Forum Holitorium

Complementary Carrots

Since orange complements blue across the color wheel, it is fitting to eat orange while knitting blue. Orange was on the menu this week in the form of soup made of leftover roasted pumpkin, carrots, and red lentil pasta. Lentils gel when cooled, so each time I reheated the leftovers, I added some water to thin it to soup consistency. The pot ended up lasting the entire week and to be honest, I threw away the last spoonful because after five days, I just couldn’t stomach any more creamy orange soup.

Now that the soup pot is empty, I can start over again. The next batch will be Simple Soup – not creamy and pureed but a spartan yet substantial broth. First, heat the water. When it has come to a boil, add sliced carrots and diced potatoes. When they are done, throw in tiny pasta shells or orzo plus a teaspoon each of marjoram and thyme and boil until the pasta has cooked. Salt and pepper to taste. That’s it.

What is that on the left? A ball of charcoal merino/alpaca seems to have wormed its way into the knitting bowl of blue! Ah yes, those delicate cabled mitts I’ve been meaning to knit for the past three years are taking shape. Here’s to discovering a skein the right color and texture in the sales bin yesterday. The teal socks are stalled as I reconsider knitting spiral socks. My feet are warm in my pair, but the socks sag around the ankles, making me wonder if it is a good pattern to give as a gift after all. The indigo yarn decision has been made: a pullover is in the works. And the merino/silk cowl is a good practice of patience; you can’t beat having to frog and redo 280 stitches to correct a mistake in the lace pattern. I tried something new: I wound my first center pull yarn ball by hand. It looks goofier than the result with a ball winder, but I like it. The teal really brightens my day.

May you enjoy a nourishing bowl of soup and a dash of complementary color this week!


Indecision in Blue

October is blue yarn month by personal decree. Look closely at bowl and you’ll see a silvery blue merino/silk cowl that shimmers in the light and spiral socks for a friend who looks radiant in teal. And then there is the indigo alpaca, a serendipitous find on the sale rack, which is earmarked for a cuddly warm sweater for me. Pullover or cardigan? That is the question. The gauge is no help because it is spot on for both of the patterns under consideration.

I have been trying but not always succeeding in buying yarn for specific patterns. Yet it’s not just about the pattern, and the luxurious texture and deep color of this yarn were irresistible. In my knitting file there is a pullover pattern saved from a magazine six years ago; I justified buying the yarn to knit the pattern. But then I found a pattern for a cardigan that would match nearly all my fall and winter long sleeved shirts. My hope was that by the time I settled down to start the sweater, a clear sign or intuition would have tipped the scales one way or the other. Well, last night I had a dream about yarn. It was about a skein of blue and white 100% Portuguese wool sock yarn spied in a yarn store a few doors down from where I recently took a shibori workshop. How should I interpret that?

Shibori is a Japanese technique for dyeing fabric by binding or tying it so that the dye does not penetrate the entire cloth. The result: an infinity of patterns. Though indigo is traditionally used, the workshop made use of synthetic dye. Still, it was interesting to try my hand at dyeing and see the patterns that emerged. The artist conducting the workshop complimented me on “my” patterns. This is odd, because what is there of “me” in the cloth samples that remain? The real work was done by the dye, wasn’t it?

I have had indigo on the brain since I read Catherine E. McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World this summer. McKinley spent time in Africa on the trail of cloth traditionally dyed with indigo. Along the way, she learned that a respectable woman has cloth, which is second only to children in importance and even more valuable than land. What most people don’t know is that indigo-dyed cotton cloth was part of the transatlantic slave trade, leading American abolitionists and Quakers to boycott indigo and cotton cloths.

Cotton still remains a controversial fiber today. Its cultivation has led to the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which I first learned about in Tom Bissell’s excellent Chasing the Sea. Buying organic cotton is better than buying conventionally produced cotton, but it is still a thirstier plant than linen or hemp. Like many people today, I am trying to be more deliberate in my choices of what clothes to buy and make, going for fewer, high quality items that I can mix and match. That is one reason my choice of pullover or cardigan is such a strategic decision. In the meantime, the spiral socks are finished and there is no danger of cold feet.

