Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wren's Nest Cottage Concerts

We now have a separate blog page for our Celtic music house concerts:
Please visit us for news of our upcoming shows featuring Scottish singer Jim Malcolm. And come to the shows!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring is here...happy vernal equinox tomorrow!

It's been a long few months since Christmas. I really do believe that January and February are my "down months"; it seems as if I'm stuck in the post-holiday doldrums for those long weeks. We've had many wet, cold days; tornadoes, snow, hail...you name it. Today, the weather is perfect, and warm. I worked outside a bit yesterday, feeling all industrious til the lawn mower (ancient) refused to start. Salvation came in the form of a man called Jeff, who will happily visit us every other Tuesday with his ridey mower and slay the grass dragons. I love to mess about with flowers, but mowing..ugh.
We spent this past Sunday in a merciless purge of the craft room. It had the blahs as well, and you could hardly walk for all the stuff piled on the floor. My fabric had gotten way out of hand, (what, me have too much fabric and may never use some of it? NEVER!) Now it's clean and lovely, with new shelves from a local organic, art, and fair trade shop Red Rain, which is sadly going out of business. Amy, the owner, made the shelves herself from a fallen tree. See them on flickr and read about the shop closing. Sad victim of this sorry economy and a couple of thoughtless local government officials who'd rather have a Baby Gap than a lovely local shop that was thriving in its own small way. The shelves look good in the craft room, and hold all the bits and bobs nicely.
We had a small visitor here at the Wren's Nest on Tuesday - a wren flew in through the open craft room window and caused quite a stir amongst the cats. We got the cats out of the room and I shut myself in with the wee thing, trying to convince him to go back out the window. He flitted from picture frames to shelves, even tried to cling to the hands of the clock, all the while his little beak wide open with panic. I felt horrible for him, and called upon St. Francis, patron saint of all birds and animals, to help us out and show him to the window.
"Look," I told the wren. The window's open, all you have to do is fly out. St. Francis, please show him."
The wren continued to bang into every box, basket and piece of furniture in the room. I let him be for a moment, and he finally settled on a grapevine wreath I have hanging from the ceiling. Oh, how I longed for my camera! The wreath has fairies and dragons and all sorts of little creatures hanging from it, and now it had a wren as well. He looked at me, cocking his head, and in desperation I pointed out the open window and said, "Right there! Fly out right there!"
He lifted up a bit from the wreath, and making a perfect, beautiful downward arc, went right out the window.
"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."
St. Francis of Assisi

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas is coming, the cat is getting fat...

Well, not having a goose running around, it's the best I can do. I realized that it's been over two months since I blogged! Two incredibly busy months. The month of November flew by - we hosted our friend Jim Malcolm in two house concerts over the weekend of the 15th-16th. What a lovely time we had as well! Jim is a brilliant singer/songwriter from Scotland, whom I've written about before. We had a full house for both shows, which means we had 30+ folks crammed into our little living room/dining room area on both days. Some of them travelled quite a distance to see Jim. We're currently one of two venues hosting him on a yearly basis in Alabama. He has a devoted following here. And what do you think - Alabama made such an impression upon him that he has written us a song! Now, whether or not it's good for him is yet to be seen. It's based upon all the odd foods we've tried to force upon him over the years...turnip greens, peanuts in your Coke, Fancy Pears...it's a hoot and I think it's going to end up on his next CD. Oh, now we're immortal.

Our friend Noreene was also staying for the weekend, and she snapped this photo to commemorate the occasion:

Poor Jim. He's a good sport. We did feed him better than this while he was with us.

One of the best things about hosting house concerts is the people that you meet. You open your home to folks you don't know from Adam when you host a show. It's stepping out on faith that they are nice people, and they are! Jim says that people into folk music are almost always kind and always have cats. Anyway, we made some new friends from Montgomery, Dave and Diana, and a couple of days ago we received this wonderful folk art doll from Diana in the mail. What a dear heart, and a brilliant artist. And it made us glow all over that she had such a good experience, to be so inspired as to create this:

"I Can't Get the Wren's Nest Off My Mind".

