Projects: Holiday Decorating the Natural Way

In a recent post I mentioned a small project that I made a Pinterest board for, which I filled with images of handmade clay ornaments and paper decorations, vintage photos of winter sports and a technique for making clear glass as shiny and silver as mercury glass. The project was completed last weekend as part of a tour of local inns and home kitchens, a fundraiser for our town’s high school. Happily, I wasn’t in charge of anything other than a bit of holiday decorating for an inn here in Rockport located in one of the most amazing spots around, right on Eden Road.

Eden Road is a locally famous stretch which clings to a spit of land between the rocky coast and a few hardy houses. Thacher Island, with its legendary twin lighthouses, is directly just off to port or starboard (as a Midwesterner I’m not sure I can pull off seafaring references). There’s not much you can do in terms of decorating when you’re competing with a view like that, so why compete at all? I decided to just go the natural route — with just a bit of added shine — as the inn itself, built one hundred years ago in perfect turn-of-the-last-century rambling summerhouse vernacular, epitomizes natural style with its stone fireplace and wicker furnishings. It’s a place entirely comfortable with itself with little interest in impressing anyone by being fashionable. Instead, the inn relies on the basics of comfort: plenty of upholstered places to sit, good lighting for reading, tables to put your drinks on, ottomans to put your feet up, a fireplace when it’s cold, a sunroom when it’s not, a porch with a few lighthouses in view, and innkeepers that are so nice the same people keep coming back year after year.

I had great help from some high school students, the inn owners, the event organizer and her daughter. Even my six-year-old and three-year-old pitched in, though they were slightly less useful. Together, all of us managed to decorate a mantel and a Christmas tree that made its way through the stairwell at 9 feet tall. Here’s a sketch of the room and a breakdown of our handmade, natural Christmas at the Inn.


1. The view! As you come in, the two large picture windows opposite the entryway highlight Thacher Island and its lighthouses. So after this everything else is secondary. But I could still draw even more attention to the windows by hanging a fresh wreath on each one, adorned with nothing more than a red striped burlap ribbon.

2. Over the fireplace I put together a gallery of vintage photographs depicting Christmas and winter sports in black and white. The frames were mounted with the same red striped burlap ribbon. Two black urns were filled with greens and twigs and tiny white lights while fresh greens (lots of pine in honor of the inn’s name) lined the mantel itself. Mercury glass votive holders were placed among the greenery.

3. On the sofa table facing the entry I placed a large branch in a silver vase. Originally, I intended it to be an Advent tree, much like my own here at home, but I settled for a tree filled with tiny candy canes affixed to white tags hanging from it, tags with the same vintage images as the framed pieces over the fireplace. Continuity! And the candy canes could still be pulled off the tags, one a day, just like an Advent calendar, only without all those pesky numbers corresponding with the days of the month to keep you honest. Around the branch I stacked boxes with scalloped edges in a natural brown finish and more striped burlap ribbon.

4. The tree. I’ve never decorated a 9-foot tree, and it was a feat, at least for me. I was going with all red ornaments and had dreams of stumbling across a cache of 200 vintage red bulbs that someone just wanted to give to me…for free. Instead I went to the Dollar store, and what I gave up in credibility I gained in savings. But to keep it real, I made white clay ornaments and painted little red birds that I glued to clothespins and placed throughout the tree. It looked like a flock of red birds were scattered on the branches of the tree, and the sight made me happy.

The owner of the inn saw the direction in which we were taking the room, and promptly went out and bought yards and yards of fresh garlands, wreaths galore, and some whopping white and red poinsettias, which, when amassed together, look overwhelmingly lovely. All of this worked well against the background of the lodge-like room, with its deep couches upholstered in dark colors, real wood panels in the entryway and stairwell and a fire blazing away in the stone fireplace. To see such a room, intended to be a communal gathering spot, filled with live greenery and flowers and branches and little white lights felt like an early sort of Christmas present.

I hope your holidays are filled with a sense of old-fashioned beauty, a warm hearth, and your own version of a natural Christmas, wherever you are.

