Saturday, August 23, 2014

Canning Tomatoes-An Excerpt from The Melendys

Today is the beginning of the canning extravaganza-where every surface is covered in pulp and seeds and we all collapse on random kitchen chairs at 7 pm, wearily watching the last canner.  Every year that I do this, I wonder why I think this is a good idea, but when I see the beautiful ruby red jars full of tomatoes sitting in the basement, I feel completely gratified.  The other thing that always crosses my mind is the story of the Melendys, written by Elizabeth Enright.  The Melendys have all sorts of adventures (see this post, where I wrote about them), but here's an excerpt from their canning adventure, accompanied by pictures of our canning mess.   Enjoy!
Onions in the food processor, for pizza sauce.  (Note the clean kitchen.
It's the last time you're going to see a tomato-less surface for the rest of this post)

So in summary, Cuffy (the kindly housekeeper) has left to take care of her sister-with-a-broken-leg, widower Father is on some vague business trip (he frequently is), and that leaves the four children at home, the oldest of whom is fourteen.  You heard that right, fourteen!  It's August and the garden is, of course, overflowing.  Mona (the 14 year old) is completely enchanted with cooking and proposes that she and Randy (the 12 year old) can the produce-

""We eat tomatoes for every meal except breakfast now," Randy said.  "And the cucumbers are just getting boring."  "Maybe we could sell them," offered Oliver helpfully.  "Nix, small fry.  In a rural community like this it would be coals to Newcastle."  "Canning is the answer," Mona said.  "Oh, if only Cuffy were here!""

"A moment later she looked up, striking the table with her mixing spoon.  "We'll do it ourselves!  We'll surprise Cuffy."  "O-o-oh, no!"  said Rush.  "And have us all dead with bottling bacillus or whatever it is.  No, thank you."  "Botulinus bacillus," corrected Mona.  "Oh, Rush, don't be so stuffy.  I'll get a book about it and do everything just the way it says.  I'll only can safe things like the tomatoes and I'll make pickles of the cucumbers."

"Mona slept an uneasy sleep that night, and her dreams were long dull dreams about tomatoes.  She rose early the next morning, got breakfast with Randy, and studied her canning book.  By the time the boys and Willy began bringing the vegetables, she knew it almost by heart.  She and Rand were enthusiastic about the first bushel-basketful of tomatoes, it seemed a treasure trove: an abundance of sleek vermilion fruit, still beaded with dew.  The second bushel also looked very pretty, the third a little less so, and by the time the fourth one arrived she stared at it with an emotion of horror.  "There can't be that many, Rush!"  "You asked for it, pal.  There's the living evidence.  And in twenty four hours, there'll be this much over again." …."The kitchen was swamped with vegetables."

"It was a long, hot, clumsy business.  Mona dropped sterilized lids on the floor, and they had to be sterilized all over again; Randy cut herself with the paring knife; Mona half-scalded her fingers getting the first jar into the boiler.  Randy skidded and fell on a slippery tomato skin which had somehow landed on the kitchen floor.  They lost two jars of tomatoes from the first batch when they were taking them out of the boiler.  The first was dropped by Mona when she thoughtlessly took hold of it with her bare hands.  The second exploded like a bomb, all by itself.  "I guess there was something the matter with it," said Randy brilliantly.

"Her [Mona's] face was scarlet with exertion.  Her hair was tied up in a dish towel, and her apron was covered with tomato stains.  Randy looked worse if anything.  There were tomato seeds in her hair and an orange smear across one cheek.  She was wearing nothing but a faded old playsuit and an apron.  "Gee whiz," she said.   "You know how I feel?  I feel like an old, old woman about forty years old, with fallen arches."

I hear ya', Randy, I hear ya'.

Still, later…"They look sort of nice.  The tomatoes, I mean, not your arches.  Look, Ran."  They were nice.  Sixteen sealed jars of scarlet fruit, upside down on the kitchen table.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reading Habits Tag

I was just recently tagged by Girl With Her Head in a Book to answer a series of questions about reading habits (you can see her answers at the above link).  Fun!  So here goes:


