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Posts Tagged ‘Martha Stewart’

 

Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC.

Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition of Moravian landscapes at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC (www.mesda.org).

Katherine Mansfield once said something very mean about one of my favorite writers: “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” she said. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”*

I think that’s a terrible thing to say about a fellow writer, and Katherine should be ashamed of herself. But I do think it’s a pretty good quote, and it helped me recognize a terrible truth: it’s a quote that applies to me, especially at Christmas. I can warm up the pot, but my fire goes out long before the tea is brewed. Back in mid-December, I had a wreath on the front of the house, and I had hung the stockings (because how hard is that?) but there was no tree up then and there was not one up on Christmas Eve, either. I produced several batches of fudge and spiced nuts, but I never got around to making my usual cream cheese cookie-press wreaths with tedious little maraschino cherry bows.

As E. M. Forster himself once said: “I do like Christmas on the whole…. In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But it is clumsier every year.”

It certainly feels clumsier every year, and on top of that my Christmas skills are weak. I spent 45 minutes on December 14th trying to wrap the top and bottom of a shoebox separately in nice paper, like you see all the time in magazines. The box was meant to hold a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread. Well, I finally got the wrapping paper on both parts, but it looked like hell. Ernesto shrugged it off. “At night and walking fast, no one will notice,” he said. That was a comfort, since the loaf was being shipped to his mother.

I’ll tell you who knows how to do Christmas (besides Martha Stewart): the Moravians. I grew up near Winston-Salem, where Moravians settled at Bethabra and Salem and then spread out from there, and the holidays were greatly enriched by Moravian traditions like the candle tea and the Moravian star, Moravian cookies and sugar cake. It’s a high-calorie religion.

I remember multiple school field trips to the historic village of Old Salem. A large tin coffee pot stands at its boundary, and rumor had it that a soldier once hid inside the coffee pot during some war or another. My classmates and I trooped through the village, visiting shops and homes and the doctor’s office and even the cemetery. We saw beeswax candles being made and sampled paper-thin ginger cookies from the bakery. Everything smelled divine.

The Moravians also excel at Christmas carols, sweet coffee, and lovefeast buns. My family once attended a Moravian holiday service in Winston-Salem, and I could not have been happier: I got my very own beeswax candle in a red paper frill, I drank a cup of sweet coffee, we sang carols, and I ate my first lovefeast bun. Later my mom bought us an entire bag of them for non-festival use. They look a bit like hamburger buns, but they are faintly sweet and make the best fish sandwich you ever ate. I believe that I prayed for several years that I would turn into a Moravian, but I never did.

How I yearned for lovefeast buns during the 23 years that I lived in the wilderness outside North Carolina! By 2007, when we had migrated west to St. Louis, the stars and the Internet and someone’s treasured family recipe aligned, and I found instructions for making my own lovefeast buns online.

I gathered the ingredients and waited for a day with no other distractions. Lovefeast buns are a project: They start with a batch of mashed potatoes and they must rise for two hours before being divided into little balls and then they have to rise again until doubled in size. But a terrible hunger for lovefeast buns drove me, and one rainy Sunday afternoon I rolled up my sleeves and commenced to make a mess.

I made the mashed potatoes—dry, unseasoned, plain potatoes. I mashed them for long minutes to avoid lumps in the bread. Then I creamed the butter and sugar, and added the yeast and warm water. When I stirred the potatoes into the mixture, a Christmas miracle occurred. The dough became silky-smooth, and glossy. It was beautiful.

I added nutmeg, mace, orange and lemon peels, and flour while singing a silent fa-la-la-la-la inside my head.

It was a cool day of dark rain-clouds, not an encouraging environment for bread dough. I circled the house trying to find a warm spot for it to rise.  Finally I warmed the oven up a bit, turned it off, and stuck the bowl inside.

By the end of the second hour, Ernesto had taken over the kitchen to cook a ham hock in the pressure cooker. “Look at the size of this hock!” he said, holding it up before it went into the pot.

“How much does it weigh?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, but it cost $5. It came from a huge pork.” He left me with very little counter space, and I needed to preheat the oven for my final baking, so I removed the pan of dough from the oven and set the proper temperature for the baking.

I formed my little rolls and placed them on a large pan, covered with a dishcloth. By now a tiny, uncertain sunbeam fell on the center of the dining room table, so I left the pan there for the final rising.

Ernesto’s pressure cooker was singing and sputtering, a fog of steam hung near the ceiling, and he had a large pan filled with potatoes, tomato sauce, onions, and garlic simmering on the stove. I left the area to do something else, and when I came back into the kitchen 30 minutes later to check on my rolls, I found both windows next to the dining room table wide open.

