March 14, 2013

February 2, 2009 How many more weeks?

Filed under: General,◦Books,◦Country Living,◦Vintage — sharon @ 1:58 pm

Here it is the second of February – winter’s almost over! I wish! Unfortunately, when the groundhog made his appearance in Punxsutawney this morning, he was frightened by his shadow, thereby decreeing that we’ll suffer this season for another six weeks.

the Groundhog
Note that the fellow in the picture is looking askance down to his left at the darkened area on the snow where his corpulent form has blocked the sunlight. Living here in Pennsylvania, we have come to accept the ubiquitous grondhog as a part of life; scarcely a summer’s day goes by that we don’t see one along the roadside, or skittering off under the bushes as we approach the garden. The picture above, therefore, is also something of a favorite.

For a number of years I’ve accumulated/collected books illustrated by Charles Livingston Bull. His subject was nature, and he illlustrated more than 135 books from the turn of the century until his death in 1932. I especially like the simplicity of his style, influenced by the Japanese print. At the same time his representations of animals are lifelike and capture moments of motion that typify the actions of those animals. Among the most famous of the books he illustrated were Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang. His leaping tigers poster was one of the most famous used by the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus.

In addition, Bull illustrated magazine stories, articles and covers, far too many to count. About 1980 there was a small traveling exhibit of his works that I attended when it was at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadd’s Ford, PA – home of the late Andrew Wyeth. The Brandywine has a penchant for the art of illustrators, since it’s the home of a considerable amount of Wyeth art, and Andrew’s father N.C. Wyeth was famous for his illustrations of many an adventurous tale. The exhibit was sponsored by a museum in Alberta, the Glenbow Museum, which itself has a considerable holding of the paintings and drawings of illustrators.

Back to the picture above – it’s an original mixed media on illustration board which I bought at a local auction years ago. It was published as the cover of Country Gentleman Magazine, January 29, 1916, just a couple of days before Groundhog Day – which has been celebrated in PA since at least 1887. Today, posters of this Country Gentleman cover are available online, given the title “Beaver in Winter”!! Though I suppose he could be construed as a beaver, I doubt that his appearance would have been so close to Groundhog day – and since Bull lived nearby in New Jersey, it is hard to imagine that he was unaware of the custom. Additionally, Bull was a stickler for accuracy, and the erect posture is characteristic of the groundhog, while a standing beaver would usually be more forward-leaning. Compare to this picture of a groundhog from Wikipedia:

Little doubt in my mind, even down to the coloration, Bull has drawn a groundhog here. Too bad he drew a shadow, too! Aren’t you tired of winter?

March 13, 2013

January 27, 2009 John Updike, Author, Dies at 76

Filed under: ◦Books,◦Friends — sharon @ 10:52 pm

John Updike

What a shock to see this in today’s New York Times online. I sent this in response:

I have known John Updike for nearly thirty years. He was more than generous to me, a fellow Berks County Pa writer. Before her death nearly two decades ago, his mother was a close friend of mine. Linda Hoyer Updike was a writer in her own right, but ferociously proud and protective of her famous son. She adored that boy. I can think of no better way to honor a great story teller than by telling a telling story:

One afternoon many years ago I phoned Linda (at the Sandstone farmhouse) to tell her I’d just received word that a story of mine had been selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories, my first. Of course I was ecstatic. My news fell into a pit of deep silence. Finally Linda responded. “Well, dear,” she said, “I’ve never heard of that book but I’m sure it’s very nice.”

Shortly thereafter Linda ended the conversation and I went about my business. Maybe ten minutes had passed when the phone rang. To my surprise it was Linda.

“You know that book you’re going to be in?” she said. “I just called John.” (i.e., John Updike, of the towering literary stature, of countless awards and prize story inclusions!) “Well guess what,” she said triumphantly. “He’s going to be in it, too.”


That famous Updike edge. John came by it naturally.

He will be sorely missed. His like will not be seen again.

January 7, 2009 Reading between the fabric

Filed under: ◦Books,◦Country Living,◦Vintage — sharon @ 12:30 pm

When I was a kid, we always covered our school books with paper covers to help keep them clean. I remember going to the Campus Shop, (so called because it was adjacent to the campus of a local college) and buying covers with our school’s colors and name, mascot, etc. I wasn’t very good at getting them folded properly to fit my books, but managed to do an adequate job.

