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Making Sense of 60

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Still standing. (photo: L.Weiss)

I remember the day my second grade teacher (and my not-so-secret crush) Miss Hilliard introduced the class to a real-life story problem. Her beguiling southern lilt lured us into the battlefield of math before we could say “subtraction.” She was sneaky that way, politely asking the class in a casual, conversational way, “Children, have you ever wondered how old you’d be in the year 2000?” When the class Nosey McGee asked her how old she would be, Miss Hilliard, smiled and said, “Dear, that is an answer I shall never reveal.” (Ah humor lost on second-graders.) For this baby boomer, the question and time frame seemed as remote as the possibility of flying cars and houses on Mars (though that didn’t stop me from imagining myself in an aluminum foil spacesuit, glass bubble helmet, and packing some heat—space laser heat). I even thought, that’s so far into the future, will I even be alive? Weighty questions for any seven-year-old. When I finally came up with the age of 43, I knew better. Sure I’d be alive, but now the question was, would I be able to walk and feed myself?

At grandma and grandpa’s house: Tom sport fishing and sporting a buzzcut.

Well, much to my delight, the age 43 and the year 2000, came and went without the need for walkers, canes, IV drips, or space lasers. And now as I tiptoe into the era of senior discounts ($1 off at the Vashon Theatre, thank you very much), I marvel that I’m this age at all, the age that dare not speaks its name: 60.

Out of college, I went north to Alaska.

Actually, I’m being just a bit dramatic, as of a week after this major milestone, I still feel as if my brain is functioning at the maturity level and mentality of a 28-year old, but without the whining or need to interject the pronoun “I” in each sentence. Age has a way of diluting one’s ego, which is a good thing; though vanity can still remain a potent reminder that I’m not that evolved, especially when I look in the mirror to shave a face of salt-and-pepper stubble, or comb a fleeting gray hairline, or brush the teeth that mock me with each smile “Hey dude, would it kill you to use a whitening strip once in awhile?”

Ah…the 80s, when I sought happiness in $40 haircuts and Hugo Boss suits.

On the bright side, while my body and looks may be heading south (on high-speed rail), my general sense of well being remains intact and strong, protected by a cultivated sense of optimism. (Who would have thunk?) And in this day and age, championing and maintaining optimism is an exercise tantamount to bench presses and arm curls. While I may attribute some of my half-glass-full approach to my nature and upbringing (whining was not allowed), over the years I’ve made it a point to actively fight the debilitating scripts and inner voices of pessimism and snarkiness. It can be a full-time job. I’m not perfect; sure I can grouse and complain with the best of them, but I also know that despair, distrust, fear, and gloom can be fed daily to rise up as a person’s de facto state of being. Let’s face it, a diet of cynicism will surely ruin any possibility of enjoying or even getting dessert.

Flowers, I’ve always grown them.

I also know I have a lot to be thankful for, from loving family to caring friends to my beloved island home and farm. The journey to this place surely was circuitous and a long time coming, but that is the gift. By 60, you start to know who you are and better yet, who you want to be. To be a better man is a worthy pastime, one that can often realize two steps back for every one step forward, but hopefully those steps are self-correcting and in the right direction.

Taking time to “smell the roses” comes in many forms (e.g. milkshakes)

So in making sense of 60, I’m at peace with it. Kindness comes at no cost. Love usually pays dividends, and joy is on-demand should I wish to summon it from the aforementioned wells of love and kindness. Without trying to sound like an overly-simplified self-help book or delusional optimist, I’ve learn (at least for me) happiness really is in the moment and the people in my life, and it doesn’t hurt to toss in a pie or two, some shared experiences, and the company of a furry friend along the way.

Buddy concurs though I fear he is getting bored by the subject.

So my friends, here’s to the journey and the discoveries along the way, to the surprises, the comforts, the warm hearts and gifts of nature. And remember, 60 is the new….

This just in, Buddy would like to add, all you need is love.

 

French Coconut Pie: Heaven in a Crust

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French Coconut Pie is currently tied with Shaker Lemon Pie as my favorite winter pie.

I’m a loyal pie guy. If you’re a pie or tart recipe and you do me right—that is, bake up nicely, remain flakey, speak to the sum of the parts, and taste like I’m dining on Cloud 9—I’ll be your best friend for life. I stand by my pie(s). That said, I have a recipe for a coconut pie, make that French coconut custard pie (or more tart in this case) that knocks the socks, shoes, broaches, and band-aids off any other coconut pie I’ve made before. And while most of those were really just gussied up coconut flavored whipped cream pies, this recipe is fully-baked and a top-page contender in any recipe file.

These simple ingredients soar when combined and baked in a crust.

Drawn to those three magic words, French, coconut and pie, I found the original recipe on the website, Taste of Home. I really didn’t change the recipe that much, just upgraded a couple ingredients which released the recipe from its earthbound status. I substituted fresh lemon juice for the vinegar (I mean, you clean windows with that stuff), added lemon zest, and substituted cream for milk. Oh yes, and I swapped out vanilla extract for almond extract. The result: Cloud 9 and step on it! Creamy and intensely flavorful with a rich, custardy structure, the pie is well-suited for baking in a tart pan. (Spreads the love.) A deep-dish pie pan may be too much of a good thing, though I’m willing to test it out in future bake-offs.

