The Sweetest Time of the Year

It’s April, and despite having the earliest start on Stannard Farm that we can recall (late February!), we are still going along. No, we haven’t been boiling every day since February. In fact, it’s almost as if there were two seasons this year. In between the early start and this last week, we’ve only made a barrel here and a barrel there in between cold snaps and days that really didn’t get quite warm enough for our trees to start flowing. Now that spring is here, our sap has been flowing strongly for a week and we’re getting in our season while everyone else is wrapping up theirs. It’s not unlikely that this will be the new normal for us. Without getting political, let’s just say that I do believe in climate change and that we are moving towards more and more erratic weather patterns, with record highs in February and record lows in March becoming common winter weather.

So what does that actually mean for our farm family? It means a couple of things. First, it means we don’t have one three-week long sugaring intensive. This has pro’s and con’s — it’s easier to keep up with the other parts of life but it also means that for weeks on end you need to be on your toes and ready to sugar at a moment’s notice. Second, it means my set-up is disrupted for weeks on end. Usually my packing and boxing supplies are set up in the sugarhouse but this time of year, everything is packed away to make room for sugaring. This is all well and good when sugaring season lasts three weeks. But when it goes on and on, I end up needing to pack syrup. We pull the hoppers (20 gallon stainless steel guys we heat the maple syrup in before hot-packing it) out of the sugarhouse attic. We bring the empty jugs up from storage. We move barrels of maple syrup up from storage. And as I pack, I have literally nowhere to put the jugs of maple syrup so they get moved back to storage as soon as they are cool enough to handle. One day as Ly was on the cusp of getting sick and inconsolable unless I was holding her, I moved over 100 jugs of maple syrup with her strapped to my back. True story.

What is my point in all of this? My point is that farming is hard. Most jobs have moments of hard in them, it is called “work” after all. Farming takes more than hard work, it takes everything. But unlike many other jobs, it gives you everything right back. The land, the satisfaction of working with your hands, the pride in making something that you share, that provides sweet sustenance to your family and to other families. There is nothing else like this. This sugaring season I spent more time in the sugarhouse than I ever have. James and I cuddled up on hot barrels of maple syrup on colder days while I waited to throw more wood on the fire. I climbed ladders and sprayed down foaming sap. I flung droplets of organic safflower oil into the maple syrup to keep it from boiling over. I threw wood on the fire, learning to mix wet, green wood with dry wood to produce an even fire. I shared fresh sap with James.







But the weather this season was not the only thing on my mind. We have been steadily increasing our maple syrup sales since we were first certified organic in 2007 and are at a point where we may need to invest in new packing equipment and in expanding, or perhaps we stay where we are and possibly contract a little. It depends on a lot of factors. How much time can Travis put into the farm, do I want to work off-farm part or full-time or do I want to throw myself into sugaring? Can I see my west coast family regularly if I am a full-time farmer? How are the kids doing? Can we keep relying on occasional bits of free labor from Travis’ younger sisters as they buy houses, start families, build careers? For me, family farming has become a microcosm for all the big questions I have asked myself and continue to ask myself as I grow up (and I suspect I’ll be growing up all my life).

These choices our family is facing are not unique, the maple landscape is changing in Vermont and elsewhere. There are now 30,000 – 50,000 tap operations (perspective: we tap 6000 trees, and each tree needs a person to come by with a drill and a tap, we can’t expand production much more and stay at a family-scale of labor). It seems this concerns some sugarmakers but not others, read here and here for brief, somewhat contrasting views.

And if maple family farming is a microcosm for my life’s questions, I think it is also a microcosm for farming in general. It’s old news that family farms, despite being the foundation of Jeffersonian democracy and the iconic American image, yeoman farmer and all that, are on the decline and have been for years.

farms over time

It seems to me there are two directions to go: forward with ever-increasing technology and ever-less hands, or move laterally to a new kind of rural economy. In this kind of economy, farms are more diversified — this means there is insurance built in for the years when one harvest does not do well, and it means there might be more room for part-time or full-time work off-farm, or value-added or agri-tourism work on-farm or alongside the farm. In this kind of economy there are partnerships and networks linking farms to local institutions to provide food, or siting a food operation that can pull from some of the farm labor in the area. Farms are both less the focus of the economy and, at a small scale, more prevalent and embedded in the economy. Once upon a time, everyone had a cow and a garden. I’m not suggesting we all return to that, but I am suggesting there is a lesson to be learned.

I don’t know what the rise of big maple means for Vermont, or what the overall decline in farming means in the U.S. But I am here in Vermont because I believe devoutly that farming needs to be a part of my children’s life. So whether I decide to work off-farm or not, whether The Reynolds Family sugars a little or a lot, I know that April will always be the sweetest time of the year.





I’d Tap That

It’s March and we’re into the earliest sugaring season we’ve ever had. I’d planned to spend January and February learning everything I could about tapping trees, but somehow that didn’t happen. I spent my time keeping up with maple sales, going to annual meetings (held in January so produce farmers aren’t inconvenienced), picking up or dropping the kiddos, making drops and placing spouts.

Drops, pipeline, spouts…. all part of the tapping process. Tapping a tree is literally that – you walk around with a drill (cordless these days!) and drill a hole into the tree then place the spout that is connected to the pipeline with a drop (also pipeline, just a short piece) into the tree and gently thunk it into place with a hammer. The pipeline stays up year round, and we’ve found that the most effective way to tap trees is to divide the work into two tasks. The first person walks up and down the lines snipping off the ends of the pipeline (snipping off the end ensures a more sanitary draw off this year’s run of sap and then in some years, like this one, you add a new drop to re-lengthen out the line that you’ve been snipping away at for the past few years) and then connecting the new drop with the attached spout by using a heavy weird piece of hand machinery that serves no other purpose. The next person comes along, decides where to place the spout (you want to distribute your tapholes evenly around the tree to minimize any stress to the tree), drills, thunks, done. Next tree.

This sounds basic enough, and it is. But, like life generally, it gets tricky. First off, you’re walking in the snow and, in our sugarwoods, going up a hill. At its best, this is good hard work, like a satisfying hike. At its worst, you end up scrambling / crawling up a hill while wearing snowshoes that get in the way, trying not to get clunked in the knee by the heavy metal tools you are carrying and wishing you had a third hand to carry your bag of spouts. Oh, and you are paying such close attention to not missing any tapped trees that you get perpetually whipped in the face by maple saplings. Good stuff.

At first, the tangle of pipelines running up and down the mountain looked like a huge mess to me, but as I spent days in the woods, the geometry of the layout started to appear. And much like the satisfaction I got from deciphering the Metro maps in Paris or the BART lines in the Bay Area, when I could start to see the layout of the individual lines winging off the bigger lines leading to the mainlines, I felt a sense of triumph. That triumph was short-lived when, inevitably, John or Travis or Nick would identify a short line I missed. I took to simply contradicting them and deciding that they were mistaken, I didn’t miss a line. It was the only possible dignified defense.

