteful paintings of female nudes (it is a men's club, after all), 1916-era photographs labeled with inside jokes, and portraits of club presidents and squash team champions. The bar on the first floor is plastered with old stock certificates, supposedly dating from the stock market crash in 1929--the certificates were worthless, so members papered the walls with them instead. Upstairs you can peek in the marble bathrooms, and in the basement wooden lockers remain from the days of Prohibition, where men could store a personal bottle of spirits away from home.

The whole building felt like such an old-boys' club. As my grandfather put it, it's the kind of place where "deserving young men" could get away from the rigors of business and relax with their closest friends in a congenial atmosphere. What's even more fascinating is how the club has survived, because it's such a hold-over from the days when men and women relaxed in segregated circles. I'm not sure you'd find any all-male clubs being founded in America today. More's the pity: despite the exclusivity, the Tavern Club was a cozy place to while away a late November afternoon.

Works cited: My Recollections of Old Cleveland by Warren Corning Wick. Excerpt from Cleveland Town Topics, May 7, 1904.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Colonial Cookbook: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

Meet Mrs. Hannah Glasse. By day, she is a plain English housewife, struggling to scrape by in the mid-1700s. By night, however, she works on her revolutionary new idea: a cookbook designed for the masses of untrained servants working in fine English homes.

source: Wikipedia

By 1746, when Glasse began to write The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a growing middle class was settling into the cities of England. Hoping to set themselves up comfortably, they hired servants, but very few of those servants actually knew how to cook. Glasse aimed to fill that void with her cookbook, offering a collection of original recipes and those rewritten from other sources. She was clear about her motives: "I do not pretend to teach professed Cooks, my design being to instruct the ignorant and unlearned...and that in so full and plain a manner, that the most ignorant Person, who can but read, will know how to do Cookery well," she stated in her introduction.

And instruct she did. According to food historian Karen Hess, Glasse's book sold well in England and her colonies in North America following its publication in 1747. Many noted Americans owned copies (including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington), despite their growing discontent with Mother England. In the mid-18th century, many Americans still relied on English foods, as they still saw themselves as British subjects. Yet ingredients found only in North America crept into their English recipes, as Glasse's special "American Mode of Cooking" section proves.

And we see "American" ingredients and recipes in this book because I'm using the 1805 edition. By this point, foods in America began to take on a more distinctly "American" flavor, just as the newly-minted nation began to form its unique identity. This edition comes at a major turning point in American history, and the recipes and ingredients reflect that, harking back to the colonists' European origins while looking ahead to New World foods.

I'll try to highlight that cross-section with the recipes I choose from Glasse's book, but of course you can expect some recipes just for fun, too. How could I have resisted those stewed pears?

Works cited: "Hannah Glasse: The original domestic goddess" (Independent). British Library. Karen Hess introduction.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Historical links, lately

Happy Friday! I'm planning to enjoy some unexpectedly warm November weather with plenty of walks outside and reconnecting with friends. And of course, some kind of extravagant baking/cooking project will be involved. Fall chestnuts, I have my eye on you.

Hope your weekend is relaxing and fun. In the meantime, here are some fun historical links from around the web...

Houseplants throughout history. Make your own Hanging Gardens of Babylon!

The wonder of the mechanical apple peeler-slicer-corer, fresh from the 1880s. Also, that pie sounds amazing.

Wednesday, November 13 was National Indian Pudding Day. And last year I made Indian pudding! It's as good as NPR makes it sound.

Dry your fruits and veggies colonial-style.

These colorized old photos are stunning.

Happy weekending!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Spiced, stewed pears

Thank you for all your wonderful comments on our news! It can be scary to put big announcements out into this void of the internet, so it meant a lot to read your good wishes.

We're knee-deep in fall over here in New England. Leaves turning color, crisp and clear afternoons, days growing shorter. Sometimes I think that New England is my favorite place to be come fall. Though the leaves turn brilliant orange and red in Ohio, the days are never as consistently clear and blue, thanks to our moody Lake Erie. Plus, as a history teacher, fall and colonial history seem to go hand-in-hand for me, and there's so much history to be mined here in Rhode Island. Walking by a low stone wall puts me in mind of a colonial homestead, the stones demarcating property lines from faraway neighbors. And teaching colonial history come fall, as I'm doing this year, just feels right. (Maybe it's the Thanksgiving/Pilgrim connection, which is basically ingrained by this point.)

