Tracking a Ghostly Trail

The paths of old railroad tracks trace history, and since some of them have now been turned into walking tracks like the Lower (rhymes with “flower”) Trail in central Pennsylvania, you can take a stroll through the past.  The interpretation is spotty (there are a few signs, and a sort of helpful brochure), so much is left to the imagination. Industry and settlements once thrived along here — now there is just an overgrown ditch where  the canal preceded the railroad, and the graceful arches of the stone bridge are mossy and almost obscured.  It is hard to believe that this track once carried countless people and tons of goods aboard panting steam trains.  On a Tuesday early afternoon, it is so quiet that you can almost hear the ghosts whispering, until a distant chainsaw growls or a lone cycler whizzes by.  We walked part of the trail along which “the remains” of a stone company town were supposed to be evident.  As you can see by the photo above, “evident” is a relative term.  We wanted there to be more than one blank-eyed roofless grey building blending in with the forest so badly that we thought we saw several, only to discover from another angle that it was just more trees and gray underbrush playing with our fantasy.  (Mood music from Twin Peaks rose in my mind.)  Despite the  occasional creepiness, the Lower Trail is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.  To catch the mood, I am going to attempt my very first audio clip of one of the babbling brooks along the trail, under the stone bridge.  Close your eyes and think calm, if slightly disturbing, thoughts of the spirits that must inhabit these woods, and of structures that have melted into the forest so completely that only their shadows remain.


Lake Effects 3: Borderlands

When I was nearing the end of my freshman year in college, I started looking around for a summer job.  By a sheer miracle, and some stretching of the truth about my prior experience, I parlayed my Ecole Champlain kitchen girl experience into a job as a cook at a summer camp of another ilk – where a bunch of well-to-do families preoccupied with other important matters (drinking gin and tonics, playing tennis) hired a cook for the summer and ate three meals a day, six days a week in a central dining hall.  20160909_171401

Camp Randolph (which I have just noticed has its own jokey Facebook page so I assume still exists) is a necklace of family-owned cottages on two levels overlooking Lake Champlain in Highgate Springs, Vermont.  The lake widens here into a huge, beautiful bay bordering Canada.

As the first week of the camp cooking experience approached, I was totally terrified, though armed with recipes feeding a crowd, thanks to the kind cooks at my college dining room, who shared the secrets of Brownie Pudding for 50 and other delights.  What were these people thinking, hiring an 19-year-old to cook for them all summer, were they crazy?

My only help was three high school aged “waitresses,” local girls who, like me in the past couple of summers, were reveling in living (just slightly) away from home, in the quarters above the dining room.  But, after a few missteps in quantities and varieties of foods that this crowd – ranging from babies through senior citizens – would all eat, I settled into the job, made great friends with the waitresses, and even got invited to some of the cocktail parties thrown by the residents.  We had private jokes about the various residents, including Mr. Dunham, who kept a garden and supplied us with way too many zucchinis, and one who always declared the food “Marvy!”

It was a great adventure the first summer, heartbreaking the second when I fell hard for the son of one of the camp families and got dumped, and definitely a drag the third year, when the “been there, done that” settled in.   The consolation was, as usual, the Lake.  In between meal preparations, grocery orders, and clean up, the waitresses and I spent as much time on or in the lake as possible, all three of those summers.  Canoeing around Bandstand Island, swimming at the little public beach, getting a thrill ride on someone’s power boat, or just sitting on a dock watching its many moods, as I had so many years before much further south, the connection to the lake made it all worthwhile.

So there you have it, my formative summers on the lake, spanning the borders between being a kid and becoming a semi-grownup.  Although I still try to get in or around water as often as possible, I have never been closer to a body of water, in proximity or spirit, since those summers.  I probably swallowed enough of Lake Champlain for a lifetime in those years, though, so maybe that is why it still seems to run in my blood.



Lake Effects 2: French Lessons

Lake Champlain view from Kingsland Bay State Park by Julia Parent.  The park was created after Ecole Champlain met its demise.

Summer is, for all intents and purposes, over.  But as the temperature still soars to near 100 here in Washington, DC, I will transport myself to the lake of my childhood for a couple more summery memories.  Fast forward from my earliest recollections of Lake Champlain in my last post to my teen years, as a “kitchen girl” at Camp Ecole Champlain, where wealthy sunburned girls learned French at the feet of instructors with sexy accents cutting across the Francophone world.

