Kid Governor Rocks!

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 9.56.25 AMI wish our current Presidential candidates had the platform advocated by Connecticut’s Kid Governor Elena Tipton.

She’s all about spreading kindness and has delivered on her “Campaign for Kindness” platform with a three-point plan: add Buddy Benches to school playgrounds, the Kindness is Kool blog, and designating the 13th of each month as Kindness Day.

Practical, actionable, low budget.  Campaign promises that can be delivered!

Brian Cofancesco in his signature bow tie

But first, Kid Governor?  You’re wondering, what is that?  The brain-child of Brian Cofrancesco, part of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network and Head of Education for Connecticut’s Old State House, the Kid Governor is an elected office held by a 5th grader as a result of a democratic process.  The program has also provided 5th-grade teachers with curricula to teach students about democracy, the three branches of government, being a citizen, voting–you know, our old civics lessons.

Participating schools nominate one student.  If more than one student is interested, a primary is held.  The students research an issue and create speeches for the primary.

Then the selected student develops a campaign video, and 5th graders around the state vote to select their Kid Governor.

This inaugural year, four girls and three boys campaigned.  They were from public schools along with one Monetessori, and their issues included gang prevention, standing up to bullying, access to technology, and school spending.  Serious stuff.  There’s also one about how “recess matters,” advocating for more free time for over-scheduled kids.  Right on!

After watching the campaign videos, I can say the issues and solutions were compelling.  It was a tough choice.  I imagine Elena’s exuberance and the actionability of her ideas pulled her through.  About 800 of the state’s 1200 5th graders voted in the election.  What a turnout!  Democracy in action!

Oh, and the Kid Governor got inaugurated at the Old State House last November, swearing an oath and all, with the state’s adult elected officials in attendance.

This year, 15 cities got involved, and Brian is working hard to grow participation now that the pilot year has been so successful.

Kid Governor Elena Tipton

Kid Governor Elena Tipton

I met Kid Governor Elena Tipton at the New Haven Free Public Library, where she presented her three-point plan to a full house of parents and children.  Her poise and ease in front of the room no doubt has been built with a year of traveling around Connecticut; “the funnest” part of being Kid Governor, she said, is “getting to meet people across the state,” made easy with her mom as driver.

Tipton’s plan has led to Buddy Benches in ten schools so far.  This concept comes from Christian Buck, a student in Pennsylvania.  The idea is to spread kindness through inclusion and building friendship.  How does it work?  Go to the bench, and ask someone sitting there to play or to talk and walk.  The concept is simple but effective for counteracting isolation and bullying.

Kid Governor Tipton’s blog has attracted an impressive 1800 views.  In it, she gathers kindness stories from students around the state.  Her blog also extends her Campaign for Kindness with 10 new suggestions each month, posted on the 13th, which as you now know is Kindness Day.  Here are the 10 suggestions for August 13:

  1. Do a chore for your family without them knowing!
  2. Let someone go ahead of you in line!
  3. Donate food to you local food pantry!
  4. Read a book to your younger siblings!
  5. Make someone else’s bed!
  6. Say “thank you” to service worker!
  7. Volunteer at a soup kitchen!
  8. Bring some play dough to a preschool class!
  9. Make a thank you card for your librarian!
  10. Visit your local retirement home and visit a resident!

Pretty good, eh?  Which will you do?

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While at the library, Elena engaged the children there with an art activity where they expressed their acts of kindness.

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Brian told me that the program helps children know they “have a voice and a responsibility.”

Elena comes from an East Hartford school which uses inquiry-based learning.  She’s a member of the Leadership Team at her school.  Her mother told me her interest as she moves to middle school centers on politics.

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This program fosters civic engagement and empowerment.  I got to watch it work!  Suggest the idea to your state today!

Here’s Elena’s campaign video.

Elena's business card

Elena’s business card


Raising and Releasing Monarchs

2016-08-13 10.08.15It’s the Monarch butterflies that love this hot weather.  They can only do their thing when it’s 60 degrees or higher.  Today’s temp was certainly lots higher when Nancy at Natureworks told us about their concerted effort to help replenish the declining Monarch population–over 50% in the past 40 years.

As of 2015, Nancy and Natureworks released 100 Monarchs, with 30 more being nurtured now.  Only 1 in 100 eggs becomes a butterfly, so for a typical female that lays 300-500 eggs in her 2-5 week life, that 3-5 offspring.  But with a care program like Natureworks’, those odds are wonderfully improved.

Why is it so tough for an egg to make it?

Everything has to be just right, and that means, everything.  Presence of habitat, nourishment, evading predators.  So many potential complications.  Those eggs can sure use some TLC.  Natureworks cultivates the desired diet – milkweed – and introduces ladybugs to eat the aphids, one of those predators that loves the Monarch eggs.

Nancy points out a Monarch egg

Nancy points out a Monarch egg

Can you see it?

Can you see it?

Monarch eggs are teensy, and egg hunting is no small task.  Once found, the eggs are brought inside and placed in hatching boxes.

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The Monarch’s work is just getting started.

It takes a week for a caterpillar to grow to the size of a sunflower seed.  It eats its shell for protein and then molts four times, consuming the shed skin.  The caterpillars will eat Monarch eggs, too–a species-imposed impediment.

Then it’s time to grow, and as Nancy puts it, “poop.”  The hatching boxes have to be cleaned twice a day, which involves removing the caterpillars, not losing any, cleaning the waste, and replacing the carefully counted caterpillars.  It takes about an hour each time.  No more complaints about litter boxes!

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The caterpillar “unzips its skin” to turn into a chrysalis.  Then Natureworks dangles each chrysalis from a silk threat clasped by a tiny clothes pin.  You can see the stages, as Nancy points out the hanging J that becomes a chrysalis.

In 7 to 14 days, the caterpillar will “liquefy as it re-forms itself as a butterfly,” Nancy told us in genuine wonder.  When it emerges, the Monarch’s wings are wet, and it has to hang, like dripping laundry on the line, for 4 hours to dry.

Males have spotted wings

Males have spotted wings


Then they need to eat.  Voracious, these Monarchs.  Those white blobs are cotton balls saturated in hummingbird nectar, so that the Monarchs have a meal ready.  They love their nectar plants – daisies, phlox, ironweed, Astoria, goldenrod, and of course, the butterfly bush.

Natureworks releases the butterflies on their second day.  Below, a Natureworks staffer brings the day-olders to the nectar garden, so they can immediately “start tanking up.”  It’s like a “health food store,” Nancy explained.

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See, the butterflies born in late August into the early fall have a very different journey.  Unlike their short-lived parentage, the Monarchs are flying some 50 miles a day to get to a very particular 10,000′ mountain and 60-square-mile forest in Mexico, arriving November 1. Imagine having that kind of built-in radar.

Now their migration can be tracked through an innovative tagging program, and their arrival is celebrated in the nearby town.  Locals believe the butterflies represent the “souls of the departed,” and their arrival is celebrated as a Day of the Dead.  Traditionally, the butterflies are released in honor of someone who has died.

On the return journey through Texas and the Midwest, marked by laying eggs in milkweed, this 4th generation will die out.  A new generation takes over, branching out to different home spots, including Connecticut.  You can track their migration on Journey North.

But first, we have work to do.  It’s time to release those butterflies born yesterday.  One by one, the Monarchs are taken from their protective home…

One by one, the Monarchs are taken from their protective home...

…and off they fly.

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Released, the Monarchs head right into the nectar garden…

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…and start their miraculous journey…

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Kudos Natureworks for your astonishing Raise and Release program!


Victoriana and Frogs

As many days as I commuted to Willimantic to teach last fall, I didn’t realize that it and Windham are gifted with so many Victorian and even older homes.  Because of the mills, these towns thrived with the Industrial Revolution, particularly after the Civil War.  Now, as with most other post-Industrial cities, life is a struggle.

So here’s to the brave homeowners who fight to keep the vintage alive, one going so far as to house his carpenter on the 3rd floor!  That’s really taking home repairs to hearth, all puns intended.

I started by visiting one of the mills that brought great wealth to Willimantic, an east coast train hub (who knew?).  The Willimantic Linen Company made its fortune, go figure, with cotton.  After all, attempts to grow flax for making linen really wasn’t practical, and why import when cotton was grown in the States?

Civil War military demands made the first wealth for the company.  As you know, I love the origins of words.  So t2016-06-04 11.09.59he Union Suit, what now we call onesies for infants and long johns for adults, came into being as the cotton underwear for under those scratchy Union Army uniforms.

And “all the bells and whistles.”  That comes from the bells and whistles in the mill’s tower to communicate with the workers.

A glimpse of mill grandeur; Greek temple front, Palladian windows, stone-built to last

A glimpse of mill grandeur; Greek temple front, Palladian windows, stone-built to last

This mill clearly no longer has all the bells and whistles.  Mill #2 has been converted into office space, but I was more taken with the “ruins” on site.  Who needs Europe?  Just tour post-industrial towns.  Imagine what Detroit looks like…

Nearby ruins

Nearby ruins

I visited 6 of the 10 houses on tour and was completely surprised that the Nelson Daniels House was built as a factory.  Yes, really.  From about 1902 to 1927, the Thread City Collar Company operated out of the building/house.  Like a cottage industry, although no doubt much more machine based, the 20 to 40 employees turned out men’s collars and cuffs, as well as tuxedo vestibules.  I wondered what that stiff stomacher of men’s tuxes was called.  Now we know–vestibules.

