Bling! Placing Beads in Knitting

Like stars in the still and quiet sky, bright sparkly beads sprinkle a bit of bling across soft fibery textures. Adding a bit of glimmer and glam to knitting is fun, and not nearly so difficult as it looks. Of course, feel free to tell whomever asks that it was really, really hard and they should be in awe of both you and your finished project.

Videos associated with this post: Placing Beads on Knitting Part I and Placing Beads on Knitting Part II.

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Knitting With Beads

There are two basic approaches for knitting with beads. One is to pre-string the beads: all the beads are placed on the yarn before knitting with beads begins. The beads ride on the yarn and can be moved into place either on or between stitches. The big “Ugh!”is that if you do not count and add enough beads in advance, you will need to break the yarn to add more beads. Although I mention it here, I will not be covering knitting with pre-strung beads in this post. There are a lot of interesting and creative things that can be done with pre-strung beads so it can be worthwhile to learn more about it.

The second and more commonly used approach–and the one I will be discussing in this post–is placing beads: each bead is individually placed on a stitch as indicated in the pattern. The pattern will tell you whether to place the bead before or after knitting the stitch, usually it is before knitting the stitch. If it is not specified, I knit the stitch after the bead has been placed.

More often than not the pattern instruction will be “PB” for “place bead” which means, place a bead on the upcoming stitch and knit it after the bead has been placed. In this case–after executing the “PB” instruction–the bead rests between the stitch from the row below and the newly knit stitch on the current row. If the instruction is to knit the stitch before placing the bead, the bead rests above the stitch on the current row and is not locked in until it is worked on the subsequent row. I think the bead is more firmly held in place between the two stitches when it is placed after knitting the stitch on the current row and locked in place on the next row. Either way the bead is between two stitches; one above it and one below it. The difference is, place bead then knit puts the bead between the stitch from the row below and the current row while the knit then place bead puts the the bead between the stitch on the current row and the stitch on the subsequent row. Picture an hourglass figure with a tight belt, that is the yarn with a placed bead on it pinching the yarn between the stitch below and the stitch above.

For placing the beads, there are a few different methods including a small crochet hook, a Fleegle Beader, or SuperFloss. Each method is described below, but first there are a few things to know about beads and some materials that are helpful for knitting with beads.

Materials for Knitting with Beads

See the Placing Beads on Knitting Part I video for more about materials and preparing to knit with beads.

I like to use 6/0 size beads for fingering weight yarn as well as for a heavy lace or light sport weight. For a finer lace, I like to use 8/0 beads. The bead should have a large enough hole to slip onto the yarn, remembering that when placing a bead on a stitch that there are two strands of yarn being fed through the hole. I have used many types of beads and have found that Miyaki and Toho beads have been very consistent in their hole sizes. I have used some beautiful Czech glass beads that had some inconsistencies in the sizes, some were more of a struggle to place than others.

It is useful to have a beading board to hold the beads and tools. A tray will also work,but if using a tray it is helpful to have a foam or soft cloth to help keep the beads from escaping. The sound of tiny beads clattering in the vacuum is not my favorite tune.

Beads are picked up one at a time with a crochet hook but are preloaded onto a Fleegle Beader. There is a bent end on the Fleegle Beader for picking up beads individually or they can be loaded by using a bead spinner. I am not very successful with my bead spinner, it will probably end up on the Freebie table at the next knitting retreat, but some people really like using a bead spinner to speed up the task. Beads can be picked up one-by-one with the stiff end of the SuperFloss or strung onto the SuperFloss using a Dental floss threader. I use a clip on the long smooth end of the floss to hold the beads in place, but the end can be knotted or something can be tied to the end to keep the beads from falling off.

See “Tools of the Trade” at the end of this post for a list of materials.

Methods for Placing Beads

See the Placing Beads on Knitting Part II video for demonstrations and more about methods for placing beads.

For the crochet hook method, you need a very fine hook that is small enough to insert into the bead; a much smaller size hook than you would use if you were crocheting with the yarn. I like to use the largest size possible. Size 4 (1.25 mm) works for most 6/0 beads, Size 2 (1.5 mm) worked for Miyaki and Toho but not for my Czech glass beads, and Size 0 (1.75 mm) was too large for all my beads. Another option is a Fleegle Beader that has a little sharp hook on one end. The original Beader was 1.0 mm and they later added a 1.3 mm, which is bit better for fingering weight yarns. Both of these options require care, the fine hooks can shred the yarn when placing the bead, but it can be faster than the dental floss method.

The dental floss method allows you to string a lot of the beads on the floss and have them at the ready, but it can be a bit slower and fiddly. On the plus side, it is the most gentle way to put the beads on the work. I have never had yarn shred with this method, unlike with a crochet hook or Fleegle beader. All of these work for placing a bead on the yarn, but each has its pros and cons.

Whichever method you choose, the “PB” (place bead) instruction is executed in basically the same way. Place the bead on the stitch on the LH needle, remove the stitch to place the bead, slide the bead down to expose the loop, and return the stitch to the LH needle. Knit the stitch. Beaded stitch is now on the RH needle with a stitch below it and a stitch above it locking it into place. If you are knitting a pattern with instructions for placing beads but are opting not to use beads, treat a “PB” instruction as a “K1”.

If instructed to knit first then place the bead, knit the next stitch on the LH needle, place the bead on the stitch on the RH needle (I slip the knit stitch back to the LH needle purl wise to add the bead on that needle just because I am more accustomed to beading that way), remove the stitch to place the bead, slide the bead down to expose the loop, and return the stitch to the RH needle. Beaded stitch is now on the RH needle with a stitch below it but will not have a stitch above it locking it into place until the next row is worked.

All of these methods work for placing a bead on the yarn, but each has its pros and cons.

Fleegle Beader

  • Quick to use
  • Stores beads on shaft
  • Sharp edge can shred yarn
  • Hint: Push bead onto yarn, do not pull yarn through bead

Crochet Hook

  • Quick to use
  • Fine head is smaller than yarn, can shred the yarn
  • Can be somewhat gentler than the Fleegle Beader
  • Does not store beads, beads have to be picked up one at a time
  • Hint: Push bead onto yarn, do not pull yarn through bead

SuperFloss

  • Best for travel/mobile knitting
  • Works well with uneven hole sizes in beads
  • Gentlest for delicate yarn, does not shred yarn
  • Beads are stored on the floss
  • Can be fiddly and slow but fewer problems with escaping beads and damaged yarn
  • Has 3 sections with different purposes: a long thin section (holds beads), fuzzy section (holds bead to be worked), short stiff section (used to place bead onto stitch)
  • Can use a dental floss threader to add several beads at once to the floss
  • Needs to be secured at the end of the thin section: use a clip, tie on a stitch marker, or tie secure knot to keep beads from sliding off the end

Each method has its cheerleaders but the correct method to use is the one that is the most comfortable and convenient; in the end a placed bead looks like a placed bead so img_6499there is no right or wrong choice. In my case, I have used the crochet hook when there are not too many beads or I want to pick up the pace. I prefer the SuperFloss when I have fussy or fine yarn, and I certainly prefer it when I am traveling or visiting someone. For mobile knitting, all I need to do is bring a pre-threaded strand of floss along with me and can leave all the other tools behind. The Fleegle Beader and I are still learning to get along, but I definitely see how this would be the method of choice for many given that the beads conveniently stored on the shaft. Let me put it this way, I really, really want to like it and have not given up on our relationship yet.

See Placing Beads on Knitting Part I and Part II for more information and demonstrations. 

Resources

See “Tools of the Trade” below for a list of materials mentioned in this post. Materials can be purchased from online merchants as well as from specialty shops, big box stores, and local yarn shops. I found my Fleegle Beaders on Etsy and Miss Babs. Miyuki and Toho beads are sometimes sold at yarn shops, there are many excellent online bead shops although I have mostly purchased them through Amazon partners and Loopy Ewe. If you know of a good online resource for beads, feel free to leave a comment.

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Tools of the Trade

  • Beads (Miyaki and Toho consistent brands, many other nice options available in stores and online) Size 6/0 for heavy lace, fingering, and light sport weights or size 8/0 for lace and light fingering
  • Beading board or foam/soft fabric square on tray for containing beads and tools
  • Dental Floss Threader (GUM, other brands available) for threading beads onto SuperFloss or yarn if doing pre-strung beading
  • Super Floss (Oral B, other brands available) for holding and placing beads
  • Wonder Clips (Clover, other brands available) for holding beads in place on SuperFloss
  • Fleegle Beader for holding or placing beads. Available in the original 1.0 mm or 1.3 mm, which is better for fingering
  • Small Crochet hook for placing beads: Size 8 (.90 mm) works for 6/0 and 8/0 beads, Size 4 (1.25 mm) works for most 6/0 beads, Size 2 (1.5 mm) worked for Miyaki but not for my Czech glass beads, and Size 0 (1.75 mm) was too large for all my beads

On Edge

When one first learns to cook recipes are followed to the letter. With a little more experience–and hopefully a bit more skill–a cook adds a bit less salt, substitutes this herb for that, begins to pinch, pour, and dash without the use of measuring implements, and dares to improvise. Recipes are a starting point; a source for ideas and guidance. Often times I find myself looking at several recipes and cooking a dish using a combination of them, taking the best from each.

A knitting pattern is a recipe. It can be followed exactly or it can be a starting point; a pattern written by a trusted designer is always an excellent starting point. No doubt when designing for others an effort is made to make things as simple to do, easy to follow, and uncomplicated as possible. But sometimes simplicity comes at a cost, a more difficult and complicated approach may be the preferred approach. Or sometimes a pattern is a perfect match for what a knitter has in mind except for one or two details. There are just times when I want to trust my instincts, jump off the path, and travel in my own direction.

Helen Stewart is one of my favorite designers for straight-forward, easy to knit patterns that yield beautiful results. I am currently knitting one of her golden oldies, the Pebble Beach Shawl, for a summer knitting challenge after having just finished the Talisman, the first shawl from her Shawl Society series. The two shawls are very similar in set-up and construction. The Talisman starts with a backwards loop cast on and the Pebble Beach with a simple cast on at the top edge but otherwise are essentially the same. I had followed the instructions as written for the Talisman and was uncomfortable the entire time I was knitting it; the top seemed too tight, bunched up, and puckered.

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Top Edge of Talisman Before Blocking

At the time I kept thinking, “I should have done a garter tab.” I also was concerned with the tightness of the edge, usually something I do not have trouble with. A friend reminded me of a trick she had learned on the Melanie Berg On the Spice Market Shawl: for adding ease to an edge, add a yarn over on the right side and drop the yarn over on the wrong side. After being reminded, I began doing the extra yarn overs on each right side edge and within a row or two it was if the tense work exhaled, stretched, yawned, and relaxed for a nap. Although the miracle of blocking can fix a lot of ills, I was concerned the entire time that I was knitting that blocking magic would not be enough. In the end–although the top edge where there were no added yarn overs looks thin and tight–the Talisman came out okay. But just okay, it does not look as smooth at the top as a garter tab edge would have.