“Why are these windows up?” I asked, running to close them. Ernesto ran to open them again. “They need to be up,” he explained, “because of the steam and food smells.” The temperature inside the house dropped.

My buns never did double in size. But I baked them, anyway, and they came out looking like rather large, smooth biscuits.

We ate our love biscuits with Ernesto’s $5 ham-hock-and-potatoes dish.

“This is real soul food,” he said. I had to agree. They weren’t exactly right, but those far-from-home lovefeast buns fed my soul.

Now that we’re back in North Carolina, my friend Sara keeps me supplied with actual lovefeast buns. Sara is a true Moravian. She dressed in a Moravian costume and presided over an open house at the Leaksville Moravian Church in Eden last month, as part of a holiday tour of homes. “I always tell a little about the history of the Moravians in America, and the history of our church,” she explained. “And we have beeswax candles in all the windows and of course the putz is always on display.”

“Of course. The what?”

“It’s spelled p-u-t-z, but it’s pronounced to rhyme with foots.” It’s German, meaning decoration or adornment. A Moravian putz is a Christmas village, usually with a nativity scene incorporated into it. Sara told me that her household putz includes twelve scenes from the Christmas story, beginning with Isaiah prophesying the birth of Jesus. “We have a small figure of Saint Thomas representing Isaiah,” she said. “He sits in an abalone shell.”

She asked me if I hadn’t seen the putz on display at the Single Brothers’ House in Old Salem, and it turns out that I had. One of my clearest memories from those long-ago field trips was standing in front of a large table with a miniature version of Salem village on it. I just didn’t know it was called a putz.

My one Christmas success this year was a sort-of putz. I put fake snow and tiny fake evergreen trees into vintage jars. It’s not Isaiah on the half-shell, but they were still rather nice. In fact, now that Christmas is well and truly behind us, I have them gathered on the mantel as a wintery accent thing.

I’m sure that Katherine Mansfield would argue that my quasi-putz are, like most of my attempts at holiday cheer and home-making, a mere warming of the teapot, and not a brewing of good, strong tea. But they are a simple adornment, so they do qualify. They also feed my soul, just as E. M. Forster does. Like Ernesto, he always has something comforting to say when things go clumsy. Forster put it this way: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

That’s right. And Katherine Mansfield is a schmuck.

 

*Zadie Smith, “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” In Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

 

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Father's Day 001

I decided to make a mincemeat pie for my dad for Father’s Day. He mentioned a little while back that he would like to have a mincemeat pie, something he hadn’t had in years. I said I’d never had one, ever, as far as I knew, and I forgot all about it.

Then, a week or two ago, I ordered a copy of The Farm, chef Ian Knauer’s cookbook and celebration of his family’s centuries-old farm in Pennsylvania. I forget exactly why I decided I wanted it, except that I had seen his cooking show on PBS once and enjoyed it.

The family farm he writes about (and gardens on) is a beautiful place. There’s a gigantic hydrangea with white blossoms that look good enough to eat, and a small pond and a meandering driveway and a family cemetery where the founding Knauer, Johann Christopher, is buried. He died in 1769, so obviously the white, two-story stucco farmhouse is not the original family home. Ian and his family in general seem to use the place as a getaway. It’s not clear who owns it, but Ian and his sisters have planted a large garden there, and he goes down for weekends and cooks for family and friends.

I was reading through the book and marking the recipes I wanted to try, when I came across a recipe for mincemeat pie. And that’s when I remembered my dad’s wish for one.

You would think that I would be beyond the homemade Father’s Day gift, but evidently I am not.

I am also aware that this is not the season for mincemeat pie. So what? Now that homes are air-conditioned, cooking things for hours on the stove is not that bad.

The pie appeared to be quite a project. Ian’s version had a mile-long list of ingredients and it made enough filling for four pies. He only had a recipe for making one bottom crust, though, so once you filled it you were encouraged to freeze the additional three quarts of filling until time to make another pie.

I decided to cut the recipe in half. I made my grocery list, and added the ingredients that I didn’t already have: suet, pineapple juice, apple cider, raisins and currants, ground beef, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. There. Friday night, and my list was in order.

I woke up on Saturday morning in a mild panic. Ian’s farm was in Pennsylvania, not North Carolina. I didn’t know where to find currants in the store—would they be in produce, or with the dried fruits? Did I have to use beef suet? What if this pie was not at all like the one my dad remembers? Shouldn’t it have a top crust?

