Category Archives: Cooking

The Hearth of the Matter

Oh, why am I out, seeking sushi sustenance, on the coldest day of the year?

Because I have a touch of cabin fever, and because Maud all but forcibly pulled me out, plunked me on my scooter, and got me to a hot bowl of miso soup at Okinawa nearby.


Living in the Cabin, even with central heating, we spend a lot of time in front of a fire stoked with very good hardwood. I can’t help but imagine the hearths of the past when New York was Dutch, when New Amsterdam was 15 streets and 2,000 residents. When a fire was the only heat source in a long, bitter winter.

1  1655 Manhattan View

Not much remains of that era’s built environment. But one impressive hearth specimen remains from the 1680s, twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan in Yonkers, New York. Now known as Philipse Manor Hall, it was then the house  Margaret Hardenbroeck built. I wrote about her, her female descendants and her home, constructed of coursed rubblestone masonry in the then-wilderness, for my history The Women of the House. Hardenbroeck and her husband Frederick Philipse had negotiated for tens of thousands of acres with the local Lenape Indians.

17  PMH South Facade

In her new home’s first-flour room — seen here to the left — with its corner view of the river and the majestic Palisades, she installed a fireplace of bricks held together by plaster fortified with horsehair. It was huge, designed in the style of fireplaces of the day, so big a person could duck inside and see the clear cobalt heavens through the brick-framed top. A tongue of flagstone extended into the room, providing a generous space to prepare meals. A slightly more genteel version of her hearth can be seen at New York’s Van Cortlandt House– the oldest house in the Bronx — built some years later, in 1748.

van cortlandt house, nyc

Despite the heat that must have escaped up the chimney, the occupants of Hardenbroeck’s house, out in the woods, all by themselves, with no neighbors, no local tavern, no welcoming church, would surely stay warm.

How do you think the Dutch in America survived the cold winters? I asked Maud as we tucked into hot coffee.

Maud sips

They wore plenty of furs, she said.

Right. It didn’t hurt that Hardenbroeck made her living as a fur trader – one of the most successful of the age. This could be a likeness of her engaging in her business, beaver hat set squarely on her head.


She traveled from the island of Manhattan up the Hudson to Albany to acquire beaver pelts from Native American trappers and returned south to ship the furs off to Holland, sometimes traveling on board to keep an eye on her merchandise. She made a fortune, more than enough to build her solid Yonkers pied a terre and to clothe herself in furs as well. She was a crack businesswoman and I always liked to see her signature at the bottom of contracts.11 Margarets SignatureShe could definitely drape herself in all the furs she wanted to, like this well-cloaked London fashionista from the era, portrayed by Wenceslas Hollar. The mask is to keep her complexion fresh.


Something odd struck me about Hardenbroeck’s fireplace when I first saw it. Most Dutch hearths have a decorative surround of Delft tiles.

Delft Tile 15

Staid Dutch burghers usually employed tilework in pure white or sober biblical allegories in safe shades of blue. Hardenbroeck’s, on the other hand, was framed by painted tiles that she might have found especially chic, with exotic pictures in a stylish minor-key tint called manganese that resembled the magenta-blue-brown of a fading bruise. Off shades called “sad” persisted as high fashion in the clothes of this period, denoting not necessarily gray or black but muddier earth tones, whether russet, plummy red, or the golden brown called ‘tawney.’ Even some pewter plates received the descriptor “sad-colored.”

Hardenbroeck chose a theme  with some Delft craftman’s cracked vision of the wilden of the New World: heavy-lidded hermaphrodites frolicking on animal feet, breasts bulging, carrying fruits that resembled ripe melons and accompanied by old-style griffins. These images reflected the era, which paired intensive high-seas exploration and scientific curiosity with tenacious ancient beliefs in monsters.

PMH Fireplace Tile

Artists and writers without firsthand knowledge of lands abroad still portrayed the scenery of America as crowded with Cyclopes and unicorns and other odd beasts, like those of Fortunio Liceti, who was sharing his creations with the world at around the same time.


The fanciful renderings on Hardenbroeck’s hearth tiles offer an ironic counterpoint to the house’s site, centered among the ghosts of ancient native villages whose all-too human inhabitants had perished of fevers, plagues and violence. New Amsterdam, where Hardenbroeck spent most of her time, was relatively cosmopolitan – for America. These were people, not only Dutch but a range of nationalities, who had braved all sorts of dangers to settle here, and now they lived clustered together in relative safety. They even bartered and socialized with the local Indians, when they weren’t making war on them.

But did the fur trader’s hearth fires keep her warm against the seventeenth century equivalent of our polar vortex? We have to assume they did. Folksy colonial historian Alice Morse Earle quoted a poem in one of her many books about the Dutch in Manhattan.

Shut in from all the world about,

We sat at the clean-winged hearth about,

Content to let the north wind roar

In baffled rage at pane and door,

While the red logs before us beat

The frost-line back with tropic heat;

And ever, when a louder blast

Shook beam and rafter as it passed,

The merrier up its roaring draught

The great throat of the chimney laughed,

The house dog on his paws outspread

Laid to the fire his drowsy head…

Hardenbroeck kept her up-river lodgings until her death in 1691, at the age of 54, and the house stayed in the family for a century after that, until the loyalist Philipses were driven off their estate after the Revolution, back to England. Hardenbroeck used the house at Yonkers throughout her career-intensive years as a stopover on her way to and from the fur fair at Albany, storing goods in a dry, paved cellar, no doubt happy to warm her hands by a blazing fire for a couple of days en route.

The sushi has arrived.


Cold fish on a cold day, how nice. We are fond of our fresh fish, here along the Hudson in the winter of 2014. No doubt, the Dutch denizens of New York also appreciated their seafood more than 300 years ago. After all, the harbor at New Amsterdam was stocked with foot-long oysters.