At any rate, I'm going to pursue some colonial studies of my own on this little blog for a while. We've looked at 18th-century Williamsburg before, thanks to the Williamsburg Art of Cookery, but now we're going to get serious. We're hauling out the real, original recipes. Even if the results are less than savory.

Luckily, one of the first recipes I tried turned out beautifully.

Pears are delicious on their own, and oh-so-fall and wintry. Since I was little, some relatives have been sending us a big box of pears and grapefruit for Christmas every year, which my dad would store in the cold cellar of our house. When he felt like topping off a meal with fresh, crisp fruit, he'd trek down to the basement and return with a perfectly-chilled pear, and he'd slice it up for all of us to sample. It's still one of my favorite holiday (and post-holiday) traditions.

But Mrs. Hannah Glasse, writer of one of colonial America's most popular cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, takes those pears and raises me one. You peel and quarter the pears, then bathe them in a delicious mixture of red wine, cloves, sugar, and lemon peel. Bake until the pears are soft and blushing, and they taste like November straight out of the oven. There's nothing better.

Spiced, Stewed Pears
(adapted from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy)

3 pears, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup red wine
1 tbsp lemon peel
4-6 cloves (varies depending on how much spice you want)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a small bowl, mix the sugar and wine together until sugar dissolves.

Place the pears in a ceramic or glass baking dish and pour the wine mixture over them. Scatter the lemon peel and cloves (more if you like intense spice, less for a milder flavor) over the mixture. Bake for 40 minutes, stirring the pears once halfway through.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dining at Downton: Champagne julep

There's something I've been keeping under my hat for a while, and it's time you knew: Josh and I are engaged!

We're thrilled, and despite all the chaos of starting a new school year, we couldn't be happier. We're also trying to get used to calling each other "fiance," which feels pretty weird. (Did anyone else find that?)

As we've been telling our families and friends, they have been very kindly responding with good wishes and congratulations...and Champagne. Lots of Champagne. It's pretty funny, actually, and we've been enjoying it quite a bit, when we can open the bottle. (Josh struggled greatly to open the bottle of Prosecco we used to make the following cocktail. In the end, the cork shot through two rooms and landed behind the couch. It boggles the mind!)

that dastardly cork

I can't help but think that the Crawley family would have toasted with Champagne when Matthew and Mary announced their long-awaited engagement on Downton Abbey. We never saw the family's response (because, let's face it, Matthew and Mary smooching in the falling snow is all you really needed by that point), but Champagne would have been an appropriate toast. So let's extend our little celebration to the internet via a 1920s Champagne julep, straight from The Savoy Cocktail Book.

Personally, I find this to be kind of a silly cocktail, as it's basically Champagne with sugar. Nevertheless, it's an easy and refreshing drink to make, especially if you're distracted by exciting news. Simply add Champagne (or Prosecco, as I did) to a glass with a teaspoonful of sugar, stir, and garnish with fruit or mint. And toast to your favorite celebratory news.

Champagne Julep
(slightly adapted from The Savoy Cocktail Book, via Savoy Stomp)

1 bottle of Champagne or Prosecco
2 tsp of sugar, divided
mint, to garnish

Pour 1 tsp of sugar each into 2 long tumblers. Pour enough Champagne into each glass to fill, and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add ice and bruised mint. Enjoy, and top off with Champagne as needed.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Research comes from the unlikeliest of places

As evidenced by my various afternoon adventures, I love visiting historic sites. I will drag Josh to living history museums just to pretend I'm living in colonial New England (more on that soon). When my parents called to say they were planning a weekend in upstate New York, and that they hoped to visit some painters' houses and one of the Roosevelt sites, I dropped everything to join them. Nothing says vacation to me like poking around perfectly preserved homes from another era.

But why? Yes, I'm a huge history nerd, but what exactly do I love about it? (As Josh keeps asking me.)

First, I love feeling like I'm stepping into another era. There's no better way than to actually stand in the house where the Vanderbilts entertained, or to look out at the views the servants at The Elms saw. Sure, reading historical fiction transports me to another era, as does obsessively watching Downton Abbey, but there's no replacement for seeing a 1920s refrigerator in person. And that kind of visual only fuels my imagination when I'm reading.