Shhh! I Made a Secret Board…

For those of you who use Pinterest, you were probably as happy as I was to learn that the site now allows for what it calls “Secret Boards”. I’m not an avid Pinterest user, but I must admit being on the annoyed side of irritated to find that every image I wanted to save to a file for future reference had to be posted in a way that was so glaringly public to all of my 103-plus-or-minus-followers. (Not that I care at all about the number of Pinterest followers I have. But feel free to follow me on Pinterest.) How would I keep my unoriginal design thoughts safe from prying eyes? But srsly, when one is working on a project and wants to use Pinterest to organize one’s thoughts, one doesn’t always want the process to be so transparent. So when I found out about the new Secret Boards, how could I resist racing over to Pinterest to immediately make an extra top-secret one? I couldn’t, that’s how. And now I’m going to share a few images from my TOP SECRET Holiday Project Board with you! But don’t tell the Pinterest overlords that I’m making my Secret Board sort of public. That’s probably a violation of the Secret Pinner Rules of Conduct.

The Obvious & Not So Obvious

The Obvious:


The Not-So-Obvious:

Whortleberry Pudding with Brandy Sauce
3 cupfuls of flour
1 cupful of molasses
1/2 cupful of milk
1 teaspoonful of salt
a little cloves and cinnamon
1 teaspoonful of soda dissolved in a little of the milk
1 quart of huckleberries or blueberries, floured Boil in a well-buttered mold two hours. Serve with brandy sauce.

Brandy or Wine Sauce
1 heaping teaspoonful of cornstarch, or 1 tablespoonful of sifted flour
1 cupful of sugar
piece of butter as large as an egg
1/2 cupful of brandy or wine Stir cornstarch in a little cold water to a smooth paste (or instead use sifted flour); add to it a cupful of boiling water, with sugar, butter, boil all together ten minutes. Remove from the fire and when cool stir into it brandy or wine. It should be about as thick as thin syrup.

Source: The White House Cookbook, 1887

*post-Thanksgiving meal update: I did indeed make the pudding for Thanksgiving, which seemed to go over fairly well considering that Americans don’t generally indulge in English-style pudding at the communal table. I made a few changes to the recipe, however. First of all, I don’t have a proper pudding bowl so I just used a mixing bowl with a plate on top for a lid. I had to use more milk than the recipe called for to get the right consistency — maybe a 1 cup instead of 1/2 cup? And for the berry I used blueberries instead of whortleberries. The whortleberry is an archaic name which refers to a few different kind of berries, most commonly a huckleberry, which I didn’t even try to track down. As far as the sauce goes, I made a rum sauce instead of the brandy sauce. The rum sauce version which was definitely richer as it used half a cup of butter instead of a “piece of butter as large as an egg”.

Rum Sauce

1/2 c. butter
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
Rum to taste, about 3 tbsp.
Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla. Slowly stir in 1 egg, then add the rum. Heat and stir over low heat about 5 minutes. Serve warm.

Birthday Free Association

This vintage photo brings together two of my favorite things: elephants and cake. Actually, cake isn’t one of my favorite things, unless it’s cheesecake. Which is awesome. Unless it’s from the Cheesecake Factory, which, from my experience in the two times I’ve had it, makes me sick. Not because it doesn’t taste good — because it tastes really, really good — but because the piece is so big. And who is going to stop after eating a third of the slice, or even three-quarters, or — and I’m getting confused on my fractions here — nine-tenths of the cheesecake? Nobody, that’s who. Unless you’re the kind of person who has enormous self-control but then you probably wouldn’t be getting cheesecake anyway, even on your birthday. You’re probably the kind of person who never justifies eating something that will send processed sugar coursing through your body deciding which cells to turn cancerous. But the rest of use birthdays — or Christmas, or weddings, or funerals, or Sundays, or 11-o’clock-after-the-kids-are-finally-asleep to justify eating a piece of cake or one chocolate chip cookie or a dozen.

So what do you do on your birthday? I always have big plans — I’m going to lose a thousand pounds, redo my bedroom, fly over to Syria and help the rebels — unless they are religious extremists — and these plans, no matter how feasible, always come to nothing by the time the day itself rolls around. My birthday is a personal New Year, a chance to start again. This year will be different! I tell myself, which is the same thing I’ve been telling myself since I was in Junior High. But every year I indulge my birthday New Year resolutions — I treat myself delicately, like an elderly woman suffering with dementia — patting myself on the head as I enthusiastically list My Life Goals for This Year.

