Friday, December 30, 2011

"New Year's Day" by Edith Wharton

There is something about Edith Wharton and a cup of tea that just go together.  I can imagine this tray being brought to her in bed, her favorite place to write.

Edith Wharton at The Mount in 1905

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite writers.  I have read most of her books and visited her home "The Mount" in Lenox, Massachusetts several times.  In 1902, she designed and supervised the building of it, and I have enjoyed walking through the rooms and imagining her life in this large elegant house with its beautiful gardens.  Edith Wharton was born in 1862 into the tightly controlled world of "Old New York," a place where women were seriously discouraged from accomplishing anything other than a "good marriage."  She broke through the strictures of her world to become one of the most important American writers.  She was self-educated and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University.  She wrote "The House of Mirth" in this residence and I picture her sitting up in her bed -- her favorite place to write -- with her breakfast tray, dropping pages as they were finished on the floor which her secretary would pick up and type.  This was how she wrote her books.

The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts

A friend of mine who shares my passion for Wharton's books recommended "Old New York," a collection of novellas by Wharton.  I started with the last novella because of its title -- "New Year's Day."  It is classic Wharton with a heroine of questionable background who has stumbled badly in the eyes of society and is dealing with the consequences that society could wreak on anyone who wandered outside its strict code of behavior.

The story is told by the narrator, a young man who remembers a New Year's Day gathering at his grandmother's mansion in New York in the 1870's.  At one point the entire party gathers at the window to look at the Fifth Avenue Hotel across the street which is on fire.  As they watch the elegantly dressed men and women running out of the hotel, they notice Lizzie Hazeldean, our heroine, and Robert Prest exiting together.  Lizzie is married to an invalid husband who is housebound.  The man she is with is obviously not her husband and the grand doyennes of society put two and two together and a scandal develops which will affect Lizzie's entire life.  The plot is filled with subtle surprises and I was moved by the story of this classic Edith Wharton heroine and the depths of her character that are revealed.

By the way, January 24, 2012 is the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton's birth, and there will be many celebrations.  If you would like to see what is going on for this occasion, visit The Mount's website.  There is no one like Wharton for getting to the heart of the struggle in people between individual freedom and fitting in, and also depicting the world of "Old New York" as it existed during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth-century.  Wharton's ability to convey the accumulated damage to the emotions and heart of her characters caused by the subtle behavior of society has no peer and her novels are a gift to readers.  It will be a cause for celebration when her 150th anniversary occurs!

Photos of Edith Wharton and The Mount via The Mount website

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry and Bright

"...the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint." -- Charles Dickens

"This is  meeting time again.  Home is the magnet...All that is dear, that is lasting, renews its hold on us: we are home again..." -- Elizabeth Bowen

Wishing you, my wonderful readers, a Christmas filled with warmth, joy and love.  I hope you enjoy some delicious treats with your loved ones, and you are able to feel the warmth and the joy of this holiday season.  This Christmas marks a little over a year that I have been blogging.  Through this wonderful adventure I have made so many new friends, looked at life with a different eye, gotten into photography, come to appreciate the simple pleasures as I photograph and write about them, learned from so many of you about the things that bring you happiness, and settled down and thought more about life and, perhaps the best part, wrote about it.  Thank you for your comments and your friendship, my world has been greatly enriched!

Here are a few images that capture some of the sweet pleasures from the month of December.  I hope you are enjoying your own sweet pleasures today.

"The snow turned all to pearl, the dark trees strung with pearls, the sky beginning to flow with such a radiance as never was on land or sea.  And the stillness everywhere..."  --  Gladys Hasty Carroll

May we all find that stillness and peace within ourselves and all around us in the New Year and enjoy the luxury of reflection and sharing with others the wisdom we discover as the years go by.  Thank you for all that you have shared with me, and I look forward to another year of an exciting exchange of ideas and inspiration!

