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Posts Tagged ‘quilt’

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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Through the steady cold of winter we wait for the natural world to wake and grow green again. Many of us become disheartened by the stillness and the stark landscape, by counting the days until warm weather returns.

But the darkest season offers gifts none other does. It allows us to follow suit: We, too, are part of the natural world; and we, too, can be still, rest, and incubate buds of our own. This is our time to dream.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “There’s a certain Slant of light/Winter Afternoons,” and went on to describe it as ominous. Much as I love her, I have to disagree. It’s cheering to see that slant now, when light is scarce. I tip my chin up to it and close my eyes, warming my face.

Here are more of the singular comforts, and joys, of winter.

Snowy Sundays

Writing and daydreaming under my aunt’s vintage quilt as the snow piles up outside is coziness defined. Sipping the planet’s best hot chocolate sinks me into the cozy that much more.

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Comforting Sounds

Radiators releasing steam, freezing rain clattering against a windowpane in the middle of the night, a log fire popping and hissing—these sounds seem to make the warm indoors envelop us more fully and make us feel safe.

Winter Wonderlanding

The Scandinavians have a great saying: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothes.’ They would know, and they have a point. For Christmas my mom gave me a balaclava—one of those all-in-one hood/scarf things. Wearing it together with fleece, my down jacket and long underwear made in Vermont (and they know from cold weather, too), I can walk in warmth for hours, in the still, frosty air mingling with the wood smoke wisping out of fireplaces all over town. Very Currier and Ives.

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Soaking in the Bath

Winter-chapped skin and muscles aching from snowball fights are soothed in a warm bath. Now is the season when I rummage through the bath products I’ve squirreled away, like that luscious bubble bath from Anthopologie that smells like sandalwood. I’ve always wanted one of those cast iron, clawfoot tubs that are so deep that the bubbles would come up to my chin. Until then, I’ll take baths in my ordinary tub this winter, a handful of lit votives on the floor, and my towel warming on the radiator. The feeling is pretty close to goddesslike just like this.

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Afternoon naps

Winter is a time to stretch out on, and wrap yourself in, things that are soft and obliging. On the weekends I plop down on the sofa with a book and my winter trifecta—old flannel pajamas from L.L. Bean, a faux fur throw and thick alpaca socks that I bought from a breeder in south NJ. Sometimes I doze off watching the fading afternoon light, the sky turning shell pink. When I wake up at twilight, the light, and snow, have turned otherworldly pastel blue.

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The Beauty of Snow

Speaking of snow, I love the delicate hieroglyphics that it, along with frost and wind, etches on the window panes. I dust the cakes I bake this time of year with powdered sugar just to imitate and celebrate snow. This morning I cut snowflakes and suspended them from my living room ceiling, the way I used to do in my nursery school classrooms. Looks just as cool.

Lighting Up the Night

When the faint daylight dies and the midwinter night becomes inky black, light a candle and gaze into its flame. It’s relaxing, almost hypnotic. Our ancestors spent their winters this way, too: looking into their cooking fires and into candlelight through hurricane glasses, wondering what the new year had in store for them, worrying about plans they’d made, imagining personal wishes coming true. Winter candlelight is a link to the past, into the collective, restless, hopeful heart of the human race.

Warm Kitchens

Our favorite cold-weather dishes warm and cheer us right through to the soul. It’s time for long-simmering Italian beef stew, soda bread with raisins and turkey noodle soup. This time of year I fantasize about making up two bowls of whatever it is I’m cooking: one for my stomach, and one for my chilly feet. Wrapping cold fingers around little earthenware crocks full of French onion soup, the kind with a toasted crouton on top that’s covered with bubbling Gruyere, suffices pretty well. These wintertime dishes also offer some of the best smells in the world.

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Staples of my winter kitchen

Fresh garlic

Chicken and beef broths

Dried sage and rosemary

Rigatoni

Bittersweet chocolate

Navel oranges

Walnuts

Organic milk

Molasses

Crystallized ginger

Lentils

Black kale

Tomato paste

On New Year’s Day I baked shepherd’s pie. I worked more slowly than usual, chopping the onions and carrots, browning the ground lamb, spooning the mixture into ramekins and layering mashed potatoes on top. It was surprisingly relaxing. Out of the oven they came, hot as winter is cold, asking me to slow down and enjoy every spoonful, this unique and special treat.

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