of grandmothers, gardens, and thanksgiving, with katrina kenison
AT THE HOLIDAYS we surround ourselves with family and friends, and so with Thanksgiving just ahead, I wanted to do just that on the radio show and podcast – invite someone special over. You may know Katrina Kenison from our past exchanges here, where we have swapped lentil soup recipes, or written each other a series of letters about the prospect of being not quite as young as we used to be.
Katrina lives, and gardens, in New Hampshire (that’s the gate to her place, above), and is the author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” and “Magical Journey,” and now she has created a brand new book, called “Moments of Seeing: Reflections from an Ordinary Life.”
As I was reading through the essays in it last week, one really got to me–speaking of the subject of friends and family. I thought it’s time for you to meet Katrina in person, too.
We compared notes on our gardens (and the lessons therein), on the influence of our grandmothers, and Katrina even shared her Cranberry-Orange Nut Bread recipe, just in time for the festive season.
Read along as you listen to the Nov. 21, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
grandmothers, gardens and more with katrina kenison
Q. Congratulations on the new book–and as writer myself, who has published books in the conventional way, I praise you for being brave enough to go ahead and publish it yourself. It’s something I have thought about, but never done.
A. It was so much fun to be hands-on, for this entire process. As you know I worked in publishing for years; I was an editor before I became a writer. In all those years and in all the books I got to work on, I never got to choose paper, or pick the font, or decide what was going to be on the cover.
This time it was almost like having a potluck. I just reached out to my friends. Like when you are having a potluck, you reach out to the ones you know are good cooks to bring the main courses. I reached out to some friends who stepped up to copy edit and design, and a local painter for the beautiful painting on the cover.
And then my husband’s small company published it, because they publish nature identification guides and beautiful cards—they’re all set up to do that kind of thing. And then God bless him my son Henry came in and packed up about 600 advance orders when the books arrived, and sent them out. So it was friends and family.
Q. And that’s the theme of today. Another Thanksgiving is imminent. Are those Jerusalem artichokes that tried to overtake your garden on the Thanksgiving menu for your family this year?
A. You would have to bring that up, wouldn’t you? [Laughter.]
Q. We were Skyping back and forth during their invasion.
A. I’m just going to say this: I learned this lesson the hard way. When a patch of vigorous volunteer plants appears in your garden, and you send a photo to your much wiser garden friend and she says that you ought to get rid of them, you should heed that advice.
A. Instead, I just kind of became fascinated at the way these things grew like 4 inches overnight, and I loved that they were 10 feet tall and then 12 feet tall, and then there they were blooming at the end of September.
Well, little did I know, as you sat quietly by at this point, that meanwhile they were also sending out this completely impenetrable tangle or roots and tubers that spread—the only way I can describe it is like wall-to-wall carpeting underneath my entire garden.
Q. My goodness.
A. You remember this, right? I spent the whole first month of the gardening season basically digging out every plant in my garden, and then digging out these humongous piles of tubers. So of course I went to Wikipedia looking for what do I have here, and with Jerusalem artichokes I could have sautéed them, and eaten them, but: No thank you.
I actually think I now have this lifelong phobia—I don’t know if there is a word of someone who is terrified of tubers, but that would be me.
Q. [Laughter.] Of course they’re wonderful, our one native tuberous sunflower, and great in many ways—but unmanageable in a garden setting. So good for you—and I guess you’re not serving them for Thanksgiving.
Some years I do so well and pat myself on the back, feeling excited when I come to the Thanksgiving table at my sister’s and bring the side dishes that are all homegrown–sweet and white potatoes, Brussels sprouts, ingredients like the onions and sage in the stuffing, winter squash for soup.
This year we have been in a drought in my region and yours, the Northeast, and all I have to really offer besides parsley and sage to put in the stuffing is the ‘Butternut’ squash that did OK that I will make the soup out of.
But I feel like a loser. [Laughter.] Thankfully I have farmer neighbors who did better, and I will buy from them.
What’s on your family holiday menu–anything from the garden?
A. Our holiday menu might as well be carved in stone, so little has it changed over the years. Maybe we use a little bit less butter, a little less cream. Some years ago I started insisting on a green salad on the table, next to the marshmallow salad.
A. But I think one reason my 80-year-old mother is still making the Thanksgiving dinner, is that everyone is worried that when she passes the baton to me, I’ll start changing things up and it will be herbs and fresh vegetables and God knows if I would ever get a turkey on the table.
Somehow I managed to get to this ripe old age of 58 without ever cooking a turkey.
Q. And I’m a vegetarian for 40ish years, and I’ve even cooked turkeys.
A. I’m not proud of it; I’m a good cook. But honestly I’ll never come close to my Mom in getting a Thanksgiving meal on the table. Every year she says, “Well, this is the last time I’m doing it.” Well, she’s now putting her 54th Thanksgiving feast on the table.
My contribution will be the pies. But it will also be that green salad—and often it is with arugula I’m kind of tending here in my little garden, saving for the Thanksgiving salad. I’ll probably manage a few leaves from what I call my little Leaf Garden outside the kitchen door.
