All posts by Laurie Graves

I write about nature, food, the environment, home, family, community, and people.

A Very Library Trip to the Big Apple

On Saturday, I’ll be going to New York City to visit Dee. Just visiting with her is reason enough to go, but there are so many wonderful things to do in New York City, and some of them are even free or don’t cost much at all.

One prime example is the New York Public Library, which has “88 neighborhood branches and four scholarly research centers.” (Surprise, surprise that I would think of visiting a library.) At the Schwarzman building—often considered the main branch, with those famous lions guarding the entrance—there are two exhibitions that I’m interested in.

The first is Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind. This description from the New York Public Library’s website explains it best: “Drawing from collections across The New York Public Library, Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind explores the manner in which public relations, propaganda, and mass media in its many forms were used to shape and control public opinion about the war while also noting social and political issues that continue to resonate, such as freedom of speech and the press, xenophobia, and domestic espionage. ”

I must admit I don’t know much about World War I. For me, World War II, Hitler, the death camps, and the atomic bomb overshadow that earlier war, and it will be interesting to see how the mass media functioned as a propaganda device in the early 1900s. (I certainly will never forget how the media—even the excellent New York Times—backed Bush and the war in Iraq.)

The second exhibit—Sublime: The Prints of J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Moran—will be a little lighter. As with World War I, I don’t know that much about Turner except that he was a British painter in the 1800s and painted in an impressionistic style before Monet and Renoir made it popular. (I also know that Timothy Spall will be portraying him in the upcoming Mike Leigh bio-pic.) I know absolutely nothing about Thomas Moran. According to the blurb on the library’s website, Moran was an American painter who was greatly influenced by Turner’s work.

After seeing both this exhibits, I should know much more about WWI and the works of Turner and Moran than I do now. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s always good to learn new things.

At the Hudson Park Library, there is an exhibition called Here and There: An Exhibit of Paintings by Elliot Gilbert. So as not to ruin my perfect record of ignorance as expressed in this post, I also have to confess that I am completely unacquainted with the works of Gilbert, who is a landscape artist and an illustrator of children’s books.

Dee and I will also tuck in a movie or two and get Chinese food from a place just down the street from her apartment. We’ve talked about getting donuts from the fabulous Doughnut Plant. (I can taste a donut right now.) And perhaps slide in a trip to the Strand bookstore. Then there are cannolis from that Italian shop not far from where Dee lives.

Always so much to do and see and eat in New York City.

Apple Crisp, Tea, A Visit from the Kids, and Book Talk

Yesterday, Shannon and Mike, along with their dogs Holly and Samara came over for a visit. The apartment above them was being sprayed for flea eradication, and they wanted to be away for the worst of it.

How nice it was to have a midweek visit from Shannon and Mike. They helped me move some heavy pots off the steps, and we stayed in the backyard until the damp and the rain drove us inside.

I made apple crisp for our tea, and as we sat around the dining room table on a gray day, we all decided that this was a pretty fine way to spend the afternoon. Whenever we get together, there is always movie talk and book talk. Recently, on Public Radio, I had heard a discussion about books, where The Great Gatsby was pronounced “overrated” as well as “vapid,” and Jane Austen was dismissed as delightful but not difficult. One of the guests, who shall remain unnamed, questioned whether Jane Austen was even great. Jane Austen was, perhaps, too entertaining.

I am a huge fan of both The Great Gatsby and Jane Austen, and I told Mike and Shannon that by the time the show was over, I was ready to put sticks in my ears. What was so disappointing about this show was how glib and dismissive the comments were. Certainly, with any book—no matter how beloved—there is a place for thoughtful, intelligent criticism, but the comments I heard indicated that the guests, as well as the show’s host, had just skimmed over the books and had missed the essential elements that do in fact make these books great.

Mike, Shannon, and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the show and the books. Mike commented on how it didn’t matter if Daisy and Gatsby were vapid, and that might even be the point. I spoke of how the role of money, crushing capitalism, and inequality are themes that thrum through the book. What could be more relevant today?

Essayist and critic Maureen Corrigan, who has just written a book about The Great Gatsby-So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures—perhaps comes closest to getting to the essence of this admittedly offbeat novel. In an interview, Corrigan notes, “It’s not character driven nor especially plot driven; rather, it’s that oddest of literary animals—a voice-driven novel.” That voice being Nick Carraway, the narrator. Corrigan also notes: “Gatsby celebrates the doomed beauty of trying in ordinary American language made unearthly by Fitzgerald’s great poetic gifts.”

