Corfu For You: A Taste of Greece in Sights, Sounds and Grape Leaves

If you sat down and had a glass of wine with him during these last summer weeks of  August,  he’d tell you a story. It would be slim but impactful – a snippet of colorful life that was mostly true and partially painted with imagination. He’d tell you about his pet pelican, about his distaste for rules, about the lunchtime hospitality of his toothless neighbor. He’d tell you about a splendidly shabby house that overlooks the sea, and about the sounds of an orchard buzzing with bees. He’d tell you about a turtle and a magpie and his devoted dearheart Roger – the scrappy canine co-conspirator that was twin in both spirit and scouting.  He’d share stories about his sister Margo, vain and funny, about his brothers Larry and Leslie, who were the hunters of words and birds, and he’d tell you about his mother, Louisa, after his father died.  There would be mention of the houseguests that came to stay, the disapproving aunt that refused to leave, and the naturalist that taught him to care above all for every creature great and small. He’d tell you about the heat-haze, the green sea, the drunken olives, the magic garden, the flower-scented air. He’d tell you how he fell in love. How he came to know himself. If you sat down and had a  glass of wine with him he’d tell you his name was Gerald, and then he would tell you a captivating story. He’d tell you about Corfu.

Situated in the Ionian Sea, the small Greek island of Corfu shimmers like an emerald gem.

Welcome to the Vacation Edition of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Whose ready for an international adventure that involves a relaxing getaway, a Greek island, and all the stuffed grape leaves you can eat? Pull out your market bags dear kitcheners, this week we are taking a restorative trip to the Greek island of Corfu courtesy of Gerald Durrell and his entertaining, enigmatic English family.

Here we are in mid-August, just five weeks away from the first day of Autumn. This summer our passports aren’t stamped. Our road trips aren’t long. Our hotel rooms aren’t booked.  We may not be filling up our suitcases and hopping on airplanes this pandemic year but that doesn’t mean that we can’t explore the world in other ways that are equally engaging, and equally satisfying. Through a book, a television show and a cooking adventure, this post highlights a travel trip to an exotic destination that can be enjoyed without ever leaving home. Thanks to the captivating real-life story of Gerald Durrell who lived with his family on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-1939, we are traveling to a beautiful location fit for summer fun. Like any good vacation, this story contains all the great hallmarks of an exciting new experience. There’s an exotic destination, a foreign language, a bevy of interesting people, a sense of escapism and authentic traditional food. It may not be an actual real-life trip to Greece but this experience offers the next best thing – a true mental break from the state of our current affairs.

Before Gerald became an influential 20th-century British conservationist, naturalist, author and zookeeper he was a small boy called Gerry, living on a remote island in the Ionian Sea with his mother, sister and two brothers. Having, on a whim, moved from England to escape a dreary, uninspired existence following the death of his father, Gerry and his family entered into a colorful world where the sea shines turquoise, the landscape is kissed by the sun and the air is clean, clear and curious. There his family discovers life, love and importance.

Gerald Durrell (1925-1995)

A Robinson Crusoe type experience, life on Corfu was rudimentary, wild, and sensational. Seducing the entire family, the spell of the island during those five years, comes to profoundly affect and mean something different to each member. To Gerald its the start of his wildlife career and it is through his eyes that we discover the magic of an island. In 1956, Gerald chose to publish his account of that pivotal time in a book titled My Family and Other Animals. In 2016, PBS released a televised version of the book called the Durrells in Corfu. The show aired for four seasons, finishing in May of 2019 and now all the episodes are available on Amazon Prime and PBS Masterpiece. Here’s a trailer from Season 1…

This show happened to not only be my introduction to the Durrell family but also to the island of Corfu. Located just off the west coast of Greece, Corfu sits close to the mainland in the Ionian Sea. It is nicknamed the Emerald Island because it has a large amount of green olive trees and lush vegetation. It is also home to the an array of interesting architecture. In the very first episode, I fell in love with the Durrells new (old) house…

which is perched on top of a ledge overlooking the sea.  I won’t share any details here about the storyline, so as not to spoil the characters and their adventures. But I will say the entire series is so beautifully produced and whimsically told that it is truly a vacation on its own. Pair it with the book and then an authentic Greek recipe and this becomes a break from the modern-day world that truly feels like a trip away.

The definition of the word vacation means a period of time spent in leisure and recreation, a temporary vacating of one’s mind and familiar surroundings. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pack a bag, physically go somewhere else and stay away from your familiar comforts.  Each episode of the Durrells in Corfu is roughly 45 minutes long. With four seasons and 26 episodes in the entire series, that translates to roughly 20 hours of visual splendor set in Greece. If you were committed you could watch it all in a weekend. If you paired it with the book, which is 275 pages long, then you could stretch this Greek affair into an entire week. Add the recipe and you’d have a 10-day sojourn into Corfu life lived long ago and far away. Altogether this time spent with the Durrells is a trifecta  – a perfect cacophony – for a vacation state of mind.

The book follows a similar trajectory of the show, but there are descriptions that Gerry writes about that a camera could never convey with the same amount of vivacity…

“The goats poured out among the olives, uttering stammering cries to each other, the leader’s bell clonking rhythmically. The chaffinches tinkled excitedly. A robin puffed out his chest like a tangerine among the myrtles and gave a trickle of song. The island was drenched with dew, radiant with early morning sun, full of stirring life. Be happy. How could one be anything else in such a season.”

I can’t even begin to describe what it meant to read words like this during our unusual pandemic summer. In Corfu, it’s the 1930s, and there are no mentions of viruses or masks or political upset. There is no terrible, tragic news, no copious deaths, no bleak day to day uncertainty to digest. Instead, there is light, hope, optimism. There is a rambunctious family, a humble island, a wild world, all appreciated. Spending time with Gerald, in his childhood state, with his expressive descriptions and his curious words,  felt indeed like a true vacation. A flight of fancy flown far away from the state of struggles that currently enshrouds the world.

Food features quite a bit in the book and the show, with both Louisa showcasing her cooking skills and Gerry always searching to satisfy his belly. Seeing and reading about both the culture and the landscape of the area really offered up a unique appreciation when it came to the preparation of this week’s recipe.  On the menu we are making stuffed grape leaves also known as dolmadakias, a traditional lemon, onion and herb-infused rice wrapped inside a simmered grape leaf.

I struggled with scouting the main ingredient – the grape leaves – for close to a month.  I searched as far away as Sparta, Greece where the lovely Jehny of The Spartan Table, relayed the unfortunate improbability of getting fresh Greek grape leaves to the US in a timely fashion. I searched locally through two different friends that have vineyards in two different states, but the time of the year here (high summer) makes for a tougher, less tender leaf (FYI: spring is the ideal season for cooking leaves like this). I searched the grocery stores (four in my city) for a brined version that the recipe recommended. My only luck were tins, in the international aisles, of already made and stuffed grape leaves – the finished end result of this homecooked project. My last resort was to order them on Amazon where they were always available but never with an interesting story.  Luckily just before resigning to a mail-order shipment, I discovered a Greek market that was just a thirty minute drive away.  Here I found the prized treasure! Grape leaves, sitting pretty on shelves – all brined in a line in jars of mass consumption. Success at last!

Like both the book and the movie, shopping at the Greek grocer was a bit of an adventure. Most of the packaging was in other languages – Arabic, Greek, Turkish. There was an entire aisle devoted to rice, goat heads in the freezer, big blocks of feta cheese in the fridge, bulk quantities of spices, an array of dried citrus, and towards the back of the store, there were bags of homemade bread still warm and soft from the oven. I came home with bread, a box of chocolate cream-filled cookies (made in Croatia!), a jar of olives brined in olive oil,  and the prized grape leaves. Next time, I’ll shop for coffee, spices and rice.

