Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Nothing better than to lay about on a sofa with a new friend on Christmas morning. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taxi Christmas

Taxi on Snowy Christmas
Christmas has always been a special time of the year for me. In Cuba, as a child, my mother would spend days setting up our Nativity. It was composed of hundreds of pieces that depicted the manger and its many animal and human participants. My father would get a crane to light a huge pine tree in front of our house with what were normal size colored lamp bulbs. When we came to the United States and lived in Chicago there was great wonderment upon seeing snow for the first time. As a student in France, I was amazed by the cultural richness of the Christmas feasts. With friends in London, I shared Dickensian holidays full of similar joy. Through the years, our Christmas Holidays offered great opportunities to mix our celebrations and share the bounties of two cultures. Around our table friends shared in food known and foreign with a sense of adventure and delight. I miss my family and some of the wondrous Noche Buenas feasts we enjoyed on Christmas Eve.

I am off to share at my friend's table and festivities. It will be the first time I celebrate in North Carolina. I am taking a break from the blog though I might find something to surprise you from my travels while the garden sleeps. I wish you the best of holidays wherever you are and hope for us all a healthy and happy 2010. Until then.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is New Jersey Flooding?

My yard after the storm with the back flooded for the first time in years

It appears that we are heading for a very wet season. This week we had snow on Saturday and Sunday and last night about 3 inches of rain fell in and around the region. So far we have 40 inches for the year and we have the balance of December, January and February to still come in for the count. It was also 68 degrees today and Monday it was so frozen that an inch of ice had accumulated in my rear steps. On a hurry as a usual, I failed to recognize this and took a flying leap and landed on my butt. It is fortunate that age has given me a little extra padding there.

One neighbor with flooded playground

I wonder if I should send this weather report to the folks meeting in Copenhagen on the World Climate Summit. I hear a lot that a third of Bangladesh may fall underwater as continual climate change raises oceans around the world. I wonder how much of New Jersey will fall into similar situation. Not that too many people will care if a bunch of us fall underwater inNew Jersey. It does appear that we have a wonderful appreciation of caring for some things and not for others.

My other neighbor with the garage island

It is hard anymore to get real statistics on anything. The web in all its grand appeal seems to list everything you ever wanted but can you count on much of it for statistical accuracy? I think not. Case in point: I just checked for the elevation of Collingswood above sea level. You would think this would be precise and accurate and consistent? Well, guess again. I have visited sites claiming 6 feet above sea level up to 23 feet above sea level and everything in between.

Well for those of you that spent $10.00 bucks and saw the latest disaster extravaganza film “2012” it would not really make any difference for we are all going under except for those living in Africa or using the salvation cruise ships provided by the film. Hope I did not spoil it for you, it was a lot of fun and I laughed all the way through for the fantastic entertainment it was. Those around me were dismayed by my reaction and I guess were waiting for the water to start flooding the cinema!

My newest neighbor where we are trying to mitigate the rain issues. He now has a nice planting bed and room for a lake. It used to be all lake.

I digress; my point in all of this is that we might consider not only those in other countries as the only ones that are going to be affected by the change in climate. Whether 6 or 23 feet above sea level we are all facing interesting choices. We better get a hold of a little reality and see how it affects each of us. One of my neighbors was upset about the rain and the fact that it flooded his yard and basement. His answer to the problem is that we who have tried to remedy the problem with plantings and water containment are the ones responsible for the rain that fell in his yard and caused his flooding. Go figure!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Happy Birthday Peter Pans

On December 3 1961, at the age 10, my mother put me on a plane with the hope that she could join me very soon away from Cuba. It was an act of desperation and of the fear that modern Cuban parents felt of indoctrination and of a newly imposed military conscription that required boys as young as twelve to be available for military duty that would last until the age of 28. So strong was this fear that parents in Havana placed 14,000 of their children (mostly males) in planes bound for the United States alone. For roughly 18 months children were flown to the safety envisioned in the US as boarding students before Castro would shut down this escape valve. This, very little known bit of history, was called Operation Peter Pan.

Many came with notes pinned on their clothing so that relief agencies would assume parenting of these temporarily orphaned children. Brothers carried younger siblings and all were destined to uncertainty. Bryan O. Walsh, a Catholic Priest initially assumed responsibility as Director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau finding homes and temporary housing. Eventually the Federal Government assumed financial responsibility and took over the placement of all the unclaimed children into families around the country.

