Life is like a Box of Chocolates: Sealed, Stolen, & Seeing the Countryside without You

A bazillion years ago—let’s call it seven—I went on a trip to the United Kingdom, crisscrossing the country to view university after university, accompanying my then seventeen-year-old daughter as she scoped out her next big chunk of education.

The recollection of big cities and ancient villages have long been swallowed by the fuzziness of time and now reside in my head the same way one retains precise memories of a colonoscopy. And although I can appreciate the anesthetic delights of anterograde amnesia for some experiences in life, the one long-cached, souvenir stilled lodged firmly in my hippocampus is that of stumbling across a tiny shop on the high street of Oxford.

Hotel Chocolat.

It’s not a hotel, although I’d have no issues with setting up camp in a corner on the floor if I should accidentally get locked in after hours. Rather it’s a luxury chain of the ultimate chocolate shopping experience.

There is no trickery involved in drawing customers off the cobblestoned streets—just an open door, where the aromas of ground and sweetened cocoa beans snake invisibly around your wrists and appear beneath your nose, tugging you inside and fastening the lock behind you.

When I first saw the shelves lined invitingly with countless bars and baskets filled with creamy brown confectionery, I remember turning to my daughter and saying, This is where I’d liked to be buried, please.truffles

In keeping with the traditional facial expressions of young adults, I was immediately silenced with a practiced and perfected eyeroll.

We silently moved about the shop, but apparently with each new peak into the burgeoning baskets and careful scanning of each shelf, Chloe finally turned to me and sighed.

What? Her gaze was stern, her tone was clipped. Why do you keep clucking your tongue, Mother?

I hadn’t realized I was, but it was likely true.

I just don’t understand why they’ve chosen to mash all the extra bits into the chocolate, I’d said. The chocolate looks perfect on its own. It doesn’t need fruits and nuts or brownies and gingerbread in it. You can’t improve upon perfection.

It was then that she held out a square box with six small globes within it.

Oh yeah? Are you telling me that you will not put aside your ridiculous rule for this?

In her hand was milk and dark chocolate, swirled together in an eddying ripple, apparently each orb pillow-casing a teaspoon of whisky.

My knees weakened a tiny bit as I envisioned what two of the dreamiest comestibles would taste like as clearly betrothed companions.

I shook my head with fixed determination.

Too expensive, I said as an excuse, when what I was thinking was, Surely disappointing.

Christmas came a month later, and the gift of truffles filled with single malt scotch came from the outstretched arms of Chloe, smugly determined to win the category of Best Gift Ever.

I was elated. Excited. Curious. And worried.

I put them in the refrigerator for safe keeping.

For six- and one-half years.

I couldn’t bring myself to try them. Too expensive, surely disappointing.

I know I’d frustrated her, as I recall a few years after that holiday, I’d received a beautiful box of chocolates in the mail. Chocolates all filled with other things other than more chocolate.

box celebration chocolates decoration

 

I put the box aside, deflated. But Chloe simply texted the sender and said, Obviously, you do not know my mother. Your lovely gift will be mothballed in cold storage indefinitely. But thank you, nonetheless.

She then proceeded to eat them on my behalf.

Last month, I traveled by train again across the UK. To my utter delight, the port of origin held a Hotel Chocolat shop. I spent a few harried minutes and far too precious pennies on a doppelganger box of whisky-filled truffles, an identical box that not four months earlier–as I cleaned out the fridge to move houses–finally found its way out of the back of the fridge and regrettably into the waste basket.

Thrilled with the chance to redeem my unappreciative behavior, I placed my pungent package on a shelf above my bunk and dreamed of the soon-to-receive declarations from family that I had at last lost my persnickety fallibility.

The next morning, I promptly exited the train, mindlessly leaving that little package filled with chocolate and whisky, and the expensive opportunity to salvage some respect.

I’d also left my reading glasses. Another thing I’d rebuffed for years.

It did not occur to me that I’d left these things until I began rooting around for an aid with map reading.

My heart raced, followed quickly by my feet. Ten minutes had passed since I’d exited the train, and dashing back out onto the platform, I saw nothing but Scotch mist.

The train was gone.

With panicked flapping limbs and the alarm of a woman who left her baby in a taxi, I managed to locate and communicate my loss to a white-haired train attendant whose Scottish dialect was as thick as the slabs of solid chocolate I would have preferred to have purchased in the sweet shop.

Fifteen minutes later, the elderly man returned, a broad smile stretching the road map of wrinkles across his face. He handed me my reading glasses.

I peered at him. Did you happen to find the chocolate? The whisky-filled truffles?

Oh aye, he stated grimly, but all edibles are immediately binned if left behind. That’s the policy. But if ye want my opinion, lassie, yer far better off wi’out them, as nothing foreign but yer lips should touch a single malt scotch. Any addition is like two trains colliding into a crash.

He looked at me sternly and pointed at my glasses. Perhaps use your wee spectacles before making such a purchase next time. After all, ye canna improve upon perfection. Some things are just more sacred when separate.

blur book book pages close up

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Booze, Britain, & Maybe Someone’s Bride

If you’re asked any questions you can’t answer, just send those folks to me.

I looked at my boss. The one who brought me to the London Whisky Show with just barely enough information to sound like I was dangerously competent but not snarkily egotistical.

You mean like, “How many proof liters are you pulling off the still between noon and 6pm on every third Saturday of the month?”

Or how about, “Exactly what percentage of liquor are you extracting from that rare twenty-five year old rum cask you’re resting your bourbon in for two years?”

Or even this one. How bout this one? “Will you marry me?” *hic* Can I lob that one over to you as well?

He gave me a look from beneath his brow. Umm … no. You can deal with the drunken fan boy bits on your own.

Fab. Back to work.

And work it was, as setting up a booth in Old Billingsgate—one of London’s myriad iconic buildings, notably a venue that used to house the world’s largest fish market—was not just as easy as plunking down a few bottles of booze and then flipping a shingle to say ‘open for business’ as thirsty customers strolled by.

Instead, it was setting up the most eye-catching, magnetically plumaged display of all your finest award winning wares right beside hundreds of other eye-catching, magnetically plumaged displays of award winning wares.

And for most of us, all on the size of a postage stamp.

The festival brought distillers and whisky lovers from all over the world together to experience some of the most coveted, laurel wreathed drams begging to be savored. Participants wandered (and eventually stumbled) about from booth to booth over the two festival days with supremely developed palates and highly developed expectations.

Now there may only officially be listed just over 100 carefully selected global distillers, but each one of them had some version of, You think that was good … (pulls bottle from beneath hidden shelf) … wrap your tongue around this one!

Altogether, a patron had somewhere between 600-800 drams of whisky to filter through in 48 hours.

As did their liver.

Of course, there was recommended show etiquette.

Spit, don’t swallow.

Drink lots of water—hell, bring your own IV pole if it’s not too unwieldy.

And if you are officially documented by the patrolling Security Stewards to have asked more than three exhibitors for their hand in marriage, the last one has the right to hold you responsible for their children’s college fund.

Gamble as you may.

One of the most challenging aspects of the festival was to reel in the participants, convince them that Reservoir’s whiskies stood head and shoulder above most others because we were not a carbon copy of the vast menu list available.

Our ingredients are of the utmost importance.

We pride ourselves on those ingredients being local.

Our process is different, our distillate is unique, our people are unprecedented, and for Pete’s sake, every day we festoon our bosses’ office doors with balloons and thank you notes because we just frickin’ love working here!

PLEASE JUST COME TASTE OUR WHISKIES!

In truth, we may not have sounded quite so desperate, but you get my point. You have to stand out. And not in a gimmicky way. You have to present them with something that’s memorable, that’s meaningful, that matters.