Too much pie dough for a tart pan? Nah, take a look at the next photo.

This pie beats the fronds off coconut cream pie (in humble opinion) for flavor, texture, creaminess and delectability. This pie recipe claims southern roots, dreamed up by New Orleans and Charleston cooks who created a delicious (and resourceful) tribute to the fresh coconuts arriving from French Guiana to their port cities. So as with most Southern dessert recipes, I recommend one steps away from the illusion of healthy eating with reduced sugar, skim milk and less butter. This recipe wants nothing to do with such adulterations, and will be a lesser pie for it. So buck up, follow the recipe (for the first time at least) and just serve yourself a thinner slice, should you be abiding to your New Year’s resolution. The coconut pie recipe follows.

Fold the pie dough over toward the center of the tart pan, and press it down on itself to create a double-sided wall.
Coconut custard is right at home in a dough-lined pan.
Don’t overfill, as the custard will rise a bit. Added bonus: Any leftover filling goes in a ramekin for baking with the pie and sampling sooner than later.
Ready for some love’n from the oven.
A thin meringue protects the creamy, coconutty, custardy soul of the pie.
Okay, now I’m just showing off. (Some serious flaky crust going on here. )

French Coconut Custard Pie

Serves 8-12
Meal type Dessert
This pie beats the fronds off coconut cream pie, for flavor, texture and delectability. Next to Shaker Lemon Pie, it's my favorite winter pie. This pie has southern roots, created by New Orleans and Charleston cooks who found a delicious tribute to the fresh coconuts arriving from French Guiana to their port cities. Tom | Tall Clover Farm

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs (beaten)
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup cream (don't skimp, use cream ;-))
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1/2 cup butter (melted, cooled)
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 Zest whole lemon
  • 1 cup flaked coconut (unsweetened preferred)
  • 1 pastry shell (unbaked)

Directions

Step 1
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, place baking sheet on middle shelf.
Start with beaten eggs, and add one ingredient and then mix until fully incorporated. Then add next ingredient until fully incorporated and so on.
Step 2
Once mixture is smooth and creamy (with lumps from coconut flakes), pour custard mixture into an unbaked pie or tart shell. Do not overfill, as the custard rises when baked.
Step 3
Place pie on middle shelf on the baking sheet.
Step 4
After 20 minutes, check for browning and rotate pie on the baking sheet to even out browning if need be. Bake another 20 minutes or until the custard filling has risen and is brown and firm.
Step 5
Feel free to ignore baking times as the pie tends to run on its own timeline. Just check it out every 10-15 minutes. It's ready to remove from the oven with the top is puffed up a bit, no jiggling in the middle and custard surface is a golden brown.

 

 

 

Boxing Day and Leftover Love

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Fully-Baked Leftover Love

My friend Amy wrote, “Ah, December 26, my favorite holiday of the year.” It made me chuckle, but also confirmed a truth about what many of us feel after the holidays: a sense of relief and a return to normalcy.

The day after Christmas 2016 would also be marked by my first Boxing Day party, which I somehow always get mixed up with Guy Fawkes Day celebrations. (One is about the box, and one is about the boom. Forgive my ignorance dear British friends.) When I received the invitation, I did my best tilted-head, raised-eyebrow, and unknowing-puppy look. What the heck is boxing day?  Oh sure I’d heard of it before, but the only thing that came to mine was some Dickens carolers in the ring dispensing fisticuffs. Or perhaps a cadre of UPS drivers tossing down a few while boxing up after-Christmas returns and scanning barcodes with wild abandon. Hmm, not even close Tom, better ask the magic answer machine, Google. 

For the most part, boxing day is a British Commonwealth tradition that centers around boxing up gifts or alms, and distributing them to friends, tradespeople, or the needy the day after Christmas (or so that is just part of the history behind the holiday). In the case of my Vashon Island Boxing Day party, the hosts suggested invitees box up holiday leftovers from cookies to Courvoisier (my suggestion) and share the wealth with fellow partygoers. Not a bad idea; no muss, no fuss, just rid the fridge of its holiday payload. And for me, the Christmas cargo was leftover pie dough, from the pies that were never to be made. (Oh the humanity.)

As I opened the fridge, a fresh round of leftover pie dough stared me down. I was “pied out” for the time being and didn’t want to make a pie, as that was not the spirit of the invitation. Instead, I thought I’ll make little pastry wafers or cookies out of the leftover dough, maybe top each with jam and/or cinnamon sugar. And so I did.

Step One: Simply roll out the dough and use a favorite cookie cutter to cut shapes from the dough.

Another fun thing to do is to bake the remaining dough as a sheet of cutouts. Here I outlined the border with an upside down tart pan.

Then, I turned over the tart pan to trim away dough so it would fit on the tart pan bottom for baking, like a cookie sheet of sorts.

