Back Talk by George Merrill

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I can’t walk the same distances I once did. Now I take a more leisurely pace and cover less turf. When I was younger I may have covered more territory, but I saw less of it. As my perimeters shrink, my vision broadens.

This is about how my unruly back reconnected me to neighbors, some I’d met, two for the first time.

Again, as it has over the years, my perverse back is dictating the terms of my life. Of the manifold gifts with which my creator has blessed me, a strong back is not one. I can only assume I was issued a leftover, a rebuilt, but not the custom fitted kind that do well and accommodate an individual’s peculiarities. Mine overreacts. It talks back.

I really shouldn’t complain. Generally, it has worked for and with me. At times, my back has even showed a willingness to rejuvenate itself, putting me back on my feet walking with my customarily brisk pace. Not recently, however.

As a result, my awareness has shifted. Getting there (wherever ‘there’ might be) is not as big a deal as it once was. It’s what I discover along the way that’s become the big deal.

Right now, my walking consists of several trips a day from my studio up the driveway to the mailbox and back. A ten-minute walk. Once I leave the studio, I am surrounded by trees. I see some of them from the studio windows and a host more leaving the studio and going to the mailbox. Since it’s no big thing about my destination – a regular mailbox – it’s what happens on the way that’s been energizing. Noticing the trees for one thing.

Of course, living here thirty years I have seen the trees before, but in not the same way. On one trip to the mail box, I hugged a large conifer tree. I’d never hugged a tree. What I had not noticed before was how large the boles of most of the conifers were. The trees must have been there fifty or sixty years. Performing the hug, I couldn’t get my fingers to touch when wrapping my arms around the trunk.

All those years I’d driven down the driveway past the pines, I’d never noticed how, when viewed close up, the bark looks like an alligator’s hide. The bark has the appearance of an assemblage of wood chips, secured to the tree like miniature wooden shingles. Ivy makes its way up some trees, weaving its vines under the wood chips, making it impossible to pull the ivy loose.

The rough tree bark does not make a hug feel like the warm-fuzzy I might wish. I felt self-conscious, too, and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Just squirrels, some sweet gum trees, two maples and more conifers.

When I’m walking unhurriedly, I like to stop and pan the area like a cinematographer seeking the broadest view of the landscape. It also rests my back.

That’s when I saw a large clod of dirt moving across the path directly in front of me. It alarmed me at first. It was about half again as big as my open hand and its movement was slow and unsteady. Moving closer I could see that the lump of dirt was riding on the shell of a huge turtle that I assumed to be a snapping turtle. My suspicions proved correct. I tried moving him to the side of the road where he would be out of harm’s way. He was not grateful at all. As I nudged him with my foot over to the roadside, his neck shot out. Fortunately, he went for my foot which was well to his stern and out of reach even as he moved sideways to get at it. He hissed menacingly at me. Don’t tread on me was written all over him.

I found a stick and tried nudging him to the roadside. He made a grab for the stick, momentarily bit down on it with a crunch, growling and hissing and, I’m sure, if that stick had been my toe he would have had it for breakfast. I retrieved the stick, kept poking at him until he fell into the narrow culvert, shell side up. He was home free.

Despite his thankless rebuffs, I was committed to his safety. I made it to the mailbox feeling like the good Samaritan despite no show of appreciation from the turtle. Fortunately, goodness has its own rewards.

I decided to go left on the intersecting road and walk a little further to my neighbor’s mailbox. Along the road between mailboxes is a gully. It was filled with water from the rains.

As I walked along I’d hear a ‘squeak’, and then a ‘plop’ as a basking frog, alarmed by my presence, made for the water. Walking further, the same: a squeak’, a couple of ‘croaks’ and ‘plops,’ frog after frog abandoned his day in the sun to take refuge in the water. I had no idea my presence could be so intrusive. After all, I didn’t even know they were there much less see them and still they were offended at my simply walking the road and minding my own business. I was beginning to feel like a pariah.