Then Shannon, Mike, and I moved on to Jane Austen. Shannon observed that all too often, Jane Austen’s novels are considered light reading. “It’s not fair at all,” Shannon said. “There’s a lot going on, a lot of shrewd, social commentary and a lot about the relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, siblings, and friends.” Class, of course, is a huge concern in all of Austen’s novel, and “It’s not like we don’t have class issues today,” Shannon went on to say. We certainly do.

I suggested that Jane Austen was in the vanguard of the modern novel and that she led the way for those who came after her—the Brontës, George Elliot, and Thomas Hardy, to name a few. Who comes before Jane Austen? Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift, all brilliant in their own, often strange ways, but none of them were such keen observers of human nature, of families and society, as Jane Austen was.

Is it fair to say that Jane Austen was the godmother of the modern novel? I think it might be. Merely entertaining indeed!

Leaves, Leaves, Leaves

IMG_6871The leaves have come tumbling down, and it’s time to make a serious effort to clean them up. Yesterday, I raked/brushed some of the driveway, and I felt as though I were in a lake of leaves. However, the trees by the driveway are pretty bare, and I think my Sisyphean task of keeping the driveway clear seems to be coming to an end.

There are also gardens to clip down, garden ornaments to bring in, and the bird bath to clean and store down cellar. Clif has been hauling wood, and on both Saturday and Sunday, we worked on our various projects.

Now, I never thought I would be writing this, but here goes: On Saturday, the weather was so warm and muggy—in the 70s—that it actually made me feel lethargic and a little off. I like warm weather very much, but by mid-October there is supposed to be a chill in the air, and to have it be so warm felt just plain weird. In fact, as I noted in a previous post, October so far has been freakishly warm, and a strong emphasis must placed on freakish. But perhaps this warm weather in autumn isn’t freakish at all. Perhaps it’s the new normal. We’ve had this weather pattern for several years in a row, and while it is never good to jump to conclusions, this does seem to be a trend.

But on Saturday night a strong rain came, driving away the warm weather, and Sunday was as crisp and fine and blowy as an October day in Maine should be. Swish, swish, swish went the rake and broom. Thump went the wood as Clif loaded into the cart. After we were finished, we came in for our tea, and it was cozy to take our tea in the snug living room after a chilly time spent outside.

After tea, I made a chicken galette with leftover chicken, potatoes, carrots, and broth from a previous meal. There is enough of the mixture left to make chicken pot pies when Mike and Shannon come over on Tuesday.


Today is as chilly as it was yesterday.  I’ll be doing more chores outside, and I hope the weather continues to be seasonably crisp.

October 17, 2014: By the Water’s Edge with Mr. Straight and Mr. Lean

Yesterday was a rainy day, too wet to work in the gardens. Between showers, the dog and I walked to the Narrows, beautiful in any weather. On the way to the Narrows, I saw a stick studded with some kind of fungi. Unfortunately, I am very ignorant when it comes to identifying fungi, but I loved the pattern of the tan on the dark stick. Also, I liked how the leaves complemented the color of the fungi.


At the Narrows, the bright leaves punctuated the gray sky and water. This time, it was the contrast that caught my attention.




We stayed at the Narrows for a little while, admiring the gray water and bright leaves. On the way back, I saw more fungi, this time on dead trees by the water’s edge.


Then, my fanciful side took over. The fungi reminded me of noses, and I imagined that the trees weren’t dead at all. In fact, they were sentinels—Mr. Straight and Mr. Lean—standing guard over a watery kingdom, and they were at the ready to sniff out danger.

“Who goes there?,” I imagined Mr. Straight asking, as the nostrils flared in the various noses.

“I smells a dog.  ‘e’s not far off.” Mr. Lean added. “And a ‘uman as well.”

“We’re friends,” I said. “We mean you no harm.”

By now all the nostrils were flaring, but I could see them relax as they sniffed out the truth.

“Well, go on with you then.”

Now why in the world did these Maine sentinels have a Cockney accent? Too much British television, too many English fantasy novels. No, instead the exchange should have gone something like this.

“Who’s that going by?” Mr. Straight asked. “I smell a dog and a human.”

“Ayuh,” Mr. Lean replied. “What are you doing heeya, sistah? You and that dog?”

“We’re just walking,” I answered. “And looking at the water.”

“Well, make sure that’s all you do,” Mr. Lean said.

“We don’t want no funny business around heeya,” Mr. Straight put in.