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Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Writers, Writing

A Recipe for Snow Cream

Some people make snow angels, some build snow men. But even if you’re a snow-shy person like me you can enjoy snow cream. We made this delicacy when I was growing up, and it’s still a snowstorm staple in my house. I like the sweet simplicity of ingesting snowflakes.

Snow Cream

Put out a pot once the blizzard starts.


When you’re hungry, collect the snow and stir in some milk. Add sugar and vanilla to taste. Sprinkle with cinnamon if you like.

Distribute in bowls or eat out of the pot.

snow cream

Then, take a walk among the trees in the champagne powder as blue shadows fall.


If you want to make something fancier, try this.

Berry Snow Cones

2 1/2 cups raspberries (6 ounces)

3 cups blueberries (10 ounces)

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

8 cups lightly packed snow

Mash 1 1/2 cups raspberries and 2 cups blueberries with sugar and water in a 2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan using a potato masher. Bring to a boil, stirring, then boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Transfer to a blender and purée until almost smooth, about 1 minute (use caution when blending hot liquids). Pour berry mixture through a sieve into a bow.  Discard solids. Cool syrup, then chill, until cold, about 1 hour.

For each serving, spoon 3 tablespoons syrup over 1 cup snow and top with 1/4 cup of remaining mixed berries.

Or make an old fashioned treat.

Snow Candy

Roll a bit of honey or maple syrup in some snow. It will get hard enough to suck and be as round as any hard candy.

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Filed under Cooking, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature

Brilliant Books for Your Consideration

I hate year-end rankings. You find them in every newspaper and magazine and web site, and I generally ignore them. In fact, rankings in general rub me the wrong way. Especially when it’s books that are touted as the best, second best, etc.

These are some of my unranked favorites from the past year. In no particular order. Some of them aren’t even 2013 titles, but things I decided to take up only recently. They are all books that captured my imagination, that made me want to crack them open day after day and keep reading. Alright, I didn’t crack my Kindle open, that wouldn’t be smart.

I’m not a fast reader except when I’m on deadline, but I’m quick to throw a book across the room if the writing exasperates me. So these are selections you can be sure I really wanted to spent some time with.

The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore, 2013.


This luminous telling of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s little sister Jane is animated by the letters the two exchanged from youth through old age, but it goes beyond biography to become a study of the arts of reading, writing, and living for eighteenth century American women.

Tenth of December, George Saunders, 2013. Eery, dark, compelling and unexpectedly humorous, these stories are to be savored even as they haunt you.


The Master, Colm Toibin, 2010. I avoided this biography for a few years even though I heard it was fantastic, as I didn’t feel Henry James had granted me access to his head. But this intimate life is so terrifically well done that I was glad I picked it up.

Portrait of Lady, Henry James, 1881. The third time I’ve read the Master’s masterpiece, and I get something new from it with every immersion – I think this time Isabel Archer’s rise and fall meant more to me because my own daughter is about the same age as the lovely, lively, rebellious young American lady.

Stoner, John Williams, 1965.


A new French translation of this odd, underappreciated novel has caused something of a stir in literary circles. Set in 1920s-era academia, it’s about an English professor’s slog through academia and marriage, but the writing is so refined and austere that reading his story is a transfixing experience.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick, 2010. I decided to take up this journalistic work out of book club loyalty, and I was so glad I did. The author starts with a satellite photo of the two halves of Korea by night, the north in total blackout, and goes on to tell the intimate stories of citizens who are trying to escape the horrific conditions there. Compelling and totally readable.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis, 2012. A stirring novel lays out the lives of the Shepherd family, parents and nine children, with pitch-perfect authority and grace.The Great Northern Migration of African-Americans becomes real. Does a much-talked-about book (an Oprah pick) deserve the ballyhoo? In this case, yes.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, 2013.


In which a 20-something art maven and biker babe hits the downtown scene of 1970s New York City. I resisted a bit before getting sucked in to the story of a girl getting sucked in to a scene that’s perhaps not as cool as she thinks it is.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson, 2012. I make it a practice of dipping in to these confectionary morsels of information when I need a respite from heavier thoughts. It’s easy to give in to mini-surveys of how such day-to-day implements as cooking pots and kettles came about.


The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, esp. “The Other Two.” Wharton’s short fiction rarely reaches the heights of her novels, but some of her attempts stick with me, like this narrative about a twice-married woman and her beleaguered third husband. So fascinating to observe his anguished humiliation at the idea that his wife has had sexual relations prior to their life together.

The Portable Edgar Allen Poe, esp. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” After visiting the Poe exhibit at the Morgan Library I went back to his writings to find that some of them were just as hypnotic and chilling as they’d been on first reading. I actually found myself terrified by a story that had first been published in 1843.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1945. Was all the brouhaha over Salinger this year (massive biography, in depth documentary, articles galore) deserved? I thought I’d better go back to Catcher. A nice little novel, I think you’ll like it.

The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan, 2013. Edgar Degas’s life intersects with those of two adolescent ballerina sisters in Belle Epoque Paris. I loved the funky details and the narrators’ voices.


Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, 1973. Long, long ago, in the 1970s, feminism was a lens through which to view subjects like the history of medicine. This tasty fruit of that approach is something I’m drawing upon for work on a new novel, and it’s made me think about the power of women midwives in a whole new way.

Fever, Mary Beth Keane, 2013. I’d always wondered about Typhoid Mary, and this novel gave me a glimpse into her inner life – very stoic, very sad. It’s about New York, too, at the turn of the century. I found myself totally there.

I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson, 2010.


