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“Wildflowers” on our highways. October 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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When our friend Ben and Silence Dogood visited West Virginia a couple of weeks ago, we were shocked and appalled to see great drifts of cosmos blooming merrily in the median strips of the highways. We probably don’t have to tell you that the scenery in West Virginia is spectacular, and we were lucky enough to be there during their peak fall foliage season.

From the trees and shrubs along the roads to the mountains rising on every side, we were surrounded by the glorious reds, scarlets, oranges, golds, yellows, and purples of autumn foliage. We would have liked to see those colors reflected along the roads rather than the soft and hot pinks and cerise of the cosmos, which struck us as jarring, sort of like ordering chocolate mousse and seeing a carrot sticking out of the middle of it.

We also feel that it would be far more appropriate to plant our roadsides with native wildflowers rather than fake “wildflowers”—garden annuals like cosmos introduced from other parts of the world. Real wildflowers and grasses would be easier to care for, too. Rather than having to be replanted every year like the cosmos and babied along all season, once the natives were established, they’d just have to be mowed each fall.

We would have loved to see a colorful mix of asters, goldenrods, black-eyed Susans (rudbeckias), purple coneflowers, and grasses like bluestem (andropogon) brightening the roads with their fall-friendly hues. But Silence raised a good point. We both have backgrounds in horticulture. “If typical drivers and passengers saw this cosmos, don’t you suspect they’d just think ‘How pretty’?” she wondered.

Just two days later, we had our answer when we went to the Tamarack crafts center with the Hays family. As we passed yet another strip of cosmos, Cindy Hays exlaimed delightedly, “Look! Isn’t that beautiful!” 

Hmmm. We still think garden flowers belong in the garden and our beautiful native wildflowers and grasses belong on our roadways. What do you think?

Great gifts for people who like to cook (and eat) October 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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8 comments

Silence Dogood here. Jen of Nyack Backyard (http://www.nyackbackyard.blogspot.com/) started me thinking recently about how I got hold of the high-quality olive oil I used in a delicious salad dressing I was introduced to at the supper club last Friday. (See my earlier post “Fabulous easy salad dressing” and you can try it, too!) Jen and I were chatting about how expensive any olive oil is these days, much less good olive oil, and how tempting it was to just use the store brand to save precious grocery money. Fortunately, I didn’t have to use the store brand, and I didn’t have to pay good money for a luxury I could ill afford. That’s because I’d gotten my extra-special extra-virgin organic olive oil as a present last Christmas.

Our friend Ben and I have found that people, including our nearest and dearest, are often at a dead loss as to what to get us for pretty much any occasion. They know we have bazillion books, CDs, plants, and so on, so even though they know we love them, they’re afraid to get us any in case we already have them. We’d love it if someone volunteered to buy us a flat-screen TV to replace our ancient computer-screen-size model or pay to have our little cottage, Hawk’s Haven, repainted, but for some reason this hasn’t happened. So we were getting some rather strange gifts until I had, in the immortal words of a friend’s mother, a rush of brains to the head.

It all started when my father confessed that he and his girlfriend had no clue as to what to get us last Christmas. Trying to avert the arrival of yet another piece of exquisite antique jewelry that I have absolutely no place to wear, or another bizarre-looking “designer” sweater for our friend Ben, it suddenly occurred to me that what we really needed were really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar—things we felt guilty about buying but used and loved—and a really good paring knife. OFB, desperate to avoid the arrival of more designer clothing, hastily agreed. For once, we were actually thrilled to open our gift package at Christmas.

Our good friend Rudy had long since come to the same conclusion. A frequent visitor, he knows that Hawk’s Haven has about all the “stuff” it can hold, and he feels the same way about his place. So a few years back, he started giving us local apples, fruit butters, and jellies, a bottle of wine, and some locally made chocolates for Christmas. We were delighted. My brother and his family have sent us cheese from the Trappist monks at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky (www.monks.org) for Christmas for years, and we do the same for them (with, of course, more appropriate gifts for the kids). 

We think food makes a great gift, especially when you take something a person loves and kick it up a notch (to borrow a phrase from Emeril) to something they’d consider a splurge. We buy and love dried apricots here, but would not dream of getting the super-pricey glaceed Australian apricots, even though I adore the plain glaceed apricots and the dark-chocolate-dipped version is Ben’s idea of heaven. I think this year I’ll ask my father and his girlfriend to get us some for Christmas along with more olive oil. Yum!!!