The nest on her head is full of wee brown eggs. It's the kind of thing that makes you do a happy dance. I cried when I read the sweet note she included; what kindness! Thank you again, Diana!

THEN....here comes Thanksgiving! We had Marcella's oldest brother Buddy and his girlfriend Mary come from California to stay. Buddy is a sweetheart, and we hit it off with Mary right away - funny, and a textile artist to boot. We talked about crafts all weekend. She's done alot of things like glassblowing that I've never tried and it was fun to hear about her experiences. Now if only she didn't live so far way. I was sorry to see them go home.

We're currently getting ready for Christmas - watch for pictures soon. Eleven trees of various sizes....

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In Praise of Michaelmas

September 29th is the Feast day of St. Michael the Archangel (and All Angels). Being good Catholics, we are always up for a party. We began to celebrate Michaelmas some years ago in honor of our Scots and English heritage, and of course, like everything else we do, it got way out of hand, and now I find myself sculpting dragons out of piecrust every Michaelmas Night.

A bit about St. Michael - every good child knows that Michael the Archangel was the fellow who cast Satan out of Heaven. Around the 6th century, his day became a proper Feast day on the church calendar. Now, St. George (the dragonslayer), who is the patron saint of England, was St. Michael's earthly representative. So now enters the dragon (wasn't that a film?). But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The Sunday before Michaelmas is the day for bringing in the carrots and other root vegetables from the fields to be stored away for the winter, known in Scotland as Domhnach Curran - Carrot Sunday. So tradition would have us going out into the garden and digging them up...instead, we hied awa' to the supermarket and bought ourselves a bag full.

Now I hate to admit it, but I'm not that fond of carrots, so I hide them in a stew. Just as long as you have carrots, I don't think it matters how. After all, Michaelmas is also a day to go out and steal horses, and you don't see me doing that either.

But now for the best bit......in honor of dear old St. George, who slew the dragon and saved the good English folk....
It being the harvest time, you get yourself some nice apples and mix up your favorite apple pie filling. And this next part is very important! The youngest female of the household must stir the apples thrice around (for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) saying,

Progeny and prosperity of family,

Mystery of Michael,

Protection of the Trinity.

In Scotland, you would say this while stirring the struan, a cake made from all the grains grown upon the land during the year. (We like apple pie better.) When the filling is all mixed up, we put it into a piecrust and then comes the wonderful part...
THE DRAGON!!! Yes, there he is, right on the pie. St. George would be proud. Poke three slits in the crust, again for the Trinity. Bake him right up and he comes out lovely and golden.

And then you must do as St. George himself would have done....

And we say the Prayer to St. Michael to protect us throughout the year:

Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host -by the Divine Power of God -cast into hell, satan and all the evil spirits,who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

More about Michaelmas and some traditions and folklore surrounding it:


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Laboring Away the Weekend

Oh dear. We're at it again.
We're notorious for it, and this time, the brown walls in the kitchen are going down. We finally got rid of the harvest gold 1970's countertops, and the chocolate walls were just too dark. I realized, after the gold counters were gone, that the kitchen had looked like the interior of a Reese's peanut butter cup. Dang. Oh well.
We're going back to white, which will be lovely with the black countertops and bits of red and sage green furniture and accessories. So that's where I've been lately...I'll post photos of the finished kitchen VERY VERY SOON. I can't take the mess much longer. It's going to be all done by Monday evening.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hurricane Rain

My goodness, it's been a month since I last posted! I've been busy with classes starting up again soon, and home improvements (well, home changes at least, but I think they're improvements). Right now, we're in the throes of monsoon-like rains off Hurricane Fay. There have been a few tornadoes around, but mostly much-needed rain - and wind. Frightened poor little Molly (cat) to death night before last, howling like a banshee in the eaves. I truly love this weather though. I'd much rather have rain, wind, thunder, lightening, early dark winter evenings, wet autumn roads carpeted in golden leaves...what can I say, I'm a Wednesday's Child.

