Sunday, May 31, 2015

On the Homefront: My Lollipop Tree

Maddie and Ruby lounging near the lollipop tree, which is
just beginning to flower.

My husband hates my lollipop tree.  Until a few years ago, this tree was a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  Sweet gums are beautiful trees with colorful fall foliage, but the seed pods are hellacious, big and round, hard and prickly, and extremely abundant.  The tree also spreads like wildfire via root suckers, and if you aren't careful your entire yard will be engulfed.  I decided that the tree had to go, but I had planted a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) at its base which was using the tree trunk as support.  I did not want to lose my vine, so I opted to leave the bottom eight feet of trunk in place for the trumpet vine, even though it means that I must be vigilant about cutting back any sprouts and suckers that try to gain a foothold every year.

Beautiful trumpet vine flowers.

The trumpet vine has thrived and taken over the top of the tree.  The vines cascade down and somehow end up in a circular shape, thus creating my lollipop tree.  I was delighted by this result, and as you can see in the picture at the top both dogs seem to enjoy relaxing near the tree.  My husband, however, has a different opinion.  He thinks it looks ridiculous and should be removed.  Needless to say, this will not happen -- my lollipop tree is here to stay!

These photogenic dogs vote to keep the tree!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Foodie Fridays: Cornmeal Drop Biscuits

Today is National Biscuit Day, and I had small amounts of both cornmeal and buttermilk to use up, so it was the ideal time to make some Cornmeal Drop Biscuits.  I used white cornmeal because that is what I had, but the color would probably be prettier if you use the yellow variety.  The cornmeal adds a bit of pleasant crunch to an otherwise very tender biscuit.  These biscuits are quite buttery, so I would serve them with just honey or preserves (or even plain), but if you are feeling especially decadent then go ahead and slather on some butter!

Cornmeal Drop Biscuits

1 3/4 C. flour
2/3 C. cornmeal
2 T. sugar
1 T. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 C. (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 C. buttermilk

Combine the first five ingredients in a large bowl.  Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or fork until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Add the buttermilk and stir just until the mixture is combined (it will be lumpy).  Add 1-2 T. flour if the batter is too thin, or 1-2 T. milk if the batter is too dry (as mine was).

Drop the batter by 1/4 cupfuls, one inch apart, onto a greased baking sheet.  Bake at 450 degrees for 12-14 minutes until golden brown.  (My oven tends to run a bit too hot, so my biscuits were done in 10 minutes.)  Makes 12 biscuits.

Note: A tip for placing the biscuits on the pan is to spoon 12 mounds approximately 1/4 C. in size onto the baking sheet spaced evenly apart.  If any batter is left over, either make extra biscuits or add dabs of the extra batter to any biscuits that look a little too small.  Drop biscuits are very forgiving, and they will bake up just fine even if the mounds are rather lumpy-looking.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

This 'n That Thursdays: Things This Baby Boomer Remembers from Childhood

From Baby Boomer

Recently I read an article called "14 Things Every Baby Boomer Will Remember from Childhood".  While I, as a baby boomer, did remember pretty much everything on this list, some of them were not especially integral to my childhood (Howdy Doody was a little passé by the time my siblings and I came along, and while I fondly recall my Etch A Sketch, I had never heard of the Sketch-O-Matic).  I decided it would be fun to put together my own personal list of baby boomer mental memorabilia, and I actually learned two things from this list.  First, we played with a lot of very creative, if rather low-tech, toys.  And second, we ate a lot of pretty unhealthy foods!  Here is my list:

From The Imaginary World

1) Pop-Tarts - introduced by the Kellogg Company in 1964, Pop-Tarts were the epitome of a very sugar-heavy breakfast trend during the baby boomer years.  Our family favorite was of course the brown sugar-cinnamon flavor, which did not even pretend to be healthy with a fruit-flavored filling like all the rest (a chocolate version was not available until much later).

From Suede and Chrome

2) Banana Bikes (aka Wheelie Bikes) - only my baby brother, the youngest in the family, had one of these as the fad came later in my childhood.  I don't think I ever rode his bike, but I do remember that it was sparkle purple with high rise handlebars that may even have had tassels, like the very patriotic one above.

