A Midsummer Garden’s Dream

Thunder grumbles in the distance as the darker sky approaches. More rain is coming, more manic wetness to quench the parched ground. Dimmer it gets as the wind begins to kick, then rest, then join with allied forces for a full-on offense. Best to wait this one out, hunker down and lull myself into fantastical daydreams.

Ah, yes, in my midsummer dream, in my wistful escape from the searing heat followed by the blinding storm, there’s none of this barbaric pelting, none of this furious, unhelpful, lashing-thrashing wind, none of the blazing, burning, unforgiving sunshine that preceded it. Only gentle rain falls, only kind rays shine.

In my fantasy, all the ambitious and infiltrating weeds get cropped out (I mean pulled up!) and the perfect ratio of rain and sun, day and night, cool and warm produces loads of spectacular lilies like this one that was smart enough, lucky enough, to have peaked between weather furies.

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In my imagination, there are dozens of prize-winning gourds (not just one) like this one that was clever enough to have climbed the fence and is curvingly perfect enough to stir feelings deep within…

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…and hungry enough to take all the nutrients it needs. Just ten days ago it hung a good deal higher.

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In the realm of garden perfection, in my visions of careful tending and consistent attention, the humans would take their minds off their silly porch project and clear out all these nasty, choking, unwanted grasses.

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They’d spent less time smacking tennis balls down the driveway for this young, endlessly tennis-ball-chasing, furry, golden, retrieving creature and more time making the rest of my expansive spaces resemble the reasonably well-kept row of rudbeckia. We’ll ignore those driveway weeds for the time being.

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(Now get the dog out of the way and show them how pretty a rudbeckia can be.)

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These daisy-like perennials are having a very respectable year, all except for this poor trampled thing at the end of the row. Looking on the sunny side, at least it’s not choked out!

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In my tender garden heart, all the gladiolas would be upright…

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…like this one…

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…instead of sadly horizontal like this one, a storm victim to be sure, though trying valiantly to show off its glorious blooms despite its precarious position.

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Lastly, if I had my druthers, I would make sure every growing thing in my dominion were as healthy, as vibrant, as unattacked, as simply lovely as this impatiens.

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I can dream, can’t I?

Assembly Line Rou-LAH-den for Dinner

Judging by the number of views on my recent Umpteen Salad Dressings post, a fair portion of people like vinegar – or at least don’t mind it. If you like vinegar, pickles, pickled anything, vinegar-y salad dressing and you like beef – any sauerbraten fans out there?? – you just might like Rouladen (pronounced roo-LAH-den). It’s a traditional German dish that any “praktisches Kochbuch” (Practical Cookbook) will include. Here’s mine, published in 1974, a gift from my dear friend Claudia a long time ago!

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And in case you are interested, this is the recipe from the book.

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But as you might expect, I do it my way – this time combined with Claudia’s way 😊

I think of these as Assembly Line Rouladen because you get all the innards ready, lay out the thin slabs – let’s call them flats – of beef and systematically sprinkle/spread/place your innards – one at a time – on the flats. Once you’ve got each flat loaded up, you roll them tight, secure each one with a toothpick or two, sear in hot oil, add water and cook until done. If you want, you can then thicken the gravy.

One of the most important things to know about (why) this recipe (tastes so good) is that it contains bacon. As you may well agree, it’s hard to go wrong with bacon. I loved it when the servers at the Bluegrass Grill in downtown Charlottesville wore t-shirts that said “DON’T WORRY – WE HAVE BACON.” They even have bacon jam! Also, their corned beef beats all, but I am going onto a track I did not intend – ah, the power of food! Back to the bacon! Oh, right, back to the rouladen!

I generally use a bottom round cut of beef for recipes that involve slow cooking in liquid (a.k.a. braising), but you will find recipes that say to use top round. I have found that the meat department at my grocery store decides – they pick a cut, slice it thin (1/4-inch) and package it as “Beef for Bracciole” (what you could call the Italian version). Depending on where you live, it might even say For Rouladen. When in doubt, ask the butcher.

The prep for rouladen is like the prep for tacos in that you do the chopping/ preparing/ finding of this and that, put each component in a bowl or a jar or on the counter – get everything ready for assembly – then boom, boom, boom, done! (Okay, maybe there are a few more booms, but you get the idea!) Besides the thinly sliced top or bottom round, you will need mustard, bacon, onions, pickles, carrots, salt and pepper.

Mustard: I like spicy brown mustard, some people prefer Dijon – just use the one you like best.

Bacon: The leaner the better, allow one slice of bacon per piece of beef. I cook mine first to get some of the fat away, and crumble it so that as I spread it on the meat, the flavor is more evenly distributed, but you don’t have to. These will come out just fine if you simply lay the slice of raw bacon on the slab of raw meat and assemble and cook it all together.

Onions: Your call whether to lightly sauté your chopped-up onions in a little bit of olive oil before putting them in. I do because it softens them and makes the beef easier to roll. Approximately one tablespoon of chopped onion per piece of beef. I like onion, so I probably use more than that.

Pickles (dill, not sweet): For ease of spreading, you’ll want to finely chop the pickles or just get/use (pre-chopped) pickle relish, the kind you’d put on a hot dog. Allow a teaspoonful per piece of beef. You use the pickles, not the pickle juice, so try to drain the liquid from them.

Carrots: Hardly essential, but an element of color, nutrition and a tad of sweetness to balance out the vinegar. Claudia suggested adding carrot sticks a few years ago and I love it! Allow 2-4 thin sticks about 3-4 inches long for each.

Salt and Pepper: To taste.

Here are my various innards: You can tell I’m making a lot (24 to be exact) and that I like a lot of onions. My bacon and carrot sticks are in bowls and my pickles are chopped up in the jar.

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Lay out the meat on a clean, wide-open surface and put a squiggle of mustard on each one.

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Then spread the mustard out, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put a spoonful of pickles on each.

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After you spread out the pickles, put a spoonful of onion on each one. Spread out the onion.

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Next come the bacon crumbles.

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Then the carrots.