Sprinkle a little cinnamon sugar over the sheet and bake. I recommend putting parchment paper under the dough sheet for easy cleanup. (Live and learn.)

Step Two: Back to the cookie cutouts, place on a cookie sheet and add a dab of your favorite jam or marmalade (“orange caviar” used here) or sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

The cookies fluff up nicely and are crisp, delectable and not overly sweet.
The orange marmalade dollops add a little somethin’ somethin’ to the equation.
tom tall clover farm

Let them cool and then “box” them up for an unexpected treat.

Then again, if you have time and inclination, you could always bake a pie. (Shown: Shaker Lemon Tart)

I’m happy to report the crusty hearts were a hit and quickly dispatched by guests. And may I say, I quite like this boxing day party idea. It surely helps that party goers were a fun, relaxed group enjoying their own return to normalcy, but not without bingeing on Stollen, Buche de Noel,  mince tartlets, Christmas cookies (of all shapes, sizes, ilks and skill levels), salmon dip, cheese boards, meatballs, curious vegan salads, fudge, Chex mix, and the list goes on. Needless to say, Vashon Island likes to eat and our leftovers ain’t too shabby.  As for the boxing day drink table, while there was no Courvoisier, God Bless the soul who brought the St Germain. Happy New Year, Friends!

Washington State Ferries: Cold Hands, Warm Hearts, Smooth Sailing

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Washington State Ferry magic portal (photo: my talented friend Sam Spencer)

Washington State Ferries: My Mode of Transportation

When you live on an island, and your only way off the island is by ferry, rider opinions arise as frequently as exhaust fumes from a ship’s funnel.  Some islanders have a contentious relationship with the ferry system, its policies, its fares, its maintenance delays. (They usually don’t last long here—the people, not the issues.) But anyone who has walked on a westbound ferry at sunset, or stood on the bow when the full moon floats over Puget Sound, or hunkered down in a car while whitecaps whale broadside, or stood on the car deck when Puget Sound shines like a looking glass, there is no better means of transportation with one exception: having wings.

Winter sunsets fall south of the Olympic Mountains; summer sunsets, far north.

And for every stunning moment, there is likely a regrettable bookend of events that challenges one’s humanity: line cutters, lengthy backups, vessels down, summer delays. And wedged in-between it all, you’ll find the ferry crew. I have my favorites: the ones who always smile, give me a nod and Buddy a treat; the laughing mate who regularly asks me when I’m going to get a new truck and how’s my day going; and all the crews who direct my vehicle onto the vessel with authority, clarity and confidence.

Rainer View: The south-end ferry from Vashon to Tacoma

Of course there are some who load a boat like its a game of charades, using hand gestures and signals that seem to spell out “movie: two words, eight syllables” rather than merge to the lane port-side and stop. I’m sure it can be a thankless job, loading and offloading a good number of cranky commuters and impatient visitors, so I tip my hat to all the wonderful crew members of the Washington State Ferries, and thank them for bringing me home safely and without incident throughout the year.

Ready to dock in West Seattle, near Lincoln Park.

And just this last week, I was reminded that riding a ferry is a two-way street—make that shipping lane. As I approached the dock to park and wait for the ferry on a freezing cold day (by Pacific Northwest standards), the ticket taker, cheeks as red as a blush of cherries, scanned my pass, and ask “How are you today?” I answered, “Freezing my be-jeebers off.” Of course the minute those whiney words left my chapped lips from inside a heated car with seat warmers, I winced, and tried to cover my clueless tracks with, “Forget about me, how are you faring in this cold snap! Bet you’re chilled to the bone.” She smiled, and said, “Thanks for asking, I’m good and bundled up, and besides a passenger just dropped off a box of hand warmers for us. Wasn’t that nice.”

I replied, “Dang, all I have for you is a big old thank you.” To which she replied, “You know, that is plenty good and most appreciated.” We both laughed as she directed me to lane one. Sometimes an unexpected acknowledgment, a simple thank you, is all someone needs to make their day, and warm their heart (even without the benefit of hand warmers.)

Thank you Washington State Ferries!

Heading home, and waiting for the ferry on the West Seattle dock: quite a show.

Well wishes to you and yours for the coming year, and thank you for your readership, kind presence and heartfelt comments here on Tall Clover Farm.

Bulldog Chronicles: Maggie the First

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Maggie and I making our annual pilgrimage to the Bainbridge Island’s Grand Old Fourth of July celebration. As a British Bulldog, she harbored no ill-will for the event or its participants.

All of my bulldogs have been characters. Yes, each one, from Maggie, to Boz and Gracie, and now Buddy, has owned his or her idiosyncratic bent and curious quirk unapologetically and with aplomb.  And they’ve all had my number; I’m a basically a pushover for anything that wags a tail (or rump as the case may be for the breed of bulldog). If I may borrow a line from the show West Wing, “I serve at the pleasure of [insert dog’s name here].