1. Do you have a certain place for reading at home?- Not really.  Well, I read all over the place.  My favorite places are stretched out longways on the sofa with the little lap dog curled up next to me or at the kitchen table in the morning.
2.  Do you use a bookmark or a random piece of paper?- Random shreds of paper.  The little tear-out ad cards in magazines work beautifully.  Sometimes I feel like I should have real bookmarks (see this post and this post), but for the most part, I use random shreds because I lose the real bookmarks so quickly.  They're like bobby-pins.  So loseable.
3.  Can you just stop reading or does it need to be at the end of a chapter or a certain number of pages?-Definitely at the end of a chapter.  I can never get back into a chapter that I've stopped halfway through with.  You know what else is weird?  People that read the first chapter of a book and then stick a bookmark in and walk away.   I have to read a least 5 chapters into a book before I stick a bookmark in it.
4.  Do you eat or drink while eating?- Well, I read at breakfast and lunch.  At dinner I tend not to because everybody's back from work and it's nice to sit and talk.  I would feel weirdly anti-social reading at dinner.  Sunday afternoons, when I have a huge glut of reading time, I'll often make some little treat to share and eat myself while reading.  My family has a tradition of eating sunflower seeds in the summer while reading novels.  I still carry that on.
5.  Do you read one book at a time or several at once?- Always several at once.  I like having something light, something tome-like, and something pretty to look at.
6.  Do you read out loud or silently in your head?- Huh!  I didn't know there were people who read out loud to themselves.  So yes, I read silently.  I can still remember the first day that I learned to do that in about 2nd grade.  I was so proud.
7.  Do you ever read ahead or skip pages?- *Ahem*.  Well, yes, I do.  I very often skip long, rhapsodizing descriptions of scenery or people.   If I see a whole string of sentences chock full of adjectives, let the skimming begin!  I must say, I am quite a skilled skimmer.  I read ahead if I suspect an author of writing a depressing ending.  If I find out that the outcome is not what I want, I slam the book shut and no harm done because I haven't gotten all invested with the characters.
8.  Breaking the spine or keeping it new?- Argh.  What a question.  I always want to crack the spines, but as soon as I do, I feel bad that the book has lost its newness.  I ask myself which I'm going to do every time I open a new book.
9.  Do you write in your books?- Depends.  Never in fiction, but from all my academic exposure over the years, I do write in nonfiction books.  I do think that writing in some books can have value.  I love finding old family members' books that were written in.  It's like a window into their minds.  So I'm not opposed to writing in books, I just don't do it frequently.
10.  What are you currently reading?- An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, Eat and Make by Paul Lowe, Tea with Jane Austen, and The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen (the Austen books are for Austen in August).

Thanks so much to Girl With Her Head in a book for this fun challenge!  I can't wait to see what others say about these questions.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mary Stewart Series: The Gabriel Hounds

On our very last vacation trip of the summer, I read only one book.  Now, to be fair, it was a loud, busy family visit that didn't allow for lots of time spent in thinking and reading.  But I'm a reader and a book blogger, so of course I couldn't go without at least one book.  I picked a Mary Stewart novel, naturally.  And that's the great thing about Mary Stewart.  She can be read on the road and in a loud, chaotic house and still be comprehended and enjoyed.  I read most of it on the way out, a bit one evening, and then the rest on the way home (when I wasn't napping).
Now I want a raspberry coat with a purple flower at my throat.

The Gabriel Hounds is, in my opinion, one of Mary Stewart's creepiest novels.  It's not like her magic-ey books, that are slightly reminiscent of her Merlin writing, full of spells and mild magic and other worldly experiences.  It's also not that wild-chase thriller theme that runs through so many of Stewart's books.

The Gabriel Hounds is the story of Christy Mansel, a young aristocrat who is traveling abroad in the Middle East.  While there, she runs into her handsome, impetuous, equally wealthy cousin who is also traveling.  They agree to go look up their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet living in a palace called the Dar Ibrahim, a women well-known in Lebanon (or The Lebanon, as Mary Stewart archaicly calls it).  But they find that there are strange things afoot at the Dar Ibrahim, where sinister Arab servants (*cringe*...I know...) and a mysterious doctor minister to the demanding old lady.  Christy and her cousin (who is also the love-interest...surprise!) find that as difficult as it is to get into the old castle, it may be even more difficult to get out.

Throughout this book run sinister threads of drug overuse (particularly hashish) and cultural problems with the Middle East.  The natives in the book are treated with an extremely racist suspicion that feels kind of weird to read.  However, Mary Stewart's writing surpasses some of the awkward racist descriptions.

