Culinary Matriarch Commanded Legendary NOLA Restaurant

Ella Brennan was a  giant among restaurateurs in New Orleans as was her reputation for establishing and running one of this country’s most renowned culinary institutions, Commander’s PalaceShe died this past week at age 92 leaving her daughter, Ti, and niece, Lally, to carry on the reputation of operating  the prestigious restaurant located on the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the  Garden District of New Orleans.

Whether you arrive by carriage or car, Commander’s Palace is ready to serve you.

Indeed, Commander’s has become part of my own tradition since my husband and I  started going to New Orleans 17 years ago.  We originally went to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.  We’ve returned year after year for a winter-break.  Usually, we only stay a week, but it’s been enough time for us to become very familiar with the city and its outlying area, to make some very good friends and to sample lots of good food all over the city in its too many to mention restaurants.

The mosaic seal in the lobby at Commander’s Palace notes the year it was established.

Every year, however, Commander’s is at the top of our list as the way we start our visit.  It has become our personal tradition to make the Garden District restaurant our first stop for Sunday jazz brunch.  Without brunch at Commander’s I honestly don’t know how to begin our trip.  There have been a couple of years when I failed to phone early enough (a month in advance is advised) to book our table and no reservation was available.  Fortunately, Jimmy, the reservation agent who I’ve come to know over the years, told me to call back a few days before our given Sunday because often there will be an opening.  When I did, as I had to do this year, we’ve managed to get in.  I have been so thankful for this accommodation on these times that I now take a little box of chocolates for Jimmy in gratitude.

Ti Martin, one of the restaurant owners, right, in a photo with me during one of my visits.

What makes Commander’s so special is not only the delicious Creole-style food served on its menu (recently updated by current executive chef Tory McPhail who hails from nearby Ferndale, WA.), but its impeccable service, lovely surroundings, fun, relaxing atmosphere, the jazz music played while you eat and Southern hospitality shown by its owners, Ella, her sister Dottie, and the aforementioned Ti and Lally.  Whenever Ti and Lally are in-house, they tend to alternate shifts, they make it a point to walk through their dining rooms to greet and check on their customers, whether or not they know them.

Birthdays celebrants at Commander’s are presented with a chef’s hat along with your dessert, like this bread pudding soufflé.

I’ve had wonderful conversations with them both over the years, had the chance to introduce them to friends who’ve joined us for the meal and to tell them time and again how much I love their restaurant.  I have celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and Carnival with friends and family there, just as many New Orleanians do.  I’ve seen parties of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who’ve come in after church, all wearing a single strand of pearls, to celebrate a special occasion.  I’ve enjoyed overhearing excited chats by tables of tourists experiencing Commanders for the first time.  And I’ve had the immense pleasure of taking my own friends and family their for their first meal.

Ella Brennan’s restaurant is more than just a place to eat fine food, it’s a place where these sort of traditions are established and carried on by generations of patrons, for whom, like myself, life or a visit in New Orleans is unheard of without Commander’s.

Reopening after Hurricane Katrina, Commander’s hung out its ‘Now Hiring’ sign. My friend, Mary Lou and I were among the first diners that year.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, leaving considerable damage to Commander’s as well as the rest of the Garden District, largely due to the high force winds, people wondered if Commander’s would re-open.  For the Brennan ladies in charge, there apparently was no question.  They took the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild and renovate. It took them more than a year.

I walked by the winter after the storm to find it all boarded up.  But then I returned the following year when it was back in business, listened to Lally as she described to me the full extent of the restoration and relished in the fact that it, like New Orleans, was resilient and determined to get back on its feet, despite a lack of support from some in government.  That was the year that I talked with the group of women sitting at the table next to me, heard their ‘storm stories’ and learned that their Episcopal church had been the recipient of recovery funds from the Episcopalian diocese in Washington state.  Their gratitude was touching.

Typically, I ask for a table in the dining area overlooking Commander’s tree-covered courtyard because I feel more like a ‘local’ there and enjoy sitting at eye-level with the big, gnarly branches of the Southern oak that stretches over it.  The chairs are cushioned and tables are arranged with plenty of room between for the jazz trios that play during brunch (one usually cruises downstairs while a second plays upstairs) to maneuver their instruments, including a stand-up bass, between to play requests. Every now and then, diners are coaxed into a joining a ‘second line’to wave their napkins as they wind through the dining room.

Brunch guests join the restaurant’s jazz trio in an impromptu second line parade through the dining room.

The menu is extensive and all of it tasty.  I tend to order the breakfast entrees, rather than the luncheon selections, whenever we go but had the pecan-crusted gulf fish this year instead of my favorite Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict.  Of course you must order a ‘starter’ to begin–the turtle soup is always popular as is the gumbo but I usually opt for a seasonal salad, quite often topped with fresh, local strawberries.  I always save room for dessert because Commander’s creole bread pudding soufflé with whiskey cream sauce is not to be missed!  It’s a once a year splurge that I’m not willing to pass up.  And to drink, a Bloody Mary or Mimosa followed by chicory coffee for those, unlike me, who consume coffee.

Commander’s courtyard and the trumpet on break during a Sunday brunch.