That brings me to the main reason why I love historic houses: each visit is a treasure trove of research. Maybe the information won't be useful for my current projects, but I can always file it away in the back of my mind, or jot down an idea in my notebook, to call up later. Guides are often bursting with strange factoids--our guide at the Vanderbilt Mansion, for example, reminded us that the Vanderbilts could build what they did because they didn't have to pay income tax. (It hadn't been invented yet.) These bits of information can spark a new idea or flesh out a current one.

During that weekend in New York, my parents and I visited the homes and studios of the Hudson River School landscape painters Frederic Church and Thomas Cole. I was finishing a draft of a historical YA novel about a young woman who longs to be a painter, and I was struggling to add enough specific details that would make her world come to life. Turns out that visiting these two homes was exactly what I needed. I got to look at Thomas Cole's paintbox, which he took with him on his regular 12-mile hikes across the mountains. Cole punched studs into his personal trunk to decorate it, and Frederic Church, himself a student of Cole, filled his home with paintings he collected during his world travels. I even learned when paints began to be sold in tubes rather than as powders.

These kinds of details are gold to writers of historical fiction, and they're tough to find in regular research routes. Plus there's no replacement for soaking in the feel of an artist's home; the very atmosphere of a place can inform your work.

If you like to visit historic homes, what do you love about it? Any places to recommend?

Top two photos of Thomas Cole house; bottom three of Frederic Church house.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park

About a month ago I met up with my parents in Hyde Park, New York, for a weekend of sight-seeing and poking around historic places (this is the order of the day with my family). After touring two painters' homes on the first day, we headed to the Vanderbilt Mansion bright and early on Saturday. Now, I have seen my share of Vanderbilt mansions, and those of their friends. Living so close to Newport, it's basically a law that I have to make a yearly pilgrimage to the Breakers or Marble House. But I'd never seen the mansion in Hyde Park.

the entrance hall

Friends, it was worth it. It was the American version of Downton Abbey.

The Vanderbilts were one of the wealthiest families in the 19th century. Patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt created a shipping and railroad empire in the early 19th century, and his children and grandchildren used that money to build magnificent mansions during the Gilded Age, following the Civil War. Only a few of his descendants used their inheritances wisely--most of the family, including those who lived at Newport, became famous for throwing money around and trying to marry their children off to British royalty. However, grandson Frederick William actually grew his inheritance, and he got to build a bunch of beautiful residences to boot. So we made our way to his "country palace" in Hyde Park.

Frederick and his wife Louise purchased the estate as a country home, and while they often entertained friends there, for the most part it was just the two of them. Well, and loads of servants.

Louise's bedroom, because we all need a gated bed

The mansion is a gorgeous example of late-Gilded Age architecture and decoration, complete with servants' quarters that mimic the design of the public rooms. The first floor, designed for entertaining, is laid out in an oval, with dining and sitting rooms fanning off to the sides. The second floor is no different, with a gallery in the center to let light filter down to the first floor. From there you can peek into bedrooms, ranging from "simple" quarters for guests to the his-and-hers bedrooms designed to look like the palace at Versailles. A few rooms were even set up as though the Vanderbilts had left for the season; white cloths covered all the furniture and only a single lamp lit the interiors.

What fascinated me about this house was the sharp contrast between upstairs and downstairs. This is Downton Abbey-speak for the employers (who lived "upstairs") and employees (who lived "downstairs") of the Gilded Age in America. Though the basement servants' floor was laid out in the same manner as the first and second floors, the decoration was completely different: dark wood free of ornamentation, small windows that didn't let in much light, simple furniture. The servants' staircase was painted silver to mark the shift from the gold in the public rooms.

A staff of over 60 kept the house running during the entertaining season, while the Vanderbilts only ever entertained, at maximum, 16 guests. It was easy to picture a Downton-like lifestyle at Hyde Park, and in a way that's what the Vanderbilts were going for.

