nutmeg

Pumpkin pie season is upon us. Time to pull those familiar, readily accessible and relatively inexpensive spices off the shelf—-cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.   In my mother’s kitchen, whole nutmegs were stored in a bear-shaped glass jar once filled with Domino ‘Sugar ‘n Cinnamon.’   She liked the bear container and reused it, not as a matter of thrift, per se, but for pleasure. If she lived in New Amsterdam in the 1660s, she would have locked her precious nutmegs away, according to the historian Janet Zimmerman.

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Indeed, the nutmeg tree was

“…native to only a single spot on the planet: the tiny volcanic island of Run in the south of the Banda Sea [surrounding a large part of the Indonesian archipelago]. Hyperbolic western herbalists credited the nutmeg with prolonging life, health, and youth; depending on one’s written source, the nutmeg was the ultimate aphrodisiac or the complete cure-all. All of Europe’s seafaring powers hoped to obtain their own nutmeg tree with which to start plantations outside the Dutch-controlled Moluccas.”

In the kitchens of New Amsterdam, nutmeg found its way into both savory and sweet dishes. In his latest informative, exquisite book, The New American Herbal, Stephen Orr provides a recipe for “an old Dutch spice” Koekkruiden,

2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, preferably freshly grated
2 teaspoons of ground ginger
4 cardamon pods, crushed,
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds 

When preparing your Koekkrudien, take a moment and roll one of those tiny nutmegs around in your hands, as I just did, recalling how cheap and easy it was to purchase, as are many commodities in our day and age. In contrast, I remembered that the prized nutmeg once commanded a ridiculously high price and precipitated bloody battles on the far-flung island of Run (part of modern day Indonesia).

Janet Zimmerman, The Women of the House: how a colonial she-merchant built a mansion, a fortune, and a dynasty, (Harcourt Books, 2006), pg.23.

Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: a story of science, the high seas and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, (Crown Publishers, 2010), pg. 199.

Stephen Orr, The New American Herbal, (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2014), pgs. 37

mended

The thermometer’s mercury slid to a new seasonal low this morning, 16 degrees F.  Thankfully, outdoor chores—putting the garden to bed, storing onions and garlic, drying goldenrod and mugwort, raking leaves, and storing hoses, etc.—have been completed and my mind turns to the roster of indoor tasks: mending, sewing, weaving and knitting.

My friend Audra Wolowiec sent me a treasure in the post—a piece of fabric purchased at a yard sale with lovely mending. What causes one to repair, and once darned, to save, store and cherish? Earlier generations were trained to mend and darn; an exquisite 1711 darning sampler found in the Cooper Hewitt’s collection provides visual testament to both skill and beauty. The description reads like a poetry: “…fifteen mending crosses and two corner mends, with picot edgings, a center GD 1711, surmounted by a crown.”

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Even though I received my Girl Scout badge for sewing and attempted many embroidery stitches as a teenager, my hands lack the skills to complete the delicate inter-lacings of thread. Proudly, I recently completed my Alabama Chanin D.I.Y. skirt, and although there are thousands of stitches on this skirt, their lack of consistency compels me to become more proficient in the needle arts. Where do I find a school that will teach me the stitches outlined in Catherine Beecher’s 1843 book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy:

“Every young girl should be taught to do the following kinds of stitch, with propriety. Overstitch, hemming, running, felling, stitching, back-stitch and run, button-stitch, chain-stitch, whipping, darning, gathering and cross-stitch.”

If I lived in United Kingdom, I would register for Tom van Deijnen’s darning class in just two day’s time in Dalston, London. Van Deijnen started The Visible Mending Programme, which:

“…seeks to highlight that the art and craftsmanship of clothes repair is particularly relevant in a world where more and more people voice their dissatisfaction with fashion’s throwaway culture. By exploring the story behind the garment and repair, the Programme reinforces the relationship between the wearer and garment, leading to people wearing existing clothes for longer, with the beautiful darn being worn as a badge of honor.”

Indeed, why not accent the mending on one’s beloved sweater, for example, with contrasting thread, thus reinforcing both metaphorically and literally, its importance? After all, does a garment really need to be discarded due to a hole or rip?