You have to make them want to take you home in a bag.

Okay, that did not come out right, but again you get my point.

It was an opportunity to meet people who love whisky and who make whisky from every corner of the Earth. To share what we’ve made, to learn from others, and to come home filled to the brim with the vim and vigor of pursuing our future.

We also come home smelling a little bit of fish, but that’s beside the point.

We travel the world with our wares. Sometimes we come to you. Sometimes you come to us. Most importantly, we come together, our spirits aligned.

Now, agreeing whether you want to make monthly payments to the university or just one lump sum is where we might diverge, but we can always work that out over a dram or two.

~Shelley

My favorite customer …

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

 

 

Please … Let Me Explain

I glanced across the line of shelves filled with eye-catching boxes and broad-shouldered bottles, occasionally pulling one from the line-up to scrutinize with envious enthusiasm.

“I can’t confidently say that I’m an expert at this time, as it’s only been six months, but I figure another year and a half and most customers who walk through that shop door will find me to be a connoisseur of the craft—a malt maven, if you will.”

I glanced up at the twenty-four-year old soon-to-be scotch scholar and gave him an encouraging smile.

“I hadn’t envisioned finding myself in this position years ago when in school in Finland—working as Mr. Worrall’s apprentice—but”—he ran his hands through his buzz-cropped, fair-colored hair—“it seems the puzzle pieces just fell into place.”

“I see,” I murmured, pivoting from one tight space in the tiny London whisky shop to move past the long and lanky Finn toward another shelf filled with other amber liquids I’d yet to see or taste.

I picked up a bright canary colored box. “Huh,” I breathed out, twisting the carton in my hand to view all sides. A whisky made in New Zealand. I’d traveled to the country maybe a decade ago and had been disappointed to discover that the only distillation I came across was the furtive kind—with kerosene cans and rubber tubing. Nothing I could find on the shelves of duty free at the airport to take home. The box in my hand provided scant details.

“Where is this?” I twisted to glance up at The Lad McFinnland.

His eyebrows rose, and then quick understanding flooded his face. “Ah yes, New Zealand is a small chain of islands—two mainly—off the south eastern coast of Australia. Known for its mountains and glaciers generally.”

I stood silent. Then I looked around for something that would cost less than one hundred pounds to throw at his head, as this was a rare malt whisky shop that carried nothing one wouldn’t have to consider auctioning off a kidney in order to buy.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at the American distiller sitting in the corner, wrapping up business with the shop owner. We had developed a few signals during this trip to subtly communicate.

I was tagging along on his travels across the UK, helping him navigate his unpretentious and ballsy bourbon around a country filled with its exclusive, gentry-filled single malt scotch drinkers.

He’s a Virginian, whose teeth were cut on grits and grand plantations. I’m currently a Virginian—by way of a million little detours—who’s spent twenty-five years soaking up the Scottish, the Irish, and everything English.

“Your whisky tastes of marmite and ribena,” one distributer had said.

I’d leaned over to translate. “Yeast paste and black currents.”

“I’m getting a touch of candy floss.”

“That would be cotton candy,” I whispered.

“This one tastes of a water closet’s urinal cake.”

I looked at the distiller. His furrowed eyebrows halted my words. “Yeah, I got that one.”

I’m also here, immersing myself in a side of the whisky world I’m usually not swimming in—all for the sake of research. My newest novel in progress—a book about a suffering distillery on the verge of falling apart—has me seeking more than just the drinking of a dram. The more I know about the inside industry, the better the believability factor.

So, once again I’ve entered the world of spirits where the main players erroneously assume I have as much understanding and interest about the subject as I do about prostate cancer.

“We’re talking about brown spirits, darling,” one Englishman pointed out to me at a tasting event. “An utterly foul habit to the gentler sex.”

“Mansplaining is something we find even fouler,” I looked up innocently.

“Surely not,” he put a hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps we should get you a white wine?”

“A single malt, please.”

“That’s the spirit,” he said with another wry, all-knowing pat. “I’ll order you my favorite lest you find it distasteful. Then I’ll drink it myself.”

This industry has been slow to change. Like the pivoting of a large ship, the whisky world protects its stability. Women can make things tipsy—both literally and figuratively. And parts of the world I travel to are reticent to allow the hand of time to tick as quickly as it wishes to. But there is a growing number of “that gentler sex” that persevere, and for that I’m wholly grateful. As I believe it’s an alcoholic arena that many find too intimidating to enter, and we need a few to boldly clear the path in front of us.

I crave standing in the intersection of the two things I love most: writing and whisky. My aim for the last two decades has been to make it into an explosive crossroads, adding food and nature, folklore and peat smoke. To me, this is the best definition of scotch—purely Scotland in liquid form. It finds me weak in the knees and often at a loss for language.

Despite the heavy hand of doubt I’m usually greeted with on this male-dominated turf, I’d be remiss if I neglected to point out the bright moments where I’m caught by surprise and filled with delight.

“So,” a tall, Welsh actor beside me starts, “have you been dragged here by a companion you’re unfortunately in debt to, or are you as besotted with this juice as much as the rest of the poor SOBs at this whisky tasting?”

I turned and glanced up. I wanted to hug him. “Definitely not dragged. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“Ah,” he nodded grimly. “Then I feel doubly sorry for you, as I’m sure like us, you’re continually searching for and finding the next Holy Grail, only to discover after a taste from that chalice, that it’s usually just a few too many precious pennies out of our budgets.”

I laughed and took a sip of the pricey elixir in my hand. Finally, a true compatriot.

He continued. “So what have you been dying to try that seems a little out of reach?”

I thought back to yesterday, in the rare malt shop. “Oh,” I breathed out dreamily. “A new single malt from New Zealand.”

His eyes lit with interest. “Really? Where’s that?”

I couldn’t help myself, and I snorted with laughter as the words tumbled out. “Ah yes, New Zealand is a small chain of islands—two mainly—off the south eastern coast of Australia. Known for its mountains and glaciers generally.”

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Reversal of Fortune

Tis time for one of my favorite festivals, folks. TWELFTH NIGHT! Therefore, Rob and I have had a little fun and, as is traditional on this day, switched jobs. Don’t be too hard on us. We have been humbled by the task put before us.

What do I get my Mum for Christmas?

It was Christmas Eve, 1991. I was working as a freelance animator’s assistant, a sort of “pencil for hire” around the small London animation studios. I’d got a nice little gig at Animus Studios in Camden, working with a team of eight jolly souls on a couple of TV commercials for an American insurance company.

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Animus Studios was situated in a couple of rented rooms in a classic London mews, owned by the Monty Python team. It was where they had all their publicity people, lawyers and accountants. I guess you could call it Monty Python HQ. A hub of insanity basically!

So, Christmas Eve. Five o’clock, and the question “What do I get my Mum for Christmas?” was niggling away inside my slightly inebriated brain. We’d been taken out for a fabulous lunch by the boss man, Tony White. We’d bought a couple of bottles of wine on the way back to the studio and we were all draped around over chairs and sofas, sipping lukewarm Riesling and exchanging slurred tales of our sightings of the various members of the Pythons.
“John Cleese was here last week. I only saw him from the back, mind you, but it was definitely him!”
“How’d you know it was him? Did he do a silly walk or something”
“Don’t be daft! He’s six foot five and he had his Bentley parked out there!”

I was travelling home to my parents over the holidays so I was keeping an eye on the time. The commuter trains going out of London are erratic at the best of times, but on Christmas Eve you’d better be sure to be on a train by eight or nine o’clock or you’re dicing with the possibility of being stranded in the city over Christmas.

