Two young things were the subjects of the first two flower portraits. So it’s exciting to turn to a more assured, mature beauty for our third. She is known formally as Paeonia Suffruticosa, but Peony is the name we are likely to recognize her by:

Chinese Tree Peony

How lush, how full, how magnificent she is! Proud. Self-confident. And somewhat different from the herbaceous peonies that we grow in our flower borders.  (At least to my eyes.) Paeonia Suffruticosa belongs to the family of tree peonies, tall hardy shrubs that are temperamental enough to suit a diva’s personality, but rewarding enough to be worth the effort.

And what a family history she has! Tree peonies already hundreds of years ago were considered the ideal flower by Chinese literati, the poets and painters of ancient times. She has been found for centuries “on vase and jar, on screen and fan” (to borrow from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado). If there can be said to be a national flower of China, it is the tree peony, the pride and joy of many public gardens there.  And the admiration and veneration of the Japanese doesn’t lag far behind. 

When we visited famed Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, PA, last summer, we were greeted at the entrance gates to the mansion itself by a whole tribe of tree peonies. I chose one among these gorgeous sisters for a close-up; but any and all of them were stunners:

Chanticleer Mansion Entrance

When we lived in the Berkshires, I was a guide at one of the so-called “cottages,” actually mansions, from the Gilded Age. Naumkeagthe home of Joseph Choate and his family, has magnificent, unusual gardens. But in the two summers I worked there, the terrace of tree peonies never fully came into bloom, at least not for more than a couple of days, and sparsely. Conditions were never quite right — too cold, not cold enough; too much rain, too little rain. Perhaps because Chanticleer is farther South, perhaps because this was a particularly favorable late spring, tree peonies were bursting forth all around us, a deluge, a veritable waterfall of beauty.

I’m glad to have seen them.


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Here she is, in all her coltish, awkward, long-legged innocence and beauty, young Aquilegia Chrysanthra, better known to us as COLUMBINE:

Our adolescent Columbine

What she calls to mind for me are those enchanting creatures found in the title of Marcel Proust’s second volume, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur. For those of you who always planned to learn French but never quite got around to it, the word ombre means “shade” or “shadow”, and the jeunes filles en fleur are young girls just ripening and blossoming into their femininity, adolescents, what today’s slangy French calls “ados.” What Proust exactly meant by his title is unclear, just as the nature of adolescent girls is unclear, perhaps because it is constantly changing and evolving. 

There are overtones of innocence and childhood in the expression, and strong undertones of sexuality as well.  I think our young Columbine partakes of both.

Interestingly, I had that thought BEFORE I looked up Columbine and discovered two similarly  opposed ideas about the flower. In one, the columbine symbolizes innocence. Its long spurs are thought to resemble the shoes of the Virgin Mary which she wore when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. As she walked, says the legend, her shoes caused the columbine flower to spring up beneath her. The other idea says that giving a woman a columbine flower is considered bad luck because they are a symbol of foolishness! In the wild, the flower has five petals which are supposed to resemble a jester’s five-pronged cap, hence, foolishness.

I found this particular budding beauty growing in Tohono Chul Park, in Tucson, Arizona. I had never seen a columbine before. In the Sonoran desert the most frequent variety is this, Aquilegia Chrysanthra, the latter word derived from the Greek, meaning “golden.” In other parts of the United States more often columbines are pastel pinks or blues or lavenders, sometimes a striking bi-color, with petals of one and spurs of another color, the effect being similar to — passion flowers, bringing us right round to the Virgin Mary. And it all ties together nicely, because the word “virgin” in ancient times also meant simply “maiden” or “young girl,” and here we are again at those maidens or young girls or virgins, the jeunes filles en fleur.

But our columbine doesn’t bother her pretty little head with such matters, and why should she? It’s sufficient for her simply to be, and to be as lovely and blossoming as she is.


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Summertime, the season of flowers!

So why not portraits of flowers? For me, flowers have personalities, individuality, presence. And when it comes to taking photographs, they have as much or more of those qualities as humans. They have other good qualities as well — like being cooperative, and never fidgeting or being difficult about “my best angle” or “the sun is in my eyes!”

