Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Autumn at Our Farm

(All photos taken last week at our Schoharie County, New York farm)
                    An Antique Postcard from my Collection

A haze on the far horizon...

The infinite, tender sky...

The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields...

And the wild geese sailing by...

And all over the upland and lowland, the charm of the goldenrod...

Some of us call it Autumn, and others call it God.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Frances Theodora Parsons (a.k.a., Mrs. William Starr Dana)

During the winter…For all practical purposes nature is at a standstill. . . there is a wonderful joy in leaving behind the noisy city streets and starting out along the white road that leads across the hills. With each breath of the sharp, reviving air one seems to inhale new life. A peace as evident as the sunshine on the fields takes possession of one's inner being. The trivial cares which fretted like a swarm of mosquitoes are driven away by the first sweep of wind that comes straight from the mountains. . . The intense silence that broods over the snow-bound land is a conscious blessing. The deep blue of the sky and the purple shadows cast by the trees and plants are a feast to the eye. The crunch of the snow-rind beneath our feet and the varied hum of the telegraph wires overhead are music to our ears.

An amateur botanist and author during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Frances Theodora Smith Dana Parsons (1861 - 1952) wrote four notable botanical books, which I have discovered due to their lovely decorative publishers edition covers, designed by the famed cover illustrator of that time period, Margaret Armstrong:

How to Know the Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Names, Haunts, and Habits of our Common Wild Flowers (1893). Author: Mrs. William Starr Dana. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Illustrations by Marion Satterlee. This, her most famous work, which has been referred to as the “first field guide to North American wildflowers,” went through several editions in her lifetime and has remained in print into the 21st century. The original beginnings of the conservation movement took place in the 1890s, and this book was the first of many such books published between 1890 and the early years of the 20th century. Arranged by flower colors, the book not only describes a plant and gives botanical data but also tells where to find it. It was something of a sensation in its day, the first printing selling out in five days; and garnered favorable responses from Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling, among others.

According To Season [Cassandra’s favorite!] (1894), Author: Mrs. William Starr Dana. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. This book features a collection of the author’s articles for the New York Tribune. As stated by the author in her preface: “In that the aim of this little volume is the stimulation of an observant love of nature, and especially the increase of knowledge about our plants, it is similar to ‘How to Know the Wildflowers.’ But in each book this has been attempted in so different a mood and manner that I feel confident that neither encroaches upon the province of the other...”

Plants and their Children (1896), Author: Mrs. William Starr Dana, New York: American Book Company. Illustrations by Alice Josephine Smith. Published by a popular schoolbook publisher of this era, this sweet little volume authored for children was named one of the 50 best children’s books of its time and was suggested for reading to young children in the classroom.

How to Know the Ferns (1899). Author: Frances Theodora Parsons. Originally illustrated by Marion Satterlee and Alice Josephine Smith. Toronto: The Publisher's Syndicate Limited. A newly enlarged edition was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1903 with 32 color plates illustrated by Elsie Louis Shaw. A total of seven printings of this book were by New York: Charles Scribner's Sons between 1900 and 1925; then years later in the late 1900s there were at least two printings by New York: Dover Book; and finally, one printing in 2005 by Kessinger Publishing.

Born in 1861 in New York City to N. Denton Smith, a tea merchant, and Harriet Shelton Smith and educated at Miss Comstock’s School, Frances Theodora, or “Fanny,” developed her lifelong love of of nature and especially of wildflowers during summers spent at her maternal grandparents' home located between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains near Newburgh, New York. Frances married, William Starr Dana, a Commander in the U.S. Navy and sixteen years her senior, in 1884 at the age of 23. Shortly thereafter she lost her first baby, and in 1890 her husband died in a flu epidemic in Paris. Observing the Victorian rules for widows, Frances wore black and restricted her social contacts for some years afterward, until her friend Marion Satterlee lured her into taking walks in the countryside and resuming her interest in wildflowers. It has been said that these strolls inspired her first and most popular book, How to Know the Wildflowers (1893). As was the custom for female authors of her day, she first used her husband’s name as her author’s name, “Mrs. William Starr Dana,” for her first three books published in 1893, 1894 and 1896.

