Sunday, June 28, 2009



Marcy in Venice

I took my first Sunflower Journey to Italy and Sicily in 2000 with my oldest granddaughter, Marcy. We named the trip, Sunflower Days and Gelato Nights.

Calm before the storm-moments later Gondolier rage began

Marcy in gondola

In Venice, we got a look at road rage, Italian style (or perhaps, just Venetian style). As our gondolier poled our water taxi past a hospital along one of the many canals, a young man and woman in a speedboat overtook us. The boat wasn’t going very fast, but the couple had a boombox with them that was blaring across the water so that anyone in the adjacent buildings would think it was in the room with them. Our gondolier put his pole down, pointed to the sign marking the hospital zone, and shouted at the boy to turn down the radio. The boy began shouting back as his boat came alongside ours. Before we knew it, our gondolier and the boy were face-to-face, screaming at the top of their lungs. The boombox itself wasn’t as loud as the shouting it had caused. The passengers in our gondola were all cowering: in the United States, we would have been waiting for gunshots. But in Venice, the only violence occurred when our Gondolier suddenly grabbed his pole, raised it over his head, and slammed it down on the boy’s boat with a resounding WHACK! The boy’s girlfriend, horrified and in tears by this time, pulled him back by his life jacket before he could start slugging it out with our gondolier. Finally responding to his girlfriend’s pleas, the boy indignantly turned down his boombox and sailed his boat out onto the open sea. (Even in a charming city like Venice, not everyone is committed to the “conservation of kindness”).

Nina, Pietro and Marcy

In another of our adventures, Marcy and I thought it would be a great idea to sample some real native cuisine instead of enduring another meal of “tour food.” One Friday evening in Palermo, we recruited Dotty and Michelle, a mother and daughter on our tour, to join our little dietary revolt. The four of us hired a taxi and asked the elderly driver to take us “off the beaten path” to an authentic Italian restaurant that was frequented by the locals. Our driver, Pietro, took us on a chaotic, high-speed, white-knuckle drive through the streets of Palermo that ended at a little family trattoria by the water.

Our patient Sicilian waiter

Typically, these little Italian trattorias offer few or no options on their menus. Each night, they serve a single meal, much as if you were dining at the owner’s home. What they serve is what you get. After we were seated, we found that the evening’s meal was seafood. Uh-oh. Neither Marcy nor Dotty nor Micelle would eat seafood. We asked Pietro if the restaurant would provide a substitute and he said yes – but he was wrong. It was seafood or nothing. And in little Italian restaurants like this one, it was unthinkable to stand up and walk out once you were seated. It would have caused Pietro “perdere la faccia” (to lose face) among his neighbors and certainly would have soured what had started out as a fun evening. So, we decided that we needed to try to make the best of the situation.

Beside our table was a long table with a group of people who were obviously locals. They all had the radiant, golden-tan skin that is characteristic of Palmero’s natives, and all were dressed up. Obviously, they were there for some kind of special occasion. Since they had arrived before us, their dinners were served first. As one of the courses arrived, I glimpsed what appeared to be a quivering, purple lump of something unidentifiable on one of the plates. Shortly afterward, a plate containing one of these delicacies was plunked down in front of me. I gasped and let out a little scream when I realized it was octopus! It was fresh from the sea, and from the bright purple and pink color, I guessed that it hadn’t been cooked for very long. The whole mass was quivering so enthusiastically from the tip of its tentacle to the top of its head, all I could think of was “dancing purple octopus.” Marcy was apalled and couldn’t even look at it. And with the appearance of these marvels, my appetite for seafood left without me – perdere la faccia or no perdere la faccia.

Poor Pietro became increasingly embarrassed as the meal progressed and his four fares dined on bread and wine and passed on the rest of our food. By the time the meal was over, the owners of the restaurant (who were his cousins) had started complaining to him about us. He finally put his head down on the table in complete humiliation. We paid for our meal and left a nice tip, but the damage was done. We all left the restaurant extremely hungry. Pietro was so furious he wouldn’t even talk to us.

Four embarassing guests

At some point during our return to Palermo, Pietro seemed to start feeling sorry for us. He began talking to us again and because I am an aficionado of Italian gelato, he took us to the “best galatoria in Palermo.” (In case you’ve never had real Italian gelato – well, I’d describe it as “the best ice cream you’ve ever had on steroids.”) We all had gelato served in brioche, and all was well – at least for us. I’ve always wondered, however, how long it took for Pietro to redeem himself with his cousins.

Gelato wins out in the end

On the last night of the journey, I was upset to hear Marcy sobbing as she sat on her bed. I was sure she was homesick for her family and the States. I tried to comfort her, saying, "Marcy, I'm so sorry to have taken you away from everyone for so long, but we’ll be home tomorrow." Marcy replied, "Nina I'm not crying because I want to go home. I'm crying because I want to stay here!." Oh my – this was exactly what I was feeling. Marcy was a girl after my own heart. We couldn’t stay, of course, but we took home some wonderful memories and probably a couple of extra pounds each from the dozens of wonderful gelatos we ate.

