I think I surprised no one more than myself when, in college, I majored in medieval art history. As in, seriously majored. I studied Latin. Dove into Romanesque corbels. Spent one long summer encased in the University of Washington's oldest, most-un-air-conditioned building, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, attempting to osmose a full year of German in seven very short, very hot weeks. I wrote 30-page term papers detailing the onset and evolution of sumptuary laws in England and across the content between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.
My spell-check doesn't even admit sumptuary is a word. (Trust me. It is. And boy, by now, do I know how to spell it.) I was in deep.
I was serious, and I loved it, and I never got over the surprise of that. Because on the surface, medieval art held exactly zero appeal, at least to me. Stiff courtiers and stilted angels and endless blue-robed Marys? I'll pass. Gaudy colors, shock-value violence, biblical stories, ad nauseum? No, thanks. My own aesthetic was far more Arts and Crafts: think William Morris; think Liberty of London; think Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Give me Glasgow School over gooey Madonnas, any day.
On a tea cup, anyway.
As a course of study, however, I fell for medieval art after my first elective, and fell hard. What I came to see, what I came to appreciate, was the dizzying creativity that flourished within the extreme confines of the era's art. Circumscribed by the church, girded by monarchs, the middle ages produced an extroardinary catalog of diverse, subversive, exuberant images, dancing around (and beyond, and all over, and underneath) every edge of acceptable.
Choir stalls, supported by sculpted outcasts. Profane images, under church pews. Church ceilings, held up by corbels, peopled by figures few pontiffs would condone. Pious books of hours, each page illuminated at its heart with holy, at its edges with raucous. Lintels, littered with fantastic beasts. Jostling humanity, just below Jesus. Thinly veiled pagan images, in, on and around churches, everywhere. Gargoyles were just the beginning.
It was, I think, a negotiation between past and present, sacred and profane, the teeming masses and the ecclesiastic powers that were, worked out in stone and ink and glass. A truce, of sorts, between the common man and the clerics, in tense, tentative, glorious terms.
(Or so I enthused before the Mellon committee, long ago. At the time, based on their unrelenting questions and absolutely unyielding expressions, I felt fairly sure they found me a hot air balloon, full of stuff and nonsense. Then again, they rang me back, said I'd won. So there's that.)
Oh, gosh, sorry. My inner un-Ph.D. is showing. Right-O. What I loved, still love, were the all the excellent ways medievals found to wring soaring creativity from tremendous confines. How they invented endlessly, mercilessly, exquisitely, all within the church's steep limits. Re-branding old images, resurrecting ancient customs, retrofitting pre-Christian ideas for church-y times. They took limits as prompts. Rules as freedom. Constraint as endless inspiration. Made me wonder what they would have made of peg people.
Probably, most peg people blog tour posts don't begin with discourses on medieval iconography. Okay, none of them do. Did. (See below.) Conformist was never my strong suit.
HOWever, there is this: as we've spent the past months leafing through Margaret Bloom's utterly fantastic Making Peg Dolls & More, I kept coming back to those medieval journeymen, those sculptors and illuminators who saw within the narrowest of confines, the wide-open of inifinty. Bloom's right up there with the best of them.
In this, her second book, a dashing follow-up to her first (both, staples in our library), Margaret once again takes up that humble, anonymous wooden peg, as first principle and brilliant prompt. Making with kids is always a good time, and the possibilities (hello, Pinterest!) are endless. This is wonderful. This is dreadful. Drowning amidst all the options is dead-easy.
What I so love about Margaret's work is the way she takes this one small starting point, the inches-high, inexpensive, happy-in-your-hands wooden peg, and transforms it, endlessly. Who knew that basic peg + head bump could be a swashbuckling pirate, a mermaid, an angel, a red (!) felt-y octopus (!!). Probably a gargoyle, too. And these are just the beginning.
With felt, paint, pegs, and little else, save a giddy excess of creativity, Margaret lays out all manner of peg projects, simple to sophisticated, united by charming. On a recent wintry afternoon, we spent hours (HOURS!) absorbed in the task of bringing a dozen small pegs to life. Some followed Margaret's foolproof instructions to a T. Others took her ideas as jumping off points. Still others had nothing at all to do with the brilliant projects she so clearly outlined.
And indeed, these were some of my favorite. And, I suspect, she'd entirely approve. Thing is, once you get started with those pegs, a person can't help but see potential. My middle, for example, began by admiring the pirates; then dreamed up a woodsman; then wound up making a full series of sprites: earth, fire, wind, and (not pictured) air. You won't find these anywhere in the book. Which is sort of the point. Inspiration starts here. Sometimes, limits are grand, bumpers within which to do your best work.
