Category Archives: Fall

On starting my fortieth year, and fall color.

I turned 39 yesterday. It was not terribly traumatic. I got my very own key lime pie, my very own Great Harvest Bread Company baguette, and a new Barefoot Contessa cookbook. (Remember last week when I said the end of daylight savings time was making me hungry? Someone around here was listening.)  I got to go out to dinner and the movies with friends, and I received hundreds of e-mails via Facebook . A good day all around.

An old high school friend asked, in his e-mail via Facebook, if this was indeed the “big one.” I thought about what my response should be.  Should I build myself up by putting him down? (No way, I’m WAY younger than you). Should I joke about the impending doom of turning forty?  (Not yet.  I have a year’s stay of execution). Should I bury my head in the sand and pretend it will never happen? (The big one? What’s that? I intend to be 39 forever.) And then I decided to borrow some words of wisdom from my younger brother. Why don’t I just copy and paste the email HE sent me for my birthday. “Happy Birthday, old bag.
You have a BIG one next year…but don’t forget that you’re now in your 40th year of life!”

Overlooking the “old bag” comment (David, all I have to say to that is:  59-28), I do like his inadvertent positive message. Today is the first day of my 40th year on this planet. Today should be the first day of one big celebration. Next year’s “big one” could be a depressing passage into middle age, or it could be the culmination of a great year of reflection and achievement and joy. This is what I choose.

Okay – so why all the fall foliage pictures? Decidedly NOT as a metaphor for entering the autumn of my years. That really would be depressing. No, they are there because they make me happy. The foliage has been gorgeous in Philadelphia this fall. Is it the angle of the sun this time of year that makes the sky bluer, the greens greener and the trees phenomenally gorgeous?   My kids and neighbors think I’ve truly gone round the bend as I frequently park my car in the middle of the street to jump out with my camera.

I even love it when the leaves fall. They paper the streets with beauty and uncover the bones of the trees. It’s like having new sculptures installed in my neighborhood every day. And the trees unveil themselves in such perfect succession – some have been bare for weeks, others  still hang on to every leaf, waiting to make a grand entrance right before Thanksgiving.

So, I will celebrate the transition from fall to winter and I will celebrate the transition from 39 to 40.  I think I’ll start right now by making some dinner from my new cookbook. Yum.

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Book Review: “52 Loaves” by William Alexander

I’ve been cooking up a storm lately. Beet and carrot salad last night, a new pasta sauce tonight, homemade pizza for tomorrow. I blame it on the end of daylight savings time. All this darkness makes me hungry. What better time than now to read a book all about baking bread?

Before I start talking about Bill Alexander’s new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust, I must stop and ask if you’ve read his first book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. Have you read it? If your answer is no, stop right now, open a new tab on your internet browser, go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your favorite indie book store and order it. It’s a fabulously funny and well written memoir on the trials and joys of building a new garden, from negotiating with the gorgeous young landscape designer to battling a devious woodchuck to harvesting, finally, that precious, perfect brandywine tomato.

Okay, now assuming that you’ve either read this first memoir or that it is on its way to you via UPS, I will move on to his second book, 52 Loaves. (Forgive me. No subtitle this time). Not being much of a baker myself, I picked this book up on the strength of his gardening memoir. Now, I want to be a baker. Alexander decides to spend a year trying to recreate the perfect loaf of “peasant bread” that he tasted in a she-she New York restaurant. As year progresses, he grows, harvests and grinds his own wheat. He mines the expertise of well known bakers around the world. He bakes bread in a monastery in France and a communal oven in Morocco. He builds his own wood-fire clay oven. He educates about the history of bread, the chemistry of bread, the cultural significance of bread, the love of bread.

I spent about a week reading this book, and my quality of life experienced a boost during that time. I felt, as much as learning tons about bread, that I looked through a window into another life. It’s a pretty normal life, just with ambitious interests and a great writing voice. Alexander writes, but also has a real job, a family, a house to take care of, a garden to tend. And he responds to e-mail! I know that facebook and e-mail and twitter have made the world small and connections easy, but it is still pretty amazing to look up an address on a website, send an e-mail (Hi Bill, Liked your book), and then get a response the next day (Hi Kelly, Glad you enjoyed it.). There is still something for me about a published author that seems mysterious and distant and beyond my reach. I’m not going to lie: that personal interaction thrilled me. My kids thought it was cool too, and made them thinking about actually sending those “letter to the author” book reports to their favorites.

So, I highly recommend spending a week or so with my friend Bill (We’ve emailed. Doesn’t that make us friends?). You’ll enjoy it. And I bet you’ll be inspired by one of his lessons learned: “Choose one thing you care about and resolve to do it well. Whether you succeed or not, you will be better for the effort.”

