Washing Day

2016-09-30-08-29-27I finally had a nice sunny day to wash mohair. I only got a little over half of it cleaned before I was totally sick of washing it, but it’s been a fascinating process.

Stiff and grey with grease (yolk, it’s called) and dirt, I was dubious about my chances of ending up with useful fibre.

The first three washings, the water came up positively black, but little by little, the dirt and grease came out, leaving me with beautiful, shiny white locks of mohair. An amazing transformation!


Where the Sidewalk Ends

2016-09-29-18-24-21There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Many years ago, when my husband and I lived in State College, Pennsylvania, before children, we used to take long walks out of the neighbourhood and into a wild patchwork of agricultural fields and scrubby woods that stretched between the University and the sprawling suburbs of town.

At the edge of the neighbourhood, where the sidewalk gave way to a gravel path maintained only by the steps of those who walked their dogs there, someone had poured a small section of concrete containing a brass plaque inscribed with Shel Silverstein’s famous poem, Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
Add watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

State College has no black smoke, and the streets are bright and lively, but the presence of the poem was magical, the sentiment perfect as one stepped away from the cars and buses and the music booming from student flats, and into the fields beyond, where grasshoppers and bees formed the loudest chorus. Town melted away. We could walk for hours, and always returned calm and refreshed.

When I was a student at the University of Michigan, my most prized possession was my bicycle. It was old and ugly, but it was my ticket out of town. When the streets and noise became overwhelming, I would hop on my bike and ride blindly until I reached the edge—the place where the sidewalk ended. Surrounded by fields of corn and wheat, I would throw myself into the grass at the side of the road and listen to the crickets until I regained my equilibrium, until I could face the city again.

Last year, when my daughter had band practice at an awkward time on a Friday—too early to go home after school, too late to go directly from school—we would take walks, always on the periphery of town, seeking those places where the sidewalk ended. We walked residential streets that gave way to sheep paddocks and parks, industrial zones that melted into agricultural crops.

For me, the place where the sidewalk ends is literal—my place for peace and reflection is invariably outdoors, far from cars, buildings, and other markers of civilisation. But I think Silverstein left the door open for the sidewalk to end in other places—places where moon-birds cool themselves in peppermint winds. The sidewalk can end inside us, too—in imagination, in meditation, in the green space we save for ourselves in our own souls. Wherever the sidewalk ends, our spirits refresh themselves—we reflect, we stroll, we find silence.

Where does your sidewalk end?

A New Oven


Partly deconstructed old oven.

The old bread oven was almost ten years old. Theoretically, it might have lasted longer, but earthquakes and aging bricks took their toll. A crack split it top to bottom, and we regularly had to pick gravel out of our bread.

So the kids spent last weekend dismantling the old oven to make way for a new one. This one will be quake-proofed with a reinforced concrete base, and include such luxuries as an ash pit, a chimney, and a roof.


Ready to pour the new foundation.

The bread oven is my husband’s project—he’s the family builder and the bread baker. But all of us will lend our muscles to the effort. We’ll mix concrete, haul bricks, and provide whatever brute labour is necessary.

And all of us will enjoy the breads, cakes, cookies, and dinners that come out of it.

Mmmm…I can taste them already!

Whoopie Pies

2016-09-27-16-01-18-smI can’t believe I did an entire year of food blogs last year and never mentioned whoopie pies, other than to note that I’d swim through crocodile-infested water to get one. So this is long-overdue.

I read an article once, claiming that whoopie pies came from some town in upstate New York. This is a lie. Whoopie pies are Pennsylvania Dutch from the top of their over-the-top chocolate cookie-cake to the bottom of their sweet fluffy filling. Only the Pennsylvania Dutch would make a cookie with this much chocolate and sugar, then decide it should be stuck to another cookie with more sugar, whipped into a roux, like some bizarre sweet gravy. Nobody else would then decide that this cookie should be made in vast quantities and provide a recipe that used six cups of flour.

New York…HAH!

Growing up, whoopie pies were the cookie for bake sales. They were a summer cookie. A cookie for farmers’ markets and family picnics. They were one of the things I missed when I left home and moved to the whoopie-pie-less Midwest.

And so, here, without further ado is the whoopie pie recipe my mother gave me when I left home. I admit that, these days, I make a half batch unless I’m making them for an event.

1 ½ cup shortening (I use butter)
3 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 ½ cups sour milk (I use buttermilk if I have it)
3 tsp. vanilla
6 cups sifted flour
1 ½ cups cocoa
3 tsp. salt (use less if you use salted butter)
3 tsp. soda

Cream sugar and shortening. Add eggs and beat. Add sour milk and vanilla. Sift flour, cocoa and salt. Add to first mixture. Add water and soda. Drop by teaspoonful on [greased] cookie sheet and bake 8-10 minutes at 375°F. Cool and fill with filling.


5 Tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1 cup powdered sugar
½ cup margarine (I use butter)
½ cup butter
1 tsp. vanilla

Cook flour and milk together until thick. Cool thoroughly. Cream shortening and sugar. Add vanilla and flour mixture, beating until the consistency of whipped cream. Put two cookies together with filling.



2016-09-26-14-21-42I started potting up the tomatoes today.