My first bully, Maggie, came to me through the Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue, though she lived about two hours away in the coastal town of Aberdeen. She had been loved dearly along with her littermate Duchess, but unfortunately their guardian had passed away and the two were not getting along with each other. Maggie was a looker, as was Duchess, though Maggie was now sporting a scab on her behind from a scuffle with said sister. I delighted in meeting Duchess and Maggie but also recognized the letting go of beloved dogs by family members seemed a sad affair. A remaining pet, one that you’re not well-suited to care for, is such a constant reminder of a loved one lost. And letting go of something so loved, is like letting go of their beloved all over again, or so I suspect.

Maggie taking advantage of neighbor’s hospitality and down-filled sofa.

I gushed, I hugged, I scratched butts, ears and tummies. I went on and on, wishing they could both come home with me, even though it was deemed they’d be happier in separate homes. The family was kind, and luckily read my behavior as not that of a crazy person, but that of a soul who would love their furry keepsakes with his whole heart and being. I let the family decide which dog was right for me, and so Maggie it was. They contended she was less needy, which was a plus since I worked away from home each day. I still laugh at their assertion; Maggie was stitched to the hem of my jeans, not making a move that didn’t mirror mine.  Nope, not needy at all.

I remember lifting Maggie into to my little VW bug so she was riding shotgun, resplendent in her new bed and new role as my sidekick. When I looked in the rear view mirror, I could see a  slowing of the goodbye waves and what seemed to be a wiping of the tears. I was honored that such big hearts trusted me with their Maggie. I thank them to this day.

Maggie was my brindle warrior princess, fully embracing her sole dog status regally, while making sure all corners, nooks, crannies, and boundaries were safely attended to. She was never aggressive though, and I took her everywhere, but she always stood her ground or sat attentively between me and the friend, or the dog, or the stranger. At the time, I lived a block off Green Lake Park, which featured a three-mile walking loop around the lake. Maggie marched that path daily and quickly dispelled the notion that bulldogs are lazy, slothful creatures. Maggie became my weight loss secret.

Maggie held court on my little corner of Green Lake, acting as the conversation starter for neighborly visitations.  When I gardened in the front yard, she would find the warmest part of the sidewalk, and like the lady she was, sleep almost side-saddle until the first admirer would wake her with a pet and a rush of puppy-talk questions, e.g. “Who’s a good girl!” Those who stared down at her and said she had a face only a mother could love, would barely warrant a raised head or eyelid from her. If they could not see her inner and outer  beauty, then she could not see theirs. Disinterest was her stinging retort.

My VW bug convertible became her mobile throne. When driving slowly with the top down she would crawl up to the folded boot canvas and sit atop it like a beauty queen in a one-woman parade, surveying her adoring fans, sniffing out the latest wafts of airborne doggy delights. Every driver that passed us seem to honor her with a smile or chuckle in disbelief. One of our favorite haunts, Bushell’s Auction House, elevated Maggie to celebrity status by taping a photo on their safe of Maggie resting on the convertible top while being parked outside their fine establishment. We took the honor very seriously. If Maggie was not by my side, the question “Where’s Maggie?” preceded any “hello, how are you?”

Maggie waiting patiently while I zipped into the corner cheese shop.

As dowager countess, Maggie made the move from Seattle to Vashon with me, and settled right in to the advent of warm winter hearths, sunny summer porches, and grounds and wilds worthy of exploration should the spirit or sniffing nose so move her. As time progressed so did Maggie’s ailments and doggy dementia (my diagnosis). She would circle the house, on a very slow stroll, less about surveying, and more about simply moving. At this point, I carried her up the stairs with me each night, and tucked her in at the foot of my bed.

One day when I was on the phone, she disappeared from her throne on the porch. I knew she was nearing the end of her life, so I feared the worst. I wanted to be there to say goodbye and see that my sweet girl was as comfortable as could be. Maggie had other plans. I scoured the property. I called out her name. I cried. I sought the help of friends to help me find her. I posted flyers. I lamented. I wished I had kept a closer eye on her.

Snapshots of my big crush.

I never found her, and began to visualize a happier ending. Perhaps, she had found a nice spot to die in peace, or that a kind soul took care of her in her final days. Maybe she slipped out of her collar? There’s a curious heartbreak in not knowing what happen to a loved one, whether human or critter. Years later I was finally clearing an impenetrable bramble patch behind my barn, and there among the deep recesses of tangled canes I stumbled upon some unmistakable remains. Maggie had found her final resting place, and all within an earshot of her favorite porch. Knowing this, made me feel better. I suspect that the day she departed the house was truly the day she departed this earth. Her dog instinct lead her on a short walk, one where she went quietly, without a fuss, and in her own way.

It’s nice to know Maggie never left me, in proximity or presence. Rest in peace, my dear beautiful bulldog. You were loved and now, lovingly remembered.

I Planted a Tree for Someone’s Tomorrow

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Getting ready to plant an unknown variety of oak, purchased at the Vashon Presbyterian Church yard sale.

