Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Planting of the Bulbs

Misty morning

The autumn rains have arrived, just at the same time as the spring bulbs I'd ordered. Friday was our one sunny, gorgeous day this week--all of which I spent at work. I was thrilled to wake up this morning to find it merely foggy, not raining. I've been missing my morning walks, so I got up and headed off for a tramp through the neighborhood. The leaves were lovely, the jack-o-lanterns were out in force, and the kitties were relishing the lack of rain as much as I was.

Cat on a Subaru. Pretty much sums up my neighborhood.

After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with leftover salmon cakes and a croissant, I headed out to the garden to plant bulbs. I go crazy ordering bulbs every year--I can't help myself. There is no such thing as too many daffodils, a strong contender for my favorite flower. When I was growing up in South Carolina, they were sometimes in bloom for my late February birthday. Later, when I was grown up and had moved away, Mama sent me a pot of daffodils for my birthday every year until she died.  I always thought they looked like ballerinas in yellow tutus and green tights.

Pretty overhead . . .

and underfoot.

So anyway, I had ordered a grab bag of 25 daffodil bulbs to be put in the beds out back for cutting flowers, three heirloom Rose of May daffs for the white garden, 50 blue and white anemones to go around the fountain, some winter aconit out front for a mid-winter splash of yellow, 10 dark, dark purple heirloom crocus bulbs, and 25 bluebells and 25 snowdrops for the shade garden. The heirloom red and white flame tulip bulbs are cooling in the fridge for another couple of weeks, since our winters usually don't get quite cold enough for them.

First, there were two blueberry bushes that had to be transplanted to a sunnier spot. Then, the gargantuan cosmos--seriously, these things were taller than I am--had to be chopped out of the bed they had commandeered, and the always opportunistic mint brutally ripped out where it isn't wanted. Then compost had to be worked into the soil, and only then could bulbs be planted.

It took more than four hours, but I got them all in. Then a hot shower and 800 mg. of ibuprofen before putting together a big pot of chili to simmer for dinner. It's a recipe from a friend who grow up in Texas, and the spices and peppers did magical things with simple beef, tomatoes, and onions. Shout-out to SFL for the best chili I've ever had!  With some homemade cornbread (look Ma, no Jiffy mix!), it made the perfect Halloween supper.  Darling husband was in charge of handing out candy to the Trick-or-Treaters, whom he also entertained with his Elmo and Grover had puppets (he has the voices down).

My husband's dream is to own his own vineyard and winery, and he's often asked me what my dream is. I've never had an answer, until today. My dream is to create a beautiful garden. Not a fancy formal garden, but a simple cottage garden filled with old-fashioned flowers, herbs, and some fruits and veggies.  Not a very exciting dream, but my own, and one I can chase after forever.

Happy Halloween!!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Domestic Blitz

I have been in a fit of domesticity this past week or so. Last weekend was a gorgeous, perfect Indian Summer weekend--probably the last sunny weekend we'll see for months. So what better time to spend three hours cleaning my kitchen? What can I say, the urge struck to go through cabinets, pick out items to donate or recycle, and to clean everything thoroughly. No doubt my fabulous new cleaning gloves--a gift from a friend who knows me well--were part of the inspiration:

I rounded up sufficient items in the cabinets, along with a desk, an A/C window unit we've never used, a box of tile, some shutters that had been languishing in my basement, and a few miscellaneous tools, to put together a nice donation for the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.  It felt great to get rid of things we don't use and to organize the remaining items. I did make some time to spend outside, walking through the neighborhood, reading in the garden, and picking some flowers. The cosmos that ate my garden continue to bloom profusely, and they make lovely, long-lasting cut flowers.

It was a tough week at work, so I tried to rally the troops with some no-bake cookies, a combo of butter, sugar, cocoa, vanilla, peanut butter and rolled oats that comes out somewhere between cookie and candy. When in doubt, make cookies, I say. My husband has been putting in insane hours at the winery for the grape harvest, and at last all the fruit is in. There's still plenty of work to be done, but getting the fruit in before the rains started was everyone's #1 concern. Big sighs of relief all round. We actually got to go out for a drink Friday night--first time since early September--and he was off this weekend, and thus available to be put to work around the house. I have a bad back (no, really!) and he does the heavy housework like floors and the garden tasks like mowing (did I mention I'm also allergic to cut grass? It's true!).

Partly because I'm tired of paying the ridiculous prices for cleaning products, and partly because I'm concerned about chemicals in common household cleaners, I've begun to make my own. Laundry detergent, all purpose spray cleaner, and furniture polish were whipped up within minutes at very little cost. Better Basics for the Home and the Care2 website offer much assistance and easy recipes. I used my fabulous formulas to clean the bathroom and polish furniture this weekend, while adding to my "good Oregonian" bona fides by making granola and yogurt for my favorite daily breakfast.

