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Here’s Ezra, out on the grassy knoll, having a fun time running around the back acreage, getting all sweaty and exploring our simple life on the Cutoff with his big sister, Kezzie, and cousins Jake and Scott (who shared a great big bag of Thomas the Train and all of Thomas’ friends). The camera “caught” our young lad rounding the wildlife habitat. 

 

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What a busy, long weekend was had; decorating a cake for Papa’s birthday with Auntie Jenny, and “funning” around the backyard,

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and taking a walk at Lake Katherine, then visiting the Plush Horse for big scoops of ice cream. Kezzie shared a small table with another little lass while Ezra dipped into ice cream for the very first time.

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All-in-all, ’twas just plain old fashioned enjoyment with family gathered together, here on the Cutoff.

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Smack dab in the center of what was once the “hog butcher for the world” is a repurposed food packaging plant that is being used for raising tilapia that eat the plants that drink the water that The Plant filters.

DSCN4963I tagged along with the Downers Grove Organic Growers on a steamy Saturday morning to tour The Plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. I’m so grateful that they let me join them. This is what garden clubs are like; open and eager to share the knowledge of growing things and learning about how we are expanding growing environments.

The Plant was home to Peer Foods since the 1920’s. It was where bacon and hams and other meats were processed and it provided jobs for many, especially those living in the Chicago neighborhood known as The Back of the Yards. The “yards’ refer to the stockyards. When it moved it’s operations westward, into the suburbs, it left a substantial employment gap in the neighborhood.

While the scene above may appear bucolic, it is not. It is about as urban as a neighborhood can be DSCN4993with rows of small houses on small lots that have stood the test of time and labor;  city streets with small businesses serving the community – and an immense industrial area at its back. Smokestacks and cement cut the blue sky and poverty is but a day away.

The photo on the top is looking out of a second story window onto what was likely a parking lot and upon which now sits an urban farm.

As we departed, volunteers were setting up tables and tents for a small farmers’ market, providing fresh greens and vegetables from the site to the neighborhood. A large cooker was set up in what was once a loading dock to cook lunch for the volunteers and interns working at The Plant.

This is an exciting, emerging environment in an otherwise inhospitable cement jungle with a forward thinking agenda of providing food where food has not grown. Oh, the places one can go when thinking “outside of the box”. DSCN4991This old, dilapidated structure is receiving CPR. Its innards are being rearranged and repurposed. It will take some time to recover, but, recovering it is, with food business “incubators” finding tenant space inside this cavern of possibilities.  A nearby bakery rents space and houses ovens inside its doors. A brewery will be taking up residence, as well as storage space for a cheese company. Mushrooms are farmed in a lower level room. A large portion of the basement houses enormous tanks where tilapia are raised; the water filtered back into the water plant beds, pushing up through holes juxtaposed in recycled cardboard gardens.  Various heat lamps hang, testing different types of lighting as college interns plant seedlings just a few steps away. There are plans for a museum focussing on the surrounding neighborhood, classes, artwork and numerous other ways to replant The Plant.

I get confused, dear reader, over hydroponics and aquaponics and their relatives, but, you can read more about this topic if you choose by going to http://www.plantchicago.com/non-profit/farms/plantaquaponics/ and you can find out more about The Plant at plantchicago.com.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few pictures of the growing areas inside The Plant – and outside of it. On the day of our trip, there were several volunteers working on the 3,000 square foot mural being painted on the outside of the building and designed by Joe Miller.

Hope, ideas, agriculture and more grows these days in this city neighborhood. A good thing. A good thing, indeed.

Mushroom growing chamber.

Mushroom growing chamber.

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Roots

Roots

Plants

Plants

Cardboard grid awaiting seedlings.

Cardboard grid awaiting seedlings.

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DSCN4384DSCN4387There are signs of spring all around me now; frivolous fragments of life emerging from the still cold soil. What a wonderful time of renewal it is here on the Cutoff.

 

Tom and I pulled up to the Dean Nature Sanctuary on Thursday afternoon. It is a new discovery of local conservation for me. Though it is along a road that I travel numerous times each week, I had no idea of its existence. Isn’t it an unexpected gift when we discover this gems in life?

 

Just as we were getting out the car, up from the pond arose a magnificent blueish white specimen; a great blue heron! He spread his expansive wings, swooping up and away, catching my breath and taking it with him.

 

This week has been full of such blue heron moments; from the first daffodils to open, to the slow budding of trees, and the exclamatory chorus of the spring peepers in the pond. I am awash in the glee of springtime.