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Start at one end of each piece of meat and roll it up carefully, trying to keep all the innards in! Secure with toothpicks.

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Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a good frypan and sear the rollups on a medium-high flame till they are brown most of the way around. Add water to reach about halfway up the sides of the rollups, cover, turn down to a low flame and let cook at a simmer for about an hour.

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I like to take them out of the pan, set them in serving dishes, then make the gravy and pour it over top.

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It’s a good idea to take the toothpicks out (this is easier for you than for the person trying to eat it at the table). To make the gravy, figure out how much liquid you have left in the pans by pouring it into a large measuring cup. Then for each cup of liquid you have, melt a tablespoon of butter in a saucepan, whisk in one tablespoon of flour until this is smooth, then add the liquid, whisking gently until it is mixed in and looks like a thin gravy. (The gravy method is easy to remember if you keep it proportional: 1 TBSP butter plus 1 TBSP flour per 1 cup liquid.) Pour gravy over top, cover with foil and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve. These also freeze well.

Very yummy served with egg noodles or spaetzle!!

*One of my favorite parts of the praktisches Kochbuch from Claudia is the title page. In it she wrote “ – KOCHEN MACHT FREUDE – und dasselbe wünsche ich DIR” – “- Cooking brings joy – and this I wish for you.” I love that it’s in her handwriting because that makes it real and personal. I love that it’s fading because that means the gift came long ago and our friendship has grown and flourished all this time. I love that to this day, one of our favorite topics of conversation is what we made for dinner 😊

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My Imperfect Home

If you could live anywhere, where would it be? Do you have a top three? Are you there now? Have you ever been there? Does that place appeal to you because of the people who already live there or the people you would be with if you went there? Do the politics draw you? What about the culture? The natural beauty? The economic opportunities? Would you go because of the proximity to hiking trails, golf courses, excellent restaurants? Did you get where you are somehow and happily (or complacently) just stay, or did you firmly and purposefully decide that’s where you want to be?

I came to Virginia when I needed a job. We had been in Vermont many years, then moved to Maine so I could attend grad school. You get more for your dollar in Maine. I traded a standard raised ranch in Vermont (which, to be fair, we had made very nice) for a very cool log house in Maine. It was on the first fairway of a golf course, had three interior staircases, two driveways, a 20-foot granite fireplace and exposed logs in the living room…

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…and access to a pristine, private lake. (Oh, did I ever wish I could airlift that house to Virginia when we moved here!)

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Winter of 2004-05 in Maine was a snowy one. I was not unfamiliar with snow – we got plenty of it in Vermont as well. But we did not have a plow for shoveling the driveways, instead had plain old ordinary snow shovels. One morning as I was leaving for school, the snow was so deep I had to take it down one layer at a time, three layers deep. That means I took as much onto my shovel as I could once… twice… three times in order to get to the asphalt. That’s a lot of snow. When the time came to choose a new place to live, I think it can be understood that part of my reasoning was Yeah, maybe not so much snow.

Mom and Dad lived in New Jersey and I wanted to be a reasonable car ride from them, so as a starting point I drew a one-day’s-drive-from-them circle around their location and decided that anywhere within that circle was acceptable – point being, I did not want to have to get on a plane to get to their house. Their health was okay at the time, nothing alarming, but I look ahead. When a job came up in Charlottesville, Virginia, I remembered that some Vermont neighbors had moved there and had said nonchalantly one time that the daffodils bloom in February.

Daffodils in February?? After thigh-deep snow that sounded heavenly. Plus it was “only” a seven-eight hour drive from Mom and Dad. Okay. Virginia it is. I took this photo in February of 2017.

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As it turns out, this part of Virginia has a lot going for it. We get all four seasons – glorious blooming spring (oh the redbuds!)…

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…a longer growing season than up north (you can harvest spinach in December!), colorful foliage in the fall (okay, maybe not as spectacular as in Vermont, but still breathtaking) and real snow in the winter (though half an inch in the forecast causes school to be closed).

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But we are far enough west from the Eastern seaboard to avoid the more serious downsides of crazy coastal storms (winds usually dissipate by the time a storm moving north up the coast gets this far inland – which applies to both hurricanes and winter storms). And being on the eastward side of the Blue Ridge Mountains means that storms coming from the west or southwest are interrupted in their movement by those mountains and we get a lesser version of their fury and usually less snow. Summers are hot but there’s air conditioning and c’mon, with a/c it’s tolerable. When I am gearing up to complain, I try to remember that a/c is a relatively new comfort – imagine living in the South when there was none, and people were not so free to choose airier, lighter and less body-covering clothes.

So, yes, the climate has pluses. Also, the University of Virginia is in town, there are resorts and wineries and historic sites nearby for my visitors, and Washington DC is a two-hour drive away. I’m very happy in my neck of the Virginia commonwealth. All good, right?

Nope. No place is perfect. Everywhere, every place, has some negative to it, some imperfection. I didn’t say Overwhelmingly Imperfect. I didn’t say Intolerably Imperfect. But Imperfect nonetheless.

Funny, on Saturday afternoon Samuel and I were driving together talking about places to live and why a person would go here or there. “They have scorpions in the Southwest,” I told him. “I’d hate that.” New Orleans might get flooded again, Austin has tarantulas, California has some serious fault lines and the North is so darn cold.

Then, on Saturday evening, Sandy was driving out past the chicken coop and thought he saw a black snake in the driveway. You might recall from a previous post that I am not fond of snakes, even black snakes that are supposedly the good ones. On closer inspection, this snake was not a black snake. It was the ultra-nasty, potentially deadly kind called copperhead. He chopped its head off with a shovel (thank you, Sandy!) before coming to get me and Samuel. For least fifteen minutes we stared at it and took some pictures before our Disgust Sensors reached their limit and it was time to pitch the body and the head over the hill into the woods. Despite the amount of time since the head had been severed, those jaws were still in chomping mode and that body was still twitching. Ugh! Mega-ugh!

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As we walked back to the house, I said to Samuel, “Why do I live in the country?”