Fancy mustards, hot sauces, spices, and olives are all high on our list of “please give” treats, as are exotic seasonings, salts and peppers, pesto, and tapenade. If you, like us, love hot sweet pickles and haven’t had a chance or the inclination to can your own, a few jars of Wickles hot sweet pickles from Kettle Kitchen would be a great gift to put on your hint list. Know some folks who are nuts about nuts? They’d probably love some roasted or honey-glazed cashews, plump pecans, pistachios, almonds, or hazelnuts (or all of the above). Good nuts are another of those pricey luxuries all of us love and most of us find it hard to justify. (But please, if you do give nuts, make sure you’re giving the best. And no peanuts! Folks who love peanuts can afford to buy these “nuts” themselves, so they’re not as special.)

There are a few foods that can be tricky, though, so proceed with caution in these cases. If you know true coffee and tea lovers, they’re probably ultra-picky about exactly what kinds of coffee and tea they enjoy. Rather than just grabbing an expensive box or bag and assuming it would make a welcome gift, you might want to talk with them about their favorites first. If they love a good black tea, a box of Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Red, or Ty-Phoo tea should send them into ecstacies. But if they’re diehard Earl Grey fans, even the best black tea will miss the mark. Similarly, if they love cinnamon or hazelnut coffee, try to find a high-end version, but don’t gift them with a bag of Starbucks French roast and assume they’ll be delighted.

Cheese is another one: Some people love an ultra-sharp, flaky-dry Cheddar, but can’t stand an equally pungent ripe Camembert or Brie. Some people prefer orange Cheddar, while others insist on “white.” I love the nutty taste of Jarlsberg cheese, but know people who loathe it (gasp). Good cheese is another pricey luxury item that cheese lovers would be delighted to find under their tree, or as a birthday or guest gift. But best to ask first as to what kinds of cheese they prefer. There is, with cheese particularly, we’ve found, truly no accounting for taste.   

Food is always a hit with pretty much everybody, but it isn’t the only thing that makes a great gift for people who like to cook as well as eat. You all may recall that our friend Ben surprised me with a beautiful handmade ceramic garlic keeper as a souvenir of our recent trip to Pipestem Park Resort in West Virginia, a wonderful reminder of good times from the nearby Tamarack Craft Center. Just yesterday, I found a marvelous terracotta mushroom keeper, made in Italy, at a consignment shop for $2. (I’m keeping this one for myself, but what a great gift! Like garlic, mushrooms are very unhappy in the fridge.) I saw that they also had a lovely little dip bowl and matching spreader, and had to resist buying that as well. (Great gift idea! Who’s going to buy a dip spreader for themselves? But they’re actually useful. No huge knives crashing out of the dip bowl.) And there was a terracotta holder for a wine bottle that would have kept it at the correct temperature at the table (and prevented rings on the wood or tablecloth).

When our friend Ben and I were vacationing at Pipestem, we saw other things at the local crafts shops that got me thinking: A wooden stand to keep cookbooks open and upright so you could read a recipe easily while cooking. (I know these are available in clear plastic as well, so the plastic shields the cookbook from splatters while also holding it upright.) A handmade wooden box for recipe cards (you should see the size of mine—it’s actually a roll-top!). If you know your friends love wine, besides gifting them with their favorites, you can always give them attractive wine corks (often with themed ceramic tops) or functional bottle openers (at a kitchen store recently, I saw a French bottle opener that looked like a squid). Oh, and speaking of alcoholic beverages, how about a special local seasonal beer or ale for an aficionado, or a favorite liqueur (another expensive treat) or pricey vodka, gin, bourbon, or rum that they probably wouldn’t allow themselves to buy?

There’s also the little matter of cookbooks (Ben, close your eyes). [OFB runs screaming from the room, trailed by cries of "Silence, no!!! No more cookbooks! No more cookbooks!!!" growing fainter as he fades into the distance.] People who love to cook tend to love cookbooks. Next time you’re at their place, cast a covert eye at their cookbook collection and see what types they seem to like best and note what they already have. Then, next time you’re at the bookstore (or used-book store), look over the selection and see what would make a nice fit with the books they already have. I’ve found some incredible cookbooks on the sale racks at the front of bookstores, so don’t overlook the discount books. And of course, the selection at used-book stores is often just amazing.

If you want to gift a cookbook lover with something they’re sure to cherish, write some of your own favorite family recipes on recipe cards and present them at Christmas or another occasion. What a thoughtful gift! And while we’re on that subject, if you have any to spare, gifts of your own home-canned veggies, fruits, or specialties would definitely be cherished, as would baked goods. Give cookies, bars, candies, or cake in a festive tin and folks will remember you and your thoughtfulness every time they see it! 

