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Burnt toast – and other things

9780670015443I’m Swedish, which makes me sexy, and I’m Irish which makes me want to talk about it.”

So begins Kathleen Flinn’s delectable memoir of her family’s journey and food.

It wasn’t the cover that drew me to this book, it was the title, which recalls Flinn’s grandmother Inez, who refused to use toasters when the oven worked well.  The end result was often burnt toast, which she said “makes you sing good”. Don’t you love it?  My Yia Yia would come up with phrases like that, and so would my dad. “Children are starving in China” comes to mind admonishing a picky eater, though my sister got a tongue lashing once when she replied “then feed this to them“.

I digress.  Actually, I really don’t  digress, for this book brought on memory-upon- memory of my own family, both paternal and maternal, and the role food played in making me who I am. I read this in two bites, er, two days, and found myself wanting for more.

The book starts with Flinn’s mom and dad hastily moving from Michigan to California, via Route 66, with all their belongings, including three toddlers and one more on the way, to help run a pizza parlor owned by her Irish uncle – in the ’50s! This was long before pizza was known in most American homes. The Flinn’s eventually move back to Michigan, where they lived on a farm, ate plenty of chicken and eggs, and make do. It is, in its way, the story of growing up in the midwest in the fifties.

“Burnt Toast . . . ” is the love story of Flinn’s parents, and maternal grandparents, finally her own. It is also about the abject poverty she eventually discovers her father grew up in with her grandmother raising a large family, in the Depression, on her own. It is about how her grandfather, once jailed for bootlegging, becomes a cook in the army during WWII and how she goes about doing sunshine work, dressed as cowgirl delivering her mom’s baked goods, in her new, suburban neighborhood.  This is a well-seasoned ragout of colorful grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins,. It is Flinn’s familial immigrant stories, and more, as she weaves chapter upon chapter of memories, replete with a relevant recipe for each chapter.

“Burnt Toast . . . ” is not just about food. It is also about how the hardships, trials, and tribulations of life often serve to harden our resolve, build character, and furnish life lessons. That burnt toast can make us sing good is also about the grand midwestern spirit – and more. It’s mostly sweet and funny, just a wee bit sad, and waiting for you to open it’s covers.

Off I go now to bake a Jack-o-Lantern Tea loaf to take to a friend’s house for dinner tonight. My own story of how I came to this long-loved recipe can be found here.

 

Such a sight!

DSCN6200Such a sight was afforded on a crisp Autumn afternoon.

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 Time was spent under the low, sprawling branches of what I mistook for a bald Cypress.  Please click on the picture above to get a better sense of how expansive this tree is.

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Like pines and balsams and cedars, larch are also conifers.  This magnificent specimen is an Olga Bay Larch.

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Olga is situated at the base of Frost Hill, along the Conifer Path, toward Meadow Lake and just outside the Children’s Garden at the Morton Arboretum. From whichever direction you meet her, she invites you into her inviting embrace, to inhale her woodsy fragrance, discover her dainty cones, and to feel her silken needles.

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From the windows of space under Olga’s welcoming branches, to the fern-like crown of her canopy, this specimen is a charmer, with room enough underneath her ample skirts from which to spread one’s wings and imagine fairies and wood sprites, elves and gnomes, even the illusive Purple Penelope Peeper .

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DSCN6121The Lake Isle of Innisfree

by William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This poem of Yeats is so very lovely, and just spoke to me today.  I hope you are finding peace wherever you are.

DSCN6229In between leisurely walks in the Autumn woods, raking leaves, or conjuring up soups, late afternoons will often find me these days curled in a leafy corner somewhere, pages of words in my hands.  It might  be a cookbook, a vintage copy of Victoria magazine,  or Laline Paull’s “The Bees”, which will be our garden club’s January book discussion.

This afternoon found me in the arbor, sycamore leaves the size of dinner plates rearranging themselves here, there, and everywhere. The sun wove through the latticework. A light jacket kept me warm from the chill in the air and William Lange’s “Tales from the Edge of the Woods”  kept me company.

I’ve come to appreciate Willem Lange’s writings since Favor Johnson took up residence on a bookshelf one Christmas. You can read about my copy of “Favor Johnson” here.