He replied, “How long have you lived here?”

“Eight years,” I said.

“And how many copperheads have you seen here before today?”

“Zero.”

Not that others hadn’t seen them. Not that Sandy hadn’t killed five the first year and Bradley hadn’t seen a black snake eating one the second year. But they are rare. We’ve seen bear once on the property and so has our neighbor. I’ve seen a black widow spider once. We hear the coyotes frequently. There are supposedly wolves again in the Blue Ridge and I’ve heard of rattle snakes around here too. All these creatures are possibly deadly. Hey, we even had an earthquake a few years ago.

My Airbnb cottage guests sometimes say this place is a slice of paradise. In many ways it is. But no place is perfect. No place is without some negative. It may get to twenty below in Vermont, but you don’t have deadly snakes and spiders – they just can’t tolerate the cold. You might have an occasional monstrous earthquake in San Francisco, but you don’t need a sub-zero parka.

By extension, the same applies to a job, a church, a relationship, a pet, a car even. I LOVE driving a stick-shift, always chose that option when I could, but when I was in the market in 2012, the most reliable car with the best gas mileage was a Prius and there was no option for 5-speed standard clutch. It just isn’t made that way. So yeah, I drive an automatic now.

Imperfect is the norm, and that’s okay. Imperfect is enough work, enough trouble, as it is. I shudder to think how stressed I would be if I upped the bar and expected perfection of myself, of my home, of the people in my world. I’d make myself crazy, or miserable, or both. No, thanks.

Oh My Gourd(s)!!

Every year the garden is different. Every year something or other does spectacularly well. This year, on a whim, I picked up some packets of gourd seeds. Never grew gourds before, but oh my! They went crazy!

I’m not sure what use gourds are – you can hollow them out to make birdhouses maybe? Wait for the seeds inside to dry and then shake them to make a rattling sound? Mostly they are just cool to look at. They are the punkers, the hipsters, the goths, the we-will-not-look-like-everyone-else garden produce (and so what if we’re not edible!?). With their own funky style, whether bi-colored, bumpy or (hey, it’s a stretch but someone might also think) sexily curvaceous, gourds are worth their salt just for the entertainment value.

Within the jungle of vines, here are a few of my beauties. I wonder why the yellow part of this kind is closer to the stem. I get that to some people the line between yellow and green might look like a stock report, but I see the profile of a mountain range.

This one takes the prize for Strength of Color and for Best Imitation of a UFO.

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This one, preferring the shade, wins Least Pretentious. The vines were so thick, it was tricky getting close enough for an up-close photo.

This one’s going for Bumpiest-Oh-Yeah!

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This one wants to be a child’s rattle when it grows up and dries out. A big child’s. It comes with a built-in handle.

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Going for the Audrey Hepburn waistline (though she’d never allow those hips!), this one has a sensuous streak.

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And finally – there’s one in every crowd – drum roll please! See if you can spot it from afar. I’ve labeled a few things to make it a little easier to find your way around.

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Well, this last gourd, the one I’m calling attention to, I know it’s there and I can barely see it myself in the big picture photo. So I won’t hold it against you if you can’t find it. Hint: Look carefully at the part of the gourd vines that decided to climb the fence, near that upper gourd arrow with the brown tarp tent in the background… How’s this for a beauty!!??

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I know, I know – takes First Prize, right?? You be the judge…

Sixty-Four and One-Quarter

Sometimes, when we have no clue how to do a thing or no clue how it works, we pass it by.

Eh. There it is.

It’s just a thing. We don’t and can’t appreciate what goes into it or what went into it.

Phones come to mind. The electronic inner workings and technological wonders of smartphones aside, even pre-smartphones were a thing we just used. There was no need to understand them – what components were assembled in what manner to produce a device that allowed me to talk to Claudia on the other side of the big pond. We just talked on the phone when we could – and it was wonderful! (Even if it cost a dollar a minute back then!)

Maybe it’s when you have the tiniest bit of know-how or even curiosity that appreciation begins. Maybe the more you know and the more your knowledge grows over time, the more you look in awe at those who have mastered a craft or a skill. The more I learn about bread (and we have been experimenting with a bread that beats anything I’ve ever made!) the more I marvel at bakers. The more time I spend in the garden, the more I admire those who make plants grow beautifully and productively. And the more I measure, cut, level, plumb, square, hold, hammer and saw, the more I stand in awe of builders.

Lincoln comes to mind. On a recent visit, he gifted me with some of his time and expertise. We are putting a roof over the new front porch and, well, most people are fairly clueless about how to do this, myself included. I caught him staring at it on the first day. Can you see his wheels turning?

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Sandy and Joe and Samuel and I had poured the footers and put the posts up (hopefully placed correctly because there would be no moving them!) and laid enough decking boards to be able to stand on.

This is the front view of what it looked like just before he started.

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And here’s beautiful Willow (and another angle) the day they arrived. The siding is still up, the old, upper, single-pane triangular windows still in, even the gutter and fascia boards still attached.

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First Lincoln pulled down the fascia board that had hung over the old porch and took out the old windows…

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…then he secured the first horizontal 6×6 connecting the house to the new porch. If you look carefully you can see him staring again. All that staring is not for nothing.

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At one point he took a break for a Coco-hug, and Eppie and Sandy looked on, so I snapped a photo showing some siding down, windows out (and just sheetrock on the inside), roof rafters in over the old porch and some upper horizontals secured in their notched places.

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Within a day or so, all of the upper horizontals were secured and plywood covered the old window openings.

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I thought it a lovely (if sun-splotched) image: the framework framing cutie-pie Rise and Eppie dancing/posing on their last day here. Maybe it’s just lovely to me because I love these girls so much!

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But I still didn’t see the thing that made me gasp in awe a couple weeks later. Sandy and I kept going after Lincoln left. I laid the rest of the decking boards with some help from Joe and removed the remaining siding and got myself a shiner in the process! (Damn cat’s paw tool came back at me just a bit too fast…)

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Sandy finished the roof over the old porch, prepped/shored up all the soffit boxes and mounted the ledger board and angled (principle?) rafters for the front roof (they attach to the house). We used house wrap as a moisture barrier (not that it had any under that old cedar siding for the last 45 years, but hey, moving forward in a better way…) and tidied up a bit. I began laying out possibilities for half-round steps to soften all these straight lines everywhere.