“No funny business,” I promised.

“Well, all right then.”

The dog and I passed the sentinels and walked home. Just as we got inside, it started pouring. What good timing!

And I thought of Mr. Straight and Mr. Lean down by the Lower Narrows, guarding the water from any funny business.



Mid-October, 2014

Colorful boat by colorful leaves on Maranacook Lake
Colorful boat by colorful leaves on Maranacook Lake

We are half way through October, which has been very warm, almost freakishly warm. Good for the heating bills but odd nonetheless to this native Mainer who is used to crisp autumn weather in October. Clif and I still spend a little time on the patio when he gets home from work, and we keep saying, “We won’t be able to do this much longer.”

I have a friend whose birthday is on October 24, and she maintains that by then it is always too cold to sit on the patio or deck. In the old Maine, she was right. Clif and I are wondering if she’ll be right this year.

Warm or not, October is a month of beauty, of red, orange, and yellow  leaves, of bright blue skies. The light is especially fine—golden and at a slant.

Slowly, I am getting the gardens cut back. Once or twice a week I sweep the driveway, but it is a fool’s errand. Several hours later, more leaves have fallen. I have emptied and scrubbed some flower pots, but we still haven’t had a hard frost, and the coleus remains untouched.

Here are some October pictures of the yard at the little house in the big woods:


Coleus, untouched by frost
Coleus, untouched by frost
Silly cat by the parsely
Silly cat by the parsley
Gone by in the front
Ragged garden in the front
Our winter security
Our winter security

“Making” Paper at Dragonfly Studio

IMG_6790Last Saturday, Clif and I went to Readfield to visit Dragonfly Studio, which was participating in Maine Craft Weekend and was therefore hosting an open studio. Tom and Christine Higgins—a painter and paper maker, respectively—share the studio near their home in Readfield. Dragonfly Studio is tucked into the woods and overlooks a distant, glimmering Torsey Lake. A studio with a view, that’s for sure.

A studio with a view
A studio with a view

First we looked at Tom’s paintings—vibrant landscapes, some of which were painted right outside Dragonfly Studio. Clif and I both liked Tom’s work very much, and if our budget were bigger, then there is a high chance a painting would have come home with us. There was one, in particular, that really caught my attention—an autumn painting with a bright blue sky and brilliant flashes of fall leaves. (We did, however, buy a pack of Chris’s lovely cards, one of which will be used for a wedding card this week.)

A glimmer of Torsey Lake
A glimmer of Torsey Lake

Then we looked at Chris’s work—prints, fiber containers, sculpture, and paper on panels. After we admired her work—earthy yet snappy and appealing—she asked, “Do you want to make some paper?”

Why not? I’ve never made paper before. We went outside where Chris had a large pan of water with floating fiber that had been ground in a big machine she keeps in a nearby storage shed. The main fiber was sweet Annie, but Chris had something else mixed with it.  Unfortunately,  I foolishly didn’t take notes, and I don’t remember what else was used.

Chris at the pan
Chris at the pan

I donned a big plastic apron, and with my hands, I swished the fibers back forth, as instructed. When the water was sufficiently churned, a screen was dipped to catch the fibers and strain the water. I lifted the screen, and by gum, I could see the birth of paper unfold before my admiring eyes.

The screens
The screens

The newborn paper was tapped onto newspaper and blotted. (In one sense, it remind me a bit of working with pie dough.) And given to me, still wet, to take home.

“What am I going to do with it?” I mused, not wanting this beautiful, fragrant paper to be stored on a back shelf and forgotten.

“You could write on it or cut into shapes,” Chris suggested.

I could. Or I could try to make a fiber container. I really admired Chris’s, which were filled with dried flowers.

“I could mould it over a plant pot,” I said.

“There’s not enough paper,” Chris said. She gave me two small plastic cups. “Try these.”

And that’s exactly what I did when I got home. I wrapped the wet paper around the cups, crimped the edges a bit, and tied a bit of twine around the bottom, both for looks and to hold its shape. Even wet, my little fiber container looked really good. Perhaps not as good as one of Chris’s, but good enough for me, especially on my first try.

Over the next day or two, I diligently checked my little fiber container as though it were an incubating egg.  (It was in the guest bedroom, with the door closed to keep out curious cats.) Every so often, I would touch the container gently, to see if it was dry. When it seemed dry enough, out came the plastic cups, and there was my fiber container, just the right shape and just waiting for a small bottle with some dried clippings from the garden.