I’m bringing this one to my book group for discussion and I’m pretty sure they’ll like it. In 1989 Norway, a man in his late 30s has lost his way – his mother is dying and he revisits his youthful experiences to try to achieve some foothold on his present. Sound dark? It is, but I assure you Arvid’s story is heart rending.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, 2012. If I’d known how dazzled I would be by these interconnected stories I’d have jumped on the book when it first came out. The prose offers ribald, irrepressible poetry about the power of love.

The Last Banquet, Jonathan Grimwood, 2013.


The sexy Frenchman in this foodie novel braises a wolf whose neck he has broken in the woods, corresponds with Voltaire and becomes Lord Master of the Menagerie at Versailles. Historical fiction at its sensual best.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Dance, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Writers, Writing

Bit by Bit

Stitch after stitch. The easiest in knitting is the knit stitch, worked over and over, row after row, dignified by its pattern name the garter stitch. Time honored and simple, it’s the foundation of sweaters and scarves all around the world. I man the couch (woman the couch?), man up (woman up?) to knit stitch after stitch, a surprise length of comfort for someone who deserves every form of it.


Song after song. Pandora seems to have decided that Ella, Aretha and Etta, with a sprinkling of Emmy Lou Harris, are the mainstays of my acoustic pantheon. Which is fine, as long as Etta James sings Just a Little Bit.

I don’t want much,

I just want a little bit

I don’t want it all babe

I just want a little bit

Just a teeny weeny bit, just a itty bitty bit of your love

Flake by flake. The snowstorm hits. The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches, wrote E.E. Cummings. That’s the twisted magic of a white winter, after all, the stuff is so impersonal, impervious, and yet we extrapolate all soft and fuzzy feelings from it. Since I was a child I’ve made snow cream: put out a pot and collect the clean flakes, then mix the white stuff with milk, sugar and vanilla for a wintry treat that’s better than ice cream, especially if you’re a red-cheeked little kid.

Tweet by tweet. You stretch your brain a little and it keeps you young. That’s how it is with me and Twitter, which I’ve been dipping a toe into and coming up sometimes with a sparkly pedicure and sometimes a crab bite. Stephen King just opened a Twitter account, got twenty thousand followers instantly. “On Twitter at last,” he offered, not fully utilizing his 140 characters, “and can’t think of a thing to say. Some writer I turned out to be.” But it all comes down less to what you have to say than to the links, one by one, you make with other people. So follow me. Or at least tweet at me, @jeanczimmerman. And while you’re at it, tweet at Stephen.

Note by note. So much of publishing books is about the relationships with people you have along the way – writers and editors, writers and bookstore people. As an author you’re a cog in a bigger, complicated machine, one whose purpose is to put great books in the hands of eager readers. So I’m writing little remember-me’s to all the friendly, supportive booksellers I met while touring with The Orphanmaster. Letting people know about Savage Girl, that it’s coming out in March, and to look for it. Feral children have always fascinated me, I’m telling booksellers.

feral child

– but in NYC, in a world of Gilded Age opulence? An irresistable mashup.


I hope you fall for my Savage Girl, I’m telling my bookseller friends.

And little by little. The bones in my left foot are healing but won’t withstand an ounce of pressure or weight. It’s a good place to be, my couch, with my foot on a pillow, Etta on the box, a rollerball pen in my hand, knitting bag by my side, a fire in the hearth and a curtain of snow out the window. Bit by bit we move along, and today that’s just about right.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Music, Nature, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Gil’s Prize-Winning Apple Crumb Pie

Apple pie is the chicken soup of desserts. It fixes what ails you. Even if you didn’t know something was ailing you. And that is true of some apple pies more than others — Gil’s recipe for a towering crumb-top makes you lick the plate. Then you feel good, apple-pie good. His pie won first prize in a very competitive contest — I still remember Gil pumping the air with his fist when the victory was announced in the library parking lot. It wasn’t typical apple-pie behavior but it was all Gil. And his is the kind of pie that will make you want to stand up and salute. Torching the top to caramelize it just a little is optional.

BonTon Roulet Apple Pie

But before I share Gil’s recipe, a dip into history. Apple pie, you know, was not always the totem it is today. When apple pies first were baked, the outsides, called coffins, weren’t meant to be ingested. Sugar wasn’t numbered among the ingredients, it was too pricey. Still, in 1390 A.D. a recipe was devised by the master cooks of King Richard II for Tartys in Applis:

Tak gode Applys and gode Spryeis and Figys and reyfons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake well.


Pies were spectacles, and apples weren’t especially spectacular. The four and twenty living blackbirds zooming out the broken top crust were not just a nursery rhyme, they were real, at least for those wealthy enough to afford a feast.


By Tudor times more sugar was available and we find another recipe for “pye,” this time with green apples.

Pies in colonial america were first called puddings. By 1759, when Swedish parson Dr. Israel Acrelius made notes on a visit to the Delaware, pie was a staple: “It is the evening meal of children.” Until European stock got established, though, American apples were crabapples.

child holding hornbook

Amelia Simmons rendered her classic apple pie recipe in the 1796 cooking bible American Cookery. With its cinnamon and sugar it sounds contemporary, but the inclusion of rose-water was a throwback to the middle ages.

Apple pie became a compliment in 1590, when poet Robert Green praised a lady in a piece called Arcadia. They breath is like the steame of apple-pyes. That might make a good pick up line even today.

cooking kitchen

A century or so latter Apple Pye itself is praised by poet William King:

Of all the delicates which Britons try

To please the palate of delight the eye,

Of all the sev’ral kings of sumptuous far,

There is none that can with applepie compare.


