Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest

This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.

I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”

Frugal celebrations

Funny how some things we traditionally do to mark the new year are long-term resolutions, while others are one-off celebrations. Eating right and working out? Oh, we’re going to do that every day. (What’s that? We said the same thing last year? Hush, child.)

Massive hangover? One-off celebration, I hope, and not a new leaf. On the up side, with a headache like that, the year can only get better. Think of it as a cause for optimism.

Frugality? Eating, say, a simple meal of beans and cornbread? Hum. Now that sounds like a resolution, and yet it seems to be a celebration. Half the South will be eating black-eyed peas today. Ninety-five percent of that half will be back to eating slab-o-meatwiches tomorrow.

I have never been able to get into the idea of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. Continue reading “Frugal celebrations”

Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat

The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.

“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”

Daaaad.Continue reading “Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat”

A brief history of the sugar cookie

Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.

This is not one of those times.

No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies. They’re sweet, they’re bland, they don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) really taste all that good, but we make them look pretty by the standards of a six-year-old and call it Christmas. And we can’t have Christmas without them, certainly not if we have children. Christmas is, after all, that special time of year we set aside for consuming various foods that time would otherwise have forgot, like gingerbread and fruitcake, foods that used to be wonderful, exciting, inventive but now range from dull to dreadful. We lack the interest to make them well, but we can’t bear to let them go. Surely sugar cookies, too, were better in Ye Olden Tymes?

They were not. In fact, they’re better now than they ever were before. Here’s why. Continue reading “A brief history of the sugar cookie”

Mindful, but still not gravied with conviviality

An article in today’s New York Times examines yet another case of Americans taking a fundamentally sound idea — mindful eating — and driving it to extremes. Having just concluded a draft of my book with an epilogue in which I urged not only mindful eating but (especially) mindful cooking, it pains me to say this, but, seriously, people: lighten up. Continue reading “Mindful, but still not gravied with conviviality”

Candlemas

Tomorrow is Candlemas: the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, in cultures unspoiled by scientifically rational astronomy the first day of spring, and in much of Western Europe traditionally the day to break ground for the first of the year’s crops. Pagans had astronomy plenty to mark the day, often (plausibly, to celebrate the returning of the light) with fire. The Catholic Church, as it so often did, co-opted the festival for its own purposes, using the day to celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus, the light of the world. And so Catholics brought their candles to the church to have them blessed, whereupon the candles became talismans that could be lit during storms or times of trouble, as an old English poem observed: Continue reading “Candlemas”

Have yourself a medieval Christmas

My daughter, who is eight, tells me that her favorite Christmas carol is “Riu, Riu Chiu,” a half-millenium-old Spanish song about the perfection of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus. With vivid lyrics about furious wolves and innocent lambs, accompanied by whatever handheld percussion happens to be available, it at once explains the theology of both the incarnation and the immaculate conception (centuries before even the Catholic Church accepted the latter) and gets everyone off their feet to dance and spin — if, hearing it today, they dare dance to a Christmas carol. An eight year-old dares, because she happily doesn’t see the contradiction between devotion and dancing. And I’m realizing that she’s right. Continue reading “Have yourself a medieval Christmas”

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. Continue reading “Enter the Belsnickel”

Christmas cookies: Speculaas

Occasionally I get to bake cookies without a research agenda, to try something new just for fun. Since it’s St. Nicholas Day, Ivy and I baked speculaas cookies, which is what the Dutch traditionally bake for that festival. I’m not Dutch, I’ve never in my life celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and until today I’d never eaten speculaas. Ah, the joys of cultural tourism! No pressure at all, no expectations, no childhood memories to contend with. Just a damn cookie.

Still, you know, I couldn’t just find a recipe and bake it. I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. And, anyway, if I did, what would I have to blog about? Continue reading “Christmas cookies: Speculaas”