Alas, I have no extant photos from my two years slaving away in the Ecole Champlain kitchen, but believe me it was a thrilling time, living away from home above the kitchen in a vast rustic attic divided (just barely) between male and female dorm spaces.  My fellow kitchen girl, Rose from Montreal, supplemented my high school French with peppery phrases like “Ferme ta gueule!” (an unsavory way of saying “Shut up”).  My boyfriend du jour, a nice farm boy from nearby, brought me a pet rabbit, dubbed Little Bunny Foo-Foo, who never did master the litter box.

Even as lowly kitchen staff, we were allowed in our off-hours to partake in classes, all taught in French.  I don’t recall any judo instructions in French, but I do remember at least one horseback riding command: “Deposez vous etrier!” (drop your stirrups).  I didn’t last long at horseback riding, falling unceremoniously off one day and pulling a huge muscle at the top of my leg, my agony garnering no sympathy from the imposing instructor.

One night stands out in my memory, and not in a good way: the night I learned never to mix your liquors.  Starting out with a concoction of kalhua and milk (which the older but dubiously wiser cook called “a milkshake except crunchy!”), then progressing to a couple of beers, and finishing off with straight Scotch.  I don’t recall how I made it upstairs to my bed, but I do recall waking up in the middle of the night throwing up. Several times.  And the misery of having to help serve breakfast the next morning. Warning:  do not try tomato juice as a hangover treatment.  It burns all the way down.

The lake was ever-present during the Ecole Champlain summers, as its shore wrapped around the grounds like a cool and inviting compress on a hungover brow.  The swimming beach and watercraft were accessible for us laborers, and we availed ourselves of their use frequently.  But it was more of a scenic backdrop to the Upstairs, Downstairs antics of the camp than the main attraction.  Just as to this day I cannot stomach the smell of Scotch, the Ecole years are buried in my psyche and resurface at a turn of certain French phrases, or Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album which we often played while mopping the dining room floor.  Where to now, St. Peter?





Lake Effects

Everyone should possess at least one special body of water in their lifetime.  A watery place that you have grown up with, return to, know the feel and smell of blindfolded.  When I was growing up, that was Lake Champlain, an almost-Great lake that forms a wide swath of the border between Vermont and New York, narrow in our own patch in Addison County, Vermont then broadening out in a wide bay all the way to Canada.  It was at least three lakes to me in its vastness:  one, of my earlier childhood, and two in my teenaged and young adult working lives.  Someday I will write about the working lake, the lake of summer camp adventures as a “kitchen girl” and then a cook, but for now, the summer childhood lake is on my mind.

My uncle Jim had a “camp” (in this context, a small cottage) on the lake that we visited often, and my friend Sandy, one year my senior whose family owned the camp next door, was my constant companion those summers.  Jumping off the dock into the chill and often weedy water, venturing out in the leaky rowboat, or just sitting for hours on a ledge of the shaley shore sharing secrets,  partially hidden from the outside world (and her pesky siblings) by scrubby trees.  The lake had an earthy and tangy mud smell.  The swimming area started out painfully rocky, and then progressed to a soft, squishy muck that you wanted to get out from under your toes as soon as possible.  Kids accustomed to pristine swimming pools would not have set a foot into this sometimes slimy watery playground, but to us it was heaven.   We would stay out in the water long after our fingers wrinkled, haul ourselves onto the dock to sunbathe awhile, then jump right back in for more.

The lake water lapped the shore gently, in a reassuring way, on lazy summer days.  But, it could also get riled up during wind and rain storms, being almost-Great, throwing wild white caps into the air and beating the shore in a primordial fury.  I loved the lake in its many moods and I loved having a friend to share it with.  I know The Lake (there was no other in our lexicon), and this friendship revolving around it, helped shape my future self in ways I cannot fathom, like the unfathomable depths of Samuel de Champlain’s “discovery,” which is in my mind truly is a great lake.

Hilton Head Island, Sunrise to Sunset

For the past week, I’ve been visiting my family who have all retired to Hilton Head Island, 20160814_065333South Carolina.  None of them were Southerners by birth, but no matter.  There seem to be many more relocated Northerns (like our family) or Midwesterners than actual natives in HHI these days, since the original Gullah inhabitants have been priced out of the upscale beach-access properties (called, rather colonially, “plantations”) that now dominate the island.  It is a nice place for a week’s vacation.