Special ingredients: Northern Spy apples, Tipo “00” flour, Ceylon cinnamon, Stone Hill Farms leaf lard

Oven at 350

2 1/2 cup flour (mix of Tipo 00 and regular)
2 tspns cinnamon
1/2 tspn salt
2 sticks butter (the high-fat European-style stuff)
1/4 cup lard (I got my hands on some leaf lard, but the faint of heart can use shortening)
1 tspn vanilla
5 tbs ice water

3 lbs-plus apples (tart ones, I used Northern Spy, Cortland are good too, in a pinch Granny Smith)
Juice of one lemon
2 tspns cinnamon
½ tspn nutmeg
½ cup sugar
3 tbs arrowroot or cornstarch

1/2 cup walnuts crushed
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
Half stick melted butter

Crust: Mix dry ingredients, cut in butter and lard, add vanilla and sprinkle in ice water until you can gather the dough into a ball. Chill, flatten ball slightly and roll out flat with rolling pin. Use a greased nine-inch pie pan — you’ll have extra, but make a generous edge. Bake for 30 minutes (pie weights or beans on wax paper or greased aluminum foil will keep bottom crust flat).

Filling: Toss peeled, thinly sliced apples with lemon juice. Combine with dry ingredients and mix well. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring every ten or so.

Assembly: Pour partially cooked apples into partially cooked crust. Mound apples up in the center of the pie. Mix topping ingredients together and mound on top of pie, spreading it around to edges.

Bake assembled pie for another 30 minutes and remove to a rack.

Suggested soundtrack: Sixties top-forty pop (Kinks, Animals, Tommy James, ? and the Mysterians, Hollies, Strawberry Alarm Clock)


Filed under Cooking, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry

Hudson River Haunts and Hustlings

For my whole life I’ve lived up and down the Hudson River, in Hastings, in Ulster Park, in Ossining. New York City crouches on its shoreline, and I lived there for twenty years. The Hudson happens to be my favorite river in the world – although to be precise it is an estuary.

I’ve written about its history, in both nonfiction and fiction — about the rubble-stone house of Margaret Hardenbroeck, in Yonkers, about Blandine berry-picking on a Manhattan bluff, and other people whose lives I placed against this magical backdrop. But I haven’t just told stories about a place. I’ve lived it.

I was thinking about some of the things I’ve actually done along the Hudson’s reaches. What helped me in my imaginings. How the Hudson Valley has informed my life.

I’ve taken a canoe out through ancient marshes at the river’s edge. Had picnics along its shores. Dined in fine restaurants. Rode a bike. Collected beach glass.


Kissed. Thrown sticks for a swimming dog. Gone swimming myself. Taken the train, that glorious route down the river’s eastern flank. Snoozed on that train and missed my stop.

Watched fisherman pull out catfish. Careened along the Henry Hudson Parkway above the river in a series of second-hand cars. Visited a yacht house in winter, warmed by a wood stove. Hitched a ride on a tugboat.


Walked the George Washington Bridge–it sways terrifically. Learned to hula hoop.

Peter hula

Heard blasting rock and roll concerts on ancient piers. Wandered a factory ruin from the nineteenth century. Did I mention throwing a stick for the best cattle dog in America?


Saw fireworks explode up from every little Catskills town down the river’s length one Fourth of July. We sat on an escarpment far, far above the river coursing below.

As an adolescent, I read classic books in a library overlooking the water.


Later, bought paperbacks at library sales. Talked about my own books in library all-purpose rooms.

Watched my three-year-old get gleefully wet under a sprinkler at a city park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Devoured garlicky Dominican mofungo at a lunch counter a block from the water in Sleepy Hollow.

Hiked the Breakneck Ridge Trail, which rises 1,250 feet in a three-quarter mile stretch and hovers over the river as it winds. Experienced vertigo and rapture at one and the same time.


Admired thousands of sunsets.

Praised the mighty Palisades. Daydreamed. Considered the water’s surface, olive green, deep black, cobalt, covered in crashed-together ice floes. Seen eagles ride the ice floes (an untruth – I’ve always wanted to, it’s in my bucket, but I never have managed it).


Admired art on walls with river views. Experienced the unicorn tapestries, in awe. Taught children to make art. Touched cattails. Bought hanging plants from Garden Club ladies. Watched my teenager kill it in soccer games on a field watched over by the Palisades. Stood on the porch of Washington Irving’s stucco cottage, Sunnyside, imagining the 1840s river the way he must have seen it, appalled when the railroad went through.

sunnyside_and_hudson-300x225Skipped stones, clumsily. Never could master that. Threw a stick for a dog. Considered the white-tailed deer swimming across to New Jersey – diaries describe the phenomenon in the seventeenth century. A long time back, but a drop in the bucket for the old, bountiful Hudson.

What have you done along the Hudson–or your own personal favorite river? Leave a comment, will you?


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

The Spirit of Sinterklass

The Orphanmaster offers a glimpse into Christmas on Manhattan,1660s-style. Or, since the preponderance of colonists hail from the Netherlands, a glimpse into Sinterklass, the Dutch festival of St. Nicholas, which arrives on December 6th. Because we’re talking about The Orphanmaster, everything in this particular holiday season is not all sugar cookies.

Here is a passage from the novel:

Sinterklass—Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—came to New Amsterdam in early December, arriving with a ship that sailed all the way from Patria laden with toys and other gifts. Children laid out their shoes on the hearth the night of December 5th. The next morning, they would find them filled with nuts, sweets and, for a fortunate few, gold coins.

Sinterklass himself rode slowly down the Broad Way and along Pearl Street on a stolid white mare, fairly gleaming in his long, draping robe, pearly beard and tall red bishop’s hat and mitre, brandishing a golden crosier with a curled top. He had apples for everyone, hard candy, frosted nuts.