Other cooking-related gifts spring to mind. Wooden or (our favorite) bamboo cooking spoons. A classic ceramic bowl or a set of stainless steel bowls. A colander or salad spinner. We found (and bought) an ingenious handmade wooden knobbed device at a crafts center in Asheville with three spikes at the bottom, to be used to immobilize a piece of cheese while you cut it. Great idea! Speaking of which, one of my favorite presents of all time was a handmade maple cutting board, a gift from our dear friend Cole. I use it every single day. A salad fork and spoon, pasta tongs, a nonstick silica mat for a cookie sheet, an attractive apron and/or mitts and/or potholders and/or kitchen towels and/or trivets… the list is endless.

What about folks like us who love to garden as well as cook? Food-bearing plants are always a great choice. Herbs like rosemary, chives, bay, or scented geraniums; spices like cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, and ginger; citrus like lemons and limes (no inedible citrus like kumquats, please); figs and olive trees; variegated hot pepper plants; coffee and tea plants; even (if they live in a mild climate or have a greenhouse) bananas and pineapple can make fabulous (and fabulously appreciated) gifts. I know of several companies that offer these plants, either individually or as gift assortments, including Logee’s, Stokes Tropicals, White Flower Farm, and Smith & Hawken. I’m sure there are plenty more! Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe we’ll ask for a few more of these to fill out our assortment… 

So keep your eyes open, see what your food-loving friends and family need, see what they like. Then go for it! What do you think would make great food- or kitchen-related gifts? Please tell us. Christmas is right around the corner!

      ‘Til next time,

               Silence

Another game of tag. October 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Ratty of The Everyday Adventurer (http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/) linked to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, in a recent post, “In the Spirit of Tag.” Ratty had been tagged by WiseAcre of WiseAcre Gardens (http://wiseacre-gardens.com/). “Tag” in this case meant that the taggee was asked to reveal six things about him- or herself, then tag six other bloggers so they would do the same. And the beat goes on. Ratty, however, perhaps sensitive to the recent blogging backlash to these games of tag, merely linked to six favorite blogs rather than tagging them. Thank you, Ratty!

We here at Poor Richard’s understand that being “tagged” every five seconds could become tiresome, but we think the concept behind the tagging, encouraging bloggers to share information about themselves, is entirely valid. For example, we’d wondered why Ratty had chosen to call him- or herself this for months. Thanks to WiseAcre, now we know. Joy of Garden Joy 4 Me (http://gardenjoy4.blogspot.com/) was also tagged by WiseAcre, and though she’s been tagged bazillion times before, it was fun to read the new things she chose to share about herself.

It’s not just a question of new things, either. All of us who blog regularly attract new readers as we go along. And these readers don’t know the things our “old faithfuls” know about us. Even without tagging, our friend Ben thinks it would make sense to post a little “Who we are” or “Things you don’t know about us” fact sheet every quarter or so, since most of the time, the “About us” sections of our blogs are concise and to the point, leaving out many fun details. This gives us a chance to think about who we are—something we should all do from time to time regardless—as well as thinking of fun facts about ourselves that it might not have occurred to us to reveal. I feel sure that regular readers would forgive us for repeating things about ourselves they already know, and newbies would appreciate the update. Our friend Ben invites bloggers old and new to write a post about themselves and tell us things we might not know, whether they’ve been tagged or not.

In this spirit, we’ll try to come up with 6 things about ourselves that you may already know and, if not, may or may not want to know! Here goes:

1. Our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, was inspired by our blog mentor and hero, Benjamin Franklin, who published Poor Richard’s Almanack annually back in the 1700s to provide the colonists with wit, wisdom, and practical advice. Poor Richard’s Almanack was so successful that if a colonist owned only two publications, they would be the Bible and his copy of Poor Richard’s Almanack. We are humbly trying to follow in old Ben’s giant footsteps in the age of the internet.

2. The adventures of our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders here on Poor Richard’s Almanac are true. There’s so much real-life stuff to blog about that we don’t have the time or inclination to make stuff up.

3. The adventures of our pets are also real. Our friend Ben and Silence wish we could invite all of you to one of our holiday gatherings here at our rural cottage, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, to meet our faithful golden retriever, Molly, our brainless but beautiful cat Linus and his brilliant sister, Layla, our matriarch, the Maine coon cat, Athena, and our parrots, Plutarch the Parrot and Marcus Hookbill, not to mention our parakeet, Willow, and our fish, snails, and shrimp. And of course we’d like to introduce you to our outdoor cats, the baby, Marley, his uncle Simon, Danticat and Beau, Dixie, and Aloysius. And our six heritage chickens and bunny, Amy. Stop by anytime!