From The Baby Boomer eMuseum

3) Carnation Instant Breakfast - another breakfast food loaded with sugar!  These drinks debuted in 1964 and were meant to be timesavers for busy families (and are still marketed as such today under the name of Carnatian Breakfast Drinks), but I never found them very satisfying.  I still prefer something solid rather than liquid for breakfast.

From eBay

4) Matchbox vehicles - long before Mattel came out with their flashy Hot Wheels cars, Matchbox vehicles were extremely popular.  Even I owned one, a tiny yellow front end loader similar to the one shown above.  I had a lot of fun with that little toy, and could conveniently carry it everywhere with me in my small purse (even to church, which my parents pointedly overlooked as it kept me from fidgeting in the pews).

From The Baby Boomer eMuseum

5) Pillsbury Funny Face Drink Mixes - what a surprise, another sugary drink!  To be fair, the mix itself did not contain any sugar.  Instead, copious amounts of the sweet stuff had to be added with water to make the colored powder drinkable.  This mix was introduced in 1964, and was Pillsbury's answer to the ubiquitous Kool-Aid.  The cute fruit cartoon characters quickly made the beverage very popular with kids (we were so easily swayed by smart advertising back then, and undoubtedly are still sadly susceptible now).

From Ruby Lane

6) Chatty Cathy doll (1959 to 1965) - I had one of these dolls, and I did not even like dolls (frankly, they creep me out)!  Chatty Cathy had a ring and string contraption on the back of her neck that, when pulled, caused her to randomly prattle off one of 11 different inane comments.  Talking dolls were still a novelty back then, so of course every little girl had to have one, and apparently this doll was second only to Barbie (more on her later) in popularity.

From West Side High School Class of 1959

7) Tang - oh yes, believe it or not yet another sugary beverage from my childhood!  First introduced in 1959, Tang sales did not really take off until John Glenn's space flight in 1962, where Tang was on the menu.  The powdered drink mix has been associated with the space program ever since, even though one astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, stated rather bluntly that "Tang sucks"!  Fortunately, my mother seemed to feel the same way, and we did not have this drink in our house for very long.

From Today

8) Easy-Bake Oven - this toy was quite the sensation when it first came on the market in 1963.  I received one of the earliest models (like the one above) for Christmas.  The oven came with some packaged cake and cookie mixes proportioned to fit in the included pans.  I was too young to really enjoy baking, however, and my mother was reluctant to spend the extra money on more of the mixes, so this toy did not get much use by me.  Even so, the Easy-Bake Oven is still in production and has undergone many transformations, including the replacement of incandescent light bulbs as the heat source.

From Peter Hirschberg

9) Space Food Sticks - these convenience snacks were created in the late 1960s based on a type of small food cube that was consumed by astronaut Scott Carpenter on one of his space flights.  They were touted as being a nutritious energy snack, and were probably one of the first energy bars ever made.  I remember them as tasting like slightly sweet cardboard and not being especially satisfying, so needless to say these "treats" did not become a staple in our house.


10) Silly Putty - Silly Putty has been around for a long time (it was first sold in toy form in 1949) and remains popular to this day.  I loved playing with this strange moldable substance when I was a child, and in particular I recall that you could transfer images from newsprint onto the putty simply by pressing it on the paper.  We would then pull the putty into all sorts of shapes to distort the image, which provided hours of fun (we were so easily amused back in the day)!

From Found in Mom's Basement

11) Banquet Frozen Pot Pies - most baby boomers grew up with frozen TV dinners, but my mother rarely served them.  Mom was not averse to buying frozen pot pies, however, especially when they were on sale at four for a dollar, so we frequently had these meals-in-a-crust for dinner on Saturday nights, when my dad worked late and did not eat at home.  The beef pot pie was not very good, but the chicken and turkey versions were decent.  Since my mother was not a baker, this was about the only time we got to eat pie crust, and we loved it!

Barbie (left) from Barbie, Fashion Icon of the 60's;
Tressy (right) from And Then We All Had Tea

12) Barbie (1959) and Tressy (1963) dolls - almost every female baby boomer had a Barbie doll, and I was no exception.  My Barbie had a very pale blonde bubble cut hairstyle, similar to the one above.  So many little girls my age were obsessed with their Barbie dolls, sometimes owning more than one, and of course there was a vast array of outfits available for these dolls, not to mention sewing patterns for those whose mothers were gifted with that skill.  Everyone had to have a carrying case for their doll(s), but when Barbie houses, cars, and other outlandish accessories came on the market, many parents began to balk at the excessive expense!