Not only was I very, very pleased with how my container came out, but I started thinking of ways to make them on my own, not from scratch, the way Chris does, but in a more streamlined way with pretty paper and paper mache. Clif even suggested using brown paper bags.

We’ll see. In the meantime, thanks to Chris’s generosity, I have my own fiber container, and every time I go by, I gently touch it and admire it.

My very own fiber container
My very own fiber container




Columbus Day, 2014: Grilled pizza, Rice Krispies Squares, Yellow Jackets, and Shots in the Woods

IMG_6798Yesterday, Columbus Day, was sunny and warm, a perfect day for a visit from Shannon and Mike and their two dogs—Holly and Samara. Because of his work schedule, we haven’t seen Mike for quite a while, not since he started his new job at Craft Beer Cellar. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that Mike is a beer connoisseur, and he has developed quite a discriminating palate. He is currently studying to get his cicerone certification, at which point Mike will be a true beer expert.

As I listened to Mike talk about the various types of beer he has tasted and sells, it occurred to me that beer has become as nuanced—and as pricey!—as wine. We’ve come a long way from the days when there was a limited selection of beer at the grocery store, and Heineken was pretty much as good as it got.

Full disclosure: I really don’t like beer at all, and if someone insisted I drink a whole glass, it would be hard to maintain a pleasant expression. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear Mike talk about his new job, which he loves, and all the aspects of beer. On the other hand, Clif likes beer, and every time Mike comes, he brings a different variety for Clif to sample. Clif and Mike both know that beer is best enjoyed in moderation, and they never have more than two bottles each any time we get together. On our next trip to Portland, Clif will visit Mike at Craft Beer Cellar, get the official tour, and, of course, buy some beer. Shannon, who also doesn’t like beer, and I will stay behind and take the dogs for a walk.

On Monday, because the day was so fine, we had planned to spend most of it on the patio, but unfortunately, yellow jackets have taken up residency in one of my gardens out front. As soon as the beer, flavored water, chips, and dip came out, the yellow jackets joined us. It’s not much fun swatting yellow jackets and trying to avoid being bitten, so in we went to finish appetizers in the dining room.

However, grilled pizza was on the menu, so we went out with Clif while he grilled it, to keep him company. All of the sweet food stayed inside, and the yellow jackets didn’t bother us much at all. We ate the pizza inside, and when it was done, we decided to try having dessert on the patio. It was late afternoon, and significantly cooler than when we had started with appetizers. We figured it was too chilly for the little biting buzzers.

Our hunch about the yellow jackets was right. It was too cool for them to be buzzing about, and they left us alone as we drank tea and ate Shannon’s Rice Krispies treats. Spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, layered with roasted marshmallows, and dipped in chocolate, these were certainly deluxe Rice Krispie Treats, and they were utterly delicious. Clif and I couldn’t stop with just one.

As we finished dessert, we heard a blast of gunfire from the woods. It’s bird hunting season, and someone was out there trying to rustle up the ultimate free-range supper. Hearing gunshots so close is always disconcerting, and the sound of gunfire set the dogs off into a chorus of barking. Holly, in particular, has a deep, guard-dog bark, and she was quite concerned.

“Let them bark,” I said. “That way, the hunter will know he is not far from a house.”

“This is the one time of year I’m glad I don’t live in the woods,” Shannon said.

I understand how she feels. I don’t like hearing gunshot, either, especially when it’s close. But we’ve lived here for thirty years, and so far no bullets have come whizzing toward the house. When deer season is upon us, I dress in orange and bring the radio outside, cranking it as loud as it will go on a classic rock and roll station. I want hunters to know we are here.

Pizza, Rice Krispies treats, yellow jackets, gun shots. No one was bitten, no one was shot. The food was good, and the company was even better. I would have to say the good definitely outweighed the bad, but I’ll be glad when the yellow jackets go away, and hunting season is over.

A Visit from Darling Baby

There are two darling babies whose lives I follow on Facebook, and they are both under a year old. The babies are the children of young women I have known since they were little girls. It is such a pleasure to watch them become parents and to see the development of their own daughters.

One darling baby lives two states away, and this unfortunately means that I don’t see her very much. But her father, who is a stay-at-home dad, is a fine photographer, and I have the pleasure of seeing many pictures of darling baby as well as some videos.

The other darling baby only lives twenty minutes away, which means I see her on a fairly regular basis. Beth, her grandmother and my friend, has retired and is taking care of this particular darling baby while the parents work. Lucky parents to have such a loving, competent, and energetic person to take care of their child.