“Tales from the Edge of the Woods” is a lovely collection of memories and words in short tales with titles like Sliding on a Shovel, Not Love at First Sight, or The Old Canoe, not to mention Favor Johnson. These are well varnished stories of folks you may know, or wish you did, and simple reflections on life.  I hope Mr. Lange won’t mind too terribly if I quote a few words from the story that found me in the arbor today, The Carpenter and the Honeybee. You will need to find “Tales from the Edge of the Woods”, which is available in all the ordinary bookish places, or from his website to read the whole story.

From The Carpenter and the Honeybee by Willem Lange

“She was a honeybee. Just as I was about to put my hand down upon her accidentally, my unconscious mind hollered, “Look out!” and the reflex jerked my arm back. I staggered, out of balance. If she noticed the close call we had both had, she gave no sign, and continued to try to wedge herself into that crack. Intrigued, I put down my plank and bent down to watch her. I wondered for a moment, as I pulled my specs down my nose, the better to see her up close, how it would feel to have a bee sting right on the end of my nose.”

Favor Johnson is a story from “Tales from the Edge of the Woods” as well as a children’s book.

Do you have some favorite books of short stories, memories, or essays?

Copper and Gold

DSCN6153Nature’s wheel just keeps spinning a colorful web this fall. The trees have been outstanding, with their leaves turning  in earnest this week.  I want to drink it all in while the show lasts.

DSCN6149Some of you asked to see “my” Copper Beech in her Autumn splendor.  Her leaves are exhibiting their coppery rust, which makes it  a striking companion to what I believe is an aspen. Copper and gold; such amazing tones in nature. Even in the rain – especially in the rain – the performance is spectacular this year. Yet again, I was exploring  the Morton Arboretum on Wednesday.  The path above was leading to the glass-blowing pumpkin extravaganza going on through the weekend.  If you are in the area, you really should drop in to see the Glass Pumpkin Patch at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and then absorb all the fall colors.

Leaf Peepers! That’s what we become in the fall. Leaf Peepers!

The path below wanders amid an arbor rainbow.  I felt a bit like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.

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It doesn’t matter where paths wander in our midwestern fall ; just that we take the time to walk them, as this pair did in the Autumn mist.

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Would you like to see some of the glass pumpkins? They are even better in person.  Click on photos for a better look-see.

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The Care and Management of Lies

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I have enjoyed Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books, even procuring a copy from a Little Free Library box a few months ago.  They are gentle mysteries set in the post WWI era and provide insight into life in England after the war. I was excited to learn that Winspear had written another book, independent of the Maisie Dobbs series, set in the English countryside.

It was not just Winspear’s reputation that drew me to “The Care and Management of Lies”, however, and it wasn’t the book cover. (The one posted here is the UK edition, which I find to be much more appealing than the rather drab colored one here in the US, which I show below.) It was the name of the main character. Kezia. This is the name, as you might recall, of our granddaughter, though hers has an “h” on the end.

Kezia Marchant is the daughter of an Anglican pastor. Her best friend is Thea Brissenden. As the story begins, we learn that Kezia is engaged to marry Thea’s brother, Tom. Tom runs the family farm, since his father’s death. Thea is a suffragist, who seems to be struggling with Kezia’s new role as farm wife and who comes dangerously close to being jailed for sedition.  Tom feels it is his duty to go off to war, leaving Kezia, new to living a life off of the land, to tend to the farm.  They have precious little time together after their wedding, but, during the time, Kezzie, as Tom calls her, struggles determinedly to learn how to cook, surprising Tom with exotic new herbs, spices, and flavors and making their meals an anticipated ritual for Tom at day’s end.

When Tom goes off to the trenches in France, Kezzie works hard to keep the farm going, as well as the spirits of the few workers left to tend to the fields, the farm animals, and life on the home front. In France, Tom becomes the target of the unit’s sergeant, who taunts Tom and refers to him as Private Gravy. It is Kezia’s letters that keep Tom steady and sure, and eventually those of the other men in his unit.

The lies that are being cared for and managed are not those of  hidden love affairs, mounting debt, murder or thievery.  They are the lies of omission and embroidered truths; lies intended to help loved ones feel safe or taking their minds off of the horror at hand.  Lies, told in letters, are intermingled with the evocative prose that Jacqueline Winspear is known for. She is adept at bringing the mood, the aura, the simple gestures of living that keep her characters real as the reader becomes immersed in the era she writes about.