I also did some canning. The autumn rains arrived in force this weekend, and it was clear the rest of my tomatoes were not going to ripen. My grandmother used to make this green tomato relish I adored, but I didn't have the recipe. Internet to the rescue--I googled about until I found something that sounded very similar to what Mama used to make. I chopped up the tomatoes (50 or so, mostly very small) along with green peppers from my CSA, red bell peppers, some not-hot Pacific Northwest jalapenos, and some onions in the food processor, producing a mush that looked like this:

Thanks to Cuisinart, it was much faster and easier than in Mama's day. I remember she and our maid, Jay-Ola, would set up an old wooden kitchen table in the yard and attach a metal meat grinder to the edge with a vise grip. Then they would feed in the vegetables, taking turns cranking out a similar mush into an enameled washtub. My way lacked the atmosphere, but was much easier on the arms. The veggies are tossed with pickling salt (yes, it is different--I had to look it up) and left to stand for a few hours, then cooked in boiling vinegar with spices before being put into glass canning jars and sealed in a water bath.

The end product at least looks like Mama's, but I'm sure it will lack that "je ne sais quoi." Is any attempt to recreate the beloved foods of childhood ever entirely successful? Maybe we just remember things in a rosier light (though really, that 's not usually one of my failings) or maybe the difference in ingredients or methods is just enough to make things taste not quite the same. I know Mama would have been horrified at the idea of me canning, sure I would injure myself. Okay, so I splashed a little boiling vinegar on my hands when I was putting in the tomato mix. It's fine. I won't be scarred for life, Mama.

Now, if only I could find  clever use for a tree full of unripe figs . . .

Sunday, October 10, 2010


After raining most of the weekend, the weather turned sunny this afternoon, so we headed up to the vineyard my husband works with a friend. Grapes are getting close to ready here in the Willamette Valley, but they probably need a couple more weeks.

It was a beautiful day in the Chehalem Mountains, and the baby vines planted last year are coming right along. We tromped through muddy fields, played with muddy dogs, and were thankful for four-wheel-drive.

My daffodil, snowdrop, and bluebell bulbs have arrived, and I can only hope we will have a sunny weekend soon. Right now we seem to be in the usual fall/spring pattern that gave rise to the joke, "What comes after two days of rain?" "Monday." Last year I was very late planting my bulbs--thanksgiving weekend, I believe. I had to hack through an inch or more of frozen soil to get them in the ground, and they understandably did not perform terribly well this spring. Ah, well. Nature is the boss, and we will deal with what she gives us.

It's amazing how quickly we've gone from Saturday afternoon reading in the garden with a Pimms cup to reading by a fire while drinking Irish whiskey (the winter drink chez moi, as gin or Pimms is the summer drink).  The shortening of the days is what I mind the most. In the dead of winter, it will be dart by 4:30. For those of us who work at desks, there will be precious little time outside. I think that's why Oregonians practically live outside in summer--we need to stockpile vitamin D for the long dark months ahead. 

I am finally and at last buried in tomatoes, which I thought would never come. I dried two batches this weekend for later use, and have been enjoying a tomato sandwich for lunch each day. I found a recipe online for a green tomato relish like my grandmother used to make. Her recipe was sadly lost when my evil grandfather cleared out the house and sold her things after she died. My tomato plants are still setting fruit, but at least some of it probably won't ripen, so I'll have green tomatoes that need to be used. Now if only I could figure out what to do with a tree full of green figs...

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Book Quiz

I saw this recently on Stuck in a Book, a blog I enjoy very much, and simply couldn't resist the opportunity to talk more about moi and especially about the things I like to read.

1. Favourite childhood book?

The Anne of Green Gables series.

2. What are you reading right now?

The Temptress by Paul Spicer, about Alice de Janze and a scandalous murder among the British colonial set in Kenya. 
Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I by Edward Gibbon

3. What books do you have on request at the library?

Two upcoming Charles Todd mysteries.

4. Bad book habit?

Buying too many.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?

The Temptress.

6. Do you have an e-reader?

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

Mostly one at a time, but when I'm tackling something big like the Gibbon, I have to have fun reading breaks.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?


9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far?)

Nothing springing to mind. If I don't like something I just stop reading. I'm getting older and don't have time to waste on books that suck.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year?
The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Occasionally, usually for book group.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

A comedy of manners (Jame Austen, Nancy Mitford) or a good murder mystery. 

13. Can you read on the bus? 

14. Favourite place to read?
In my armchair, with my feet up on the ottoman and kitties cuddling around me.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

Happy to do it, although I've lost several books I really like this way. I probably wouldn't lend something I couldn't easily replace.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

I do dog-ear favorite recipes in cookbooks.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Rarely. I do underline (in pencil) from time to time when I passage is especially beautiful.

