July 28, 2018

Henry and me
Life on the Farm: A tale of the magical reality in my CA life.

LOF 2-3
[pp 2-3, Henry and mom looking at the vineyard]
One summer Henry and his mom moved from Grass Valley to his grandparent’s farm and vineyard in Estrella. Henry’s mom really liked living on the farm.

It’s early summer. Henry wonders if he will make friends when he starts school in a couple weeks.

 

 

LOF 4-5
[pp 4-5, Henry and mom sitting on the front porch of their house]
One afternoon Henry and his mom sat on the front porch, drinking iced tea and talking. “It’s now our job to help grandma and grandpa take care of this house and all the living things on the farm,” said his mom. Henry thought she was looking at him a little too closely. He wondered if his mom could see that he was worried about living there.

“But I miss Grass Valley, our old house and my friends,” said Henry. “I wonder what they are doing right now?”

“I have no idea,” said his mom with a smile. “But could you help me with the goats and chickens? Or they will be wondering why they haven’t been fed yet.”

LOF 6-7
[pp 6-7, goats and chickens in a pen looking at Henry]
The shadows of the fence posts around the goat yard grew longer and longer as the warm afternoon wore on. Henry and his mom fed the goats, gathered eggs and cleaned the yard. Henry’s mom left him to finish up and went into the house to start dinner. She turned on her “cooking music.” That afternoon, it was “Kinda Blue” again and Miles Davis could be heard all over the farm.

Henry turned to look at the open door of the kitchen and smiled. When he turned back around, he couldn’t help noticing that all the animals, down to the smallest chick, seemed to be looking at him.

LOF 8-9
[pp 8-9, close up of a chick on a goat’s head]
“Come closer,” said a chick.

Henry moved in.

“Do you know much about us?” continued the chick. Henry stared at the talking bird. “Thank you for feeding all of us,” she continued. “And I hear your grandma makes the creamiest goat cheese in the north county, and my four-legged friends thank her for that. We need you. And we want you to like living here. By the way, we love your mom’s tunes. It’s our jam.”

LOF 10-11
[pp 10-11, yard filled with dancing goats and chickens]
At that moment the goats and chickens started dancing. Henry watched with “udder” amazement.

But after a time the music changed from Miles to Jack Teagarten. And instead of a cool jazz trumpet, Jack Teagarten’s jazz trombone could be heard all around the farm. Henry turned to look at the open kitchen door and realized that his grandpa must have come into the house and changed the music. Then he heard his mom call him for dinner.

Henry turned around to say goodbye to his new friends, but they were no longer dancing and had all gone back to roaming around the yard, just like regular chickens and goats. It was like that magical musical moment had never happened. “They must not be fans of Dixieland jazz,” thought Henry to himself. He felt kind of sorry for his grandpa because there weren’t many humans left who seemed to like listening to Dixieland either.

Henry wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but he decided to keep it to himself, for now.

LOF 12-13
[pp 12-13, Henry looking out his bedroom window]
The next morning Henry woke up as the sun’s first rays of the day came into his bedroom. He decided to spend the morning looking for more unusual living things on the farm. He packed a few of his usual exploring items in his backpack and headed out the back door.

 

 

 

LOF 14-15
[pp 14-15, Henry walking through a sunflower maze at the back of the house]
Henry tramped through the dew-covered sunflower maze his grandmother had planted that spring. He saw a few beetles crawling around some of the stems, but none of them stopped to talk. Disappointed, Henry started to leave. To his surprise, he saw some red beetles gathering on a couple of the flower heads. He quickly grabbed the bug net and hand lens from this backpack.

 

 

LOF 16-17
[pp 16-17, art of beetles]
The red beetles began telling funny jokes and some brown ones made pictures as they hovered in the air. And green beetles crash landed onto his bug net and began writing about the weather. Henry watched all of this activity for a minute or two. Then all of a sudden a gust of wind shook the red bugs from the sunflower heads. The brown ones scattered like dust in the sky. And the green beetles flashed as they rolled from the net, struggling to fly away. Just like that, they were all gone. Henry hurried out of the sunflower maze, looking up and down the rows of flowers hoping to find them again.

LOF 18-19
[pp 18-19, oak tree and vineyard, maybe add group of blackbirds in the sky]
Once out of the maze he saw his mom standing under an oak tree at the edge of the vineyard. She seemed to be watching a bunch of blackbirds flying around and around in the sky.