Of course, being told I missed a line was nowhere near as humbling as being told I placed a spout at a dead tree. Trees die over the course of the year and sometimes it’s clear because they are snapped in half from wind or heavy snow or a fungus has gotten to them. Sometimes you don’t know they’re dead until you start to drill and you can hear the difference in the texture of the wood. Or sometimes you are so absorbed in your task, in moving from tree to tree through the snow, that you put a spout at a 10-foot tall maple stump and your husband almost falls over laughing when he notices.

My first time out I had Lytle and had to put her on my back. She enjoyed it at first, then protested a bit, then fell asleep. This was for the best as I was frequently ducking under lines to move from one side to the other, and she slept through my crouching and crawling under lines, trying not to get her backpack frame stuck. She fell asleep with her head nodded forward, also a good strategic choice as her face was shielded from whippy sapling branches. I don’t recommend backpacking it with super little kids on tapping day, but I’m looking forward to taking James out on a warmer day to walk lines, or maybe after sugaring season to pull spouts (the spouts can’t stay in the tree year round).









Truth be told, it wasn’t a satisfying tapping season for me. I didn’t learn to use a cordless drill on a tree. I never had a charming trailside lunch or sipped cocoa out of a thermos that looked like it used to belong to a coal miner. And I never really made it out into the sugarwoods more than 5 or 6 times for one reason or another.

But now that the sap is running and we are boiling, I walk into the sugarhouse and smell the maple syrup, I throw wood on the fire, I breathe in the lovely humid sap-steamed air and I remember my frozen hands and feet. I remember my sore legs. I remember the heavy awkward tools. I remember the pride I felt when I recognized a dead tree and did not put a spout on it. And I think about next January. Yeah, I’ll tap that.

I Think I’m Just Going Through a Transition

When I finished graduate school in Burlington in 2007, Travis started a PhD program in Seattle and I stayed in Vermont to work at a non-profit. We literally had Thanksgivings with each other’s families. I had moved from Burlington to Montpelier and started to sublet-hop, living in 4 different homes in just 15 months.

This was a difficult 15 months, although also really great. I lived mostly on my own for the first time in my life, on good terms with roommates but not close with any of them. Liking my co-workers and liking my work, but not being consumed by it the way grad school consumed me. I didn’t have any friends in town and spent a lot of my time alone. I missed Travis, and having a thriving social life, but I also appreciated the quiet.

I’ve been a journaler since my teens, and found that with more downtime, I was writing more in my journal. At some point during the bleak and silent white winter I started re-reading journal passages and found, in one variation or another, the phrase, “I think I’m just going through a transition right now” in almost every entry as I wrote about loneliness, not sure if I should follow a boyfriend, what would I do in Seattle, did I want a desk job, what was the meaning of life, oh my lord. I felt suddenly ridiculous and sort of snapped out of it. It’s a thin line between self-reflecting and taking yourself too seriously.

So understand what I say when I say: I just think I’m going through a transition right now. My kids are 6 and almost 3, ready to move forward without the support of a mostly stay-at-home mom (Ly’s therapy appointments and intentional playtime notwithstanding). Travis and I are ready to transition more of our time and energy to the farm. I’m ready to move back into the workplace, part-time or full-time. I’m ready to take on a regular yoga teaching schedule for the first time since Ly was born. It’s a whole lot of big fat transitioning. So it’s apt that this blog of mine is about to transition too.

I love writing about food and kitchen fun, especially when it involves my kids. But there are so many other good food blogs out there. I will never be queen of the recipe, and as much as I love the science of cooking, I do not have the time to devote to researching the different molecular stages of candy-making (although seriously, sugar crystals really are amazing things). Write what you know, but also write what you can. So here is what I can write about, and will be writing about as Travis and I manage these large shifts in our lives over the next couple of years:

  • Apples, learning to apple farm, making my first batch of homemade apple cider vinegar. I got some really awesome pruning shears for Christmas that I’ll need to write about (see photo with James below).
  • Learning to tap trees and actually make syrup, not just consuming it and selling it. And consuming it some more.
  • Budgets. We are looking at focusing more on the farm and inevitably this means our time and income in other places will change. Time to really crack down on our spending, and I’ll share all the nitty-gritty of budgeting while married.
  • Food that is meant to be prepared easily when swamped, cheaply when budgeting, and eaten trailside while holding a cordless drill.
  • Learning to chainsaw. I’ve emailed the local experts about signing up for a class.
  • Possibly learning to drive a tractor. Possibly not.
  • And always balancing life with being the mom I hope to be, holding hands and letting go at just the right moment.

I just really think I’m going through a transition right now. 2016, so long. And 2017, let’s get started. We’ve got work to do.












Time to Normalize

I’ve spoken in passing about Lytle having Down syndrome, but October is DS Awareness month, and I think this is a good opportunity to have a conversation about “normal”.

Lytle is, by some standards, not normal. She was born with a genetic condition called Trisomy 21, which means that instead of having two #21 chromosomes she has three. Down syndrome affects all kids differently, as all kids have their own unique genetic make-up that combines with their own unique home life and unique experiences. But, generally, their learning and development is delayed. Ly was sitting up by 9 months, crawling by 18 months, and walking at about 21 months. At 32 months or so she now has many signs and half-words but is still a ways off from the toddler-speak we frequently associate with a child who will be 3 in a few months.

Lytle is also, by most standards, incredibly normal. She laughs. She is full of mischief. She loves her family. She charms strangers. She brings books to me. She wants to get into everything I am doing, whether it’s “helping” me brush my teeth, answering my cell phone, going through my wallet, or ripping the page out of the library book I am reading. She managed to turn her father’s laptop screen upside down and has figured out how to play her favorite Frozen song on the computer. She resists eating vegetables. She climbs on anything she can reach. She plays with her brother. She loves bath-time.

Ly was a bit of a surprise diagnosis, she slid by two ultrasounds, three check-ins from the hospital pediatrician and two visits with her own pediatrician before he suggested we see a pediatric genetics specialist. And I won’t lie, the diagnosis was hard to take at first. Travis banned me from Google at one point. And then a few weeks later she had her heart checked (40% of DS kiddos have congenital heart problems) and the cardiologist identified a ventricular septal defect, a VSD. I nodded intelligently and made appropriate “hmmm” sounds as he showed me the ultrasound, made serious eyes and said “okay” when he said he would classify her hole as a large one, and then burst into tears when he said he wanted to schedule open-heart surgery in three weeks. We had to go into business mode and I stopped grieving for the life I thought my daughter would have and started concentrating on the life that she did have. It was a blessing. The staff were wonderful, she came out of surgery pink and nursing better and she started gaining weight. We started seeing therapists and Ly started developing. And we were a family with two kids, doing what families with two kids do.