4. Urk. This one’s hard to admit. We know we should love everyone equally, but Silence and our friend Ben can’t help but play favorites among our many pets. We both love our dog Molly and she loves us. But among the many others in our household, our friend Ben has to admit to a special soft spot for our incredibly gorgeous and affectionate but not-too-bright (that’s putting it kindly) cat, Linus, while Silence, in her heart of hearts, has a deep, abiding affection for our bright and feisty bronze-winged pionus parrot, Marcus, who clearly returns her affection. But we really love them all, and our hearts of course go out to our motherless infant cat, Marley, with cold weather and his first winter coming on. Doubtless you’ll read more about what we’re doing about that in a future post.

5. If you know our blog, this is obvious, but if you don’t, this will help you figure out what the %$#@!! is going on: All of us write about topics that grab our attention, so you can see a post about anything from any of us at any time. But we also tend to divide up posts by our own personal interests. If you see a post about cooking or domestic arts, it’s likely to be by Silence. If it’s about history, numismatics, or backyard birds, it’s probably by Richard. Our friend Ben likes to write about gardening, nature, the arts, and whatever larger issues strike me. But we’re all perfectly willing and happy to rant about whatever strikes our fancy, and if it’s a humorous post, we’re pretty much all happy to take a turn. For all of us, blogging is fun, so humor plays a big part.

6. Gack! We’re already at our last point, and both Silence and Richard are ribbing our friend Ben mercilessly about going on and on (and on). So rather than state the obvious, OFB will attempt to think of something you all really don’t know about us. Uh… er… (desperately thinking) our friend Ben’s favorite author is Homer. Silence’s is Jane Austen. Richard’s is Ben Franklin (with all other Colonial and Federal authors a close second). All of us love Tolkien, Sherlock Holmes, and A Christmas Carol, and we also love reading Helen and Scott Nearing and books about Tasha Tudor.

We’re shutting this down now, since we each have so many favorite authors, we don’t even know where to start. Silence is pointing out to our friend Ben that alert readers may already know this about us.

So here’s another quick fact: Our friend Ben loves peonies, hollyhocks, columbines, basil, cilantro, sweet potatoes, okra, and potatoes best of all garden plants; Silence loves freesias, nasturtiums, baptisias, rosemary, thyme, onions, and tomatoes; and Richard loves hot peppers, garlic scapes, morning glories, marigolds, black-eyed Susans, beans, green onions, and arugula. All of us love bearded and Siberian iris, roses, Johnny-jump-ups, violets, and violas, clematis, chrysanthemums, hostas, coleus, cannas, bulbs, daylilies, ferns, hellebores, astilbes, heucheras, corn on the cob, melons, leeks, and virtually all fruits, veggies, and herbs. We’re not even going to go into the zillion other plants we adore. Suffice it to say that there are a few veggies and fruits that each of us don’t like (turnips, except for salad turnips; rutabagas; collard greens, beet greens, and turnip greens; mealy fruits like papaya). Maybe we’ll devote future posts to them and why we dislike them.

For now, however, let’s just say that’s enough about us. (Unless there’s something else you want to know!) What about you?

More wacky blog searches. October 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is always fascinated by the search phrases people use to find our blog (thank you, WordPress, for sharing them with us), but the last couple of days have produced some real doozies. We’ve had people coming over here looking for “What do white trash eat?” and for “unwilling creampie,” a definite first, as well as for “how to quit the amish bread cycle” (we can only sympathize). (In case you’re unfamiliar with Amish friendship bread and why someone would want to escape from its clutches, check out Silence Dogood’s earlier post, “Amish friendship ‘bread’.”)

Perhaps Silence should write a followup post called “50 Ways to Leave Your Amish Friendship Bread,” but we’re actually more intrigued by two other searches that brought readers to Poor Richard’s Almanac. The first was “rice pudding cooked in rice cooker.” Hmmm. Rice pudding in a slow cooker, sure; rice pudding in a rice cooker, we don’t think so. But Silence is on the case, and you should hear more about this in a future post. And the second was “the sweetest fragrance.” That one really got us going. What is the sweetest fragrance, anyway? We don’t have a clue. So we’ve set our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders in pursuit of the answer, and no doubt he’ll be posting soon about this.

As always, we’re grateful to all of you for inspiring us to learn things that we don’t know and wouldn’t think of trying to find out if you didn’t prod us through your searches. (You’re always welcome to just come on out and ask us, too, if there’s something you particularly want to know.) And we’re grateful to those of you who search for funny things and make us laugh. It really brightens our day!

The cookbook reading group. October 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, our friend Ben and I braved the rain to head out to the Barnes & Noble nearest us so I could attend the first meeting of the Cookbook Reading Group. This group is the brainchild of our friend Delilah, and for the first meeting, we were instructed to bring a favorite cookbook and a cookie recipe to share. (I brought my beloved Chocolate Chip-Toffee Oatmeal Cookie recipe, which you’ll find in an earlier post, “A good day for baking cookies.”)