While the food is wonderful, it’s the little touches that make the meal even more memorable–fresh, crusty French bread laid on the table in a wrapped white linen napkin nearly as soon as you sit down; bus boys and girls who refill your water the instant the level drops much below two-thirds of a glass; the simultaneous serving of each course by the black and white attired wait staff; the cheery, welcome by the maitre d’ the minute you step in the door and of course the personal table visits by the owners.

After eating, I enjoy strolling through the rest of the restaurant, including a stop in the spacious and sparkling clean kitchen (the swinging doors leading into it are labeled “Yes” and “No”) where you can watch the amazing cook staff in action.  There is even a table in the kitchen where diners can sit and watch the show if you reserve it.

Diners are welcome and can even eat in the kitchen where you can watch the cook staff in action.

If it’s Carnival season, as it was this year when I was in town, you’re invited to go watch the parades moving along St. Charles Street just a few blocks away and welcome to return to Commander’s for the toilet should the need arise.  Or, if not, we wander through the historic neighborhood, admiring the elegant, old homes there, which include Miss Brennan’s herself located right next door to the restaurant.  If someone is with us who has never visited the city before, we walk through the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, across the street, the oldest city-operated cemetery where the tombs are above-ground and the statuary and inscriptions represent New Orleans’ rich history.

The elegant dining room on the main floor of Commander’s Palace as viewed through the glass window in the restaurant’s lobby.

For me, Commander’s is the consummate culinary experience with outstanding food, unsurpassed service and Southern hospitality at its finest. These are the qualities that Ella Brennan insisted be carried out in her beloved restaurant. They are standards to which other eating establishments throughout the U.S. have aspired to achieve as a result. Whether or not you’ve ever been to Commander’s it’s possible that you’ve eaten somewhere that has been influenced by her example.

If you’ve not yet been to the New Orleans restaurant, I hope you’ll consider making it part of your visit when you go.  But be forewarned, it still maintains a dress code that is enforced although it’s been relaxed some in recent years.  I guarantee it will be a culinary experience you’ll not forget and it might become, as it has for us, a new tradition.

 

 

Totem Memorializes Local Tragedy

On this weekend in the U.S., people are honoring the memories of the country’s military  who died in action. But another memorial is on my mind today prompted by an article that appeared the other day in the local newspaper.  That is the beautiful totem pole memorial that stood along the trail of Whatcom Creek on the edgeof Whatcom Falls Park in our city.

The healing totem was especially beautiful in the spring when the trees surrounding it flowered.

Sadly, the totem was recently removed, I read in the Bellingham Herald after someone vandalized and ‘tagged’ the pole with graffiti.  Not long ago, a friend of mine had told me that the box that sat atop the pole, was missing and wondered why.  Now the entire pole and the two carved wooden benches that sat beside it are gone after city workers removed them and placed them in protective storage until they can be restored.

While the city’s action is commendable, that of the vandals was disrespectful and, frankly, inexcusable.  I am giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt that they apparently are unaware of that they not only did they deface a significant Native artwork, but in so doing they insulted the artist, the Lummi Nation and the families of those killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion for whom the pole was intended to memorialize.

The vibrant, bold colors of the totem can be seen in this detail of a salmon.

The 15-foot cedar log pole was created by the Lummi House of Tears carvers under the direction of Lummi Nation’s master carver Jewell James. Its bright, bold and beautiful paint was applied under the supervision of head painter Ramona James.  The pole took months to carve and paint before finally being erected and dedicated during an Earth Day ceremony in 2007.   “The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” carver James told American Profile reporter Heather Larson.

James referred to the three boys–Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovras, both 10, who were killed when the Olympic pipeline (now owned by British Petroleum) carrying gasoline exploded dumping an estimated 277,000 gallons into the creek that runs through Whatcom Falls Park, located in the middle of Bellingham.  Liam was fishing after having just graduated from high school; Wade and Stephen were playing, as they often did together, further down creek.  It was a day that darkened the sky over Bellingham as the black cloud billowed above the park.  The explosion literally stopped life in town as everyone, myself included, wondered what had happened and emergency first responders rushed to the site.

Lummi Nation master carver Jewell James speaks at the dedication ceremony.

The explosion made national news, changed national pipeline regulation (although the families of those who died will tell you not enough) and some believe awoke Bellingham to the dangers that unregulated and aging pipelines pose for not only our city, but others like it throughout the country.

Lummi Nation tribal members as well as family and Bellingham community members gathered on April 20, 2007 to dedicate the healing totem.

I was present, along with a few others, on the day of Lummi Nation gave and dedicated the totem and benches to the city. The ceremony was emotional and moving with other Pacific Northwest Native Nations witnessing the event in order to pass the story along to the next generation. Those gathered listened solemnly as carver James spoke eloquently about the need to promote healing for all those impacted by the explosions, wildlife as well as human life, and about the importance of being good stewards of the environment.  Members of the Lummi Nation, also delivered a heartfelt messages for the family members attending. Lummi drummers and flutists played.  Blankets were draped around the shoulders of the deceased boys’ young friends, now high school students, participating in the unveiling during the ceremony.

The parents of Wade King, Frank and Mary, watch as their son’s personal belongings are placed into the memorial box on the totem.