Q. I was going to ask you about your Leaf Garden, which you’ve told me about. the woodchuck whom you’ve asked me for advice about on many occasions—since I’m a woodchuck expert.
A. And you, the non-violent person, says just shoot him. [Laughter.]
Q. No, I did not say that. [Laughter.]
A. Did I imagine that? I think I just want to shoot him.
Q. Just so people know, on the occasions that I have woodchucks, I live-trap them and hire a licensed nuisance wildlife handler—someone with a DEC license—to come and transport him. In my area we are permitted to do that, and it’s according to regulations. I do it by the legal live trap and relocate method.
So what is a Leaf Garden—is it like a salad garden?
A. It’s kind of salad and anything leafy. I didn’t even try other vegetables this year, and gave up on keeping the lawn watered very early in the summer. But I had this little patch right outside the kitchen door, and that was manageable and also precious to me. I grew arugula and kale and Swiss chard and mesclun and all my herbs.
I kept that watered, and it has been probably the most abundant little garden that I have ever had—and maybe part of it was that it was so small that I could take good care of it, In return it thanked me by putting greens on my table all through the summer and even now, as I said, I am still snipping a few arugula leaves and the Swiss chard, which I thought was done, has been growing back since it’s been warm out.
I’ll be frying up a few of the sage leaves just to toss on my mother’s squash, renegade that I am bringing fresh herbs to the table. [Laughter.]
Q. [Laughter.] I think that’s a really good lesson, actually, what you just said about that “precious but small.” When the environment—the climate, the weather—isn’t cooperating in a given year with our efforts, or when things just get ahead of us, I think it is good to scale down and to make something work well, but not to expect to try to manage all the bases, which is impossible.
I decided that it was just the winter squash—I have one patch just for that. I know that organic winter squash costs $2.49 a pound, and a squash can be 6 pounds or whatever, and I knew that if I took good care of that one patch, I was going to get a good yield that was worth dollars and deliciousness. [Laughter.]
That’s what I did. You had your leaf garden, I had my winter squash.
A. And don’t you think, Margaret, too that it’s like a life lesson—another of those lessons in the garden that we can apply to life? That you can’t do it all, or grow it all, and you have to pick what’s important to you. For me, arugula is probably my favorite thing in the garden, so I’ll put all my effort into arugula while you grow your squash.
Q. And hopefully other years we can do more, but not this year. Speaking of life lessons, there is an essay in the new book, called “Love Like a Grandmother.” As I read it, I was really moved—and it wasn’t something we had ever talked about in all the years we had known each other, which I found interesting.
My maternal grandmother, Grandma Marion, was such an important figure in my life, and taught me to garden and so on. Can you tell us about this essay, and maybe even read us a little something?
A. My grandmother was a housewife, so by any account her life was ordinary. She’s been gone for almost 40 years now, but I find myself thinking more and more these days about the legacy she left me. It wasn’t money, or things, but it was this legacy of kindness and unconditional love, and forgiveness. That’s really what this essay is about.
When I was a little girl of 6 or 7 years old, I broke her most precious possession, which was a lamp that had traveled throughout her very modest life with her—from the little town in Maine where she grew up, to this little ranch house my grandfather built for her, in which she ended her days. She did not have much of material value in her life, but this lamp as beautiful, and it was precious to her, and in a very reckless moment after I had been asked to stop rough-housing in her living room and had ignored her, I swung a bath towel around my head and shattered it.
So the essay is about how she couldn’t put that lamp back together, nor did she try, but she didn’t shout at me, or spank me—there were none of the recriminations I would have had at home. But she put me back together, my own shattered self.
So it’s really an essay about forgiveness. I’ve been reading it [at book-related events] for many reasons, but mainly because I think that any bit of love we can bring into the world right now is a good thing.
Invariably when I start to red the description of my grandmother, people start nodding and laughing—I think those of who are of a certain age, many of us has a certain kind of grandmother. So there is this recognition of this person who just doesn’t exist in this world any more.
I’d love to read the description of her from the essay, and see if this is your grandmother, too:
MY GRANDMOTHER–Wilda was her name—was a housedress-and-apron kind of grandmother. There were always molasses cookies in the jar, a dried-up Lipton tea bag by the sink waiting to be used a second time, a half-stick of butter softening in a dish by the stove. She kept her collection of china tea cups on proud display in the dining room, a stack of magazines—“The Ladies Home Journal,” “Family Circle,” and “McCall’s”— by her chair, recipes copied by hand into a falling-apart notebook, antimacassars tacked into place along the back of the sofa, hard butterscotch candies in a covered glass dish, Laurence Welk on the TV, witch hazel and a big blue jar of Vicks and a flesh colored bottle of calamine lotion in the bathroom cabinet, lace-trimmed hankies in the top right dresser drawer, a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum down at the bottom of her black handbag, amid the lipstick-stained tissues. (Gum that she would generously dispense, though always by the half piece, to make it last longer.)
I see her now in my mind’s eye, this small, kind, busy woman, pushing her huge brown Hoover vacuum across the flowered carpet, its bright headlight illuminating the path ahead. There was always a seriousness to her work, care taken but no fuss made, simply another dinner to be prepared, more dishes to wash, a shopping list for tomorrow to be written out on the back of an envelope.