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Superstars in the Background

Years ago, we ripped out a poison ivy-riddled forsythia hedge that separated the back garden from the neighbor’s back yard. The poison ivy clearly added no charm, and the five foot wide hedge cramped the style of the 20 foot deep garden. So – out came the hedge and in went the four-foot picket fence. Now the question: what would be the perfect vine to climb the fence, soften the boundary and create some privacy?

After a year of the annual hyacinth bean vine (which proved gorgeous but slightly ill-behaved and slightly poisonous), I chose coral honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens). This native beauty remains, as its Latin name indicates, semi-evergreen here in zone 6b, so it continues to provide some privacy even when everything else bares its bones. So, quite adequate for winter. But boy, does it satisfy the other three seasons. It greens up in early spring, then, around April, sends out a waterfall of coral blossoms that colors my spring garden and sings its siren song to the neighborhood hummingbirds. It continues to bloom all season long – even now in November, I have some blossoms. This year, I’ve noticed a bonus fall feature – beautiful red berries which I assume will last for the next few months.

As if the blooms and the berries weren’t enough, the foliage is two toned: warm green on the front of the leaf, silvery on the back. The effect is a variegated look that adds depth and texture to what is, underneath, a boring wood fence.

Oh, and it’s native to the eastern U.S., so it grows to a nice 20 feet but doesn’t take over the world like it’s yellow cousin, lonicera japonica.

All this perfection and I use it as a background plant? Afraid it’s true. What a luxury, though, to have a true superstar in the background. What decadence to have a plant you can count on to tie your garden together, to bloom without coddling, to fill in the holes when other specimens prove finicky. It’s like having a true friend who you talk to sporadically and see rarely, but who you know is there nonetheless.

I am blessed to have a few such friends, but one has been on my mind of late. We met during our first week of college when we both turned up to watch Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park in a hallmate’s dorm room. We ended up living together for the next three years, years that saw changes in majors, changes in boyfriends, and two young women finishing their growing up. Since college we enjoyed just a few years of living in the same town, but most of the time has been spent a half-day’s car ride, a cross-country plane ride, or a transatlantic flight apart. With two husbands, seven children, one and a half jobs, loads of responsibilities and the entire continental United States between us, our talks are rare and our visits rarer. And yet, we remain close friends.  A quick phone call last week reminded me of the important role she plays in my life. Because of 20 years of friendship, 15 minutes on the phone was enough to get to real things, not just the surface stuff we’re stuck with a lot of the time.

I appreciate the superstars who sometimes live in the background – of my garden and of my life. They add beauty, depth and stability. My world wouldn’t be the same without them.

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Perfection, c’est impossible.

One thing I love about gardening is that you, the gardener, cannot be held fully responsible for the finished product. Sure, you can prep and plant and prune to your heart’s delight, but ultimately, it is the plant, the weather, the soil, the angle of the sun that determines the final outcome. I conclude that it is impossible to be a perfectionist in the garden.

Which works just fine for me, because perfectionism and I just don’t jive. Take my latest home improvement project.  I decided to paint my son’s bedroom. This was no ordinary paint job. An industrious previous owner of my home decided, I’m guessing sometime in the ’50s, to convert said bedroom into wood paneled den, complete with a wall of custom built book shelves, a built-in desk, and  tv / record player cabinets., all in natural pine.  I removed half of the built-ins, but was left with two walls of knotty pine, one wall of shelving and one wall full of holes where the tv cabinet used to be. Oh, and water damage on the ceiling. So I sanded. I caulked. I mudded. I spackled.  I learned how to patch large holes in drywall.  (Check it out. Brilliant. ) And then, after a violent rain uncovered a serious masonry problem in our chimney, I mudded and sanded some more.

Ugh.

Finally it was time to paint. I realized, as I was rushing through this step, that I was rushing through this step. All that prep work was essential, but would be for naught if I rushed the final steps.  I always start out with the greatest of intentions, but fade when the project drags on longer than my energy burst.  And then it hit me:  this is why I love to garden.  I start out all jazzed up.  I add compost, I dig all the rocks out of the soil, and then toss in  a bulb or some seeds.  But then magic happens. All that prep is just right for the living organism that will turn itself into art.  Heck, I didn’t even plant the grape tomatoes that have graced my table for the last few months. They volunteered in my neglected but very well prepared raised vegetable bed.

When you come to visit, you will stay in the nice looking but decidedly imperfect green bedroom with white trim. You will eat, however, fabulous grape tomatoes. It really is great to share the responsibility. Try this Pico de Gallo recipe from Emiril Lagase. It will make your perfect tomatoes even better.

Ingredients

  • 1  1/2 cups seeded, diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 1 tablespoon diced jalapenos
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, plus extra for garnish
  • Salt and pepper

In a bowl combine all ingredients.

Yum.

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