Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Baker I Shall Never Be

Tomorrow is the annual pie social where I work. Only last week I had been chatting with the two Brits in my office and somehow mentioned my grandmother's treacle pie. They both started to swoon. I realized that among the many things I never made for my children when they were growing up (popovers, Pavlova cake, the list goes on and on) was treacle pie.

So I decided to rectify this by making a treacle pie for my co-workers. Logic, along with baking, not being one of my strengths.

Almost every one of the online recipes was identical, so I thought I was safe. I went to Central Market and got the essential Lyle's Golden Syrup. It's been a long time since I have done a lattice top pie, but I figured it would all come back. While the pie shell was doing its prelim 10-minute bake, I cut a batch of pastry strips. I vaguely remembered draping the lattice strips over halfway and alternating them. I do know that I never worked with pastry strips on top of a hot-from-oven pie shell that has been filled with a simmering pool of molten lava filling.

Suffice it to say, I gave up attempting to do a legitimate lattice. Let's call it a plaid piecrust, shall we?

The dark side of baking is not something we like to confront.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Deep (Eddy) Thoughts

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad time at Deep Eddy.”

A remark I overheard today made by a man carrying a floatie and a tote bag, climbing up the steps with his young son. I second that emotion. Other than the off year when the cottonwoods were dropping giant limbs due to age and had to be taken down, there’s not much wrong with Deep Eddy. In lieu of a photo, here’s a gouache done last summer. Nothing has changed; all the people are still there in the same position.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Case of the Mysterious Doorbell

Ever since I moved into this house the doorbell hasn’t worked. I put a sign over the button warning people it didn’t work and that they needed to knock. Sign fell down. If someone’s coming over, I have to keep an eye out, because they’ll stand on the porch ringing the bell futilely.

A related oddity is that there is another doorbell button on the kitchen pantry door. It’s clearly an old button, many times painted around, and when pressed, activates nothing. Again, it’s on the inside of the house, leading to the pantry closet. A mystery that has no ready explanation.

Today the carpenter came to the house to lower the microwave, and after it was all done we talked about the broken doorbell. He said it might just be transformer problem, easy to fix, and where was the doorbell chime? I suddenly realized I’d never seen the usual ceiling-mounted doorbell appliance anywhere in the house.

But there was an odd little metal box in the hallway close to the floor. Again, like the pantry doorbell button, this metal box looks like something from the 50s; it's that funky old dull aluminum or tin material they used to make pie pans out of. I hardly even noticed it unless I was sweeping the floor and it caught my eye and I’d wonder what the heck, and then forget about it. The carpenter took the box casing off and there it was: a loose wire and some strange looking mechanism. He reconnected the wire and voila! Doorbell works.

Although it’s not actually a doorbell—it’s a buzzer, in every respect a relic from another place and time. Imagine Ethel standing at Lucy's door and hitting the button--that's the sound we're talking about. The wire may have been disconnected on purpose because it’s loud as hell. I’ve found a wav file that approximates the sound.

And one final bizarre note: the button on the pantry door is LIVE as well.

Why would anyone have a doorbell on the inside of the house? Even if this were once the back door it makes no sense. A friend mentioned possibly it was to summon a servant or to get people to come to the dinner table--again, rather idiotic in a house this small.

I'll have to ask Bertha, my 90-year old neighbor. She may have some insight into the past.

Flight of the Firefly

With August rapidly coming to a close, I must give a shout out to the fireflies who have kept me company since April. Never in my life have I seen so many and it appears to be a phenomenon related to the immediate neighborhood.

Observing them every evening wafting up in droves from the ground, has caused me to wonder about their biology. I’ve learned that they are first of all, not flies but winged beetles. Here’s their life cycle:

Larva stage: up to 1 –2 years they live underground as worms. The worms are also luminescent; hence the glowworm. At this point they eat grubs, slugs and snails.
Pupa: 10 day period of living in a mud hut before emerging as
Firefly! At this point, life is short; a few days to a week. The emergence of beetle stage starts in spring and tails off in August.