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Top Edge of Talisman After Blocking

Like a cook who wants less salt but more spice, I added to suit my own taste. Of course I cannot speak for all designers, but I have asked some designers if they minded knitters making modifications and all have graciously said they do not mind at all. Perhaps they are curious to see how their original vision evolves when knitters deviate from their basic recipes. Different fibers, weights, and colors alone can make a difference, but when hundreds of knitters get creative–adding their own pinch of seasonings–it results in some interesting and even inspiring variations on a theme.

The Dreaded Garter Tab

For those of you who have not done a garter tab, the instructions seem outright bizarre and make no sense until you have done it a few times. It is just one of those things in knitting where, by following the instructions line-by-line, it just works. Trust to the force. Basically all one is doing with a garter tab is creating the first few stitches in the top border of the shawl, a little rectangular starting point. It is worth the effort, a garter tab creates the foundation for a smooth edge.

A garter tab starts with casting on the number of stitches that will be on the shawl edge. The cast on can be a garden-variety cast on, such as a long tail, or it can be a provisional cast on. Knit garter rows until there are the same number of garter ridges as cast on stitches, stitches will be picked up using the purl bumps from those garter ridges. Stitches are also picked up from the cast on edge. Picking up stitches using a provisional cast on is somewhat neater but picking up from a regular cast on works too, the difference is not too noticeable. Knit all the picked up stitches and, presto change-o, a garter tab is formed.

Hints. I like to start a garter tab with DPNs so I do not have to wrestle with a dangling cord while fiddling with such a tiny construction. For a provisional cast on, I like to use a crochet cast on with a contrasting yarn, adding several extra chains with a long loop through the last chain to remember which end to unravel. Obviously a tightly twisted yarn in a contrasting color is better than a soft fuzzy yarn in a similar color for a provisional cast on, but I tend to grab whatever is available without much concern over matching the weight and fiber content. When picking up stitches from garter rows, be careful to not pick up the the purl bump immediately below the needle as that will distort the stitch that is on the needle. I learned an easy way to pick up stitches on a garter tab in a Stephen West class and made a video so I would not forget his pearls of wisdom.

Substituting a Garter Tab in the Pebble Beach and Talisman

A basic formula for a garter tab is, cast on the same number of stitches as a the border (I use a provisional cast on, but it is a matter of preference), knit enough rows to form the same number of garter ridges as the border, turn and pick up that number of stitches, and finally turn, pick up, and knit the stitches from the cast on edge. There will be 3 times as many stitches on the needle as stitches on the border.

The Pebble Beach and the Talisman have a 3 stitch border. For the Pebble Beach I substituted the pattern instructions for the set-up with a garter tab by doing the following:

Reminder: my video for Stephen West’s easy way to pick up stitches in a garter tab shows a simple way to pick up stitches in a garter tab.

  • Cast on 3 stitches (optional: use provisional cast on). Knit until there are 3 garter ridges (about 7 rows). Turn and pick up 3 stitches from purl bumps on the garter ridges, knit picked up stitches, turn and pick up 3 stitches from border, knit picked up stitches. (9 stitches)
  • Row 1 (WS): K3, YO, K3, YO, K3 (11 stitches)
  • Skip Rows 1-4 of pattern instructions
  • Start pattern with Row 5 (RS)

I did not do a garter tab in Talisman, nor did I swatch and test it, but substituting these instructions for Rows 1-4 and starting the pattern with Row 5 should work in the same way as it did with the Pebble Beach. I did swatch and test the garter tab for setting up the medium size Pebble Beach. Although it is still a work in progress and has not been washed and blocked, I am much happier with the top edge on the modified Pebble Beach than I was with the Talisman.

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Garter Tab on Pebble Beach

Up Tight and On Edge

Modifications for creating a more relaxed edge are simple and are the same for both shawls; it really made the difference between having a puckered and tight edge and having a smooth and relaxed edge. Blocking the top edge of the Talisman was a chore but was much easier when I reached the part where I had added the modifications for the ease. Modifications are as follows:

  • RS Rows: K3, YO, KYOK . . . [row instructions as written] . . . KYOK, YO, K3
  • WS: K2, P1, Drop YO, YO . . . [row instructions as written] . . . Drop YO, YO, P1, K2

 

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A Looser Edge with Added YOs

It is a bit cludgey on the wrong side as you are dropping a YO immediately before adding a YO, but both YOs are necessary. The dropped YO is what gives the row ease and the added YO is what is used for the foundation of the K-YO-K increases on the right side rows. I also found that the first YO on the WS was obvious to see and drop, but with the distortion from the K-YO-K from the row below, the final YO to drop was a bit harder to see. It was a matter of remembering to always drop a YO before adding a YO on the WS and, like with any pattern, after I had done it row after row after row it became automatic. Just remember, at the start of the row to drop the 4th stitch (the YO from the previous row) and add a new YO and, at the other end, to drop the 4th stitch (YO) from the end and add a new YO before the final 3 stitches.

In the Books and in the Works
The Pebble Beach is still on the needles but already I can see a smooth top and a more open and relaxed edge. The Talisman came out well enough, but were I to do it again I would definitely start with the garter tab and add the modification to ease the edges. A tasty enough dish, but it needed a dash of salt and a pinch of spice to taste.

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A Dash of Salt and a Pinch of Spice Shy of Perfection

 

A Yarn Tells Different Stories

What happens when a group of knitters start with identical skeins of yarn? Our knitting group found out recently. We discovered Lorna’s Laces String Quintet mini-skeins in a color-way called Jamie’s Kilt. Every one of us has been watching and enjoying Outlander; it did not take much encouragement to yield to the temptation of nice yarn with such a great name. A knit along with Jamie was inevitable.

The KAL

The rules for our KAL were simple, we all had to include the yarn reminiscent of Jamie’s Kilt but patterns were of our own choosing.  First we set up a Ravelry thread, created a tag (jamies-kilt-along) for our projects, ordered our yarn, and then began our search for patterns. Those of us using just the skeins were limited to 535 yards, which helped narrow it down a bit. None of us were inspired by lacey patterns, although texture, cables, or pleats were definitely appropriate and some of us went in that direction. We did pattern searches on Ravelry, but even narrowing it down to “shawl” within a yarn weight and a yardage range resulted in searches that were pages and pages long. Potential patterns were shared, additional yarn choices were explored, and suggestions were given and received on our thread. After much deliberation, eventually we all cast on shawls and started our individual journeys, journeys that ended in very different places. Two of us used just the mini-skeins, one person added a pale green background to highlight her mini-skeins, and another added a deep blue background accented with orange highlights.

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We had 4 people in the group participating, which I will refer to as knitter E, K, L, and P which, coincidentally, are their initials.

Knitter E

imageUsing the mini-skeins plus a skein of pale green for the background, knitter E chose a beautifully textured pattern by Melanie Berg, A Spark of Grey. She used the mini-skeins sequentially for the textured pattern within the green background and finished the border with two of the remaining mini-skeins rather than continuing the pale green background into the border, giving it a nice contrast.

Knitter K

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Using just the mini-skeins, but splitting each skein in half to create two sets of skeins, knitter K (that would be me) knit the first set sequentially and mirrored the color order with the second set of skeins. The color swaths were narrower than in knitter L’s shawl, which used full skeins, but colors were repeated. The Issa pattern by Katie White features cable like texture in the middle panel and a simple picot edge.

Knitter L

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Using just the mini-skeins and ordering them sequentially, knitter L made a lovely And So Are You designed by Rose Beck. It all works together so well, the shawl features a nice texture and a pleated border; the pattern does not detract from the colors of the skeins and the colors do not detract from the stitch work. The pleats are perfect for a shawl inspired by a kilt.

Knitter P

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Using the mini-skeins, deep blue, and a touch of orange, knitter P also chose a Melanie Berg pattern that features frequent color changes, Drachenfels. Her touch of orange was an inspiration, a color pop that really sets off the others. She did a smart thing, brought her skeins into her LYS and worked with someone to find the perfect combination. This one was a “wow” when I first saw it, so striking and so different.

In The End

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Starting with identical yarn, adding individual visions, and ending with something completely different, each project was unique and creative as the person who knit it. KALs are always so fascinating because–whatever the common thread or theme–the finished projects have so much variation. Whether it is using the same pattern, the same yarn, or even the same pattern and yarn, somehow individual knitters find ways to make it their own. The fun is in seeing all those variations and sharing the journey to the finish line.

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A Kentucky Sampler: B&B Guns, Louisville, and Five is the New Ten

B&B Guns
Coming closer to Louisville, it was like the lawless wild frontier on the Interstate. The rain had finally stopped and the sun came out, as did many a crazed and impatient driver. I was following my tried and true 10 mile an hour rule, i.e., as long as one drives less than 10 miles over the posted speed limit one is both safe from the law and from all but the most impatient drivers doing brazenly chaotic moves to get around frustratingly slow moving cars. It did not work. On this day, cars were whipping around me like I was the proverbial little old lady out for her once a week Sunday drive. Not only did they zoom by me as if were standing still, drivers around Louisville on that day and subsequent days did crazy, unpredictable things: running red lights, turning right from left hand turn lanes, passing on the shoulder, cutting in front of others regardless of speed or distance, and creating situations that required attentive and defensive driving. It was a relief to finally navigate to and park at our B&B a bit before reaching Louisville.

Although our B&B was not far from recently built corporate buildings and office parks–including massive Papa Johns and Humana compounds–it was up a windy forest lined road and seemed to be in another time and place. It had originally been a farmhouse and, as with many B&B’s of a certain age, was charming and brimming imagewith antiques. Our room was a spacious and comfortable chamber one flight up and to the front of the house. The remote location was about a 10 minute drive to restaurants and a bit further to the Louisville tourist attractions, but it was a peaceful and quiet place located on acres of gardens and forest, a perfect place to end the day.

Many B&B’s feature magnificent breakfasts, and this B&B provided us with ample and fabulous food every morning, but our first breakfast was a bit out of the ordinary for reasons other than the food.

We had a coffee maker a few steps outside our room to conveniently make and have our coffee before spiffing up and going downstairs for breakfast. We were having our morning coffee and relaxing in our room–patiently perusing our email with the free but typically slow B&B wifi–when the spouse said, “There is a woman outside with a gun! Come look!” Well, every Wild West Shoot-em-up movie I have ever seen responds to guns with, “Get down!!!” not, “Come to the window and look!” If I could look out the window and see her, she could look in and see me. No thanks.