Carlos Eire tells his story of the Pedro Pan experience in the acclaimed book Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. This heroic work tells the story that most Peter Pans shared in Cuba: of education, a certain level of affluence and comfort that suddenly vanished and was left behind. He and his older brother came at the tail end of the Peter Pan Operation in 1962 and were separated for a year into different foster homes in Florida and eventually reunited in Illinois waiting for the arrival of their mother( they would never see their father again) many, many years later.

I was luckier in that I was alone and not traumatized by such a separation from a sibling. I was also luckier because I was picked up by my old neighbors from Cuba and spent a day of bliss playing with my old best friend. Sometime, after the end of the TV show Lassie I was taken to the home of an Aunt, whom I barely remembered, and who had forgotten the day of my arrival. In spite of her scatter brain approach to life, I learned some very valuable lessons of survival from her that I will never forget.

Taken at my 10th birthday, 4 months before all hell would break loose!

My Mother joined me seven months later and not a moment too soon for Castro shut down Cuba shortly after her departure and direct immigration between the two countries ceased for almost ten years. Many families were split with some family in one country and the rest in another.

My father who had helped Castro come to power was the first member of our family to leave Cuba. Under warrant of death for statements made in public against the regime he took refuge in the Argentinean Embassy where he was virtually imprisoned until diplomatic efforts got him released. His destination was Buenos Aires and then to rejoin his family here in Florida. This trip took a year of illegal border crossing and imprisonment in Brownsville Texas where he crossed the border into the US. At Brownsville he was accused of being a Cuban spy and was held until finally cleared to rejoin his family.

So on this December 3, I celebrate 48 years in the US. Initially, a refugee, since I turned 21, as an American Citizen. I honor the memory of both my crazy parents and their sacrifice to give me a better life. I wish all other Peter Pans a continued and joyous life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

How's this for a typical fall day. Not really, I have not caught many days colored like this. However, we are back to this regular rhythm and lack of light. I suspect I am going to have to buy one of those lights people in the old TV show Northern Exposure wore to get over the "gray blues" of winter. I actually take vitamin D3 which is supposed to compensate for lack of sunlight. This is the time when I become the most temperamental flower in my garden. I know it sounds pissy but what can I tell you. I need more sunlight!

I will also tell you that fate of Molly the Dalmatian is not completely decided, but I have given up hope on her. I wrote a few more stern emails and finally got a garbled voice mail and eventually an email explaining that even though I seemed the perfect companion and had experience with Dalmatians I was behind someone who had an application before me and should these people prove not worthy after their home inspection the process would start with me. I tell you it seems the wrong Ufg%&&*ing people are in charge all over! I hope that this pup indeed finds a loving home.

My friend Julia recommended an Aussie. She had two and recently lost one. They are marvelous dogs. They are loving and have beautiful coats of various colors or marbled hues that make them quite fluffy like Lassie but no tails. I have considered getting one but am so stuck on my old breed (Dalmatians) that I am not sure what I will do. Taxi shed constantly with severe shedding at season's change and as a consequence I said to myself never again! My stairs after a week looked like it snowed indoors. What I loved most about her besides her fabulous smiley face (a grimace she would make as though smiling when you talked with her and she had done something unexpected) and her personality was the shape of her extremely muscular body sculpted in short hairs. I need more time to figure this out. It is not as though I don't have enough things to think about. As Scarlet O'hara used to say I'll think about that another day.

I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving. I am going to a friends house for the feast where a somewhat dysfunctional middle sized-family will be tempered by a group of probably crazier orphans to which I belong. My own family is far away and my friends serve, as they always have, as my family. Hearty eating.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November Surprise

The images around the neighborhood are mostly of trees showing the splendors of autumn. I have recently read that Americans now refer to Autumn as Fall. It is a shame, if it is true, that we are losing further distinguishing characteristics of our language. I know the British retain the practice of using the classic word. I wonder which way our neighboring Canadians go on this one?

The weather has been mild so far so there are numerous surprises in the garden beyond those that you kind of expect and are not surprises! But try some of these out. The berries (no surprise) are pretty much all set in. The Cranberry Viburnums are covered with juicy moist berries that the birds will devour over the winter. I have about a dozen plants throughout the garden as they can handle truly swampy conditions or drier soils.

The money plant or Honesty (Lunnaria annua) has set its big silver dollar seeds. My friend Carmen gave me some a few years ago and, as promised, they have laid claim to a corner of the woodland garden where I suspect they will over a period of time take over entirely. The money plant is a biennial that takes two years to bloom in either pink or white. On the fall of the second year they set these coin shaped seeds that are great for fall displays. I first saw them in masses at Monticello as they were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.

