Relishing the Last of Summer

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Green tomatoes may be battered and fried, as in the Fannie Flagg book, but I like them most in my grandmother’s sweet relish.  It’s been an eon since the last (and only) time I made it myself, so I take advantage of our bumper tomato crop, borrow my mother’s galvanized food grinder, buy the rest of the veggies, and dig in.

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I begin cutting peppers, tomatoes and onions to feed into the hopper as I crank the wooden handle to force them out of the circular holes. A simple machine, an inclined plane, it is still fascinating to watch as it pushes piles of mush into the pan below.

And the juice!  It drips around the vegetables, but also onto the floor like the perspiration onto my ears. Who’d have thought onions would have the most juice of all?

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There is something about a kitchen completely absorbed in putting up food the old-fashioned way. Pans are large. Knives are sharp. One sink is full of seeds and pulp. The top of the stove is completely covered as steam rises from sterilized jars. The floor grows sticky.

Holding onto the crank with one hand and the vise with the other, I watch the outdoors.  Ruby, the hummingbird, pauses in front of the patio door to let me know her juice is empty.  Flower hues, a bit more subdued than the day before, still dance in a faint breeze.  There is time to think.

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But the rest of the work is waiting.  The vegetables go into the pot, joined by sugar, vinegar and a cheesecloth bag full of spices.  They simmer and are soon ready to be poured into jars.

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If you are curious about what goes into this savory mixture, or if you by chance would like to try making some yourself, here is Grandma Porter’s recipe.  I am fortunate to have a copy in her left-handed script:

Sweet Pepper Relish

1 dozen green peppers

1 dozen red peppers

1 dozen green tomatoes

3 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 pint water

1 1/2 pints apple cider vinegar

salt to taste

pickling spices

Grind vegetables and cover with boiling water.  Let stand five minutes and drain.  Add sugar, water, vinegar, and salt.  Gather pickling spices into a cheesecloth bag and put in.  Cook for 15 minutes.  Remove the bag of spices, pour into jars and seal (jars and lids have been scalded in boiling water bath).

Oh – and I make half a recipe.  The whole thing would be out of my league.




What’ll You Give?

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Nowhere may be found more condensed treasure than at an auction. When the event is a family member’s, sweetness and sadness push in all at once.

I observed several things on the Saturday estate sale of a dear aunt. The turnout of townspeople just because they knew her. Family history traipsing in and out of rows of chairs, cabinets and pretty dishes.  Stone crocks and comforters used in daily housekeeping one hundred years past.

Sun and a nice breeze came in waves as the house on the corner stood looking out of its 1890 stained glass windows at curious antiques dealers, friends and relatives. In one ring the caller echoed, “What’ll you give…” against another ring as helpers in both places fielded the bids.

There were clues left about some pieces: notes, in drawers and pinned to quilt tops. Others had to speak their age and origin for themselves.

More recent momentos: ice skates worn on the holidays at the frozen pond down the road from the farm. Toys from the Fifties and Sixties well used by brothers, sisters and cousins.

Some things went high; some did not. I should have bought another chair. I should have separated a pair of high-buttoned shoes and a piece of irreplaceable artwork by my grandmother from boxes whose contents went above my bids.

“What’ll you give” for the memories and one’s heritage?  They are without  a price.  You cannot pay for such things.

Darn It

Does anyone do mending anymore?

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Someone wondered what one of the props was on an old TV show.  She thought it was a light bulb.  “It’s a darning egg,” someone else said.

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Of course — a darning egg.  A wooden oblong form to jam into a sock to have something to stitch over when you’re mending a heel or toe.  In use 1905.

But we don’t mend much after supper by the fire anymore. I buy new socks and use the holey ones for dust rags. When I lose a button off a shirt, it goes on top of my sewing basket for a few months.  When pants have shrunk up and their hem needs to be let out, I hang them up and forget about them.  And if jeans have a small rip, in today’s fashion world, all the better.  Most everyone hopes it will get bigger instead of hiding it until it can be fixed.

Love this idea for fixing holes in jeans--a great way to showcase some easy needleweaving. #weaving


The rule is, for sewing on a button, use two threads; for a hem, a single.  When darning a sock (or jeans like the cute example above), stitch a row of parallel thread or yarn across the hole, and weave another row at a right angle, just like those placemats in elementary school.