For some reason my parents decided that my sister should have a Tressy doll instead a Barbie.  Tressy's claim to fame was that you could push a button on her back and make her hair longer or shorter.  This hair could be styled in many different ways, which my sister enjoyed (her doll had very pretty auburn-colored hair).  While she claims it never bothered her having a Tressy instead of a Barbie doll, I do have to wonder if my sister wasn't at least a little bit scarred for life by this experience!


The list could go on and on, but I think it best that I stop with these 12 items from my childhood.  While it has been a lot of fun, I have been strolling down memory lane a little too much lately.  I promise to return to the present day soon, after just one more nostalgic post next week!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wish List Wednesdays: Lobsters Area Rug

Outdoor rugs are becoming more and more popular, and the Lobsters Area Rug from Home Decorators Collection is a colorful and durable option for those of us who love crustacean décor!  This synthetic fiber rug resists stains, mold, and mildew, and is easily cleaned with a spray of a hose.  It is UV treated and colorfast to resist fading, and a nonslip backing keeps it in place.  The Lobsters Area Rug comes in a variety of sizes, from door mat ($39) to generously large room size ($639), and is currently on sale, so now is your chance to add a colorful crustacean touch to your outdoor décor.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

On the Homefront: Spring Blossoms Graduation Table

Dalmatian Einstein stands at the head of the table, ready to give
his graduation speech!  Pink "pillars of learning" candles on
either side shed some light on the momentous event.

Even though autumn is my favorite season, here in Georgia I believe that spring is the most beautiful.  The weather is mostly mild and pleasant, the vegetation returns lush and lovely in delicate shades of green, and a progression of colorful spring blossoms make their appearance.  I am especially fond of wisteria, with its heavy drooping racemes of fragrant pale purple blooms.  Even though it is considered an invasive species, it is so gorgeously abundant that I can't help but admire it.  Unfortunately, we had such unusual weather this year that the wisteria on our street failed to flower, presumably due to a late frost.

Since I did not get to enjoy real wisteria flowers this spring, I decided to set a table based on a set of dishes I bought a few years ago which features a wisteria design.  This dinnerware is making its debut on my table, as I haven't had a chance to retrieve it from its rather inconvenient location until now.  White, grey, and black provide the accent colors, and I also decided to include my cherry blossoms dishes and flowered napkins to add to the floral theme.  My husband bought me a small stuffed toy Dalmatian wearing a mortar board which he found on his travels, and it inspired me to add a graduation theme to this table as well (our local high school had its graduation ceremony yesterday):

Black fabric place mat; wisteria design dinner plate and soup bowl (by Gibson Everyday); Cherry Blossoms Bread Plate from Smithsonian Store; stainless steel flatware; floral chintz napkin from a local flea market; black stem wine glass; clear water glass; white bird salt and pepper shakers (from Pier 1); grey linen table runner.

Pretty purple and white mums in a simple glass vase add to the
blossom theme.

The dessert station is set up with plates and forks for the crostata
and tea pot, cream pitcher, sugar bowl, mugs, and spoons for tea.

Einstein's rather large mortar board (actually my husband's) almost
fills the foreground, and one member of the family rather rudely
sleeps with her back to the speaker in the background!

The menu for this table features the flavors of spring and includes simple dishes that almost need no recipes.  I include the recipes because they are meals that any new graduate heading off to college or to a life away from home can prepare with ease, should they wish to do their own cooking!  The crostata can be made even easier by using a store-bought crust, and if time is really of the essence a roast chicken from the supermarket will do in a pinch.

Spring Blossoms Graduation Menu:

Simple Asparagus Soup*
Dinner Rolls/Butter
Stupid Simple Roast Chicken**
Boiled New Potatoes with Butter and Dill†
Simple Peas and Onions††

*Simple Asparagus Soup

2 T. olive oil
1/2 of a large onion, diced
1 lb. asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 russet potato, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 C. vegetable or chicken stock (I used unsalted)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook 2-3 minutes until just softened.  Stir in the asparagus, potato, and garlic.  Cook 3-4 minutes until the asparagus begins to turn bright green.  Season to taste (I used 1/4 tsp. salt and a couple of grinds of pepper).  Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer about 20 minutes until the potato is fork tender.  Remove from the heat and cool slightly.  Purée the soup with an immersion blender (or in batches in a blender).  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Serves 4.