Sint op het paard

But these treats were only a precursor to the grand feast celebrated the following day, December sixth, when wealthier colonists served roast goose and potatoes and kool slaw drenched in vinegar and melted butter. Sinterklass was the patron saint of children, doling out gifts to the well-behaved, though everyone got their fair share regardless of how naughty they had been.

Each child knew the story of the three little orphans during a terrible famine, how a malicious butcher lured them into his house, slaughtered and carved them up, then placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers, bringing the orphans magically back alive through the power of faith.

The spirit of the season ruled New Amsterdam between the Feast of Sinterklass on the sixth and Kerstydt, Christmas, on the twenty-fifth. Director general Peter Stuyvesant, who made clear his disgust with any drunken carousing during the holidays, yet made his Great House ablaze with candles and invited colonists in to dance in the entry hall.

But the mood this year was on the whole muted. Murder dampens the spirit…


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, Writing

The Spirit of Electricity

I finally saw “The Spirit of Electricity,” the costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II at an outrageous fancy dress party she gave with her railroad tycoon husband that was one of the highlights of the Gilded Age in New York City. Textiles perish, and you don’t often get to see the famous gowns of the past. Mrs. Vanderbilt was always going to be a static image on a photo card, fetching but more than a little cracked.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II

Born Alva Erskine Smith, Mrs. Vanderbilt orchestrated the ball in 1883 to christen the new lodgings erected for the couple at 1 West 57th Street. Theirs was the largest house ever built in Manhattan. In staging one of the most elaborate balls of the time, Alva assured the Vanderbilt family a perpetual place on Mrs. Astor’s 400, the list of New York’s social elite.

The New York Times covered the party perhaps less objectively than it would today. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years,” read the article that ran the day after, on March 27th. “Since the announcement that it would take place…scarcely anything else has been talked about. It has been on every tongue and a fixed idea in every head. It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks, and has even, perhaps, interfered to some extent with that rigid observance of Lenten devotions which the Church exacts.”

In advance of the evening, quadrilles were relentlessly practiced, costumes were tailored, quantities of hair powder were  laid in. The party was a showstopper. The Times reporter exclaimed about the “garden in the forest” where guests took their supper, and the phalanx of cops that kept gawkers at bay outside the mansion as carriages began to arrive after 10:30 or so. We have no pictures of the hordes with their noses pressed up against the windows, but the fashionables inside had their images captured for posterity by society photographers.

Mrs. Elliot F. Shepard

Each guest’s getup was wilder than the next.

Mr. Isaac Bell

Jesters, Romams, Mary Antoinette, the Four Seasons – it was a motley group.

Mrs. Arthur Paget

I thought that the souvenir photos were all that remained of the event.

Then I visited Gilded New York, an exhibit that is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The show includes the decorative arts, some paintings and some fashion. Yes, the end of the nineteenth century is big in Manhattan at the moment, with this enterprise and Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at the New-York Historical Society. If you are a fan of ostentation, now is the time to put aside workaday worries and immerse yourself in a level of excess that is hard to fathom today.

The items on display were those that would have figured big in ball culture. Images of the grand Fifth Avenue houses set the stage, most long torn down, commissioned for the new industrial elites. By 1892, 27% of the nation’s millionaires lived in New York City, more than 1,100 of them.

Many of their mansions, like the Vanderbilt house, had a castle-like, European flavor. The structure where the 1883 ball took place was a model for the immense confection inhabited by the Delegate family in Savage Girl.

Vanderbilt home

With their newfound wealth, the millionaires bought jewelry at Tiffany, gold, enamel, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. But they also went to Tiffany for other accessories, like this card case made of frog leather in 1900.

frog case

They had a taste for the over the top, like a decanter and cup fabricated of Murano Glass.

Murano glass

Long kid gloves were a necessity for a ball-going lady.

kid gloves

When they were feeling rustic they might show off a different style of ware, say the one decorated with an alligator, snake and lizard – this one belonged to Montana copper baron William Clark, one of the Fifth Avenue denizens.


All, it seemed, was glossy, elegant, costly. You can read the plush lifestyle in the portraiture, like the depiction of Helen Virginia Sands at age 19, shortly before her marriage to a successful Wall Street trader.

de la mar pic

What I found most affecting, though, was the golden silk gown, “The Spirit of Electricity,” here in front of me, for real. It had emerged from the black-and-white photo card. Heavily embroidered in beaten gilt, it had silver tinsel filaments that lifted like small wings above the shoulders. Imported, of course, from Worth in Paris.

light gown

That’s a Herter Company jewelry cabinet in the background, for you Herter furniture fans. The dress survived because it was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter Countess Laszlo Szechenyi (neé Gladys Vanderbilt).

More affecting, even, the yellow silk stockings and pumps that Alva wore with the fancy gown.


This opulence of the distant past was real, something I could almost touch.


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Happy as Pie

I wanted to make some pies. Five pies, because that’s what could fit in my oven plus the one I’m bringing for my family.The Presbyterian Church soup kitchen in Ossining was having a dinner. They said they could use some. Ingredients were cheap. Baking them was easy. Now there will be a few more pie-happy people at Thanksgiving.

pie pic good

Best wishes to everyone this weekend. Keep warm and safe. I’ll be writing again when the leftovers are gone.


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Thank You for Reading

I am thankful.

This is a post about this blog.

At Thanksgiving, in a lot of families, a blessing is performed before the turkey comes on in its golden, crispy glory. The blessing consists of going around the table with every guest sharing some thing they are especially grateful for. On the occasions I’ve taken part in this ritual, I’ve sometimes had to squelch the urge to say something slightly comical or snarky. I don’t know why, perhaps because the whole thing seemed so self serious. Real thanks seem quieter, more internal, perhaps.

