Did you remember to say, “Rabbits, rabbits,” this morning? I did, which is amazing because after the Big R, I don’t know what day of the week it is, let alone the date. But you should say the word “rabbits” on the first of every month because … well, because my mother said so and I’ve never actually questioned it. All my life, I’ve tried to say the word on waking on the first day of the month and if I ever forget I feel exceptionally disappointed and inexplicably out of sorts. Wikipedia (which I trust and rely on – I know, I know!) explains the habit as follows:

“Rabbits rabbits rabbits” is one variant of a superstition found in Britain and North America that states that a person should say or repeat the word “rabbit” or “rabbits” or “white rabbits” or some combination of these elements, out loud upon waking on the first day of the month, because doing so will ensure good luck for the duration of that month.

My mother also recommended saying the word only on the first of the months ending with “r” otherwise she said all the rabbits would be running round not knowing what to do, and I believed her. But I think she confused it with the adage that seafood should be eaten only in months ending with “r” and everyone ignores that one. I like the following quote that Wikipedia includes: “When I was a very little boy I was advised to always murmur ‘White rabbits’ on the first of every month if I wanted to be lucky. From sheer force of unreasoning habit I do it still—when I think of it. I know it to be preposterously ludicrous, but that does not deter me.” – Sir Herbert Russell, 1925.

This explains why I still say “rabbits” on the first. In fact, this morning I woke up soon after 2 a.m. and said “rabbits” out loud just in case!

Farewell O Hummers!

They’ve gone – without a by-your-leave or a text message, the hummingbirds have flown south to Mexico. My book says the Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer found east of the Mississippi. And although one of the smallest, it stores up enough fat to successfully make a non-stop, 500-mile migration across the Gulf of Mexico. I’m happy I helped. Last weekend was evidently the gala banquet – we had dozens and dozens and I refreshed each feeder more than once. By Tuesday, there were noticeably fewer and by Friday, one solitary hummer had obviously decided to take a later flight. Today, there are none, although I keep looking hopefully out of the window. The feeders are still full with just some pesky wasps enjoying the nectar. I’ll leave one out in case a hummer doesn’t like Mexican food or decides to come back early. Godspeed, dear friends. Gosh, we’ll miss you.

The Christmas cake is in the oven

Yes, I know it’s only September but an English Christmas cake takes time to mature. It’s not just your regular fruit cake much ridiculed by families who, in urban legends re-gift the cake every December. No, no. An English Christmas cake is serious business. Perish from your thoughts a shiny round brick studded with green pineapple segments and fluorescent scarlet cherries. That type of cake deserves every rude comment. No, no again. Let’s start with the ingredients. That’s the first challenge – procuring the correct ingredients in a foreign land is not easy. In past years, I have even ordered them from England at enormous cost – dried fruit is very heavy. But I soon decided that by the time Christmas rolls around, not having the exact proportions of sultanas to currants won’t make much difference. The cake uses butter, sugar, flour and eggs and I typically buy organic ingredients the week I decide to make it, so they are as fresh as can be. Candied peel and glace cherries won’t be in the U.S. shops until November, so I buy next year’s later and then the only challenge is remembering where I stashed them. The dried fruit and nuts, along with black treacle, RUM, spices and lemon rind are added at the end and it takes two hands to stir the huge batch of batter. Cedric usually joins me to do the final stir and make a wish. My wish is usually that the cake turns out OK! The cake bakes slowly and for a long time – four and a half hours. The delicious smell starts permeating the halls after the first hour so all my neighbors know I’m baking again.

After the cake has cooled, it gets poked all over with a knitting needle and gets its first slosh of rum. Then for the next three months, every Sunday I feed it more rum. That’s the next challenge. Since the Big R, every day is Sunday, so I might have to get a working friend to text me each Sunday morning, saying, “Wakey, wakey, it’s Sunday and your cake is thirsty!” Christmas week, there’s specific action. By this time, the cake is so soaked with rum it has a hangover and deserves a layer of marzipan all over like a yellow blanket. But first I sieve some apricot jam, warm it slightly and brush it over the surface – that helps the marzipan stick. I try and do a professional job of marzipaning the cake just out of a sense of pride, rolling and measuring carefully to ensure a smooth finish especially along the sides. In reality, no one will ever see it and often I have to patch pieces where I’ve miscalculated the width so it looks like a badly sewn quilt. The best thing about the marzipan is putting little pieces aside for us to enjoy as treats. The marzipan is left to dry for two or three days.