Carousel Porch

Carousel Porch

The Willimantic homes were definitely on the strolling path of neighbors, and I adore how the George Tiffany House’s porches were named.  The ground level porch is called the “carousel porch” because of its shape and the passion for carousels in the 1890s when the house was built.  Lounge on the carousel porch to let everyone know you are feeling sociable.


Look up for the Gossip Porch

Look up for the Gossip Porch




The upstairs porch is called the “gossip porch.”  Why?  When you sit up there, you are communicating to passersby that you do not want a visit.  Instead, you can hide and listen in on the conversations to catch the latest gossip.




I also learned a new term at the Wilton Little House, built about 1896.  The house style was described as Queen Anne-Folk.  Hmm.  Not too sure what Folk means, I said to the owner.  The example he used to make the point are these original stained glass windows.




Queen Anne

Queen Anne

Weir House decorative facade

Weir House decorative facade

Originally, I wanted to go on this tour because the Impressionist artist J. Alden Weir’s house was open in Windham Center.  Weir Farm in the Western part of the state is a wonderful national site that I’ve written about here.  At the current Weir exhibit, curated by wonderful Anne Dawson, at the Lyman Allyn, I learned that Weir also lived in the Quiet Corner of the state, in Windham.  When his first wife died, he married her sister, and they split their time between the two farms.

I really enjoyed seeing 3 viewing stations, where the scenery could be compared to Weir’s paintings.  Weir bragged about his “hollyhocking,” changing scenes for aesthetics, adding a hollyhock, moving a mountain, etc.  So those tweaks were fun to actually see.  Others have been transformed by modern life and more than 100 years.

Photograph in the house of Weir sitting in front of this view

Photograph in the house of Weir sitting in front of this view

The Great Frog Battle of 1758 is a Windham Colonial legend, and one of its key participants lived at the Eliphalet Dyer House, built in 1704.  Colonel Dyer was called out one night during a dry, hot summer, when loud, strange noises led residents to conclude they were being attacked by Native Americans.  Cautiously waiting until morning to check out the cause of the ruckus, the Colonel found that frogs had ferociously fought to the death over the remaining water in a nearby pond.  Sheesh.

On that note, on this hot day, I thought it was time to exit before I encountered an aggressive frog.  I like my frogs cute and cuddly.

Watch for killer frogs if you get near the Eliphalet Dyer House!

Provoking the imagination

At the 35th annual Connecticut Storytelling Festival, Valerie Tutson taught us how to clip and cluck in a South African dialect just right for our storytelling welcome.

She then shared the African story of how the stars came to be in the sky.  I do love a good origin story.

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Her dress, by the way, is made up of pieces of worker uniforms patched together.  Each bright color represents a different trade, and the patchwork quilt style has been worn by men for ages.  Tutson was delighted to find the style for women, while she lived in South Africa, gathering stories and fighting apartheid.



Judith Heineman told the story of her grandfather Oscar Markowitz and his turn in the Yiddish production of “King Lear” on 2nd Avenue in New York around 1900.  Dan Marcotte accompanied her story, using music from that very production.


2016-04-30 10.53.29Tim Lowry, from that period of the unpleasantness with King George, showed us what any Southern gentleman wore in his day.  The tricorn hat started out as a broad brimmed hat to protect from the sum.  But as soldiers, the barrel of their guns would keep hitting the brim.  A clever American innovated the pragmatic style of cocking the brim, and the tricorn was born.

Painting the town red.  You’ve heard the expression.  I didn’t know it came from the fashion of men painting the heels of their shoes.  In South Carolina anyway.  Think about it and party hardy.

Social grace of the South at time of American Revolution came in the language, too.  Dinner was served at 3 pm and was monstrous.  You would insult your host if you said you were full.  Instead you would say, “I fear I have suffered a sufficiency.”  Remember that when you’re at your next dinner party!

Lowry also advises avoiding religion and politics as polite conversation at any gathering.  No one has said anything to our current day politicians about this, for sure…

We got to sing a bit, too.  Songs from the period.

Who said learning has to be dull?  Incorporate storytelling as provocation, not instruction, Jo Radner told us.  Provoke the desire to know.  Engage the imagination.  Sounds like good teacherly advice to me!

I took Radner’s historical storytelling workshop and worked on a story about this provocative goody from my mother.  Ask me sometime and I may tell you the story.

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Vassar Delights

If I could have my favorite day, it would include like-minded people exploring art, literature, music, history.  Wait?  That happened today!

The intrepid New York Chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America traveled to Vassar for an almost unbelievably pleasant and stimulating day.  This was my first trip to the 150+ year old campus.  No surprise, it’s lovely.

2016-04-09 12.03.20We first met in the art history building where refreshments were in a room that resembled a little, red schoolhouse, only really the little, red-chair school room.

But the lectures that kicked the day off were in a very comfortable, modern auditorium.  We would have to travel into history in our minds.

Marilyn Francus, a Professor of English from West Virginia University, regaled us with her work from Chawton House, a research center on early women’s writings.  She admitted to geeking-out on manuscripts and books that Jane Austen wrote in, sussing out from that her mentoring relationship with young writers, particularly her nieces.  She investigated the family’s charades and riddles and shared how the love of language was reinforced in everyday life in the Austen home.  More about that below.

Francus wrapped by deciphering the advice Jane Austen would give to new writers.  Essentially, know the canon (read, read, read), write what is real, and practice your craft.  Good advice indeed.

And that got put into action with our next set of presenters.  Susan Zlotnick, a Professor of English at Vassar, is currently teaching a course on The Gothic Novel (including Austen’s parody Northanger Abbey).  She gave us an introductory talk, then invited seven of her students to read us their “3-Minute Gothic Projects,” reflecting their learning on the tropes of the genre.

What you need to know is that Gothic novels draw upon the philosophical underpinnings of the Romantic Sublime, by Edmund Burke–the awe of God, nature, and our emotional selves that fuels literature, music, and art of the period; Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ centering on re-surfacing unconscious desires, the return of the repressed, and the Self confronting itself; and the female Gothic, which penetrates patriarchal power by using male villains to threaten the heroines.

The latter is an intriguing take on the genre.  Zlotnick suggests that when men labeled strong women, with challenging and uncomfortable ideas, as ‘mad’, the woman would be imperiled in a number of thematic, violent ways.  The woman reader could become aware of how women lacked personal power and rights, when male domination is threatened.

There was much more to these ideas, beyond the scope of a blog, but clearly offering very fresh ways to understand detective fiction, thrillers, and Gothic romances.

The students were tasked with writing Gothic stories that take place on the Vassar campus, not necessarily today.  The results ranged from exceedingly clever to outright hilarious.

I loved Christian Lewis’ story about the mysterious disappearance of Meryl Streep (an esteemed Vassar grad) from a production of “The Cherry Orchard” that is repeated by a contemporary in the current production, literally on campus now.  He is playing with early detective fiction with his funny, funny “The Mysteries of the Martel” and its sly references to Streep films that show up as ghostly Meryl hauntings.

Jennifer Ognibene, an English major who is pre-med, read her “Demolition of Mudd Chemistry,” referring to the current tear-down of the chemistry building.  Her fantastical story of a woman student who is a chemist murderer would even make Edgar Allen Poe laugh.  The trouble starts when the student runs an experiment, injecting herself with black widow spider venom, and it all does downhill from there.  Seriously, it’s ready to be filmed.

Lexi Karas’ clever “A Strong Girl Displaced” was more serious, delving into notions of the Self and doubling from Freud’s theories.  The plot twists and taut writing would make Austen proud.

None of these students is a creative writer per se.  They put into action Austen’s code–know the canon first.  They have read a lot of Gothic novels.  Candidly, better them than me!  I can leave the Bronte’s and Bram Stoker on the shelf.

Concert in the chapel

Concert in the chapel

After lunch, we were serenaded by the Vassar College Women’s Chorus, with madrigals and other traditional British songs.  But noteworthy were the two sets of Austen writings put to song.

The Three Prayers by Jane Austen have been put to music by Amanda Jacobs, who wrote a wonderful Pride and Prejudice musical I saw in 2011.  Today, Jacobs directed the chorus in the US premiere of these works.  Here’s a tiny sliver.

What tickled me were the parlor game songs, commissioned by Vassar College Music Department for the Women’s Chorus and put to music by Eleanor Daley.  The three poems survived when Austen copied them into a letter in 1807.

Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother played a game where they devised poems where every line ended in a rhyme with the word rose, in “Verses to rhyme with ‘Rose’.”  Jane’s was clever, Cassandra’s romantic, their mother’s so funny.  Here’s her poem:

This morning I woke from a quiet repose,
I first rubb’d my eyes, and I next blew my nose;
With my stockings and shoes I then covered my toes,
And proceeded to put on the rest of my clothes.
This was finished in less than an hour, I suppose.
I employ’d myself next in repairing my hose.
‘Twas a work of necessity not what I chose;
Of my sock I’d much rather have knit twenty rows.
My work being done, I look’d through the windows,
And with pleasure beheld all the bucks and the does,
The cows and the bullocks, the wethers and ewes.
To the library each morning the family goes,
So I went with the rest though I felt rather froze.
My flesh is much warmer, my blood freer flows,
When I work in the garden with rakes and with hoes.
And now I believe I must come to a close,
For I find I grow stupid e’en while I compose.
If I write any longer my verse will be prose.