 

Yesterday, while at the Morton Arboretum, I pulled into a glen that is usually blocked off. There were several photographers positioned with their tripods and professional cameras and binoculars. I slipped as quietly as I could out of the car, my small, abused Nikon in the palm of my hand, and gazed as the small, blue birds dipped and dived, disappeared and came forward again in their springtime flurry of activity. I smiled as the phrase “the bluebird of happiness” came to mind. A few paused on a branch, here or there, and I captured them, forever, in my mind.

 

The daffodils were just beginning their show. Even in their prelude, they are so splendid I feel my heart applaud.

 

I headed toward Crawley Marsh, sure the peepers would be singing there. They were, but, it was a white egret that caught my eye. He came from the west and swooped and swirled in a figure eight; close then further then closer again as he danced on the wind above the water, suddenly stopping, a shiver in space, dropped straight down, breaking barely a wave, arising with his a fish in his mouth and soaring to wherever his table was set. There I stood, Yia Yia in her ancient lumber jacket, gasping “oh my”. An elderly couple scurried out of their sedan, wondering if it was the wood ducks I’d seen.

 

It’s amazing the conversations one has in blue heron moments. Have you had any lately?

 

 

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DSCN4155I almost missed it the first time. It was an afternoon not too long after Tom’s eye surgery. I was driving, slowly, as one must when taking in the scenery at the Morton Arboretum. My giant pirate was clicking photos from the passenger window, the snow covered wonderland posing with crested limbs and scarves of white.

I stopped, then backed up, slowly.

“What is that?” 

An apparition, it seemed, materializing,  right then and there, in the snow and shadows, just for us.

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Two months later, with several more feet of snow accumulated, we once again crept through this winter wonderland, my pirate without his patch at the helm of our polar arc, me positioned like a passenger pigeon with a camera, when I barely saw it.

Wait, Tom. Stop! Back up, slowly, slower . . . ” and out of the car I bounded like a winter hare.

It is amazing, is it not, where one can find strength just when one needs it?

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There, under the strong limbs of a mighty oak tree, my Antler Man and I  found strength, hiding under a very strong and well positioned bench.

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Do, please click on the photos to get a better view.

Addition to post: below is a picture of the Strength bench up close, which I hope to sit on one fine WARM day. The letters are metal, the seat I believe is oak. 

 

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Doom was always lurking around corners. Ma tended toward old wives’ tales. If I read too much, my eyes would cross. If I cropped-dscn39801.jpgwashed my hair too often, it would fall out before I reached the age of 30. Pantyhose and tampons would render me sterile. Nail polish would brand me a hussy. Shaving my armpits, well, you don’t want to know that one. Plucking my eyebrows could cause any number of vision problems, which, perhaps, is probably why I fell and hurt myself running, and . . .

. . . I was never, ever, under any circumstances to turn the oven on!

The sturdy Tappan Gas Range of my two previous posts, followed our family from the west side of Chicago to the suburb of Maywood. Both houses were across from what would become I-290,  locally dubbed the Congress Expressway and then the Eisenhower. For more than 50 years, I lived either on the north or the south side of the Ike, but, those are stories for other days. Today’s is the story of my home, the range, and Hershey’s Cocoa.

My mother, with all her superstitions and worry, was the best at making hot cocoa. Cold days, after walking home from school, we would often find a cup of hot chocolate waiting. Ma would make a cup for Daddy sometimes, late at night. I know. How do I know? I know because I was reading a book, under my bed covers, when I was supposed to be fast asleep.

I digress.

I have a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon. They are letters written to my mother during WWII. They are from her brothers and brothers-in-law, cousins and boys from the neighborhood who had gone off to war. They are from many theaters of battle, some with words sliced out by a censor’s razor. They speak of the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox, others asking after the other boys who hung out on the street corner. They talk of weather and of missing loved ones and of the things in between the lines that speak of war without words. They are the sorts of letters that arrived in countless homes. In almost every letter my mother kept, however, there was a common theme;

Vi, I can’t wait to come home and have a cup of your hot cocoa.

I did not know of these letters until I was a young mother when my mom gave them to, saying she thought I would appreciate having them – and I did. Still do. All I knew as a girl of thirteen, however, was that Ma made good cocoa, with Hershey’s cocoa. The same Hershey’s cocoa that my cousin Mary Jane made each morning, as a young teen, after she had warmed up the old coal stove.

