Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sunflower Stepping Stone

Yesterday on my lunch hour I bought a large Christine Sibley stepping stone shaped like a sunflower. I was very excited. After work I wheeled it in the wheelbarrow through the wild petunias and positioned it in front of my favorite bench. Then I stood back to admire the effect.

Soon Bernie, my stray-cat friend, ambled over and settled down on the bench.

"So, Bernie," I said, "what do you think of the new addition?"

He looked at me, and his look communicated very efficiently all his thoughts on the matter. He would like it much better, his look said, with a nice bowl of cat food in the middle.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vegan Meatballs

Today Rob and I made vegan meatballs. We'd been dreaming about them for weeks. Rob wanted to call them "Everything but the Kitchen Sink Meatballs" because they had so many ingredients--walnuts, oats, panko, tofu, nutritional yeast, sautéed mushrooms. . . . We baked them, then deep-fried them for good measure. Since we'd rolled them in cornstarch, they developed a nice golden, crunchy crust.

We ate so much we had to stretch out on the floor in the sun room after lunch. The cats walked around on our full stomachs, and kneaded them, and generally drew unwanted attention to them.

"There's nothing like a cat kneading your stomach when it's full of meatballs," I said.

"It's definitely not what you want," Rob agreed.

And so we got up and did the dishes.

Vegan Meatballs


2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces button mushrooms, finely chopped
1½ cups walnuts, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1½ tablespoons fresh oregano, minced
1½ tablespoons fresh basil, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
½ cup nutritional yeast
½ cup quick-cooking oats
½ cup panko
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
2 packs extra-firm tofu, well drained
Cornstarch for dusting
Oil for frying


Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until onion is tender. Add the mushrooms and sauté until cooked.

Put the onions, garlic, and mushrooms into a large bowl. Add the walnuts, fennel seeds, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, yeast, oats, panko, and liquid smoke. Break up the tofu with your fingers and add it to the bowl. Stir well to combine all the ingredients.

Use an immersion blender to process the whole mixture until relatively smooth.

Roll the mixture into small balls, about ½-inch in diameter. Roll the balls in cornstarch to coat. Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper at 385 degrees for 15 minutes.

When the meatballs are done baking, deep fry them in hot oil. Drain on a paper towel.

Serve over whole-wheat spaghetti noodles with marinara sauce.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Wild Strawberry

About three years ago I started collecting Wedgwood's Wild Strawberry pattern.

One day Mom was at my house, looking in my china cabinet, and she said, "You know, that was Aunt Nancy's pattern."

"Oh, my gosh," I said. "That's so interesting! I have such strong memories of her china. I've even written about it before in stories, but somehow I didn't remember it was Wild Strawberry. And yet at some deeper level I must have remembered . . . and that's why I was drawn to it and why I started obsessively collecting it!"

Visits to Aunt Nancy's house were rare and special. She was actually my father's aunt, my great-aunt. She and Uncle Bill (Granny's brother) were rich and had a big house in Winston-Salem, the city where my father's family had lived for generations. Dad always talked about Winston in the most glowing terms. Cakes tasted sweeter there. The daffodils and dogwoods grew more beautifully and flowered more profusely. I could never understand why we lived in Tallahassee instead, and why, when Winston was so wonderful, we so seldom visited.

It was all very perplexing to me.

I was shy and always felt like a stranger in Winston since we hardly ever went there. I don't think I ever really said anything to my relatives (I mostly nodded and smiled), but I wanted so badly to be accepted, to be a real part of the family.

Whenever we went to Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy's, I was fascinated and would roam the house agog. Aunt Nancy kept her china displayed in the dining room, on a long table with a white table cloth, and I thought the delicate dishes looked like seashells on a white, white beach.

Aunt Nancy used to let my sister Kris and me play with a special doll she had, her own doll from when she was a little girl. The doll was not a child, like most dolls, but an elegant lady with an extensive wardrobe, including dainty kid gloves, high-heeled sandals, and a pearl necklace. Kris and I would sit in front of the fireplace in the living room and dress her up, but even as I was playing, I was listening to the adults, eavesdropping, trying to decipher their secret codes, trying to understand why things were the way they were.

Something had happened before I was born. Something momentous. My grandfather, Dad's dad, the leader of the family, the star of the family, the one who made everything happen, had died. Dad always talked about him in tones of awe. In fact, all Dad's relatives talked about him in this way. He was so funny, so smart. Daring. Stylish. Creative. Innovative. Ahead of his time.

But he had a darker side, too, though nobody said this outright. Somehow I knew, I always knew, that he was an alcoholic.

Dad's father had owned a successful sign company, the J.D. Kimel Sign Company, and Dad used to work for him after school and during the summer when he was young. (Uncle Bill worked for him too.) When my family was visiting in Winston, years later, Dad would drive us around town at night so we could see the neon signs, glowing like stars, that he (Dad) and his father had built so long ago.

"Yeah, that was one of ours, kids," he'd say, pointing out the window, and his voice was wistful though he smiled.

Two years before he died, Dad's father had gotten very sick with congestive heart failure and had been forced to sell the sign company. He wanted to give it to Dad, but Dad wanted to stay in college; he was the first in his family to go to college and had decided to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. So Uncle Bill bought the sign company.

