Harpers Ferry

After our day spent at Antietam Battlefield, we spent Memorial Day at another site important to the history of the Civil War: Harpers Ferry.  We had actually attempted to visit Harpers Ferry last Summer as part of our road trip.  That plan had to be abandoned because of torrential rain.  This was our second chance to visit and we hoped we would not be rained off again.

The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park.  As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town.  We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town.  It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town.  The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation.  It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet.  All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry.  Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal.  It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.

Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge.  This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights.  The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage.  We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal.  The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal.  We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views.  Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain.  Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.

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Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort.  The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion.  Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure.  They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house.  It all went horribly wrong from there.  The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege.  They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time.  That brought the raid to an end.  Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War.  The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times.  Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II.  In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.

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That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town.  The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines.  The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries.  I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings.  We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.

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We then popped into a confectionery shop.  This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history.  The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history.  The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties.  There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards.  I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section.  Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras.  We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.

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Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car.  Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side.  It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch.  The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town.  I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit.  The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal.  We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water.  The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.

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Having Wonka Fun

My kids have now returned to school after the long (ever so long) summer break but we managed to squeeze in a couple more activities in the final days of summer.  One of these was making chocolate bars.  It is something we have done in the past but I don’t think we have done it since we emigrated to America so they were excited to get to do it again.

I have four silicone moulds for just this purpose.  I think they were designed for making bars of soap but they work perfectly for making big, fat, chunky confectionery.  The boys had picked out their added ingredients so, once we had melted the chocolate on the hob (stove top), it was just a case of each kid pouring some chocolate into the mould and then building up their personalised Wonka bar using whatever ingredients they selected.  There were things like M&Ms and mini-marshmallows and dried cranberries and my oldest son even added prunes.  It was simple, quick, easy, and fun and the best part was, of course, that they got to have a chunking chocolate bar for dessert that evening.

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Scoffing Shane’s Confectionery

I have lived in Pennsylvania for just over two and a half years now and in that time I have sampled a few state foods.

Despite the fact that Mr Pict and the Pictlings love them and I go into school every two weeks to deliver them to the kids, I do not like pretzels.  I know I should be drummed out of the state for such an admission but I just don’t like them.  I can eat one if I have to but it is not something that I enjoy.  I did like Tomato Pie but I prefer more traditional Italian pizza than this twist on the theme.  I tried Tastykakes and was disappointed – as I had been by my first ever Girl Scout Cookie.  I do like Rita’s Water Ice and frozen custard and like that I can deploy it as a bribe / reward for my kids ever so often in the summer months.  I have mentioned several times on the blog now that I do not like American chocolate, despite visiting Hershey twice now.  The Pictlings have had no such difficulties adjusting their palates to American chocolate but the taste and especially the texture remains alien to my Scottish mouth.  In addition to visiting Hershey, we also did the Turkey Hill Experience to learn how this local ice cream is manufactured.  Ice cream I love; it just doesn’t love me as I am lactose intolerant.

Recently I tried a new local food in the form of some sweet treats from Shane’s Confectionary.  Having started operations in 1863, Shane’s claims to be America’s oldest continuously running candy shop.  It’s store on Market Street, Philadelphia, opened in 1911, when the business moved into retail from wholesale.  Having fallen on hard times in the post-war period, the candy shop was recently lovingly restored.  We will have to take a trip there with the kids some time.

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We actually received some Shane’s candies as a New Year gift and, knowing they were special, I saved them for a rainy day.  We had some cherries that had been soaked in brandy and covered in chocolate.  These tasted divine and the crunch through the chocolate into the chewy, fruity centre was pleasing.  They also had a lilac metallic lustre to the chocolate coating which made them extra magical.  There were also some chocolate caramels.  The kids all loved those but, given American chocolate does nothing for me, I was not bowled over by those.