The conversation with my cousin, and the photograph of the new stove reminded me of the letter, my mother, and of a small act of defiance when I was about thirteen years old.

My mother, father and Yia Yia had all gone out somewhere. So had my Aunt Christina and Uncle Joe, who lived next door. For all of them to be gone at the same time, including my grandmother, who hardly ever left the house, leads me to believe that someone must have died and they all went to the wake. They NEVER all went somewhere together, unless it was a wake or a wedding.

I finished my homework then decided I would make some cocoa. Just like that! Out came the Hershey’s container, a half gallon glass jar of milk, and a small pan. I read the directions and proceeded to turn on the burner and warm the milk. I was warned to never turn on the oven. No one said anything about a burner. I managed to make the hot cocoa without setting the pan, a towel, or anything else on fire. It was very good. I cleaned everything up, but,  you know, there is a unique aroma that comes with hot Hershey’s cocoa that permeates the air and is subtly detectable when coming in from the cold –  that, and the pang of guilt that arises after doing something you are not supposed to do.

When my parents and grandmother came home, I spilled the beans faster than a nervous coffee grinder. Yia Yia slipped quietly to her room. My father looked at me; she who never disobeyed. My mother: well, hysterical would probably describe her mien, as the woulda, shoulda, couldas spewed forth. Finally, Daddy interceded on my behalf.  “Violet, she should have asked, but, nothing bad happened, she was careful, she cleaned up after herself and she really  IS old enough to start cooking.”

Thus began my warm and sweet love affair with cooking – one pan of Hershey’s cocoa at a time – and it was on the front right burner of that sturdy Tappan range. It really is amazing what memories come forth when visiting a big box store.

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1621013_saI found another memory in a box.  A big box. Actually, a big box store. Funny, isn’t it, where memories emerge?

There we were, on a snow filled New Year’s Day, shopping for a new stove at Best Buy. Among the many items that go on sale in the new year are appliances. In this newly minted year, we find we need to replace our oven, so, off we pottered, research having been done online and through a few well-placed phone calls, looking for a range.

Trudging into the store after making our way through a parking lot that had not yet been plowed from the first 24 hours of a 48 hour snowfall, we stomped slush from our feet and were greeted with a rush of welcome fit for a duke and duchess. We were so welcomed, of course, because we were just about the only patrons in the store!

Off we went, the Duke of Deer and his Duchess, down aisles of all things electronic, toward the big appliances. Once we found our bearings, we inspected a fine row of stoves and rounded a corner of stainless steel, when I exclaimed “oh, this is just like the stove we had when I was growing up!”; and it was. White enamel in look and as pure as the white driven snow, it had coal, black burner grates and (WAIT FOR IT) and an analog clock with a chubby, round face and arrowed hands, right smack dab in the middle of the range.

My girlish glee immediately aroused a clerk, smelling the prospect of a sale, maybe the only sale on that very first day of 2014. A rather young chap, he slid around an LG, or was it a Samsung, and, swift as a lord-a-leaping, opened the  white oven door. “This is GE’s new retro model, and it is only $….“. We weren’t interested in buying this smart new model. Though it would have fit into our budget, it would not have worked in our kitchen.

Even so, the Duke of Deer, whose childhood also held such a white cooking wonder, and his Duchess spent several sweet moments DSCN3980warmly recalling the features of their childhood ovens. How very wondrous it seemed.

Now, dear reader, there is more to this New Year’s day story, which I will soon share with you, for one thing, you know,  always leads to another when memories are stirred on the Cutoff – and they even involves Hershey’s Cocoa.

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Grasses swaying with snow 2014 commenced with traditional midwestern frigidity, with snow falling in the early hours of the New Year. Fall it did, continually, for some 48 hours, dumping almost 18 inches of powdery white in some areas, two feet in others. We managed to accumulate foot or so here on the Cutoff before it was over. We were “snowed in” until dinnertime Thursday night when our good neighbor plowed us out with his truck.

We are so very fortunate, for we had plenty of food put by and our homely nest was cozy and warm. A crude path was swept out early, up to the Barn, where Tom could spend some time in his office. Just the fact that he is doing well enough to do some computer work now is an encouraging new year omen. The snow made all seem clean and right in our little cut off corner, and the ever-growing icicles provided a Zhivagoan mood, giving one the impression of an Ice Palace. We were just glad we didn’t need to string a guide rope from one door to the other, for we were close to white out conditions a few times.

