My sister came out from Colorado to visit last week. It's amazing how much you take for granted when you live in a place. We switched into tourist mode and took full advantage of summer in Maine, and along the way I experienced many firsts:
--First glimpse of the dorsal fin of a whale (my sister, who instigated the whale watch didn't see it at all, nor did E and Z who were asleep by then; C and M, who were in the front of the boat because M was seasick, were the first to spy its blow and saw it surface several times).
--First time I've seen Pemaquid beach look like the Jersey shore, with an extreme high tide shrinking the space between dunes and waves to a dozen feet or so, and a full contingent of swimmers, boogie borders and sunbathers crammed in the strip of dry sand.
--First speeding ticket (big one...though I don't even believe that my car is even capable of going that fast).
--First time using my Better World Club roadside assistance for my first time having two flat tires at once (less than an hour after the speeding ticket, mind you).
--First hikes on two mountains (Acadia and Saint Saveur) due to my carless college days focus on the front side of the island. Also first time I felt like I was having a stroke while hiking. Dear lord am I out of shape!
--First time at Echo Lake Beach (again with the front versus back side of the Island).
--First time around Jordan Pond and first eating of popovers at Jordan Pond House (waaay too poor for that kind of indulgence in my Island days).
--First time driving up Cadillac Mountain (once I did ride up in a van, for a field trip, and hiked down; otherwise it was all either hiking or biking...and very high and mighty over those who would drive).
--First time attending a movie at the Maine International Film Festival. We saw Howl, about Allen Ginsberg and the trial over his controversial book of the same name. Very good. Highly recommend.
There were some run-of-the-mill things in there too--napping at Fort Williams Park (home of Portland Head Light) until a thunderstorm came in; playing in the huge waves at Reid State Park in the rain; lounging at the lake; picking raspberries and making jam; hiking to Bass Falls (wow that hike is a lot shorter with two five-year-olds than it was with two three-, or two- or one-year-olds!).
It was a lot of fun, but now I need a month-long nap (as I'm sure does my sister, who missed the connection on her red-eye flight, spent the night in the airport and had to work the next day).
It was stuffed in the closet in disgrace when C decided it was too hot to sleep under down (I, personally, could sleep under down at least 360 nights a year). I can't bear sleeping under only a sheet, no matter how hot it is, so at first I replaced it with a thin, thread-bare (twin-sized) quilt. But C must have gotten tired of me sneaking into the closet and heaping the down comforter on my side of the bed, because he replaced the quilt with and ugly, scratchy polyester comforter that we had been hand-me-downed when we had our first apartment. Not that I'm ungrateful; we had no money to buy frivolous things like blankets and it was a kind gesture, especially in light of the fact that the relative who bequeathed it to us surely did not approve of unmarried folk cohabiting.
It served us well for many years, but, as I said, it is ugly. And scratchy. And polyester. Making a summer quilt for our bed is on my to-do list, but very near the bottom, and it keeps getting bumped in favor of other to-do's. In the meantime, the duvet can serve duty disguising the ugly, scratchy and polyester comforter as well as it does the down. It looks much better, though it is limp and heavy and not at all fluffy and cozy like down (I know that as a vegetarian I should be opposed to down, but it is so light and fluffy and cozy!). However, in the spirit of marital harmony, I think I can endure it, if C can endure me turning off the fan when I get in bed!
C does most of our laundry--since he often works from home he's able to take advantage of the sunny days when they happen, and hanging out the wash gives him a break from the computer--so I'm rarely home when laundry is hanging on the line to take a picture of it. Believe me, I'm not complaining about this. However, a couple of weekends ago, I was home on a sunny Saturday morning and put in a load. Some things are just never dirty in C's eyes (towels, sheets, table cloths...still, I'm not complaining: he even puts on a DVD and holds a folding party once every couple of weeks, while I will just sort everyone's clothes into different baskets, hand M his to fold and put away, put away my own and, occasionally fold E and Z's--if I have time).