1. Learn a Language! (Something useful like Chinese)

2. Go the YMCA every day, twice on Saturdays

3. Never eat sugar again. Ever.

4. Write a Book. Write 2 or 3! (Why not?)

5. Get a bicycle with a basket on the front and ride around in a skirt like someone from the 1940s or from Amsterdam. Try not to look like an idiot. Or an aging hipster. Which is the same as an idiot.

6. Learn to sew for the 4th time! And this time DO NOT forget how to thread the sewing machine. Write it down!

7. Be a great wife, mother, daughter and sibling! Send cards to everyone on their birthdays and start buying gifts for my nieces and nephews!

8. Get out of debt AND travel someplace amazing!



I’ve left the last two slots blank because my interest in this project has trailed off…distracted by the thought of watching House Hunters but not before I make Nutella-Stuffed Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies With Sea Salt. I only plan to have one, or maybe a dozen, since it is my birthday…

photo: the bitesized baker

Nutella-Stuffed Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies with Sea Salt recipe by Ambitious Kitchen:

2¼ cup all-purpose flour

1¼ teaspoons baking soda

¼ teaspoon of salt

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter

1¼ cup packed dark brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon plain greek yogurt

¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

½ cup milk chocolate chips

½ cup dark chocolate chips

1 jar of Nutella, chilled in refrigerator

Coarse sea salt for sprinkling

  1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. The butter will begin to foam. Make sure you whisk consistently during this process. After a couple of minutes, the butter will begin to brown on the bottom of the saucepan; continue to whisk and remove from heat as soon as the butter begins to brown and give off a nutty aroma. Immediately transfer the butter to a bowl to prevent burning. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
  2. With an electric mixer, mix the butter and sugars until thoroughly blended. Beat in the egg, yolk, vanilla, and yogurt until combined. Add the dry ingredients slowly and beat on low-speed just until combined. Gently fold in all of the chocolate chips.
  3. Chill your dough for 2 hours in the refrigerator, or place in freezer for 30 minutes if you are super eager, although I cannot promise the same results if you do this.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Once dough is chilled measure about 1½ tablespoons of dough and roll into a ball. Flatten the dough ball very thinly into the palm of your hand. Place 1 teaspoon of chilled nutella in the middle and fold dough around it; gently roll into a ball — it doesn’t have to be perfectly rolled! Make sure that the nutella is not seeping out of the dough. Add more dough if necessary. Place dough balls on cookie sheet, 2 inches apart and flatten with your hand VERY gently. (Really only the tops need to be flattened a bit!)
  5. Bake the cookies 9-11 minutes or until the edges of the cookies begin to turn golden brown. They will look a bit underdone in the middle, but will continue to cook once out of the oven. Cool the cookies on the sheets at least 2 minutes. Sprinkle with a little sea salt. Remove the cooled cookies from the baking sheets after a few minutes and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.

My Annual Haunted House Story (Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One)

My husband and I were married while he was still in college (wiser heads did not prevail) and during this period he worked at a little garden center with a trailer behind it, where he lived as a sort of caretaker. I decided to join him there (once again wiser heads did not prevail). After two years of living in this cracker sleeve, as my husband called it, with the mountain winds rattling through the porous, Barbie camper-like walls, we decided, with great fanfare, to move to a real house. Still a rental, but a real house. We found an old farmhouse, the most beautiful, if dilapidated, farmhouse both of us had ever seen, 15 miles from Boone, North Carolina, the town which defines civilization in those parts. Going deep into the mountains 15 miles from Boone is the local equivalent of heading off the map into “here be dragons” territory, and Vera, a native of the region who lived next door to our trailer gave us an ominous warning about our new neighborhood. Vera cautioned us to stick the main roads. If it ain’t paved, don’t take it should be our new motto. Vera claimed she knew of people who tried to cross over the mountains to Boone using back roads who never quite showed up at their destination. While we considered her neighborly advice well-intended, we certainly didn’t take it seriously. This was the 21st century after all. The mountains were flooded with tanned Floridians throwing money around like candy and the days of squealing like a pig, so to speak, were long gone. Or so we thought.

