Grit Blogs >

Life in the Fast Lane

Lessons Learned on a Photo Walk

Andrew WeidmanStreamside

I stopped to take pictures on a Friday a few weeks ago on my way home from work. There is a pull-off behind the local mall complex and beside a large stream — trout waters, according to a sign hung on a tree streamside. It may as well have been a different world from the one I left behind at work: silent, still, tranquil, and relaxed.

A flock of mallards patrolled the waters until my intrusion startled them into flight. I captured the takeoff, only to discover I had the shutter speed impossibly slow. Their exodus looked more like a mallard-colored grease smear than a flock of ducks. Lesson one: check your camera settings before you leave the car.

Later, a kingfisher swooped by in a brilliant flash of blue, intent on spearing lunch. There was no time to snap a shot or even lift the camera to my eye, only time enough to see its run. Later I spied it off in the distance, perched among the treetops. Lesson two: some things can’t be photographed, only experienced in the moment.

As I scanned the treetops for another chance at the kingfisher, I turned back towards the car ... and stepped into a muskrat hole I never saw. Fortunately, only my heel entered the hole and not my toe. Somehow I managed to stay upright and hang on to my camera. Had I fallen, I could have found myself covered in snow with a broken camera, or worse, a broken leg. Lesson three: maintain awareness of your surroundings, not just your target.

Fish

A covered bridge spans the stream, built on stone foundations. Covered bridges are picturesque, but I think they tend to be overdone. I found my eye drawn not to the bridge, but to a beautiful graffiti work of art. A primal, almost tribal fish in blues and reds rose to strike a stylized spray-paint tag. Had I simply dismissed the bridge as overdone, I would have missed the fish. Lesson four: everything is worth a second look from a new angle.

Long Shot

Motion caught my eye from across the water, a flash of grey among the grasses on the far bank. I studied the area carefully, first with my naked eye, then with my telephoto "monster lens," but saw nothing. I took the shot anyway. Later, at home, I zoomed in on the photo to discover a bold little sparrow, his head cocked to the side as if to say, “What are you looking at?” Lesson five: take the shot.

Closeup

More movement and rustling drew my attention to another sparrow scratching for his supper among the fallen leaves on my side of the stream. He hopped and scratched vigorously, shifting constantly as I snapped a dozen or so pictures. The angle wasn’t always ideal, but the session yielded one shot mid-scratch and another mid-stretch, his wings at half-mast. Lesson six: keep shooting.

Flap

By this point my fingers were numb, and my camera’s battery was flashing empty. While I had another battery in my pocket, I was ready for some warmth and a coffee. Six lessons were enough for one day. I’ll be back, maybe when the weather turns warmer and things green up a bit.

Scratch

Farm Show Family Traditions

Andrew WeidmanSheep in Wool Clothing-Media

My son, Thom, and I took a trip to the Pennsylvania Farm Show last week — a family tradition, and one that is inevitably changing, as it always has. Last year, all three of my boys went to the Show with me. This year, Finn had a conflicting evening class, and Izzie needed to complete a midterm project. Traditions change, I understand that, and one day my sons will likely take their children to the Farm Show, just as my dad took me.

Family Time II

The Farm Show our Big Event for January. How big? Big, and not just for us. This is Pennsylvania’s unofficial State Fair, the result of all the county fairs of the past year and held in Harrisburg, the state capitol. Imagine 23 acres of "fair" under one roof. The Farm Show is the largest and oldest indoor agricultural show in America — 101 shows to date.

Carousel

Nearly half a million people come to the show each year, and many of them are farmers. Many, however, are not. For them, this may be the first time they see where their food actually comes from. Thom and I overheard someone excitedly talking about a sow and piglets on display. Thom couldn’t help but chuckle at the wonder in their voices. All I could say was, "You have to remember, that’s the first time they’ve ever seen a living, breathing pork chop." It’s true; when your chops come from the supermarket, a live hog is something to see.