One of my favorite flowers is the poppy. Here, then, to lead off a summer series of Flower Portraits, I happily present Mam’selle POPPY:


The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted poppies, huge paintings to stop you in your tracks if you pass one on a wall. She said why she did so: Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time…  I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

Of course she also said: I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”

Well, yes, we’re agreed on that point — but I don’t hate flowers! And, I certainly believe, neither did she. I am SURE she had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she said that. Who could hate such a gorgeous, self-confident, radiant beauty as Mlle. Poppy!

(Why does she present herself to me as a young French girl? Because that is where I have seen her and her brilliant red companions by the multitudes punctuate the golden wheat fields of Burgundy, a scene that never fails to take my breath away.)

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Cold Maidens, Smorrebrod, and the “No-Skoal Zone”

Smorrebrod, Tiny ShrimpIn T2T’s last post I wrote about our recent Dinner of the Cold Maidens, in which we introduced  South African friends to the lavish and delicious open-face sandwiches known as Danish smorrebrod. An important part of the feast is its invariable liquid component, the eau-de-vie known as aquavit, chased with (preferably) Danish beer. But it isn’t just the spirits and beer that are different; it’s also the ceremony that goes along with them, known as the skoal.

Any Danish dinner guest, at any time, can initiate a skoal. He or she simply lifts their glass of aquavit, catches the eye of another guest, and the two — without breaking eye contact — send the aquavit down the hatch. Then, with a smile or without, they chase the fiery spirit with some cool beer. It’s a mark of friendliness, a tribute to a visitor, whatever you’d like it to be. Here’s the famed Danish actor Max von Sydow (when he was young, blond, and gorgeous, not that he’s hard on the eyes now that he’s old and silver) performing a skoal:

Max von Sydow Skoals!

(I call it Skoal and Smoulder and would be thrilled to be sharing a toast with him.)

Aquavit and beer flow freely at a Danish dinner party, and the skoals keep coming. There is, though, one person at the dinner who is exempt from returning the toast, and I wondered “aloud” if any of you could guess who that would be.

Well, there were ingenious guesses, but none hit the mark. So now, in case you are invited to such a party within the next few days and don’t want to commit a social misdemeanor, here is the answer:

(Take your last chance to think who cannot be skoaled, and why —-)

Still no clue? It’s the hostess! Why?

Aquavit is really powerful stuff, almost pure spirits. One aquavit is fine and heart-warming and gives you a glow, at least I find it does. Two, however, are enough to put me to sleep, and have done so. That’s how, after a wonderful lunch with the Hub at then-restaurant Aquavit of lamented memory, I went to a movie theater for Woody Allen’s New York Stories but never actually saw the film.

Now as a practical matter, we could do without any particular guest at a smorrebrod dinner. We could perhaps even do without the host. But someone has to stay sober to cook and serve dinner. And so it is that etiquette exempts the hostess. Light-hearted, fun-loving, accomplished drinkers the Danes may be. But they are above all, a practical people!

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Dinner of the Cold Maidens —

Or, if you prefer, the Dinner of the Smorrebrod Virgins.

No, not the outdoor temperature, nor yet the status or amorous nature of the participants. Smorrebrod Virgins are young women, mostly unmarried (hence the name), who make the delectable open-face Danish sandwiches that are as glorious to photograph as to eat. The other name for such women, Cold Maidens, is because the sandwiches they turn out are generally eaten cold.

Swedish smorgasbord is reasonably well known in the US, even if it’s rarely eaten outside of Swedish communities, say, in the Midwest. But because Danes, being sensible people, mostly stayed in Denmark (at least once the impetuous Vikings had departed),  the Danish specialty of smorrebrod is not nearly so well known here.

Smorrebrod sandwiches are small slices of bread lavishly smeared with butter,  and topped with any of a vast array of tasty tidbits. I was initiated into the process of making them at least 50 years ago by a Danish friend who periodically got homesick. She trained me in the art so that we two could stand in for professional Smorrebrod Virgins to produce a Danish feast for our All-American husbands.

Alas, these days our Danish-and-American friends are far away in Maine. Our smorrebrod sandwich feasts are fewer and farther between. That’s why recently, when South African friends here in Northampton who love adventurous cooking and eating were casting about for something a little bit different, I inveigled the women into undertaking a gig as Smorrebrod Virgins. While the husbands chatted over wine in the living room, the women gathered in our tiny kitchen. I had done all the shopping and prep work and assembling of garnishes.