This was not my favorite Mary Stewart (Nine Coaches Waiting will always hold that special position in my heart), but it was definitely good.  The story was well crafted and I sat at the edge of my seat in the car, the seatbelt digging into my neck, skipping bathroom stops so I could find out what happened.  There was even one panicked moment where I realized I couldn't find my book and that it was stuck in the back of the trunk.  But I finally retrieved it and kept reading.  This was a great book!  If you are fond of Mary Stewart, this is a must-read.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Old-Fashioned Girl

I have always loved Louisa May Alcott's writing.  Like so many little girls, I was introduced to Little Women by my mother early on.  We read the book together and laughed over the adventures and felt sorry for Laurie and wept over Beth.  After that introduction, I adored everything by Alcott.  I went on to read Little Men and Jo's Boys and all of the lesser-known books, like Under the Lilac Bush and Hospital Sketches.  However, my favorite is An Old-Fashioned Girl.

An Old Fashioned Girl is the story of Polly, a shy, smart, highly spirited girl.  She goes to visit a friend, Fanny, who lives a cosseted life with her wild brother Tom, her whiny, spoiled little sister Maud, her distracted businessman father, her self-absorbed, hypochondriacal mother and her lonely grandmother who disapproves of the whole family.  Into this scene full of ennui and dissipation comes a breath of fresh air in the form of young Polly.  She, a country girl from a countercultural family that reminds me of the Marches,  is shocked by the city life so full of problems and trouble in spite of the wealth.  She is introduced to Polly's shallow friends and she begins to work change in the family and she begins to see the real sides of her hosts.

The book is spread over a time period of about 10 years.  By the end, there is a charming suitor, Mr. Sidney, and Polly has grown in wisdom and maturity and has become an even more well-rounded character.  Polly is living in a little apartment and keeping house for herself and giving music lessons to support her brother in college.  Then the unthinkable happens-Polly and her family lose all of their money in some banking crises.  And…well, you'll have to read this wonderful book to find out what happens!

The domestic descriptions are unbelievable cozy, particularly when Polly moves into her own house.  It's one of the lovely bonuses of this book.  I couldn't find the particular description that I love, so you'll just have to read the book and find it for yourself.
I sat down with a delicious slice of peach upside down cake made with roasted cornmeal,
hot peppermint tea, and An Old Fashioned Girl (rereading for the millionth time).
It was so pretty, I decided to take a picture-yes, I've become one of those bloggers who takes
pictures of her food.

Even though Polly is a Victorianly good character, there is nothing saccharine or fake about her goodness.  She has her struggles, very much like the March sisters of Little Women.  She has troubles and setbacks just like all of us, but she has a loving family base that is helping her along as she sees new, tempting, strange things.  The old-fashioned in the title is from when Fanny and her friends refer to Polly as "old-fashioned" and "little-girl-ish" because she doesn't behave the way Fanny and her friends do.

Polly's family is not portrayed as a demon-family, but simply one that has become distracted by worldly things and in the process has forgotten the family.  Polly is simply there to remind them of the importance of each other.  The books is not explicitly Christian, but there is that undertone, much like the undertone in Little Women.  I think that also has a lot to do with the way that Polly and her family behave.
Finished!  (Does anybody else prop their books against
their tea pot?  It makes the perfect hands-free reading!

Polly reminds me of Meg March is so many ways.  If L.M. Alcott were to write a story just about Meg on her own in a strange city, you would get this book.  I've always identified with Meg in Little Women.  I do not have that willful, passionate Jo March streak, goodness knows I'm not like saintly Beth and I hope to goodness I'm not like the spoiled, vain Amy.   Meg's calm, practical nature, in spite on her own personal temptations resonated with me, which is part of the reason I identified with Polly.  

The ultimate message of this story and the whole story in general are really timeless.  There is nothing archaic or old-fashioned about the writing or the story.  Louisa May Alcott did it again-she wrote another wonderful book about lovable characters that you are sure to remember for years after you read this book.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Great Marshmallow Experiment

Last night, on the spur of the moment, my family and I decided to have a little campfire in the back yard.  Some rummaging was done and graham crackers, chocolate, and a pack of hotdogs were found, but no marshmallows.  I turned to this trusty cookbook, of which I gave such a glowing review, and, sure enough, there was a homemade marshmallow recipe.  It's quite easy, just sugar and corn syrup (I'll talk about that later), vanilla, gelatin, and water.
I made them in squares, but there's no reason you couldn't cut them
into any pretty shape you wanted.


I heated up the sugar and water and went to find a bottle of corn syrup, you know, that white syrupy stuff that most cooks have a bottle of languishing in the back.  It's not that same thing as the demonic high fructose stuff, but as I pulled the bottle off of the shelf, I happened to glance at the back and saw that, sure enough, in regular corn syrup, there is high fructose corn syrup.  Cussing inwardly, I went back to the cupboard and wracked my brains for a suitable alternative.  I knew that honey would have way too strong of a flavor and I wasn't sure that maple syrup was thick enough.  Aha!  My eye fell on a bottle of agave syrup, this strange syrup that is a quite popular in health food stores these days.  I think it's from some kind of cactus in Mexico, but don't quote me on that.  There was a little bottle of it stuffed in the back of a cupboard.  I dumped that in and, surprisingly, it gave the marshmallows the most buttery, rich flavor.

