Monday, December 24, 2012

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

I didn't know Irene personally.   But I know she absolutely loved Christmas.  She saved the December issues and "Christmas Specials" of dozens of magazines between about 1957 and 1970 in a bookcase in her home office.  When her family had an estate sale a few months ago, I bought all the magazines I could load into a paper grocery bag for $5.

Every holiday season, people say they wish that Christmas was "the way it used to be."  With the help of the feline blog assistants, I decided to explore some of these old magazines on Christmas Eve day.   Maybe I could see how Christmas used to be, 40 or 50 or more years ago, at least as it was presented to the public in print.  I came to the conclusion that things haven't changed all that much.

Most of the old magazines in Irene's collection featured inspiring Christmas stories from contemporary writers -- Rumer Godden, Norah Lofts, Richard Armour, Ogden Nash and others were well-represented.  Dr. Spock wrote an advice column for parents.  (Look him up, kids.  No relation to the other Spock, except that they were both good at calmly giving advice.)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., penned a Christmas play for children in one issue.  Another Christmas play for kids featured illustrations by Joan Walsh Anglund.

Not to be outdone, the artists at the Disney studios created "A Christmas Carol" featuring a family of mice, in December 1957.

Christmas fashions, particularly for women and children, were prominently displayed.  In the make-it-yourself magazines, the focus was on homemade dresses.

By contrast, the December 1957 Ladies' Home Journal featured a multi-page spread of fashions modeled by two young socialites who were sisters.   This picture is of one of them -- the young Mrs. John F. Kennedy. 

(McCall's magazine from the same month featured a story on "President Eisenhower's Diet."   Needless to say, it did not have the same appeal.  However, McCall's promoted an upcoming article in its January 1958 edition, by this young lady's husband, on "Three Women of Courage.")

All the magazines featured articles on how to decorate your home for the holidays, usually by making some of the decor yourself.   This picture of a Christmas-themed living room in 1957 is a "retro" fan's dream.

Many articles explained to readers how to create their own Christmas ornaments and toys.

Of course it wouldn't be Christmas without food.  All the magazines devoted a lot of space to holiday recipes.  "Over 100 Tempting HOLIDAY RECIPES" read one headline. Feature stories told readers how to create the perfect holiday feast.

Millions of calories' worth of meals and treats, cheek-by-jowl with ads for tomato juice and Sucaryl and Sweeta tablets to help the reader stay slim.  (That paradox hasn't changed!)  One magazine advertisement suggested a set of scales (available in a variety of designer colors) as the perfect Christmas gift for the person on a diet.  (I hope whoever received a device to weigh themselves for Christmas, threw it straight in the direction of the sadistic giver.)   A small article, lavishly illustrated, recommended giving socks for Christmas to the man who already "has everything."  So that's where the tradition started....

Even the recipes in the old advertisements are familiar.

To provide a sense of balance, magazine articles explained to parents how to make the holidays more meaningful for their kids.

Stories for children and parents to read together were significant parts of most of the Christmas magazines in the 1950s and '60s.  Only they were relatively new stories back then.

The cartoon Christmas story that actually tells the real "good tidings of great joy" to all people, was the same then as it is now.  Woman's Day, December 1968, featured illustrations by Charles Schulz.

Christmas commercialism was alive and well in the 1950s and '60s.  Does it seem more innocent?  Or is that just the voice of nostalgia speaking?  Like them or not, the ads are great snapshots-in-time.

Christmas characters from TV programs were featured in 1960s print ads as well.

Ads showed appliances (washing machines, refrigerators, hand mixers) in pastel pink and turquoise blue in the late 1950s-early 1960s; they changed to gold and avocado green a few years later.  Getting your family new phones for Christmas had a different (and much more iconic) look back then.

Of course, some of the things in the collection of Christmas magazines don't stand the test of time.  This article, for example, explained how to make jewelry out of pop-tops from soda cans.  It's just as well that we let that sleeping ghost of Christmas past, lie.