I wish you all the best in the New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Christmas Kitchen

"Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire.  It is the time for home."  -- Edith Sitwell, British poet

For me Christmas has always been about creating a warm and welcoming home and serving my guests delicious and comforting foods of the season.  The candles are lit, the fireplace is glowing, and the kitchen is in full swing. Cranberry-plum jam, candied citrus, chutneys, mulling spices, white truffle salt, walnuts in their shells, crystal ginger, tangerines, the best chocolates, flavored coffees -- these are some of the foods of the season and ingredients for many delicious holiday foods.  I have always been more interested in the foods of Christmas and creating a warm environment for friends and family than in the frenzied exchange of presents.  Don't get me wrong, I love giving meaningful gifts to my family and friends and putting them under the tree, but I get more excited about the baking, cooking and decorating the house, all the elements that create the warmth and comfort of this magical season.

And so this year I decided to do something a little different and decorate the the kitchen for Christmas.  After all, it's where I will be spending most of my time --  wrapping presents, cooking, baking, and just hanging out with my family. I've been listening to Christmas music, organizing my baking supplies, wrapping gifts, preparing for the big day and really enjoying my Christmas kitchen.

So many of my favorite passages from books about Christmas have to do with food.  "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote is an autobiographical story about a young boy named Buddy and his eccentric, elderly cousin who make fruitcakes at Christmas time in the big house where they live with the "relatives."  It is a beautiful piece of writing.  The description of all the luscious ingredients that go into their fruitcake is mouthwatering --

"Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey, and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we'll need a pony to pull the buggy home."

It's commonly believed that writers such as Charles Dickens, Clement Moore, and Washington Irving are responsible for our modern day version of Christmas.  Before they wrote their beloved Christmas tales and introduced many holiday traditions, the celebration of Christmas was a very different affair, certainly not as festive as it is today.  For one thing, until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, Christmas trees were not common.  But Albert brought from Germany the custom of having a decorated Christmas tree at Christmas time and British and American citizens enthusiastically adopted it.  The Victorians loved Christmas and many of the writers celebrated it in their writing.

I love this passage about a country Christmas from "The Mill on the Floss" by George Eliot--

"There was the smell of hot toast and ale from the kitchen, at the breakfast hour; the favorite anthem, the green boughs, and the short sermon, gave the appropriate festal character to the church-going...The plum-pudding was of the same handsome roundness as ever, and came in with the symbolic blue flames around it...the dessert was as splendid as ever, with its golden oranges, brown nuts, and the chrystalline light and dark of apple jelly and damson cheese; in all these things Christmas was as it had always been since Tom could remember; it was only distinguished, if by anything, by superior sledding and snowballs."

Perhaps more than any other writer, Charles Dickens is responsible for "creating Christmas" as we know it today.  "The Man Who Invented Christmas" by Les Staniford is a wonderful book on this topic.

Of all the passages in "A Christmas Carol" regarding a warm and cozy Christmas, the ones about Mr. Fezziwig's Christmas Ball and the Cratchitt's Christmas dinner stand out.  I read these two scenes and I want to crawl into those pages and be enveloped by all the warmth and Christmas cheer that Dickens describes.  These are the scenes about family and friends gathered together to celebrate the season with traditional foods such as roast goose, warm wassail and plum pudding.  And when Scrooge wakes up from his dream and orders the biggest Turkey to be delivered by a young street urchin to the Cratchitts we smile at the merriment and glad tidings of it all.

The passage about the that prize turkey that hangs in the window of the butcher shop always fills me with emotion and fuels my sense of optimism and hope, and charity and compassion -- concepts that Dickens was writing about in his beloved classic:

"It was a Turkey!  He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird.  He would have snapped 'em off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.
'Why, it's impossible to carry that to Camden Town,' said Scrooge.  'You must have a cab.'
The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried."

And so this Christmas I am hoping to create many Christmas memories as well as delicious Christmas foods for my family and friends.  The idea of hearth and home is compelling at this time of the year and there is something very comforting about the holiday rituals.    

One of my favorite traditions is wrapping presents and I have collected papers, ribbons, festive baubles and everything I can think of for making the gifts look beautiful.  

Now that the kitchen is ready, this is the room I want to be in the week before Christmas!

I hope you are enjoying your holiday traditions.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Festivities in the Kitchen

I am getting the kitchen ready for Christmas.  Next week I will be baking and cooking in preparation for our holiday.  In the meantime I am gloriously happy organizing and decorating my Christmas kitchen.  More to come next week.  Lots of visions of sugarplums dancing in my head...

Have a great weekend!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Where to Next?