She seems destined to be a model for the Twitter-verse!

We wrapped the day with a visit to the campus art museum.  Much too short.  Lots of great works.  I’ll share just one, in honor of the day.  A woman artist, of course.  Adele Romany, a French artist, and her 1804 “A young person hesitating to play piano in front of her family.”  Shame on her!  No Austen heroine every would!

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What is Papa thinking? Paintings like this could be used to put a young lady's advantages forward. Hung in a pre-modern version of

What is Papa thinking? Paintings like this could be used to put a young lady’s advantages forward. Hung in a pre-modern version of

What is she thinking?

What is she thinking?


Cold Cruise

Under a winter-blue sky and a breezy 44 degrees, we boarded the Sea Mist for a seal watch cruise around the Thimble Islands.  The seals come from Nova Scotia and other points north to winter in Long Island Sound, feasting on any kind of fish, from herring to their favorite–black fish.

It was a beautiful day, and the last cruise an hour earlier reported a count of 35 seals.

From the cruise before ours

The conditions were perfect – cold, sunny, low tide.  Just when the seals like to sunbathe.

We cruised around for 75 minutes looking for those sunbathers.  We definitely saw heads bobbing along near Commander Rock, pictured above.  But that was about it.

These gray seals, averaging around 8 feet long and 700 pounds, can stay submerged for 27 minutes and dive to 1400 feet.  Long Island Sound today ranged from 4.5 feet deep to a few times that during the low tide.  Not too many places for them to hide.  Hmmm.

Sometimes, the luck’s not with you.  But who can complain?  The air was fresh, the cold bracing.  And there was all that water and sky.  A pretty good deal, seals or no seals.

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Old-fashioned soda

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Although I’m not a soda drinker, what a hoot to take the Avery Beverage tour, which includes making your own soda!

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Avery’s has been around since 1904, with founder Sherman Avery starting his operation when hundreds existed in Connecticut, 8 in New Britain alone.  Now the oldest surviving operation, Avery’s is sold around the U.S. and apparently in New Zealand.

2016-01-30 14.11.08The ‘factory’ is a simple one, still set up in the same barn from those early days.  The equipment only dates back to the 1950s, a heyday for soda making.  The method has stayed the same since then, too.

The equipment is jammed into one small room that comprises the factory.  The Bottle Sterilizer gives each bottle a sterilizing bath, which takes about 20 minutes.  Then the Bottling machine drops in 2 ounces of the sweetener, called syrup, with the Syruper.  The Filler machine fills each bottle with carbon dioxide, which makes the bubbles in your soda.  The Capper tops each bottle with a metal cap called the crown.  That’s it.  Not a complex process.  Even we could do it!

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So Will guided us up the steep stairs.




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Here’s where the syrup is made.  700 pounds of sugar added to well water, and you, too, can make 8000 bottles of soda.  A smaller tank is used for making batches of particular flavors, which is then gravity-fed through pipes to the first floor.


And oh what flavors they are.  You wouldn’t want to miss the Zombie Brain Juice, Dog 2016-01-30 14.04.34Drool, or Worm Ooze.  Well, maybe you would.  Those are the instant-cavity fruit drinks from the “Totally Gross Soda”  line.

Like me, you might gravitate more toward the Birch Beer, Root Beer, and Sarsaparilla.  Did you know that natural root of sarsaparilla is a carcinogen?  So artificial flavor is used, enhanced by star anise, just as root beer is flavored with vanilla, cloves, and other spices.

But such delights were literally not on the table for making our own.  Instead we maneuvered around the equipment on the sticky-sugar floor to blend our sodas with fruit flavors.

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One shot equals about an ounce, so each of us calculated the combinations to create up to 2 ounces.  One boy on our tour was proud to have made “Alien Snot”–yes another of those dreaded Totally Gross flavors.  It’s actually a combination of kiwi and blue-raspberry, which doesn’t sound gross at all (excepting the sugar content is about 1000% of the daily value).

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Putting on my Avery’s apron, ready for any spraying syrup





I stuck with the slightly tarter lemon and orange, with low quantites of syrup.  My outcome is more like a flavored seltzer.  The Virginia Darr extracts we used have been an Avery partner since 1905.  By the way, that’s how Cream Soda gets made–with vanilla extract.

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Virginia Darr extracts




So with our two ounces of syrup in the bottom of the bottles, all were crated back downstairs to the bottling machine.


Here’s a video of the filling and capping, after our exuberant countdown.

Then cold off the line:

The color combinations are so festive, aren’t they?  You may notice that in some of the bottles, the colorful syrup is at the bottom of the bottle.  Our last task was to flip the bottles three times to blend, and voila!  We have soda!

We wrapped with what Will calls “quality control testing.”  You got it, a taste test.  It’s a fizz!

The answer is 62,348.  This was calculated by weight, going on 141 caps to the pound!

The answer is 62,348. This was calculated by weight, going on 141 caps to the pound!

Avery's Lost & Found - stuff found in with the returned empties in the last 10 years

Avery’s Lost & Found – stuff  mixed in with the returned empties over the last 10 years

Bottle cap art: A for Avery's

Bottle cap art: A for Avery’s

The hand-mixed sodas back home

The hand-mixed sodas back home

The weight part is off...

Fun, old stuff at Avery’s.  The weight part is off…

...hopefully, the fate part is not!

…hopefully, the fate part is not!

Historic Pie

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 12.56.49 PMRobert Cox has gone where no man has gone before…well, that’s probably not true.  But he’s done it well, compiling a history of pie in his book New England PieI had the delectable pleasure of hearing him roll the dough at the New Haven Museum.

Affection for pie came from England. Makes sense.

But in New England, pies as we know them weren’t eaten until the 18th century.  Why the delay?  That has to do with the formation and function of pie.  Yeah, really.  The function wasn’t to relish the deliciousness of pie as we know it.

Instead, flour and water were mixed together to make a thick pastry boat, if you will, for cooking your contents.  You know, your squash, your rhubarb, your poultry.  The flour-water mixture made a tough, impermeable shell that worked well in the wood fire, but also was easy to move around.  So it was your cooking dish, serving dish, and potluck transportation, all in one.

The third crust on top?  That kept out insects and crows.  Useful.  Plus keeping air out of the contents of the interior meant you had your Colonial Tupperware, storing contents and even preserving them against rot.  Who needs a refrigerator?

In the early 18th century, butter and lard were added to the flour-water mixture, and something really, really good emerged.  Pie.

The fillings however, were different than today’s pie.   No blueberry pie then.  Blueberries weren’t domesticated until the 1920s.  Instead your Colonial pie likely mixed savory and sweet, with sugar, spices, and  herbs, all together.  The result was a ‘high style’ pie in the 1690s.  The Puritans, whose austerity included rejecting bodily pleasures and presumably delicious foods, then started to lose their power over pie.

The battle of the crust began.  By 1796, Amelia Simmons wrote the first American cookbook by an American, published in Hartford.  The cookbook featured nine different crusts.

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Shepherd’s Pie

Plus there were false pies and mock pies.  What?  Those aren’t the same?  Oh no!

False pies include shepherd’s pie, also called a cottage pie.  Lots of potatoes, mashed in a crust.  Your Maine-inspired Whoopie Pie is false, as is the Washington pie.

GW Pie


How did George Washington inspire this pie?  The Parker House Hotel‘s celebrity chef named this pie, although it’s actually sponge cake with raspberry or strawberry jam and powdered sugar on top.  Another version of this pie, with cream and chocolate is the Boston cream pie, another falsie.  In 1824, when Lafayette made his triumphal return to the United States,  he got a pie named for him that’s similar to his friend and mentor Washington’s treat.

Trivia:  at the Parker House Hotel, Ho Chi Minh worked in the kitchen, and Malcolm X was a busboy.  Between them and the GW Pie, something there sparked revolutionary spirit!

Mock pies refer to a ‘culinary mockery.’  Mock turtle soup does have turtle in it.  Mock apple pie?  You guessed it.  No apples.  Before our supermarkets made produce available year-round, pie makers had to content themselves with seasonal everything.  Ritz crackers to the rescue!  Add lemon, butter, and cream of tartar, and you get a taste like apples…  Really?  Don’t take Cox’s word for it.   See below for Corporate America’s recipe.

You can also make mock cherry pie with the more readily available cranberries.  Appearing in an 1890 Chicago cookbook, mock cherry pie took off!  Just add lots of sugar and vanilla.

Women competed to make the best pies, the best crusts, at fairs and beyond, as well as for recognition of their economy, during wartime and beyond.  Mock was the real deal.

Until freezers and processed foods.  You know, our world today.  In New England, the classic pie is simple, heightening its purity.  Simple ingredients, harmonious combinations. Really?  No.

Mince pie

The classic mince pies were a collision of the proverbial kitchen sink–cranberries, rhubarb, chicken, turkey, whatever you had, all in one pie.  That was culinary high taste.  So even the idea of the classic New England pie is a delicious myth.

But really, who cares?  Enjoy!

And in case you’re daring, here’s the promised recipe:

Ritz Mock Apple Pie
The classic pie, featuring Ritz crackers baked in a golden crust,
is perfect for the holidays.

