Friday, August 13, 2010

North Country Christmas

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s time to start thinking about holiday baking. Then again, it may be time to start procrastinating about holiday baking. Anything that requires aging, like fruitcake and lebkuchen, can be made far ahead of time and forgotten until Christmas Eve. There’s no reason not to set summer kids loose on edible play dough. They can test one cookie a week until Santa turns up. Traditional recipes make huge amounts.

I spent the coldest recorded winter in the history of the Northwest snowbound at the foot of a north-facing bluff on the edge of the Straits of Juan de Fuca west of Port Angeles. The cabin was so open to the weather that squirrels regularly romped on the peeled pole rafters over the living room. There was no heat, just a fireplace and a shed full of wet hemlock that boiled for half an hour before it caught fire. Canadian television broadcast three channels of fuzzy reruns of "I Love Lucy", six if you counted the grainy ghosts. That winter satisfied my 1968 urge to live in wilderness.

The blizzard hit December 26, in the day before weather satellites turned forecasting into just another facet of TV Guide. I had driven home with half a huge turkey, a fifth of Christmas whiskey, and my grandmother’s virtuoso parcel of traditional sweets.

As I slowly realized that it would not be necessary to refrigerate a turkey in a kitchen where there was frost on the sink itself, it dawned on me that the old recipes for fruit cake, pepperkaaker, and lebkuchen were first, wonderful emergency field rations for long, horse-drawn journeys in snowy terrain, and second, clever ways of preserving summer’s abundant butter and honey. Cinnamon contains the very unpronouncables that are listed on cardboard food packaging.

As is often the case with old recipes, procedures that seem inconvenient in a high-tech kitchen make a world of sense when the environment is unplugged. One wonders, why candy orange peel only to embalm it in the biochemical equivalent of terrazzo? That fruit cake kept me alive, the whiskey kept me moving, and the turkey, well, it was turkey. Not quite jerked, not quite edible, but entirely on the premises when the cupboard was nearly bare, the phone was out, the snow waist high, the road steep, and even a VW sedan not equal to conditions.

Everyone has an ancestral recipe for fruit cake that claims to be the best ever, and lebkuchen are standard Joy of Cooking fare. Use aged honey if you have it. Safeway now carries a Swedish ginger snap that’s good competition for my matriarchs’ work, so you can pick some up on December 20, but nobody’s got Great-aunt Beth’s cookie cutters. Convenience food, old country baking was served to drop-in visitors over the Twelve Days of Christmas. A fresh cup of coffee with a cookie on the side displayed the pride of the house against a background of china, silver, beautifully embroidered and finished linen, and the Christmas tree.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Today’s word is the term for stuff you save because you might need it some day. A short visit to the on-line OED tells me culch is what litters the floor of a sewing workshop or lies on a muddy sea bed in the form of oyster shells to house future baby oysters. It’s good to know there’s a word for almost anything. Now I can talk about the midden of culch and perhaps impress someone with my command of fantasy literature.

Last week Ms. Winfrey broadcast a two-part show about hoarders. Save yourself: watch this show. It’s a benchmark study with a happy ending. The empty-nesters whose suburban ranch house generated sixteen industrial-sized dumpsters of solid waste and a 10,000 square foot rummage sale, keeping a crew of a hundred busy for weeks, have been able to keep their quarters clear of culch for three years.

Save yourself: watch this show.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Green and Overconfident

Photo courtesy Flickr

Two years of blithe pronouncements about native plantings stick in my throat as I look out over the front yard. Unusual weather conditions, bad decisions, and January’s sprained knee have left me nothing to boast about.

There’s a learning curve in innovation. Usually my mistakes happen in private. Here’s what I didn’t know about leaving the landscape to fend for itself: bark mulch deteriorates after a couple of years. It’s important to keep it looking fresh and generous. The mulch saves so much labor, it’s cost-effective to keep it up to snuff.

During growing season it's really stupid to mow the yarrow, native geranium, and clover that make up the front sward. Their subtleties of height, color, and texture add just enough contrast to the grass path to make the wild landscape look intentional, which is comforting. Weeds don’t stand a chance against this triumvirate.

Last season I cut back woody shrubs along the fence to make a painting crew’s work easier. They did a good job, but this year’s rain patterns retarded the recovery I had anticipated. The modest evergreen framework of the front sward looks hammered under high sun. A mild nibbling of this season’s growth and buds will set the boundary plantings growing toward a beautiful recovery in time for Thanksgiving.

I hadn’t realized how important shadow is to the landscape. Not shade, but shadow. Allowing plants to arrange themselves much as they wish requires an awareness, respect, and appreciation for the ways that they share sunlight. I was a brutal fool to have mowed a developing turf that is happily evolving into a generous framework for wild life and for the household.

On the up side, that mowing will generate extensive root systems. Scattering a little time release fertilizer on the plants now will bring an instant response when the rains come in a few weeks. I could irrigate and get faster, floppier results: I’d just as soon put my energies into careful detailing of mulch, weeds, and minor pruning.

Very little garden writing comments on improvisation, but Vita Sackville-West mentions how important it is to let plants have their way. Leaving well enough alone is the key to grace in the landscape.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Native Dress

Photos courtesy Flickr
Cotton kills.