Wealthy Americans in the 19th century longed for the class and distinction they felt came with a European background. They traveled to Europe and purchased all the old art and sculpture and furniture they could find, because they felt American art and furniture wasn't refined enough. By building such a palace and staffing it to the nines, the Vanderbilts, like many wealthy families, were trying to become European. No wonder the place felt so English!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Shortbread fans (and a bit about ovens)

It's the last gasp of summer, friends. The air is getting cool at night (sometimes). Stores offer apple cider in big displays. And this week I go back to school.

To mark the occasion, let's look at one more recipe from this summer's Canadian vacation. It's a pretty basic shortbread recipe, one that calls for three ingredients and a modicum of decoration. But things get interesting with the instructions.

First, the original recipe calls for "washed butter." Why would you need to give your butter a bath? According to the many homesteading blogs that encourage you to make your own butter, you have to wash fresh butter well in order to drain away all traces of milk. Otherwise it goes rancid. The only other reason I can think of for using "washed butter" here is to make sure your butter is, well, buttery. Shortbread depends on a specific blend of butter, flour, and sugar, and there's no room for anything else.

Once you've mixed all the ingredients and prepared the cookies, you're instructed to "bake in a slow oven (325 F)." What?

cooking range, c. 1910
The phrase "slow oven" comes from a time before ovens had regulated temperatures. You'll find it in early American cookbooks when food was baked in Dutch ovens and in later ones when women used monstrous ranges, the predecessor to today's stove-oven combination. Until the 1920s, when most families had made the transition to gas ovens, women had to rely on their understanding of heat to put on enough wood or coals to bake bread, or to let the coals burn out to bake something more delicate, like cookies. Even into the 1920s and 1930s, some families didn't have "heat regulators," as the editors of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book called them. And if that was the case, "judgment and experience must be the guides."

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, from where this recipe originates, used both points of reference ("slow oven" and a specific temperature) because many Americans were in the middle of switching over when it was published in 1930. Some readers had heat regulators, while others didn't. It's fascinating to see how the smallest details can illuminate a turning point in American domestic history.

I am hopelessly reliant on temperatures, just as I am pretty dependent on recipes. But I was pleased to see that when reading colonial recipes, my interpretation of "slow oven" as 300 to 325 F was right on the mark.

Shortbread Fans
(slightly adapted from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 325 F (yes, we use temperatures around these parts). In a medium bowl, whisk flour and sugar together. Work in butter with your fingertips until well blended.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to about 1/4-inch thickness and cut out rounds with a measuring cup. Slice each round in half and press each half-moon four times with the tip of a knife, creating a fan-like decoration. Bake for 10 minutes at 325 F, or until browned on the bottom.

Works cited: Cooking range photo from Family Lineages and History.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hand wash only (II)

A few days ago, I started thinking about the difficulties of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Let's face it: life without electricity, equal voting rights, or antibiotics would be way harder. To explore this point further, let's look at life without two rather nice appliances (albeit just for the two weeks that we were on vacation in Canada).

1. Life Without a Dishwasher

At the island, we usually use two big enamelware basins for washing, one with hot rinse water and one with warm soapy water. We take turns, going two at a time, one to wash the dishes and one to dry. There are fun things about this. For as long as I can remember, we've sung old camp and vaudeville songs while drying dishes after dinner. (My grandfather is a big fan of Cole Porter.) I have fond memories of my cousins harmonizing over "Lida Rose" from The Music Man. And when you're not singing, it's a good time to chat with your dishwashing partner.

But those dishes add up: this year, we had six people up for two weeks, plus two visitors for several days. That's six to eight sets of dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every. Single. Day. Sometimes the mice get into the silverware drawer and you have to wash every fork, knife, and spoon. Your hands get dry from the soap. I've lived in apartments without dishwashers, but cleaning the dishes of two people is way different from doing the dishes of six or eight.

2. Life Without a Washing Machine

This is where the real pain lies. And funny enough, we used to be more modern when my mom was growing up. My grandmother and great-grandmother would haul a freestanding washing machine onto the rocks and set the thing going to wash clothes. Apparently it made an awful racket, but it did the job. Now that we no longer have such a handy appliance, we wash clothes by hand.