My day was redeemed when, returning to my own mailbox, I saw at the entrance to the driveway a good-sized butterfly. She was not gloriously adorned like a monarch; in fact, she was plain with her blue-black wings that had a small smidgen of white at the base of each. She was standing on the ground, her wings fluttering occasionally, as if to maintain her balance. She rocked slightly forward and then backward, as though she were trying to gain a footing to take off. I stopped close by, my foot inches from her, fully prepared for another rejection. She took wing and flew in zig zag circles, but, to my surprise and delight, quickly returned to exactly from where she’d taken flight; near my left foot. She obviously did not think I was a danger or some kind of creepy man to hiss at or flee from; for that moment, I was just a neighbor out there standing by my mailbox.

As a part of my healing I’ve found checking in with the neighbors now and then is important. It’s easy to forget they are so close and except for one turtle with an attitude, most are a comfort. In that brief walk, my world grew slightly bigger.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Food Friday: Celebrating Sophie Kerr

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Sophie Kerr, one of the patron saints of Washington College, in Chestertown, wrote very popular women’s fiction in the early twentieth century. She grew up on the Eastern Shore and started her career in New York, writing magazine pieces, editing the famous Women’s Home Companion, while writing books, plays and short stories. Sophie Kerr was wildly successful in her field, and her financial legacy continues to endow an annual literary prize at Washington College. This year the Sophie Kerr Prize is $63,912, and will be given to one lucky, ambitious student writer on Friday, May 17. Here are some recipes for a jubilant celebration. Please add lots of good Champagne.

https://chestertownspy.org/2019/05/14/the-2019-sophie-kerr-prize-will-go-to-one-of-six-wc-seniors/

Sophie Kerr’s fiction is littered with plucky heroines, and her food writing is full of great regional, American dishes. In the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Kerr wrote a section called, “American Cooks are Good Cooks”, countering arguments that American foods were hopelessly provincial, and lacked the subtleties and sophistication of European gourmet dishes. Stuff and nonsense! Gingerbread, spoonbread, strawberries, clam chowder (with or without tomatoes) – all-American dishes that could turn everyone in the twentieth (and twenty-first) into foodies.

Here is one of Kerr’s recipes from The Best I Ever Ate, by June Platt and Sophie Kerr Underwood, 1953:
Strawberries Romanoff
“Cleaned and capped strawberries are lightly sugared, then chilled for two hours in a mixture of one-half fresh strained orange juice and one-half Curaçao. Serve with heavy cream sweetened stingily, whipped and flavored with vanilla.” That is a writer’s recipe.

There have been many American newspaper and magazine writers who have reliably enlivened our food culture. A few of my favorites are: Nora Ephron, Alex Witchel, Ruth Reichl. (Disclaimer: I am currently reading Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, Save Me the Plums, and it is terrific! Go grab a copy!)

Nora Ephron, the food writer, novelist, and filmmaker, was a powerhouse of creativity. She was witty, acerbic, clear-eyed and romantic. She could cook. And bake. https://offtheshelf.com/2016/07/reading-nora-12-essential-books-for-every-nora-ephron-fan/

Nora Ephron’s Famous Peach Pie
Preheat oven to 425°F.

INGREDIENTS
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons sour cream
3 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup sour cream
3 peeled and sliced peaches

Put first 4 ingredients into a food processor and blend until a ball is formed. Pat out into a buttered pie plate. Bake 10 minutes at 425° F. Remove from oven. Beat 3 egg yolks slightly. Combine with 1 cup sugar, flour and sour cream. Arrange peaches in crust and pour egg mixture over peaches. Cover with foil. Reduce oven to 350° and bake 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 15 minutes or more until filling is done. Yumsters!

https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/nora-ephrons-peach-pie-1259999

Alex Witchel is a James Beard Award-nominated staff writer at The New York Times. She has written a poignant memoir about her mother’s decline into dementia, All Gone, but she has also written some hilarious stories, one about trying to find an ashtray in Martha Stewart’s daughter’s carefully curated minimalist hotel: Girls Only. She also knows quite a lot about food and writes a monthly column, Feed Me for the Times. This will be just the thing for a festive literary celebration:

Lemon Mousse for a Crowd
From Alex Witchel, The New York Times Magazine, May 24, 2006

Ingredients
1 cup egg whites (from about 8 eggs)
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 2 1/2 large lemons)
1 cup light corn syrup
3 cups whipping cream

Instructions
In a double boiler or bowl set over a pot of simmering water, combine the egg whites, sugar and lemon juice. Whisk the mixture over the simmering water until smooth, airy and very thick, about 5 minutes. Add corn syrup and whisk just to combine, then remove from heat. Transfer egg mixture to a large mixing bowl. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour.
Remove from refrigerator and add whipping cream. Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mixture until thick enough to hold stiff peaks, about 2 minutes. Spoon the mousse into dessert cups or bowls, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 15 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Ruth Reichl, another writer who will enliven any literary soirée, has been a chef, a journalist, a food critic, the last editor-in-chief at Gourmet Magazine and a television producer for PBS. She will make you weep with delight when we celebrate the latest Sophie Kerr Prize winner. Follow her haiku-like tweets on Twitter if you would like to smile every day: (@ruthreichl)

Ruth Reichl’s Giant Chocolate Cake
INGREDIENTS
FOR THE CAKE:
1 ⅛ cups/100 grams unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process), plus more for dusting the pans
¾ cup/175 milliliters whole milk
1 ½ teaspoons/7 1/2 milliliters vanilla
3 cups/375 grams flour
2 teaspoons/10 grams baking soda
Salt
1 ½ cups/340 grams (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups/356 grams dark brown sugar
1 ½ cups/300 grams granulated sugar
6 eggs
FOR THE FROSTING:
5 ounces/143 grams unsweetened chocolate
¾ cups/170 grams (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup/225 grams whipped cream cheese
1 teaspoon/5 milliliters vanilla
2 ½ cups/312 grams confectioners’ sugar

Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter two large rectangular baking pans (13 by 9 by 2 inches) and line them with waxed or parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pans with cocoa (you could use flour, but cocoa adds color and flavor).

Measure the cocoa powder into a bowl, and whisk in 1 1/2 cups of boiling water until it is smooth, dark and so glossy it reminds you of chocolate pudding. Whisk in the milk and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda and 3/4 teaspoon salt.

Put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat in the sugars until it is light, fluffy and the color of coffee with cream (about 5 minutes). One at a time, add the eggs, beating for about 20 seconds after each before adding the next. On low speed, beat in the flour mixture in 3 batches and the cocoa mixture in 2, alternating flour-cocoa-flour-cocoa-flour.
Pour half of the batter into each pan and smooth the tops. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes. Let the pans rest on cooling racks for 2 minutes, then turn the cakes onto racks to cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting: Chop the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler. Let it cool so that you can comfortably put your finger in it. While it’s cooling, mix the butter with the whipped cream cheese. Add the chocolate, the vanilla and a dash of salt, and mix in the confectioners’ sugar until it looks like frosting, at least 5 minutes. Assemble the cake, spreading about a third of the frosting on one of the cooled layers, then putting the second layer on top and frosting the assembled cake. https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017692-ruth-reichls-giant-chocolate-cake

That is probably enough sweetness for one celebration. Good luck to all you Sophie Kerr contenders!

“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times.”
― Nora Ephron

“Part of the power of home cooking is that everything tastes better when someone else makes it for you.”
― Alex Witchel

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”
― Ruth Reichl

This is charming: https://www.washcoll.edu/departments/english/sophie-kerr-legacy/

A Chesapeake Champion Profile: Bobby Hutchison

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In a few weeks, the Mid-Shore conservation community will gather once again at Easton’s Waterfowl Chesapeake building to honor Horn Point Laboratory’s annual Chesapeake Champion. The recipients this time around will be all five Hutchison brothers for their innovative work on their 3,400 acre farm outside of Cordova.

