Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crafty musings

Oh holy goodness, it has been some time! A *cough* whole half of a year since my last post. My life has been, to say the least, eventful these days.

First, and most importantly, I joined an alternative certification program to become a French teacher in mid-July (after a broken foot, college graduation, some heartache, and lots of soul-searching), thinking that I would work on the program, while keeping my college job and maybe becoming employed next fall---imagine my flabergasted-ness when I became employed by a school district 9 days after receiving acceptance into the program.

My life was suddenly consumed by thoughts of changing the world one middle-schooler at a time and teaching them to be fluent in French by high school. (I swear I am a realist, but this is the teacher dream, so I day-dreamed during the remaining week of summer before actual reality charged into my life.)

Needless to say, my time has not been my own until maybe a week ago.

Side-note: during this fervent madness, I received an email about early-september from one
of the fabulous members of the MaryJanesFarm writing team, informing me that a poem I wrote in APRIL would be donning the cover of the Keeping in Touch section of the October/November 2012 issue! 

I promptly squealed in excitement and charged for my phone to inform my mama about the honor. It was much needed, considering I had been completely consumed in teacher-world trying to write lesson plans, decorate my room, start a French club, and manage 6 classes spanning three grade-levels at a last minute's notice. End side-note.

Anyway, my new career has definitely had its challenges and rewards, and just like any first-year I have followed the expectation/energy level chart to a T thus far. Super high expectations in August, begins to fall with overwhelmedness in September and hitting rock-bottom in mid-October. Two weekends ago, I was so depressed I had a hard time getting out of bed and I informed my husband that I "am not cut-out for teaching" and "I can't do this" and "I wasted four years of my life in college, because I have to find a new career."

A little dramatic, you think?

Then, on Monday I was good to go, and have been on a steady energy/happiness rise and leveling out, seeing the holidays grow ever closer and gaining good rapport with my kids.

All of that being said, the last two weekends I have been in a very crafty mood. I tend to feel better going back to work on Monday when I see a product I have produced over the weekend. Honestly, making things also helps me to not work on the weekends, which is a huge challenge, but I know I must resist the temptation or I will fall back into loathsome burn-out.

Last weekend, we had a severe cold-snap (for Texas that means it got below 50 degrees). My tea got cold and in my frustration I decided that it would be a good day to make a teapot cozy. I researched and gathered advice from serval sources, and knew that I just did NOT want to buy anything to make it.

I dug out some old material from mine and Hubby's wedding, an old sweater a friend was going to throw out, and some plain fabric from a project I'd done in my French business class last semester.

One problem was that I didn't have a pattern---so I made one---out of an underwear catalogue.

Some measuring was involved, but mostly guessing. Also, in the photo is my first attempt at a stocking pattern from this weekend. More on that later.

During this attempt at sewing, I was promptly reminded as to why I had not used my machine in so long. It kept snagging the thread and producing a loose bottom stitch. Frustrated, I almost gave up, but I have this perseverance problem-like stubbornness disease-that is also accompanied by competitiveness. I diligently turned to my good friend Google and inter-webbed my way to a problem and thus a solution.

Turns out that when a needle breaks on a sewing machine (the last needle to break on mine happened in 2008, I think) it creats a bur on the bobbin hook that holds the bobbin case and breaks the thread and produces a loose bottom stitch.

Okay, problem identified. Solution?

Interwebs prevail again!

I needed a metal file, some machine oil, and a brush. Off I went to the trusty fabric store, found the two latter things, but no file :(

The sales lady informed me that there was a hardware shop in the same parking lot, so I trecked over there only to discover that they had closed. Then, I saw it. A beauty supply store had its door propped open in the cool weather. I walked in and half-heartedly asked if they had metal nail files, expecting nothing---they had them!
Long story short, I repaired my own sewing machine and finished my project, which made me feel further gumption this weekend.