Now, with a few days before us until we’ll be stuffed with stuffing, with a clear head, I want to be serious.

I am grateful, deeply grateful, to those of you who read this blog.

When people ask what my site is all about, I say different things. It’s called Blog Cabin, and it’s about living in a circa 1800 home in a thoroughly modern world, and the time travel that allows for. Sometimes I call it a personal magazine. A diary. A cultural commentary. It’s about the past as a living, breathing entity. All about history and art and nature and literature… An author blog, as I have one novel about to come out and one just in the rearview.

What it really is, is playtime. Writing books, of course, is hard work. (If you’re doing it right.) Writing this blog has given me a chance to dabble in the things that absorb me in my book writing life, but on a more finite scale, with pleasure at the foremost – yes, history and art and nature and literature and… a pogo stick championship?


It was hot July and the contestants soared. You could taste the adrenaline.

Writing for you has given me a reason to go on adventures that you might not take, even if you had the chance. Or perhaps you would, like my search for an infant saguaro cactus at a botanical garden in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a beaming guide, but you couldn’t get there that day.


I’ve taken myself to a Victorian waltz class and tea.


To a Broadway disco-play, and to a euphoria-inducing Brahms recital. And to a dramatic dance performance en plein air, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.


I’ve plumbed the depths of the 20-something psyche, because I have a young adult close to my heart. Instagramming is their life.


They’re fascinating animals, as are husbands, and mine hitchhikes along with me from time to time.

As are dogs. Mine is inscrutable, but adds flavor to the mix.


And writers.  I’ve loved writing about Gertrude Stein.


I’ve shared many favorite recipes, like the one for Marcella Hazan’s braised pork in milk.

Observed motorcycle pirates on the loose in NYC. With some history about pirates intertwined, of course.


A rowdy pig festival in upstate New York.


Explored a local farm on an enchanted evening, just as dusk fell.


Learned about the power of graffiti at the late, great 5Pointz. Got my leg cast tagged there, too.


And witnessed the unlikely beauties of slime mold in a pristine nature preserve.


It’s been my pleasure to gather these treasures and offer them to you, and your great generosity has been receiving them from me. So thank you. I’m looking forward to many more adventures.


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The Things We Carry

What heirloom would you bring?

I’m reading about refugees and the things that they carry (remembering the Tim O’Brien tale The Things They Carried, about the impedimenta Vietnam soldiers take with them into battle.) BBC News Magazine profiles refugees during the Nazi menace of the 1940s, asking that question.

Isabelle Rozenbaumas’s mother escaped  Nazi-overrun Lithuania, barely, with her carriage-driver father, and snuck out three class photographs from that time.

refugee photo

Julian Glowinski’s grandmother was deported from Poland to Siberia in 1940. Amazingly, she packed a sewing machine onto a cattle truck, and converted gowns into wedding dresses in her concentration camp in exchange for food.

Elke Duffy and her family fled East Prussia in January 1945. With her she took an amber necklace her mother had strung from amber she and her sister found on a Baltic beach.


Ian Carr-de Avelon’s wife’s grandfather was forced onto a train in Lwow (then Poland, now Ukraine) with his wife. Rather than cherished photos he took a camp stove. A camp stove? But of course ultimately it made perfect sense.

So what to take in a hurry, with the monsters breathing down your throat?

Photos. But today they mostly stay trapped in the computer. You can’t just lift them out of an album, with yellowed tape stains on their backs. So print some, fast.

Maybe I’d take this one, if I had to take one.

Gil and Maud Hug

I’d have to take another. Mark it on the back with a Sharpie, April 1987. The engagement party.

April 1987

If I could, I’d grab more. My parents. My extended family. Gil would take this burst of joy.

el 1

Or, he says, an oilcloth Santa he remembers making when he was six.

What object would I choose? Not a sewing machine. Not an iPhone. I looked around my house, and I thought about storage. At least three dusty cardboard boxes are marked Heirlooms, mostly from a family bow-windowed breakfront now residing in a home with more space. How do you choose among the loved objects of the past?

I might take my paternal grandmother’s copy of Ulysses, by James Joyce, its cover broken off, which she bravely purchased at a time when the novel was still censored in the U.S.

Joyce Ulysses 750 wraps 1000

Or a scrap tatted by my ancestors, embroidered with carnations, the cloth handled by their fingers.


I could tuck that into my sock.

But if I was going to bring some bigger object – what?

How about a china plate. A cake plate, a foot across, strewn with pink roses and lilies of the family. Utilitarian as well as cherished.


Just a plate. But a plate belonging to my great-great-grandmother, a woman with the interesting name of Brown Coats. A deep souvenir of family, embodying the optimistic conviction that sometime in the future, there will be cake.

Will the plate make it through the mud, the rutted roads, the mountain passes? Despite its apparent fragility, I am certain it is strong.


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Transcription Soup

A keyboard has no scent.


And yet manipulating the keys brings forth aromas, incredible sights, acoustical marvels. The sounds of conversation.

I promised Gil that I would do a fair amount of transcribing for him. He’s conducted many interviews as part of a book collaboration he’s involved in. None of this background is accessible without a keyboard to yield up the brilliant things that get said.

So I listen to the tape. I screw up my forehead and try to make out the words that are muddled – some of the interviews took place in a noisy restaurant. I shake my hands out, massage my fingers when they get sore.

And then I take a break. I make soup.

big spoon

The ideal recipe, with a gigantic spoon, a spoon out of a Grimm story cottage.

Soup is the antidote, of course, for many ailments. But it’s also a good balance for tasks like transcribing, where you’re using your keyboard and your fingers and there’s a wee of drudgery.