Is that your Grandma, too?
[Read the whole essay, “Love Like a Grandmother,” on Katrina’s website.]
Q. Yes, she was; Marion was like that, too. She was a Victorian lady and her garden was her great refuge and there were always plants in the house—she loved houseplants as well. There were always fresh-cut things. One of my first plant memories was sitting on the patio under the lattice-like wooden trellis, with wisteria vines growing on it. I can remember sitting on it with my younger sister, on the lounge chair, and looking at the wisteria pods dangling down—one of my earliest visuals.
And zinnias—she always grew zinnias.
A. My Grandma, too—zinnias and petunias.
Q. And no flower was too common—they were special, and she elevated them; they were cherished. That has been an important lesson for me, that just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s not worthy.
In that essay that you just read a little from, you said in setting it up that you had like the wild child that you were at that moment, you had swung a towel around and crashed the lamp. Later in the essay, you say (and I am paraphrasing) that there is an understanding that people don’t get up in the morning intending to smash a lamp and break something precious—and you didn’t get up that morning meaning to.
And she knew that, and so there was forgiveness. I thought that was such a great thing—and again, in the spirit of the holiday I think of coming to the table with that kind of compassion and forgiveness. That’s where my brain is at, at the moment, and why it spoke to me—besides that we had grandmothers of a certain era who were incredible homemakers.
A. And I think especially for Thanksgiving week, to bear that in mind: that none of us get up in the morning intending to do harm in any way, and yet we sit down at these big family tables, and we’re not thinking, “I came here to insult Uncle Pete today.” [Laughter.] But Uncle Pete may well be insulted if we’re not careful.
This idea of perhaps more than ever being attentive to our deeds and our language and our hearts—taking good care of our own hearts but also taking care of everyone else’s as well.
Q. One of the recurring themes I find reading your new book, as I have in all your writing over the years, is how many times—just as for me, and maybe this is one reason we connected when we met—is that nature has proven to be a place of solace for you. Both of us are rural dwellers at this time in our lives, but were not always.
I find again and again when things are swirling around us, there is refuge there.
A. It’s this realization that even when the world is in chaos, I can still kind of tap in and connect to my own inner peace, to that still place within me. But it’s much easier to do when I am outdoors, when my feet are on the ground, when I have dirt in my hands. I find that if I am in the house or reading something, or even working in the house, I am much more at the mercy of my emotions. As soon as I am outside I am reminded that there are forces at work here that are so much greater than I am. To put myself in that place. And also something that struck me: I heard Cheryl Strayed quoted on the radio recently, saying something her mother had said to her. It was, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.”
For me and for you, too, we need only to step outside our front door to do that.
Q. I had a flock of turkeys today before I was on my way over to tape at the station. I’ve seen them a million times, but the male was out fanning and strutting, and I thought, “Wow, this just lifts you. It’s incredible.”
A. Making the choice to go deeper into the mystery. I know every time I do that, it’s like my anxiety starts to be transformed into wonder.
Q. I know from having been the recipient of some care packages with your return address on them that you love to bake. Maybe that’s the result of having raised two sons who ate a lot of cookies and pies and cakes. Speaking of traditional holiday recipes, would you care to share the bread with us that your family makes for Christmas but that would be good for Thanksgiving, too?
A. That’s the Cranberry-Orange Nut Bread. For years I had that recipe on this little pink file card, in my mother’s handwriting, living in fear of losing that file card. There were a couple of years I couldn’t find it; which cookbook did I stick it into, why didn’t I have it in a good place?
Finally I put that recipe up on my blog mainly so I would never lose it again myself.
Q. [Laughter.] Google search.
A. Right. Search myself for my recipe. I love this recipe because it’s very quick and foolproof and easy to make. I do it with organic fresh cranberries and I don’t chop them up; I just throw them into the batter.
The recipe makes two full-sized loaves, so double the recipe and you have four—one to keep and three to give away. Or pour that batter in to little loaf pans and suddenly you have a whole bunch of presents, and you can take them as a little hostess gift.
I usually start making that bread in November, and make it a few times between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It has cloves, and grated orange rind, and fresh orange juice.
Q. I know what you mean about those recipe cards—I still have many of my Grandmother’s and she’s been gone for many decades—and having to put them in a safe place.
more from katrina kenison
- Order Katrina’s new book (signed copies)
- Visit Katrina’s blog
- Get her Cranberry-Orange Nut Bread recipe
- Read “Love Like a Grandmother,” the full essay
- Katrina’s and my letters about aging
how to win the signed books
TO ENTER TO WIN a signed copy of “Moments of Seeing,” Katrina Kenison’s latest book, simply comment below, answering the question:
What hand-me-down from your grandmother–whether garden-related, or a recipe, or just some advice or a funny memory–do you want to share? (Or maybe your grandfather was the one you gleaned something enduring from–that’s fine, too.)
No answer to the question, or simply feeling shy? No worry; just say “count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but a reply is even better. Winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, November 27, 2016. Good luck to all.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 21, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photographs from Katrina Kenison; used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)