The butter was soft, spreaders at the ready. I demo’d the first of our six varieties, and we were off. My maidens proved to be naturals. One after the other, with lightning speed, out came the platters. The order of service is set by tradition, with fish beginning the feast. First came the herring with hard-boiled eggs:

Smorrebrod: herring and eggaccompanied by tiny shrimp:

Smorrebrod, Tiny Shrimp Next came ham with vegetable-mayonnaise salad:

Smorrebrod: ham with vegetable salad

and rare roast beef with frizzled onions:

Smorrebrod: rare roast beef, frizzled onions

I even attempted, with much trepidation, my friend’s adaptation of traditional Danish liverpaste, with sauteed mushrooms. It proved to be a hit:

Smorrebrod: liverpaste with mushrooms

Last of all traditionally comes the cheese, in this case Havarti, garnished with radishes.

Smorrebrod, Havarti with radishes

This was a relatively modest dinner. We only had six varieties out of  infinite possibilities. Dessert was simple. We finished off with local strawberries and whipped cream.

Oh, I didn’t mention yet, did I, what is unfailingly drunk with smorrebrod. Aquavit, an eau-de-vie most often flavored with caraway, served by the thimbleful in pretty glasses, is chased with Carlsberg beer. The beer is fine, but you have to watch out for the aquavit,  it’s a killer — 

There’s a nice custom that goes along with a smorrebrod feast. Anyone at any time can elevate his or her aquavit glass, catch the eye of another diner, say Skoal; and without disengaging glances, both down their aquavits in one long gulp. There’s only one exception to this pleasant practice. Can you guess who is the one person who cannot be Skoaled?

Think about it — and think about what kind of sandwiches you would choose to make for your own smorrebrod feast — Google will start you off nicely, but really, the sky, and your imagination, is the limit!


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Appearance and Deception —

We were happily wandering in a lovely area of the fabulous gardens at Chanticleer, in Wayne, PA, when we came across a dark stone Hermit’s Pool with fast-running water:

At the Hermit's Pool

It took a while for the shock to register. The photo reminds me of one of British poet Stevie Smith’s simplest poems. Simple — but thoroughly chilling.

Not Waving, But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

A reminder, if we need one, that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. It’s a kindness to look again.

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“To Touch the Heart” —

(Note: It’s probably best to look at this post AFTER you’ve eaten a meal!!!!)

It’s been said for ages that the way to a man’s heart— or a woman’s, for that matter —  is through the stomach.

In that spirit, we set out with visiting fellow blogger and dear friend Jen of Random Acts of Writing to Oriental Flavor, the one and only dim sum restaurant in nearby Amherst. Jen had never had dim sum before, so we were tickled to be able to to introduce her to the delicious little snacks that are served as dim sum, a meal also known as yum cha.

(The literal meaning of dim sum is given by Wikipedia as “touching the heart”, as it was originally just a snack, not a full meal. My own personal translation of yum cha is yummy tea meal, although an actual Chinese-speaker would probably disagree.)

Here’s how our yummy tea meal touched our hearts that day, as Jen experienced it for the first time:

Place Setting

Chopsticks and a pot of jasmine tea, and we got down down to business, first plate:

Har Gow

Har gow, Crystal Shrimp Dumplings glistening in their translucent ivory rice flour wrappers around a chopped shrimp filling. Next came fried shrimp balls, same shrimp but very different taste:

Fried Shrimp Balls

and with them came pork shu mai:

Pork Shu Mai

In the twinkling of an eye, the view changes:

Yummy Shrimp Ball

Yum Cha! Followed by crepes of tofu skin rolled around a pork, shrimp, and shiitake mushroom following:

Stuffed Crepes of Tofu Skin

I’m getting hungry all over again! But however willing the spirit, sooner or later the flesh has had enough. And so it was for us. Room enough for two desserts:

Fried omochi balls with sesame, filled with lotus paste

We shared a pair of omochi sticky rice balls wrapped around sweet lotus paste, and fried with sesame seeds. Then, for the grand finale:

Egg Tarts

Tender egg tarts in flaky pastry. We groaned a little, but polished them off anyway.  And here are the happy friends,  bellies full, hearts touched, smiling from ear to ear in our first ever selfie:

Yum Cha! All’s well with the world!





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