There is the aforementioned beach, with water as warm at a bathtub and a gentle approach to swimming depth.  Swimming pools, including my sister’s own backyard retreat.  And good second hand-stores.  What more could you ask for in a vacation?  Well, if you want to venture from The Plantation, you could go visit the Coastal Discovery Center museum (its a Smithsonian Affiliate!) with indoor and outdoor displays about fl20160816_195623ora and fauna.  Or go kayaking, parasailing, paddle boarding, etc. etc.  We went on a very nice sunset/fireworks boat tour with my sister’s Rotary Club members.  Dolphins obligingly made an appearance, as well as the full moon.   It was a good respite from the Washington, DC area swelter – which comes for most of us without a beach and/or our own swimming pool – and work.  From sunrise (which I always try to get up in time for, and usually don’t make it) to sunset (which is great from the water), HHI is a nice place to visit.


Plants and Human Wellfare

The last couple of days, I have had encounters with giant plants.  First, in my own garden where the Giant Pumpkin Plant of 2016 (see image above) threatens to take over the whole side of our yard, and into our neighbor’s yard as well.  (Maybe due to the bees doing a great job of pollinating?)  I went out to check on why the heck the squash plants were not producing any squash yesterday morning, and I discovered the Giant Fuzzy Squash of 2016, pictured here in its 16″ glory.  Not sure it is still edible, we will find out soon.  I20160802_075318f so, it is all we will be eating for awhile I guess.  Send me some squash recipes just in case!

Then, last evening, some friends and I experienced the unfortunately named Corpse Plant of the U.S. Botanical Garden, which has just bloomed.  By now just about everyone in Washington, DC has heard of, and perhaps visited, this phenomenon.  At least it seemed like everyone in DC was there last night; it took us about 45 minutes to get inside.  This giant plant supposedly smells like some combination of rotting flesh and rotten vegetables, but we couldn’t get close enough to catch a whiff.  Maybe for the best.  I didn’t get a photo because my phone battery died (ironically considering the subject matter), but you can get the idea from this link of photos from CBS news.  Photo #9 is pretty much the way it was last night, huge crowd and all.

Plants are pretty amazing, in general.  Giant plants are even more amazing.  Giant squash…well, I would prefer smaller more tender specimens, but I guess I should see it as more to love, right?




Cooking with the Canadians

In the heat of the summer, you just sometimes want to kick back and watch some television.  If, like us, you only have broadcast tv, you sometimes find yourself looking for interesting fare on the “channels between the channels” – those weird channels that have popped up since broadcast tv went to whatever the heck format it is in now.  ION life is one of those channels.  Despite the annoying and frequent commercials for products only available on tv and attorneys who will help you get money for various medical malpractices, this channel can be fun and instructional.

I have been sampling a couple of their cooking shows the past few weeks.  These (and most of the other programming) seems to be Canadian-based, but that’s okay.  I like Canada – it seems like a good place to  consider retreating to in case He Who Cannot Be Named gets elected president, except in the winter maybe when somewhere in the Caribbean might be preferred.

img_sub_chef-at-large First up, Chef at Large with Michael Smith.  Before I read the description of the show on the ION Life web site, I thought it was called “at large” because this guy seems to be at least seven feet tall.  He towers over all of the other people he encounters on the show by at least a foot or two.  But, no, it is called “at large” because he goes on the road and features interesting cooking destinations like trains and rafting trips.  Considering his size, this makes for some interesting logistics as well as interesting cooking contexts.

Next up, Loving Spoonfuls with David Gale.  During each episode, this guy visits a different ethnic grandma in her kitchen and they cook some delightful dish packed with butter, deep fried, or oimg_sub_loving-spoonfulstherwise totally bad for you just as authentic ethnic food usually is.  First, they go grocery shopping.  Then they start cooking.  If the recipe calls for booze, Mr. Gale always needs to sample some of the rum or vodka liberally.  Some singing and dancing usually occurs as well.  The grandmas seem to love him, although I have to say I think he is slightly creepy.  He does manage to sneak in a pretty good oral history interview during the cooking, though, which along with the recipes makes this a folklorist-approved show.

I cannot recommend other shows on this channel that I have not watched yet, but if you get ION Life, check out our neighbors to the north as they cook, kibitz, and pronounce things ending in “-out” as “-oat.”

Counting on My Interns

The intense ten days of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival are over, and our Txiki-Txoko Kids’ Corner is just a memory now.  20160629_120345The tent might even be gone by now, and the only remains will soon be a very large circle of dead grass and a few crayon and colored paper bits ground into the hard-baked soil.  But my 2016 summer interns and I will remember the moments of joy, frustration, laughter, disappointment, and exhaustion that made it an area where we hope kids had fun and learned something about cultural traditions.