“Darning Sampler, 1711.” https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18345433/, Accessed on November 19, 2014.

Mirra Bank, Anonymous Was A Woman: A celebration in words and images of tradition American art—and the women who made it, (St. Martin’s Press, 1979), pg. 24.

“About Tom Holland.” http://tomofholland.com/about/, Tom van Deijnen, accessed on November 19, 2014.

seasonal

Our beloved CSA comes to an end this week, at least for this season. Since June, we have made weekly pilgrimages to Indian Line Farm, which is situated in a verdant valley below the Taconic Mountain range. Once your feet hit the earth here, and you look up at the mountains, stress seems to wash away and your mouth begins to water as you glance at the current week’s offerings. Most of the produce is picked and ready for us, but we also go out into the field to pick green beans, cherry tomatoes and husk cherries, as well as stunning bouquets of flowers. At the farm, and then when we sit down at our dining room table, we give thanks to Elizabeth and her crew for their efforts.

Our summer subscription starts off with many delightful greens, and we eagerly await the almost ripe tomatoes grown in the long tunneled hoop house. We mark the season with the farm, embracing zucchinis and eggplants, and now we appreciate root vegetables and hardier greens.

Eating seasonal food in the season it is produced is nothing new, for prior to modern methods of canning and freezing, one either ate food directly from the garden or from the stored vegetables in the root cellar. Though one can purchase Asparagus officinalis and Fragaria x ananassa at the grocery and consume these all year along, we instead cherish the long fresh spikes of asparagus in May and the plump red strawberries in June.

my collection of Ambrose Heath books

my collection of Ambrose Heath books

Persephone Books has just published Ambrose Heath’s The Country Life Cookery Book with illustrations by Eric Ravilious. Heath (1891-1969), a much renowned British journalist, wrote over 70 cookbooks as well as countless newspaper columns on food. In his preface to this new edtion, Simon Hopkinson notes:

“Seasonal is simply how it was. Those of my grandparents’ generation, as well as that of Mr. Heath, knew nothing else other than, say, the purchase of a pound of leeks from the greengrocer in winter; followed by no leeks at all, all summer long……seasonal cookery writing is all the rage, now, but this was not always so. “

Already we look forward to next year’s progression of vegetables with Indian Line Farm, and for now, we will turn to our hoop house for winter greens and lettuces. Now on our trips to the grocers, I try hard not to eat out of season.

 The Persephone Biannually, No 16 Autumn/Winter 2014-15, pg.4

NOTE: Persephone Books publishes “reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.” Each of their 110 books is a delight to hold in your hand with its elegant “dove-grey jacket, fabric endpaper” and matching bookmark. I adore those bookmarks and cherish them. If you are in London, a visit to their store at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street is a must.

 

saving time and making light

Sunday marks the beginning of ‘Daylight Savings Time.’ DST is an early twentieth century concept supposedly implemented to use electricity more efficiently, to utilize more of the natural light and otherwise encourage more daylight activities; just how it does these things is the subject of some controversy. What most of us would agree on is that it is disruptive.

Thankfully, we are not ‘in the dark’ whilst M is deep into a major home project. For this particular one, involving the complete re-cladding of one portion of our home, power to the house was removed and re-routed from the garage to run back to the house. We still have enough amperage to run the refrigerator, lights, furnace, and our computers but not the clothes dryer and the dehumidifier. Furthermore, we have to monitor what is running and not over-load the new power source; i.e., we turn off some lights and then run the washing machine, but we can’t use the toaster while doing a load of clothes. No big deal.