Now, I’ll admit that the name “Cookbook Reading Group” didn’t strike me as especially inspirational, but it proved surprisingly accurate. All of us who turned up for the inaugural meeting actually loved reading cookbooks more than using them. “I read them like novels,” someone said. I myself love to read them to relax before bed, or, in the case of exotic cookbooks, sometimes I just flip through the pages, letting the fabulous photos take me to distant lands before I drift off to sleep.

Our little group was small but passionate. (It’s hard to lure people out on a cold, rainy night, and even harder when you’re in Pennsylvania and the Phillies are playing what could be their World Series Championship game that very evening.) Delilah’s partner Chaz, who also loves to cook, braved a table of women to join us, while our friend Ben, who cooks only when necessary, skulked—I mean, browsed—in the travel section of the store until the meeting was over.

After the introductions, we shared the books we’d brought. Given that we were in PennsyIvania Dutch country, I’d brought along William Woys Weaver’s gorgeous Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, one of the most beautiful, interesting, and authentic cookbooks I’ve ever seen. Erin had brought Padma Lakshmi’s inspiring Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, a book I’ve picked up many times while browsing the “International cookbook” shelves of numerous stores. Delilah brought a book that’s also in my collection, The Great American Bake Sale, and Chaz contibuted another favorite of theirs, The California Pizza Kitchen Cookbook. They’d also brought a new favorite, Southern Living Best Loved Cookies. We all spent a happy time paging through them all and drooling.

One thing that especially interested me about the meeting was that, during the introductions, people discussed the first dish they’d ever learned to cook. For Chaz, it was scrambled eggs, with fried eggs a close second. Delilah’s mother had taught her to make gravy properly when she was four years old. Even our friend Ben, when I relayed this to him on the way home, recalled that the first thing he ever learned to make was toast.

I was mesmerized by this, since I have no memory at all of the first thing I ever made. I grew up with two incredible cooks showing me how to make food. My first memory of participating in a food-making event was helping at my mother’s annual fruitcake extravaganza, where our entire dining-room table was covered with jams, jellies, marmalade, citrus, candied cherries, raisins, currants, candied pineapple, nuts, wines, brandy, port, bourbon, flour, butter, and other good things, all being painstakingly added to make a batter for what would eventually become, to me, an entirely inedible cake.

How on earth could so many good things go into something so foul?!! But of course, my mother and father loved fruitcake, so the annual ritual continued. To this day, I believe passionately in the saying “Get even, give fruitcake.” My palate is simply not wired for fruitcake, spice cake, plum pudding, mince pie, and other (to me) harshly flavored delicacies my parents and many other people love. But I digress.

Thinking hard, I’ll bet that the very first thing my beloved Mama taught me to make on my own was salad dressing. We never, ever had storebought salad dressings in the house, and we were taught early on to despise French, Russian, and Thousand Island dressing as “bourgeois” (without, of course, ever even tasting them). I eventually did taste French dressing, which of course I (secretly) loved, but to this day I’ve never ventured into the Thousand Islands, Russia, the world of the Green Goddess, or many another exotic dressing locale. I have made the acquaintance of Ranch, Parmesan Peppercorn, and Blue Cheese dressings, all of which I enjoy.

I continue to make my own salad dressing to this day. But alas, I’ve left the very specific, very careful directions Mama gave me for vinaigrette practically in the dust. These days, I almost always put the fresh herbs and other seasonings right in the salad, then dress it with a simple mix of good olive oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar. I still have vivid memories of her showing me how to add the dried herbs, Colman’s powdered mustard, and lemon juice to the oil, then just so much vinegar, then shaking like mad before pouring it over the salad, though. Those were very happy times. 

So thank you, Delilah dear, for reviving happy memories for me and doubtless the entire group. Thank you for setting up the meetings and coming up with your bazillionth brilliant idea. Readers, if you love cookbooks and cooking, it’s worth thinking about setting up your own group in a bookstore near you. By the time our meeting reluctantly drew to a close, we were already discussing the possibility of taking a group trip to Maine next August for their blueberry festival. Good times!

Meanwhile, can you remember the first thing you learned to cook? Do you have a favorite cookbook or recipe to share? I’d love to hear about them! In return, I’ll leave you with the recipe for Delilah’s Mother’s Magic Cookies.

     ‘Til next time,

               Silence

 

   Delilah’s Mother’s Magic Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup Graham cracker crumbs

6-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips

6-ounce package butterscotch chips

1 cup flaked coconut

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Melt butter in a 9-by-13-inch pan. Sprinkle Graham cracker crumbs evenly over melted butter. Layer chcolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut over crumbs. Drizzle condensed milk evenly over top. Sprinkle with pecans. Bake 30 minutes. Cool completely, then cut into bars. Makes 12 to 16.

