Monday, October 25, 2010

Wedding gift recollection, a propos of nothing

This story might almost fit into my "St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place" series (thank you, Just Eat It, for the inspiration on THAT) or into other serial recollections of mine, but it's probably at home in any "wonderful things/small towns" category. However catalogued, here's a small, bright recollection that came to me this evening in such vivid color and immediacy that I couldn't put it into words past unexpected tears. It seems like a bridge between the now-archaic and the ever-changing present, and between a generation nearly gone and one still finding its identity.

I must have blabbed to everyone in the WORLD, all those years ago, about our wedding plans. In hindsight more people than I could have imagined were breathtakingly generous and kind to us, and we didn't expect it. In fact it was one of the reasons we chose to marry in a quiet, non-traditional way (we had lived together, we had un-traditional families, we had ye olde religious differences, etc. We didn't send wedding invitations because I didn't want people to feel compelled to give gifts. What an idiot I was, and how stupid about the grace with which humans bless each other, but never mind that, for now.) Invitations or no, people knew we were getting married and were kind beyond measure. In some cases we were overwhelmed by the kindness right up front but some things matured into beauty like wines preserved a century in careful cellars.

Eileen Ronan was a someone who turned up now and then at the Booksmith, and attended Mass at the Cathedral. I knew her peripherally. I thought of her as a nice lady. I had no idea she took any interest in my getting married, especially since I wasn't being married in a traditional way at the Cathderal where I sang every week. She must have been in her late 70s when I knew her and her mind was still like the edge of a knife. By her voice and her manners, I knew to be a non-native Southerner, though my guess was she'd lived in St. Augustine for a long number of years. I had the idea she'd been married to a diplomat; she made reference to having traveled in the course of her husband's work. By the time I knew her, it was clear he'd been dead for some time. It was equally clear that she loved him no less and would love him no less as long as she drew breath.

About a month before our wedding, she left a gift for us at the Booksmith. It was a copy of Southern Sideboards, a cookbook produced by the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. The gift of a cookbook wasn't surprising, but I did work in a bookstore, and this was NOT a book that could be bought in our store; she had gone to some trouble to acquire this gift. Since then, I've bought the same book as a wedding gift, passing along the kindness and gentle magic. But brides mostly haven't had any context for the gift beyond the convention - however passe it might be - of a cookbook as a fine gift for a new bride. (And sometimes the more practical gift of a check has been an alternative.) In some cases, I have tried to include an inscription more or less capturing Mrs. Ronan's sensibilities, almost certainly without success.

Tonight my dear old person and I were in the kitchen together and I happened to pull the book into our midst. I read aloud to him, and now share with you, the words Mrs. Ronan typed - with a typewriter! - and included with her gift. The typewritten page is folded into a plan white envelope and has been kept in the cookbook these long, happy years. This is what it says.

"Dear Angie & Rodney,

I wish you all the joys of a lifelong friendship and love and I know you will have them.

I know Angie is probably a splendid cook but I could only make chocolate cake and fudge when I was married. 'No problem,' I thought -- ' I'll just get a cookbook and follow the recipes.' But the cookbook doesn't tell you all the little nuances.

And of course I had to pick out the hardest recipe-- chicken cacciatore to start with. The recipe book said "Heat the oil' and I heated it to smoking. Then it told me to put in the garlic and of course it splattered all over the kitchen and me. 'Boil the chicken.' I boiled it fast and furiously and the more I boiled it the tougher it got.

But my dear husband insisted on eating it and pronounced it 'not bad'. That's true love.

Love and prayers,

As mentioned, I found myself unable to read the words out loud without tears breaking my voice. I hope "all the little nuances" touch your heart. As I consider the thing from the distance 20 years or more can provide, Eat Here would never have come into being without Mrs. Ronan and her gift and gracious willingness to bare her limitations as a cook and her clear-eyed passion for communications. In the understated style of the time she didn't say much about her husband, but in conversation her face lit from within when she spoke of him. So does the carefully typewritten page dwell inside the pages of my battered copy of Southern Sideboards.