In Corfu, the Durrells remark often about the languid air and the slower, more sleepy pace. This recipe felt very much the same. Nothing is rushed in preparation. The hands-on wrapping of the grape leaves can be done at whatever pace you choose. It also makes enough for a feast. But it’s one of those dishes that you don’t have to devour all in one sitting, as it can last for days in the fridge. I’m including the exact recipe here as it appeared in the New York Times International Cook Book, but I will forwarn you – this makes ALOT of grape leaves. I had half of the rice mixture leftover (which I wound up adding to a chicken soup later on) so you could still make two dozen grape leaves, as the recipe states, while cutting the rice mixture in half. Other than that, everything came together easily and with a sense of fun.

When the brine gets rinsed off the leaves once they are removed from the jar, they become cool and slippery to the touch yielding a fun tactile experience of folding, and rolling and wrapping. Over on Instagram, I demonstrate in a featured stories video how to wrap a grape leave, so if this is your first time too, visit this link (it will be the clip all the way at the end – Week 19!).

how to make homemade stuffed grape leaves dolmadakia

Dolmadakia (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup olive oil

3 large onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup uncooked rice

2 tablespoons fresh snipped dill

1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

2 tablespoons pignoli (pine nuts)

6 green onions, finely chopped

1 cup lemon juice

3 cups water

1 8oz jar grape leaves in brine

Parsley and lemon wedges for garnish

Heat 1/2 cup oil in  a skillet and saute the onions and garlic until tender but not browned. Add the salt, pepper, and rice and cook slowly for 10 minutes, stirring often.

Add the dill, parsley, nuts, green onions, 1/2 cup of the lemon juice, and 1/2 cup of the water.

Stir to mix, cover and simmer gently until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Rinse the grape leaves under running water, separate and place shiny side down (aka backside of the leaf up) on a board. If the leaves are small, put two together. (Note: It’s easier to roll and wrap the leaves if they are wet. They’ll dry out fairly quickly, so if you want to go about this project leisurely I recommend stacking the leaves one on top of each other to keep them moist.) 

Place one teaspoon of the rice filling near the stem end of the leaves and roll up jelly-roll fashion, toward the tip, tucking in the edges to make a neat roll.

Place the remaining oil, lemon juice and one cup of water in a large skillet. Arrange the rolls in the pan.

Place a heavy plate or weight (I used the lid of my dutch oven) on top and simmer for 25 minutes.

Add the remaining water and cook about 10 minutes longer or until the rice is tender.

Cool and serve at room temperature with lemon wedges.

Tender, lemony and bright these stuffed grape leaves are like little gifts from the Greek gods. Delicious and surprisingly filling, they are light yet full of flavor, hitting all the taste bud notes between sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. It is a refreshing, well-balanced dish that is ideally paired for this time of year. Traditionally, dolmadakias would be served with a whole table full of other Greek dishes, but I think it makes a lovely choice for a late afternoon snack with a glass of chilled white wine.

In the show, there’s a great tradition that the Durrells start in the heat of the summer. They carry their dining room table out into the shallow water of the sea and set up their mealtimes – a la ocean – with their feet swirling around in the water. I love this idea! If you don’t have access to a waterway like them, then perhaps you’ll enjoy these stuffed grape leaves with Gerry’s book as a companion or the show as your meal mate. All three options are festive and support the ideal vacation state of mind. After being immersed in Corfu for a few weeks, I came away from the whole experience feeling rested, relaxed and inspired by the aesthetic of Corfu and the interesting experiences of this fascinating family. If you are struggling with your summer vacation plans (or lack thereof ) too then I hope this post and its recommended activities cast a little spell over you as well.

Cheers to the Durrells, to Corfu and to the Greek grocery for making this staycation feel like an actual vacation. Fingers crossed, that by next year, the pandemic will be behind us and we’ll be able to hop that plane to Corfu where we can experience first-hand the heat-haze of summer, the drunken olives, the sunbleached landscape and that magnificent beauty of a turquoise sea.

In the meantime, catch up next time for Week 20 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour when we head to Haiti, via the kitchen, to make an attention-grabbing dessert and to discuss kitchen designs in the tropics. See you then!

Treats from a Tree: Welcome To Maple Country

Happy Wednesday! Welcome to Week 7 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Tonight in the kitchen we are heading to Canada, the big, beautiful neighbor that sits right above us in the United States and offers up all sorts of creative inspiration for the artistic mindset.

On the famous front…  it’s the new home of Harry and Megan, it’s the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery, it’s the creator of cheese curd covered french fries and it’s the film location star for over a dozen favorite movies (Titanic, Gorillas In the Mist, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Seven Years in Tibet, Catch Me If You Can, Anne of Green Gables, Capote, Juno, Good Will Hunting, The Notebook, Legends of the Fall, A Christmas Story, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Cutting Edge, and Fly Away Home to name just a few). It also shares an interesting fun fact with last week’s Recipe Tour destination, Brazil. Do you know what it might be? Here’s a clue…

Canada, as it turns out, is a natural leader when it comes to being a tree loving paradise. With over 318 billion on record (as of 2015), it boasts the second largest collection of trees in the world. In case you were wondering, Russia has the largest collection, then Canada, then Brazil and then the United States.  Among all those billions of trees lives one in particular that is so special it has its own name and a regular roster of visitors. Meet Comfort…

The Comfort Maple, Pelham, Ontario, Canada.

the oldest surviving sugar maple in all of Canada, possibly in all of the world. Named after the Comfort family of Pelham, Ontario who donated the tree and surrounding land to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority in the 1960’s, the Comfort Maple is believed to be about 500 years old. Included in a land sale purchased by the Comfort family in 1816, this lucky sugar maple has survived more than five centuries thanks to a calm relationship with Mother Nature and years of thoughtful care from generations of the Comfort family. Standing 80′ feet tall and measuring 20′ feet in diameter at the trunk, it’s amazing to think about all the life that has occurred in and around this tree. Now a designated living monument to history, this majestic heirloom has become one of the most treasured icons in all of Canada with people from around the globe coming to picnic under its branches.

 

Like the Comfort tree, the Canadian recipe we are whipping up in the kitchen tonight is also a national favorite steeped in its own time laden history. On the menu, we are making Maple Walnut Tart, a sweet treat of a dessert that features a sugary pool of 100% pure maple syrup  that has been dotted with walnuts and then tucked between two layers of pie crust. Although, it is traditionally called a tart, it is much more of a thin, shallow pie.

Maple Walnut Tart

Born out of necessity and enterprise, Maple Walnut Tart is a Canadian manifestation of Tarte au Sucre (Sugar Pie) which was a popular dessert in France involving sugar, eggs and pastry dough. When the French started immigrating to Canada, sugar was an expensive, often unobtainable commodity. Luckily these new French Canadians had a local sweetener right in their own backyard – the sap of the maple tree. The sugar in their French pie was swapped for maple syrup and a new national dessert was born. Likewise, as a nod to further tweaks and adjustments, over the course of the past century, Maple Walnut Tart has taken on a menagerie of variations including additional ingredients. Eggs, butter, salt, cream, lemon peel, bread crumbs, granulated sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate and even other nuts create signature desserts that nowadays are almost always baked open- faced, without a top crust.

That makes the vintage recipe we are making in the Vintage Kitchen quite unusual now, since it has a traditional top and bottom crust and very few ingredients. Containing just seven in total, it is made of a collection of everyday essentials that you almost always have on hand. Because of its simplicity, it reminded me a lot of one of those homemade desserts you might whip up on the impromptu when you are craving something sweet but don’t have all the necessary ingredients on-hand to make anything remotely decadent like a chocolate layer cake or fancy cookies or a berry pie.