Note:  If you want to be really fancy, reserve the asparagus tops and cook them separately to use as a garnish when serving the soup.  I find this to be a rather fussy step and don't bother.

**Stupid Simple Roast Chicken (the name says it all!)

1 whole chicken (about 4 lbs.), rinsed and patted dry
1 whole lemon, halved
kosher salt

Place the chicken, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan.  Place the lemon halves in the body cavity and rub the outside of the chicken with the kosher salt.  Roast at 450 degrees for about one hour, until the skin is browned and crisp, the juices run clear, and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh, not touching the bone, reads 160 degrees.  Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before carving.  Serves 4-6.

Note: You could rub some butter or oil on the outside of the chicken before salting and add other aromatics to the cavity (quartered onion, halved head of garlic, herb sprigs, etc.) for added flavor if you like.  Also, if your chicken is not 4 pounds, be sure to adjust the roasting time accordingly (about 15 minutes per pound).  Roasting times may vary depending upon your oven, so be sure to check all of the indicators mentioned above to verify that the bird is cooked!

Boiled New Potatoes with Butter and Dill

2 lbs. new potatoes, halved or quartered if large
2-4 T. butter
1 T. dried dill (or 3 T. minced fresh dill)
salt and pepper to taste (I used 1/2 tsp. salt and no pepper)

Place the potatoes in a large pot. Add enough water to cover the potatoes.  Cover the pot and bring to a boil.   Stir in about 1 tsp. salt per quart of water.  Reduce the heat and and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are fork tender.  Stir in the butter, dill, and seasonings (taste before adding salt to avoid over-salting).  Serves 4-6.

††Simple Peas and Onions

3 T. butter
1/2 of a large onion, diced
16 oz. fresh or frozen peas
1/2 C. vegetable or chicken stock (I used unsalted)
salt and pepper to taste

Melt 2 T. butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes until softened and slightly golden.  Stir in the peas and chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Add salt if needed (I added 1/4 tsp.).  Cook and stir until the stock is reduced by half (do not overcook the peas).  Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining butter.  Add pepper to taste.  Serves 4.

I have recycled the wild huckleberry jelly beans from my previous table because the color works so well with this color scheme (you didn't really think we immediately finish off all of the candy I feature at each table, did you?):

Congratulations to all graduates!  You have your whole life ahead of you, and hopefully you will achieve all of the goals and dreams you have set for yourselves, or at least enjoy yourselves in the attempt (sometimes it's not the goal itself but the journey to your goal that brings the most satisfaction).

Little Albert Dalmatian proudly watches his big brother Einstein's
graduation from the sidelines, and dreams of the day when he too
will be a graduate!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Foodie Fridays: Sweet and Tart Cabbage with Cottage Cheese-Dill Dumplings

Lately I have been revisiting some of my old favorite cookbooks.  One such book is Still Life with Menu Cookbook (1988) by Mollie Katzen.  I have mentioned Katzen's acclaimed Moosewood Cookbook in a previous post, but in some ways I find her Still Life with Menu Cookbook even more interesting.  The book is arranged by menu rather than by food category, and each menu is beautifully illustrated by Katzen, who is an accomplished artist as well as a cookbook author and authority on vegetarian cooking.  Her menus are as creative as her artwork, and it is enjoyable to just browse the pages, but it would be a mistake not to try some of her many recipes.

In this post I feature Katzen's recipe for Sweet and Tart Cabbage with Cottage Cheese-Dill Dumplings, which is a very long name for a very delicious recipe.  This dish takes a little time to prepare, but if necessary part or all of the components can be made ahead.  I prepared the Sweet and Tart Cabbage a couple of days before making the dumplings, and it reheats perfectly on the stovetop or in the microwave.  Similarly, you can make and poach the dumplings and then refrigerate them until you are ready to sauté and serve them with the cabbage.  As usual, I modified the recipe just a bit (replaced cumin seeds with caraway, used only red cabbage, and omitted the oranges from the cabbage, as well as modifying some ingredient amounts).  I prefer more tartness and less sweetness to my cabbage, so I added some pomegranate juice and apple cider vinegar and reduced the sugar (next time I may reduce the sugar to 1/4 C.).