Scarfing it up. October 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

Silence Dogood here. Today, I’ll finish knitting a scarf, cast it off my needles, and put it in the mail. But it’s not just any scarf. It’s a very special scarf I knitted for Kathryn Hall and her Scarf Initiative, one of almost 80 scarves people like me are sending her way.

Kathryn, whose blog, Plant Whatever Brings You Joy (http://plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com/), is a perennial favorite on Blotanical, Stuart Robinson’s brilliant compendium of gardening blogs, decided early this summer to do something selfless for children—little girls in particular—who were likely to be very, very cold this winter. That’s because they’re refugees in the foothills of the Himalayas. Kathryn hit on the idea of knitting scarves for the little girls to help them keep warm this winter, but even more, to know that people far, far away loved them and cared about keeping them warm. She blogged about her dream, and other bloggers like yours truly responded. (Some volunteered—how, I’ll never know—to knit 13 scarves!!! Mercy.)

I went off in search of yarn I thought a little girl would love, and came up, thanks to my local yarn shop in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania, with a yarn in all the sherbet colors (hot pink, orange, lime green, yellow). I felt in my soul that a little girl would love the bright, varied colors in this scarf, and I started knitting.

I love knitting, because I’m so bad at it. Uh, say what?! Well, you see, I learned to knit at my grandma’s and great-aunt’s knees. They were both extremely accomplished knitters, but the same couldn’t be said of their eager and worshipful pupil. After many visits and many lessons, I finally got the basic idea by about age 8. But sadly, that was the only idea I ever got. I can knit, cast on, cast off, add or drop stitches, compensate for unintentionally adding or dropping stitches. But that’s the beginning and end of what I can do. I can’t even pearl. What this means is that I can’t make anything more complicated than rectangles and squares. I can make scarves, potholders, afghans. I can’t make socks, hats, or mittens, much less sweaters.

So okay, why do I love it? Being freed from expectation also frees me from pressure. I can go out and buy beautiful and fun yarn and then sit back with my needles and enjoy myself. I can sit, mindlessly knitting, and think about whatever comes to mind. I can watch a movie or nature program while my needles continue to work. I can love the feel and sheen and colors of the yarn, the smoothness of the needles, without having to give a moment’s thought to a pattern.

Last night, while watching a PBS “Nature” program on Arctic wolves, foxes, gyrfalcons, snow geese, and owls, followed by one of our favorite movies, “Galaxy Quest,” I came to the end of my second skein of yarn. This yarn has followed me everywhere, from our home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, through our travels in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. By the time it reaches Kathryn’s mailbox, it will have seen a good deal of the East Coast.

Grabbing a yardstick, I measured the scarf, which Kathryn has specified as 5 feet long and 1 foot wide. I’m still 3 inches short. But Kathryn’s November 1st deadline is looming, so I’ll add those additional 3 inches today before I leave the house, and I’ll drop the finished scarf in the mail as I run my afternoon errands.

Needless to say, I’ve followed Kathryn’s scarf saga on her blog, and I’ve been astounded to see the number of roadblocks she’s encountered while trying to do a simple good deed. (I guess that ironic saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” is in full effect here.) But unlike many, who’d have simply given up, Kathryn has pressed on, tirelessly working to find a way to get our scarves to the people who need them. Bless you, Kathryn! I want to be able to imagine my sherbet-colored scarf delighting some tiny girl as it gets colder and colder in her village. It’s the best Christmas present I could possibly give myself.

         ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

RIP Tony Hillerman October 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Today’s MSN headlines let our friend Ben know that one of Silence Dogood’s and my favorite authors, Tony Hillerman, just died. Tony Hillerman is the author of a series of mysteries set in the Four Corners region of the Southwest and starring fictional Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

Generally speaking, Silence and I aren’t fans of mysteries, unless you’re talking about Sherlock Holmes, where the famous detective is typically solving puzzles, not gruesome crimes. (A blue diamond in a Christmas goose and a fake beggar leap to mind.) Holmes’s mysteries focused on detection. Most of today’s mystery writers feel their novels have to focus on murder, and the more murders and the more horrific they are, the better. For some reason, Silence and I fail to find this entertaining. Even when the novels are wonderfully written and meticulously researched, as in the case of P.D. James’s work, we tend to admire them rather than enjoying them.

Tony Hillerman’s mysteries proved to be an exception. Silence and I collect Pueblo pottery, and we have a small collection of Navajo textiles, Zuni fetishes, Navajo sandpaintings, and Hopi kachinas (now more properly katsinas) as well. We both grew up avidly reading about Native American culture and saving our allowance for the occasional arrowhead, and our friend Ben is also a bigtime fan of cacti, reptiles, rocks, dinosaurs, and other hallmarks of the Southwest.