Happily shots were not fired and all was quiet when we went down to the formal and antique filled dining room, table elegantly set with antique Spode and sterling flatware. Two couples occupied chairs facing each other with an empty chair next to each couple and one empty one at the head of the table. A young couple was sitting quietly and stiffly but what I noticed first was the older couple across from them, impressively large handguns holstered at their hips. I know the game of musical chairs and was quick, I grabbed that empty chair next to the young couple–kitty corner across from the armed pair–before my shocked husband had a chance to step into the room and realize he was condemned to a breakfast sitting  alongside lethal weapons. We became the second stiffly sitting couple at the table and were soon joined by an elderly widower who sat at the head of the table, next to us and some distance from the pistols.

Guests all seated, the host came in and announced breakfast would be served shortly. The armed couple clasped their hands above the table, bowed their heads, and muttered their prayers. I could only hope they were not praying that their guns were loaded and their aim was true. The man was wearing a tee shirt that was top to bottom, back to front, and side to side filled with gun toting and gun loving NRA messages. It was not enough to wear his opinions, the conversation that immediately followed was dominated by his views with interjections made by his wife. The rest of us sat in stiff and restrained silence as we politely listened to him talk about his gun club activities, NRA participation, shooting skills, and various opinions and fun facts pertaining to weaponry and the God given right to use it. It is not an exaggeration to say that they were proselytizing, unaware perhaps that much of what they said did nothing to bring me closer to their point of view. I am not against safe, regulated, and responsible gun ownership. Marksmanship, skeet shooting, teaching gun safety, OK. But some of the other things, such as concealed carry, allowing guns in innocuous public places, resistance to regulation, ownership and collection of assault rifles and armor piercing bullets, and allowing young children to shoot are a bit harder to accept. Apparently they taught children as young as 7 to hold and shoot their own weapons, “…but we keep our hands on the weapons for younger children.” How much younger than 7 he did not say. I remember my daughter at 7, she was into rainbows and butterflies at that age; picturing her as a 7-year old clad in a pink and purple fluffy dress, white tights, ribbon barrettes, and a gun in her hands is utterly beyond my powers of imagination.

Our host came in to serve and asked, “How long is the NRA convention in town?” Fortunately, the response was that it was ending that day and our armed guests were checking out after breakfast. Eventually we asked a few polite questions, “How many people are in the NRA?” (Answer: about 5 million) “Will they have shooting in the Summer Olympics?” (Answer: yes, followed by details about the events), and the tension began to subside. The widower and I gently and cautiously began to guide the conversation to more neutral topics, talking about sites he planned to see in Springfield and sites he had seen on his travels. Somehow the topic of slavery came up, perhaps in our discussion of the Springfield Lincoln sites, and someone said, “Did you know the first slave sold in American was sold by a black man?” Our gunman said, “And they blame us for slavery.” Up until then I had kept my opinions to myself, avoiding any topic that could be perceived as controversial but–amazed by the comment implying the action of one black man erased the evils of slavery perpetuated by thousands of white slave owners–I politely replied, “I think there is plenty of blame to go around.” My widower friend came to my rescue and said, “I think we can all agree that slavery was bad,” and quickly changed the subject to more neutral ground.

The young couple said little, but they did say this was the first time they had stayed in imagea B&B. Trial by fire, it certainly was not beginners luck in their case. But they may as well find out now, a B&B is a roll of the dice as to who will be joining you. Sometimes it is an interesting group, sometimes a pleasant group, and sometimes it is a stiff and less than comfortable group, but there you all are, strangers sharing a breakfast table and attempting polite conversation. I come to breakfast at a B&B not knowing who and what I will find, but never have I felt the need to be armed amidst the scraping of silver and the rattle of plates.

Louisville Touring

After our breakfast adventures, we enjoyed a beautiful morning at the Falls of the Ohio River. The Falls of the Ohio are across the river from Kentucky, in the state of Indiana, and are largely responsible for the city of Louisville being where it is. The drop in the river at that location creates rapids that are impassible. Ships either wrecked or were halted at that location for sailors to portage their goods around the rapids. A settlement naturally grew up around the point that paused or ended those river journeys. The Army Corps of Engineers has since built locks, but the water dangerously tumbles and swirls in all directions on the Indiana side. Also of interest, it was where a glacier ended and there is a rock shelf dotted with fossils. The shelf is accessible to tourists with warnings to stay clear of the dangerous waters and signs posted prohibiting the gathering of fossils. Nothing prevented us from hunting and gathering fossils with our camera lenses, and we spent a great deal of time examining rocks and finding fossils.

 

After our visit to the Falls, we visited the Frazier History Museum which had a great exhibit on the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as one on the history of the Prohibition. With all the distilleries in Kentucky, prohibition was a very big deal in imageKentucky and it put a lot of people out of work. Apparently those who could continue to make “medicinal” spirits–and the doctors who were willing to prescribe it–did quite well financially, but many historical distilleries closed permanently or were reopened under new ownership when prohibition was finally over. We briefly visited the second floor, which had an extensive exhibit of guns and rifles as well as some knives and toy soldiers, but interrupted our visit to see a performance by a costumed storyteller. When we arrived the theater was filled, they put some chairs in the front for us and we settled in front row seats for the performance. Before beginning her story, the storyteller welcomed those who were with the NRA convention. Fortunately she was a really good storyteller and I got lost in her story about Norse gods, not thinking about all the guns that could be behind my back.

We found the Mussels and Burgers bar and restaurant and I had a huge bowl of huge mussels before touring the Louisville Slugger museum and factory. At the museum, imagewe bought our tickets and were assigned a time for our tour, leaving us plenty of time to look around the museum. A large group was beginning our tour just as we entered, and we probably could have asked to join it, but we contented ourselves with wandering around the exhibits and awaiting our turn. When it was time for our tour to begin, we were surprised to find that we were the only two on the tour. A nice young man patiently stepped through the complete tour, patiently pausing to answer questions and add some narratives. At the end of the tour we were treated to miniature souvenir Louisville Sluggers. We had been warned that the customized and personalized bats being sold were for display not for use. Although many usable as well as souvenir models were available for purchase, we contented ourselves with the little but free souvenir bats. I have since learned that they do not allow the souvenir bats in passenger’s carry-on bags and that the Louisville airport has a huge display case of confiscated bats. I imagine they eventually return them to the museum, rotating the same bats between museum and airport in an endless loop.

The following day we went to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. A nice employee was entering the museum at the same time as we were and gave the spouse a pass; it was about to expire and she did not want it to go to waste. We got there just in time to join the historical walking tour. Our guide had lots of stories, history, and information. When we were by the track, he described the crowds, the different luxury boxes, the costumes, and the thousands who arrive first thing in the morning for a long day on the infield at the Kentucky Derby, a race that does not take place until the end of the day. Clearly the Kentucky Derby is Louisville’s Mardi Gras. In the museum we saw a movie about the Derby and wandered through some interesting exhibits, including an extensive exhibit on the recent Triple Crown winning American Pharaoh. The museum cafe offered a nice but not extensive menu, fine with us as it is better to do a few things well then a lot of things poorly; often the case in cafes that offer multi-page menus filled with multi-international cuisines. The spouse ordered a mint julep, complete with souvenir glass. I tried it. A little sweet for my taste but it went down so very easily. Hmm, I have mint in the garden, and now we have bourbon, there may be some hot summer day mint juleps in our future.

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We finished our day at The Farmington Historic Home which is thought to be based on
imageplans designed by Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln knew the family and had stayed at Farmington for several weeks before marrying Mary Todd. Unfortunately the home was closed but the grounds were open and we walked around the lovely gardens. It had been a hemp plantation, a very labor intensive crop, and the family were slave holders. Lincoln observed the institution of slavery while visiting this plantation and it may have shaped his imageopinion of slavery and guided some of his future decisions. Across from the mansion
was a monument in remembrance of those subjected to slavery surrounded by rugged stone benches, a place to sit and contemplate the past. Although the house was closed, we could peek into the windows. It was a rather modest house for a plantation and the rooms looked farmhouse simple. In present day, the grounds consist of formal flower gardens and well ordered vegetable gardens.

We searched for other historical homes in the area, and found some interesting ones, but they were also closed on Monday. We could tour gardens of these homes, or we could go enjoy the gardens at our B&B. We chose the latter and ended our Louisville visit at the peaceful B&B. We had a perfect end to the day with our best imagemeal in Kentucky, discovering Brasserie Provence in a shopping mall.

Five is the New Ten

The following morning we had a nice breakfast and were joined by a retired doctor who lived about 100 miles south of Louisville. He was a weekly guest at the B&B as his barbershop quartet rehearses every Monday night in Louisville. He, and only he, joined us our second and third mornings and we had lively conversations both days. No discussion of guns, but lots of discussion about music and musical instruments. After an enjoyable breakfast of great food and engaging conversation, we loaded the car and set out for home.

The Interstate around Louisville was congested but speed limits seemed only a suggestion. I followed my rule of thumb, driving no more than 10 miles above the speed limit. Even with cautiously exceeding the limit, coming into, driving around, and leaving Louisville it was as if I were driving at a crawl. People zoomed by me and, worse, did unpredictable things requiring me to drive defensively and continually expect the unexpected. We made our way through a construction zone with shifting lanes and unpredictable traffic, finally making it safely across the bridge into Indiana. At last the road opened and, save having to get around a few trucks, the press of traffic lessened. I kept my speed between 60 and 65 in the 55 mile hour zone, less than 10 miles above the limit. I saw a police car by the center median and glanced down at my speedometer. Phew, it was under 65 but I immediately let off the glass and slowed to 60 as he pulled out. I was continuing to slow as he pulled behind me and put on his lights; I was genuinely shocked to realize he was pulling me over. He motioned for me pull off to the left by the center median, the most dangerous place to stop. When I handed him my drivers license and registration, I said I had been keeping my speed below 65. He insisted I was going 70. I was not, I know I was not, but he responded by putting the radar in front of my eyes displaying a “70” on the screen, falsely attributing it to me. He also told me he had been clocking and ticketing anyone who went even one mile over the 10 mile grace amount all morning. Nice guy.

I could dispute it by going to court or I could pay it. When I got home I read that I had a third option. It would be “forgiven” if I pay a fee that is more than the fine (money order or cashiers check only), send a copy of my spotless driving record from my home state (documentation fee $12), and complete a form to plead no contest to the citation. Then, if I behave for 6 months, it will be forgiven and they will not file the citation. My take is this, either he had a faulty radar, he was clocking someone else, or he saw out of state plates and saw an opportunity to take advantage of a tourist. It is, essentially, a random tourist tax by the state of Indiana. Even if I were to drive the many hours there and the many hours back to dispute it in court on a date of their choosing, it is my word against his. I was not going 70 mph but my knowing that is no proof in the court of law. So, the world is not fair a fair place and my vacation is costing me a bit more. But point taken, if radar guns add 5 miles per hour, my 10 mile rule has now become a 5 mile rule.