Of course, there are hard days. The day at the library where the other 2-year old told his mom he didn’t like the way Lytle’s tongue was hanging out (DS kiddos usually have low muscle tone, including in their mouths). And my heart broke. His mom said all the right things and smiled at me, but there it was. A 2 year old who had only recently mastered object permanence could see my daughter’s difference a mile away. You can’t kick a 2 year old (well, you could, but you shouldn’t). You can’t kick the world. And thankfully most days I don’t feel the need to. Ly, as I mentioned, could charm the pants off any stranger. She makes us all laugh, she snuggles into my shoulder and melts my heart. And I have actually really enjoyed the therapy sessions, the yoga instructor in me geeks out on the physical stuff and I like watching her learn and respond to speech and occupational therapy. Just because she doesn’t learn as quickly as her brother James doesn’t mean she’s not learning, and we celebrate every milestone.

What don’t I do? I don’t read the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I read about the neurology of sign language. I read about the cognition of mental mapping. I am inspired by people like William Stokoe who, in the 1960s when sign language was stigmatized, recognized it as a sophisticated “real” language and deaf people as intelligent communicators. I think about different types of intelligence and perception. I don’t randomly Google anymore, but I do look out for and collect inspiring stories about the first person with Down syndrome on a town council in a city in Spain. About a girl with Down syndrome in a rigorous junior lifeguard program in Southern California. About a Zumba instructor who just happens to have Down syndrome. About a photographer who has Down syndrome. And about a model with Down syndrome.

I am blessed as a mom to be watching Ly grow up in a time when there is less stigma than there has been, and more support than ever before, for people with disabilities. One of the scariest parts of Ly’s diagnosis in the first few weeks was the complete blank slate her future was for me. Growing up, kids with disabilities were in a different part of the school so I never had the chance to make friends with or develop any kind of normalcy around people who were different from me. Today we have kids with para-educators, early intervention programs, and therapists that come to daycares and preschools. Whenever I encounter a story about what someone with Down syndrome is doing, the future gets a little less blank and I know that, thanks to a lot of the advocacy and attention from the last several years, Ly’s opportunities aren’t all that different from her brother’s.

But couldn’t we always do better? This October, here is what I ask for me as a mother of a gal with Down syndrome:

(1) Support para-educators and their role in our schools. Yes their pay is an additional tax burden, but if early efforts and attention help kids with disabilities grow into passionate, engaged adults then I think we all win.

(2) See the differences, don’t try to ignore them or look away from them. We are hard-wired to see difference, I get it. That 2 year old at the library wasn’t trying to hurt me or my daughter, he was just sorting out the world to make sense of all the stimuli. Pretending that differences aren’t there does no one any favors.

(3) See the similarities. Okay, the differences catch your eye first, but then look for the similarities. There are so many more of those.

(4) Slow down. This is hard for me to do, I was nicknamed “Speedy” on my middle school volleyball team. I wrote “Slow Down” at the top of all my notecards for class presentations. My Dad still laughs thinking of my piano recitals when I would turbo through the pieces (Chopin’s minute waltz? Bring it). And now we live in a world where we can get Amazon Prime orders tomorrow, emails and Facebook updates every minute, where we can get twitter responses to debate sound bytes 15 seconds after they happen. And are we happier for it? Are we better, are we smarter, are we kinder? Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from people who learn a bit more slowly than a lot of us.

(5) Don’t choke on the PC stuff, there’s no one right way to discuss human development. I prefer the term “delayed” rather than “disabled” and more than “differently-abled”, but I don’t mind the word “disabilities.” And not every parent will agree with me. Just be respectful in the words you choose and feel free to ask us what our preferences are. But please don’t let a fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from having a potentially great conversation with me, or with Lytle.

(6) And last, raise the kids around you (whether they are your own children, godchildren, nephews or nieces, the neighbor kid you are good friends with) with these ideas in mind. I just read an essay about raising feminist daughters (and sons!) and something at the end really struck me: “Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world. She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world and that as long as those paths do no harm to others they are valid paths that she must respect….. Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: that difference is normal.”

Or, as Ly’s fiercely loving, protective, and eloquent auntie put it: “It’s time to normalize this. Because it’s f$*#ing normal.”






















The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Sometimes in this global marketplace I forget that, hundreds of years ago, plants were actually indigenous to places and you simply couldn’t get them anywhere else. Talk about terroir! So when I first started going to Ethiopia with Travis about 4 years ago, I was excited to dive into the original coffee culture.

Now, I love coffee. Being from Seattle, I have a long experience with various beverages, from the soy vanilla latte in high school and college to the double short cappuccino in my early 20s, to coffee with maple syrup and cream in grad school. I mostly drink tea now, it turns out coffee completely disrupts my sleep, but every now and then I indulge and enjoy. And there is no better place to indulge and enjoy than in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

There are several ways to enjoy coffee in Ethiopia. First, as a privileged First World traveler, it’s easy and affordable for me to go to the swankier coffee bars that offer a more Italian-style beverage. They have the beautiful machines, the whir and tamp and hiss of the espresso that takes me straight back to rainy ungraduate days at Parnassus Cafe in the basement of the art building on UW campus. They have delicious macchiatos served in lovely little cups. But this is a newer way to drink coffee, a more elite way, a more global way.


So let’s talk about the second way to enjoy coffee in Ethiopia. Let’s back it up a little and go out into street.

Along the smaller streets, usually unpaved, there is kiosk after kiosk offering the usual assortment of household necessaries like bottled water, phone cards, soap, toilet paper. And frequently those kiosks have coffee. There is a charcoal brazier with a black ceramic pot on it, and the coffee is steeping. There is a low table covered with a certain kind of grass, and sometimes there is incense. On this low table is a tray filled with small cups. Sit down and order a buna (pronounced boona). Tell them quickly if you don’t want any sugar or only a bit, otherwise you are likely to get a full teaspoon in your small cup. Ethiopians don’t eat dessert, they drink it.

One of my favorite memories from our first trip was our tourist shopping expedition into the nearby town on market day. We left James in good hands and went out to catch the bus. Being market day, every bus that went by us towards town was full and wouldn’t stop. I kid you not, we crossed the street and took a bus in the opposite direction to get to the small town where the buses were filling up. Sometimes you have to go up to go down. I was starving and cranky as all get out, so Travis asked when the next bus was then dragged me over to a kiosk selling music records and coffee (Seattle anyone?) and sat me down in a plastic chair by the brazier. A moment later I had a freshly fried doughnut, a bombolino, and a hot sweet cup of Ethiopian buna. Bliss as the calories, sugar, and caffeine hit the senses all at once. It was a religious experience, and I don’t say that lightly. I think I fell in love with Ethiopia right then.