I went to the Internet and looked up more recipes for mincemeat pie. Martha Stewart had one, but it was meanly hidden behind some sort of subscription requirement and you could only read bits of the recipe around the “Become a member now!” box, which floated as I tried to peek beneath it. But I saw everything I needed to see. One of the first instructions in the recipe was to “take down two jars of mincemeat filling from the shelf.” Really, Martha?

Alton Brown, I believe—after a while it’s difficult to say where I read what—offered the advice that butter could substitute for suet. Thank you.

Then I pulled down my grandma’s old cookbooks, thinking one of them might contain the recipe that she used for her pie. Her cookbooks are always fun to read through. She used to cut recipes out of the newspaper and tape them inside in open spaces and on the end pages and sometimes on pages with other recipes, like Martha’s floating subscription box. I bet she did that to cover up recipes she hated. I would.

I came across many wonderful things in those old cookbooks, including a recipe called “Do You Like Oyster Stew?” that didn’t have oysters in the list of ingredients, and then sprang them on the cook midway through the instructions, very casually: “Add 2 or 3 pints of oysters.” None of these old cookbooks, most of them church or community collections, seemed to have dependable, thorough instructions. But the recipe titles were priceless. “Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick” was my favorite in The Lizzie Sills Friends Circle cookbook. (In case you’re wondering, the “slick” refers to dumplings. Aren’t you a tiny bit relieved? I was.)

But in all the charming antique cookbooks that I consulted, there was no recipe for mincemeat pie. Perhaps it was already too old-fashioned to make the cut for Lizzie Sills, which included this paragraph on the copyright page (capitalized as in the original):

THIS BOOK includes the finest plastic ring binders available, BUT, like most plastics, the BINDERS CAN BE DAMAGED BY EXCESSIVE HEAT, so AVOID exposing them to the direct rays of the SUN, or excessive heat such as IN A CAR on a hot day, or on the top of the kitchen STOVE. If not exposed to heat, the binders will last indefinitely.

I don’t know why they didn’t put indefinitely in all caps, but maybe by the end of that passage there wasn’t enough oxygen left.

Since I didn’t find a recipe called “The Mincemeat Pie Your Father Fondly Remembers,” I went to the store with my list and bought what I needed to make half a recipe of Ian Knauer’s version. As I collected my ingredients and sent up a desperate prayer that I would find a good substitute for currants, the song “You Can Do Magic” came on over the Food Lion sound system. Excellent. I can do magic. I can make mincemeat pie. I can make it without currants.

And that’s what I did. It was hard to get started, because I was nervous, but I browned the beef in a little bit of butter, then removed it with a slotted spoon to a large, heavy pot. I put a pound and a half of raisins in the pot with enough dried cherries and cranberries to take up the space that currants would have occupied. I peeled and chopped apples, grated orange and lemon zest, decanted varying amounts of fruit juice, cider, cider vinegar, honey, and molasses; I added a half stick of butter. I sprinkled in salt and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger. With the heat turned up to bring it all to a boil, I took a large wooden spoon and began turning the mixture over.

That’s when the magic happened. Oh, the smell. It was like apple pie and Christmas. It was rich and spicy and dark and wonderful with the citrus zest sending up bright sparks. It simmered for about an hour, getting progressively thicker. I tasted it, and began to think that maybe I had eaten some of my grandmother’s mincemeat pie. An angel sang, softly, and not for very long.

I do hope that my pie comes close to Grandma’s. Because the whole point of making a mincemeat pie in June was to recreate a feeling and maybe provide at least a quick flashback to a yellow kitchen in a white house on a small farm in eastern North Carolina. Unlike Ian’s family, we can’t still visit that farm, and I’m seven miles removed from my parents’ farm, which also overlooks a pond. But Redbud farmlet is chugging along. Our chickens are now 12 weeks old and healthy, the goats are staying inside the corral and haven’t lost their collars, and the kale and squash are growing. When I step under the shelter where the tractor lives, the soft dirt underfoot and the shade and the smell of the old tractor make me feel like I’m back in my grandfather’s barn. In a way, the original Winslow family farm is still thriving—it’s just scattered around the state a little more than it once was.

I delivered the pie this morning right after going to church with my parents, where my dad won a gift certificate for being the father with the oldest child present. I bet I was also the oldest child who had made her father an ugly homemade gift. Best part: I can give him another one in December, because the frozen mincemeat keeps for six months. Boom.

Want a little homemade ice cream with your mincemeat pie on Father’s Day? Read this!