It’s just not like it used to be.  Thimbles are much smaller now (Was anyone else ticked off when they took that token off Monopoly?) and they make the holes in needles so hard to find.  Manufacturers of sewing supplies must be responsible.  It couldn’t be me.


Poster Children


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President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information for promoting America’s role in World War 1 was headed by George Kreel, a Missouri newspaperman, who directed its 37 different divisions.  One of these, “Pictoral Publicity,” produced more than 1,000 designs for posters, cartoons and sculptures that are left for us to ponder a century later.

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A wide variety of artists worked on the posters, many of which are stunning examples of Art Nouveau.  Hues of varying shade and intensity jump from the paper, advertising the draft, bond drives, rationing and victory gardens.

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There are so many, I chose to look at some with children as their subjects.  The colors used here are soft and happy.  Messages are lighter than the rest: help Uncle Sam (whose image was just making its debut) win, ask your daddy to buy war bonds, or help our daddy “over there” by doing the same.

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What can we learn from this artwork, emphemera of history?  Certainly the design of these and more stark examples can be studied and even admired.  But the real lesson is in their intent.  Americans must do their duty.  Americans must help.  War is necessary for the good of all.

By using childish images to persuade adults, and making appeals to the youngest of audiences, did Creel cross the line?

The children of 1917 are gone.  Their children are almost gone.  The number and kinds of media which target today’s kids have exploded.  It takes even more care now to protect young minds from things on which adults have trouble making up their own.

A grave task it is, educating others about the ploys of mass media.








John Hay

“. . . A little after midnight as I was writing . . . , the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood’s works in his hand to show Nico[lay] & me the little Caricature ‘An unfortunate Bee-ing,’ seemingly utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging about his long legs & setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is. Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own fame & future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhomie & good fellow ship that he gets out of bed & perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun. . . . ”

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The short young man whose 1862 cabinet card showed him to be even younger was foremost a writer.  His diary entries, like the one above, and poems attest to it.  A long biography of our most revered president which he co-authored quickly sold 5,000 copies.  After becoming a top government official in later life, he must have thought himself a bad luck charm, because four chief executives whom he worked for were assassinated. He was John Hay.

John’s Uncle Milton worked next door to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, and asked his nephew to work on the 1860 campaign.  Just a few years older than Lincoln’s son Robert, Hay became a favorite with the president-elect and was hired as a second secretary, in addition to John Nicolay.  Because there was only room in the budget for one position, his official paycheck came from the Agriculture Department.
One biographer has called him the “court jester” of the administration, as he could supply a little humor to soften the hard blows of the Civil War.  “Now John, just tell that thing again,” Lincoln said once when his young friend had brought up a joke.  They would ride together in the afternoon and dine at the Soldiers’ Home in the evening.
After Lincoln’s death Hay returned to journalism and worked for newspapers.  He married a girl from a wealthy Cleveland family, Clara Stone, and so had no financial worries thereafter.  For twenty years, with their diaries and private papers loaned to them by Robert Lincoln, he and Nicolay collaborated on the biography.  When it came out in 1895 it was sold door to door, a common practice then, and became an immediate classic.
 About the same time the ten-volume biography was published, John Hay built a mansion in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park at the corner of H and 16th Streets.  It was adjacent to his best friend’s place of equivalent architecture and cost.  He and Henry Adams hosted a salon of the most interesting people in the capital, including Theodore Roosevelt, who’d been a family friend to both before his fast-rising career in politics.

Hay was Secretary of State under William McKinley and was asked to remain when Roosevelt inherited the top position.  He famously referred to the Spanish-American conflict as “a splendid little war,” owing to its brief length.  The achievement he is remembered for is the Open Door Policy for all nations to trade with China.

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John Hay died in 1905 at age 66.  On the occasion of Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration earlier in the year, he’d presented the president with a gold ring containing a strand of Abraham Lincoln’s hair.  He felt a responsibility to share what he’d experienced, stating in the introduction to Abraham Lincoln: A History, “The young men who have been born since Sumter was fired on have right to all their elders know of the important events they came too late to share.”
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At dinners at the Soldiers’ Home during the Civil War, Lincoln liked to read from Shakespeare’s Richard II.  Hay remembered that the terrible outbreak of grief and despair had a particular fascination for him:
“For heaven’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings
All murdered from within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples…”
(The site of the H. H. Richardson mansions close to the White House is now occupied by the posh Hay-Adams Hotel, in which original paneling from Hay’s home may be seen in a meeting room. Theodore Roosevelt’s gold ring is on display at the Sagamore Hill Historic Site in Oyster Bay, Long Island.)