I'm grateful Irene saved her Christmas magazines, so we can read over her shoulder today.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Orphan Flatware

The holidays are a time for tradition.  Often, traditions are passed down from one generation to another:  a menu, a recipe, a certain old movie or football game to watch on television.  A holiday is a time to get out "special" or "best" things to set the table for a family meal.

My mother only used her "best" silverplated (sometimes just called silverplate) flatware for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.  The rest of the year, the 1847 Rogers Bros.* knives, forks, spoons and serving pieces lived in their special wooden felt-lined case in a cupbord.   About once a year the silverplate pieces were taken out and polished, gently washed and carefully dried, then returned to their case.  Cheap stainless steel flatware, which could be hand-washed (or later, put in the dishwasher), air-dried, and generally mildly abused was the choice for everyday use. 

(*1847 wasn't the year they were made, by the way.  That's the name of the brand.)

Silverplated flatware like this was an integral part of the lives of many families after World War II and throughout the mid-20th century.    

A piece, or a set, of flatware was an excellent wedding, anniversary or Christmas gift. If you needed to replace a piece, or buy another place setting as your extended family grew larger, you could do that as well.   If you were very fortunate, you would receive a set (or often just one-piece-at-a-time) of sterling silver flatware, for those special occasions.  The flatware came in a variety of pretty patterns.  Flatware sets were widely advertised in women's magazines in the 1940s and '50s. 

"Adoration" was my parents' silverplate flatware pattern.  Dad's older sisters pooled their resources and bought a set for the newlyweds, carefully packaged in a small wooden chest with cutout slots for each size and style of knife, fork, spoon and serving piece.  The set included exotic items such as long-handled teaspoons, soup spoons, a ladle and butter knives, which were used even more sparingly than the rest of the flatware.  My mother passed this set on to me.  "Use it for special occasions," she told me.  Years later, I acquired another set of silverplated flatware, still in its original case, by the same company in a different pattern when some friends were liquidating their parents' estate.

And then a few weeks ago, I spotted a handful of pieces of silverplate in a plastic bag at an estate sale. They were bright and shiny, almost like they'd never been used.  The pattern was different than the other two sets I already owned.

Only a few pieces.  Where was the special wooden case with the felt lining?  Where were the knives, the dinner forks, the serving pieces?  No one at the sale knew.  There were just a few regular spoons and salad forks, a handful of soup spoons, six butter knifes, and an olive fork.  Someone had cherished them once, but now they were orphans -- silverplate flatware without a special occasion.  Their pattern is called "Daffodil."

I couldn't leave them there. 

I will use them, as well as some pieces from my other two complete sets, for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner this year.   But it won't be the first time I've used them.  I've already used them for a meal of soup, whole wheat bread and olives last month; with a chocolate peppermint loaf cake I made two weeks ago; with my tea this morning.  Each time I use them, I wash and dry them carefully and put them back in the drawer with the "everyday" stainless steel flatware, where they belong.

Because every day we're alive is a special occasion.  Because we live throughout the year, as the Apostle John once wrote, receiving "grace upon grace" to help us.  We should celebrate.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Old Magazine

I love looking through old magazines.   At a recent estate sale, I found a copy of the November 1933 Better Homes and Gardens.  I can imagine my grandmother sitting at her kitchen table reading this same magazine, planning what she will cook for Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s interesting to leaf through the fragile old magazine pages and see the similarities between life in America 79 years ago, and today.

Electrical gadgets -- okay, appliances -- were a big deal in 1933.  This magazine features more than one article extolling the virtues of the latest models of electric mixers.  (They weren’t widely used in homes until the 1920s.)

In 1933, as now, they used images of beautiful women to sell stuff.  Granted, this young lady in from the Depression era is wearing far more clothing than her counterpart today.  (This is a good thing.)

The country was in the grips of an economic disaster in 1933.  Many of the magazine ads feature the National Recovery Administration emblem, signifying that company’s participation in FDR’s New Deal strategy.   Advertisements communicated messages about how rich people also used inexpensive products that the “average person” could afford.