Just prior to beginning the forward-pointing front roof rafters, Sandy and I were staring at the house from a ways back. In particular, we were checking to make sure that everything (ignoring the windows that will go away) looked centered and correct. We were doing the every-now-and-then long view, an ostensibly purposeful way to pause when it is hot and you need to do something else.

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My eye caught the place where the two outer horizontal boards meet in the center. It might be hard to see, but trust me, there’s a line there.

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Up a little closer now. See?

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That horizontal “board” (singular) is actually two boards (plural) “married” to each other, double thickness for strength (in case you were wondering how two boards could just meet end-to-end like that). The outer one consists of two boards meeting end-to-end in the middle; the inner one spans the joint.

“Just curious,” I said to Sandy. “Is that the exact middle of that span?” I had to measure.

What do you think? Yup! From where the two outer boards join together, moving left to the next post, is 64 ¼” and from where the two boards join together, moving right to the next post, is 64 ¼”. Both lengths are sixty-four and one-quarter inches. Exactly.

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And NOT ONLY THAT. We took a level, laid it across to the ledger board that’s secured against the house behind the horizontal married board(s) (and it was level of course, which is part of why you can’t see it at all), squared it up to the house, made a mark, squared that up vertically toward the peak of the roof and made a line. See that thin vertical line? Lo and behold, dead on! Perfectly centered. Perfectly vertical. Perfectly square.

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Maybe this is normal. Maybe it’s just what builders do and maybe they are equally astounded when perfect bread comes out of the oven. I allow for that. But I applaud Lincoln! You don’t learn how to do this overnight. You don’t reach this skill level without putting in a lot of hours, making some mistakes, figuring out how to do it right the first time or how to fix it when you mess up. I am sooooo impressed!

On Saturday Lincoln sent me a photo. “One year ago today,” was all the caption said. A year ago he had just started building his pentagonal, straw bale house in Vermont. From the pile of dirt he was standing on, this is what he saw on July 6, 2018.

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On the same date in 2019, from the same angle, a house stands, a house he built almost single-handedly. It’s not finished because of the many unconventionalities they wanted to incorporate – e.g. most people put up regular siding and a composite shingle roof, and Lincoln has yet to “mud” the outside of the bales and skin the roof with diamond-shaped metal shingles, to say nothing of building his own windows – but they are happily living in it.

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I never have been (and never will be) the Queen of Exactitude when it comes to cooking but my, oh my, you don’t build porch roofs or pentagonal houses or anything else without respect for numbers and the knowledge of how to use them.  To Sandy, to Ernie, to Joe, to Bradley, to Billy, to Mark and in this case to Lincoln especially – to all you guys who build things – WOW! You have my eternal admiration!

The Oddfellow Bench Comes Out

Eight years it sat in my basement. Eight years not seeing the light of day. It had fit in the old house, but not in this one, so when we moved here, it waited for the outdoor roof now over the old part of the porch. Finally, my bench has a home. Finally, it serves a useful purpose again – a place for Coco the Queen to survey her domain apparently! Between that and my granddaughters’ sweet welcome messages plastered in their style on the door, the entrance to my house evolves more and more to my liking. (Next comes a window above the bench…)

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In my mind and in my everyday trot, people are more important than things. But sometimes things tie us to people. Easily more than 200 moons ago, sometime in the 90s, maybe even 80s when we still lived in Vermont, several times a year we would go visit my Aunt Judy and Uncle Richard in southern New Hampshire. They were always warm and welcoming, always made us feel special. They brought out the water toys at the lake or took us all out in the boat or made special meals that I didn’t make at home. Lobster comes to mind, especially Richard saying to my wide-eyed kids, almost in a whisper, just as he was about to plunge them in the boiling water: “If you listen closely, you can almost hear them scream.”

Richard and I used to go garage-saling together on Saturday mornings. As was evident from the wonderful hodge-podge of interesting objects in their house, he liked finding something unique, something you don’t see everywhere. I liked being with him. Richard was funny and respectful and curious and unpretentious. You know how you can be yourself more with some people than with others? Yeah. That’s the way it was with Richard. I miss him so much.

One Saturday, in the days before your GPS told you how to get there, we were tooling around, going from one sale to another. Some people set up their stuff on tables on their front lawn. There were lots of old kitchen items usually – I remember getting a perfect, cake-size, cut glass plate for 10 cents (which unfortunately broke when I stupidly put a hot macaroni pie on it right out of the pan) and a brand-new-in-the-box Atlas pasta maker for $5 that I still have and use. Some people say, “Just go poke around in the garage – you’ll find stuff in there.” Old tools maybe, rusty or obsolete, cracked leather cases, lots of dusty books. This one farmer said, “C’mon with me out t’ the barn.”

On your walk out to the barn, traipsing through grass he probably should have cut some time ago, you wonder what you’ll find in the old barn of an old farmer in southern New Hampshire. This farmer had a barnful of benches – stacks of them. If there was one, there were fifty, maybe more. “From an Oddfellows Hall,” he said.

I should have known. Right then and there, I should have known that a ten-foot-long, solid oak bench in my possession henceforth would have to have come from a place with “ODD” as the main descriptor. It is not a far cry, not even a stone’s throw, hardly a long shot from “odd” to “unboring”!

He wanted $10 for the bench. Thus my association with Oddfellows began. Richard bought one too. We somehow strapped them to the top of the car. He turned around and sold his the following week for $75. I spent time zip-stripping mine, sanding, refinishing, putting a new cover on the seat. We used it in the dining room for years. The navy blue fabric above is second generation under me already, and will change again soon.