"In a way, winter is the real spring, the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature."
-- Edna O'Brien, Irish novelist

There are so many books that I want to read right now, though it is a challenge to find the time during the holiday season.  Most of us have probably been doing a lot of running around getting ready for Christmas.  I want to take a deep breath, settle down, and relax for a few hours.  Reading at this time of the year is one of the simple pleasures that can calm us down as the frenzied holiday activities accumulate.

As I look at my nightstand and all the good books that have been piling up, I need to make a choice.  Which book do I read next?  Which novel or memoir do I want to curl up with in front of the fireplace?  Where do I want to go in my imagination?  Whose words do I want to be inspired by?  There are so many good choices.


So I need to consider, where to next?

How about the year 1803 in England where mystery and intrigue abound in the setting of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice?"  In "Death Comes to Pemberley" P.D. James has written a sequel to this beloved novel in which Elizabeth Bennett is happily married to Darcy, but has to deal with the murder of her sister Lydia's husband Wickham.  James has combined her two passions here, one for the novels of Jane Austen and the other for writing detective stories.  I have high hopes for this one.

Or Victorian England to read about the life of Charles Dickens?  With the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth coming up on February 7, 2012, there is no better time for a new biography of Dickens, who wrote some of the best-loved novels in English literature.  Clare Tomalin has written "Charles Dickens, A Life" a biography that reads like a compelling novel as it depicts the man's vices and virtues and the story of his turbulent path to greatness.  This is the time of the year when I reread "A Christmas Carol" and I am looking forward to learning more about the man who many think "invented Christmas."

I am already immersed in the world of 88-year -old Lady Slane, the subject of Vita Sackville-West's classic novel "All Passion Spent."  I am in the middle of this beautiful book that is set in England and enjoying the story of this gentle and gracious heroine who after the death of her husband declares her independence from her controlling children and proper Victorian marriage and finally enjoys a "room of her own."

Or how about New York in the 1850's in Edith Wharton's "Old New York?"  This book includes four novellas set in the New York depicted in "The Age of Innocence," a time when tribal codes and customs ruled society.  A friend of mine recommended this book, especially the last novella "New Year's Day," and I happily bought it because I can never get enough of Edith Wharton.

Of course, I could really take the plunge and immerse myself in "War and Peace" by Tolstoy.  Last year this major new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky was hailed as a milestone of translation and many critics felt it was as close as we could get to Tolstoy's masterwork.

How about a book by an author that I know very little about but that so many people have recommended to me?  "Old Filth" (which is the nickname of the main character) by Jane Gardam has been greatly admired by the critics and I am intrigued by what I have heard about it.  One critic wrote that "Old Filth belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters." It is supposed to be a witty and beautifully written story about a retired lawyer and respected judge in England.  People have been loving this book.  I have to read this one soon.

I love the novels written by the Brontes, especially "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights," and would love to go back to their Victorian world at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England and learn more about them.  I bought "The Bronte Myth" by Lucasta Miller when it first came out a few years ago.  I have read a lot about the Brontes over the years but this books promises a different interpretation.  Miller writes that the Brontes became cultural symbols almost as soon as their novels were published and hopes to rescue the three sisters from all the myth and give us back three vivid women who were writing in the days when few women dared and were, according to many who knew them, cheerful and full of fun and merriment.

Or should I go to Paris in the early 1900's when Sylvia Beach founded the famous book store that became a second home for writers such as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce?  "Shakespeare & Company" is definitely on my "to read" pile, especially because I have been immersed this past year in many books that depicted this era, such as "The Paris Wife" and can't seem to get enough on this topic.

And finally, I could take a trip through the history of ballet in the highly acclaimed "Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans.  This book has just come out in paperback and people are still talking about this first cultural history of ballet, lavishly illustrated and beautifully told.  I love ballet and was given this book by my daughter last year for Christmas.  I can't wait to explore the history of ballet in Jennifer Homans excellent book.

After finishing "All Passion Spent," I think I will read  "Death Comes to Pemberley" because I cannot wait to see what the master mystery writer P.D. James (a favorite of mine) has done with the classic story of "Pride and Prejudice."  It really sounds like such a fun read.  What are you reading this holiday season?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Raclette and Other Holiday Indulgences

The Ferry Building

I love going to San Francisco in December.  This "city by the bay" sparkles.  The hotels and restaurants are decorated for Christmas, the big trees all around town are wearing their holiday lights, "The Nutcracker" is playing at the gorgeous War Memorial Opera House, and the foodie's mecca aka the Ferry Building pulls out all the stops for Christmas.