This is seriously good eats, folks!  I think that even meat lovers would be happy to eat it, especially if served with the other dishes listed in the menu*, or if necessary with a piece of meat or poultry on the side.  Do try this recipe -- I don't think you will be disappointed!

Sweet and Tart Cabbage with Cottage Cheese-Dill Dumplings

2 T. butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 small head red cabbage, shredded
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. caraway seeds
2 tart green apples, peeled and thinly sliced
1-2 T. pomegranate juice
1-2 T. apple cider vinegar
1/4-1/2 C. brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 C. cottage cheese
1 C. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. dried dill (or 2 T. minced fresh dill)
2 T. butter

Melt 2 T. butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened.  Add the cabbage and salt and continue to cook for 8-10 minutes, until the cabbage is almost tender (add the cabbage in several batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the skillet).  Stir in the caraway seeds, apple slices, juice, vinegar, and sugar.  Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20-30 minutes, until the cabbage and apples are soft.

While the cabbage cooks, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Beat together the eggs and cottage cheese in a medium bowl.  Stir in the flour, salt, and dill.  Drop the dumpling dough by teaspoonfuls into the boiling water (you should get about 16 dumplings).  Do not crowd them as they will expand while cooking.  Cook for 15 minutes at a simmer.  Remove from the water onto a plate with a slotted spoon.  Melt the butter in a large sauté pan.  Add the dumplings and cook for 10-20 minutes over medium heat until golden (I cooked mine in two batches).  To serve, mound some of the cabbage on a plate and top with four dumplings.  Serves 4.

*The Menu (you will have to find the book for the other recipes!):

Rachel's Deluxe Challah
Egg, Onion, Parsley, and Watercress Appetizer with Raw Vegetables
Cream of Mushroom Soup
Sweet and Tart Cabbage with Cottage Cheese-Dill Dumplings
Fresh Fruit
Cream Cheese-Walnut Cookies

Thursday, May 21, 2015

This 'n That Thursdays: Fiji/Australia/New Zealand Chronicles (Part 2)

From Maps of World

Welcome back to the continuing saga of our first trip Down Under almost thirty years ago!  Last week I described our travels in Fiji and our arrival in Sydney.  Once in Sydney, we had a week to explore Australia before we left for the meeting in New Zealand my husband was to attend, so we rented a car with the intention of driving along the east coast to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.  After one day of driving, we realized our mistake.  Australia may be a small continent, but it is a big country, about the size of the United States.  To drive from Sydney to Cairns and back would have taken at least a week just for the driving, and would leave us with no time to explore at all!  We made it to Brisbane before we returned the rental car and booked a flight to Townsville, where my husband wanted to visit another colleague.  Townsville is a beautiful city on the coast.  I remember it as being sunny and very beach-oriented, reminding me a bit of the Caribbean.  It was in either in Brisbane or Townsville that I managed to fit in a horseback ride along the beach, and since it was a weekday the group consisted of just me and the woman leading the tour.  If you've never ridden a horse on the beach you must try it at least once, as it is quite exhilarating!

From Equathon

We took a flight to Cairns the next day, where we planned to take a boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  Unfortunately, the day we had scheduled for the reef trip was terribly stormy, so boat trips were cancelled and we missed our opportunity.  Also, when we arrived at our hotel to check in, we had to wait while an ambulance loaded up and pulled out, because apparently one of the guests had a heart attack right before we arrived.

Kuranda train
(from BigThanks)

However, we did get to take the train to Kuranda in spite of the rain, and this alone made the whole trip worthwhile.  Kuranda Village is a lovely little town in the mountains above Cairns, and the train runs along the Barron River from one town to the other.  Naturally, while we were there the abundant rain turned the river into a muddy mess, but it was still an impressive train ride.  While in Kuranda we visited the shops, and also walked through the Kuranda Wildlife Noctarium, which was full of native nocturnal creatures on a reverse day/night schedule so that visitors could come during the day to watch these night creatures while they were active.  Many of Australia's animals species, especially the mammals, are nocturnal, which makes viewing them under normal conditions a bit underwhelming as they are usually asleep, although just to see these unique creatures is of course fascinating.  Unfortunately the noctarium has since closed, apparently replaced by the Australian Venom Zoo.  Australia has an abundance of venomous critters, including some of the most venomous snakes in the world.  Did you know that even the amusing-looking little platypus has venomous spurs on its hind legs (but only on the males)?