I use a whole soup fowl if I have one, though disjointed pieces will do. Bring them to a simmer in your biggest pot and skim off the scum. Add carrots and celery. I use the last of the celery from my garden, which never stalked up but is fresh and good.


The piece de resistance: chicken feet I bought from a farmer.

chicken legs

Not pretty, these gams, but they really boost the broth’s flavor.

Turnips, parsnips, parsley, leeks. So simple. Salt, in the palm of my hand.

Julia Child says to bring the stock just to a “smile,” and to simmer for three hours or so.

In which time I will have tip-tapped each key hundreds of times, to deliver a three-hour back-and-forth conversation.

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Squeezing the Juice From the Season

There is nothing like a Saturday morning in November to make you stand up straight and take clear-eyed notice of the world. Of the crisp air and fresh colors, the sweetly rotten smell of leaves being pulverized underfoot.

leaves underfoot

Both Gil and I could easily stay home and work all day, bent over our books, leaning into our computer screens. But we were drawn out into the Saturday sunshine. drive, he sd, as poet Robert Creeley wrote.

Autumn Leaves 2

We remarked as we spun along the little roads on every jolt of red.

red tree

Some unexpected graffiti on the side of a concrete shed oddly did the opposite of marring the rural scene. It underscored fall’s beauty with its blast of a message.


Down the road from the Cabin we passed an arch of shrubbery above a stone gate that opens into a mysterious vacant pasture. I never get tired of looking at it.

Shrub in Stone Door

And I never get tired of visiting Thompson’s Cider Mill, where Geoff Thompson combines up to twenty varieties of fresh apples into a juice that is pure nectar. He makes his cider every weekend, and every weekend it is a different brew.


When you buy apples at Thompson’s, you get to see each one’s heritage marked above the bin. The history of apples is vast and rich, and here you can taste history–when you bite into an heirloom Newtown Pippin, say, first grown from a chance seedling in the mid-18th century.

Apples 1

Out of the wealth of choices we’ve taken most of all to the Jonathans, which are grown right in this orchard and are sweet and tart, firm and compact.


If you come on a Saturday morning you can watch the thoroughly up-to-date press do its business, mashing the fruit into not only a liquid but also a paste that will later be tossed to the pigs at a local organic farm. Keats talked in Ode to Autumn about how by a cider-press, with patient look,/Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours. This is where those oozings happen. Geoff handed around small plastic cups to catch some of the new cider as it ran out of the press.

cider press

We sipped. “Perfect blend,” said Geoff. I agreed. “Wish I could figure out how to do that every time,” he said with pleasant self deprecation. This mill does make the best cider in the land, and that’s not opinion but fact. They also have on hand my namesake fruit.

lady jean

Next stop, the Hastings Farmer’s Market, overlooking the Hudson River. A produce stand at the end of the season has its own distinctive merits. No sweet, fuzzy peaches, perhaps, but turban squashes and sugar pumpkins and the dark leafy kale your doctor wants you to eat more of. The singer Milton was performing his song In the City when we arrived.


I like the song. It does capture the effervescence of New York. Though it seemed less relevant today with the trees aflame in the cool, cool, quiet air.

The woman who worked the booth for Cowberry Crossing was off on a coffee run, so Reese and I together worked out the numbers for a pair of pork chops and a bag of chicken feet. Inaccurately, it turned out when mom returned.


He was a great little salesman anyway. I am devoted to using chicken feet to make stock – you need a soup foul first, then throw in the feet in addition – and I used to have a chicken farm down the road where I could buy them in five-pound freezer bags. I’ve gotten a little squeamish about how the toes resemble an old lady monster’s, with manicure-worthy nails. But they make such a velvety broth, it’s worth the psychic discomfort.

chix ft

Over at Do Re Me Farms, they still had some green beans, zucchini and cranberry beans.

cranberry beans

It was wicked cold behind the cash register, and everyone was shivering.

mushrooms guy

Mushrooms, a variety, were my choice. To add to a risotto or simply.saute and devour.


There was less produce than usual, more maple syrup, cider, pickles. Here they make a big thing out of offering pickles on sticks to children, like sour lollipops.


Painted Goat Farm is an artisan cheese producer located upstate in Garrattsville (now that is a true New York name). They offer goat cheese both fresh and aged, along with goat meat and what they call goat confections. They were out of the aged and I didn’t care for any goat confections, so I took home the fresh with garlic and chives.

goat cheese

The farm’s herd now stands at 85 – the females are “drying up” at the moment, I was told, and will give birth in February, when the babies will drive the count up to over 100. I’d like to pay them a visit then. If I had any kind of farm it’d be a goat farm. I love goats, both how satanic their eyes look, and their pure and total determination.

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Sullivan Street Curative

I woke with a touch of labyrinthitis.There are scientific explanations for this condition, all pertaining to the inner ear and “unilateral vestibular dysfunction.” But what it amounts to, what you feel, is dizziness. Vertigo in the extreme. I sat on my living room couch and watched the room whirl around me like a merry-go-round. Not fun.

george w girl

When the show had subsided and after I conked out for a while, it was time for lunch. I steeled myself to go downstairs to the kitchen.  An omelette. I gripped the counter. I was doing it. And the room stood relatively still.

There is not much in the way of medicine to treat labyrinthitis. You can take the pills more often prescribed for seasickness. I don’t have those in the house. I ate my food and watched the walls throb.

spinning 2

What I did have was bread from Sullivan Street Bakery. We go to the establishment on 47th Street (not, improbably, Sullivan Street) in Hell’s Kitchen to stock up on baked goods whenever we’re in Manhattan. We often bring back what’s called a filone, which the bakery describes thus:

Large, tube-shaped loaf, baked dark to very dark, generously coated with wheat bran; open, irregular crumb structure and waxy-looking webbing. Mature fermentation; because of the unique baking method, flavor is nutty and sour with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

The bakery is famous for founder Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread, which you can attempt to make at home if you’re not near enough to do a drive-by like we do.

