Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Proper Pair of Walking Shoes

If you’re planning a trip abroad -- or anywhere – and you know you’ll be doing more walking than usual, you really must invest in a pair of comfortable shoes.  My daughter preached this to me many times back in 2011, when I was in England for six months.  I didn’t take her advice – instead I made do with my grungy old tennis shoes, and I was always suffering from lower back pain and/or aching legs.

So this time around I decided to get myself some proper walking shoes: I went out to Burnham’s in Columbus and purchased a pair of SAS walkers.  The style I chose was called “Bounce.”

I winced when I first picked them off the shelf; these are not pretty, feminine shoes – no sex appeal whatsoever.  And when I tried them on, they looked like those horrible, black, old lady shoes my great aunts used to wear.  On top of that, they weren’t cheap (around $100) – though much more palatable with my 20%-off coupon!

So here are my feet enjoying the comfort of my beautiful SAS shoes:

I am not kidding – my feet really do enjoy these shoes!  Walking in them is a pleasure; there is no pain.  I could walk and walk and walk and walk!  They are truly worth the high price.

And there’s a reason for that price: these shoes are handmade in the USA.  They are not mass produced in sweat shops in Malaysia, using cheap man-made materials (although for some parts of this shoe, man-made products are used).  They are made by folks in Texas, using real leather (all pieces for one pair cut from the same hide), and hand-sewn and hand-fabricated.

Photo from

Do you know what SAS stands for?  I didn’t. It stands for San Antonio Shoes, because that’s where the company started out back in the late 1970s.  The preferred way to say the name of these shoes it to say the letters: S – A – S, however lots of folks pronounce SAS as a word, “sass.”  How their customers say their name is not as important to the manufacturer as how they enjoy the comfort of SAS shoes (according to a statement on the SAS webpage).

Take a look at this short video showing how SAS shoes are made.  I guarantee you will be impressed!  It will make you want to run out and buy a pair of these fantastic shoes.  And, you should – especially if you are looking forward to long walks on your future vacation or just treks around your neighborhood park.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!

In celebration of Mardi Gras, which is this Tuesday (March 4), we ate a New Orleans- inspired Sunday night dinner in Oxford at Spencer House.  One of my favorite New Orleans main dishes is stuffed eggplant (stuffed with crab and shrimp), but I knew at least one of my crew didn’t like seafood, so I nixed that as the entree.  I also thought about trying to replicate dishes of some of New Orleans’ fancy restaurants: Antoine’s (pommes de terre or eggs Sardou), Commander’s (turtle soup) or the long-gone Corinne Dunbar’s on St. Charles Avenue (Daube Creole).  But, in the end I opted for a much more practical approach and chose a truly-iconic New Orleans restaurant as my model:  Popeye's!

For our menu we had a traditional Popeye’s menu:  red beans and rice, with some fried chicken on the side (both mild and spicy).  Red beans and rice is a New Orleans staple; in the old days it was always made on Monday, which was wash day.  To this day, many New Orleans restaurants and schools served red beans and rice on Monday as the special.

To make New Orleans red beans, ideally you should have Camellia Red Beans.  Last time I came to Oxford, I brought two bags of Camellia Red Beans with me.  This time I had to settle for dried, waxed red kidney beans from the Co-op – not quite the same, but a worthy substitute.  Of course, you have to soak them in a bowl of water overnight to soften them up.

Another key ingredient for New Orleans red beans and rice is pickle meat.  Well of course, no butcher or meat market in Oxford carries pickle meat, which is basically pickled pork – so I had to make my own.  There are recipes on the web that show how to do this. However, I devised my own.  I bought a fresh ham hock from the butcher in the Covered Market, and on Saturday I boiled the hell out of it – in a broth of water and vinegar, with salt and pepper and bay leaves thrown in the pot.  Then I took a tea ball (all English kitchens have one of those little mesh balls laying around) and filled it with pickling spices and hung it over the rim of the pot, so it floated in the bubbling broth.  I boiled the mixture (low boil after a while) for about 5 hours.  When I pulled the meat out, it just fell off the bone, and the color was deep red like the delicious pickle meat of New Orleans.  And, it actually tasted a bit like pickle meat!