Not a pleasant end to our trip, but I have since gathered the documentation, completed the forms, paid the fees, and sent it Certified Mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope for the receipt. I drive a bit slower, and have already been dangerously tailgated and honked at going at or near the speed limit, but will try not to let one tourist fleecing alto-Kentucky speed trap overrun the memories of an otherwise enjoyable trip. Although it took me longer to get here than usual, it is good to be home.

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More about our Kentucky trip in A Kentucky Sampler: Lexington Softball, Fiber, and Bourbon and The Bourbon Trail and Beasts of Fiber

A Kentucky Sampler: Lexington Softball, Fiber, and Bourbon and The Bourbon Trail

Lexington Softball, Fiber, and Bourbon

We had journeyed down through Indiana and Ohio to Kentucky in the pouring rain and, after locating the Campbell House Hotel in Lexington, we stayed put until the next day’s fiber festival. We were surprised to find players, coaches, trainers, and supporters in blue and orange draped over all the couches and chairs in lobbies, lounges, and hallways. Our local university team had travelled to Lexington for a softball tournament and, like us, had come in from the rain. My rain washed University windbreaker fit right in with the color scheme. The roads and parking lot were covered in deep puddles and, after a harrowing drive with cars and trucks creating great blinding clouds from the water slicked pavement, we went into hang out mode too.

The hotel was comfortable, but older and not as soundproof as one would have liked with hordes of college students joining us. The athletes and their entourage were all quite nice and we enjoyed chatting with them, promising to go cheer them on if we were still in town when they played their next game. The guest rooms were painted a very dark charcoal, almost black, so although it was comfortable physically it did not seem all that inviting a room for kicking back and relaxing. It did pass my chair test though, specifically having a comfortable chair in the room to claim as my own (in addition to the desk chair that is always claimed by the spouse). Good thing too, with every other seating surface in the hotel claimed by the team, it was the only seat available.

We did not have the fortitude to seek out local dining establishments. Fortunately, our dinner at the restaurant was quite nice and the staff were very engaging. Nibbling on bourbon glazed salmon and surrounded by displays of bourbon bottles, we got into discussions with the staff about what makes bourbon bourbon. The servers did not know, but one volunteered to run to the bar and find out from the bartender. She returned, saying that the bartender had taken a course on bourbon and had rattled off more than a messenger could possibly remember. After being asked for a two sentence answer, the bartender had summed it up with: it has to be more than 51% corn based, aged in oak barrels, and made in America. More research was needed and between Google and Wikipedia we got some answers. The next morning we had the same servers for breakfast and updated them on our bourbon research.

As it was the day before, all lobbies, lounges, hallways, and even the restaurant were filled with athletes, coaches and supporters. Wishing the players good luck in their game on our way out, we set out for the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival and Bluegrass Classic Stock Dog Trials.

See Beasts of Fiber for a description of the fiber festival and dog trials.

Plans to tour more of Lexington were put aside, we decided to journey on towards Louisville after our time at the fiber festival and dog trials. Things we could have done in Lexington–time, weather, and energy permitting–included a visit to Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood home and Ashland, Henry Clay’s plantation. But our stay there was brief and my impressions of the city are incomplete. I will say that, with its proximity to Cincinnati, the traffic congestion seemed out of proportion to a small city. I did not enjoy driving into and around the town and was happy to hit some peaceful country roads after the festival before returning to the Interstate for our journey to Louisville. In fairness, it is never easy to drive over wet roads in a pouring rain while listening for Doris, my Google Maps voice, to guide me through unfamiliar roads.

The Bourbon Trail

When pulling off the Interstate for lunch we happened to see tourist signs for distilleries and, as we were not in a hurry, it seemed like the Kentucky thing to do. When in Rome or, in our case, when on the Bourbon Trail…

Searching Google Maps after lunch we found a distillery that looked interesting and was not too far from the restaurant. It was interesting too, but it was not operational. Or if operational, it was not in any shape to receive visitors in spite of the sign stating it was reopening in spring of 2016. The road to the Castle & Key Distillery was a lovely windy forested road dropping down to a riverbed in Millville, a peaceful diversion from the fast paced Interstate and well worth the drive in spite of the facility not being open to the public. The complex was surprisingly large, beautiful, and impressive, although some of the 19th century buildings appeared to be crumbling with missing windows and vines were invading the masonry. It was a rewarding side-trip but it did not provide us with the requisite Kentucky distillery experience. Google Maps to the rescue, there was another distillery further up the road. We followed the windy and forested creekside road to our next destination, the appropriately named town of Versailles. How perfectly fitting to have bourbon in Versailles.

Woodford Reserve Distillery was the complete opposite of the Castle & Key, after being the only souls in sight at the first distillery we were eclipsed by the the crowd at the next. Parking lots overflowed their borders and stretched out into muddy fields. When we pulled into the complex, multiple flag men directed us away from the main parking lots downhill to a churned up, sloped, and mud-sloppy area to park; fortunately my faithful steed Hubie had all wheel drive to resist the tire grabbing muck. We parked, gingerly made our way up the slick slope, and were trying to find our bearings when one of the flag men hailed us, directing us to the visitor center and warning us to watch out for all the buses and their crazed drivers. And buses there were, several tour buses making the Bourbon Trail circuit joined by the distillery’s own tour buses. Streams of people were loading onto and off of these buses, following the directions of their barking tour guides. It was reminiscent of the border collies herding sheep at the dog trials we had seen earlier in the day. Do they hold tour guide trials?  These guides would have done well in competition, their tourists moved with purpose and alacrity.

We made our way through the crowds in the visitor center to the gift shop and asked the cashier where we might be able to taste the bourbon. We were directed to one of those cordoned, switchback-queues designed to hold long lines of people in a compact space and queued our way up to one of the several clerks behind a long counter. Although it was mid-afternoon, tours for the day, we were told, were sold out but tasting was available for $8 per person. Fine, I was not that interested in tasting–I have tried various spirits in the past and am not a fan of whiskey–but $8 for the spouse to taste was an acceptable price to pay for the experience. Or it would have been acceptable had they not insisted that I pay $8 too, regardless of the fact that I was not tasting. We declined. As we turned to leave, the clerk offered us a bourbon chocolate so our time in line was not entirely wasted. In a last ditch effort to have a bourbon experience, we returned to the gift shop to see if they had any smallish sized bottles for an equivalent $16 to pick up and taste on our own. The gift shop had only big and bigger bottles. Empty handed we once again pushed our way through the crowds to find our way back to the mud-slicked hillside parking. We serpentined our way out of the visitor center only to be delayed by another throng being herded efficiently onto a distillery-owned bus for the next tour.

As lovely as the setting was, it seemed set up to cram as many people as possible through the distillery experience while separating the tourist dollar from the tourist. I said to the spouse, “This is a boozeneyland.” It reminded me of the most touristy wineries in Napa Valley; those more interested in being a top tourist attraction than in sharing a love of their world class winemaking.

Our friendly flagman suggested that we take care walking down the hill to our car and that we make our way to the exit by finding a path going down rather than up. Good advice, the once grass covered slope was a slick muddy mess from the many tires passing over the rain soaked hillside. I backed out cautiously, mindful of not getting stuck in the mud or slipping into the SUV emblazoned with NRA stickers that was parked in front of me. As I guided Hubie through the most firm looking ground I could find to the exit road, we wondered if the Bourbon Trail had adopted the worst of the Napa Valley-type tourism. Leaving Boozeneyland and Bourbon Trail behind, we wound our way back country roads to the Interstate having not tasted a drop.

Continuing on our way to Louisville we saw a tourist sign for a distillery and historical site in Frankfort. We dithered for a moment and, given that we were not on a schedule and had no place we had to be, we brought up Buffalo Trace Distillery on Google Maps and followed voice instructions from Doris over the river and through the woods. We dropped down a small drive to a huge brick complex alongside the river and found our way to a paved parking lot with plenty of spaces available. The rich, almost smokey smell of fermenting spirits hung in the air as we began our walk around the buildings. A little table beneath an umbrella displayed a “check-in here” sign and we held onto our wallets and prepared for the worst. Two very friendly ladies invited us to join an hour-long tour that was just starting. Mentally seeing dollar signs, we declined and asked if it was possible to just taste. She responded that it was and asked how many tickets we needed; our response was not “two please” but “how much?” Surprisingly, there was no charge. The tickets had a later time, giving us about twenty minutes to wander about, but the price was right.

The tasting area was on the second floor of the visitor’s center and had three large bars. One tour group was just finishing and another arriving at the main bar and we prepared for another crush of bourbon breathed humanity. We showed our tickets and were directed to the third bar where a smaller but ever so lively group was tasting. When it was our turn, we were surprised to find we were the only two scheduled at that time and, best of all, were hosted by a very friendly and knowledgable bartender. He confirmed our newly acquired Wikipedia knowledge and added a lot to it.

Although the wafting smell of whisky throughout the grounds was heavenly, I do not have a taste for whisky nor do I have a desire to acquire one, but this was Kentucky and we were in an award winning distillery. Our first taste was of the basic Buffalo Trace bourbon, aged 8 years. We were instructed to taste the bourbon in 3 sips: the first sip would taste strongly of alcohol, the second also of alcohol but with a bit of flavor coming through, the third sip would be the tasting sip. He was right, the first sip knocked me over with a boozy blast. Either I had killed my tongue by the third sip, or there was truth to what he said, and it did seem more flavorful. Then he had us taste a sipping bourbon, aged 10 or more years, and it was much smoother to my exploded taste buds. We concluded with a bourbon cream, basically heavy cream and bourbon, to which he added a bit of old style root beer for a boozy adults only root beer float. Our parting taste was a bourbon chocolate; now that I liked at first bite and definitely did not need three nips to get there.

This time our trip to the gift shop was not restricted to tiny bottles and we left with full bottles of the basic bourbon, the sipping bourbon, and a box of bourbon chocolates. No doubt the spouse is envisioning sipping fine bourbon by the fireside, imagebut after eating those chocolates and having the nice bourbon glazed salmon the night before, I am envisioning culinary explorations. I may have to wait a year or so before I can dip in without the spouse protesting the use of fine bourbon for the pot, but the staff assured me that bourbon lasts indefinitely. Eventually his interest will wane or his back will be turned; sooner or later the bottles will gather dust in the bar and be ready for a trip to the kitchen.

I may never develop a taste for bourbon in my glass, but I could certainly learn to love it on my plate.

Next up: A Kentucky Sampler: B&B Guns, Louisville, and Five is the New Ten

Beasts of Fiber: A Day at the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival and Bluegrass Classic Stock Dog Trials

On a rainy Saturday in Lexington, we ventured out to the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival and the Bluegrass Classic Stock Dog Trials held in Masterston Station Park for a day of beasties, fleeces, fibers, and gizmos.

