SnowNice to wake up to. Not so nice if you’re planning to go somewhere. Luckily, I’m working at home today. Hope you are, too.

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Artifacts of Civil War America

FreemanStoreCoffeeLast month, I had the pleasure of visiting the Freeman Store & Museum, a charming historic house in the Town of Vienna, Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Built in 1859 by storekeeper Abram Lydecker, a New Jersey native, the house was occupied by both Confederate and Union Army troops during the Civil War. After the war ended, the Lydeckers moved back in. In 1892, however, Lydecker was charged with “improper dealing with the enemy,” i.e., the Union, from which Virginia had voted to declare secession. We’ve apparently forgiven Virginia, and him. The house later became the home of notable local citizens—including Leon Freeman, the first president of Vienna’s volunteer fire department—and was restored in accordance with historical records. It is currently operated as a shop and museum by Historic Vienna, Inc.


Model of the house that is now the Freeman Store and Museum, as it was during the Civil War.

The first floor is a replica of a country store, intended to gives visitors the opportunity to step back in time to experience the American general store of the Civil-War era. For sale are hand-crafted children’s toys and puzzles, books, postcards, candy, and historic-themed gifts including prints and ceramics by local artists. On the second floor, the museum displays what are called Living History Exhibits designed to illustrate the way people lived, practiced crafts, and entertained one another in the 1860s. I was especially interested in the displays of photographic equipment, canned goods, sewing equipment and kitchenware.


Women were involved from photography’s beginnings in the 1830s and ’40s. I think I can see a reflection of myself shooting this picture with my iPhone 6s.


The displays of canned goods included “Burnham Brand” produce canned by the Edgett-Burnham Canning Company, which was founded in 1863 by Ezra Edgett of Camden, NY, near Syracuse. The company processed crops that were were grown on the factory farm or purchased from area farmers. Fruit, vegetables and poultry were canned to feed Union troops. I hope some of them appreciated the lovely typography and illustration on the labels.


Showcases displayed Civil-War-era sewing and crocheting accouterments and kitchenware for cooking and home canning, which were lent by Vienna-area residents.


A new exhibit, opening this March, will chronicle the history of Farming in Vienna and surrounding areas of what is now Fairfax County.

The Freeman Store and Museum is located in 131 Church Street NE, Vienna, VA 22180. The House is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 4:00 and on Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 (in January and February, by appointment only).


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Christmas Is Bustin’ Out All Over

’Twas the day before Christmas, when all through the (green) house
The plants were going crazy, bustin’ out of their pots.
The annuals, succulents, perennials and tropicals all loved the warm day
Happy that this winter seems more like L.A.
Alas, snow and ice may soon end New York’s 70-degree delight
Enjoy while you can! Happy Holidays, and to all a good night.


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Best-Ever Holiday Side Dish

Zucchini Stuffed with Corn with Roasted Tomato Sauce

Calabacitas Rellenas de Elote
adapted from Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico, Harper & Row, 1986

From Diana Kennedy—her books and in-person workshops—I learned how to cook with the native foods of the Americas: squash, corn, tomatoes, chiles. And isn’t that what we are supposed to be celebrating on Thanksgiving? At their 1621 autumn harvest feast, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans probably shared those very foods.

This side dish could not be more perfect on the fall-winter table for any occasion. It’s a bit time-intensive, but you can put it all together the day before (like I’m doing today) and bake it while your turkey is resting. The flavors are just right with turkey and the roasted tomato-ancho sauce is divine over sweet potatoes. You’ll have plenty of leftover rich-earthy sauce, which is also great on chicken, fish, steak….

6 medium zucchini squash or 12 small ones, like the ones pictured here, unpeeled, scrubbed
5 large tomatoes

5 or 6 dried ancho chiles

freshly shredded cheese to measure 1 heaping cup (half asiago and half muenster is very good)

1-lb bag frozen corn

3 eggs

nutmeg, white pepper, salt, sugar, oregano

SAUCE: Broil the tomatoes until they’re blackened all over. (Note: if you’re already feeling overwhelmed, you can use canned tomatoes—Muir Glen Fire Roasted Crushed are good— seasoned with some chili powder or a teaspoon of juice from canned chipotles in adobo. You can also omit the hollowed-out squash and bake the corn custard in a buttered casserole dish with some of the sauce dribbled over and the rest on the side.)