May it be easy to make any decisions you face!

Fall Checkup

The previous post was about sickness and waiting for spring. Now it is fall, the season of marvelous kitchen still lifes, of breakfasts of an apple sliced and stewed with two heaping tablespoons of rolled oats and a teaspoon of cinnamon, of dinners of baked squash doused in thyme served with rice. On the mend from an obstinate cold or “grippaler Infekt,” I am experiencing an inexplicable yearning for winter, snow, and darkness. It started mid-August. While perusing Ravelry, I fell in love with a knitting pattern, and it soon became clear that the Slovene wool that had impertinently refused to become several different sweaters had just been holding out for The One. The cardigan flew off the needles and was finished just in time for the first dip in temperatures.

This project was a turning point for me. This was the first time I experienced deeply that it is not about the pattern alone (which had previously been my focus – I like the pattern, therefore I will knit it); it is about the interplay of fiber and pattern, of what happens when they come together, of how they complement each other like yin and yang or night and day. I swear the yarn called out to me and said something to the effect of “Make me into a Wheatsheaves. If you knit me into that pattern, I will finally behave!”

Convalescing on the couch, I had ample time to peruse a bunch of magazines and select a few recipes to try out. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had the stamina to tackle the first one: a German take on Tuscan cookies, vegan and chock full of raisins, walnuts, and pine nuts. The recipe included wheat bran, something I don’t remember having encountered in a recipe since the eighties. (Readers of a certain age, remember the bran muffin?) The cookies got the thumbs up from my resident food taster.

Outfitted with a garment to keep my upper body well wrapped and snug in the damp, cold October weather to come, I have shifted my focus to my feet. There is just enough yarn left over from the two pairs of socks I knit last winter for a pair of no heel socks. They are supposed to remain hole-free longer because the heel doesn’t rub the exact same place each time. (And yes, the two skeins like the color of the other and are intrigued about being socks without heels.)

Enjoy the fall and take heed of any messages from your yarn!


Corvid Love

New year, new home base, new neighbors. I have moved to the city of rooks: Vienna. Foliage-free trees make observation of Corvus frugilegus quite easy. I dream of earning their trust and being able to approach them with gifts of walnuts and peanuts in my hand. I know someone who has made friends with a rook in the street where he lives and am envious.

Judging by the flock of fieldfares (Wacholderdrossel) spied feasting on berries yesterday, winter is on the wane. I had hoped for a real winter with lots of snow and cold and coziness inside. What I got instead was one proper Wisconsin snowstorm at the end of November and a handful of Viennese mornings waking up to a beautiful thin blanket of snow that melted by noon. Plus a week of illness that included two days of fever and languishing on the couch followed by classic cold symptoms. A daily regimen of the freshly pressed juice of two blood oranges raises my spirits.

Independant of temperature and precipitation, I have fully indulged in retreating from the world, well provisioned with books, knitting, and a blanket. Staring into the crackling flames in the pellet stove, I wonder what new experiences and discoveries spring will bring. A stole was born in record time of nightly knitting sessions by the fire. The skein was one of the oldest in my diminishing stash and appeared long, long ago on this blog.

Stay cozy and healthy until spring arrives!

Fall Fungus

Summer was generous with everything but sleep. It lingered long and tenaciously but has finally been replaced by fall. Falling temperatures, rainfall, the fall of night ever earlier. Spoiled with warmth this year, I was shocked by how cold it was this morning. There was no warning, no day in August where the wind had a chill it hadn’t had in months. Then Monday I woke up with an urgent intuition: it is time to knit a pair of charcoal gray socks.

I took two nice walks in the woods last week before the weather changed. Magic mushrooms abound, run of the mill ones too – from small to extra large. If I were a real or wannabee shaman, I could have gathered many a beautiful specimen of fly agaric (Amanita muscaria).