The star of the show and the highlight of this recipe is of course the maple syrup, one of Canada’s most well-known foods. Producing on average about 10 million gallons a year, Canada is the leader in maple syrup production in the world. Interestingly, most of it comes from one province in particular – Quebec – which means if you are a fall foliage lover with a sweet tooth that’s where you should head come Autumn!

I was excited to find 100% pure maple syrup from Quebec at Trader Joe’s. Most of the maple syrup at all the other markets or grocery stores in my neck of the woods seem to come from New York State or Vermont. At $16.00 a bottle it was a splurge for the Kitchen but after learning so much about maple syrup production for this post I have a new found appreciation for it.

Did you know that on average it takes one sugar maple between 30-50 days to produce 40 gallons of sap? That 40 gallons of sap yields just one gallon of retail-ready maple syrup. The bottle of maple syrup that I purchased for this recipe was 25 oz in total, which is just a little under a quarter of a gallon. Basically this means it took one tree, one full week to make my one bottle of maple syrup. What a feat! Although I only needed one cup for this recipe, it makes me appreciate every drop:)

This is the first recipe in the Tour that I’ve had mixed feelings about. I’ll get to the recipe first so that you can see what is involved and then I’ll follow up at the end…

Maple Walnut Tart

(serves 6-8)

1 cup pure maple syrup

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup shelled walnuts, coarsely chopped

Pastry for a two crust 8″ inch pie (I used my reliable family heirloom pie crust recipe which you can find here).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prepare the pastry and then set aside while the filling is being made.

Bring the maple syrup and water to a boil in a small saucepan. Continue to boil for two minutes. Mix the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl and add to the boiling syrup., stirring constantly for about two minutes or until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the butter, and cool quickly by placing the pan in the refrigerator (about 10-15 minutes).

Line an 8″ inch pie pan with the pastry, pour in the cooled syrup and sprinkle the walnuts on top.

Cover with the top crust, crimping the edges to seal, and cut a few slashes in the center of the pastry to allow steam to escape.

Bake for thirty minutes in the center of the oven. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Originally at the onset of preparing this recipe, I thought the end result was going to be  more creamy and caramel-like in both consistency and taste.  In actuality though, it is much simpler – really just imagine walnuts drizzled in maple syrup and wrapped in pie dough and you pretty much have the general gist.

Needless to say, at first bite, the tart was pretty underwhelming. My first thought was there’s not enough ingredients (ie flavor components) to make this sensational. The maple was there but it mixed very soft and very subtle with the pie crust. The walnuts, didn’t really melt or dissolve when baked in the oven and therefore left a chunky consistency. This aspect actually  turned out to be a nice contrast though with the softer syrup.

I can understand now why different versions have been created with eggs and spices and additional flavor enhancers. Every modern day recipe for Maple Walnut Tart I looked at in comparison to this one included butter, eggs, milk, vanilla, brown sugar, etc in significant quantities. In full agreement, I think ultimately, what this recipe is lacking is a creamy fat component. Over the course of this next week, I’m going to experiment with some creamier accompaniments… a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of freshly whipped cream, a few slices of apple and brie and see if that might just be all the pizzazz you might need to create a more satisfying dessert. I’ll report back on those findings next week.

In the meantime, I’m excited and anxious for you guys to try this recipe and see what you think. In my opinion, it tastes better served at room temperature on the third day. I’m not sure if it’s because I have sampled it a few times in order to get an accurate understanding of the tart or if this dessert is actually starting to grow on me, but it seems to be one of those recipes like fruit cake that gets better with time. After discovering all the labor that went into making the maple syrup on the tree’s behalf, I really wanted this recipe to be phenomenal right away, but maybe that’s the spirit of the syrup.  After all, it took  one entire week out of one tree’s life to make the sap! Maybe this recipe is slow to bloom in more ways than one:)

Lucy Maude Montgomery’s most famous literary character, Anne Shirley said… “Maples are such sociable trees. They’re always rustling and whispering to you.”

Perhaps this vintage recipe is whispering to us too.

Cheers to maple trees and to the incredibly long life of Comfort and to sugary sweet contemplations in the kitchen. There is always something to think about around here.

Join us next week as we head to spicy Ceylon, a true time-traveler of a kitchen feat since the country doesn’t exist anymore:)

 

The Art of the Vintage Picnic

Happy August! As promised in the last post, here is the article written for Artisans List that highlights the beauty and joy of a vintage style picnic. We’ve got just six weeks left before Autumn officially starts, but rest assured that doesn’t mean that picnic season, as we most traditionally know it, is over. There are plenty of Fall foliage opportunities for all you Northerners intent on a day trip and a dine out in nature. If you happen to live in the Southern half of the hemisphere than lucky you – everyday is a good day for a picnic no matter what time of year. When we settle into the cooler months, I’ll also be featuring two outside of the box picnic ideas – the carpet picnic and the car picnic  – both which promise to hold as much fun as their summertime counterpart. So stayed tuned on that front. In the meantime, six full weeks of summer still await. From somewhere I can hear a basket calling your name…

Twentieth century foodie, gourmand and all around good cook, James Beard declared that “picnicking is one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life.” Indeed. No other dining experience seems quite so decadent. The fresh air, the natural setting, the creative food choices, the deliciously idle intentions. Picnics have a wonderful way of engaging all of our senses in such a fantastic way. It’s almost overwhelming.

Those first few moments at picnic’s start – when you are dizzy with the view and the weather and the notion of doing nothing but relaxing and reveling in food and friends – is satisfaction enough. But then a truckload of simple delights follow one right after another. There is that liberating sensation of kicking off shoes and wiggling bare toes in soft grass.  The crisp, snapping action of the picnic blanket as it unfurls from containment, joyfully sailing on the breeze before floating to the ground. There is the laying out of the carefully wrapped food parcels and the first sip of a celebratory toast. The giddy laughter, the bird songs, the sound of leafy trees dancing on the breeze… suddenly you are aware of the musical vitality of nature and yourself in it.

On a picnic, the world shines newly bright with details mostly overlooked in the hustle bustle routine of everyday life. It is an activity that encourages you to stop and to breathe and to melt – into your surroundings, into your friends, into the food that makes up your lunch or your dinner or your breakfast time snack. Yes, picnics are a triumphant and pleasurable experience. And there’s no better season for them then right now. In today’s post, we will be discussing the art of of the vintage picnic – how it came to be, how it shaped us, and why we still need to celebrate it now. Highlighting a handful of old, but still very relevant recipes, this post also offers suggestions on how to build your own vintage picnic experience so that you too can succumb to the relaxing style of outdoor eating that our ancestors favored so long ago. It’s history in a most delicious form, unveiled, just as we are about to round the corner towards the 4th of July, the most popular picnic holiday of the year.

This idea of eating outdoors from a basket on a blanket is no trend. It has been around for centuries and has taken eaters on a plethora of picturesque adventures. But it wasn’t always a simple act. At first, outdoor dining began in grand style. Lavish entertaining in lavish settings. In the 1700’s, there were the hunting after-parties which made glorious outdoor feasts of animals bagged from the day’s sport. Garden gatherings in the 1800’s involved fine china, silverware and fancy dress. Plein air luncheons in the early 1900’s focused on seasonal foods, artistic creativity and exquisite manners. Today, picnics involve technology fueled cooling mechanisms, compartmentalized backpacks and fitted amenities made for details and devices. Needless to say, the desire to picnic has never been lost, but the way we eat outdoors has evolved quite a bit over time.