18. Not even with text books?

I was a terror with a yellow highlighter.

19. What is your favourite language to read in?

English. I can stumble along in French but have to look up every third word.

20. What makes you love a book?

Different things in different books. Sometimes it's the writing style, sometimes the subject matter or characters.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

If I really couldn't put it down.

22. Favourite genre?


23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

Science non-fiction.

24. Favourite biography?

Life in a Cold Climate, the biography of Nancy Mitford by Laura Thompson

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

When I was in my 20s. They didn't help. Can one blame the author for this, or does one have only one's self to blame?

26. Favourite cookbook?

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters and A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

The More I Owe You.

28. Favourite reading snack?

Tea and scones. Yes, I am that affected. 
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

Confederacy of Dunces.  Everyone raved and told me I would love it and I just couldn't stand it. 

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Don't read many reviews. 

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

The only time I "review" books is at book group, where I have no problems whatsoever saying exactly what I think. 

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

Classical Greek. And I wish I read French well enough to tackle Proust in the original.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

The Divine Comedy by Dante. 

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

I'm not easily intimidated. Mostly I avoid books I find off-putting or pretentious (*cough* Finnegan's Wake *cough*).

35. Favourite Poet?

John Donne before he got religion, and Elizabeth Bishop, whom I discovered thanks to The More I Owe You.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Three or four.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

Rarely. Usually when it's a new book I can't renew and I just run out of time.

38. Favourite fictional character?

It's a close race between Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables).

39. Favourite fictional villain?

Baron Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on holiday?

Mysteries. I prefer murder to romance.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Two or three months in my 20s when I was clinically depressed and didn't have the attention span to read anything. 

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

Water for Elephants.  I knew on the first page "whodunnit", and I refuse to read about animals being mistreated. Brutal serial killings, yes; circuses, No.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

If the book is riveting enough, nothing.

44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

The Merchant and Ivory Room with a View,  although Emma Thompson's treatment of Sense and Sensibility  comes a close second.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Even Daniel Day-Lewis couldn't save it for me.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I shudder to think, although working for a rare book dealer has put some of my past sprees in perspective. 

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
I must steal Simon's reply: "Where is it that someone says 'I've done some pretty dreadful things in my time, but I've never skipped to the end of a detective novel'?" I'll read the first few pages to get an idea of the style and voice, though.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
Boredom. Annoyance. I used to force myself to finish books, but now that I'm pushing 50, I figure I don't have the reading life left to waste on something I'm not enjoying. Also, any foreshadowing that something bad is going to happen to an animal--the real reason I never made through Moby Dick.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
I'm a librarian. What do you think?

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Depends. If I love something,I have to own it. Otherwise, it can go on its way to another reader.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
The Help. 

52. Name a book that made you angry.
The revisionist history and junk science being put into American school textbooks (Thanks, Texas!) makes me insanely angry.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
Comfort of Strangers  by Ian McEwan.

55. Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cats, Big and Small

I like to walk every morning, taking the same route through my neighborhood like the creature of habit that I am (also, I can't make creative decisions like where to walk before I have my coffee). This is a very cat-friendly area and there are always a number of kitties out enjoying the sun, meowing to be fed, or stalking the squirrels.

This sweet kitty greets me almost every day. She's very chatty and always has a lot to tell me.

Porch kitties

The marmalade cat seems to know exactly how well the blue and white set off his good looks. I don't think that's even his house.

Last Sunday, I was visiting friends in Oklahoma City, where I lived for many years. One of my host was a cat named Todo. who likes to stretch out with this feet behind him, looking rather flipper-like:

OKC offered the opportunity to see some larger cats as well. THe OKC Zoo welcomed two baby snow leopards earlier this year, and I have wasted many hours watching their webcam. I was anxious to see them in person. We could just get glimpse of them, perched high in their habitat, with Mommy leopard standing by protectively. I'll spare you the photo of leaves with a blurry background and move on to a cat who loves the camera, the Tiger:

The jaguar had found something to scratch her itch:

And the African black-footed cat could easily be mistaken for a domestic tabby:

Though they're not felines, the meerkats are too cute not to include:

It's lovely to be back home, especially with fall really here. Leaves are turning, it gets dark earlier every day, there are dozens of delightful apple varieties available (I'm currently partial to the small, crisp Empire apples), and I am officially a "wine widow." Crush--the harvesting and processing of wine grapes--is upon us, and my husband is spending about 12 hours a day at the winery. It will be like this until sometime in November. In the meantime, I make cookies, clear up the flower beds in preparation for planting bulbs, slow roast tomatoes for pasts, and otherwise amuse myself. The winter rains will be here soon, so I'm trying to spend as much time outdoors as possible.