All posts by Laurie Graves

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

Food for the Fourth, Rainy or Sunny

Every year, for the Fourth of July, we have a gathering at the little house in the big woods, and we always hope to spend most of the time on the patio in our backyard. Unfortunately, summer in Maine is a hit or miss affair—some days are sunny, and others are rainy, especially in June or July. Naturally, you never know when the rain will come, and this makes it particularly difficult to plan a Fourth of July “barbie,” as the Australians might put it.

Some years, the weather has been fine, and Clif has been able to grill at his leisure, beginning with bread and ending with chicken. Other years, the day starts out sunny, but by midafternoon the clouds gather, and it’s a rush to grill the food and eat before the rain comes. And some years, Clif has been out there with his umbrella, trying to keep things dry as he grills.

Last year, we finally came to our senses and planned food that could be eaten indoors or outdoors. We decided on hot dogs, either grilled or pan fried, and a crock-pot full of beans in barbecue sauce. Our guests brought various side dishes, and we all agreed that this was a very tasty way to celebrate the Fourth.  Clif and I were so pleased with the results that we decided this would be our new tradition for upcoming gatherings on the Fourth.

As I write, two kinds of beans—black and kidney—are simmering on the stove. Tomorrow morning, into the crock-pot they will go along with peppers, garlic, onion, and barbecue sauce. Because Hurricane Arthur is blowing up the East Coast, it is my guess that we’ll have to dig out the cast iron frying pans to cook the hot dogs indoors.

No matter. There will be seven us, a good number for the little house in the big woods, especially when the furniture in the living room is rearranged a bit.

Tomorrow morning, on the Fourth, I expect I’ll wake up hearing the various hosts, reporters, newscasters and commentators on NPR reading the Declaration of Independence. NPR has been doing this for over 20 years, and it is a tradition I have come to love. I am always moved by the language, the style, and the promise of the Declaration of Independence.  The promise, of course, hasn’t always been kept, but it is there, and I believe that, in part, it is this promise that gives the American temperament its optimism, its energy to look ahead, to move forward.

Optimism can at times seem foolish, naive, and misplaced. But optimism can also propel a country through hard, bitter times when it looks as though there is no place for optimism. Solutions to seemingly intractable problems such as climate change can come from optimism.

So happy birthday, United States. May optimism continue to guide us.




Bribing Oneself During High Summer

IMG_6026-1High summer is here. At 11:30 a.m., it was 90 degrees in the shade at the little house in the big woods. Relative humidity? About the same. (Take note, Shari Burke. This is too hot and humid even for me.)

We are hosting a gathering here for the Fourth of July, and I have assigned various chores to various days. Yesterday was make ice cream pie. I made vanilla ice cream and put it in a graham cracker crust. Tomorrow I will make a raspberry sauce and a blueberry sauce, and we will have a refreshing red, white, and blue dessert.

One of today’s big chores was to weed-whack around the edge of the patio and various other places the lawn mower can’t get. I had hoped to go outside before it got really hot, but I am not an early riser, and by late morning it was, well, 90 in the shade.

Still, the chore needed to be done, and I knew that by the time the sun set, I’d be spent because of the heat. So I bribed myself.  If I weed-whacked, then afterwards I could have a cool drink, a couple of hard candies, and spend as much time as I wanted going over photos I took before I did the weed-whacking.

The bribe worked. As I labored and sweated, I thought about that cool drink and how pleasurable it would be to go over my pictures. In fact, the bribe worked so well that I even threw in a few other chores, just for good measure.

Now I can relax with a clear conscience for the rest of this hot afternoon.

Here are the pictures I took before weed-whacking. Lots of yellow in the garden. Funny, but that’s the color that seems to grow best at the little house in the big woods.



July Gardens at the LIttle House in the Big Woods

Dwarf snapdragons
Dwarf snapdragons

At the little house in the big woods, it is not easy to grow flowers and vegetables. There is too much shade and too much ledge. We bought this house before I became smitten with gardening, and I’m not sure we would have bought it had I realized how difficult it would be to grow things here.

Still, even though I constantly grumble that we have the worst yard in Winthrop in which to garden, I do like living on the edge of the cool, green forest. During these hot, humid days, all we need is our fan in the attic to get the house down to a nice temperature in the evening. And when I sit on the patio at dusk, listening to the hermit thrush and the loons, I can’t help but think there is no finer place to be in central Maine.

I also have to admit I have had some success with flowers. Over the years, I have learned what will grow here. Unfortunately, I also have spent a fair amount of money discovering what will not grow here. At any rate, here are some pictures of my July garden, when the little house in the woods is at its prettiest.

Astilbe, the fairy flower of the garden
Astilbe, the fairy flower of the garden
Evening primroses
Evening primroses
Little winged visitor in the backyard
Little winged visitor in the backyard

Farmer Kev and the Weather

Columbines by the side of the road
Columbines by the side of the road

A quiet, gray day at the little house in the big woods. Rain is forecasted, and it is much needed. We’ve had a long stretch of sunny weather, and the plants could use the refreshing rain. So far, what a wonderful summer it has been. A little cool, perhaps, but just the right amount of water and sun. The plants—both in pots and in the ground—are thriving, bringing bursts of color to all the green surrounding the house.

