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A Star for Mrs. Blake

 

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, I am reminded of a book of fiction I read over a year ago and wrote briefly about here.  “A Star for Mrs. Blake” by April Smith, is a fictional account of a real act of Congress in the aftermath of the Great War.

In 1929, the United States government passed legislation that paid for Gold Star Mothers to travel to France to visit the graves of their sons who were killed in battle in WWI and were buried there. More than 6,000 Gold Star Mothers made this journey over a  three year period following the enactment of this legislation. They traveled, at the expense of the United States government, from all over the country to New York. The women had some time to rest after their journeys, then boarded ships and made the long crossing to France where they again rested and explored Paris before they continued their pilgrimage to their sons’ graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Verdun.

In this fictional account, Cora Blake, the main character, travels with other mothers from all walks of life. Cora is from a small fishing village in Maine. Other mothers are from the midwest, the Pacific Coast, big cities and farms. They are rich, poor, of color, and immigrants who came to America only to lose sons who left to fight the war. As dissimilar as they are, they are all joined in their loss. The mothers are referred to as “pilgrims” journeying to see their loved ones’ graves. Secrets, prejudices, fear, intrigue, murder and deception are all part and parcel of the story, as well as understanding, closure and both the good and the not-so of the military.

In France, Mrs. Blake (Cora) befriends a disfigured American journalist, Griffin Reed. Griffin was wounded in the trenches. He has a “tin nose” and hides behind a metal mask. An expatriate, Griffin was exposed to gas attacks while covering the war. So many soldiers were wounded by these horrific attacks  during WWI.I found Griffin’s story hard to read as I learned more precisely of the aftereffects of gas attacks. He survived his injuries only to battle the demons of drug addiction for his pain, both physical and emotional, as he is slowly dies of lead poisoning contracted from the metal mask he wears to hide his facial deformities.

“A Star for Mrs. Blake” was, for the most part, an engaging read about an actual program instituted by Herbert Hoover following WWI as the Great Depression consumed the country. It deals with the tragedies of war, prejudices, injustices, death as well as illustrating historical events of the era, travel during the 30’s, social classes and so many other issues. Mostly, it deals with the loss of loved ones. The book had me heading to Google to read about this particular legislation, ocean journeys, gas poisoning, lead poisoning – and more. Have you read this or similar books?

In closing, as this posts on Veterans Day, thank you to all veterans who have served, who have given the greatest of sacrifices, who still do. My hope, especially today, is that we extend the best of medical care to our veterans; for their injuries that are visible and that we can see, and for injuries that we can’t. 

The book cover is from Amazon

 

 

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Poached Eggs and Birch Bark

I knew I was in for a treat as soon as we opened the door. With a name like Copper Hen Kitchen and Bakery, I was intrigued which did not recede as followed the hostess to a table.. Walking past a bakery case under exposed beams and rough walls, the Copper Hen appeared to be a congenial spot and it was, indeed. The oversized napkins – more dish towel than napkin – added to the allure. That our daughter, Katy, had eaten there before with a friend and they thought I would like it touched me and added to my joy in the experience.

There was much on the menu that tempted me, but, the Farmhouse Salad had my name on it! I have seen many salads in my internet and cookbook wanderings of late with poached eggs atop. Poached eggs are something that you either like – or don’t (I do) and this was a perfect opportunity to try one on salad greens with roasted mushrooms, cashews, ricotta, nuts (I think they were cashews) and a light vinaigrette. I only wished I had ordered a side of toast, but, got along quite nicely as I “licked the platter clean” in this delectable farm-to-table restaurant in Minneapolis.

 

Sated, Katy and I left the Copper Hen and made the short drive to a bookstore I have been wanting to visit. I don’t remember who first suggested Birch Bark Books, but, if you are reading this, thank you, thank you. A sign on the door asked that visitors not take photographs. I will try to paint a picture in words of Birch Bark Books, a cozy, neighborhood independent establishment. Birch Bark is overflowing, in a warm and welcoming way, with a wide offering of books. From cookbooks to mysteries, outstanding children’s selections to poetry and books on nature, there is truly something for everyone at this unique shop, which also sells native artwork, jewelry, baskets, cards and much, much more. The store and is adorned with items that speak to the land and its people.