In a relatively short period of time, the Champion award has become one of the most prestigious in the field of environmental protection for the Mid-Atlantic region. Starting in 2013, Horn Point has put an important spotlight on local heroes that have made a real and lasting contribution in protecting the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. In the past, it has gone to remarkable conservation volunteer leaders, restaurant owners, and citizen scientists, all of whom have found creative ways to sustain the Shore’s wildlife, landscapes and water.

And for the first time, the Champion award is being presented to a farming operation whose owners have meticulously cared for and protected their family’s land for close to a century. Quick to adopt best management practices, improve water quality, and the use of state of the art equipment to dramatically reduce the usage of nitrogen, the Hutchison brothers have gained the admiration and appreciation of the Eastern Shore in becoming the gold standard for how farming must be done in the future.

But what is the history of the Hutchison Brothers farm? What is it really like to be a farmer in 2019? Those were some of the questions we asked Bobby Hutchison when the Spy visited the farm a few weeks ago. His answers make it all the more clear the kind of unique sacrifices his family has made to be true stewards of the land.

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information about the Chesapeake Champion Awards please go here.  The Awards program will be be presented on Thursday, May 30, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the Waterfowl Chesapeake Building in Easton.

 

Smartphones by George Merrill

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On trains, on busses, on airplanes (before takeoff), in parks and at restaurants…even in churches and at ball games, the presence of smartphones is as ubiquitous as mosquitos on a summer night. At the dinner table with the family assembled during holiday gatherings we see smartphones placed accessibly where forks and napkins once rested. Like a predatory animal, the smartphone is ready to spring, but by no means on an unsuspecting prey – this is a prey half anticipating and even welcoming the next assault. With solitary souls sitting contemplatively in their living room by a cozy fire, we can rest assured a smartphone is somewhere within reach.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, smartphones remain post-modern man’s constant companion. Few leave home without one.

I’ll never forget last Thanksgiving when I went into the den and found my step-daughter, her husband and four teen age grandchildren lounging in various kinds of repose; the adults typing on computers, the four grandchildren texting while the football game on TV played vainly to the den’s unheeding fans who were otherwise occupied in cyberspace.

Welcome to the digital age.

In 1654, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in room alone,” and I would add, be anywhere without his or her smartphone.

I am not a digital junkie. I would love to brag that I was able to beat the seductions of electronics, that I was above the mediocrity that it sows and that I live my life intentionally conscious of my thoughts and whereabouts. That is not the case. I simply can’t get the hang of how to use a smartphone.

I compose essays on a computer. I send emails. I text, but I could hand deliver my message to Baltimore from St. Michaels in less time that it would take me to text it. I carry the phone with me only occasionally. I check the weather to see what to wear that day. I simply cannot manage the several digital techniques required to negotiate a smartphone’s functions much less keep abreast of the new terminology that identifies its ever-increasing applications. Even with Facebook I’m always fearful that I’ll get snagged in some advertising pop-up or press the wrong button to inadvertently become friends with someone I really don’t like.

In short, it’s not character that has kept me from being seduced by the immediacy of the digital world, it’s that I’m electronically challenged. I write essays on my computer and use the spell check so my manuscripts are mostly ‘tdypo’ free. Not always.

My wife, Jo, is a digital whiz. She’s as at home in the digital era as crabs are to the Bay. She can buy, sell, enquire, research, and do most of her Christmas shopping on line. She can stay in constant contact with grandchildren or just play games, do word puzzles and happily entertain herself for hours with her smartphone.

I am a grunt in this online world, a wayfaring stranger often lost in the wilderness of cyberspace.

St. Paul once observed that our weaknesses can be our strengths.

There’s growing concern about the effect electronic communication is having on our psyches and on our culture. What is at risk is our ability to be focused, be alert and attentive to what may be going on at the moment. In short, the digital era with all its conveniences is invasive, and like a persistent fly, constantly demands our attention. The smartphone is messing with our minds.