I proceeded to make a cute, little, lop-sided, up-cycled thing that keeps my tea warm in these wee winter months.
Now, you must understands that in true Farmgirl style, my husband and I have always had a "make-do" mentality---it's easy when you're poor. That being said, I try to make everything if I can. Everything.

Another thing about me, one of my favorite Christmas traditions is the Christmas stocking. I have one at my mom's house that she made for me when she was pregnant. It's completely '90s-tastic with sequins and felt. Since I can remember, I've always looked forward to Christmas morning, not for the big presents, nor the stuff that has been wrapped and sitting under the tree for weeks, but the tiny treasures that reside in my stocking.

Usually a small array of my favorite candies, a pocket knife, a keychain, a piece of jewelry, a small doll, always tiny, always my favorite.

Last Christmas was mine and my Husband's first Christmas to be married and it was fantastic, aside from constant work and classes getting in the way. However, I missed the stockings. I hadn't wanted to buy them, it seemed too frivolous, and I had put off making them because I worked 50 hours in
retail the week of Christmas, so I just contented myself with stockings at home and decorating the best I could in our apartment.

This year will be different, I decided.

I free-handed a stocking on the underwear catalogue pages and it looked great. It was a little narrow at the top, so I decided to try it again. The second attempt resembled a mangled squirrel, so I stuck with the first one, citing beginner's luck.

Now for the material. When I go to the store---it's annoying, like I'm the person who spends two hours at the grocery store walking, pondering recipes, and enjoying the eclectic music only to realize the sun has gone down while I was deciding between kale and romaine.

It's worse at craft and antique stores. I also decided that I am going to hand-make my family's gifts this year, so that added a considerable amount of time as well.

Oh the fabric choices! I couldn't decide whether I wanted to match Hubby's to mine, or give our own flavors, or use the same color schemes or what. I then stumbled upon a fabulous barn-red fabric that actually looks like barn wood. (hubby's only request was that his be red.)

I then stumbled upon some cross between burlap and muslin unbleached, cotton material and the designs began to fall into place. After finding some sage lace and wooden buttons, it was off to find treasures for creating family gifts.
When I arrived home, I set straight to work, and only stopped to make dinner.
I ended up labeling the stockings with not our names, but our favorite nicknames, which turned out to be so personal, I just love them!

Tiny and 7-Pack are looking forward to family time and carols!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Happy Mugeut Day!

Muguet Day!

So, I ran around saying "Happy Muguet Day!" to everyone I saw on May 1st and posted "Happy Muguet Day!" all over my various social media portals on our little May Day 2012. It probably drove my husband nuts to hear all about people's reactions when we got home from work and class Tuesday, but he indulged my ramblings as usual :)

Most people just raised an eyebrow and laughed or ignored my greeting completely this day, my mother-in-law was probably the only one to inquire about the meaning. Her response? "Happy Muguet Day to you! Wait, what's Muguet Day?"

This day is kind of a big deal in France. A national holiday--the workers' holiday--to be exact. In fact, celebrating the cause of workers (what we now celebrate as Labor Day) on May first is a custom that originated in the United States in the 1800's when the labor unions were at the peak of the fervor and righteous battles against abusive labor conditions. The celebration had a distinctly left-wing--even communist--flavor, and perhaps that's why in the US the date was quietly moved to early September and the name of the holiday changed to Labor Day. The buying for oneself or one's loved ones or friends a pot or bouquet of lily of the valley (muguet de bois) is a beautiful and simple celebration of this day. Lily of the valley is referred to as a "porte-bonheur"--literally, "bringer of happiness" or what we would call a good luck charm.

A few days before May Day, you begin to see vendors popping up on every corner selling lily of the valley. Although at all other times of the year, selling any kind of flowers or anything else on the street requires paying for a permit, merry May Day is exempted from this tax, and anyone can sell the blossoms anywhere without being tithed by the city. Commuters are everywhere clutching their lily of the valley, to be offered to girl- or boyfriend, husband or wife, dinner host, boss, you name it. Even the Metro is perfumed.