From Birch Bark’s website:

“We exist to keep real conversations between book lovers alive. We exist to nourish and build a community based on books. We are a neighborhood bookstore, and also an international presence. Our visitors come from Minneapolis-St. Paul, from every U.S. reservation and Canadian reserve, and from all over the world. We are different from all other bookstores on earth!”

Birch Bark Books is ” . . .  a locus for Indigirati — literate Indigenous people who have survived over half a millennium on this continent. We sponsor readings by Native and non-Native writers, journalists, historians.”  It is an amazing local establishment in which I felt both at home and in awe.

Birch Bark Books is owned by author Louise Erdrich. I invite you to explore Birch Bark’s website by clicking the link below to read more about the store, the interesting history of the building, an online shop and photos, which include the birch bark canoe that hangs from the ceiling of the store.

Of course, I could not leave Birch Bark Books without a book.

Have you read anything by Louise Erdrich?

 

https://birchbarkbooks.com/ourstory

http://www.copperhenkitchen.com/menu

The Mythology of Trees

“Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape? Visible for miles, too fair to be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last.”

-From “Autumnal Tints” by Henry Thoreau; 1862

 

One of our most memorable moments was on a fine October day, ten or so years ago, at Walden Pond. You can read about it here. On that remarkable day, Tom and I walked and talked and didn’t talk, seeing the original site of Thoreau’s cabin and a reconstruction of it. The air was crisp and clear and the scenery mystical. The photo on top was taken on Walden Pond on that long ago day.

Across the pond, a singular tree accented the landscape and glowed like no other. When Thoreau’s quote popped up in my internet wandering, I immediately thought of the scarlet tree at Walden Pond.

Thoreau’s quote and our Walden Pond walk came to mind once more as Tom and I walked, much closer to home, at one of our favorite spots, Lake Katherine. It was the same sort of cool, crisp October day, with the sun shining, powder puff clouds sprinkled here and there, the soft crunch of fallen leaves at our feet  – and the brilliant mythology of Autumn before us.

Right red

 

Where do you go to find your own myths of nature?

Endowment

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, as a species, could stop for a few minutes whatever it is we’re doing, and look up at the sky? If we could catch the beat of the rhythm, older than history, and understand that this is the way things were meant to be? if we could bequeath our children not an urge to get ahead, to achieve security, to get theirs? – but instead just to be, and to let their imaginations soar to the call of wild geese flying?

Willem Lange

from “Canada Geese”, “Where Does the Wild Goose Go?” 

 

Stefado (Greek Onion Stew)

(This is a long story and a bit of rambling. If you just want the recipe for Greek onion stew, please just skip down to the recipe below.”

I don’t remember the first time I climbed onto the seat of a kitchen chair, opened the cabinet above the stove and slowly edged the Imperial coffee grinder from the shelf. I was old enough to know what it was and that I was to be very careful with it. It was a chore I would be asked to do many times in my youth . Each time I reached up for the grinder, I knew what my next chore would be – grinding the spices. I would instantly savor the scent that clung to the aged wooden edges of the grinder’s drawer and anticipate the aromas that would eventually rise from the slow, bubbling pot on the stove. This humble meal of meat and onion stew that would be scooped onto our plates come suppertime. 

The coffee grinder was part of my grandmother’s dowry. It still grinds quite well, however, it is showing its age after more than a century of employment, with nicks and bruises and the signature patina of aged wood. It was, I am told, first used for grinding coffee beans, but, that is family legend to me.

The grinder moved with my grandmother, from the large family two-flat on Congress Street to our small, suburban home in Maywood, then to a north side apartment. When Yia Yia moved in with my aunt, the grinder stayed with my mom who eventually gave it to me when Tom and I bought our first home.

Like many of the dishes and delicacies of my Greek family, there were no written recipes. Yia Yia passed away before I had a chance to gather measurements, though others transcribed many that have been shared. Oddly enough, stefado never made it to a recipe card, a slip of paper, an envelope – those pieces of all of our lives that record our favorite foods.

Stefado was a favorite of mine and I was determined to make it, especially upon discovering a recipe for it in a magazine. “Women’s Day”? “Better Homes and Gardens”? “Family Circle”?   I no longer remember where it appeared, but, find it I did and it used ingredients I remembered. I conferred with my aunt, who said the ingredients were what Yia Yia used and yes, she used pickling spices. Aunt Christina reminded me of the grinder, but, I was miles and miles away and so  – I just threw the pickling spices into the stew!