This ad for Listerine toothpaste features an illustration by Paul Desmond Brown (1893-1958), who has been described as the “pre-eminent American illustrator of equestrian subjects.”  Brown was probably best-known in the 1930s for his images of polo matches – that was the heyday of the sport.  He’s also known as an illustrator of children’s horse books.

In an article entitled “Good Stories for Your Christmas Gift Lists,” the writer reviews a book called Little Man, What Now? and makes this ominous sidebar comment:  “How in the world has Germany gotten this way?  Ever since the bewildering Hitler regime, I’ve been wondering, haven’t you?”

So many ads, large and small.  Floor wax.  Bran flakes.  Dog food.  A coupon to send away for information on raising chickens for fun and profit.  Cyclone fences.  Eatmor Cranberries (it was November, after all).  Electric space heaters.  Food, food, and more food.

One of my favorite ads features a recipe for gingerbread.   I thought it was only appropriate at the end of this nostalgia trip to see if the gingerbread they were eating in 1933 stands the test of time.  I’m happy to report that it does.

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter and lard mixed (I used all butter)

1 cup molasses

1 egg

2 ½ cups flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon cloves

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup hot water

(since my grandmother in 1933 would have added a pinch of black pepper to bring out the flavors of the spices, I added that too)

Cream shortening and sugar.  Add beaten egg, molasses, then dry ingredients which have been sifted together.  Add hot water last and beat until smooth.  The batter is soft but it makes a fine cake.  Bake in greased shallow pan 35 minutes in moderate oven (325 to 350 degrees).  Makes 15 generous portions.  Serve it every week.

Another ad, for Washburn Crosby Gold Medal Flour, shows a thick slice of gingerbread from their recipe ("FREE inside every sack of GOLD MEDAL 'Kitchen-Tested' Flour) cut in half, stuffed with fluffy cream cheese and drizzled with lemon sauce.  Perhaps I'll try that method as well.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The War Diary, Part Two

(To read "The War Diary, Part One," click here: )

I've spent a bit more time deciphering our soldier's handwriting, as he recounts his last days in France after the end of World War I.    His spelling didn't improve with time.

Nov. 30  Up early packed left Camp De Meucon 1130 arived in Vannes 1230 -- eight mile in narrow guage train.

Dec. 1, 1918  No sleep all night left Vannes 430AM had lots of fun throwing bread at French kids.  Arived in Brest [a port city in Brittany, France] about 6 oclock on baggage detail missed awful hike of five miles through mud came to camp ate late supper went to bed.

[Dec.] 2 In bed got up ate breakfast back in bed.  Awful muddy camp worst I ever been in.  Done nothing all day.  Bed 8 o'clock. Rec'd. first letter from Preacher.

[Dec.] 3  B Battery on guard and camp detail for day.  Thanks to my being Btry. tailor miss all detail.  All I have done to-day is to lay in bed and listen to all the wild rumors about going home.  Only a little after 5 ashamed to go to bed yet don't know what to do.

Mitchell spent several more days in a similar fashion, then found a variety of other ways to pass the time.

Dec. 6  Up early ate fooled around all day reading.  About five thirty started to drinking rum using port wine for chaser.  Killed all off with [apparently some sort of liqueur].  Got wild cursed the whole battery out went wild, no fights.

Dec. 7 Oh my head is as big as a barrel.  sick.  going to bed 5 oclock dark.

Dec. 8  On detail for work.  Went to town.  Quite a time with the ladies.

Mon. Dec. 9  Apointed Btry. cartoonist but refused to do any work.  Received letter from home.

Tues. Dec. 10  Up eight rained all night.  Went to Reg. Hdq. drew several sketches for History of Btry. B.  7 bells going to bed.

Wed. Dec. 11  Up too late for Breakfast cut Cpt. Cheneworth's slicker off.  Fooled around all day doing absolutely nothing all day but draw two cartoons for history.  Arkie and I are in bed eating candy.  Rumors are that we leave tomorrow 7 bells.

Then something significant finally happened.

Dec. 12, 1918  Up for breakfast ate fooled around went down drew several cartoons.  Got permission to go to town tomorrow to see Pres. Wilson land. 