I fixed the beans on Sunday. They had soaked overnight – rinsed them and then started frying up some smoked sausage.  I could have purchased chorizo, but I opted for something milder for the students.  I used a bit of the fat from the ham hock (of which there was a-plenty) to create a bit of seasoned grease, to which I added a bit of olive oil.  Once the sausage was browned, I removed it and sautéed the famous trinity – chopped onion, celery and bell pepper – with a couple of cloves of minced garlic thrown in at the end.  When that was done, I dumped everything into a large pot (along with bay leaves, salt and pepper, oregano and a small bit of Cajun seasoning) – and brought it to a boil; then I let it simmer for about 6 hours – making sure to stir occasionally, to be sure no beans were sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Fixing the chicken was time-consuming, but well worth it.  I’d bought a whole chicken and 7 drumsticks for our party of 6.  The way I cut up the chicken, I get 11 pieces (no backs – which I love, but they take up too much room in the pan).  I had 2 large pans of vegetable oil which I got very hot (hot enough to completely brown a square of bread in 60 seconds).  Then I divided the chicken in half and floured it in 2 batches – mild and spicy.  The mild just had salt and pepper in the flour; the spicy had Cajun seasoning thrown in. 

Next came the frying of the chicken, which took about 30 minutes altogether.  Now here’s the secret for perfectly fried chicken: You have to divide your 30 minutes into 4 segments.  First, put the chicken in the hot oil and put a lid on the pan, and cook it for 6 minutes.   After 6 minutes, take the lid off and continue frying for 9 more minutes.  Then turn the chicken over and repeat the process:  6 minutes covered and 9 minutes uncovered.  At the end of that, take the chicken out and drain on paper towels.  I had two pans of chicken frying at once – 18 pieces in all.  It was a major success – only 2 wings left after our dinner for six!

With the red beans, of course, I fixed rice. We also had a salad, reminiscent of the simple salad that my mother used to fix:  lettuce, tomatoes, and hard-boiled egg, mixed up with mayonnaise.  Two of the students fixed the salad; in addition to the basic ingredients, they added peas and cheese.  Instead of mayo, they used “salad crème,” which is a British product that resembles salad dressing.  It was a fabulous salad!

Missing from the meal was some crusty New Orleans French bread.  The student responsible for the bread made an error in judgment – well, a couple of errors, actually.  First, he didn’t buy French bread. What he bought looked kind of like French bread, but it was called “Malted Grain” bread.  It would have worked, but his second mistake was he bought it too early – on Friday.  About an hour before we were scheduled to eat, we took the bread out of the wrapper and it was like a baseball bat!  Even when we broke it open, it was hard and dry inside.  However, not to worry!  The student put on his rain gear and dash out into the stormy night, down to Summertown, to retrieve a precious loaf of French bread.  Alas, on a Sunday evening, there was not one French bread loaf to be found, so he settled for buttery croissants (they ARE French!).  They were quite good, and were a very good substitute under the circumstances…

Well, then we had dessert.  For this, we left our Popeye’s menu (passing on Mardi Gras cheese cake or cream cheese and fruit-filled fried pies) and went the classy route:  Mile High Ice Cream Pie – a la Pontchartrain Hotel.  Basically, you make a pie shell and fill it with 3 layers of iced cream (which you have let soften).  We used vanilla, strawberry and chocolate; the Pontchartrain uses peppermint ice cream instead of strawberry, but I was not about to try my hand at mixing up vanilla ice cream and crushed peppermints.  By the way, the strawberry was good, but I usually use coffee ice cream as my third choice.  

You freeze the ice cream pie, while you make the meringue, which requires the whites of 8 large eggs, ½ cup of sugar, along with a bit of vanilla and cream of tarter.  Whip it up until it’s stiff and literally “pile” it onto the frozen pie.  It ends up being about 8 inches high – spectacular!  Bake it in at 450F oven for 3 to 5 minutes – don’t let it get too brown. 

It’s difficult to cut (use a warm knife).  Then, over this decadent masterpiece, you drizzle a bit of rich hot fudge sauce.  Here is where I compromised.  You are supposed to make the sauce out of heavy cream and sweet chocolate – I opted for M&S store-bought chocolate sauce in a squeeze bottle.  It didn’t seem to matter!  Everyone gobbled up the pie – one of the guys even had seconds!

So that’s what we ate for our Mardi Gras meal in Oxord.  It was a delicious meal and it was nice that we had company (2 guests).  While we ate, we could occasionally glance up at the monitors and have a look at Mardi Gras Cam, watching the Krewe of Thoth parade – live! 

I regretted not bringing Mardi Gras beads to throw to our diners from behind the monitor.  When I was a teenager, my brother and I used to do this to my father, who, by that that time, had sworn off carnival parades.  We’d crouch behind the massive TV console in the living room while a parade was being shown, holler “Throw me something, Mister,” and hurl beads at Papa Cuckoo (terms of endearment).  He was never much impressed...