What are your stories of unexpected kindness and open hearts? Do tell.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The barred owls of October

Owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence in literature and history. In T.H. White's The Once and Future King, one of the young King Arthur's most influential tutors was Merlin's companion, the owl Archimedes. And we can hardly do better than to follow the path of Pooh and Piglet, whose faith in Owl's brilliance was unwavering, awed as they were by Owl's ability spell his own name: W-O-L.

Last night The Golden Hour lay around us like a soft blanket. We sat on the deck, lingering in the light, when a sudden whoosh of wings burst around us and two barred owls flew past, one landing in the trees beyond our yard, and the other landing mercilessly on a mourning dove. We watched and listened as the two owls vocalized to each other, and before the light faded completely the younger owl swept back across the trees and more or less posed for this picture. I'm able to share it with you thanks to the tireless efforts of my dear old person, who took pity on the terrible photos I've been taking with my phone and bought me a small, miraculous camera, which I must confess I have only the vaguest idea how to use. This explains the appearance of midday, despite the fact that photo was taken at sunset.

Barred owls have been with us since we moved here. Generations of owl babies have doubtless been fed on hapless doves and frogs and snakes hunted and caught in our grass. Years ago, when my dear person worked at night, he actually recorded the bizarre sound he heard in one midnight lunch hour; neither of us had any idea what could possibly make such a sound, but it was clearly in the treetop canopy and clearly bore no resemblance to the "Who? Whooo? Who cooks for you?" owl voices we knew. Now we know firsthand what our National Geographic Complete Birds tells us: this familiar sound is sometimes preceded by "an ascending, agitated barking". The "barking" was the sound Rod recorded. In the years between then and now, the sound has become familiar to our family as we've watched - and heard - those generations of owls.

In the silence left by the departed barred owl family, we grilled brats and roasted potatoes on the grill. This isn't exactly how I made them last night, but this is my latest idea about October roasted potatoes. I'm trying it this weekend, so stay tuned for opinions, but this - a variation on my usual theme - is my plan.

Wash and peel one large white baking potato and one large sweet potato; cut into cubes. Whisk together olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, mustard and maple syrup with the herbs you prefer. (I know. I wish I COULD give you measurements, but I just can't. It's just not how I cook, except when baking or candy-making. I ordered them so that you can see decreasing proportions of each, because you know what happens if you introduce too much of something, like maple syrup, which will tend to burn as sugar does...well, you know how to cook. I trust you. Do it by trial-end-error. Cooking is messy.) Toss the olive oil mixture and potatoes together and place in cast iron skillet. Cook over indirect heat on your gas grill for an hour or until the potatoes are done. (You could also put the potatoes on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour or so. I prefer the grill because I always prefer cast iron.)

Let me know if you try it, or if you roast potatoes, or what you're eating as fall wraps its arms around us all.

One final note: I cannot say much about this due to the secrecy considerations of the holiday season, but I CAN tell you that my order arrived this week from UltraCuteCrochet. If you haven't looked at her stuff, do it now. If you need presents for loved ones in cold climes, or warm climes if your loved ones, like my dear old person, tend to be cold no matter the temperature. I've ordered from Erin more than once and always been thrilled with the quality of work, the speed of delivery and the amazing joy of a handcrafted, customized work of wearable art. Check it out for yourself.

Eat Here Eatery Disclaimer: Every writer knows the challenge inherent in proofing one's own work. In my case, since The Baby Went to Africa, I have no proofreader. All mistakes are my own. Until he gets back, of course.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A wedding in waiting

We walked on the beach in the late afternoon today at our beautiful and oft-mentioned Guana. Because of the new moon, the low tide was VERY low, which gave us a beautiful wide white beach with long stretches of the red shell coquina where the ancient fossilized shark teeth hide. And clearly there was a human interest story brewing, as we could see chairs being set up for an evening wedding on the beach.