Pastry for two-crust 9-inch pie
36 RITZ Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1 3/4 cups crumbs)
1 3/4 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated peel of one lemon
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Roll out half the pastry and line a 9-inch pie plate. Place
cracker crumbs in prepared crust; set aside.

2. Heat water, sugar and cream of tartar to a boil in saucepan
over high heat; simmer for 15 minutes. Add lemon juice and peel;

3. Pour syrup over cracker crumbs. Dot with margarine or butter;
sprinkle with cinnamon. Roll out remaining pastry; place over pie.
Trim, seal and flute edges. Slit top crust to allow steam to escape.

4. Bake at 425 F for 30 to 35 minutes or until crust is crisp
and golden. Cool completely.

Makes 10 servings

413 calories, 3 g protein, 63 g carbohydrate, 17 g total fat,
3 g saturated fat, 339 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber.

Preparation Time: 45 mins.
Cook Time: 30 mins.
Cooling Time: 3 hrs.
Total Time: 4 hrs. 15 mins.



Men riding around on horses and hitting a ball.  Long breaks, where British people drink tea and make snarky remarks about everyone else.  Stamping down the divots in the turf.  That was polo for me before today’s Yale-Stanford match-up.

Stanford in red, checking out the arena before play

Stanford in red, checking out the arena before play

While Yale got stomped by the Stanford team, I feel the victory.  I learned that polo is not just a men’s sport, but according to the Yale women players in the stands with us, they don’t ever play co-ed.  “The men are more aggressive,” one said, also acknowledging my query about bruises.  Yes, the play involves pushing into your opponent, playing defense, as well as riding all out to hit a little ball with a mallet.

Yale was in blue

Yale was in blue

The object–to score a goal by knocking the ball into a marked area at each end of the arena, while riding full tilt.  It is definitely harder than it seems.  We saw our share of air-swings, balls once struck that sputtered and went nowhere, balls that ended up knocking around between horses’ legs.

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They bunch up during play

The rules have built-in forms of protection for players and horses, but these are so obscure that even the players don’t quite understand them.  Here’s one.  When a player hits the ball, that forms an ‘imaginary line.’  Yes, imaginary.  You, and the horse, have to envision this line that now you cannot cross.  If you do, foul!  The other team gets to take a foul shot.  This rule supposedly prevents collisions.

“But…,” I said, “but.”

“Yeah,” replied a player.

“It’s imaginary?  Then how…”


To make things more complicated, this imaginary line is redrawn every time the ball is hit, too.  Um, okay.

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The father of one of the Yale team, a polo player himself, explained.  “You just get it when you’re out there.  Some horses even get the line and know how to work it.”

I tested this idea out on the women players.  One’s eyes sparkled as she said,”Yes!  The good ones definitely know the line.”

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So you think everyone would want that horse, right?  Well forget it.  The Stanford team traveled across the country for 90 minutes of play (4 chukkers of 6 minutes each, with breaks), so they certainly don’t bring horses with them.  They ride the Yale horses.  And after 2 chukkers, the teams switch horses, to make sure there’s no favoritism.

The visiting players don’t know the horses, their quirks, other than what a handler will tell them before the match.  The players do have a few minutes to canter around the playing field, and that may help some.  There are four players per team, with 3 playing at a time, 3 chukkers each.  So the players rotate horses and teammates.  it’s a game that moves in all kinds of ways.

2015-11-15 12.32.16Oh, by the way, the rules are different when played indoors, as we saw today, versus playing outdoors.  Don’t ask.  These rule changes are too complicated for my simple-poloish mind.  They have something to do with changing which goal is whose after scoring, and, well, you probably have to go to Yale or Stanford to fully understand the rules.

Even so, it was just fun to watch the play, which became noisier as the competition heated up.  At first, the play was so quiet, we could hear the horses’ hooves when they shifted into a gallop.  Then the coaches started calling instructions, and whoops burst out with goals.  I think you’ll hear it all in this video:

Gentlemen to the end, the Yalies and Stanford victors shook hands after the final whistle.  It’s all good fun at the collegiate level.  The summer may call me to a professional competition, outside on a polo green.  I might even get out and do the divot stomp.

Cooling down after the match

Cooling down after the match

The closest I'll ever come to playing polo!

The closest I’ll ever come to playing polo!

To spell or not to spell


The ABCaesars

For several months, I’ve been volunteering on the committee for New Haven Reads (focused on student literacy) to plan its one fundraiser–the Spelling Bee.  Well, they certainly didn’t need my help planning, as they have the event details down.  So I did some fundraising, and tonight was the big Bee.

2015-10-23 18.09.17I was a greeter, dressed for the chilly night, and got to see every ‘swarm’ as they came in.  Yes, the spellers sign up as teams of 3, and 6 teams, called swarms, compete in each preliminary round.  Swarms.  Bees.  Get it.  The swarms compete in rounds until the last standing vie for the honors of Best of Bee.  High school teams and adult teams compete separately, and interestingly, the high schoolers didn’t seem to dress up.  Did I mention the award for best costume?

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Of course, the swarms come up with good names, too.  I liked the Librarians from Hell, from the New Haven Public Library–pretty ghoulish, but awesome spellers.  Bee-Attitudes were pretty clever, too.  The Greater New Haven Community Chorus team was the Bee Sharps.

Swarm 1 Librarians from Hell on the left

Swarm 1, the Librarians from Hell are on the left

Unfortunately when I was greeting, I wasn’t taking pictures, so I can’t show you all of the funny costumes.  Here are some random shots.

The Opening Ceremony

Gearing up to compete

Doctor Bees

All the bees had fun

The Big E

Less than an hour from my house is the largest fair in New England, The Big E.  It has all your fair stuff–fried foods, rides, the circus, farm animals, and products made locally, with a building dedicated to each state.
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I loved watching the butter carving, the judging of gorgeous cows, and the elegant girl-jumper competition.
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I bought myself an old milk bottle from a dairy in the town where I teach.  See it?  Butler’s…
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Those cheese curds hit the spot, as did the fresh lemonade with no sugar.

What would any New England site be without a historic home?  At the fair, I toured the 1790s farm house, large and comfortable, occupied by the farmer’s family being industrious.

My favorite moment of all was the pig races–separate for males (Kevin Bacon among the contestants) and females (J Lo Pigs was running), little pigs and big,  it was hilarious fun, as you may be able to tell from these videos.

And for the political-spinning pigs…

All for the winning prize of an Oreo cookie at the finish line.  If only all of life’s trials had such a sweet reward.


Emma and the Prudes

No, ‘Emma and the Prudes’ is not the name of a new rock band.  It’s the title of a talk today by Wendy Lee for the Jane Austen Society in New York.  Was Austen’s Emma a prude by the standards of the day?

I was particularly interested in the topic, as a ‘prude’ myself, and having just schlogged my way through the rather awful Spinster for my book club

Lee was careful to distinguish being a prude from being a spinster.  Her source is 17th-century French literature and its female types–the prude and the coquette.  The Queen and the flirt

A prude is a woman who seeks social and political power.  Consequently, she is suspicious of marriage, even if she is married, and avoids it if she isn’t.  Being a prude has nothing to do with sexuality, having or not having sex, nor attitudes about sex.  Instead, the prude simply preferred fem-centric society.

Clearly, the term is derogatory.  The male equivalent is the misogynist.

Was Emma a prude? She states clearly that there’s no advantage to her marrying. She’s already financially secure. Only love would induce her. She certainly enjoys a circle of female friends. Sounds like a prude to me.

In the literature Lee studied, the prude was depicted as a hypocritical, judgmental killjoy, who could be hysterical and suicidal.  Iconoclast, heretic, vulture.  No one can know what she’s thinking, as she comes across as ‘unfeeling,’ with neither affection not animosity.  She certainly was the best of liars.  From the literature.  Lovely

A spinster had more positive associations initially, referring to 12th-century girls in France who worked as spinners, an acceptable occupation for unmarried women.  Over time, you know what happened.  The male equivalent was bachelor, never a pejorative

Basically, these ugly labels keep women in their place, towing the cultural line.  Lee’s literature included Prude, the novel, by a Young Lady.  I pointed out that whether or not the author was a woman, the point was to keep women in the marital way.  Lee shows how the husband in marriage replaced the circle of women, a sacrifice by the prude

I also asked Lee about the link to the history of feminism.  In the U.S. from the 1850s on, women who advocated for their rights were certainly considered difficult.  They merely wanted to be sovereigns of their own lives.  In other words, a prude.

When you think about it, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Graveyard Shift

Under a huge, radiantly golden, full moon tonight, I went with the graveyard shift to tour the Mark Twain House with the specter focus.  No pictures were allowed inside, but according to The Atlantic Paranormal Society or TAPS, photos don’t tend to survive an encounter.

2015-08-29 19.10.12With one exception.  This upstairs window on the left equates to the Clemens’ daughters’ bathroom.  One photo caught a girl looking out the window when no one was in the house.

Alas, my photo is quite ordinary.

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As you can tell from this sunset photo, the house is very grand.  Inside, it’s also very dark and was barely lit for our tour.  Easy to imagine the spectral encounters reported by guides and visitors.




