Thursday, November 29, 2012

Back When We Built Cities and Wore Christmas Sweaters

For years I had all my Christmas decorating done by Thanksgiving Day except for fresh greenery and the Christmas tree. That didn't happen this year, instead I started blogging on November 1. At first I was just plain too busy, not enough hours in the day. Now there are boxes sitting everywhere but very little has been unpacked. Why? Because I have seen the beautiful Christmas decor being posted on blogs. Some so very ornate and amazing that if attempted in this farmhouse it would look like we were trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Other blogs feature Christmas decor so simple and organic that it makes me yearn for a whitewashed cottage in Maine, breathtakingly serene, that one graceful branch of white pine in a faded green vintage jug that looks as if it would be so easy to put together and photograph but surprisingly must take oodles of talent.

My Christmas decorating in years past? Did you ever watch The Closer on television? Did you see when Fritz and Brenda went to Atlanta to visit her parents Willie Rae and Clay at Christmas? R.H. and I burst out laughing when they walked in the door. R.H. describes it as a typical Southern Granny Christmas house on steroids. It was Christmas Overload Cottage. I laughed but part of me thought it was pretty and some of it looked vaguely familiar. Our kids probably would have thought they were in my house.

I kind of miss the years when we women built Dept. 56 cities and completely changed our wardrobe in December. I was just beginning to amass enough embellished sweaters and sweatshirts of my own when it all went out of style. And what fun our youngest son and I had building a Snow Village in the Gothic church cabinet in our living room! When he left home to get married he carried his own set of North Pole houses that took over the craftsman built-in cabinet in their 1920 bungalow each December.

A couple of years ago we both started breaking up the cities and dispersing a favorite or two here and there, using them in what bloggers call vignettes. Before discovering blogs I wouldn't have known a vignette from duck soup. I'm a devoted copycat but let me tell you, a vignette is not as easy to style as you would think. My Christmas tam-o'-shanter is off to you talented women and men who do it so well.

I still have some work to do and some nerve to get up to reveal any of our Christmas decor but I will show you a picture from last year when I again took the china out of our china cabinet to get ready to put the Christmas china in it. Here is the way the china cabinet appears normally:

Here is the china cabinet last year fixed up for Christmas:

I had enough of that annual job last Christmas and cleared out the three cupboards that are in what was our old kitchen that once was the back porch of this farmhouse. Our son stripped off 20-year old contact paper and painted the cupboards a glossy white. The middle cabinet became the permanent home to our Christmas china, glasses, snowman mugs, and various other related items. Here is a picture of it now before I start moving some of the items out to decorate for Christmas:

I love opening up that cupboard every so often during the year just to get a glimpse of Christmas. I even break out into Jingle Bells sometimes. And when company is coming I turn on all the little battery candles thinking it will surprise them when I open the cupboard to show guests. Then  I always forget to show them and the batteries burn on until I discover them much later.

Now I've got to go check out some more blogs and study vignettes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why Won't House Beautiful Admit That There Is A Santa Claus?

I'm sorry, but just how stupid is House Beautiful magazine? My December issue was in the mail today and again, no mention of Christmas. Does not even one of the owners of the houses featured decorate for Christmas? Do none of the interior designers they feature each December decorate for Christmas?

So once again I will go to one of the few bookstores in town that sell British shelter magazines and pay a dear price for the beautiful, Christmasy December magazines and save the glossy treats year after year so that I'll have a library of them for the day when all American magazines decide it's not PC to mention Christmas.

I am curious. Is all Christmas decor banned from the offices of House Beautiful?

No wonder design blogs have become so popular. I'll have to get my beauty inspiration from them and from the Brits. And I must not renew my subscription again, which is a shame because I love reading House Beautiful every month except for the December issue. I love their question and answer format, but I do not want to read about swimming pools in December. I want to see beautifully, seasonally decorated rooms.

Oh, for the days of that beautiful 1983 issue of House Beautiful when they not only featured Dee Hardie's lovely house festooned for Christmas but put her kitchen on the cover!