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The boys also had a moulded sugar steam locomotive.  Apparently these clear candy toys  – brought to PA by the Amish – are a holiday tradition at Shane’s, with parents buying them up for their children’s Easter and Christmas gifts.  I have happy memories of going to an Edwardian style sweet shop with my Gran and picking out a variety of boilings which were plopped into a paper poke and treasured and savoured during shopping expeditions.  I completely understand the tradition and the element of nostalgia.  The train was literally just boiled sugar though and, therefore, would have been too bland for my liking.  Give me Kola Kubes and Soor Plooms any day.  There were no complaints from the younger sweet-toothed Picts, however.

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So that is Shane’s Confectionery ticked off the list.  I wonder what my next experience of edible Pennsylvania will be.

Halloween 2015

My kids absolutely love Halloween in America.  They started talking about plans for costumes during the Summer and the middle two have been literally counting down the days for months.  Although this is now our third American Halloween, the novelty of the experience has not worn off on my kids.

Festivities began on Friday with parties and a parade at school.  The school has rules about gory costumes, face paint and hair spray so there was much angst over needing different costumes for school than for actual Halloween.  Happily, since my younger kids love dressing up, we have two sacks full of dressing up gibbles for them to dip into and everyone got something together.  I went in to help with the First Grade party and was assigned to a room full of fairground type activities on a Halloween theme.  By far the most popular activity with the kids was one involving hitting a wooden frame with a mallet and thwacking frogs in the air.  The objective was to get the rubber frogs into buckets in order to score points but the kids much preferred seeing how high and how far they could propel the frogs across the room.  Ceiling tiles were battered, I had to drag frogs down from overhead projectors, and crawl behind bookcases to retrieve them.  Some groups invented twists to the game such as goal keeping and using the sticks from a hockey type game to bat the frogs as they flew through the air.  It was exhausting and I had the sound of the mallet hitting the wood ringing in my ears for hours afterwards.  Good fun though.

Then – after a very quick dash home to get some laundry in the dryer – I was back to the school to watch the parade of kids and staff all dressed up in their costumes.  It was great fun seeing them all, especially the kids who had made their own costumes.  The parade was immediately followed by more parties, this time for my Third and Fourth Graders.  Last year, I was a Room Parent so all my party time was spent in one classroom with one of my kids and I rarely saw the other two participating in festivities.  I was very glad of the opportunity this year to spend time with all of my kids during their parties even if it meant speeding up and down a corridor to pivot between classrooms.

I didn’t get much chance to sit down or stand still in one place during Halloween itself either.  It was another hectic day.  We also reached a bittersweet milestone as my oldest son went out Trick or Treating with friends.  It was the first time we had not had all four of our kids with us to go guising but we are very happy indeed that our oldest son has made such good friends here that we wanted to spend the evening with them.  My oldest was dressed as a plague doctor.  Apparently only one adult on his whole trick or treating tour had a clue what his costume was but, even though we had assumed everyone would get it, he rather liked being a tad obscure.  My other three went trick or treating around our neighbourhood with our next door neighbour kids and the children of our friends.  My 10 year old was the Joker, my 8 year old was Robin and my 6 year old was Frankenstein’s Monster.  The kids walked and walked until their pails were so full of candy and other treats that their arms were getting a bit orangutan like and their feet were sore.  We visited haunted houses, met Chewbacca on his porch, and my little Frankenstein’s Monster even got to meet his biological parents.  Then it was everyone back to my house – where we had left the dads on the porch to hand out treats to visitors – for steaming hot bowls of soup and hot dogs.  It was a long and busy two days but filled with so much fun and laughter – and sugar.

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PS  If you would like to read a comparison between Scottish and American Halloweens, I covered that in my first Halloween post.

PPS If you like all things monstrous, then you might be interested to check out my altered book project over on my art blog, Pict Ink.

Our Halloween

My kids were giddy with anticipation over Halloween this year.  Their experience of their first American Halloween had been a wonderfully positive introduction to life in America for them. They loved everything about it and were eager to repeat the same fun experiences this year.