The window in the picture is my favorite window in the whole house. And it's in, of all places, the bathroom. It's small, and set high in the wall above the bathtub. If you want to actually look out of it, you have to teeter on the side of the tub and hold on to the shower rod. We do this in order to spy on our back-fence neighbors, who are mildly interesting at times. The police have not been there for a long time, though. I think Bubba has settled down at last and I know his mama is grateful.
The view is the top of the hackberry trees, and it's like an ever-changing painting that depends upon the weather and the season for its tone. Every morning, I look out of it to see what the day is up to. That's my weather report.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Home again

So we're back from North Carolina and the Highland Games, and had a LOVELY time. Days full of music. Men in kilts, wearing them to varying degrees of success. Nonstop pipes, also being played to varying degrees of success. Clanning with the Armstrongs, MacFarlans, and MacDonalds. Grandfather Mountain is a beautiful, mystical place, especially in the early morning. The stones seem like ancient creatures creeping through the mist and the slanting half-light; you lose all sense of time, and then, all of sudden...you see Mel Gibson (aka William Wallace) emerging from the forest primeval...oh darn, it's just one of those dadgum Pictish drummer guys from Albannach. Ah weel.

We had a great time visiting with Scottish friends Jim and Susie Malcolm and Alabama friends Jil Chambliss and Scooter Muse of the band Henri's Notions. They were at the Games as two-thirds of the Ed Miller Trio. Ed is a transplanted Scot living in Texas, and an absolute hoot to be around. We all enjoyed a wonderful cookout Saturday night thrown by Cindy and Dave Parker at their Parkview Lodge cabins. What an evening! Nights like that, you get to hear musicians go off in directions you wouldn't ever imagine - Jim Malcolm singing Hank Williams - the boy can yodel, let me tell ya! His wife Susie just sat there with an amazed look on her face and said, "I've NEVER EVER heard him do that!". And that night, Jim and Susie's kids were introduced to the joys of kettle corn, s'mores, and the "Corndog Song."


You don't know the CORNDOG SONG???

Buy me a corndog and put ketchup on it,
Buy me a corndog, and get you one too!
I love them corndogs, they are so deelicious,
So buy me a corndog, and get you one too!

Consider yerself enlightened. Guaranteed to drive any parent crazy on a long car trip.

It was a lovely time in North Carolina, and then it was on to Georgia for the Starbridge Celtic Festival. What a beautiful place Starbridge Sanctuary is, about an hour above Atlanta. My sister Joy lives not too far away either, so we stayed with her for the weekend and then we all trekked to Murrayville on Saturday. The festival was small, and set in a perfect jewel of a meadow beside a lake.

We met up again with Jim and Susie and the kids, and also had sweet friend Ruth from Lawrenceville, GA with us. This is pretty much how we spent our day and were happy to do so:

Jim was the headliner for the festival, so of course he spent most of the day fishing.

We girls, however, were far more clever in our pursuits:

The evening ended with Jim's set, couples waltzing in the grass to "Ae Fond Kiss", and a full moon rising over the meadow. A grand time all in all. Now we're back home, back to the old grind...but with lots of sweet memories to look back on.
More photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/celtsong/

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Heading for the hills...back in a bit.

We're leaving in a few days to go to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, one of my favorite places on earth. I am always renewed spiritually and mentally by the place; the ancientness, the sheer loveliness, no matter what the season. Someday I shall live there.
We are also going to be attending the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, and meeting up with sweet friends from Scotland, Jim and Susie Malcolm. Jim is a very talented traditional singer/songwriter - check out his music.
We've rented a little stone cottage at the foot of Beech Mountain near Banner Elk, NC - with a "hot tub on the back porch, where you may rest, unwind, and listen to the babbling brook..." according to the leasing agent. I shall be doing just that at every opportunity. In between taking pictures.