A couple of days before Christmas, it’s time to ice the cake with royal icing, made with icing or confectioner’s sugar mixed with egg whites. I typically add a teaspoon of glycerine if I can find it. It makes the icing a little less brittle. Royal icing can set as hard as concrete. I remember one year going into a pharmacy and asking for glycerine. Oh my goodness, I still recall the consternation on the pharmacist’s face. It was just at the time when several homemade bombs had been detonated and one major ingredient apparently is glycerine. Who knew? The pharmacist called the senior manager and they asked me very seriously what I wanted glycerine for. When I explained it was for royal icing on the Christmas cake, they visibly relaxed. The icing covers the patchwork marzipan and I tap a flat spatula all over to make it look like snow. On Christmas Eve, the grand cake-cutting takes place and we anxiously await the decision on whether it’s a good vintage or not.

I’ve been making the cake for as long as we’ve been married and use the same trusted recipe that I tore out of a cookbook that evidently didn’t make the cut on one of our international moves. After the flurry of hurricane activity last week when we prepared a suitcase in case we evacuated, I realize now that I forgot a very important item … the Christmas cake recipe. Next time, that will definitely be included. Merry Christmas!

Hummers rule!

You’ve got to hand it to these ferocious firecrackers! Hurricane-force winds and a state of emergency in every county in Georgia, didn’t stop our hummingbirds from swooping, fighting, defending territory and perching, albeit gripping on by their toenails. In defiance of the Georgia governor’s declaration to hunker down, our hummers continued life as normal. With Hurricane Irma moving north from Florida and even though it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, we brought all our porch paraphernalia inside. A sturdy patio chair could do major damage to a window and the wind gusts were strong enough to lift flower pots over railings. So, Sunday night after dark, the three feeders came inside. Early Monday morning, with the wind roaring and the rain already pounding, I heard the chatter of annoyed hummers looking for their breakfast. I felt so sorry for them. I grabbed the feeders, opened the patio door and carefully hung them back up. I got soaked but it was the right thing to do. If they could brave the pouring rain, it was the least I could do.

All day they drank nectar. All day I felt happy. I still don’t understand how such a tiny creature functions but I know it’s a miracle. We have so many hummingbirds that neighbors can see them from the street and enjoy watching them. Either the hummers are getting braver, or we are getting really good at remaining motionless when the sound of an electric toothbrush whirrs two inches away from our noses. This morning, I remembered I had forgotten to replenish one of the feeders last night, so out I padded as soon as I woke up and filled it. Heaven forbid a hummer had to wait for breakfast.

Too busy to blog

It’s true, it’s true. Everything you hear about retirees being far busier than they were before is totally true. I got a form letter from Social Security this week asking me if I anticipated earning any wages for the balance of the year. That made me laugh out loud. You have got to be kidding – I don’t have time to go out to work! There’s ginger to be candied, okra to be roasted, hummingbird feeders to be filled, seeds to be watered. And coming up there’ll be the Christmas cake to be made and that’s a whole-day production. More of that in a later blog.

Back to the ginger – what fun! It was in my week’s basket from Fresh Harvest. Who knew that fresh ginger is soft and almost pink? The stuff in the grocery store is probably three months old. I sliced it thinly and simmered it in sugar and water; lay the slices on a rack to dry; and then coated them in more sugar. It left me with a delicious syrup for ice cream or yogurt. A huge success and I have more coming in this week’s basket. The okra was interesting. I roasted it with olive oil and thyme. I wasn’t sure if I liked okra or not. Cedric pronounced it absolutely revolting, on a par with Brussels sprouts, which he has disliked since he was a child. My Southern belle neighbor said it was delicious so I’m going with her verdict.

The hummingbirds are going crazy fueling up before they migrate. I have two feeders and the hummers bicker and dive-bomb each other, squabbling like children. I wish they would learn that there’s plenty for all and they waste a lot of energy trying to prevent each other feeding. When there are two hummers at one feeder, they must be a married couple or maybe mother and baby. There are so many swooping on our porch that the other day I covered my eyes with my hand and peeped through the cracks between my fingers because one was hovering so close and staring at me that I thought it might poke me in the eye. What a marvel of engineering and a miracle of creation.

My garden plot is full of seeds in neat little rows. But there’s one problem. I carefully drew out a diagram of what I planted according to the stakes I measured out. But when I stepped back and said “ta-da” I had more rows of seeds than indicated on my diagram so something went awry somewhere and I will be getting a surprise in the fall. Within two days of planting, some seeds were already sprouting and I felt I had given birth. I know I have cabbage, kale, spinach, beets and carrots. Plus, one butternut squash that is already two inches high. And I inherited a blackberry vine that looks very healthy and hopefully will fruit soon.

