Blog Navigation

My blog posts will be about a wide range of subjects (this blog is ‘a little about everything). All of them will appear in reverse order on this page, and you are welcome to scroll through. However, you may be interested in only certain subjects. To read those without having to search through them all, you can click on a category heading located at the top of each post, or a tag link found at the bottom of each post. The categories will be subjects such as Gardening, Poetry, Cooking or general Blog Posts. The tags will be sub-categories, such as Seasonal (Gardening), Poetry Author (such as Emily Dickinson), Recipes, and other similar sections. Clicking on those links will give you just the posts from that category or tag. At the beginning this will be a small number for each group, but hopefully it will make navigation easier when there are more listed here.

A New Start

It’s the standard question for every kid – What do you want to do/be when you grow up? Once you get to be an adult, you quickly realize that the question never has a final answer, you simply change the ending – next year, in five years, in ten years. When I was a kid, the answer to the question was ‘I want to run the Smithsonian Museum.’ (I don’t think I was quite that ambitious, but hey, go big or go home!) Really, it was more about what I wanted to do, instead of where. I wanted to talk to anyone about anything they were interested in, and as a child, the Smithsonian Museum seemed like the place that had something of everything.

As an adult, the answer to the question hasn’t really changed; I still want to learn everything I can, so that I can have a conversation with anybody about their interests, and be able to contribute to the conversation. I started my career with a degree in history, and moved into the museum profession soon after. I worked for Old Salem, a living history museum, for over 20 years (not the Smithsonian, but turns out I really like living in North Carolina). Now I am looking at new career options as a graduate student in Library and Information Science at UNCG. To be honest, I think I’m still working toward my goal as a kid. Working at a library means helping people find information they want and need, and I can’t think of anything more interesting than that!

Cmabrige Rscheearch

Icdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmeal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltter be in the rghit pclae.  The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.  This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but wrod as a wlohe.  Amzanig huh?  yaeh and I awlyas thghout sopeling was ipmorantt!

You might have seen this internet meme before; if you haven’t and it looks like gobbledy-gook, it works a lot like the Magic Eye images. The harder you try to figure it out, the worse it gets. If you are having trouble reading the above, don’t try so hard. This will be harder for non-native readers of English, but if you stop trying to read each word because it looks strange, and just let go and get started reading the first bit, it comes a lot easier (at least, I found it so). The reason I am putting this up is because it goes to my inner language geek. Just recently, I came across this (which I had originally hung in my office at work) and I had the time, so I looked it up to see if it actually came from Cambridge. Funny thing is, its the exact question someone from Cambridge asked! The answer, apparently, is that no one really knows who this originated from, though there has been linguistic studies into similar areas, and studies of how people learn language and how the brain translates words.

One of the professors who has worked in the Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit at Cambridge wrote up a blog post where he gives the history of the research into language learning he has found, and possible links to this meme. He does show how there are some tricks to the above process, which means that you can’t just use any way to mix up the internal letter order, and that the sentence design itself has a lot to do with how it can be read. He has also added all the different languages this meme has been created in. Some written languages do not work as well with this design (such as Chinese), because the structure of the writing doesn’t work the same as many of those based in Europe. However, some do, and the blog poster, Matt Davis, gives a good run down of the types of written languages he has found examples in. I am providing a link here for you, so you can read his studies yourself if you are interested. He last updated it in 2003, so it has been around for a while, but the information is still good, and very interesting if you are like me! Link Here.

Featured Image in Creative Commons-“Zine Study XIV: [language]” by Shawn Econo is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Using Poetry to Understand Grief

I am often drawn to poems that discuss both personal and collective emotions and understanding (which I suppose is most poetry, really) and at this time of pandemic, I wanted to share a couple of poems that I think show grief from both angles. Grief can be personal and collective at the same time—funerals are a way for society to collectively support the personal loss of family and friends. When a society looses so many members at once, that group support seems to be missing, and the mourning has taken place only in the personal realm. It has become easier to get numb to the huge numbers that have died in the pandemic, rather than acknowledge how many are gone. When I read poetry, I can bring that understanding back to a personal level, instead of being overwhelmed by the big numbers that are listed each day. The PBS NewsHour has done this by sharing individual stories each night of people who have died from Covid.

