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Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

I love lemons and I love old recipes. Recently, after a long hiatus that involved too much hither and yonning all over the state, I got on Google maps and actually found my kitchen again. The above and below are testament to what can be done while exhausted and needing to be comforted.

My friend Rachel loves to bring me little treats when she visits, and last September she brought me a copy of Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book (1942). I don’t mind relaying that I can do without their recipe for Boiled Asparagus, and don’t understand the preoccupation of the day with suspending almost anything in gelatin. But most of the recipes are true blue, and many more look really incredible; to my modern mind, the authors show a wonderful audacity with ingredients and flavors, and I really, really envy how common oysters, black walnuts, and persimmons were back then. Whew.

But a few days ago I was in the mood for lemons, certainly because it’s spring and they’re in season, and also likely because I was run down and in need of a smack of citrus. This was a treat: Called Delicate Lemon Pudding, it combines lemon juice and zest, sugar, milk, egg yolks, egg whites beat to stiff peaks, butter, and a little bit of flour to hold it all together. It gets poured into a baking dish, set in a bain-marie, and baked. Then it goes into the fridge to chill up.

I made this during last week’s heat wave and told my friends I imagined people in the ’40s pulling it out of the icebox on a sultry day. Did it myself. When you dip into it, the pudding has an appealing way of being dry and tender on top (that’s the browned meringue), frothy in the middle, and sweet and milky underneath, almost like a lemon milkshake. Next time I’ll use less sugar and more lemon juice and zest, but it was a really lovely win.

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Vintage springform for Easter bread.

I’ve been making Easter bread on my own for years, but somehow every Good Friday I find myself blanking on some of the processes. 2017 examples: ‘Wait–if I put the chocolate mixture into my one big mixing bowl, what do I use to mix the dough?’* ‘Wait–can I start batch #2 before batch #1 is completely done?’** Seven years of talking myself into corners with questions like this are really beyond all reason, all good sense.***

But I do have consistent system for buttering the pans I load with dough: Every time I use a stick of butter, I lay open the wrapper and save it. There are at least five by the time I finish both dough batches, and I rub them liberally on the insides of the pans, in and out of every crevice.

Butter owns a dual role in baking bread: It adds incomparable flavor, and it allows the bread to be removed from the pan. The project can move from development to completion with butter on the team. Without it, the project would be at best compromised, and at worst, damaged. What good is a stuck bread?

I am a project person; I considered the other projects I do every day, for work and on my own, and thought about what facilitates the process through to completion—what gets them out of the pan. And there are many factors, but this is a good start.

-Making a point to stop for a treat to keep my spirits up. A Fluffer Nutter gelato today at Whole Foods was right bloody on. A nap sure doesn’t hurt, either.

-A full larder, a full gas tank, and a warm apartment. Deprivation is a brutal thing.

-And mostly…friends. There’s Grace, who writes to check in or just to say hi and leave a heart; Teresa, who’s so funny and expressive and always wants to talk about food; Casey, who also wants to talk about food when he’s not half asleep (okay, even then); Roger and Diana, who slam-dunk great conversation and huge laughs every time I see them. They and many more are my butter. They get me from point A to point B. They keep me from getting stuck in the pan.

I heard once that you should wear life like a loose garment. It’s a lovely expression, but it can’t be done without creature comforts and without people around you who care.

Tonight it was 76 degrees, a shock for Easter Sunday in NJ, so obviously I had to go to the beach after dinner. I came across a series of sand castle tunnels, presumably made earlier today by kids burning off the effects of marshmallow Peeps. We made many, many tunnels such as these as kids, on this very beach, and the way to make them is this:

You begin digging the tunnel at one side of the castle, and a pal begins digging opposite you. It can take time, but it’s a singularly magic moment when you feel each other’s fingers. From that point it just needs smoothing. Then it’s done.

*Transfer into smaller bowl after mixing.
**You can, but it’s a pain.
***Although next year I can refer to this post to answer at least two questions. Silver lining.

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Pyrex bowl from the late ’60s-early ’70s. Bought it from a vintage Pyrex vendor (both were vintage) under a very crowded 8×8 booth in Ocean Grove, NJ.

Title flagrantly swiped from food writer Laurie Colwin, God rest her salt- and butter-loving soul. She and I, kitchen sisters, subscribe to the doctrine of secondhand utensils. Think of it this way: They’ve lasted this long. How many neon-green kitchen toys at Bed, Bath & Beyond can go up against a Pyrex pan from the fifties?