But there was no sweat. I had my rucksack packed and ready, all the family Christmas pressies wrapped and labeled. All, that is, except for my Mum’s! I’d clean forgotten her.

Just as people were starting to think about hitting the road, Tony White walked in and told us that the Pythons were having their traditional Christmas party for their employees and that we were all invited along as well.

Wow! We all thought. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

The party was a relaxed affair with a buffet, drinks table, background music. There were about 30 guests – admin staff, producers, directors and the gang themselves – John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, with respective partners and families. A nice cozy little bash.

We animators stood huddled in a corner, clutching our glasses of wine, somewhat overawed to be in the same room as a gang of comedians who for most of us were on the level of cultural icons.

Artists huddle 001 (800x735)

 

Within our huddle there was a lot of whispering and discreet pointing.

I watched as Michael Palin and his wife moved over towards the buffet table and in my slightly inebriated state I had one of those brilliant flashes of inspiration you only get when you ARE slightly inebriated. The solution to the problem of what to do about my Mum’s non-existent Christmas present popped into my head fully formed. Within the space of one nano-second I had a plan! I handed my wine glass to one of my pals, extricated myself from the huddle and sauntered over towards the buffet table. Towards Michael Palin!

“Hello, Michael!” I said. “My name’s Robin. Nice to meet you!”

True to his cordial reputation, Michael was very pleasant. I chatted with him and wife as we picked away at the buffet and loaded our paper plates. And then I popped the question.
“Could I have your autograph? It’s for my Mum. She’s a big fan of yours.”
“Yes, of course,” he said.

But we weren’t home and dry yet. There were a couple of hurdles to cross.

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First off was the question of what to write the autograph ON. I fumbled in my pockets but all I found was an old bus ticket and a receipt for a salt beef sandwich.

“How about this?” Michael said, holding up a paper plate.

Well, it wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but having got this far with my plan I decide to just go with the flow.

“Sure! Fine!” I said.

The next question was what to write WITH. Neither of us had a pencil or pen. It was Michael’s wife, Helen, who saved the day. “Will this do?” she asked, pulling a black eyebrow pencil out of her handbag.

Okay, I thought. Kind of soft and greasy, but I was still in go-with-the-flow mode.

“Great!” I beamed.

Michael took the eyebrow pencil. “What’s your Mum’s name?” he asked.
“Bridget,” I said.
Two minutes later and the deed had been done. I was back with my huddle of animators, paper plate safely stuffed into a plastic bag at my feet.

I did manage to get the train home to my family. And I did give the rapidly-wrapped paper plate with Michael Palin’s autograph on it to my Mum. And she did look extremely bemused when she opened it and saw the battered and crumpled plate with the smeared, almost totally illegible scrawl on it.

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I spent the rest of the Christmas holiday telling her the story and trying to convince her that the words DID read “To Bridget. Happy Christmas from Michael Palin”.

The paper plate was tucked away somewhere and I was certain that it was stuffed into a garbage bag as soon as the holidays were over.

A couple of months later I visited my Mum over a weekend. We were going through some old photo albums. There were a couple of albums missing. “They’re up in my bedroom,” my Mum told me. “In the bookcase. You can go and get them if you like.”

I went upstairs and turned the light on in her room. As I crossed the room to the bookcase, something caught my eye. There on the wall, opposite the bed, was the paper plate, framed.
~Rob

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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The Grand Poobah of Parties

I read a lot of historical fiction.

On purpose.

I like historical fiction and I write historical fiction, but the way to become a decent writer of the genre, and for others to become fervent followers of your writing in that genre, is to immerse yourself in the times as much as possible.

Alas, time travel isn’t feasible, although having toured the physics department in the United Kingdom’s Birmingham University last year (read about the unfathomable physics), I’m pretty sure it will be soon. So, until those clever clods figure it out, I’m left with reading. And reading leads to imagery. And imagery leads to sensation. And sensation leads to … well it doesn’t matter, but if we were Amish, this whole thing could lead to dancing and you know that’s one come hither look closer to hell than anyone’s comfortable having in their living room.

Call me a mutineer if you must (and likely only if you’re Amish), but I find that apart from joining a traveling band of reenactors, the only way to thoroughly taste the joie de vive of the past is to immerse yourself within the time period’s literature.

Or to make a pot of joie de vive, which I’m pretty sure includes a lot of entrails and a few copper francs.

One holiday not entirely gone and buried from memory, but not widely celebrated anymore, and one I think would be enormously fun to resurrect from the graveyard, is Twelfth Night.

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Taking place the night of January 5th, it heralds the beginning of the Epiphany and the end of the gluttonous Twelve Days of Christmas. Back in Tudor times, I’m guessing a dozen days wasn’t nearly enough, as Twelfth Night signified it was time to pack up and head home following all the debauchery that began waaay back on All Hallows Eve.

Yeah, these people knew how to party.

And “part-aay” was the name of the game. And the game was lead by the Lord of Misrule. Misrule as in total anarchy. But before we get to the more well-known versions, let’s take a quick tour of how things were done in a few other lands.

Yes, there’s a religious component to Twelfth Night, as some folks used to celebrate it in remembrance of the Three Kings’ arrival to the birthplace of Christ. It might have simply been a round of “Hallelujah” chorus because the three fellahs were wandering about in the desert for an unduly long period of time and refused to ask for directions. Wise men, eh?

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In Austria, there was a boatload of smoking that took place during the twelve days of Christmas, all poetically named … Smoke Nights. Apparently, Austria had a rather large problem with unwelcomed evil spirits hanging about the country, but soon discovered that the simple combination of great clouds of choking incense and a good solid drenching of holy water took care of the pesky so n’ sos for another three hundred fifty-some days.

Clever.

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In the Netherlands, Twelfth Night officials allow folks to drive away all their unwelcome demonic shades by blowing out their eardrums with a festive little activity they call midwinterhoornblazen. Of course, there is the common misconception among foreigners who catch a glimpse of the Netherlandian wraiths that the reason they are sporting ear muffs is that they are chilly. In fact, they are simply bracing for the upcoming festival.

Clever.

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In medieval times, the Norse (and now the English) would dedicate the evening to Apple Wassailing. Traditionally sent out into the apple orchards, a group of men would locate the oldest tree, encircle it, tie bread and toast to its branches and pour the last of their evening’s alcoholic winter punch over its roots. I’m going to guess they may have relieved themselves over the roots of the tree to boot, but likely it was just an earlier version of the evening’s punch. This, surprise surprise, was done in order to scare away any ghosts and goblins and encourage a bountiful surplus next season.

Questionable.

The thing we glean from looking at these past celebrations is that Europe was plagued with malignant spirits.

Later on, Twelfth Night improved a little in that folks went from driving out the dead to nearly joining them as they drank themselves perilously close to the edge of their lives. There are a plethora of opinions as to the correct form of celebrations, but I’ll give you the general gist.

A cake was cooked.

A reversal of fortune followed.

Lewd behavior ensued.

The Church found out.

Everyone grabbed their coats and went home swearing next year no one was going to invite The Church.

Still today, there are communities that make a grand go at keeping the traditions alive, but in my opinion, there’s clearly a lot of work to be done to convince the rest of the world that the holidays are not quite over.

So back to the books I go, immersing myself in the times of yore. But one thing remains certain: I read about the past to plan a better future.

I hope yours will be brilliant. Happy New Year!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

A little Holiday Folly

I hope that all you “Peakers” out there are enjoying your December holidays, and that your homes are filled with cheer, your hearts are filled with joy and your sinks are full of dishes. And as is customary for and craved by most folks at some point during the year, a week off to rest the bones and curl up on the couch with the cat seems like a fine idea.