I was reminded of this little holiday on the night of April 30th, quietly. It was an innocent scent of nostalgia that wrought havoc in my memory bank all day on Tuesday. An uncovering of a childhood toy or game during spring cleaning, a passing of a photo on a wall (or in my case, a pin-board) and snap you are transported to a silver-rimmed, rosy-colored version of a distant memory. That's what happened.


Now you must understand, Tuesdays are a little rough for this gal. I get to work by 6:45am and work until 3:00pm-ish, drive home and change, take my dog outside, run for the bus, and hopefully arrive at my stress reduction through movement class before 4:00, then stay until 6:00ish and take the bus or walk home. Weekly doozy-day. That being said, this little flower ushered me through this Tuesday-the last Tuesday I had to run this gauntlet before my college graduation next week. Oh my gah! Next week. It's hard to conceive.

Now, along with my lovely visions of little sweetly-scented vines of white bells, I was possessed by an overwhelming urge to FIND said little flowers this day. My problem? FINDING said little flowers in Texas on May Day. By the time I arrived home, all of the florists-short of large grocery depots were closed, but my determination was unwavering. On to a local grocer I charged, with visions of white dancing flowers in my head. OH reality--you get me every time.

No muguet. I was in need of some organic half-and-half anyway, for making soups this week, so I sadly trudged to the dairy aisle, grabbed a quart of the stuff, and mosied back to the flowers. I couldn't go home empty-handed, not after all of that, so I settled on lily-of-the-world, which smell divine as well and would fit nicely in a new vase a friend had gleaned from an estate sale on our last girly-date.

Upon arrival home, I cut the stems, filled the vase and gave them food. Why was I feeling like someone had just kicked my dog or stolen my favorite yoga pants or one of my plants just died? 

I was homesick for France. It always happens like that. I will be floating through life, happiness abounds while I'm surrounded by beautiful and wonderful people, I have MaryJanesFarm to read, tea in my cup, fruit on my table, honey and milk flowing and then umph. Brick wall. It happened while I was there too, if you read my other blog, you should know this.

How to contend? How to cope with something so isolating? I know next to no one who has had the experience of spending a significant amount of time living in another culture with whom I can discuss this feeling. Now I understand. This is the true raison d'être for this blog. 

My initial reasoning for this blog was purely going to be based on food, hence most of the inspiration for the title. However, now, I understand its true purpose-helping me to contain my sanity while I fight the urge to board every flight between here and Paris in hopes of "making it work" there.

With that realization made and accepted, I MUST update you on my petit jardin de poche, okay, so not a pocket garden, but that's what it feels like. My balcony container garden is steadily growing (hehe, pun) and I couldn't be happier about it. 

I had this notion that in order to have some sort of proper garden, I needed to have land, rented or owned. However, in a very recent, HUGE decision, the hubby, new roomie, and I will be leasing yet another apartment. I like apartments. They're compact, all of the space is used and therefore, just small enough to be homey and comfortable, there's usually a gym, pool, and short walk to a store, however, remaining in a college town, after college is over, leaves us with minimally quiet options. Our initial plan was to rent a house together, but most are severly dilapidated and maintenance issues would be our responsibility.

We found a complex on a golf course! Which will provide some much-needed quiet, minimal student interaction (it's mostly young families and professionals), and stunning green spaces through which to walk and view from our new balcony!! I'm a little excited. 

That being decided, I had to contend with the fact that since we weren't moving into a rent house, I would still not have access to moist, soft earth in which to grow things. I spent a few days sad about this, but then had an epiphany while lying in bed trying to sleep. I don't have to wait!

In France, most people live in apartments-without balconies-and they STILL grow things. Those charming little window boxes hovering above cobblestone streets, spilling the aroma of fresh herbs and spring flowers onto the entranced passer-byes? Hello? Screams France!...and since our balcony will be WAY bigger than a window box can fit, I thought, why limit when I can have a garden or green oasis?...Challenge accepted.