Another berry in the garden is more dangerous, as is the entire plant, but very effective in feeding the birds. Nandina domestica (Heavenly bamboo) does not resemble bamboo in the least but is a rather toxic to mammals. Maybe that is why they call it heavenly bamboo: you eat it, you go to heaven. I know I am making light of this beautiful plant or its poisonous nature, but deer, rabbits and other animals that destroy gardens will not eat it hence they are smarter than humans in some ways. Birds are immune to it. If you think of your garden as a pharmacy filled with potential beneficial and poisonous plants you need to be the pharmacist and figure out what is what.

Some years ago, one of our immensely smart city people got a bargain from a major nursery for street trees. The plant in question was the Laburnum or Golden Shower tree, a magnificent plant in the right application that is covered with yellow fragrant flowers. The English create tunnels for people to experience them when in bloom, but it does come with a little catch: it is deadly poisonous. All who grow it know it, but our town bureaucrat thought she had discovered gold in planting a tree to fit under the power lines that flowered and was fragrant. It was an idea, but not as a street tree? Eventually, the town did their homework and all trees were discreetly removed before anyone could pick out the little peas from the seedpods and munch and die. Enough macabre, know your garden!

The true surprise of the year is that all the rose plants still have a bloom or so left in them. As I have many roses, there are a few to enjoy. Here is a small collection of the best.

Finally, given that all the plants will soon be totally dormant and it will return to a sea of twigs or brown I have started just a few bulbs to over winter the dreariness to come.

PS. Pooch Update: No replies from Shelter. I may have to enlist all your assistance in adopting this Dal. Enjoy…

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nor'easter Weather...

We are having the first Nor’easter of the season. Cold winds from the Northeast ravage the Jersey Coast and cause considerable flooding. In winter, these storms can leave a considerable snow pack in the area. Fortunately for us and thanks to global warming we are only experiencing major rain, wind and flooding. Others may disagree but in my mind, it is better that four feet of snow!

Regardless, we have already seen the first frost which devastates most of the remaining tender plants in the garden. These storms drop the most of the remaining leaves on trees. Our street department has already come three times to vacuum up the massive piles of leaves in the neighborhoods. I think we have two more vacuum visits before they stop for the season. If they didn't do this we would be up to our chin in water from all the plugged street drains.

The last of the Nasturtiums that has survived the frost

Looking out the window of my bedroom it is hard to imagine that ten years ago I started the process of reclaiming what was once a flooded lawn into the garden it is today. Now, it looks somewhat mature and designed with the central walk and the pond and the natural area over to one side behind the garage where Taxi, my Dalmatian, used to do her business as she would not go on the gravel walk. Time has passed indeed. I feel it in my bones, my back and my legs! I somehow wish that didn't, but that too is part of the natural process.

From the garden bench it all looks rather unkempt

The old Garden as I started to layout out the beds with marker flags and laying out of the first major plantings

Taxi surveying her domain and the first pile of dirt that I brought in to raise the plantings beds out of the swamp.

My neighbor Ben who has started the process of gardening in our swamp. It is funny how the process never ends!

A strange thing happened to me this week. I have been nursing ailments which I will spare you but I have come to a decision to get a new dog. How I will manage I don’t know, but I will. It has been almost two years since Taxi passed and I thought I would never in a million years consider another Dalmatian for a variety of reasons but primarily because I did not want to replace my dear beloved Taxi. I was looking at Petfinder and they had listed a Dalmatian that could have been the clone of mine. It is hard to believe that you can match up spots and physical traits but according to the listing and images my Taxi may well have re-incarnated into Molly. Paws Claws and more, the shelter that listed her, has not answered any of my request for information or my adoption application, which is rather rude, if not contrary to the mission of a shelter. I hope they do. On second thought, I will not be replacing my old friend just making a new one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Henri David's 2009 Halloween Ball

Lucy Chocolate Dipper and Lucy Hollywood Glamour Girl with Ricky Looking On

Halloween in Collingswood is very quaint but not what I remember from living in San Francisco or LA, where it is a celebration. Here, in the little village center, children get dressed up and go for treats to the commercial shops and hundreds if not thousands show up because it is Collingswood. Unfortunately, few show up at doors anymore because they have already gotten their bounty at the shops and because parents are leery from what is out there.

Not too far across the Delaware River in Philadelphia a tradition more akin to that I experienced in California is alive. Here city dwellers, mostly adult, regale themselves at this time of year living out fantasies of their childhood or? One of the biggest parties, a Costumed Ball celebrating its 40 plus anniversary, in the classic tradition, is put on by Henri David. Henri, a jeweler by trade, is a character larger than life all year and at Halloween he is as big as a Galaxy in wonderful costumes and platform shoes, but he is bigger than life because he loves a great party and loves to get a great crowd.