At the Sculpture

Speaking of food, Farm Show food is not to be missed. True to the Show’s mission — yet surprising in today’s global economy — from the pizzas and chicken potpies to maple syrup cotton candy and baked russet potatoes, all of the food served comes from Pennsylvania. All of it. There’s no way to sample everything in just one trip. Most years we get the potato donuts and apple cider. This year, we split a blooming onion and pulled pork nachos, with milkshakes for dessert.

Horse Pull

I can’t describe the entire Farm Show in one blog post, so I won’t try. Between livestock-like dairy and beef cattle, goats, chickens, draft horses, rabbits, ducks, and alpacas; events like truck-and-tractor pulls, square dancing, rodeos, and sheep-to-shawl competitions; and youth projects like photography, sewing, rocketry, and small animal husbandry; you’ll tire of reading the list long before I even reach the middle. These photos are just a small taste of all you can see if you visit.

Bee Amazed

These family traditions help us stay connected to each other and to our heritage. I grew up on a working farm; my sons did not. Thanks to things like the Farm Show and county fair, they still know where food really comes from.

Crowds

The funny thing about family traditions is that they change; it can’t be helped. Once I moved out on my own, I no longer went to the Farm Show with Dad; instead I went on my own or with friends. As always, life had a way of getting in the way. When the boys were little, I started taking them whenever work and weather allowed. Now they are growing up; two are in college, the third in high school, and their schedules cause conflict as often as mine does. I don’t foresee too many more father-son Farm Show trips to come, and that’s as it should be. I only hope that when their time comes, they continue to take their children to see "living, breathing pork chops."

Hand in Hand

Going Native, Part II

Andrew WeidmanPawpaw

There’s no denying that winter has come. Maybe not a full-blown, years-long, Westeros Winter, but winter nonetheless. There’s snow on the ground — ground which has frozen, I might add. Birds busily flock to the feeder outside the window and the suet block nearby. Canada geese are on the move, the resident geese restless and eager to join their migrant brethren as they travel south.

Snow

This time of year can be difficult for gardeners. There’s no sun-warmed soil to run between your fingers, no ripe tomatoes to pluck, no roses to smell. Even a patch of weeds needing pulling would be welcomed right about now.

Sure, seed catalogs have been rolling in, and who doesn’t enjoy the green thumb version of Fantasy Football? Nosing through the pages, writing lists of seeds for all the new, exciting vegetables you want to try next year, dreaming of how lush and glorious 2017’s garden will be ... The only problem with that fix is that it really only makes the ‘green fever’ itch that much worse.

Where am I going with this?

You may remember that last October I posted a blog entry about Pawpaws (Going Native) and the decision to add two to our mini orchard. A friend of mine mentioned last week that the time to pot up pawpaw seeds was fast approaching. That reminded me of the bag of seeds I had stored in peat moss last fall. Hurrah! Here was a chance to do something productive involving potting mix and seeds!

Seeds

Pawpaws have ridiculously long taproots, and I’m told they can stretch their roots downward at least a foot before they ever poke their heads above the soil line. Most instructions tell you to store the seeds in the fridge over winter and then plant them in the ground. And wait. And pray. And forget where you planted them. And try not to mow the seedlings over when they finally emerge in July.

As I reported in the original post, pawpaws do sprout in storage, sometimes before winter ends. I don’t like taking chances, and the thought of overlong taproots in a ziplock bag combined with forgotten seedlings being pulled for weeds by mistake turned me towards starting them in pots. Many growers I know use two-liter soda bottles as pots — tops cut off and holes punched in the bottom for drainage. We don’t drink soda, so bottles are scarce, but I did happen to have two Deeproot pots, pots actually designed for the job, 18 inches tall and 4 inches square. Imagine that! I had the right tool, not a work-around tool. When does that happen?

Deeproot

This morning, I spent a pleasant half-hour filling a pot almost to the top with potting mix, positioning four of my nine seeds in the top, and covering them with an inch of mix. I saved the rest of the seeds to plant next month as insurance in case the first four didn’t spend long enough in the fridge. One source recommends four months of cold stratification, and my math is only giving me three and a half, so I'm hedging my bets again.

Now, back to waiting for spring.