In the 19th century, schoolbooks were a scarcer and more treasured commodity, and so it was expected that they would be well cared for. Back then your sister or your Mom would actually sew a custom fabric cover onto the book. Shown below are two second readers and two fourth readers dating from 1871 to 1890. The oldest is at right, the newest at left.
Cloth covered textbooks

As fabric junkies, we’re liable to accumulate anything and everything having to do with cloth, especially antique or vintage cloth. So at local auctions, yard sales, etc., we always have our eyes open for these, and have managed to accumulate a small assortment. However, like anything antique or vintage, as time passes they become increasingly difficult to find.

Now you can find dealers in primitive and grungy decor who cover old books themselves, even using antique fabric, but it’s hard to duplicate the original. For one thing, the style of attaching the cover was different, and left its own mark.
Cloth covered textbook

You can see that the thread used to fasten the cover to this early 2nd reader has oxidized the paper facing it over time, leaving no doubt that the cover has accompanied the book for 100 years or more.

You have to wonder if school kids compared covers on their books, whose was prettiest or most colorful. Or if anyone actually carried a book that matched her dress.

March 12, 2013

September 17, 2008 Outstanding

Filed under: General,◦Books,◦Country Living,◦Family,◦Food — sharon @ 5:38 pm

Tuesday, my son Tim invited us along with a few other guests to dinner at his farm. Well, Ok, more than a few – the table was set for 122. The weather was a little cloudy, cool and comfortable for an outdoor occasion.

The scene was a grassy knoll overlooking the farmhouse and pond on one side, the field with tomatoes, peppers etc. on the facing hill, and woods behind. outstanding tableoutstanding table

All right – you have the impression that this is more than an ordinary picnic, right? Yes, a special occasion indeed, arranged by Jim Denevan as part of his series Outstanding in the Field. Jim’s organization travels around the country, presenting dinners of local fare in a setting amid the fields and farms that produced the food on the menu; featuring not only local produce, but other local goods as well, from the main course to the beverages and dessert.

outstanding bookoutstanding menu

The event begins with a sparkling wine bar in the field, with hors d’oeuvres, a field tour and a short reading from Tim’s book. We particularly enjoyed the cardoon bread pudding, made with cardoons (an artichoke relative) that Tim grew in the field here. The sparkling chardonnay, along with the other wines on the menu, were from an award-winning local winery, Pinnacle Ridge.
outstanding wineoutstanding hors d'oeuvres

I got pictures of the stuffed baby bell peppers (above) but not of the other appetizers – they went too fast! Loved the smoked trout & corn blini, too!

The food is prepared by local professional chefs; in this case not exactly local – the presiding chef was Bill Telepan of New York City’s Telepan restaurant. He brought help along, too, from another New York restaurant, the Gotham Bar & Grill. Undaunted by the relatively primitive conditions, Telepan and his staff did a great job…. the flavors were all superb, the presentation beautiful.
outstanding chefoutstanding staff

It was already near dusk as the assembled crowd began to make their way to the tables.
outstanding crowdoutstanding dinner

The first course looked good before it was assembled,
outstanding crostini

By the time it reached the table, it was fabulous, topped with edible nasturtium blossoms.
outstanding crostini

The succeeding courses were served in the dark, the small candles at the table hardly served to show the faces of our fellow diners; we have no idea how the food appeared, just that it tasted fantastic, interesting flavors that were at the same time subtle and savory, without exception. We sat at table across from the beekeeper whose honey was part of dessert; and met the farmers who raised the pig, the peaches, and the goats that provided the milk for the feta. Our other table companions included a couple from Coney Island, three friends from North Carolina, and even some of the farm workers who had helped provide the produce on our plates.

By the time we finished dessert, it was 10 PM, the full moon had risen, and the temperature was down in the 50’s; all conditions that we’re normally unaccustomed to at dinner; nevertheless we enjoyed ourselves, the food and the conversation immensely. These days it makes all the sense in the world to buy and eat local products; we didn’t need to be convinced – but what a way to enjoy! For another view of the event here’s the article from the Reading, PA Eagle.

August 12, 2008 Tomato Farmer on the Early Show

Filed under: ◦Books,◦Country Living,◦Family,◦Food — sharon @ 4:35 pm

This morning, my son Tim was on the CBS Early Show, to publicize his book.

Last Friday he was on NPR’s All Things Considered. He has become even more of a tomato superstar! By the way, you can read an excerpt on either the CBS or NPR site.

