Food: Foraging in Spring

So right now (as alluded to in my previous post), I’m focused on things of a domestic nature in order to cope with the chaos raging outside my door. Call it escapism, or something else vaguely insulting — I don’t care. Whatever it takes (short of psychotropic drugs) to get by these days.

This week in food: my son and I collected Japanese Knotweed shoots and made a delicious jam — or compote, really. There is nothing like a tasty invasive species compote.

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was originally brought to the U.S. as an ornamental, but has taken over as the bane of many gardeners. Knotweed is quite pretty, with shoots that look like bamboo that quickly transform into a gargantuan plant which flowers in late summer/early fall. It spreads via its rhizomes, which means it is a nightmare to control.

Interestingly, knotweed is used in alternative medicine to treat Lyme disease. An herbalist I know says that plants will often spring up unbidden in response to a need. If so, it makes sense that knotweed is so pervasive here (beyond its biological imperative), as Lyme disease is equally pervasive in the Northeast. For more official information on knotweed, check out what the eggheads at Penn State have to say through this link.

I was skeptical of the pro-edible knotweed entries I read in my foraging books, but thought I would give it a try. My skepticism was ill-founded because wow, is it ever tasty! If you like rhubarb, then eating knotweed is for you. The only downside is that the jam/compote is a terrible color: like asparagus baby food puree. This is off-putting, unless you are a baby who doesn’t know any better. As an adult, the polite thing to do is ignore the hue of the food and focus on the taste. You will be rewarded with deliciousness. Try it over yogurt or ice cream or anywhere you would slather jam.

I used a recipe from this smart veggie-obsessed blog, though I added two cups of sugar, not three, and contributed a touch of cinnamon to the final product. Which gave it a bit more depth, if I do say so myself.

Japanese Knotwood: ugly-cute

Next week’s post will feature life in the garden. And by life, I mean finding life in the garden. What a place! In the meantime, hang in there and, if you can, make this Life Changing Udon from this month’s Food & Wine. While it might not change your life, it will most definitely fill your belly with wholesome goodness, remind you that eggs, when cooked properly, are a beautiful thing, and be one more culinary hedge against outer darkness.

My Favorite Things

No, this is not one of the Oprah-esque lists where I tell you about A Few Things I Love, which turn out to be $400 slippers and a box of 22k gold toothpicks. Like this.

The My Favorite Things of the title is in reference to a book written by the late Dorothy Rodgers, wife of the late Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame). I picked up this book at our town transfer station (which we call The Dump), where locals drop off trash and recycling, including unwanted books. These books go into a pleasant little shed called the Book Barn.

The Book Barn at the dump is the source of many, many great finds. The advantage of picking up books at the dump (besides the fact that they are free) is that so many are out of print. I would otherwise never come across a book like Dorothy Rodgers’ My Favorite Things. Published in 1964, it is so of its moment that it could never be recreated now. The book’s very appeal—its era-specific trendiness (a selling point at the time of publication) means that it seemingly stopped being relevant long ago. But this book is more than the sum of its Mad Men-era parts. It’s clear from reading it that Dorothy Rodgers was one of those sorts of women who, in any civilization, is a class act. The tips and tools she utilized for decorating and entertaining may belong to an time long since past (thanks for breaking America, hippies!), but they are really never out of style.

Part I is called “The Things That Go Into a House” and Part II is called “Entertaining at Home”.  Literally everything you need to know about leading a civilized domestic life is contained in Parts I & II.



Another recent dump find was the Meals with a Foreign Flair cookbook, published by Better Homes & Gardens in 1963. I probably will send it back to the dump from whence it came. The food styling and photography is fascinatingly grotesque, the title faintly offensive in a PC sort of way. Also, it stinks.  I’m actually wheezing as I type this, due to the mold spores emanating from the book. I am very likely the first person to crack open its pages in approximately six decades and am paying the price.


Still, it was worth a look, so I picked it up from the Book Barn, taking a swift tour around the world through the culinary lens of mid-century home cooks, who were interested in moving beyond hot dogs and towards foreign foods such as cappuccino. An admirable impulse.

After a few Meals with a Foreign Flair I ended up back in Dorothy Rodgers’ well-appointed living room. Mrs. Rodger’s home is a place to which I will return again and again, perusing My Favorite Things while enjoying Menus with a Sense of Balance.




The Spring Equinox

On Nature

Last Saturday our (last) local farm celebrated the Spring Equinox by holding a Greenhouse Openhouse here in our seaside village. My family and I helped with the event, and had a good time observing the changing of the seasons. A couple of Celtic fiddlers played by the wood stove in the greenhouse, while my husband cooked beef stew – made by one of the farmers from their own locally-raised, grass-fed beef – over an open fire.