In short, I am slowly building an outdoor mini-paradise, un paradis de poche I think I'll call I'll hang a cute sign that says point is that if you want to do something, do it. If you want to learn something, learn it. Next time you think of something cute to do or make, ask yourself why not? Why not now? Trust me, this is a lot coming form an habitual, neurotic planner.

 Letting go and doing something you enjoy, or figuring out how to scale it down to fit your time and budget can be intimidating, but it can also be the fun part! I'm slowly learning this with help from my sainted husband, ma belle-mère (I love the French expression for mother-in-law, it's so sweet and TOTALLY describes mine :), and various bloggers who have come before me, leaving their vast and experienced knowledge for others to unearth, and who seem to be much more brazen than I.

 À plus tard!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Gastronome's Dilemma

Gastronome. I heard this word and its derivatives countless times in France. In looking for an official translation, the words epicure and foodie surfaced often. When living in a foreign place and learning a foreign language, you find that there are many terms and ideas which are so deeply rooted to the culture, that there is no possible way to communicate a proper translation to someone of a different culture.

Over the course of my stay, I came to understand the meaning of this idea, more than a word, to mean a connoisseur of the general things about quality food. This translation STILL does not do it justice. There is an energy and passion behind food in France that I've only ever experienced in our culture by hunting or gardening.

They have a profound sense of wanting to know the origin of their food. The idea of industrialized food is becoming more mainstream with influences like us, but the vast majority of people find the idea of buying a food out of season or from another country, repulsive.

I can't convey to you how many times I walked by stacks and mounds of tomatoes or oranges in February that no one had touched at the grocery stores. Organic foods are the first to disappear from shelves and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are banned all across Europe.

I really had no idea or information about any of this prior to my departure from the US. My understanding was that buying whole, fresh fruits, grains, etc. were what I was supposed to do if I didn't have a garden.

Meat is a different story. My family has always been a unit of avid hunters, therefore, buying much meat outside of the price to rent a deer lease was rarely done. My host family in France gave me, no, offered me a polite and quiet education about organics.

My second morning living with them, was spent in an open-air market where, in January, winter produce, like chards, meats, cheeses and baked goods were what was available to buy. We moseyed along, buying ewe's cheese that looked, and smelled, like toe-jam, baked biscuits that weren't wrapped or even handled with gloves and lettuces still covered in dirt. I also proceeded to buy a gallette filled with an half-cooked egg and unpasteurized cheese.

To be brutally honest, I would have NEVER done any of those things in the US. The sole reasons for which I was not immediately grossed-out were simply that I was fiercely jet-lagged, completely un-acclimatized and open to every new experience. A few days later, an impromptu soiree brought friends, fresh scallops and raw oysters together for dinner. I scarfed the scallops, but refused the raw oysters, citing that I'd had salmonella in 2008.

All of them stopped and stared at me, as if I had brought back the plague single-handedly and laid it down on their dining room table! The concept of food contamination is so rare, it's almost foreign to them. I explained that I believed I'd gotten it from a certain American fast-food chain during a tomato outbreak and have done everything possible since to never eat fast-food again.  

Another incident was standing in the kitchen with my host mother as she fitfully cursed and went on a rant to my host father. Confused, I asked what happened, and she proceeded to tell me that the people from whom she'd bought some Camembert had given her the wrong one. She'd wanted the one WITHOUT the pasteurized milk and that the taste was completely wrong. She also informed me that cheese made from raw milk is the most beneficial to your digestive system. This is how I mean they gently educated me about organic and local foods.

Later, she showed me the shower, the hair products, invited me to use them, her saponin seeds (she didn't even know the name, since the information on the bag was in German, she just said a friend recommended them and they work, so why does it matter?) and geranium oil that washed our clothes, all of these seemingly "new-fangled" ideas that have been around for centuries all over the world, I was just hearing about. She would smile sheepishly and say, "yeah, this is a little weird, but it's completely bio-degradable" or "yeah, it smells funny, but it's really good for you."

