Valentines

choccherry_brownies_007.jpgMy grandma's favorite gift was a box of chocolate covered cherries. I can still see her biting into the first one she picked from the box my uncle would bring her from Walgreen's Drugstore in Chicago. The liquid insides would ooze out and drip down her chin. She'd smile and her eyes would sparkle with delight. I never did grow fond of the chocolate-cherry treats that would bring her such glee. Even as a child, they were just too sweet for my liking.

I've never really developed an appreciation for the combination of chocolate and cherries. Rich, creamy chocolate -- yes. Sweet-tart juicy cherries -- yes. But together in one bite? No.

Despite my dislike for the marriage of chocolate and cherries in anything edible, each February since I was old enough to read a recipe, I've been baking a chocolate and cherry treat to celebrate the month that claims Valentine's Day and George Washington's birthday. These two days make February a time to hail chocolate and observe National Cherry Month.

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paperhearts.jpgSo when did Valentine’s Day turn into such a big deal? Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve been bombarded like me by spam email soliciting for various gifts of flowers, candies, cards, chocolates, clothes, hats, and stuffed animals. Commercials everywhere are constantly warning us not to forget our loved ones. Whatever happened to the good old days of cutting out simple paper hearts, scarfing down a couple of powdery candies stamped with “Be Mine” on the side, and calling it a day? Nowadays, even entertainment companies are getting in on the act with TV series offering special holiday centered programming and movies such as New Line Cinema’s latest, “Valentine’s Day,” hitting theaters this weekend. And don’t forget the restaurants offering a simple night out for two starting at $200 and going up from there.

Does anyone remember the origin of this day and what its original intent was? According to Wikipedia, Saint Valentine's Day (commonly simply Valentine's Day) is an annual <holiday held on February 14 celebrating <love and <affection between <intimate companions. The holiday is named after one or more early Christian <martyrs named <Valentine and was established by <Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD. It is traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by <presenting flowers, offering <confectionery, and sending <greeting cards (known as "valentines"). The holiday first became associated with <romantic love in the circle of <Geoffrey Chaucer in the <High Middle Ages, when the tradition of <courtly love flourished. Modern Valentine's Day symbols include the <heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged <Cupid. Since the 19th century, handwritten valentines have largely given way to mass-produced <greeting cards. No kidding…

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3d-shadow-box-art-ssThat’s the question of the moment. Ads on TV, in newspapers, on line, in magazines, on billboards, buses, subways, just about everywhere you look, make suggestions about what to give your lover to show how much you treasure her: romantic dinners, cruises, hot air balloon rides, diamonds, earrings, pearl necklaces, chocolates, spa treatments, cakes, pies, tarts, sweaters, and of course, flowers.

Years ago when I lived in Rhode Island I had a friend who refused to buy any of her gifts. For Christmas or a birthday, she’d knit a gift, create a handmade card, or construct a collage. Risa was an enthusiastic practitioner of the hand-made movement because she felt that making a gift was a more emotional way of connecting to someone you cared about. To her, going into a store and plunking down a fist full of cash wasn’t as intimate and personal as making something.

I took Risa’s lesson to heart. Many Valentine’s Days I baked. Apple pies with crystallized ginger crusts. Flourless chocolate cakes with roasted almonds. And banana cakes with chocolate chips and roasted walnuts, one of my wife’s favorite desserts.

For this Valentine’s Day I was presented with a problem. I couldn’t bake Michelle a cake because she had sworn off dairy products and sugar. No matter how much she used to like my desserts, a beautiful cake wouldn’t tell her “I love you” the way it used to. So what could I make or do for her that would show her I love her?

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2005-valentine-2.jpgAbout ten years ago, after a painting that she’d been working on disappointed her, my mother dragged the canvas out onto the front lawn.  Still in her painting clothes, she proceeded to rip it apart with a small hatchet, reducing a 3 by 5 foot work of art to an abundance of 3 by 5 inch works of art.  A few weeks later, she sent them, without explanation, to her friends and family for Valentine’s Day.  (The whole thing was a little “Vincent’s ear”, and the parallel did not escape her: she did a series of Van Gogh’s disembodied ear the next fall.  She also set fire to a couple of those, and then did a painting of them on fire.  And yes, I was an anxious child.)  The canvas scrap my mother sent to me that Valentine’s contains the original painting’s full signature.  Of all the fragments of her destroyed work, each one a tiny relic of perfectionism and mania, I got the one with her name on it!  

Receiving the portion with her signature, the veritable corner piece to the puzzle of her insanity, really means something to me.  I can see how, when other people opened their valentines that year, they might have felt a vague sense of reproach, instead of the more common Valentine’s message: affection. 

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stable.jpgAround fifteen years ago, my wife and I decided that eventually we wanted to leave Los Angeles and move to the country.  Although neither of us had ever lived on a farm, we both had grandparents who did and had fond memories of visits where we “helped” with chores such as milking and gathering eggs.  However, I soon learned to avert my eyes whenever I saw my grandmother pick up a chicken, as I knew this was Step 1 of the recipe for the pot pie which would appear on the supper table. 

Once we had decided to move, we spent our vacations looking for the perfect place.  We checked out Northern California, Oregon, Washington and the Canadian Maritimes before eventually deciding on Vermont because it actually looked like “the country” of our imaginations.    

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