We walked around the preparations, but I thought about a reminder from Jayne yesterday: it is a new moon. Time for planting, time for putting embryonic concepts up for The Universe's consideration, time for petitioning God or the gods or the Godesss, depending on your own language for these concepts, your personal spiritual vernacular. Time for asking a blessing, as it were. It seemed a perfect time for a wedding to me. I remembered our own wedding: my dear old person illuminated by the pearl of the moon's fullness. We were not married on a new moon but on a luminous moon, as Jayne and Pablo recall very well. Has this blessed us in a different way? Have we been in the business of harvesting for our whole married life? In some ways it seems we have. Never mind: I considered the new moon and this couple, whoever they might be, and watched from a distance as folding chairs were set up so that their families and loved ones could have some comfort in the face of mother ocean, taking their part in the exchanging of vows.

We walked on, and suddenly Rodney pointed out at the water. Following the line of his arm I could see movement in the water. Puzzled, we closed the distance between ourselves to consult: had we seen a shark? Porpoises? A school of big fish, chased by predators? Something launched out of the water and rolled, falling backward, something BIG. A hundred yards to the north something else jumped from the water. For a few minutes it reminded me of the old days at Marineland, when porpoises danced on their tails and jumped through rings and did passable imitations of Flipper, who was On Television. There were porpoises dancing through the water in pods of three or four or more, sometimes visible together in groups in the breaking waves, like surfers sharing the tube. It was gorgeous, close to magic. We walked on, talking now and then of this and that, both of us thinking, perhaps, of the coming wedding.

This time of year is so breathtaking here in northeast Florida that you can be doubly frustrated by Things That Make Being Outside Uncomfortable. Mosquitos, for instance: we can be wrapped in the joy of the beautiful golden hour under our live oaks, and then be forced to say, "Yep, that's it. We're going in," because the mosquitos are suddenly out and we don't feel like spraying ourselves top to toe. A similar feeling comes to us this time of year at the beach, as the universe shifts and the sun's placement is different, and the shadows lengthen and darken on the sand. Glances are exchanged. The glances say, Yep, that's it.
So we head off the beach, grateful for the day, hopeful for the wedding party, whoever they may be, happy to welcome the weekend, the weather, the time together.

We cross the boardwalk, casting glances backward at the beach. It's so beautiful, people. If you've never been, this is the time of year to come down and walk along the beach with us. If you live here but you haven't been to this stunning beach in years, go. Go this weekend. If you go all the time, if you're one of the people we wave at every weekend...well, I love you, but I'm not talking to you. So we walk across and look backward, and there's the welcome for the wedding couple.

Leticia & Dale: whoever you are, may the New Moon bless you, may our Great Mother Ocean welcome you, may God look down on you from His heaven and kiss you with blessings. For our part, the writers, contributors and readers at Eat Here send you Love and Light, and a reminder that "the philosophy is kindness"* is a pretty good way to start a long life together. Mazel tov!

*This is from my most favorite recent quote from the Dalai Lama. If you need the entire reference let me know.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The MadriGalz: A Short History

If I'm to make an honest start I have to tell you that's a lie: there is either no short version of the MadriGalz, or (and this is much more likely) I'm constitutionally incapable of telling a short story. Oh, and there's shameless self-promotion. The MagriGalz made a CD and we'd love for you to buy it. But either way, get a glass of wine and settle in. It's a good story, although in fairness, most of you probably know it already.

The photo at the top was taken looking from one end of the Cafe Alcazar to the other end, where (the teeny tiny black figures of) the MadriGalz (Judy - short; Lis - tall and elegant; me - bossy and probably laughing) usually stand when we sing our Christmas carols at a certain time of year when we perform at the Alcazar. If you don't know the history of the buiding, it was an elegant, luxurious vacation destination if you were in the John D. Rockefeller set in about the 1880s. This room was the swimming pool. It had (and has) three stories of a view, and the space occupied in this shot by our friends and family was filled with water. The Cafe Alcazar sits in what was the deep end of the pool all those years ago. If you visit you can feel the coquina/tabby floor sloping away under your feet and it's easy to hear the echoing voices of another century. My dear old person has a million shots of the space but it's late and I can't find them, so you'll have to trust me. Also lining the walls along what would have been the floor of the pool are several charming antique shops, where you can find precious jewels, paintings, linens and other delicious antiquities; I've sometimes done all my holiday shopping right then and there.