Beware my spurs!
(from FactZoo)

I can't remember if it was along the Barron River or some other river we passed on our travels, but at some point we saw the both an Australian Kookaburra and a magnificent flock of wild Cockatoos.  The Kookaburra is similar to our native Belted Kingfisher, but is slightly larger and has a distinctive call that sounds like human laughter:

I'm pretty sure we saw the Blue-Winged Kookaburra
(from Wikipedia)

Before visiting Australia, the only cockatoo I had ever seen was on TV in the old detective show "Baretta".  It was most impressive to see a very large flock of a bird species I had only known as a pet, perched in the tree branches near the river flying free and living wild in their natural habitat:

Australian Cockatoos fill the sky
(from Oz Outback).

I think we actually saw flocks of two different species, the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo which is so well-known as a pet and the Galah, a lovely pink and grey bird that is extremely common in Australia:

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo
(from Wikipedia)

Galah (from WallpapersCraft)

It was time to head back to Sydney for our flight to the North Island of New Zealand.  There was still so much to see, and we had only done a very quick tour of Australia's east coast, so we vowed to return in the future to see more of this intriguing continent.  We bade farewell to the Land of Oz and boarded our plane to Auckland, the largest and most populous city in New Zealand.

From Kiwi Caroline

We arrived in Auckland in the evening, and just in time for a citywide blackout!  We were starting to think we were jinxes on this trip, bringing calamity with us wherever we went.  The blackout lasted so long that there was even a bit of looting that night, but by morning power and order had been restored, and we were soon enjoying the sights in Auckland.  Shopping was once again a priority, and of course we had to purchase some wool sweaters, as New Zealand is known for its wool production (New Zealanders are fond of pointing out that their country has more sheep than people).  I still have the lovely kiwi design sweater I bought back then (the bird, not the fruit!).

I am not a fruit!
(from AnimalPics)

The professional meeting my husband was attending was being held at one of the universities in Hamilton, just south of Auckland, so off we went to spend the next week in and around this town, traditionally an agricultural center in New Zealand.  When we were there agriculture was still the focus, although apparently the city is now a fast-growing urban area.  We tasted some of the best produce and dairy products I have ever eaten when we were in Hamilton, and milk was delivered in little cardboard-topped glass bottles right to your door, even if you were staying in a hotel like we were!

The Farming Family in Hamilton -- this was not yet installed when
we were there in the late 1980s (from Panoramio).

While my husband attended his meeting, I walked around town and of course visited the shops, where I had an interesting encounter.  In one shop a man walked up to me, wished me a good day, and asked me to what family I belonged.  If I had not read up on New Zealand before our trip, I might have been quite confused.  Fortunately I knew that the indigenous Maoris of New Zealand call their various clans whanau, often translated as "families", and that this fellow had mistaken me for a Maori.  I have a medium complexion, dark hair and eyes, and high cheekbones, which gives me a sort of generic ethnic look -- I have been mistaken for Puerto Rican by Puerto Ricans, Hawaiian by Hawaiians, and Native American by Native Americans, so it was not surprising that the Maori gentleman thought I was one of the local people.  (I also often get told that I remind people of someone they know, but they can't remember who that person is.  One of my brothers once told me that I could have been the model for the 1996 revised image of Betty Crocker, who is a composite of 75 different women of diverse ethnic backgrounds and ages.  Personally, I don't see it, but you don't get much more generic-looking than that!)  Once I spoke up and informed him that I was not a Maori, my American accent immediately gave me away, so we just laughed and moved on.

A sheepdog at work in New Zealand

Most international meetings try to plan events for spouses/families of attendees as this is a once in a lifetime chance for many of them to travel to new overseas destinations.  In Hamilton tours were arranged to various agricultural sites, which I loved as I have always been interested in farm life, even though I grew up in the suburbs.  We got to visit a local dairy, and I was able to identify all but one of the several different dairy cattle breeds they showed us (not bad for someone who didn't grow up on a farm!).  We also visited a berry farm and had the chance to pick our own berries.  The most interesting event for me was the sheepdog herding demonstration, as I had never seen a dog work sheep before.  The only guidance the dog got from its owner was a series of slightly different-sounding whistles, and even those were infrequent as the dog seemed to know just what to do.  There was also a sheep shearing demonstration, where we learned that if you hold a sheep just right it will go limp as it is being sheared!