          "Oh, but surely," protested Devon, "you're not planning to discard a lover just because he didn't like Christmas?"
          "...I tell you I have discarded a lover because he didn't like Christmas!"
          "Oh, but honestly," fretted Devon, "you couldn't exactly hold that the love of Christmas is an actual test of the soul's integrity?"
          "It is at least proof ultimate of the soul's esprit!" insisted L. Lothrop. "And if a soul hasn't got effervescence enough to rise to Christmas how can you ever dare to hope it will rise to--anything?" she questioned hotly.
         From a fiction story in the January 1925 issue of Woman's Home Companion

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Window-Look Across the Way

On November 24th my post was called Looking In, and a few people commented that they also loved looking in the windows of houses they drove past at dusk. We do it politely; we might slow down but would never park the car and get out with our cameras. Might be trouble to pay with that. But we all love looking into the houses of other people.

At the bottom of each page of this blog is a line written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh that I love and expresses what I want this blog to be, and truthfully, it is why I read other blogs. Lindbergh writes:

A score of household selves
Polish the floors, replenish pantry shelves,
Ticking to duties all the clock-told day, 
Without a window-look across the way.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh from "Two Citadels" in The Unicorn

Do you think that blogs help to give us this window-look across the way? From your house to mine and from my house to yours? I think they do. I don't want to close this month of November, this first month of this blog, without giving you a peek into my sister Deb's house on Thanksgiving Day where my family members in Florida gathered, including some of our sister Jenn's family, and our precious mother who turned 88 this month.

Deb and one of her granddaughters love doing projects together, especially seasonal ones. For the sixth year they made their traditional Blessing Mix bags. I hope the recipe is readable on this picture as it is delicious.

My sister Jenn and our niece working in the kitchen, the ladies all wearing aprons Deb and her granddaughter made together six Thanksgivings ago. 

Everyone had fun working together, the men setting up tables and making the Pineapple Wassail in a crock pot out on the screened porch. There were two turkeys from Whole Foods, one roasted in the oven, the other in the Green Egg. The women all made pies, apple, pecan and pumpkin, several of each. There were Brussels sprouts with bacon, roasted sweet potatoes seasoned with honey and lemon, green beans from the garden, new potatoes with fresh rosemary from Deb's herb pots, cranberry sauce flavored with clementine juice, and rolls. Let's not forget the dressing, the recipe passed down from Mom, Jenn making it now and adding her touches. My sisters are all great cooks so I know it was all delicious.

Gathering in a circle to hold hands for the blessing, our Mother holds hands with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

All to the table next except for the photographer!

Deb and Don's sweet little granddaughter asleep after her Thanksgiving dinner.

There you are, a look into my sister's house without even having to peek through the window! Until next Thanksgiving Day, here is a window-peeker:

Sometimes he simply walked around the town, 
slowing his stride when he came near a home which enclosed what seemed to him 
a particularly admirable family.
He liked looking at the windows where the curtains hung in such a fashion
that they seemed to him, an outsider, 
to be framing a little diamond of bright, mysterious inner life.

Nancy Thayer Body & Souls

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stir Up Sunday

I remember reading about Stir Up Sunday years ago in a magazine, accompanied by a photograph of a lovely historic New England church of white clapboard, snow all around but the sun shining brightly. The women of the congregation gathered after morning service on the last Sunday before Advent to "stir up" a batter of fruitcake in a large black iron pot, each woman taking her turn stirring it, always clockwise, and each contributing ingredients. A prayer went heavenward with each stir, and then each woman took a portion home to bake in her own oven. (In England it is Christmas pudding that is made on Stir Up Sunday.)

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From The Book of Common Prayer

Fruitcake is a beloved tradition I learned from my mother, although I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't taste her dark fruitcake until I was an adult, and then only because I learned first to love light fruitcake. Now I adore good fruitcake and shake my head in confusion when I hear comedians crack the same tired old jokes about poor old fruitcake each Christmas season. They must be very hard up for material.

My favorite mystery author, Charlotte MacLeod, included a story called "Fruitcake, Mercy, and Black-eyed Peas" written by Margaret Maron, another favorite mystery author, in MacLeod's collection of Christmas mystery stories, Christmas Stalkings.

For some reason, people like to poke fun at Christmas fruitcake and joke about how there's really probably only a hundred or so in the whole United States and they get passed around from one year to the next. Those people never tasted Aunt Zell's.

And they never tasted my Golden Fruitcake either. When I hear the lower form of humor that is fruitcake jokes, I just think, "What's wrong with you poor people?" If they tried a thin slice of mine, surely they would change their minds. I'd be proud to serve mine to any Iron Chef. Of course, there is no candied citron in mine, therefore no bitter taste. I'd never put green cherries in mine either. There are candied red cherries and pineapple and golden raisins, and most important of all, there are dried apricots.