Then, James asked the family members of the victims to bring forward the items that they had brought to be placed into the memorial box positioned atop the totem.  One by one the personal belongings of Stephen and Wade were handed up the tall ladder to the tribal member who carefully laid them inside.  A teddy bear, a baseball card and cap were among the things. The lid was fitted tightly and sealed.  Tears streamed down the faces of not only the family members but others who were that day.

And, as the ceremony was ending, two solitary eagles soared and glided over head, just as James had told Wade’s mother, Mary, earlier that day that they would.

As if on cue, two majestic eagles appeared, silhouetted in the sky, as the totem’s dedication ceremony concluded.

It was a day I’ll never forget.  When I read about the vandalism of the totem and its removal, my heart ached.  The city is apparently intent on repairing and restoring the totems and benches but in the meantime, there is a huge emptiness where they stood in the opening by the creek. The runners, walkers and visitors who pass by it will miss it.  The totem served as a somber, dignified reminder, as well as a memorial, to those who tragically died on that early June day in Bellingham.  That’s what’s on my mind this Memorial Day.

Tourists and Locals Love Tulip Time

It’s tulip time in many parts of the U.S. and nowhere are the tulips more colorful and splendorous than in Washington’s Skagit Valley.  Fields and fields of the highly valued bulb are grown for commercial sales.  Each year at this time, the area plays host to thousands of visitors who come for the annual Tulip Festival.  The exits from Interstate 5 which skirt the town of Mount Vernon and connects Vancouver B.C. to the north with Seattle to the south are literally backed up for miles with cars making their way on the weekends to see the rainbow-colored floral fields.

(I last wrote about the tulips here.)

Farmer workers in the fields help to create interest and perspective when photographing the tulips.

As a local, I have the luxury and advantage of being able to go to the fields on a weekday and avoiding the crowds.  I also get to pick my day, waiting for the weather to clear.  And so I did earlier this week when I awoke to sunny skies at sunrise.  When I go, I’m out the door by 7 a.m. to make the 20-mile scenic drive south so as to arrive by 7:30, even earlier is better.  By arriving about the same time as do the field workers, I not only miss the multitudes of tourists but I have better light for photographing these gorgeous flowers.  The dew is often still on the petals, the colors are bright and the sky is bluer. (That can of course be boosted with the help of a filter over your lens or later manipulated digitally in post-production.)

In the early morning light, the dew shimmers on the flowers.

I never know exactly which field I’ll work in unless I scout them ahead of time, as I did this year when I drove down to get the required permit from the RoozenGaarde growers that allows professional photographers to go into the fields without scrutiny from the field foreman.  I pick one spot because the light changes so quickly that by the time you’ve moved from one place to another, you’ve  lost the optimal conditions.  I “work the location,” capturing the chosen field from as many different angles as I can,  studying the surroundings to maximize what’s there and letting the location be my guide as to what and how to photograph it.

Sitting at the end of the field, boxes of bundled blooms await transport to be distributed to sellers in the area.

Some years I feel more productive than others. I rarely concentrate on just the flowers themselves. I try to make use of whatever is present: field workers, farm implements, signs, other artists or photographers who might be there, farm buildings to help create a sense of place.  When I  focus on the flowers, I strive to find different ways to photograph them and try to zero in on a particular feature or color.  If I decide to photograph the field en masse, I look for the overall impact of color or the setting.  Until I’m in the editing and post-production process  I often don’t know how I ultimately want to treat an image.

After years of having done this, I know how to dress. The fields are frequently muddy and the early a.m. air chilly.  I dress for the conditions.  Jeans and a sweatshirt are must with a warm jacket that I can shed if it should warm up, as it did this year.

Snow-capped Mount Baker rises in the distance and creates contrast with the multi-colored fields of flowers. I used a dry brush treatment in post-production to create a painterly feel to the scene.

Gloves with the fingertips cut out are also handy for those times when the morning temperatures are cold.  I also wear my insulated ‘muck’ shoes that I use for gardening because they are warm and wash off easily.  After years of crawling around in the dirt with a gardening pad, I now strap on heavy-duty knee guards so that I don’t have to scoot around on a pad and can literally get on my hands and knees to  get the shot I want.

Get down low, look up and see the tulips from a different angle to create an out of the ordinary perspective. Not how the tulips shine from the underside.

Equipment-wise, everyone has their own preferences. A UV lens filter is a must. I stick with my zoom lenses and fit close-up filters over them for really tight shots. Sometimes I use a tripod, sometimes not.  And a lens hood helps to block out annoying light flares.  I don’t spend a lot of time switching lenses or cameras in part because it creates less risk of getting damaging dirt on my sensitive digital gear.  I find it’s better  and sometimes more interesting to work within the parameters of my equipment.

I don’t make the trek to the tulips every year but this year I did as a way to unwind and relax after months of preparing for the film festival of which I now head up.  Usually I’ll take a friend along with me. This year I did it solo and enjoyed the time to myself.  No matter how you go, alone, with family or friends, these beautiful blooms are sure to restore your soul and remind you how wonderful the spring season is.

My last photo of the morning was a self-portrait still wearing my knee guards and muck shoes.

Sip a Brew, Have a View at Fairhaven Artwalk

March is Women’s History Month.  And while I’m not history yet, I  was invited by  Stone’s Throw Brewery to show some of my photographic art from my portfolio this month because I  am a woman photographer .