But just so you’re not left feeling empty and unloved, I’ve tossed you a good giggle to while away a few minutes in place of reading this week’s episode.

Hope you enjoy a little Morecambe and Wise skit. One of my favorites, and performed in their 1971 Christmas show.

Cheers to you all, and a very Happy New Year.

We’ll see you next week!

~Shelley (& Rob)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

The Gates of Hell

I live on top of a mountain. It just barely counts as one as far as qualifying height is concerned, but hey, a med school graduate at the bottom of her class is still called doctor. You pass. Congratulations. Hang up your shingle and warm up your stethoscope.

Back to my big hill.

The road up to the house measures a solid mile long—and a thousand feet up. Most cars chug up to the top with the old engine standard of ‘I think I can’ grunting from beneath the hood. If a car, on route to the top, should give up before reaching its destination, the choices for its passengers are either to roll backward along a death-defying series of dead man’s curves, or secure chalks beneath all four wheels and limp along on foot the remaining distance.

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The county decided they had no interest in claiming responsibility for road maintenance, and the post office, who still delivers mail via horse drawn carriage or carrier pigeon out where we live, said PETA would be all over their sorry arses if they had to consider our address as part of their route.

Together, the two organizations colluded and decided to call the road … our driveway.

In order to gain access to the stretch of road that has more animal encounters than a National Geographic Special, you must pass through a set of gates. They are formal looking, sharply pointed, black and menacing. Iron bars meant to intimidate. In fact, I’m fairly certain they are possessed. I feel as if they should brandish a sign with a giant skull and crossbones, displaying blood-scrawled words, “I’d turn back if I were you.”

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Growing up in Wisconsin farm country, gates were a part of life. They served a functional purpose. They kept animals off the road, animals from eating the crops, and teenagers from making crop circles in the corn fields on late night sprees. Of course, the last one was the hardest to control, and that’s pretty much my point: it was rare to find a gate we couldn’t outwit.

But this gate …

I’ve given up on the programming manual. It requires a degree in electrical engineering and more brain space than my head can provide.

The gate is electric and attached to a phone line—and although we pay each bill on a monthly basis, juice to both services is supplied only on every other Thursday as long as it falls on a combination bank holiday and Catholic saint day. Seldom do they all align.

More often, the box providing electricity is just a small metal house that offers shelter to either an enormous ant colony or a den of mice–whoever stakes claim to the space first after it receives its monthly cleaning. If the box does happen to hum with some form of voltage, it is only a matter of hours before someone inside becomes fed up with the incessant noise and chews through a wire. And if they’re a little slow with work that day, then surely lightening will come to the call of duty and strike the box with a massive bolt, rendering all residents inside to simple carbon atoms.

I’m positive the “antenna” meant to catch the signal of our remote control devices was accidentally switched out with a lightening rod. Pressing the remote control never works. You can point it at the gate, level it at the aerial, or even put it under your rear tire and back over it to make sure you’re pressing down hard enough, but I’ve found it ain’t up to the job.

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It does, however, change the channel on our dish receiver and it usually messes with the cockpit info in overhead planes.

Handy in some cases, I suppose.

Folks coming to visit who do not have one of our remote controllers meant to lull you into a false sense of consumer product reliability must depend upon their savvy skills of speaking into a box to gain entrance. This box is occasionally hooked up to our phone line which will dial up to our house, but only after you figure out a complex math equation and punch your results onto a keypad. This was done to ward off the mass of hunters who often show up and ask permission to track the land with their coon dogs.

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I don’t have any problem with hunters. I just want to make sure that if there’s a guy and a gun walking the woods where I live, he has to have passed fifth grade math.

It’s usually not such a big problem anyway, as the phone line is habitually broken and we’re on a week long waiting list to have someone from Appalachian Power come and take a look at one of our many issues. It might be just as effective if we simply tied two tin cans to the ends of a mile long string. I’m willing to give it a go.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run down to the bottom of the driveway to help someone get in, or arrived home to find the damn thing on the blink again. Either way, my car is usually parked on one side of the barrier or the other while I’m unlocking padlocks, pulling out circuit breakers, wrenching out lynch pins and roping back the gates to allow entrance or exit. Frequently in a downpour.

I have proposed we get rid of the whole system, but the three other adults who live up top are all English and find the gate reassuringly British, so I am outvoted.

Therefore, I’ve decided to think tactically. I’m now researching the cost of hiring a beefeater. Safe, traditional, and classy.

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I sure hope he doesn’t come with a manual.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

720 hours hath September

There is something about September.

I wake to the sound of rain splattering on the copper rooftop, slapdash and sporadic, its disordered pattern teasing and anticipatory.

The dove gray skies are a soft, woolen blanket the earth has loosely wrapped about her shoulders. She makes a tucking in gesture, paying no mind to the cold and endless black that surrounds her. It softens her edges, mollifies the barbed tips of clacking seconds as they tick, tick, tick in the foggy background. They slowly transform into a muffled heartbeat. Is it mine, or hers?

My first whiff of wood smoke … I am transformed. A tendril that taps at a memory drawer, unopened for months and stiff with disuse. But once loosened, it spills, like cream over ripe berries, and I do little to halt the movement of either.

There is a tinge to the trees, too early to label as anything more than a lowering of the bright, green flame of searing summer life. The sun has merely stepped back a pace to eye her work in progress and rest on the handle of her proverbial rake. And like all avid gardeners, she finds that there are other projects that catch her eye as they rotate into her field of vision. And with that momentary lapse of intense attention, the products of her efforts soon yellow and wither. No matter, she shrugs. Work will resume next circle round.

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It’s now that I brood about in the pantry. I count the beans—for big potted stews which will fill chipped crockery and rumbling bellies. I measure the tea—for ample kettle-fulls that let slip soft wisps of steam carrying somnolent notes of ginger, cinnamon and chicory. I eye the whisky—for the pure pleasure of the oncoming flush of heat. And then I eye the clock to determine how long I must wait for that sweet fever. It’s usually too long. Always too long.

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Each year, I am caught unawares when changing the calendar from the eighth to the ninth month. August is so spectacularly hot, so devoid of working people, so filled with the phrase, “We are off for three weeks.” September is for ‘back to business,’ ‘back to school,’ or ‘Back to you, Bob, and that’s a look at our weather.”

It’s a transitional month, a swinging door from a sizzling, smoke belching kitchen to a plush-lined parlor, with hushed library voices and our mental bandwidth slowly revving into gear. There is an observable change in the laundry basket, which once barely reined in an endless mess of cut-off jean shorts and paper thin tank tops and now houses prim white shirts and pleated skirts, ordered and homogenous.

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The printer churns a constant stream of schedules, documents, forms and calendars, convulsing with updated information like a Morse code machine relaying movement of troops and coordinated attacks. Paperwork lies across all available flat surfaces, requiring signatures, filing, and the hopefully intended read-through.

With the onslaught of shifting our moods and modes, it does not surprise me that in 1752, when the British Empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, they cut nearly two weeks from their clocks by finishing September 2nd and then skipping straight to September 14th. Perhaps it was not simply a method of keeping up with the rest of the world, but also a way to wipe away exhausting obligations. But then again, Britain can be slow to give up commitment and tradition, and their participation in Gregorian reform was 170 years after the first memo landed on everyone’s desk. In fact, a law created in 1307 states that still, should any dead whale be found, washed ashore on the British coast, the head automatically becomes property of the king, while the lucky queen shall have its tail. One must have access to bones for one’s corset, yes?

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Thankfully, September is nowhere near the holiday party season, and there is plenty of time to hunt the shores for washed up whale.