Marcy-Valley of the Temples, Sicily


Nina and Marcy at Mondello Beach-Sicily-dog mountain in background

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Sunflower Journeys


Nina (that's me) with my four grandchildren, Marcy, Beth, Zack and Alli, riding around in B-dazle, my art car, planning our Sunflower Journeys

With every journey I take, there is a gift awaiting me. Sometimes it does not present itself immediately: I must be patient for many weeks. But it is always there. I wait, and then with outstretched hands it says, "This is what you came to learn; this is your answer."

As you would expect, each pilgrimage has a different cast of characters, each with something to give and receive. So it was with the Sunflower Journeys, as my grandchildren and I decided to call them. It was my wish to take each grandchild on an individual cultural journey. Each had the freedom to choose any destination for his or her trip. But each also had to agree to three stipulations. The trip had to be one that stimulated them both physically and mentally; it had to be to a place where they learned the ways of a different culture; and, they had to be kind to everyone they met along the way, whether fellow passengers or natives of the new land they were visiting.

Marcy in Italy

Tourists from the United States are not always kind or respectful of the people from other cultures. Our reputation as world travelers is very poor. If every American who visited another country were tolerant and respectful of the natives, I think we could make many people in other countries have a better opinion of us.

Beth in Mexico

I believe in “conservation of emotional momentum,” an idea that requires a little explanation. Have you ever seen Newton’s Pendulum? That’s the name given to those little executive desktop decorations with five identical, solid metal balls hanging from a frame. Each ball is at the same height, and each is suspended from two strings of identical length. If you lift the ball on one end and release it, it strikes the ball next in line to it. The momentum of the first ball is transmitted almost perfectly through the line of balls so that the one on the opposite end of the line is propelled up to nearly the same height as that to which you lifted the first ball. When this ball falls back and strikes the ball next in line to it, the momentum of this ball is transferred back through the line of balls so that the first is propelled back to nearly the same height to which you originally lifted it. Well, I think something similar happens when we are kind to other people. When you are kind to someone, I think that kindness is often transmitted by the recipient to someone else who then passes it along to yet someone else, and so on. Unlike the balls in Newton’s Pendulum, of course, the “emotional momentum” is seldom transmitted back to the person who began it, but so what? In Newton’s Pendulum, the balls also stop eventually because gravity and friction sap little bits of energy with each collision.

Zack in Greece

“Emotional momentum” is not subject to gravity or friction, and I think maybe it can carry on unchecked forever. Maybe it comes back to you someday, or maybe to one of your descendants, or maybe to someone unknown and unrelated to you – someone who is your brother or sister nevertheless. And I think unkindness may be transmitted the same way. How much better the world could be if we would always opt for kindness and never for its opposite.

Alli in France

It was my intention to make sure that my grandchildren and I did all we could to encourage “conservation of kindness” -- and I think we did. I was able to take each child to a different country and we all came back with a wealth of treasures: lessons learned that I hope will last each of them a lifetime. I know they will for me.

Even though I may sound like the typical grandmother bragging about her trips with her grandchildren, I think you will find our excursions a bit different-not at all like those summer vacations many of us remember. Each trip was extraordinary, filled with mystery and surprise and in some cases charged with tremendous energy. I hope that you will bear with me over the next week as I tell the tales of the four Sunflower Journeys.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Roasted Garlic Cheesecake with Crab and Chili Topping



Stratton Wayne St. Clair

Pictured above is my friend, Chef Wayne. The scent that he is savoring is that of his own homemade liquid smoke. I received the jar of “smoke” as a gift from him along with an invitation to attend a cookout in July where he will use it to prepare one of his tantalizing entrees.

Wayne tells me he makes this brew by placing a container of apple cider vinegar under the chimney of his smoker. He leaves the jar there for many hours while he smokes meat, usually ribs. The aroma of Wayne’s liquid smoke conjures up memories of some great steak restaurants I dined at in Kansas City when I lived in Lake St. Louis.

Wayne says that you can use the liquid as a marinade or barbeque sauce. He also says that inhaling the aroma is one thing, but you shouldn’t be tempted to taste the “smoke” right out of the jar: the concentrated flavor tastes almost like the inside of a dirty ashtray. It mellows and reaches its intoxicating peak only when combined with the other ingredients in one of Wayne’s recipes.

I can hardly wait until the cookout. I hope to bring back a bunch of recipes to share with you. In the meantime, along with the jar of his “smoke,” Wayne gave me another one of his original recipes.

Here is his recipe and his usual clever comments concerning preparation.

