Thursday, 31 December 2015

Holidays in both the New World and the Old World

Starting with Thanksgiving and moving through to Christmas and New Year.....


Back in the UK there is no formal Thanksgiving holiday.  Probably the nearest thing is Harvest festival, a pagan celebration assimilated by Christianity (aren't they all?) and now fading somewhat, though schools still observe it with collections of non-perishable foods which are then donated to charities.  As a child I remember going to the village church where we would take our edible donations, sometimes home grown, sometimes canned goods, up to the altar where it would be stacked up to show the generosity of the parish, before being taken to those that needed it.  There were special hymns sung to celebrate the safe bringing in of the crops, and growing up in a village surrounded by largely arable farmland these were particularly resonant.  Over my adult life I have lived in areas less in tune with the natural cycle of planting, growth and harvest so it is refreshing to once again recognise the importance of nature's bounty even though the consumerist experience of Black Friday seems to be overshadowing the original history of Thanksgiving.

For our part for Thanksgiving 2015 we joined our first State College family friends for their celebrations for the second year running (first time for me though) and had a wonderful meal of turkey, sweet potatoes, Yankee stuffing, Texas stuffing, cranberry sauces, the most delicious buttery potatoes and other good things.  It was a lovely evening of family and friendship with the six children and five adults all having fun, eating too much, doing puzzles, playing games and sharing conversation and music.

Feast of St Nicholas aka Sinter Klaas

The world certainly seems to have become smaller,  as at the beginning of December I was sat in a Mexican restaurant in a small city in Holland and it seemed quite normal.  The wide acceptance of international cuisine is a far cry from the occasion of when one of my brother's grammar school friends asked "Is your mother foreign?" after being served lasagne and salad at our house in the early 1980s. Oddly enough in our market town in SE England the predominant immigrant culture at that time was Italian, thanks to the local WW2 prisoner of war camp having held mainly Italian soldiers some of whom returned as soon as they could after the end of the hostilities.  Further south in the county there was a significant Polish population seeded by the Polish airmen who flew from the local airfields for the RAF.  There were also representatives of the Windrush generation too, adding to the mix of cultures making up our small corner of England.  As children this was seen as normal, in our eyes our classmates with odd names were as English as we were, we had grown up together and that was that - multiculturalism working on a local scale because it just didn't occur to us that  there was any other way.

I was in Holland on 5th December, better known over there as Sinter Klaas, or the feast day of Saint Nicholas (a Greek/Turkish bishop), who across the Atlantic has been transformed into Santa Claus, and as I ate a young lady dressed as Zwarte Piet visited the tables and photographs were taken of her with smiling children. Zwarte Piet is Sinter Klaas's assistant or sidekick in a similar way that Santa Claus is helped by an elf, now nobody blinks an eyelid at Santa being accompanied by somebody dressed up as an imaginary being, but Zwarte Piet is being tarred (sic) with the brush of racism and yet when you look into the history of the character he wax probably based on a Moorish servant boy travelling with Saint Nicholas from Spain where the gift s of oranges and pomegranates were collected.  In Holland Sinter Klaas is the big gift giving/receiving day for children and the shops were full of seasonal goodies - the marzipan filled pastry rolls were particularly good!


Two Christmasses into our American life we are still celebrating in the UK style -  our tree and decorations go up the weekend before the big day, which was the first weekend of the school holidays back in England and was when decorations went up when I was a child.  This year we have also put up external lights with an animated LED "tree" to brighten the evening gloom in the US style.  Mincemeat was made just before I set off for Europe and has since been made into to dozens of mince pies! Christmas Eve was spent doing as much preparation for Christmas Dinner as possible to stop Christmas Day itself being too frantic to enjoy.  At bedtime stockings (actually pillow cases this year as we couldn't find the stockings) were hung on doorknobs by the boys, gifts were placed beneath the tree and we went to bed with a sense of exhausted achievement and anticipation.

As ever Father Christmas brought silly gifts from around the world and put them in the "stockings" - this year he seemed to have visited Holland and the UK as well as finding oranges from California ;)  After opening the gifts a full meal of turkey, Brussels sprouts, peas, carrots. roast parsnips, 2 sorts of stuffing, cranberry sauce, bread sauce, gravy and pommes dauphine was consumed, followed by mince pies once we thought we had enough room for them. I had even managed to find some UK Christmas Crackers complete with paper hats, silly gifts and dreadful jokes!

In the UK the day after Christmas is know as Boxing Day and as a child was spent with the extended family. As the closest family members are now over 1000 miles away and the rest over 3000 miles we shared our evening with our friends from Thanksgiving and ate even more food.......