For the uninitiated, Oddfellows date back to 18th century England when the major trades like weaving and stonecutting had guilds, kind of an early form of unions. Enter rivalry, pomp and snobbery. The “Masters,” having established successful businesses, wanted/needed to protect themselves from “the lower orders” and set about enforcing new rules about what you had to wear to the meetings – expensive outfits that wage-earning “Fellows” could not afford. Among these Fellows, the more minor trades, the miscellaneous “odd” trades that didn’t have enough people to form a guild of their own, banded together. According to “The Oddfellows: Making Friends, Helping People,” a UK-based website, “In smaller towns and villages Fellows from all trades in a town banded together to form one Guild. The Guildsmen could be called ‘Odd Fellows’ because they were fellow tradesmen from an odd assortment of trades.” Today they call themselves “one of the largest friendly societies in the UK.”

Clearly, Odd Fellows use “odd” in the sense of “varied” rather than in the sense of “weird,” or at least they did back in the day. I have to think that the odder folks among them chuckled at (or even took pride in?) the secondary meaning. Weird works for me!

Who knew? I love that the group of them is not called just “Odd Fellows” but alternatively (no, not Odd Balls!) they use the term “Oddfellowship.” I’m not kidding – this is great stuff! What’s more, its internationally recognized triple-link symbol represents Friendship, Love and Truth. Who can object to that?

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I should probably look into membership. Last night I found out that there’s even a chapter in my area. Let’s hope I can bypass at least one of the undoubtedly rigorous entry criteria on account of having lovingly refinished that bench years ago, enjoyed and protected it all this time and now proudly display and use it once again. That has to count for something.

According to [citation needed] Wikipedia, “To this day, beyond recreational activities, Odd Fellows promote philanthropy, the ethic of reciprocity and charity,” (totally admirable) “albeit with some grand lodges implying Judeo-Christian affiliation.” (fine with me) “Still largest, the American-seated Independent Order of Odd Fellows enrolls some 600,000 members…” (holy cow!) “…divided approximately 10,000 lodges in 30 countries, inter-fraternally recognized by the second-largest, the British-seated Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity. In total members of all international branches combined are estimated in the millions worldwide.” (millions!) 

Come join us for some oddfellowship, won’t you? Ha! We do an odd assortment of things in my little world. We come from an odd variety of backgrounds, find odd things amusing and interesting, make odd things to eat, have odd experiences continually, wear our hair in odd ways – not that I wear a flag in my hair every day.

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Yes, there is a flag stuck in my ponytail! A barbeque at Westminster on July 4th calls for silly oddity, don’t you think? Anyway it might help me qualify. Right??

Umpteen Salad Dressings

I haven’t bought a jar of salad dressing in years. The reasons for this include 1. Cheap runs deep – I can make my own for so much less cost, 2. Fear of the Unknown – I worry about ingredient lists on labels that are too long, lists that contain words I cannot pronounce (and therefore are mystery ingredients, though I am not a nut about this, see below*) and 3. Culinary Whimsy – I like to play with food, making my own concoctions on a whim.

(BTW, Hats off to Robin at Haphazard Homemaker for her recent Berry Vinaigrette Salad Dressing post and the inspiration she gave me to share my own method.)

Salad dressing for me starts with a jar. Pick a jar, any jar. No, not any jar. Pick a jar that fits nicely in your hand. A pint-size mason jar works well. My jar, as you might guess, is not a jar I purchased as a jar but is a jar that was left over from something else, I forget what. Use a jar that came with pickles or capers or jam (or something like that) after you have finished up the pickles or capers or jam. This is my jar. It lives in a specific corner of my cabinet that is just to the right of the stove, where other, handy, easy-to-access things like salt and pepper and (in the non-blazing-hot months) butter also live.

I will explain the ruler.

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Not including salt and pepper, a given for me, salad dressing includes four components. I will call them the base, the sour, the sweet and the embellishments. I do not always embellish. Like a balloon ride, if you took one every weekend, what would be the fun after a while? I take that back. It’s true that I do not always embellish, but in fact I almost always embellish, somehow or other. Go ahead – embellish to your heart’s content – life is short!! Also, sweet is optional, but allow me to say again: Life is short!! A little sweet cuts the sour, tempers the sour, makes more palatable the sour – that’s how I see it. (Oh, and I would love to take a balloon ride someday!)

You start with a base, meaning your first decision is whether you want your dressing creamy or not. (Possibilities for each of the components are listed in a chart below.) Creamy bases start with yogurt, sour cream or mayo; non-creamy starts with the best oil you can get (at the hotel we called it EVO or EVOO for Extra Virgin Olive Oil). Before we start combining, a word about measuring. I am not the Queen of Measuring – understatement of the year right there – when it comes to salad dressing (or some other things not presently at hand). I do, however, have eyes that see reasonably well. They, combined with the jar, have proven a perfectly adequate measuring tool for me. Thus the ruler, just to demonstrate.

Imagine there are lines on the jar. Does anyone remember the bottles that people had for Wish-Bone dressings back in the day? I think it was Wish-Bone, but the company history on their web page doesn’t note this development, so I am perhaps wrong. In any case, they had little lines/marks on the side: Pour oil up to this line, then vinegar up to the next line, then pour in the packet of seasonings, put the cap on, shake it up and dress your salad. That’s what I do: I pour in the base, then the sour, then the sweet up to the lines on the jar that I “see” because I have done this often enough. Feel free to mark your jar with colored tape or whatever works for you. You can of course buy a “salad dressing jar” with markings already on it, but maybe their markings don’t represent the proportions you prefer, and proportions are different for different dressings. Your call.

Lest you think I measure minimally or haphazardly (no offense, Robin!), please understand I did not invent the eyeballing of salad dressing ingredients and I don’t hold a candle to Claudia or my mom when it comes to winging it. Claudia puts her various ingredients one at a time into a coffee cup, then stirs it up with a spoon. Mom does not use a cup or a jar (to this day, far as I know). She just puts the lettuce, cukes, whatever into the bowl, opens the bottle of oil and pours some – in a zigzag manner – over the top, the same with the vinegar, and then takes the salt canister (the big one with the spout) and again zigzags over the top of the bowl, shakes some pepper in and tosses it up. She never uses a sweet element but I always love her salads (and Claudia’s too – oh, you want to drink the dressing that’s leftover with hers, that’s how good it always is!). It’s all good.