He ran up to her and immediately started talking. “Mom, you’ll never guess what I just saw,” said Henry excitedly. “I mean, is this place magical or something?”

“I like to think so,” she said.

LOF 20-21
[pp 20-21, close up of grape plants with a couple spots of bright light]
Just then, Henry saw what seemed like 100 bright dots of light flashing all over the vineyard. “What’s going on?” said Henry. “Where are those flashes coming from? Can beetles make that kind of light?” said Henry, remembering his recent beetle encounter.

“I don’t know,” said his mom. “Your grandpa and I and some of the vineyard workers tied pieces of reflective tape to the plants this morning. When the wind blows, the sun reflects tiny bits of light all around the vineyard. The random flashes scare the blackbirds. That should keep them from landing on the plants and eating up our grape crop.”

And just like that she turned around and started running towards the house. “That group of birds are headed for the house,” said his mom over her shoulder as she ran. Henry ran close behind her.

LOF 22-23
[pp 22-23, bird’s eye view of vineyard, and house. Henry and his mom are at the top of the ladder.]
“Something’s different this morning,” whispered one of the birds on the roof.

“Yeah,” said another. “Yesterday, we were happily eating some of those tasty grapes. But now there’s something out there that’s scaring me right down to my pin feathers.”

“We didn’t really mean to scare you,” shouted Henry’s mom. “But you need to go somewhere else to eat. Leave our grapes alone!”

The blackbirds looked at Henry and his mother, made a collective loud squawk and flew away.

 

LOF 24-25
[pp 24-25, Henry and his mom running towards the pond]
Henry wanted to talk to her about the talking birds. But she had already climbed all the way down the ladder.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled,” said his mom. “I think they’re headed for the cattails by the pond.”

Now she was running towards the pond. Again, Henry was right behind her.

 

LOF 26-27
[pp 26-27, close-up of a cross section of a pond with tadpoles and mosquito larva]
Henry and his mom got to the pond just after the birds had landed on the cattails. “You can talk to these birds?” said Henry, panting a little bit.

“I warned them not to eat the grapes anymore,” said his mom. “I hope your grandpa’s trick will keep then out of the vineyard. By the way, I wish there was some kind of magic to get rid of these mosquitoes. I don’t think blackbirds or chickens will eat them. Maybe we can get some kind of pump out here. That should keep the water moving and get rid of the wigglers. I’ll get your grandpa on that.”

Henry smiled, remembering how his grandpa was always trying to fix things. “Remember when grandpa was going to put great hunks of bubble gum down the gopher holes in grandma’s rose garden?”

“I think the idea was that the gophers would chew the gum and then never have room in their mouths to eat your grandma’s roses,” said his mom. “Kind of gruesome, actually, I guess they were supposed to starve to death as they endlessly chewed gum.”

LOF 28-29
[pp 28-29, scene at the pond with cattails and mud pies]
The blackbirds seemed to have calmed down. They clung to the cattails and sang to each other as they bounced on the stalks in the breeze. A few hens and chicks scratched in the dirt. Bright orange dragonflies hovered over the pond water, while sparkling beetles climbed the golden cattail stalks. Henry and his mom made mud pies. Then they invited all the living things to tea. No one seemed at all interested.

Henry and his mom were ready for some real tea and headed back to the house. Even though they were both hungry, neither felt the need to run this time.

LOF 30-31
[pp 30-31, view of the porch of the house, with Henry, his mom and his grandma and grandpa]
Henry and his family sat on the porch, drinking lemonade and eating goat cheese on crackers. “Well, Henry, that’s what I thought I’d write,” said his mom after she finished telling the story of their amazing and magical life on the farm. “I knew you were worried about coming here and leaving your friends. I thought this story might help. What do you think?”

“I really love the part about grandpa trying to get rid of gophers with chewing gum,” said Henry.

“He didn’t actually do it, but we did talk about maybe trying it one afternoon,” said Henry’s mom, grinning at her dad. “Hey dad, do you think the reflective tape will keep the birds away?”