Waiting

The Best Laid Plans ...

Andrew WeidmanTobacco Rig

I wonder how many New Year’s Resolutions begin as great ideas that almost work out. I’m guessing at least as many as the resolutions that don’t make it 12 days, let alone 12 months. Resolutions are a lot easier to make than to keep; I think most people can attest to that.

Leafy Bridge

For years, I kept one resolution. Only one, and one that I renewed from year to year. I must have kept that resolution going for 15 years. By now, I’m sure you want to know what could be so important a resolution that it could last a decade and a half. It’s not what you think. For 15 years, I resolved not to make any New Year’s Resolutions. Yeah, I know, it’s a cheat. But I kept it.

In The Mists

Two years ago, I tried something else: monthly goals. Each month, I selected one or two goals to work towards in the next four weeks. These were simple things, small goals like writing a page a day in a notebook or skipping that second cup of coffee each morning. Goals seemed more concrete, more attainable, more accessible. The proof was in the pudding, as they say. I kept those goals up for about 14 months. That’s right, the goals lasted into last year — not too bad.

Ricketts Glen

This year, I’m trying a hybrid of a resolution and a goal. I resolve to take at least five pictures each week in 2017. I have two reasons for that. First, I want to explore my camera more. It’s a digital SLR with lots of features for shooting great photographs, features I haven’t explored for far too long. I even bought a copy of the Dummy’s Guide to my particular camera model.

Tall Ship

Second, I had a great idea for an end-of-year review: I wanted to share twelve pictures I had taken in 2016, one for each month. That’s the idea that almost worked out. I had some great shots, at least in my estimation. There was the long exposure of a waterfall at Ricketts Glen State Park, and the bald eagle that flew over my car as I drove home from work one day. Another time, I snapped a shot of an Amish family planting tobacco. One morning, Canada geese swam across a cold March pond as mists rose from the waters, a maple blooming on the far shore. There were others, which I’m sharing here. I’m sure you’d rather see them than read about them.

Egret

Goose at Dawn

What I didn’t have was twelve photos, one for each month; my photo shoots happened in clusters; they just were not evenly spread across the calendar.

Bald Eagle

But this won't happen next year, not if I keep my resolution and make my goal. We’ll see what I can share in December 2017. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the photos from 2016.

Father Christmas

The Gift of Christmas Cookies

Andrew WeidmanChristmas cookies have been around for a long time. Whether they’re called Christmas cookies, Christmas biscuits, or lebkuchen, they’ve been a part of the Christmas season since at least the sixteenth century. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the warm aroma of cookies drifting out from the kitchen as carols play on the radio. Then there’s the plate of cookies set out for Santa, usually eaten by Santa’s Helper before he kisses Mommy underneath the Christmas tree. Whether they’re cutouts, drops, or bars, Christmas cookies are one of the reasons there’s no place like home for the holidays.

Cookie Plate

We love to give baskets of cookies to our friends and family each year. Since we can’t send every one of you your own basket, we’re doing the next best thing: giving you our three favorite recipes so you can share them with your friends and family.

Sand Tarts

Sand tarts, a German Christmas tradition, are a favorite in our house, especially the darker, caramelized, third-run and leftover scraps. The kids always wait for them, holding out when the first-run batch comes out of the oven. These are light, thin, lacy, airy cookies, practically melting in your mouth. They are quite brittle and need to be stored in a single layer, like stacked dominoes or playing cards. They need extra care, but they’re worth it. Don’t worry, they won’t be around long.

Sand Tarts

Ingredients:

• 2-1/2 cup sugar
• 2 cups butter
• 2 eggs, well beaten
• 4 cups flour

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350° F.

2. Begin with all ingredients at room temperature. Combine all ingredients together, mixing until blended.

3. Refrigerate until cold. Cut batch in half, return remaining half to refrigerator.

4. Roll out thinly (less than 1/8-inch) on an old, cotton bedsheet on a cold surface, dusting with 10X sugar instead of flour.