Nowadays, anything goes when it comes to picnic style and presentation.  An impromptu paper bag lunch for two in a city park can be just as engaging as a thoughtfully prepared country basket for six. But just like any activity worth doing, there is a certain art form to a well produced picnic that makes for a more pleasurable experience. The vintage-style picnic favors china plates and real glassware, classic cocktails and linen napkins, and most importantly, homemade food. It is the sort of affair that wraps you up in a long, restful lazy day adventure fueled with time-honored tradition and attention to detail. It discourages anything fast or obtuse- like technology and frenzied time schedules and plastic utensils. It champions a slower, simpler and more relaxing rhythm. The type of experience that not only feeds your appetite but also your senses, your spirit and your sanity. Basically, a vintage-style picnic is a big, long break in your day meant for resting, relaxing and restoring through small details… the time-worn touch of an old plate, the taste of an heirloom recipe, the time-out of technology, and the tune in to your natural surroundings.

Legend loosely states that the word picnic stemmed from the French pique-nique which derives from the action of picking and selecting small spots or things. Originally, pique-niques were more like potlucks, in that all invited guests were asked to contribute a little food or drink for the group to share together. But it was England, in the 19th century, not France who created the picnic in the modern sense that we know it as today. Both a mealtime and a leisure activity, the English made picnicking a deliciously long-term and lengthy event that could last all day and well into the night if done right. They played games, read books, plucked instruments, talked, sang, painted, swam, flew kites, played sports and generally just all around enjoyed themselves while snacking on small plates of assorted foods from wicker hampers and baskets.

Monet’s painting, Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (Dinner on the Grass) was painted between 1865 and 1866.

In America, prior to the Civil War, there were no lackadaisical, carefree picnic outings. If any outdoor eating occurred before that time period, it was eating en masse – generally a large sociable event where whole communities of people turned out to enjoy a barbecue or a church social or a political rally. The Victorians ushered in more intimate, family-style picnic parties, rambling in close proximity to home, as their appreciation of nature and outdoor enthusiasm bloomed in the late 1800’s.  But the rise of the automobile, the building of the U.S. highway system, and the introduction of drive-up motor lodges and nationals parks all encouraged a whole new independence when it came to on-the-go eating as the 20th century began. Suddenly, the English style picnic took hold as Americans began exploring their more easy-to-navigate country. Economical, spontaneous and available to everyone, picnics naturally turned destinations into dining opportunities. All you needed was a basket, a blanket, a small collection of foodstuffs and an adventurous spirit. Outdoor eating euphoria had arrived!

A group of picnickers photographed in 1914 by Albert M. Price. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Back in earlier centuries, outdoor eating meant bountiful quantities and dramatic fare. Whole animals roasted over fire pits, multiple courses served by domestic staff, exotic ingredients, rich foods, elaborate presentation. But as outdoor dining began to evolve over time into smaller parties and simpler affairs, the food that accompanied it changed also. As serving staffs diminished and people became more independent, picnics and the baskets they represented, became simpler – filled with foods that could be easily made, easily transported and easily unpacked. By the time the mid-20th century rolled around, there was a definite type of picnic fare anticipated and defined by the activity. Fried chicken, salads and deviled eggs topped the favorites list, along with hot dogs, sandwiches, pies, cakes, bread and fruit.

The picnic basket spread out before you in this post highlights vintage recipes that capture that same essence of familiarity and practicality, while also providing a well-rounded balance of flavors and tastes. Vintage recipes include Sicilian-Style Marinated Olives, Oven-Fried Chicken, Deviled Eggs, Cheese Straws and Blueberry Tart. Americanos join the party as a refreshing aperitif to toast the season and the stars. 

Ranging from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, these recipes came from a handful of treasured vintage cookbooks. They pair gourmet creations from famous chefs like James Beard with regional favorites from lesser-known sources, like the ladies of the Junior League of Huntsville, Alabama. Covering all matters of taste from sweet to salty, savory to sour, they are considered traditional picnic foods, but each contains an unusual twist in the form of a cooking method or an ingredient pairing that makes them both interesting and innovative. Whether you make all of these recipes at once for your next outing or just focus on a dish or two to sample and try, you’ll discover that all of these options listed here are steeped in simplicity. Almost all of them can be made a day or two ahead of time, so that your restful day of picnicking doesn’t include you running around the kitchen like a crazed cook.  

And, just one more note before we get to the recipes. While food is obviously the main attraction in a picnic, the vintage-style picnic places just as much importance on the accessories that go along with it as well – a.k.a. the servingware.  While it is true that we may no longer entertain as formally as we did in centuries past, there is something lovely about incorporating some little niceties into your basket in the form of linen napkins, china plates and glass drinkware. These details add an elevated aesthetic to your picnic that reflects the elegant English versions of yesteryear, and really just makes for a nicer overall dining experience.  A cocktail enjoyed from a plastic cup or a homemade dessert pierced with a plastic fork is never quite the same experience as using real glass and real flatware. Even James Beard agreed about that point. “Skimp on all the other dishware if you have too – but never on the glassware for your cocktail,” he advised.

A few vintage items featured in this post are a handwoven picnic basket from the 1930’s, a matching set of W.H. Grindley hotelware salad plates made in England (also in the 1930’s) and a handful of embroidered vintage linens in various shapes and sizes. Vintage restaurantware dishes in general are a great choice for picnics because they are heavy duty and aren’t quite as fragile as delicate ceramic or porcelain dishes. Salad plates or bread and butter plates are also the perfect size for your small snack needs and aren’t as bulky to pack as dinner sized equivalents. Likewise, vintage tablecloths make ideal picnic blankets thanks to their soft fabrics (decades of washing and drying!), variety of sizes and nostalgic designs. As you build your vintage accessories collection, you’ll also notice that these elements have a fun way of engaging people in conversation too.  Each item in your basket expresses its own unique story.  When packing all these elements up I like to designate the sturdy picnic basket for fragile foods, a separate tote bag for the servingware and linens and an additional tote for drinks and ice. That way everything remains intact from the moment you leave your kitchen to the moment you arrive at your destination.

Americano (serves 1)

1 1/2 oz. Campari

1 1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth

3 oz. Club Soda

Ice Cubes

Twist or Slice of lemon or orange for garnish

Add the Campari and vermouth to an old-fashioned glass. Add ice cubes and club soda. Stir to combine. Garnish with a slice or twist of lemon or orange.

Marinated Olives, Sicilian Style (from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, 1985)

1 pound Ligurian, Nicoise or Greek Olives  or a combination, drained

8 cloves garlic, cut lengthwise in half

Zest of 1/2 orange

Zest of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Combine olives, garlic, citrus, fennel and rosemary in a large bowl. Drizzle with lemon juice and oil. Marinate, stirring occasionally at room temperature at least 24 hours.

Deviled Eggs (from James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining Cookbook, 1965)

8 hard boiled eggs, shells removed

1 small tin boneless skinless sardines

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

Mayonnaise

Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half and remove the yolks to a small bowl. Mash yolks with sardines, onion and parsley. Blend with mayonnaise until you reach ideal consistency then fill each egg half. Chill in fridge until ready to pack into your picnic basket. These can be made up to 24 hours in advance.  * If you don’t have a portable egg carrier, disposable muffin tins make a great alternative.

Oven-Fried Chicken (adapted from Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book , 1965 Souvenir Edition)

1 lb. chicken cutlets

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

4 tablespoons Herbes de Provence

1/8 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

1/3 cup butter, melted but cooled to room temperature

6 cups corn flakes, crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the garlic, salt, pepper, herbs, parsley and melted butter in a shallow dish and mix thoroughly. In a separate shallow dish add the crushed cornflakes. Dredge each piece of chicken on both sides in the butter mixture and then coat them on each side in the cornflakes. Place the prepared chicken on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until chicken is golden brown and crispy. *Note: This chicken recipe will loose its crunch factor the longer it sits. So if you are picnicking, this should be the last dish you make before packing the picnic basket and heading out the door. That being said, it’s still wonderful hours later or even the next day, but the corn flake coating will have a more breaded consistency rather than a crispy crunch.