I love vintage printed table cloths, but they rarely come long enough for our big table. For a while I would layer them on top of a plain white table cloth (=more laundry), but now I just reach the table cloth to one end of the table and leave the other end bare (the end that usually hosts mail, homework, magazines, art projects). C prefers to use plastic, wipe-off placemats, but I think the tablecloths are much more cheerful (especially since I'm not the one who does the laundry!), don't you?
I finally finished the picnic blanket that I started planning last fall, when I had checked out Handmade Home from the library. I found the sheets at Goodwill back in September, and had even contemplated making it for the twins' preschool fall auction (clearly that did not happen).
I started getting serious in May, but it took me nearly two months to do all the cutting and ironing and sewing. I finished off the binding last Tuesday night, with sweat literally pouring off of me as I sat at my sewing machine...but I wanted to have it done in time for my sister to visit, and take a nap on it in Fort Williams park after her red-eye flight (I did and she did). I'm sure she would have much more appreciated me cleaning the house in anticipation of her arrival, but it was way too hot and humid for that kind of action.
There are eighteen different things wrong with it...from me not being able to cut in a straight line or wield such large pieces of fabric to not looking at an actual picture of a bee before trying to embroider one. Oh, yes, and my perennial tension problems (no not my shoulders...my sewing machine).
But in the end it came out rather cute, and nice and big and highly functional. I ended up tying it with purple embroidery floss because I couldn't imagine trying to wrangle something so huge through my sewing machine (the backing is a full-sized sheet, in picnic-y yellow checks).
We put it to work on a foggy beach day Sunday. Let me assure you it absorbs more than triple its weight in water!
Of all the bloggers whose ideas I shamelessly steal (there are a lot of them...I truly have never had an original thought), I steal the most from Mary Beth at Salt and Chocolate. Crafts, recipes, sewing projects, decorating, kid activities, she always has something wonderful going on there. So it's no surprise that after I saw her recipe cards last week, I just had to copy them. I've been wanting to find a way to organize the dangerously high stack of recipes I've printed off the internet, and just generally make meal planning easier and less of an ordeal. But it had never even occurred to me to use recipe cards. I actually have a recipe box, crammed full of the little free recipes you used to get from the grocery store or inside tea boxes or magazines. It's too small for most of the cards I have stuffed in it and I almost never open it. But Mary Beth's large-format, multi-colored cards in an open box looked much more usable (and pretty!).
Though instead of ordering the beautiful (but pricey) cards and box set, I went to the nearby big box office supply store and bought a package of colored note cards and stuck them in the box from the St. Francis monks honey that C's aunt sends us every year in hopes of saving our heathen souls with plastic squeeze bottles of honey. It's not ideal in size or shape, but it works for now. At first I thought of organizing the recipes by season—with a different color for each winter, spring, summer and fall--but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that spring food here in Maine is pretty much the same as winter food. So instead I organized them thus: yellow for “growing season” (June/July—herbs, greens, radishes, asparagus, strawberries); red for “harvest season” (late July, August, September—summer squash, tomatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, new potatoes, blueberries and blackberries etc.); blue for the rest of the year (winter squash, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, kale, apples); and the sort of greenish gold for anytime (baked goods, staples).
First I went through the pile of recipe printouts, keeping my eyes peeled for recipes that can be made from all fresh, local and in-season produce (with some dried goods, like rice, beans, quinoa, etc.). As I find and cook seasonally-appropriate recipes in my cookbooks, I'll transfer the recipe to a card. The goal is to have a repertoire of meals that utilize what's coming out of the garden or farmer's market at certain times of the year and are not overly-complicated or time-consuming.
One of the things on my summer to do list is "exercise daily." I had been doing well (except for the weekends, unless you call gardening, loading and unloading cars, lounging on the beach or floating in a pond exercise) up until this week, when E and Z started nature camp, and I spend my lunch hour picking them up from camp, taking them to daycare and driving back to work (ugh, I don't even want to talk about all the gas, emissions, etc. in order to send my kids to "nature camp" so sad and ironic).
I'm very fortunate to have a beautiful expanse of open space right across the street from my office.
There are many trail options, but I stick to a little loop that takes me exactly half an hour, including a few minutes resting by the pond to contemplate the frogs and dragonflies.