How is it that I never broke down the compound word “toadstool” into its two component words until this week? A toadstool may or may not refer to a poisonous mushroom. In most cases it does not refer to a place where a toad sits.

The brown frog spied in the grass was not interested in the abundant fungus, nor was she deterred by the presence of humans. She simply kept hopping along toward her goal.

What else will fall bring? Two laceweight scarves and a slate gray pullover? Middlemarch and the first two volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s little known novel Pilgrimage? Hamburg, Maribor, and perhaps Passau? Time will tell; and patience is indeed a virtue. But now it is time to get back to those charcoal gray socks.

Enjoy the fall and whatever fungus it has to offer!

Among the Cranes

It has been a month since I visited the International Crane Foundation outside Baraboo, Wisconsin. You can see each of the 15 species of cranes of the world, many of which are endangered due to loss of wetland habitat. I had been there once before as a uninterested, reluctant child, brought by her bird-loving mother. This time I was the one who instigated the outing, and I had no difficulty convincing my mom to come with.

To prepare for my visit, I had started reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven. What a disappointment! I just couldn’t warm up to his style and got impatient with his lengthy descriptions of the logistics of ornithologists traveling in Russia just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. When oh when would the narrator retreat into the background and start describing nature’s jewel of a bird? I set the book aside and decided I would learn by simply observing the birds myself. Facts could be gathered from other sources later.

The majority of cranes have red, white, and black plumage. There is something archaic in their eyes that hints at their incredibly long history. Sandhill crane fossils have been found dating back to 3 to 5 million years ago. Their sleek aerodynamic shape has stood the test of time. The ICF is designed so that you can often stand eye to eye with these creatures that are associated with longevity and good luck in Japan, Korea, and China.

The two species that sport no red feathers are the blue crane (Grus paradisea), the national bird of South Africa and shown above, and the demoiselle crane (Grus virgo), named by Marie Antoinette and shown below. The elegant demoiselles do have red eyes – maybe from getting up really early to traverse the Himalayas when they migrate.

The whooping crane couple (Grus americana) have a huge area all to themselves. Visitors enter what feels like a Roman amphitheater, walking down to sit in one of the rows of seats that are at the level of a waterhole.

You can sit there as long as you like, watching the birds preen in the water or hang out on the berm.

If you are lucky like I was, you may even see a crane dance.

Sadly, it is not just students who are continually victims of gun violence in the U.S.; despite their endangered species status, one in five whooping cranes is shot.

The next time I visit the cranes, I will be sure to allow more time to walk the four miles of nature trails and to visit conservationist Aldo Leopold‘s shack and farm.

On the way back from Baraboo the next day, my party had intended to stroll along a trail or two at Horicon Marsh, one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands and the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States: a birdwatcher’s paradise. The marsh is a national wildlife refuge with a rocky past. Unfortunately, heavy rain arrived about twenty minutes after we did. The silver lining: besides some low flying Canada geese, I spied a few pelicans on the water. And nothing beats hearing the wind in the reeds and experiencing a storm roll in.

The crane’s legs have gotten shorter in the spring rain. – Basho

Happy birdwatching wherever you are!

April Braid

A cold clouds my mind. I puzzled a few days over how to tie together pictures and thoughts into a coherent blog entry. How about braiding together three strands of my preoccupations in April: baking bread, knitting neck warmers, and walking in the woods?

The leftover wool wrap in brioche stitch is finally done and protecting my neck and shoulders as I write. It was a good exercise to improvise a pattern, to go through the steps of envisioning what I wanted, researching and learning a new technique (two color brioche), and bringing this vision to life. It had been months since I last made a garment for myself. This is one I will get a lot of use out of; I have already worn it every day since finishing it. Along with one blue sock, my knitting bowl now holds yarn for two cowls – one thick, one thin – that will match most of my spring wardrobe.