Belle’s Star-Spangled Cheese Straws (from the Huntsville Heritage Cookbook, 1967 Edition)

1 lb. New York State sharp cheese (or any sharp cheddar), grated

3/4 cup butter

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper

smoked paprika for garnish

Leave both the cheese and the butter out overnight on the counter to soften. The next morning, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together (except the smoked paprika)  in a medium bowl by hand. Knead the dough until it turns into a consistency like play-doh. Form into a ball shape. On a lightly floured pastry cloth, roll the dough out firmly to 1/4 inch thickness with a wooden rolling pin. By pressing it into the cloth with the rolling pin, you’ll be able to smooth out any crumbly or wrinkly areas as you work. Using a small star shaped cookie cutter, cut out the stars and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden in color. Let stars cool on a rack and dust with smoked paprika just before serving.

Homemade Blueberry Tart (recipes adapted from the Smitten Kitchen and Martha Stewart)

For the tart shell:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

9 tablespoons very cold (or frozen) butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg

In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon together. Add the chopped butter pieces and blend with with a fork until the mixture resembles small bread crumbs in various sizes. Add the egg and mix until combined. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Butter a 9-inch tart pan (the kind with a removable bottom). Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth and roll out to a size big enough to accommodate an extra 1/2 inch of dough in diameter when placed in the tart pan. Add dough to pan, trim any excess dough beyond the extra 1/2″inch that hangs over the sides. Fold the remaining  1/2″ inch of dough back into the tart pan, so that you are re-enforcing the side walls with an extra layer of dough. Pierce crust all over (bottom and sides) with a fork. Place tart pan in freezer for at least 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove tart pan from freezer and place directly in oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tart shell turns a soft golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.

For the blueberry filling:

6 cups fresh blueberries

2/3 cup cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of salt

In a medium saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cups blueberries to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and let berries simmer, stirring occasionally for about 4 minutes.

In a small bowl mix the flour with 4 tablespoons of water until smooth and then add to the blueberries in the pan. Next, add the lemon juice, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Let the mixture thicken for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in 3 1/2 cups of blueberries. Immediately, add this hot blueberry mixture to the tart shell.

Sprinkle the remaining cup of fresh blueberries across the top of the hot mixture, gently pressing the berries down so that they stick into the hot mixture enough to bind them together. Place the tart in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or at most overnight.

Additional Picnic Companions

One of the joys of picnic fare is the ability to snack and nibble on little bits of food at whim throughout the day. Since the original pique-nique days, small has been the favored size and serving proportion. For that purpose, a wooden cutting board filled with fresh fruit, a sampling of cheeses, cured meats, fresh herbs and bread offer an infinite number of little edibles that can be combined in interesting ways with the food options listed above. From chicken baguette sandwiches to cheese and crackers to deviled egg wrapped prosciutto, variety runs the gamut. The picnic board here included rainier cherries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, goat’s milk Gouda, cave-aged cheddar, blueberry Stilton, herb stuffed salami, thinly sliced prosciutto, Genoa salami, a bouquet of fresh herbs and a French baguette.

Finally, when bellies are full and appetites satisfied, the vintage-style picnic experience celebrates and salutes the pursuit of leisurely activities. There’s no rushing to clean up or clear out once you finish eating.  The whole, blissful idea behind a vintage-style picnic is to stay awhile and relax into yourself and your surroundings. One of my most favorite picnic activities is bird watching and tree scouting. I usually tote along a couple of species guides and a pair of binoculars, so that I can identify what’s flying over and growing up around me. Other fun activity suggestions (depending on your setting) include painting, sketching, walking, kite flying, playing cards, reading, talking, napping, swimming, collecting and just appreciating the people and places that share your afternoon. 

The world is a beautiful place. Time is a priceless gift. Eating is a ceremonial act. The art of the vintage picnic reminds us of that. Just as it has in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Wherever your picnic adventures take you this summer, I hope they are magical and delicious. Cheers to dining out in nature. Hope it is your best meal yet!

A Year and 91 Days: The Life and Times of Avi the Avocado

Two days before Thanksgiving, not last year, but the year before, a sandwich was made and a seed was started. The sandwich was a smashed collaboration of avocado and sauteed kale, ricotta cheese and caramelized onions which turned out great and became a repeat recipe for awhile, but the real star of the show was the seed. On that day, November 22nd, 2016 a little life began.

Reminiscent of elementary school science classes, the avocado pit (actually called a berry) from the sandwich-making endeavor got cleaned up and pierced with toothpicks. Resting on the rim of a glass while partially submerged in water, it sat there half-hovering for days and then weeks and then months.  Absolutely nothing happened.  The holiday season came and went. We celebrated New Year’s and middle month birthdays and our first snow in the ending week of January.  But in the land of the avocado, nothing was changing except regular refills of water in the glass. It was such uneventful gardening I didn’t even take photographs.

Heading into the first week of February (week 9), I thought perhaps my avocado seed was a dud and was ready to abandon the project altogether. But magically, almost as if the little seed had read my thoughts, a crack in the pit opened up one morning. Something was happening, at long last! Days later a tap root started reaching out like a diver heading towards the bottom of the sea. And then things really escalated. Every day, it grew longer and longer until little root tentacles started filling the bottom of the glass.  Satisfied with itself, it turned its attention skyward and from the center of the pit, a long slender green shoot started reaching for the stars.

Drinking about a 1/4 cup of water a day, it grew almost a 1/2″ inch every morning. When it passed 12 inches” in height and grew its first set of leaves, I named this little guy growing with such gusto, Avi, and welcomed him into the family. For most of the Spring, Avi enjoyed his glass of water while taking in the river view from his perch in the window.

As the days grew longer and the temperatures warmed, I introduced to him to the outdoors for a little bit each day. When the hot, humid temperatures of summer in the South took over, he was transferred to a new garden pot filled with potting soil and joined the summer flowers on the balcony. You might remember seeing him from last summer’s post about how to make a mini-compost bin.

There’s Avi on the bottom right corner behind the nasturtiums!

In the lazy summer sun, Avi grew and grew and grew. Towering over the other plants, he looked like a king ruling over his court.

All summer he played a long-standing game with the nasturtiums to see who could climb the furthest.

Avi was the winner! When the seasons changed and the cool rains of Autumn scattered leaves on the balcony garden, Avi welcomed the wet weather.

But when we moved in mid-Fall trouble began. His first few nights went okay. He and Indie liked to watch the city lights come on from his new spot on the new balcony…

but during the day, when the sun was warm and bright, and the birds were floating overhead, Avi started doing peculiar things. Instead of carrying on with his growth spurt, he got limpy and lethargic. A week into his new surroundings, he developed brown spots and then white spots and then crinkly skin. Thinking he was not getting enough water, I doubled up. But soon after, he looked more like a loose umbrella than a young tree. His leaves turned from a colorful shade of lime to a dull blackish green. Tragedy was looming, we both knew it. A week before his first birthday I feared Avi might be on his last legs.

Signals from a troubling time of growing pains.

I brought him inside for a few days, consulted the internet and determined that he either had too much salt built up in his roots, ( a common side-effect of using regular tap water for daily watering) or he was getting too much sun on the new patio. I rinsed his roots in distilled water and gave him a new home in a bigger pot with fresh potting soil. Then he got a new vantage point – a sunny windowsill on top of a low bookshelf.

Avi’s second perch nestled in with pig and pineapple and Hedy Hatstand.

But for two weeks he still looked terrible. So he moved again, this time to a bright corner between two big windows – a spot that gets no direct sunlight but reflects light because of the white wall paint. It also happens to be right next to the kitchen, where I could keep a close eye on him.  To my happiness, Avi flourished once again!  Day by day, his leaves moved higher and higher until they went from vertical back to horizontal. And he started growing again.