Our monitoring of lights, heat and electricity has left me pondering methods of yore most likely sparked by my first foray into candle-making a few weeks ago. My friend Jody has dipped thousands of candles, being the former proprietoress of Wax Poetic. She taught me the multi-step process: first, cut the wicks to the same length; attach six wick strands to one piece of wood; dip each group into the warm wax; hang and let dry; and then continue dipping until the desired size. This process is not much different than the one employed by the colonial housewife described by Alice Morse Earle in Home Life in Colonial Days:

“Every thrifty housewife in America saved her penny as in England. The making of the winter’s stock of candles was the special autumnal household duty, and a hard one too, for the great kettles were tiresome and heavy to handle. An early hour found the work well under way. A good fire was started in the kitchen fireplace under two vast kettles, each two feet, perhaps, in diameter, which were hung on trammels from the lug-pole or crane and half filled with boiling water and melted tallow, which had two scaldings and scimmings. At the end of the kitchen or lean-to, two large poles were laid from chair to chair or stool to stool. Across these poles were placed at regular intervals, like the rounds of a ladder, smaller sticks about fifteen or eighteen inches long, called candle-rods. These poles were saved from year to year, either in the garret or up on the kitchen beams.”

Tallow, from “…deer suet, moose fat, bear’s grease…” as well as “…every particle of grease rescued from pot liquor, or fat from meat…” was used to make candles. Beekeepers saved the wax from their hives, for this wax did not smoke as much as tallow. Earle reports that wicks were made from “…spun hemp or tow, or of cotton; from milkweed.” Over the past few weeks, the milkweed pods on our land have been spreading their seeds and their silk-down and have given me pause, for I wondered what would have been done with this resource. Today, in the daylight, I will gather some silk-down and try my hand at spinning wicks to be used for the next batch of candles in my own effort to make light.

Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days, (Grosset & Dunlap, 1898), pgs. 34-35, 38.

colonial town

This morning, I am loading up my ‘wagon’ and heading over to a nearby colonial town, Monterey, MA. My journey will end at their library where I will install my exhibition, underfoot, at the KNOX Gallery. While in town, I will of course visit the Monterey General Store, as any prudent homesteader would have done; catch up on the latest news and procure some victuals. If invited, I will continue up the hill and pay a visit to the amiable ghosts of Rev. Adonijah Bidwell and his family.

On one of my earlier visits to the Bidwell House, I read Rev. Bidwell’s 1784 death inventory. These probate records are invaluable to the researcher. From these possession lists, one can posit much about a family—their wealth, literacy and social standing.

Of course, we are continuing to look for any probate records and journals tucked in the walls of our colonial home. M’s work on re-cladding sections of our old home has not revealed any particular treasures, other than the frequent walnut stored by a little critter between studs or in the crevasses of crossbeams. Over the past year, I made and stitched many books dyed with materials from our land. Some of these books are yet empty, with lines, awaiting text. Since we cannot find any writings from Taphenese, Abigail, Lucretia, Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth or Elenora (the women of this house), I might just have to write it for them.

Note 1: underfoot is on view from October 31 until November 29 at the KNOX Gallery, Monterey Library, Monterey, MA.  Opening reception November 1 from 6-8pm and I will give a brief talk at 6pm. For visiting information, Knox Gallery/Facebook.

Note 2: Recently, I was interviewed about underfoot by Amy DuFault for the Botanical Colors Blog .

 

page turner

In my current reading, I am deep into an engaging mystery, but there is another book that has me glued to it: Nelson Coon’s Using Plants for Healing. In my continuing search for finding value in and uses for ‘weeds’ that we tread upon, yank out, openly discard and cannot even identify, I stumbled upon his book and feel lucky for it.

Methodically, he takes us on “a detour into history” tracking the use of herbs in medicine from the Pharaohs of Egypt; Hellenic Greece, where Theophrastus wrote An Enquiry into Plants in 370 B.C; Renaissance Venice where De Agricultura was printed in 1471; then the new world where the medicine of the Aztecs was “discovered”; and finally, to ‘New Netherlands’, where “…a reporter found some thirty plants which he said were valuable to the Indians, including polypody, sweetflag, sasafrass, mallow, violet, wild indigo, Solomon’s-seal, milfoil, ferns, agrimony, wild leek, snakeroot and prickly pear.” The colonists, indeed, relied upon their European knowledge, folk-remedies and Indian practices well into the nineteenth century by gathering plant material and making medicines from them. As cities and towns began to expand, access to the woods and fields for gathering became more difficult. The Shakers of New Lebanon, NY, however, planted a ‘physic garden” and “…in one season 75 tons of medicinal plants were grown, dried, pressed, and packed, and shipped to every state.”