Everything below is practical, long-lasting, and has a story to boot. I need as much resilience and soul as I can get in my kitchen.

Here, thus, is a family album of the kitchen equipment that I bought used, was given used, or just plain found. I will always cook this way.

First: Copper pans bought for $10 (total!)* from a parking lot tag sale in Asbury Park in 2011. The seller said she bought them in France, which may or may not be true. But they have never failed me, so the French can be proud either way.

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One of many German aluminum springform pans that I inherited when I took over making Easter bread. They are at least 45 years old, probably older, and live above my refrigerator with my Christmas china.

Vintage springform study

Two of several glass votives and a baking pan I bought at an estate sale in nearby Oakhurst, NJ, in 2010. I went into the living room, decorated straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and found four long folding tables covered with vintage glass—regular, ornately cut, and Pyrex. The pan is several decades old but has no scarring. The votives I use for occasional imbibing and frequent desserting.

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Clockwise: What look like milk glass bowls, bought from a house sale in Bradley Beach, NJ. Wildly useful as prep bowls, mini snack bowls for chocolate buttons or grapes, or for a quick sip of milk. The lauan box I found at my aunt’s next door neighbor’s yard sale, in the town where I grew up. It nicely corrals my measuring cups, spoons, and a tiny spatula. The aluminum spatula has a very slim blade, and slips ever so cleanly under s’mores and brownies. I bought it in Oakhurst, at my realtor’s yard sale.

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Both from sales in my hometown. The white dish, one of two, I use as often for food styling as I do for sandwiches. If you’ve seen one of my photos of something tasty on a white dish, you’ve already met. The top dish, also one of two, is not much bigger than a saucer. It is my teatime dish—just the right size for a cookie or muffin. It belonged to my favorite aunt and her family. When I went to their garage sale, my cousins just started handing me things. This dish reminds me of the ’70s—a really good time growing up with them. One of my cousins laughed and said his mom probably bought the set from Foodtown for $1.95. And he’s probably right, but I don’t care.

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Farberware hand mixer, I think from the ’80s, that I bought circa 2006. Still going strong. From Oakhurst again (wow…that’s really the spot, isn’t it?), at my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale, $5.

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Can’t remember the yard sale for the box grater, but I like it because it’s a little smaller than typical. The salad bowls (which I use for everything) I got from my hometown as well. They’re teak and were made in Thailand. The muffin tins are from Wanamassa, NJ, and are an ideal example of something you can always find for sale on someone’s lawn. They last forever, are nearly indestructible, and thus are downright silly to buy new. I think I paid $.50 for four 6-cuppers.

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Some of my wooden-handled corn holders, purchased for something like $1.00 for a handful wrapped in a rubber band. One I accidentally rinsed down the sink—another sound argument against spending too much. The wooden bowl I bought from a yard sale in Allenhurst, NJ. The seller told me she bought it in Vermont many years ago and it was handmade, so she wouldn’t let me haggle down for the split in the side. It’s my foraging and bread-rising bowl.

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Rolling pin, which very likely has seen more decades than I. Pulled it out of a bin filled with cookie cutters at the Red Bank Antique Center.

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Massive hand carved wooden spoon, a recent hand-me-down from a friend. Still have to use it. I put a penny next to it for scale. Look at the size of it! For stirring soup, stuffing, or anything with eye of newt.

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‘Special Gelatin 50% Strength’ three-paneled vintage wooden box from the antiques store downtown. I load it with potatoes, onions, and garlic. The cashier asked what I was going to use it for and got a bang out of the answer.

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And lastly: a brick I nicked from the property of an abandoned 17th-century farmhouse near me. I think the original homeowners would be proud to hear it’s my low-tech panini maker.

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From the days when birthday cards could be seasonal too. This is dated 1979.

I’ve worked lots of birthday parties for kids over the years—magician/illusion parties and face painting parties at different venues, cooking, crafts, and creative games parties at the JCC and parks system. They’re usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and parents of the miniature guests stay the entire time.

