Spring Tradition: The Pancake Breakfast

IMG_6492In my continuing celebration of spring and all things maple, we spent yesterday morning at a very special place—a pancake breakfast!

My cousins own and operate a sugarhouse that has been going strong for three generations. For 44 (!) springs, they have worked with the local square dance club to host an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is a tradition for people all over the North Country.

IMG_6488 When we arrive, the rural road is lined with cars and trucks, and folks of all ages are streaming toward the sugarhouse and the smell of pancakes. IMG_6538

We pass by an avenue of ancient maples wearing their battered sap buckets; I like the contrast of this symbol of spring and rebirth and newness contrasted with the cemetery beyond.

IMG_6488 - Version 2 IMG_6481It’s cold and rainy outside but the inside of the sugarhouse is warm and steamy and noisy. We greet family members and neighbors get caught up with neighbors.

IMG_6490The evaporator dominates the scene inside—this is where the syrup is made. The process needs attending to, hence the rockers, to provide the tenders with comfort and companionship.

IMG_6496 IMG_6493A huge mural by the family artist honors the way the sap was traditionally collected.IMG_6501

Today, though, it’s all about the food.

Pancakes and sausages are really only a vehicle for maple syrup.

IMG_6514Young runners keep the pancakes coming.

IMG_6507Almost no one leaves without getting some syrup or maple sugar or maple butter to take home.

IMG_6519The sugarhouse also serves as a museum of sorts, with lovely old artifacts of the history of sugaring down.

This fragment of an old maple shows signs of having been tapped many times over many, many years.IMG_6525

We eat our pancakes, we visit with relatives, we commiserate about the winter, we welcome spring.

The pancake breakfast is over and we immediately begin to look forward to next year!

 

 

The Ugly Duckling Season

IMG_1403You know how every young person goes through an awkward stage? Not an adorable child any longer but not quite grown into the beauty she or he will become? You remember the heart-stopping beauty that was and you believe in the miracle that will bring the loveliness to come and yet every time you look, and you see the teeth that are too big for the face and the acne, you have to wonder a little?

That’s what our weather is like right now. The rest of the northern hemisphere seems to have sprung into springdom in all its glory, but here, in the North Country of upstate New York, we’re at the awkward stage.

The snow is melting into huge ponds on front yards but then freezes into perfect ice rinks over night.

IMG_1389Dead leaves and flower stalks from last year are stuck in the ice and hint of life but it’s only the merest whisper of a hint.

IMG_1396 IMG_1383The sand left by road crews all winter is drifting and, on windy days, taking a walk feels like going through a sandblaster.

IMG_1373We have spots where bare ground is showing but also have lots of filthy snow and a lake that refuses to melt.

IMG_1387 IMG_1374Where there’s ice at night, there will be mud all day.

IMG_1395 IMG_1394But no one is really complaining. Transitions are awkward and sometimes unlovely, whether in children or seasons, but they are also exciting and full of promise.

And one morning, we’ll wake up and without noticing exactly when it happened, the ugly duckling will have become a swan.

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Little Bitty Pretty One: Vintage Swedish Baking Cloth

IMG_6470Little bitty pretty one,

Come on and talk to me . . .

Sometimes, when I see just one perfect vintage treasure, that old song from the 1950s pops into my mind.

Some items are just so simple and understated and perfect, that I wish I knew their full story. I wish they could talk and tell me where they came from, who made them and used them and loved them. “Come on and talk to me . . . “

Such is the case with this little baker’s cloth, with its sweet red embroidery of a pastry-crimping tool

I actually do know more about this cloth than many vintage linens that find their way to me. I bought the cloth on eBay and the woman who sold it to me sent along a note.

IMG_6475My little cloth came from Sweden and has been used by three generations of girls in one family. It was used to cover rising dough for bullar (buns), which are made with cardamom, and limpa bread, which is scented with anise and fennel.

But, of course, I’d like to know more. When was it made? Were the women who used it homemakers, who made all their own breads, or was this kept for rare occasions of holiday baking?

Who did the stitching? A practiced hand, certainly; the stitches are infinitesimal! Did she make a practice of decorating her kitchen linens in this simple, effective way? Did she pass her skills down to her daughters, and through generations?

When did the little towel come to the United States? Was it a gift from a mother to a daughter who was leaving home and moving so far away? Was it brought to America as a little reminder of home, and family, and tradition?

And why was it sold?! It’s so small and easily stored or displayed—surely the previous owner could’ve found a spot for it?

But, she didn’t. She passed it along to me, saying, “It has been well loved, and we hope you will have your day brightened by the cheerful red embroidery!”

I have, indeed, had my day brightened, and this little bitty pretty one continues to be well loved!