But Henry’s grandpa wasn’t really listening to them. Jack Teagarten had just started singing his “bluesy” rendition of “Weary River.” It could be heard all over the farm. Henry’s mom looked over at the goats and chickens in the nearby yard. She believed so passionately in the real and imagined magic of their life on the farm. Were her eyes playing tricks? Or were they swaying, ever so slightly, to the music?

“I have been just like a weary river that keeps winding endlessly.

Fate has been a very cheerful giver to most everyone, but me.

Oh, how long it took me to learn, hope is strong and tides have to turn.

And now I know that every weary river, someday meets the sea.”

 

Post notes for “Life on the Farm:”

When I first got the idea for this story (late 1990s, early 2000s) it was meant to be a picture book for young children. There were to be two kinds of “magical” events going on simultaneously in the story. The first kind was to make the reader believe in the practical wonder and magic of the real world. It was meant as a kind of stewardship message of how we should not only be in awe of life on Earth, but also be “people of parts” who take care of that life. The second kind was meant to be the “get down and dirty” fantastic kind (e.g. talking birds, beetles that tell jokes etc). That was meant to help the reader suspend belief, making you want to go down the magical “rabbit hole” right along with the characters in the story.

I wrote several versions of “Life on the Farm,” maintaining the same basic storyline in each. The first one was done completely in rhyme and the second was written as a kind of math book with specific details related to computations and shapes. I wrote the final story in straight and simple prose, similar to what you see here. But, for this 2018 version, I modified many of the details (e.g. there was no mention of chewing gum and gophers in the first “go round”) and I believe it now has more humor. Oh, and the jazz references reflect real aspects of my family, and that contributes to my life growing up in Silicon Valley.

I make “light” of a couple real problems that people/farmers face in everyday life (e.g. birds eating a cash crop, mosquitoes in standing water and gophers). And those kinds of pests can be a real hazard, no foolin’ around. But I think that supports the idea that we should be stewards of life on Earth and sometimes we need to make hard decisions when faced with not only the good parts of life here, but also the bad parts as well.

I have lots more to say about magic and how it is portrayed in books, movies etc, but this post is already long enough. The discussion of magical events we have in our actual and imaginary lives will have to wait for another time. Stay tuned.

 

July 21, 2018

house from above
House from above, late 90s (watercolor and colored pencil on cold-presses illustration board)

In a previous blog I wrote that I sometimes have very vivid dreams about houses—walking through the different rooms in each night’s very distinct structure. This house was never the stuff of an actual dream. It is a compilation of little clapboard coated farm-style houses I used to drive past when we lived in Paso Robles. I remember wanting to create the most luxurious color possible for this “dreamy” house and landscape. My goal was to saturate the cold pressed illustration board with deep color and suggested 3-D texture from watercolor and Prismacolor pencils. Also, I was intrigued with the idea of looking at my farmhouse fantasy from above, as if seeing it in a dream (a kind of bird’s eye view). I remember getting some of my son’s wooden blocks and stacking them into a kind of two story house. That way I could use the three-dimensional model as a reference to get the angle I wanted while sketching. Once I got the pencil sketch down I scrubbed in the dark shadow colors with Prismacolor colored pencil—starting with indigo blue for the spots in deepest and darkest shadow. Next came a layer of diluted watercolor color, then more Prismacolor and then a layer of watercolor. I did this over and over, with layer upon layer of waxy colored pencil then watercolor. I don’t remember how many layers of pigment are here, but there are a lot. To help speed up the process I used a small hand held hair dryer to dry the watercolor so I could add the colored pencil—a trick I learned a while ago from another scientific illustrator. But even though the hair dryer helped to dry the paint more quickly it definitely took a long time to layer the colored pencil and watercolor. This is because I applied the various pigments while looking through a hand lens so I could look closely at the surface of the illustration board—ensuring the most complete and even color coverage. It was quite a process.