It’s a lot different from when I was little, when kids’ birthday parties were held at home for a couple of hours after school. In my case, my mom hired our favorite babysitter to help out with the games, and my aunts would walk over to help out. Moms dropped their kids off, and my friends wore dresses, stockings, and Mary Janes (we called them ‘party shoes’). We played games, then we opened presents, then we ate. Food was minimal; usually just cake, at the end, because we were only an hour or so outside of dinnertime. Done and over.

I can see the appeal of having birthday parties out of the house. First you have to clean the house, then you have the party, then you have to clean again; and that’s right after you organized games and cake and crowd control from 3:30-5. And more moms today work, and couldn’t do a weekday party even if they wanted to.

But I liked our way. Here’s why: If all of the kids today are having their parties at Gymboree, you’re signing up for a colored-blocked version of the movie Groundhog Day: the same party over and over and bloody over. There were no cookie-cutter parties back then, because the parents (usually the mom) took full reign on who and what to have at her house.

Years later my friends remembered the birthday parties I’d had when we were little, and I would bet hard cash that even today they’d remember. I was kind of famous for having the same game at all of my birthday parties. We lapped it up.

An October birthday is a pumpkin-theme requisite, and my mom either heard of or came up with the idea* for a pumpkin hunt, right in the house.**

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Even earlier–probably around 1977.

-First you buy as many sugar pumpkins as there will be guests at the party. Buy ones with stems attached. Place them in different locations throughout the house—up steps, down steps, into other rooms, around corners.

-Next, cut butcher’s twine in really long pieces—one for each pumpkin.

-Tie the end of one string to each pumpkin. Then walk each string to the middle of the living room rug.

-When you’re done, you’ll have a lot of string ends grouped onto the rug. Have each party-goer pick up one end of each string, and at the count of three have them follow it until she finds her pumpkin. There will be much bumping and limbo-style dodging and swerving and laughing.

-With a permanent marker, write the name of each guest on the underside of her pumpkin, and place them on the floor by the door. These are the party favors.***

One of my favorite specialty stores used to make the awesomest design for Halloween sheet cakes, and that was what I had for a birthday cake. It was the five little pumpkins sitting on a gate (like the Halloween poem we learned in nursery school****), in orange, green, and brown butter cream, all on a vanilla butter cream background. They still make their cakes and fillings and frostings from scratch, but regrettably, they don’t make that design anymore. One of these days I will recreate it myself.

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*And she reads this blog and has a memory like a steel trap, so she’ll let me know.

**You could do this outside, too, if you had a lot of yard and a sunny forecast.

***Or, if the kids are old enough and you have Xena-like powers of ambition, spread newspapers on the dining room table or outdoor picnic table, hand out smocks, and let the kids carve.

***I looked for a youtube video, but they’re all saying it wrong. This is the early 70s, Central NJ way.

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.

The first one said, ‘Oh my, it’s getting late!

The second one said, ‘There are witches in the air.’

The third one said, ‘I don’t care.’

The fourth one said, ‘Let’s run and run and run.’

And the fifth one said, ‘It’s Halloween fun!’

WHOOO went the wind and OUT went the light

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

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Autumn’s the time when the earth shoots and sprouts a bit less and instead does a great deal of dropping, shaking off, and scattering. The fun lies in catching the good stuff before the housekeeping winds of Winter blow it all away.

My usual friendly cautionary note about picking wild edibles goes like this:

1) Be sure that what you’re about to pick and eat is what you think it is. Please don’t wing it. Shoot for old age.

2) Don’t pick anything off your neighbor’s lawn unless a) she owes you one b) she owes you several c) you know she doesn’t use pesticides d) it’s under cover of darkness e) in which case leave my name out of it.

3) Don’t pick anything close to roadsides where they likely have been urologically christened by every domestic pet within five miles, most notably the Alsatian across the street that routinely drinks out of the potholes in the Quik Chek lot.

From left to right:

Crabapples (Malus) I wrote about this little treasure a while back. Wild crabapples are a little grainier in texture than their voluptuous full-sized apple cousins, and for my taste, they need a bit of sugar to be palatable. Making jam from crabapples is a special fall thing for me, even though making it is a bear because they’re so small and their seeds are the size of sesame seeds. Having good music in the background goes a long way. I add a hefty dose of New Jersey honey to the pot, making it 100% local. You can also make crabapple liqueur if you steep them in vodka with granulated sugar.