And then there’s a quilt top I’m making. It’s called Gypsy Wife – you can look it up. I have a self-imposed challenge of using only scraps and fabric that I already have. For a quilter, that’s almost being mean! It’s like a jigsaw puzzle finding enough pieces to make each block. A quilt is made up of blocks that are sewn together to make the quilt top. The Gypsy Wife has 73 blocks that range from 2.5 inches to 10 inches square and 55 strips running vertically. I’ve made all the blocks and now am trying to get my head round the strips that have to continue down the quilt in consecutive rows even when there’s a block in the way. Now you understand why my blogging has taken a backseat. Gotta run – lots to do!

Three-month check-in

It’s been three months since the Big R. Three months is my metaphoric line in the sand so let’s see how I’m doing in terms of successes and failures. Failures first. NONE – just a few delays. I have not investigated piano teachers yet so learning to play the piano has moved down the list. Dress code and personal style: not exactly a failure but wearing anything except shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops and applying lipstick and mascara every day has totally fallen off the priority list. I’ve always advocated getting rid of any item of clothing that I haven’t worn for a season. That would mean discarding my entire summer wardrobe, so I’ll give that a reprieve this year.

As for successes: many, many. When I look at my to-do list, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve sorted, pruned and purged. I live in fear of being overtaken by stuff but it’s so hard to get rid of hundreds of useful plastic carrier bags. I was exceptionally brave, however, and now just have one bag of bags. One of my favorite books is My Brother’s Keeper by Marcia Davenport. It’s based on one of those sad stories that hits the news stands every so often – people, very often siblings, accumulate so much stuff that it takes over. They live in rooms filled from floor to ceiling with stuff, sometimes with tunnels giving the only access between rooms. This was another of my mother’s favorite books and I read it first when I was young and now have two copies at home (yes, I need both copies) and have reread it many times. I devour and save news articles on these incidences, which is strangely ironic as I’m just keeping hold of more stuff, albeit it newspaper cuttings. In my heart of hearts, I dread ending up like one of those sad individuals but whenever I get rid of something, I need it often 24 hours later – honest!

I’ve posted already about knitting egg cozies. I’ve also made preserved lemons. Scrub lemons (Meyer are best), quarter them but not all the way, stuff with salt and place in a jar; squeeze more lemons to cover with juice and leave for several weeks. I’ve been using them to perk up salads and they are delicious with roasted vegetables. Just use the rind after rinsing off the salt. I have homemade vanilla extract maturing. Take vanilla pods, cut them lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place those and the pods in a jar of vodka. When I bought the vodka, I made sure everyone heard I was using it for cooking … I could see their expressions: Yeah, right!! That will be ready in another week or so. I’m making another quilt, but this time just out of scraps and fabric that I have. It’s harder than I thought it would be as often there’s not quite enough of one fabric for the block I planned to make. I’ve also used up almost all of my bobbin thread – quilters will understand this. When you sew, you wind a bobbin with the same thread you plan to use in the sewing machine, meaning you end up with many, many bobbins of assorted thread that just sit there over the years. What a sense of accomplishment to see all those empty bobbins in the box!

I’ve always enjoyed baking and it’s lovely to be able to bake bread any day of the week and not just at the weekend. I bought a beautiful cast iron shortbread pan so each piece has a different pattern, including a flower, hummingbird, thistle and beehive. Shortbread is easy – 2 sticks of butter creamed with 1 cup confectioner’s sugar; add 2 cups plain flour. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or so. I’m turning into a cooking blogger!

Another success is my weekly farm produce delivery. I didn’t have to wait for retirement as they will leave the box at the door, but I wanted to be home to take delivery each Thursday if possible. The box comes from Fresh Harvest and I love what they are doing for the farming community. They have a lot of different box options and it’s very flexible. You can put a hold on delivery for a few weeks, or skip a week. And each week when they tell you what will be in your box, you have the option to customize and swap products. The produce is so fresh that it lasts much longer than supermarket produce. Even after a week, the lettuce is still crisp, although we usually finish everything within a week. I’m especially enjoying the fairy eggplant, tomatoes and mini watermelon this week. I got a bag of hot peppers and those are pickling in the fridge as I wasn’t sure what else to do with them. It’s fun to open the box because when Thursday rolls around, I’ve forgotten what’s coming, so every Thursday is like Christmas morning. The best part is Willis, who delivers. He’s 6 foot 9 inches of Georgia farm boy with tousled red hair drawn up in a man bun. He has to duck to get in the door and I think he finds me and my accent as fascinating as I find him. He knows I’ll be waiting on the porch and he waves when he gets out of his delivery truck. My heart melts!

Overall ranking for the Big R: A PLUS! The one question that people ask me when I tell them I recently retired is: What’s the best thing about retirement? My answer remains: Not having to wake up with the alarm each morning. It was definitely worth waiting for and I’m still reveling in the luxury of coffee in bed each morning, reading my latest book, and with Savannah snuggled up against my knees. If it was up to her, we’d stay in bed until noon. Now, that’s a plan – who’s gonna stop me?