Georgetown computer-science professor Cal Newport is not optimistic that will power alone can easily tame the “ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.” He recommends a month long digital detox, a period of purification to declutter the mind by taking a complete break from all optional technologies. His observations parallel the process of achieving sobriety in alcohol addiction: those in recovery learn that one drink is too many, a thousand is not enough. For Newport, one technology can be too many, a thousand is not enough. Few, if any, alcoholics believe that after detox you can manage controlled drinking. Newport on the other hand, claims that after digital detox, and a period of total abstinence, one may slowly reintroduce technologies carefully, a little like learning to sip rather than gulping. He holds that controlled messaging is possible.

I confess that I am speaking with forked tongue in this matter. In writing this essay I was not sure I knew what the difference was between an iPhone, smartphone and an android. I googled my question and got an informed enough answer so I understood the general idea that they are, for practical purposes, similar although they may perform different tasks.

The glut of information immediately available to us in the digital age is both a blessing and a curse; it presents problems of its own. The ability to assimilate information is no indicator that we’ve learned anything. To “know” is more than having factual data at hand. A reflection on this very issue long before our digital era is found in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Chorus’s from the Rock:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

A young boy once asked his father; “Dad, where did I come from?” His father long dreaded the day, but he’d prepared himself well. He researched the data appropriate to teaching a youngster about human sexuality. He went on at some lengths with the boy, from physiology, psychology, biology and even romance. The boy remained attentive, but began to look perplexed.

“Any questions?” the father asked.

“I thought we came here from Chicago.”

Wisdom is in understanding the question first. Learning the appropriate answer follows.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Food Friday: Don’t Forget About Mother’s Day!

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It’s not too late to start planning a little Mother’s Day gesture. But you had best hurry up. I would advise you to put a little thought into it, though. I had an email this morning suggesting that a trip to Jersey Mike’s Subs would be a good idea; “Treat Mom to a Sub!” Perhaps not. I like a good cheesesteak as much as the next mother, and this is definitely a first world problem, but I’d like something homemade. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or well-crafted (and believe me, I have a drawer of summer camp ashtrays, plaster handprints, and dollar store jewels). Maybe this Mother’s Day I could get first pick of sections of the Sunday New York Times, some sweet and crunchy French bread, and some bacon.

I love bacon. I don’t like cleaning it up. Bacon is one of those foods that tastes better when someone else has cooked it. And then poured the bacon grease into a can, cleaned up the splatters, washed out the pan, and has tossed the dish cloth into the laundry, where more elves will take over. Such a life of fantasy I enjoy!

In real life, I tried this glazed bacon recipe from the New York Times last weekend as part of my exhaustive food research for The Spy. We also had French toast. It was divine. Be sure to get thick bacon – otherwise, why bother?

Glazed Bacon https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016900-glazed-bacon

“½ pound thick-cut bacon slices (about 6 slices)
½ cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine

PREPARATION
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking pan with foil; it should be large enough to hold the bacon in a single layer. Place bacon in pan and bake until lightly browned and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. While bacon cooks, mix remaining ingredients together.
Drain bacon fat from pan. Brush the bacon strips on both sides with the brown sugar mixture. Return bacon to the oven and cook another 10 minutes or so, until glaze is bubbling and darkened.
Remove bacon from the oven and transfer to a cutting board or platter lined with foil or parchment paper. Let cool about 15 minutes. Bacon should not be sticky to the touch. Cut each strip in thirds and arrange on a serving dish.”

I did not cut up the bacon – I divided it evenly between Mr. Friday and myself. With no apologies to Luke the wonder dog, who went without.

This is my standard recipe (practically foolproof) that I pull out for every occasion that calls for French toast: houseguests, Easter, vacation, first day of spring, Sundays, and even birthdays. It was featured once on Food52, although they did not use my illustration, which still makes me a little huffy.

We always have day-old French bread (in fact we have a collection of French bread in the freezer – we will never starve) and it always seems a sin and a shame to pitch it, so this is a delightful and economical way to be frugal consumers. And Mr. Friday loves the added kick of the rum on an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning.