1880s Maori family from Rotorua
(from History Today)

When my husband got some time off, we toured the town of Rotorua, which is rich in Maori culture.  We went to the Rotorua Museum and also to one of the Maori villages (there are several and I don't remember now which one we saw).  I had fish and chips for the first time ever in Rotorua, freshly made with locally caught fish and served wrapped up in newspaper.  While not the healthiest of meals, it sure is tasty!  Rotorua is located in an area with a lot of geothermal activity, so there are hot springs, geysers, and bubbling mud pools all over the place (as well as a distinct sulfur smell!).

Rotorua Museum
(from Kiwiana Tours)

Later in the week I set off alone to spend a couple of days at a horseback riding camp south of Rotorua.  In the town of Taupo I encountered a roundabout, or traffic circle, which was another first for me.  They can be very disconcerting, especially when you are not used to driving on the left, but eventually I managed to get out again and continued on my way.  I don't remember exactly which riding camp I stayed at, but I do remember that it was a lot of fun.  We rode to a waterfall area and got to swim and then ride back, and our guide was also our chef at the lodge.  I had mutton for the first time, as well as the ubiquitous Vegemite.  I liked the mutton even though it had a very strong flavor, and if I were not allergic to red meat now I would eat it again.  The Vegemite is another story.  It was served on toast for breakfast.  To me it tasted like salt paste, and I did not care for it.  Interestingly, the New Zealanders felt the same way about peanut butter, which they set out for their American guests but would not eat themselves.  I guess it's all a matter of what you get used to eating when you are growing up!

Horse trekking in New Zealand
(from Mountain Valley Adventure Lodge)

At one point we rented a car and explored the countryside.  We stopped at a lovely country tearoom while on our drive, and I got to enjoy my very first afternoon tea, complete with both cucumber and tomato tea sandwiches.  In keeping with its rural setting, there was a large paddock next to the parking lot of the tearoom, filled with friendly goats and a cheeky donkey named Eli.  Here are two of the few photos I have of this trip, where I am feeding a granola bar to a very insistent Eli and a goat buddy:

Sadly, even the best travel adventures must come to an end, and it was time for us to return home.  We decided to fly home nonstop, with only a quick stop in Hawaii to change planes, but in our blissful ignorance we did not realize this would mean arriving at the Honolulu International Airport in the wee hours of the morning.  Of course everything was closed, and because our connecting flight would be arriving in just a few hours, we and our fellow passengers were left to fend for ourselves in the deserted airport while we waited.  Trying to stretch out for a nap on airport seats specifically designed for sitting while surrounded by a large crowd of equally uncomfortable people is nobody's idea of a perfect vacation experience.  I was glad we had visited Hawaii the year before, because if this had been my first impression of Hawaii I doubt if I would have ever wanted to return!

Thankfully, our flight home arrived and the rest of the trip was blissfully uneventful.  All in all, we really did enjoy ourselves, and the few difficulties we encountered were either of our own making or not something anyone could have done anything about.  I still sometimes have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps we truly were jinxes on this trip, particularly when, a few months after our visit, Fiji experienced a major military coup!  Was it our visit that precipitated this upheaval?  Who knows?  I do know that we returned first to New Zealand and then to Australia years later (I may reminisce about those trips at a later date), and all was well and stayed well in both places, so if we were jinxes then we no longer appear to be so now!  I would love to revisit all three places, and would encourage everyone to make the trip if at all possible.

The End -- for now!
(from Bing Fotos)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wish List Wednesdays: Végétagère

From Urban Gardens

This week the last of the four classical elements, namely earth, inspired my choice of outdoor décor wish list item.  The Végétagère by Frédéric Malphettes, shown above, is a clever play on words as well as a clever design idea.  It is a shelving system composed of modular wood shelves with openings for stacking vegetable fiber planter pots.  Suitable for indoor or outdoor use, the Végétagère can be used as a divider or screen, and configured to suit any planting needs.  This system is especially useful for urban dwellers with limited gardening space, and is perfect for a patio or balcony.  At this time the Végétagère is only a prize-winning concept rather than a reality available for purchase, but if and when it does come on the market I will be first in line to buy one!