Apparently not a lot is known about why they give off their light; most likely a mating dance. The chemicals luciferase and luciferin that make them glow is used in a number of ways by scientists in diagnosing and researching diseases. The chemicals have also been used in spacecraft to look for life in outer space, as the firefly’s luminescence cocktail is a particularly effective detector of another chemical, ATP, found in all basic cells on earth.

Bringer of beauty, joy and light. Disease fighter. Outer space explorer.
All hail the little firefly.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Paint It Black

Have to get the house painted. The painters were supposed to start on Friday but in the time-relative cosmos of the building trades, Friday apparently is often confused with Monday (or possibly "next week sometime.")

The painter was recommended by a friend.
He does not live in his van, like a former painter I have employed.
He drives a brand-new pickup and is well-groomed.
And yet he has failed to show up at appointed time and date, or call to explain his absence. (I had to track him down via phone; I won't even bother to transcribe his lame excuse).

As a form of distraction from this outrage, let's obsess over trivial surface details. Here is the before all-white house and it's soon to be new color scheme.

Manila-folder walls, white trim, and black shutters. Next summer once the bananas are gently stirring against this backdrop and the bird of paradise are stretching their wings along the front path--my vision of subtropical shanty should be well along. It'll be sad to say goodbye to the dog-shit mustard trim currently gracing litle Aurora, but all things must evolve.

Notice the front path has turned in to brick. This is going to be a faux paint job that I saw done in a magazine and many posters at ivillage have thoughfully provided detailed how-tos and before/after photos. Mean Rachel in a careless moment has promised to assist with this. Can't you wait?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Secret Garden

There’s something about a garden hidden from public view. If you stumble onto it unawares, it’s a magical place. A secret garden is almost always defined by walls, so finding one and entering into its realm is a revelation in the truest sense. Discovery, surprise, and mystery are the foundation plantings of this garden.

They are rare. Most American gardens are about openness; the front yard, an American invention, is all about exposure to the public.

My mother had a friend in San Antonio named Candida Merriweather (real name). Her home was in an unfashionable part of the city and from the street appeared over grown with untended native shrubs, vines, and trees. Toward the back of her jungle-like property was an ivy-covered compound that sat on a little elevation. Its appearance was not in any way distinctive. You entered this enclosure through a little gate, also covered with ivy, and found yourself at once transported—utterly unexpectedly—into a tropical paradise. The centerpiece of this secret garden was a swimming pool and it was surrounded by banana trees, rustling palms, and the hot pinks and oranges of flowering cannas, bougainvilleas, and crepe myrtles. From the street or anywhere on the grounds of this home you would never know this garden was there.

There’s a secret garden next door to my house. It’s a little patio wedged between a house and studio apartment which are both completely overgrown by fig ivy. Between the creeping fig ivy and massive banks of agapanthus lilies, the space is barely big enough to hold a wrought-iron table. Giant Boston ferns hang from the eaves. It looks like some pleasantly decaying Italian villa.

I didn’t know it was there until shortly after I moved in and my two daughters were visiting. I saw them in the backyard on tiptoe peering through a gap in the fence, whispering to each other. They looked like little children once again. Such is the magic of the secret garden.

Monday, August 6, 2007


While swimming this evening at Deep Eddy, I got to thinking about lists and how woman I once worked with liked the idea of compiling a list of rock concerts she been to; enumerating the rock artists she’d seen in her life.

I was thinking about the botanicals gardens I had been to. So here is my list starting from earliest childhood.

Fort Worth Botanical Garden
City where I was born. I have pictures of my mom in wasp-waisted shirtdresses trying to keep three children from climbing into the lily ponds. About the only thing I can remember is cattails; then and now they seem more like an alien life form than a plant.

Wellington, New Zealand
1958; eight years old, visiting my mother’s homeland. Annuals ablaze. Again my mom dragging us three around the formal beds; we stumbled into the wedding of my brother’s schoolteacher.

