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I just ate a book.

IMG_7116Well, I didn’t really eat it; it was more of a pleasurable chew on a good book.

Robin Mather’s book, “The Feast Nearby”,  had been napping on my bedside pile for so long that I wondered if it had  started to ripen. It is one of those books whose cover called to me in the gift shop at the Morton Arboretum. Actually, it called to me on several occasions until I finally gave in to temptation, figuring it had fewer calories than a bar of chocolate. (I can rationalize anything, especially a good looking book.) I plucked it up and brought it home, where it languished, as books often do. It even posed for a photo shoot once before.

After a very busy week, I was ready to slow down a bit and take a bite into Mather’s book, which I did in three delectable sittings.

The full title of Robin Mather’s book is “The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, eating locally (all on forty dollars a week).  A mouthful. Just typing it makes me hungry.

Robin Mather’s book is about her personal journey of discovery after simultaneously losing her job as a food reporter for the Chicago Tribune during the cutbacks a few years ago and her husband asking for a divorce.  A native of Michigan, she returns to their small cabin on Stewart Lake in Western Michigan, with Boon, her dog, and Pippin her parrot, determined to live locally on $40 a week, which she chronicles engagingly in her essays.

“The Feast Nearby” is just that; a book filled with the nourishment close at hand. It is of personal stories about fireflies and cheese, chooks and coffee production, with insightful information on eating locally, canning and preserving, bartering and knitting. Robin Mather writes in  a humorous, friendly, conversational style; one that invites the reader in for a cup of coffee whose beans were roasted in her own kitchen, laced with real cream that she has skimmed from the top of milk.  It is not preachy, nor did it leave me intoning mea culpa over what I purchase or eat. Instead, “The Feast Nearby” invited me, and will you as well, to explore the foods and the services that are closest to us and our tables.

This book is a written invitation to become a locavore.

The bonus? Dozens of recipes for real strawberry shortcake, homemade yogurt and cottage cheese, canning techniques, hunting for morels and finding the best bramble patches. Why, there is even a recipe for knitting a snug cap, which Mather does for Wally, a friendly neighbor who buzzes about the lake helping his neighbors, except in winter when he is busy ice fishing, hence the newly knit hat.

To add to the pleasure of easy, nutritious, recipes with what one has on hand (or in pantry), there is a wonderful conversion chart in the back. I now have an easy find, right where my bookmark is, to convert the recipes of my blogging friends from around the world who tempt me with their delectables.

To say that “The Feast Nearby” is a gentle read would only be half the reason to open this book. It is also a cookbook that follows the midwestern seasons. One does not need to live in the midwest, however, to know the value and pleasure of eating what is growing nearby and of putting up, away, or by for the lean months – or how gazpacho really is better for the palate and the body on simmering, hot days.

A gentle read.  A user-friendly cookbook.  A dash of humor and a dusting of hope. What more can be had from “The Feast Nearby”? Well, each chapter has whimsical titles, such as On snapping turtles and strawberries  or On cicadas, sweet corn, and the pleasure of a job well done. There are locals with whom Mather barters with – and befriends – and reasons for buying Jiffy Cake mixes; even though she bakes from scratch and the flour is harvested elsewhere. She buys the mixes because they are manufactured in a nearby town, providing jobs for many, which has prompted me to check labels and seek products that are manufactured closer to me.

My friends,  you will enjoy this book.

While I gorged myself on its pages in just three days, don’t be afraid to taste it for yourself, for it is a worthy grazing feast that can be picked up at any chapter and read with ease. When I get up from my easy chair, I will find a proper spot in my cooking queue for “The Feast Nearby”, sandwiched among my favorite ladies; Gladys Taber and Ina Garten, Betty Crocker’s “Kitchen Gardens” illustrated by Tasha Tudor and my 43-year-old dog-eared, gravy stained, batter spattered copy of the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook”.

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DSCN7096 - Version 2What’s a gal to do when she’s just finished a book, for the second time, whose ending she knows and whose author will be visiting the Cutoff when the very next day dawns?

Well. she sheds a puddle of tears for, though she knows how the story ends, it is the journey that is the protagonist in an adventure that is both funny and sad, painful and celebratory. It is the story that is both physical and personal for the author, and it reminds the reader, perhaps, of one’s own long travelled road; of memories made, bridges crossed, battles fought (some won and some lost), of lessons learned and of those lessons she keeps learning. It brings to home and to heart the value of family and friends, and of those who have cheered us on and had our back along the way.

 “Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace”, is the book and the author is none other than the remarkable and gifted Andra Watkins.

Andra’s name often appears in the comment section here on the Cutoff, for which I am grateful. Her name also sometimes appears in the body of a post, especially when one of her books is published, such as last year’s “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”, which I wrote about here.

I was delighted when I won an advanced reading copy of Andra’s second book, “Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace”.  “Not Without My Father . . . ” is Andra’s memoir of her trek along the Natchez Trace, promoting her first book. It entails how she drafts her father to be her “wingman” on her journey – the angst and pain, frustration and hilarity that occurs along the way. Roy Lee Watkins is bigger than life, a natural storyteller, and a bit of a character, to say the least. The book is the story of her journey along the Trace, as well as their personal journey as father and daughter.