This year’s Ball attracted some 1500 dressed and undressed individuals who were photographing each other and who kept running in and out of the dance floor to check the score of the Philly-Yankees game or catch a smoke. The costumes ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous and all levels of taste and propriety. The reality is that two in the morning came and we lived it over again as it was daylight savings. It was a wonderful evening that even included Pennsylvania’s Governor Rendell paying tribute to Henri for his yearly gathering loved by Philadelphians. Enjoy the show!

The following are a few images from the Ball. If you are interested in seeing more check out my Picasa Web



Glamour Heathen

Chiquita and a Carmen

Guess who?

Coffee, tea or me?

All Seeing

Hello, Dolly!


Governor Rendell and Henri

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Titan and the Fireflies

This week I am writing two blogs: There is just too much going on! With Philadelphia in the World Series, Halloween and all kinds of art openings, the Philadelphia social scene is off to a very great start. My friend Eileen Tognini has curated a show like few have seen before. In an adapted old mill now called the Sky Box Studios where the walls are splattered reminders of Jackson Pollock, new creatures have come alive from very simple drawings. Jason Hackenwerth has taken the art of making poodles out of balloons into another galaxy. Here, in a darkened room, carefully lit creatures appear to float dazzling one and all. If you want to see all the images from the exhibit go my Picasa Web Album:

I leave you to enjoy what I shared with a lucky few hundred guests: “The Titan and the Fireflies.”

Inspiration drawing for the Titan



In the midst of all this wonderment, this child preferred reading a book rather than gaze at fireflies.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Cold wet autumn has arrived. It has been raining for two days straight. Last week it was a little warmer but the signs were all in the air. I decided that it was time to take out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and make a little Cassoulet. I must clarify: there are no little recipes in Julia’s book! Cassoulet is a French peasant dish that consists of several meats (vegetarians might want to skip the blog this week) stewed in juices with beans. In Julia’s recipe it is one rather complex recipe with over six pages of directions and two subordinate recipes for preparing some of the items to be included! It is a rather hearty meal and the French normally eat it for their main meal, lunch. In my case it was meant to be a start of a hearty weekend so I prepared it for Friday dinner starting on Wednesday. I don’t know how French peasants managed to eat if they needed to start cooking something 3 days ahead of when they were due to eat it. I envision some kind of kitchen assembly marked Monday for Wednesday, Tuesday for Thursday and so on and so on.
I brought out my old worn out and stained book and proceeded to read and reread all of the steps and make lists for the items I would have to acquire in order to make this plain country dish. I have a small but organized kitchen that was put to the test with every pan I called to duty and just about every square inch of space enlisted in one way or another. I think French peasants must have eaten a different version than the one our infamous Julia concocted. I will only give you some of the highlights that may well explain the accompanying images.
Collage view of my kitchen during cooking process
In essence this Cassoulet consists of four to six dishes which are each cooked individually to acquire their own flavor and texture. At the end they are assembled in a large Cocotte (Dutch oven) where they imbue each other’s flavor and arrive at the grand dish that is Cassoulet. This was a pork and lamb Cassoulet but you can make it with anything and everything. So you have a recipe for pork, another for lamb, there is a sausage component whether you make it our buy it, a bean element, all flavored with bacon, salt pork, lamb and pork bones for creating a sauce with stock and wine to accent the flavors. Of course there are spices, carrots, onions and everything you can almost think of stuck in cheesecloth to create an infusion of flavors.
Collage view of process: Background Beans, Top Left: Lamb,
Top Right: Pork, Bottom Left: Bacon, Bottom Right: Sausage
The grand moment comes, after three days of cooking, when you assemble it in layers and set aside until you are ready to bake for a final hour and a half and you add the final bread crumbs and clarified lard (that you extracted from the cooking process) to create the final crust on the casserole. It may sound unusual, but it tastes divine.
Voila! Cassoulet
The Guinea Pigs: Vori, Beth, Paul, Gayle, me, Julia, Elena

At table
We were seven who barely made a dent, even with multiple helpings, in the 8 quart Staub Dutch Oven, leaving almost half for the rest of the weekend. Consumed with a wonderful Rioja and a White Burgundy that fit the palate. It was followed by a simple salad and then with a scrumptious Red Velvet Cake for dessert (that I forgot to photograph). We spent hours at the table talking and laughing as we had not for a while. If it sounds mouth watering, it was. Now, a rest and then let’s see what’s next. Happy autumn!
Some of the final bounty from the garden