August 4, 2008 White on white

Near the top of the list of amazing needlework that we’ve found in our perambulations are examples of whitework. Whitework falls into several categories, but they’re all characterized by lack of any other color, relying on the stitchery itself for the ornamentation. Can you imagine executing thousands of tiny stitches before the time of electric lights?

Years ago at a local auction, I spent a huge amount of money on a pair of late 19th century lay-over pillow shams, plain white with an eyelet ruffle, quilted like I’d never seen before, at at least 12 stitches to the inch in an elaborate pattern. But that turned out to be just the beginning of my love for whitework. Since then, several even more remarkable items have come my way, one of them at a great bargain, besides!

Currently I have listed in my eBay store one of three whitework pieces I bought from a friend a couple of years ago; at first I thought they were also some sort of sham, but after visiting with Linda Eaton, the textile curator at Winterthur Museum in Delaware, I decided that they are in fact dressing table covers, a form that was previously unknown to me, made by a woman in the Philadelphia area in the early 19th century. While I do not know for sure that all three were made by the same person, they did all come from the same estate.

They also share much of the same imagery, a common classical theme of an overflowing basket of fruit in the center. Two of them have flanking cornucopias, and an outer surround of leaves or flowers. All are edged on three sides with fringe or trim.

I had lots of difficulty photographing these pieces, as there’s really no contrast. Hopefully you can see them without developing eyestrain.

Trapunto dresser cover 1
The first features fruit basket, cornucopias, roses in the surrounding work and a knitted trim.

Trapunto dresser cover 2
This one’s basket is piled high with fruit, has swirling vines with fruit and flowers around the outer edge, with a tasselled trim.

Trapunto dresser cover 3
This is the one currently listed on eBay; it features the most intricate stitchery of all in the center basket , surrounding cornucopias and acanthus leaves. It has an applied fringe.

Compared to my first white on white shams, the dressing table covers are a whole different world. While the shams are intricately quilted, these three pieces are stuffed, or trapunto work, outlined by stitching, creating the design in high relief. The stitches are so tiny and close together, that at first glance I thought they had to be machine work. With the help of a magnifier, I count an average of 40 tiny stitches to one linear inch in the central basket and supporting wings.

Trapunto dresser cover detail

Other parts of the cover are stitched with no less care and detail.

Trapunto dresser cover detail

Trapunto dresser cover detail
In an oval cartouche scarcely larger than a penny in the center of the fruit basket are the stitched initials HD; the letter D alone comprised of 42 stitches.

Keeping in mind that all of these were created in the 1830-1840 time frame, I can scarcely imagine the time and persistence, not to mention the skill, that these lovely items for the bridal chamber? required.

For some even more amazing examples of this beautiful whitework (as well as a number of other fabulous quilts), see Linda Eaton’s book Quilts in a Material World from her Winterthur exhibition.

Next time I’m on the subject of trapunto, I’ll share my whitework quilt – from about 1820 – that I found at auction for $2.00. That’s the bargain I mentioned above, and the reason I don’t feel compelled to hurry and sell the quilt!

July 26, 2008 Book Review: Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer

Filed under: General,◦Books,◦Family,◦Food — sharon @ 3:21 pm

The subject matter of this sparkling collection of essays is as familiar to me as anything; I’ve lived through a good portion of it myself. But I would not have written it; I could not have written it with such clarity and vividness. Heirloom

Heirloom is a collection of a dozen essays constituting a memoir of a life in transition from the humdrum to the excruciatingly laborious and excitingly chaotic. Tim, the author, graduated from Princeton with a degree in English with dreams of a writing career and, like many another struggling writer, found himself working a painful 9 to 5 to cover expenses. But he has other loves besides writing, and one of these – the lure and magic of the metamorphosis from seed through sprout and vine to succulent, flavorful fruit – was destined to become his defining passion, his livelihood as well as his sometime nemesis.

The cover itself, a mouthwatering collage of odd-shaped, multicolored heirloom tomatoes, draws you in; there’s the sense that what’s inside is different, more satisfying. And it is. This is not a book of how-to, nor a chronicling of varieties and characteristics of the fruit, not a cookbook nor an organic gardening manifesto. No, the subject matter and the language itself is every bit as colorful and tasty as the glistening orbs on the cover. From Tomato People:

One thing I’ve noticed is that during the most brutal part of summer, the tomato people go at it with an extraordinary singleness of purpose. Eckerton Hill has a daunting southern exposure, canted like a target for the sun’s angled rays. When the sun is burning holes through the afternoon, the tomato plants soak up light until they are limp with molten exhaustion. At night, all that suffering transfers to the fruit, turning the tomatoes every shade of the sun – off-white, pale yellow, dusky purple, blazing orange red. Come morning all these colors are hanging from the plants like gifts from some summertime Santa. By midday, the brightness and the weight of all the humidity leave you standing there, shadowless, the bare fact of yourself. You can either leave the field, as most would, or you can join in the activity orbiting the two sources of magnetism: the tomatoes, softening as fast as you can pick them, and the jubilant sun. I am always astonished at how the crew will stay out there until the last of the fruit is picked.

