Friday, January 14, 2011

Anything Can Be Anywhere, and Often Is

Photo courtesy Flickr

During the shortest days of winter, I don’t want to do much but huddle, but it doesn’t take long for things to look brighter. A light west wind on Wednesday brought a unique and evocative scent: that of lively woods after a brief, wet snow. All that was lacking was a hint of smoke.

One might not think that Gen. Charles E. Yeager, Mr. Right Stuff, would inspire interior design, but the last volume of his autobiography, Press On, has interesting material. He grew up during the Great Depression in the poorest county in the poorest state in the country. Yeager’s tiny home town was laid out in lots generous enough for each family to be self-sufficient, and he mourns the social changes that accompanied smaller plots. The book’s most vivid passages focus on his family’s collection of patchwork quilts.

Gen. Yeager describes building a garage for his RV, ordering a load of lumber and laying out the structure the old way, according to its contents and site rather than from an abstract plan. The process sounds very much like the local tribes’ way of setting up four posts and fixing platform, sides and top to them.

By the way, Gen. Yeager established a scholarship program at Marshall University in West Virginia. A brief surf this morning mentioned that Marshall is very good value.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Easing into the Week-end

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s nearly time to start procrastinating about yard work. Weather permitting, any day now will be a good time to zap weeds with benign herbicide, prune the apple trees (I’m about to give up and harvest barbeque wood rather than fruit), and think about mowing. I’ll repeat my experimental spraying of the trees with baker’s lecithin-when I tried this conveniently-acquired substitute for organic dormant spray, it seemed to do a fair bit of good.

I’ll enjoy detailing the walks and brick gutter with the corn broom that leaves such a charming silicone "sickle polish" on the paving, do some minor ornamental pruning, and look around for something to put in a vase. It would be a good time to nibble on the cedar hedge with an eye to steering growth come the warmer days of April.

Now and then January brings a Saturday when it’s rewarding to build a fire outdoors and spend a few hours contemplating the garden as it is and as it will be when warm times return. A small effort now yields huge benefits in a few months.

-30 More after the jump.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Kitchen Archaeology

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday I roughed out the table for a casual dinner party and scratched my head about ironing the cloth. There’s a fine line between honoring visitors and putting on the dog. I opted to balance informal textiles and affordable glass with careful detailing.

A couple of years ago, I snooped the darkest, dampest corner in the back of a neighborhood garage sale and was rewarded with a civil-war era dining table as gracious and comfortable as the best ordinary furnishings of the period. This little table is characterized by a charming combination of poise and dumpy ease.

This has been an especially cold and damp winter, and the old oak table is responding with daily changes in the plank top. The stemware marking each cover is canted in a rick-rack pattern that relaxes conventional placement. The cloth, most likely in period with the table, is certainly in period for around 1880. It’s hand-printed cotton from East India produced from hand-carved wood blocks that repeat the oldest graphic motifs known to man.

This is the third such period American table I have known, and each has an interesting story. The first two were rediscovered by heirs after being overlooked on generations of back porches. To quote Larry McMurtry’s Cadillac Jack, “Anything can be anywhere,” and in the case of my table, at nearly any price. In the service quarters of their generous house, an English family ran across a missing historic suite of sixteenth-century ebony furniture that had been a gift of state.

Cottage gardens and the back of the big house have preserved many treasures, like the old roses Vita Sackville-West discussed in her columns for the Times of London. Old gardens in my neighborhood harbor treasures of their own, and old kitchens, too.

I’m happy and grateful to have a small collection of recipes from the same period as the table. They’re easy to cook and serve, healthy to eat, and, if I may say so, delicious. A great-aunt brought them west from Rock Island, and they’re identical to many of the dishes in Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun classic. I’m told Rock Island is the northernmost point of the Mississippi delta, so I suppose it should be no surprise that the food is the same.

There’s an interesting connection between Seattle and the culture of the Mississippi: our Richard Symington made a fortune with Musak, and then bought and restored the last surviving steamboat, the Delta Queen. Bringing her back to the river was a blockbuster story around 1956.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Double Take

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s worth the trouble to read a few labels the next time you shop: changes are accumulating. My favorite snack bar has been downsized, seems to be cheaper, and now comes in a transparent wrapper that makes printed information nearly impossible to read. It’s disappointing to find slick marketing in such a healthful product.

The good news is that several old favorites have been reformulated with benign fat and less salt, so I can enjoy the reliable convenience they have provided for generations.

It was a hoot to push a cart around the store listening to a promotional message about “eating clean” and to realize that in some respects life is getting better.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

There’s really only one season in Western Washington. On any day, it can be overcast and forty-five degrees. Either the plants are growing, or they’re not.

Friday’s rain moved in on a breath of woods. When I left in the morning, the air smelled of the living brew that is our forest soil, with fungi gently decomposing litter in the fragile sunlight of a cool January day, though a rough wind soon dispersed this subtle reminder of unstoppable growth.

In 1970, I dreamed of owning a patch of clear-cut, setting a tea house on stilts, and spending a few decades watching the forest bring itself back. Now, I realize I’ve done just that-right in the middle of town. Not only timber has come back-the very life of the city is healthy and well-rooted.

-30- More after the jump.