If you fast forward to about 2005, and up to the present day, you find a simple a capella trio, marking the holidays with close-sung harmonies. Funny, because we crossed paths again and again and again, and St. Augustine being what it is, we eventually found each other. I've told you pieces of this story before, but here's the backbone of it.

Sometime in the late 70s I was sneaked into The Tradewinds (the bar that shared a wall with The Booksmith) to hear Gamble Rogers and by some accident of booking or timing or whatever, the band on stage was Rose Tattoo. Lis was the singer, and I was lost. My dream? To meet her, to know her, to be her friend, to - dare I write it? - sing with her. It didn't happen like that, although I did move on the outskirts of her social circle, but we didn't begin a friendship. Not then, at least. Years slid past.

A few years later I began a long connection with the music ministry at the Cathedral of St. Augustine, and met Judy. Far from my own notice, Sister Patricia had a careful eye on Judy. Nothing happened with the speed of fairy tale magic, but eventually I found out some key things about Judy - and so did SPE, who might have been talent searching like Major League baseball scout. Judy was smart; she could read music (I'd been faking the ability for years!) and her vocal range gradually revealed itself. She played an instrument and not just ANY instrument; she played the oboe, which is one of the most difficult voices in the orchestra. And vocally, though this wasn't recognized at the time, there was very little she could NOT do: I think it took SPE some length of time to realize that Judy had a vocal range apporaching 5 octaves. She didn't have absolute pitch, as it's sometimes called, but her ear for harmonies was pitch-perfect. We studied together and separately with our much-loved Sister Patricia, and there was no moment spent in Judy's company during which I thought myself worthy to be called anything but a HOPELESS DORK, with (oh by the way) NO talent. Judy never sought the spotlight (if anything, the very opposite) but she could be in the light and if you were with her, your vocal performance was a no-brainer.

More YEARS went by, years in which my path crossed the paths of both Lis and Judy intermittently. Judy and I sang in different configurations of vocal groups, some brightened by people like Joan Taylor (whose voice is positively golden and unchanged by teaching) and Tracy Webb (whose voice transcends golden and has the unspeakable grace of making every other voice singing with her sound, simply, more beautiful). And St. Augustine being what it is, Judy and I also found ourselves in a madrigal ensemble Sister Patricia cooked up, called The Madrigal Singers. This group of about a dozen voices was often hired out during the holidays and the proceeds donated to the Music Ministry. I became one of 3 or 4 altos, wearing a costume kindly made for me by others, and loved it. Maybe because I cannot remember a time, even in earliest childhood, in which I couldn't hear 3- or 4- part harmonies in my head, I felt as if I'd come to the finishing school of my dreams. I did not dare tell this to SPE, though I did tell it to Judy after some years, and I'm sure I told it to Lis as well.

At some point, Judy and I were singing Christmas carols with Lori Pellicer, whose voice was like silver windchimes. She was married to Judy's brother, and a conflict loomed: Jonny and Lori were the principals of a venerated local performance group oriented to country and bluegrass music, The Red River Band. The pull of that slice of family performance won out. And Tracy moved away. Another alto we loved to sing with Theresa, also relocated with her family, And so it was just me and Judy, and we let it sit for some quiet years, made noisy by other things. We worked at our day jobs. We raised kids.

My job took me into contact with Lis. (Are you kidding? It's her? But I've always loved her!) I kept all my starstruck hysteria under wraps as long as I could but eventually the day came and we talked about it, and Lis actually wanted to sing Christmas carols and hymns and would be THRILLED to sing with Judy and me (neither of whom she could possibly have known at all) and somehow we were all sitting around the table at Lis's house in St. Augustine, talking about music, listening to music, trying out harmonies, putting voice to voice as though we were fabrics needing matching...and there was no looking back.