It's an inexact science. We need three or four big tubs, depending on the amount of clothes. The biggest tub we fill with warm, soapy water for washing; a smaller one with warm water for rinsing; and often one with bleachy water for serious stains. After letting the clothes soak in the soapy water, we (and by we I mean my mom, who always takes this on) use a clean metal plunger to mash them around and make sure the soap really gets in there. Stains you have to scrub out by hand. After a few rinses and some vigorous wringing, they're ready to hang on the line behind the cabin. Again, it's not all bad; it's a great time to catch up with my mom or talk through some teaching ideas.

Still, this is one of the most physical domestic activities I've ever seen. What with the plunging and the scrubbing and the wringing, you get a real workout. And we actually have it easy with running water, hot and cold, coming out of the pipes at the back of the house; there's no hauling of water up from the lake or pumps.

Imagine doing these chores for the rest of your life, lady readers. Laundry you could do once a week, but dishes every day. Is it any wonder that when 19th-century women had a little extra cash, they hired out their laundry before purchasing any other luxuries? I'm not dismissing the value of doing things by hand; certainly my family gets some enjoyment out of it, or we'd have invested in some appliances by now. But boy, do I love the 21st century.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hand wash only (I)

It's easy to wax nostalgic about the "good old days," that halcyon golden age when kids didn't do drugs or drink underage, and life was simpler, without cell phones and social media complicating things. (Yes, I'm guilty of this!) There are a few things wrong with this kind of thinking, though: first, the "good old days" never truly existed. Kids have always gotten into trouble and American life has always been complicated, just in different ways (think about the extreme social demands of the Gilded Age, or the sweeping poverty of the Great Depression). Second, this kind of rose-colored thinking always glosses over the hard parts of living in the past, like chores done without modern conveniences, attitudes towards marginalized groups, and a lack of equality.

In particular, I have trouble remembering the second reason. Who knows why; I'm a proud liberal feminist and there's no way I'd give up my right to vote. And each summer, living rustically on vacation reminds me how much I love modern conveniences. But there's something about that image of a simpler life, uncomplicated by technology and consumerism, that gets me every time.

So this week, let's take a closer look at one of the reasons why yearning for the simpler days is actually counterproductive. We're going to examine life without two modern domestic conveniences: the dishwasher and the washing machine, both of which my family does without when we're on vacation in Canada. While we do enjoy "getting back to the land," each summer I sort of wish we'd installed both machines when we wired the cabin for electricity thirty years ago. Why? Check in on Thursday to find out.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Blueberry picking (and muffins)

It's been two weeks since we returned from vacation in Canada, and I can't stop thinking about it. Even though I've since joined my parents for a weekend in upstate New York. Even though Josh and I have entertained and seen friends and gotten thoroughly back into the Providence swing of things. Even though school starts soon (gah!). There's just something about vacation that grabs you tight and doesn't let go.

This year's visit, more than anything, was defined by blueberries. Blueberry bushes run wild over the island, bordering paths and leading into the woods. If we're making pancakes for breakfast, my mom will often step outside to pick a handful of berries from the bushes behind the cabin. We usually go blueberry picking at least once on vacation, hoping to put the produce towards a fresh pie. If we're lucky, we'll pick enough so we don't have to supplement with "store-bought," a phrase that gives my grandfather heart palpitations when we're up at the island.

No such worries this year. My sister, Josh and I picked enough for a pie just from the bushes outside the cabin. Venturing farther afield, the whole family picked enough for a double portion of blueberry cobbler. Then we had berry muffins. Then we picked enough for another pie. We ate blueberry pancakes three times during our two-week visit. And we certainly left enough for the next visitors.

Needless to say, we had a bumper crop.

There's something so peaceful and zen-like about picking blueberries. Cup or pail in hand, you can hike as little or as far as you want until you find a good patch. The best berries are fat and round, like little blue stars, and if you brush them with your fingers they fall right into your hand (or onto the ground, as so often happens). It's easy to work longer than you're expecting; each time you pause or talk about heading back, you'll spy the perfect bush a few feet to the right. "Just one more," you'll think, reaching for the fruit. Sometimes you might mistake a dark huckleberry for a blue, but that doesn't matter, since they're both edible, and you're on vacation, and who's really counting?

blueberries (L) and huckleberries (R)

These muffins are one of the better ways to consume a cupful of fresh blueberries, should you find your lucky self in possession of some. Light and barely sweet, tasting of milk and butter, muffins are a great vehicle for fresh fruit. Especially when you've tried out all the other ways to eat blueberries.