The collection on display at Stone’s Throw Brewery includes images taken at Mount Baker National Forest.

Brewery co-owners Tony Luciano and Jack Pfluege selected six images from my art portfolio to display on their walls in celebration of women, art and adventure. The two are alumni of Western Washington University who returned to Bellingham to follow their dream of creating a brewery that would truly capture the spirit of sustainability, community, and adventure.  It’s a cozy little place nestled in Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven district.  Over the past two years, Stone’s Throw has developed a steady clientele who  come to enjoy the friendly atmosphere, sit on the sunny upstairs deck, warm up by the fire pit in their beer garden or  listen to the music by played by locals in the evening while sipping a glass of their tasty beer accompanied by barbecue, pizza or sandwiches provided by nearby restaurants or visiting food trucks.

The Pacific Northwest is a paddler’s paradise precisely because of evening’s like this.

On March 31st, Stone’s Throw will host its second anniversary Block Party, a good way to kick off the spring.

But before then, this upcoming Friday, March 23, the brewery will be one of the stops on the Fairhaven Fourth Friday Art Walk from 5 to 8:30 p.m.  Yours truly will be there to welcome gallery strollers and to share stories about the prints in the show and about my photography art work.

One of six prints now on exhibit through April at the Stone’s Throw Brewery. The Tulip Truck was taken in the Skagit Valley tulip fields.

The six prints selected represent only a small portion of my portfolio some of which can be found on-line in my Art Prints album  or in my Beauty of Bellingham album. Some of the images in these albums you may have seen before on the programs, brochures or websites of the Bellingham Festival of Music or CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival.  The prints in the Stone’s Throw show are all available for purchase and are large, wall-sized art prints framed and ready to display in your business or home.  Some are available in other sizes so if you see one you like but need a different size to fit your space, let me know.

The beauty of Chuckanut Drive has long caught the eye of photographers, my own being no exception.

All the images were made here in Bellingham’s backyard: on the water, at the mountain, in town or in nearby Skagit Valley. They represent an aspect of my photography work that I don’t often publicly display, although it can be readily found on the Fine Art page of my website.  During the two months of the show, I thought it would be fun to share with you the stories behind each here on my blog.

I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do. Please stop by the Brewery on March 23rd during the Art Walk. for a brew and a view.

 

 

Ice Castle Brrrrrrings Fanciful Fun to Winter Weather

When you were a kid did you ever bundle up when the big snow hit, run outside and build a snowman, or a snow house or fort?  I did.  I don’t recall receiving the kind of heavy snows that hit much of the U.S. this week during my years growing up in the Midwest, but there were plenty of winter days that enough of the cold, white snow blanketed the ground to  build a couple of small walls in my aunt’s big vacant lot. We lobbed packed snowballs back and forth at each other by popping up and ducking behind these freezing fortresses until we were so cold and wet that a truce was called and we retreated indoors to warm up with steaming cups of hot chocolate with sticky sweet marshmallows floating on top.

An Ice Castle visitor emerges from the tunnel entry to the open cavern.

Our childhood’s frozen fortresses were fun but nowhere as fancy as the elaborate Ice Castle I visited last winter in Midway, Utah.  I was in Midway attending a film festival conference when, during one of the evening’s gatherings, everyone was invited to see the Ice Castle at the Homestead Resort where we were staying.  It was late, and cold, and I was tired from sitting in meetings all day.  But those who had been at the conference before told me that I must go out and see the castle.

The centerpiece of the castle was a giant birthday cake-like sculpture that inspired an uplifting response from this visitor.

Having no idea what exactly to expect, I grabbed my camera and carefully made my way down the snowy path behind the resort until I came to a lighted entrance. Even as I stepped past the attendants at the arched entry, I didn’t anticipate what was coming.  I walked through an illuminated blue tunnel of icy stalactites looming high above me that revealed at the end to a spectacular, snowy open cavern surrounded by 20 to 35-foot high and 10-foot thick walls of ice.  Sitting in the center was a towering singular free-form sculpture lit like a big birthday cake with light that changed color every few minutes.

People are literally on their hands and knees as they navigate through some of the ice castle’s tunnels.

Off on the sides and built into the walls were tunnels through which other conference attendees were carefully crawling or walking as they took in the beauty of the icy formation that encased them.  At the far end stood the slickest slipper slide I’d ever seen down which sliders sped on their tushes like two human toboggans. The dark silhouettes of bulky-clad visitors wandered the shimmering structure, disappearing in and out of the walls, convening in the center to look like eerie explorers in a strange frigid landscape.

Coming together in the open cavern, the silhouettes of castle visitors look like explorers in an eerie frigid world.

The Ice Castle is a man-made creation designed by a crew of artists who put it together by growing individual icicles and attaching them to one another until they are absorbed into the larger structure. Brent Christensen created the first ice castle creation for his daughter in his front yard of Alpine, Utah. Converting his hobby into a company, he founded the $2 million business, Ice Castles.  His first public installation was constructed in Midway in 2011 at the Zermatt Resort.  It was so popular that he expanded to include his four partners. Today, their company builds ice castles in six locations in the U.S. and Canada and attracts more than a million visitors.  A crew of 50 now do what Brent once did alone.