In the meantime, make sure you take advantage of the bounty of the season, and have some corn and 'maters.
Absolutely delicious tomatoes courtesy of dear friend Tim, the Tomato King. We fried up the corn in some bacon - oh my. It was good. Add a little splash of milk at the end, it makes it nice and creamy.

So I'll be back in a week or so with lots of tales to tell, I'm sure. God bless and keep you all, and make sure you take a vacation of some sort this summer or at least do something you love. You NEED it!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jimmy's Gone to Flanders

A few days ago, on my way home from work, I suddenly decided to stop and visit a little old cemetery in our neighborhood. It's located on Acton Avenue and is situated on top of a hill between two houses. I have to say that I know nothing about the history of the cemetery or the families that are buried there, but I'll find out. There are maybe 15 graves, with the surnames of perhaps 5 families at the most. Most of the graves date from the late 1800's - early 1900's, with a few that are a bit more recent.
It was a lovely afternoon, a bit cool for June. I parked the car on the street and climbed up the broken brick steps (a bit precariously) that led up the hill. I got the impression that someone was keeping the weeds a bit at bay, but it was still more brushy and rocky than grassy. The first thing I saw, of course, was a yellow-jacket nest. They were boiling up out of a hole in the ground a couple of feet away from my bare legs. I managed to edge away from them without being attacked. They are the most ill-tempered creatures God ever blew breath into. They are the wolverines of the insect world. I swear they were watching me.
Having successfully avoided the yellow-jackets, I was able to walk around and take note of the names and dates, and wonder about the folks buried here - so few, and were they all related? Folks who had lived long lives, sad little baby graves, and the most prominent one - Sergt. James T. Griffin, World War Veteran. No number behind the World War, because it was the first one and no one thought that there might be a second; this was the War to End ALL Wars. Sergt. Griffin was not yet 29 when he died. I stood there on his dusty grave, wondering what he might have been like - then I realized knew enough. Here was a son who died too soon. The ground I stood upon still held the broken-hearted tears of a mother and a father, maybe a wife or sweetheart too. The words of our friend Jim Malcolm's tender and beautiful song, "Jimmy's Gone to Flanders" flooded into my mind, and I, who rarely cry, wept for this Jimmy. I saw his family standing over his fresh grave and knew that at that moment, it didn't matter to them that he died in service to his country, that he was considered a hero. All that mattered was that he was gone. Hearts too hurt to ever beat properly again. The utter waste of war. I know that some folks will argue that war is a necessary evil. I don't know, and I will not get into a debate with them. All I know is...this Jimmy was gone too soon.
I'll let Jim's lovely words speak for themselves here . The words may be from a Scot, and our Jimmy's grave in Alabama, but the emotion is universal.

Monday, June 23, 2008

I'm Back!

I survived! VBS was great fun, but I'm breathing a HUGE sigh of relief that it's done. My only regret is that I didn't get a picture of my cardboard-box Jerusalem. I was very proud of it, though I don't think the monks up at Ave Maria Grotto should feel threatened. The kids liked it too, especially when we turned it into a boat on the day that they "walked on water", cornstarch and water, that is, mixed in massive quantities. It makes a non-Newtonian fluid/solid that is truly fascinating. It's liquid and solid all at once. We filled a tub with it, and the kids literally walked upon it, the story being when Jesus appeared walking upon the water and challenged Peter to walk across the waves to him on a stormy sea. The wild thing is that when you scoop it up in your hands and squeeze it, it becomes liquid again. Very cool.
So now my summer break begins, and with it comes various summery delights......

Fancy Pears, anyone?