So here, I will share two different poems, one by Elizabeth Barret Browning titled Grief, and one by Edna St. Vincent Millay called Dirge Without Music. The first one was published in 1844, and Browning describes a ‘hopeless grief’ that is passionless. She gives a good description of how grief can turn inward when it seems there is no relief, and how that can become something that is never expressed publicly. In the second poem, Dirge Without Music, Edna St. Vincent Millay gives us the other side, the personal grief that isn’t hopeless. She talks about loosing large numbers of people, but she gives them personal traits to remind us of the individuals that are lost. She ends the poem with “And I am not resigned.” This is the other side of grief, and is the opposite of the ‘hopeless grief’ described by Ms. Browning.

I don’t do in-depth analysis of the poems I share here, but I do want to give my reasons for including them, and why I like to read poetry. These two poems have many depths of meaning that will depend on the reader to discover, and I hope they appeal to others like they do to me. (I had asked for permission to show the whole poem by Ms. Millay here, but since I have not heard back from my request, I will just give the first line to encourage you to read the whole poem using the link I am providing below the first line of the poem.)

Grief

I tell you hopeless grief is passionless
That only men incredulous of despair, 
Half-taught in anguish, through them midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent - bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for they dead in silence like to death--
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet;
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
                          Elizabeth Barret Browning
Dirge Without Music (first line only)
         Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away 
               of loving hearts in the hard ground.
(Click here to visit poetry.org for the rest of the verse)

Frederick Douglass-A Speech in 1857

Frederick Douglass, c. 1850

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

I have been waiting for the month of February to put this quote on my website. I don’t know if that was a good decision or not, as I think that a quote by a great orator shouldn’t wait for the one month set aside to honor African-Americans. But since I started this website in November, with the elections and holidays, I had other quotes that worked well for those times, so I thought I would wait until February for a famous quote by Frederick Douglass. I have known this quote for a number of years, and I love it for the way it conjures so many images and thoughts. Even though I knew it was from Mr. Douglass, I had not looked at the full speech until I decided a couple of months ago to highlight it on my website. Once I decided on it, I wanted to make sure I knew where the quote came from, so I looked it up. If you like the small part of Mr. Douglass’s speech in this quote, I highly recommend you read the whole speech, which can be found on this website – BlackPast.org. The speech was given to a group of abolitionists in the state of New York in 1857, just before the start of the Civil War. I have to say, while the small section of the speech that became so famous is still my favorite part, the rest of the speech shows how talented Mr. Douglass was at framing his words in ways that have the most impact. I will put a few other parts of the speech at the end of this post just to hopefully get you interested enough to read the full speech. I will also say that Mr. Douglass had a fascinating life, and if you can, read up on some of his history. He himself wrote several autobiographies throughout his life, and strongly supported women’s rights in addition to Black Americans. His history can be found at this website for his historic home in Washington, DC, which is run by the National Park Service.

The sections of Mr. Douglass’s speech quoted below are posted on BlackPast.org.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal.

Magician

This is one of my favorite books, part of a trilogy called The Riftwar Saga. Since publishing Magician in 1982, Raymond E. Feist has continued writing and publishing stories set in this world, but the first trilogy is the best. You can find the book Magician in two smaller sections, with the first titled Magician: Apprentice and the second Magician: Master. However, as long as you don’t mind picking up the bigger book, I recommend just reading both together. Feist wrote in the Author’s Preferred edition (which I also own) that this was the first book he ever wrote. I must say, he did a good job. In fact, I would say that he actually got a bit too wordy in later series, and lost some of the focus that his first trilogy had. Magician is followed by Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, both of which I also highly recommend. The second two focus a bit more on a number of the secondary characters in Magician, with the trilogy covering about 12 years of time. Still, Magician is the best if you only want to read one (and the others would make no sense if you started with one of them). The pacing is excellent, the character and world development are well done, and the story itself is tight, and doesn’t wander around (which can be a problem with some fantasy worldbuilding). The world the story is set in is called Midkemia, which is connected to the world of Kelewan by magic. For those who may be hesitant about magical worlds, one thing to understand is that magic is generally treated as a different type of science. Good fantasy always has rules for magic, just like science has. Feist never forgets to stick to the rules he creates for magic, which is the sign of a good fantasy writer. For those who are used to magic in fantasy, know that this is one of the best.