The water freezes into unpredictable shapes, like this ice feather.

More than just a wintry wonder, the Ice Castles are the setting for outdoor winter concerts, weddings, family outings and conference attractions, like the one I attended.  Of course, the success and the ability of the ice artists to come up with these  castles is weather-dependent.  They start in the fall spraying water through a system of sprinklers onto metal racks that grow the icicles harvested by Christensen’s team and attached to scaffolding that eventually becomes totally covered by ice and develops into unpredictable shapes.

Looking up when walking through one of the tunnels, stalactites stare perilously down upon you.

Yes, walking through a tunnel with thousands of pounds of ice hanging down above you is a bit disconcerting though Ice Castles assures you it’s safe because of the way it is constructed.  The longer you stay, however, the more you’re overcome by the sheer magic of the icy-blue beauty of the castle.  Trepidation is taken over the fascination for how the castle is created and how something so simple as water can transform itself into such an enchanting experience.  Although helped in the process by human touch, Christensen’s ice castles provide yet another reminder of nature’s amazing majesty, even when temperatures are well below freezing.

 

 

Holiday Card Delivers Childhood Memory

In case you missed it, December 7 was not only Pearl Harbor Day here in the States, it also is designated as National Letter Writing Day.  This was not something I knew either until I heard about it on a piece aired on National Public Radio.  I’m not sure who selected Pearl Harbor Day to be the same day as encouraging and celebrating people putting pen to paper. It’s not an official federal holiday (there are only 10 of those), but it’s a nice idea to recognize the value of what is rapidly becoming a lost art especially as the holiday season kicks off.

I refer of course to the annual holiday letter that comes (or came) enclosed with many of the holiday greeting cards that arrive.  To be sure, e-mail and social media outlets, particularly Facebook, have lessened the perceived need for a letter detailing the events of the previous year.  Some of my friends have simply moved their letters from the cards to their e-mail outbox although I still print them for myself once I have received one.

Bicycle Trio
My brother and I with Arlyne stop for a photo during a day of bicycle riding at our house.

I’m carrying on the tradition because there are those who don’t read or follow me on any sort of social media and also because I enjoy recalling for myself and setting it down for the record the activities, travels, life events of my year. This was called to my attention this week not only by the NPR article but also with the receipt of a brief holiday letter from my childhood friend, Arlyne, along with her Christmas card. Arlyne lived across the busy Main Street (also a highway) from the motel my parents owned and where we lived. We spent countless days together as playmates running back and forth across the street.

Fortunately, Arlyne’s card arrived early because she’s moved and I would have had no other way of knowing this. Tucked into her card were three postcards. I assume she came across these when moving (she’s had several rummage sales with more to come). The postcards were written to her by me when vacationing with my parents. I was particularly grateful for one of them because it was written (clearly by my mother but signed by me) on a trip to the Pacific Northwest in 1960.

The greeting card I received from my friend along with her holiday letter and my postcards.

“Dear Arlyne,” it began, “I went to Wash. Sat. & got to go on my uncle’s ship, the Coral Sea & ate dinner on it.  We were on it for 4 1/2 hours & still didn’t see everything. It is as long as 3 football fields & 20 stories high. There are 3,000 sailors on it. Got to ride on a Ferry for an hr. Love Cheryl”

Why this was such a treat to receive was because I have always remembered visiting that ship.  I particularly remember how terrifying small I felt next to the huge iron links of the anchor chain as we toured through that room. But I wasn’t certain exactly when my family visited the aircraft carrier and now that they are gone, I no longer had them to ask.  My uncle, who is still living and sailor-sharp for the most part, remembers our visit but couldn’t recall the exact year.

My uncle in uniform waves to us from the dock near his aircraft carrier, the Coral Sea.

It’s really not an important detail to anyone else but to me, but my friend Arlyne’s gift of an old postcard, validated my memory of that day and gave it a date.  That she still had this postcard after this many years and decided to send it on to me with her Christmas card and letter instead of tossing it out when she moved was truly fortunate for me.

Historians and biographers yearn for this sort of material when conducting research about their subjects.  But fewer and fewer of us are sitting down to actually write a letter, at the holidays or any other time. It’s  creating a crises of sorts.  As much as it is convenient and wonderful, electronic mail and social media (including blogs such as my own), are not proven to be permanent document of record.  Accepted in court proceedings as legal documents, yes, but whether they will last as records of history remains to be seen.  In the meantime, I’ll happily continue to send a holiday letter along with my greeting card and will welcome yours if you do so too!

On one of my many visits home to see my parents, I sat down with Arlyne at my parents dining table to show her something, photos probably, on my laptop. We still keep in touch every Christmas and on birthdays.

A Legacy of Canned Love

This Tuesday,  Nov. 20th, would have been my Dad’s 98th birthday.  It doesn’t always fall this close to Thanksgiving but it did the year my Mother’s passed away.  That was an especially emotional Thanksgiving for all of us.  My family celebrated the holiday with my Dad at my brother’s home in Kansas just days after my Mother’s funeral and my Dad’s 93rd birthday.