As a child, I could never understand why my father had given up the sign company, why he had given up everything, all connection to the past, why we lived so far away, in such isolation. I could never understand why we lived the way we did. It always seemed, to me, we were in exile.

And so on those precious trips to Winston-Salem, to Aunt Nancy and Uncle Bill's, I would gaze at Aunt Nancy's china with delight and secret envy. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Aunt Nancy collected Wild Strawberry and now I do too. Even the smallest, most frivolous decisions (like what kind of tea cup to buy) are often influenced by ancient memories and desires.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

New Chest

Last Saturday Rob and I went over to Dothan and bought this chest at Land of Cotton, our favorite antique mall. The nice man who helped us wheel it out to the car on a hand truck told us it was made of American chestnut. Now I don't know if that's true, but it's an interesting thought--that our chest is made of an iconic, tragic American tree that's now basically extinct.

Rob and I love going to Dothan. We have lunch at Del Taco (a restaurant we don't have in Tallahassee), then head over to Land of Cotton. Land of Cotton is housed in an old K-Mart shopping center and boasts 20,000 square feet of retail space. We always stay at least two hours, walking the maze-like aisles packed with vintage Coca-Cola signs, duck decoys, Fiestaware, tin toys, iron beds, quilts, pottery, and other treasures. Rob hums along with the '70s soft rock that is inevitably playing and points out all the macrame owls.

"Why do you always show me the owls?" I said on Saturday in mock exasperation.

"Because . . . they're funny?" he said, sheepishly.

I smiled and rolled my eyes. If I didn't keep a tight rein on things, our house would be absolutely full of macrame owls.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Classic Cracker

Spruce Pine Cottage is a text-book example of a special type of 19th-century Florida Cracker house--the four-square Georgian cottage.

A four-square Georgian typically consisted of a large central hallway with two large, square rooms on either side. Each pair of rooms shared a chimney and featured back-to-back fireplaces on the interior wall.

Our house is built in just this way. The four rooms are identical to one another, each measuring 18 feet long and wide and 12 feet high. The hall is 12½ feet wide and runs from the front door to the original back door.

The kitchen of a four-square Georgian cottage traditionally sat by itself some distance away from the main structure, in the backyard. Kitchen fires were common in the old days, and by isolating the kitchen you reduced the likelihood that a fire would spread to the whole house.

There aren't many examples of detached kitchens left in Florida, but ours still stands, though it was largely rebuilt in the 1970s. Unfortunately, we don't use it as a kitchen anymore. It's our office and home to our boring old desks and computers.

Since four-square Georgians were built with only four rooms, they often ended up with additions on the rear. Ours has a bathroom, screen porch (now a sun room), and kitchen, all added in the 1920s. The original house was built in 1850.

Like all Florida Cracker houses, four-square Georgians were designed to stay cool in hot weather without the aid of air-conditioning. Shady porches and high pyramidal roofs were part of the strategy to keep things cool. The wide central hall conducted air through the house, and the hot kitchen was separated from the main structure.

Our house is quite cool and comfortable even on very hot days, and for much of the summer we don't need air-conditioning at all. When we do start using the air conditioner, mostly in July and August, we don't need to run it constantly. We usually turn it on at night, around bedtime, and turn it off again in the morning. It's amazing what smart design can do.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Great-Grandfather

This is my great-grandfather, my mom’s father’s father, Frank Allen. He owned a small dairy farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was born in the 1890s, I believe, and died in the 1960s.

“What was he like?” I asked Mom when she gave me his picture. “Was he nice?”

“Oh, he was okay,” Mom said. “Joan and Diane remember him giving them rides on his bicycle and all that, but I don’t.” She laughed. “I told them they must have been his favorites, because I never got a ride.” (Joan and Diane are Mom’s sisters.)

“You used to go and spend time with him and your grandmother in the summer, right?” I said to Mom, prompting her. Mom doesn’t really like to tell me stories about the past—I have to force her. Mom lives in the present. “You’d go and stay with them, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mom said. “But they didn’t do anything special with you. They didn’t take you anywhere, except to church on Sunday. They were busy, so you’d trail after them or you’d play in the barn.”

“But it was still fun, right?”

“Oh, yeah. I loved spending time at the farm. My grandmother always made jut, which is mashed potatoes and cabbage, and that was my absolute favorite. Can you imagine a child liking such a thing these days? I can’t. But I loved it. And she made Belgian pies.”

(Mom’s grandparents were from Belgium. They came to this country as very little children, around the age of two.)

“Tell me something else about your grandfather,” I said.

“For Christmas he’d always give you a silver dollar,” Mom replied. “That was his typical gift. Every year you’d get that silver dollar.”

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Vine House Again

Here's how the Vine House is shaping up these days. One side is draped with coral honeysuckle and the other with native pipevine. In the last six months, I've added two more Christine Sibley sculptures--the Water Spirit (in blue) and the Fire Spirit (in red). In June, when the petunias died, I filled the smaller clay pots with heat-tolerant purple torenia, which is looking very full and fat and healthy now in the dog days. (It is such a tough plant.) I daydream about buying 10 or 20 crystal prisms and hanging them from the trellises to catch the sunlight and make rainbows. It would be nice, I think, on a summer afternoon to sit in a lilac chair and eat a coconut popsicle (my favorite) and watch the rainbows play.