I liked this house so much that when it was finished I had it framed and hung it up in my bedroom. (Later a friend saw it, bought it and now it hangs on his hall wall.) Just about the time I was working on the house, I got an idea for a children’s picture book, where such a structure featured heavily in the narrative. From beginning to end, I worked on the art and a picture book idea from the late 90s to early 2000s.

white house from above1
Farm house from above, late 90s (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

Writing a picture book

In a previous post (August 2017) I have mentioned that I worked as a writer/editor of math and science textbooks, as well as teacher resource materials. That kind of publishing is known as “Educational Publishing.” But there was a kind of publishing that I was dying to be part of, and that is known as “Trade Publishing.” Trade publishing is really what most people think of when looking at books for a general audience, with some specifically targeted to adults and the rest for the juvenile market. I even belonged to a couple writing groups—one that met in Cambria once a week, focusing on trade books (mostly novels) for adults and a “Kiddie Writer’s” group that met once a month. I only went to couple of the meetings in Cambria. At that time my son was pretty little and it was hard for me to get away once a week and drive the 30 miles (60 miles round trip) to Cambria from Paso Robles. But for some reason the Kiddie Writer’s group just worked for me. Maybe it’s because they met only once a month or maybe it’s because I just had a better “vibe” with those women. Whatever the actual “long ago” reason I became a regular at Kiddie Writer’s. I remember very clearly the first meeting I attended. It was in Paso Robles at Juddi Morris’s house—just a mile or two from me. Juddi was known mostly for her non-fiction books. Some of those titles include: “At Home with the Presidents,” “The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West,” “Tending the Fire: The Story of Maria Martinez” and “Route 66, the Main Street of America.” A couple of the writers also did non-fiction, but most wrote fiction for various trade publications. It was fun to learn about the different kinds of fiction that could be considered when writing for children (e.g. young adult novels, chapter books and picture books, not to mention short stories and poetry that could be written for children’s magazines.) But with that first meeting at Juddi Morris’s house I was hooked.

So, while I was a full-time mom of a very active boy I made a living writing/editing educational material. But, also during that same time I squeezed in time to write and illustrate picture books, often with my son as the main character. When I initially came up with the idea for this post I thought I might list some of the titles of some of my books, but decided it would be too depressing as not one of my picture book stories ever got published. I had a couple serious “picture book” nibbles, but nothing ever came of it. (I just remembered that I did share a piece of art and page-by-page text of a picture book idea called “Penguins Count” August 26, 2017. And I did write and illustrate stories for the parents of young children in a local magazine, so it wasn’t all that dismal.)

However, I decided to share one other picture book story here and as you can see this second piece of art (rough sketch) is taken directly from my original dream house at the start of this post. I added some characters (living things) to the farm and turned it into the opening pages (called a spread) of a story about a boy and his mom that move to a farm/vineyard with the mom’s parents. The characters you see here include: the mom and her young son (sitting on the swing on the front porch), blackbirds (on the roof), some goats (in a pen), a couple hens (scratching for seeds in the yard) and a patch of sunflowers (at the back of the house). It was so fun to look back at the art and story I had envisioned.

So, I decided this story isn’t going to end here. Oh no! With my recent renewed vigor and interest in this story, I scanned all the thumbnails (small black and white sketches) for the whole story and plan to publish it in my next post. Stay tuned…

Another Special Kiddie Writer Friend

There were a number of Kiddie Writers, besides Juddi Morris, that I got to know over the years. And it was always fun to catch up with what all those wonderful writers were working on every time we saw each other. But there was one writer who truly became one of my most treasured friends, and that was Lori Fisher Peelen. I think our friendship started out because we were creative moms with busy young boys at home. She had a son the same age as mine, and was expecting her third boy when we first met. I think we enjoyed the stories we wrote and shared at Kiddie Writers, but we also really liked spending time together, just talking. And you know someone is a good and treasured friend when you can talk about everything—the good and bad, and everything in between. We certainly did that as we shared our dreams, along with big concerns and some tears, but we also shared a lot of laughter. So, now it’s time to remember all of her wonderful writing and say that I recently found out that Lori has had a book published. It is called “Big Fish Dreams,” and it’s illustrated by Consie Powell.

Lori, it’s so hard to believe our young boys have grown up, but not hard to believe they have grown into nice young men. Congratulations on your book. So happy for you. Some dreams do come true!