It’s back to school time. I’m having flashbacks about sewing machines.

Before the Europeans showed up, local tribespeople wore cedar bark skirts, salmon oil, and glorious rain-shedding hats. With lots of exercise and a good fire, that’s not a bad way to go, since shoes and clothing hold damp against the skin. At my local college, the students removed and carried their leather shoes when it started to rain so they wouldn’t have cold feet in their next class.

Northwest Washington was contested by America and Great Britain. Until the Sixties, our wardrobes were Anglo to the hilt. Our rare climate is identical to England’s, and the best shopping was in Victoria. Families ferried over to buy conservative, high-end woolens to wear during the damp and chilly months when the sun is low in the sky. Local shopping was dominated by the Oregon outfit that specializes in plaid and tribal blankets.

There’s a shoe store on University Way in Seattle that serves the academic community. It seems as if half the place sells high quality sensible heels to instructors who work standing, and the other half sells inexpensive play shoes to frisky students. I like to cruise both outlets. It was a surprise to find recently that the play shoes are displayed alongside old school preppie penny loafers (that can be resoled) from an old school manufacturer. The economy is worse than I thought.

The Wall Street Journal ran an obituary for preppie culture when Brooks Brothers decided to sell a blue-violet shirt. If historical research is your thing, try The Preppie Handbook and Cheap Chic. Forgive Wall Street and get yourself something worth wearing.

Preppie, the folk wear of the United States, is an approach to wardrobe that wrings the utmost from every clothing dollar. It is essentially Anglo. I walked past The High End English Ready To Wear outifit downtown with an English friend during the first dot com boom, and asked her if it were true that English families do away with any child who can’t wear the designs off the rack. Jennie nodded an enthusiastic yes.

That’s not true, of course, but it illustrates the core value of conservative dress: hand-me-downs. If God gave you cousins, it makes sense to invest in high-quality garments even if they will be outgrown. Good wool saves lives. If you don’t believe me, just read the North To Alaska Field Wear catalogue.

Traditionally, July and August are the months to prepare the winter’s clothing. Before people wore automobiles instead of coats, the females in a family would take to their sewing machines and knitting needles to ready skirts and sweaters for the winter. I will cheerfully snarl at anyone who advises me to sew my own clothing. I will equally cheerfully shop for high-performance equivalents of the old stand-bys, whose cost per use is the lowest of all.

The essentials are little different from a school uniform. During the Fifties, even the most prosperous local families dressed their children in just a few outfits of decent quality. A few wool skirts or corduroy trousers, a few wool sweaters, and a few cotton shirts supplemented by leather shoes that could be resoled, wool or cotton socks, and a wool coat or slicker were it. There would be church and party outfits in reserve, and kids put on “play clothes”, jeans and tennis shoes, when they got home.

Wool pays off, and it’s easy to wash now that machines have gentle cycles and citrus-based detergent is on the market. I've had good results washing even wool skirts and jackets-cold and careful are the keys. Tie a special-handling garment into a white plastic grocery bag and note the instructions on the bag. Whoever else is doing laundry will either comply or skip over the bag. In either case, the item is protected from the one drawback of wool: finding a teeny shrunken surprise in the dryer.

More after the jump.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ten Dollar Horse and Forty Dollar Saddle

Photo courtesy Flickr

When back to school time rolls around, I start thinking about winter wardrobe. Pedestrian footgear is the foundation of my active life. Shoes are political, shoes are aesthetic, shoes are the key to costume and one’s role. Shoes can be a pain in the neck. The choice of shoe brings one face to face with the social rift between groundling and cavalier.

Shoes are fundamental transportation, the key to emergency preparedness, and a critical element of fitness. Every dollar spent on footgear creates advantage or disadvantage, and developments in shoe technology have brought a surprising change to the market: even a $5 plastic-soled cotton slipper becomes an effective walking shoe with a $40 high-tech insole.

In choosing what to put on in the morning, traditional thinking says dress for the weather first, then for who you are and for what you will be doing. To the weather, I add how far I’ll be from home and whether I’ll be able to walk back if, say, another big quake disrupts the busses like the one in 2001. There is also the perennial question of whether I want to be able to run if someone hassles me on the street.

Thinking along these lines does not encourage visions of stilettos, although I often consider tying a pair together with a shoe lace and slinging them over my shoulder like a samurai in one of Kurosawa’s movies.

The perfect fusion of practicality and style is not yet on the market, but, doggone it, the classic American tennis shoe manufacturer puts out a canvas slip-on that’s cut to perfect slimming English high-street lines. With aftermarket insoles, these shoes set me up with racing wheels, and are good to go all day in any weather, in any terrain, under any ordinary daytime load. They’re good in the gym, too. Unfortunately, these shoes impress no one, wear out in weeks, and do not recycle. They cost more for each wearing than a $250 leather flat.

I haven’t resolved my questions about footgear, but a recent visit to the Internet turned up a custom shoe maker in town whose prices are competitive. Custom seems a bit much, right now, but I’ll file it away as a possibility, and keep bugging the kid’s people about upgrading those slip-ons.

-30- More after the jump.