5. Dip cookie cutters in 10X sugar and cut out shapes from dough. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. 

6. Traditional recipes call for dusting cookies with cinnamon and a half walnut or pecan meat. Alternately, dust each cookie with colored sugar or sprinkles. Bake for 9 minutes. Watch for over-browning. Note: smaller cookies bake faster than larger cookies. Cutout scraps can be rerolled and recut, but no more than three times before the extra sugar begins to caramelize during baking. Scraps left after three rollouts can be baked as is, for kitchen-help treats.

For quicker cookie-cutting, the dough can be worked into a log. Work 1/2 cup 10X sugar into each half batch of dough, then form into a uniform roll 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Refrigerate overnight, then slice into 1/8” to 1/4” wafers for baking — the thinner the better. Return log to freezer between trays.

Slicing Sand Tarts

Soft Chocolate Chip Sugar Cookies

My grandmother used to make cookies very similar to these, if not identical, but she never shared the recipe with anyone. For many years, it was lost. Jessie experimented for years to find something similar based on my less-than-specific memories of a flavor. Finally, she hit upon the secret: the base cookie is a sugar cookie! The only significant difference is that my grandmother would make half of her cookies with chopped black walnuts, and half without. These have become a Christmas standard cookie at our house, and we think they’ll become a standard at yours as well.

Sugar Cookie

Ingredients:

• 2-1/2 cup flour
• 2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup milk
• 2 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 cup sugar (plus more for sprinkling)
• 2 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar
• 1 egg
• 1 stick butter, melted
• 1 cup semi-sweet mini chocolate chips

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Mix dry ingredients. Dredge chocolate chips in 2 tablespoons of dry mix and set aside.

3. Beat egg, milk, vanilla, and lemon juice or vinegar until blended. Add to dry ingredients. Add melted butter. Mix all until smooth.

4. Add chocolate chips and stir through dough, making sure dry mix on chips is mixed in.

5. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto ungreased cookie sheet. Sprinkle with granulated or colored sugar, if desired. Bake 8 to 10 minutes.

Variation: add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder or 1/2 cup melted chocolate to mix to make double-chocolate cookies. 

Seven-Layer Brownies

Just as I shared a special cookie from my childhood, Jessie wanted to share one from hers. Seven-layer brownies were always on the Christmas cookie plate as she was growing up. This was something she and her siblings could help her mom make when they were little. The recipe is easily tailored, each layer selected according to personal tastes. Replace the chocolate chips with mint chocolate if you like, butterscotch with peanut butter chips, add or remove layers as you desire.

Seven Layer Brownies

Ingredients:

• 1/2 cup unsalted butter
• 1-1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
• 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
• 1 cup butterscotch chips
• 1 cup chopped walnuts
• 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
• 1-1/3 cup shredded coconut

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place butter in 13 x 9 inch pan and melt in oven. Swirl to coat bottom and sides with butter.

2. Spread graham cracker crumbs evenly over bottom of pan. Layer chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and nuts over crumbs. Pour condensed milk over nuts. Sprinkle coconut over condensed milk.

3. Bake until edges are golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool before cutting into bars.

Cookie Basket

Cookie Tree

Three generations of four families (The Weidmans, the Parrs, the Books, and the Bachmans) wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a prosperous and happy New Year!

Christkindlmarkt

Andrew WeidmanWe had a special Christmas treat today. Coleman’s Park — a city park dedicated to the memory of the Coleman family, our own local "Rockefellers," — hosted the fourth annual Lebanon Christkindlmarkt.

Happy Holidays

Snowmen

Christkindlmarkt is a German tradition going back to at least the fifteenth century. According to one website, every German town hosted temporary markets throughout the seasons, the most lavish being the Christmas market. Martin Luther himself promoted the practice of giving gifts to children at Christmastime, telling them the gifts were from Christkindl — the Christ Child. Many Christmas market vendors offered toys and treats, benefiting from this new tradition. Before long, the two were inseparable.