Here are a few.  The three girls still sit on the center hall stairs, where apparently they hung out to eavesdrop on their parents’ entertainments in the dining room.  Susie, who died in the house, floats from room to room in her white, Victorian dress.  Then there’s the loud, unexplained bang in the library.  The silver tray thrown at a security guard, clattering to the ground.  And the playful taps on the shoulder and sensations of fingers running through your hair.

Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain

I was most intrigued by Sam Clemens’ belief system.  He was born in 1835, the year of Haley’s Comet.  Victorians believed that births during a natural phenomenon made the child more sensitive to psychic phenomenon.  Clemens not only believed that “two freaks came in together” (he and the comet), but would also go out together.  As indeed happened.  He died in 1910, with the return of Haley.

One vivid experience confirmed his beliefs about himself.  He dreamed of his brother’s death, including seeing his body in a morgue with a wreath of white roses on his chest and a red rose at center.  The next day, Twain’s brother was killed in a freak accident, and the would-be author was brought to the morgue to see his brother.  All the victims were laid out together.  You can guess what he saw.

Clemens also believed he could smoke out fakers.  He had an enormous print of his palm and hand made, which he then sent anonymously to psychics and mediums.  He would judge from their return reading whether they were genuine.  Famously, one he debunked had read the palm and declared that “the owner has no sense of humor.”  Obviously, a fraud!

Part of the TAPS method, with their Ghost Hunters television program, is to use equipment to measure electromagnetic currents.  Certain spots in the house were hot.  The investigators also spent a night in the house, not to prove that there are spirits, but attempt to prove there are not.  Debunking is their approach.  They couldn’t at the Mark Twain House.

During Twain’s era, Spiritualism was a serious practice, and the Clemens’ and their neighbors, the Beecher Stowe’s, held seances.  Clemens wanted to connect with his dead brother.  Victorians believed that spirits lingered, likely a comforting thought with such high mortality rates among children, their mothers, and Civil War soldiers.  Yes, shrewd fakers took advantage of a culture of grief.  I certainly did my own investigation of Spirit Photography.


Spirit Photo

Daguerreotype of Rena, as a writer with her spirit guide

Who’s to say the Victorians were wrong?  Certainly TAPS couldn’t.  Check out their video.

Local Passions

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And now for something completely Colonial.  As a belated celebration for Penny’s birthday, we went to the Pardee-Morris House, for a taste of Colonial history…and beer.

The house dates back to 1750, when the Amos Morris family was making its fortune in flax and with their salt works.  Its location was auspicious, on LIghthouse Road on Long Island Sound, convenient for shipping goods.  This house was no rough-and-tumble shack.

Look at the size of this fireplace.  2015-08-02 15.35.24Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lust after such a thing, because, after all, to cook here, you’d have to walk around the fire.  Fireplace cooking was the second leading cause of Colonial women’s deaths, after childbirth.  Cooking was a dangerous activity!

The house didn’t have just one cooking fireplace, but three.

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Here’s a later iteration that’s a tidge safer.  Narrower and with a separate, high bake oven, technology was definitely improving.

This room also features the extra-wide “coffin door,” for bringing your dead in and out.  Cooking and death.  They just seem to be linked, as prevalent companions in Colonial life.

2015-08-02 15.39.28You can tell how spartan the house is now, but in its day, this was one fancy place.  It featured a central hall, creating a larger house and a show-off place for wealth.  And then there’s that third kitchen on the other side of the house.  It was used in the summer, to keep the cooking heat away from the rest of the living space, separated by a breezeway.

In between was the staircase to the ballroom.  Not a fancy staircase, but still besting what anyone else had at the time, I’m sure.  Upstairs, in that big open room we couldn’t access, we could still peek up and see the chandeliers.  Again not elegant, but a step up from oil lamps.

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Our guide was in love with the tea-brick, the way tea was shipped from China.  One brick?  About 200 cups.  Densely packed tea leaves, pressed 2015-08-02 15.37.07in a mold to achieve pretty patterns, and the black tea aroma lingers.

As a tea fan, I loved the brick, but also this lemon press.  I’d like to have that right now to make some lemonade, contemporary or Colonial.

So that’s your well-equipped kitchen in a wealthy New Haven house.  That wealth, and the ability to provide supplies, is what got both Amos Morris Senior and Junior in trouble.

Here comes the Revolutionary War.  The Morris father and son provide the rebel soldiers with supplies.  The British are not going to take this

Prosperous Amos Morris II

Prosperous Amos Morris II

too lightly.  They capture the Morris’ and throw them in jail and burn this house to the ground.

The year–1779.

By 1780, the son had apparently escaped and the father was released, to rebuild the house as we see it today.  The 1750 fireplaces survived, as did some beams.  The rest you can think of as a Colonial renovation.

Remarkably, the Morris family lived in the house until 1915, even doing the late 19th century thing of running a boarding house to make ends meet.  Pardee bought the house with the intention of creating a Colonial museum, but died before pulling it off.  He left it to the New Haven Museum, which has had it for over 100 years.  A caretaker stayed in the house until 15 years ago, and now, it is in the shape as you see it.

First up, save the roof.  I hope they can manage the money to do more with this house that tells such an interesting story.

2015-08-02 15.54.35After the hard work of touring the house, it was time for Penny and me to learn about Connecticut beer, from the Morris period to today.

Author and beer-columnist Will Siss told us all.  New Haven was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony initially, and the English settlers loved their ale.  Of the two kinds of beer, ale and lager, ale was easier to make, faster to ferment, and successfully brewed at warmer temperatures.  Colonial women were the typical brewers, making ale at home.  Ale was necessary at a time when water wasn’t safe to drink.  Boiling the water to brew beer also killed off the bacteria.

In 1659, New Haven had its first “Ordinary” or tavern, a social place to meet, drink the local brew, and exchange news.  By 1885, New Haven had 8 breweries, each with its own personality and neighborhood following.  German immigrants were contributors to the growth of the brewing world here, and they became known for the lagers, which required refrigeration and were crisp, cold, and clear.  Of course, some breweries became huge, like Budweiser.  But others held that local sway.

With drink comes the inevitable backlash.  Lack of responsible drinking fueled the mid- 19th century Temperance movement, of which the Hartford Beechers were key advocates.  Connecticut attempted a state-wide ban on drinking in 1854 (when the Morris house was 100 years old).  Well, that didn’t work.  By 1872, the state tried the “local option” law, where each town could vote ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’  This approach was received pretty well in the country, with one town, Bridgewater, holding out until last year.  But the city dwellers wouldn’t have that law either.

With Prohibition and the rise of speakeasies, crime and public drunkenness actually increased.  Repeal in 1933 brought the slow resurgence of breweries.  Jimmy Carter helped the cause (and Billy Beer brewed by his brother) by passing a law that increased the allowed amount of production that could still be labeled ‘home brewing.’

And so we go full circle.  Back to highly localized, boutique breweries, that can be enjoyed in local restaurants and bars, just like the Colonials did.  We got to taste several samples from two new breweries.  Erector Brewing Collective is just getting started, with an IPA (India Pale Ale) and a lager, both strong and bitter.  Penny called the lager chocolatety.  Now that’s a civilized taste bud for you.

I preferred the four beers by Black Hog Brewing Company from Oxford, CT.  Before you ask, black hogs are a kind of pig you will find in the Berkshires.  There’s this link to your barbecue (of the pig) and beer…  Okay.  Now that we’re past that, Penny and I shared tastes of four kinds of Black Hog beer: one made with rye, another with oatmeal, the third with ginger, and their new beer, with a grapefruit peel finish (not pictured).

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The lesson from this day?  Stick to your passion, whether it’s letting your house be burned down for a cause or blending your brew with fruit.  Do it!

Ingenuity and Als ik Kan

Ingenuity can take so many forms, and I encountered several today in my adventures in New Jersey.  The Canal Day celebration in Historic Waterloo Village gave me the impetus to finally make it to the Stickley and Automaton Museums.  What ingenuity all.

That bell-shaped think is the elk shoulder bone for the hoe

That bell-shaped think is the elk shoulder bone for the hoe

I started by touring the recreated Lenni Lenape village on the same grounds as the Waterloo Village, getting a sense of their ingenuity.  An elk shoulder bone becomes a hoe.  Clay becomes the longhouse.  If you’re looking for a gift for your mother, look no further than a long, flat stone.  It makes a wonderful griddle.  The Three Sisters take care of the Lenni Lenape.  Beans, corn, and squash are the Three Sisters.  Corn grows tall and strong, beans give a hug, and squash can go a long time without water.

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Canal Day turns out to be an opportunity to see the rescue of a mostly intact historic village, left to fall to pieces.  Recent state money gives this place a chance, and I have my fingers crossed.

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Smith mansion needs repair

I arrived early, so didn’t have to fight any crowds at the festival, which included a pontoon boat ride on the canal.  The village is at the midpoint of the 102.5 mile Morris Canal that opened in 1831 and stretched from the Hudson to the Delaware River.  Great shortcut for moving goods through the early Republic, so fortunes were at the ready.

One fellow, Smith, owned the smithy, the hotel, the general store, and the grist and saw mills, so basically the entire village.  He showed off his wealth by building a Victorian-style mansion, see above.

1870s chic modeled by Miss Sharon

1870s chic modeled by Miss Sharon

By the Civil War and its aftermath, the town was booming.  Sharon Kuechelmann told me how the Smith women would want to be seen in the latest fashions.  You can see the gorgeous dress she’s wearing, advertising her seamstress skills.