Have you ever bitten into pepper corns? coriander? mustard seeds?

The stefado tasted right, but, biting into those spices was no fun at all. I called Aunt Christina, frustrated at my results and piqued at the money I’d spent on the meal. She calmly said “It happens. You are just learning. Next time, make a small sack out of cheesecloth, put the spices into it, tie it with twine and put the sack in the pot. ”  As I look back, her advice was invaluable, but it was two words she used –  “Next time” –  that were a gift. Those words gave me license and determination to try again.

TADA!

That worked and I employed that method for several years until Ma came over to our house, carrying the ancient coffee grinder in her signature shopping bag. “Here, Penny. This is now yours. You make stefado and you are your grandmother’s namesake. This is yours now.” – and so, it was and still is, a treasured possession. I still use it, though infrequently, when I make this hearty Greek stew.

A week or so ago, with onions so prevalent and sweet at the markets and a longing for flavors of my youth, I stopped at Penzey’s for a fresh jar of their pickling spice and I picked up some stew meat at the grocery store. Once home, I retrieved the coffee grinder. It sits a shelf where I keep treasured cookbooks. I set the grinder on the counter and slowly, carefully, purposefully opened the little drawer on the bottom, whereupon my childhood rushed out to greet me, as if to say “Penny, what took you so long?”

I put a spoonful of the pickling spices into the top, slowly closed the slot and began turning the grinder, pushing the seeds past the blade and into the drawer below, just as I did as a young girl, helping my Yia Yia in this simple, methodic, fragrant ritual. I ground the spices and then opened the drawer and for a brief, magical moment I was a young girl again.

The onions and meat married in the stew pot with the sprinkling of spices and other ingredients in attendance. I pottered around, monitoring the meal in anxious abeyance, peeking under the lid, stirring my senses along with the stew. A loaf of warm crusty bread – and there we were, my Antler Man and me and this savory meal – and for a brief moment my family of origin was sitting right there beside me.*

Stefado (Greek Onion Stew) 

3 pounds of cubed beef (lamb, venison, or other meat can be used – I prefer beef)

3/4 cup butter (you can substitute oil)

1 1/2 pounds small onions (or larger onions cut into chunks – you want chunks so that the onions will hold up)

Ground pickling spice to taste. I use about 1 Tablespoon ground.  Salt to taste. You can use an electric coffee grinder or even a food processor to grind the spices, or put the unground spices in a cheesecloth sack and put directly into the pot. 

1 small can tomato paste. 

1 cup water plus a little extra water in tomato paste can to scrape any tomato paste left inside.

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Brown meat and onions in butter, then add rest of ingredients. Stir well, cover, simmer until tender – about  1 1/2 hours

Can be made day before. Flavors meld and mingle and make magic IF you can wait until the next day.  

 

 

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

After Apple-Picking
By Robert Frost

Quanked

What to do? When the clock is ticking, the rain pattering on the roof is more annoying than soothing and you have just remembered something that should have been done, but wasn’t. When sleep, that restful place you were just an hour past deeply into, is now what seems to be a lost cause, What do you do?

I took the book poised rather precariously atop my teetering TBR pile, descended the stairs to the kitchen and put the kettle on. In a cabinet where I keep my teas, I procured a sachet of Ahmad’s Decaffeinated Evening Tea. The tea was one of many “tea time” items in a raffle basket I recently won that had been filled with tea related items. This tea is quite tasty as well as calming. I was hoping it to be the perfect antidote for a restless night.

While the kettle heated, I threw a load of clothes into the washing machine and folded another before hearing that slow, rolling sound that commences just before water starts to boil. Cup and saucer ready, I turned off the flame just before the teakettle began to sing and set my teabag in the cup to steep. It is amazing how much can be accomplished while brewing a spot of tea!

I fired up my laptop as the tea steeped, checked my Facebook feed and discovered that my long-time blogging friend Kate had just posted a gem that fit my immediate circumstance; the obsolete word of the day!

A serendipitous moment for sure.

QUANKED

To be overpowered by fatigue is to be quanked!

Infused to perfection in a vintage, handleless lustreware cup, upon which I cupped my hands. I sipped my tea, listening to the soft sound of clothes tumbling about in the dryer. I read for a bit, then closed my eyes and drifted off into the second chapter of sleep.

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