It is finally warm enough to open the windows and let in fresh air. Despite my cold, I have gotten out walking every day and can’t get enough of the sunshine and milder temperatures. Tuesday I visited St. Radegund again, my favorite forest near Graz. It has been weeks since I was last there. Fresh air, sunshine, a circling kestrel, eight deer. I am learning a lot about the forest in Germany and Austria from Peter Wohlleben‘s book Der Wald: Eine Entdeckungsreise (The Forest: A Journey of Discovery). Over the course of his career as a forester in Germany, Wohlleben has turned his back on practices he learned during his training and is attempting to forge a more sustainable forestry practice by moving away from the status quo of spruce and pine monoculture (spruce and pine being trees common to the taiga further north) to the restoration of the beech forests that originally covered Central Europe.

One great obstacle to the restoration of beech forests is the overpopulation of deer brought about by the absence of natural predators (wolves and lynx) and their protection by hunters. Yes, you read that correctly. Hunters want their hunting grounds to be full of deer, so they feed them. Yet they do not kill enough deer to keep the population in check. Instead of a sustainable density of one deer per square kilometer, the density today is more like 40 to 50 deer. The result: the deer eat up the young deciduous trees. More deer also means more ticks and thus more Lyme disease. Lots of questions about “my” forest in Radegund are forming as I read this book. Since it is in the Alps, I wonder to what extent the spruce and pine there are native – where the beech forest ended and the conifer forest of the Alps began. There is so much to learn about trees.

There is a lot to learn about baking bread too. Since I will soon be on the other side of the Atlantic for some time, I am putting off working with a sourdough starter. Inspired by Fanatic Cook’s recent no-knead whole wheat bread experiment, I have made two loaves with yeast and long fermentation (40 hours plus) that have turned out tasty. Since I don’t have a special pot for bread, I have just plopped the dough into a square cake pan and let it take on whatever shape it wanted. The elongated hexagon of the latest loaf is quite elegant.

May April bring you fresh air, fresh baked bread, and a warm neck!

Putting the Finishing Touches on Winter

As of yesterday, it is officially spring: daylight will soon trump darkness. Thick wool scarves should give way to thin scarves and hats and knee high socks should disappear until fall. In three months’ time it will be all linen and sandals. After a week of spring temperatures and sunlight that sent me out on many a walk in the clement weather, nature has thrown a bit of a wrench into the order of things. It’s cold again, and yesterday was one of the coldest first days of spring on record. I’ve been making the best of being back indoors by finishing up a few winter projects. Pictured above is a small purse I will use to hold business cards and other desk supplies that size; below is a close up of the button band of a large cardigan that after three months of sporadic knitting is finally done. Since the weather was too cold for a nice walk, I celebrated the start of spring by learning a technique for sewing buttons onto knitwear.

For thousands of years, buttons served as decorations. Though the ancient Greeks and Romans used buttons as fasteners, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that buttonholes and functional use of buttons became widespread in Europe. I never really learned how to sew buttons well and have winged it in the past, often choosing to secure cardigans with a wooden pin made by a family friend. But as an inveterate cardigan wearer, I figured it was time to expand my finishing repertoire. In most cases, a buttoned cardigan keeps out the cold better than a simple pin. And it was time to bring the winter cardigan project to a close in more ways than one.

Lemon slices are round like buttons. My palate is ignoring the cold and has spring fever, yearning for the freshness of herbs, lemons, and leafy greens like spinach, arugula, and dandelion greens. Last week I discovered a delicious recipe for focaccia with rosemary, olives, and lemon slices. Prepare your favorite focaccia, oil bread, or pizza dough. Drizzle the dough with olive oil and top it with 1 Tbsp dried/4 Tbsp fresh rosemary, a handful of olives, and one or two sliced organic or unsprayed lemon (with the seeds removed). Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and then pop it in the oven for as long as the bread recipe requires.

Happy spring!