I didn’t realize that Singer had been around since 1851.  The better story comes with the ingenuity of Elias Howe, Jr., who patented an interlocking stitch accomplished on a machine.  When he didn’t have much luck selling his invention in the US, he went to Europe, and found all kinds of patent infringement, including by Singer, upon his return.  His successful suit resulted in an award of $25 for every sewing machine sold by all the makers, until the patent expired.  There is some justice in the world.

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Miss Sharon at her beloved White Rotary

Singer became the thing because, when sewing machines could cost $100 and the average annual wage was $500, how could anyone afford a machine?  Singer initiated the installment plan, like the first credit card.  Still Sharon prefers her White Rotary, less temperamental.  It sews like “greased glass,” she tells me.  it will sew any weight or thickness, even carpet, compared to a contemporary plastic model.  The vintage works much better.

Note the pin cushion along with the Mary Potts iron

Note the pin cushion along with the Mary Potts iron





And here’s the Mary Potts iron.  New to me, as I don’t believe in ironing, but the Mary Potts makes a lot of sense.  She invented the removable wood handle.  So now, you can heat up your four or five irons on the fire, all at the same time, and attach your cool wooden handle and work right through all the irons you got hot.  Pretty clever time saver, Mary Potts!  Perfect for cotton, not so great for polyester, as you can’t control the heat on a Mary Potts.  Keep that in mind when you’re ironing, but still, pretty ingenious.

Gustav Stickley was clever, too. His simple craftsmen furniture answered a need after a typhoid epidemic.  Turns out, the streamlined furniture was easy to keep clean.  Very appealing.  He had a hit on his hands, and along with clever merchandising–the catalog–he created beautiful and affordable furniture that made him a wealthy man.

2015-07-25 12.24.54Not far from Waterloo Village is the Stickley Museum, the house and 650 acres Stickley intended as a boys school–his way of giving back.  There, students would get general education, yes, but also learn a craft.  They’d never be without a way to earn a living.  Great idea, except tuition was $1000 per student.  Yes, really!  Mr. Stickley was none too clever with money, as evidenced by the outrageous tuition, so he never got the school going.  Instead he moved his family into the house he designed and built, while continuing to commute into Manhattan for his showroom, store, and restaurant.

The formal front entrance

The formal front entrance

Soon his working farm there was generating vegetables, fruit, eggs, and cheese for the restaurant, carted to the city seven days a week.

The house and land were meant as Stickley’s own Utopia, and he did wander in the woods each day after working in New York.  He had a communal dream of a Craftsman Village.  But money literally doesn’t grow on trees, or in fields, and five years after moving in, in 1916, Stickley went bankrupt.  The end of the dream.

The house and land were sold for $100,000, and apparently, oppressed by that dark interior that was so Stickley, the new owners whitewashed the log walls.  It took the restorers five years to remove that whitewash and resurrect Stickley’s vision of bringing the outdoors inside.  Each window is framed like a picture frame, with views that change seasonally.  No art adorns the walls and isn’t needed with the captured nature.  The color palette of brown, gold, and green was deepened by the lighting strategy of using 20 watt bulbs to simulate candlelight.  I can tell you, on this bright day, the current 60 watt bulbs still make for a dim interior.

It is evocative though of the Craftsman style that is Stickley, a man as obsessive about details as Frank Lloyd Wright.  He dictated the color palette, all the furniture, and its placement in his four daughters’ bedroom they shared.  But they must have tolerated it because they had their own private bathroom–a happy luxury!

I liked how each room, long and narrow, was multipurpose.  One featured the library, parlor, and sitting room.  The other the dining room, serving area, and the Inglenook for relaxing, all in one.  The furniture was all available for sale in his catalog or the showroom.  An Eastman Chair went for $58.50 in the catalog.  Today?  Shwew!

I liked the high-backed ‘settle’, which I guess was meant to settle into, in front of the fire, with the high back holding in the heat.  The $3 per year subscription to Craftsman magazine came with a free set of blueprints for a Stickley house.  Seems like a good deal to me!

It was Stickley’s shop mark Als ik Kan, or All I Can, from either the Dutch or Flemish, that spoke most to me.  As good a mantra as I can imagine–to do All I Can.

Als ik Kan is completely in evidence in the Guinness Collection of Automata and music boxes at the Morris Museum.  Call me enchanted.  You know I love old windup toys.  These are the creme de la creme.

2015-07-25 14.07.42Our demonstration started with a bit of chronology.  Although music boxes had been around for centuries, only royalty could afford them.  By the early 1800s, clock and watch shops got into making pipe or barrel organs, so that now a great mass of wealthy people could have music on demand.

Here you see the drum or barrel of the organ, the brass cylinder, that has pin holes meticulously drilled in by hand, generally by women. Hand cranking operates the bellows that rotates the drum over a steel-toothed comb.  Got that?  I can tell you, this London-made music box still sounds great, 200 years later, with its pipes, triangle, and drum.  Take a listen:

The sound can be altered with the stops.  So by “pulling out all the stops” (get it?), you get full sound.

Innovations continued, so that the size decreased, and elements were mass produced bringing the price down some.  By the 1880s, this German disc music box cost $285 at the time.  Still a lot of money.

Still using a windup start, now we have a punched metal disc.  With “all the bells and whistles.”  Guess who got an idea from the removable discs?  Yes, Thomas Edison, and the phonograph goes a long way to putting the music box world out of business.

Not to worry.  By 1900, you could get an organette, widely available by saving your soap box tops or for $3.50 in the Sears Roebuck catalog.  Top of the line?  $15.

2015-07-25 14.41.19The French have a different idea.  They produce one-of-a-kind, competition, living dolls.  Yes, automatons were popular for the elite of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and collectors vied to get these unique pieces.  The makers were from clock and watch stores, no longer competing with factory-made, music box manufacturers.  Now they vied to top each other with popular motifs like street performers, magicians, animals, ‘exotic’ foreigners, royalty made into monkeys, and fairy tale figures.

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Some had music, some not. But each is a work of art in and of itself.  I was mesmerized by each one.

Here’s a modern automaton that shows a bit of how they work.  For those of you watching “Humans” this summer, you’ll be interested in the fact that these figures, these living dolls are precursors to robots.


Which takes us to the most intricate of robotics.  Here’s an 1890s trapeze artist.  All the ‘energy’ runs up a rung of the ladder to the shoulder.  Pretty incredible.

And the sketch artist, who turns his book to us to show us what he’s done, then proceeds to sketch you.

The tour wrapped with a look at some of the larger Fair Organs and learning how they work by peeking inside.  This Limonaire Brothers organ, with 115 pipes, is only 5′ across.  One in a private Connecticut home is 30′ across.  Yikes.  Still, you can tell how loud this one is.  To work outside, the punch roller is replaced by the sturdier, thick punch card book, featuring only one song.  Now electric, the organ works by feeding the book through to read the punch card.  Now start thinking computer.

I know the video is dark, but hopefully you get a sense of just how fun this and all the other wonders of this day were.  Ingenuity is everywhere.  Als ik Kan.  A call for us to do All We Can to create and bring our genius to the world!


Heritage Weekend

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On this crisp spring day, Wethersfield had its local Memorial Day parade, but what’s that?  A fife-and-drum corps and Revolutionary War soldiers marching alongside the Cub Scouts and Rotary?  Just who is Colonel John Chester that his name should appear on these drums?

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These are big questions, and there are no easy answers.  But I can assure you that today in Historic Wethersfield was almost completely about the Revolutionary War, marked through its annual Heritage Weekend.

You’ve seen it all before.  You know, the troops line up opposite and shoot each other like ducks in a carnival game.

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Women write in their diaries with lamp oil for ink.

Your pouch can get repaired by the leatherman, who adroitly works two needles at once.

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The cannon is shot periodically with a woman to help load.



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The apothecary will entice you with his curious tools.

And there are the horses from the Dragoons.



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The day was perfect for spinning outside.

And refreshments over the open field fire.

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All the stuff you encounter all the time.

Before heading off to do my duty at the Hurlbut-Dunham House though, I became entranced with the minuteae of the militia.  That is, the clothes.

I admit I didn’t know the difference between the militia and the Continental Army.  Now, shwew, I do.

A militia men saluting the soldiers on parade

A militia men saluting the soldiers on parade

Membership in the militia was mandatory for all men from age 16 to 60.  Wow.  This wasn’t a draft situation.  You just did it.  Or else.  If your town or village was threatened, your militia did its duty.  Read, Lexington and Concord.

If you really like taking on the enemy, then you made your job the Continental Army.  Like our Army today, participation was a choice, and you got paid to fight.  You marched and marched and marched to wherever the next skirmish or battle took place.  You want to see the world, you join the army.  Defending your home?  That’s when you stay at home and do the militia.

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Now everyone in that period was a farmer.  If you were a lawyer, you were a farmer, too.  So when called, you put on your very best coat to go fight with the militia.  Why?  We don’t know.  But the consensus here was that if you were killed, then you looked good doing it.

A militia officer in his fine blue coat, gaiters, and gorgette

A militia officer in his fine blue coat, gaiters, and gorgette

Most men wore shoes, then added matching-colored leather gaiters over their pants, so they looked like they were wearing boots.  The officers wore boots.  The gaiters helped when wading through mud, too.