Crowd

Lebanon’s Christkindlmarkt is the perfect way to kick off the Christmas season. Even though cold breezes tugged at the few leaves too stubborn to fall, plenty of people came out to stroll from stall to stall, looking for that special gift. Vendors offered everything from scented candles and glazed pottery to handcrafted jewelry and stuffed snowmen. As their customers watched, florists hand-built wreaths, swags, and centerpieces from fresh evergreen branches, holly, pine, spruce, and ivy. Hints of coffee and hot chocolate drifted on the breezes. Carolers sang to the crowd as the Moravian star was lit, symbolizing the Eastern star of the Nativity. Friends stopped to talk, catching up with each other while family members dropped gift hints as subtle as bowling balls falling from the sky.

Pottery

Wait, who was that, strolling through the crowd? That fur trimmed robe, the heavy staff decked out with sleigh-bells, spectacled eyes peering out over a thick snowy white beard, an intriguingly lumpy sack over his back … Could it be? Was it possible? Yes, it was! Saint Nicholas was here!

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nick had arrived, but there was no sign of that other German Christmas visitor, the Belsnickel. What a relief! The Belsnickel is not nearly so much fun as Santa. He’s a grumpy, crotchety, old traveler, dressed in dirty, worn-out furs, carrying a bag of fruits, nuts, and treats for good little children ... and a switch for bad little children. He’s loud, he’s scary, and he’s a pushover, once you get past the bluster. As it turns out, the Belsnickel was feeling poorly this year and had to stay in his hovel.

Evergreens

I’d love to hear about your holiday traditions. What do you do for the season? What makes it special?

Christmas-ing at the Weidman House!

Andrew Weidmanlights

Christmas carols are playing courtesy of Bing, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, and Julie Andrews. Outside the dining room window, candy-colored lights glitter on the house a street over. Inside, Sophie and Scamp lounge at my feet, dreaming of squirrels and rabbits, no doubt. The aroma of melted chocolate fills the kitchen thanks to Jessie and Isaak — our last teenager.

bare pretzels

Isaak is receiving a lesson in Christmas candy economics and "chocolatiering" while Jessie wears multiple hats: instructor, sous chef, and taste tester. She explains the workings of a double boiler, the importance of temperature control, and which spoon to use for stirring the chocolate. "Use a metal spoon — wooden or plastic spoons can add moisture and ruin the temper of the chocolate."

melt

They start with a mix of melting milk chocolate and special dark chips — "Chips don’t coat as well as block chocolate, but I think they have better cocoa flavor." The bottom pot reaches a boil, and Jessie turns the heat back to medium. Izzie stirs the coating until no lumps remain.

ready to dip

It’s time for the pretzels. Pretzels are a German treat, and Lebanon is locally famous for its pretzels. Keeping with the local theme (Hershey, "Chocolate-town USA" is only thirty minutes away), chocolate-covered pretzels are a favorite treat, and a favorite to add to Christmas cookie platters.

They’re also easily devoured, several disappearing within a minute.

lots of pretzels

Easy as they are to eat, by contrast, Izzie gets a lesson in the work that goes into dipping them. Each pretzel (we’re using the little heart-shaped pretzels) gets dipped just-so-far by hand before having the excess chocolate shaken off. He learned quickly that the chocolate can scald your fingers if you’re not careful. As the rows of dipped pretzels grows on parchment-covered cookie trays, Jessie follows with red, green, and white nonpareils, adding just the right holiday touch.

dipped pretzels

By the third tray of three-dozen pretzels, Izzie starts to flag. "I had no idea how much work goes into these things!" They haven’t even begun dipping in white chocolate yet, or baking cookies. Jessie expects to be baking all week, churning out sand tarts, chocolate chip cookies, and seven-layer brownies to go along with the pretzels and dipped Oreos.

It’s work, but it’s worth it, and happily done. The treats are destined for gift baskets for family, friends, and work associates, part of the joy of giving at Christmas. We love giving these gifts; it's a small reminder of the greatest Gift ever given, over 2 millennia ago, wrapped in cloth and resting in a bed of hay in a stable surrounded by livestock, shepherds, kings, and angels.

star

From our house to yours, Merry Christmas! May God bless you always!