Friday, April 29, 2011

and now, pretty pretty pictures

It's possible that I have thought she's the most beautiful since I was ten.

Josef Fenneker
Harry Clarke
The Ballets Russes, Le Sacre Printemps dancers

Must credit Coilhouse for most of my eye candy these days. And video candy. INTERNET CANDY.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


When my dad was growing up, his family had a cook.

Anybody here read The Help? Anybody here casting their mind back to 1950s-1960s rural Virginia?

Apparently my paternal grandparents (neither of whom were alive when my parents married) were wealthy folk, because Mary LaPrelle, my grandmother, bought the place where now I sit on the bed, typing, in the Forties. My grandparents once owned not just all 3,000 acres my parents and I live on now, but even more--the farm across the road from the Cedar Springs store once belonged to my grandfather too; now it belongs to the Terry family.

My dad spent his summers here growing up. My grandfather Robert LaPrelle was from Texas, and he was a bit of a gentleman rancher--he rode horses, kept Angus steers--and he thought of this big white house as a hunting lodge of sorts. It's an old house, and it must have been even draftier then than it is now.

My dad was raised in part by a man named Harry Hanley, the family cook. Harry's kids would work and hang around the farm and the house too.
I never knew about him until I was in high school and we went to his funeral. I saw Mr. Hanley laid out. It was the first time I had ever seen a body. I remember thinking he looked waxy. He had a full head of white hair, and his skin was the color of a paper shopping bag. I met Harry's daughter, whom my dad embraced with a big smile. He told me that she taught him to crunch ice--this has been a habit peculiar to him for as long as I've known him (23 years). He carries around a big tall cup of instant iced tea (which is pretty foul stuff), mostly full of ice, and he will sip the tea and then crunch the ice up loud.
The Hanleys are one of very few black families I know about in Rural Retreat.
Harry Hanley taught my dad how to cook some things. Dad would bug Harry to make him mulberry pie, which Harry didn't think had much flavor. Harry would make fried chicken in a paper bag.
But what I want to talk about today is probably the "recipe" from Harry that we use the most in our family: Biscuits.
So here's how I make biscuits, which my dad taught me, which Harry Hanley taught him.

Start with some self-rising, or "biscuit" flour. White Lily is a good brand, they make it both bleached and unbleached (I like unbleached). Self-rising flour has already got the right amount of baking powder in it. If you don't have that, put 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder to 1 cup of flour. It's probably a good idea to fluff your flour around so it's not clumpy, with a fork or something.

Then you want to cut in the butter. For every 1 cup of self-rising flour, you want 1/4 cup of butter (half a stick). To cut in butter, you need to start with the butter really cold. I like to get it right out of the freezer. At my house we've got a special wire mesh to push the butter through to make small chunks, but you could easily cut it into cubes with a knife or grate it with a cheese grater.

Then you rub in the butter, so you use your favorite implement, whether this be a pastry cutter, two knives, forks, or your own fingers. I use fingers. And the idea here is to just rub the butter into the flour. You don't want to cream it, like you do when you're mushing the butter up for cookies or something. You want the butter to integrate with the flour in small bits, and you actually want there to still be some chunks of butter in there. If you've ever made shortbread, you know you rub the butter in until it looks like "coarse meal" or whatever, but you don't quite want that here. If you rub it in too much your biscuits will be tough. Basically I try to just grab the chunks of butter (quickly, with my fingertips) and break them in half, and just keep going, making all the chunks smaller.
If you are worried about your biscuits being tough, one thing I tried was I just plopped in some extra warm butter and mushed that in with my hands, and they came out too buttery but completely delicious and tender.

Then! It's time for the liquid. Use buttermilk, regular milk, or milk you have soured by stirring in either: a little vinegar or lemon juice (about 1 tablespoon per cup); or some yogurt (maybe 1/3 cup yogurt to 2/3 cup milk?). The extra acid present in these additions reacts with the baking powder present in the self-rising flour, which makes the rise happen all nice, PLUS acid makes the end result more tender, which is good.
I am terrible at estimating how much liquid I will need--I remember asking my dad for a cup measurement the first time he showed me how to make his biscuits, and he was like, "uh, just pour it in until it looks right". For a recipe with one cup of flour you might need...uh...a cup?
Anyway, pour it in and stir it up a bit, I still use my hands at this point, it is fun and feels awesome, but a spoon is fine. When it "looks right" it will look quite wet; you shouldn't really see much dry flour around. It will look SHAGGY/RAGGY, meaning it will stick to everything, like the sides of the bowl, your hands. You don't want to overwork the dough, so really stir it very little.