Frances "in the field" - from the frontispiece of How to Know the Ferns

In 1896, Frances married Professor James Russell Parsons, Jr., an author in the field of education, treasurer of the University of the State of New York at Albany, a politician in New York State and later a diplomat – Counsel General at Mexico City under President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Frances’ family since childhood. During the early years of their marriage in Albany, New York, James had financial problems - the reason Frances wrote How to Know the Ferns, as a companion volume to her successful wildflower guide. The cover of How to Know the Ferns (published in 1899) records her name as “Frances Theodora Parsons, Author of How to Know the Wildflowers.” Before James Parson’s tragic and untimely death in Mexico City in 1905 via a collision of a trolley car with his carriage, the couple had a son, James Russell Parsons III, in 1897, and a daughter, Dorothea, who died in 1902 at the age of 2 ½ .

After being widowed this second time, Frances published a poem in Scribner’s Magazine , (“When Laughter is Sadder than Tears,” January, 1911, Vol. XLIX, p. 71); but did not write any other books until 1951, a year before her death in Katonah, New York, at the age of 90, when she privately published an autobiography, Perchance Some Day (1952).

After James’ death, Frances and her son, Russell, moved from Albany back to New York City; and both were often cited in the New York Times’ society columns alongside the Astors, the Tiffanys, etc.  During the remainder of her lifetime Frances did not pursue any other botanical activities. She was an advocate of women’s suffrage and an active supporter of the Republican and Progressive Parties (serving as first vice-president of the New York County Republican Committee and as a member of the Republican Women’s State Executive Committee, and managing a successful campaign for New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, when he ran for President of the Board of Aldermen). She participated in activities supporting wounded World War I veterans, the New York City public schools, and the protection of Central Park and traveled widely in Europe. Interestingly, her obituary on June 11, 1952, focuses on her civic accomplishments and barely mentions her four famous botanical books.

In her 1951 autobiography, Frances does not dwell on her personal life, but portrays a way of life and tells inside stories of political intrigue. As one brief online Parsons biography states, “As an intimate of the Roosevelt family, she was well placed to talk about the jockeying for position that went on in state Republican circles. Occasionally, she comments on the position of women or their interests, often seeming surprised at the lack of masculine support for women's rights. Parsons was not a serious botanist or naturalist, but her organizing abilities, thoroughness, and common sense made her books successful. Politics and nature make an interesting combination in her writings.”  I would certainly agree…

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To Commemorate the First Day of School...


Do you know that I've been told
When Grandmama was four years old
She learnt to say her A.B.C.
And went to school like you and me...
But in poor grannie's book
Was only one page--look!
And in case this should be torn
It was covered up with horn
And nailed upon a wooden back
With bits of brass and many a tack.
So remember when you look
At the pictures in your book
That poor Grannie long ago
Had but a HORNBOOK as you know
But learnt to read to write to rhyme
And so will you my dears in time.

Georgie Gaskin, HORNBOOK JINGLES, 1896-7


Hornbooks were most often made of oak, the letters were covered with transparent horn and the whole fastened down with brass strips and tacks. Sometimes leather was used to cover the wood or hold down the letters. Wealthy children had hornbooks made of ivory or silver. Schools used hornbooks made of brass or lead. The text consisted of the alphabet or the alphabet and numbers, or all of the above with the Lord's Prayer.

The hornbook originated in England around 1450 and is mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, act 5, scene 1, where the ba, the a, e, i, o, u, and the horn, are alluded to by Moth:

ARMADO. [To HOLOFERNES] Monsieur, are you not lett'red?
MOTH. Yes, he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward with the horn on his head?
HOLOFERNES. Ba, pueritia, with a horn added.
MOTH. Ba, most silly sheep with a horn. You hear his learning.
HOLOFERNES. Quis, quis, thou consonant?
MOTH. The third of the five vowels, if You repeat them; or the fifth, if I.
HOLOFERNES. I will repeat them: a, e, I-
MOTH. The sheep; the other two concludes it: o, U.

It is also described by Ben Jonson in his play, Volpone, act 4, scene 2:

CORVINO: ... And yet I hope that I may say, these eyes
Have seen her glued unto that piece of cedar,
That fine well-timber'd gallant; and that here
The letters may be read, through the horn,
That make the story perfect.

Use of the hornbook was especially prevalent in the New England colonies.

A picture of a "chapman," who sold hornbooks and chapbooks. (From a drawing first published in Rome in 1646.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie

This pie brings back wonderful memories of childhood when my family would enjoy this sweet dessert at the old Durbin Hotel in Rushville, Indiana and at the Copper Kettle in Morristown. I love this original recipe because the pie is a tad runny rather than the consistency of a firm custard. It comes out great, whether one chooses to use 2% or whole milk or cream.