On the day I took these pictures, I was crouching down near the pond, trying to catch a glimpse of a frog and reminiscing about the time I and my now-retired friend, Don, heard an American bittern "wonk-a-chunk"-ing in this very pond, when I heard rustling in the rushes nearby. At first I only saw what appeared to be a brown, furry hind end. Could this be a beaver, I wondered? Then a tall, pointy appendage came into view. A rabbit? So near the water? Then I saw that the appendage had a round yellow eye, and I realized I was face-to-beak with a bittern (perhaps the very one we heard calling several years ago?) As I fumbled to get my camera pointed and in focus (dang thing was set to "macro") the bittern assessed the situation and flew off to the other wetland, out of view.
I'm not sure if a half hour of moderate-speed walking, with little breaks to observe the house wren who lives near the entrance of the hosta garden, actually counts as exercise, but it's better than what I was doing before, and what I'm doing now again (temporarily), which is not a heckuvalot.
And 30 minutes in nature every day really is balm for the soul, don't you think?
I had a four-day weekend for the Fourth of July (have I mentioned how much I love shut-down days?) and we did our best to make the most of it. After a semi-last-minute decision to head up to one of the grandma's camps for the weekend, I ran around Friday morning preparing food, packing and loading the car with just one more thing. My goal for the weekend was to sit in the hammock and relax with a book. Despite having packed enough books and activities to last a week, I still managed to forget my hammock, my beach chair and my underwear. I was bummed about the first two, until I remembered I had a Crazy Creek in the secret compartment in the car.
We arrived at camp to find the power company doing tree work along the camp road, so it wasn't quite as peaceful as we were expecting, but the boys went right to work, fishing and playing in the water. M was in charge of tackle and casting lessons, yet I found myself untangling plenty of fishing line and disengaging lures from the bottom of the pond (amid plenty of mental grumbling...In my day, you had a hook, a hunk of lead, a bobber and a salmon egg...why isn't that good enough for kids these days? And where is their dad anyway?)
E and Z each caught their first fish, which was, somehow, less exciting than when M caught his first. Poor second (and third) children!
In the evening, we canoed down the pond to a small island, C and M fishing the whole way. C caught a couple of bass, and broke the news to the boys that they can't eat fish because of mercury contamination. I would have preferred that he come up with some other explanation. I think there's an essay in there somewhere. Personally, I found it much more enjoyable and rewarding to catch damselflies in a small net. Hundreds of the lovely vespers bluets spent the evening skimming across the pond and resting on lily pads. I caught a pair engaged in damselfly foreplay, that is with the male's abdomen firmly attached to the female's thorax, just behind her head. Apparently this can go on for a couple of hours before they get down to it. E scooped up another individual who had gotten waterlogged. After shaking off and drying its wings in my palm, it lifted off and flew high into the sky, as if happy to be alive.
We came home late Saturday night, boys in jammies, teeth brushed and read to. They wanted to play 20 Questions the whole way home, but after a half hour I instituted the Silence Game and they fell asleep.
Sunday, as is our tradition, we attended the local Fourth of July parade. Where else, I ask you, can you find a parade with no fewer than three trucks dedicated to the teabag gubernatorial candidate, marching right along with men in evening gowns "drag racing" and an enormous walking float commentary on the BP Oil Gusher and our addiction to petroleum? We are a diverse community I tell you. The highlight of the parade, of course is the firetrucks (every truck from the surrounding five communities--Fourth of July morning would be really bad time to have a fire) throwing candy in front of other fire trucks. Z proved himself to be quick, deft and greedy, scooping up most of the candy thrown within a five-yard radius. He also managed to not get run over by a fire truck, despite all the tempting goodies in their path.
We spent the afternoon lull, between the parade and a later party and fireworks even, relaxing at home. I organized recipes with my feet in the kiddie pool (cause I'm wild and crazy like that), E, Z and M ate their weight in cheap candy ('cause what says "independence" better than a diabetic coma?) and C borrowed his dad's lawn mower and mowed our yard. Usually he does the front with the reel mower, and scythes the back and sides once or twice a year. Now we have an actual lawn. I wish I had before and after photos. I always thought I was an anti-lawn hippie type, but I guess you can take the girl out of the suburbs, but you can't take the suburbs out of the girl...man, is it nice.