The website notes:

After nine days at sea aboard the SS George Washington, Woodrow Wilson arrives at Brest, France, on December 13, 1918, and travels by land to Versailles. There, he headed the American delegation to the peace conference seeking a definitive end to World War I. The visit marked the first official visit by a U.S. president to Europe.

Brennan Mitchell gave us his perspective:

Dec. 13, 1918  Up early ate.  Went to town 1030 stationed on street to meet Pres. Wilson.  [He] came by about two o'clock in open top machine.  Salute was given, 21 shots.  Marched back to camp ate.  Orders to leave for US tomorrow.

On December 15 (a day later than he expected), Mitchell and his comrades caught a ride on the SS George Washington back to the States:

On boat 1130 Geo. Washington same as Pres. came over on.  "Oh boy."  Eats fine, good show.

The on-board entertainment apparently included movies; in other diary entries during the crossing of the Atlantic, he mentions seeing films he enjoyed starring "Doug F." (Douglas Fairbanks) and (Mary) "Pickford."

Finally, on December 23, 1918, Mitchell's sojourn was over: 

Up 630 rolled pack ate two meals came in harbor was met by Mayor's Committee of NJ.  Got off boat 430 in J.C. (Jersey City?).  Set out on hike to camp ate took bath now getting ready for bed. 

Mitchell's narrative ends there.  The diary contains a few more blank pages.  Then tucked in the back of the diary is a page of semaphore drawings:

In doing some background research for this post, I discovered that there's footage of the parade with President Wilson in Brest on December 13, 1918, on YouTube. Somewhere in that crowd is Brennan A. Mitchell, whose diary is sitting on my desk as I write:

For all that I occasionally felt I'd like to knock him in the head for his foolish behavior and atrocious spelling, I'm still glad Brennan Mitchell took notes.  He never knew we'd be looking over his shoulder at history, almost 100 years later.  Thank you, soldier.

I donated the War Diary and the large group photo to the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University, where they will be preserved and eventually digitized so students, historians, genealogists -- and you! -- can see and use them.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The War Diary

I often see war-related items at estate sales.  Recently I found a battered small notebook that served as the diary of a serviceman from World War One.  (It was a dollar.  I couldn't leave it there.) 

The soldier, Brennan A. Mitchell, was a member of Battery B, 139th Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Forces in France.   With the diary was a photograph of soldiers in front of a building with a Red Cross sign.

A man of few words, this soldier from Sherman, Texas was part of history in 1918, even if he was often bored and had a little trouble with spelling as he recounted his adventures:

July 17 Arived in NY.

July 22 AWOL three days sent to hospital.  AWOL ever night till Sept.17.

Sept. 19-20 Met Miss Zachary splendid time made the City ever other day till Sept. 29.

Sept. 30 Goldbricked till left on Oct. 6.  [ I had to refresh my memory on this term.  "Goldbricking" is slacking off at work while pretending to be busy.]

After reading through his diary and looking at a number of websites online, I came to the conclusion that Mitchell went to war on the HMS Cedric out of Long Island:

Set sail [to Liverpool] Oct. 6 enjoyed trip until night of 16 Wed. [at] 10:55 ship struck by torpedo or depth bomb. All was in an uproar until we found out we could make port.

Oct. 17, 1918 Thursday we landed in Liverpool Endland. Had a glorious reception by all. Red Cross served coffee.  Hiked through city to camp arrived 1:45 after a two mile hike with full pack. 
Up next morn Oct. 18 7 o’clock took bath walked around camp saw first German prisoners also New Zealand soldiers wer in a English camp.
Oct. 20 Sunday Up early washed went to church.  After, went up to vilage with [indecipherable other soldiers' names] drank lots of beer.  Real quaint village.

Shortly after that, Mitchell and his comrades took a train to Southampton and then sailed to Cherbourg, France.
Oct. 23 Left Cherbough in box cars 8 horses or 40 men 50 in our car…rode all night arrived in Aldmans [?] had supper. Arived in Plorenel [Ploermel?] France 12:30 a.m. bed. 
Apparently they ended up in the ancient city of Vannes, where he bought two postcards.