I never questioned her methods and blindly followed to test the results, every time being happily surprised. Which finally rounds me to my point. Upon my arrival back in the States, I began paying attention to my groceries, doing research and becoming informed.

I'll be honest. I went into a panic when I read what I read. I was angry with myself for never having put together the fact that my mother is allergic to practically every refined and manufactured drug and preservative under the Nutritional Facts labels on our foods, that I had chronic auto-immune problems and that my whole family has blood-sugar and thyroid problems.

Exercise is important, as is fresh air and proper water consumption, but food, oh food is the doozy. I've had modern medicine fail me many times, heal me too, but mostly fail. I felt that I couldn't trust doctors, because I'm a numbered chart to them. I felt that I wasn't being protected by my own government, (I advise you to read this CNN poll) then I'd found that the sustenance from which my body derives life-giving energy was also unsafe.

As a gastronome, I had a dilemma.

Miraculously, my research and some happenstance led me to wonderful companies, and I began feeling better. I switched my family to all organic, as local as possible foods and have been so ecstatic with the results. My husband and I had a pow-wow and after explaining my research, he agreed that it's worth the price tag.

 I confess that we are currently living on a very tight budget, but are still able to do it. I plan our meals a week in advance and have been baking and freezing the fruits of my labor, to eliminate the time-crunch of eating the goods before they stale. It not only has taught us to appreciate the food, but also evaluate our hunger at any given moment.

Husband told me this morning, as I was teaching him how to whip up some biscuits, that he woke up earlier and teared-up at the sight of milk in our fridge, because he was so appreciative to have it. I asked what spurred the thought, and he just shook his head and said that he has just been thinking about what it would be like to suddenly go without things like food. The guy makes me think. All the time.

Still, I confess to being a total closet farmer. A dream would be to buy a small piece of used and abused land, rebuild the soil and raise a milk cow and goats, chickens and all of the fruits and veggies under the sun, as well as my family. For now, I'll settle with my growing (no pun intended) herb garden in my living room.


I realize you may be wondering what sparked this fervent soap box. I watched the Academy Award Nominated documentary Food Inc and was nauseated within the first few minutes, but watched the duration. It is my opinion that everyone in this country should watch it and reevaluate their food habits. Reevaluate the amount you spend on food. Understand the cost of your health and the health of nature. Understand the scarcity of quality food in our current system and that our money protects those who are essentially destroying the land, our bodies and the integrity of good farmers.

I know where my budget goes and am proud to say that even though it's tight and small, it makes at least a little difference.


Monday, February 6, 2012

A Cure for Apathy

Today was rough. Among some personal things and school things, I came home after a long, hard jog and quick stretch, expecting to feel better. Physical strain is one of my favorite ways to escape the day, escape my trouble and to concentrate on the burn in my legs and the swift beat of my heart.

Today though, my remedy didn't work. I came home feeling indifferent to the world, and after ingesting about a pound of chocolate, I didn't feel much better. I made a list to quell the overwhelming-ness that was breeding the indifference in my head.

It helped, but after laundry and picking up a few things at the grocery store, I didn't have much to show for the hours I'd been occupied. I sat down at my laptop to watch...anything. Reading wasn't even appealing. At this point, I was tempted to check for fever. I ALWAYS want to read.

I suddenly felt worse than apathetic. I felt lazy AND apathetic. So what did I do? I decided that the Vanilla infused bourbon that's been sitting on my table for 7 weeks needed to be strained and put to good use.

I pushed myself out of my chair, turned up the radio and began banging the edge of the lid of the container holding the liquid against the counter (much to my dog's dismay). Our poor neighbors, who knows what they thought was happening. LOUD NOISES! BARKING DOG! LOUD MUSIC!

I finally got the lid unscrewed and strained the liquid into another container with a spout-thing, to make it easier to transfer the liquid from that, into a funnel, into three glass bottles with droppers. That's a lot of transfer. I didn't think of that-and now my kitchen smells like a distillery.

Regardless, I now had three bottles of young, dark, beautiful, homemade vanilla extract. Granted, one I promised to a friend, but that still left two! What to make?