In the summer, I begin my morning with a walk about the property, coffee cup in hand, bulldog in tow, boots adrip with dew. Daylight does not suffer lazy fools in the Pacific Northwest or so my inner voice tells me. Dawn slips in early, dusk withdraws on its own accord. The day can be long, the rewards plenty, and the beauty inescapable. When the stingier months of winter arrive and darkness regains its throne, the rooks of rain move in to settle the score. My walk becomes an abbreviated stoop sit from the protected vantage point of a covered porch and a comfy albeit threadbare chair (cue the “Deliverance” soundtrack); but the coffee cup is still in hand, and the bulldog still in tow and the view no less comforting.

Mighty and Mini: Little oak sapling dwarfed by a century-old black locust tree.

No matter what the season, I greet the trees that grace my home property as often as I pass by them. Not with a verbal howdy do, but with a nod or delighted eye, or a smile or sense of wonder. I marvel that they even exist. Whether planted by islander, critter or determined gust of wind, they stand their ground, taking root and reaching for the rain and the sky and the stars, ready to bare witness to the shenanigans of the mere mortals beneath their boughs. 

old-maple-tree
Big Mamma Maple Tree (also over a century old)

Trees and I go way back, from my first squint skyward toward the loblolly pines and live oaks of South Carolina to the shaggy-barked, impossibly-difficult-to-climb pecan trees of my Alabama youth to the magnificent old-growth fir, cedar and spruce of the Pacific Northwest that often leave me speechless and in awe.

Largest Fir on Vashon 1892, 12 ft diameter, 38 ft circumference. (photo credit, University of Washington, digital collection
Largest fir tree on Vashon, 1892: 12 ft diameter, 38 ft circumference. (photo credit: University of Washington, digital collections)

Trees, like people, have stories, though most are untold and lost to the witnesses of time. I can only imagine what they’d say if falling leaves were falling words. The black locust trees flanking the north side of my house suggest the pragmatism of islanders over a century ago—opting for a tree with wood known for remarkable hardness, big BTUs, rot resistance, a blossom that beguiles any honeybee in a ten-mile radius, and a shade that filters light like a wispy cloud. I’m not sure if they intentionally planted the pair as perfect placeholders for my hammock, but I’d like to think that they did, and I thank them them duly with each swing or sway on a summer day.

black-locust-tree-hammock

On the east side of the house, stand three colossal trees: one big-leaf maple and two madrones, or madronas as we say around here. A stark photograph from 1900, shows the maple tree at a height of about twenty feet, which makes sense as the house was about twelve years old at the time. Today it marks my property like a big, bold exclamation point in the front field.

Tom's farmhouse in 1900
Big Mamma Maple in 1900, foreward and left of the house.

The madronas (the same ages, I suspect) were likely nature’s doing as madronas don’t like to be transplanted nor tampered with by the hand or spade of man. If the maple is an exclamation point, the two madronas share the page as ampersands, twisting and reaching with spiral curves and craggy bends. Known to drop branches with ease and regularity, the madronas inspired me to “build a fence that fell from the sky.”

Big Leaf Maple (l) and Madronas (r)
Big Leaf Maple (l) and Madronas (r)

In a swale beyond the south side of my house, a scrim of cottonwoods filters light through its quaking leaves and tangled scaffolds. Formidably tall and disproportionately lanky, the cottonwoods sweeten each spring breeze with blossoms seemingly scented with honey.  My dear friend and neighbor Phoebe (some 90 years young) rerouted her walk each spring, just to enjoy the heady gift of the cottonwood grove. In late summer, winds tease the leaves to perform like softly clapping hands. The cottonwoods have begun to take their final bow, as three have already fallen to strong winds and wet ground. Even in ruin, the trees send up strong shoots from their massive trunks, and start a new chapter of growth.

madrona-fence-snow

I may not be able to remember the names of childhood friends (or where I parked), but I can remember every tree I climbed in the front and backyards of my childhood homes. And for this nomadic Air Force kid, the tally was sizeable. As a teenager, I set up my getaway in our third-floor attic. Wavy glass pane windows were framed by the mottled limbs of stately sycamores lining our street like sentinels to the water’s edge of Chesapeake Bay. I was too old to climb trees (so I thought), so stairs provided me easy access to a treetop view. One’s daydreams have a place to soar when gazing through the canopy of a tree.

One summer day about twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend on Lopez Island, in the San Juans. A morning walk led me into town to a smattering of Saturday market vendors. There on a listing card table sat a preponderance of pots with seedlings feeble enough to be overlooked, but not by this plant hound. Upon closer inspection, I was delighted to find one pot tagged “American Chestnut, Castanea Dentata.” The fellow plantsman and I gabbed about this uncommon and stately tree until my friends begged me to conclude the conversation and make way to the bakery. I obliged but with a potted chestnut seedling in my hand and a pocket shy of coffee money.

When I cross the Sound to visit Seattle, I usually make a detour (if time allows) to drive by my former cottage of a house. On the sloped street near Green Lake Park, 57th and Ashworth to be exact, an American Chestnut grows with a vigor long denied its east coast cousins where blight decimated the tree’s range. Folks likely walk by the tree with little thought to its origin or why it’s there, but hopefully do delight in its beauty. Thanks to a weekend on Lopez Island, a rare and majestic tree found a new home on a prominent corner one block away from Seattle’s most popular park?