Monday we had a little down time in the morning, and I spent it like a mad woman, altering a blouse, baking bread (solar oven...it's actually hot this week! Whee!), prepping dinner, cleaning, dusting and vacuuming my room, and packing the car up again. We spent the afternoon at another camp on another lake. This one, on an island, has a lovely little sand beach and the boys had a great time just swimming, splashing and playing in the water. M had a friend there and they ran around the island and, I am told, jumped off some big posts into the deep water at the far end of the island.
On the way home, I stopped at a road side self-serve farm stand, thinking to myself that I would make it my mission this summer to stop at every one I see. I was smelling goat milk soaps when a woman in a long denim jumper and starched white cap on her head popped out from nowhere. I had just noticed the goat milk soap was made with lard, but couldn't not buy it now, or she would think I had come just to steal soap. I piled up a few cucumbers and then a man in a brown shirt and beard appeared. That's when I noticed the religious brochures along side the vegetables. I gave her my $5 and headed home, reevaluating my farm stand plan.
I was devastated to learn that my favorite strawberry-picking patch had suffered a crop failure this year (really, devastated--C can attest to the "fact" that I lay prostrate on the couch, wine glass in one hand, cigarette in the other, mourning the failed fruits). After last year, crouching in the pouring rain, picking moldy berries, I was really ready for a fantastic berry year: I had my sugar, jars and lids all lined up. I read ahead in Putting Food By and learned what I have done wrong in the past (e.g., that brown, runny, not so sweet strawberry jam from last year? Not botulism, but Rapidura--that brownish natural cane sugar that I used instead of the real deal). Though I'm on a no-refined-sugar kick for the summer, I decided to make jam the old-fashioned way; I've tried various low- and no-sugar recipes with not that great of results and now I just want good, sweet, sparkly jam (that doesn't mold in the refrigerator after being open a few days). But, no berries.
I consoled myself with the visible signs that this will be a bumper blackberry year, ordered ahead two boxes of blueberries (while I will happily squat in a field for hours, peering under round green leaves for the red berries hiding underneath, I do not enjoy raking through the weeds to scoop up blueberries that will have to be sorted later from the leaves and bugs and deer poops) and bought strawberries at a farm stand on my way home from work. Probably not organic, but still very local. And I didn't have to do any of the work.
The first six boxes, we just ate as-is (except one batch of strawberry shortcake--berries sweetened with honey; biscuit and whipped cream sweetened with maple syrup). I bought a few more this week and made one batch of jam, and froze a few for future use--four berry jam later in the summer, and rhubarb pudding with strawberries (the rhubarb is in the freezer too; but that will require real sugar).
I tried the no-pectin jam from Putting Food By--4 cups berries to 4 cups sugar. Boil and boil and boil till it reaches 220 degrees. This year I boiled my jars ahead of time, and my funnel and my ladle and the lids and rings, just so I don't have to wince, wondering if someone might die from my jam tomorrow, if it comes out brown and runny again (I did not use Rapidura, but I did use the natural/organic sugar from the health food store, which is not white-white, but more of a beige).
Three quarts of berries. One small bag of sugar. Two hours of labor. Lots of dirty dishes. Four jars of jam. Kinda makes you wonder what's the point, doesn't it?
As it boiled along, and I stirred, and checked the temperature, and checked the instructions in the book, I though about Ma Ingalls (the boys and I are reading the Little House Books) and how she just KNOWS how to do things--cook and preserve food, even over a campfire. She makes cheese and sticks it outside with a rock for a weight. All without cookbooks or instructions. So much inherent knowledge we've lost with convenience foods and ready to eat and all the other busy-ness of our lives that doesn't allow time to watch and learn and understand and pass on. I guess that's the point.
My One Small Change for June, which I never even got around to posting about, was going to be solar cooking some of our food. Wouldn't you just know that the first few weekends of the month would be cloudy and rainy?