In the book, we also meet her mother, Linda, her friend, Alice, and others; from the innkeepers that provide a nest’s rest, to the National Park workers she meets along the Trace, as Roy sells her book from the trunk of his car and weaves his own tales.

It was in my second reading of Andra’s book, once it was published, that I realized I was mentioned in the acknowledgments, along with a host of other readers, for song suggestions, which are used as chapter heading in the book. What fun it was to discover.

So, in honor of Andra, who will be wending her way to the Cutoff as part of the Chicago leg of her book tour, here’s a little Ray Charles and a lot of hope that she does come back some more, some more, some more, some more . . .

 

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DSCN6961 - Version 2One of my errands, on one fine day, was a trip to one of the libraries in my inter-library loan system. I was on a mission to find “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh, intrigued by an essay he wrote that Marilyn commented on in my previous post.

After a little late night wandering around the online catalogue, I found a copy at the La Grange Park Library and mapped my day’s route so that I could conveniently stop there.

I am pleased to say that once in the library, I was able to climb the stairs to the second level, hoping the old knee continued to hold up and not hurt. I found “Peace is Every Step”, as well as another book, then another, rounded the aisle and perched upon a comfortable easy chair under this wonderful rounded ceiling, next to a two story window.

As I perused the books, I noticed two males of indeterminate age out in the snow covered field below. Each had a large pallet, wider than themselves, and were pushing them through the snow. They would shove off, pushing, then one would get stuck. It’s driver would step backward, then forward with a little more push, rather like rocking a car out of a ditch, until he could move a bit further. Soon,  the snow was banked on the sides.

I went back to another book; Judith Dench’s memoir. What a beautiful woman she was; and still is. I thought about checking the book out, but, I’m knee-deep in reads, have a few big projects I’m juggling, and a very special houseguest coming next week.  I put Dame Judi’s book down and looked out the window once more, noticing two cages on either end of where the pallet pushers had been. Wondering where they went, I scanned the ground two floors down. There they were, sitting on the ground, in the snow, doing something I couldn’t see.

I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s short commentary, It is a Great Joy to Hold Your Grandchild, read it and knew I would be taking “Peace is Every Step” home. As I arose, there were the pallet pushers, now on ice skates with hockey sticks cutting through the air,  dancing around and around a black puck.  I realized that, by their size and time of day, they were probably middle school lads, emulating the Chicago Black Hawks, and having some good, if cold, fun.

Back in  my car, I drove past the rink the boys had determinedly cleared, and noticed a few other lads lacing up their skates and gliding onto the ice, shouting to each other as young boys will do, and I thought to myself that it was, after all’s said and done, one fine day.

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I’m dreaming in green; lush, mossy, magnificent green and longing for those first, tentative tips of spring bulbs and pussy willow blossoms.

Soon. Very soon.DSCN7326

While the sun hasn’t shown her rays very often lately, here along the Cutoff the days ARE growing longer and the seed catalogues are tempting us with old reliables and new introductions.

There is a dream of buds swelling here and there. With a hope that is buried and waiting in this long winter, the daffodils and hyacinths are waiting, their tips of buttery yellow and grape are the epitome of patience under the ice and snow.

With our heads bent to the wind, we will brave the gusts and the cold and the snow and whatever else this season may still throw at us. We will layer on extra clothing as the car warms up. Once home again a cup of freshly brewed coffee or a piping pot of tea. Soup is often simmering on the stove, and now that it is Lent, pepper and egg sandwiches are the fare of choice on a Friday afternoon.

I’ve been enjoying tall cups of hot, Mexican chocolate now and again, with my dear friend Kathryn or with my daughter 9781444730302-1-4Jennifer, at a new coffee house that recently opened not far from here. Tom and went there for an afternoon treat on Valentine’s Day. La Fortuna’s owners are third generation coffee producers. Isn’t it amazing how fast a new establishment can become a favorite?

Books, of course, are always at my side. I’ve been reading “The House on an Irish Hillside” by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, and I’ve been pulling out old issues of Victoria Magazine for inspiration . . .

. . .  and I have ben hopping about, chasing sunbeams with my camera – whenever the sun pokes through.

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What are you reading these days?

What are you sipping on?

Where are you going – or where did you just come from?

What are the signs of your season beginning to change?

Will you watch Sunday’s episode of Downton Abbey, the Oscars, or both? Neither?

Are any of you watching in Grantchester?

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Anderson Hotel:Grumpy Old Men

The Hotel Anderson

Katy and I were on a road trip scoping out colleges. We drove north, through Wisconsin to LaCrosse, then west, over the river and through the woods to our first college visit, a night’s rest, then onward and upward to the Twin Cities. It was October 12, 1998. There was already snow on the ground along the river road route we were taking, winding around the hills that follow the Mighty Mississippi. While Katy had a driver’s license, she couldn’t drive with her leg in a cast, so I plugged along, steering us to our next collegial destination.  There were light snow flurries; nothing dangerous, just bothersome in that always dirty windshield with the intermittent wipers sort of way. It was a gray afternoon.

