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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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There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand different versions.  

La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

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Tasha's Hearth print from the Tasha Tudor and Family website

Tasha’s Hearth print from the Tasha Tudor and Family website

It is snowing here as I write; a crisp, clean sheet of page with a crisp white blanket of snow outside. I’ve been waiting for snow. It has been so long since we’ve had any here on the Cutoff. Downy snowflakes have been falling as I’ve critiqued a bit of writing for a friend, wrote up minutes for recording secretary duties, checked the availability of a few books in our interlibrary loan system, started a pot of chicken soup, and played around in cyberspace.

I found something, whilst playing, that I think you will enjoy. I promise, I will move on to something other than Tasha Tudor soon, but, so many of you had interest in her that I thought I should at least provide the link to the Tasha and Tudor and Family website, which is just a click away here. There is some Tudor history at the site, newsy information in grandson Winslow Tudor’s newsletter, receipts (old term for recipes), an online store with all sorts of wonderful items to buy, and, well, somewhere to go and while away an hour or two.

On my way to the website, I called upon Mr. Google to see if there was a video of Tasha Tudor. I do have two tapes (yes, tapes) that I purchased eons ago. They are now available on  DVD at the website. One is about her garden and home, aptly named Corgi Cottage, the other was filmed at Christmas, including roasting a turkey in a tin kitchen. I was hoping to find a clip of one of these to share.

Instead, I found this beautiful video that kept me entranced, as most things Tasha Tudor do, for a few moments in time. I thought you might enjoy it as well.

Some background information is needed. While Tasha Tudor is known and loved in the States, especially in New England, she is revered by many in Japan, whose citizens would often travel to hear Tasha speak or visit her garden. There are books about Tasha Tudor in Japanese; some are translations and others are written, photographed and published in Japan.

I always find it enlightening to see things as I know them through the eyes of others. This video does just that! It is in Japanese, but one doesn’t need language to enjoy it. I invite you to view it at your leisure, perhaps with a cup of something warm, or cold for my friends down under. You won’t need any music as it is beautifully orchestrated in the video. Whatever subtitles there are in the piece are in Japanese as you will hear Tasha speaking in English. I was elated to find this via the internet and my heartfelt appreciation goes out to its producers. Please, dear reader, enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zU-15to8d4

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189428I originally knew Tasha Tudor through the many books she illustrated, some of which she also wrote herself. “Pumpkin Moonshine” was her first published book, followed by the “calico” books, then her illustrations of classics, including those of Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett, along with cookbooks, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and a host of other illustrative endeavors.

It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I discovered Tasha Tudor herself when a series of books about her idyllic lifestyle on a hill-top “west of New Hampshire and east of Vermont” were published. A happenstance discovery of “The Private World of Tasha Tudor ” in a bookstore soon took me on a remarkable journey of learning about Tasha Tudor – and a little bit about myself in the process.

A diminutive woman steeped in old Yankee ways, Tasha’s book, “The Private World of Tasha Tudor” took me inside her Vermont farmhouse, Corgi Cottage, out to her gardens, and into her unique imagination. Tasha Tudor led much of her life steeped in the 1800’s, wearing clothing of that period, weaving her own cloth, making her own candles, and eventually building a house in Vermont that visitors were hard pressed to believe was built in the late 20th century.

In her lifetime, Ms. Tudor was asked by President Johnson to make ornaments for the White House Christmas tree, her hand crafted dollhouse with its furnishings and dolls, made by Tasha, were on display at the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Center, and Life Magazine once photographed the wedding of two of her dolls. (The dolls, being quite modern, eventually separated.) After a television interview, Tasha Tudor became an icon for those who sought the simpler life of getting “back to the land”.

It was “The Private World of Tasha Tudor” that took me in, made me feel at home, and spurred a rather large collection of all things Tasha Tudor, as well as an appreciation for the photography of Richard W. Brown, who lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

“Tasha Tudor’s Garden” is where I often go for garden inspiration. I long to grow foxgloves six feet tall like Tasha Tudor did, and I wish I could encourage my roses to ramble 189425with wild abandon as those in her garden. I’ve given up on sweet peas – well, almost given up, we’ll see. I’ll try them one more time. The point is that Tudor’s garden is lush, a bit whimsical in nature and all that a cottage garden should be. Some of the seeds sown in it are ancestors from two centuries ago. Richard Brown collaborated with Tovah Martin on this book. I love her style of writing and would not be stretching the truth at all to say that she has influenced how I “talk” about my own garden.

