All My Life’s A Circle . . .

coconut bark-2All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown

The moon rolls through the nighttime, till the daybreak comes around

All my life’s a circle but I can’t tell you why

The season’s spinnin’ round again the years keep rollin’ by.

As so often happens, I woke up with a song in my head. I think my subconscious provides me with the lyrics, depending on my mood and what is happening in my little piece of paradise.

This morning, the song in my head is Harry Chapin’s “Circle.” I know why.

It’s because the seasons are spinning ’round, and it’s autumn, and candy season has begun.

As I’ve explained before, I sell handmade chocolates, and I can’t temper chocolate for the candy when the temperature is warm. Every spring, when the mercury goes up, I put away the candy-making paraphernalia and my circle spins to other pursuits.

Every September, the circle spins again, I take out my lucky tempering bowl and my digital thermometer, my sugar and butter and chocolate, and I commence to make candies.

I’ve had my first candy foray of 2015 this week. I made a double batch of caramels—about 200 candies—and yesterday I dipped half of them in dark, beautiful Callebaut chocolate. This morning I made white chocolate bark and will dip the rest of the caramels in Callebaut milk chocolate.

(On a side note, there’s a story in the news about someone who worked at Callebaut in Vermont, who hated his job so much he called in a bomb threat, in order to get fired. Never mind, how twisted his thinking was—can you imagine hating a job at a chocolate factory?!)

In the next few months, “candy season” in my world, I’ll make the equivalent of about 500 half-pound boxes of chocolates.

This arc of my circle is pretty predictable. I’ll chop, stir, temper, dip, garnish, package, label, rinse, repeat. And repeat.

I’ll get knickers in a twist about preparing enough candy for the one holiday boutique I participate in, and then I’ll have too much.

I’ll get up in the morning and check Etsy, half hoping to find more candy sales, and half hoping I won’t.

I’ll worry about running out of chocolate or out of half-pound boxes.

At some point, I’ll probably get a nasty sugar burn and I’ll get very, very sick of chocolate.

And, while this arc waxes, others aspects of my circle will wane for now. I’ll have much less time for vintage linens and weaving and blogging and quilting, and I’ll pout about all of that.

I’ll wonder why I do this candymaking thing at all.

But then, I’ll get my first order of the season from the “Queen of Sienna,” a blog friend, fellow seller of vintage lovelies, and loyal lover of chocolate. She’ll say kind things about my candy and be excited I’m back, selling again.

When I do the holiday boutique, people will come specifically looking for something they loved last year or because they heard about the chocolate from a friend. Etsy shoppers will buy candy as Christmas gifts and ask me to include sweet messages to their loved ones far away.

And my family and friends will be pleased when I have extra candy around!

I’ll find I enjoy quiet mornings in my warm space, with the smell of chocolate and caramel and vanilla. I’ll achieve a certain satisfaction from the repetitive motion of dipping caramel after caramel into silky dark chocolate. Zen and the art of candy making.

And, through it all, I’ll know that, when and if it stops being fun and fulfilling, I can put away the lucky bowl and digital thermometer for good. Because the circle of my life isn’t a stone circle, and the seasons can be filled with whatever I choose.

For now, though, I choose chocolate, and candy season.

Loving Hands at Home: Baked Goods

mixing bowl“What kind of toast do you want with that? White, wheat, rye, sourdough . . . or homemade?”

There’s only one possible answer to this question, right?

I was asked to make just this choice a few days ago in a local diner and, of course, I said, “Homemade!” Then I looked at my companions and asked, “Who would choose anything but homemade?”

But as I thought about it, I remember my younger self, the girl who grew up on the farm. She took for granted home-baked breads and cookies and cakes and loved nothing better than Wonder Bread and Oreos and Hostess Twinkies.

In my memory, there was always something freshly baked sitting on the kitchen counter. My grandmother was the baker and she made everything, but the items I remember best were her loaves of bread, the tender dinner rolls, the sour cream cookies, the deep-fried doughnuts, and the lemon meringue pie.

We had it so good and we didn’t have a clue.

My sister and I ate everything my grandmother baked and enjoyed it. But we thought the biggest treat in the whole, entire world was when we stopped to visit particular friends of my parents.

These friends had a designated drawer for cookies and all the cookies were store bought. They came in crinkly cellophane packages and were crunchy and crispy, while my grandmother’s cookies were soft and chewy.

My grandmother’s cookies were as homey and comforting and real as she was. They were a given in our lives.

The store-bought cookies were exotic and decadent and, what? Cosmopolitan? Sophisticated? I’m not sure but it seemed like an adventure to eat them.

I like a little adventure as much as the next person. I like to take a trip and see the sights and leave my home behind, while I venture out.

But, boy, do I love to come home. Being in that big world always makes me appreciate home more, and recognize that it’s the place for me.

I’ve traveled in the world of store-bought baked goods for a long time now. I’ve gotten over thinking they are exotic and decadent and sophisticated.

Now, of course, I wish I could go home, to that kitchen where you never knew what was coming out of the oven next but you knew it would be warm and chewy and comforting.

I can bake bread. I’ve found recipes for sour cream cookies and made them. I’ve gone so far as to deep fry doughnuts.

You know what I’m going to say—it isn’t the same.

I’ll probably never have baked goods that measure up to my memories but I’ll keep looking. I’ll go to farm stands and order the doughnuts they just fished out of the fryer. I’ll buy old, stained copies of community cookbooks and look for the right sour cream cookie recipe. I’ll always order the homemade bread at the local diners.

Because, even if they don’t take me all the way, they bring me closer to a place I’d love to be.

recipe box

Making Magic

Rumpelstiltskin

Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, ca. 1889

Can you spin straw into gold?