Accidental though the farmer in Tim may be, it’s clear the writer in him is intentional and well honed. Each of the twelve essays stands alone, and though some were published in part or in different form in Gourmet Magazine and in the Washington Post, they still form a well-unified whole in this book. From his descriptions of a tomato, so lucid you can taste it, to the insights into dealing with the eccentricities of some of New York City’s great chefs, to the history of his farm and of the local Mennonite families whence arose much of his knowledge of and delight in farming – all subjects find equally clear, precise and beautiful description in this book.

This is not a book about farming; it’s a book about the struggles in all of us to cope with factors we cannot control, and finding the beauty in them as we do. You can’t help but enjoy it as such.

Daniel, Tim, Bill & Sharon From left, Chef Daniel Boulud of New York City’s Restaurant Daniel, Writer/Farmer (or Farmer/Writer) Tim Stark, and Bill and Sharon – ragmongers and bloggers enjoying an alfresco luncheon of fresh farm produce at Eckerton Hill Farm.

(As I write this, the summer crop is coming upon us; Tim will be more farmer than writer the next couple of months, but I know he’ll be storing away intersting material for further essays and stories – and I’ll be blogging heirloom tomatoes along with heirloom linens.)

July 16, 2008 Steamin’

Filed under: General,◦Books,◦Country Living,◦Family,◦Food — sharon @ 2:41 pm

The hot summer weather is here in full force, with the humidity rising daily. Tough weather for humans, but some of our inhabitants just love it – the tomato and pepper plants. Though it’s early in the season, the tomato harvest is beginning, with sweet orange Sungold cherry tomatoes, Cherokee Purples and more. We stopped at the field today to see the calm before the tomato storm.

Tomatoes in the hills

HeirloomTim’s book was released yesterday, the cover picture is a reminder of what’s to come. It shows quart boxes of mixed smaller tomatoes, each with its different color and flavor. I’ll be blogging more about heirloom tomatoes as the summer rolls on, showing and talking about my favorites and their special qualities. Today, Tim’s at the Union Square Greenmarket, and tonight he’ll be at a dinner at Jarnac, a New York French restaurant, where they’re celebrating the release of the book with a dinner and reading. Mollie Chen of CondeNast Traveler blogs about it today in Concierge.

So, hopefully tomorrow or the next day I’ll be able to publish my review of Heirloom – in the meantime, I can tell you that it’s a delightul read.

July 7, 2008 Summer weekend

Filed under: ◦Books,◦Country Living,◦Family — sharon @ 2:06 pm

Back to working on our site today after the long holiday weekend. No travel for us; we hunker down and enjoy the comforts of home. Which this year included our first sweet corn from our field, a little earlier than usual.

Let me explain a little. We don’t have either the time or the energy to plant our own corn, nor all the other wondrous things that grow here on our hill. I am lucky to have a gifted son Tim. who makes his living farming our fields growing exceptional organic produce, much of which ends up gracing the tables of New York City’s best restaurants. He offers his exceptional variety of heirloom tomatoes, peppers and other fine and unusual produce at the Union Square greenmarket under the name Eckerton Hill Farm. We are more than overjoyed to make practical use of his surplus (or whatever we can talk him out of.)

Tim’s produce is a labor of love and a work of art. He’s the only “farmer” I know who starts sweet corn seedlings early in his greenhouse, then transplants them by hand into the field to achieve an earlier yield. His love and art are amply rewarded by the quality of the veggies; MSNBC two years ago called his tomatoes the best in the country. And he’s the only Princeton-educated farmer I know.

HeirloomNow, you don’t need that ivy-league diploma to drive a tractor, but that’s not Tim’s only skill. He’s also a very good writer whose book, Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer is being released next week. I’ll be posting an impartial review of it soon; in the meantime, you can pre-order it from Amazon by clicking on the ad in the right column.