 

July 14, 2018

Old Mill, San Marino
El Molino Viejo, The Old Mill, San Marino, June 16, 2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

The other day I painted this old adobe at the back of El Molina Viejo, also known as The Old Mill, in San Marino. The leader of our “Meet Up” group suggested we sketch there and we were joined by a number of LA Urban Sketchers as well. It was quite a gang of artists with maybe 20 to 25 people all together. The weather was just a bit overcast, but that made it a very cool and pleasant place to sit and paint. Generally, when I get to a new place to sketch, I give myself about 10 minutes to wander around—looking for the perfect shady spot. If I take much longer than that, I get anxious because I usually see a landscape I want to capture and am eager to get started. Not sure why I get this way. It’s like a timer gets set in my head the minute I step onto new ground and I can almost hear it ticking as I walk around. The Old Mill, and its lovely grounds, can be seen in its entirety in about 5 minutes. As I had found this perfect shady spot in that time my internal timer had not yet begun to gong. I was rather relaxed. So I wandered into the main building. Inside they have a tiny museum with a model showing how the mill worked when it was grinding grain. They also had journals, photos and several of the actual grinding stones on display. If you have never been inside an adobe, it’s kind of surreal. From the outside it looks to be of average dimensions, but once inside it feels quite a bit smaller, with low doorway openings and tiny windows. I think the rooms are actually smaller than you might expect because the walls are almost two feet thick, thereby taking up interior floor and wall space.

Wandering around inside the museum I learned that Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea, from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, built the mill (with the help of the indigenous Native Americans) in 1816. It was meant to grind grain that would supplement food needed at the San Gabriel Mission. But it only functioned as a mill for 7 years before a newer, more efficient one, was built nearby. Later a family inherited the property with this mill and they converted the building into a place they lived in for a number of years. Even though The Old Mill functioned as a mill for only a short while, I was really interested in that period of time—when it was clear Native Americans worked at the mill and did the actual grinding of grains. They were also probably the same people who actually built the structure. I didn’t seem to be in my customary hurry to start sketching, so I engaged a young man at the information desk in a conversation about the mill when it was actually functioning as a mill. As I knew that California Native Americans subsisted on acorns, I assumed that at least some of the time they ground acorns. (If that was true, it wasn’t clear how they got off the outer hard shell of the acorn, so they could grind the inner pulpy parts–based on what I could see of schematic. And it didn’t look like they were set up to rinse and rinse the ground acorn flour because it’s too bitter to eat unless you did that.) Anyway, the young man seemed a bit perturbed with my question because of course they hadn’t ground any acorns here, saying that it was a gristmill and only corn and wheat were pulverized for the people who lived at the San Gabriel Mission. He further reminded me that the Spanish missionaries had taught the Native Americans to plant and farm such grains as corn and wheat. And the message that seemed to be left hanging in the air was that the missionaries had somehow saved some of the California Native Americans from eating acorns by teaching them to farm something else. It was clear that our conversation was over and the young man turned his attention back to his computer screen and I headed for my spot outside. As I walked down the steps of the mill I noticed that a wedding party, with photographer taking pictures, had arrived. Wow! The joint was jumpin’!

But all I could think about, as I set up my paint pots, was the notion that the Native Americans indigenous to this part of California somehow needed “saving” from their “primitive” ways. It almost seemed that what bothered those early missionaries was that it was just too “simple minded” to gather acorns, grind them and then make food. Somehow it would be much smarter to till the soil, plant seeds (saved from somewhere), water and tend the growing plants, harvest and then grind the corn or wheat—finally making something you could cook and eat. That may have been quite a trick back then as Southern California was (and is) a desert, without summer rains. And to further complicate this whole missionary scenario is the fact that corn and wheat are not native to California, and maybe there would be a problem growing something new in the Southern California soil.  I’m guessing that it’s a lot of work to gather, grind and wash acorn flour, but it also seems like a lot of work to plant, water, tend, harvest and grind grain to flour. Not to mention, seed for the next year’s planting would need to be collected and stored somewhere. And then, of course, someone would be hauling lots and lots of water.

Finally, I put aside my thoughts about those early days. I had done a sketch or two, mixed some colors and was loosely applying the big washes for this piece. I was contemplating colors I could layer for the walls of the adobe. But I was also attracted to the old stone wall that held back the soil just below the building. I used my “bark” colored Inktense pencil to outline the rocks and mortar. I also noticed just a hint of blue in the rocks and added some color with my “sea blue” pencil. I liked the way the colors worked together and the Inktense pencil lines gave some nice linearity to the rocks. I thought the pencil also provided an excellent “rock-like” texture to the pebbly watercolor paper.