I start my tomatoes in six-packs (the plant kind, not the beer kind), planting two seeds per cell, to ensure I get at least six plants out of each six-pack. And truth is that I probably only need six plants out of each six-pack. Having two plants in a cell gives me the opportunity to cull small or weak plants.

Except that, faced with two perfectly fine plants in a cell, I can’t possibly cull one, so I pot them both up separately. I’m just not very good at being ruthless and culling the plants I don’t need.

Which is how I end up, every year, with nearly twice as many tomatoes as I have space for in the garden. I give away quite a few, and always save some to replace the ones that are inevitably killed by a late frost or the neighbour’s overspray. Still, some years I end up throwing a dozen or more on the compost pile after they’ve languished in their pots unplanted until nearly Christmas.

This year, I purposely planted fewer six-packs than I usually do—if the plants aren’t there, I can’t pot up too many, right? But somehow, I still find myself with over a hundred tomato plants. That’s much better than previous years—I have space for 80 tomato plants—but it’s still probably more than I’ll use, even after losses.

With luck, though, I’ll be able to find homes for all the tomatoes, either here or in someone else’s vegetable garden, and I can avoid the annual cull.


beetsteakI was clearing a garden bed today and pulled out a beet—forgotten in the masses of summer produce—left from last year’s garden. It was the size of an adult’s head, with dozens of sprouts coming from it.

I decided to take it to the goats, who love beetroot. On the way, I showed it to the family—it was impressive, after all.

My husband wouldn’t let me feed it to the goats. He was curious to know just how woody a beet that size would be.

So he made beetsteaks. He used our big pumpkin knife to slice it into giant slabs, then steamed them and grilled them with a spicy marinade.

The result…


But I think I’ll feed any other beets this size to the goats next time.

Order from Chaos

2016-09-24-15-04-00There’s something pleasing about the garden as I start to prepare the beds. I can’t prepare the whole garden at once—it’s simply too big—so I do it bed by bed. Two or four a weekend, until all thirty-two are done.

I’ve planned the garden over winter, so I know what will be planted in each bed. I choose which beds to prepare each weekend based on when each crop gets planted. So I end up with a patchwork of beds—some waist-high in weeds, others beautifully prepared and ready for planting, some already planted. Every weekend, the weeds are fewer and the tidy beds more numerous.

Little by little the work gets done, the garden gets planted, until that magical day in mid-November when it’s all done, and neat rows have replaced sprawling weeds.


North African Salted Lemons

Salty lemons and sweet lemon curd...mmmmm.

Salty lemons and sweet lemon curd…mmmmm.

My husband brought home a grocery bag full of lemons yesterday—a gift from a colleague with a prolific lemon tree.

When life gives you this many lemons, you have to be more creative than lemonade.

The first thing I did was make lemon curd, which is one of my favourite uses of lemon.

But when I was done with that, you couldn’t tell I’d taken any lemons out of the bag.

So I searched around and found a few recipes for salt-preserved lemons.

I was intrigued. We’ve been using more and more lemon in our savoury cooking, and salted lemons should be perfect for that.

It is perhaps the most bizarre recipe I’ve ever made.

Cut the lemons lengthwise into quarters, but not all the way through, so they fan out like a flower. Sprinkle salt on the fanned quarters, then juice them before stuffing the juiced lemon into a jar and pouring the salty lemon juice over it. Repeat with as many lemons as will fit in the jar. Let sit in a warm place for a month, then store in the fridge for up to a year, pulling out lemons as needed.

I’m very curious how they taste, and how we will end up using them.

And now I’m on to baking lemon cake and lemon scones, because I still have half a bag of lemons left…

Making Music

file-8-09-16-7-34-10-pmI attended another high school music programme this evening and was struck once again at how important making music is to human culture.

Not listening to music, though that is nice, too.

Making music.

I have always loved music—classical, rock, country, folk, hip-hop, jazz—doesn’t matter what it is. If I could live my life inside a musical, I would. In fact, some days you could be forgiven for thinking I do, the number of times my husband or I break out in song.

Young people seem to understand this need to make music—kids sing on the playground when they’re younger, and gather with friends and a few guitars when they’re teens.

They make up songs about their high school teachers. The one we heard tonight was loving; some of the ones I remember singing with my friends in high school were not so kind.

They beat drums, tap silverware on the table, clap their hands and do beat boxing. They write music, they play music, they make it their own. They use it to say the things they cannot speak. They use it to be the people they want to be.

And somewhere along the line, they stop making music.

Somewhere along the line, music becomes something that ‘professionals’ do.

They start to believe that making music is embarrassing, a waste of time.

They start to believe that music must be performed for an audience.

Gatherings no longer include the guitars. Beat boxing gets rolled eyes instead of an on-the-fly rap to go with it. Show tunes no longer feature in everyday conversation.

Oh, there are adults who still do this, for sure. But usually they have a reason for doing it—they’re in a band, or music is part of their work. The average adult with 2.5 kids, a mortgage, and a job doesn’t.

It is a loss.

A loss, not just to the individual, but to society as a whole. We lose our ability to express the things we cannot say. We forget to be the people we want to be. Celebrities become demi-gods, because we forget that we can all make music—we don’t need a recording contract, a gig, an audience, or even an ounce of musical ability. We can make music because we are human. We need to make music to remain so.