Traveling with an uniKNITiated muggle to a fiber fair is a very different experience from going to a fiber event with a fellow knitter. Long leisurely hours of petting fiber and oohing and ahhing over colors and textures was not an option. However, we did find lots of animals–just about everyone likes animals–including alpaca, goats, sheep, and rabbits and the camera wielding spouse had a good time with the beasts of fiber. There was not a lot of visitor interaction with the penned animals but they did have ongoing sheep sheering demonstrations and sometimes animals were outside their pens and available for holding or petting.

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For those more interested in seeing how things work than in admiring lovely skeins of yarn there were lots of gizmos: hand crafted or precision machined equipment developed for carding, spinning, weaving, skeining, hooking, and knitting. I found we could linger a bit in a gizmo rich booth to discuss form and function, adding an engineering slant to our visit. Looking at yarn was a brief pet and a quick mental note for me, never spending too long standing in one place and risk pushing my partner’s patience.

One booth had floor looms available for hands-on instruction. It was rather fun and, unlike spinning that would produce even more yarn for my stash, a loom would do the opposite. Weaving would consume fiber much faster than knitting it. Something to consider; the estimated years to work my way through my stash might exceed my lifetime. The question is, would my beneficiaries prefer legacy stash or woven placemats? The most basic two-pedal floor loom was over $1000 and, although I considered it and took their business card, that is a lot to spend for a one-day-I-imagemight-like-to-do-this whim. Still, I may keep my eye out for used looms or opportunities to borrow one. There were also beautiful hand carved yarn bowls in lovely smooth woods that tempted me. There were beautiful ceramic ones too, but being a bit of a klutz I think wood might be more practical than ceramic. For my wish list, I might consider that a yarn bowl would fit under a Christmas tree more easily than a loom and would certainly be a better fit for Santa’s budget.

The one thing that moved from wish list to shopping list was a Strauch swift. I had seen them on the Woolery site and they looked nice–and looked tempting–but trying it at the Strauch Fiber booth convinced me that it is a must have. I love my Strauch winder but it can be fussy, a bit like an Italian sports car. When it winds smoothly, there is nothing like it for zip-zoom creation of center pull cakes, particularly with large or heavy skeins. But when it is not winding smoothly, the yarn falls off track and imageit can quickly go from firm cake to free form mess if not caught and remedied right away. From my visit at the Strauch booth I learned that a jerky swift is the enemy, a precision crafted one with ball bearings and made in a choice of beautiful woods is the answer. When I tried winding with both the Strauch swift and winder, it ran as smoothly and swiftly as a freshly tuned Italian sports car. There will be one in my near future.

We did find many interesting crafts besides knitting, even one that we could both could find interesting that combined bicycles and fiber. The spouse might want to keep an eye on his bicycle wheels in case I got imageideas, or I may have to keep an eye on my fiber in case he does. A vendor from Sweden brought some traditional pelts that were sheep fleece on one side and painted skins on the other. Not only were they very unique and beautiful, they would be the perfect thing to hunker down with on a cold winter’s night. Or so I thought until I asked the price. Unfortunately, with a price tag over $1000 USD they were not throws I could leave about, not the practical relax, munch popcorn, and watch TV lap blankets of choice. Made from traditional Gotland sheep, these were heirlooms. We also saw rugs, artistic felting, a hand spun skein competition, and lots and lots of raw and hand-dyed fleece.

I headed towards the exit with a firm determination to get a precision made swift, an interest in a loom and wooden yarn bowl, and an appreciation of many of the fine imagecrafts but I was empty handed. Halting at the exit gate, I returned to one of the many friendly booths who’s yarn had stayed in my mind, A Yarn Well Spun, and selected a pair of socks, some assembly required.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and think the spouse did too, if not quite so much. Although I did not spend the time carefully perusing the yarn vendors–as I would have done had  I been on my own or with a like-minded partner in crime–I was impressed with what I saw. The fiber vendors seemed to be mostly small independent businesses, there were not many displays of large company’s name-brand yarns. It was a special treat to see so many unique hand-dyed and hand-spun fleece and fibers on display. There were also a lot of natural undyed fibers that were beautiful in their own way. Although I got more of  a big picture view of the festival than my usual putter and peruse visit to this sort of event, I saw many interesting and wonderful things in the moderately sized festival. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to attend.

The festival provided continuous shuttles between the fiber fair and the dog trials. It is difficult to describe just how huge the competition area was for the trials, suffice to say that when each dog was released on one end, the sheep on the other looked like little dots. Everything we know about dog trials we learned from others sitting in the bleachers with us. In other words, this is what we understood to be the rules.

Briefly, when it is their turn, the handler and the competing dog stand by a pole until they are given the signal to start. Meanwhile, very far away a horse and rider and an imageofficial dog who works for the organizers bring three sheep out to a spot in the pasture. The competing dog is released while the rider on the horse and official dog withdraw. The dog races from handler to cluster of sheep, skirting the perimeter of the pasture so s/he can sneak up on the sheep from behind. The dog must herd the sheep to a set of gates and bring them through the gates, bring them to another set of gates and herd them through those, return to the handler, separate one sheep out from the other two for a set amount of time, and herd all three of them into a little pen. The handler, meanwhile, issues all commands using a whistle. Once in the pen, the competition is over but the dog can then proudly herd them toward a little pasture outside the field of competition where they are greeted by a second “official” dog. The official dog brings the befuddled sheep into the final enclosure. The dog has eleven minutes, and if s/he does not finish, the official dog is sent out to end the run and bring the sheep to the outer pasture. This is humiliating for the competing dog. Each dog starts with 100 points and points are deducted during the course of the run. It is both a judged and a timed trial.

The first dog we saw completed the course in less than 11 minutes and had around 60 points. The second dog took off running at great speed and got the sheep to the first set of fences fairly quickly but did not complete the run before time was up. The third dog we saw really struggled, perhaps s/he was a young and less experienced dog, and had not successfully brought the sheep through the second set of fences when the official dog came out to gather the sheep. The competing dog upped the energy level, as if saying, “I can do it, I can do it, I CAN DO IT!” An increase in energy failed to convince the official dog that the little guy was a mighty sheep herding beast, the look the official dog gave him said, “Out of the way puppy, watch how this is done.” As the official competently and quickly herded the sheep to their new pasture, all the while ignoring the other dog, the little guy continued to run around them as if s/he was the sheep master. The next dog we saw did much better, doing all the elements and almost completing the run but was about a minute too slow. The last dog we watched completed the elements and beat the clock.

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We just watched a few dogs, and would have stayed to watch more were it not for our rumbling bellies wanting lunch and our travel plans for the day. We were fascinated by the use of the whistle. The sheep were so far away that we could not imagine how the dog could hear the whistle when s/he was at the furthest point from the trainer. The different tones signaled the dog to stop, crouch, move the sheep right, move the sheep left, and so on. It was only afterwards that I thought, wait a minute. How does a dog know left from right? People struggle with that concept, think of how many times we have all heard, “No, the other left hand.”

We were also impressed by how well imagebehaved the dogs were as the hung around the area waiting to participate. Most of all, we were impressed by dogs knowing what to do in such a huge open space. We wondered where they were able to train for such a thing. Unlike the Sheep and Fiber Fair where the spouse good naturedly wandered about for my sake, I think we both enjoyed the dog trials equally.

It was an interesting day with beasts of fiber.

Next up, our travels in Kentucky.

A Sunday Overstuffed with Stuff

Market Stuff

Once a month there is a grand gathering of goods at the Third Sunday Market, loads and loads of stuff. In the winter there is a smaller indoor market in this location, but in the warmer months the Third Sunday Market is both indoors and out. The scale of this event is huge, sellers crowd 120 acres of event center which includes two cavernous indoor spaces, permanent outdoor pavilions, temporary pavilions, and open space for an overflow of vendors with pop-up tents, trailers, tables, or just a claimed space to strew their array of goods on the ground. I have never made it all the way through, there is just way too much ground to cover and far too many goods to see. Rain or snow or shine, this place is stuffed with stuff.

Sunday was a sun day, also a wind day and a cool temperature day, but a good day for putting on some woolens and taking a drive. At the farmer’s market one of the vendors had mentioned that she would be at the Third Sunday Market the following day, fortuitous because I never manage to remember both that there is a market and that it is the third Sunday at the same time. To be honest, I had already forgotten all about it the next day when the spouse mentioned it. By the time we had breakfasted, bundled, and readied ourselves to go it was not an early start and cars were parked out in the supplemental to the supplemental parking lot when we arrived. Knowing people always come and go, we optimistically ventured into the closer parking areas and luckily found one spot hidden in the sea of cars. We hoped our luck would hold as we embarked on our treasure hunt.

We paid our $6 admission and were treated to a new temporary pavilion along the border fence. After walking past the first pavilion we rounded a corner to a view of permanent pavilions, trailers, and pop-up shelters as far as the eye can see. I tried to take a few pictures to show the size and scale but would need a camera drone to do it justice. For anyone interested in tracking their number of steps, this is the place. Hours and discoveries stretched before us.

Regional Differences: What “Mid” adds to “West”

When I lived in California I went to many flea markets, antique fairs, and antique shops and collectives but I see things at Midwest antique shows that I never saw in the West. My theory is that stuff has been lying about in family’s attics and barns longer here than there. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say different stuff has been in the attics and barns.

Originally inhabited by indigenous tribes, California was settled in the 18th century by the Spanish. Father Junipero Serra helped establish Spanish settlements along the coast as his order built missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each approximately 30 miles, or a day’s journey, apart. Haciendas were established, which were large but sparsely populated land grants. Later Russians arrived in small numbers in the northernmost part of the state and were joined by larger groups of Americans arriving via ship and wagon trains and by Asians and Europeans arriving via sea routes; arrivals from everywhere increased dramatically after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. After briefly becoming a self-proclaimed republic in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, Alta California was occupied by US forces during the war with Mexico and was admitted into the Union in 1850. Earlier on, American settlers began populating the Midwest in the late 1700s and Midwest states entered the Union late in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth century.