Oct. 25 Up early after a very bad rest on floor in old Catholic convent built in 1400 and 1689 a very interesting building still occupied by French peasants. Went to town drank first French wine no good.

Nov. 8 Same things so I wrot nothing. 

Nov. 9 Up early left for Camp De Meucon [American artillery training camp a few kilometers outside Vannes] road 16 miles in trucks hiked 15 miles with full pack. 

Nov. 10 Up early ate washed went to church.  After ran around camp.  Saw captured German guns.

Nov. 11 Up early.  Made gunner so practiced hard all day.  Bed early.

Note the date:  November 11, 1918.  They finally gave him something useful to do, on the day the war ended.

Nov. 12 Same schedule gun practice.  Awful happy heard armisti was signed war won drank too much wine that night had to tie my bed down.

Nov. 13 & 14  Went out to the guns in morning came back was made Battery tailor excused from all formations.  Went to Y. can show came back turned in.

I hadn't realized that the YMCA was involved in serving soldiers during The Great War.  But they were.

Nov. 15 PAY DAY Nothing special only word was that we would leave for US soon.

Nov. 20 Went to range fired four shots.  Nothing else but tailor work.

Nov. 28 Nothing of importance since Nov. 20 only Y.M.C.A shows and some tailor work. Tonight we have orders to leave tomorrow ever one happy.

Only they didn’t leave France for several weeks.  Something of importance finally happened to him a few days later.  I’ll continue in my next blog post…

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Priceless Papers

I always look for old books when I go to estate sales.   I have a habit of feeling sorry for the old book that no one else seems to want, and I end up bringing it home with me.

That was the case at a recent estate sale, when I found a hardback copy of a King James Bible published in the mid-1930s.  This Bible was different than most, though; it was printed without the (man-made) chapter and verse breaks, so it could be read as literature.

This sale was professionally managed by a Russian immigrant woman and her family. I asked her the price.

"The Bible is priceless," she replied, with her beautiful accent.  "But for you, five bucks."

At another recent sale in an old historic neighborhood, I spotted a very old book with a faded cover that no one else had touched.  It's called The Children's Bread.  No author was listed; it was published by Dana and Company, NY.

The Children's Bread is poems and Bible verses, such as, "Little children, walk in love" and "O that it were my chief delight / To do the things I ought / Then let me try with all my might / To mind what I am taught."   Then I looked at the flyleaf:

That's less than two months after the Civil War began. 

For two dollars, I couldn't leave it there.

Sometimes I find things tucked inside old books that really should not be sold.  That happened at an estate sale a couple of days ago.  Inside a scruffy, nondescript self-help paperback (which I didn't buy; it had no character) I discovered some old letters, a marriage certificate from 1934, and a folded square of paper with a large red cross at the top.  The message was sent by the Red Cross in Geneva, operating inside Nazi Germany.  It was addressed to someone in New York City, and was dated December 1942.  On the back a message, in German, was typed. 

I showed the paper to the woman putting on the sale, and asked her not to sell it.  She and I worked out the message from the sender:

Happy Christmas.  We are well.  Please don't worry about us.  Many hugs and kisses.  Grandma. 

The date the message was received in New York was stamped on the front:   February 1946.  Grandma's family didn't get the message until after the war was over.  (Had she been a prisoner of the Nazis?  Did she survive?  There was no one to ask.)

"Oh, my,"  the estate sale manager.  She was quiet for  a moment.  "I'll send this to the family.  You're right.  It shouldn't be sold." 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bless You, Julia Child

I like finding really useful things at estate sales.  And since I enjoy cooking, few things are more useful to me than the colorful vintage Pyrex bowls and casserole dishes I’ve found at estate sales over the last few months.

There are a lot of Pyrex bowls out there, and they usually aren’t exactly cheap.  The multicolored set of stacking mixing bowls I found were, and are, good for everything from whipping egg whites for meringue to making a double batch of chocolate chip cookies.
Even more versatile are the casserole dishes, some of which are large enough to double as mixing bowls. These thick glass containers with clear removable tops are from a day before almost everything was disposable. The original owner bought them assuming they would last for years, and her assumption was correct.