But there should also be time for reflection and observance among the business of harvest. The long days of reaping, the field work and preservation may still take place in the sweat of the last shafts of summer sun, but once she has set, there is a thinning of the air. The scent of woodsy autumn appears on a breeze that slowly pushes summer’s plump stars off stage in preparation for the next act: a crisp set of patterns that will pierce the dark, blue skies.

Of course, intermission casts the bright light of the Harvest moon, and she will illuminate your path from field to home and back again. September bathes in that downy, yellow glow, almost as if aware of her age, asking to be seen through a soft focus lens.

Be busy, be effortful, be thoughtful.

Be here now, in September. Before she says goodbye.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

A fairly faithful fairy tale

For the last two months I’ve been feeling like I belong in a Beatrix Potter tale. Maybe lodged somewhere in the index between The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. In fact, there are days where I’m so prickly from doing endless loads of laundry that I actually see the bristly, Scottish hedgehog Potter penned into the role of Animal Laundress of the Lake District gazing questioningly back at me from the mirror above my bathroom sink.

But in addition to being Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s doppelgänger, I have, as of late, been boldly playing the role of Mr. McGregor.

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He and I share the same love of growing veg, and the same dream of wrapping our soil-stained hands around as many fluffy bunnies as we can throw into a gunny sack.

Real nature lovers, he and I.

First thing in the morning, I am woken by the night patrol shift. Smudge, the charcoal colored streak of flying fur I see only at mealtimes, waits at my shoulder, staring intently at whichever eyelid she is closest to and waits for lift off (or lift up in this case). Now is when she announces, in a slightly bitter tone, that according to the always accurate clock in her belly, breakfast is late. Then, as she leaps from the bed, she throws a quick, “oh, and bee tee dubs, there are rabbits in the garden.”

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Covers are jerked off, the back door is flung open, and I sprint in a “Why are my legs not working??” kind of brain fog to scare off those wascally wabbits.

I get there too late and see nothing but cotton ball tails scurry back to their safety zone of immunity in the woods, or the fields, or Russia.

Disgruntled, I trudge down to the sheep barn to further fatten two defunct lawnmowers with a couple handfuls of grain. And by defunct lawnmowers I mean both sheep have decided they do not like the taste of our meadow grass and refuse to eat any more of it. Period.

I have never met, nor ever seen sheep go on a grass strike. And I feel if I were to admit this to any other farmer I would see tears spring to their eyes, and be later billed for the small hernia operation I forced them to have because they split a gut laughing over my fiascos in the fields. Yes, I can hear everyone telling me that I’m further complicating the matter by giving into their demands, that if I refuse them their cereal they will eventually give in to hunger and start mowing again, but I have SEEN these guys hold their breath—and I have no doubt that they would pass out just to prove a point.

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Replacing the lid on the grain bucket, I catch movement out of the corner of my vision and turn to see two black pearled eyes blinking back at me on a shelf beneath the barn window. A fat field mouse, pink nosed and whiskered, stands up to his jelly bellied middle, surrounded by tiny shreds of paper towel, pine shavings and my latest issue of The New Yorker. He has made himself a cozy bed in a pocket betwixt wall and shelf. His eyes go wide.

“What?” he says. “I smell winter.”

“Get out,” I poke a rake at his nest.

“Fine, but can you leave the lid off the grain bucket? Now that I have to relocate, it puts a dent in my foraging schedule.”

I sit on the bucket. “Out.”

I watch him scuttle away and my faithful hound and I finish mucking out the barn. As I’m making my way back up the hill to the house, Haggis turns to me and says, “You know there are rabbits in the garden, right?”

“What?” I look at him. “How do you know?”

“I saw them when we came down to feed the sheep.”

I am miffed. “Why did you not run after them?” I shout.

“I was helping you muck out the barn.”

“YOU WERE EATING SHEEP POO!”

“I was helping.”

I stab a finger in the air toward my vegetables. “Go. Run. Now!”

Haggis gives me one of his, You’ve gotta be kidding me looks and says, “I am way too full to run. I could get a cramp.”

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Doubly miffed, I march into my garden to see what fresh new destruction has occurred while both my well-fed, well-watered, overly indifferent protectors of the potagé have been enjoying the posh life.

As we near the beds, crows scatter from the blackberry bushes, a mole buries himself beneath the mulched pathway having munched his way through an entire cantelope, and a spindly legged fawn leaps in surprise and springs in misdirected flight toward the trees, still clutching a bright red, juicy tomato in his tiny mouth.

I lean on my trowel and look at the crops.

I think about the endless nagging I do with my children to eat more fruits and vegetables. I write about making good food choices, trying to illuminate the spectacular flavors from the garden and benefits from natural food sources.

I sigh and take down my Peter Rabbit scarecrow and replace it with a Welcome to the Salad Bar sign.

How can I chase away the collective few who have been following my advice all along? It’s absurd, right? I finally have an audience who are all ears and eager to eat what will make them big and strong. It’s now crystal clear to me … my forest friends have been reading my writing.

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Social media is amazing.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

Dazed & Confused; the crackpot college tour.

Steam train

Steam train (Photo credit: eckenheimer)

My only defense is that I dipped into my ‘sanity jar’ one too many times, came up empty and proceeded to agree to something everyone is still shaking their heads at. Yes, I jumped onto the caboose of the crazy train.

Borrowing the oft spoken words from my fourteen-year old son, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Selecting the phrase I should tattoo on my forehead: “Beware. Thick-witted woman.”

English: Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks

English: Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, perhaps my deeds do not deserve a Hester Prynne blood-red letter on my chest, but maybe I should be forced to wear silver “I” for idiot earrings over the next couple of months for believing that my husband, my daughter and I could shove twelve university visits into five and a half days.

The COLLEGE ROAD TRIP became a blasphemous phrase, uttered in pure frustration on a regular basis. It’s now moving up the ladder for hashtag trends on Twitter.

Where did I go wrong? Somehow I convinced myself that both my seventeen-year old and I could muster up the ungodly amount of energy Sir Sackier generates for an hour’s worth of work and spread it out evenly in one day. Times six.

And we would have succeeded had neither one of us needed to eat, sleep or pee. I’ve discovered a strain of camel in my husband’s genetic makeup.

He diligently put together our itinerary. It began at MIT in Boston and finished at King’s College in London. In between, we squished Edinburgh, Saint Andrews, Strathclyde, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Imperial College. The UK looks so much smaller on MapQuest.

Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries, South West ...

Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries, South West Scotland (Photo credit: iknow-uk)

I would love to say I perched forward excitedly in my seat as our car sleekly swept past rolling green hills, lush with heather, sheep and historically preserved castles. In truth, I was drunk with exhaustion, alarm and angst as we either barreled down the motorway, unable to see anything but the hazy red glow of the tail lights two feet in front of us—momentarily visible between swooshes of overwhelmed windscreen blades—or idled on the same road, waiting for yet another accident to be cleared, so we could all carry on barreling until the next snarl brought us to a screeching halt.

I now know the precise shape of my heart and what it tastes like as well, for it spent a goodly amount of time residing in my mouth.

It didn’t matter how hard we tried, we were an hour late to everything. It became surreal. No matter when we left, we ended up cursing the weather, the road, the GPS, the parking, the underground or just people we randomly bumped into as we dashed passed them on our way to an office that was numerically ordered by folks who surely thought they were picking lotto numbers.