So when we first stumbled on Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, we were hooked. We loved his detailed descriptions of the Southwest. (We have been to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as to the ruins at Bandolier, and we have many books on the Southwest with gorgeous photos, some of them written by Hillerman himself, but even without them, we think we’d have been able to see the landscape through Hillerman’s descriptions.) We loved his reverent depictions of Navajo and Hopi beliefs. We loved his colorful characters, especially Jim Chee. The murders seemed almost incidental to the sweep of the Southwest and the Navajo and Hopi cultures.

We read each new Hillerman novel avidly as it came out, and waited impatiently for the next volume in the series. We watched the movie version of The Dark Wind and the excellent PBS versions of Coyote Waits, A Thief of Time, and Skinwalkers. Too bad PBS didn’t film them all! Silence and I applauded the casting of Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Jim Chee, and we loved the strong supporting cast, including two of our favorite actors, the deathless Graham Greene as Navajo preacher Slick Nakai and Gary Farmer as Chee and Leaphorn’s boss back at Navajo Tribal Police headquarters, Captain Largo. The PBS series escaped the dreadful mistake Hillerman himself made when he killed off his best creation, Leaphorn’s wife, Emma, early in the series. (What was he thinking?!!) Fortunately, Emma remains alive and feisty but big-hearted as ever in the PBS series. We enthusiastically urge you to rent these episodes via Netflix, buy them used through Amazon, or try to find them at your local video store. You’ll be glad you did!

If you haven’t yet discovered Tony Hillerman’s novels and would like to try them, we suggest that you look carefully at the copyrights and choose books from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s. Because the life stories of Chee and Leaphorn are told sequentially, it’s nice to start at the beginning (Hillerman’s first Navajo novel is The Blessing Way) and move forward.

We think the last few novels were a mistake and should be avoided. As Hillerman got older and had more health issues, his plotting and research became sloppier. We found his final novel to be virtually unreadable. Tony Hillerman was a born storyteller, and we enthusiastically think he should have continued writing until he died. (We certainly hope we do!) But writing and publishing are two different matters, and those last few books should never have seen the light of print, especially when his publisher apparently couldn’t be bothered to have an editor, copyeditor, or even proofreader look over the novels before they went to press, full of typos, inaccuracies, and contradictions. Shame!!!

Silence and I would have loved to have caught up with Tony Hillerman back when he was at the peak of his abilities. We’d have loved to ask him to go back rather than always pressing forward, to write about Leaphorn and Emma’s earlier adventures, about Jim Chee’s upbringing and what brought such a traditional boy to become a policeman. Perhaps, as in the case of Sherlock Holmes himself, other writers will take up the challenge to keep Chee and Leaphorn alive now that Hillerman is gone. We hope so. And Robert Redford, if you’re reading this, how about finishing the PBS series you produced? It was great!

Thank you, Tony Hillerman, for giving our friend Ben, Silence, and countless other readers and viewers so many hours of pleasure. We hope you’re up there now, enjoying the Four Corners section of Heaven!

Activate now. October 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Bless Yahoo! Its spam filter is really pretty good. And, though it separates out the spam, it saves the suspect messages so you have the option of reading them if you want. Our friend Ben pretty much never reads them, but I do look at the headlines before hitting delete.

Just now, I was checking e-mail and saw that I had three spam messages. Heading to the spam area, I saw with dismay that one of them was titled “Activate now.” Gulp. Perhaps someone had taken note of our friend Ben’s penchant for napping. Clearly, they felt that I was not adequately activated. Bemused and feeling guilty, I clicked on the message to see what it had to say.

As you market-savvy readers have doubtless deduced, it was actually an offer for a credit card. Gee! Just what I always wanted, especially in hard times: another line of credit, another inducement to spend money I don’t have, another source of debt. Thanks, but no thanks. It all reminded me of that classic cartoon about the Dalai Lama’s birthday, when he opens a big, beribboned box in front of all his monks, who are smiling with anticipation. Looking inside, he exclaims delightedly, “Nothing! Just what I always wanted!”

So, credit-card marketers, please: Don’t call me. And don’t waste your time hanging by the phone hoping I’ll call you.

Just the same, our friend Ben felt a sudden surge of urgency after reading that headline. Maybe I’ll head off and clean the birdcages, change the fish filters, fill the outdoor birdfeeders, sweep the leaves off the deck (for the thousandth time this week), pay some bills, catch up on the news, make some long-overdue calls. Activate now! Words to live by.