Looking at my set of nesting blue and white Pyrex dishes this evening reminded me that tomorrow, August 15th, would have been the 100th birthday of Julia Child.  The Internet is full of people who’ve been cooking their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which she wrote with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), adapting her recipes, sharing her legacy (and some are probably trying to mimic her voice).The largest blue Pyrex casserole dish in my cupboard is just the right size for soaking two pounds of sauerkraut when I make my own version of one of Mrs. Child’s recipes: Choucroute.

We first encountered choucroute on a trip to Paris a few years ago (she wrote dreamily).  Our Paris hotel was right around the corner from where Paul and Julia Child lived after World War II.  We took the high-speed train from Paris to the Alsace and back, marveling at how efficient the service was.  We ate dinner in Paris at the legendary Brasserie Lipp.  I ordered a basic poulet roti, but The Man of the House  -- who is much more adventurous than I – ordered something else that looked good on the menu, but which we’d never heard of.  He pointed at the menu listing for the attentive waiter.
“Choucroute,” the waiter said.  (He pronounced it something like "sha-kroot.")  “Very good, monsieur.” 

Choucroute turned out to be a savory casserole from the Alsace of ham hocks, sausages and sauerkraut (that wasn’t sour!) and indeed it was very good.   Apparently choucroute is what the French call sauerkraut, or sauerkraut is what the Germans call choucroute.  The Alsace is influenced by both cultures.  Whatever its origin, choucroute made my roast chicken seem rather dull by comparison. 

When we got back home to the States, I made sure I looked for a recipe for choucroute on the Internet and the first one I spotted was Julia Child’s.   As I perused Mrs. Child’s version of the dish and compared it with others, it became immediately apparent that one of the reasons the casserole is so good is that it is loaded with fat.  Julia’s recipe calls for an assortment of meats, bacon, and “butter or pork fat.”  Her friend Jacques Pepin’s recipe uses baby back ribs, hot dogs, Polish kielbasa and “duck or goose fat” served with boiled potatoes on the side. 

There's leeway in other aspects of the recipe as well.  Some sources say that Choucroute Garnie is made with white wine and a bouquet garni of herbs, peppercorns and juniper berries, or if you don't have juniper berries, some straight gin.  Choucroute Royale is made with Champagne instead of white wine. Some recipes use chicken stock and a small amount of white wine; some omit the stock and just add the whole bottle of wine.

I decided to create a version of choucroute that would preserve most of the basic flavors while reducing the amount of saturated fats. Given that any recipe that calls for ham hocks and sausages can’t really be considered “low fat,” I guess my version is “lower fat."  I don't keep juniper berries or gin around the house, so I omit those.  French chefs are divided over whether the recipe contains celery;  I like celery, carrots and onion together, so I use all three. And I add a little garlic just for good measure.   


This is a good recipe for cooler weather, when you can afford to keep the oven on for almost 5 hours straight. 

n  2 pounds good-quality sauerkraut
n  1/2 cup sliced carrots
n  ½ cup sliced celery
n  1 1/2 cups sliced onions
n  1 clove garlic, minced
n  2T. olive oil, butter, or a combination (not margarine)
n  1 bay leaf
n  1 cup white wine
n  3 cups chicken stock
n  Additional salt and pepper to taste
n  One large or two smaller ham hocks, with lots of meat on them
n  A few additional pieces of meat; for example, pork chops, smoked pork loin, ham or sausages.  The amount of meat you add should reflect the number of people you’ll be serving and how much room there is in the container you cook it in.  Read the recipe through first, look at the size of your casserole dish or Dutch oven, count your guests and use your best judgment.  The point is that the meat should be pretty much buried in the sauerkraut while it braises. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Drain the sauerkraut and soak it in cold water for 15 minutes.   (This is where my blue Pyrex bowl comes in handy).  Remove it from the water, drain it again and squeeze as much of the liquid out of it as you can.  (This is easiest if you squeeze it a couple of handfuls at a time.)