1959. On the way back from NZ, our ship stopped here. Formal beds, annuals.

St. Louis, Mo
Freshman at Washington U, 1967. Giant glass greenhouse with specimen exotics.

Austin, TX
Zilker Gardens 1968
It’s odd that Austin had a botanical garden before San Antonio. How we managed to luck into this I don’t know. And such a wonderful combo of Japanese paradise, the rose gardens, natural plantings, and now the Jurassic Park garden.

San Antonio, Tx
1989. Finally San Antonio gets their act together. Awesome wisteria arbor.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
2003. Visiting daughter. They have what’s supposed to be the most extensive orchid collection but what I loved was the palm garden—dozens of different varieties and an allee of giant Washington-type palms. WOW.

Chihuahuan Desert Research Center
2005. This is a wonderful botanical garden with agave, cactus and other desert plants outside of Fort Davis. Not lush but no less beautiful.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


What a pretty word that is, no? Hot is too short a word to describe the dense and all-consuming heat of August in Texas. Now comes that lull in a Texas gardener's year; when really there is nothing to do in the garden but avoid heat stroke and look forward to September.

Meantime I am enjoying a patch of zinnias, which have grown so tall they can be seen from any vantage point in the living room. They attract butterflies and are somewhat like having an aquarium.

I've been doing indoor gardening, digging into:
Vita Sackville-West's Some Flowers
Gertrude Jeckyll's Wood and Garden
The Garden of Reading
The last two I bought at Half Price Books; the Jeckyll book is very old and doesn't appear to be on Amazon. The Garden of Reading is an anthology of stories and excerpts from all kinds of writers about gardens. Some Flowers I checked out of the library and is noteworthy as much for VSW's writing as it is for Graham Rust's illustrations. I snagged another book at HPB, The Painted House by Rust, a British muralist and master of decorative trompe l'oeil, whose skill at draftsmanship and technique is wondrous to see. Here's an iris of his.

A note about my gardening mentor, my mother. I have an old terracotta statue from my mother's garden. This little muñequita wore many different hats during her time in San Antonio. Some years my mother would put iceplant in a pot that trailed over her and tickle her pointed bosoms; or a lush basket of impatiens that made her look like she was going to a fiesta. This year I put some lavender on her head; I kind of expected it to die (my expectations are always low). But the lavender is going strong. I think my mother would like this wild headdress.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Good Vines and Bad Vines

At last the construction next door is finished. As he promised, Trey the Builder regraveled my driveway and the privacy fence was installed. I immediately rushed to nearest Home Depot where I bought 4 large cross vines (two different varieties one of which is called Dragon Lady with darker and glossier leaves; the other Tangerine Beauty, with lighter leaves and is the more commonly seen).

Planted these along the privacy fence. I dearly hope these make it. I was unable to dig decent holes as the ground at this spot is severly impacted caliche. But I know that cross vines did well at my Rollingwood house, where they were situated in zero soil directly on top of bedrock limestone.

I have loved cross vines since I discovered them at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, growing on their large entryway pergolas. Cross vines are just about perfect: they are evergreen, seem to thrive on poor soil and little water, have a torrent of coral blossoms in early spring, and bloom now and then through the summer. Plus they mound up on their climbing supports in a lovely rumpled manner. They are the Rod Stewart of vines—rangey, casual, shaggy-maned, the "Thanks, I don’t need a comb, I look fine the way I am" all-time best vine in our repertoire. So I hope they do well.

The nonstop rain (10” or so) we had June-July were kind to my baby plantings. In the other fence picture you can make out, just barely, the crinum lilies which I transplanted in June and are already sending out new growth. I hope that within a few years they are a solid wall of green along the fence and I have pink blooms all summer--here on Aurora, there are no deer to eat the lilies.
This weekend I must do battle with another vine: rampant poison ivy. Grr.