Life On Snob Hill

The Editorial We: Because, Living On Snob Hill, We Are Amused

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There is a tale of the unfortunate equery who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. "We are not amused," said the Queen when he had finished.-- Caroline Holland, courtier to Queen Victoria, in her Notebooks of a Spinster Lady, published in 1919

The impetus for this blog is simple: Stories from our lives on Snob Hill, especially those with the whiff of spice, scandal, and/or impropriety, are indeed amusing to us, and to you as well, we hope. We have always been guided by the words of the esteemed Southern social philosopher Claire Belcher, who said, " If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me," in Steel Magnolias.  Such people have been sitting next to us, sometimes invited, sometimes not, for 20 years now, and we thought it was high time we sat next to you, dear readers, and spread that spice and scandal, those vanities and humanities, and boners and bon mots, collected here, among 12 humble households, on a private private drive somewhere in Middle America.

Behold! The Holy Grail of Nut Grinders!

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So, why the fanfare for this humble item? We are reminded of the quote, “I am haunted by waters” by Norman Maclean from the ending of A River Runs Through It. We have been haunted by this nut grinder — not by it’s presence, but by its absence.

For years, we have followed the example of countless PBS and cable cooks who chopped nuts with a knife (not to mention wending our way through Martha Stewart’s Christmas Cookbook). Sure, it was quick and efficient, but not even our best Damascus steel could provide the tactile delight we felt turning the crank of this humble grinder. Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and, we admit, the occasional cinnamon stick, fell through the tin chute and were transformed by circular tines into the nut gravel required for cookies and cheese balls. A culinary chipper-shredder.

Remember, we would say (sometimes out loud, more often just to ourselves)? Remember how fun it was to chop nuts with that old grinder? The one our great-grandmother bought at a Christmas Bazaar at the Methodist church and gifted to our mother. Yes, that one.

As Tim Burton once said, “Things that I grew up with stay with me. You start a certain way, and then you spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. It’s less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.”

The problem was, of course, memory and its damned specificity. We scoured garage sales, estate sales, and antique malls. We found plenty of nut grinders — plastic ones, electric ones, hand pumped ones, but never that one that we remembered. It had to be that one or nothing.

Imagine, then, a Thanksgiving day as our family gathered. Imagine it was this year, for instance. Imagine, too, our mother who extends a brown bag with handles, brimming with colored tissue paper. Imagine setting this “hostess gift” on the counter and turning to baste the turkey, only to have your mother pick it up and hand it to you again. Imagine as she says, “Please open this now. I think you’ll be pleased.”

And imagine your childhood flooding your eyes and the back of your throat as you pull it from its nest.

It may not be the prettiest item. It may not be the latest and greatest in nut grinding technology. It not even be exactly the color and pattern, neither of which you remember. But the design, the glass bottom, and, of course, that little handle. It’s almost — but only almost — better than the memory of it.

Beware nuts of the world. Behold, the holy grail of nut grinders.

The Family Sedums

We received the call a few weeks ago.

Well, not that call, but an important call nonetheless. We are referring of course to the call from Mother, who wanted to know if we would like the family sedums.

Some receive the family jewels, others, apparently, the family sedums. They were currently in pots on her deck and, despite her best efforts, something insisted on eating them, “to the quick,” as Mother put it. Every morning she would look outside to find another sedum reduced to a sad stub. She had moved the pots all year, from driveway to walkway to deck, trying to make them inaccessible, in successive order, to the deer, the squirrels, the chipmunks, groundhogs, beavers, slugs, and gypsies, tramps, and orchid thieves.

To no avail.

The solution, Mother had concluded, was total exile, to secret them from her house in another county to ours … if we wanted them. We did, but this begs the question, “What if we said no?” The answer is, of course, “Not an option,” which sounds like the catchphrase from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that is our life. We are the inheritors of the family jewels and the family sedums.

Her offer came with some precedent. We already have the reputation as the repository of the family flora. Already rooted are the Hen and Chicks we were given in childhood by a great-grandmother who gave us “starters” from hers that she grew in strawberry pots, and Old Bastard, the maple tree flourishing in the backyard that is the progeny of the magnificent specimen a grandfather (the eponymous Old Bastard) had in his front yard before the Missouri Highway Department cut it down to widen the road.

There are no plant import regulations between St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. The sedums arrived in pots so large and heavy Father had brought along a ramp to slide them into the child-sized red Flexible Flyer wagon, the only wheeled conveyance we had since the red wheelbarrow’s tire went flat and we felt too cheap to spend $32 for a new one.  Who knew so much would have depended upon it?

Any of our looky-loo Snob Hill neighbors were rewarded with the sight of two 75-year-olds and two 53-year-olds (one limping along in a cam boot) guiding the sedums down the uneven stone walkway the way those people in the Macy’s Day Parade handle the giant Snoopy balloon on a windy Thanksgiving day. After safely seated on the front patio, our neighbors no doubt continued to be entertained as we stood, gesticulating over the pots, which Mother was quick inform that she wanted back.

There were three varieties of sedums, each with its own history and all of which are botanically unexceptional. They are just garden variety sedums. Mother pointed. Father pointed. We stood with hands on hips, trying to follow their disagreement about which sedum came from which side of the family. We can only be certain now of this: there is one from each side of the family and one that was purchased years ago by our parents. With a knowing glance, we acknowledged to each other that in a few seasons, after the sedums became established and spread in their new home, the confusion would only grow.

What our neighbors could not hear next was the story Mother told of the sedums from her own mother’s garden. This grandmother was a wonderful and giving woman with a tragic taste in men. She married twice after divorcing mother’s father (the only good one of the bunch). The third was a carpenter named Raymond (forever ruining that trade and name). Our grandmother was no gardener, but she liked to have a few flowers to brighten the yard that overlooked an interchange on Highway 55. She could never get anything to grow because Raymond delighted in running over with his riding lawnmower whatever she had planted. Tulips, marigolds, and Black-eyed Susans – all succumbed as he rode over them, laughing.

The only plants he could not kill were the sedums that she protected in beds, built of unattractive concrete blocks that lay along the basement foundation. During the last year before she died, Mother dug up some of the sedums and took them home. She nurtured them for more than 20 years and when she moved to two new houses.

Now this sedum legacy continues on Snob Hill. Family folklore blends with family plantlore – proof that love has the capacity to outlive cruelty for as long as we care to tend it and pass it on.

And Mother has her pots back.

--CB Adams