Serves: 4
Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 5 min

Ingredients:
1 cup milk (or half and half)
1 pinch of salt
3 brown eggs (any will do, actually – brown are prettier)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg – grate it fresh – do NOT use dried out old dust in a jar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 generous dollop of rum
1 tablespoon brown sugar
8 1/2-inch slices of day-old French bread

Whisk milk, salt, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, rum and sugar until smooth. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium heat. Soak bread slices in mixture until super-saturated. Cook bread on each side for a couple of minutes, until golden brown. Serve with warm maple syrup and powdered sugar. If you add some strawberries and whipped cream it will remind you of the Belgian Waffles from the World’s Fair in the 60s. Childhood bliss!
https://food52.com/recipes/4622-weekend-french-toast

Your mother will thank you for this breakfast, especially if you remember to use cloth napkins, and if you wash up afterward. Then leave her alone to wander over to her Adirondack chair on the back porch, so she can read Normal People, all by herself.

Happy Mother’s Day!

“No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”
― Sally Rooney

​Sabine Harvey on Farmers’ Markets and Tea Parties ​

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While it may indeed take a village to do certain things; in Chestertown, the phrase might be turned around to say it takes a Sabine Harvey.

From the moment she arrived with Washington College professor Michael Harvey decades ago, Sabine has been one of those extraordinary quiet forces in Kent County in countless areas. From being a Girl Scout leader, to PTA president, to being the volunteer president of the Chestertown Tea Party festival, it is hard to a more actively engaged community member. All of comes after her doing her day job as a horticulture program assistant with the University Of Maryland extension program.

Now, more recently, Sabine has added the role of managing Chestertown’s Farmers’ Market (taking over from the late Owen McCoy) which gave the Spy all the more reason to catch up with her on all this remarkable activity. We finally connected at the Spy HQ last week.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about the Chestertown Tea Party please go here. For the Chestertown Farmers’ Market please go here.

Spy Maritime: The Genius of a Yachtman with Roger Vaughan

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It is hard to come up with a more proficient writer on the subject of yachting and competitive sailing that Oxford’s Roger Vaughan. In his sixty years of chronicling the sport, he has founded TheYacht Magazine, completed two books on the America’s Cup, as well as numerous profiles of such sailing icons as Ted Turner, Walter Cronkite, Harry Anderson and head coach of the Australian Olympic Sailing Team. His resume also includes articles written for s Life; Look; Esquire; Sports Illustrated; The New York Times Nautical Quarterly; National Geographic; Sailing/Cruising World; Sail; Oyster News; Vis-a-Vis, Sailing, and many others.

So there was little surprise when the Spy learned the other day that he had just completed another profile form the world of sailing. But, for the first time in Vaughan’s career, his subject, Arthur Curtiss James, had been long gone and buried for almost eighty years before he began this project.

Not only that but the legendary yachtsman, perhaps the one of the richest men in America during his lifetime, had also been one of the most private and discrete railroad barons of the gilded age. James, whose railroad empire covered more than a quarter of the country, left very little of a paper trail for any biographer to understand this brilliant polymath or how he had accomplished so much.

That was one of the reasons the Spy sought out Roger to talk about why Arthur Curtiss James: Unsung Titan of the Gilded Age, has been his most challenging effort yet in his long, distinguished career. We met at the Bullitt House a few weeks ago to understand more.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. Arthur Curtiss James: Unsung Titan of the Gilded Age is available here

 

 

 

 

Shall We Gather At The River by George Merrill

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I’ve not sailed for several years. I miss it.

I’ve arrived at that unhappy confluence where age and agility meet to send a strong message; for my own safety, at this stage in life, I’d be wise to consider other forms of recreation. I began sailing as a boy at fourteen on Raritan Bay and later on Long Island Sound. Today, although I live up a creek, my sailing days are over.

The other day I felt nostalgic about sailing on the Bay. We’d frequently go from home on Broad Creek to the upper reaches of the Tred Avon River for overnights. I remembered one late August morning motoring down the river. It was sunny and cool that day and I was in no hurry to get home. We had anchored up the river and in the morning, it was one of those still and lazy days when I didn’t ever want the trip to end. We were going just south of Oxford and probably doing three knots. I could hear the muffled gurgling of the motor’s discharge as it merged with our wake.  It made the boat sound as if it were mumbling about how slow we were moving.