This book gives the story of two young boys who are best friends, coming of age at the beginning of a war. The story follows them as their lives take two completely different paths, while weaving in a wide group of other characters that surround their lives as they change. The story starts with an introduction to Pug and Tomas, begining at the time they are being chosen for their apprenticeships at the age of 14. This also happens to be when a war starts in the Kingdom of the Isles (the country of Pug and Tomas), begun when Tsurani magicians from Kelewan discover a way to bridge the distance between the two worlds. This effort starts a war of conquest by the Tsurani, which takes place throughout the book. I won’t give away much of the plot, and it is easy to look up more details if you wish. What I will say is that this is one of the more complete world-building efforts, and provides a lot of background while still moving the plot along. The books Feist wrote that extend this world take place after the events in this series, so you might want to try some of them out if you enjoy these. However, I felt that Feist has a tendency to get caught up in more and more pacing problems in the other books. Some are fine, but taken as a whole, I’ll just stick with these first three for a recommendation. I will do a separate review on another trilogy set in the same worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan, but they are written with Janny Wurts writing together with Mr. Feist. Ms. Wurts has a very different style of writing (I have read books written solely by her, and they are very different in pace and character development). The combination of styles by Ms. Wurts and Mr. Feist make for a very good story, but one that feels a bit different than The Riftwar Saga. That trilogy happens concurrently with the Magician series, but on the world of Kelewan. They detail the same time that is covered in Magician, but through the eyes of a set of Tsurani characters. If you have ever thought to read fantasy but just haven’t taken the plunge yet, Magician is a good, solid start in the genre.

Here Be Dragons

Sharon Kay Penman is one of the main historical fiction writers that I love to read. As someone who does research as a career, I have a lot of trouble reading historic fiction, or watching those so-called ‘period’ movies. Often, there are just too many reasons to adjust or dramatize facts to create a story that is easier to sell to a modern audience. That is not something that can be said about Penman’s books, and she has published a total of 10 books. Here Be Dragons is the first in a trilogy about 13th and 14th century Wales and England. I will confess that I haven’t read the second two books in this trilogy, though I have read others she wrote. None of these books have to be read in order, but they do build on the characters in each. Someone who wanted to read the two main series, The Welsh Princes and The Plantagenets, would have to love long books, because all of these are hefty, most over 700 pages. The first one I ever read was Here Be Dragons, and it is still my favorite. I even wrote a paper on the historical accuracy of this book as an undergraduate, and I can say with confidence that there is almost nothing fictionalized that can be known. What makes this fiction is Ms. Penman’s ability to make the characters more than the one-dimensional creatures that are displayed in history, such as King John, probably the best know of the book.

One thing to remember about history is that it is always written by the victors. Ms. Penman does not take away from terrible things that were done by those in power, but she does make them human, and shows the progression of events that created their actions. The main character that Here Be Dragons focuses on is Joanna, a natural daughter of King John. (And yes, I was at first drawn to the book because we shared a first name! Though most historians call her Joan, Joanna is version that can be documented as well.) By picking someone who is less well known, Ms. Penman gains some freedom to take the story into the daily life of her characters and make them more human, without loosing the historic arc of the time period she is writing about. In this case, it is the last years of Welsh independence, before the arrival of Edward I and his complete conquering of Wales, which is the period that completes the trilogy. While this book is long, my feeling while reading it was there are no boring parts that feel like filler. The events just keep going, and you can easily get caught in the web of family intrigue, as well as difficulties and triumphs of the main characters. You will definitely get a different idea of King John than comes from Shakespeare or Robin Hood! And as I stated, if there was information to be found in historical accounts, Ms. Penman used all of them, so no one has reason to doubt the accuracy of the book. The ‘fictional’ part is to be found in the development of the characters and their thoughts and emotions, not in the actions they took or the events that occurred.

