Friday, December 9, 2016

Wreath Week with the Garden Club: Day 1

Sorry this took so long. My photos often take a long time to load, and my Monday photos never showed up on my laptop until tonight.

Wreath Week was as lovely as ever. I'd been looking forward to it for months. On Sunday night, as I collected my apron, pruner, pliers, and other items, I felt as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve.

Some of my stuff, including gardening gloves, plastic gloves for spray-painting, and first-aid tape to protect my fingertips from holly and thorns. 

It was an inspiring, entertaining, exhausting week. By the end of yesterday, I felt like every muscle in my body hurt, mostly because I'm not used to being on my feet from 9 to 7. Despite some very long, warm, soapy scrubs, I still have traces of pine tar under my nails. My face, hair, bag, socks, and bed were dusted with of glitter and pine needles, and my boots were splashed with gold spray paint.

My hands didn't hurt as much as I expected. When they threatened to start aching badly, I worked more slowly and carefully, and took breaks. I'd started taking Alleve the previous weekend, and that probably helped a lot. Other women in the club have similar  problems and they shared their stories and remedies with me, from warm soaks to special wraps and tape.

My first wreath was deceptively easy. My speciality is outdoor wreaths with all-natural materials, so I get lots of those orders. Some of us are more comfortable with pinecones, pods, greens, fresh berries, and so on, while others are all about glitter, fake fruit, and glass balls. Some designers, including all the best ones, are at home in both worlds, and can even mix major glitz and natural items on the same wreath in ways I can only dream about.

I can do indoor wreaths, of course, but better designers can use all sorts of delicate dried flowers and other fragile things, which I tend to destroy as I'm wiring them onto the wreath. I'm better with heavy-duty stuff like pinecones. (You'd think I'd be good at using lots of fake materials, which tend to be indestructible but, no . . . I usually go overboard and create some nightmare of tastelessness.)

So, my first wreath order specified all-natural materials and a bright red bow:

I used holly, rose hips, cedar, many pinecones, and milkweed pods and lotus pods. I also found some sort of dried, woody buds that were able to withstand my pushing and poking. It looked like I sprayed them gold, but I didn't. 

The next wreath was a "designer's choice," which means you can do anything you want — within reason. I picked a shimmery brocade ribbon that reminded me of Venice, and found some fake fruit with similar colors, since I was feeling brave and foolhardy enough to use some big, fake stuff. Pale green fake berries blended with cedar, rose hips and those tough buds, which I think are sprayed gold this time. I love anything that is hard to break.

Those green fluffy pom-poms are fresh — and in the dianthus/carnation family, I heard. Their stems look exactly like those on carnations. I'd never seen them before.

The next wreath was all-natural again. The plaid bow went well with rose hips. They are easiest to use when they are at their freshest, on the first day of Wreath Week. By Thursday, they are already fading and drying out in the church basement's warmth.

I seem to have been in the mood to use lotus pods, along with eucalyptus, cedar, and more of the bright green carnation-y stuff. I wanted to add something purple or dark blue because of that bow, but we didn't have anything natural in those colors. I did find another very tough, woody flower with interesting petals:

My last wreath for the day was yet another all-natural outdoor wreath. The customer picked this bow, which is edged with gold beading. I added sprays of pine, some excellent holly, yarrow, and two kinds of pinecones.

We fully decorated about 180 wreaths, or so I heard, over four days, and just added bows to many more. They are already up around the neighborhood and they stand out from all the other ordinary (I'd say "garden-variety" but we're the Garden Club) wreaths — not only because of our distinctive bows but because we do a better job of decorating.

The women who run this annual operation and everyone who volunteers — to decorate, deliver, make bows, clean up, and keep everyone organized — are uniformly friendly, supportive (and downright charitable to me), and lots of fun to be around. And, as always, I'm surrounded by decorators who continually stagger me with their creativity and artistry.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Wreath Week Begins

It's the most wonderful time of the year: four days of decorating wreaths for the Garden Club of the Back Bay. I've gathered my tools — apron, gloves, pliers, pruners, hand cream, surgical tape to protect my fingers, ice-water bottle. The club provides everything else, including Crisco to clean our hands, meals, spray paint, and everything you'd ever want to wire onto a wreath.

Last night, I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. A decade ago, I never would have imagined that anything one could do in a church basement would be so much fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I was diagnosed with mild osteoarthritis in both hands, in the joints between the thumb and wrist. I'd been hurting for a long while, but figured it was tendinitis from too much cell phone use or something, and thought it would go away with rest and ice. It didn't. When I learned it isn't curable, and that I could be hurting for life, I was not happy.

I was even less happy when my doctor recommended that I stop decorating wreaths; she knew I'd hurt my hand doing it a few years ago.