Together, Brown and Martin produced a third book, “Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts”, which is a unique glimpse into the many ways Tudor adopted a 19th century lifestyle into the modern era we all live in. It is chock full of pictures and words about Tasha’s kitchen, the extensive collection she amassed of 18th and 19th century clothing, her well utilized barn that connects to the house in the manner New Englanders use, and the marionettes that led to “A Dolls’Christmas” and helped keep her growing family fed with the performances they starred in. It is a book in which to find Tasha weaving and painting and making candles and all manner of other crafts that she continued to employ into her eighth decade.

Tasha Tudor died a few years ago, just before her 92 birthday, if memory serves me correctly. Some of her clothing sold for handsome sums. A museum is underway in her memory. There is still a family website for all things Tasha Tudor, as well as those of her family.

Itt5 first learned of a tin kitchen from books about Tasha Tudor. I was determined to try roasting a chicken in front of fire from the moment I saw her doing so using a tin kitchen. I looked at antique malls, fairs, and searched the internet for about six years before literally stumbling upon one at an antique fair one afternoon. My giddiness was a dead give-away to the seller if there ever was one as my foot brushed against it, I looked down to see what was in my path, only to hop back in pure glee, exclaiming “it’s a tin kitchen”! I lugged it home and before much time had passed, I cleaned it up and managed to roast a whole chicken in it in front of an open fireplace. I can’t begin to tell you how delicious it tasted, or express my sense of accomplishment at having figured out how to cook with it.  How I miss that fireplace of our old house. How I miss that roasted chicken.

 

Well, I rambled about much like Tasha Tudor’s roses. When Juliet mentioned she knew of Tasha Tudor’s books, but not much about her, I thought it might be a good spot in time to share some of the books I have that illustrate the life of such a well-known illustrator, thinking they might interest some of you as well.

It is very cold here, with the temperatures hovering around 16° F. Snow is dancing about, looking for trees and bushes and rooftops to cling to. I think I’ll make a cup of tea and invite Tasha Tudor to visit me for a spell. Which book will I select?

 

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Having just read Belle, Book, and Candle’s thoughtful writing on commonplace books, and a bit too busy right now to write a new post myself. I am reposting my own post on commonplace, which I wrote several years ago, in hopes that you will not only take the time to read Belle, but that you will consider keeping a commonplace book yourself – or tell us about the one you do have. Belle, Book, and Candle’s post can be found here. Thank you, Belle, for the inspiration I needed today.  Penny

Commonplace. The recording of words and ideas in a common place. It was started many hundreds of years ago and became known as commonplacein the 1600′s. It is used to this day by writers, poets, speechwriters and songwriters – even scrap bookers. I started thinking about the practice of gathering ideas in a commonplace book as I was reading a blog about books.

Do you have any idea how many blogs there are just about books? There are blogs about mysteries and children’s literature and authors. There are Pearl Buck and Jane Austen blogs. There are blogs about decorating with books and making books, and, of course, many authors these days have their own blogs.

They are all commonplace.

I have kept card files on books I’ve read since my first Kiddie Lit class. I no longer include such things as publisher and copyright date, but, I do write a brief synopsis of the book, what it was about, the month and year I read it and sometimes, when I’m really full of myself, I rate it. ★★★★★ Commonplace.

I also have kept a book with quotes. If I hear something notable or read something, I will write it down and cite the author. Sometimes, I will cut a quote out of a magazine or on a greeting card and paste it onto a page of my quote book.  Commonplace.

Emerson and Thoreau, Jefferson and Whitman, Hardy and Twain all kept such personal books. Many even learned the practice of commonplacing at Oxford or Harvard – or at their tutor’s direction.

My mother kept scrapbooks of pictures and memorabilia  that I enjoy today and my father kept succinct books that recorded good fishing spots and articles.

dscn6694I first heard such a collection of phrases mentioned as a commonplace in “Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts”. Tudor was, among many things, a crafter of dolls. Her dolls lived in intricate, homemade doll houses, so famed that they were attracted to the folks at the Smithsonian and displayed there. Her dolls, clothed and appointed with furniture evoking the 1800′s, had their own commonplace book with tiny writing on the pages.

I love the idea of a commonplace book and was intrigued by the realization that I have kept such books not knowing their origins for much of my adult life. Quite exciting for something so common to me.

Do you practice commonplacing?

Do you keep a journal, special notebook, scrapbook, or log?

The image is from “Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts”. Photography by Richard W. Brown.

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Laura in the Snow by Tasha Tudor

We all wore red. Red sweaters, red shirts, red shoes and red scarves. After a time, visitors recognized that we were the docents. The ladies in red. Greetings were exchanged as we changed shifts and red passed red in good holiday cheer.