The Copper Kettle, Morristown, Indiana

The recipe has been traced back to 1816, the year Indiana became a state and has been said to have originated by early Quaker settlers. (See photo of one of my pioneer Quaker great, great, grandmothers.)

This pie was a staple after the fall harvest, when all the fruit was gone. When the settlers would run out of apples and fruit from the fall harvest, they would start making these pies from ingredients available in almost any farmhouse when winter would start and around the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Virtually unheard of outside of Indiana, Sugar Cream Pie officially became Indiana’s State Pie in 2009.

Preheat oven to 410 degrees.


1 unbaked pie crust
¼ cup white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 generous tablespoon butter
2 heaping tablespoons flour
1 pinch salt
Your choice of 2% or whole milk or cream (1-1 ½ cups…enough to fill pie shell).
1 egg yolk
Sprinkle of nutmeg and/or cinnamon

Mix brown and white sugar with flour. Sprinkle flour/sugar mixture over pie crust. Beat egg yolk and butter with milk. Fill pie shell. Take a spoon and swirl it through the milk mixture a couple of times. Sprinkle top with cinnamon or nutmeg.
Bake at 410 degrees for 10 minutes. Then bake at 350 for 45 minutes. The filling should be bubbling. The center should still jiggle. Be careful not to overcook or the filling will not set.

P.S. Sadly, the Durbin Hotel closed years ago, but the Copper Kettle is still serving their famous fried chicken dinners and sugar cream pie!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Maud Lewis – Canadian Folk Artist

Rise above the storm and you will find the sunshine.

During a recent cruise to Halifax, I visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and was delighted to discover the charming works of Nova Scotia folk artist, Maud Lewis (1903-1970). Inspiration can certainly come from unlikely places and through unlikely people...

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Although disfigured and disabled as a result of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, impoverished, untrained, and married to an itinerant fish peddler, Everett Lewis, who "wasn't exactly Prince Charming,” Maud produced, during the last 30 years of her life, a torrent of sparkling, joyous, and uplifting paintings and cards. Her works - painted with old found brushes; a sardine tin palette; and marine, house, or cheap craft paints on found boards, cardboard, shells, stones, and household implements such as trays and dustpans – initially sold for as little as two dollars each. I was told by an antiquarian book dealer who I met in St. John, New Brunswick, that two Maud Lewis paintings sold at auction this summer in New Brunswick for several thousands of dollars each.

You can live without some things if you have something to live for.

Although she was not a formally trained artist, Maud's work demonstrates that she had a strong sense of composition and learned from close observation of any visual material that came her way -- postcards, calendars, greeting cards, etc. Her art has been said to reflect "an inner light that found joy in memories and imaginings of life."

No matter how tall the mountain it can not block out the sun...

Maud lived most of her life in poverty with her husband in a very small (4.1 x 3.8 meters) house near the Bay of Fundy with no indoor plumbing, running water, or electricity; sleeping in a small loft upstairs; and weathering the Marshalltown, Nova Scotia winters with only a woodstove. Because of Maud’s worsening rheumatoid arthritis, she was unable to do housework. Everett took care of the house, gardening and cooking; and Maud decorated every surface of the house, inside and out, and many of its contents with her bright and cheerful painting. The Maud-painted house, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, shows that Maud's life, despite many limitations, was full of enjoyment through her art.

Let your hopes, not your hurts shape your future.

We find in life exactly what we put in it. - Emerson

Maud began her artistic career by hand-drawing Christmas cards. These proved popular with her husband's customers as he sold fish door to door and encouraged her to begin painting. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, tourists stopped by the little house - after seeing her roadside sign, "Paintings for sale" - to purchase her work, and found a quiet woman with a delightful smile. Her pleasure didn't come from the pride of having done a painting, but from the creative act itself and the enjoyment others seemed to derive from her work.

Obstacles are opportunities in disguise.

After Maud’s death in 1970 and, subsequently, Everett’s in 1979, the lovingly painted home began to deteriorate. In reaction, a group of concerned citizens from the Digby area started the Maud Lewis Painted House Society; their only goal - to save this valued landmark. After a number of years of fundraising, the society realized that the project was going to take more resources than they could gather. In 1984, the house was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia and turned over to the care of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In 1996, with funds from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage and from private individuals, the processes of conservation and restoration began. Thus, the final, fully restored house is on permanent display in Halifax at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Maud is the subject of a book, The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, and a stage play has been written about her life. She is also the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary, Maud Lewis - A World without Shadows (1997). In the short film from the I Can Make Art Like... series, a group of Grade 6 students are inspired by Maud Lewis’ works to create a folk art painting of their own downtown neighborhood.