On our most recent trip to Ethiopia, Travis arranged a buna and shai (tea) delivery from a stand around the corner from our house, and the trays would arrive with empty buna cups, sugar bowl, and steam drifting from the spout of the coffee pot and from the tea pot. The students and researchers gearing up for the day would descend. Someone would be by later to pick it up, and sometimes we would haggle about how many cups had been on that tray, and whether my husband had already paid or not. It added to the charm.

Now, the third way to enjoy  Ethiopian coffee is the full-on coffee ceremony. This can happen at nice restaurants and hotels as a tourist attraction. Or it can happen in someone’s home. A traditional ceremony can take over an hour. It is lovely and worth every minute. We even had a guest do a coffee ceremony for us here in the States in front of our woodstove. If someone is having a dinner at their house, or if you are enjoying a nice lunch at a hotel, the buna ritual begins while you start eating so that, 35 minutes later, they are ready to begin serving. Let me walk you through it.


First, the charcoal fire is started. Kessel in Amharic (no idea how to spell it, that’s my Americanized spelling of the word, Amharic has its own complex alphabet). You can buy kessel at the market. Did you know that it’s just wood? I didn’t. Yep, I’m that girl. Married to a guy who studies trees and forests and I didn’t know that charcoal is burned down wood. You learn a lot when you travel. Okay, so kessel is lit (without the aid of lighter fluid, just saying). Incense might go on the charcoal at this point, it’s usually chunks of frankincense. The green coffee beans are heaped in a pan and roasted by hand over the charcoal until they are fragrant with a very slightly bitter aroma. Frequently the woman (always a woman doing the ceremony) will walk around and offer you a waft. The beans are taken and pounded into a rough grind, think French press. Last spring when we lived in Ethiopia, Adina would do this for Travis so there would be a jar of ground coffee for stove-top coffee at our house. She used a surprisingly large and heavy crowbar type of implement to pound the coffee in a tin cannister. I would never sneak up on a woman while she is doing this, I can’t imagine it would end well for you.



Once ground, the coffee is placed in the pot with water over the kessel and it brews. Ethiopian coffee prepared in this manner is a little more akin to Greek or Turkish coffee, but the grind is so large that you don’t end up with that sludge (for lack of a better word) at the bottom of the cup, and the coffee is not quite so thick and intense. This is good, as you are about to get three cups in succession.

As the coffee simmers, the popcorn is prepared. While I enjoy the popcorn (abbabakolo, or cornflower), I really enjoy that it distracts my kids. Ly especially loves the coffee ceremonies. Popcorn is definitely not something you will find in the outside stalls, this is something from the formal ceremony. So the popcorn makes the rounds, and the coffee is poured. And sugared, unless you stop them in time. The incense is fragrant and the coffee goes right to your head. The next cups are successively weaker as they are made from the same grounds. I like that. Because really, the marginal enjoyment of that coffee is going to diminish with each cup so why waste new grounds when you won’t enjoy it quite as much as that first one anyways? (as is often the case, food can demonstrate an important economic concept such as diminishing marginal returns with simplicity and elegance).







Like so many moments of travel, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a gift. When there, it is an hour of slowing down and enjoying a centuries-old ritual. Once home, I remember the ceremony and I remind myself that when I sip a tea or coffee I should take a moment to let the aroma fill my senses, to watch the swirl of steam arise, to find a second of calm with that first sip. When I do these things, I go right back to ceremonies at friends’ homes, I go right back to that stall selling music and coffee, I go right back to the first person in the Ethiopian highlands who brewed a cup of coffee.



Have Children Will Travel, Part IV: This Time It’s Domestic

June is conference month so Travis did a lot of coming and going. Early in the month he had a conference in D.C. I’d never been to D.C. So in a fun turn of events, we decided to go domestic. Who knew domestic travel could be as daunting as international travel?! (Feel free to answer “Duh.”)

In a classic move I way over-booked our time. The itinerary seemed straightforward enough: Fly into D.C. Visit friends, see some sights. Then Gran and Pop would fly into town and Travis would fly out (his next stop: a conference in London). We’d rent a car and drive down to Charlottesville. Monticello one day. Luray Caverns just north of the Shenandoah National Park next day. Then back to D.C., all done and relaxed from our vacation.

Ha! So much for the smugness of the seasoned international traveler. This domestic jaunt was awesome, but actually gave me a lot of perspective and new travel rules.

To start, I think domestic flying is actually harder than international flying. The big international flights have larger planes with two aisles. It’s great, the kids can do laps and figure eights like little hamsters on a wheel. Also, the international airports are actually easier to navigate (tons of signage in multiple languages so if by some chance the English doesn’t make sense to me I can piece together the correct direction from my (low-level) French or Spanish and the arrows). They have better food options – I found organic yogurt and good trail mix, albeit ridiculously overpriced. And, most importantly, international flights just seem to run on time better than domestic. This could be just a perception, but I don’t know. It feels like it holds true.

What does this have to do with our trip? Well, inevitably if you travel enough you encounter flight delays and challenges. And hoo boy, this time did we. This segues nicely into my first new rule of travel.

Rule #1: Make sure you know what airport you are flying into. No-brainer, right? And yet. Turns out the Washington-Dulles airport is not in Washington. Did anyone else know this? I didn’t pause to check out the Reagan National Airport and instead just bought tickets to Dulles. Then with flight delays due to weather we landed at 11 pm at night, 45 minutes from D.C. Thank heavens for wonderful friends who will drive to pick you up!! Additionally, Travis had a travel agent booking his triangulation of flights to DC, London, etc. and ended up flying into Reagan, where a taxi only cost $17.00 into the city. Know your airport. It’s a good rule.

Rule #2: Make certain you stay in the right place. With young kids we’ve found that renting an apartment works better than hotel rooms. A separate room for us, or for the kids, makes it easier to maintain some kind of bedtime. And having our own kitchen means we can bring food home from restaurants, shop at the local grocery stores (which I love doing anyways) and get kid-friendly food for snacks and meals. Of course, do your research! I rather botched our location on this round and Travis had to walk over half an hour to the conference site. With all the map and GPS apps at our disposal it doesn’t take too much effort to nail the perfect location. Oh, and pack that booster seat. It’s worth it.


Rule #3: If possible, pick a destination with friends or family. Having my friend meet us at the airport was huge, and she even picked up some groceries for us so breakfast was all set in the morning. And the next day she helped me figure out which Metro line to take to meet up with her, then took us around the museum where she works and out to her favorite lunch place in the sculpture park. Behind the scenes we got to see botanical specimens like the double coconut (aka “butt-nut”!). These things can all be done without friends, but it’s like having a walking guidebook when you are distracted by a new place and two young kids. And it’s extra eyes and hands on kids! Grandparents are also wonderful travel companions.