I took a couple breaks to let the color dry and finally decided I was done and ready to wander around to the front to see what the other sketchers were doing. I started to pack up my gear. A man I had seen when I first arrived moved his set up to a spot nearby. I had never met him before and just assumed he was part of the LA Urban Sketchers group. We started to chat and I asked him where he was from. I thought he said he was from Highland. I thought he was referring to Highland Park, an old LA neighborhood I had heard about. As I am not from LA I assumed that maybe the locals shortened it to Highland. To be sure I had heard him correctly, as well as continue our conversation, I asked him where that was. With no condescension in his voice, but with a bit of smile, he explained that it was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I immediately started to feel pretty ridiculous, but he kept up our conversation in earnest, tactfully ignoring the apparent holes in my knowledge of geography. And as you may have already guessed he had said he was from Thailand not Highland Park. I found out that he and his wife were visiting their son here in LA. (I never did find out “where” his son lived in Los Angeles. I was just too embarrassed to continue this line of polite conversation.). In fact, the nice man was the one who had seen the announcement on the Urban Sketchers Facebook page and convinced his wife and son to come to The Old Mill to paint. And after I got over my mortification of appearing to be just another California airhead, I really enjoyed continuing our conversation. It turns out that they were a family of artists and all of them were enjoying an afternoon of sketching and painting in this tiny little spot in San Marino. Realizing that he was from Thailand reminded me of a wonderful friend who was from Brocklyn, but her husband was from Thailand and both their children were born there. When I was newly married, in the early 90s, we worked together at a school in Danville. She was a wonderful and gifted teacher of fifth grade and I was the school’s science teacher. Her husband was (and is) an amazing painter as well as a gifted sculptor, her son graduated from the College of Design in Pasadena and her lovely daughter studied ballet. So, she too came from a family of artists. Unfortunately my friend died of ovarian cancer in 1998. It was pleasant to think again of her when she was very much alive with her wonderful art, music, science and literature lessons. In my mind I can still see her big smile and feel her generous heart.

Soon my new friend’s wife and son joined us. We all chatted a bit longer and then went together to the front of the property. It was getting close to 4 PM and The Old Mill would be closing at 4. (Old Mill hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 4.) Everyone was milling around, trying to find the perfect spot to share our work and take a picture. I heard that a couple artists were upset that the wedding photographer had inconvenienced them when he asked them to move a bit so he could take pictures of the wedding party. One of the other artists and I locked eyes upon hearing this complaint and decided that whoever said that needed to “get over it.” I mean, we draw and paint all the time. But hopefully this couple wouldn’t be getting married again and therefore no such interruptions would ever occur again. I told the other “like minded” artist that a wedding “trumps” a bunch of artists with ugly sun hats any day.

And just like that, we took the group photo and then we all left in our respective cars. I don’t look at Facebook anymore, so I didn’t see if my new friend from Thailand posted any pictures of his family’s art on the Urban Sketchers group. But no matter, it was a lovely day of painting, connecting with a lovely family from Thailand and remembering once again of a dear friend that I still miss. For me, it doesn’t really get any better than that.

July 7, 2018

K and M backyard
Glendale backyard, spring 2017 (mixed media on cold pressed illustration board)

I created this while sitting in the backyard of a friend’s 1920s Spanish revival house. That was in spring 2017. What you see here is quintessential Southern California—large mature blood orange tree on the right, kumquat in the upper left (next to the terra cotta roof of the garage), glowing balls of yellow rose blossoms below that, delicate golden spirea foliage below that and a couple palm trees floating through that amazing blue sky in the background. It’s funny, but if you went into my friend’s backyard today it would look almost exactly the same—except the blood oranges have all been picked and devoured. But the roses are in bloom and there are still a few kumquats on that tree (different from the ones I captured that spring). However, all of this is about to change because in the next couple weeks they are adding on to the back of the house and the landscape you see here will be forever altered. Sometimes I feel like my mission as a California landscape artist has always been to capture a beautiful, thoughtful or important CA moment, as it will soon be different. In fact, I am always a bit surprised if I paint a landscape, go back after a year or 10, and it looks the same. And in point of fact I am always a bit in awe when I find a particular view I have enjoyed that has remained the same over any period of time.