Recently, my husband and I have been working all hours, trying to avoid the poor house, but it has come to the point where I must get creative, if we are to keep eating healthily and organically.

We honestly have tried to go back to super-store produce, to save money (because frankly, my husband has the appetite of a small militia and our food bill far surpasses any of our other bills, besides rent). This being said, it did not go well. We trashed the few non-organic (probably GMO) apples we bought, and decided that I would hunt for low organic prices, more local markets and make pretty much EVERYTHING from scratch.

I just quit one of my jobs, so that I could have more time to focus on my studies (and my home). This is taking some adjustment time, but I'm grateful for it. In spirit of being a bread-hound and Husband being a protien-disposal, I decided the cheapest and best way to keep us from buying junk food (usually organic, but still processed and expensive) is to keep a continuous supply of easily accessible treats and a large, hardy meat product readily available.

In short, we cooked a huge chicken overnight two nights ago and I decided to bake with fervor tonight.

Husband loves scones. The big, burly man, who, mind you, has been named Samson by our pastor's boy, Tarzan by a friend's husband, Fabio by my mother and Gaston by myself, you can imagine the giggle I get watching him eat the little dainties. No, not eat. Scarf. He scarfed both batches I made last week within a day or two! (I may have helped a bit.)

I've also kept a few batches of buttermilk biscuits in the freezer, to act as my breakfast and accompany our other meals. (Since I lived in France, I haven't been able to shake the habit and need for at least a little bread with every meal.)

Those stockpiles were exhausted yesterday, so I decided scones would be best (and I needed to do something with the over-ripe blueberries in my fridge anyway). The new twist, though, was that I didn't have any buttermilk (hence all of the scones, biscuits and a pan of gingerbread last week).

Insert coy smile HERE.

I enjoy tampering with recipes, if you've read any of my previous posts, you know this (unless it comes to French macarons). Anyway, I decided that I would substitute the buttermilk with cream, an egg, vanilla extract, and a little less butter.

The dough came out a sticky, impossible mess and I fought and played with it, while dancin' and jammin' to Blake Shelton's Honey Bee. Two-steppin' around my kitchen with, what must have looked like a flesh-eating monster, singing and laughing at not being able to get the mess off of my fingers, cured my indifferent attitude.

With my blood pumping, a smile on my face, flour on my apron and producing something with my hands-in true country girl, farmgirl style-I became my happy self again.

I tried to pat out the dough on the floured counter, but ended up dumping about a 1/4 cup of flour on top of the heap, just to hammer it out. I was finally able to at least get blobs of goo onto my parchment-papered baking sheet.

Sticking them in the oven, I was convinced they'd taste like matted flour and Husband would eat them anyway, because in his words, "if you eat it fast enough, it doesn't matter what it tastes like."

Queue my eyes rolling. Genetically disposed super-taster over here.

After about 15 minutes, I could hear the blueberries sputtering and oozing, and decided they were done. After transferring them to the wire rack, I laughed softly, thinking that my earlier attempts were so pretty. They looked like they came from a coffee shop, but then, I tasted one of the new ones.

Oh my goodness, they were fluffy and light and kind of amazing. Happy accidents are so fun!!


Anyway, after thinking about it, every time I have felt a little down or apathetic, and I've baked, I've always come out nice and shiny again, like dusting an oak armoire, I feel renewed.

What do you do to pull yourself out of the dumps?

P.S. I started T'ai Chi and Yoga this week in my stress reduction through movement course and HIGHLY recommend them to anyone with a stressful or busy life.

Blueberry Scones


2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup cream
1 egg
1 teaspoon (about) vanilla extract
Handful dried and fresh blueberries

Heat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well. Cut butter into small pieces and use your hands to combine the ingredients. It should look like a yellow meal when you're finished.
In a separate bowl, combine cream, vanilla extract and beaten egg, then add to dry ingredients. Stir in fruit. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Roll dough out and cut into shapes.