Circa 199
Circa 2003, the six-inch seedling now a small tree after only 10 years

The little cottage has been enveloped by plantings of fig, wisteria, maple, bay laurel and larch. And there on the corner parking strip stands the stalwart specimen of a once puny chestnut twig, now gloriously verdant, vigorous in habit, and prominently in place. Two decades later, the tree is (even though young) quite magnificent. May pruners, loppers and hacksaws never make its acquaintance, nor ruin the inherent beauty of its habit and framework of branches.

I’ve planted many trees before. There’s something hopeful about the practice. While I know I may be absent for most its life, the world will bear witness to its growth, and vice versa. And the tree will continue to bring shade, fruit, flowers, and beauty to a spot once devoid of such endowments. I often feel that planting a tree is a way of saying thank you to life.

Summer trees
Late spring green: Maple to the left, Black Locust to the right, cottonwood in the back, middle.

Back on Vashon, I have several acres well suited for additional trees. For me, planting a tree is more joy than job. From gingko, to catalpa, to Chilean fire tree to fringetree, to an oak of many colors, I plant each one in hopes of seeing it grow and flourish and make its mark on the landscape and in the hearts of those who inhabit and visit this home. May one day a family share a picnic under its boughs. May a swing send muddy feet skyward, and a hammock slow things down for a weary weed puller.  May fruit find its way to a basket and flowering branches to awaiting arms.

backdoor-bluebells

When things seem a little hopeless, or sad, disappointing or without merit, a tree is a fine companion and a good listener, gently soothing the soul merely by its presence and proximity. Perhaps a hundred years from now on this very farm, eyes will look up through a vault of branches supporting the sky, and thank the soul, who it seems just like yesterday, planted a tree for someone else’s tomorrow. And maybe, just maybe, it will inspire that thoughtful soul to do the same.

 

Easy Peasy Crockpot Apple Butter

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apple-apple-butter
Before and after: patience pays off

Apple butter on the stove is a sure sign of full-throttle autumn activities around here. With boxes and bags of apples begging to be peeled, cored, chopped and cooked, apple cake, jam, jelly, sauce and butter can’t be too far behind.  The trouble with making apple butter is its tendency to burn once the mixture (somewhat of a slurry) thickens. And in my world, disappointment is defined by a home cook whose time and ingredients have been wasted. In just saying “no” to scorched pot bottoms, I’ve moved my apple butter heating source from stockpot to crockpot.

Applesauce
What it boils down to is what it boils down from: sweetened, spiced applesauce, basically.

Because apple butter begins as a fancified form of applesauce, it takes hours of low heat to reduce the soggy slog to a more refined state of stay-put spreadability and creaminess. The process really becomes more about evaporation than high-heat cooking. You just can’t rush apple butter. And that’s why the crockpot is the perfect solution, freeing you from stove-side stirring and monitoring, while maintaining consistently low temperatures. And as a bonus, steaming apple butter is the world’s best potpourri. By the end of the day, I wanted to start chewing my throw pillows. Even folks around town took note, “Why Tom, you smell like apple pie.” I’m never washing that sweater, again.

clutter
Apple butter clutter: peeler, food processor, and crockpot

If you’ve never made apple butter, it’s a great preserves recipe to start with as most other fruit jams and jellies take a little more of a learning curve to finesse and shine. Once all of the ingredients are combined, cooking, time and a little stirring do the rest. When the mixture bubbles into spreadable territory, you’re done. Eat now or jar it up for later!

left to right clockwise, peel, chop
Peel, add ingredients, process until smooth

Crockpot Apple Butter

  • Easy to make
  • Simple ingredients
  • No standing over a stove
  • No burning or scorching
  • Add spices and flavorings you like

    from start to finish
    Heat low and slow: In the crockpot apple butter reduces itself in its own time.

Crockpot Apple Butter R

Easy Peasy Apple Butter

Ingredients

  • 6lb apples (peeled and cored)
  • 1 quart apple cider
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice

Note

Apple butter is one those recipes that welcomes many flavors and spices to the mix. Sometimes I add different extracts, liqueurs and spices in the final stages of reduction (like calvados, and cardamon). It's really up to you to create the flavor notes in the apple butter. Whether simple or complex, it's all delicious.

Directions

Step 1
Wash, peel, core and chop apples.
Step 2
Add all ingredients to food processor or blender, and puree. This could take a few batches, based on machine's capacity.
Step 3
Cook apple mixture in crockpot on low, lid on, overnight or for 6-8 hours (no hard fast rule). Again, may take a couple batches based on crockpot size.
Step 4
Remove crockpot lid to increase evaporation, cook for several more hours, stirring every once in while to keep mixture homogenous and creamy.
Step 5
When the mixture is thick and no longer runny or soupy it's done. Place apple butter in jars and seal in water bath for at least ten minutes. I don't recommend reducing sugar as it acts as a preservative.
Buddy and I bid you adieu, and say, "Happy cooking!"
Buddy and I bid you adieu, and say, “Happy cooking!”