The collectors’ graveyard. October 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

Silence Dogood here. Usually, I love going to thrift stores—Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the like. To me, it’s like going on a treasure hunt: You just never know what you’ll find, and often, your treasure costs 48 cents. Even when I’m feeling financially strapped, I can convince myself that it’s okay to spend 48 cents on a new kitchen gadget or a basket for my shells or an attractive picture frame or a colorful multi-strand bead bracelet for my little niece.

Last time our friend Ben and I visited our local Goodwill, we saw two matching sofas that were not just in great shape, they were actually great-looking. The fullsize sofa cost $25; its matching loveseat, $20. We stopped in to the nearby Big Lots after that to look (in vain) for a floor lamp for Ben, and saw that their hideous sofas cost closer to $300. And that’s still a bargain compared to going into a furniture store or buying a sofa through a catalogue, when prices tend to start (if you’re lucky) at double that figure. Good luck finding sofas that look as good as the ones we saw at Goodwill at any price! I was practically in tears when we left the store, but no, we didn’t need any sofas and we didn’t buy any.

One thing we do need on a regular basis is clothes, and thrift stores are a great place to buy them, as long as you’re more concerned about fit and attractiveness than current fashion. Over the years, I’ve bought skirts, tops, tee-shirts, purses, and winter jackets for pennies on the dollar. I’ve found fun tie-dyed tee-shirts, which our friend Ben and I both love, for less than a dollar, and many of Ben’s beloved Hawai’ian shirts (he insists on pure cotton, no rayon) have gotten a second life when we rescued them from the thrift-store racks. Ever since I read that, even if no new shirts were ever manufactured again, there would be enough shirts to clothe all humanity until the end of time, I vowed to buy as many of our clothes second-hand as I possibly could. Why add to the merchandising glut?

So yes, usually I find shopping at a thrift store fun and relaxing. And I especially enjoy it when I also have a bag of things to drop off before I shop. De-cluttering and shopping, all at the same convenient location. Life is good!

But my last trip to our local Goodwill made me sad. That was because I saw three different collections offered for sale. They were all cheap trinkets—miniature mugs with travel destinations emblazened on them, porcelain thimbles, miniature animal figurines. None would have cost their owner much to collect, but it was very obvious that all had been lovingly accumulated and cherished over a lifetime. Now, here they were at Goodwill.

Somehow, I couldn’t convince myself that the owner of these lovingly accumulated assemblages of junk had decided to unload them and move on. No, the collections spoke of loving, attentive accumulation, someone whose desire to commemorate her life was greater than her taste or bank account. I could only, sadly, conclude that the previous owner of these so-called collectibles was now either in assisted living, in a nursing home, or no longer here at all. I could see why her children or heirs wouldn’t want to hang on to Ma’s collections. In fact, I’m sure they couldn’t wait to get rid of them. So here they were, languishing on the Goodwill shelves, where nobody seemed to be rushing to snap them up, either.

This smote me to the heart. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears, staring at those piles of pointless trinkets. Someone’s life story was lying before me on a cluttered thrift-store shelf. Someone had spent years commemorating every trip, every triumph, with these trinkets, only to have her life put up for sale to the lowest bidder. 

Our friend Ben and I are also collectors. We collect everything from Pueblo pottery and cookbooks to rocks, shells, and fossils. No, we don’t think our collections will someday grace a thrift shop’s shelves. But we wonder what will become of them. And we wonder what became of the collector of mini-mugs, ceramic thimbles, and tiny animal figurines. In heaven, on earth, we wish her well.

       ‘Til next time,

              Silence

Fabulous easy salad dressing. October 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
Tags: , , ,
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Silence Dogood here (again). I wanted to share this recipe with you all before I forget. Last night, I took the famous Ultimate Mac’n’Cheese to our Friday Night Supper Club at our hosts’ request. (You can find the recipe by searching our blog for my earlier post, “The ultimate mac’n’cheese,” and can find out more about the Friday Night Supper Club on my earlier post “The Friday Night Supper Club”.) Our hosts had invited a new couple to last night’s dinner, and they arrived with a fabulous salad and a jar of the most delicious salad dressing. Oh, yum!

I of course asked Angie to tell me about her dressing, and her answer was a revelation. “I start out with store-brand ranch dressing,” she confessed. “I use two-thirds ranch dressing to one-third really good olive oil. Then I add the juice from a lemon, cracked black pepper, put the lid on the jar, and shake. That’s all there is to it.”

Geez. That’s all there is to it! While waiting for Carolyn to cook the broad beans, we were all dipping cherry tomatoes and lettuce leaves into the jar of dressing. Let me tell you it made an absolutely delicious veggie dip as well! In my experience, shortcuts, the “almost homemade” techniques, often backfire. But not this time. Try it, you will like it! In fact, I think you’ll be as amazed as I was. I’ve already put store-brand ranch dressing on my grocery list!

           ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

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