The Long Winter Week

The long winter week started out last Saturday with dinner guests bearing tulips and a bottle of Rioja. Knowing that temps in Graz would drop to normal Wisconsin winter temperatures, I had made preparations, buying food to last five or six days. The grocery store is only a five minute walk, but a five minute walk at -4° F / -20° C is to be avoided if at all possible. Been there, done that enough in college. Working at home is a definite plus in winter. I was looking forward to a cozy week. The red-orange of the tulip blossoms were a wonderful companion at the kitchen table and provided a good contrast to the bright white of the moderate snowfall outside.

To get in the mood, I pulled Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter off the shelf. It tells the story of how she and her family survived an unusually harsh winter in the Dakota Territory. Though they lived in town, there were so many blizzards that the trains couldn’t run and bring supplies. By mid-February, most of the food was gone and only thanks to a risky run by two of the town’s young men to buy seed wheat at a distant farm is the town saved from starvation. How easy I have it today in comparison. No need to twist hay to burn because the coal ran out, no need to go to bed early because there is no more kerosene for light, no need to sleep in an unheated attic where the snow blows in. Though there are days where most of the calories I consume come from bread and potatoes, that is my choice and not because that is all that is left.

There is much talk of wool wraps, mufflers (in the older sense of the word as in something that covers the throat), and shawls in the book; making your own clothes and knitting were what everyone did. I started knitting a wrap for myself that will use up leftover blue and gray bulky yarn. Reversible patterns interest me because they look good regardless of what side faces forward. I decided on knitting three panels in brioche stitch. The end panels are single color while in the center panel, I am trying out two color brioche.

Pioneers need to be industrious, keeping things in good repair and being able to fix whatever needs fixing. This week I finally took time to mend clothes and hand wash scarves and wool socks. For the first time ever (and with the help of the internet), I actually darned socks. And they weren’t even my own. Since I have nearly knit through my yarn stash and thus the dream of a future in which not more than 10 skeins of yarn lay dormant looks like it will soon come true, I have started to think about What Next. A major in sock knitting and a minor in lace weight neck warmers are at the top of my list.

The cold spell has broken and above freezing temperatures are working their way in my direction. The snow will soon be gone and it is time for white to be replaced by green. I couldn’t resist a pot of basil at the grocery store. What a difference a few leaves make as a garnish. A shot of color in the kitchen is also very welcome.

May you find the patience and the right technique to repair what needs fixing!


Snow keeps falling here in the mountains, but the days are getting longer and the cycle of seasons continues to turn.  Marking the end of Carnival, Faschingsdienstag/Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday was yesterday, and the first day of Lent is today. In Russia, Maslenitsa or Butter Week also takes place this week. The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival starts with the new moon on Friday (or Thursday in Europe and the Americas); soon it will be the Year of the Dog. This week Tibetans are also celebrating Losar, the new year, Friday through Sunday. Interesting how so many holidays around the world have converged this week.

To celebrate Mardi Gras, my high school French teacher made crepes with us, letting each of us flip a crepe with the pan in one hand and a coin in the other to bring good luck. It has become my tradition to make buckwheat crepes for Mardi Gras (without a coin in my hand). The only Austrian culinary tradition associated with Fasching (as the pre-Lenten season is called) is eating Krapfen – doughnuts filled with apricot jelly and dusted with powdered sugar. Before this week, it had certainly been a few years since I last had a jelly-filled doughnut. For whatever reason, this year I felt it was important to eat Krapfen. The two and a half I ate were fresh from a local bakery and delicious.

In Austria, Lent is a time where it is easy to use “I’ve given it up for Lent” as an excuse not to eat or drink something. On a whim, I decided that I will give up sugar for Lent. Since I am not a “Naschkatze” (literally a snacking or nibbling cat, meaning a person with a sweet tooth), this should not be too hard. A friend gave up sugar last year for Lent and felt she had a lot more energy. As winter winds down, even a little more energy sounds great. I will give it a try.

May you enjoy any celebrations that occur this week!