Blueberry Muffins
(adapted from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, 1930)

2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
2 tbsp melted butter
1 egg
1 cup blueberries, picked over and rinsed

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a muffin tin with liners, or brush with oil or butter. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar, and whisk to mix. In a separate, medium bowl, combine the milk, butter, and egg. Don't worry if the butter clumps when you add it.

Quickly add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir a few times. Before it's fully incorporated, fold in the berries. Stir a few more times until just combined. Drop the batter into the prepared tins and bake at 400 F for 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village

As a teenager I went to an all-girls school, one steeped in tradition and programs that recalled English prep schools. One of the big ones was chapel, where we heard guest speakers and senior speeches. Before the program began, we often sang a community song, with sheet music left on every other chair for students to share. The director of the music department would accompany us on the organ or piano, and it felt a little like church, though our school was determined to remain secular.

The regular rotation included "Simple Gifts," a traditional Shaker song about community and dancing. I bet you know it: "Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free..." I can sing it by heart now, we returned to it so often. Once, in the middle of a rather serious speech, our head of school took a break to perform a traditional Shaker dance. She raised her arms and turned around, all while singing the song alone, which is probably why it's forever emblazoned in my brain.

Anyway, all that is to say that I have a passing acquaintance with the Shakers. So I jumped at the chance to visit Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village when I was in Maine with Josh and his family. While there used to be a number of Shaker communities throughout New England, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, very few remain, and those that do are usually historical recreations. Sabbathday Lake, located in New Gloucester, ME, is different: it houses the three remaining Shaker believers.

Three. In the world.

Originally founded in England in the 1780s, the Shakers were an offshoot of Protestantism that focused on celibacy, hard work, and communal living. Dance formed an integral part of their weekly worship, so outsiders began to term them "Shakers" for their vigorous movements. They quickly spread to the United States and built a number of communities, which reached their height in the early 19th century. But because of their belief in celibacy, the only way to add members was through conversions and fostering children. So membership began to decline, especially as religion became less and less important in mainstream society. Yet three believers remain today.

The tour at Sabbathday Lake reflected this reality in a lot of ways. Only 6 of the 18 buildings in the village were open to us, since the three members still work on the farm and produce crafts and herbs to sell. At the beginning of the tour, our guide gave us a brief history of the Shakers and mentioned that the members of Sabbathday Lake were still accepting new converts. So if any of us were interested... Maybe it's just my sentimental side, but I thought I could sense some sadness behind her joking tone. Yes, the Shakers represent a dying way of life, for a good reason. But it's unfortunate that this lifestyle will pass on.

Most of the rooms we visited felt like part of a museum. There were the period rooms above the meetinghouse, spare and neat, with examples of Shaker furniture and innovations in arranging a house. (The Shakers invented practically everything, it turns out, from "button chairs" that allow you to tip back in your seat to flat brooms.) One room displayed the history of processing apples (again, rife with inventions). On the whole, it didn't feel very much like a place inhabited by real people, doing real work.

What got me thinking that day, besides the quiet rooms and the knowledgeable tour guide, were the constant reminders that this represented the last vestige of a unique lifestyle. That Shaker song I knew? One of thousands composed by early believers, many passed on orally (though many have been written down). The three surviving members spent their early lives apprenticing to the jobs they really wanted, like baking, until they had mastered them. Summer people can join them in their Sunday worship at the 18th-century meetinghouse, where they can participate in a traditional Shaker service. But sometime not so far in the future, only tours will pass through that meetinghouse.

If you're at all interested in the Shakers, Sabbathday Lake is worth the trip. It's a fascinating glimpse into another world.

Monday, July 15, 2013


For the next few weeks I'll be away on vacation with my family. Swimming, canoeing, reading, and cooler weather (fingers crossed) await! I'll be back at the beginning of August. In the meantime, you can read posts from last year's vacation here and here. Hope you're all enjoying summer!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Next Big Thing Blog Tour!

Most of the time this blog is all about history and homesteading. But today you'll get to hear about another interest that takes up a big chunk of my days: creative writing. (And of course, there's a lot of history involved in that, too!)