Of course this bit of SoCal tranquility belies the change that has already taken place inside the house, even before the planned addition has been added. It’s the kitchen! It was gutted and is in the process of being taken from its original early 20th century cooking space into the early 21st century. It has been a huge disruption for its occupants, my friends, and has been going on for several months now. But the real story here is about food, and the problems one might face when the kitchen is torn up and you have only a frig and microwave for meal preparation and are washing dishes in the bathroom sink. Friends, like me, know that it’s important to share food with friends in need. This whole process has been a reminder for me of all the needy homeless we have here in Los Angeles and the blessing a cramped dining room with a frig full of food might be for them. Count your blessings, right?

I am a great one for bringing food to those I love. Last Christmas I signed up my friends for six months of Harry and David’s fruit of the month club. The fruit started arriving in February and as of this month, the monthly gifts of lovely fruit stops. (I was certain the kitchen would be done by now.) I have also been randomly calling at weekend lunch times to see if I can bring over delicious sandwiches, brownies with whipped cream, my mother’s rice salad or beans. Yes, I said beans. I have about 5 different versions of those delectable legumes. A couple of my bean recipes come from my mother and she would describe herself as a good “winter” cook, making lots of lovely soups and beans. I usually only make beans during the cool weather as my summer kitchen gets way too hot even to turn on the oven to make a frozen pizza. And I’m not really sure if anyone wants to dig into a big bowl of beans when it’s 90 bazillion degrees outside.

I’ve taken my beans to friends who have been sick, just had a baby, as a house-warming gift and have even taken huge pots of beans on camping trips. When my first niece was born I took a large pot of beans to my brother’s house. My sister-in-law asked me what they should do with them. We come from “bean people,” my brother and I, so I was surprised with such a question. I replied, “Heat them in a pot on the stove, or microwave. Put a couple scoops in a bowl, add a dollop of sour cream and eat it with a spoon. Of course a lovely piece of crusty bread and a glass of Zinfandel will round out the whole thing. Maybe a salad?” Was she kidding?

When this same niece started eating solid foods I took this same sister-in-law homemade applesauce, made with apples from my trees. I had had a bumper crop of apricots that year and I added a few to the applesauce. It was such a pretty color and made it absolutely scrummy. Well, she didn’t even taste it, but ignored the half dozen jars on the kitchen counter. So, I took it all home with me and ate it myself. It was delicious! Usually my gifts of food are appreciated and well accepted. I remember my dad saying, “No accounting for taste.” Oh well.

Back to the beans…I have listed here probably my most favorite bean recipe. It has meat in it, so it’s not for your vegetarian friends. I usually make a huge batch, so I have some for me. Frances Mayes in her book “Under the Tuscan Sun” has a wonderful bean recipe called Ribollita. It’s in the Winter Kitchen Notes chapter of the book (winter, not summer…). It’s actually what I make for my vegetarian friends as it can be made without meat or dairy. I have even served it to my vegan friends that are in need of a sturdy meal. Ms. Mayes adds Parmesan cheese at the end, but I have found that even a fine dusting of any cheese kind of congeals in the hot bean liquid which results in chewy blobs of goo. Not a fan of that. So, I don’t add any Parmesan at all. And like magic it becomes vegan.

Here is my “go to” bean recipe, and for some reason it has no name. So I will call it “Beans.” (Disclaimer: Cooking a pot of beans, made from scratch, can take 4 to 5 hours. So, plan accordingly. It will make the kitchen pretty warm, so that’s why I usually don’t make it during the warm months. I hope I have made it clear that I don’t make beans in the summer…just sayin’)

Beans

¾ pound of dried beans (*1/4 pound of 3 different kinds of beans is my usual—e.g. King City pinks (probably only found in CA), small white beans, black-eyed peas.)

¼ pound split peas (works as a thickener when it breaks down)

* I like black beans, but don’t usually mix them with others as all the lovely pink and white beans take on a grayish color. And even a big dollop of sour cream can’t take away the gray.