Last weekend we went to San Francisco to hear my daughter sing in a Christmas concert put on by The San Francisco Lyric Chorus.  It was held in the beautiful Mission Dolores Basilica and to say it was magical is an understatement. They performed "The Christmas Oratorio" by Saint-Saens, several Christmas Spirituals, and some lovely renditions of popular Christmas Carols that were sing-alongs.  Their songs were hauntingly beautiful and brought tears to my eyes.  I was also a proud mother as I watched my daughter participate in this melodious chorus of voices.

Because we were only there from Friday through Sunday we had limited time and so had to be discriminating  as to what we could do.  For me, it was an easy decision.  Head to the Ferry Building on Saturday morning to gaze upon all the gourmet foods, lunch afterwards at Zuni Cafe, and shop at Bell'Occhio and other specialty stores unique to San Francisco in the afternoon.  The concert was at 7:00 and dinner was at the excellent Locanda restaurant in the Mission area.

The Ferry building houses an array of specialty food shops, restaurants, and markets.  On Saturday mornings it also hosts one of the best Farmers' Markets around.  But I mostly wanted to check out all the incredible specialty food shops that line the perimeter of this food hall.  Some people like to window shop for jewelry and clothing, but my idea of eye candy is the gourmet items featured at this beloved food emporium.  And to see it decked out for the holidays was truly the icing on the cake.  And so I made my way through the crowd and checked out all my favorite purveyors.

Miette Patisserie showcases exquisite pastries and candies

Heath Ceramic carries earthy and beautiful wares, including at this time of the year their Holiday Red 

Luscious chocolates at Scharfenberger

Artisan Breads at Acme Breads

The best cheese you'll ever have at Cowgirl Creamery

And this is where I discovered the Swiss delicacy know as "Raclette."  Do you, dear readers, know about this delicacy?  I had to wonder, "' Raclette, where have you been all my life?"   How have I not known about this incredibly delicious melted cheese dish from Switzerland?  I noticed a chef right next to Cowgirl Creamery preparing what looked like a delectable concoction of melted cheese on toast.  The smell was intoxicating and the sight was just too hard to resist. 

  Photo via here

The preparation of this dish begins with a big wedge of cheese, in this case a Wagon Wheel cheese that they make at Cowgirl Creamery.

The top of the this huge chunk of cheese was placed under a heating element which is a sort of broiler.  As the top layer became melted, all the luscious melted bits were scraped off with a special spatula onto some pieces of thickly cut toasted bread.  I learned that you have to use a special flat sided spatula to take the cheese off and that raclette can be eaten with potatoes, cornichons and many other types of food.  

This process was slow and painstaking but well worth the effort.  I could not take my eyes off of it, particularly because the next one was for me! 

Here it is almost ready.

The luscious finished product, which I thoroughly enjoyed on this cozy winter day at the Ferry Building.

Next I peeked into Boulettes Larder, a chef's kitchen providing elegant, prepared foods for private parties  and busy commuters.  They also carry rare spices, hard to find pantry products and other quality culinary ingredients.  I spotted some unusual gourmet prepared foods such as roasted duck and quail, as well as many exotic culinary ingredients. I love the beauty of this display table.  

Every kind of mushroom, fresh and dried, at this purveyor

Tangerines outside at the Farmers' Market

Baskets and baskets of fresh pine cones 

Fresh nuts and nut butters

Pomegranates and jewel-like grapes from Rojas Family Farms

After our visit to the Ferry Building, lunch was at the fabulous Zuni Cafe.  This is their sparkling bar.

Bell'occhio, a gem of a shop filled with ribbons and vintage embellishments, is across the street.

And after the concert, dinner at Locanda, an excellent Italian restaurant

San Francisco, you gave us a beautiful holiday weekend, filled with great food, wonderful shopping, heavenly music, and lots of good cheer.  And on a gastronomical note, you introduced me to raclette, a dish that I would love to make in the chilly winter months and enjoy in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine.  Now if I can only find a raclette maker...