Having selected a pumpkin each when we visited the pumpkin patch, the boys settled on imagery and I set about carving them.  The reason I did the carving is that, with the exception of the smallest pumpkin, which really was tiny, the skins and flesh of the chosen pumpkins was extremely tough.  I resorted to using exceedingly sharp kitchen knives in place of the carving tools and, of course, the children could not be let loose with kitchen knives.  That really would have been a Halloween horror!  So we ended up with a large Minecraft Creeper, a baby Creeper, a galloping horse and the head of Jack Skellington to place on the steps leading up to our front door.

The younger three boys had Halloween celebrations at their Elementary School.  They each had parties full of crafting, snacking and games and were all involved in the Halloween parade.  The High School band played while all of the costumed children walked in a large square on the playing field.  As a member of the first Kindergarten class, our 5 year old was actually the leader of the entire parade.  He was clearly loving it, waving to the crowds as he passed them, though his Iron Man mask meant he could barely see where he was going and he had to be steered in the right direction by his teacher.  That morning I had told the children that I was going to levy a tax on them of one piece of their Halloween candy for each Elsa, Anna or Olaf costume we happened across on the day.  There were five Elsas in my youngest son’s class alone.  My kids said no dice to the tax proposal.  There were some really inventive costumes on show and it was fun to see all of the kids enjoying themselves.

My boys had daytime costumes, appropriate for school (Iron Man, Boba Fett and a weird Dark Knight Ninja combination that my 9 year old insisted on cobbling together) and different costumes for evening.  I got the majority of their costumes from thrift stores and the younger ones like to play dress up throughout the year so I don’t mind the costume changes at all.  My oldest son was a Clone Trooper, the 9 year old was Star-Lord (because he is obsessed with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), my 7 year old was a Werewolf (he has been longing for a werewolf costume for years) and the youngest was Frankenstein’s Monster (his favourite classic monster).  I also dressed myself up as a Vampire, complete with pallid face and bright red lips.  Thankfully I was not the only adult wandering the streets in costume or I might have felt like a total pillock but the kids appreciated my efforts and my get-up entertained them so any embarrassment factor was worth it.

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Together with one of the boys’ friends, my monstrous mob traipsed the streets of our neighbourhood for two hours. Mr Pict had devised the route as if he was a military General manouvering troops.  At first they were part of a pack of neighbourhod kids but gradually they pack drew out into a long line which was probably easier for each household to manage instead of having to open the door to a dozen kids bellowing “Trick or Treat” in unison.  The majority of houses in our neighbourhood were participating in Halloween and handing out edible treats but some had gone to incredible effort to entertain the little ghouls.  One house had set up their garage as a den of horror.  My 9 year old and his friend refused to even enter and the 7 year old came out howling, but the other two loved it.  Another house had set up three rooms in their house to be a haunted house full of spooky props and people in costume.  My 9 year old again didn’t go in but everyone else had fun on their spooky tour.  Our neighbours had set up their porch with elaborate decorations including a zombie baby doll, Frankenstein’s Monster sitting in an electric chair and the Bride of Frankenstein standing alongside them.  My boys loved going up to the Monster, especially the little one who declared he was Frankenstein Jr.  It was a really fun night and my kids came home with their Halloween buckets full to beyond the brim with sweeties, chocolate and crisps which they then spent half an hour trading up.

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And they never did give me my ‘Frozen’ tax.

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Candy Review

Post-Halloween, I stated that my kids would like to use my blog to review all of the American candy they had never tried before.  This, therefore, is that review.

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The boys had had Reese’s pieces before but not the cups.  That was something new.  Essentially they are little chocolate cups filled with a peanut butter flavoured unction.  They liked that they were very “peanut-buttery” and that the mixture of chocolate and peanut butter was delicious. They scored 17/20.