Now my friend Noreene's husband Dave, who is from "up north" (which should be said with a sad shake of the head and a note of pity in the voice, followed by "bless his heart") thought she was lying when she told him about Fancy Pears. No one, he said, would eat mayonnaise and pears together. Well, here's proof! Some folks call it Pear Salad. It's a staple of family reunions and a suitable and proper Funeral Food. You take a can of pears, preferably in heavy syrup. They have to be the halves in order to sit like they should. Put a dollop of mayo in the little hole (that's why they have those little hollowed-out places, to put mayo in) and then sprinkle with grated cheddar. That's all there is to it. A friend from Chicago actually shudders when he thinks about Fancy Pears. But then, he's never had one. I have to admit that I don't eat much of the mayonnaise though, just enough to flavor the pear a bit.

Fancy Pears, macaroni and cheese, and pulled pork courtesy of my sister Jackie. Bless her heart.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I'll be back....

Do not think, gentle readers, that I've flown the nest. Tomorrow, we descend into the maelstrom known as VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL...be afraid...be very afraid. I have spent a good part of the last week building Jerusalem out of cardboard boxes (tricky, because later in the week it has to convert into a ship) and today I have to finish turning the TV in the movie room into a robot. Don't ask. Tomorrow morning, the church will look like an ant farm, full of scurrying little folks and (bless them) volunteers. I get PAID to do this stuff (my job is Coordinator of Religious Education at a church school)...they do it because they're genuinely lovely people. Thanks to all of them, God bless, and I'll get that tomato sauce recipe posted when I come up for air in a week!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peaches, Finley Avenue, and Worries About Our Truck Farmers

Last Sunday, we took ourselves out to the Birmingham Farmer's Market on Finley Avenue.
This has long been a mecca for truck farmers from all over Alabama, and you can get truly wonderful, right-from-the-vine Sand Mountain tomatoes (finest in the world) and peaches from Chilton County (also finest in the world), and most any other fruit or veggie you might desire. And it's open seven days a week!
A good number of truck farmers are setting up at our Saturday morning market known as Pepper Place. They do a nice job of it too, with arts and crafts, cooking demo's, and live music going on. Mount Laurel, south of Birmingham heading down Highway 280, also has a nice Saturday market. It's so important that we support farmers' markets whenever possible, not just for the benefit to ourselves, but also for the fact that it's getting even harder to be an independent truck farmer. Gas prices keep going up and up, making for expensive "food miles" on the farmers' end. The drought last year was catastrophic for small farmers as well. The very tired and hot, but very kindly man whom we bought a watermelon from was almost apologetic when he told me that the melon would be $6.00. That's still a bargain for a large, locally grown watermelon, considering that the insipid, flavorless little green basketballs they sell at the grocery store are running $5.00-6.00 right now. We try to make it a point to find out where the farmers we patronize are from, too. Not only do we like knowing where our produce is from, it gives us a little glimpse into a very different world from our own and we meet some really warm and interesting people.

So, don't forget to pray for the farmers, go out to the markets, and BUY LOCAL WHENEVER YOU CAN!!!

I have a confession to make.

I don't really like peach cobbler.

I know! I know! How can a Southern girl like myself even admit to that? I LOVE fresh peaches. I just don't really enjoy cooked fruit of any kind. I don't know why. Hopefully, I have enough other redeeming qualities which will allow me to be forgiven. I do love peach ice cream, does that help?

We also bought a case of tomatoes for homemade sauce. We chose the hottest day of the year thus far upon which to do this. Hours in the kitchen with a huge pot of boiling water in which to blanch the tomatoes so the skin would slide off easily, then an eternity of seeding and chopping, then hours of the finished product simmering on the stove. They say Southern ladies don't sweat, they glow. If that's the case, we were lit up like radioactive Christmas trees. The sauce is divine, though; completely worth the effort. We got the recipe from the Alabama Co-op website. Rich and with a little bit of a kick, and it "freezes beautifully", to quote Steel Magnolias. My next post will have the recipe - it needs a post all its own.