The scent of Christmas enters our house when I begin to mix my fruitcake, actually even the night before when I macerate the bowl of fruits in Calvados. When it's still warm from the oven I drizzle precious drops of Calvados over each cake. It has to be genuine Calvados from Normandy in France. As I take the Calvados from its hiding place, I think of my favorite Frances Parkinson Keyes' novel, Came a Cavalier, where the young American woman in the Red Cross at the end of World War I in France is taken by her handsome French suitor to his family chateau in Normandy.

Constance is a very proper New England girl and this is not a racy book but the scene where she sips her first Calvados is one sexy piece of a proper way, of course. The faithful bonne Blondine has served them a luncheon of "an omelet, finely flavored with young green chives and mixed with croutons fried in fat," followed by Poulet de la Vallee d' Auge, artichokes, salad, Liverot (a cheese from Normandy) and strawberries with cream. She departs and...

He rose and went to a tall, narrow armoire in the corner, and, unlocking it,
took from it two tiny glasses of etched crystal 
and the most extraordinary bottle Connie had ever seen.
It was deeply encrusted with earth, and the neck, all of a yard long,
curved slightly at the end to meet a cork capped with a miniature silver pitcher.
As Tristan tilted the bottle, the lid of this tiny pitcher opened,
and a dark, rich liquid came gurgling out it into the etched glasses.

Tristan says to the woman he has so far courted in vain:

"I shall drink to you!--Madame la Baronne de Freemond, Chatelaine of Malou, 
and my own liege lady!"

He raised his glass still higher and began to drink, slowly and sparingly,
savoring each drop. Then he sat his glass down and looked at her.

And that, my friends, was the last time Tristan proposed to her because this time Constance accepted.

Golden Fruitcake

I made two loaf pans here but most of the time I use all the batter in one large angel food pan with a hole in the center. 

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups brown sugar
5 large eggs, whites separated from yolks
3 scant cups flour (do not sift)
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 lb. candied red cherries, halved
1  lb. candied pineapple, cut up
2 cups dried apricots, cut in half
1 package golden raisins
2 cups pecan halves
1/2 cup Calvados for macerating fruit plus extra for drizzling every week

Macerate fruits in 1/2 cup Calvados overnight at room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Cream butter and sugar, stir in eggs. Add dry ingredients and milk, alternating (begin and end with dry ingredients). 
Stir in flavorings.
Beat egg whites until stiff and fold gently into batter.
Mix in fruits and nuts.

Turn into two greased (with solid Crisco) and floured loaf pans. Bake at 250 degrees F. for 2-3 hours. (My oven takes 2 1/2 hours.) Or turn into large Angel Food pan with hole in center and bake for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, testing with long tined fork to see if done.

 Let pans cool on rack 10 minutes and turn out on plate or parchment paper. Drizzle little drops of Calvados over while warm. Cool completely. Wrap in foil, plastic bags and refrigerate. Every week drizzle a little more Calvados over. Keeps a long time and freezes well.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Looking In

Even when I was a child riding in the backseat of my father's car as he drove us somewhere at dusk, I tried to look in the windows of houses we passed if lamps had been turned on in the rooms. I wondered who lived there. Were they a happy family, how many children did they have, were there any boys or just daughters as in our family? I never outgrew my curiosity and still look in and wonder.

My favorite view looking in, though, has always been that of looking into my own house from outside at twilight time, through windows revealing softly lamp lit rooms. It is then that I see my home life from a different perspective. I know the people in my own house better than I do any other people in the world, naturally, and yet as I see them moving about they become elusive, but strangely much more real.

I remember when I was sixteen going outside at dusk on Thanksgiving Day. I put on my warm high school jacket over my best Sunday dress as it was not only cold but had snowed, a rare thing in Middle Tennessee. We get excited here if Jack Frost visits us for Thanksgiving. Snow on Thanksgiving Day, any amount, would make us think we'd died and gone to New England. Snow on that special night gave the occasion even more importance, and the centerpiece for our dining room table, my responsibility, had to be special too.

I clip sprays of bright red Nandina and holly and probably some evergreen gleanings as well since our father has planted many conifers in our yard. If it were June there would be many of Daddy's roses for the table, but this is November and dusk has fallen on the snow-brushed shrubbery around our house. I take my time. It is important.

