Thursday, March 29, 2012


More because of their round leaves than their bright flowers, I have always loved nasturtiums. Every leaf is a little different, never perfectly round. They remind me of sand dollars or water lily pads. Reading about nasturtiums on Wikipedia, I learned that the correct terminology for such leaves is "peltate", meaning shield-shaped. Nasturtiums are native to South and Central America.

They do well in Houston in the spring before the insufferable humid heat of summer arrives,or can be planted in the fall for color over mild winters. This year I used a variety pack of seeds from Renee's Garden, not really thinking about what that meant. While most of the plants come in at 6 - 12", others have yet to reach their final dimensions, displaying viney qualities I never knew were possible. One vine in the backyard is crawling over a 8' tall lemon tree, and that's not including its place of origin in a large pot, so possibly it is as long as 14'. Monster nasturtiums! Plus they are making lots of seeds, so maybe next year I can cover the planet in nasturtiums.

This intriguing flower and its leaves are edible, but a bit spicy, and are best pulled apart into small pieces and mixed in with sweeter greens. I've never put them on a cake but maybe I will this Easter as I certainly have plenty to spare. I've just learned that the seeds can be used as a substitute for capers. They are also great companion flowers as they repel various insects such as cucumber beetles. That's it for my quick roundup on all things nasturtium... If you are a gardener, happy spring planting and let's hope for an easy summer ahead!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Visiting the Varner-Hogg Plantation, West Columbia, TX

Kitchens are my favorite rooms to see when visiting historic homes. Our tour guide at the Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia saved the best for last when he took us into the large kitchen, leading us on by asking us to guess what the oldest thing in the room was. Not the cook stove, not the cast iron pots. No, it was the kneading table shown above, exact date of origin unknown, but easily well before 1776, this low table doubles its usefulness with a trough below designed as a place to put the dough while it was rising, something I found most ingenious.

I've always liked round convex mirrors (often associated with the Federal period of architecture), but now I know some of the reasoning behind their design. Their rounded-out surface reflects three times the candlelight that would have been the only lighting in the days before electricity.

Seen in the painting above, Ima Hogg (1882 - 1975) was the beloved doyenne of decorative arts in the Houston area. Her father, James ("Big Jim") Hogg (1851 - 1906) was the 20th Governor of the state of Texas and bought the plantation in West Columbia in 1901. The family used it mostly as a summer house (their main home being Bayou Bend in River Oaks, Houston) and as a place to entertain. During the span of the plantation's lifetime, several families owned it and is was put to use for cotton and sugar cane farming, and after Mr. Hogg died, oil was found there, the basis for much of the Hogg family wealth. A large pecan tree orchard on the plantation still operates on sort of a sharecropping philosophy; in the fall, visitors can register to pick up the fallen nuts to share 50/50 with the Texas Historical Commission, which operates the historical site.

My husband and I have resolved to take one day trip per month. We'll see if that is a doable resolution, but there are plenty of sights unseen to us in Houston's surrounding counties. Since Tom is a cabinetmaker, he especially enjoys seeing the workmanship evident in historic homes. Best book for dreaming up day trips (even though some of the restaurants listed are long gone): Shifra Stein's Day Trips from Houston: Getaways Less Than Two Hours Away (GPP Travel, 2008) by Carol Barrington.

3 of 4 photos by KAO

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Think Jack London meets Alice Hoffman. The Snow Child (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) by Eowyn Ivey is a both a tale of Alaskan survival and a gossamer white wonderland of magical realism. I did not want to let this book go back to the library after I finished it. I wanted to hug it to myself, but then again, might that have melted the girl known as the snow child?

When we first meet the red-mittened little girl, she seems to be the sisterly incarnation of a snow sculpture built by Jack and Mabel, newbie Alaskan homesteaders, facing a tough winter during the 1920s. Mabel has never gotten over the loss of their stillborn baby and feels near suicidal. When a little sprite with blond hair begins to dance in and out of the forest surrounding their cabin, who knows if she is real? No one, including her husband believes Mabel's tales. But Mabel's heart has turned over and she is happy beyond belief to start nurturing the snow child in whatever way she can. At this point, I was unsure myself if the child was real, and it caused a fine air of suspense.

I'll give you this much: yes, the girl is real. Her name is Faina. She lives by her wits. She knows how to hunt and forage. She has raised a red fox from puppyhood. When Faina starts to spend time with Mabel and Jack (he comes to love her, too), threads of familial feelings grow amongst them. Mabel and Jack also make friends with a couple named Esther and George. One of their sons becomes Jack's helper. And so before our eyes, community is built, warm fires lit and many winters survived. Whenever Faina disappears for a season or two, as she is want to do, readers will worry, spellbound. What is to become of Faina. Can such a wild child be tamed? Should she be tamed? What kind of woman will she become? Read it and see.....

Eowyn Ivey is a native Alaskan and it shows. She has worked as a reporter and bookseller. I love the poetic sound of her name. She is named her after a Lord of the Rings Tolkien character. She and her husband are raising their children out in the Alaskan wilderness. I can't wait to see what Eowyn Ivey writes next!