Suddenly just ahead on the starboard bow something broke the water. I couldn’t make anything of it.  The surface broke again and then on the port side the same thing happened. Sure enough, dolphins were gamboling downriver with us, finding us agreeable enough to become our traveling companions. For me it was a first. I’d only seen dolphins in pictures. There’s nothing like seeing them surface – as if they were covered all over with mercury making them appear silver and shiny.

They followed us for some distance and finally, near Benoni Point, they submerged one after the other and I didn’t see them again.

Boating on a river is magical. Unlike being surrounded by the expanses of a wide-open Bay, which is a freeing kind of sensation, like watching stars, sailing on rivers is different. The shoreline provides visual boundaries, as the lure of a changing landscape captures our attention always anticipating what’s around the bend. Rivers meander, so that we make it around one bend only to find another waiting for us. The muffled sound of the motor and the hull’s smooth transit as it slides through the still water, sooths the spirit. It’s mesmerizing. Unlike the adrenaline rush I feel on a broad reach in a twenty-knot wind, this is gentler, like gliding.

I remember the sensation from childhood on a day liner going up the Hudson.

My grandfather skippered the Clermont and the DeWitt Clinton, day liners that left the west side of Manhattan to ply the Hudson River up to Bear Mountain and back. I remember being aboard watching the shoreline steadily rise on both sides as the liner made way north. I don’t remember the water ever being turbulent perhaps because the river was sheltered from wind on both sides by hills and mountains. And too, with the river’s meandering path, the wind couldn’t find a straightaway extensive enough to build up velocity. I remember motion as smooth and calm, the rhythmic thumping of the engines sounding like a heartbeat. Sometimes my grandfather let me stand by the wheelhouse.

I suspect those of us who have motored or sailed the Chesapeake Bay over the years have probably sailed more on its tributaries than on the Bay itself. The Bay has more rivers and streams than our bodies have capillaries.

Rivers characteristically meander. They lend themselves as the perfect metaphor for a spiritual journey. Nobody travels a spiritual journey in a straight line. If it’s going in a straight line you can be sure you’ve gotten off course. In this post-modern era, we have lost the sense of the holy that indigenous people have always felt about rivers and other bodies of water. The Ganges, the Jordon and with our own Columbia River, natives venerated them as sacred. “Shall we Gather at the River” is a beloved protestant hymn celebrating our ultimate reconciliation with God. Moses may have made it to the mountain top, but he was first launched on a river.

The first time I sailed up the Chester River was in late August. We’d sailed from Broad Creek to Corsica Creek to spend the night before going to up to Chestertown. We anchored just off what was then the Russian Embassy’s retreat compound at Pioneer Point, originally the John J. Raskob estate. It was a strange sight to see this lovely mansion, a traditional piece of   Americana, with the Soviet Union’s flag, with its hammer and sickle on a red background, flying from a pole on the lawn. It seemed sinister to me. We were being invaded by commies. As we sat in the cockpit having drinks, we’d take binoculars crouch down in the cockpit and furtively spy on the Russians walking around on the property. Odd they didn’t look all that different from Americans.

As a child, my mother read me Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows. I’ve remembered parts of it all these years; the charming antics of the characters like Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. Rat introduces Mole to the river that he lives on. Mole becomes enchanted with it and launches into a paean – lauding the river.  Grahame’s description reads like a psalm or even a canticle to the majesty of nature, something worthy of St. Francis of Assisi.

“Suddenly he (Mole) stood by the edge of a full/fed river. Never in his life had he seen a  river before – this sleek, sinuous, full bodied animal chasing and chuckling, gripping things  with a gurgle, and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shake  themselves free . . . all was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble”

You can feel Grahame’s excitement.