I did finally get around to it, two weekends ago. That Saturday morning, I set up some Red Tomato Rice (courtesy Rick Bayless) in the oven, and we headed off to the lake for the day. It was off and on sun and clouds all day, but the rice was done when we got home (maybe even a little too well done, even though I used brown rice). The next day I put in the pinto beans, which I had soaked all night. This time I was home all day to rotate the oven with the sun, but again it was a mix of sun and clouds and I don't think it ever got above 250 degrees. At the end of the day, though, I had a pan of perfectly-cooked beans.
That night we had a solar-cooked feast (though I did have to make the tortillas on the stove and re-heat the beans and rice in the oven; the tomatillos for the salsa I cooked and froze last summer). There was enough left over the next day for another meal (this time with flour tortillas instead of corn) and two lunches of burritos plus a tub of it in the freezer. Not bad for a couple of days in the sun.
This made me think dried beans are the way to go with the solar oven, so this past Sunday I put in some chick peas (again, soaked overnight). Another sunny/cloudy day and I wasn't home to rotate the oven with the sun (and my "helper" forgot). Plus chickpeas just generally take longer to cook than pinto beans, so when I got home in the late afternoon, they were still pretty crunchy, and had to go on the stove for an hour or more before they were done enough to eat (we had chickpeas with Swiss chard--from our garden--and tomatoes from MadhurJaffrey. Yum). I had doubled the amount of chickpeas I needed and blended up the rest with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice for a tasty (but somewhat grainy) hummus.
I had been hoping I could use the oven as a kind of crock pot--throw something in in the morning, and dinner will be done when we get home--but I think it needs a bit more babysitting than that, what with the darn rotation of the earth and all. Plus, what if it pours rain. I'm also mildly nervous about it becoming an incubator for bacteria if it doesn't get hot enough. So I think it's the kind of thing to use on the weekends, when I'm home and can attend to it. Maybe when we've got it figured out, I can leave it with C on his work at home days and he can be the rotater/temperature checker (like I'm really going to want to whip up dinner before I leave to work in the morning!!). I've had the oven for two years, but the first year it was still off gassing some kind of stinky smell (from the paint coating the inside, I think) and last year it just rained all summer, so I never even got it out. So this is the year to figure out what it can (and cannot) do. I've been checking out this blog, though clearly things are going to be a bit different between Arizona and Maine. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!
On to July's One Small Change. In addition to keeping on keeping on with solar cooking, I've instituted a local-foods only policy for July and August (and probably most of September) in our house. We first did a local foods summer three years ago, and tried again the following year with less success (both attempts are chronicled in GEMINI issue 9, Simplicity. $3/issue. If you'd like a copy, email me at andreaelani at yahoo dot com and we can exchange addresses). Monday I took my last trip to the grocery store, buying our last bags of Washington cherries and Mexican grapes, vinegar (for cleaning--I will probably buy more of this when it runs out, cause really I don't want to make my own for any purpose, especially the toilet), yogurt (for starting more), fruit-juice-sweetened yogurt-covered raisins and almonds (my no-refined-sugar-added treat), bullion cubes; though I didn't stock up on anything, I didn't refuse myself anything either. I made our first almost all local meal last night--carrot top soup, with carrots and tops, garlic and baguette and goat cheese from the farmer's market. I used up the last little bit of wild rice I had sitting around in a baggie for months (years?). Not only is this a good opportunity to support local farmers, try new foods (I bought a bunch of white turnips--ideas?) and new recipes, it also is an opportunity to clean out my shelves of old, ignored dry goods.
I'll keep you posted about both our adventures in solar cooking and local eating. And don't forget, it's never too late to make One Small Change.
I am a writer, a public servant, a mama of three boys, a tree-hugger and nature lover. In my spare time I try to live lightly on the earth and strive for mindfulness in all I do...and I hope to teach my kids to do the same.
All content on this blog copyright Andrea Lani.
With a nod to Kazuo Ishiguro's wonderful novel, The Remains of the Day, which, in the interest of full disclosure, I had not even read until this blog was nearly two years old. It's surprising to find one has a lot in common with an aging butler.