Now he’s taller than dear Hudson and happy as a clam. As it turns out, all Avi ever wanted was to be close to the kitchen and out of the sun. Who can blame him?

Back to pretty green leaves and a happy disposition once again!

Today he measures 3′ feet 2″  inches tall and he’s just achieved his longest set of leaves at 12.5″ inches in length. Some gardening experts say that Avi will never produce avocados to eat, but that doesn’t matter, I like him just for the handsome plant that he is. And it’s fun to watch him grow. I hope to see him reach a height of 8-9 feet (maybe taller!), a little indoor arboretum in the making.

If you’d like to grow your own Avi, it’s really simple. Find step by step instructions here. You just need an extra dose of patience in the beginning until the berry cracks open and growing gets underway. Other than regular watering every couple days and eventual transplanting as it grows, avocado plants are easy to care for. Many garden sites say that avocados LOVE sun, but as we learned with Avi’s growing pains, too much sun is indeed, too much, so watch closely as your plant’s personality develops and see what he or she likes best.

On November 22nd, when Avi celebrates his second birthday, we’ll check back in to see how much he has grown in the nine months between now and then.  Maybe he’ll be up to the ceiling!

In the meantime, cheers to Avi and his ability to weather the rigors of adolescence. And cheers to indoor gardening – an activity that’s in-season all year round!

Compost! An Update on the Mini Bin for the Mini Balcony

Mini Compost Bin

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Can you guess where my most unlikely place of  magical secrets was found this week?  In the dirt at the bottom of a plastic bin!

Lady Nature continues to impress and inspire. It’s been 28 days since the birth of the mini compost container and I’m happy to report that a tiny miracle has occurred. When I last wrote of this project it was the beginning… two bowls of kitchen scraps, two bowls of yard materials and one leftover 3lb. plastic container.

A few shakes, 1/4 cup of water and four weeks later we now have compost…

Well… almost! Since it has been up and down spring weather this past month with lots of rain and cooler temperatures, our compost needs maybe about another week or two of good hot sunny weather to fully break down and then it will be ready to feed the potted plants on the patio. Right now my compost looks like this…dark, moist but still a little chunky…

You’ll know when your compost is ready because you won’t be able to identify the original elements in the mixture. I can still see a little bit of egg shells and sticks in my mix, so there is still a some cooking left to be done.

If you remember from the previous post, I cut down all the elements that originally went into the compost in fairly small pieces, which helps break things down faster. I did leave some of the sticks in bigger chunks however for a little aeration but I think in my next batch they’ll get broken up into tiny pieces too.  The smaller the better in this case!

You can see the size difference in the bulk of the contents from Day 1 to Day 28 to understand just how much material was magically broken down…

The bin went from being 3/4 full to now being about 1/4 full – all entirely tended to by nature. Isn’t that amazing? The only help I offered in this month long experiment was to turn the mixture with an old camping spoon once a week which took about five seconds total. Lady Nature and her team of helpers did all the rest.

One of these helpers was a healthy batch of fruit flies (aka vinegar flies). These guys were naturally attracted to the compost bin through the air holes in the lid and made themselves at home within the first week. Tiny and fast flyers, they are tricky to photograph but the arrows point  to a few here…

Like anyone finding out about a cool new place to hang out, the fruit flies called all their friends, threw a bunch of parties and settled in for the month, which was very wonderful of them because they helped break down material too.  As the bin keeps cooking they will eventually leave when it gets too hot – a signal that the compost is ready at last. But for now they are conscientious little cleaner uppers, quiet merrymakers and very good neighbors. You’d never even know they were there. I’d take a fruit fly over a snake ANY day!

Smelling like the forest after a good, clean rain the compost mixture is earthy and rich and lies somewhere along the aromatic scale between a damp basement and a dusty book (which is what you want) not like old food or strong ammonia (which is what you don’t want).  If a particular odor smells too persistent or too strong than your bin is out of balance. But if you stick with the 50/50 method suggested in the original post then everything should be nicely evened out and pleasantly scented when it comes to kitchen and yard waste.

The forecast is scheduled to be hot and dry over the holiday weekend so that should give the bin some extra energy to breakdown the last of the chunkies. Then our compost will be ready to spread.  I’ll check back in next week with an update on the final consistency. Then it is onto batch two  and batch three and batch four and a regular routine of composting by bin and balcony.

If you missed the post on instagram, the nasturtiums started blooming this week in pretty shades of yellow and red. It’s beginning to feel a lot like like summer around here!

Cheers to finding hidden magic!

 

 

 

Suzy Snowflake and the Marshmallow World

Washington DC, 1922
Washington DC, 1922

How very exciting this week has been for snow lovers around the U.S.! With all this winter white floating and flying around the country, February is chalking itself up to be one of prettiest winter months on record. Sadly there has been no snowy weather to report from Ms. Jeannie’s city but that’s okay because today snow scenes are not hard to come by as we travel back in time to some of the biggest snowstorms of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This post is all about the beauty of the blizzard as experienced from all sides of the States, north to south, east to west. We are also introducing two new (but actually old) snow songs that every once in a while get lumped into Christmas song rotation but actually have nothing to do with the holiday itself. Instead, these two whimsical melodies express all the hap-hap-happy joy found in a good day of snow.  So grab your mug of hot chocolate, turn up the volume and enjoy the snowstorms to come…

Suzy Snowflake debuted in 1951 and quickly became a popular hit for Rosemary Clooney for the next three decades.

New York City circa 1917
New York City, 1917

 

Boston circa 1875
Boston, 1875

 

Detroit circa early 1900's
Detroit,  early 1900’s

 

snow-1950s
Possibly this is Suzy Snowflake herself circa 1963!

 

New York City, 1892
New York City, 1892

 

Minnesota, 1940's
Minnesota, 1940’s

 

Kentucky
Kentucky Mountains – early 19th century

 

Chicago 1956
Chicago, 1956

 

Eagle River, Wisconsin, 1911
Eagle River, Wisconsin, 1911

 

Belfast Maine, 1952
Belfast, Maine, 1952

 

Chicago snowplows, 1908
Chicago, 1908

 

New Jersey, 1926
New Jersey, 1926

 

snow_nyc1905
New York City, 1905

 

Seattle 1916
Seattle, 1916

 

Washington DC, 1922
Washington DC, 1922

 

Mckenzie Pass, Oregon, 1929
Mckenzie Pass, Oregon, 1929

 

Connecticut, 1888
Connecticut, 1888

 

It’s A Marshmallow World was first recorded in 1949 and was performed by Bing Crosby. This version (Ms. Jeannie’s favorite!) by Brenda Lee debuted in 1964.

Wisconsin, 1925
Wisconsin, 1925

 

Vermont, 1940
Vermont, 1940

 

Ohio 1952
Ohio 1952

 

Colorado, 1906
Colorado, 1906

 

1950's
1950’s

 

Alaska, 1910
Alaska, 1910

 

Tennessee 1918
Tennessee 1918

 

Buffalo, New York 1977
Buffalo, New York 1977

 

San Francisco, CA 1887
San Francisco, CA 1887

 

Harrisburg, PA circa early 1940's
Harrisburg, PA circa early 1940’s

Cheers to happy snowmen and winter site-seers! May your snow day, however you are experiencing it, be merry and bright!

All photos courtesy of pinterest and ebay. Click on each for more detailed info. 

Merry Christmas!

christmas7

Merry Christmas dear readers! This holiday post comes with a (snow) plow full of good wishes for a wonderful holiday packed with unexpected surprises and delights. Ms. Jeannie happened upon this vintage snow photograph in an antique store in the middle of July during one of the hottest days of the year. A cool landscape on that sultry summer day, she knew immediately it was perfect for this season’s holiday post. You can practically hear the sleigh bells jingling.