Bringing Up Buddy

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sdasda
Buddy: foot warmer and friend

Our sorely-missed Sou’wester winds have returned to slog the island, hellbent on casting leaves like confetti, reviving moss to its rightfully green state, and painting each pane with raindrops and rivulets. The world is dark outside my windows, the drizzle present, and the chill, impatient. I write from my kitchen nook, on an old oak table with Buddy at and on my feet. He’s snoring quietly and comfortably while the din of the downspout sets a tempo to his breathing and repose.  My toes are kept warm by this 65-pound beanbag who takes up more room than one would suspect, but I’m not complaining. In fact, Buddy has grown to fill the house both in presence and with his loving and bombastic personality.

Put down the camera and play with me!
Put down the camera and come play with me!

It’s hard to believe I adopted this big lug close to a year ago. Buddy went from apartment living to plodding the porch and parlors of an old farmhouse with acres to explore (supervised, of course). For the first few months, we got to know each other, and in that time, he learned that a butt rub is a whimper away, that treats are stored in a coffee tin, and that I’m basically a total pushover. As for me, I’ve learned that Buddy is the most congenial fellow, neither growling nor posturing toward any soul or beast, always happy to see you, me, the neighbor and the stranger whether two-legged, four-legged or festooned with feathers and sporting a beak.

Buddy stealing kisses
Buddy stealing scenes and kisses

Buddy operates as if playtime is anytime, and that the only worthwhile interruption is mealtime, treats, or a walk, or ride in the truck. If I pick up any object whether heavy like a hammer or slight like a sock, all bets are off for me completing the intended duty; it’s tug-of-war time for the big guy and Tom’s chore list goes on life support. (Did I mention that I was a pushover?) Buddy’s been weaned off of fine leather footwear, and now focuses mainly on black plastic nursery pots, ropes, and raw bones, though it doesn’t take much for him to find new teething treasures when introduced. (Yogurt containers are this week’s preferred chew toy.) My workboots, offerings any time they are off my feet, are gathered up by Buddy and stacked in prominent piles around the house, like tributes. Any time I return home, Buddy greets me with a boot.

chewtoy
Floral buckets: On Buddy’s chew-toy bucket list

If Vashon Island had a version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Buddy would surely have his own star. He’s known at all storefronts, and by all shopkeepers. I fear Buddy’s treat habit may imperil Vashon Ace Hardware’s profit margins. At Snapdragon Bakery, Buddy knows the regulars (make that the marks) who save him flakey tidbits should he happen to drop by with that Tom fellow.  It’s not uncommon to hear, “Hey, Buddy!” shouted from a passing car, and for approaching strollers to request a pet or two. Buddy is more than willing to accommodate, and quickly backs in, just in case you didn’t know where to start first. (All roads lead to the butt rub.)

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Buddy wants a place at the table, and on the table as well.

Buddy beams an effortless charisma. Even when I had Boz and Gracie around (the Cary Grant and Greta Garbo of bulldogs, respectively) folks didn’t make a fuss over them like they do Buddy. He’s a joyful jester wrapped in fur, and that is not lost on any onlooker. In my truck, he hangs out the window so daringly that I’m afraid the flaps and folds of his skin will launch him like a kite.  Any drive to town quickly prompts an oncoming motorcade of smiles. The big guy is hard to miss and hard not to love.

Buddy riding shotgun
Buddy goes windsurfing

There are times when Buddy sleeps, like now on this early morning, that I think of Boz and Gracie, and my first dog Maggie and the fond memories and times we enjoyed.  I miss them dearly, but know Buddy shares their legacy of love and companionship in his own way and on his own terms. Yes, he’s his own dog, an original, and I’m happy to report Buddy has found a forever home at Tall Clover, taking permanent residence on the farm and in my heart.

buddy-and-tom
Tom and Buddy after putting in a good day at Tall Clover Farm

Tabletop Flowers: Dahlias Without Water

18
Rachel's Floral Dreamscape
A floral dreamscape worthy of the couple in love

I had the pleasure of providing flowers for a friend’s wedding this summer, and in the process learned a thing or two about tabletop floral displays, namely that dahlia blossoms perform beautifully out of water. Who knew? I also learned that some love seems as natural, and effortless as breathing. Congratulations Rachel and Dan!

The bride and groom invited their friends and family to a welcoming outdoor venue boasting open fields flanked by towering firs and dotted with teepees and buildings of rustic charm. When my friend Nancy, the mother of the bride, told me of her idea for a tablescape (my ten-cent florist term), I was skeptical that it would work. In my mind, all I could see was a table-length trail of wilted, flattened, mostly dead flowers.

Weeks before the wedding, when I first I heard of the floral plan, I wanted to say, “Ummmm, that just won’t work.” But before this big flower farmer ogre dashed anyone’s dreams of a dream wedding, I thought it best to reframe my opposition into experimentation with the flowers in question. How long would a dahlia look good out of water? Well, I’m no flower physicist, but I did my best to enlist my tabletop laboratory for a little dry run (so to speak).