Rose Hips (Rosa) Another jammy choice, and a vintage one. Folks during World War II ate a lot of rose hip jam because it was full of Vitamin C, which was tough to access then. They’re tart, a little bit astringent like their cousins above (so they need sugar, too) and wildly healthy, full not only of Vitamin C but of antioxidants and lycopene.

Beech Nuts and Leaves (Fagus) As a Laura Ingalls Wilder diehard all my life, I knew beech nuts were edible. She wrote about her husband as a boy, gathering and eating them in upstate New York, describing the spiny little husks and the three-cornered nuts they contained, and saying they were ‘solidly full of nut.’ But the leaves being edible as well? News to me, but cool news. Freshly picked, they can be eaten in salads or even steeped in gin.

Acorns (Quercus) When I took Anthropology in college I learned that American Indians ate acorns. Making them edible takes some doing, and they knew what they were doing; they must be smashed and rinsed with a lot of water to release toxins. I’d love to try them. Has anyone ever prepared acorns for food or eaten them?

Missing from this list: Sassafras. Here I was all ready to dig up one of the 764 and counting plants that grow around my lake and steep the roots to make another American Indian specialty, a primitive form of root beer, when the heavy winds last week blew all of the telltale mitten-shaped leaves off. They’re all out there now, mittenless and mocking, but I’ll hit them up come spring. Stoked to write about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_hip

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak

http://www.wikihow.com/Forage-for-Food-in-the-Fall

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I have never bobbed for an apple. Nor have I toilet papered, Silly-Stringed, made popcorn balls, or played that game with the suspended doughnuts which you eat with your hands tied behind your back. Not that I’m complaining. The Halloweens I had as a kid in the ’70s-’80s were pretty much unimproveable. I talked about them in last year’s late October post, which is quite the romp if you want to revisit.
But as an amateur folklorist, somebody who’s fascinated by old stories, old traditions and especially holiday lore, I love hearing the way things were. I asked my mom, who grew up in a tiny NJ beach town in the 40s and 50s, what the holiday was like for her back then. She still uses the archaic spelling ‘Hallowe’en’, with an apostrophe, which acknowledges the word’s origin (All Hallows’—or spirits—eve, or evening). She has the below to say.
‘Memories are of Tootsie Rolls and apples (Dad). We put our own costumes together as older children. Don’t think there were store-bought ones. Memories of Mischief Night are vivid. Can still imagine running thru our neighborhood with 7th and 8th grade friends and getting tangled in clotheslines (every backyard staple then). We didn’t do any mischief that I remember, but got to go out after dark with our friends for an hour. Very safe small town, patrolled by police, just in case. The police were mostly trying to catch the boy who successfully hung a dummy from the town water tower every year. Don’t think they ever did catch him, even though the whole town knew who he was!!’
(I should note that I asked if she still remembered the name of the kid responsible, and she said, ‘Of course.’ Mind you, this is some 60 years after the fact. He’s not even alive anymore, but I still won’t rat him out here; I’m haunted enough by Algebra II, circa 1984, and Rachael Ray’s voice.
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I know a local woman in her 90s who told me a few years ago that for all of her adult life she has made popcorn balls on Halloween for neighborhood kids. Growing up we all thought this woman had a big mouth and labeled her a witch with a capital B. But now, knowing she made these…wow. Making popcorn balls is a bear; it’s hot syrup, plus the work of forming them in a short amount of  time. There’s a narrow window between the time the syrup’s so hot that it will burn your hands and the time it’s gotten too cool to work with. It’s a very physical project. How horrible could she have been if she went through this every year for trick-or-treaters? Unless the syrup was sweetened with hemlock, she’s kinda saintlike to me now. And what’s wrong with a woman with a big mouth? Just keep the words honest and have some brains about you, and you’re fine, I’d say. Does anyone make popcorn balls for Halloween?
Back in the day, this holiday was a special treat; it was the first night when people dug into their winter stores of nuts. Nut-Crack Night! Does anyone have memories of this, or did your parents ever talk about it?
Write and tell me what years you were celebrating Halloween as a kid, and where. Who sewed their own costumes? Who went out on Mischief Night, and what did you do? Who remembers school Halloween pageants? Who sang Halloween songs? (Yes, they exist…I sang them in 1973.) Who told ghost stories on this night? Who knows the secret to bobbing for apples without soaking your melon? (There’s a way! There’s a way!) What was your favorite jack o’lantern, hand-carved, without a stencil, and holding a real, lit candle? Remember the smell?
Talk to me…the older the memory, the better. But I love it all.
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*Wordpress isn’t letting me caption, so psst! Here I am. These ghost candles are part of my small vintage Halloween collection. I was just going to buy one, but the antique store guy gave me a two-fer. Now they terrorize the populace together. Mid century. I like that the older the ghost, the pointier his hood gets.
**This is a metal noisemaker with a wooden handle from the ’20s. I like how they threw the Devil on there. (People used to think that pagans worshipped the Devil. But the Devil is a Christian thing, so why would they worship something Christian? Fun fact: They wouldn’t. And don’t.) It makes a cool clanging noise. Noisemakers were used on Halloween for the same reason people use them on New Year’s Eve—to chase away evil spirits.
*** This cute little dude is made of painted cardboard, also circa ’20s. The antique guy told me it was made to be a candy holder.