My Dad died two years later.  Although he’s no longer here to eat Thanksgiving dinner with us, we still enjoy the fruits of gardening and cooking with the few remaining jars of canned food that he left us. It’s almost as if he’s still sharing a meal with us.

My Dad loved working in his garden and canned the bounty he harvested.

Canning the tomatoes, beets, green beans and cucumbers harvested from his garden brought him great pleasure.  Often, a jar of tomatoes, green relish, piccalilli or, his favorite, stickles would wind up under the Christmas tree as a holiday gift from my Dad.

My Dad’s gardening hat and his hand sickle along with the jars of canned vegetables he made are touching reminders of his love for growing his own food.

Sadly, I didn’t care for the stickles until  recently when I snapped open a jar sitting on my pantry shelf.  I taste tested a tiny bite to determine if the stickle was still safe to eat.  To my surprise, I found it deliciously sweet, not at all what I had expected.  For those of you unfamiliar with this down home delicacy, stickles are made from cucumbers with white vinegar, some drops of green food coloring, celery seed, sugar, some lime and salt. The cucumbers are cut lengthwise into strips and come out sweet and much different from traditional pickles.  My Dad had tried hard to convince me that I would like them but as I’m not a big fan of cucumbers I never did.

My Dad’s handwritten recipes along with the cookbook he liked to use when cooking.

Another favorite of his was pickalilli, a sort of relish made with tomatoes. I think I have only one jar of this remaining. I can remember my Dad saying “Um, that’s good!” when he’d eat a spoonful.

After adding some spoonfuls of his green relish (foreground jar), my Dad samples the filling for his deviled eggs for Thanksgiving.

He also made sweet green tomato relish that he’d mix into the filling for the deviled eggs that he made to that Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s home.  I’m taking deviled eggs as an appetizer to my friends’ Thanksgiving dinner this year.  There’s a jar of that relish on my refrigerator shelf. I may add some to give the egg filling a little more zip.

Of all his canned creations that we still have, I love the ‘pear honey ‘ the best. I have only one jar left. It’s half empty now. I covet every single spoonful that I spread onto my warm toast, usually for Sunday morning brunch.

I have fond memories of my Dad associated with the pear jam.  It springs from the day that we were driving back to his home after a visit to my brother in Kansas City.  My Dad spotted an aged pear tree growing in a field alongside the highway. The tree obviously had not been pruned or tended for a long time. At my Dad’s request, I pulled over to the shoulder and parked.  He slid out, taking a plastic grocery bag with him as he headed for the tree. “Um boy,” he exclaimed. “Look at all these good pears. These will make some good pear honey.”  I could almost hear him smack his lips.

Spotted growing beside the road, my Dad picks pears from an old tree to take home for cooking and canning.

The few jars left on my shelf are each labeled with the contents in my Dad’s handwriting on a strip of masking tape. I think I’m not going to remove the label when the jar is finally empty because it will still be filled with memories .

 

Celebrating Autumn’s Bounty at Cloud Mountain

Cloud Mountain Farm Center’s Fruit Festival celebrates the bounty of fall.

Fall was in full season at the Fruit Festival this past weekend at the Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, a small town that lies right on the Canadian border.  Until a few years ago, the festival was known as the Harvest Festival and the place was a working farm and native plant nursery known as Cloud Mountain Farm.

My friends, Cheryl and Tom Thornton, owned and operated the farm for 33 years. Seven years ago, the farm was converted into a non-profit learning center dedicated to providing hands-on learning experiences to aspiring farmers, experienced farmers, and home gardeners, continuing the work the Thorntons have always done through the years.

A volunteer shows two youngsters how to press apples for cider.

The Thorntons still live at the farm but now they are joined everyday by as many as eight paid interns who participate in an eight-month educational program to learn the practices of good, sustainable farm techniques. They study plant propagation, tree fruit production, viticulture, market development, and vegetable production to prepare them to be farm owners, key farm employees or entrepreneurs and professionals involved in the agricultural industry or advocacy.

People from all over the region seek out Tom’s advice and expertise.

At the heart of it, of course, are my friends, Cheryl and Tom.  Cheryl handles most of the business and marketing side of the farm, as she has done for years.  Tom oversees the hands-on educational side, as he has done for years becoming one of, if not the apple expert in Washington state and maybe the region.  People from all over have brought their fruit and vegetable-growing questions to Tom and learned from his expertise through the hundreds of workshops he’s conducted for weekend gardeners and industry professionals.

My husband and I headed out to the farm yesterday morning, as we have done in many years past but not recently, to see what was going on. Although the day was cloudy (it is Cloud Mountain remember?) and chilly, the back field by the grape vines were already full of cars when we arrived shortly after it opened. Little kids were scampering down the road from the field to the festival area with their parents close behind.  Lines were already formed at the tasting tent where visitors could sample all the different types of apples, pears, cherries, grapes grown on the farm.

I stopped off first at the farm’s main barn to say ‘Hello’ to Cheryl, who was at the register checking out festival goers purchasing  five-pound bags of apples and pears. As she became busier, I wandered off to a hot-house where the band, Bridge, had begun to play.

The band, Bridge, entertained while festival goers sampled fruit.