As with many things that are both spectacular and inexact, when you are tempted to think about the quantities, think instead about proportion. I use about the same amount of base as sour, almost always. And again that much sweet when the sweet is maple syrup (probably because I like/love(!) the flavor it adds). When the sweet is honey, I use less. When it is straight-up sugar, I don’t use much at all, a teaspoon or so. You don’t need much. But to me, a little bit of sweet cuts the sourness/ sharpness of the vinegar just enough to bring the whole salad to another level. Same as a bit of salt can make all the difference.

Some people, some recipes, suggest more base proportional to the sour, some have no sweet at all (love you, Mom!!) or just a touch of sweet, some just a hint of salt or absolutely-must-be freshly ground pepper. The point here is that you will make your own salad dressing, and it will be exactly the way you like, with the components you like, in the proportions you like.

You just have to play around a little to figure out what that is. And then practice. It might be best to consider the chart below, decide what sounds good to you, try it, try it again, try it till you feel comfortable playing with a slightly different combination or proportion. Experiment, play, practice, practice, play, experiment…

For an example (and only an example), I will show a basic dressing, one that I use quite often. Assuming a salad that will serve three or four people, and using olive oil as the base, apple cider vinegar as the sour and maple syrup as the sweet, I start with pouring the oil into my jar up to a level I know to be about right for that amount of salad. Then I add about the same amount of sour, then about the same amount of sweet (a little less, it usually turns out to be, but again, inexact here!). More or less of any ingredient changes the result slightly – play around and figure out what you like.

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Once I put in the oil, vinegar and syrup in the jar, I add salt and pepper, put the cap on the jar, shake it up, pour it over my salad and toss. Voila! Quick and simple and yummy.

If you use base or sweet components that are non-liquid (like sour cream, yogurt, mayo, sugar or jam), spoon it into the jar. Then add the rest and shake like mad. Note: if/when you use jam, you might want to break it up a little (with a fork or the back of a spoon) before you start shaking so it will end up evenly distributed in the dressing.

All right, I tried making a chart and then converting it to the right format so I could insert it here, plain and simple, but these things are not plain and simple for me so, forgive me if this is less pretty, but here are lists instead.

To dress a basic salad of lettuce, tomato, red onion, cucumber, sweet pepper (and whatever you put in it), consider the following choices:

BASE
(extra virgin) olive oil (EVO)
other oils (grapeseed, canola, etc)
(plain, unsweetened) yogurt
sour cream
mayonnaise

SOUR
vinegar (cider, red, white, balsamic, rice, etc)
lemon juice

SWEET
maple syrup
honey
jam (any berry, fig, etc)
sugar (brown or white)
boiled (reduced) apple cider

EMBELLISHMENTS
pickled cucumbers or pickled anything else (mushrooms, artichokes, okra, beets, asparagus, beans, etc)
capers
dried fruit (raisins, craisins, dried cherries, etc)
herbs (endless possibilities: basil, oregano, thyme, etc)
grapes (cut in half) or other fresh fruit like apples or strawberries
olives
cheese
ham or salami
pepperoncini

Some good combinations (and don’t forget salt and pepper):

  • EVO, cider vinegar, maple syrup (on a leafy green salad)
  • Sour cream/plain yogurt, lemon juice, bit of sugar (on shredded cucumbers)
  • EVO, cider vinegar, oregano (on cooked, peeled and shredded beets)
  • Sour cream/plain yogurt, cider vinegar, sugar or honey, embellished with raisins (on broccoli salad or shredded carrots)
  • EVO, red wine vinegar (on leafy green salad embellished with olives)
  • Mayo, cider vinegar, bit of sugar, embellished with celery seed
  • EVO, balsamic vinegar, embellished with basil
  • EVO, rice vinegar, any herbs you like…

My guess is (my hope is!) that for some of you, making your own salad dressing becomes normal, commonplace, routine. You pick a jar, use the jar, find a special place for the jar. You buy your olive oil and vinegar in large bottles (way cheaper that way), transferring portions at a time to smaller bottles that are easier to pour from. You figure out over time which combination(s) you like best and make a habit of reaching for your jar when the time comes to dress the salad.

Have fun! Good luck! Enjoy every bite!

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*Re: I am not a nut about mystery ingredients: It has always seemed impracticable on my end and surely must irritating on the other end when a “diet” is so restrictive that I/you/anyone can’t even go to a neighborhood barbeque because the food there would no way be within the scope of what’s currently allowable/ fashionable/ desirable. My son Lincoln recently gave his own version of Anthony Bourdain’s enjoy-food-and-don’t-impose-your-inane-restrictions-on-everyone-else: “Nothing wrong with having your own preferences or boundaries, but I follow the 80/20 rule on that. 80% of the time (or more) I can control what I eat but I allow for 20% to be determined by the people I’m with or the social situation.” No one likes a fanatic. So as much as I can, within reason, I eat what I feel good about, what seems reasonable to me, but if I am out and about in a restaurant or someone’s home, and they didn’t make that bread with the best flour or there’s some ingredient I wish weren’t there, it’s probably not going to kill me.

Glorified Onion Soup

It all started with a pork roast. I had a small one in the freezer last week and needed something easy on a day of porch-building. Pork roast is easy: Thaw, top with chopped fresh garlic and salt and pepper and bake at 400F until just done (between 145F and 160F depending on how done you like it). Bake a few Yukon gold potatoes at the same time, make a simple gravy and serve with a salad. Done!

Except for the four slices leftover.

I put them in a small container along with the leftover gravy. Saturday came along. Mom and Jerry were coming for dinner and I had yummy, somewhat special (on account of being less often served) “rouladen,” which I realize now I intended to post the recipe for – half a year ago in my post about Mom’s bracciole! – but forgot! I promise to show you how to make them soon. The eleven yummy (but little) rouladen I made, even with spaetzle and salad on the side, seemed tight for five people. So what else can I make??