We dyed wooden eggs using all vegetable dyes, colors made from beets and carrots and all sorts of edible stuff. Once you start digging into the rituals surrounding it, there are so many inspiring, wacky and awesome ways to celebrate the turning of the seasons. People also took part in planting seeds, literally helping the farm grow.

My kids played in the mud all day, while occasionally complaining about not being at home playing video games. Eventually the complaints died down. Either they finally gave up or – I hope – forgot about the allure of technology for a couple of hours at least.

The air was crisp, the stew was hot, and the greenhouse smelled like warm dirt. It was a great day.

(For more, check out my post on Steemit)

Beef stew over an open fire

Dyeing wooden eggs in honor of Spring.

Taking a Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt


feast table long viewToday is the greatest feast day on the calendar (The “-mas” in Christmas literally means feast in Latin). The day which conveys, above all other days, the spirit of generosity and fellow-feeling. So it seems fitting to share a few images from a dinner which took place on December 14th at Flatrocks Gallery which took generosity of spirit as its guiding principle. Net proceeds from the evening went to support the work of the Open Door, an organization which feeds thousands of people here on Cape Ann while offering a range of other crucial services.

The owners of Flatrocks Gallery, AnneMarie Crotty and Cynthia Roth, wanted to hold the fundraising dinner in conjunction with their current show, also called Feast! and asked food writer Heather Atwood and myself to help put the event together.

The menu was conceived and cooked by Heather, who provided a four-course meal via several crock pots and giant roaster full of ingenuity, metaphorically-speaking. The food evoked warmth and light and conviviality and coming inside out of the cold and dark to sit together elbow to elbow with strangers, eating at a common table via candlelight. Like an idealized version of a 17th century wayside tavern where it’s warm and clean and everyone smells awesome.

The mulled wine and roasted brussel sprouts start the evening by the fire.

The mulled wine and roasted brussel sprouts start the evening by the fire.

The guests ate and drank mulled wine over the fire on a beautiful snowy New England night before heading inside to eat and drink some more. A fisherman/musician neighbor, with a great white beard and the evocative nickname of Sasquatch, stopped by with a guitar and a set of reindeer antlers on his head to offer a bit of spontaneous song in return for a bit of spontaneous cheer — given in the form of warm appreciation and a pull of whiskey. The spirit of the Irish mystic poet-priest, John O’Donohue, was at the table in the reading of his work (he would have fit right in). A few more songs, played on the flute along with a banjo and guitar, came at the end of the meal, and the guests even had the chance to join in, singing on the chorus in full voice.

On the way out the door, guests could stop by the photo booth for a chance to put themselves in the middle of a huge painting of a true medieval feast, hanging ham hock and all.

Heather Atwood looks appropriately medieval at the Feast! photo booth.

Heather Atwood looks appropriately medieval at the Feast! photo booth.

It was a warm evening on a cold night, at nearly the darkest time of the year in our part of the world, and at every point in the evening we stopped to remember, and remember again, that those of us who have much are blessed when we make an offering of our abundance, out of the fullness of our hearts.

Vintage cookbook pages were used to make the cones that held the evening's menu.

Vintage cookbook pages were used to make the cones that held the evening’s menu.

Grace Before Meals

As we begin this meal with grace,
Let us become aware of the memory
Carried inside the food before us:
The quiver of the seed
Awakening in the earth,
Unfolding in a trust of roots
And slender stems of growth,
On its voyage toward harvest,
The kiss of rain and surge of sun;
The innocence of animal soul
That never spoke a word,
Nourished by the earth
To become today our food;
The work of all the strangers
Whose hands prepared it,
The privilege of wealth and health
That enables us to feast and celebrate.

— John O’Donohue, 1956-2008

Woman to Woman: a Dinner in Honor of the Sargent House


Bear with me here, because we’re about to go on a wild ride through the field of Women’s Studies. Not exactly the usual fodder for this blog. Actually, it’s not that the ride is wild so much as it is complicated by a thicket of various historical figures of local importance and beyond, who are related to each other not by blood but by inclination. And houses figure prominently in this narrative, which is the usual fodder for this blog, so in the end I’m not that far afield.