For the past few years I've been working on a YA historical novel with a wonderful critique group in Providence. Gaia Cornwall, fellow crit-member and fabulous writer/illustrator, tagged me to participate in the Next Big Thing Blog Tour, which moves from blog to blog to highlight the latest projects of writers and illustrators. Thanks, Gaia! (Learn more about her picture book Jabari Jumps, about the challenges of jumping off the high dive, here.)

I'll answer ten questions about my novel below (complete with fun historical photos) and tag two writers/illustrators that you should all check out. And without further ado, here we go.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Drawing from Life.

a few of the family letters
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

After my freshman year of college, I discovered a big collection of family letters, most of them written by my great-great-grandmother Maud Kerruish and her family. Maud traveled to Europe on the Grand Tour from 1890 to 1892, and she wrote about everything, including the fact that she would never get married and would spend the rest of her life as a "wanderer."

I ended up writing my senior history thesis about her travels, and during the research I found out some tantalizing information about her (and my) family. Her sister Mona, for example, never married, but the letters refer to Mona's fiance Tom. What happened to him? What was the "unhappiness" that Maud and her family members referred to in the letters? Because I couldn't find out anything more through straight research, I decided to make up the answers. And this book was born.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It's a young adult historical novel.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Since I have photos of the actual people I'm writing about, it's hard to imagine actors in their place. Nevertheless...

Maud would be played by someone with quiet strength, like Romola Garai, who was wonderful in I Capture the Castle.

Her older sister Mona would be played by Jodhi May, who did great work in Daniel Deronda.

And her friend and potential love interest Owen would be played by Andrew Garfield, my crush from the latest Spider-Man movie.

sisters L to R: Maud, Mim, Helen, Grace, Mona

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In 1883, 17-year-old Maud Kerruish pursues her dream of leaving Cleveland to become an artist, while struggling against the confines of her gender and a tragedy that still haunts her family.

6) Who is publishing your book?

I wish I knew! My goal is to have the book revised and ready to submit to agents by December.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I'm finishing up the draft now, and it's taken an embarrassingly long time to get to this point. I began research in 2010, and I started writing in 2011.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Maud struggles with some of the same feelings of family duty that Mattie does in Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, and she and Mattie both want to follow their passions. She also has the same pluck and independent spirit as Hattie from Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky.

the real Maud, c. 1883 (age 17)
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The real Maud Kerruish is the main inspiration. I loved her independence and determination to see the world.

Major subplots of the book were inspired by my ongoing interest in gender issues, both past and present. In the 19th century, many women suffering from depression or anxiety were diagnosed under the catch-all term of hysteria, when in reality they were struggling to care for their families while ignoring their own passions. Hysterical women were confined in sanitariums or at home for long periods of time, and they were treated terribly (like the heroine of the story "The Yellow Wallpaper"). I began to wonder under what circumstances a woman might be diagnosed with hysteria, and the ideas just wove themselves together.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

Maud's life revolves around her family, not her friends, unlike most main characters in YA novels these days. Her close relationship with her older sister Mona provides a unique perspective on teen friendships.

Now for the tagging!

Next week check out Christina Rodriguez, a fellow crit-member in Providence who writes and illustrates picture books. She brings a unique perspective to whatever project she's working on, and I love reading her work every month. Find Christina's blog here, where she'll be writing about a book she's illustrating for Arte Publico. She writes:
"The main character is a little girl, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose mother cleans houses in order to provide a better life for her family. This story recounts a time when the little girl accompanies her mother to her job in a rich suburban neighborhood, and what happens when she meets the wealthy homeowner there."
Shelley and Haggis
And in a few weeks be sure to check out Shelley Sackier, a writer who blogs at Peak Perspective. We first got in touch over a year ago, when I had the chance to critique her fun middle-grade novel Dear Opl. And I've just learned that her first love is historical fiction, too! About Opl, Shelley writes:
"After two years of hiding beneath a sugar-laden junk food diet meant to soothe the bitter loss of her dad, thirteen-year-old Opl Oppenheimer is told she's gained so much weight she's pre-diabetic and now must start weighing more than she bargained for. DEAR OPL is a middle grade humorous novel."
Happy reading!