Then turn it out of the bowl and onto a floured surface. Pat it down, be rather gentle, start from the center and push it out into a flat thing, maybe an inch tall. Taller is fine. Cut out the biscuits! If you ain't got a cutter, use a cup or something, but a good tip is to dip your cutter in flour before you cut to prevent sticking. It's OK to take your leftover scraps and mush them together to cut more biscuits out of them. Lay them on a cookie sheet (you don't need to butter it), with a little space between them if you want (crowding them in is fine, too, nothing bad will happen) and put them in the oven, which should be real hot, like 425 degrees Fahrenheit. They'll bake for at least 15 minutes, at least you should check them then, and take them out when they're golden. And eat those suckers, I like butter & molasses, butter & honey, butter and jam...just

Yep. They're good the next morning too, cold or toasted.
It might take a few trials to get yourself a method you like, and get comfortable feeling the way the dough should be to get the biscuit you want, but it's so very very worth it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

pictures of stuff

New crankie project. What's a crankie? I'm glad you asked!

My sprouts.

Big, old-fashioned tarot cards from (where else?) grandma & grandpa's house in PA. The ace of coins, king of swords, two of cups, king of coins, and two of wands.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Almost Too Severe

Fair Ellen and Sweet William

Okay, time for a real ballad post--watch out, I kind of mean to do a lot of these. Do chime in if you have suggestions or reactions!

First, you have to check out this video. The point is the song here.

So what I wanted was to put in a sound file of me singing this song--I just (!) finished (!) mixing & mastering (!) my third CD (!), and that track was a reject--why not put it out here for someone to listen to? Nothing too wrong with it, we really just ran out of space and the energy wouldn't jive, blah blah blah. However, I actually don't know how to do that. I've seen people do it on other blogs, but I am pretty much clueless unless there's a button that says, "Click here to do that thing you want". Aaand I'm actually not sure whether I even saved that sound file when I was gleefully getting rid of all listening copies that weren't the FINAL MASTER. But enough of that. This version is where I learned it, anyway.

Fields Ward of Buck Mountain, VA (1911-1987) is the source for this ballad--not a version of “The Brown Girl” or “Fair Ellender” like I thought from the title, but a version of Child ballad No. 7, “Earl Brand”. Two links for you on that:

1. I bet you didn't know Earl Brand has its own Wikipedia page?

2. If you are at all interested in trad songs, and don't yet know about the "Mudcat Cafe", you have great discoveries in store! Some of the most learned folk scholars of our age are wiki-ing away over there, contributing song after song to the "digi-trad" where you can look up lyrics and tunes, and forming discussion threads that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. As always on the inter-webs, do double check on facts and research--not everyone can be right all the time. In any case, a wonderful resource. Looks like the Earl Brand these guys have on file is nice and Scottish. I like this verse: "She held, she held, she better better held/ And never shedded one tear..." I can just imagine the accent.

According to a brief but very informative biography by Sandra Brennan at, Ward’s mother was supposed to have been “a talented ballad-singer”, so I would imagine that this song came from her.

Isn't he handsome?

There’s something sweet and spring-like about the tune (especially Mr. Ward’s delivery of it), but the song itself is not a comfortable one.

Notice how all the dialogue, no matter the speaker, is in the first person, and all the action is in the third person. Check this out:

He rode till he come to Fair Ellen's home

He knocked and he tingled at the ring

"Asleep or awake, Fair Ellen," I said, "Pray arise and let me in."

Then later:

"Sweet William," I said, "Come and stop your case, for you seem almost too severe."

It's unsettling! but it's really an effective way of delivering both the detachment and the totally personal appeal of epic stories. It's really common for ballads to switch between third-person action narration and direct-quote dialogue, but the crazy here is all in that "I said". I think it brings out how the ballads are like a play or a monologue, or like someone you know telling an anecdote or a story.

And so chilling is this kind of chivalry where your boyfriend kills your whole family, while you hold the horse. Fun fact: one of the reasons we took this song off the new CD is that we ALREADY HAD a song like that on there, and we weren't sure we needed two.

Despite that, I am still a sucker for the pageantry of it all--the gowns, the horses, the month of May, the bugles, the handkerchiefs and the spring. Plus it's all innuendo-licious. You know, he mounted her upon the milk-white steed. All that slipping on of clothes and rising to let him in.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Whoah, guys

See, I found this fortune in the pocket of a denim jacket I haven't worn in years. That night I ate parsnips. No butter, though.