Of course, the day after we bought all those tomatoes, we hear on the news about salmonella poisoning connected to tomatoes.
Luckily, ours were local and the FDA said Alabama tomatoes were fine.
Yes, they are VERY fine!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Green Bean Philosophy

Everybody in the South knows that a vegetable, when properly prepared, must bear no resemblance to its original fresh-from-the-vine self. My mother's green beans were beyond delicious, cooked for hours with a piece of salt pork. They looked like flat little bits of army green flannel and I could eat the whole pot by myself, with some new potatoes and corn bread. Mine, when cooked this way, never match up to hers. They're good, but not AS good as Mama's were. I'm going to give you her recipe and then give you our favorite quick (much healthier, I have to say) recipe and you can prepare them both depending upon your mood, which is how one should cook whenever possible.

Buy about 6 good handfuls of regular-size green beans, not the little skinny ones. Those don't work for this recipe. Go home, wash the beans well, and sit someplace comfortable because it's going to take a little while. (She usually sat on the sofa and watched "General Hospital", especially in those heady early days of Luke and Laura.) Snap the beans into pieces around 1" long, discarding the ends. When General Hospital is over, go into the kitchen and put about a 3" piece of salt pork (cut into strips), or 4 or 5 strips of bacon, into a big pot. 8-quart size is good. Render it down til it's just getting brown and DO NOT DRAIN OFF THE GREASE! Throw in your beans and add enough water to cover by a couple of inches. Add 1 and 1/2 tsps of salt to start, and you will need to check for seasoning while they cook and probably add more. You may also need to add more water as it goes along. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, cover (put the lid on the pot slightly crooked so some steam can escape) and let it cook for at least 2 hours, or more if you have time. Give it a stir once in a while. If you like, drop some peeled new potatoes into the pot for last hour of cooking. You MUST have cornbread with these or the sky will fall on your head and all your children will grow up pigeon-toed.

This next recipe is so fast, you wouldn't have time to watch General Hospital. It's also very very yummy.

Yes, we stole this recipe. Or is it stealing when you've bought the cookbook?

1 pound of the skinny green beans that don't work for Mama's recipe
Kosher salt
2 tblspns unsalted butter
1 tblspn olive oil
3 large shallots, diced up chunky (to me, the best part of the whole thing)
Black pepper

Wash the beans, break off any stems, and trim the ends off if you like. I trim them if they look tough, otherwise I just let them be.
Blanch the beans in boiling salted water for 90ish seconds. Drain and throw them into a bowl of ice water right away to stop them cooking and set that beautiful greenness.
Heat the butter and olive oil in a 12-inch saute' pan and add the shallots. Cook them over medium heat til they're nice and brown. The fragrance will make you giddy with hunger. People will come and knock on your door and beg for toasty brown shallots.
Drain the beans and toss them in the pan with 1/2 tsp salt and black pepper to taste. Heat them only until the beans are warm.
You can blanch the beans early in the day, and then cook the shallots at the last minute. They also reheat really well. They are actually good finger food for parties. They're like green french fries only better than french fries. You could eliminate the unsalted butter altogther if you wanted a more heart-healthy recipe, and I've made it with just butter when we've been (Heaven forbid!) out of olive oil, which is pretty much the only oil we use except for baking.
These are really good with pan-seared steak (made in Mama's ancient and perfectly seasoned black iron skillet) and mushroom ragout...another recipe to come...but I've never had them with anything that they didn't compliment.

So, there are many schools of thought when it comes to green beans. I like to plant a foot in both worlds and keep my options open. Now, go cook something, y'all.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Black Belt Treasures Folk Life Festival

June 28th will hopefully see us heading down to Camden, AL for the Black Belt Treasures Folk Life Festival. Black Belt Treasures is a gallery (but so much more than that) featuring over 280 local artists (including our beloved Charlie Lucas), and this one-day festival will be highlighting their works along with music, and of course FOOD. Another wonderful part of the day is the dedication of the Gees Bend Quilt Mural Trail. Ride the Gees Bend Ferry while you're there!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Kathryn Tucker Windham's Tale-Tellin' Festival

This is a link to the Tale-Tellin' Festival site, coming up in October 2008:
All content © Cindy Armstrong. Please do not use content without permission. That's not nice.