Cook the carrots, celery and onions in olive oil or butter in a large, heavy covered casserole dish or Dutch oven over medium-low heat on the stove for 10 minutes.  (Don’t let them get brown.)   Stir in the sauerkraut, making sure the strands are pulled apart, and continue cooking another 5-10 minutes. 

Pour in the wine and the chicken stock and add the bay leaf. Cover the casserole dish and set it in the middle of preheated oven. Cook slowly for 3 ½ hours.  Add a few sprigs of parsley, chopped, if you have them.  Brown the assorted meats in skillet.  Bury them in the casserole while the sauerkraut is still braising.  Continue to simmer the choucroute in oven for at least another 1 to 1 ½ hours. (Total cooking time is 4 ½ to 5 hours.)

Remove the bay leaf and serve the choucroute with potatoes (boiled or mashed) and a good crusty French bread.  If you're so inclined, you can also serve the rest of the bottle of white wine that you didn't use in the recipe.

Come to think of it, my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking came from an estate sale too. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

(Almost) Everything Old Is New Again

One of the best things about going to an estate sale is that I never know what I'm going to find.  At most sales, I can count on finding some old magazines, reasonably priced, to look through and bring home. 

One of the most surprising things I've found in recent months was a big stack of back issues of The Illustrated London News from 1924-25.  They were in the estate of a Hollywood filmmaker who had been a pioneer in 3-D films.  And as soon as I opened the magazines, it was obvious why he'd bought them: each issue contained an anaglyph (3-D image) and an advertisement for readers to obtain a pair of 3-D glasses.  Tucked inside one of the magazines was a small envelope containing one red and one green lens -- part of the response to the original owner's request for the 3-D glasses.

Anaglyphs had been around since the mid-1800s, I discovered, but The Illustrated London News was a pioneer in printing them for the general public's use.  The anaglyphs in the magazines are interesting -- a large photo of tennis action at Wimbledon, an ad for the Ethophone V Broadcast Receiver, and much more.  But it's the news coverage of the day that really intrigues me, because it seems so contemporary.  For example, a story on the continuing violence in Syria:

The October 31, 1925 issue stated somberly:  "The unfortunate events in Syria have aroused much feeling."  

On a lighter note, a June 28, 1924 headline read:  "Championships to Decide Britain's Olympic Team" with a full-page spread of pictures including one of Mr. H. M. Abrahams (so ably portrayed by Ben Cross in the film Chariots of Fire).

Many of the issues covered the doings of the British monarchy. The magazine paid particular interest to the pretty young woman who (although they didn't know it at the time) would one day be queen when her husband Albert Frederick Arthur George (Bertie) ascended the throne:

"With her charming smile, [she] has a very gracious manner of performing the public duties that fall to her lot, and she is popular wherever she goes." 

Some of The Illustrated London News stories, however, cover one-of-a-kind events.  For example, the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley featured a statue of the Prince of Wales made entirely of butter:

"The model is the work of...sculptors to the Canadian Government Commission.  No less than 2 1/2 tons of butter was used, and the model is kept in condition by a special refrigerating plant, worked by two mechanics, who have to study the pressure of the atmosphere continually.  When the Prince of Wales paid an unofficial visit to this exhibit, he remarked jokingly that he thought his legs were too fat." 

Okay, to be fair, the Exhibition was much more than that.  It was aimed at bringing all the nations ruled by Great Britain together, so they could get to know one another better, and cost 12 million pounds to put on.  The BBC Archive has a recording of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and his father, George V, opening the 1924 Exhibition at Wembley:

(Still, I wonder what they did with all that butter after the Exhibition was over?)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lindy Ballpoint Pens

Last time I talked about the vintage fountain pens I’ve found at estate sales.  I love the way they write; each one seems to have its own personality.  However, during college I discovered that they’re not without their drawbacks.  Fountain pens tended to explode in my purse or backpack, or drip blobs of ink on my compositions, so I got through my classes with a quiver full of Lindy stick ballpoint pens in every length and color they made.  I saved the fountain pens for letter-writing at home.