I really recommend that you get Homemade Pantry, but if you refuse, here's how you make marshmallows:

Heat up your 3/4 cup of syrup (whatever you choose), 1/4 cup of sugar, and 1/2 cup of water.  Don't touch it, just stick a thermometer in and let the temperature come to 250 Fahrenheit.  Meanwhile, put a package of gelatin in the bottom of a stand mixer and pour another 1/2 cup of water over it and let sit.  when your sugar water has heated up to the right temperature, pour it over your gelatin and turn the mixer to the highest setting until the mixture turns shiny and white.  Pour it into a greased 9x13 pan and let sit until they're marshmallow consistency.  Then cut into squares when you're ready to eat and dust with coconut or powdered sugar.

People, these were so good!  They toast gorgeously and turn into this buttery, toasty pile of goodness on your graham cracker.   I will never buy another marshmallow again.  These are dead easy, the flavor far surpasses anything you could buy, and they have such a gorgeous texture!  So often, if you buy an organic marshmallow, they're weirdly dry and flat and chewy, while the jet-puffed ones taste like chemicals and who knows what's in them.  These are perfect in every way.  You must go make them!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Miss Manners

(Well, I came back for a blog post!  I missed sitting down and writing out my thoughts so much!)

I can't believe I've never mentioned these books.  I would probably name Miss Manners as one of the top 10 most influential writers in my life.  Her no-nonsense, bitingly witty, perfectly correct writing is brilliant.  I was first introduced to Miss Manners through my mother, who has all of her books and would sit, reading them and laughing uproariously.  Some time in early high school, I picked up one and fell in love.

Miss Manners has written a manners advice column in newspapers for years, starting, I think, some time in the 80s.  People write in with some manners question or problem and then she addresses it, usually with a few biting remarks.  However, I was introduced to her through the books, not the newspaper column.  Miss Manners, or Judith Martin, has written many compilations of various categories of questions and her responses to them as well as essays that she has written.  The topics of the books are wide-ranging from childrearing to manners in a digital age (written in the 90s, but still surprisingly applicable to us today...although maybe not the part about answering pagers).

Miss Manners advocates bringing Victorian manners back into the 21st century.  Things like carrying a nice hanky with you when you go out and the proper way to introduce elders to one's contemporaries are carefully covered.   However, Miss Manners is also quick to point out the errors of societal mistakes made in earlier generations.  I appreciate this willingness to bring back some earlier customs and manners, but not to be too hasty to bring everything back.

I often read Miss Manners when I'm between books.  They're the kind of thing that you can pick up, read 10 pages of, and then drop, at least theoretically.  What actually happens is that you tell yourself that you're only going to read 5 pages and then get on your work and 2 hours later, you've read half of the book and you're completely worn out from laughing out loud.

The books are also useful.  When I have completely forgotten the correct format for writing a really nice sympathy note or I have clean forgotten that rule about wearing white shoes (it's Memorial Day to Labor Day, readers), I know that I can turn to Miss Manners and she will give me the answer along with a pithy remark that makes me laugh.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Blog Hiatus

Dear Readers,
I love fall, don't you?  I love the crisp weather, the burst in productiveness that comes with the cooler weather and the lack of canning jars and tomatoes lingering on every surface.  I love sweaters and boots and the leaves and the increase in work, which brings me to my point.  I've decided to take a bit of a bloggy hiatus.  While I love blogging and the act of sitting down every day to write something was rewarding and enjoyable, this fall it's going to become yet another thing to add to my plate.  This year I'm going to be even busier than in previous years, meaning that my posts would either be short (which translates to blurry pictures and no book reviews) or take time that I should be spending working on other projects.

This doesn't mean I'm never going to write here again.  I may eventually shift over to a weekly post on Sunday or something entirely different.  But I wanted to let you all know that my blogging won't be regular, like it has been (because I hate it when bloggers just drop off the face of the internet without a word of warning).

So I'll still be around and in all probability, posts will be added to this blog in the future, but for now I'm letting other things take the front seat and letting the blog slide for a bit.  I'm going to be off on some summer vacation and then before we know it, fall is going to be upon us (yipee!).