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51dmwhFgvxL._SL400_Did you know that numbers can be calming, intriguing and unifying; a means with which to connect three novel characters statistically unlikely to become a unit?  I didn’t. Nor did I know how entertaining mathematical story problems could be. After reading a compelling review about a book I had not heard of, and knowing I would be spending a good deal of time in the car, I ordered the audio version, and have since enjoyed listening to “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa.

In this sweetly rendered story, a professor of math, an insightful housekeeper, and her ten year-old son spend their days together, introducing themselves anew each morning, and eventually becoming a unique family of sorts in the process. They do this amid conversations about prime numbers, the properties of zero – and Japanese baseball stars.

Ogawa’s novel is about a mathematical genius whose short-term memory is 80 minutes. He suffers from irreversible brain damage from a long ago a car accident. While he retains his mathematical gifts, his days begin getting re-aquainted with his housekeeper, always asking her what her birth date and her shoe size are. Perfect numbers connect them in time, no matter what he has forgotten about their last 80 minutes together.

The housekeeper is a sensitive and astute unwed mother trying to eke out a living while raising her son, who is named Root by the professor (because his hair resembles the square root sign) Root is the only character with a name in the book. In the course of the story, the professor insists that Root comes to his cottage after school each day rather than return home to an empty house. The professor recollects who Root is with the help of one of the many stickers, penned with pertinent details of his daily life. He wears the stickers, some faded with age, pinned to his suit. Root’s mother, the housekeeper, is the story’s narrator.

As Ogawa’s story entranced me, I found myself taking the longer way home or sitting in the grocer’s parking lot five minutes longer. My car idled in our drive as prime numbers and equations came to life and I found myself wishing the professor had been my Algebra teacher as he gently engaged Root in the art of baseball statistics and encouraged the housekeeper to dig a bit deeper in thought by helping Root with problem solving and in understanding how the answers to problems are reached.

I cannot remember reading a more engaging book, simply told,  about numbers and relationships. While I experienced “The Housekeeper and the Professor” on audio, it is a book that revealed itself to be one that I want to hold in my hand and experience through the words on a page. I will read it again, with my eyes instead of my ears. It is just the sort of book that stays with the reader long after the ending has come.

I should also add that “The Housekeeper and the Professor” is one of those books that was masterfully translated from Japanese into English.  It is one of those stories so beautifully told that it’s essence has stayed with me long after the words ended and one in which I found myself longing to share with you, dear reader.

This would also be an intriguing book for discussion.

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DSCN6768Plentywood Farm.

It was a well known and well liked restaurant in Bensenville, Illinois, from the early 30’s into the ’90’s.  From nice dinners to wedding receptions, business retreats, funeral luncheons, and Easter dinner, it was one of those restaurants where one always felt comfortable, the food was always outstanding, and you left knowing you had a few dollars left in your pocket.

I modeled a darling black dress at Plentywood Farms,. It was festooned with white polka dots and smart, red piping with a red leather belt. Me? Modeling? My last time on a runway was as a fallen angel of the Lord for the Christmas Pageant, and we all know where I landed in that attempt.

This “walk” was for a Newcomers Club fashion show.  The dresses we modeled were from Honey Girl, in Elmhurst. I liked the dress so much, I bought it with the discount the store offered. I really felt good in it, and wore it for quite a few years, amazed that I not only modeled it, but, did so without falling off of the runway. That was my first time in Plentywood Farm.

Tom wanted to take me there shortly after the “fashion” show. I think he was miffed that he couldn’t attend.  We went for our anniversary later that same year, and returned there on several others.

We celebrated a New Year’s Eve with our good friends , Jeri and Kyle; one of several New Year’s we celebrated with them. It was the restaurant of choice for confirmation celebrations, funeral luncheons, wedding showers, and just a night out when Ma came to watch the girls.

Plentywood Farm was a large, rustic building with several annexes:  warm and inviting, all. It gleamed in the sunshine and glowed in the candlelight and never, ever disappointed. There was even a little county store on the grounds, where one could by county styled items – and their fresh-baked bread.

The photo is of a rendition of Plentywood Farm in one of my Ford Treasury Cookbooks. Although we never ate there on Thanksgiving, it always had the aura of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to me – and I wanted to share it with you. It is one of those places that someone from the area will say “remember Plentywood Farm?”  and chorus line of memories will ensue.  In fact, it just happened today at an event I attended.

The restaurants you’ve mentioned in your comments are sadly not in the books. I will, however, try to post a restaurant that might illicit a memory for you, every once-in-awhile.

Off I go to make some cranberry relish.

 

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DSCN6621Jennifer and I were enjoying the opening festivities of Autumn Splendor at the Elmhurst Art Museum, sipping on wine, nibbling on finger food, chatting with old friends and acquainting new. We wandered into the galleries and the Richard Koppe Exhibit.  As we entered the gallery, a display case caught my eye.  Actually, something in the display case caught my eye. A book.  It’s always a book with me, it seems, even in a renowned art museum.  The book, to be precise, was a cookbook.  I looked down and squealed “I have this book” .

As others were observing the large surrealistic works of Koppe, I was chewing on a cookbook.

Several years ago, I came across the very same cookbook in a second-hand store. “The Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places”.  A more charming than practical compilation of recipes from famous restaurants throughout the United States,  it is divided by regions, and illustrated with stylistic paintings of each restaurant, a recipe from the restaurant, and a short description.  The books were sold by the Ford Motor Company in the heyday of US road travel in big cars and fine dining along the way as many veterans returned home from war, bought houses that were springing up all across the country, bought their first car . . .

. . .  I snapped up the book faster than a filling station attendant once rushed out to fill up the tank, clean the windows, and check the oil!

In subsequent years, I came across several other printings of the book, with some new recipes and new restaurants as original ones closed. A small cookbook collection ensued. When in the mood for nostalgia, I’ll pull one of the Ford Treasury books out, then all of them, and browse through the regions, admire the illustrations, and reminisce over featured restaurants I have actually eaten in.

As I looked into the display case at the EAM, I recognized one of the printings of “The Ford Treasury . . . ” .  The book was opened to page 159, with a painting depicting the interior of the once famous Well-of-the-Sea restaurant in the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Neither the restaurant, nor the hotel, still exists,  but, the mural in the background of the illustration does. When I was though swooning over a cookbook, I looked up to see Koppe’s surrealistic mural generously covering a wall of the gallery.  While not my favorite artistic style, I could not help but be impressed at the “real deal” and the vibrancy of the colors and textures.

Back home, I pulled out my treasury of mid-century finds, and there it was, page 159, in the North Central region. The Well-of the-Sea. I wandered about the pages of several Treasuries, finding restaurants I recognized, even some I have eaten in, across the country,  getting hungry for food – and for hitting the road.

Here are a few I found that I have visited:  The Wayside Inn, MA;  Williamsburg Lodge, VA;  Antoine’s, LA;  New Salem Lodge, IL;  Plentywood Farm, IL;  Don the Beachcomber, HI.

Do you have a dining “treasure” you would like me to look up in these books?  Let me know.  I would love do a future post showing a page of your remembered restaurants.

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 This book jacket opens up to a map “. . . to decorate your kitchen or game room”. I think I’ll just keep this one on the book.

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

 

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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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