I loved every minute of it!

The event was the annual Reindeer Route sponsored by the Hospital Guild of Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. This was their 35th housewalk and, as it always is, a treat for the holiday spirit.

Karen asked many of us to help by manning one of the houses. I love doing this sort of volunteerism whenever I can. Yes, it usually involves several hours of standing, but, it is always for some sort of fundraiser that provides scholarships or charitable endeavor and is but one small way of giving back to the community.

The Reindeer walk is something that pulls at my heartstrings, and that is okay. Those strings to our hearts are made to be tugged now-and-again, are they not? They remind us of life, its realities and sorrows and joys.

This walk is one I often attended with my dear friend, Juanita. Each time we went, the day was full of snow and slush, and she was always and famously late. I’d forgive her with her typical cheerful greeting and she would always be “decked to the nines” with more jewelry than one could imagine, yet, on her, always looked stylish and right. We would never see all the houses, because we would spend so much time at the ones we did see. “Penny, look at this” or “Juanita, this looks like you”. On we would go, taking time for a coffee and sweets, and her inner Pollyanna; well it always succeeded in making me glad.

Friday’s event was one of the few that I can remember that dawned bright and sunny without any snow. So much the nicer for visitors as they put on those hospital booties to walk through the houses. The weather also brought out more visitors, I’m sure.

I started this post wanting to tell you about the house, and, instead, have taken you on a walk of my own. Indulge me, please, for a few more words as I tell you about the house. It was built in the late 1800’s and has all the nooks and crannies and charm of its era. In an age of McMansions, tear downs and build ups, it was refreshing to witness this endearing home with its cozy feel, warm wood, wavy windows, creaking stairs, and sense of holiday cheer.

I knew the previous owners who so lovingly restored the house some years ago. A young couple, Wendy lost her husband to a sudden heart attack, with two young boys to raise. A few years later, Wendy passed on from cancer. She was in the business of antiques and I have a few bits and bobs that I bought from her booth at a local antique shop. They are nice reminders of her, as were the few hours I spent in the house she brought back to its current glory. I think that Wendy would be pleased at how the house has been kept to its own character and charm.

So go those old circles of life, dear reader. Taking time with friends, service to community, honoring the past while acknowledging the present, and even wearing a dash of red!

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I had just finished a light read,  A Memory Between Us, by Sarah Sundin, and have been slogging through The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, when the urge to spend some time in one of my gardening books came over me. I needed the tender words and love of gardening of a woman who lived in another time and another place  but whose words were still relevant today and I was hungry for the beautiful paintings of one of the great Impressionists. Celia Thaxter and Childe Hassam were tucked into a beautiful book sleeve, sitting, quite nicely, on a shelf, just waiting to be enjoyed.

Does this ever happen to you? Piles of books all around, several with bookmarks peaking a third of the way through, with nothing to really satisfy you but a treasured volume hidden upon a shelf?

An Island Garden was reissued about ten years ago, reproduced with the art nouveau cover of its time with an introduction by none other than Tasha Tudor. The book follows the island garden, in the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, through a year. The prose is poetic and beautifully crafted and the illustrations are by a friend of Celia Thaxter’s, Childe Hassam, who came summers to stay at Appledore House Hotel, where Celia worked with her family, who owned the hotel, acting as hostess. The hotel was a haven for artistes of the day, Hassam being one. Hassam and Thaxter became friends and he returned to the Isles of Shoals many times, painting some of his most memorable works there.

He who is born with a silver spoon in his mouth is generally considered a fortunate person, but his good fortune is small compared to that of the happy mortal who enters the world with a passion for flowers in his soul. Celia Baxter, An Island Garden, page 4

From her earliest memories, Celia loved flowers. When she was four years old, her family moved to White Island, in the Isles of Shoals, where her father was the lighthouse keeper. A lonely place for a young child, young Celia grew to love the natural beauty of the island. The experience cemented not only her love of gardens, but, the islands themselves. That she shared her garden in 1894, near the end of her life, with words and images that still resonate today, is a gift to the reader; a time to reflect, to slow down, to listen to the rhythms of the wind and the soil and the seasons. That her friend illustrated it with such remarkable splendor only makes it all-the-more-special in An Island Garden.

I’m glad I acted on that urge to delve into one of my gardening books, to visit a nearby shelf, to slip the book out of its booksleeve and open its wondrous pages. It is good to be refreshed and renewed with the beauty of good words and beautiful paintings, is it not?

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