Officers got the extras.  Whether in the militia or in the army, officers wore a gorgette.  This metal piece was a remnant from medieval fighting, when knights flung themselves at each other on horseback attacking with spears.  The metal was placed at your throat to protect it from piercing. Yikes!  So it’s a piece of armor.  Here and then, it was honorary and a signifier of status.

Note the red sash and red ribbon on his hat

Note the red sash and red ribbon on his hat

Officers also wore red, like the ribbon on this Adjutant’s hat. What’s an adjutant?  A secretary.  A great way to keep the older officers’ knowledge and experience in military combat.

And the sash.  Oh my.  The sash was red, not for visibility as I guessed, but in case the officer was wounded in battle.  The sash was long enough that his attendants could open it up and carry him away from the action on the sash as a stretcher, and his blood wouldn’t show.  We wouldn’t want to panic the soldiers.

Well, no, but surely, the soldiers could figure out what it meant when the red sash was unfurled, and their officer was carried off the field of battle.,

This officer is part of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).  He’s been doing his genealogy and has traced it back to 600 C.E.  I can go back about 125 years and am delighted to do that.

Anyway, the SAR in Connecticut existed a full year before there was a DAR–Daughters of the American Revolution.  During that year, 88 women were members of the SAR.  I like that idea much better than the segregated groups that have emerged and entrenched.

Now, there’s even a Children of the American Revolution.  These children are also DAR or SAR, but as children learn the how to’s of their ancestors.

Ah, we’ve answered one big, burning question.  Those children marching in today’s parade were CAR, building their skills, so some day, they can shoot muskets and cannons at each other.  Long live the traditions!

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Even the tradition of, yes, the red onion–developed here and traded out of Wethersfield’s working waterfront.

A watery day

2015-04-26 14.31.45On a blustery spring day, I visited the charming Colonial town of Essex, CT.  I started at the delightful Connecticut River Museum, celebrating all things about that river.  I had always heard it was terrific.  No understatement!

While I’ll share my favorite part in a moment, the American history that touched the riverbank at Essex makes the museum worth a visit.  In the Revolutionary War, Connecticut’s war ship (all 13 colonies were asked to build one), the Oliver Cromwell, was built here in 1776.  An 1814 skirmish with the British, part of the War of 1812, was likened to Pearl Harbor for its surprise and devastation.  At the unmanned fort, 27 ships were burned, and the town’s economy was blasted apart.

Artist rendition of how the Turtle worked

But, oh boy!  The best part was climbing into a replica of the first submarine, called the American Turtle.  Now this thing is small.  I can tell you because I smacked my head on it getting in.  Ouch!  2015-04-26 14.41.53

The idea was to take a bomb in the submarine and hook it to the bottom of a British war ship, and bye bye ship.  Well the submarine worked – the propeller was a huge innovation.  The bomb was ready.  But drilling through the submarine to attach the bomb to the warship hull, not so much.  So even though Yale graduate David Bushnell made a great case to Benjamin Franklin and made three attempts, the submarine was scuttled and the original eventually lost.

Two replicas at the museum were built off detailed plans that survive.  Climbing inside — it’s worth the price of admission.

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I also really enjoyed the special exhibit on Connecticut artists working under the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.  The pieces are small enough that maybe they served as studies for the ultimately larger works, like murals in post offices and schools.

You know I want to know all about women artists and women’s lifestyles.  Here’s a glimpse from this exhibit.

Haddam, Looking East, Cornelia Vetter

Cornelia Vetter, Haddam, Looking East, n.d.

At nearby Haddam, Cornelia Vetter began working for the government arts project after her husband died in 1933.  She did 18 paintings for the Federal Arts Project.

Grading the Tobacco, Harold Barbour, 1938

Harold Barbour, Grading the Tobacco, 1938

Harold Barbour painted a series of watercolors, on work in the tobacco barns.  Here, woman work in the sorting shop.  After the tobacco leaves cure in the hanging shed, the leaves are sorted into grades.  During the Depression, sorting and transplanting, as seen below, proved to be great jobs for women.

Transplanting, Harold Barbour, 1938

Harold Barbour, Transplanting, 1938

Look at this beautiful charcoal.

Tuna Boat, Beatrice Cuming

Beatrice Cuming, Tuna Boat, n.d.

So many women artists to discover and enjoy.


Then I strolled down the street, from the gem of the little museum to the country’s oldest, continually operating inn, open 239 years.  The 33-room Griswold Inn was build in 1776, a busy year in busy Essex.

Inns were central to Colonial and early Federal life, and the Boston Post Road was essential for information flow between New York and Boston.  How did information flow?  Over the communal tables at inns like the Griswold.  We all sat around one such table to hear the owner Geoff Paul tell great stories about the art collection in the inn.

Owner Geoff Paul, an enthusiastic speaker

Owner Geoff Paul, an enthusiastic speaker

Geoff spoke about the origins of the steam-powered ship in Connecticut, long before Robert Fulton, and the intricacies of ship portraits, that owners were pickier about than paintings of their wives.

Like a good art historian, Geoff taught us what makes a great marine painting.  Flags show the wind, so create movement; the more flags the merrier (and more expensive).  Angling a boat toward the viewer enhances that sense of power.  Geoff favors works made at the time the ship sailed, not nostalgic works painted later.  Paintings of the moment often are celebrations of American ingenuity and prowess and could be coupled with the Brooklyn Bridge or highlight new installations of electricity–other technological marvels that allowed ‘man’ to get the sense of ‘triumphing over nature’.

The Connecticut

Antonio Jacobsen, The Connecticut, n.d. c 1880s

And steamships, Geoff pointed out, represented the birth of the cruise ship industry, providing pleasure outings for the Connecticut middle class.  Board the City of Hartford steamer in that city, steam overnight, spend the day in New York, before returning with another overnight ride.

Once, when a steamer hit a part of a bridge that wasn’t made to open en route, maritime law changed, requiring all bridges to have red lights as markers, distinct from lights on shore.  No one was hurt, so the happy ending was that the passengers got to spend the night nearby and see a show at the Goodspeed Opera House, also written about in this blog.  Plenty of other steamer accidents were deadly, borne of races and other mishaps, leading to the founding of the Coast Guard for monitoring and rescue.

Who wouldn’t love the mural that, when the switch is flipped, rocks like the waves on the Connecticut River?  Apparently drunks, that’s who.  They’re not too fond of a suddenly rolling room.  It’s a really ingenious feature that came with this 1960s mural.

Yes, this mural actually rocks back and forth, like waves

Yes, this mural actually rocks back and forth, like waves

You can probably make out the wake at the center.  This perspective puts us on the back of a steamer, viewing our own trailing wake in the wide river.  What fun this whole experience is!

The Inn also has a fragrant, evocative taproom–a busy place on Sunday afternoon.  And then, there’s this room.

It’s another Wow, in a day full of them.  Hung truly salon style, the paintings and ephemera jam every inch of wall and ceiling space of the Bridge Room.  My most favorite were the posters of the women fighting for Temperance.  Starting in the 1820s, women advocated against the reckless drinking that was notoriously tearing up families in the young country.  Recognizing that total abstinence could be difficult when both religion and medicines used alcohol, the petitioners sought moderation.

Great Sots Temperance - cleaned up and frameless

The women marched.  The inn keepers agreed.  Men signed the pledge to take care of their families and stop drinking to excess.  If a man signed his name with a T, then he pledged total abstinence, or to become a T-totaller.  I always thought it was tea-totaller, as in being a tea v alcohol drinker.  Geoff tells otherwise.

Of course, these women went on to fight slavery and advocate for the vote.  Get this.  As late as 1969, women could not stand at a bar in Connecticut.  Yes, really.  So a woman, yet another protester, came in demanding to be served.  In cahoots with the innkeepers, she demanded her arrest.  The case went to the Connecticut Supreme Court in Griswold Inn v State of Connecticut, and the Inn won!

Geoff made clear that the Inn relies on drinking for its sustenance.  And Prohibition didn’t stand in the way.  It is located right on the river.  Sailors knew how to navigate in the dark.  The inn did just fine during those years.   About fifteen years ago, when renovations were being done in the library, Geoff finally learned where at least some of that rum was hidden.  In the ceiling of the library was an 8′ long copper container.  In the ceiling!

Don’t ever be shy about looking up in historic places.  Who knows what you’ll find?

Looking up at a beautiful fan window on Main Street in Essex

Looking up at a beautiful fan window on Main Street in Essex


The best experience I’ve had with chocolate took place at Colonial Williamsburg.  I was attending a conference there in February (a Colonial brrrr) and signed up for a post-conference experience: making chocolate the Colonial way.

Ten of us met at a cooking cabin at 7 a.m., where the cows had already been milked, but the rest was up to us.  We divided labor.  Getting the dried beans into a huge fry pan to roast over the open fire (done by a staffer), cracking the beans (ah the aroma!), followed by hours and hours of grinding and pounding by us all.  No matter the cold, we had the door open, letting in the biting wind we all welcomed with our sweaty labor.

Only at the very end, maybe the last hour, we added some spices–we chose cayenne and cinnamon–and milk.  Sugar wasn’t readily available, but we were given a cone to scrape off for our mixture.

After twelve hours, yes really, we each got to taking home a sliver of this drinking chocolate.  Even mixing it with warm milk, the concoction was pretty chalky.