To get to our new home, which we imaginatively called the Farmhouse, you had to drive up a long lane, across a bridge built over a picturesque creek, until you arrived at the house, which presented itself in a regal fashion, clad in white clapboard with porches all the way around, anchored by not one, but two gazebos at the corners. An old tobacco barn along with another huge barn were on either side of the house, and cows grazed in the front yard. The farmhouse hadn’t been properly lived in for a long time. It was in a rundown state — the last family member to live there had only used three of the downstairs rooms, the rest of the house left to its own devices. But what devices. It had been built by someone who knew what he was doing, the house perfectly sited on a small rise in between two mountain ridges,  surrounded by 165 acres of mountain streams, woods and pastureland with thickets of berry bushes. When we moved in the blackberries were ripe, as big as our thumbs, practically falling into our buckets as we picked them. Blackberry cobber followed, along with baths in the vintage clawfoot tub and mornings where our only alarm clock was a cow, nuzzling the glass window of the vast bedroom, which we furnished with all the washed-out spareness of an Andrew Wyeth painting.  We only had access to the ground floor, which was so vast, abundant with multiple unused rooms, the idea of not using the upstairs was a relief. It was all a sort of paradise, except for one thing. The man who owned the house, our landlord, was totally mad. Completely crazy. Early in our tenure he just happened to mention that the upstairs hadn’t been touched since his grandmother died, decades before. He took me upstairs to see the rooms, and I can still picture her bedroom, heavy with matching Victorian oak furniture, stained a dark brown. The room was exactly as she had left it when she died, except for the fact that the furniture was now in disarray, everything was covered in thick layers of dust and cobwebs, it was infested with mice, and the linens were rotted — the curtains just long, extended rags. And then there was the fact that the upstairs had no electricity. This was all weird enough, but then our landlord followed with an offhand tale about something that took place just before we moved in, before we turned on the downstairs electricity. The landlord’s car broke down during a visit to the farmhouse, and although he was flush with cash (he was someone who lived off the interest of his father’s investments, bully for him) and nearby relations, he chose to stay upstairs in the house — for four days. He would go to bed early, before it was dark, when he could still see well enough to make his way upstairs, where he slept in his grandmother’s ancient wheezing bed, with mice running across him and only the pitch darkness of the entire house for company. And it would get very, very dark there. When a house is nestled between two ridges, with mountains looming from every side, darkness comes fast and deep, and your lamps cast tiny, futile little pools of light. To add to the sense of doom every dusk would bring, a massive cloud of bats would pour out of the top of the tobacco barn and flit around in their signature unnerving manner. Dusk would turn into night and it would soon grow too dark to see them but you knew there were there, flying just outside your curtainless windows. But all of this we could live with, we told ourselves. The bats, grandma’s furniture, the sagging 19th century wallpaper in the front room, the circa 1940s toilet, the cattle storming the house. We were even willing to live with a few ghosts, as just a quick glance around during our initial visit to the house was a sort of full disclosure that the place might very well be haunted.

It turns out that the house was, indeed, haunted. But not by ghosts. It was haunted by the specter of that landlord. Always hanging around, the threat of his craziness ready to descend on us at any moment, far more oppressive than darkness and a lot less predictable. Among other signs of confusion, he seemed to confuse his grandma’s bed with his own, and he seemed ready to camp out at a moment’s notice. He had a strange, paranoid preoccupation with keeping everything exactly the same as he imagined it had always been. And not just the parts of the house that were original, no matter how sagging or torn. He kept totems of each inhabitant, and after each downstairs tenant — usually pot-smoking, mattress-on-the-floor tenant — would move out, every thrift store addition they made to the house (and they only added junk, never took it away), seemed to, in our landlord’s mind, become part of the place itself, subsumed in its history, never to be altered. After two weeks of living there, during which I was home alone all day long with the landlord hovering, making strange pronouncements in between ordering around his own personal work crew of two toothless, leering, spitting mountain day laborers, their jaws bulging with chaw (who were supposedly building a fence) I began to get used to the idea of being dismembered, hopefully after being murdered first, surveying the situation as though I was watching it all take place on screen, in one of those Lifetime movies. The ones where you yell at the main character to get it together and hightail it out of there. Our infatuation with the house, with its potential and the idea of rescuing it, began to fade,  and we realized that the only thing that would change about the situation was the state of our own mental health. Which, in its current, lucid condition, we began to appreciate more and more, especially in contrast to our madman of a landlord and his increasingly common bouts of wild-eyed screaming. I began to wish that the spirit of our landlord’s grandmother did, in fact, roam around upstairs, so that I might summon her to the first floor to give her grandson a good talking to. But instead it became clear that the only entity haunting the house was our landlord, who was never, ever, ever going to truly go away. Two more weeks passed after this revelation, and we decided to basically flee, in the time-honored manner of haunted house inhabitants everywhere. We left our furniture (which is no doubt still there), left the house, left the mountains, left North Carolina and kept driving until we reached the Northeast, where even the native hillbillies still able to afford Vermont have a certain New England charm.