Rule #4: Get outside, get on public transport! James absolutely loved the Metro, and I think Lytle enjoyed it as well. We looked at the map, talked about the stops and counted down to ours, we enjoyed the escalators and tunnels. And every time we encountered a new playground James thought he’d traveled to heaven. All the walking, playtime, and fresh air helps when bedtime rolls around after the excitement of the day.

Rule #5: Put a bit of a hold on food rules and focus on restaurant behavior. If I’m not nagging James about what he’s eating, and he gets to pick out his own drink, he’s inclined to be better behaved. We all get a treat (good behavior for me, lemonade and french fries for him), and isn’t that what vacations are about?


New base rules learned, we dove into the trip. The photos speak for themselves, we had a lovely time! Once in D.C. I totally got googly-eyed at our nation’s capital. It was really fun to feel like a giddy tourist. The Museum of Natural History and the Space Museum were both a huge hit with James, and Lytle exercised her toddler right to lay down in the middle of a crowded room or throw a fit just before entering the home of Thomas Jefferson so Mom (yes, me) misses the tour of the house and instead wanders the necessaries (the wine room, the ale room, the brandy room, etc.) picking up left behind shoes.















Well, we made it. Round trip to Charlottesville and back. American history, natural history, and government. We will definitely travel domestically again. And my last two rules to abide by?

Rule #6: Think hard about whether or not you should rent a car, and then decide the best place to pick it up and drop it off. City driving is not for everyone, consider choosing a location on the outskirts of town. Make sure you plan your drives around your kids’ tolerance for car time. James still reminds me about the bridge in D.C. we went over not once, not twice, not even three times but yes, four times while trying to find the playground on the map and then the entrance ramp to the freeway. A playground and a ramp! That’s all I wanted! Now, I’m a decent city driver and navigator thanks to years of city living, but no one could easily navigate D.C. on their first try. I think it’d be easier to navigate Rome’s cobblestoned streets driving backwards while drunk on a Vespa (no, I won’t test that theory, but I stand by it). Sufficient to say, I think James heard some adult language. Nothing he hadn’t heard before, but I flatter myself to think that he picked up some new and creative combinations.

And Rule #7? Just add a glass of white wine. Then start planning your next trip!




Bingeing on Rhubarb

Spring came early this year, and with it came rhubarb. Now, rhubarb is one of my favorite foods in the spring, but apparently it is frowned upon when pregnant or nursing. This means that of the last 5 springs, I have only been able to enjoy rhubarb once. Since this was the first spring that I was neither pregnant nor nursing I was really looking forward to my rhubarb binge!

I think you should love rhubarb as much as I do. Here are some reasons why:

  • It has a fair amount of vitamin A.
  • It pairs so nicely with strawberry that you will think they were made for each other. Who’s to say, maybe they were?
  • When you combine it with blueberries you get to say “bluebarb”, as in Bluebarb Jam, Bluebarb Crisp, Bluebarb Pie. You get the idea.
  • It freezes well (slice it first) and then brightens up your winter when you thaw it out and use it.
  • Its tang keeps rhubarb desserts from developing that cloying sweetness that I loathe. Really, if I want something that just tastes sweet I’ll have a spoonful of maple syrup and call it done.
  • This tang also makes it ideal for savory-sweet or sweet ‘n sour applications, such as marinades, sauces, and chutneys.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder called it “pie-plant.” That’s cool.
  • It’s hardy and actually requires cold winters, so even in Zone 3 planting areas you don’t have to dig it up and winter it over indoors. (Rosemary, I’m talking to you here. Although I love what you do to a potato I simply cannot tolerate your winter high-maintenance needs. You and I are not friends when I’m in New England.).

Not convinced yet? Alright, check out some of my bingeing:

Rhubarb Chutney

This time of year, one of my favorite go-to books is Food in Jars with great preserving ideas and recipes. I tried a small batch of the rhubarb chutney last year and loved it, so I did a batch again this year. I highly recommend using this one, or finding one of your own to try. Especially if you have kids! It’s perfect for a table set for kids that like plain food (rice, chicken, carrots and peas) and parents who don’t (rice and chicken mixed together and topped generously with flavorful chutney, with a side of carrots and peas).


Rhubarb Syrup

This was super easy and fun. And delicious! Try this syrup in lemonade. sparkling wine or white wine, or even in a basic vinaigrette. And although the recipe (yes, from Food in Jars) says to discard the remaining rhubarb pulp after sieving the syrup out, I saved the rhubarb and threw it into pancakes the next morning. I’m thinking this winter I’ll try rhubarb bread or muffins with the extra jar of rhubarb pulp I froze.






Rhubarb Muffins

I got the Bouchon Bakery cookbook for my birthday last year and have slowly been enjoying the recipes. These guys are pro’s, and I love the detail they offer in the recipes. This is a modification of their blueberry muffins, and the molasses, maple syrup, and brown sugar combined perfectly with the tang of the rhubarb. I especially love that this recipe suggests letting the batter rest overnight then cooking up fresh muffins first thing in the morning. Yum!


Rhubarb Sauce

Nothing is simpler than this: combine diced rhubarb with sugar and cook it down until soft and a bit sweet, then stir in a touch of vanilla. We spooned this strawberry and vanilla ice cream the other night. Swoon! We were so excited that, um, I forgot to take a picture to share.

Future Projects

I froze a bunch of rhubarb before we headed out of town last week (next post: Have Children Will Travel Part IV). I’ll be trying out a rhubarb-Earl Grey-vanilla jam or a rosemary jam. And maybe another kind of chutney.

It’s just not spring without rhubarb. If it’s not too late for rhubarb where you are, grab some and head to the kitchen. Or hunt down a good frozen stash and try something new. And if you’re pregnant or nursing, my apologies. There’s always next spring.

Old Resolutions, New Compromises

In January of 2015 I made a resolution to track our food-based trash (see a post about this here). Yeah, that didn’t last. I do think I would have kept it up if we hadn’t spent spring of 2015 in East Africa. But we did, and then I did not pick the resolution back up again when we got back.

But never one to kick myself, I offer no apologies and I move forward with a belated 2016 resolution! Fittingly, this resolution is about compromise.

When we got back from Ethiopia last summer we launched into domestic craziness. Travis started his Research Experience for Undergraduates program and went back to Ethiopia with 10 students a few weeks later. He was gone for a month, and I put James into a part-time preschool/daycare program, went back to work at the co-op in town, then started a new job and found a new nanny when the co-op closed down (heartbreak!) and our nanny situation with James’ beloved babysitter fell through (heartbreak again!), all while diving back into managing the online maple syrup business for our family’s farm (Stannard Farm) and getting Lytle back into physical and occupational therapy.