What little bitty pretty treasures in your home just make you smile and say, “Come on and talk to me”?

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Spring Sale on Chocolate!

caramel sampler-3Candy-making season is beginning to wind down. It’s very difficult to temper chocolate in warm weather and I’m just sure it’s going to get warm here in the next month or so (I sure hope so, anyway!)

Before I close the door on the candy shop for the summer, I am offering loyal American readers/friends a 20% discount on candy orders. Sorry I can’t make this available to all!

If you are hankering for candy, use the coupon code SPRING2014 upon check-out in my Etsy shop and get the discount!

 

 

Making Maple

maple article - Version 3My father died when I was seventeen. I have lots of old photos of him but this one, published in the local newspaper over 50 years ago, is one of my favorites. In it, he’s drawing off maple syrup from the evaporator on our farm.

My father was a farmer. He worked the farm with my grandfather, on land the family had been on since the late 1700s. Like many farmers he also drove a school bus, and then he went on to hold an administrative position in the school system and to serve as town supervisor.

Farmers may epitomize the concept of “hands at home,” growing crops and tending animals, fixing machinery and building what needs to be built. Highly self-reliant, with lives governed by milking times and the changing seasons, family farmers have always been at the center of what it means to be American.

My father was a dairy farmer; my sister and I didn’t like the milk we got at school or in restaurants because it didn’t taste like “Dad’s milk”!

But, of all the things he made, we liked the maple syrup best! For a short, intense period in early spring, when the temperatures are above freezing during the day but fall back below freezing at night AND before the tree get buds, many North Country farmers add “sugaring down” to their list of daily chores.

According to the article that accompanied this photo, my father hung about 700 buckets on sugar maple trees on our land. From these he collected upwards of 600 gallons of maple sap that would’ve been boiled down to produce about 150 gallons of maple syrup. He sold much of this locally.

But none of that mattered to us kids. For us, the process meant sweet sips of the thin sap straight from the tree and lots of lovely maple syrup on our pancakes!

maple article - Version 2

Weaving Hands

Just look at these busy, happy hands!

As one of the people behind these hands, learning the most basic techniques of weaving, I can tell you that the hands often felt awkward, inept even. The hands faltered but did not fail. And the inexpert, novice hands were guided by the expert, experienced hands to a place of satisfaction.

I told you about a month ago that I’d been meaning to learn to weave (IBMTD) and that I’d found a workshop to take.

It had been a long time since I had taken a course. I like to think I can learn things on my own, by doing research and reading. I’m often stubborn about seeking guidance and asking for help. I tend to flap about and try to teach myself and make a lot of mistakes and get frustrated.

But, having just finished the workshop, with my husband and two other weaving newbies, I’m reporting back and also want to encourage you to take a course the next time you want to learn a new skill. And, P.S., weaving is a wonderful route to go, if you haven’t tried it before.

The workshop was perfect. Run by our local arts council, we had a teacher who is both an expert weaver and passionate about introducing new people to a craft she loves. As a bonus, she is also a retired teacher, so she actually knows how to teach!

Examples of our instructor's work

Examples of our instructor’s work

The workshop was limited to only four students so we got to know each other well and got lots of specialized help. None of us had any background at all in the craft so we learned together and from each other.

We learned on very simple frame looms; basically these were made of four pieces of wood and some nails to wrap string (the warp) around.IMG_5973

At first I thought I’d hate these looms—I wanted to learn on a big, fancy floor loom! I wanted to make shawls and blankets and twills and tweeds.

But we all learned to love our small, portable frame looms.

With the guidance of our teacher, we each made a small tapestry, incorporating many basic weaving techniques. We learned a new vocabulary, along with the skills—warp and weft, of course, but also sumac and tabby and rya.

The neatest thing about this kind of weaving is that it could be almost entirely improvisational and encouraged experimentation and creativity. Whereas loom weaving, as I understand it, relies heavily on following patterns and being very precise, our weaving evolved mostly without plan.

We chose colors as we went. We added different textured yarns and string and other fibers. We were shown how to incorporate shells and metals and stones and beads.

It was as if we couldn’t make mistakes and that is a wonderful, liberating way to learn!

We had our final class yesterday, put the finishing touches on our masterpieces, and sat back and appreciated them.

As the final session of class wound down, we got great news! Our instructor has arranged with the arts council to allow three of us to continue to the next level. In two weeks, we’ll start a new workshop to learn to use harness looms and to thread the heddles and sley the reed (whatever that means)!

I’m excited about this new venture but I know I’ll miss my homely little frame loom.

When I looked at our finished tapestries, the best part was seeing how different they were. Four people started at the same place, with access to the same materials and techniques, and created four entirely unique tapestries.

I’m sure there’s a profound metaphor for life here somewhere . . .

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