3 Musketeers is a bit like a UK Milky Way, with a whipped gooey centre coated in chocolate.  Two of the boys thought they were “awesome” and two thought they were “fine” so they scored 15/20.

Nerds can be purchased in the UK but my kids had never had them before Halloween.  They are essentially packets of tiny, brightly-coloured, strongly-flavoured crispy candy fragments.  The 10 year old liked them because they last a long time apparently.  This is a child who has to be compelled to eat his chocolate Easter eggs before they go off because he likes to hoard sweets.  Clearly the longevity of this product alone was going to score highly with him.  The 8 year old liked that they were hard but then had a sugary burst of flavour and the 6 year old liked the texture of them.  They scored 16/20.

Dum Dums are just standard lollipops, boilings on a stick, but the flavours of the ones the boys tried at least were very American.  The 10 year old was disappointed that they were just a standard lollipop, nothing new or exciting.  The other three liked the strong flavours and the 6 year old appreciated the fact that they were really hard so were difficult to crunch and consequently meant he had to “sook” on them for a long time.  Dum Dums scored 15.5 / 20.

York Peppermint Patties are dark chocolate rounds filled with a dense mint cream.  My 8 year old was enthralled with them!  He loved the flavour and also the fact they were “squishy and not stable at all” on the inside.  I don’t really understand that analysis but if he could have given them triple full score then he would have done so.  They were a hit with his 6 year old brother too who reported that they were “like a mini chocolate pie with mint icing inside”.  York Peppermint Patties received full marks at 20/20.

Butterfingers are a bar of crisp peanut butter centre, perhaps approaching peanut brittle but I’m not sure since I’ve never had one, all coated in chocolate.  The boys reported that it tasted like “caramel toffee” and “tastes kind of buttery inside”.  They scored 15/20.

Tootsie Rolls are like chewy toffee but with a chocolatey flavour to them.  The older three boys declared that they were “delicious” and the 4 year old decided they were “yummy”.  They scored 16/20.

Twizzlers are like strawberry liquorice straws, a bit like when Bertie Bassett does the red thing, and are in a sort of twisted yarn shape.  My 4 year old did not like them at all.  Amusingly the 6 year old determined they were “awesome but really unhealthy”.  They scored just 11/20.

Whoppers are somewhat like British malteesers in that they are balls of chocolate containing a crisp centre but somehow they are just not the same.  The centre is more brittle and less light and the chocolate is not as thick on the surface.  The 4 year old loved them and the others thought they were pretty good but nothing to rave about.  Only the 6 year old felt they were as good as maltesers.  They scored 15/20.

Unlike me, my children believe that Hershey’s is just as good if not better than British chocolate.  They, therefore, scored Hershey chocolate as 18/20.

Almond Joy is like a UK Bounty but with almonds running along the top of the chocolate.  The boys liked the mixture of almonds, coconut and chocolate so it scored highly at 18/20.

Smarties are not like UK Smarties, which are chocolate dots covered in a crisp coating a bit like m ‘n’ ms.  Instead US Smarties are like UK Refreshers, little pellets of hard sherbet-type stuff.  My 8 year old thought they were “kind of weird” and everyone else thought they were mediocre so those scored just 13/20.

Life Savers are a bit like fruit polos in the UK but bigger and chunkier, round halos of brightly coloured boilings in essence.  My 8 year old felt they were “sort of sour” despite being sweet.  The 6 year old felt they were “awesome because they are really sooky”.  The oldest and youngest felt they were “good but not special”.  They scored 15/20.

York Peppermint Patties are, therefore, the winner of Pictish Candy Wars.

 

 

Our First American Halloween

Yesterday the children and I experienced our first ever American Halloween.  My husband likes to recount the glory days of his youth hauling home massive sacks of candy so his stories created high expectations.