Kezia’s letters describe tantalizing meals made from unlikely ingredients, evocatively penned. She teasingly invites Tom to imagine eating them as he reads her letters and, even 9780062220509_custom-0e3798b9ed22df31b37811651b9bb807fe3083c3-s2-c85asks him to make suggestions as to how to improve her delectable entrees.  As time goes on, the men in Tom’s unit learn of the “meals” Kezzie sends, and beg him to read the letters aloud, huddled in the stench and mud, cold and fear of trench warfare.  Even his commanding officers know of Kezzie’s culinary talents, which bring about several kinds of jealousy from Tom’s superiors, dangerously so from Sergeant Knowles.

Tom Brissenden, in turn, writes to his Kezzie of those things that soldiers of war write home about;  longing to see the woman he loves, missing home, asking about his sister, Thea, who has become an ambulance driver, and his father-in-law, who has inlisted as a chaplain, and wondering about hearth and home . . .

. . .  then, all converge in a clash of wartime, leaving the reader with as many questions as answers, and this reader with tears in her eyes.

My hope is that Ms. Winspear continues to write about Kezia in the same manner in which we follow Maisie Dobbs. My other hope  is that you read “The Care and Management of Lies”.  It is slow going at the start, but, much worth the determination, like Kezzie’s cooking skills, to see it through to the end.

 

DSCN5973Shall I tell you a story of linen and ink, gardens and waterfalls, sunshine and splendor?

It occurs at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.

Our garden club’s adventure started with a private tour of the Lenhardt Library; a treasure trove of horticultural books, journals, periodicals, reproduction prints and more. There was an amazing display of noteworthy bookplates, including those of Charles Dickens and Eugene Field.  Several of us were particularly interested in Field’s bookplate as we first met long before joining the garden club, when our children attended Field School, named for the poet. (you know him – Wynken, Blynken and Nod).

After our introduction to the wonders Lenhardt has to offer, we were taken into the June Price Reeder Rare Book Room. It was as if a hush fell on my soul, so enthralled was I in the presence of four centuries of bound and conserved horticultural wisdom, some of which became the template of remedies for modern medicine.  To touch the linen pages that predate the anniversary of Columbus’s discoveries, the day before Columbus Day is commemorated here, is rather awesome, indeed. The library is in the painstaking process of digitizing  these books and journals, some truly tomes, for all to access. You can see some of them by clicking the link to the rare book room above.

No garden club event seems complete without food, so, we stopped for lunch at the Cafe. We commiserated over sandwiches, soups, salads and sunshine, then separated, some taking a tram tour of the grounds, others walking the paths.  I suspect most of us also ended up in the bountiful gift shop before heading home.

The groundskeepers were busy, hauling this and that, flowers and soil, pumpkins and gourds, readying the Botanic for this weekend’s fall festivities. It was a pristine day; the best kind for visiting such an expansive garden. The Chicago Botanic Gardens is a destination for grade school field trips as well as an international destination to world travelers.  It pleased me to no end to hear the many languages that were being uttered and the universal joy of horticulture.

Here are a few photos taken in the Rare Book Room.  Our guide was Leora Siegel, the library’s director. It is an understatement to say that she was exemplary as she guided us through the centuries of books. I felt a tinge of regret when the tour concluded as I longed to hear and see more.

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Finally, a few photos of the grounds, which include the Japanese garden, the vast vistas, waterfall, and stunning chrysanthemums dripping from the main arbor leading out to the Botanic’s grounds.

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My Chicago Botanic Garden

A blog for visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Living Designs

Circles of Life: My professional background in Foods and Nutrition (MS, Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist, RDN, LDN) provides the background for my personal interests in nutrition, foods and cooking; health and wellness; environment and sustainability.

Women Making Strides

Be a Leader in Your Own Life

Raising Milk and Honey

The Farm at Middlemay

The Cottonwood Tree

Beautiful Things Inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder

cakes, tea and dreams

savoring the beauty in the everyday

Romancing the Bee

Beautiful Beekeeping, English Cottage Gardening, and Cooking with Honey

Book Snob

FOR DISCERNING READERS

teacups & buttercups

An old fashioned heart

Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

Analysis and reflection from someone endlessly fascinated with Louisa May Alcott. Member/supporter of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House (including the Alcott International Circle) and the Louisa May Alcott Society.

breathelighter

Reducing stress one exhale at a time ...exploring Southern California and beyond

Kate Shrewsday

A thousand thousand stories

Blogging from the Bog

musings from and about our cottage in the West of Ireland

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