The other books by Ms. Penman, of which I have read 4 in total, are also very good, but if someone wants to try her books out, I recommend this one first, as it has remained my favorite. The Plantagenet series actually takes place earlier in time, and begins with the events of the White Ship, which was a tragedy in the 1100s that began the end of William the Conqueror’s line of succession. I have read the first of that group, When Christ and His Saints Slept, but it does have some parts that drag a bit, and is a bit longer than this one. If you are intimidated by the length of all of these books, you could try her much shorter series called the Justin de Quincy Mysteries, but I cannot speak for them as I haven’t read any of them. Unfortunately, there will not be any more published, as Ms. Penman died just this month on January 22 (I only discovered it as I was writing this review). Her last book was published in the UK two days before her death, and looks like it would have started a new series about the Crusades, called The Land Beyond the Sea. Rest in Peace, Ms. Penman.

Scherenschnitte-The art of paper cutting

Scherenschnitte–one of the final words of the 2015 National Spelling Bee, and probably the only time I have ever been able to spell a word from that contest. (I am notoriously bad at spelling; I give myself comfort that Einstein is rumored to have been a bad speller, but it is definitely cold comfort!) Scherenschnitte is a word I had to spell frequently when I worked at a living history museum, where we would demonstrate the technique of decorative paper cutting from Germany and central Europe. There are a lot of different traditions of paper cutting and folding in many cultures, such as origami from Japan and the original paper cutting of China, but scherenschnitte is one of those that many people think of today, probably because it reminds them of cutting out paper snowflakes in elementary school. The technique was often used as gifts, or to decorate other items. Many people who practice it today will use an Exacto knife for very fine cuts, but I have always used small scissors. It doesn’t have to be difficult, just as making paper snowflakes can be very simple, but there are plenty of examples of very intricate designs that take skill and patience to complete. I am going to include several pictures of designs that I have cut, but it is fairly easy to copy a design for someone who wants to just try it out for fun.

This is a quarter fold pattern with writing space in the center. If you look at the featured image of this post, you can see the cut design mounted on red paper.


The first thing to do with paper cutting is to make sure you pick the right type of paper. Very thin paper, while it is easier to cut, won’t hold up to the pressure that comes from cutting away much of the structure. If it isn’t strong enough, you will end up tearing the design, especially if you are doing a very intricate one. Stronger paper will also give a crisp finish, which looks a lot better for the amount of work you are going to be doing. The paper available in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the practice was popular, was generally rag paper, which means that it was made of cotton, linen, or a blend of the two. Wood pulp paper became more common after the 1820s, but if you want to get an idea of how much stronger rag paper is, pull out the one that most people are familiar with, money. All US paper money is made of rag paper, 75% cotton and 25% linen. Linen provides a lot of strength to paper, and is why your paper currency can be put through the wash and still stay intact! All of this is to say, the best paper for making scherenschnitte has some rag content. I recommend a general 25% cotton, which is what good quality resume paper is made with. Even a thinner weight paper with this rag content will provide stability for the design. After that, it depends on how thick you want to cut through. If you just want to try this for fun, get some good quality resume paper and give it a try.

If you want to do much paper cutting, I recommend getting a small light board for tracing purposes, but you can also use a window for this (I always used a window when I was working in the museum), it will just get tiring if you want to do more than one or two of these. As for designs, you can find a lot of them online or purchase a book of designs, but you can also make up any design you want. The main thing is to remember to look carefully at your design so you know what paper is going to stay, and what is to be cut away. If you want, you can shade one part, and leave the other white; just make sure you know which is which! You will need a small pair of scissors that are very sharp and pointed. Do Not use scissors you keep for cutting fabric to cut paper. Cutting paper will dull scissors much faster than cloth, and will ruin good fabric.

This pattern is from a set of cards I received for Christmas one year. I just took the design and traced it onto paper, and cut it out myself. This is a single fold design, with some intricate details. You can see where I started tracing the design for cutting in the bottom image. Before you start cutting, make sure you have firmly in mind what is cut away and what stays; you can’t put the paper back on if you make a mistake! You can also change these designs however you want. Leave out the middle details to gain a space for writing, for instance, or just use the very outer design to create a lacework edging.