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Wee Treasure

Yesterday, on a regular visit to my favorite Summertown charity shop, I came upon a little tealish-blue dish, about 2 ½ inches in diameter.  What caught my eye was the image that was on it – a sweet little bird (not sure what kind).  I do love the birds.  The drawing almost looks like sgraffito, but I couldn’t see or feel any indentations.   I bought it and brought it home to research it on the internet.  What wee treasure had I found?

On the back of the dish were the words:  “Beddgelert Wales.”  After doing a couple of google searches I learned that Beddgelert is in the Snowdonia area of Wales.  In Welch, the word means Gelert’s Grave.  Gelert was the name of one of the local prince’s favorite hounds.  One day when the prince went to look for his young son, who was not where he should have been, he was greeted by an energetic Gelert, bouncing around, covered in blood.  The prince was horrified, thinking that Gelert had killed his little son.  Immediately he drew his sword and killed the demonic hound.  Then he heard his son screaming, and found him next to the dead wolf that Gelert had killed to protect the little child.  The prince never smiled again…See the Legend of Beddgelert for more info.

So, that’s where the little dish came from, but what is? Again, more google-searching revealed that it is a pin dish.  A pin dish?  What, exactly, is a pin dish?  I immediately went to my online account at the Bodleian Library and looked up “pin dish” in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Not there!  More reading online, however, lead to the brilliant deduction that a pin dish is just what you think it is:  a dish to hold pins!

It appears that pin dishes were and still are a big deal in England.  In America, we tend to use pin cushions.  Pin dishes are all over British eBay.  Many people (especially quilters and seamtresses) use them to hold pins, but they are also used to hold butter, jam or even olive oil for dipping bread at the table.  Wouldn’t it be fun to have a mismatched collection of these to use for a dinner party! 

This picture from Cherie Saunder's blog:  Just a Little Something,
February 24, 2011
See Cherie Saunder's blog for her comments on pin dishes
I found a lot on the internet about how to make your pin dish magnetic – so the pins won’t fall out.  Basically you glue a magnet on the bottom of the dish.  Instructions are everywhere about how to do this.  See How To Make a Magnetic Pin Dish for details.

So now, as I continue to explore charity shops in and around Oxford, you know what I’ll be looking for:  more pin dishes!  They’re nice and tiny and should be a breeze to pack and bring home.  I’ll let you know how the search goes.  By the way, do you have a pin dish?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Consider the Aga

The Aga is a much-desired British kitchen appliance for the affluent.  It's a heavy cast iron gas cooker (i.e., “stove” in American) with ovens and cook-plates; it stays on constantly during the colder months of the English fall/winter, keeping the kitchen warm and toasty.  We have one here at Spencer House, and I am considering it a lot recently since our conventional oven conked out on us Sunday night (and now it appears we’ll need an entire replacement). So, I’ll be cooking more on the Aga.

Spencer House Aga
The boiling plate open; simmering plate closed

Hotter oven open; bottom oven closed
So far I’ve fried sausage and bacon (the English kind – not real crispy) on top of the Aga.  I learned quickly that the left top burner gets a lot hotter than the right one.  Turns out the left burner is the boiling plate and the right one is the simmering plate.  The other day I also decided to try my hand at boiling spaghetti on the Aga.  To speed things up, I heated up my water in another British kitchen staple: the electric kettle.  Boy, these things really do the trick.  I might have to get one when I get back home…
  Philips HD4644/60 Cordless Kettle - White Master Image
Typical English Electric Kettle

Anyway, getting back to the prestige of the Aga – they are quite pricey.  For our version, a 2-oven/2-top plate cooker, folks in England will need to shell out about 4995GBP (that’s about $8215 USD).  $8000 for a stove, you say!  Well, it’s even more if you try to buy one in the US – you’re probably looking at $12,000 and up!  I see on the Aga website that Harvey Lumber Co. in Columbus used to be a non-servicing Aga dealer (are they still? are they still there?).  There’s also a dealer – Inscape Design Studio – in Americus!  Maybe Jimmy (in Plains) has one in his kitchen.

Friday, January 24, 2014

An Afternoon at the Ashmolean

On a recent dreary Thursday afternoon I took myself to the Ashmolean for a Tea-Time Tour entitled “Caskets and Cofers.”  On my last visit to Oxford in 2011, I had done a number of these free museum tours; they were always very focused and led by a museum employee who had in-depth knowledge of his/her subject .  I always enjoyed them.

I arrived early because you have to stand in line for a ticket.  Once I was left out of a tour because I showed up too late. This time I wanted to be early.  The tour was scheduled from 3:45 to 4:30, but when I arrived at the Ashmolean it was only going on 3.  Wandering around the basement area, trying to decide if I wanted to spend a few minutes with a Diet Coke, I saw a sign announcing a harpsichord concert at 3. So, I scurried off to find it!