We still think of that beautiful farmhouse, and wonder if any tenant ever came along powerful enough to save the place, a tenant with a power greater than the energy it takes to wander from room to room waving a bundle of smoldering sage, clearing out more conventional spirits. Maybe someone came along with enough clout to demand that the landlord turn over a deserving house to a deserving soul, someone whose resolve was strengthened by the fact that some hauntings are nothing more than the work of flesh-and-blood. And no entity manages to wreak more havoc than man.

Curatorial: The Dollar Store

I don’t know if curatorial is really a word (and if I’m too lazy to even look it up online I don’t deserve to know), but if not, it should be. Because we are all curators now. Has anyone else noticed the explosion in use of the word “curate”? Every blog and business has some things being curated by someone or another. So I’m joining in. I’m a curator of the Dollar Store. Unfortunately they won’t actually let me officially curate the place — for some reason they want to carry inventory of more than 14 items — but I curate in my head. We are all curators now. In our imaginations.

Why curate the Dollar Store, or, a better question, why enter the Dollar Store? Because, dear reader, the Dollar Store is an amazing place. I’m not much of a consumer, in fact, I actively avoid purchasing anything to the point of being downwardly mobile. I’m just about to lose my status as an official member of the middle class. But ideally, when I do purchase I buy handmade, organic, local, sustainable stuff made with deep etsy love. But let’s be real: there is the ideal and then there are cheap imports. It is very difficult to be a purist in a world where nearly every single functional item, from clothes to couches, is made in China or her cheaper sisters. The thing I love about the Dollar Store, besides the obvious fact that everything is a DOLLAR, is the fact that the cheapness of every single item is in sharp relief. The poor quality and low standards aren’t masked by a sort of aesthetic gloss, the way the same items are presented at Target and Pottery Barn. Those places give the consumer the illusion that she is participating in a better, more meaningful transaction than the one that is actually taking place: buying poorly made disposable junk on the cheap. I don’t care if John Derian designed that melamine plate for Target (and John Derian is the best, the BEST, so this is not about him), the reality is that it’s a junky plate made in China. At the Dollar Store there are no capsule collections or collaborations with designers. I’m not fooled into thinking I’m buying into something fabulous. I’m at the Dollar Store, where, if you ever wanted to know what carcinogens smell like, just take a deep breath. That, my friends, is the smell of toxic materials waiting to destroy your first world happiness. But in the meantime, every thing is ONE DOLLAR!

So when I can’t buy handmade, organic, et al, I head to the Dollar Store. Prepare to read this explanation at the beginning of all my Dollar Store posts. And yes, there will be more than one. In this post I curate…

The Dollar Store 4th of July Party

Charming gingham paper plates & napkins

Paper goods up close. Put some fried chicken (an organic, happy chicken fried in sunflower oil) and coleslaw on that plate!!!

Tri-colored crepe paper!!! Very 19th century.

Baskets to hold all those charming paper goods and those homemade whatevers you will be serving your guests.

Attractive plastic serving pieces, for those times when you can’t bring yourself to use real service.

Charming little 6 oz retro glasses. Perfect for serving miniature root beer floats. Or ginger beer floats if you’re trend oriented.

Can you believe it? So cute, and ONE DOLLAR!


Party favors!

Kazoo parade!!!

Little ruffled navy blue baby sun hat. (one.dollar.)

Child’s sunglasses.

Sun hat is far too big for Francie. Should I buy it and save it for her to wear two summers from now? No, because two summers from now there will be another wonderful thing for her to wear on her cute little head, from THE DOLLAR STORE!