Most of the designs I have done are traditional styles, which usually means they are folded once or twice, and then opened up after cutting to reveal the repeated design. You will find paper cut designs that are done without folding, often of scenes, and these are often done with a knife rather than scissors. If you like those, feel free to try them, but I won’t show any of them here, since all of the originals that I have looked at are folded designs. You can paint or color the designs after they are done, but I like the plain color ones, with a contrasting color of paper for mounting to show the design. Many of the original ones were given like we give cards today, including as Valentine’s greetings, so many of them would include a space left for writing, but I have also seen them with writing on the delicate edges of a filigree heart.

The technique for drawing and cutting is to start by tracing or drawing your pattern. I am not an artist, so I will always trace a pattern. If using a window, just secure your pattern behind your paper (making sure to allow room to fold the paper you are cutting, i.e. place the pattern at the top of a page to fold in half, not in the middle of the paper). Hold or tape the paper and design to a window at a comfortable height to draw, and then trace the pattern onto your cutting paper. Once you take off the pattern, fold your paper in half or in quarters along the fold edge of the design, then look closely at your design for where to start cutting. The best technique is to cut from smallest areas to the largest areas. This gives you the most stability, keeping the bulk of the paper intact while you work, and leaving cutting out the biggest portions until the end, which lessens the risk of tearing the paper. The outside edges of the design are the last thing to cut away. There is also a trick I learned that you might find useful. The amount of pressure to push the scissors through the paper can cause tearing even when you are being very careful. I take a straight pin and poke a hole in the middle of all of the cut-out areas before I start. This takes a little more time, but makes it much easier and safer to cut even the smallest areas, because you have created an opening for the tip of the scissors without much pressure being applied. The tip of a straight pin is much finer than the best scissors, and takes much less pressure to pierce the paper. The other trick to remember is that the paper moves forward, not the scissors. This may sound strange, but try it before you start. Take your scissors and push them into the center of a piece of paper. Now start the cutting motion with your scissors, but don’t move them forward or back. Instead, use your other hand holding the paper to push the paper gently into the motion of the scissors. This is what you want to do with paper cutting. You will only be using the very tip of the scissors to cut with, so there really isn’t much point to trying to push the scissors forward into the paper. It may seem a little strange at first, but if you practice, you will find much more control by pushing the paper into the scissors, instead of the other way round! Just remember, this isn’t like cutting large pieces of paper in half; you will be making very small cuts with your scissors, so you want to control the motion much more than usually done with cutting.

This is a Christmas design that I have cut out numerous times to frame and give as gifts. It is also a single fold design. Again, changes can be made, such as leaving the top medallions solid for painting or writing in. On something like this, cutting the smallest areas first is best, to keep as much stability as long as possible. It would also be a good idea to color in the areas to cut out, so you don’t remove parts of the design you want to keep.

When you are finished with the Scherenschnitte design, you can either give it to someone as is, or more commonly, mount it on a contrasting color paper backing to frame. I have used dark jewel tones of cover weight paper to mount designs on before framing, but you can also cut the design out of a darker paper and mount it on a light backing if you want. (Seeing the design to cut out is easier on light paper, but using a white lead pencil on dark paper is also possible.) When putting the design onto its backing, it is best not to put the glue onto the design, which will cause it to tear or wrinkle. Instead, use a drier glue like a gluestick to put the glue onto the mounting paper, and then carefully place the design onto the glue area. This is a tricky part of the presentation, because it can be easy for the delicate design not to lay flat if you are not very careful. I recommend using a low heat iron to flatten out the Scherenschnitte design before mounting it. This is also where using a good quality paper will help, since it is less flimsy, and won’t twist around easily when placing it on the glue. Make sure you have the design centered on the paper before applying glue, and marking the area for the design before applying the glue on the mounting paper is often a good idea. Be very careful not to pull in any one direction as you place it gently down on the glue covered mounting paper; one technique is to have a center line to use as a guide, and set the cut design centerpoint gently down on that first, then allow the two sides to just fall to the paper. This will keep you from shifting the design from top to bottom or side to side, which can cause it to bunch up onto the glue base. You will have a few minutes to make any adjustments to small points on the cut design while the glue is still moist; using a straight pin to shift small points is the safest way. Press gently with your hand to ensure it is stuck on the glue, and you could put a slick covered book on to press it for about 30 minutes. DO NOT put a piece of paper or other cover that could stick to the glue on top of the still wet glue-and-design. There is no way to remove other paper getting stuck to the glue on the mounting paper without destroying the cut design. That is a lot of work to destroy at the very end! If in doubt, just let it dry completely without any weighting, and press after the glue is dry. Frame and enjoy!