I was even more unhappy because it was Election Day. I'd had a strong feeling of foreboding all day. At 9 pm, I put on my PJs, turned our fan machine up load to block out election reports, and went to bed with a magazine. (It was the October 10 New Yorker and I'm still reading that damned thing. I should have been caught up by now, but that magazine won't quit.)

Last week, I saw a physical therapist about my foot, which has plantar fasciitis. (Yes, I am falling apart and that was before I walked smack into a plate-glass door a few days ago and killed my knee). We spent most of the 90-minute appointment discussing my hands. She has similar osteoarthritis and told me I can help it to go away. She gave me tiny, goofy hand and thumb exercises to do, and I am taking anti-inflammatories in preparation for the week.

I'm hoping I can figure out how to decorate wreaths without hurting myself. There are surely gentler techniques I can try instead of ramming florist's picks into the branches with brute force. If I can't work in a way that doesn't hurt, I'll surrender. But I can still sweep, sort, serve food, guide newbies, help with quality control, or deliver wreaths.

My other eight fingers are crossed that it goes well. Please cross some of your digits for me.

Stay tuned for wreath photos very soon.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scenes from Possum's Apartment

I'm getting tired of Possum's apartment taking up space in the living room, but I've been outvoted. Everyone but Wendy hangs out in it, often to Possum's ire.

Here is his eviction process for an unwanted tenant, Toffee. It starts with intimidation:

Moves onto violence:

And ends in a standoff because Toffee contacted Legal Aid and learned he has 30 days to vacate the premises under Massachusetts Tenant Law:

Lion was next in line for the apartment:

He didn't have a lease; he was just subletting. So no wonder he looks nervous:

Whenever the apartment is empty, Harris makes himself right at home:

One day, I discovered that the apartment had been renovated. The "studio" had been folded down over the "porch" so it was more enclosed, with a smaller doorway. Suddenly Toffee and Harris fit, but Possum didn't:

This morning, we discovered that Possum's apartment is actually a mobile home:

I Made a Pecan Pie

For Thanksgiving dinner, we were asked to bring a pie for dessert. To me, that could only be interpreted one way — that we should bake, not buy, the pie, so I volunteered for pecan. I hadn't baked a pie in at least 15 years, so I was filled with trepidation and awe at my own hubris.

My husband's family has a tradition of making pecan pies but, to be frank, I always felt there was always something lacking. Often it was pecans themselves. Over the years, my sweet mother-in-law, who taught herself French cooking in the 1960s by watching and reading Julia Child, got increasingly chintzy with the pecans in her pies. By the time she hit 80 or so and stopped baking, she was mixing up the Caro Corn Syrup recipe (corn syrup, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla), pouring it into a store-bought frozen piecrust, and dropping a few pecan halves around the top. It was corn syrup pie with a pecan garnish. I counted a total of eight pecan halves (less than one per serving) in one of her last pies.

Her other economy was to make many pies at once (store-bought crusts come in packages of three) and freeze them. Often for years. I have often pondered why some people, especially my relatives, believe against overwhelming proof that their freezer can stop the march of time, granting immortality to steaks, pies, and so on.

So freezer burn was always a memorable part of holiday dinners.

My pie would have a scratch crust and lots of pecans. I knew that. I just didn't remember how to make pie. I have a marble rolling pin, a pastry-blending tool, and a couple of pie pans. I bought corn syrup, brown sugar, and butter. I bought a pound and a half of pecans, mostly for show. (My husband used to make his mother's recipe with what he considered a reasonable quantity of pecans; I considered it skimpy, barely adequate.

As Thanksgiving loomed, I got more worried. I knew I needed to research pie recipes and read up on making piecrust. I got busy and didn't. Then it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and I realized we had lots of things to do. And I'd forgotten that pie dough needs to be chilled and to rest, and I was running out of time. Suddenly, in the late morning, the pie had to be started NOW.

Plus, if I wrecked it, we needed enough time run out and find one in a store.

I have lots of cookbooks. Almost none of them had pecan pie recipes. There wasn't even one in Martha's Stewart's Pies and Tarts, the book that introduced me to Ms. Stewart and pie-making a few decades ago. (It also got me started on collecting pretty china and antique silver; I owe that woman a lot.)

I read about pie crust in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything:
Though dedicated pie makers do get better and better at producing flaky, flavorful, nicely shaped, and beautifully colored crusts, it need not take years and years of trial and error to get the technique tight [sic]; in fact, you can make good crusts for pies, tarts, cheesecakes, crisps, and more your first time out, and quickly.
Emboldened, I used his recipe. It's an all-butter crust, and he insists that it be mixed in a food processor. I only have a mini one, so I figured it would get gummed up and I'd waste a stick of butter and a cup of flour. But it didn't. It took 10 seconds to combine the ingredients, just as he said. Then I transferred the mixture to a bowl, added the correct amount of ice water, and got a very nice ball of dough, which went into the fridge. (I should mention that I used salted butter against his advice, and then added only half as much salt to compensate. And it tasted fine.)