Much different from last year, when it rained for 20 straight days in a row. So much rain stunted my potted flowers and herbs, and they never recovered. The tomatoes were watery and prone to rotting. To my way of thinking, a bad year for tomatoes is a very bad year indeed. We only get those luscious tomatoes once a year, and what a blow it is when the crop isn’t good.

Yesterday, Farmer Kev delivered our CSA vegetables. (Yes, he delivers.)

“How are the gardens doing?” I asked.

“Not bad. Things are growing pretty well,” he answered. Then he shrugged. “I hope it continues. I always hope for the best but expect the worst.”

Oh, my! Farmer Kev is only in his early 20s, but farming has taught him to be cautious about expecting too much from the weather. For most of us, weather is a matter of personal comfort—we don’t like being too cold; we don’t like being too hot. But for farmers, it is a different matter. Their livelihood depends on weather that is beneficial for their crops—the right amount of sun and rain. Too much of either can ruin the yield, and because the weather is so capricious, Farmer Kev has every right to be wary.

Well, so far, so good. Today the rain will come and bring moisture to all the gardens in Maine. This morning when it was just sprinkling, I slid in a walk to the Narrows and took a few pictures.

The Upper Narrows
The Upper Narrows

When I came back, I made bread, and tonight for supper we will have baked chicken and potatoes and fresh peas from Farmer Kev’s garden.

A lovely kind of gray day in June.

The Lower Narrows
The Lower Narrows

Help! They Put Barcaloungers in My Cinema!

For Father’s Day, Clif got a gift certificate for Regal Cinema, which mainly shows blockbusters, silly comedies, and movies that appeal to teenagers. We don’t go to this cinema very often, preferring the more independent movies that are shown at Railroad Square Cinema. (Hint to Railroad Square: Make your gift certificates available on your  website.) However, there are certain blockbusters we do like to see, and Clif has a very soft spot for comic book films. Therefore, the current X-Men movie was calling to him, so to Regal we went on Sunday.

We hadn’t been to Regal Cinema since Christmas, and what a surprise we got when we walked into the theater showing our movie. Gone were the old, quite comfortable seats. They had been replaced with row after row of black Baracloungers, seats wide enough for even the most ample body, seats with little movable trays for refreshments. There were also gigantic cup holders and a special designated holder for popcorn. But the best feature was the footrest, popped up by a lever on the side of the armrest.

It didn’t take long for Clif and me to pop up the footrest and recline. Did it feel strange to be sitting in a recliner at the movies? Yes, it did. But I must also admit that it was very comfortable, especially for someone like me who has restless legs. When I sit, I usually squirm and fidget, and sitting with my legs up is a great help.

As we waited for the movie to start, Clif said, “They did this to make going to the movies feel as comfortable as being in your own living room.”

I agreed that this was probably the case. With movies coming so soon to DVD or to Amazon and with modern television sets being so crisp and clear, staying at home to watch a movie gets better and better.

Then there is the cost. For a family of four to go the movies, the admission is over $30, and that’s the afternoon price. Throw in popcorn, drinks, candy, and the tab comes to over $50, which for many people is a pretty hefty price for a trip to the movies.

Back in the old days, when I was a teenager, the price of a movie and popcorn really wasn’t an issue. I don’t remember what it cost, but I can’t recall ever thinking, “Wow, going to the movies and getting popcorn are just too expensive for me.”

I expect the Barcaloungers aren’t going to entice more people to go to more movies. It’s my guess that cost is the issue. Make it affordable, and more people will come.  It’s that simple, but I don’t foresee cinemas lowering their prices any time soon.

One last comment about the new seats: A woman who sat in the same row as we did brought a blanket and slippers with her. Now that’s really getting into home comfort at the cinema.


A Parfait Weekend

IMG_5905Last weekend was a busy one filled with good friends and good food, my favorite kind of weekend. A parfait weekend, if you’ll pardon the pun, as on Friday we made parfaits with homemade ice cream for our friends Dawna and Jim. There was lots of good talk about photography and family.

On Saturday, we went to our friend Diane’s house in Brunswick, where we talked about our various projects, art, literature, and the places we love best.

The place I love best, aside from Maine, is England. You might even call it my heart’s home. It is the land of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Tolkien. It is bursting with flowers. In England, there are lots of dogs, plenty of tea, and lovely hot scones. And the green, rolling countryside seems to stretch in every direction.

For my friend Diane, Italy is her heart’s home. Art infuses all aspects of everyday life, and that really resonated with her. For her friend Jeff, it was France—the food, the climate, the people. For Jackie, another friend, it was Japan.

It’s funny how your heart’s home can be some place different from where you were born.