I arrived at the concert space in plenty of time.  The old harpsichord was set up in front of a small audience.  It was a little after three when the event finally began.  The harpsichordist, a middle-aged thin man with longish grey hair and a tweedy jacket, was planning to play a few pieces, but I had decided I would only stay to hear the first: a Scarlatti Sonata.  I got excited at first because I thought it might be something I would recognize from my past (twelve years of taking lessons from Lakeview’s most famous piano teacher: Vernile Winn – always loved that name).  Wrong; I don’t think I’d ever heard this one.  The piece I had wanted to hear was actually one of my old favorites: Clementi’s Sonatina in C Major.  Click here to hear that one: Clementi Sonatina -- on a piano, not a harpsichord.

Anyway, after the first piece I left and headed for the tour waiting area in the Greek and Roman Sculpture Gallery.  I got there about 3:20 and no one was sitting on any of the benches.  Eventually an elderly (i.e., older than me!) sat down at the end of my bench.  I asked him if he were waiting for the tour, but he said, “No.”  Then just before 3:45, the tour guide arrived.  We chatted for a moment, and she said of course she would do the tour for just one person.  Yay!

As my guide explained, she had picked out some interesting boxes that are featured in various Ashmolean collections.  We started out with a coffin from Knossos.  It was a very interesting container, with some slight decoration on it – not long enough for a body to be laid down inside (the guide said they merely bent the body over).

We next looked at a large pot with an octopus painted on it – this octopus only had six tentacles.  It was very fanciful.  There are a lot of maritime symbols on the pottery from Knossos.

At this point another person joined our tour – so I wouldn’t be getting the guide’s undivided attention.  No biggie.  The other person must have been an art student; she asked lots of good questions and made interesting comments. I was glad she joined us!

I won’t talk about each piece we saw, but I will give you a link to the Ashmolean’s pages for three of my favorites:  an Indian mother-of-pearl box, an Indian leather and mixed media box and a French (Limoges) reliquary casket for St. Thomas Becket. Just click below on the blue text for a picture and more info on each item.

This box dates from the early 17th Century.  Each sliver of pearl is attached with a little silver peg.

Shagreen is leather that was made by laying little pebbles on top of a piece of damp leather -- then walking on them.  When the leather dries, the pebbles are shaken off, and they leave tiny little pock marks on the underside of the leather.

Made in Limoges around 1200AD.  The blue is enamel -- made by in-laying powered colored glass and melting it.  This cofer may have contained a bone of St. Thomas Becket or an article that he had worn or something that had come in contact with him.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hooked on British TV Food Shows

Well, now that I’m in Oxford, I’m settling into my routine, which involves a nightly dose of British TV.  I have to say these guys present some really interesting topics.  In the last week I’ve watched the history of the bathroom (starting with medieval public baths and toilets), the “Who Do You Think You Are” story of David Suchet (a.k.a. Hercule Poirot), an episode of my favorite detective series: “Midsomer Murders” (with the new Barnaby), and a documentary on the disappearance of the English Lawn (which included a history of lawn mowers). 

But, of course, being a foodie (love to cook--and eat!), the food programs draw me in the most.  I started out by watching Nigel Slater expound on the love Brits have for their biscuits – learned about all the various cookies from Garibaldis to HobNobs to Wagon Wheels (shown top to bottom):




"Come Dine with Me" diners from the fishing town of Grimsby

Next, I got sucked into “Come Dine With Me,” where four or five people (strangers to one another) come together to entertain and cook a meal.  Each person cooks a  meal  one night and then the others score him/her.  The series, when shown as a  marathon,goes on for 4 or 5 hours.  One day I watched 5 hours worth in one sitting!  Very entertaining.  Diners are very critical -- and funny!

But my favorite program so far is “Britain’s Best Bakery.”  Every week three bakeries from a certain section of the country compete against each other.  One night there was an Oxford bakery, Gatineau, which is in nearby Summertown.  Sadly, they lost.  It’s an hour-long show, and I love seeing the unusual techniques and ingredients they use.  Some of the teams forage – they go out and find herbs or other ingredients along the roadside.  Tonight the winning team, from the Baker's Table in Wales, was new to the field of baking – one of them was formerly an archaeologist!  Anyway, they made a homey ginger and walnut cake, a bread that had pesto on top (kinda like a pizza) and a cream puff filled with apple custard and whipped cream.  All this makes me very hungry!