For more information and to purchase Maud Lewis prints, cards and T-shirts, see the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia website and be sure to view their interactive website about the moving and restoration of Maud’s little house, as well as the virtual tour.

Great people are ordinary people with extraordinary amounts of determination.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cassandra's Favorite Recipe for Maryland Crab Cakes

This is my favorite - moist and flavorful. Many cooks use French's yellow mustard and dry breadcrumbs, but I love the flavor of the Coleman's dry mustard and the use of day-old bread crumbles to make a truly great crab cake!

Serves 4

2 slices bread, crusts removed and crumbled
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons OLD BAY® Seasoning
2 teaspoons fresh chopped parsley
1 teaspoon Coleman’s Dry Mustard
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 egg, beaten
1 pound lump crabmeat

1. Carefully remove any cartilage or shell from crabmeat.
2. In a bowl, mix bread, mayonnaise, OLD BAY, parsley, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and egg in large bowl until well blended. Gently stir in crabmeat.
3. Shape into 4 patties.
4. Broil 10 minutes without turning or sauté both sides in a frying pan in butter or canola oil until golden brown on both sides. Sprinkle with additional OLD BAY, if desired.

Serve with Worcestershire sauce or fresh lemon wedges and white wine or beer. Enjoy!

Love this poem about crab cakes!

A Tasty Summer Memory

As summer officially draws to a close with this upcoming Labor Day weekend, I would like to share with you a quintessentially Maryland summer experience.

During the hazy heat of July, we were treated to a tasty Maryland tradition – a Chesapeake bayside luncheon “picking” crabs. Our hosts motored us on their beautiful boat, the “Bayrunner," across the Chesapeake Bay from the state capital of Annapolis on the western shore of Maryland to Rock Hall on the eastern shore – destination: Waterman’s Crab House!

The Maryland blue crab, Callinectes Sapidus , which means "beautiful swimmer," contains the sweetest and tenderest of meats. One can be lazy and order crabcakes, crab imperial, crab Norfolk-style or even soft shells, but a true Marylander must order at least a half bushel – preferably jumbos or extra larges - and surround a brown paper- or newspaper-covered table for the L-O-N-G time it takes to sit with friends and/or family and some pitchers of cold beer to pick the crabs clean of their sweet goodness. You get dirty as you eat, so plenty of paper towels are at hand!

Before the crabs are brought to the table, they must be steamed gently with rock salt and some beer and seasoned liberally with Old Bay Seasoning – a combination of celery salt, mustard, pepper, laurel leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cassia, and paprika – manufactured by the Baltimore Spice Company.

The only tools necessary for removing the meat from the shells are a wooden mallet and your fingers! You will also need a bucket in which to discard the shells and other inedible parts.

Here’s how we pick crabs in 7 easy steps:
1) Pick out a crab – grab one with both claws!
2) Bend or twist the legs and claws to snap them off at the body. Set the claws aside. There is not much meat (if any) in the legs so put them in the shell bucket.
3) Pull off the "apron" with a knife or with your fingers - simply slip your finger under the edge of the point and pull down. It should pull off easily.

4) Pry the shell away from the body using both hands and pulling the crab halves in opposite directions.
5) Flip the crab over. Remove the squishy, grey gills and discard in the bucket. The yellow stuff -colloquially known as the "mustard" - is edible.
6) Crack the crab in two. Pull out any loose crabmeat and eat it. Crack the halves and extract the meat and eat the wonderful lump meat!
7) Hold both sides of the crab claw and break apart. The claw meat should come off on the claw. If not, break the claw with your mallet. The other half of the claw has meat as well. Break it off at the joint. If this doesn't yield meat, hit it with your mallet.

Repeat this process with as many crabs as you can eat!

This short video illustrates the process well.

In Maryland, we do NOT use butter on our crabmeat – that’s for Maine’s lobsters! The sweet meat is eaten plain, or dipped in even more Old Bay, apple cider vinegar, and/or Worcestershire sauce.

THIS is what summer tastes like in Maryland!

The medieval-inspired flag of Maryland – did you know that the state sport is jousting?!

The Maryland state flower: the Black-eyed Susan…

Beatrix & Friends...

Frolicking Lambs

Cassandra Follows...