Taken by William M. Forwood in 1941 in Chestnut Hill, Maryland, this well-balanced barn scene with that Charlie Brown spruce tree reminded Ms. Jeannie so much of the winters spent in picturesque Pennsylvania. It also gave her hope that she might anticipate an equally snowy scene in her own new city this December.

christmas8

Alas, fast forward five months to today and our Christmas Day forecast scheduled for Sunday is holding steady at an unseasonably 70 degrees. So the possibility of being wrapped up in a winter wonderland is most probably not going to be our fate this year but that’s okay. We have a whole two months of winter left to go and magic occurs when you least expect it.

Here’s to hoping that your holidays are equally as breezy, and that you keep your eyes out for the unanticipated moments that make this time of year especially inspiring.  Cheers to hopeful hearts and happy holidays!  And a big thank you to William M. for bringing the snow to this Southern party seventy five years later.

Love, Ms. Jeannie

Save the Monarch: Plant a Milkweed!

milkweed

Last year Ms. Jeannie traveled approximately 13,000 miles via car over the course of 52 weeks. Last year the North American monarch butterfly traveled 3,000 miles via wing over the course of nine weeks. Ms. Jeannie mainly drove around her neighborhood and her city with a few side trips around the state. Butterfly flew halfway across the North American continent, traveling through at least six United States, one Canadian province, and half of Mexico.

monarch3

On average last year Ms. Jeannie traveled about 39 miles a day via car. On average last year, Butterfly traveled 47 miles per day via wing on her two and half month road trip. Ms. Jeannie’s car runs on gasoline which brought her to the fill-up station about 120 times over the course of the year. Butterfly runs on nectar which brought her to the fill-up station about eight times during the course of her journey.

monarch_nectar

Ms. Jeannie’s car is an incredible piece of machinery able to get her from here to there on a whim’s notice.  But Ms. Jeannie’s car is nothing compared to the flying machine that encapsulates the strength and stamina of a migrating monarch. Butterfly’s migration is one of nature’s most epic adventures, which is why you’ll find a photo of her pinned to Ms. Jeannie’s true adventurers board on Pinterest. That’s the place where all of history’s great travelers and outside-of-the-box thinkers congregate and where Ms. Jeannie heads when she needs a little inspiration.

A partal list of true adventurers. Clockwise from top left: Photographer Imogen Cunningham, Elizabeth Taylor, Monarch Butterfly, Explorer Tom Crean, Aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Explorer Jacques Cousteau. To visit Ms. Jeannie's board and see all the adventurers click the photo.
A partial list of true adventurers… clockwise from top left: photographer Imogen Cunningham, actress Elizabeth Taylor, epic traveler Monarch Butterfly, explorer Tom Crean, aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh and explorer Jacques Cousteau. To visit Ms. Jeannie’s board and see all the adventurers click the photo.

Along with all icons who undertake brave and unbelievable feats there is almost always a strong support system behind them.  Julia Child had her husband Paul, Jacques Cousteau had a research foundation, Anne Frank had her diary. And so it goes with butterflies. Monarch has the milkweed.

Vintage 1953 botanical print of the showy milkweed painted by Mary Vaux Walcott.
This vintage 1953 botanical print of the showy milkweed painted by Mary Vaux Walcott is availiable in Ms. Jeannie’s shop. 

Bright, beautiful and stately in size (up to 6 feet tall!), the milkweed plant is where Butterfly takes refuge. It’s the one place that not only offers a safe and idyllic spot to lay her eggs but it also offers the only source of nourishment to her babies in the form of a food when the wee ones are in the larval stage.

milkweed4

It’s the fill-up station for the winged world delicates!  There used to be billions of monarch butterflies floating around our skies, but now there are only millions. Their significant decline in numbers is due in part to the disappearance of the milkweed plant. Commercial farming and urbanization has cleared the earth in important areas along the migratory trail of the butterflies and the resting spots where they congregate making it increasingly more difficult for monarch butterflies to reach maturity.

monarch1

Not having enough milkweed plants to butterflies is like not having enough gas stations for cars. Each needs the other and each won’t operate without the help of the other.  So this is where you come in… as a cheerleader, support staffer, tribe member and all around champion of the mighty monarch you can make an immediate difference in the life of a winged wonder by planting milkweed seeds in your garden or your balcony flower pots or by scattering seeds in grass lots around your neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if you live in California, or New York, Arizona or Maine all milkweed plantings in all states help one cause. You’ll be sustaining the lives of migrating butterflies as well as assisting other pollinators that bring so much benefit to so many other creatures both in and out of the garden.

milkweed_collage2

There’s also an added bonus to being helpful. Milkweed flowers are beautiful! Available in a range of colors from red orange to pink to pale peach they are named after the milk colored latex coursing through their stems (a defense mechanism), which makes them unattractive to chewing worms.

Vintage Wildflower Guide published in 1948 by Edgar T. Wherry. Read more about this book here.
There was lots of interesting milkweed information in this vintage wildflower guide published in 1948 by Edgar T. Wherry. Read more about this book here.

Much prettier than any gas station or rest stop area for cars, these fill-up stations for butterflies have been around since the 17th century and contain over 140 different varieties. As a family they are known as Asclepias with a petal layout complexity most closely associated to that of orchids.  As one of nature’s most intricate flowers they are made up of a collection of petals on a spray of delicate stems that eventually meet in one main stalk – sort of like the flower head of Queen Anne’s Lace or a loose version of the flowering garlic bulb. Leaves also range in color depending on the variety from silver green to dark emerald.

seed pods!

When the milkweed goes to seed it forms a pod of white silky hairlike plumes that launch on a breezy day, spreading seed around the neighborhood like pin-sized snowdrops. Imagine a whole gigantic field blowing in the wind at once – it would a veritable summer storm of beauty!

Easy to grow and care for, you can find seeds for under $2.00 a pack at Botanical Interests (Ms. Jeannie’s favorite seed company) or at your local garden center. March – May are perfect times to plant Milkweed in time for fall harvest and fall migration.

Seed starting indoors!
Seed starting indoors!

If you are a travel lover like Ms. Jeannie, you’ll appreciate the need to help our fellow flying friends get to where they need to go. Road trippers need to look out for one another on the highways of life, so Ms. Jeannie hopes that you will join her this summer in the great garden challenge – Milkweed for the Monarchs! Throughout the spring and summer she’ll be keeping you updated on her butterfly garden’s progress. It would be incredible if you did too:)

To see just how exciting it is to help and host butterflies, visit Ms. Jeannie’s 2013 archives when the season of the swallowtails unfolded week by week right here on the blog.

Happy helping dear readers!

*All butterfly photos courtesy of pinterest.

 

 

 

North vs. South: The Beach in November

florida_heron

 

In 1960, John Hay spent the month of November on the coast of Massachusetts.

johnhay4
John Hay

In 2015, Ms. Jeannie spent the month of November on the coast of Florida.

florida1

John Hay was writing a book about the seasonal evolution of life on Cape Cod – a month by month collection of observations he would publish in 1961 under the title Nature’s Year: The Seasons of Cape Cod.

 

nature1

In November 2015, Ms. Jeannie was navigating a bevy of hospital hallways and doctors offices with her sick dad.

John escaped to the beach to think about life. Ms. Jeannie escaped to the beach for a brief break from life. Both John and Ms. Jeannie found solace on the shores of November.

55 years, 1300 miles and 11 states separated John from Ms. Jeannie. Does that matter?  Does the seasonal effect of nature change so emotionally at sea? Fundamentally month by month are we more different than alike? Ms. Jeannie thought about these questions while she walked the beach and tried to make sense of the medical mysteries surrounding her father. Decades earlier John thought about these same questions while he walked the beach and tried to make sense of the natural mysteries surrounding humankind.