This is a quarter fold pattern. Quarter folds are a little bit more difficult to cut, since you have four pieces of paper to cut through at once, but they are usually less complicated. They also take less time, since you are creating twice as much of the design area with each cut.

Poetry-Fire and Ice

I haven’t posted for a bit, partly because, like many, I have been anxiously watching events in Georgia and Washington, D.C. I am not going to comment about politics on this blog, because that really isn’t why I began this effort. I am not really interested in blogging about current political events (I was never interested in becoming a journalist). The quotes that I post are usually as close as I will come to commenting, and they are really more of an historian’s view on the events. I do try to pick quotes that I think point out the continuity with the past that are reflected in the present. This month’s first quote is one from Plautus, a playwright from the Roman Republic. While I think we can always learn from history, Plautus’s comment of ‘Done is done, it cannot be made undone’ is also very on point for this week. For the second quote, I picked a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘The gates of Hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent, and easy is the way; But, to return, and view the cheerful skies; In this, the task and mighty labor lies.’ I think both are ways to look at the events of today with different eyes. One thing I like about both history and poetry is that we can look at events through a different window than a news feed, and that different viewpoint can help us to gain perspective on events. For me, good poetry condenses complex ideas into a form that gives both pinpoint focus and a wider angle view at the same time. As with any art, each person will view a poem from their own experience, so if anyone likes some of the poetry I put on this blog, I hope it inspires them to look at other poems and authors. I think poetry can be comforting to read when times are full of conflict, even if the poem itself is full of conflict. The knowledge that people went through events like this in the past, and we are all still here to read about it can be a source of reassurance.

Now that I have said that, I will give you a poem about the world ending! (Sorry! We’ll just interpret that as a conceptual ‘world’ instead of a physical world; though I will admit that is not as comforting as it could be!) Robert Frost is pretty well known, and if you read poetry at all, you have probably read ‘Fire and Ice.’ Like a lot of the poems I like best, this one is short, but I think puts a lot of meaning into just a few words. ‘Fire and Ice’ talks about love and hate as the motivations for destruction. Robert Frost separates them out as two distinct causes, but I think we might look at recent events and decide that there is no reason to limit our choice to just one. This poem also reminds me of the saying about water, that the right amount will quench your thirst, but too much will drown you. As an historian, I like that we can learn from history, but I also know that we only learn if we take the time to study. As a future librarian, I urge everyone to study the mistakes of the past, and also to learn from poetry, music, and art about other viewpoints.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice

Robert Frost

Not Seen Since 1226!

Happy Winter Solstice! And I hope you looked at the evening sky tonight to see the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets were close enough together in their orbits (as seen from earth) to appear as one point, or if you could look through a telescope or even binoculars, you would be able to see both together! I pulled out my 6 inch Dobson telescope to get this view, and managed to take a picture through the eyepiece with my phone. (My dad is the real photographer in the family, and he decided to try it out; turns out it works!) There is a bit of over exposure of the light from the planets, so you can’t see the spaces between the rings and Saturn (the oval on the bottom) or the stripes on Jupiter’s surface, but you can see the four Galilean moons if you look closely (those would be Io, Europa, Gannymede, and Callisto). The two close to Jupiter are really visible, but look closely to either side on the same plane, and you can just see the other two (the one on the right side is very faint, it is about half the distance from Jupiter as the one on the far left). These were easier to see just looking through the eyepiece of the telescope, but the camera had a little trouble picking them up. Not bad though!