Our favorite times might have been the visits of the Basque and California participants who demonstrated their skills, danced, composed, sang, and taught the kids in a way only those with a deep knowledge of a culture can.  But, we also did our share of teaching and passing on what we had learned about Basque culture.

20160710_165541 (1)One of these activities
was Basque Number Bingo, which I generated from an online template that allows you to turn just about any string of related words or images into a bingo game for kids.
(Don’t you just love the internet?  It was called Bingo Baker in case you want to try it!)  All the interns had to learn to count to sixteen (there were four rows of four on the bingo cards) in order to be on the ready to conduct Basque Number Bingo with random kids if/when the occasion arose.  (Usually this meant that some participant who was scheduled to come to us had cancelled for some reason and we had a big hole in our schedule and we had a bunch of kids to amuse with activities of our own devising.)  The numbers were ingrained into our memories and probably will be forever – bat, bi, hiru, lau, bost, sei, zazpi, zortzi, bederatzi, hamar…

Thus the metaphor of the title – I felt as though I could always count on my interns throughout the whole event.  Anne and Sara to keep the schedule updated and to help decide what to fill in with if we had a sudden hole.  Leah to conduct “salt experiments.”  Tyler at the ready to keep track of the myriad day camps in the colored t-shirts and pinafores.  Lila to politely ask parents to fill out the family survey.  Hannah to draw us a new interactive mural for the back wall.  Aliyah to keep the interactive triptych stocked with post-its and markers.  Our repeat volunteer/adopted intern Sam to do everything asked of her.  And a hundred other things they did from rearranging the chairs and tables for new activities to teaching whale origami, to soothing some little kid who banged a knee while playing “Duck, Duck Lamia” or “San Fermin Day sponge tag.”


I have had many great groups of interns over the years – you know who you are, and thanks to those of you who came to visit during this year’s Festival – but each year’s bunch are special.  I may have been working on the Festival for an amazing 30 years (gulp!) but this will probably be the only year they participate before they go on to other exciting endeavors, and they will hopefully always remember it as a hectic, sweaty, but rewarding experience like no other.  Thanks for the memories, gals!

Wet Hot Floral Father’s Day

Got your attention, didn’t I?  Well, sorry to disappoint because this title refers to a very sedate (due to the afternoon heat) walk around the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.  20160619_130916These wet and wild gardens are one of those hidden gems in Washington, DC that you can easily miss – in fact, we did the first time around because there is no sign (and apparently no exit off Kenilworth Avenue) if you are heading north, and we had to turn around at the Pepsi factory.

Well, when we finally got there, we were rewarded with blooming water lilies and lotuses.  We saw some red winged blackbirds and a mother duck and a couple of ducklings, lots of dragonflies, and a frog.  Then we left in pursuit of some pupusas back in our home territory of Arlington.


We ended up at La Union, and one of the pupusas Steve ordered had “edible flowers” and cheese in it.  (The flowers are apparently called flor de loroco and you can buy them jarred in Latino groceries.)  So, he got to visit some flowers and eat some too for Father’s Day.  Not bad.

Looking Into Painted Screens in Highlandtown

Yesterday was the annual Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival.  This is a great one-day event in the heart of the Highlandtown neighborhood, usually in mid-June but it was a little early this year.  Part of it is out on the street and part inside the historic Patterson Theater which is now an arts center.

20160604_142012Well, anyhow, in the afternoon my good friend and colleague Elaine Eff and a young and enthusiastic representative from the Highlandtown Business Association (Amanda, I never caught your last name, sorry) led a tour of the painted screens of the neighborhood.  What, you never heard of a painted screen?  Well, luckily, Elaine has written the definitive book on the subject, so you are in luck.  But, for more immediate gratification than waiting for your amazon.com order to show up, you can check out some information on the Painted Screen Society’s website.   You can even learn how to create your own painted screen at one of their workshops.

I love the idea of being able to look out of the front window of your Baltimore row house, which is virtually right above the sidewalk, and being able to see out while no one walking by can see in.  It is like reverse voyeurism.   The screens traditionally depicted a bucolic scene complete with mountains, a lake, a swan or two, and a rural mill or cabin.   In other words, like nothing you would ever see on the landscape of Baltimore.  Nowadays, nouveau screens are being painted with actual Baltimore scenes as well as abstract art and whatever else the painter and/or patron wishes.  A great tradition finding new life.

Here are a few we saw on our tour.20160604_15065820160604_150503