Toast the chiles in a dry frying pan. Tear them open, take out the seeds and stems and soak them in boiling water for about 20 minutes.

While the tomatoes are broiling (and cooling a bit) make zucchini shells by cutting a strip off the top and carving out the centers with a melon ball cutter (the insides can go into a delicious soup). Taking a sliver off the bottom will keep them from rolling around.

CORN CUSTARD: In a food processor, break in the eggs and add the corn, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp sugar, a big pinch nutmeg. Process until the corn kernels are a rough puree. Add the cheese and give the mixture one or two pulses to combine.

SAUCE: Rinse out the food processor and process the soaked chiles and the broiled tomatoes (skin and all) with enough chili-soaking liquid to make a rough-textured but pourable sauce. Pulse in 2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp oregano, 1 tsp sugar or to taste. You’ll have lots of sauce — enough to drizzle over the stuffed zucchini, serve on the side in a sauce boat, and maybe even some to freeze for another meal (which makes a time-intensive dish like this extra worthwhile).

ASSEMBLY: Lightly oil an attractive shallow baking/serving dish. Spread a little sauce around the bottom. Fill the zucchini shells with the corn mixture and arrange in the dish. Drizzle a little sauce across the top.

Cover the dish with foil (at this point it can be refrigerated overnight). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 40 minutes or so before serving, bake, covered for 1/2 hour, uncover for the last 5 minutes. Simmer the sauce separately and serve it in a sauceboat.

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Sheep and Wool and Much More

When my friend Frana Baruch, artist, graphic designer and craft fair and flea market aficianado, first told me that the New York Sheep and Wool Festival was “the best thing ever,” I thought she was kidding. Well, several chapters of my upcoming novel, The Secret Buttons, take place on a sheep farm in England, and everything I learned about sheep and sheep-shearing came from watching YouTube videos. Yesterday was the perfect fall day—if a bit chilly—to take a drive up the Taconic Parkway and experience it myself, so why not learn firsthand?


It was a spectacular drive—peak leaf-peeking season—and Frana was more than 100 percent right. Sheep and Wool? Who knew? Thousands of people knew. 2015 was the 35th year of this two-day event at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY, jam-packed with things to see and do.

First of all, there were the sheep. Every variety of sheep, from farmers across the country. And llamas and goats and rabbits, and every other animal from which come natural fibers for weaving and knitting.



black sheepjpg

Bundled Up2_0020And contests, for the best in each category, the animals trotted around the ring and shown by their proud owners.



The nonstop events, in addition to livestock displays, included workshops, demonstrations, book signings, lectures, plus eating and drinking—including samples from Hudson Valley wineries and cheesemakers.

It was fascinating to see that in this age of the iPhone 6 (with which these photos were taken) how many people are dedicated to the arts of raising sheep, shearing, working with natural vegetable dyes, spinning, and weaving, and of course designing garments and knitting.



From the spun fibers come yarns in every weight and shade. Approximately 150 vendors participated, many of whom displayed garments made from their yarns, either for sale or as samples, with original patterns available. I especially liked the children’s sweaters, with sheep patterns knitted in, sold as kits.





Gray Close-Up



Other vendors sold books, knitting and weaving supplies, buttons, jewelry, decorative accessories, and more.