New Year

....which brings us to New Year's Eve and I for one am looking forward to 2016 being a more settled year than 2015, which had some big ups (me finally getting to the USA) and downs (the loss of my much loved mother-in-law) and lots of undulations along the way.  A New Year and new start in a new country (yes I was here on New Year's Day 2015 but knew I was heading back to the UK for the final pack up of home and business, which took way longer than anticipated), I hope it is a good one.  The Christmas tree and decorations will stay up until Twelfth Night (another UK tradition) at which point they will be packed carefully away until December 2016 when they will have the chance to brighten another mid-winter.

What with travel and other stuff I didn't actually sew any gifts for Christmas this year, but did manage to make some table mats and matching coasters, which have at least been both decorative and useful.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Discovering new comfort foods

November is upon us and we have had more grey, damp days, making it the season of comfort foods.  Admittedly the days here have a better daylight/darkness balance (to the tune of 1 & 3/4 hours more daylight on Dec 21st!) and though so far it is mostly mild, the heart still yearns for tasty warm snacks and filling meals.  I fear that the chilly weather is not far away now. (I actually started writing this entry mid-week and by the weekend the nights had indeed turned frosty.)

My younger son's desire for UK style Heinz tomato soup has been fulfilled (just) by a similar tasting offering from Trader Joe's, which is also where our breakfast cereal is now sourced as they have a good choice of products which are neither sugar-laden nor garishly coloured.

Bread is almost exclusively homemade, thanks to our bread machine and the following recipe from Steve's grandmother:

Lily's Bread Rolls

1.5 lb / 680g / 5 cups strong bread flour
15 fl oz / 425ml / 1 3/4 cups mixed milk & water  
2 oz / 56g / 1/4 cup vegetable shortening or lard
1 dessertspoon / 10ml / 2  tsp of salt
2 teaspoons / 7g / 2 tsp of dried yeast
(or one packet of bread machine yeast)
 [UK/metric/US measures]

Put all the ingedients in the machine and set it going on the dough cycle or knead by hand in the traditional manner, cover and allow to rise in a warm place.
Just before the dough cycle is complete set oven to 425F/220C/Gas Mark 7
Once the dough cycle is complete shape the dough into 12 rolls, 
place on 2 baking sheets and cover with oiled cling film or a clean tea towel. 
Leave to rise in a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in size.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, turning the trays half way through if necessary.
Place on a cooling tray and try not to eat them while they are still too hot.
Best eaten within 2 days of baking - if they last that long! 

Here is a batch made by my elder son: 

One of the few things I do buy bread for is grilled cheese sandwiches, a newly discovered snack, which are neither grilled under a grill/broiler nor on a BBQ/grill (more vocab with opportunity for confusion), but are actually fried in a heavy based frying pan or skillet. This week was the first time since April that I felt the urge to make them.

Method: Sandwich one slice of "cheese food" (like a slice of plastic "cheese" for putting on a burger) and one slice of American Munster (a very melty cheese  - could maybe substitute Port Salut?) between 2 slices of bread. Butter the outside of the sandwich on both sides or brush with melted butter. Fry on each side in non-stick pan or skillet until the outsides are golden brown and the filling is all gooey.  A slice of ham can be included in the filling, if desired.

On the quilting side of things I have continued mining my scrap tub (yes I packed it up and brought it with me!) and have made some more 6.5" crumb blocks to add to the hundred that made it safely across the Atlantic Ocean.


I also made two crazy pot holders in autumnal colours as a little gift for the friend who has invited us over for Thanksgiving.

This week I am linking up with Quilting is more fun than housework

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Small things that make life easier

Visiting Philadelphia last month we checked in at the hotel using my American issued debit card and the receptionist asked for photo ID. I duly handed over my UK passport and I saw the panic enter into her eyes. After I assured her it did have photos of yours truly within its battered maroon covers, and she conferred with her more experienced colleague, she accepted it as valid proof of my existence. Only as we collected the receipt as we left did I see that my address had been entered as Northern Ireland, United States - no street address, no town/city, just two completely geographically separated countries! Such events should now be in the past as I now have my Pennsylvania Driver's License in its full Technicolor glory. I swear I was more nervous for this relatively straightforward test than I was over 20 years ago on a foggy day in the UK. This time the test route was flat, short and simple as opposed to the one taking in the steepest street in the town specially to do the dreaded hill start, as many junction types as possible and a quiet housing estate (subdivision) for the 3 point turn and reversing around a corner. Back then I was disappointed to fail the first attempt (I passed second time around), this time I would have been terminally embarrassed.

Learning to use the correct vocabulary helps make life smoother too - there are the well known examples pavement/sidewalk, tap/faucet, boot/trunk, holiday/vacation, petrol/gas(oline) but less familiar terms crop up too, sometimes to the gentle amusement of one or both sides, this week I discovered that my shake-proof washer is an American's toothed washer and a grub screw is a set screw. Cooking ingredients need care too - all purpose flour is plain flour, self-rising is self raising, golden raisins are sultanas, American granulated sugar is nearer in crystal size to UK caster sugar than UK granulated sugar. For some recipes only the exact ingredient will do, calling for a trip to the international aisle in the supermarket to find a run of the mill UK item, usually at extra cost, for example golden syrup or, for a special occasion, a can of Heinz baked beans, which are not the same the world over as we have discovered. Some surprising things such as Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce are easily available as standard products. Also I heard "copacetic" (satisfactory, tickety-boo) used in speech for the first time ever - it just doesn't seem to exist in UK English.