While the crust chilled, I looked online for pecan pie recipes. On, I found one for Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie. This is it. I liked it because it calls for lots of pecans, less corn syrup, lots of vanilla, and some orange zest, which sounded intriguing.

When it was time to roll the crust, I decided to sandwich it between two sheets of parchment. Then I gave up and floured the dough and rolled it with only one slippery sheet of parchment sliding around on my counter. (Next time, I'll wet it, which is supposed to help it stay put.) I have a small kitchen and making a pie crust pretty much wrecked it. There was flour everywhere, and all over me, even though I had managed to keep the top on the food processor when it was working. I must just be getting messier in my old age. (Yes, I could have taken a photo for you. But I still have some self-respect.)

I rolled and rolled that dough and patched rough spots with more dough and a little ice water. I got it into the pie pan (I buttered it) with no problem. I made cute little pinch marks around the rim, muscle-memory from the pie days of my youth. I put it in the fridge, even though Mr. Bittman wanted it in the freezer; my freezer cannot fit a can of tuna these days let alone a pie.

Before making the filling, I asked my husband how he'd toasted his pecans. He said he never did. I debated between chopped pecans or halves. I decided on chopped because they make the pie easier to cut, serve, and chew. I poured them on a cookie sheet and baked them at 350 F for 5 minutes. They smelled great. Then I mixed up all the ingredients. I didn't have ordinary oranges, but I had Halo mandarins. (And I just Googled them, and I guess maybe we're all going to die. But what an interesting way to go.)

I scattered the nuts into the shell and poured the filling on top, and threw in more pecans because I can never have too many. I placed the pan on a hot cookie sheet in the oven, figuring I'd probably burn it, but I didn't.

As it baked, I restored order to the kitchen and read the recipe's reviews. I also worried about how the recipe called for twice as much vanilla as every other recipe I'd considered. It had smelled very strongly of vanilla as it went into the oven.

One should always read reviews first. While lots of people loved the orange zest, some people hated it. "Oh, well," I said to myself. "When people ask me for a pie, they'd better be prepared."

The pie finally seemed set after baking an extra 10 minutes or so. I must have a slow oven. The crust was a lovely brown but my pinch design had softened and blurred because I don't have a grown-up freezer to set pie crusts. But it nevertheless had a certain rustic charm, as you can see.

The pie was served with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. It was amazing. The crust was tender and flaky: Mark Bittman was right! The citrus zest was a near-universal hit, balancing the sweetness of the syrup and sugar.

My mother-in-law thought there were too many nuts.

I can't wait to make another one. I might double the pecans this time....

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fenway Open Studios: Creative Spaces. Part 2

This studio belongs to a Russian artist whose work blends folk art , surrealism, icons, and symbols. I also see influences of Botticelli and Chagall. 

This young, self-taught artist makes stunning collages that incorporate paper ephemera with her own travel photography and painting. 

Here's part of her work table:

Her living room has a hammock:

This artist is both a painter and sculptor. Also a collector, I'd say:

His brushes:

His paints are arranged by color:

Paint tubes fill a bookcase; everything in the space seems organized, there's just a lot.

This painter's studio felt more like equal parts workspace and home, with plenty of clear floor space and a comfortable dog. Notice his crate under her work table:

Her compact living room is tucked in next to the staircase.


Fenway Open Studios: Creative Spaces, Part 1

To visit each studio, you enter from above, where there's a narrow landing, which is open to the main space. Some artists display their work up there, others use it for storage, and some have built out a small extra room up there. You descend a flight of wooden stairs to reach the large main room. Some studios have a kitchen and bedroom tucked under the landing and the outside corridor. 

The first studio we visited was a work of art in itself, full of pale, elegant objects, carefully selected and arranged. It was also the one I described in the previous post, which had its lower windows covered with white panels and artwork so the Mass Pike isn't visible:

A couple lives here. Their living room is on the right; the workspace is on the left. 

They collect sculpture.

The artist is an abstract painter who often works on paper.

I think this table might double as his work surface.

A painter's studio seen from the landing.

 This artist paints local scenes, including this great view of a building I know and can't place (help!). 
I thought it was 416 Marlborough Street, but no.

In a studio, you can't always tell if you're looking at a still-life composition or random stuff.

During the ope

During open studios, some artists provide refreshments. Some have wine and cheese.
Some get rid of leftover Halloween candy. Some put out quite a spread.
Some have a plate of cookies. And this one offered Ritz crackers.

The corner studios often have the original fireplaces. 

Ready to work.

An artistic kitchen: just look at that spice rack and the curated fridge art.

A still life for sure.

We were less sure why the Tin Man was lounging on the sofa in this fireplaced studio.

Nearby we spotted this. It's probably a little over two feet tall.

This artist invited guests to work on this painting. I added a few brushstrokes under 
her direction and loved how it felt. She invited us to take a drawing class with her.
I hope that works out.