Sorted White Paper Pile

Sorted White Paper Pile (Photo credit: Walter Parenteau)

Once locating an office, one thing became crystal clear to both my husband and me. Every one of these professor’s tiny lairs looked EXACTLY like our daughter’s bedroom. How could this be true? Does everyone who studies physics have the same ability to compute the science of matter and motion, but find themselves puzzled by the form and usage of drawers? Papers, folders, letters and documents were everywhere: covering every surface, propped against the walls, stacked up on the floors. And if there was an area that had any white space showing, it was heavily scrawled upon, revealing either the country’s launch codes or the cipher to Cypro-Minoan syllabary. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that some of these folks have decoded all sorts of Bronze Age scripts, but simply can’t remember where they put them.

My daughter is looking forward to fitting in with her people because brain function lost on laundry is brain function lost forever.

Math Wall

Math Wall (Photo credit: trindade.joao)

Meeting after meeting, I found myself sitting in a chair, desperately trying to follow the conversation and line of questioning. Symbols were used in place of words and squiggly lines formed a foreign alphabet. I felt my eyes glaze over repeatedly, only briefly registering when I recognized some part of speech. Sadly, it was usually an article like and, the or at. It was humiliating.

Occasionally, I ventured to open my mouth and realized I shouldn’t have. More often than not, my seventeen-year old gave me the wide-eyed glare that silently shouted, “KEEP SHTUM!” And after a while I could see that same face on many of the faculty. Okay, maybe they were all getting tired of my questions about time travel, but it wasn’t like I was announcing that I believed in unicorns.

I’d definitely save that declaration for a follow up meeting … should there be one.

Regardless, I did try to participate. I echoed back many of their statements by simply shifting their words into a slightly different order, but after a while, I realized I’d taken a peek into the other hemisphere of my brain and found it cold, dark and nearly empty. I quickly slammed that door shut and hustled back into more familiar territory.

The highlight for me was taking the laboratory tours. I saw folks doing research on optics, gravitational waves and solar wind using Star Wars lasers and vacuums that could suck the dirt off anything down to an atomic level of clean.

In one massive lab, I swear I was on a revealing backstage tour of a David Copperfield magic show.

space

space (Photo credit: Sweetie187)

One person made a whiteboard diagram of outer space and told us how he was involved in mapping newly discovered stars, planets and solar systems. I asked if I could snap a quick photo to send to my eighth grade science teacher. Finally I had proof that my leaving a giant question mark in the space provided for the question asking ‘how large the universe was’ should not have been checked wrong.

Yes, it was a crazy week. No, I’ll never agree to do anything like it again. But in the end, we all lost a little weight, met some amazing scientists and discovered the true limitations of our individual bladders. My daughter came back home more confused than clear about what she’s searching for in a university, but I’m fairly certain I unintentionally lessened the number of offers coming from across the pond, so ultimately that might help narrow down the choices.

Finding the right school can be a heart-palpitating hunt, but honestly, finding the right vacuum is more of a true achievement.

At least everyone knows what I want for Christmas.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

Family Ties That Tug

Palace of Westminster.

Palace of Westminster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will be in London for Thanksgiving this year.

For me, it’s the second worst day of the year to be in London. The first, of course, is the Fourth of July. Sir Sackier made a practice of “accidentally” arranging family summer holidays so we’d be out of the country during America’s annual celebration of freedom from the British. We’d usually find ourselves ensconced within the warren of London’s streets, dazed from playing Follow the Leader where The Leader regularly forgot he had a family of three—jet-lagged and cranky—pulling up the rear.

One can’t expect the British to be all, “U-rah-rah!” over helping traveling Americans celebrate a page in the history books they might want to tear out and use as fire starter. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of picking at a scab. To Sir Sackier, it remains an open, festering wound.

550d - London - Churchill at Big Ben London

550d – London – Churchill at Big Ben London (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

To compensate, three quarters of the family were often found slumping against one another in cavernous museums, led by our own family monarch as he enlightened our weak-muscled minds about the hundreds of years of British invention and innovation. Surprisingly, there are quite a few dark corners in Churchill’s bunker where one can catch a quick kip.

Regardless, there’s an ever-increasing number of American expats living in the land of palaces and prisons. And because many of my countrymen have found it near impossible to be more than fifty feet from the big-boothed safe haven of chain restaurants, and because eateries find catering to the appetite of their diners a no-brainer in helping to pay their electric bills, locating an establishment willing to rustle up some Turkey Day grub is easier than imagined.

Whether they go for a dressed down sort of experience and order a McGobble-Gobble, or they get all gussied up and search out a big bird with all the trimmings, Americans are offered plenty of places willing to pull together the makings for a slice of comfort pie.

But it won’t be the same.

Line art drawing of Pteranodon.

Instead of man-handling a thirty-two pound turkey/pterodactyl into a Kmart kiddie swimming pool for a 24 hour soak in our own version of the Dead Sea, a tradition I’ve always cherished doing with my mom the night before, I will lie awake in bed knowing she’ll probably have chucked a three pound turkey breast into a salt-filled ziplock bag and tossed it to the back of the fridge. Likely she’ll still make a good dent in the fifth of scotch we would use to reward ourselves for slowly moving the bird from the back of the car and onto the back porch without breaking a wing or a leg or a sweat.

Instead of waking in the morning to find my parents in my kitchen, freshly scrubbed, aprons on, knives sharpened, coffee made and ready to discover just how many things I forgot to purchase at the grocery store and will need to send Sir Sackier back out for, I will sit quietly at a table with a cup of English Breakfast and nod consolingly toward the opposite end of the table where my husband grows increasingly shocked at the price of petrol, the loss of traditional values and how the American debt crisis could be solved if one English footballer simply donated three or four week’s pay.

Pie-Making - transferring the dough

Pie-Making – transferring the dough (Photo credit: CaptPiper)

Instead of kneading, rolling and crimping seven pie crusts using seven unique “no fail” recipes with the hope that at least two of them will “no fail,” I will contemplate the possibility that my mother will have decided to forgo pie altogether and simply give everyone their own pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a spoon in place of all the fuss.

Rather than hiding the salt from my mother just before she makes the gravy—who by late afternoon has lost all taste receptors that report salinity on her tongue due to her third jug of scalding coffee (okay, and maybe the cask strength single malt scotch, capable of scraping the tartar off of anyone’s teeth)–I will disembark from the bowels of an underground, blink back at the bright light of day, and scan across hundreds of heads rushing in and out of the Waterloo tube station, wondering which direction Sir Sackier dashed off toward.

Schlitz

Schlitz (Photo credit: fixedgear)

Instead of collapsing into a chair once we’ve finally gotten all the food to the dining room table and nearly allowing my head to slump forward to land in a pool of mashed potatoes larger than a pig trough full of slops, I will sit staring off into space in the back of a black cab wondering if my dad will have opened up a beautiful bottle of Beaujolais to compliment his can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce or simply pulled back the tab on a can of Schlitz.

In place of gathering around the same table hours later after a post poultry nap to play Balderdash while we take turns shooing the dog out from under the table because of the nasally corrosive fumes he’s emitting, I will slip into a bed belonging to a crisply run British hotel and lie beneath covers so sharply starched I would not be surprised to find out they’d simply bleached off the words from last night’s Evening Standard.

Scène de l'Ordre de Bon Temps, Acadie (1606). ...

So although I won’t physically be in America for Thanksgiving this year, I’ll still be there.

But it won’t be the same.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

Man Jam

Ian Fleming's image of James Bond; commissione...

It’s hard to think of James Bond having anything but a dry martini to act as a quaffable accessory to his perfectly tailored tuxedo and a stunningly undernourished girl. You’d never see him handling a drink with an umbrella in it. (Of course, he would have no issue handling a girl who has a drink with an umbrella in it.)