It was not until the Transcontinental Railroad connected the continent in 1869 that the transportation of people and their stuff to the west became less long and arduous. With more modern methods of shipping, stuff arrived to California from all over the world but back in the day–before railroads, trucks, container ships, UPS, Amazon, and eBay–things came by wagon train or ship; there was not much room forfrivolities and favorites in creaking wagons scaling mountain passes or storm tossed ships rounding the Horn; only the most necessary and the most treasured items made those journeys. Meanwhile, Illinois became a state in 1818 and a lot of everyday and utilitarian stuff people had back then is the same stuff we are finding now: old crockery, cooking utensils, farm implements, quilts, battered toys, and all manner of functional things have been discovered in attics and barns. Collectables from the 1900’s and beyond are probably pretty much the same in both locations, although California has the Asian influences, the Gold Rush era, the Barbary Coast era, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the age of tech to contribute to its sources of stuff, the earlier everyday homespun Americana is definitely easier to find in the Midwest than it is in the West.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Stuff Indoors and Stuff Outdoors

Each of the open-sided pavilions had two long aisles of vendors and each pavilion had outdoor vendors extending from both ends and beyond. Pathways separated impromptu shelters and booths in the open areas. There were two enclosed indoor areas, one large auxiliary building and one huge main building. We decided to do the outdoor areas first and wander the more comfortable indoor areas at the end of our visit.

In the wide open expanse of the market, the wind indiscriminately blows dust on everything. The elements, and the often helter-skelter arrangement of too many goods for too small a space, make the outdoor shopping a bit of an adventure. Dusty collectables laying in the dirt or jumbled on tables are definitely diamonds in the rough; it takes a patient eye and a little imagination to recognize treasures buried in dingy clutter. It can be a bit of a gamble, often I have had an idea of an item’s potential but will not really know what condition something is in until I have had a chance to take it home and clean it. Even if it is not in as good a condition as I had hoped, just about anything looks better in an orderly home environment than it does when left outside like detritus in the dirt. There is a risk but the payoff could be a great find for a lot less money than can be found elsewhere, often for less than in the indoor area and a lot less than in other shops and collectives.

The indoor area, particularly the huge main building, is more orderly and usually the place to find the more valuable and rare items. The indoor market runs year round and the open air market only during the warmer months; the indoor vendors may be more established in that location. Still, it is best not to assume anything and it is time well spent to look inside as well as out. Bargains are found in both locations–I have found some great things in the indoor area–but I think it is more of a challenge to be out in the cold winds and swirling dust–or in the humid heat, the pouring rain, or whatever weather is served up that Sunday–trudging up and down aisles and paths enduring nature’s whims while looking for hidden treasures.

Prepare for Stuff

There are so many different types of things, so many areas to explore, such a quantity of stuff, it is all overwhelming. I have never made it all the way through the market, and that is with doing just a quick walk through; I do not stop and pour over every table, booth, and display but pause only at the ones that catch my eye. Even with strolling at a steady pace, my senses quickly become overstimulated and my eyes become like a cartoon character’s pin-wheeled spinning orbs. After my first visit I learned to go with a mission, to search for something specific. My advice would be to have one or two items in mind–an art glass vase, a bedside table, a pastel quilt, a toy truck, a garden ornament, an Elvis painting–anything that will provide some focus for your eyes.

Sunday was an impromptu journey and I was ill prepared. Few vendors, if any, will take credit cards. Some will take checks, but cash is the currency. I had some cash in my wallet left over from the farmers’ market the day before but did not have much and did not have my checkbook. Worse, I broke my own rules and did not get something in mind until after we had passed by many displays. With nothing in mind I quickly lost my mind. It all became a blur.

Stuff You Can Find

The question should not be what stuff you will find but what you will not find. This is the perfect place to find quirky, unusual, or rare treasured items for house and garden.
There are things to be found that I did not even know to look for. When we were walking down an aisle in the auxiliary building I saw a very large covered basket. Thinking I was talking to the spouse I murmured, “Yikes, that basket looks like a imagecoffin.” A woman walking nearby overheard and, rather than being offended by myoffhand remark not meant to be heard by others, laughed and agreed with me. Together we got closer to examine it. Sure enough, it was a wicker coffin. I replied, “Now we know you can find anything at this market.” The vendor joined us and offered a deal on the slightly used coffin. I have heard of used car salesmen, but used coffin salesmen? He had acquired it from someone who had found it in his barn. The original owner was the third generation on his land and did not know much about it other than it had been used by those who had come before him. Obviously it was not used for burials but for laying out the dearly departeds for visitations. As unique a find as it was, I could not think of a good place or purpose in my home for a lightly used wicker coffin. However it did bring one thought to life; so many of these items had their own story. Sadly, most of the stories are lost; all that remains are artifacts lost in a sea of dust covered stuff.

What can be found? There are toys.


Furniture


Collections such as salt and pepper shakers, clocks, steins, and of course corn.


Knickknacks and knackknicks.

Couture

Garden Gagaws

Repurposed items

Stuff I Found

Wall-eyed as I was, I did find stuff. We walked the perimeter of the outdoor pavilions and started with the furthest one. At the end of the first aisle I saw a table full of baskets and thought of the clutter of knitting accessories that seem to gather around the chairs I sit in. My mission, from that point, was to find some container to corral the clutter. Surely I should know by now that buying an organizer will not make me imageorganized, but this was a quest for focus not a quest for self realization. The baskets were handcrafted in the USA by Longaberger, they are viewed by some as a collectable but by me as an organizer. Most of them were less than $20 but I did not want a collectable basket so much as I wanted a clutter corral to collect my clutter; there could be other options–less collectable perhaps–but for less money. A bit further on I found another Longaberger basket and would have been happy to stop right there had it not been for the extra zero on the end of the price tag, $60 when I would have happily paid $6 or even $16.

At one of the indoor vendors, I found a little chest of drawers that had probably been a jewelry box. The bottom drawer was smaller than the the top two and I asked if the space behind the drawer was supposed to be a hiding place. We later discovered a little hole in the back of the chest and figured it must have been the place for a little music box. The woman asked her father, who looked to have been on this earth far longer than the little chest, about the empty space. He said he did not know why there was a space but offered it to me for much less than the marked price. Big enough for knitting stitch markers and darning needles but small enough for a chair side table, without a second thought I bought that little clutter corral without bothering to make a counter offer.

Thinking back on the baskets and realizing they were a good price after having seen them marked much higher elsewhere, I made the spouse hoof it back to the furthest outdoor pavilion for a second look. I found two fabric lined baskets with lids and asked how much if I bought them both. He dropped the price a bit, giving me a price for the two that he said was less than I would be likely to find elsewhere for a single one half the size of either. He was probably right, but once again I accepted the price without a counter offer.

There is much to be learned about bartering, but not from me. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I did not pay sticker price for any of it. Admittedly I have a long way to go before I have any credibility for advising about bargaining, but I have at least learned to have a comment or question for the vendor to open the door for negotiations and give them an opportunity to offer a just-for-you lower price. For some reason it is awkward for me to hold a marked item and ask, “Can you do better on this?” but not uncomfortable to ask, “How much for both of these?” or “Can you tell me a little bit about this?”

Happily my purchases cleaned up nicely, a little dusting and polishing and I am pleased with my new stuff. And in spite of my subpar bartering abilities, I think they

were good bargains. Now the hard part: to use the organizers to get organized, round up that clutter, and herd it into my little clutter corrals. Hmm, sounds like something I would do in the West, not the Midwest. Perhaps I need to find something bigger to corral my new clutter corrals, my next stuff quest for the upcoming third Sunday. Yippie yi yo kayah.

Note: Whilst I was doing all this shopping, the spouse had a look see with his video camera. He did not come home with any stuff, although he was very interested in finding the nearest restaurant for lunch after all that walking. We found one with 4 stars on Google Maps, Cousins Restaurant and Lounge. I would not recommend it. Not all Midwestern food is bad but sadly some of it is heavy with an emphasis on quantity at the expense of quality. I had a chicken soup that was so thick and gloppy it could hold my spoon upright and a salmon sandwich, listed as a salmon BLT but with no B unless it was B for burnt patty. More research is needed for restaurants in this area. Could be another reason to return for more stuff…

Third Sunday Market Stuff In Moving Pictures

Green Garlic and Purple Asparagus

Eating seasonably is a bit challenging in a colder climate. Even in the coldest months, it seemed some part of California was always growing something when I lived there. Here, the earth sleeps and our few and far between (indoor) farmers markets go back to our roots: carrots, potatoes, beets, and turnips. The indoor markets are an enjoyable winter outing, but they are nothing like the outdoor summer markets for quantity and variety. Rain or shine, frost or sun, wind or calm, our outdoor farmers markets start in May no matter the weather. March and April shyly introduce the spring, the joy of bright yellow daffodils is followed by the bursting forth of multi-colored tulips and the gradual greening of the trees as the earth awakens. Those early months of growth produce some lovely blooms but very little in the way of food. May is not a month of abundance, not yet.

The first few weeks of the farmers’ market in the spring is a promise of food. Stalls are filled with little vegetable seedlings and tiny herb plants in small pots and packs. Farmers who travel a distance from further south, or farmers with green houses and covers for their plants in the field, have a few early greens. More often than not, vendors tables are loaded with nothing but baby plants that will be something one day but not this day. But there is one thing that shows up early and trumpets spring as loudly as the daffodils: asparagus. Like daffodils, asparagus just appears one day and disappears just as quickly. From one week to the next, just when I am chiding myself for being in an asparagus rut, it vanishes. Early risers might find the last little bit in that week of disappearing, but by the time I come along there is not a stalk to be found anywhere. And there will not be a stalk to be found for the remainder of the year, not until the seasons turn and spring begins again will we once again see that precious spring asparagus. Last week, opening day, I picked up most of my herb plants and discovered some asparagus as I was paying for the herbs. When cooked, it was unlike anything that had been showing up at grocery stores, young and tender and such a mild fresh flavor. I knew I would return for more, and keep returning until it vanishes.

Saturday the temperatures dropped, the wind blew in grand gusts, and dark clouds gathered but I had a mission and would not be deterred. With wool socks, sweater, woolly shawl wrapped about the neck, and jacket over it all I braved the graduation weekend traffic and the Midwest so-you-thought-it-was-spring weather for my quest: asparagus and three types of herb plants still missing from my garden, oregano, marjoram, and tarragon. We needed more of that spring asparagus and the market is the only place to get it. There was no choice but to bundle up and to market, to market, jiggidy jig.

Thankfully the vendor still had plenty of asparagus when I arrived, and this week he had beautiful purple ones. Although he had none of the herbs I was looking for, he did
have some bright green, fresh sprigs of green garlic that found their way into my imagemarket basket.

My herb quest required a bit more effort. I had simply forgotten to get oregano last week and fortunately it was not difficult to find, but for some reason tarragon and marjoram are not common in these here parts. We walked up and down every aisle at a brisk pace to keep warm, witnessing one pop-up tent get picked up by the wind, fly over the market, and landing with a crash into the street. Vendors shivered, bundled up in whatever they could find, and if the little pots of herbs, vegetables, and bedding plants could speak I am sure they would have been saying, “You have got to be kidding me.” Those baby plants wanted to get out of the cold wind and back to the cozy greenhouse from whence they came. At the last table in the last aisle we saw a small display of seedling pots, a little cluster of marjoram and a little sprig of tarragon were waiting for a new home.