Tonight’s winning bakery:  The Baker’s Table

So, I think I’ll go heat up my left-over “Curry in a Hurry” – made from a recipe I saw on a Nigella Lawson show.  Quite good, actually!  Cheerio!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Duke Humphries Library

I thought it would be appropriate to end my Oxford blog with something more serious -- something I am very passionate about:  libraries!  One of the major perks for serving as the Columbus State Oxford site coordinator was that I got a Bodleian Library card.  This is a big deal, as it gets me into Oxford libraries and into special places like Magdalen College Garden and Christ Church "Big Tom" entrance without a fee.  It also allows me to access all of the University of Oxford's fabulous electronic resources -- from the privacy of my room at Spencer House.

Needless to say, during my six-month sojourn in Oxford I have been very distracted with a bit of sight-seeing, visits from U.S. friends, trips to London to see Tiff, Midsomer Murders on TV (ha!), etc.  I have not done as much library research as I thought I would do.

There are 3 major things I am researching:  the Wren family (mine), the Spencer family (not mine) and Basil Hall, the Scottish travel writer who came to Columbus before the lots were sold in 1828 (for a Muscogiana article).  The two genealogical projects have waned a bit because I still don't know were the English Wrens and Spencers were from inside the country.

However, a week or so ago, I did wander over to the Bodleian's Special Collections Room (temporarily housed in the Radcliffe Science Library) and managed to look at a 1685 manuscript about the Spencers of Yarnton that was compiled by a man named Anthony a Wood.  Apparently he was a seventeenth century genealogist/antiquarian.  It was a big deal for me to see this manuscript because my Bodleian card wasn't coded for manuscript access, but the nice people at the desk got permission for me to view it.

They also helped me order 3 Basil Hall items that were in storage.  It took about 24 hours to get them retrieved, and they were delivered to the Duke Humphries Library inside the old Bodleian Library for me to use.  Basically, this is the oldest part of the Bodleian -- dating back to the 15th century.
When I went to Duke Humphries the first time, I had a problem getting in.  They wouldn't let me bring my purse in, but they didn't provide lockers so that I could lock it up.  Dumb.  So, I had to wait till the next day.  On that day, I stopped by the Radcliffe Science Library, put my purse in a locked locker, and strolled down to the Bodleian with just a few pieces of paper and a pencil.

Reading in Duke Humphries was quite an experience.  The library is a long hall, with short book stacks jutting out from each side of the the windows that line the side walls of the hall.  This arrangement creates little alcoves.  In each alcove there are desks and above them are shelves of old books.  In the early days, these books were chained to the shelves.  Lighting is not the best; in the old days, the windows provided the only light.  You better not light a candle in the library!

Unfortunately, since cameras aren't allowed in Duke Humprhies, I couldn't take any photos.  However, if you'd like to see one and read a bit more, go to

I looked at 3 items.  One was a review of Basil Hall's Travels in North America, 1827-1828, which contains a brief description of Columbus on April 1, 1828, as it was being surveyed in preparation for the sale of lots.  According to Hall, there were about 900 people on the site, building make-shift houses that they could roll on logs to the lot that they finally purchased, and milling about trying to earn a buck (the carpenters and blacksmiths).  There were also a number of lawyers on the scene -- ready to help folks with their land transactions.  Anyhoo, the review (written in 1829) was by an American who accused Hall of feeding the ill-will that had brewed between the Americans and the English since the end of the Revolution.  Interesting, but...

A second item was a pamphlet on the Camera Lucida, a devise that aided in drawing.  Hall used a Camera Lucida to sketch pictures of Columbus and the other places he visited on his 1827-1828 journey.  In fact, Hall became a major spokesperson for the device.  The pamphlet contains a letter written by Hall explaining how to use the Camera Lucida.

The final item is a book of 40 of the sketches that Hall made on his trip.  These are etchings that were made from the sketches. In all, Hall made about 169 sketches, which are now owned by the Lily Library at the University of Indiana.  The famous sketch of "Columbus, an embryo town" is in the book, which was published in 1829, and is now out of copyright.  I looked into having the Bodleian make a scan of the sketch so that we could use it in Muscogiana.  It was going to be around $50.  However, when I was searching the web later that day, I discovered that the Alabama Department of Archives and History has the same book, and they can make a scan for $15.  Much better deal!

So, I know this is more than you ever wanted to know about Duke Humphries or my research projects, but these are some of the things that make me happy -- nerd that I am!

That's probably it for the Oxford Omnibus.  I'm headed home soon and will probably not have time to do additional postings.  I've enjoyed sharing my Oxford experience with you all -- thanks for reading!  I hope you've found it entertaining and enlightening! 

Cheers, Callie