The conjunction happens every 20 years, but it hasn’t been this close during the night in 800 years, so the last time was before telescopes, in 1226! While I have looked at these planets separately, I had never been able to look at both like this together, so it was a really nice thing to see, since it will be another 400 years before they get this close again (don’t think I’ll be around for that one). If you are interested in some background, there is a short article on Vox.com about the great conjunction, and of course, NASA has a good write up about it, too.

If you have any interest in reading up about the planets, or other parts of the solar system, NASA has a great interactive on it, where you can get an overview, zoom in and out on the different parts of the solar system in real time layout, and click on links that take you to pages on the planets, moons, asteroids, and even where the major satellites are located. I highly recommend taking a look, even if you aren’t very interested in astronomy. It might make you take a look the night sky differently!

For anyone wondering why the image is backwards if compared to others, it is taken through a telescope mirror, so the image gets reversed, and I didn’t change it. Here it is right side up!

Baking Molded Gingerbread

While I love decorating Gingerbread cookies with icing, I also like to make molded Gingerbread cookies, especially if I have carved good molds for them. You could even use them to decorate a Christmas tree, which is one of the first decorations recorded for Christmas trees in America. They appear in a painting of a family by Lewis Miller, who painted everyday scenes of life in the early 1800s. Miller painted a table top size Christmas tree in the background of a family during Christmas, and the molded cookies are hanging on the tree (if you look at the painting, the cookies are the squares with little dots in the center, though many will call them Springerle instead of Gingerbread; my opinion is they were likely some of both. Here is a link to the picture). In the post about carving gingerbread molds, I talked a little about how I make the molds, so this post is about using them for baking molded Gingerbread.

When using the mold to make cookies, I have had a lot of practice (I was part of a group that made all the cookies for Old Salem evening tours for a number of years)! There are a number of Gingerbread recipes that will work with the molds. The main thing is to have is a smooth dough that isn’t sticky, and won’t puff up or spread when baked. Most recipes that are good for gingerbread for icing or making gingerbread houses is perfectly good for making press molded cookies. If you want to make really 17th century German style gingerbread, use honey instead of molasses. Honey was used for gingerbread in Germany and much of central Europe up until at least the mid-19th century, and many still use it today. The English turned to molasses early, and in America most gingerbread had become molasses gingerbread by the last decade of the 1700s, even if it was made by Germans.

(The cookies on the above right were made using new molds I carved this year. Several of them are copied from original molds, while I created two of them myself, including the pump at the bottom right. These small molds are relatively easy to carve, as they are not very detailed. These cookies are about 1 1/2 inches high.)

When you roll out the dough, it needs to be very cool, though right out of the fridge might be a little too stiff. I have done the method of rolling out the dough and pressing the mold into it, and it works okay, especially if the mold is fairly simple in design. However, I don’t really use this method anymore because I had so many cookies I had to ball up and re-roll out that I got frustrated with the technique. When I was editing a translated German cookbook for Old Salem, my staff and I were looking at 18th century German recipes from two different cookbooks. In them they describe forming a square of dough, dusting the mold with flour, and then pressing the dough into the mold. You need to have a piece of dough a little thicker than you want, so that you can press it into the mold and get a good image, then turn it over and peel it off the mold onto the table or cutting board, then cut or trim the edges for the finished cookie. It is definitely more time consuming, but for intricate designs, I have found it works better. As for dusting the mold, the best thing is to get some good cheesecloth (with fine holes, not coarse ones like you find at a grocery store) cut a piece about 6-7 inches square, put some flour in it, then use a string or twist tie to close the cloth around the flour creating a pouch. This can then be used to dust the mold and the dough without getting big bits of flour that cause register problems with the designs (this was technique was described in the 18th century cookbooks). Generally, press-molded gingerbread cookies need to be at least 1/4 inch thick, so they are a bit thicker than a gingerbread man, but that is just part of using the molds to make them. You can also glaze the gingerbread, which can help bring out the design on the darker cookie dough once they are baked. The practice of using colored icing sugar to highly decorate sugar cookies is similar, but probably dates to when white sugar became cheaper to purchase, around the mid-19th century (most of my research stopped at about this time, since so much changed with cooking techniques at that point; and yes, I have researched both the history of sugar production and gingerbread making). If I can get permission from Old Salem, I will post my research paper on gingerbread sometime.