Come late afternoon, when the flakes were no longer dusting our existence, I ventured Fairy with snowout, stomping a path to the compost pile, then trudging the opposite direction, down the long drive to the mailbox, which was as empty as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. No mail awaited, but, it didn’t really matter, for the bills will come when they come.

Freezing, I stood, watching squirrels scamper about, pilfering provisions from a bin full of walnuts Tom left out in the Fall. They were having so much fun, chasing each other, sailing across tree limbs, and leaving shards of shells everywhere, I couldn’t help but wonder if they weren’t a little drunk on walnut juice imbibed on New Year’s Eve.

Or, perhaps, they had been under the spell of the garden fairies.

I simply cannot help myself. In spite of the terrible cold (we awoke to -8°F this morning), and the danger, as well as inconveniences, of such snow accumulation, there is still such sparkling beauty amid the cold starkness for us to behold, and, just beyond the five foot towers of snow, there is always the possibility of unexpected visitors.

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DSCN3874Three sisters with big pine with snow

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Fresh pastaFor my birthday, Jennifer treated me to an afternoon at the newly opened Eataly Chicago. It is a gastronic extravaganza with two floors of anything and everything relating to Italian food. While most items were a bit pricey in nature, it was still fun to explore this indoor marketplace, with a Nutella Bar, several restaurants, esperesso stations, fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, wine – oh, the list goes on and on. Let me just say that it is a fun experience and a place to go if you are looking for a specialty cooking ingredient or item. The photo above is of fresh pasta, and below are a few of the scenes we encountered.

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Making mozzarella cheese.

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A pear and chocolate Pannetone.

Panetonne:Pear & Chips

Pastries and chocolates, fruit and vegetables, you name it, Eataly has it. Do you have a specialty market in your area?

Pastries

Chocolates

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In abeyance

columbus-avenue-rainy-day-1885.jpg!BlogA few posts are in abeyance, waiting, patiently, to be aired while I’m on the road.

I’m hoping, since I will be traveling solo this trip, that I don’t encounter rain on the way.  Things seem to be leaking on the Cutoff; our refrigerator and the windshield of our mocha colored VW with a latte interior. I am roaming today, with towels left on the kitchen floor, and towels in the car, just in a case of a downpour, though I would sure love to see a rainbow along the way.

I went to the library in Westchester yesterday, as it was the only library around that had an unchecked copy of the book we are reading for our September discussion group.  I also picked up  a few audio books  -well, actually four audio books. I just couldn’t decide. They will keep me company, along with Wisconsin’s wonderful public radio broadcasts – or, I may just listen to the quiet,  watch the corn and soybeans and diary farms pass me by and think about the prairie.

As long as I was in Westchester, I stopped, for a second time this week, at the Wolf Road Prairie. I hope to show you some pictures soon, along with our own burgeoning attempt at prairie plants and grasses.

A basket of food is packed for nourishment, and I’m anticipating a few scenic stops along the way. Do you pack up food for a long road trip?

Well, the  grandchildren are waiting, so, off I go, bidding you fair-thee-well until I’m online again.

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. . . so we called friends Rick and Patty, arranged to meet them on the green at the Burr Ridge Shopping Center, stowed some cold  drinks in a cooler (and I hid some chocolate cake in honor of you-know-who’s birthday). We loaded up some lawn chairs, and off we went to a free concert, under the stars, about as far as the crow flies from our house.

We are fortunate to have quite a few free music venues in the good old summertime, mere minutes from our life here on the Cutoff. All summer, we’ve been meaning to take advantage of them. Finally, yesterday, our chance arrived – and we grabbed it.

DSCN2421Burr Ridge Center is a new, smallish center with mixed usage. Restaurants dot the few blocks with trendy stores, a Starbucks, Barbara’s Bookstore and condos nestled in on top. In the center’s planning, an expanse of lawn was laid. A modern, airy and lighted band shell emerges in June. This same lawn hosts a farmers market on Thursdays.

The concert was set to start at 7:30. We arrived an hour early and staked out a good spot amongst other early birds. It was like a mini-Ravinia, which is the crown jewel in outdoor concerts in summer. Groups had rounds of chairs, blankets and tables, wine coolers and sushi, all a-ready for a night of big band sounds, which arrived, right on time, compliments of The Steve Cooper Orchestra, whose musical renditions and vocal accompaniments stirred the crowd, a mixture of ages and backgrounds. They all seemed to be in the mood. We certainly were.


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