Today Beth and darling baby are coming over for a visit.  It’s a fine day, and we’ll be taking a walk to the Narrows. We’ll make quite a procession—Beth, darling baby in her carriage, Liam on his leash, and me.

I’ll be making muffins, either bran or chocolate—I haven’t decided. After the walk we’ll come back for muffins and cider. Darling baby can’t crawl yet, and I won’t have to use the child gates to stop her from tumbling down the cellar stairs, which are open. But that day is soon coming, and when it does, we’ll barricade ourselves in the living room, where all breakable things will be moved to higher ground. Babies love to grab, and it seems to me that the best solution is to just move everything out of reach.  That way, there is less fussing and less chance of darling baby breaking something.

I can’t wait until darling baby is old enough for a snack of her own—animal crackers or some other little treat that her parents approve of. I’ll have them ready for her. I might even nip a couple myself.

One of the good things about having animals is that it really doesn’t matter how many crumbs or uneaten pieces of cookies fall on the rug and floor. I’ve cleaned up worse. Much worse.

But having animals means I have to vacuum frequently, and off I go to get the house ready for darling baby and her grandmother.

A wonderful start to what promises to be a beautiful weekend.

A “Baked Bean” Lentil Dish

IMG_6746One of my favorite cooking and food websites is Food52, where the emphasis is on unfussy food made with inexpensive ingredients that most home cooks have in their kitchens. There are also many vegan and vegetarian dishes, and this goes in the direction in which Clif and I are heading with food. We are both very much concerned with overpopulation, limited resources on our finite planet, and living lightly. (I plan to explore the living lightly concept in future posts, and I am currently reading a book with the apt title Living Lightly.)

Lately, I have become enamoured with red lentils, which are not as, ahem, earthy as the brown lentils. (I have uncharitably referred to the flavor of brown lentils as “muddy,” and Clif is not a fan of them, either.) For our Labor Day get together, I made curried red lentils in my slow cooker—thanks, Susan Poulin, for the terrific recipe!—and they were a big hit. It was the first time I had used red lentils, rather than brown, and I was hooked by their smooth, subtle flavor. Red lentils, I knew, would become a staple at the little house in the big woods as we turn to a plant-based diet.

Therefore when Joe Beef’s Lentils Like Baked Beans recipe was featured on Food52, and I saw the primary ingredient was red lentils, I decided to try it.  I did make some changes. I did not use bacon. No explanation needed, I think. Rather than cooking the lentils on the stove, I cooked them in a slow cooker, which thanks to Shari Burke’s encouragement has become my favorite little appliance. I just tossed everything into the slow cooker, let it come to boil on high, and then turned it down to low so that it could simmer until supper time. I also added more cider vinegar, maple syrup, and ketchup.

Finally, I served it over rice, which is the way I prefer most bean and lentil dishes. While I like lentils and beans, they can set heavy, especially at night, and I find rice lightens the dish. I also sprinkled ground peanuts on top, because, well, nuts and lentils go together like apple and pie.

The results? The lentils did taste a little baked beans, although nobody would ever confuse the two. “Pretty good,” Clif said, going back for seconds. Perhaps not company good—somehow the dish lacked the pizazz I look for when cooking for a gathering—but certainly good enough for a Tuesday night supper. And good enough to make again.

Then there is the price. I figured I used about $2.50 worth of lentils, which were organic. The other ingredients—maple syrup, cider vinegar, dried mustard, oil, onion, garlic, and ketchup—I had on hand, and the small amounts I used certainly didn’t come to more than a dollar or two. There were rice and ground peanuts—again, no more than a dollar or two, and I expect I am estimating on the high side. Even erring on the high side, say, $6 or $7 dollars for the whole meal, which would easily feed six, makes this an extremely economical dish that would fit in with most people’s budgets, even when they are tiny, like ours.

Among foodies, nutritionists, and activists, there has been much talk about the cost of healthy eating in the U.S. , and rightly so. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, food prices have risen 44 percent over the past fourteen years. And salaries? Well, not so much. Nevertheless, in comparison with beef and pork, lentils and other legumes are a great bargain.

For confirmed carnivores, making the transition from meat to legumes is probably not an easy one. However, for those of us with more flexible palates, eating more beans and lentils is a tasty way to eat lower on the food chain. Right now, I have a good supply of black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils. I will be adding other beans to my stockpile, and I’ll be experimenting with various meatless recipes so that our diet is varied and satisfying.

Stay tuned!