From the primitive to the sublime, I happily braved the Connecticut cold to go to my public library for a presentation by the self-taught ‘Chocolate Lady‘ Maria Brandriff, another Hamden resident.  She gave us an abbreviated history of chocolate, which comes from an Aztec word meaning “bitter water.”  They apparently made their drink much like we did at Williamsburg, and it was a beverage for the Kings, believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Not until the mid-1800s was chocolate used to make candy.  The discovery was conching–using huge mixing machines with slowly rotating blades to blend the heated chocolate and get rid of excess moisture.  It takes an Industrial Revolution to give us the really good stuff.

But candidly, the packed house was there for the goods.  And Maria didn’t disappoint.  First she had us taste decent grocery/drugstore chocolate, after deriding most of the readily available stuff, including Hersey and other mass-manufactured packaged chocolate.  Out of Lindt, Ghiradelli, and Trader Joe’s, I liked the latter’s 54% and 72% ‘Pound Plus’, made with chocolate from Belgium.

I couldn’t really tell all that much difference between the two levels of bitterness, which really references the amount of cacao to other ingredients, although generally, I like up to 80%.  I not a fan of sugar.  If you try the Trader Joe’s Pound Plus, let me know what you think.  It’s quite reasonably priced.

2015-01-29 19.48.42Then Maria showed us how to make truffles.  First you want to know that the word truffle really does reference the mushroom, because the best chocolates are irregular and gritty and earthy like the pig-discovered thing from the ground.

2015-01-29 19.40.11Anyway, you start with a ganache–an emulsion of heavy cream and chocolate, created by whisking.  You can used canned coconut milk instead of the cream, if for some reason, you’re being health conscious with your truffles.

Now, ganache is pretty tricky.   You need to temper your chocolate so that it will both have a snap when you bite into it and melt on your tongue.  Are you getting in the mood yet?

The problem is your ganache can curdle, called “broken ganache” just like a hollandaise or mayonnaise.  Maria says after many years of making the good stuff, it still happens to her.  Yep.  I’ve already written off trying this at home.  Still it was great fun watching Maria make truffles right in front of us, dipping the formed chocolate in cocoa powder (we each got to sample one.  Luscious.) 2015-01-29 19.52.03

If you get your ganache, you have to decide if you’re going to add flavor through addition or infusion.  Our goodie bag (this was unexpected for a free public program) included Maria’s tea-infused truffle, with its marinated tea leaves creating a juice that was infused into the ganache.  Adding coconut meat and lime juice to white chocolate made the piña colada truffle.  I don’t like these kinds of coconut candies in general, but Maria’s was pretty tasty.

So what you need to know is that the health benefits of chocolate start at 70%, the dark, dark stuff.  Different beans can make the chocolate taste totally different, even at the same percentage of cacao.  Your beans might be citrusy or smokey or fruity, depending on where they come from.  The best beans come from South and Central America, but most of what we get is from the Ivory Coast, where the beans are most prolific, cheapest, and least flavorful.  The price you pay will vary by all these determinants.

But really.  At this cold moment at the end of January, who cares?  Go have a nice piece of chocolate and let it melt on your tongue.  Life is good.


November brings us Tellabration!–the celebration of storytelling that’s now worldwide.  New Haven is hosting all types of storytelling events over the next couple of weeks.  Tonight, Julie and I caught one with 3 storytellers, each with a distinct style and mode of storytelling.

Jennifer Munro, an English teller, told a sweet, country tale about what happens when a woman learns to read.  Historical narratives fuel the stories of Carol Birch, tonight about Harlan County, Kentucky miners unionizing and how their powerful anthem “Which Side Are You On?” came to be.

Motoko‘s stories of Japanese culture appealed to me the most.  I particularly loved the story of Mr. Stingy who apprenticed himself to Master Miser.

Just a tidbit?  Well, okay.  Mr. Stingy was too cheap to buy fried fish to go with his white rice.  But he loved to sit outside the restaurant that made the 2014-11-12 19.59.21 fried fish eating his white rice, because the smell was so wonderful.  After all, he told the shop owner, everyone knows smell is important to food tasting good.  The restauranteur insisted he be paid, as the delicious smell had value2014-11-12 19.59.55.

Master Miser said certainly he would pay.  He counted out the number of coins, but instead of handing them to the fish chef, he placed them in a bag and jingled it.  After all, he told the man (mentoring Mr. Stingy), just as the smell of fried fish has value, so does the sound of money.

Her story reminded me of the Yiddish folktales about Chelm, the village of fools.  I love stories that make fun of human foibles.  How else are we to learn to laugh at ourselves?

So for a laugh or a song or a tear, go hear a story this month, and then tell me your favorites.

Sauntering in the Footsteps

This has been a weekend of sauntering–through luscious Stitches East, where those who knit, crochet, and weave are in paradise, to the creative paradise of City-Wide Open Studios at New Haven’s Armory to the cultural paradise of New York City, whose heart was captured momentarily by Oscar Wilde.

stitches east

Stitches East is the huge show that takes place somewhere in the western US  and for the eastern half in Hartford.  It’s a place where everyone is your friend, and the textural stimulation and color palettes can be pleasurably exhausting.  I went home with yummy cashmere to work up.


Site-specific installation at the Armory

Site-specific installation at the Armory

Julie and I tasted a different kind of yummy at the Armory.  Rather than try to see it all, we lingered with just a few artists to hear their stories.  Wonderful museum educator Jaime Ursic also makes enchanting prints.  Hearing her talk about her work makes the abstraction come alive with narrative.  We sauntered along with Jaime on the streets of Florence and the beach and…

Jaime Ursic Santa Monica Mountains 2010

Jaime Ursic
Santa Monica Mountains

Jeanne Criscola makes family recipes as way to connect to her family stories and identity.  Love how she shot a close-up video of the recipes being cooked and blew up those grainy photos of our childhoods.  She told us how many people and experiments were needed to get an Italian sugar cookie just right.  Just like my grandmother’s humantashen, although no one has ever captured it.  Jeanne’s cookie was dime-sized and melted on my tongue.

eanne Criscola & Joan Fitzsimmons Oral History: A Recipe for Memory, Food, video, online database

Jeanne Criscola & Joan Fitzsimmons
Oral History: A Recipe for Memory, Food, video, online database

She calls the work an oral history project, but that’s really more for the future, as she and her art partner Joan Fitzsimmons grow the project to include all of us interactively, with photos, recipes, and stories.  Too delicious.

Current art in Madison Square

Current art in Madison Square







Oscar Wilde sauntered his aesthetic way through New York City, and we followed in his footsteps through Madison Square, Gramercy, Union Square, and the West Village.  Along the way, we met Washington Irving and lingered by Pete’s Tavern, where O’Henry wrote “Gift of the Magi.”
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Perfect framing of the Chrysler Building, in Gramercy Park

Perfect framing of the Chrysler Building, in Gramercy Park

Edwin Booth in Gramercy Park

Edwin Booth in Gramercy Park










But Wilde was our focus.  That ‘Midwife of Modernity.’  Only intending to stay for a few Oscar_Wilde_by_Napoleon_Sarony,_with_hat_and_cape,_1882months, his lecture tour was such a smash that he stayed a year, in 1892, spreading the aesthetic of the aesthete.  His long hair and smooth cheek were avant garde in bearded Gilded Age New York.  The trip was sponsored by D’oyly Carte, promoting their new show Patience and its aesthete character.

Oscar_Wilde_Photograph taken in 1882 by Napoleon SaronyWilde cultivated his look and image, basically inventing the modern celebrity–famous simply for being famous.  On his trip to NYC, he had a series of 30 photos made by Napoleon Sarony.  Thievery of those photos for ads for cigarettes and clothing and postcards in shop windows, all capitalizing on Wilde’s fame, led Sarony to sue.  This wasn’t the first time for such piracy of Sarony’s works, but Wilde’s fame helped his cause.  When the Supreme Court found in his favor, copyright protection for creative works was born.

Although he had only self-published a book of poetry at this point, Wilde’s lectures sold out.  Although we undereducated Americans apparently couldn’t understand his lecture on the English Renaissance and how aesthetics affect all forms of art.  I don’t think he cared much, although he did deliver a dumbed down version.  At $1 admission each, and an audience size of a thousand, Wilde got rich.

250px-Century_Association_111_East_15th_StreetNewspapers tracked his movements and published his poetry and selections from his talks.  Cartoons made fun of his effete manner.  At the male bastion Century Club, he was called a charlatan, a slur as a Charlotte Ann.

Yet he dined at the most fashionable houses, a man with “simple taste in food, satisfied by the very best.”  Bessie Marbury became his literary agent, and first woman agent, who also had what Henry James called a Boston marriage with interior designer Elsie DeWolfe.  So another literary connection, as the latter was launched by Edith Wharton’s wildly popular book, The Decoration of Houses.  New York is so tiny.

Mark Venaglia, Pastures

Mark Venaglia, Pastures



Wilde made the lily and sunflower the emblems of the aesthetes.  What fun to meet artist Mark Venaglia on the tour.  He’s famous for his sunflower paintings, selling to Julia Roberts and Wall Street types.  Today’s aesthete?




Photos of the day:

There’s no day when the Flatiron fails to please…

Flatiron, 10-12-14

Flatiron, 10-12-14


From the Flatiron to irony:

New York City, 10-12-14

New York City, 10-12-14