And how often do you see men load up on yogurt? Especially something like Activia, which claims to “improve digestive transit?” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a gaggle of guys at the soccer field water fountain moaning while clutching their bellies, wishing they weren’t so bloated.

Sure, there are foods that are typically eaten by more females than males, and if you sit through five minutes of a football game on TV, you’ll find yourself fighting the urge to belch the alphabet along with the guys in the beer commercials. Although many get stuck on the letter B when the Beer, Beef & Babes subliminal advertising kicks in.

But what of cooking? Are there gender preferences there, too? I know plenty of women who handle the grill, but how many fellas make cake pops? Or madeleines? How many guys garnish? Author note: I do not.

portrait of Fanny Cradock

portrait of Fanny Cradock

But my husband does—and with great flare–but I attribute that to the fact that he’s English, grew up watching Fanny Cradock, and lived to tell of it.

Whether garnishing, soufflé-ing, quiche-ing, or mousse-ing, I’ve come across plenty of men who jump into the arena of artful technique and extreme creativity. However, it’s a little more unusual to come across one who will dip his toe into the pond of preserves. Seeing the average male come through the front door with an armload of Ball jars, a 33 quart enamel stockpot, and a basket full of freshly picked berries would make you look over his shoulder to see if he was carrying in June Cleaver’s groceries. Hearing the guy say, “Where’s my apron? Now clear out the kitchen, I’m about to bring Smucker’s to their knees,” is something many women would pay money to experience.

Is this so unusual? Not to G. Tilton Pugh II. He is a lineman at our local airport, drives a massive fuel truck, and probably performs his own tooth extractions. To top it off, this guy has made canning cool. He makes what I call MAN JAM. The jellies contain your average fruit, but he pitches in a load of jalapeños, allowing the more timid males at your breakfast table the opportunity to enjoy fruit preserves without fear of anyone eyeing his pinky when lifting a cup of tea.

Statements like, “Hey, pass me that kick-ass curd at your end of the table,” and “This stuff needs to be on a hunk a meat!” will likely float through conversation.

I expect folks will go through their closets, tossing shoes over their shoulders in the hunt for that old pair of cowboy boots gifted to them the year the whole high school thought them fashionable.

You’ll be greeted each morning with a quick nod and a, “Mornin’, ma’am.” Your husband may forego shaving for a day or two as it fits nicely with his new rough 24/7  five o’clock shadow. There may even be talk of trading in the minivan for a truck with a flatbed.

Visage de cowboy en profil

As heart-palpatatingly pleasant as it may be to find you’re suddenly living—if only temporarily—with the Marlboro Man, my point is that not only can fellas take it on their toast, but now they can make it for their toast.

All the raised eyebrows alone may be enough to encourage any guy to take a crack at it. Seeing the impressed faces at work as you leave a jar on someone’s desk with your own brand name like Men’s Meteoric Marmalade or Joe’s Jawbreaking Jelly can also become addictive.

The point, and I do have one, is that labeling activities as gender specific is wrong. Labeling jars by flavor and fire is fun! (If only as a cross off your bucket list activity.)

Men? Head on out to your local berry patch during the next month or two, or hunt the produce isles of your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly, and mosey on into the kitchen.

Pop some Dwight Yoakum, Johnny Cash, or any guy who’s spent some time in prison and came out the other side with a record deal into the CD player. Now make some MAN JAM.

Burning Bush Jams

Don’t forget the jalapeños. This stuff should scrape the tartar off your teeth.

Click here for MAN JAM recipes and ideas on how to use it elsewhere, or click here for G. Tilton Pugh II’s website, selection and order form.

Happy cooking, cowboys!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).

No Joke!

Gigantic beer stein. According to its display,...

Gigantic beer stein. According to its display, it was made in Germany, weighs 35 lbs empty, holds 8.45 gallons of beer, features the scene of a Flemish country wedding on the stein, and Gabrinus on the lid; it includes a German phrase translating to “He who can empty this stein is truly a man”. Located at the Pine Cheese Mart and Von Klopp Brew Shop, Pine Island, Minnesota, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This just in: It turns out human beings have more than five senses. Yes, there’s hearing, touch, taste, smell and sight, but it appears we also own a sense of humor.

Okay, except for Germany. Oddly enough, in several international polls, Germans collectively rank at the bottom in number of office pranks, comedy clubs and pictures with finger antennae sticking up behind people’s heads.

They do however find themselves at the top position for number of hemorrhoids per person in any given month.

I’m thinking both may be fixed by an increase in fiber and the occasional light beer.

(To be fair, I know a good handful of Germans and have witnessed firsthand their uncontrolled belly laughs with or without the additions of heavily flour laden food.)

Back to my point; what is it about April 1st (or March 32nd in many circles) that brings out such tomfoolery in many of us? Is it the desperate reversal of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? The whole ‘the sap is running’ syndrome?

Seal of the United States Internal Revenue Ser...

Or maybe we’re mistaking raucous laughter for the mad hysteria that usually grips people when realizing they have two weeks left before the government makes fools of all of us.

Not everyone finds the same things funny. But on the whole, most of the world can agree that mocking their bosses is a personal pastime that will help make the work hours fly by. Sadly, mocking their bosses in front of said bosses will make the work hours nonexistent.

Unless you are a military family and moved around the bases with the same speed as either Jose Reyes in baseball or Hugh Hefner with women, it’s easy to shrug with confusion over what makes people in other countries giggle with glee.

The French like to secretly attach a paper fish to a person’s back.

Flemish kids lock their folks out of the house.

Polish kids lock their folks and themselves out of the house.

joanie loves chachi

(Photo credit: Rakka)

It’s a weird world, but maybe no nation is as weird as the land of the free, the brave and the willing to dress their pets in miniature Star Wars costumes. Yes, maybe America takes the cake for the most head scratching forms of humor created. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when our funny bone fractured and warped, but I’d guess it started when the TV series Joanie Loves Chachiaired.

Worldwide, we’ve never been looked at quite the same.

Although science has not been able to manufacture humor into pill form, and there’s still that sticky bit about double blind trials, research and proof, laughter has been known to cure what ails us—if only temporarily.

Chuckling obviously makes you more attractive and approachable, but it also boosts the immune system, releases endorphins and protects the heart. It does not, however, aid digestion when you do it upside down after a full meal. Best case scenario: no one is beneath you on the monkey bars after Thanksgiving supper. (Been there, done that.)

We crave laughter. We seek out comedians, forward knee-slapping jokes and tune in regularly for the President’s State of the Union address. I know one woman who says she won’t consider anything funny unless it makes her lose control of her bladder—just a little. (I’m sorry, but even with the qualifier that statement makes the top of my eww list.)

And what of pranks? April Fool’s Day presents an opportunity to show your loved ones, if not the world at large, just how far you’re willing to take a hoax to pinpoint a posse of prize saps.

Photograph of a woman harvesting spaghetti in ...

Photograph of a woman harvesting spaghetti in the BBC programme (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you participate? The BBC does. In fact, I suspect they may have a department solely formed to organize and plan for just this one day of the year. Who can forget the clever Swiss Spaghetti Harvest Hoax where broadcaster Richard Dimbleby revealed that an early influx of warm weather across Europe resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop?

Do you remember in 1980 how the BBC reported that in order to keep up with the times, the face of London’s Clock Tower (which houses Big Ben) was going digital?

Animation of the act of unrolling a circle's c...

Animation of the act of unrolling a circle’s circumference, illustrating the ratio π. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My favorite has got to be from 1998 when it was rumored that the Alabama state legislature was in the process of changing the mathematical value of pi from 3.14159 to the Biblical value of 3. I’m still choking on my Cheerios over that one.