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Lombardi’s outdoor sconce, lighting our way at the start of the tourney—an All-Carb Olympic torch.

Porta in Asbury Park, NJ makes a pizza carbonara so good I want to roll in it like a dog. Before I say anything about pizza anywhere else, I need to impress this upon you, because this kind of quality is what I had in mind when my sister and brother-in-law treated me to a pizza tour of Manhattan last October. Porta’s chewy, deliriously addictive crust and buttery, runny, full fat housemade cheese—my mozzarella muse, which I say with precisely zero shame—that’s the taste I had in my mouth, and it’s what NY was up against.

Five pizza places, some new, some very, very old; five thin-crust Margherita pies (tomato, mozzarella, basil) to keep the playing field level; five pies judged for quality of crust, sauce, cheese and overall experience.

Below, a photo essay of our day, and I’ll be sure to unpack my adjectives.

Lombardi’s (below), A.

Often enough, the big-name grandpas of the restaurant world strut their leisure suits and flash grins full of metal bridgework, hoping to convince you that they haven’t lost their mojo. But their best years are usually way behind them. Others, happily, have still got it, and the oldest pizza place in the city is one of them.

Crust: Straightforward with a bit of a crunch, somewhat light hand with the salt.

Sauce: Bright flavor, sweet.

Cheese: Chewy, perfect amount.

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Luzzo’s, A.

Crust: Delicate, thin as a Saltine cracker.

Sauce: Salty, but it worked.

Cheese: Creamy little dairy pillows.

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Luzzo’s beautiful old interior–brick, beam and detail.

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Well worn swivel chairs, bar paneling and vintage tile floor.

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Tools of the trade plus a bit of incongruous Indian corn just for fun.

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Patina in the old tin ceiling.

Motorino, A+. Good and soppy pizza extravaganza.

Crust: Chewy, rustic and doughy.

Sauce: Fresh and sweet.

Cheese: Happily runny cheese pillows.

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Worth a second shot.

Gruppo, B+.

Crust: Paper thin and crispy, somewhat forgettable.

Sauce: Spiciest so far.

Cheese: Plentiful, chewy.

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Okay, next was Grom, because with four pizzas down and one to go, we’d already thrown our hats over the fence, so what did adding authentic Italian gelato matter? Below is vanilla bean and chocolate. I was quite undone by it, and not because I was full from pizza. Out-of-the-ballpark good.

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Co. Pizza, A++ As close to Porta as I could find. We were stuffed and yet still ate two of these pies. Better than Motorino by a hair* (please forgive the indelicate expression; I know we’re eating).

Crust: Drug like. The doughy, pliable kind that stretches a little when you try to pull it away from the other slices. Tip: Everybody pull at once.

Sauce: Fresh, evenly flavored.

Cheese: Oozy, goopy and plentiful.

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More than a little dismaying to think that Co., which offers such outstanding pizza, felt they needed to add a disclaimer such as this to their menu. To the customers that inspired it: Kindly get a grip.

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Reigning champion.

Where’s your favorite ‘za? What makes a pie the best? Don’t hold back—it’s a cold night. Consider it a public service.

*I just grossed out my mom. Sorry 😀

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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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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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Finley imagining the possibilities.

I know, the most famous great equalizers are death and taxes, but let’s not be gruesome. It’s still summer, after all. No, I’m talking ice cream.