The bread is superior to any other – chewy, crusty, earthy, flavorful. I always think it’s the kind I’d want in my larder if the Barbarians were at the door. Why would we need bread at that time? For nourishment!


I buttered a slice of toasted filone and took bites in between spearing garlicky mushrooms. The room threatened to spin. But it hove to a stop when I swallowed.

Maybe I’ll sit very still and fill my mouth with bread all day.


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Chocolate Poems

“Where are the reptiles?” the adolescent boy asked the guard at the door of the convention center.

“The what?”

Both heads swivelled to look inside at the crowded arena.

“The reptiles – are they here?”

No. The reptile show was last weekend. Here at Chocolate Expo there were only the chocolate fiends.

At two minutes to eleven, the lines stretched down the steps and around the sidewalk. “My friends are at the Marathon and here I am at chocolate world,” the girl behind me said wryly. “Stupid chocolate,” said a husband. “It’s gonna be fun, honey,” insisted his wife.

It was the annual gathering of people intent on buying and selling cacao-based products in all shapes, sizes and flavors – the more novel the better. I thought I’d see what the fuss was about.

I love chocolate, of course. Gil says my three major food groups are chocolate, coffee and milk. (That puts mocha at the top of the pyramid, I guess.)

In the convention center, people jostled to get free tastes. It seemed to actually be about half chocolate and half every other kind of artisenal food product, from honey to wine to dill pickles to maple syrup. I was surprised to find Cap’n Crunch gelato.

cap'n crunch

But there was also every kind of truffle under the sun.


Alicia at Two Chicks with Chocolate fed me a taste of rosemary lemon truffle, handpainted with colored cocoa butter, one of 60 different flavors, and I was on my way.

Pumpkin was big in everything. I saw chocolate-dipped waffles.


Chocolate-dipped fruits of all kinds.

choc dip

Kids and adults alike with sticky hands, sticky faces. There was an awful amount of plastic wrapping, it seemed to me.


Chocolate culture is very high–low. I saw the most exquisite Indian truffles, created for the New Year, Dawali, by Aarti at Le Rouge in the shape of a “diya,” or lamp.  Truffles with ganache came in exotic flavors with amazing “mouthfeel,” as the technical term goes. I tried the Kiser Pista Ganache, made with saffron.


Ethereal, I thought. So I couldn’t resist making off with a single specimen, the Paan Bahar truffle, made with betel leaves and rose petals.

More spirituality lay around the corner, where half-pound, solid chocolate Buddhas were cheerfully peddled at Oliver Kita Fine Confections, by a salesperson who told me, “Most people break them up to share when they chant with friends.” Okay.


Chocolate has only been the recognizable treat that we go crazy over for a relatively short chapter of human history. The Aztecs downed it as a cold, bitter, spicy brew – Montezuma alone was said to drink 50 cups a day. It became a sweetened beverage in the 17th century, flowing from the cacao plantations of South America to France by way of Louis XIV’s Spanish bride, Princess Maria Theresa.


She gave the Sun King a chest of chocolate in 1643 for an engagement present, and his avid consumption of the beverage was said to fuel his ability to pleasure his wife twice a day even into his seventies.

Chocolate then emigrated to London, where chocolate houses became the fashion. Sir Hans Sloane, an esteemed physician, declared that milk afforded the delicacy special creaminess. New York philanthropist and bibliophile James Wadsworth, in the nineteenth century:

Twill make Old women Young and Fresh

Create New Motions of the Flesh,

And cause them long for you know what…

If they but taste of chocolate.

Samuel Pepys noted in 1657 that it was available.


“In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West India drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade at reasonable rates.”

Michael Pollan writes in his book In Defense of Food about a group of Americans being shown the words “chocolate cake” to discover their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. The response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”

Everyone, no matter how-guilt-ridden, knows that chocolate is the love food. Someone should write a love poem to it.


I did feel love in the air today, at least love of chocolate, so it’s sort of a closed loop.

A company calling itself Rescue Chocolate offered vegan, organic, fair-trade, kosher chocolates, with all profits to be donated to animal rescue groups.

rescue choc

I thought I’d purchase one but the line was too long.

Masks, with a chocolate base, from The Chocolate Box NYC. Everything about their decoration was edible.

mask 1

The proprietor, Sabrina, looked more like a ballet dancer than a candy maker.

mask lady

Less artistic but just as tempting, hand-dipped Twinkies from a booth that won an award from Hudson Valley Magazine for its pies last year.


The Twinkies are one of their best sellers — since the confection was off the market for a while it drove up the demand. “We ran out last year, Gina Solari told me. “Anything Nutella is also a best seller,” she added.

Sick of chocolate, finally, incredibly, I retired to the stage area with two non-cocoa nourishments, strong coffee and a lemon-and-sugar crepe.

In the distance, convention-goers slurped up Cap’n Crunch gelato and sugar-dipped waffles. I recalled one of the most striking film food scenes in recent memory, in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away, when the 10-year-old Chihiro’s careless parents sit down at a counter restaurant for a snack and get turned into munching, slobbering, devouring giant pigs.


A chef-lecturer delivered informational nuggets about the subject at hand. Chocolate falls to the ground in South America, she said, after the monkeys have eaten the fruit around it. It’s a seed. She confided in the people whose sweet tooth had driven them to the convention center even before lunch on a beautiful Sunday in fall. “I know I’m probably wrecking your world, but white chocolate is not chocolate. It’s fat and sugar. You could call it fat-sugar!”

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