If you've been around here any time at all, you'll know I don't usually do blog tours. Don't usually, as in, don't ever. Rules are made to be broken. For Margaret, I make an exception, because this book, like her last, is dear to our hearts. We're not alone. For many more wonderful takes on her latest, do check out the other tour stops:
February 2nd :: The Crafty Crow
February 3rd :: Clean
February 4th :: Castle in the Air
February 5th :: Salley Mavor (Wee Folk Studio)
February 7th :: A Child's Dream
February 9th :: Forest Fairy Crafts
February 10th :: Bella Luna Toys
February 11th :: Ben & Birdy
February 12th :: Twig & Toadstool
February 13th :: Wee Wonderfuls
February 17th :: Remedial Eating
And, because making peg people makes me unreasonably hungry, let's talk mushrooms. Basic button mushrooms. Three-ingredient (including salt) mushrooms. Mushrooms for when it is deepest mid-winter, and fresh produce is far off, and seasonal is a siren song. Golden mushrooms, we call them. Delicious works, too.
These are my Nana's mushrooms, the ones she made nearly every time I passed a day at her house. Her pans were thrifted; her stove, ancient; her budget, non-existent; her mushrooms, transcendent. She's been gone since my oldest was six weeks old; he's halfway to fifteen. Still, I can see her stirring a skillet of these mushrooms, slowly, patiently, as if we shared a plate for lunch, this very afternoon.
She began, always, with what we'll call a knob of butter, well more than a sliver, well under a cube. I use 4 Tablespoons per pound of mushrooms. Trust me on this. Therein lies the gold.
While the butter melts, slowly, slowly, the mushrooms are rinsed, trimmed, and sliced. This is, incidentally, an excellent job for children of four or more. Mushrooms are one of the simplest and most satisfying of vegetables to slice, soft, yielding, small. A table knife will do the job, though a sharp paring knife is well learned, here. However it happens, the sliced mushrooms are tipped into the skillet of now-molten butter, salted, tossed, and—crucial, this—allowed to give up all their juices. In my Nana's kitchen, this required monastic patience, something like sixty-five years. Maybe it was more like thirty minutes. Anyway, way too long.
She would steadfastly stir, now and again, as high heat and time worked their magic, encouraging the water-laden funghi to, over time, release their liquid, and then, over more time still (sixty-six?), concentrate and consume what was lost, until not a speck of liquid remained, and the now-dry, condensed, intense mushrooms would sizzle and fry in the latent butter, going golden and caramelized and intensely savory and a little bit crisp, here and there, at the edges. If we'd had the word umami, back then, we would have used it. In all caps. As it was, we had bell bottoms and leg warmers and feathered hair and all manner of eighties atrocities, and none of it mattered, because we had golden mushrooms.
These are lovely slipped into omelettes, toppled over chicken, heaped high on buttered toast, tossed with pasta, or simply brightened with parsley and lemon. In practice, though, we eat them most often as I did with my Nana, straight-up, by the forkful. And frankly, this is my most favorite way.
And while button mushrooms are available year-round, I only ever make these in the dark, cold months. I've talked before about my love of winter cooking, of the comfort I derive from a spare pantry and stark choices. To be sure, any stark in these modern times is somewhat artificial, fairly contrived. Thank goodness. Abundance is good; year-round produce, a miracle. I'm as grateful that we're not truly reduced to sauerkraut and souring salt pork, as I am for the occasional Florida berry. Still, there's that nudge, that everywhere-reminder that these are lean times, all limits, no bounty.
There is, I think, real value in plying one's constraints, making the simple, exquisite. Stone blocks. Book margins. Wooden pegs. Button mushrooms. Real pleasure in working within limits
Common button and cremini mushrooms both work well here. And while I've no doubt chanterelles and their ilk would shine in this preparation, I've never bothered; this is all about the basic made glorious, with a little butter, attention and time. Also, please note that I nearly always double this to 2#, as a) mushrooms shrink tenfold, and b) there are never enough.
1# button mushrooms
4 Tbs. butter
1/2 tsp. salt + more to taste
Give mushrooms a quick rinse, brushing or rubbing away dirt. Trim ends, then cut mushrooms, cap + stem, into 1/4" slices.
Melt butter in your widest skillet, ideally one with a lid. (My 12" skillet has no lid, but my stock pot lid does the job nicely. The lid, in other words, need only span the gap, not match, like shoes and purse.) Add sliced mushrooms to melted butter, sprinkle 1/2 tsp. salt over, and stir mushrooms to thoroughly coat. With heat on high, cover skillet, and let mushrooms release their liquid, stirring occasionally, 5-7 minutes, depending on mushrooms, skillet size, and lid situation. (If you've no lid, this simply takes a bit longer.)
Once mushrooms are awful-looking and sloppy and all aswim, remove lid, and let the reduction begin. Allow liquid to evaporate, stirring occasionally, until pan is dry, 5-7 minutes. When all liquid is gone, continue to cook, stirring attentively, every 30 seconds or so, adjusting heat to perhaps a hottish medium to keep mushrooms browning but not burning, until the slices are sizzling and caramelized and golden on nearly all sides, roughly 2-3 minutes after the last drop of liquid has left the pan. Taste, adjust for salt, and inhale directly.