What? You say that’s ridiculous, it only happens in fairy tales? And with the help of creepy little elves?

I beg to differ.

We probably all know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. The young woman in the story is tasked with the seemingly impossible, the magical—she is told to spin straw into gold. But that doesn’t happen in real life.

And yet this morning, as I took plain, pale ingredients and cooked them into the molten gold of caramel, it occurred to me that spinning straw into gold is a metaphor for the creating we do with our hands at home.

When the spinner takes flax (really, isn’t that basically straw?) and, in her hands, it becomes finest linen, that’s magic being made.

When the weaver or knitter takes string and manipulates it into rich tweed or an Aran sweater, that’s magic being made.

When the woodworker or the quilter or the cook takes bits and pieces, plain and unlovely, and transforms them into something as valuable as gold, magic is made.

The magic comes from making something useful from the useless, something beautiful from the plain, something special from the quotidian.

There was a time when people made this magic almost routinely, and out of necessity. If one wanted cloth, one likely needed to spin and weave it. If one wanted food, one cooked. If one wanted most anything, they made it. It was a do-it-yourself world.

Today we don’t NEED to make much of anything. We can buy so much, so easily and so cheaply, often for far less than we could make it ourselves.

And, yet, all indicators suggest that, for many of us, we don’t care if we can buy it. We want to make it. We want to do it ourselves.

Why would someone in the 21st century spin her own wool? Bake his own bread? Build their own bookcase? I think the answer is that we believe in magic and we want to participate in the magic, to create the magic in our own world.

Because when we make something with our own hands, we don’t just transform the ingredients into something different, we transform ourselves.

We re-make ourselves from consumers—dependent on others for what we eat, wear, and use in our homes—into makers—competent, creative, individual.

And if that isn’t magic, my friend, I don’t know what is. It’s time to get busy—go spin some straw into gold.

 

 

A Tale of Two Towels

It was the best of towels, it was the worst of towels . . .

Have you ever seen a gorgeous handmade item and, because you couldn’t afford it, tried to make it yourself? Of course you have! Isn’t that what all the do-it-yourself boards on Pinterest encourage us to do?

This impulse isn’t new. People seem always to have wanted to possess beauty beyond their means to afford. Evidence of this came home to me in a poignant pairing of vintage linens recently.

One huge category of vintage linens is towels—kitchen towels, dish towels, tea towels, bath towels; mostly these towels were meant to be used and used hard.

But another whole category of towels exists in what is often called “show” or “display” towels. Display towels weren’t meant to be used—they were designed to show off. These towels were usually made of highest-quality linen, often in damask. Damask linen is often very fine linen with a subtle white-on-white (or any other single color) design that is created by weaving.

Understated and elegant damask combined with long, gorgeous (and impractical) fringe and with some sort of hand-worked embellishment combine to make a towel that should not be touched but simply displayed to communicate about refinement and good taste.

The hand craftsmanship in these expensive display towels was superior. The long fringe was hand braided and knotted to perfection. When other embellishment, such as drawn thread work was used, the threads seem to magically twist and turn, without any evidence of a human hand at work.

But what if you couldn’t afford that lush fabric? What if you didn’t have access to the beauty and craftsmanship of these stunning items but still understood the impulse to make a statement about your love of pretty things?

What if you were striving to move up, to transcend your roots, to show you understood beauty and refinement and taste, even if you couldn’t really afford to indulge in items that would demonstrate your understanding? What if you wanted a pretty show towel but couldn’t afford one?

You might try to make it yourself.

In my imagination, that’s what happened here.

homemade display towel-4This towel mimics the key elements of the expensive, high-quality towels.

It’s made of linen but, instead of very fine damask, this one is made of plain weave, possibly homespun, linen. It hasn’t been bleached pure white and slubs are apparent.

homemade display towel-2High-quality display towels have the damask tone-on-tone weave to add interest. Because this towel is not made of damask, the maker added color with red stitching. The stitching is the most apparent sign that this is handmade by an inexpert hand.

The maker used a lot of blanket stitch to finish edges and you can easily see how uneven the stitches are. The maker seems to have been counting threads to determine where to place stitches but, because the weave is uneven, the stitches look uneven. Also, the person who stitched this had trouble deciding what to do when she came to the end of a thread. Knots are all too noticeable.

homemade display towel-3High-quality towels have long, hand-braided fringe. This one does, too. The braiding is less meticulous and the fringe is shorter. (The fact that it looks meager is due to the fact that this towel was used and laundered. The fringe tangled and broke when it was combed out.)

Both towels incorporate the same drawn thread work to create open bands across the width of the towel. This is created by horizontal threads being cut and pulled from the weave. The vertical threads are then twisted and held by the introduction of a new horizontal thread.  The use of red thread in the homemade towel highlights the twisting white threads but also draws attention to unevenness in the design.

Both of these are handmade; one is obviously homemade.

Which one is better? Which is more treasured?

I have to admit, I admire the expensive fine towels—they draw me because they are simply so gorgeous. Lush, high-class, expensive, understated, yet elegant.

But I love the homemade towel; it speaks to me on a much more basic level. It reflects the hands of the maker in every stitch. The fancy towel was made by expert hands but the homemade towel was made by hands, loving hands, at home.

It’s homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It makes me a little sad to think that, of the two, the world will value the pretty and perfect towel.

My little handmade towel is like a homely, mixed breed puppy, likely to be overlooked as unlovely, especially when compared directly with a haughty, perfectly groomed purebred.

But I’ve always been a sucker for a stray. I’ll appreciate the beauty of the perfect towels, and then pass them on to others.

And I’ll keep the other towel, and display it, to serve as a tangible reminder of who I really am.

Just like the towel, I’m homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It was the best of towels . . .

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