Ice cream may be the one thing everyone can agree on. Amazing, really, how all demographics love it—babies, old-timers, thirty-somethings. Even those with strict dietary restrictions still eat it, whether they really ought to or not. One 4th of July I witnessed a group of heart transplant patients downing bowls of the highest-fat, homemade stuff, their mates watching, lips pursed, tut-tutting at them. But the spouses didn’t stop them. Maybe it was because they understood that, like it or not, ice cream is something everyone actually needs once in a while. Let’s face it—no eats ice cream because they’re hungry.

So why do we eat it? Why do we crave it, body and soul? I think a combination of factors are in play: it’s cooling (lovely in the summertime); it’s sweet (a rare find in nature); it’s full of fat (again, rare in nature) which makes it feel luxurious and indulgent (and who doesn’t like to feel special?).

Also—and maybe most importantly—since we’ve all eaten it for as long as we can remember, it evokes childhood memories. And they’re usually happy ones. My own include trips to Carvel with my family after dinner most summer nights. To this day, I think of ice cream as a nighttime thing.*

When I was a kid, I went through ice-cream phases in which I got the same thing every time for weeks on end. First it was brown bonnet cones, soft vanilla ice cream quickly enshrouded in chocolate goo, which solidified to a candy shell on contact. Then it was soft vanilla in a cup topped with Bing cherries. During my overweight/painfully self-conscious teen years, it was Carvel’s Thinny-Thin. As unsatisfying as it sounds, but better than nothing. At the Beach Plum, where they made their ice cream on site, I got Straw Cheese (strawberry cheesecake) or blueberry, which had fresh blueberries mixed with vanilla ice cream. Incredible.

Last week my friend Lauren and the cuties above and below joined me for ice cream at Days in Ocean Grove. For years now this has been my favorite place to get ice cream, for the yummy stuff itself and for the entire experience.

Shane and Finley, with post-ice cream happy faces and sticky hands.

Days is also the town favorite, especially after evening shows at the Great Auditorium just across the lawn. The ice cream is high in fat, which you know as well as I do translates to big flavor and wonderful mouth feel. The patrons know it too, as evidenced by the long line of people you see below waiting to get in.**

The atmosphere at Days is calming, nostalgic and cozy, much like the whole town, which feels as though Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the original planning board. Days was established in the late 1800s. It features bentwood chairs and gleaming dark wood tables. The seating area is outdoors, roofed in most areas, and its tall windows are always open to allow the ocean breezes as well as the ice cream to cool you. A antique fountain bubbles in the middle, among the plants. Forgoing harsh neon lights and signs, to this day, Days is happily, entirely illuminated by light bulbs. At night it glows like a giant birthday cake and smells as sweet.

Once the sun goes down, locals and vacationers begin to amble over to stand in line—sun soaked, clad in loose faded t shirts, bikini tops, flip flops, hair freshly rinsed of salt water and slicked down, laughing, and very, very relaxed. Neighbors share adventures of the day with neighbors; newcomers chat with returning patrons about whose kids are starting kindergarten and about the virtues of Coppertone Babies lotion.

Parents of the tiniest children hold them up to the glass counter to see the choices. Teenagers love chocolate chip mint cones and sundaes with piles of whipped cream. Older folks get dishes of their favorites from childhood. The proprietor tells me that on nights of the immensely popular Doo-Wop shows, whose audiences are Baby Boomers, he always puts out classics like rum raisin and pistachio and butter pecan.

If all of this sounds like a page out of 1926, or out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, it’s not. We’re all lucky that it’s not. And even better: we know we’re lucky.

A vintage sign and scoop.

I shot the below scene last Saturday night at around 10:30. Click on it to enlarge and see how many ages are represented.

There’s something comforting about eating a timeless treat at a venue that’s older than all of us.

For the past few years I’ve been partial to ice cream with a lot of stuff in it. Texture, lumps and bumps. My current favorite, two years running, is the below—peanut butter moose tracks. Peanut butter ice cream with peanut butter ripples and chunks woven throughout, and studded here and there tiny peanut butter cups. In other words, my pipe dream.

A new contender, chocolate midnight cookie, is vying for its place, though. No matter. Choosing a favorite ice cream is one of the happier dilemmas in life, I’d say.

*Which is not to say that if someone offered it to me during the day that I’d fight them off with a stick.

**The line you see in the photo was only half of it, by the way. If you go, go on the early side.

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