Music has always been part of the festival and listening to Bridge reminded of the year that the band in which my sons and Thorntons’ daughter, Julia, performed at the festival. They were middle-schoolers at the time, all students of musician Ginny Snowe, a wonderful piano teacher who had put the band together in a summer music camp. The kids turned out to be so enthusiastic and good that they stayed together long after the camp to write music and play gigs at schools, festivals and other events.

While still middle schoolers, the band Switch played at Cloud Mountain’s Harvest Festival.

Known as Switch, their little band actually launched the music careers of some of the band members, including Julia who’s now a professional musical director and pianist; Jeff, who’s rapidly becoming one of the country’s best classical saxophonists and finishing up a PhD at the University of Michigan; and my son, Marshall, a drummer who’s plays professionally with several bands in Seattle one of them being, until recently the funk band, The Fabulous Party Boys.  (The band was a subject of another of my blog posts.)

Take a guess at the weight of the pumpkin and win a prize if you’re right.

Julia also grew pumpkins that she harvested each fall and sold at the festival to earn money for college. The pile of pumpkins is still there but Julia no longer grows them. Her sister, Cara, however, had brought her young daughters from Seattle for the day to help out and perhaps start another family tradition at the festival.

Sue swirls caramel onto an apple during the Fruit Festival.

As Bridge played, volunteers Sue and Burt Weber, twirled thick, yummy caramel around Cloud Mountain apples to hand to young customers. Cooks from Bellingham’s restaurant, Keenan’s, was serving up tasty snack dishes made from local products at the farm at another table. And another volunteer was answering questions and sharing material about the farm center at a third table.

I headed over to the tasting tent where Tom was slicing up pieces of pears for people. He handed me a slice of Rescue, a pair so named because, as he explained, a nursery grower near Vancouver, Washington (Buckley, WA. to be exact) found the species and saved the tree from being destroyed.  The fruit was sweet and buttery and nearly melted in my mouth.  Next, Tom gave me sample of the Seckel pear,that Tom said is considered native to Pennsylvania, maybe the only true American pears. It’s said to be named after a local farmer who found a “wild sapling” growing on a farm just outside Philadelphia late 1700’s, according to some accounts.  The small, reddish-brown pear has a creamy texture and a sweet taste.

Considered the only true American pear, the Seckel was found growing wild on a farm in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s.

My taste tests were interrupted by another pear sampler who had questions for Tom about her own pear trees. This is the kind of thing that happens to Tom all the time, no matter where he is because gardeners and growers locally know that he carries a wealth of agricultural information in his head.

I moved on to the cherry and grape tables before calling it a morning.  People were still arriving as we climbed back into our car with the carton of Cloud Mountain cider and a bag of  apples.  A visit to their farm is always special and welcome, but particularly went the Fall Fruit Festival is underway.  If you missed it this year, there will be another next year.  It’s a great way to start the season and to celebrate the beauty and bounty of this fabulous farm.

Parting Shots to Last a Lifetime

Western Washington University here in Bellingham welcomed back its 14,000 students this week as classes for the fall quarter got underway.  Hundreds of students, faculty and staff, led by WWU President Sabah Randwana, walked together from the hilltop campus to downtown for the Paint B’Ham Blue celebration, now in its second year. But before the evening procession, students and parents went through their own ritual of saying good-by to one another.

My son, center, was busily making new friends before the traditional procession through the streets of the campus and too busy to notice that I was capturing the moment.

A week or two earlier, I watched as my neighbor’s son packed his car up to head back to college and as his parents followed as he pulled out the drive, his mother, camera in hand, snapping a few last photos as he drove off.  I was enjoying the moment and reliving in my own mind the same experience when my own sons left home and I said good-by knowing that life at home would never be the same.

Like my neighbors, I too snapped photos of my sons as they either packed up, unpacked or departed for their years away at college.  With each one, the last good-by was a little different and full of mixed emotions.  I’m sure those of you who’ve had children can vividly recall that day of departure, whether it was heading off to college or to living on their own.

During a visit to University of Oregon, my son Matthew consented to a photo at the main gate of the campus. Doesn’t he look thrilled? Still, I love this photo.

I’m glad to have the photos I took on those memorable days.  When I look back at them, the memories come rushing back as fresh as the day it happened.  Those snapshots give me a tangible tie to that moment in time and I was heartened to see my neighbor going through the same motions that I had gone through 10 years ago.  I first wrote about those good-byes four years ago in my blog post “Autumn’s First Day Moves In.”

Before moving in to his dorm behind him, Marshall let me grab this photo of him, suitcase in hand.

No doubt my sons were a little embarrassed by their mother clicking away when they arrived on campus although I certainly was not alone in insisting I take one more photo before leaving them. It is heartening to me to see parents still repeating those same actions, capturing images, now on their phones as well as with cameras, so that they’ll have them to look back upon later.  I hope they download and print out these precious memories so that they’ll truly have them forever and not lose them to a mishap with the ‘cloud’ or computer or phone.  If they do, they’ll have them for their sons or daughters long after college graduation.

I am grateful to my sons who allowed me, and continue to allow me, to photograph them during these life events and everyday moments, particularly at times when it might not otherwise have seemed ‘cool’ to do so.

My son indulged me in a photo together before we said good-by on his college move-in day.