First Day of Summer, A Remembrance of My Mother

Rochelle June Dansereau, the queen of June
Rochelle June Dansereau, the queen of June

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s birthday, and a beautiful, fine day it is. Sunny, not too hot, not in the least humid. A perfect day for a birthday barbecue. (As I mentioned in a previous post, most of her birthday barbecues were foiled by rain.)

Mom died 6 years ago, and I still keenly feel the loss.  The picture accompanying this post was taken when she graduated from high school. Such a fancy dress! To me, she looks like the queen of June—la reine de Juin. Very appropriate for someone whose birthday fell on the first day of summer.

Giving Thanks for the Green, Thriving World

Daisy in green

This evening, friends are coming over, and there is much to do today, but the chicken is cooked and ready for the chicken tarragon salad. Soon I’ll be getting the milk and cream mixture ready for our homemade ice cream. Then there is a salsa dip to make as well as a spinach, pasta, and feta salad.

A busy day but such a lovely one. It’s sunny and dry and a little cool, even. Tonight we might have to shut the windows.

A few days ago, I received an email from Farmer Kev, and next week we should have peas in our CSA delivery.  At the little house in the big woods, the gardens—filled mostly with shade plants—are thriving. We got off to a cold, slow start this spring, but the weather finally seems to be in the plants’ favor. I can’t recall a time in early summer when they looked so vibrant, so vigorous. The plants must be getting exactly the right amounts of rain and sun.

This is pure luck, of course. The weather gods do what they will. (Last summer they made it rain for 20 days in a row.) All we mere humans can do is give thanks when the weather gods nod in our direction. Because, let’s face it—with the human population hurtling toward 9 billion, we need plants—especially ones like peas—to thrive and flourish.

So on this day before the summer solstice, I give thanks for the green and thriving world that surrounds me, for the ferns, the hostas, and the irises, for Farmer Kev’s peas.


Heading Toward the Summer Solstice

The sweet smell of green

We are more than half-way through June, and what a lovely June it has been so far. Enough rain to keep the plants happy, and enough sun to keep the humans happy. I just love this time of year, when night doesn’t come until 9:00, leaving plenty of time for drinks—usually iced tea—on the patio and bike rides when my husband, Clif, comes home from work.

It has become warm enough so that the windows can stay open, night and day, and the air at the little house in the big woods is so sweet, so clean. This time of year, when I am in the backyard,  I often stop just to smell the forest with its ferns and trees. It smells green, it smells like life. Too bad I can’t bottle and sell that aroma. People would be clammoring to buy it, and Clif and I would have a very comfortable retirement.

We are heading toward the summer solstice, a bittersweet time when the day is at its longest and loveliest. However, on Sunday, June 22, slowly, slowly it starts going the other way until the dark presses in at 4:00 p.m. Well, no point in thinking about that now.

Saturday, June 21 is also the anniversary of my mother’s birthday. She would have been 78, and I always think how wonderful it was for her to have a birthday on the summer solstice. (I also think of how often we had to have her birthday celebrations inside as June is often a rainy month in Maine, and our plans for a barbecue were inevitably foiled by the weather.)

This weekend is filled with summer solstice plans. On Friday, our friends Jim and Dawna are coming over for grilled bread and salads and parfaits made with homemade ice cream.

“Keep it simple,” Dawna told me, as she tells me every year. Usually, not only do I serve grilled bread and salad but also chicken and either rice or pasta to go with it.

“We don’t need that much food,” she said.

“Especially at our age,” I agreed.

So this year I am following her advice. We will be having simple appetizers—tortilla chips and a homemade dip made with salsa and sour cream and, of course, the bread and salads and dessert.

“Would you like me to bring over fixings for margaritas?” Dawna asked.

Would I ever! Dawna’s homemade margaritas are the best I’ve ever tasted. The weather is supposed to be good tomorrow, and it looks as though we’ll be able to enjoy our margaritas on the patio.

On Saturday, our friend Diane invited us to a potluck, so to Brunswick we will go. I plan on bringing a pasta and spinach salad, made with Farmer Kev’s spinach. I’m also going to bring cinnamon pie knots, a favorite of Diane’s.

What a lovely way to begin summer.

When the Day is a 12

Yesterday, my cousin Lynn noted that the day was so fine that it surely must be a 12, surpassing 10 and even 11. (Take that, Spinal Tap!) And so it was. Today seems to be following in yesterday’s footsteps with a day so lovely and warm—but not too warm—that you would like to tuck it in reserve to be used on a bitter day in, say, March, when all hope seems to be gone.

We are more than half-way through June, and so far it’s been a pretty good one. We’ve had a nearly perfect mixture of rainy and sunny days, and the gardens seem to be bursting with joy.

To celebrate this 12 kind of day, here are some pictures from the gardens at the little house in the big woods. May we have many more days like this!

My favorite flower
My favorite flower
And yet another!
And yet another!
Rocks and water
Dwarf snapdragons
Dwarf snapdragons