Whether you’ve waited all year to hoodwink your homeboys or you palpitate with paranoia at being the targeted prey, have a hearty hoot at the hilarity others have pulled on a few unsuspecting victims. Here’s a list of the top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of all time.

http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/aprilfool

Now tell me … have you got something to add to the list?

Happy fooling around!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).

 

Pipers On Sale, Aisle Three

When you think about giving someone a gift, I’d bet most of you don’t entertain the idea of gifting a person. It seems a rather archaic bestowal, one reserved for a plantation owner increasing his human workforce, or a recently deceased pharaoh to accompany him into the world to come, except when you consider who is bestowing the gift. My English husband, Sir Sackier, considers himself—if the fates cooperate—the future royalty of reclaimed land (that would be America). Therefore, granting a human endowment would not make him pause, believing the token curious, or even illegal.

English: Don Quixote is knighted by the inn-ke...

Nonetheless, one of the nicest things he ever did for me happened on the day we’d moved into our newly built house on top of this mountain, a damp, misty December morning. Both my folks had come to help unpack boxes and direct a crew of moving men. Shortly after the moving crew left, I moved to the kitchen, burying myself in a box of newspaper wrapped crockery. Suddenly, I thought I’d heard somebody shout. I pulled my head out of the four foot deep box, hoping someone had finally discovered my favorite white platter that had gone missing two moves ago.

Sir Sackier hollered from outside, and my mom rushed into the kitchen, all a twitter, saying I’d better high tail it out to where he was. I expected the worst. Surely the man had fallen into an undiscovered well, or maybe he’d come upon a prickle of porcupines, a gang of angry elk or a cackle of hyenas. My mind whirled with all the unusual suspects when it came to the sceptred isle native.

I stepped onto the deck off the kitchen. Sir Sackier stood there with a ridiculous grin spread across his face. He looked like he was eight and had found his first frog.

“Do you hear something?” he asked, cocking an ear toward the mountains.

I leaned forward and scanned the horizon. What should I be listening for? The scream of a bobcat? The cry of an eagle? The sound of a bullfrog being squished behind his back?

“No,” I said, and then stopped. Because just then I did. I heard the magical sound my heart had suctioned itself to, years earlier when I first went to Scotland.

English: Piper James Geddes plays the most rec...

Bagpipes.

I looked out into the mid-day gloom, across the tree-covered slopes of the mountains, wondering how in the world I’d gotten so lucky as to pick a plot of land that was within earshot of a practicing piper. And then I saw him coming up our driveway.

Wheezing up our driveway.

Our driveway, which is one mile long and one thousand feet straight up.

“What do you think?” Sir Sackier asked me as both my parents joined us on the porch, a video camera in his hands and pointed at my face.

“Oh my God, the poor man!” I shouted, positive the piper was going to have a cardiac arrest before he made it to the top. “Did you do this?” I pointed at the asthmatic geezer in full Gaelic getup.

That eight year old face beamed and nodded. “Yep. Happy moving in day, Shell!”

I looked back toward the kitchen boxes. “Where is the carton that has our first aid kit? I need to see if we have a defibrillator in it.” I bit my lip wondering if there was going to be an eventual lawsuit, but hearing that beautiful sound in the most perfect setting made tears come to my eyes. A piper! To christen our new home.

After fifteen more blissful and painful minutes, the piper finally came through the front door without pausing for breath, and into the hallway—where I thought he’d surely collapse. Instead, he stood bellowing in the hollowed out foyer, perfectly centered beneath a space that rose a full forty feet above him. The blast of the pipes exploded through the house, puncturing the walls and paralyzing my parents. This is oftentimes the sneaky tactics of a military piper, who then signals the rest of the highlanders to sneak up behind their stunned victims and slice off their heads with a clean sweep of their broadswords. Although this probably wasn’t intended, loss of voluntary movement was a by-product of my husband’s housewarming gift.

Even if my folks were too polite—or too stupefied to put their fingers in their ears—I stood there, rooted to the ground, thrilled with the razor sharp melody piercing my bones. It was then Sir Sackier informed me that he felt we needed a house piper and this man was my gift. He could play at whatever events we hosted up here on the mountain. How could I say no? But it was necessary to make a clear distinction. I felt we owed the poor man as he nearly did himself in climbing the mountain to get here, not owned the poor man because he was idiotic enough to pick up the phone when harkened by this aspiring new monarch. I doubt Sir Sackier heard what I said. He had his fingers in his ears.

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).

 

Safehouse, or Madhouse?

Cows in the Mist

Image via Wikipedia

I grew up in Wisconsin. Cows. Cornfields. Cold. I loved it. Most of it. Okay, some of it. There was a lot I liked. Especially the no-nonsense, matter of fact sense of humor. Our bumper stickers read, Come smell our dairy air!

This was a place you could feel confident in getting a fair deal, a firm handshake and frostbite, the first two being something you sought and the latter, something inevitable.

Regardless, it was also a place most folks felt safe enough to leave their car unlocked, their house unbolted, and most of their valuables strewn across the front lawn. In hindsight, that last one might have been more of an excess of liquor vs. a laissez faire attitude about life in general.

But I grew up with the mindset that keys were for treasure chests, lime pies and leaving in the ignition. Then I married a city boy. London liked to lock things. Like bicycles in chains and people in towers. They’re big on things that signify no loss of control. Tight ship, tight smiles. (Tight underwear?)

Yeoman Warder ("beefeater") in front...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s taken me a while to get Sir Sackier to loosen his cravat. I think it’s been too tightly notched for so long that the blood supply to his eyes throws floaters in front of his vision in the shape of men with sharp teeth and wicked intent.

“Was the UPS guy really delivering a legal document, or scoping out the joint? Let the dog bark a bit, just enough to register. But then tell them that this dog is a piece of cake in comparison to the nest of pit bulls out back we’re all trying to rehabilitate, but can’t drive the blood thirst from. Make sure he hears you shout to someone inside that you’ll be right there. Women alone in the house are an easy target.”

Which brings me to our new amulets to ward off evil.

English: Chord used as an amulet Nederlands: A...

Image via Wikipedia

No, it’s not a special necklace made from the woven hair of our enemies. It’s called the Redneck Remedy. I think it was meant to be a joke from Roger, our resident Renaissance Man. Roger has been working with us for the last year and a half or so, and come to find out, there is nothing this man hasn’t developed a skill set for. Landscaping? Check. Woodworking? Check. Fireman, mountaineer, sorcerer’s apprentice? Check, check and very likely so. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man came up the mountain having wrangled a team of oxen as his vehicle of choice for the week. He is Paul Bunyan. (But sports a tux with quiet grace should the occasion call for it.)

Roger, master craftsman that he is, whipped up a few dozen benches over the weekend that would have Frank Lloyd Wright secretly making sketch notes on the back of a napkin had he been around to see it. One was destined for our front porch—a place to take off your boots. Roger used the bench as a vehicle to display his sense of humor—and now according to Sir Sackier, our new security system.

An old pair of work boots lay beneath the bench. Worn out work gloves rest on top. Scattered beside them are tins of possum meat and chewing tobacco. And to round things off while sending home the message, a man-handled copy of Guns & Ammo magazine. If this doesn’t send any nefarious, plug-ugly ruffian a-scattering, then he can pause a moment longer to read the hand-scrawled note held down with an old railroad spike nestled beside the chew. That is, if he can read. Scroll through the slide show and let me know what you think. Should I still be allowed to invite the Avon Lady in for a cuppa joe since she went to all the trouble of making her way up here? Should Sir Sackier be banned from outfitting the tower with a machine gun nest? Should Roger, the Renaissance man be contracted by Plow & Hearth? I’m curious to know what you think.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).