(If you are interested in the cookbook I described called The Raised Hearth, you are welcome to buy it though The Book Patch. Even though I am listed as the author/editor, I do not have any rights to the book. The book is owned by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, and they get any profits from its sale. The book has direct translations of the 18th century recipes, so it is not a modern cookbook with recipes you can use in today’s kitchen. Someone who has experience with historical cooking and cookbooks from the time period can experiment with the recipes and cook with them, which is what we used the book for at the museum where I worked.)

Carving Gingerbread Molds

I started carving Gingerbread Molds while working at Old Salem. The history of Gingerbread was something that I had to answer a lot while I worked there. I would be the person to call whenever there were media requests about that history, so I eventually wrote a paper on the history from the Middle Ages until the modern day, just so I would be able to pull up information whenever I got a call from a TV station or magazine, or had to appear on a TV feed for Christmas. (This happened all the time during the Christmas season, the last one I did for Our State can be seen here.) The more I researched, the more I understood that molded Gingerbread was commonly made for Christmas in Europe since the Middle Ages. The Moravians continued the practice until sometime in the mid-19th century,so I decided to carve some molds for us to use when we did Christmas baking at Old Salem. We had some original molds from the early 19th century in our collection, so I started with those designs. I am not good at creating original artwork, at least not drawings, but I can copy most things. So I took pictures or drew copies of the original molds, and then transferred the design onto wood blocks and started carving. I have also carved printing blocks for making paste paper (the adult version of finger-painting), so I had some practice with carving. The main thing to remember with carving things like this is to take off small amounts at a time, because you can’t put the wood back on if you take off the wrong piece. I make knife cuts around the parts I want to remove, so that when I am carving, the wood chip will stop at the cut, which makes it less likely to remove wood you want to keep! One of the more difficult things to remember when carving a cookie mold is that you are making a reverse image, so what you want to project up you need to carve deeper. It requires a little thinking before starting to carve.

The wood I use is generally either poplar, maple, or pear if I can get it. Pear wood was the traditional for professional wood carvers in Europe to use for carving printing blocks for industrial purposes. Professional wood carvers would make designs for different industries in Germany. Printed paper makers, such as those making colored and paste paper, printed fabric makers, and book printers would all buy carved wooden molds for their shops, so the mold carvers were highly skilled and made extremely detailed carvings. Pear was the wood of choice because it is a hard wood that has a very fine grain, which allows for the fine designs. Oak has a coarse grain, and isn’t really good to use, and pine and other soft woods are also bad choices. Many people who do carving as a hobby today will say to use basswood, but I have tried it and found it too soft to get good detail (actually, I really dislike using basswood for carving, it is better for less detailed figurines). Poplar is easier to get, though maple will make beautiful molds. I have ordered pear wood from specialty wood suppliers, and I really like using it. It is also possible that other fruit woods would work, such as apple or cherry, but I have no experience with those. (In a later post, I’ll show the molded gingerbread cookies made with these designs. Also see the Gallery section for more carved molds.)

The first step is to put the image on paper, tack it to the wood block, and then use a pen or pointed stylus to impress the image into the wood. (Someone more skilled in drawing could draw the image directly onto the wood block. I like using the paper because I can adjust the image as much as I want without affecting the wood block I want to carve.)

My next step is to trace the impression with a pencil. I don’t need to put in lines that are going to be lower than the surface. Here, there are several elements on the snowy hills that will be carved, but the snow will need to be higher (which means deeper carved) so I pencil those in once I reach that level.

The carving is done using the pencil drawing as the base. I cut around the parts I want to be careful of with a knife, so that the carving tools don’t take off more wood in delicate spots. When I am finished with all carving, I will do a little sanding to finish some rough spots.

Back to Top
css.php