Coon devotes a page to each medicinal herb, with an illustration, its botanical name, family name and common names, and then a lengthy description of the plant, its history and uses, and some basic recipes.

mugwort

mugwort

Charged with my new knowledge, I took a walk outdoors and discovered a huge crop of mugwort (Artemisis Absinthium) and gazed again upon bountiful spreads of plantain, mint, yarrow, nettle, sorrel, burdock and golden rod. Other plants, I noticed, were past their prime and would have to be gathered next year. Maybe it is time for me to make a ‘gathering calendar’, so as not miss out on any of the beneficial plants. Fortunately, though, I am member of an herbal CSA, Wild Wind Herbal. Marybeth and Ashley seasonally gather and dry herbs and so-called ‘weeds’ and make tinctures, salves, teas and balms, and then distribute to their shareholders for four months (July-October).

Nelson Coon, Using Plants for Healing:Featuring a Guide to over 250 Medicinal Plants, (Rodale Press, 1979), pgs. 11-23 for history.

Note for further reading: Dina Falconi, Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair: Natural and Healthy Personal Care for Every Body, (Ceres Press, 1998); many recipes for the mugwort I am harvesting today to make both a tincture and a vinegar for future uses).

revolutionary actions

Revolutionary actions take on many forms. The colonists started by tossing casks of tea into Boston Harbor; in turn, this action spiraled outward to spinning bees on town greens and the production of “homespun.”

On January 1, 2014, a ‘revolutionary act’ took place in another Massachusetts’ town—The Tailor Project. Can you imagine not buying an item of clothing, a pair of shoes or any jewelry for a year? Amy DuFault, fed up with the ‘fast fashion’ industry, decided to take on the challenge. Armed with clothing already in her closet, she teamed up with her local tailor, Kathryn Hilderbrand, of Stitched. Over the past months, Kathryn has been giving new life to garments–nipping, tucking, revamping, redesigning and tailoring them to fit Amy.

Does your town have a tailor and if so, have you ever taken a garment there? In previous decades, tailors or mantua makers were an essential part of the community.

“The early dress-makers were known as mantua-makers. Their work was supplemented by the seamstress and the tailoress. In “Recollections of Old Boston” a woman born in 1848 states, “All dresses were made in the household; the stuffs were bought in the shops…” “Sewing-women came to the house, and worked as seamstresses do today, but these women not only made the dresses for the women and girls of the household, but a tailoress came also who made the coats and trousers for the boys.” “One good dress of silk or satin or damask for best (which usually lasted for many years) and a very meagre wardrobe of gowns for daily use.”

Marla Miller describes the ‘interconnectedness’ of communities in her book, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution:

“In the give and take of rural exchange, New England needleworkers, as much as cabinetmakers, housewrights, and headstone carvers, created and sustained communities of commerce imperative to the continued health of that equilibrium, to systems as important to continuity and change in the social, economic, and cultural order as that which existed in the larger commercial world.”

The Tailor Project is both a small town and global project. DuFault seeks to bring attention to the way our clothing is made (“…garment workers rights, fast fashion, toxic effluents in the waterways, textile waste, pesticides…”) and by whom. She invokes “…a call to arms for old friends, new friends and colleagues to join in supporting their local tailor, a profession being pushed out for cheaply made and priced clothing that are much easier to throw away than to mend.”

Aren’t our closets filled to the brim? Take on Amy’s challenge, ‘shop’ in your closet, visit your tailor and sport a garment, perhaps “used” and then fitted for you. Moreover, when purchasing any new item, take note of where and who made it, and only buy from designers that support fair trade and wages. Changes in the industry and our habits start with us, one garment at time.