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Waiting for the bats in Austin

Transform a recycled umbrella into a very clever bat puppet. ~ Martha Stewart

I like to visit Martha Stewart’s Web site from time to time, and this morning the home page featured an episode wherein Martha made a bat puppet from an old black umbrella.  I didn’t want to watch the episode, which was oddly titled “Halloween Bats and Chinese Cuisine,” so I searched for written instructions. Evidently they aren’t yet posted, but in searching for “umbrella bat” I came across something even nicer: a bat costume made from a black umbrella!

[U]se a bolt cutter to clip metal joints where angled support bars meet spokes; also cut off central rod and handle. Trim all metal as closely as possible; cover any remaining sharp points with black electrical tape. Slit opposite-facing panels midway between spokes, all the way to umbrella top. With pliers, untwist small wire that holds plastic center piece to spokes, and remove both wire and plastic; umbrella should separate into 2 pieces. Discard plastic. To rejoin spokes at top, cut wire in half (or use any similar-gauge wire), and thread a piece through the small holes in spokes of each half; bend in a loop at each end. Secure loose fabric to spokes on each umbrella half: Catch edge of fabric with a 3-inch-long piece of 28-gauge wire, and twist its ends tightly around wire that holds spokes together; trim ends.

There were additional instructions to make a harness to attach the wings to a child. That project called for grosgrain ribbon, hot glue, safety pins, welding equipment, and a tractor. Okay, I made up the last two items, but if I wanted a bat costume, I would buy one. All that wire-clipping and bolt-cutting sounds like a first-class ticket straight to the emergency room.

But it’s nice that Martha has come up with two ways to recycle an old umbrella. It reminded me of my own umbrella-recycling story….

A couple of years ago, in a failed attempt to be more environmentally responsible, I took the Metro to work for several months. It didn’t work out for several reasons that I won’t go into here. But on one of the days when I was still trying to soldier through, my co-worker, Mary, offered me a ride from work to the train station.  I accepted with great pleasure, because it was raining something awful and the prospect of waiting for the bus held no charm.

We walked to Mary’s car with our umbrellas up and angled to protect ourselves from the driving rain and blustery wind. Sadly, the forces of nature overcame my umbrella during the walk, and one-third of it flopped over and became useless. When we got to the car, Mary threw her umbrella into the floor of the back seat, and I threw mine back there too, with slightly more force than necessary. I thought: “Gah. I am not taking that umbrella out of this car. It’s trashed.” 

Now it was very wrong of me to dump my umbrella in Mary’s car simply because I couldn’t be bothered to take it with me and give it a proper burial. I wouldn’t have done it except that I was so fed up with that umbrella that I couldn’t bear to look at it, much less pick it up and carry it somewhere. So I washed my hands of it.

The next morning, Mary stopped at my office and held out my umbrella. “You left your umbrella in my car,” she said.

I explained that I had decided I never wanted to see that umbrella again. 

“Oh, it’s fine now,” she said. “I fixed it.”  And she had!  I told her it was like a fairy tale, where elves come out at night and fix things for people. Not that I deserved it, of course—but if I hadn’t abandoned my umbrella in her car, it wouldn’t have gotten fixed and had a second life. This was truly a Good Thing, because my umbrella was tan, not black, and wouldn’t have been suitable as a bat puppet or bat costume.

Ernesto and I have often talked about putting some bat houses up around our garage. When we were in Austin this past June we walked from our hotel to the Congress Avenue Bridge where spectators line up to watch more than a million bats fly out into the dusk. The bridge was still empty when we got there, so we passed the time before sundown exploring the nice trail along Town Lake, just below the bridge. Ernesto found an informational display about the bats, and he read every word while I sat on a bench and took a couple of pictures. When Ernesto was finished reading every word about bats that he could find, we settled onto a nearby dock that was touted as a good place from which to see the bats.

As the sun sank lower in the sky, more people arrived at our dock, including children. It was difficult for parents to explain to children that they, the parents, didn’t know when the bats might come out, and the children should just be patient (and quiet). The children were neither patient nor quiet. A small boy threw leaves, caring not a bit that they landed on persons not in his own party. A little girl on a Snow White blanket whined incessantly and worried about ticks. That made me worry about ticks.

At long last, someone noticed that the bats were flying. They didn’t emerge from under the bridge in a big swoosh. They were completely silent, and we had to watch the skyline to see that there was a huge number of flying objects in a line up there—a line that went on and on and on.

D. H. Lawrence despised bats, but this passage from his poem “Bat” is a good description of what we witnessed that evening:

Look up, and you see things flying
Between the day and the night;
Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.  

In the poem, the narrator initially mistakes the bats for swallows.  He describes their

serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.  

Later, he realizes that he is seeing bats and refers to their “Wings like bits of umbrella.” And so they are.

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