I could sure use a cup of coffee“.  “Doesn’t pie sound good right now?” So, the conversation flowed for several mid-afternoon miles, then we passed a huge billboard.

Whoa, Nellie, slow down!

Did you see that?” “Yes, I did.”  “Wanna go check it out?” . . .

. . . and so we did. We turned the car around, seeing the sign once again as we backtracked. The sign touted Wabasha, Home of Grumpy Old Men.

Have you seen the Grumpy Old Men movies?  Grumpy and Grumpier? Their capers and escapades, ice fishing and love interests are endearing, in a slapstick, sophomoric sort of way. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon had us giggling and guffawing time after time and, well, it was the perfect time on our road trip of serious educational exploration to take a time out.

We followed the signs to the Hotel Anderson. A magnificent relic of times gone by, and a bit of a cat house to boot.

Yes, I took my daughter to a cat house.

I ordered a coffee. If memory serves me, Kate had a hot chocolate. We both ordered pie. Mine was all-American apple. Heavenly, warmed, delicious pie, à la mode, no less, in an old, still operating, historic hotel that was filled with antiques and attitude. On the historic register, the Hotel Anderson was established pre-Civil War, and it is still in operation. Katy and I inhaled our pie and soaked in the charming atmosphere in the hotel’s dining room, glad for a bit of a respite, and a story to tell once we got back home.

My pie devoured, I walked down a narrow, squeaky hallway to the ladies’ room. As I walked back to our table, I perused framed photos, newspaper and magazine clippings on the hall’s wall. Some were signed by movie stars and dignitaries, with more than a few mentioning cats!

I asked our waitress, who proceeded to tell us that, are you ready for this?, guests of the hotel could choose certain appointed rooms and pick out a cat to join them for the night. She invited us to go up the stairs, look into the room where the cats resided and were on view for one’s choosing, so, we did.  The felines were on view from the half-door; all groomed and well-fed, purring and preening and napping – and not the least bit grumpy. We checked out the rooms that were unoccupied, the doors being opened to look in. They were charming and old; good for a simple night’s rest.  All-in-all, it was a most side trip, and one that Tom and I took some years later when the fall colors were abundant.

Several years then passed before I discovered the Ford Treasury cookbooks, which depict famous restaurants I have begun chronicling here on the Cutoff, I was pleasantly surprised to find The Hotel Anderson depicted.

Grumpy Old Men, and the Grumpier sequel, are always a hoot to watch, especially in winter. There are some hilarious ice fishing scenes, love scenes, and an inordinate amount of “potty talk”, all in the Minnesota town of Wabasha.

Across the river from Wabasha is the town of Pepin.  Pepin is where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born and where she and her family crossed Lake Pepin, in winter, to begin their journeys across the prairies. One of these days, I need to visit Pepin.

Have you seen either of the Grumpy Old Men movies?  Do you have a favorite scene? Do you have a favorite pie?

 

 

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“A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” Jorge Luis Borges

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The photo above was my last view of a sunset, two days ago. So rare have sunsets been this January that I almost forgot how magical one could be. It has been so gloomy and gray. I know I really should not complain. We have not had the snowstorms other areas have had and this is certainly a milder winter than last year’s – at least so far.

With all these gray, gray days, I’ve indulged in a few more cups of coffee and tea than I usually have. The result is a look reminiscent of a current movie. What do you think? Do I deserve an Oscar?

Photo on 1-26-15 at 11.15 AM

Then, there was a long and sleepless night that resulted in this,

4-up on 1-25-15 at 4.34 AM (compiled)

which probably was influenced by an overheard conversation between four fellows, one of whom regaled the others with a tale about a vacation he took a decade past. He was, I overheard,  on a cruise ship that became stranded off the coast of Alaska. It was a rather riveting tale, full of drama and fear, rocking and rolling, waves and weather, and a vow to never set sail again.

I tried not to listen. Really, I did, but, gosh and by golly, it was such an adventure that I just pretended to have my nose in a book. The chap seemed sincere. His table mates seemed to believe him. It didn’t matter, for it was so gloomy and grim and cold outside that I might as well have been stranded at sea as well and so, I engaged in art of eavesdropping.

The chap was rolling like waves in a storm as he told of panic aboard and of those who tried to stay calm. There were helicopters and deck chairs dancing, seasickness and worry. He claimed a depiction on some adventure channel and then . . .

. . . snip, snap, snout, his tale was told out.

The men put on their hats and coats. Still talking, they followed him out the door and my mind followed my nose back into my book, “Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good” by Jan Karon. It was there that I came across Jorge Luis Borges’ quote, which was, I thought, quite timely, and just the kind of raw material I needed to shape this winter night’s post.

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DSCN7068“When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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