Every fall, when I watch the new students and their parents arrive at the neighboring university, their cars pulling one after another into the dormitory parking lots, the boxes and duffles and suitcases being carried up to the rooms where they will live for the next several months, I am genuinely pleased as parents pose their freshman for one last parting shot so that they too will have the image to reflect upon when they go home alone.  The scene brings a small smile to my face, a tiny tear to my eye and the tug on my heart.

 

Battling It Out on the Court

A new movie comes out this week based on the 1973 tennis match between women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King and former men’s pro player, Bobby Riggs.  Both the movie and the now historic match is known as the “Battle of the Sexes” that pitted the athletic talents and skill of a woman, Billie Jean, against those of her male competitor.

Billie Jean King at Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975

But before Billie Jean and Bobby played took to the court on Sept. 20, 1973 for their televised match before 30,000 live spectators, there had been a far lesser known, less viewed such match in my small Kansas hometown.  I know because I was one of the two on the court facing across the net my high school’s boy’s tennis champ, John Hoffman.  John probably doesn’t even remember this less publicized event. Neither did I until I heard an interview on television’s CBS Sunday Morning with King.

I started playing tennis in junior high school, learning to swing a racquet and hit a ball by batting it against the concrete block wall of the gas station next door to my parent’s motel with a chalk mark indicating the height of the net.  To practice my serves, I’d go to the high school tennis courts and hit ball after ball over the net into the service court on the opposite side. On one of these occasions, I noticed an older, thin, almost gaunt gray-haired man, leaning against a black Cougar car with hounds-tooth checked rag top, watching me practice.

One of the few photos of me competing on the court was taken during a tournament in Scottsdale, Az. in 1974.

The man introduced himself as Jimmy Dodds. And Jimmy, formerly a tennis pro and coach in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills to be specific), took me on as one of his protégés. I will write another future blog post about him.

Under Jimmy’s tutelage and inspired by women tennis stars of the day, especially Billie Jean, I became a better and better player until I was competing in and winning local tournaments. I would have been on the high school girls’ tennis team but there were no girls sports teams then in that pre-Title IX era. Instead, I had to play for the local community college whenever I could or play against the boys, which I often did.

Women were making their voices heard about wanting the same recognition and opportunities men received in the workplace as well as everywhere else. And none of them were stronger on the tennis court than Billie Jean King. Billie Jean campaigned for equal prize money for women in the pro tournaments and led the efforts to establish a women’s pro tour.  She became the first President of the women player’s tennis union when it was founded in 1973.  And, with her then husband Larry King, created the Women’s Sports Foundation and launched the magazine, womenSports, for which I would later submit and write a feature or two.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court head back to the court after a brief court side breather between games at a Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975 in Phoenix.

So it was against this early 1970s background that I stepped onto the court with my Wilson aluminum frame racquet to play a match against John.  The challenge came as the result of a friendly feud between the high school’s two gym teachers, Coach Martin and Ms. Stokes.  Ms. Stokes had compete confidence in my tennis talents and I don’t think cared much for Coach Martin. The exact details now escape me but at some juncture, Ms. Stokes told Coach Martin that she thought I could beat John on the court. Martin, being a bit of a sexist himself, of course scoffed at the idea. But when it was suggested that the two of us duel in a tennis match, Coach Martin accepted. I don’t remember that John and I had much to say about it except to agree to participate. I had, after all, played a lot with and against John at the City Park tournaments and open court nights.

The match took place one afternoon after school, I remember. Few, if anyone was there to watch except Janine and Coach Martin. John had a strong, fast serve and I always felt fortunate to be able to return it, let alone place the return shot somewhere strategically on the court.  He had a lanky body that disguised his muscle strength but was perfectly suited for tennis, and golf, the other sport he enjoyed.  Plus he was smart, (he was one of our two class valedictorians) and understood game strategy so that his was not just a game of power.

Billie Jean King returns a shot at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament which I covered as a young reporter in 1975.

We both played hard.  I honestly don’t remember much about the game itself except that it was hot.  I lost. I don’t recall the game score or whether we went three sets or not. There was no press coverage, no cheering crowd, no book deals afterwards. Women’s lib gained no victory that afternoon. I’m sure Coach Martin gloated but I didn’t feel that I had let anyone down. I had played my best although when it came to tennis, I was pretty hard on myself when defeated.

John and I remained friends. He went on to become an attorney.  I became a journalist and worked for a couple of metropolitan newspapers in Phoenix.  Phoenix is and was a mecca for tennis. I continued to play while living there. Occasionally, I covered women’s tennis for the suburban daily that I was writing for at the time. One day, the Virginia Slims women’s pro tennis tour came to town with, you guessed it, Billie Jean King. I was sitting court side to report on the action. Billie Jean had already played and won her big match against Bobby Riggs.  Women’s tennis was taking off at lightening speed.  After her match against Margaret Court, I snagged an interview for the paper with Billie Jean.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court Smith shake hands following their match at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament in Phoenix in 1975.

Even before The Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean was winning as many battles in women’s tennis as she was trophies. Her willingness and courage to demand that women be treated equal to men in the sport encouraged others of us facing similar challenges in our own careers. So while the movie about her famous match and endeavors off the court is just now coming out, her story inspired a generation of women, young women then, to stand up and speak out on and off the tennis court.