I dropped the ball a bit. I valiantly struggled with school lunches (read here about that) before succumbing to the daily sandwich, apple/orange/banana, and packaged snack. My spirits faltered and I stopped coming up with creative food options for Lytle, numbly handing her Cheerio after Cheerio (okay, multi-grain Heritage O’s, but whatever). But then, a few days after January 1st, 2016, I went to Tanzania and an amazing thing happened. I got my second wind. I rallied. And I saw that I had to learn to make realistic compromises without losing track of my big priorities.

Parenting is hard enough without setting ourselves up to fail. Short of becoming a full-time homesteader (which may not be as great as it once sounded to me, I recently read the stark and poignant This Life is in Your Hands) I simply cannot maintain my own sourdough starter, make keifer and yogurt, can jar after jar of jam, pick and freeze my own blueberries, make and age summer eggnog for Christmas, experiment with three different kinds of fruitcake, and keep up parenting and online farm businessing. Honestly, this whole second kid thing has kicked my a*#, and the whole Down syndrome thing adds an extra layer of effort.

So my New Year’s Resolution for 2016: I will compromise with grace, and I will find a way to do it my way.

It starts at the grocery store.

  • I spend more time in the freezer aisles then I ever thought I would, but when James recently asked if we could get the frozen brussels sprouts I breathed a prayer of gratitude. And of course, we bought them.
  • We always have at least two kinds of frozen berries for smoothies and snacks.
  • I used to buy only local fruits and vegetables, but now I do the full-on kid fruit and veggies thing and we always have apples, oranges, bananas, avocados, cucumbers, carrots, and red bell peppers in the house regardless of the time of year.
  • I buy chicken and beef stock. I still make my own when it’s convenient, but I like to always have it on hand and I don’t want making it to be a stressful necessity.
  • I buy the fruit mixes in the little squeeze packs. I’ll stick one in James’ lunch if I’m desperate, Lytle will always suck one down even when she shuns all other food, and whatever is leftover in the pouch goes into tomorrow’s smoothie.
  • I buy crackers and school lunch snacks; I make sure I always have at least three options on hand, and then I hide them from James and Travis.

Which grocery store?

  •  Since the co-op in town closed I’ve felt more than a little cold about who I support. I mostly shop at one of the large chain stores in town, they have a decent organic section, they sell the Organic Valley milk that I like and they have a good olive bar (James and Travis can eat their weight in olives).
  • I was at Wal-Mart picking up something Wal-Mart-y and remembered I was out of squeezies. And I learned something amazing. Wal-Mart has a better selection of kiddo squeezies that contain grain than the two chain grocery stores in town or the natural foods store. And the nut bars? Best prices and selection, hands down. And although I would not weep to see Wal-Mart burn to the ground (hell, I’d bring sticks and organic, homemade marshmallows)*, if there is one nearby I will shop there once a month for the selective food items that benefit my family.
  • I will also start shopping at Costco when I find one reasonably close by.
  • Farmers’ markets will always be my go-to when I have access to them! The kids love them, and I appreciate that whatever town we are in, it’s something we seek out.

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In the kitchen at home.

  • I still like to experiment. And I still have trouble throwing away leftovers. But there are a few things I can do to keep myself in check. (1) I try to cook everything separately so creating leftovers and lunches is easy and versatile. Example? Instead of making up all the stir-fry in the pan, I keep the rice separate from the veggies from the sauce (James doesn’t like sauce on things right now anyways). The next day the rice makes it into a salad for lunch, the veggies make it into an omelet for dinner, and the sauce ends up somewhere else. (2) I embrace compost. I stop agonizing and I visualize beautiful soil. And then I throw the leftovers away. (3) If I even suspect there is too much stuff in the fridge I make “refrigerator soup” (this is where I simply combine the rice and veggies from above with a container of pre-made chicken stock) and freeze it.
  • James has become picky. See above re: sauce. I keep everything separate. I pander a little bit to the breakfast thing because I’m more concerned with him heading off to school with enough calories then heading off to bed with enough calories. And I load up his pbj sandwiches with sunflower seed butter (“sunbutter” — a necessity as there is a kid with a tree-nut allergy in his room). I throw frozen berries, nuts and seeds on his granola. In the afternoon I just set out cut veggies; if I don’t push it, odds are he’ll walk by and grab at least one. And then I close my eyes and sip my wine when he won’t eat anything I want him to at the dinner table.
  • Lytle has expanded her eating repertoire, but she’s hardly an adventurous or consistent eater. The earlier me would be horrified, but we start the day with multi-grain Heritage O’s in milk. She loves these, and the dual-texture combination stimulates her oral senses while she hones fine-motor skills chasing them around with her spoon (low muscle tone from Down syndrome + hippie food sensibilities = compromises! Another one? Eating in the bathtub to practice cup and spoon skills.). Smoothies are where I get in the nutrients. We do frozen fruit, milk, nut butters or nut meal (I throw almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds in a blender), flax meal, sometimes avocado and some banana. She drinks it down, thankfully, so the rest of the day I don’t have to worry if lunch is raisins and Annie’s cheddar bunnies eaten off the floor or dinner is (frozen) sweet potato fries and yogurt.

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Where won’t I compromise?

  • I minimize buying single-serving anything. Applesauce, yogurt, milk – I buy the large containers and spoon/pour them out into jars for lunches. I buy the large boxes of crackers and bulk dried fruit and put small quantities into re-usable bags.
  • The frozen stuff is ingredients-based, not meal-based. Lots of frozen vegetables and fruit for the most part, and some frozen seafood and frozen pasta such as cheese-filled tortellini.
  • I load up on meat and bread at the farmers’ market and then freeze it (a tip: slice the bread before you freeze it, and then you can toast individual slices at a time! Maybe that’s a no-brainer, but I felt really smart when I figured out I could be doing that).
  • The snacks I do buy are as plain as possible, no sandwich crackers with some kind of faux cheese spread. And I never buy cookies or candy or popsicles. Except for ice-cream, I regularly make all of our treats.
  • I buy organic when I can, especially for meat, dairy, and certain produce. I buy good oils and nut butters.
  • If it’s granola for breakfast, then I’ll do it my way. I buy the most basic granola I can, and then I add sunflower seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, chopped almonds and walnuts, chopped dark chocolate, and coconut.

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And what will I keep trying?

  • I will master some kind of homemade granola bar. Marge Granola’s Megan Gordon has posted a great looking recipe for seedy sesame almond squares on her blog, A Sweet Spoonful (full disclosure: she uses Stannard Farm maple syrup!).
  • I will figure out homemade fig newtons or some kind of dried-fruit cookie/bar.
  • I recently made “chicken nuggets” and they were a huge hit with the kids. Less so the fish nuggets:) I can learn to serve the traditional kid-friendly foods, I just intend to do it my way: buy whole fish or chicken, cut it into chunks, egg wash then bread crumbs/cornmeal/coconut, fried in coconut oil and finished in the oven.