In this post we’ll be looking at one month from two sets of eyes to see how the natural world compares and contrasts between decades, between states, between regions and between people. Just how different is November from one place to another?

” The clouds cover the sky like gun smoke and the air feels cold and restricting.” – John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In November 2015 in Florida, the clouds also covered the sky like gun smoke but instead of being cold and restricting the air was oven hot and heavy with humidity.

clouds1

“November rolls into view with cool, solemn, formal consistency…daylight diminishes. The summer no longer pounds at our temples. The fall color is gone. There is nothing to look at  and very little to hear… to a city lover it is silent and deadly dull.” John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In Florida in 2015, November rolled into view on the body of a heatwave. Temperatures hovered for most of the month in the mid-90’s. The air felt consistently relaxed and languid.  If Ms. Jeannie was blind-folded and asked to guess the month she would have said August by the sticky feel of things around her.   Summer was holding strong.

 

florida9

“Out on the bay the low waves look as if they have a harder push and pull to make, imbued with new heaviness.”- John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In Florida in November 2015, the waves are not low. They are tall and fat and strong. So full of energy and life, their crashing chorus’ take up all the audible room in Ms. Jeannie’s eardrums.

florida_waves

“There is a kind of ice sludge being nudged in by the tides along the shore and through rippling purple waters of tidal inlets.” – John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In Florida in November 2015, the tide drags ashore signs of autumn color in the form of clumpy pumpkin-tinted seaweed that stretches the entire length of the beach.

florida3

florida2

“Seeds, on grasses and weeds now grow thinner, drier, more colorless, are not only rich in generation on their own account but they provide beyond themselves.  The simplest food chain suggests the links in many others.  The time for persistence is coming, when those grasses we take so much for granted will hold our earth together.” – John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In Florida in November 2015 as a whole it is easy to overlook the wild greenery in excitement to get to the water. The waves have a way of calling all attention.

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But nature s running its course and Ms. Jeannie sees that the Florida beach grasses are also going to seed. Look closely below and you can see a little lizard scampering around the stalks.

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Southern beach grasses wave hello and goodbye all at once as they share their seeds with beachcombers of both the two and flour-legged variety.

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“The oaks are monumentally persistent. Cut them down fifty times and they will sprout back from the roots. This is their chosen land. The late fall wind makes their leaves rustle and stir…the whole year is full of the collaborative music of air and trees. ” – John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In Florida in November 2015 there are no oak trees. In fact, surprisingly on the stretch of beach Ms. Jeannie visited there were very few palm trees. But what there was in great succession was a thick barricade wall of sea grape trees. Like an enchanted garden,  they formed natural vestibules to and from the street to the beach and the beach to the street. Those are the trees in Florida that have made choices. Those are the ones who will continue to fight for life whether they are cut down fifty times or 1500 times.

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“Since Cape Cod is surrounded by the sea  it has another depth, another range, were other populations roam while the rest of us wait and shiver.” – John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

In Florida in November 2015 the most interesting and immediate animal life to observe was the multitude of shore birds.  They provided beauty…

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and comic relief…

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intrique and mystery…

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and even the threat of tragedy…

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After a consult with the lifeguard and a call into animal wildlife patrol, Ms. Jeannie was happy to hear that this bird was no sick or injured creature who seemed helplessly hopeless clinging to the sand when she spotted him. Instead he was a just a baby learning how to fly…

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“In fact there is no fundamental separation anywhere in this common world of life, despite the greatly various environments of water and and what we use to help us differentiate between the species. Winds blow through. Tides lap over. Each plant and animal is proof of general contact and association.” – John Hay, Cape Cod, November 1960

After seeing the baby gull and running through the gamut of emotions and feelings of wanting at first to observe him, then protect him, then help him, then understand him, Ms. Jeannie realized whole-heartedly that there is no real difference in the Novembers between years and states and places and faces.

Sure the typography changes and the climate varies but similarities are equally as present. We all just want to survive in the place where we are rooted. November is as much a natural state of mind as it is a calendar month, and although the landscapes may vary from North to South and East to West, fundamentally we are all the same at heart. We are all the little gull plopped down on the sand, learning how to fly. learning how to survive. learning how to make it from one day to the next. We are all the little gull trying to make our way in the big world.

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Do you have any natural wonder stories from the month of November – something that surprised you dear readers? If so, please contribute your thoughts in the comment section below. In the meantime, if you’d like to see what John Hay has to say about the 11 other months of life on Cape Cod in 1960, you can find him in Ms. Jeannie’s shop here.

For your palm tree fill, visit Ms. Jeannie on Instagram!

Cheers to the new month of December! May it be equally as enlightening:)

 

Night of a Thousand Stars

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This past weekend Ms. Jeannie went to a party. It was one of those unforgettable, over-the-top affairs where the guest list was filled with fancy names and all the faces were beautiful. The venue itself was without fault and so impressive it almost seemed fake. Top all that with a symphonic orchestra that played ceaselessly without one break for hours and it was pretty much the most sublime evening Ms Jeannie has had in months.

The purpose of the party was to welcome three distinguished guests who were visiting from a nearby university. These are the handsome trio…

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With a combined net worth of over $12.000.00 these three lit up the room with their high-fashion style and expensive demeanors. Mysterious, intimidating and slightly aloof at first, once Ms. Jeannie looked them in the eye…

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she was smitten. Navigating past the awkward introductions and the stumbling blocks of trying to find common ground in conversation, these three honorees opened up a whole new world to Ms. Jeannie. Conversation started small with a red-dot introduction to the sun…

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but as the night progressed and the hour grew later topics of conversation grew bigger and brighter…

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You see dear readers, our three distinguished honorees knew lots of guests at this party and they were each happy to take Ms. Jeannie’s arm and introduce her around. Thanks to them, Ms. Jeannie met a boatload of fascinating characters – Pegasus, Cepheus, Draco…Delphinus, Equules, Andromeda…

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There were shooting stars and globular clusters, constellations and galaxies. Some of these party-goers were bright, vivacious twinklers and others were shy, smudgy wallflowers but each of them dazzled in their own way. Some were familiar faces and old acquaintances that Ms. Jeannie shamefully admitted she hadn’t been in touch with for quite some time. When she eventually made her way over to the moon…

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she had some apologizing to do. It had been a long time since she had looked up her old friend. But lucky for her, the moon was as gracious and as easy-going as ever. And immediately it felt like no time had passed since they’d last been in touch. Up close, Ms. Jeannie did notice some new things about Moon though.  Like how his face seemed more delicate – more crepe-paper like…

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And there was a glow about him that, although hard to define ….

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was mesmerizing none-the-less. Ms. Jeannie felt re-invigorated spending time with him again. As an endlessly fascinating entertainer, Moon was also showing off his many faces.  Some were dark and dramatic….

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some were light and dreamy…

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Depending on the orchestral songs of the late summer field crickets, the moods of the moon seemed to change with the melodies of the moment.

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The same could be said for the glittering guests as well.

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Once the moon left the scene, the party started to die down. Ms. Jeannie didn’t want to leave and that’s when she knew it was the best time to leave.  That’s the sign of a good party – just like a good vacation – when you are enjoying yourself so much that you don’t want to go home. With a so-long to the stars and a thank you to the honored guests Ms. Jeannie headed home to fill her dreams with scenes from the star party and all the colorful characters dancing around the darkest darks of the natural night sky.

If you are in the mood to attend your own unforgettable party you might be interested in this vintage primer from Ms. Jeannie’s shop to help get you on your way…

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Vintage 1960’s Children Book – The How & Why Wonder Book of the Stars

It’s full of your old friends, including Mr. Moon and contains star charts of what you’ll see in each month of the sky. It’s perfectly fascinating entertainment on these cool and crisp Fall nights. Happy star-gazing dear readers!