When you have onions like this growing in the garden…

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…you should be thinking of onion soup – but I didn’t. I was thinking of the rouladen and that I didn’t have enough. That was the problem!

In such situations I would sometimes just add a baguette or another salad, but somehow soup came to mind. Not onion soup, just soup. Starting a meal with soup is lovely, even in the summer. I took out a marvelous SOUPS & STEWS* cookbook my daughter gave me a few years ago (she particularly likes the Greek Lamb Stew on page 125). I leafed through the book but nothing jumped at me. This is possibly because I was determined to use that bit of leftover pork roast and none of the recipes I saw asked for four slices of leftover pork roast with gravy. Imagine!

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Onions. For me it often comes back to onions and this time was no exception.  Onions you have on hand (or in the garden). Onions are so amazingly delicious in so many ways. Looking through a book of great soups I couldn’t help but remember the onion soup I had at Mt. Vernon at the end of last summer – the day it rained almost the whole day and my feet were wet through and oh, how good that soup tasted! Hey, why not just finely chop the leftover pork roast and add it (along with the gravy) to onion soup? The gravy will act as the bit of thickener that made the Mt. Vernon soup so marvelous.

That’ll work. In the morning I chopped enough onions to make about 1 ½ cups and sautéed it slowly in 6 tablespoons of butter in my Dutch oven pot. When I say slowly I mean this took about an hour, at least an hour, maybe a little more than an hour. S – l – o – w – l – y. Anyway I got busy working on the porch. Shortly after lunchtime, as we were cutting the last of the decking boards – the edge pieces that require the jigsaw and more precision and measuring than the rest – I asked Samuel to finish the rest. I couldn’t switch gears at that point and come in and make food.

“Add enough water to fill the pot about halfway,” I told him. “Get some rosemary and thyme from the garden. I don’t have any chicken broth in the freezer so just add three each of the chicken bouillon cubes and three of the beef. Oh, and a splash of sherry. And chop up that leftover pork roast real fine and throw that in there too.”

The vagueness of my instructions was not clear to me. Some rosemary and thyme? Let’s see, the leaves from two 6” lengths of rosemary and enough thyme to fill in the balled-up palm of your hand. Chop up the pork real fine? Smaller than bite-size. I suspected it would break up smaller than that as it cooked (it did). A splash of sherry? Say about two tablespoons. Uh, Mom, I don’t see sherry… Right, well you’ll have to use that good port. It had been perfect in the Mt. Vernon soup…

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Now don’t forget that the pork had been cooked with fresh garlic, so that flavor was in there too. This concoction simmered away s – l – o – w – l – y all afternoon while I was outside trying not to be afraid of the chop saw. By the time I came in at 4 or so, the soup had reduced some, though I can’t tell you how much. Oh, also, I had had corn on the cob this past week and one ear was leftover. I had sliced off the kernels into a small container. Saw those in the fridge and said Sure, why not? and added them to the soup as well. Salt and pepper to taste of course.

It wasn’t the prettiest soup, but oh, Onion Soup with Pork and Corn (and those spectacular fresh herbs) is soooooo tasty!!

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If I had been smarter, if I had had more time, if I did not still have half of my brain thinking about soffit boxes and decking boards, etc, etc, I might have thought to make some cheesy croutons and sprinkle them on the soup before serving it when Mom and Jerry came to dinner. Oh well!

Wouldn’t you know, when I took out the SOUPS & STEWS cookbook to take a picture of it for this post, I said to myself, I bet there’s a recipe in there for onion soup. Sure thing, and not one but four recipes, including one that includes beef! Okay, not leftover pork roast with gravy, but still! You might want to try it.

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Oh and by the way, after the meal with Mom and Jerry, I had leftovers of everything except salad. As my mother would say, at least I knew I had enough food!

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*Big Book of Soups & Stews by Maryana Vollstedt, Chronicle Books, 2001.

Best Brownies Ever

After making such a fuss about chocolate the other day, I thought it only right to post my favorite brownie recipe. To me they are the best brownies ever because they are not straight-up brownies. They combine the best, richest, most-perfect-brownie-texture brownie part with two other elements that set them apart: dried cranberries, with their sweetness/zing and oatmeal cookie, with its delicate crunch and isn’t-it-kind-of-good-for-you draw.

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Basically you make what seems like a very small amount of oatmeal cookie dough, press it into the bottom of the pan, bake that for ten minutes while (in the meantime) preparing the chocolate part, to which you add the cranberries, pour it over the now-baked-for-ten-minutes cookie base, and bake for another 40 minutes. Done! Chocolate heaven awaits!

This is now the third blog post that expounds on a recipe found in my Williams Sonoma Cookies & Biscotti cookbook,* clearly a favorite from my library.book (2).2mp.jpg

I am old enough to have actual cookbooks on a shelf, and they are dear to me! I copied the recipe into my loose-leaf recipe binder at some point, possibly afraid I’d loan the cookbook to someone and then – horrors!! – not have the recipe on hand when nothing in the world will due except these brownies.

My version, slightly simplified (i.e. this is the way I do it). Note the five stars at the bottom!

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And the book’s version (with metric equivalents, which I know is much appreciated by some of you and I’m sorry I don’t always convert…):

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As noted above, the combined oats, brown sugar, flour, baking soda, salt and melted butter doesn’t seem like much, certainly not in the bowl, and even when you transfer it from the bowl to your buttered, foil-lined pan…

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…but with your fingers you can spread this out to all corners. My pan, by the way, is a wonderful Kaiser springform pan that Claudia gave me years ago and is also perfect for my chocolate cheesecake. But I have not always made this recipe in this pan. An 8” or 9” square pan works just as well. The wonder of the foil lining is that you can just lift the entire thing out when it has finished baking and cooled slightly.

So here is the oat mixture spread out…

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… and here it is after the ten minutes in the oven.