Some dear friends opened the door to the Cafe Acalzar, a delightful restaurant to which we were all connected in one way or another. The Alcazar is that small, delectable bistro in the deep end of the pool and thanks to physics and the tastes of the Flaglers and Rockefellers, it creates an astonishing environment for live music. This was what we wanted to take into the MadriGalz CD. And our dear Buttercups of "you don't have to pay me right this minute but those clams gonna sure come in handy" (Lon, Rocky, Rick - you guys know who you are, and how much we still owe you) helped us make this recording into a reality. Let us be the first to say that the recording is full of live-performance flaws and sloppiness we could have polished out. If you listen closely, you'll hear them. But while we sometimes did more than one take, there is no correction of pitch, no pretence: if you'd been with us at Gatorbone Studios at that magic recording session, you'd hear the same thing on the CD that you'd have heard with headphones on, listening. You'd hear three singers who trust each other enormously, working to match for pitch and blend. You'd hear one recording engineer and producer (Lon Williamson) resisting any temptation to guide the MadriGalz into a sound not true to themselves. The only thing you'll miss if you listen to this CD is constant giggling (I know; it's shocking) and the profound gratitude the artists have for the people who made it possible.

So it's early for the holidays, as we all say every year at about this time. But maybe this year you'll be listening to this recording, and maybe it will help brighten the flame of the joy with which you honor the Miracle of Light, Christmas, or the return of the sun to bless our crops. Or maybe you'll be with us at a performance: you can call Creekside Dinery for a reservation, since we know we'll be singing there in December. Maybe you'll be singing with us at a house party or concert thi year. Most of all, we hope you'll be celebrating your old and cherished connections to one another during the coming holiday season, as the MadriGalz do every year.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Breakfast with chickadees

It's time to eat here at Eat Here, where I haven't fed you breakfast in a long while. Like all the cooking I've done lately, it's a balancing act wherein I try not to change the fundamentals of favorite dishes while avoiding my natural inclination to cook for 25. Not that cooking for 25 is a problem, of course, when your house is full of gigantic teenagers who are able to eat with superhuman dedication. But when they go away to pursue their own adventures, efforts must be made to cook for, well, you know, 5 or 6. My dear old person and I are still working this out, and I must admit that recently our dinner plans have been along the lines of, "How do you feel about an egg sandwich?", or "Cheese toast, dear?"

This morning has filled the Spanish moss with golden light and lit the resurrection ferns and the busy birds with bright halos like saints or sacred icons. And so: breakfast. Fresh locally made orange juice, perfectly scrambled eggs, crisp, pointed slices of starfruit and potato pancakes. It's not a breakfast you can get in most restaurants, though of course it's always on the menu at Eat Here. The part you have to make yourself is the potato pancakes.

Start with a cup or so of leftover mashed potatoes. Add one egg, some finely minced onion and, if you like, some equally finely minced garlic. Put in about a quarter cup of flour and whisk the whole thing together with a fork; season with a little salt and bless the whole thing with a few dashes of hot sauce (Texas Pete is the house version). Whisk once more. Using a teaspoon, drop onto your frying surface. For me this is a very well-seasoned cast iron skillet heated to medium high with a bit of olive oil. When the pancaked are nicely browned, turn once and brown the other side. Set on a cake rack, if you have one, while you cook the rest.

Take your plate and that big glass of orange juice out on the back porch, and eat quietly while the chickadees whistle around you and the blue, blue sky peeps out between the waving live oaks, moved by a freshening breeze with the tiniest suggestion of fall. It's always wonderful to have you with us at Eat Here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, Opus 3

This was my grandmother's china. To my knowledge, my grandmother never saw St. Augustine, but her china came to live here and the story is in some ways quintessentially St. Augustinian. Connections, connections...

In the year of our marriage, I worked at the Booksmith (of blessed memory). We had an honored regular customer (the sort of person we thought of as a sort of Friend of the Store) named Marilyn, a smart, funny woman who valued fine writing and good books, and was an active patron of the arts community in St. Augustine. She'd been widowed fairly recently, though her husband had been an invalid for some years and I had the impression she'd been much younger than he was. I also had the impression that whether through his means or her own she lived comfortably after he died, as though money wasn't something she worried about. That seemed luxurious to me but I didn't give it much thought. Marilyn wasn't the kind of person to make you think about distinctions of class or money: she was warm and open and unafraid, with a ready laugh, rich enough to pull you into its circle. She was drawn, physically, on generous lines and dressed in bold, vivid colors, set against the brightest lipsticks. I liked her on sight and never changed my mind.