I was pleasantly surprised when I found a shoe box full of Lindy pens in lots of shapes, sizes and colors at a recent estate sale.   I happily bought the lot, only to get the box home and discover that, of course, most of those old ballpoint pens didn't write anymore.  I figured I could buy refills for some of them, but what to do with the others?

Remembering my friend Peggy’s conviction, “No matter what it is, someone collects it!”  I went online to search for “Lindy Pens” and discovered a wonderful blog by a man named George, who is a pen collector.  (And I thought I had a lot of pens!...)  George’s blog says that Lindy pens were popular in the 1950s-1970s but a lot of them were not refillable and thus didn’t make it to the 21st century.   The company went out of business in the 1990s.  George helped me find homes for many of the Lindys in the box, and most of the remaining pens (except the few I’m keeping) ended up in his massive collection.  (One of my convictions is that collectible items belong with people who can appreciate them.)  I still have a few for sale on eBay.

Based on the number and variety of Lindy pens that I found at the estate sale – including factory samples and seconds – our guess is that the previous owner must have either worked at the Lindy factory or had a good friend who did.  The previous owner must have had a good sense of humor, too – because in the box of pens I also found this creature, made from removable metal clips on the Lindy pens.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Confessions of a Penaholic

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the young woman at the estate sale pointed to the object I was buying and asked me, "How does that work?" 

"It's a fountain pen..." I began.

"We thought it was a pen," she said, "but my mom and I couldn't figure out how to get it to write.  I think it belonged to Great-Grandpa."

I pulled off the cap and unscrewed the body of the pen to show her the place where the ink is stored.  "This one holds a little ink cartridge.  Other fountain pens have a built-in ink storage device that you squeeze or pull after you put the tip of the pen into a bottle of ink. Then you reassemble the pen and start writing."   I put the pen back together, licked my thumb, ran the nib across my thumb, and produced a faint blue line when I pulled the pen point across a scrap of paper.

"Cool!" she said.  And she charged me a dollar.

It is cool.

I've been in love with pens since I was a little kid, and started using fountain pens during high school -- even though by that time everyone else was using ballpoints.  The picture shows three of my recent finds:  a basic Sheaffer cartridge pen with a fine point, an older Sheaffer with a 14k nib, and a Parker 51 Special.  Oddly enough, I prefer the way the less-valuable Sheaffer cartridge pen writes, to the harder-to-find Sheaffer gold nib and the iconic Parker 51.

I only have one inkwell in my collection so far.

It's a small solid rectangle of clear glass with two wells for ink, stamped MADE IN ENGLAND.  I won it in an eBay auction from the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, UK.  It was found in the building that houses the Centre.  My inkwell was made many years after Miss Austen died, but I like having the connection with her nonetheless. 

Next time, I'll tell you about the box of ballpoint pens I found at an estate sale, and the interesting history of an American business I uncovered when I started researching them online.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pastry Cloth

"What IS it?" someone asked, as I lifted this piece of cloth from a pile of linens at an estate sale last winter.

I knew exactly what it was:  my grandmother would have called it a pastry cloth (or pastry frame).  Whatever its proper name is, it has concentric circles in the middle and a ruler printed on the bottom edge.  You use it to roll out pie crusts or homemade noodles, and you don't have to guess if you're making the right size to fit in a given container.  This was one I had to bring home with me -- not only is it a retro classic, but it's functional (given how much I like to bake).

Of course when I spread it out to take some pictures, someone else discovered its other purpose:

If you leave it lying around, it functions as a Cat Magnet.

Fortunately, the pastry cloth is washable.  This morning I used it to measure the dough for scones:

(No cats were present during the creation of this breakfast item.)  I used my own variation on a recipe from a cookbook my friend Vickie sent me, many years ago, from the good folks at King Arthur Flour.  You can see their basic recipe here:

And if you prefer a gluten-free scone, the recipe is here:

Bon appetit, y'all.