 

b(RE)ce for The Tailor Project

b(RE)ce for The Tailor Project

NOTE:  Recently, I participated in two Tailor Projects. First, Kathryn shortened a dress purchased in a thrift store years ago, but I had only worn once or twice due to its length. Now, it is one of my summer go-to dresses. Secondly, I eco-dyed a silk shirt for Amy, dyeing it with natural dyes.  This shirt falls into a project that I have been working on for the past two years–b(RE)ce:  the revamping of thrift store garments through the act of eco-dyeing (using homemade natural dyes with hand gathered leaves and flowers).

Elsa Shannon Bowles, Homespun Handicrafts, (Benjamin Bloom, Inc, 1972), pgs. 108-9.

Marla Miller,  The Needles Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), pgs. 228-9.  Miller thoroughly examines the global trade world in the last chapter, The Romance of Old Clothes.

Amy DuFault, http://www.amydufault.com/?p=137529, Read on 8/8/2104.

tea at Tasha’s

One often finds the useful in unexpected places. We go each week to the town “transfer station”, aka, the dump. Placed near the bins for garbage and recycling are a set of rambling metal shelves where useful items are deposited for the taking. Most of the time, there is nothing to bring home, but one day I found not only a pair of wellingtons that fit perfectly, but a copy of Tasha Tudor’s Garden.

As a child, I repeatedly read Tudor’s books with avid interest, but it was not until I thumbed through the pages of my new find that I realized her life and work were one in the same. The illustrations that so fascinated me as a child were in fact drawn from her real life. And, the real life gardens around her house that were photographed in my recent find captivated me, not only for their seasonal offerings, but for the absolute stunning painterly landscape they made for the eye—clumps of lupines, irises, poppies. Even though we live in a 1753 house, over the last fifty or sixty years its landscape had been transformed to something more like a suburban lawn. Shortly after we moved here, we began to transform our plot of land into something more natural, seasonal, and beneficial to the birds, bees and other insects; that is, into something now referred to as permaculture.

Wouldn’t it be a rich experience to go and see Tasha Tudor’s home? Upon further investigation, I learned that there are tours of Corgi Cottage, but these coveted tickets are quickly snapped up by her most ardent fans. One can, however, visit the Tasha Tudor Museum located in West Brattleboro, VT, and we found ourselves somewhat unexpectedly walking through the door there a few weeks ago after a pleasant visit with close friends.

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We were greeted by a woman dressed in Tudor’s style, with long dress and apron. She invited us to watch a video about Tudor’s life (1915-2008) whilst sipping steaming cups of properly brewed tea served in china cups. The video allows one to be present with Tudor as she talks candidly about her life while she walks through the landscape, tends her chickens and goats, or sits by the wood stove sketching by candlelight. Before leaving, we marveled at the objects on view in the summer exhibition, “From Scratch: Tasha’s Handmade Life.”

On our drive home, we discussed how we might live a bit more closer to the land and continue to further transform our farm for the mutual benefit of nature and ourselves. Ultimately, we gleaned that Tudor’s life was whole, meaning that her art and life were one, and perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.

“tag sale time”

It is summer, and so tag sales abound. In our favorite weekly, The Shopper’s Guide, we scour the tag sale listings, circling ones that seem to have potential. We search for older items, not necessarily antiques, but objects that might fill a purpose for the farm chores, or something that can be useful in the studio–old linens ripe to be invigorated by natural dyes, old pots for their immersion and wooden drying racks for curing. Occasionally, we get fooled by the descriptions and find ourselves amidst puffy pink and purple plastic; from such, we leave posthaste.

A few weeks ago, this advertisement caught my eye:

BARN SALE:  100 years of stuff must go.  Antique farm implements, spinning wheel and looms, old tools, old sewing machine table, single bed frame and new futons, books, wooden chairs, textiles, knick-knacks and crazy stuff.”

Off we set on a spectacular morning–vivid blue skies, a gentle breeze and no humidity. We arrived shortly after 8 am, the start of the sale. The aged barn was filled with boxes and bins, looms, tools, indeed everything as described, but one thing was not listed: a feeling, an aura. By going to a tag sale, one receives a glimpse, an image, an impression of the person through the items that person kept. Being in this particular barn, surrounded by a collection of used tools, implements, and collections, was not time traveling but essence-gathering. What a pleasure it would have been to share with the former resident a cup of tea, wind some yarn, and learn about some of the natural cures and remedies, and solutions to particular challenges, that some of these objects signified. I found myself just stopping and soaking it all in. Being in her barn was a gift, and one could tell that she lived by her principles, of and off the land. She had not been swept up in the never-ending morass of consumerism, but instead sought ways to live a simple and direct life.