Through the kitchen window I see Daddy, the head of our family. I love him but darn sure have a healthy respect for him too. This night though, in his dark wine-colored plaid Arrow shirt, my father seems almost vulnerable as he helps Mama with the last minute cooking for the most important meal of the year, Thanksgiving Day dinner. Why this perspective of seeing my father through the window makes him seem more human to me, possibly with worries I know nothing about, I do not know.

I look at Mama. She has not dressed up much. Cooking Thanksgiving dinner is a warm job even when there is snow on the ground outside where I stand. There is a small frown of concentration on her forehead, but the red plaid wallpapered ceiling over her head makes the kitchen look cozy and snug. I don't wonder if my mother is worried about something. She is just Mama, doing what mothers do on Thanksgiving Day.

My three younger sisters are there inside also. Deb, dark haired and vivacious at twelve is always willing to entertain three-year-old Jenn, the bouncing blonde late addition charmer in our family, keeping her out from under Mama's busy feet. Teresa, a Mia Farrow twin, even as young as ten, moves with the poise and posture of a young queen.

These are my little sisters. I argue with them, boss them around, take them as much for granted as I do our parents. Now, in the frosty evening with purple shadows falling all around me, with my hands full of the cool leaves and red berries of Nandina, my sisters too seem imbued with a majestic somber beauty that satisfies something deep within me. I shiver with the mystery of it all.

If this is not something you have experienced, go outside at dusk, be a voyeur in your own yard. Look into your rooms and see how attractive they are, how mysterious the people inside seem. See them as people separate from you, individuals. See your house as a stranger would see it, like a stage set.

You might come back inside a different person yourself.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Our Non-Traditional Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day was different this year, no hours of cooking and cleanup in the kitchen, no turkey leftovers, no partial casseroles lurking in the refrigerator. It has turned out to be a lovely, restful time.

Our darling daughter and son-in-law arrived Wednesday from Florida with my grand-Schnauzers. We had not seen them since summer so please forgive us if R.H. and I give you lots of photographs below with them featured. She is, after all, our one daughter!

After checking in here at Valley View, Christy and Bryan took Maddie and Zoe out for a good walk through the valley.

Then they were off to the grocery store with R.H., list in hand. Maddie and Zoe stayed here with me and our dogs, cat hiding in a closet.

Back and forth they went from front door to back standing guard while I made pie crust and baked a pecan pie.

After supper it was out to the picnic shelter for a fire in the chiminea.

Later grandson Alex and his girlfriend Melissa came over to roast marshmallows over the fire. The only problem was the jumbo marshmallows that didn't want to stay on the long roasters R.H. made years ago.

On Thanksgiving morning after R.H. cooked pork chops for breakfast, we left to drive some on the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway. After driving over the amazing award-winning Double Arch Bridge that soars 155 ft. over TN Hwy. 96, we exited to go below for pictures.

Then we parked in Birdsong Hollow, lovely name and lovely spot on a lovely day.

Then it was off to our Thanksgiving dinner at the nationally famous Loveless Cafe, serving Nashville delicious food since 1951, but especially known for their biscuits, and the much missed Biscuit Lady who won the Throwdown over Bobby Flay.

Behind Christy perched on the old tractor is the new Loveless Barn, party venue and home on Wednesday nights to the Music City Roots live radio show.

Our waiter was too rushed for us to ask him to take a picture of us at table but we all had the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner, everything homemade including the biscuits and blackberry preserves we began with, eaten by people from all over the world. Even Miss Paula loved the Loveless!

And the country music stars who love the Loveless cover the walls. Star watching is often a fellow guest's privilege but we didn't spot any on this crowded day.

Home to rest and walk all the dogs and then to enjoy my pecan pie, a coconut pie from the Loveless, and pumpkin pie from Publix, while other family came by to join us for dessert. Too tired to even think about getting pictures, we missed getting one of grandson Luke on his Thanksgiving birthday, so here is a summer one of him with his mother. Happy birthday, Luke!

This morning Christy and Bryan fixed pumpkin pancakes for our breakfast and then took Maddie and Zoe for a long walk on the trails of a nature conservancy near us. Home for the dogs to crash on the sofa while their parents head for the mall. It's been a nice non-traditional Thanksgiving for us. I hope yours was nice too, however you celebrated it.