The outdoor farmers’ market in the first few weeks is exciting because–although it lacks the abundance of produce, number of vendors, and large crowds of the summer and early fall–it is one of the early signs of a world awakening. Soon, very soon, fresh food grown locally will be available once again. Herb plants will shoot up and fill out into great globes, little fresh leaves ready to clip when needed in the kitchen. The long dark winter of dried herbs, aging root vegetables, hothouse greens, and under-ripened produce brought from thousands of miles away is coming to an end. Eating seasonably will become not just easier but desirable as well.

What We Cooked

Saturday night we simply steamed the asparagus. Interestingly, the purple asparagus when cooked looks a bit darker than the green but loses most of the purple color.

Tonight the plan is to roughly follow a green garlic pasta recipe from a site that the Google search turned up, Serious Eats. Apparently the recipe is based on an Alice Waters recipe using regular globe garlic. I plan to add some pan seared asparagus and sautéed shrimp. The recipe calls for parsley, hope there is enough parsley in my newly planted herb garden in spite of recent torrential thunderstorms followed by high winds and a cold snap. In other words, our typical Midwest spring weather.

Spaghetti and Green Garlic

 

Brownies Up Our Way

Late Victorian and early Edwardian mannerisms found fertile soil and took root in my ever so proper Grandmother. When I see pictures of an erect Queen Elizabeth at a public occasion with hat, handbag, and white gloves I cannot help but think of my grandmother. In her day, she could have told the queen a thing or two about social duties and deportment; lessons my mother and aunt learned but did not always trouble to follow. The lessons that did stick came from the kitchen. Some of my mother’s core recipes that were passed on to me hark back to my grandmother, how to make gravy, how to make stuffing for turkey, how to make pie crust, how to make a proper cup of tea, and the one that has ruined me for anything else going by this name, how to to make brownies. As my grandmother epitomized proper, so did her recipes.

We are not alone in inheriting this-is-the-way-it-is-done convictions. As my generation married into families with their own perceptions of the right and proper way to do things, I witnessed the sometimes bumpy merging of family traditions at holidays; other families inherited a grandmother’s proper way around the kitchen. One Thanksgiving a sister-in-law jumped into the midst of the last minute kitchen to table melee to make the gravy. One of my brothers exclaimed in horror, “What are you doing!? But you are not making a roux!” She insisted with equal conviction that what she was doing was how one made gravy. The only way for one to make gravy.

While Grandma was very definite about the right and proper way to go about things, she was unfortunately blessed with boisterous and–in her estimation–barely civilized heathen for grandchildren; no doubt the result of the questionable genes introduced to the line by her son-in-laws. One or the other of us was always falling short of following Grandma’s code of conduct. She could put the full weight of a harrumph into the word “well” and that “well” was often followed by “…up our way”. If we had not met them, we would have thought ourselves a wild and uncivilized tribe in the untamed remote reaches of the continent in comparison to our prim and proper Canadian cousins to the north. It helped us to know that when she returned from visiting us in California she would take umbrage at something one of my cousins did or said and remark, “Well, down our way…” Prim and proper is not the way of a child or adolescent, we little hooligans were doomed to be a shy of perfection in Grandma’s eyes.

Grandma had a short fuse, not a short fuse to anger but a short fuse to indignation. Some of us tried to tread cautiously while others gleefully had a match at the ready. My dad had some good rounds with his mother-in-law but my uncle, her son-in-law, always knew exactly what to say to ignite her. When that fuse was lit, one could see a physical transformation as she tightened up from tip to toe at the impropriety of it all followed by a resounding “well…” Others prepared to duck and cover when, like an expert fly fisherman, he wound up and threw out a line. She would snap that bait and get reeled in, time after time after time.

My younger brother also was adroit in the sport of grandma baiting. On one particularly long trip, when he was old enough to be a cheeky high schooler but too young to drive, I was recruited to drive my younger brother and grandmother to visit my eldest brother in Santa Barbara. Grandma wanted to visit Hearst Castle along the way, and wouldn’t it be so lovely to drive down the coast. It was lovely idea, and it would have been a lovely drive were it not for the epic battle taking place in the car. Before we had even reached the coast they were in full swing, grandma–hackles at full rise–giving as good as she got. The coastal highway is breathtaking, it certainly took my breath away as I negotiated switch back turns above high cliffs plummeting from road to the sea. I silently drove white knuckled through the dramatic scenery while barbs and retorts and “wells”s bounced back and forth between front and back seats, neither of them noticing the deep green coastal forests, sparkling seas, and narrow gray road snaking precipitously along the edge of rocky cliffs.

With every nerve spent trying to tune out the din and get the combatants to safety, I finally pulled the car to a halt at San Simeon. We walked up to the kiosk to get our tickets and found, without reservations, that the only tour available was of the ground floor and outer buildings. Grandma had seen the ground floor and outer buildings, years earlier, and they were of no interest to her. Her heart was set on seeing the upstairs rooms but–in spite of the ticket clerk being treated to the sight of my grandmother drawing herself up from tip to toe in a full display of indignant disappointment–that was not an option. I suggested we go ahead and enjoy the tour that was available and in return got one of her “well” responses, “Well, I will just wait in the car.” We did not see Hearst Castle that day. I got back behind the wheel and the others returned to their seats and, as if we had not stopped, continued with their snarling and hissing like dogs and cats, miles behind us and miles to go.

We finally arrived safely in Santa Barbara. To my consternation, that night my younger brother got to stay with my elder brother and attend a college party. I got to stay in a motel room with Grandma and watch Lawrence Welk. Given a choice between a college party or Lawrence Welk with Grandma, there is no contest as to where I D749would have chosen to be at that moment. Bless her heart, looking back at it now I think she meant it as a special and rare one-on-one time. Truth be told, we did get on quite well that night and had a proper chat. I was too tired to show my disappointment in missing out on a college party and–given that her goat had been captured and penned quite enough for one day–there were no “well” moments that evening. And in retrospect it was a pleasant night I can look back upon fondly.

This is not to imply I was a favorite by any means, I often lit Grandma’s indignation fuse and was the frequent target of “well”s delivered in my direction. Among my cousins and brothers, only one was up to her standards and that one, in my opinion, was the one least likely to wear that badge. But wear it he did, and nothing that little hooligan did or said put a tarnish on it. I thought the gig was up when we took Grandma to visit him at his college apartment. He was in the midst of his hippie phase, a phase that put a lot of emphasis on free spirited personal freedoms but none on bathing, cleanliness, and housekeeping. Grandma was about to get an eyeful. Surely she would come face to face with reality and finally see him for the unkempt, disappointingly short of standards grandson he was. I waited for it, and sure enough we did get a “well” moment, but it was not the “well” moment I expected when she said, “Well, our Michael’s roommates certainly are slobs.”

Aside from “Our Michael,” each of her grandchildren were cause for consternation and each of us have our own deep well of memories about our encounters with our grandmother. Ever so proper Grandma had her strong opinions, expectations, and disappointments triggering many a “well” moment, but she did love us dearly and she did succeed in instilling some sense of propriety in me. I learned enough to have great shame when I lazily pour boiling water over a teabag in a mug rather than brewing it in a preheated teapot, but to this day I maintain the proper way to drink tea is in fine porcelain as she always did “up her way.” I am offended and tighten up from tip to toe when offered a cup of tea in a clunky chunky coffee mug. It is just not proper. And to this day, the only proper way to bake brownies is to bake them like Grandma’s: rich, moist, and chewy.

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Grandma’s Proper Recipes

Brownies Up Our Way

Preheat oven to 325 F

Melt:
2 squares of chocolate*
1 cube of margarine*

Add:
1 Cup of sugar

Beat in:
2 eggs, one at a time until glossy
1/2 Tsp vanilla
1 Cup Flour

Add: Nuts (optional)

Pour into greased square pan and bake 20-25 minutes

*This was the old Baker’s brand squares of unsweetened chocolate. 1 square is roughly an ounce. Gourmet chocolate was not a thing back then, and I am not inclined to stick with tradition for the sake of sticking with tradition.

** Yuck margarine. My mother always cooked with it unless she was making buttery shortbread. A cube of margarine is how they referred to a stick of margarine back in the day. I relished saying “I told you so” to my mother when science proved me right, that hydrogenated margarine was bad for you. Replace with a stick of butter, roughly 1/2 cup or 8 Tbsp.

Pie crust Up Our Way

3 Cups flour
1/2 Tsp salt
Pinch of baking powder
1/2 Cup shortening or margarine
1/2 Cup cold water

Sift first 3 ingredients. Cut in shortening until fairly fine. Add water in hole in center, stir with fork. (DO NOT OVER HANDLE)
Roll and cut as needed.

I hate to think what Grandma would say if she saw me reaching for a package of pre-made crust in the grocery store. It would be “well” worthy.

Stuffing Up Our Way

Brown bulk sausage and set aside. Sauté celery and onion. Mix sausage, celery, onion, and sage with bread cubes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Grandma cooked the stuffing in the bird, she did not cook the stuffing on the side, and somehow we all lived to tell.

A Proper Cup of Tea Up Our Way

Put tea kettle on to boil, before water reaches boiling point, pour hot water into teapot. When tea kettle just reaches a boil, empty teapot, add tea, and pour boiling water over tea. Let seep 4-5 minutes and give the pot a few back and forth twists. Grandma was fine with teabags.

Grandma would undoubtably have had her tea in an elegant Aynsley cup and saucer poured from a proper tea service. Well, I have sunk to the depths in using a mug but it at least it must be a porcelain mug.  

Gravy Up Our Way
Heat drippings over high heat on stove, whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook until thickened. Add water slowly and whisk vigorously to avoid lumps. Add pepper and lots of salt (gravy needs a lot of salt) to taste.

In a New Orleans cooking class, the instructor swore that the best implement for making a roux is a flat whisk. My mother always used a spiral whisk that could smash the flour lumps while she whisked the liquid into the roux. I use a flat whisk for other sauces but always the spiral whisk for gravy.

 

image
Spiral whisk and flat whisk

Reminded of the BABES

You remind me of the babe
What babe? the babe with the power
What power? power of voodoo
Who do? you do
Do what? remind me of the babe
Dance Magic Dance, by David Bowie from the movie Labyrinth

Books are often the topic of discussion at social events. As someone who listens to audiobooks and reads myself to sleep every night, I am always eager to hear about a good one and avidly join in any discussion about books. Reading is a lone wolf activity, but talking about reading is a social mainstay. Social discourse about books can be a random event, when discussion wanders to recent reads, or it can be a formalized and scheduled group event, typically The Book Club. Having just finished a book club selection–and having suffered a bit of impatience to have it read and racked–I was reminded of the BABES. Book clubs come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of rules and expectations, and as a result a club can fit well or fit poorly, but there will never be another one-size-fits-all book club like the BABES.