From talking with the organizers, I learned who this extraordinary woman was and recalled having met her. Whenever she came into the Library, I noted her, especially for her beautifully woven, textured and layered garments. And so it was that the looms in the barn were used to weave the fabric she wore, and the sewing patterns that I perused at the sale had formed the basis for her clothes. Indeed, it seems that she made her life, through a true, homemade, thoughtful existence.

Ever since this tag sale morning, I find myself periodically taking a deep breath, closing my eyes and walking back into that barn, trying to squeeze one more drop out of the memory. Not only that, but I am attempting to start walking a bit differently, shedding and paring, and looking a bit more closely, and questioning how one chooses to live one’s life.

In his book, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of the Shelter, Howard Mansfield walks one through centuries of houses, exploring the nooks and crannies and the whys and wherefores of dwelling, both in the physical and in the metaphorical.

“All houses are houses of dreams, said Gaston Bachelard, the philosopher-poet of dwelling.  We live in houses and so we dream houses.  We daydream there and daydream about them.  They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves.  They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe.  A good house is a good daydreaming space.  It is the universe, he says.”

Howard Mansfield , Dwelling in Possibility Searching for the Soul of the Shelter, (Bauhan Publishing, 2013), pg. 17.

how-to-manuals

Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of Cherry Jones reading to me. She beautifully narrates Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of Little House books, giving each character a distinct voice. The Ingalls family moved across the United States territories from Kansas to Minnesota and finally to the Dakota territory, experiencing extraordinary hardships but seemingly always making the best. At times, I wonder if Wilder made events more joyful, perhaps even sugar-coating some of her recollections; but then the locusts eat the carefully tended crops, or the blizzard encases their house for days, and I know better. These books are fiction, biography and a how-to manual all at once. If one wants to live ruggedly off the land, settle a homestead, build a cabin, establish a garden, plant crops, break horses, harvest hay, put up food, sew and alter garments and much more, listen or read the Little House books, making notes as you go.

Perhaps you might prefer instead a more traditional manual, with interviews, diagrams and recipes, and for this I recommend the Foxfire series. When these books appeared in the ‘70s, I gobbled them up, just as I had done with Wilder’s books. In 1966, Eliot Wigginton, a young high school teacher on his first job at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School (in Rabun Gap, GA), pitched an idea for starting “Foxfire Magazine” out of desperation when his traditional classroom teaching efforts failed. He sent his students to interview their relatives, hoping not only to capture methods and memories, but also to rekindle relationships. Their project was wildly successful and one can subscribe to “Foxfire Magazine today (now at Issue 47).

Wigginton writes about his students in the introduction:

“Suddenly they discover their families—previously people to be ignored in the face of the seventies—as pre-television, pre-automobile, pre-flight individuals who endured and survived the incredible task of total self-sufficiency, and came out of it all with a perspective on ourselves as a country that we are not likely to see again. They have something to tell us about self-reliance, human interdependence, and the human spirit that we would do well to listen to.”

The time seems ripe again to glean techniques and methods from these books and magazines, and put them to use wherever we live.

The Little House series read by Cherry Jones on Harper Collins Audio.

The Foxfire Book hog dressing, log cabin building, mountain crafts and foods, planting by the signs, snake lore, hunting tales, faith healing, moonshining and other affairs of plain living, edited with an Introduction by Eliot Wigginton, (Anchor Books, 1972), pgs. 13, 11.

NOTE:  If one would like to see Cherry Jones on stage, she is currently appearing in “When We Were Young and Unafraid” at City Center, NY, NY running until August 10. Recent New York Times review

SECOND NOTE:  Abigail Doan recently interviewed me for her blog about the project Lost in Fiber.