New England Islands

  Block Island Bluffs 1

by Mary Jo

This is definitely my year for islands! In July, I visited Orkney  and Shetland , and now we're back from a shorter, more low key New England cruise.  (I took the picture above on Block Island.)

We were traveling on American Cruise Lines, a small ship cruising company that specializes in American waters, from the coast of New England to Southern rivers, the Mississippi, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. We've cruised on ACL once before, traveling from Baltimore to Charleston, SC on the IntraCoastal Waterway, and we had a fine time.

IMG_3563Our ship, the American Star, held fewer than a hundred passengers, which was great. The food is also very good, and on the New England cruises, ACL heavily emphasizes lobster. This one is from the New England boiled dinner served on the first night. I'm not particularly fond of lobster–this one belonged to the Mayhem Consultant. Wait staff went around breaking open the lobsters so people could actually eat them. <G>

But this was only the beginning! Over the week, there were lobster soups, lobster rolls, both Maine and Connecticut, lobster mac and cheese, and even lobster bread pudding. By the end of the cruise, even the most devout lobster lovers were sated. <G Newenglandislands_700x700


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The Home of the Heart

By Mary Jo

A couple of weeks ago the Wenches got to chatting behind the scenes about what places feel like home, and the answers were interesting. In some cases, home is where we were born and raised even if we're not there anymore. In other cases, it's a place one has moved to and then claimed for oneself. It could be a place you've never lived. Here's what the Wenches have to say:

New England 1 Andrea

NE stone wallAndrea/Cara:
I must not be very adventurous at heart, for I’ve lived in New England all my life. (There were a number of years in New York City, but I always felt I had one foot in the country, as it’s only a hop, skip and jump to the Connecticut border.) Or maybe it’s just I that I feel a great affinity to the stark and simple beauty of the area—the colonial clapboard houses of the old towns, the rugged little harbors, the meandering stone walls, the sense of history around every bend. There’s a quiet, reserved air to this part of the country—a good vibe for an introvert like me.

New England leaves--AndreaNew Englanders are a pretty taciturn lot, perhaps a vestige of the area’s Puritan heritage, but they are also observant, and given to introspection—think Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickenson. I feel at home here, despite having traveled all over the world. I love the stubborn sense of place, the old-school traditions, the independent spirit. And I love the changing seasons—especially a New England fall, with its bright blaze of colors and crisp apple-scented air.


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On Crafting A Story, Stone by Stone

WritingCara/Andrea here, I live in New England, and in my daily walks, I pass a lot of old stone walls. They are a common sight here as the hardscrabble soil is rocky, and over the centuries farmers simply used the shards kicked up by their ploughs to fence in their fields. We have hard weather here, with wind, snow and rain constantly shaping the contours of the walls, giving each a unique character. I love looking at the details, as what always strikes me is how beautifully enduring they are, and how well they have held up to the vagaries of the moment.
Stone wall

So recently, as I was starting a new story idea and thinking of the basic elements while I walked, it struck me how my local stone walls are a perfect metaphor for what makes a good book. Now, you may be thinking, “Hmmm, has she lost her marbles?” Allow me to explain . . .

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A Taste of Autumn . . .

Images-1Cara/Andrea here, Regardless of what the lunar calendar says, here in the U. S. this first Monday in September marks the End of Summer. We reluctantly kick off the flip-flops, shed shorts and bathing suits for “real” clothing and say goodbye to lazy afternoons in the hammock. Yes, the weather is still hot and the noonday sun feels as bright as a July firecracker, but here in the Northeast, I’m already seeing the first small hints of Autumn.

Images-3Apples are a big part of the traditional change of seasons—the first crop of Macintoshes are starting to appear in the farmer’s markets. Fresh pressed cider, an iconic part of my childhood, is also hitting the shelves, its cinnamon-dark hue and spicy scent setting off all sorts of sweet memories.

Images-2Cider was also an integral part of Autumn in Regency times, where it was hugely popular, but its roots go much deeper into history. It’s thought that the apple tree originated in the area of present-day Kazakhstan and spread across Asia and Europe. There are references to apples trees along the Nile River delta in Ancient Egyptian writings, and both the Greeks and the Romans created libations from apples. The Romans found that the local tribes also were making cider when they arrived in the British Isles. (It likely was learned from contact with Brittany, whose weather and soil is particularly well-suited to apple cultivation.) And by early medieval times, cider was popular throughout Europe. (The word cider is likely derived from the Hebrew word shekar, which means “strong drink.” Most cider was what we today call hard cider—fermented with natural yeast to create an alcoholic drink.)

Apple+cider+millThe Norman invasion of Britain brought with it an even greater thirst for the beverage, and cider became an integral part of British life. (The famous Wycliffe Bible, created in the early 15th century, makes reference to cider!) By the 18th century, orchards were a common part of the landscape, and it had become common to pay farm laborers in Britain their wages in part with cider.

Wycliffe_GospelSo it's no surprise that the early English colonists brought their love for cider to the New World. New England had only a very bitter type of native crab apple, so seeds from Britain were quickly planted and grafts made (grafting is important to establish a trees that bear the desired fruit—a botanist will explain this better than I can!) so the colonist in America were soon enjoying their favorite brew. The fact that barley and other grains—the raw material for beer—didn’t grow well in the rocky soil of New England helped ensure that apple-based alcohol was the beverage of choice.
According to historical records, by the end of the 18th century, New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider per year, and the average individual consumption in Massachusetts was 35 gallons!

Johnny appleseedAs settlers headed West, they brought the apple with them—you’ve probably all heard the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a man who supposedly was responsible for planted myriad trees on the journey across the continent. Cider remained extremely popular in America until the beginning of the 20th century, when a wave of German and Middle European immigrants to the Midwest brought a thirst for beer. The farmland there was well-suited to hops and grain, and improved transportation allowed for beer to be easily distributed to other areas of the country. Cider, which has a very low alcohol content due to having less sugar than grapes, slowly gave way to the more potent punch of beer.

Images-4But it was Prohibition and the Volstead Act which caused cider to evaporate as a staple of American life. Hard cider became illegal, and many of the orchards devoted to cider apples—they are too tart to be used as eating apples—were destroyed by Prohibitionists. And with the Volstead Act limiting “sweet” cider to 200 gallons per year per orchard (to prevent people from making their own apple moonshine) the remaining orchards were hard-pressed to stay in business.

ImagesToday there is a resurgence in hard cider production. Like the microbrewery trend, local orchards are developing an enthusiastic following for their handcrafted brews. So while many people toast the end of summer with gin and tonics or other summer cocktails, I think I’ll raise a glass to cider, and salute its sweet place in history!

How about you—do you like cider (either sweet or hard)? And what’s your favorite eating apple? Mine is the Macoun, which doesn’t keep well, so is best right now. And if apples aren’t to your taste, what’s your favorite Autumn drink or food?