I simply cut a variety of dahlias in full bloom, removed the stem, and arranged them face up on my front porch table. I expected noodle-soft petals within hours. Instead here’s what I found: healthy, bright dahlias, completely intact and without a wilted petal among the lot. Take a look for yourself.

Dahlias Without Water Experiment

dahlias without water just cut
Freshly cut dahlias (left to right): Alfred Grille, Bantling, Eveline, American Dawn; bottom row, Thomas Edison, Big Brother, and Cafe au Lait.

After Six Hours

dahlias-without-water-six-hours
Six hours later, the dahlias still look great, no wilting or dehydration.

After 24 Hours

dahlias-out-of-water-for-one-day
One day later and the dahlias still look remarkably fresh. The larger decorative informal type on the bottom row have a few droopy outer petals. The upper row, pompom and ball dahlias, fare even better with smaller, stiffer petals and compact size.

After 48 Hours

Dahlias without water day 2
I was quite surprised that even after two days out of water, the dahlias still had a welcomed place at the table (make that, on the table).

There you have it: Dahlias without water, and a wonderful way to decorate a table. Vases need not apply.

And while I love dahlias, these two bright blooms really stole the show.

asds
Congratulations Dan and Rachel!

Keeping Vashon Neighborly

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vashon-welcoming-committee
A friendly dockside welcome, circa 1910.

After a recent trip to Seattle, I sat on the ferry feeling as though I had visited the moons of Jupiter, or at least been witness to the Northwest equivalent of the bar scene in Star Wars. I didn’t recognize Seattle and she didn’t recognize me. My favorite city had become an alien place, one where my beloved personal landmarks were disappearing, where my old neighborhood was unrecognizable and where folks on the street and in their cars found me too slow and in the way. And for the first time while in downtown Seattle, I felt underdressed. Island attire had no place in Pacific Place.

I made the mistake of trying to chat with someone in line for coffee, and based on her response, I feared horns had sprouted from my head, or perhaps I had forgotten to remove my fright wig and fangs. No, Dorothy, I was not in Kansas anymore.

Have I mentioned I live on an island? Make no mistake, this little marker in the middle of Puget Sound is very special to me, and I feel the journey to make it here has been half the gift. Sometimes I gush enthusiastically about Vashon; other times I quietly reflect upon island moments with a reverence usually reserved for love letters.

Sure, not everyone swoons over living on “The Rock.” This place can be a prison for some and a sanctuary for others. Peering over the fence as a will-be geezer, I embrace the latter perspective. Seattle was a fine fling in my 20s, 30s and even 40s; the city lavished me with the indulgences of youth, but now I can’t keep up (and I tend to get lost). And besides, Seattle’s just not that into me anymore. The city’s moved on, and I wish her well.

Vashon is truly home, and while “Keep Vashon Weird” is a funny bumper sticker, the island is much more than that. Rest assured, our well for the weird will never go dry, so my bumper sticker choice would be “Keep Vashon Neighborly.” I’d add “and Welcoming,” but that (like me) would be too verbose.

We live in a place where the natural beauty is blinding, and you’d think that would be enough. But what makes “the heart of Puget Sound” special is the heart of its people. I live on an island where a local business took their entire staff to Europe because they could, where you can’t toss a harmonica without hitting a musician, where a nod on the street gets a friendly, “hello,” where farmers share their bounty roadside, where generous donors support island needs, where orca sightings turn us all into giddy children and where the potluck is a time-honored tradition and high art form.

I like where I live. I like the folks I call my friends and neighbors. I enjoy the kindness of strangers, the tellers of old stories, the smiles on familiar faces and the willingness of Vashon folks to welcome those who come to our shores.

May Vashon never become a place of “us” and “them,” but remain a destination where the question of, “Where are you from?” elicits a conversation, not a distance.

For each day we all face challenges, quietly carrying the burdens of worry, sadness, loss or letdown with us like spare change in our pockets. While some pockets are more laden than others, rattling and jingling with each step, I venture to say we all share empathy and kinship in wanting to make things better, not only for ourselves, but for others. That is what I love about Vashon Island and that to me is what makes it a special. We are an island family. Some of us may have more seniority and bragging rights, but we all have a place around the table.

I penned the following piece for The Vashon Beachcomber, as my Op-Ed regarding keeping Vashon Island neighborly and welcoming even in the midst of growth and change. No place is perfect, but we all seek a measure of where we can feel whole, loved and at home. May we each find such a place in our hearts and minds, and if fortunate enough, also down the block, around the corner, and in the everyday. Thanks for visiting my friends.

Homeward bound courtesy of a Washington State Ferry
Homeward bound via Washington State Ferry
North Ferry Dock Vashon
Southern exposure from the north end ferry dock
Letting the light shine from within
When a little light shines from within on a foggy morning.
Last year's farm motto: Walk softly and carry a big zucchini
Island ways: Speak softly and carry a big zucchini.
The friendly and beguling witches of Burton
The friendly and beguiling witches of Burton on Halloween.
Pop-up picnic, Vashon style!
Pop-up picnic, Vashon style!
bulldog buddy
Buddy and I wish you warmth wherever you call home.