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  • I will let go sometimes. This takes perpetual practice for me! A recent success? Ly just had her second birthday and one part of me wanted to whoop it up and have a party with Martha-style food and decorations (check out the party for her grand-daughter’s first birthday and then remind yourself that she probably has a personal staff of 10 and she doesn’t get up three times in the middle of the night because of said grand-daughter). But I reined myself in, took the kids and a friend of James’s to the Sensory Gym, and then got pizza for about seven of us. And when a friend offered to bring cupcakes I said thank you and I let her.

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I’ll probably kick myself later for saying this, but I think I’m over the hump. I have highs and lows, but I think I hit my food rock bottom last fall. Now I’m ready to move forward with goals that suit our values but are still realistic. Bring it on, 2016. I’m working on my mac and cheese recipe, with a side of frozen brussels sprouts.

*Lest you think I’m just being a tree-hugging, big-box-store-hating, over-educated stay-at-home mom, please read this article about what the Walton family donates to charity. And then grab a marshmallow stick.






Have Children Will Travel, Part III: Would I Do it Again?

Deciding to do it….

It’s 4:30 am as I start typing this post (note: I started this post three weeks ago). No, I have not been on a self-righteous New Year’s inspired binge of early morning rising…. I just have major jet lag. And two children with major jet lag.

It’s been not quite a year since we spent spring 2015 in Ethiopia, a trip that was wonderful and challenging. We have plans to go again this summer, but in the meantime it seemed right that we should just, you know, throw in another trip to East Africa complete with long flights and time changes. So this January we went to Tanzania.

Tanzania and the Serengeti have long loomed large in my imagination. In college I read No Hurry to Get Home, a collection of essays by Emily Hahn, a woman traveler from an era when women did not travel alone much and especially not to places like Lake Victoria and Dar es Salaam. She wrote of expats and gin and tonics in grand hotels, of heat and overland travel and the Indian Ocean. And then I watched Out of Africa with Meryl Streep (set in Kenya, but whatever, it’s only one country over). And then I heard the song Africa by Toto. And more recently Taylor Swift’s video of her song Wildest Dreams. Sufficient to say I’ve been awash in various pop culture versions of East Africa safari land for some time. So when Sanne, a work friend of Travis’, invited us to come and stay with his family at their home on the coffee plantation he manages near Moshi, Tanzania, I jumped at the chance.

Doing it….

And I am glad that I did. I have some precious memories and experiences. I think my jaw dropped slightly when I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro through jet-lagged and bleary eyes. Watching James and our friends’ little girls Sena and Luanna jump naked on a trampoline with palm trees all around, or play in a large cooler (yup, a “cool-box” as they call them makes a surprisingly good outdoor tub) under the African sky made me smile like a child. Nicolette’s food was an inspiration, and while we grated a huge box of coconut together I was re-inspired to get back to the heart of food. Homemade granola. Lamb stock. Fresh fruit juices every morning. Inspiring!




When we made our way off the plantation, I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between Tanzania and Ethiopia. I fell in love with the eco-lodge / farm we stayed at and vowed to make something similar one day at Stannard Farm (lacking, of course, the climbable avocado trees). I gazed in wonder at the stars of the southern hemisphere when I got out of our tent in the middle of the night to pee. My first sighting of a zebra in the wild took my breath away. And I might have shrieked (in a dignified way of course) when I saw my first giraffe. Baby baboons sliding down a tree at Arusha National Park made me giggle. James making his way through the park in Spiderman pajamas just made me shake my head. And the flock of flamingos flying low over a lake are seared in my memory.















Yeah, we did it, but….

I love looking through these photos. But there are things that they don’t show. The hiking carrier that didn’t make it on safari because it got stuck at the Istanbul airport for an extra day. James pretty much refusing to eat anything but meat and yogurt. Lytle requiring nursing ALL the time. Subsequent spousal fight at 3:00am in a tent when she’s crying and I’m resisting (I worked so hard to wean her from nighttime nursings!). The look on my face when I learned I would be flying alone back to the states with the two kiddos (planning debacle outside of anyone’s control). The two hours spent waiting for our flight to Istanbul at 1:00am at the Kilimanjaro airport, exhorting James to lower his voice and chasing Lytle around to keep her from throwing her cheerios and then eating them off the floor. Me losing my voice on the flights back. Me spanking James in an airport bathroom (yes, he was warned three times, and no, I will not engage in a discussion about spanking in this particular post).

Some of these memories are tinged with the absurd and have become humorous. Midnight picnics of black licorice and cheerios while reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle out loud. James almost falling out of the safari jeep several times. James learning the dangers of army ants the hard way (okay, not humorous, but memorable and now army ants have become a villain of choice in his imaginary battles).

And yet. But. On the other hand. This trip was hard. Some hardness is unavoidable with travel, and is therefore worth it because the option of not traveling is not an option for us. But some of the hardness was certainly avoidable. And while I have what one friend termed an “adventurous spirit”, paired with an amazing capacity for travel amnesia, I reached my travel limits on this trip and baby, I took notes.

For future reference….

  • If you are in any kind of weaning process with a child, consider avoiding big trips. If you are thinking of starting weaning, delay until after a trip — newly weaned children are not really travel ready.
  • A trip to East Africa (read: any long trip) and its subsequent jet lag may not be worth it if you stay less than 3 weeks.
  • Avoid trips that result in 11 hour time differences until your children are old enough to be tired without catastrophically melting down. There are cool experiences closer to home.
  • And if the trip is just too good to pass up (and this one was!), discuss a plan of attack with your partner so there aren’t middle of the night spousal fights about dealing with said jet-lagged children.
  • Make sure your travel plans are clear and amenable to all before you depart.
  • Choose your infant mobility device wisely. James, and then Lytle, lived in our Ergo carrier on the Ethiopia trips. But this time I wanted our hiking carrier for two reasons: 1) it can contain Lytle even when I’m not wearing it/her so I could set her down at the airport without worrying that she’d wander onto a plane going to Amsterdam and 2) there was a chance we’d be hiking on safari. But, we had to gate-check the carrier because it was too big to carry-on, and then it made it to Tanzania a day and a half after we did. In retrospect I should have just brought the Ergo again. And strollers are not developing country friendly, even if super-useful at the airport. Some airports will actually have them for use!
  • And speaking of airports, some are simply better than others. I love the view of Istanbul flying in but oh I hate the airport itself, even if they do have huge quantities of Turkish Delight on hand. The Dubai airport is my favorite for kid-friendliness, there is an amazing kid hangout center with a movie on at all times, things to climb and jump on. They have strollers. Route through Dubai if you can.
  • And just as all airports are not created equal, all airlines are not created equal. My favorite for international travel with children? So far, it’s Emirates. Conveniently, they route through Dubai airport:)
  • If you have a lap infant, request a bassinet aisle on the airplane (there are now bassinets that, after take-off and before landing, can be bolted to the wall of certain aisles). We’ve had the luck or good planning on someone’s part to end up in bassinet aisles on many of our airplane rides. But it didn’t occur to me that you could actually request that when making your seat selections and special requests at ticket purchase time. If you want a bassinet aisle ask for one! I assumed I would have one on the 13.5 hours flight from Istanbul to San Francisco. You know what they say about assuming things. This is a memory that may not make it to the humorous stage.