 

  1. Wash all the beans, put them in a large stockpot and cover with lots of water. Once it starts to boil, put on the lid and turn off the heat. Let it sit closed up for a couple of hours.
  2. Dump off the water and fill with fresh water to cover the beans again. Add seasonings to your taste. I like salt, pepper, sage, oregano and lots of dill. If you are making non-vegetarian beans, add a couple ham hocks. If you are not adding seasoning meat, you will want to cover the beans with vegetable stock instead of plain water. I also put in a large washed carrot into the pot. (You may not believe it, but the carrot absorbs most of the farts from the beans. If you don’t believe me, make this recipe without the carrot. But I warned you…) Again, bring it to a boil and simmer until the beans are the way you like them. I prefer them a little al dente as they will continue to cook when the remaining ingredients are added.
  3. Ladle out the ham hocks and the carrot. Once the ham hocks have cooled you can pick off whatever meat is there and put it back in the bean mixture. But you must throw away the carrot. Don’t eat it! Add a large can of chopped tomatoes and chopped onion. For my family I would add a large chopped onion (Be careful with too many onions as it can somehow add back the gas the carrot has extracted.). But add whatever size onion you and your family can tolerate. I usually let that cook 45 minutes or so.
  4. Finally, chop up some kind of sausage into great hunks and add it to the pot. I usually use kielbasa. Now, it’s all over but the shouting and you just need to cook the sausage until it’s done.
  5. Serve it up in a bowl and drop in a spoonful of sour cream, if you are not on a diet and/or your cholesterol is OK. Maybe you don’t need a tutorial on how to enjoy this yummy CA comfort food, but eating it with a hunk of San Francisco Sourdough bread and glass or two of Zinfandel from Paso Robles will definitely enhance the experience. Enjoy! (Actually, beans are best the next day as all the flavors have had a chance to mingle.)

I didn’t plan to say so much about beans in this July 7, 2018 post, but my bean obsession doesn’t seem to have ended with Frances Mayes’s Ribollita and my bean soup recipe. I just finished reading the best book, called “The Little Paris Bookshop,” by Nina George. And in one chapter a small cup of bean soup called Pistou actually brings a character back to life after she jumps into a stormy river. (The recipe for Pistou and other foods mentioned in the book are conveniently at the back of the book.) So, now I am destined to try making Pistou and of course some of the other recipes Ms. George has so generously shared with her readers. Actually, these beans sound like they are a little more summer friendly as the beans listed in the recipe are canned, and are therefore already cooked. Her final recipe in the book is Lavender Ice Cream. Sounds like “cool” heaven to me!

With the mention of Lavender Ice Cream and the fact that it was 108 degrees at 1 PM yesterday and 102 today, it’s time to bring this into a summer place of food. Here is my mother’s artichoke and rice salad. Oh, and this one is good with some cold grilled chicken and my “go to” wine cooler.

Mom’s Artichoke and Rice Salad

2 cups of left over rice, cooled

2 chopped green onions (both the green and white parts)

½ sweet pepper (This is where you can add some color to the salad with red, orange, yellow, green or purple peppers. If you like big chunks of sweet pepper, cut them that way. If you just want a little crunch, mince away.)

10 or so sliced green olives (Here again you can add your favorite and if green olives are not your fav, leave them out or add just a couple. I love the green olives that are stuffed with chunks of garlic, and the more the merrier for me.)

2 six-ounce jars of marinated artichoke hearts (drained and chopped, but save 1/3 cup of the liquid)

1/3 cup of mayonnaise

½ tsp curry

  1. Mix rice, onions, sweet peppers, olives and marinated artichoke hearts.
  2. Mix the mayonnaise, 1/3 cup artichoke liquid and curry together. Then mix the liquid mixture with everything else.
  3. I like it room temperature, but don’t leave it out too long. (I’m always a little nervous about foods with mayo that are not refrigerated.)

“Wine Street Inn” Wine Cooler

There used to be a fondue place in San Luis Obispo. I worked as a hostess, waitress and cocktail waitress there. They had a great recipe for a wine cooler, which I got from one of the bartenders I dated.

  1. Fill a glass almost to the top with ice.
  2. Pour in a favorite wine to about an inch and half from the top of the glass. Do not use really cheap wine. (Gives me a headache just thinking about it.) I would probably not use a really expensive kind either. Besides I don’t think a heavy red, like cabernet, would work very well. Again, I often use moderately priced Old Vine Zinfandel’s for this yummy summer drink. (I also seem to often have a bottle of Zin in my cupboard anyway.)
  3. Pour in a generous splash of carbonated lemon-lime drink to the wine.
  4. Cut a fresh lime into eighths and squeeze the juice from one of those wedges into the drink. Stir with an ice tea spoon.

Keep cool! Bon Appetit!