My quilting achievement for this week was completing a pair of cushions started in the spring of 2014 - as you can see I had help!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Truly a Quilter in a Strange Land

Firstly, my apologies that there has been a ten month hiatus in this very intermittent blog.

Secondly, I have finally moved properly to the USA together with my sewing machines, fabrics, notions, patterns, magazines, books etc.!!!  I arrived on 6th August 2015 and the (second) container with all the (rest of the) stuff arrived exactly one week later and was unloaded (note, not unpacked) in 2 hours.  Since then we have been doing a lot of that unpacking and I have been hunting out the essentials so that I can use my sewing machines for the first time in well over a year!  During that year and a bit I have not been idle on the crafting front as I have been knitting for myself, my children, my grandchildren and friends.

The last fifteen months have been a long hard slog and the final 3 month stint in the UK was especially difficult as I frequently felt I was in the wrong place when family occasions and other events happened in Pennsylvania and elsewhere without me.  However, that is now over and I can move forward with our new life across the pond.  Being back together again as a family is a wonderful feeling.

During my stay in the US between mid-February and the end of April I was welcomed by the local quilters and spent some very pleasant Tuesday mornings knitting and chatting with them, I also found an evening drop-in knitting group at the local library and I am looking forward to rejoining both these groups as time permits.

Since my most recent arrival the weather was initially warm and sunny and a real treat for an Englishwoman I can assure you.  The fresh vegetables from the local farmers' markets were an eye-opener too, especially the sweetcorn, which was the best I have ever tasted. The last few weeks have been cooler with a few frosty nights, the leaves have largely fallen from our trees and autumn is well under way.

A sad note is that Rocky, our black cat, started to suffer from pancreatitis and despite the most valiant efforts of our new veterinarian we had to say farewell to him at the end of September.  Smokey continues to enjoy his new world, though he was not so confident when we stayed in a friend's place for a couple of days and decided that the highest place in the kitchen was the best vantage point!

Now I have got my sewing machine plugged in and running I can share the first quilted thing I have completed since I arrived here in the USA.

The pattern is available at

Friday, 2 January 2015

Mostly moved....

Life got pretty busy after my last posting - both on a business & personal front but the container shipped in late September and I then managed a 10 day trip over to Pennsylvania in October and took the cats with me.  This is the story of how that trip went.

After booking my flight from Manchester to JFK I called customer services and made reservations for the 2 cats, to be paid at the airport on the day of travel. It is worth insisting and speaking to a supervisor if the first person you speak to claims they don't take animals.  In preparation the cats visited the vet a month in advance for microchips and rabies vaccinations, and then not more than 10 days before the flight another visit for the health and fitness to fly letter/certificate.

The morning of travel I woke up earlier than usual for our flight and let the cats out to do whatever cats do at 5am, then fed them a small breakfast and got them into their carriers. The carriers were labelled with the cats' names, chip numbers, flight number, ultimate destination address and our cell phone numbers.  I arrived at the airport 3 1/2 hours before the flight time and went to check in as normal with a trolley laden with suitcase and 2 cat carriers. The check in agent called down the pet check in agent who confirmed that the temperatures were fine for the cats and went through all the paperwork, I paid the fees for the cats and then weighed in the suitcase as normal baggage. The pet agent then escorted me and the cats through security, where I did have to open the carriers so they could be swabbed for testing! After security the cats and I went our separate ways and I was assured that their water bowls would be refreshed before loading.

I didn't actually see the cats being loaded onto the aircraft, but was assured they were on and "tied down" before I boarded. The flight was just as I like - blissfully uneventful.  On arrival at JFK I cleared immigration about 30 minutes after touchdown and then went to baggage claim, waited a few minutes for my suitcase and then a few more at oversize baggage for the cats. They were both fine and seemed quiet but awake and not at all distressed. Clearing customs was also straightforward, as usual. Some of the other passengers came over to see the cats before leaving, having seen them in the check in queue back in Manchester.

Then I met up with my husband for the first time in 2 months and drove home to PA via a route where I was able to see the Statue of Liberty. We stopped and rewatered the cats when we had a coffee and on arrival at our new home they came out of their carriers and explored every room, under every piece of furniture, inside every cupboard for the next couple of hours. I'm not sure whether my sons were more pleased to see their mum or their cats!

I promptly went down with a horrible cough & cold and spent most of my stay feeling pretty grim.  Work issues also reared their ugly head and had to be dealt with as soon as I returned to the UK.

The container was delivered a few days after I returned to the UK so husband and sons had the fun of unpacking it :-)