Origin of the BABES

To find the origin of the BABES, I suppose one really must go back many years, decades if truth be told. As I remember it, two little girls were walking down the street with their dad when they were spied by a woman peering out from her veranda. It must have been summer, and the woman’s girls must have been terribly bored, because she needed playmates for her girls and she needed them now. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Jamie burst forth from the house and halted the little group in their tracks, proposing her girls as their new best friends. Fortunately all the little girls took to each other, the moms subsequently met with equally positive results, and soon Jamie and Priscilla became friends through play dates. Not much later Priscilla’s daughter and mine landed in the same Kindergarten class, Daisy Girl Scout troop, and daisy-picking little girl soccer team. About this time Jame and Priscilla had the idea to start a book club, and I was one of the fortunate mothers-by-loose-association who they thought of to invite.

Memory is a tricky thing at my age, so many years on, but this is what I recall. The first meeting included Jamie (who it turns out is not really a stalker, desperate mothers just do desperate things), Jamie’s Mom (and who does not love a mother and daughter dynamic in the group, unless you are the mother or the daughter), Priscilla (the strolling little girls’ mom met by happenstance), Carol (Jamie’s neighbor and also a mother of a little girl), Joan (Priscilla’s neighbor and mother of an older boy), Krista (Priscilla’s friend recently moved from Chicago), Margot (friend and former real estate agent of Jamie’s, mother of an older boy and a younger daughter) and me (mother of fellow bunch-ball soccer playing, Daisy Scout Kindergartener). We were a gathering of assorted women with different backgrounds, careers, and interests all having one thing in common, a love of books. The first order of business was to select a book–I think it was one Jamie had in mind–and read it for our next meeting.

It was a rather long book as I recall, but I read it cover to cover, marked pages, and made mental notes for discussion. I arrived at the meeting, thoughts in mind and annotated book in hand. I was the only one who had read it. Make no mistake, this was a group of book lovers and everyone had read at least one book since the last meeting, just not that book. They may have been the wiser for avoiding it, I cannot even remember the title so it could not have been that memorable. I think it may have been something fluffy by Colleen McCullough, but would not swear by it. We drank some wine, nibbled some nibbles, and chatted some chats. Thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we decided to give it another try and allow everyone another month to finish the book.

At the next meeting, I was a bit fuzzier about the contents of the book and not quite so ready to discuss it as I had been the month before, but I need not have worried. No one had read it. Clearly what we had was a group of readers who loved reading, but only when that reading was to the beat of their own drum. Our second order of business was to find an alternative for those readers–pretty much everyone in the group–who do not like to be told what they must read. We came up with a brilliant solution, we would collectively select a theme, individually select a book, and discuss how our individual book reflected the theme. All was not lost, we drank some wine, nibbled some nibbles, and chatted some chats and had a marvelous time.

Our first theme was pretty broad, something like a book about American history. I read a fascinating non-fiction book that documented the journey west by wagon train. It was an illuminating read, the narrative relied heavily on source letters and diaries written by travelers on their dangerous and demanding trek. Again I returned with mental notes in mind and annotated book in hand. Everyone had read at least one book–and most had read more than one–but none of those books were related to American history. Well, clearly our theme was too restrictive, so we opened the door even wider. For the next meeting, we would read a historical book about women. It could be fiction, biography, non-fiction, any genre, any historical period, any culture, any anything, it just had to be about women. Here was a theme broad enough to allow every book loving member to find something worth reading. That decided, we moved to the important business of wine, nibble, and chat.

There was loads of fluff and fun to be had with this theme but, not wanting to be caught out as an airhead so soon after meeting this group, I found an interesting non-fiction account of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. We gathered once more, everyone looking forward to wines, nibbles and chats. Once again my mental notes and annotated book were as useful as hot chocolate and a down jacket in a heat wave, everyone had done a lot of reading but no one had read a book about the theme. By now, all I had managed to do is get an unearned reputation as being the intellectual in the group when in reality all I was guilty of was being the compliant one.

An interesting thing happened over the course of these meetings. While we drank our wine, nibbled our nibbles, and chatted our chats, we found that many of the chats were about books that each of us had read. And in between meetings, when we were supposed to be reading a certain type of book, many people had read books that others had mentioned. In fact, some people had even begun to bring and loan copies of the books that they had read. Our third order of business, and the thing that really stuck, was to shamelessly keep our designation as a book club but to admit that in reality we were more of a book exchange.

Over time, individuals learned who had similar tastes and grew to trust their recommendations. We could easily have devolved to a social club–wine, nibbles, and chats certainly were a big part of it–but we did devote a good portion of every meeting to discussing and exchanging books. Sometimes, but not often, a single book would make the rounds and eventually we could discuss it. Very few books were enjoyed by everyone, preferences varied, and we were pretty selective as to which books went home with us. Usually only one or two of us would circulate a book based on another’s recommendation, but every now and then a book caught our collective attention; Loneseome Dove by Larry McMurtry and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner come to mind as books enjoyed by all.

Becoming the BABES

A few years passed and, although we were quite comfortable with who and what we were, someone thought we should have a name. We decided that we would give it some thought and return to the next meeting with suggestions. I came up with a name to propose, the GLIB club, for Gossip, Literature, Issues, and Books. Being a working mother of a young child, at this point in my life it would take a high fever, flat tire, and a flash flood to keep me from a night out with the group, but something did happen to keep me from going that night. GLIB was not proposed and in my absence someone proposed BABES, Bay Area Book Enclave and Society.

Having said one size fits all perhaps is a bit too inclusive. When she moved from Chicago, Etta joined us a couple years later and, fitting right in, has been with us these many years. Other people came and went, some moved away and some just did not appreciate the lack of focus and never returned. We had no rules about joining save the one Jamie insisted upon, you had to have read at least one book in your lifetime. There was one person, not with us for long, who did not understood what we were about. I think she had read at least one book in her lifetime but when she hosted the book club it was not evident. We arrived to a table set all round with little pink mirrors and mini-tubes and tubs. Everyone looked as if this was exactly what they expected, sat down, painted their faces, and filled out order forms in triplicate with stubby little pencils. I thought that everyone knew about this in advance except me but I was wrong. No one did, and no one betrayed their surprise and confusion, each one of us thinking that everyone else was aware of the agenda. It was only later when this person drifted away from the BABES did we all realize that each of us was doing our best to go along with the others, but each of us was bitterly disappointed to be subjected to facials and face paint when all we wanted to do was to wine, nibble, and chat about our (different) books.

Nothing Like a BABE

Jamie, who herself has since joined other book clubs, called me a book club slut when I ventured out to another club. I was invited by someone who is quite easy going, or shall we say not at all detail oriented, to go with her to her book club. After being with the BABES, I knew I would like a book club that served wine and spread out tables laden with food, so I went. It was different, everyone had read the book and the discussion went methodically one person at a time around the circle. Only after everyone had spoken their thoughts was discussion allowed. Although it was not quite as social as the BABES, and had far more rules, I did enjoy the insights and discussions about a single book that had been read by everyone in the group. About 5 or 6 meetings into it, someone mentioned that they needed to schedule hosts for the upcoming meetings. I immediately volunteered; after all those times of being the guest and enjoying the hospitality, it was my turn to cook, clean, and burden a table with the weight of floral arrangements, bottles of wine, and piles of food. One woman turned to me as if I had volunteered to serve warm Gatorade and chilled dog food and said coldly, “You are not a member of this group.” She then went on to say, as my face burned with mortification, that I would not be a member of this group, that it would not be fair to other people who had wanted to join this group before me to even consider such a thing, and leaving off just short of telling me it would be a cold day in Hell before I was invited to join. This, in front of the entire group sitting who sat silently as my face grew redder and redder with shame. I did not know what to say, and being speechless was probably the best response as afterwards all I could think was, what a [insert your favorite term for such a person here]. Had the initial invitation come from a person who paid more attention to details, or had the group made it clear that it was exclusive and I a tolerated once or twice guest, I would have not kept coming back like a bad penny. I could have saved them the trouble of telling me, and avoided the humiliation of being told, that I was not welcome.

Currently I am in a short story discussion group, and generally I do not like short stories, but I was specifically invited to this group and so far they have not kicked me to the curb. For a writer to get in and get out, developing character, plot, and setting in just a few words is brilliant. However, so many of the stories we have read are just grim and grimmer. But I love the people in the group and, if I keep my mouth firmly in the shut position–not killing the discussion by being the first to blurt out, “That one was the worst EVER!”–often the discussion uncovers value and interest in the story. Not so I want to read it again, but at least forcing me to reevaluate the “worst ever” and restate it as “a miserable read” with some merit. There are chats and cups of tea, but never wine and seldom nibbles.

My current book club–also by exclusive invitation by virtue of it starting at work and I was working there at the time–is a rotate the book choice through each member format. My experience with the BABES, knowing which person’s recommendations align with my preferences, is reflected here. I look forward to the recommendations of some members and almost always enjoy reading their selection. With others, let us just say I hold my breath and furrow my brow a bit before the book is announced. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, sometimes I just slog through it, broadening my horizons but not enjoying the ride. The unique thing about this group is that, not everyone is on site and much of it is conducted remotely via conference calling. There are really good chats, both chats about the book and the many tangents leading from that book discussion, but as to the wine and nibbles it falls short. Even if it were not too early in the day for wine, I would be drinking alone. I could nibble, but in deference to others on the speaker phones and extensions it is probably for the best that I avoid crunching, chomping, and smacking my lips. Other than reading, it is surprising it reminded me of the BABES. But, with or without wine and nibbles, a shared love of reading is a common thread and the basis of a potentially wonderful group.

Lifelong BABES

This loosey goosey group has survived for decades. Over the many years, we have watched our children grow, leave home, and find their own way in the world. Life moved forward between the times that we periodically got together to eat, drink, and be merry. Among us we have lived our lives, spun our stories, suffered our losses, experienced our joys, endured our heartaches, and found our laughter. We grew older together, our life passages passed into collective memory. We begun to meet sporadically rather than regularly and there was much to catch up with and share each time we did. Another rule came into being without anyone ever stating it specifically; each person had an uninterrupted turn to update the others on the twists and turns of her life since last we met. If someone was in need of a pity party, a congratulations, understanding and undivided attention, or just a good laugh for her story, she got it.

Getting together is now a rare event as most of us have moved further and further away from each other, but we still get together when we can. We are people with a shared history, our pasts are in the past but remembered in the present. Months and even years  go by, and we are as comfortable with each other as we were when were young mothers escaping for a night out with the BABES. Time and distance do not erode those bonds. To a person, we will always love drinking our wine, nibbling our nibbles, and chatting our chats. Together.