Would I do it again?

Given the chance, would I do it again? Probably. I did say I have travel amnesia, right? I find it hard to pass up travel of any kind. And I remain devoted to the belief that it will serve my children well in the long-run, even when Ly cries her eyes out in a tent because I won’t nurse her, or James gets spanked in an airport bathroom. Lytle is starting to talk, and I am certain that the Dutch, Amharic, and Kiswahili that she has heard in her short life are somehow imprinted on her brain. And when James builds Mt. Kilimanjaro with his blocks, or tells me the army ants are coming and I have to jump up on the couch, my heart fills with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve had. So yes, I’ll take that next travel opportunity that comes my way. But I’ll look over my notes first.


A Dickens of a Christmas

This was a different kind of Christmas for us this year. Travis left for Ethiopia on December 26th so we decided to spend Christmas at home, far from family in Vermont or Seattle. Lucky for us some friends were also doing a Christmas at home. We had four kids running/crawling around Christmas dinner and a most inappropriate Cards Against Humanity game, all within a 5-minute drive from our house.

Now, our friend Thom is a cook after my own heart who glories in experimenting and is never daunted by any kitchen task. And apparently he has spent the last couple of holidays perfecting his Christmas goose. We had fun with our Christmas rabbit and chicken a couple of years ago, so of course we were game to go goosey.

In the days leading up to Christmas dinner it occurred to me that a goose is exactly what Bob Crachit’s family had for dinner in A Christmas Carol. Always on the lookout for a good theme, I decided to dive in with Thom and add to our Dickens dinner with a Christmas pudding. I’ve never seen one before, let alone made one, so I went into research mode.

Let’s start by discussing the term “pudding.” Google it, and you’ll pull up all kinds of interesting tidbits. For example: “Food historians generally agree the first puddings made by ancient cooks produced foods similar to sausages. 17th century English puddings were either savory or sweet and were typically boiled in special pudding bags. By the latter half of the 18th century traditional English puddings no longer included meat. 19th century puddings were still boiled but the finished product was more like cake. These puddings are still served at Christmas time. Modern steamed puddings descend from this tradition.” (

One day I’d love to play with some sort of meat pudding, or a mincemeat pie, but that’s a project for the future, after I’ve mastered the art of steaming a pudding. And after my children are a) less picky or b) able to fend for themselves if they don’t want to eat what I’ve made.

So beef out, fruit in. I started with my trusty Fannie Farmer cookbook, always an excellent jumping-off point. She (not actually Fannie by now, this is the Marion Cunningham edition) briefly describes the process of steaming a pudding before including some recipes. Here are the salient points:

  • I could use suet, aka beef fat. This could be a nice compromise to not actually throwing some meat into the dessert. But where, in central Maine, do I find suet? I love me some Amazon (go Seattle!) but even I refuse to order beef fat off an internet mega-store.
  • Use a well-buttered mold or container, which must be tightly covered. Marion mentions a pudding mold lid or a double layer of foil tied with string. I could even use a coffee can with a plastic lid. Is it just me or is that the least appealing image ever, a lump of coffee-can-shaped pudding?
  • Boil gently. So, like, don’t get distracted by 5 year old boys that like to swear and 20 month old girls that like to play with toilet paper, wood ash, and empty beer bottles.
  • Use a sauce on top. Saucy!

I absorbed these basic points and moved on to the recipes themselves. Marion included a steamed chocolate pudding, an Ohio pudding, a fig pudding, a persimmon pudding, a sterling pudding, a Thanksgiving pudding, an English plum pudding and a cranberry pudding. Like the good student I am, I read them all. Hey, just cause I don’t follow recipes well doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy reading them. And they were fascinating. Who knew Christmas “pudding” is basically cake! Some had bread crumbs instead of flour and leavening. Some had white bread and scalded milk instead of flour and leavening. It’s apparent from reading these recipes that, once upon a time, these pudding-cakes were a means of using stale leftovers. Brilliant! A little of this, a pinch of that. Merry Christmas.

In the spirit of Christmas I went with Marion’s fig pudding recipe. I have to say, I LOVED making something that had a song to go with it: “Now bring us a figgy pudding, now bring us a figgy pudding….We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some….”.

I started water boiling in my lobster/beer pot. Travis used my soup pot to melt down beeswax for candles, pretty much ruining the interior. The lobster pot did seem like an overkill but I didn’t have a lot of options and I was already mid-way through Christmas morning.


Fortunately, the recipe was basic and easy. Finely chopped apples and dried figs, flour, sugar, a bit of salt, baking soda, and allspice. Some eggs. Some milk. It ended up being incredibly stiff, just barely past a baking-powder bread dough or cookie dough. Definitely not pourable.

And while I stared at the dough and pondered adding a bit more milk, I realized that there were three points here telling me all was well. First, this was being boiled. How on earth would such a moisture-laden form of cooking actually cook something that was already filled with liquid? Second, a sauce is served on top. Why would you pour sauce over something really moist? Third, puddings can be wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth and aged, and aging something moist mostly leads to grossness and mold rather than complex flavor. So I figured all was well, and in an act of supreme self-restraint I did not tamper with the recipe.

Instead, I spooned the dough into the well-greased bundt pan (who actually owns a pudding mold or pudding bag?), then wrapped a piece of foil over the top and tucked it around the rim, then wrapped another piece of foil and secure it with yarn. I placed it on top of mason jar lids in the lobster pot, nearly burning the undersides of my upper arms. Then I tried for a gentle boil and walked away for 2.5 hours.

I almost burned myself again taking the “pudding mold” out of the pot. I held my breath as I unwrapped the foil….. perfection! I think. I’ve never seen a steamed figgy pudding before. But it smelled great. It had a nice bounce to it and was cooked perfectly through.

figgy pudding

I brought sauce supplies to our friends’ house and made up a basic custard sauce, again from Fannie Farmer.

We all agreed it was lovely, and when Figgy Pudding came up on an answer card when playing Cards Against Humanity it just seemed like fate agreed. It was a lovely Dickens of a Christmas.