Amazing Audubon Photos

I can only guess how the judges determined the best entries for the eighth annual Audubon Photo Awards.  Over 5,000 camera bugs from 49 states and eight Canadian provinces submitted their work, some of which has been put on display at the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

The best thing to do is just sit back and enjoy them.

From top left, above, Gentoo Penguin by Deborah Albert (overall winner), Great Gray Owl by Steve Mattheis, Carmine Bee-eater by Zachary Webster (youth), Mute Swan by Christopher Schlaf, Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese by Karen R. Schuenenmann, and Varied Thrush by Heather Roskelley.

Work from other photographers in the best 100, above: Gary Rolinette, Carole Wiley, Brian Genge, Nancy Gaudiro (my personal favorite, a duck), Ralph Ganes, and Christ Hartzell.

John James Audubon, who had to rely on watercolor paints and paper to convey his images, would surely be marveling as much as we are.

To see more, including the stories behind the photographs, locations and types of cameras used, visit

A Book Club is a Book Club



From top: Katherine Paterson, Nikki Grimes, and Kate DiCamillo.

It would be hard for an author to turn down a book signing at the meeting of the American Library Association in their home base of Chicago — maybe almost as hard as it is for a reader to turn down the opportunity to go.

Last Saturday I joined hundreds weaving in and out of the bright colors of publishing house displays where prolific writers sat greeting and chatting.  Assistants passed them names to inscribe in books while they listened to stories of how much they and their work are loved.

Katherine Paterson, whom I consider the Dean of Fiction, says that reading can be “a key to a secret garden, which if tended, will transform all of life.”  Her Bridge to Terabithia as well as Jacob I Have Loved, Newbery winners for the best in children’s literature, have helped young people accomplish that goal.  Growing up in a missionary family in China, her own work in Japan and experiences as a pastor’s wife have given her insight.  She says, “Characters walk into my imagination and begin taking over…”

Nikki Grimes’ poems and novels have earned both the Coretta Scott King and Laura Ingalls Wilder Awards.  Born in Harlem and raised in family and foster homes, Grimes says she is grateful she lived to tell about growing up.  A high school English teacher guided her to her career, and her many books include Thanks a Million, Jazmin’s Notebook, Words With Wings (poetry), and a brand new one based on Psalm 121 and illustrated by Bryan Collier, The Watch.

Kate DiCamillo thinks herself “enormously lucky” because she gets to tell stories for a living.  She has also won the Newbery Award twice, for The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses, which, like her other books, center around animals.  They include the popular Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising.

A series of unfortunate events led me to arrive after the line to see Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), had been cut off.  I’m sure if anyone would appreciate that downer, it would be him.  Up-and-coming authors who in due time will surely share honors were autographing books in other aisles.

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An unlikely speaker at the event was Sarah Jessica Parker, who introduced the first selection of Book Club Central, the ALA’s platform for reading recommendations.  She remembered the comfort of going to the public library as a child, amid her large family’s frequent moves around Cincinnati.  “We couldn’t leave the house without a book,” she said, and that nowadays she makes a priority of going with her own children to their neighborhood library branch in Manhattan.

With Parker was Stephanie Powell Watts, the author of No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, 2017).  It is a “story of loss — industry, ghosts and the last of Jim Crow,” she explained.  Parker said that she appreciated getting to know characters who were unlike her and far away, which she would not have been able to do had she not read it.

Watts, a professor at Lehi University, distanced herself from the usual advice when she told the audience they don’t necessarily have to write every day.  It’s OK to think it through, perhaps even a whole book, before putting anything down on paper (the way some people clean house?).

A book club is a book club.  Readers can choose to go with a particular author, like Paterson, Grimes, DiCamillo or Watts; a genre, such as historical novel or memoir; or a recommendation from Oprah or Sarah.  No matter.  When they share good literature, they are spending time thinking, learning, and celebrating life.

Quotes are from the authors’ websites.