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During the ten minutes that the base is baking, you wouldn’t want to be idle of course, so that’s when you make the chocolate part. A better idea is to melt the ½ cup (one stick) of butter and the two ounces/half package unsweetened chocolate (I use this Baker’s brand) …

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…before you even start with the oatmeal part.

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Do get it all the way melted before you let it cool a bit, and then add it to the rest of the other ingredients. BTW I do not use the espresso powder as the original (note not my copied version) suggests, though you are welcome to.

The combined eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla and salt will cream together beautifully with a whisk – is there anything more basic in baking, anything more sublime? (I do this in the same bowl I mixed up the oatmeal cookie dough in. If a stray, left-behind oat happens to mix with the chocolate part, it is not the end of the world.) Then you add the melted-and-slightly-cooled chocolate/butter followed by the cranberries and bake it 40 minutes longer until it looks about like this.

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After ten minutes or so of cooling, I unhinged/took away the side part of the pan (or you can lift it out holding the foil) and peeled the foil back from the sides like this.

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I cut through it right then and there because I wanted you to see the side view.

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And then I cut it into 36 little squares. I am playing with numbers for my own benefit here, you see. If the brownies are smaller, I can have two, but if they are bigger, I will tell myself that one is enough. And you know how it is (or trust me that this is how it will be with these brownies) – you will want more!

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Voila! I hope you like them. And even if you don’t, for some reason I cannot fathom, your friends and family will! Being as rich and moist as they are, these brownies also travel well – I sent them on a Thursday a few weeks ago to my friend Fred in Kentucky; they arrived on Saturday and he waited till Sunday to eat them – how a person could wait, I have no idea, but that is another conversation.… He ate them with his coffee for breakfast and called them delicious 😊.

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*Some of you might recall the Lemon-Anise-Almond Biscotti and the Chocolate Chip Walnut Biscotti.

Caught in the Good Sense, Caught in the Bad

I didn’t think my iron had a flashing light. You know, the kind that is meant to warn you it’s still on and you haven’t used it for a while and it’s about to automatically shut off. Anyway I was sure I had unplugged it. But as I got into bed last night, I saw the unmistakably repeating on-off-on-off of a small light in the far corner of my room.

Normally the iron lives in my closet in its own place. Telling this story forces me to admit that I didn’t put it away when I was finished with it yesterday. (I wasn’t feeling well, truth be told, and spent a good deal of the afternoon on the couch, blah, blah, blah…) Anyone who’s been here knows I am far from an OCD housekeeper, but I do like things in their place, and I do – 99% of the time – put the iron away. At the very least, I unplug it. You’ll have to take my word on that. Yes, it was still out (wet noodle!), but no way did I leave it plugged in.

What was the light then? I live in the woods and it’s pretty dark outside at night unless there’s a bright moon. No one sees well in the dark, and I see even less well on account of having no glasses on or contacts in at bedtime. But I can see a flashing light, even if it’s very small. My laptop flashes, visible only when the rest of the room is very dark. It’s so incessant and annoying that I will usually put a pillow over it if it’s in my room at night. But my laptop was not in my room last night.

An airplane, I fleetingly thought. Airplanes have small flashing lights, right? But they are not stationary. An airplane would be 1. Much higher in the sky and 2. Moving. Airplane idea quickly dismissed.

I was tired. It was after midnight and I needed to get some sleep. I closed my eyes and tried to forget about the light. But I saw it inside my head. And I saw it when I opened my eyes again to check if it was still there. On. Off. On. Off.

A silent cry for help? A tiny UFO?

I know: A fairy trying to get my attention! Yoo-hoo! Over here! (This is apparently what happens when you are not feeling well and end up on the couch a good part of the day watching a show that’s set in 18th century Scotland! Outlander, do you see what you are doing to me?!)

Finally I couldn’t stand it any more and got out of bed to investigate. I followed the weak but steady flashing light and my heart dropped when I got to it. Some might say it’s ridiculous to feel emotion at seeing a firefly caught in a spider web, still alive, still trying, but I confess – I felt emotion! I wanted to put the poor, struggling thing out of its misery. Alas, this was not in my power. The web was outside and I was inside. I would need a tall ladder and more energy than I had in me at that hour. I had to let it go. A silent cry for help indeed!

My phone camera has a time delay. It doesn’t take the photo the very moment you tap the white dot, so I knew my chances of catching the momentary light of the poor, trapped firefly were super slim. But somehow this worked! I caught it! You can see the light. I caught it on film, we used to say (when film was a thing) – the good sense of caught. The spider caught it in the bad sense.

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Funny how this happened the very day the men came to take down the truncated red oak. It stands about 40 feet up, stripped of all limbs, and has that gaping, splintery wound down its lower half on the side that faces the woods. The climber put on his cleats and used ropes to shimmy up the trunk, intending to buzz-buzz it piece by piece in log length from the top, and lower them one by one to the ground.

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The gaping wound we knew about, but it was not the only weakness. Higher up, he found holes filled with tree fluff, an indication of rot and disease. And the lean was not insignificant. The 140-pound climber with his gear was enough weight to cause considerable swaying. He made the decision that this work was too dangerous and came down.

Is the tree safe enough for now? I asked him. “For at least a year, maybe up to five,” he said. “Without branches, in its present state, it can’t catch wind and likely won’t fall on its own.”

It’s pathetic. Poor tree.

“But it will sprout branches,” he told me. “It wants to save itself and knows it needs the nourishment it gets from having leaves. It will do what it can to maintain its necessary internal circulation. Over time though, the new branches might form a kind of sail. By then the fungus that’s growing on the backside will have weakened it more. Between the sail that could take it down and the fungus that could eat it up, it’s going to die.”

Wouldn’t it be better to put it out of its misery? I asked.

“Yes, that would be better than a slow death.”

Taking the red oak the rest of the way down will require a bucket truck again, he said. This time, I knew, it would be on my nickel, a bigger nickel than the climber would have cost. I’ll have to think about this.

Twice yesterday I wanted to put a living thing out of its misery. Twice it was not within my power. Twice I was reminded that some things we can do, and some things we…just…can’t.