We have loved seeing all of the decorations in our neighbourhood.  In fact, our boys are so awestruck by the front lawn displays that I am not sure they will recognise the streets in our locale once those decorations come down.  There are large flag ghosts, air-filled Igors, scarecrows and pumpkins galore, zombie graves, skeletons and witches everywhere.  It’s fantastic and contributed to the excitement of anticipating our first American Halloween.  Of course, our house was exceptionally lame by comparison.  We don’t own any outdoor decorations for Halloween so all we had were half a dozen pumpkins and all of our seasonal decorations are currently in a shipping container – still in Scotland – so we just had a few odds and ends we had picked up in the two weeks since arriving in the US.

The festivities really started off with a Halloween Parade at the older boys’ Elementary School.  My youngest son and I went along to spectate and thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the kids in their costumes, some of which were amazingly creative or hilarious.  There seemed to be a whole squad of ninjas (two of mine included) and princesses and ninja turtles were also strong in numbers.  It was great to see everyone having fun and smiling and especially to see my own kids looking so relaxed among their peers, not standing out as “the new kids” at all.

After a hurried dinner, it was time to get into costume.  I had a ninja, two zombies and a vampire to assist in getting ready.  My fingers were the colour of undead flesh having used them to rub face paint onto the faces of my two oldest boys.  Everyone looked suitably ghoulish as we headed out on our first Trick or Treat.

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To be clear, it is not that we have never celebrated Halloween before.  It is, of course, a thing in Scotland too.  However, despite having grown in status over the course of my lifetime, it is still not an event on the scale it is in the US.  The traditions are also quite different.  Growing up, we made lanterns out of turnips, not pumpkins.  Yes, turnips.  If you think carving a pumpkin is hard going on the hand and arm muscles, try scooping out the interior of a turnip or swede  and making it look like anything other than the basis of a winter soup.  In recent years, common sense has developed and Scotland has also adopted the pumpkin as the lantern vegetable of choice.  But I’ve still not had therapy to recover from a childhood of turnip carving.  The other tradition that is slightly different is that in Scotland we don’t go Trick or Treating; instead we go guising.  Children go from door to door, dressed in costume, and have to perform at each household in order to earn a reward.  In the case of my kids that meant telling corny spooky themed jokes, some written by themselves.  I think I like the idea that the sweeties have to be earned, I have to say.

Anyway, the kids and I set off along our street while my husband stayed behind to dole out colourful sugar to Trick or Treaters who arrived at our door (we switched roles half way through) and the first thing that hit me was how warm it was.  It wasn’t even mild.  It was actually warm.  I’ve never experienced a Halloween before where half your costume wasn’t hidden beneath a parka and even the undead were wearing woolly hats and mittens.  Of course, this time last year the eastern seaboard of America had Hurricane Sandy to contend with so I’m not naive enough to think that this will be the normal Halloween climate from hereon in but it was definitely a pleasant experience to be wandering in the dark when the temperature was so warm.

The decorations in the street looked even more festive and spectacular in the dark.  There were orange fairy lights bedecking bushes, spotlights on muddy graves from which skeletal hands were emerging, a mummy leering at us from our next door neighbours’ window and, at one house, giant eyeballs peering at us from upstairs windows as if it was a real life Monster House.  My kids scurried towards any house with a light on, knocked on doors (at one point I thought my youngest was at risk of taking someone’s hinges off) and clammered “Trick or Treat” to any man, woman, child or dog who appeared at the door.  Despite being hyper, they remembered their manners and said “Thank you” each time and didn’t turn their hands into industrial scoops every time a bowl of treats was proffered.  Indeed, at some houses they were urged to take more.

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They came home with their Halloween buckets (or pails) full to the brim.  They then tipped all of their sweets out and arranged them into categories.  Some types were familiar to them – M&Ms, Milky Way, Kit Kat and Twix – but most were entirely new varieties.  We, therefore, have a lot of experimentation to do over the next wee while.

Watch this space for my kids’ reviews of American candy at some point in the not too distant future.