Roasted Garlic Cheesecake with Crab and Chili Topping

Quotation from chef Wayne

"Emeril's first cookbook, "The New Orleans Cookbook" has a couple of recipes for savory cheesecakes. I have made the Smoked Salmon and Gouda recipes as well. In a recent Saveur magazine they had a recipe for a Tamale Tart by Stephan Pyles that was built around a roasted garlic custard... a bell went off in my head. I have a spring form pan but no tart pan so I decided to try it as a cheesecake. After some experimenting, I came up with this hybrid and it is beyond words but not sweet. You do not eat large slices of's an appetizer so serve small portions."

Ingredients shown on my bamboo cutting board with my bas-relief sculpture in background

sauteing peppers and onion

I would expect to be served this dish in a 5 star restaurant. The combination of ingredients is outstanding. Absolutely stellar! Once again chef Wayne has astounded me with his expertise. I hope you will try the cheesecake for a special occasion. I disagree with serving it as an appetizer though. I would serve it as a fancy luncheon dish. It was spectacular tasting with a white wine.

Bon Appetit!

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Sunday, June 21, 2009



Morning Song

Pictured above is a finished painting of a series I have been experimenting with for some time. I have named the technique, Organza mixed-media acrylic. I named this particular painting "Morning Song" because when I finished it, a story I have written and included in my book, She Who Whispers, came to mind.

Morning Song

She woke up this morning feeling different. She heard the sounds of this morning and yet the sounds of many other lifetime mornings were returning. She heard the infinite sound of distant runic bells, a call to alms, merchants' voices echoing over the river Nile, sheep bleating on a pastoral hillside, roosters, guns, flutes, chimes, laughter, weeping..for she had lived all of these mornings and she had heard all of these sounds before. It was as if they were all becoming one great great morning...this morning...and she knew that all the returns of mornings purpose was to teach her the uniqueness and significance of this morning….of now…

I started with a canvas I found at the flea market. I covered it with gesso and then painted the face of a woman who looks as though she is deep in thought. I wanted her to look as though she were remembering a trip to an ancient land, a past life, or even many past lives.

Step one

While the face was drying, I copied pictures from a recent trip to Italy onto organza fabric I had purchased online. I then positioned the prints on the canvas until I achieved the composition that I felt was was pleasing to the eye.

Step two: positioning the organza photos

Positioning the photos on the canvas

Step three: Painting the canvas

I then painted the canvas colors to coordinate with the photos.

Step four: Final positioning

In the next step, I cut the organza to fit and then fixed the final positions of the photos. The latter entailed glueing the canvas with Modge Podge and laying the photos over it.

I then used stencils and oil sticks to complete the design

I plan to create a video tutorial soon to show my technique. First, I'm going to experiment with some larger paintings and see what develops. What I find astonishing about art is that it allows you to loose yourself completely in the realm of exploration and creativity!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Black Dog Salvage


Alli Printz

Years ago, I decided to take each one of my grandchildren on an individual cultural journey. Each had the freedom to choose any destination for his or her trip. But each also had to agree to three stipulations. The trip had to be one that stimulated them both physically and mentally; it had to be a place where they learned the ways of a different culture; and, they had to be kind to everyone they met along the way, whether fellow passengers or natives of the new land they were visiting. We called our trips Sunflower Journeys.

When the trips were completed, we decided they might be even more memorable if we created several artistic items to honor each particular journey. One item we chose to create for all four excursions was a montage, which is a collage of pictures of people and places or events.

Alli, the youngest of the grandchildren, was the last to take her journey. Alli chose to visit France. Recently, Alli and I decided to finish her montage. We spent the day scouring my studio for some sort of frame to display her pictures. Amazingly, we found an old frame I had purchased many years ago in France. It was a perfect base.

Alli chose the frame from France, on the left

We then headed to Black Dog Salvage to find an interesting artifact or something fanciful to add to that frame.

We were greeted by Sally, the Black Dog Salvage mascot

Black Dog Salvage has 40,000 square feet of treasures from around the world. Located at 902 13th Street in Roanoke, Va. (, it was the ideal place to uncover the perfect relic for our project.

Garden area

We rummaged through the entire salvage yard and warehouse.

Stained glass, bolts of fabric, iron doors, vintage house parts and mantles

Fountain area

Antique rugs

Christa Stephens and Koiner Thomas

We were elated when we found two small, rusted iron doors. They looked like they would give our frame the pizzazz that it needed to represent ancient France. We were not disappointed.

Alli with the iron doors

When we got back home, we spent the afternoon selecting, printing and gluing pictures to the frame. We also glued the doors we had found at Black Dog to the inside edge of the frame.