Here on Cape Ann, there is a historic house called the Sargent House Museum, built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Murray, a member of a very prominent family of the era, whose life encompassed not only the American Revolution but an attempt at a domestic revolution of sorts. Mrs. Murray was the first woman writer of status and position (even if she signed her essays under an assumed name for the sake of credibility and anonymity) to call attention to the matter of equality of the sexes in her essay, published in Massachusetts Magazine in 1790 and fittingly titled…The Equality of the Sexes.

The importance of Judith Sargent Murray to academics — and the rest of us — seems to be gaining recognition at a rapid pace, and the Sargent House Museum board and staff are working hard to perpetuate this recognition, honoring her legacy through the ongoing preservation of her beautifully intact house. Which brings us to the present day, in which, not long ago, an auction was held to raise funds for the museum.

Heather Atwood, food writer and grand dame (in waiting, since she’s not old enough to qualify just yet) of her own historic house, Howlets, offered to throw a dinner party as one of the items on auction. So the fundraiser took place, and the winning bidder was Mary Ann McCormick, local entrepreneur, founder of Lark Fine Foods — an award-winning company making baked goods that go beyond anything your grandmother made in deliciousness and beauty. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth.


Heather, sweeping up in preparation


David, laying the fire for a chilly evening in November

So here is where we are so far:

Writer Judith Sargent Murray of the Sargent House to writer Heather Atwood of Howlets and businesswoman Mary Ann McCormick, purveyor of Lark Fine Foods.

But wait! There’s more! In between the two hundred years that separate the Mrs. Murray and the Ms. Atwood, two other women figure into the story.

Howlets, the historic home that Heather lives in with her family, was built by in 1911 by Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, two well-regarded artists who created everything from oil paintings to etchings to sculpture. These women defined independent living, from studying with the world’s great artists to selling their work (never an easy task unless you’re dead or Jeff Koons) to building a summer house and studio of massive granite pieces that could withstand an apocalypse. Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Clements lived the sort of lives that Judith Sargent Murray imagined might be possible for women, each succeeding generation building on the work of the ones who came before to create opportunities for us today, granite block by granite block.

Judith Sargent Murray, Ellen Day Hale & Gabrielle Clements, Heather Atwood & Mary Ann McCormick…the Sargent House to Howlets…two centuries of strong women and historic houses. See how this works? If not, here’s a chart that might help.


This might all seem a little overblown, to make a connection between a woman writing an essay over two hundred years ago and a dinner party I went to last weekend. But it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see a (fairly) straight line stretching backwards between now and then.

Speaking of now, and of this dinner party, which is what I’m really writing about…my role in all of this is that Heather asked me to come up with something for the table. A tablescape, in House Beautiful magazine terms — a made-up name I despise but one I am gradually giving into using, as its ubiquity seems inevitable. Like the word awesome. Not a made-up word but used to the point of meaninglessness, as so few things are truly awesome, other than God and certain cheeses. But yet, since the ’90s, I have said and typed awesome around four million times. But about the tablescape.


The Federalist period was invoked with lots of gold accents at the table. For place cards I printed an image of a beautiful portrait of Judith Sargent Murray on vellum so the light from the votive candles came through, illuminating Mrs. Murray herself.


And for the centerpiece: four vintage frames were attached to form a square with the main flower arrangement placed in the center. As part of the arrangement, an image of the Sargent House was printed, again on vellum, and placed inside a few of the frames.


The flowers were decaying hydrangeas in the most amazing reddish hue and lots of branches, gathered together in an untidy bundle. The colors of the leaves, the ones that are still clinging to the branches, have been so intense this year. I don’t recall a more spectacular fall. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and make these sorts of observations.


The little handmade book

As a keepsake for Mary Ann, I created a little book that featured portraits of Judith Sargent Murray, Gabrielle Clements and Ellen Day Hale, along with a tiny copy of one of J.S.M’s letters. Just one of her many, many letters. She copied and saved 2,500 of her own letters, putting them into “letter books” with an eye toward posterity.



The restored window in the studio, set nearly three stories high

At the party, later that evening…



Judith Sargent Murray, alight for the occasion

MA McCormick

Mary Ann, the generous winning bidder of the dinner party.



One of the vintage frames


Heather’s homemade bread, her husband David’s selection of wine

One more note: about the food Heather made for the party… It was unbelievable, from the trays of tiny cold radishes with oyster-something-dip at the beginning of the evening to the quince tart (served as a nod to the old quince tree in yard of the Sargent House) which brought the meal to a close, it was all amazing. Awesome, actually.

If you have the chance to go to a dinner served by a food writer, go to that dinner party. Especially if that food writer happens to be a woman. Because we all know that the ladies can do wonders in a kitchen. And far, far beyond.

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