The summer of our wedding drew on toward the September date. We were an untraditional wedding couple in many ways. We were both long gone forth from the homes of our parents, and we'd lived together for several years. Neither of us had living mothers to create the framework (or hysteria) of some weddings. So our wedding, as I have mentioned here, was planned and executed by our own ingenuity and the breathtaking generosity of our families and friends. We were registered nowhere; there was no list of desired small appliances, no selected patterns of silver or china. In any case the only china I wanted was the simple pattern of my childhood - the cheery pink roses of my grandmother's Franciscanware. But my grandmother was gone and I had no connection with my father, and in any case, there were bigger fish to fry. My friend Tracey was making my dress; my aunt would make the lovely wedding cake. Rodney's brother would pay for the beer, and his oldest childhood friend furnish the limo. You know all this; I've told you the tale before. And it was pretty much all I talked about, as brides do, and there on the corner of Charlotte Street and Cathedral Place, I talked about it with all the Booksmith regulars. They listened, told their own wedding stories, wished us well, and bought their books.

In northeast Florida August steamed its way toward what I'd hoped would be a cooler late September. On one of those August afternoons, a stately burgundy-colored Cadillac passed through our neighborhood, the dust of the dirt road settling lightly on the polished paint of the car. It circled by once, and then approached again slowly, the driver clearly trying to locate a specific address in those days before GPS systems and in-car navigation. Suddenly it was in our driveway, and to my complete astonishment, Marilyn was getting out. And she was unloading packages, waving off my bewilderment: just dropping these off for you, dear, I know you're getting married, estate sale, great bargain, couldn't pass it up, wedding and all...

"But, but, wait," I babbled, "how did you know? How did you find our house? How..."

"Oh, you mentioned something about the china pattern, you know, and Diana gave me directions. It was such a great deal, I could hardly pass it up, and after all, you ARE getting married, and I hope you'll be VERY happy..." and in a cloud of dust and kindness she was gone. I stood in the doorway, looking around me at plates and platters and teacups, all bearing the small pink roses and green leaves of my grandmother's every day dishes. Here they were. Here they were, found, bought and delivered to me out of nothing more than kindness. It would have been lovely to have the actual dishes from Grandmother's cupboards. But I wasn't sure it wasn't somehow even more wonderful to have these pieces, conjured out of kindness.

After the wedding we spent a week in western North Carolina, where Rodney's Uncle Sam had what the family charmingly called a "cabin". (It was actually a modest but comfortable A-frame house, equipped with every amenity right down to a dishwasher.) On one of the days of that week, we drove over to east Tennessee to visit my Aunt Beverly, my father's sister. Like my father, Aunt Bev-o is gentle and sweet by nature and Rodney and I spent several lovely hours with her. And when we drove back to Crossnore, we carried a couple of boxes of Franciscanware across the mountains with us. Aunt Bev-o had been saving Grandmother's dishes and she gifted them to us. Close examination reveals the hand of my beloved little cousin, Aunt Bev-o's daughter, in the making of this arrangement. The beautiful pieces Marilyn had given me were united with the ones that had been taken for granted in Grandmother's kitchen. They've been in daily use ever since, but the story doesn't end there.

Fast forward about 10 years, and I am on a long, driving business trip with a colleague and friend, Miss Inga. With miles to cover and a long-standing easiness between us, we talk the hours away with gossip and jokes and confidences. I ask her about how she came to live in St. Augustine, her marriage to a respected local musician, her family, all in very general terms. She tells me that she came to St. Augustine because her beloved father owned a condo here. (He is a story all on his own, but not my tale to tell.) When Miss Inga was extricating herself from a bad marriage, and dealing with her father's death more or less at the same time, she came to St. Augustine and lived in the condo. She felt comfortable here. She'd visited before and in fact had a treasured friend here, a woman who'd been a friend of Miss Inga's father for many years, going back into Miss Inga's childhood. A woman who had been almost a mother-figure to Miss Inga, herself. A woman named Marilyn.

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, huh? Everything comes round again on itself. Does this happen where you live?