Preparing the montage

Montage completed

Be sure to check my blog next week for the amazing adventures that my grandchildren and I took. Some extraordinary events occurred that I think you'll find fascinating. I am sure you won't be disappointed with the Sunflower Journeys.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009



Number 2 in the Ottowoman series, recycled and completed

I finished another of the footstools in the series I call "Ottowoman." This series started when I found a fairly sturdy yet plainly decorated footstool at the flea market. I attached all sorts of cloth and beads to it. I found another one that was even more substantial and started to decorate it last week. It took a total of 6 hours and a lot of glue. Yes, I glued it together instead of upholstering it. I glue just about everything I create, including the beaded decorations on my car, B-Dazle.

B-dazle shown here on the Roanoke City Market

"Before" picture of the stool I found at the flea market

Materials I found in my studio or purchased to embellish the new Ottowoman

As you can see, this footstool was in very good shape. I like the size of it. I already had a lot of the materials I used to decorate it, but I still had to purchase a bunch of things to pull it together. For example, the fanciful colored buttons I placed in the center of the cross-stitch flowers and the tassels on the four corners had to be purchased to give that final touch I was looking for. If I had used only materials found in my studio, I could have kept the price down. As it was, the cost for everything was about $45.00 with the original stool accounting for only $4.00 of this. I’m not sure if I could have found one at a store for the same price or less, but it was rewarding to know I brought this little gem back to life.

Detail of Ottowoman

I have the perfect use for my new Ottowoman in mind. You see, I own a 2-story bed and I need to be able to get into it without having to take a running leap to land on it. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night is another problem. Without the Ottowoman, it is almost like falling off a mountain on a pitch black night. This little footstool will be perfect for eliminating both problems.

My new Ottowoman is getting a lot of use already. The Polar Bear Club, my swimming group, came to my house for a luncheon/swim the other day, and one of my friends, Pamela, asked to see my 2-story bed. I was pleased to show it to her. Being a lot shorter than I am, Pamela had all of us laughing as she tried to climb up on the bed without the Ottowoman. With it, she was finally able to reach the top with ease.

Pamela said, "This certainly gives new meaning to the Trundle bed."

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Sunday, June 14, 2009



Karen Beasley

Meet Mrs. Beasley -- better known to me as Karen. I have known Karen for more years than I want to disclose. Here she is in her pearl earrings. They don’t seem appropriate for her, somehow. She seems more “with it,” more contemporary than they suggest. Yet, come to think of it, Karen is just one classy woman. So why shouldn’t she be sporting those pearls? She’s an expert chef, avid reader, and friend to more people than I can count.

I love to read and I love to cook, and I think I’m pretty competent at the latter. But, who do I go to when I’m desperate for something to wow my guests? Karen Beasley. She has astonished me with recipes like her Curry Chicken Salad. Sounds simple and mundane, but everyone who has tried it – including my discriminating friend, Jgock – says they love it.

Curry Chicken Salad

Below is a recipe she gave me just the other day. I ran to the store to get the ingredients so I could try it immediately. And once again, I was just blown away by sheer gustatory pleasure. She said she can’t take credit for it because it came from a friend or hers, Anelle Williams. I guess most recipes come from someone else most of the time, but that’s Karen , too -- honest to a fault.

Here is the copy of the recipe I typed and stamped.

This is what the brie cheese combination looks like as it begins to melt down

Finished product-yum!

I tried this recipe the other night and I have to agree with Karen. The sauce was velvety. When drizzled over the pasta, the whole concoction just melts in your mouth. I also tried the leftover sauce as a dip and once again, it is heavenly. Karen didn't give me a name for the recipe but I thought Pasta Melt Down sounded appropriate.

I plan to start featuring some of Karen’s recipes in my weekly recipe posts.

When it comes to books … well, when I’m looking for a good read, who do I call? You guessed it: Karen Beasley. Through the many years I’ve known her, she has directed me to some of the best books I’ve ever read. She started me on the Susan Howatch novels years ago, beginning with Wheel of Fortune. She also turned me onto Rosamunde Pilcher's breakthrough family saga, The Shell Seekers. Before most had even heard about Harry Potter, Karen was prompting me to buy these children's books. Another children's book she recommended was Tuck Everlasting. At first, I turned my nose up at these books, but upon reading them, I knew she was onto something. So, my trust in her recommendations remains to this day.

Perhaps as a byproduct of her extensive reading, Karen is also a superb storyteller. To hear her spin a tale is as entertaining as the best movie, the best concert, the best play, or the best "whatever" you've ever been to -- all-consuming entertainment in which you can just lose yourself for a while. She belongs to a storytelling group that meets regularly, and she's polished her skill to a high art.

In future blogs, you'll recognize Karen as the source of some of the best recipes I've ever prepared and some of the best books I've ever read. You'll recognize her as the stimulating friend who always keeps you wondering what she’ll come up with next. Maybe – indirectly – I can pass a little of that anticipation along to you.

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