The river is inanimate yet it’s alive; ‘this sleek, sinuous and full-bodied animal’ –  it’s beautiful. The river turns this way and that, it takes hold and lets go; it plays, romps and teases playfully like a child. It’s like a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of some inward and spiritual grace, the grace of pure joy. Its properties mediate something divine – is it the beauty of holiness? Grahame sees and hears in the meandering waters of a river, in its inexorable course to the sea, a description of the passages our own lives take.

Speaking of the mystical properties imputed to water; when the Spanish first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, for its expansiveness and the sense of sanctuary it conveyed, they named it, The Bay of the Mother of God.

Holy Water is not confined to churches. God includes it as a part of nature’s largesse.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Food Friday: Heaps of Asparagus

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Spring is such a busy time of year.

Birds to watch: (don’t forget to clean out your hummingbird feeders and fill them up with fresh homemade nectar: 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Boil the water, add the sugar, dissolve sugar, cool, pour. Easy peasy and super cheap – do NOT add any red food coloring as you will kill our little harbingers of joy. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/hummingbird-nectar-recipe).

Gardens to mulch: I am using newspapers and mulch this year. No more black fabric. And I have very presentable hydrangea beds, and the roses are happy again. It is such a great concept – supporting our local (and national) scribes, and recycling, without contributing to landfill. I haven’t gone too radical because I have topped the newspaper with garden center-mulch, but you can skip that step if you don’t mind looking at the newspaper. I want to control the weeds without using Round Up, and I am just a wee bit proud of the hydrangeas this year, so I am adding the mulch. https://www.bbg.org/news/using_newspaper_as_mulch

Gardens to plant: We are simplifying this year; tomatoes and hollyhocks in the raised bed, basil, garlic and petunias in the back porch container garden, roses in the side garden, with some daisies for contrast, hydrangeas and yellow day lilies around the back, and day lilies and daisies in front of the spent azaleas in front. Last year we went to town with the raised bed, and learned our lesson about over-planting. Two people do not need eight tomato plants, a dozen bean plants and half a dozen pepper plants. The beans, while they made a great art installation, produced exactly two bean pods. We had the Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar in our side yard. I am sure the neighbors were highly amused.

Mass quantities of farm-fresh spring fruits and vegetables to gobble up: The farmers’ market has been a delight! Have you seen the heaps of asparagus? Holy smokes. We need to have a spargelfest like they do in Germany. https://www.tripsavvy.com/spargel-festivals-in-germany-1519702 It sounds more crowded than visiting tulips in Holland, or even the ever-popular Oktoberfest.

Sadly, I have just learned that apparently we have been cooking asparagus the wrong way. One of my kitchen gods, Vivian Howard, has taken to posting video cooking tips on her Instagram feed on Tuesdays. And she just said that our tried and true way of roasting asparagus on a cookie sheet is bad! Look her up yourself, https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/18029276176187339/ or put up with the annoying ads from the Southern Living website: https://www.southernliving.com/kitchen-assistant/vivian-howard-instagram-tips-asparagus

It makes me sad that we have been committing crimes against nature, but it has always tasted wonderful, and we learned how from a friend who worked at Bon Appétit Magazine. I guess the times they are changing, and we had best move with them. Otherwise, it’s back to 8-tracks and cassettes. https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-asparagus-recipe-1916355

Ways to consume your fair share of asparagus: roasted (if you want to feel Vivian Howard’s deep and shaming disappointment in you), stir-fried, butter braised, blanched, boiled, raw, shaved, in pesto, in a frittata, as part of an antipasto, baked, pickled, puréed, grilled, fried in tempura batter, or in a salad. That should keep you busy for a while.

Here is one of my all-time favorites, from Nancy Taylor Robson – from our early days at The Chestertown Spy: https://food52.com/recipes/4034-springtime-asparagus-by-nancy-taylor-robson

The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow. I hope you have your hats ready, julep cups polished and your mint picked. After you have boiled up the humming bird nectar, you can make some simple syrup for your own nectar – Mint Juleps: https://food52.com/recipes/27858-mint-julep

“Marriage? It’s like asparagus eaten with vinaigrette or hollandaise, a matter of taste but of no importance.”
-Francoise Sagan

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