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Frana and Friend_1018_0031

Frana, above right, bought sheepskin slippers and yarns for her art and knitting projects. I bought a hand-embroidered shawl and a “Bullseye Bump” from Loop Fiber Studio — described as “created spontaneously from a unique blend of fibers, colors and textures… Bullseye Bumps contain a continuous length of creatively carded roving.” (Roving, I’ve learned, is a preliminary step to spinning yarn. It’s wool sheared from the sheep, combed, washed, and carded, which involves arranging the fibers in the same direction so the wool can be twisted and spun into yarn.) “These rovings are wound into center-pull bums that produces whimsical, self-striping yarn that is delightful to spin.” And as demonstrated below by Loop owner and creator, Steph Gorin and me, her rovings can be delightful conversation-startiers to wear as a scarf, twisted, tied, or arranged any way you like.

bullseye bumps


Posted in Art Inspired by Nature, Fairs and Community Events, Hudson Valley NY, Knitting and Needlework, Travel-USA Northeast | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vest-Pocket Nursery

StreetSceneThis was not what I expected to find, walking down the street in Lower Manhattan on the way to a photo shoot on a weekday morning: an open-air plant nursery wedged into a narrow lot between two buildings.

Summer15_0102Most people were oblivious, but I had to investigate. This stretch of Hudson Street, between Houston and Canal, used to be the center of New York’s printing industry. And I used to be there a lot, checking jobs on press. Now the printing companies have moved to New Jersey or gone out of business, and floors that once held giant six-color presses, binding machines, and pallets of paper have been renovated into residential condos and high-end offices for ad agencies and publishing companies. Someday, this space might be filled with one of those 50-storey sliver buildings. But now, it’s the temporary home of Plantworks, Inc.



PlantworksThis vest-pocket nursery is no fly-by-night operation, I learned. Chris Baptiste (below) gave me the lowdown. Specializing in design and maintenance of corporate office interiors and terrace landscapes, the company lost its lease in the flower district on 28th Street after 41 years and set up camp here for the summer.

Chris Baptiste“We have no lights here, no water,” said Chris in his lilting Trinidad-Tobago accent, pointing out a portable water tank almost invisible among the plants, pots, bags of potting soil and graffiti on one of the brick walls, “but this is a good place to be now because of all the new businesses moving into the neighborhood.”

No lights, no water? Well, the plants are healthy and thriving. “We’re going to close down for the season around Halloween,” he pointed out. Hurry! If you need anything from a gorgeous fiddle-leaf fig tree for your office to a row of succulents for a sunny windowsill, pull up at 286 Hudson Street any day from 11 to 5, and Chris will help you out.



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Dahlias, Dahling

This is the season for those spectacular blooms that mark the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Here they are in a garden I spotted on a bike ride in the Remsenberg section of Westhampton, New York.

Dahlias_No Car



If you have full sun and a flower bed or pot, you can grow these fantastic blooms, which depending on the variety will reward you with petite to dinner-plate-size blooms. Sharing tubers of different sizes and colors has been an ongoing project of the Garden Club of Irvington. A great site, American Meadows, provides all the directions for growing dahlias, illustrated.

And here are a few of their growing companions in the Remsenberg garden:


White echinacea (above) and cleome ( below. According to the White Flower Farm catalog,  “Echinacea, the queen of the daisies, is called coneflower for its dome-shaped center. Plants continue to bloom from June into the fall. Breeders have teased out a considerable range of pinks, purples, yellows, and oranges, plus white, with more hues coming every year. There are double-flowered forms as well as varieties with petals pulled back like a badminton shuttlecock… first-class garden plants for full sun.” Cleome is described thusly: “Clusters of large white blooms show off against the dark green leaves and add sparkle to every other color in the garden. This annual plant of rare beauty blooms without pause, beginning in late June here and continuing until frost. It produces large, globe-shaped flower heads composed of amazingly delicate, spidery blooms in a pure white. It is tough and vigorous, smiling through heat and drought in every corner of the country…



…Finally, it has countless uses: as a backbone plant in a mixed border, as a constant companion in the cottage garden, as a bedding plant (to stunning effect, where space permits), and as a single-season shrub or short-term hedge. Your grandmother probably grew cleome, and you should, too.”

And so did the gardener who made this lovely border, a treat for all who walk or bike by.

Posted in Horticulture, Private Gardens, The Hamptons, Travel-USA Northeast | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment