Writing the Past: The Devil’s in the Details

I write historical fiction to reveal old worlds through a new lens.

On a trip to the Loire Valley in 2000, I was struck by the beauty of the vineyards and impressed by how generations of French families had battled blight, mildew, rot, and pests to produce superior wines. This centuries-old blend of passion and persistence, art and science, sparked the idea for my series about the ambitions of two French-born vintners to establish an American winemaking dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century. After my initial impression of the vineyards’ beauty and complexity, I had to know more to write the story I wanted to tell. I soon discovered that a historical novelist’s love of story must be wed with an endless enthusiasm for and dedication to research.

Biking between the vine rows in the Carneros region

Biking between the vine rows in the Carneros region

Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was a pleasure. I visited a Loire Valley vineyard, and toured historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic gravity-flow wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, sampled the wines! I also delved into French and California history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. Although I had a vague outline for the novels when I started, my research fueled the stories for The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife.

The turn of the twentieth century was rife with innovation and conflict. The glittering Paris World’s Fair, the advances in travel, medicine and economic opportunity, the destruction of saloons by hatchet-wielding temperance advocates, and tragic natural disasters riveted the citizens of our world. North American women led one of the most promising revolutions of that time: they left their kitchens in droves to fight for their rights. These historical elements also provide a treasure-trove of historical drama for the backdrop of the series.

Regusci Winery, Napa, built circa 1878

Regusci Winery, Napa, built circa 1878

When I finally put pen to paper, the demands of writing historical fiction surprised me. I had to learn how vineyards operated at the turn of the twentieth century, and study photos and accounts of period clothing, manners, literature, education, food, rents, and architecture. I read French civil and criminal codes, researched the smell of creosote and how it feels to hold a beating heart in one’s hand (I didn’t actually do this one—I consulted a surgeon!).

How does one aptly convey the thrill of assisting in your first heart surgery, or the horror of trying to escape San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906? To lead readers deep into the scene with the characters—so they experience everything just as the characters do—an author must include historical details that will enrich the story and raise the stakes for the characters.

Wine caves dug by Chinese circa 1877, Napa

Wine caves dug by Chinese circa 1877, Napa

During the first editorial phase of The California Wife, one of my beta-readers said something I’ll always remember. He read a scene I’d crafted about a historic celebration at the Italian-Swiss Colony in Asti, California in 1898. He said, “This is a beautifully written scene. I can smell the grass, feel the breeze and taste the food. But what’s the point?” My historical details—gleaned mostly from newspaper and eyewitness accounts—were all accurate, but I had failed to advance the story. To solve this problem, I swiftly inserted an explosive argument between the two main characters. Now, every time I write a scene, I ask, “How do this scene and its details advance the conflict/drama/story?”

Choosing whether or not to use dialect or historical slang in your story can also make it or break it. Dialect or slang should be used to deepen the reader’s understanding of a character or community, but both can become tiresome distractions. When in doubt, I always read the scene aloud or rely on my beta-readers and editors to steer me in a direction that best serves my readers and their experience.

The best historical fiction entertains and educates readers seamlessly. It challenges readers’ perceptions of the past, present and future and often stimulates debate. Perhaps some of the best advice comes from one of my favorite historical fiction authors, Isabel Allende: “Write what should not be forgotten.”

Love stories and wine pairings for Valentine’s Day!

Don’t have a valentine? So what? Pair these love stories with wine and you’ll have a ready-made date and an evening filled with laughter, romance and intrigue!

xo Kristen

Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet

The Hatmaker’s Heart by Carla Stewart with 2012 SeaGlass Sauvignon Blanc

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford with 2010 Bouchaine Carneros Pinot Noir

Persuasion by Jane Austen with Donelan Wines’ 2012 Nancie Chardonnay

Somerset by Leila Meacham with 2012 Beringer Vineyards Pinot Grigio “Founders Estate”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte with 2012 Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon

One Writer’s Paradise: Visiting San Francisco & Napa

Veraison of Pinot Noir grapes, Bouchaine Winery

Researching historical fiction can be tricky and time-consuming, but if you enjoy your subject, it can be a delightful indulgence.  This July, I had the unique opportunity to spend seven glorious days exploring San Francisco and Napa Valley, California, two locations where my debut novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, and its sequel, are set.

The Vintner’s Daughter, set in 1896, chronicles the struggle of a wine maker’s daughter to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, and the life that was stolen from her.  The second half of the novel takes place in San Francisco and Napa.  The best way for me to climb inside my characters’ minds, and write about their daily lives, is to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what they experienced—at the turn of the century.

As a write-at-home mom of three young children, I couldn’t just go gallivanting off for a weeklong holiday in the vineyards (although I considered it!).  Instead, we made it a family affair, with my husband, mother and three kids tagging along for what we now call “our best family vacation ever!”

To sate the kids’ need for Mickey, Shamu and Minions, we spent our first week with cousins Gin & Craig in southern California, touring theme parks and reconnecting with family.  Then we headed north, through the rolling hills and farmland of the Central Coast, finally arriving in San Francisco.

Like every writer, I had my research agenda: visit historical buildings, archives, and vineyards to unearth what life was like living in San Francisco and Napa from 1890 to 1906.  However, it was the unexpected discoveries that made our trip unforgettable.

I had lived on Lombard Street in 1995, but it was wonderful to see the city again through the eyes of a tourist.  We rode the San Francisco cable cars, toured the city on a Big Bus, devoured banana splits at the (historic) Ghirardelli Chocolate Company Shop, and snapped photos of the Queen Anne and Italianate architecture of Haight-Ashbury.  Because a pivotal scene in my book takes place on what is now China Beach, I wanted to make sure I described every detail correctly.  At sunset, we stood on the half-moon, rocky shore of China Beach in Sea Cliff, enjoying the breathtaking sunset and view of the Marin headlands and Golden Gate Bridge.

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When we arrived in Napa, the town was in the grip of a 98-degree heat wave.  Naturally, I had arranged to surprise my husband with a fifteen-mile Napa Valley Bike Tour (literally between-the-vines) for our sixteenth anniversary.  Despite the heat, it was phenomenal!  We toured three vineyards, enjoying tastings at BouchaineMcKenzie-Mueller, and Etude, all within the Carneros wine region (where one of the vineyards in my novel is located).  The San Pablo Bay breeze, along with ample water and a gourmet picnic lunch supplied by our seasoned guides, Steve Stone and Paul Torre, kept us happy and hydrated.

We started our bike tour beneath towering eucalyptus trees, noted for their durability, peeling bark and soothing menthol vapor.   American grape farmers took care to plant their vines far from these trees, to prevent the vine roots from soaking up the eucalyptus oil, which infuses grapes and wine with a menthol taste.

Veraison, or the ripening of the grapes, had begun.  The small, green pinot noir grapes were taking on a purplish hue.  Near the end of August, the harvest would begin.  Sparkling wine grapes would be picked first, then the dry wine grapes, and lastly, in late September, the dessert wine grapes, which require high sugar levels.   Our guide, Steve Stone, explained the bulges on the vines (where the vines were grafted), the netting (to deter birds and rodents from eating the ripening grapes), and the circling red hawks (to frighten away large birds and rodents).

Most memorable was our bike ride to the southernmost edge of Carneros, atop the crest of a vineyard hill, which overlooked the reservoir, marshlands and the San Pablo Bay.  To our right, rose Mount Tamalpais, the sleeping princess, and in the distance, we could see the San Francisco skyline.  It was the very spot I’d imagined my novel’s heroine standing, and it existed!  It was a goose-bump moment that I will never forget.

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The next day I strolled through the renovated downtown to the Napa County Historical Society, housed in the Goodman Library, bursting at the seams with maps, books, documents and photos of Napa through the years.  The research librarian, Alexandria “Alex” Brown, is a young, peppy native who effortlessly fielded my barrage of questions, and happily supplied me with stacks of 1895 maps, books, turn-of-the-century photos of Napa businesses, train stations and schools, and even photos of an old wine press she snapped at a recent visit to the Nichelini winery.  Her enthusiasm and knowledge gave me confidence in my research, and left me eager to continue writing.

On our next excursion, my mother and I enjoyed a private vineyard tour with Certified Wine Professional and Sommelier, Max Roher.  Max shuttled us in an air-conditioned SUV, with another family, to four Napa vineyards, which he’d carefully chosen to match our requests to tour small, historical family-owned vineyards.  We walked through rows of 113-year-old, untrellised Zinfandel vines, toured a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, and visited a 19th century French-style chateau winery built by Hamden W. McIntyre, the expert who designed many of California’s first gravity-flow wineries.  On each occasion, the vineyard owners or managers greeted us personally, taking time to explain how they craft their wines, and answer our questions while we swirled and sipped from our glasses.

Did you know that every bottle of wine we drink contains nearly three pounds of grapes?  The vulnerability of these grapes is striking: over the last century and a half, they’ve fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew, and Prohibition.  Still, the grape growers and wine makers persist in finding new methods to protect and improve the fruit.  It is a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.  I am inspired and humbled by their efforts.  Cheers!

Kristen’s debut novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2014.


Kitchen Table Chat: An Interview with Pat Donelan

(from left to right) Maryellen (my mom and Pat's sister-in-law), Pat, with my daughters Ellen and Julia

When I reflect on the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” I am reminded of the many people who shaped me into the woman I am today.  Besides my parents, one of the most significant people in my life over the past 42 years has been my Aunt Pat.  Mary Patricia Kulasa was a Polish girl from Akron, Ohio, who married my mother’s brother in 1961, nine years before I was born.  Since then, she’s been a bright light at the center of our family. 

Pat is classy, graceful, strong and quick to share a story.  Over her 75 years, she has survived the sudden death of her husband, single motherhood, two hip replacements, and brain surgery.   In her usual self-deprecating way, she only agreed to this interview if I promised “not to make her sound like Mother Teresa because [she] still use a few swear words now and then.”

I hope you enjoy the story of this week’s inspiring mom, Pat Donelan.

The Little Girl from Akron  MaryPat” was raised in Akron, thirty-five miles south of Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940s and ‘50s.  She’s the daughter of a Polish electrician who emigrated from Warsaw to America at age four and a fourth-generation American stay-at-home mom who was raised on a small farm in western Ohio.  “I was the only child, but mom always had homemade cookies and my dad was available for a game of catch or to help me ride a bike,” Pat remembers.

Finding kids to play with was easy.  “The neighborhood I grew up in was something that you read about today:  playing outside until the porch lights went on, the neighborhood parents knowing everything you did.  I remember when I got my first bicycle and was under strict orders not to ride on a busy street in the neighborhood, which I proceeded to do as soon as I was out of sight.  In less than 15 minutes, a neighbor saw me, called my mom to comment on my new bike and mentioned seeing me riding on the forbidden street.  Guess who was grounded for a couple of weeks!”

Pat Donelan

Growing up near the city, Pat enjoyed going to the theatre and spending time with her three unmarried aunts.  “I had the best of both worlds,” Pat recalls.  Her life in the city consisted of “fashion show lunches at the local department store tearoom and Cleveland Indian baseball games where we sat in the press box and I became an autograph hound.”  As soon as school ended, “my mom and I would get on the train and spend summer with her parents on the farm where I fed the animals, gathered eggs, ‘helped’ with the canning, learned to make soap and embroider.”

With her dad’s family’s Polish gatherings, there was always a lot of good food and plenty of older cousins to spoil and tease her.  As Pat remembers, “Soup was not a meal—just a beginning for the feast to follow!”  For those of us who know her, and have eaten at her well-laden table numerous times, that makes perfect sense.  With regards to food and entertaining, before there was Martha Stewart, there was Aunt Pat.

Pat’s father died suddenly when she was thirteen years old.  She was one of twelve graduating that year from the town’s parochial school.  Pat remembers how difficult it was losing her father and what a “culture shock” it was entering public high school.  “My mom encouraged me to bring friends home, no need to ask twice for many of them who still remember, and I managed to survive four years.  By the time I was a senior, I made Student Council, National Honor Society and class secretary—things that are important to a teenager.”

Pat as a flight attendant

Come Fly with Me  In the 1950s, career choices for women were limited to teacher, nurse, or secretary, which Pat tried for a while.  “I really wanted to be a pilot from the time I was in 3rd grade.  We were studying aviation, and my uncle, who was a pilot in the Air Force, came in his uniform to talk to the class.  He made flying seem so exciting; we were all in awe.  Becoming a flight attendant was the next best alternative.”

Pat worked as a flight attendant for a little less than a year.  She rented an apartment with two friends in Boston, explored new cities, and experienced being broke before payday with no hope of borrowing money from anyone.  However, Pat muses, “it began to lose its glamour one morning at the hotel in Chicago when the phone rang:  ‘Good morning, this is your wake up call.  It’s 4:30 and 14 degrees below zero.  Enjoy your day.’  Right!  And I was on my way to Buffalo where it was snowing.  The day ended at 2:00 the next morning when we were the last flight into snowy Boston, and the only food that day was hot chocolate and whatever we could scoff from the trays that the passengers didn’t want.  No meals were provided for the flight attendants.”

Pat and John Donelan's Wedding Day

She met her husband, John Donelan, shortly after she moved to Boston.  His roommate was dating her roommate.  “John was teaching at Newman [Preparatory School] and was correcting papers when we came in, no more interested in ‘another flight attendant’ than I was in him, but he did invite me out that evening.  I was in the throes of a miserable cold and had planned the next the next chapter in my life:  to transfer to an international airline after a year so I could live in Europe.  He had just returned from the seminary in Europe and was focusing on his teaching job.  In other words, the best laid plans.  That was 1960 and we were married the next year.”

Like a Bad Dream  Pat and John eventually moved to Cape Cod, spent the next sixteen years together, working, running a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street in Centerville, and raising their son, John Paul.  In 1978, at the age of 42, Pat’s husband John passed away, leaving her a single mom to her seven-year old son.  “When John died, it first seemed like a bad dream, and everything would be fine and normal when I woke up.  When that didn’t happen, I just became angry—with him and with God because there was no one else to blame.  Then the normal grief process took over when there was time.  The house was under agreement, so I had six weeks to find my current house and move, my mom was staying with me because she had fallen and broken both her legs, and we had the blizzard of ’78.  So, for a while, it was a matter of which crisis came first.”

A few months later, Pat’s friend gave birth to a daughter with Down’s Syndrome and at Christmas, another friend, who’d had a mastectomy, wrote that her husband left her and their five children to marry his secretary.  “It dawned on me that I wouldn’t trade places with either of them, and I guess I just learned to live with the hand I’d been dealt.  My mom, unknowingly, was a role model from the time my dad died.”

Laughter is the Best Medicine  When you ask Pat how she healed from such a painful time and moved forward with her own life, she insists that she was buoyed by friends wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and family who would just show up at her doorstep.  “I still laugh about the time when I came back from Logan airport (having a pity party for myself on the way home) to find cousins Carol and Peter drinking beer in lawn chairs in my front yard with bikes parked nearby—or Clare Cuddy in clown costume playing the fiddle under the kitchen window on St. Patrick’s Day, with croissants from a Quincy Market bakery.  It didn’t take long for the neighbors not to feel sorry for the young widow who’d moved in!”

Pat's husband John, with John Paul

Muddling  What advice does Pat have for single parents who find themselves in similar circumstances?   “Muddle.  Seriously, the best advice I received was from our pediatrician who told me that kids take cues from the adults in their lives.  He told me to keep things as normal as I could including meals, and to do something nice for myself every day—whether it was taking a bubble bath, going for a walk or even making snow angels and looking at the clouds.”  She also points out that going back to work opened a new world for her.  “I started as a part-time receptionist for a local bank and eventually became a mortgage originator; I took courses, always at night, (which meant waking a sleeping boy to take the babysitter home), and made new friends.”

With regards to parenting, she missed having John to serve as a sounding board for her decisions.  However, Pat is quick to point out: “when things turn out right, you get twice the reward.”  Her friends Ag and Fred, parents whom she greatly admired, told her to say “yes” as often as she could, so when she said “no” it carried more weight.  “I said ‘no’ to hockey, a 20 mile drive to an early morning practice, and ‘no’ to football, but a reluctant ‘yes’ to a paper route.  I drove on collection evenings when it got dark early and on Sundays when the papers were huge.  On the plus side, it was uninterrupted chat time and a good excuse to buy donuts.”

I hope John [her son] knows I was always available, but had my own friends so I wasn’t smothering him.”  Like her own mother, Pat invited John’s friends over to her house, so she knew who they were.  She never did enjoy much sleep on Friday nights.

John, Pat’s son, most admires his mother’s resilience.  “She’s one of my very few heroes. ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,‘ said Nietzsche.  And that’s how mom has been since I was old enough to pay attention: able to zero in on the why with an effortlessness that continually amazes people.  She has a back yard full of English ivy that has become one of many running family jokes over the years, but she reminds me of it: no matter what you throw at it, the ivy keeps thriving.”

Remember Me, God?  I asked Pat what role faith has played in helping her survive two hip replacement surgeries and brain surgery for a benign tumor discovered during a retinal scan.  “Faith isn’t something that’s easy to define.  I’m a firm believer that if God gets you to it, He’ll get you through it, but I don’t believe He wears a wristwatch, so it’s not always the way or at the time we plan it.  I do keep in touch with Him daily; so when a crisis arises and I need help, I don’t have to say, ‘Remember me?’

“After my second hip replacement (a week after my first), I kept thinking of the young girl I’d seen—she was on crutches with severely deformed legs and no hope of ever walking normally; and the woman who shared my hospital room after my brain surgery who’d had an aneurysm—she could ever return to teaching.  In other words, someone always has more problems than you do, so count your blessings.”

Cioppino over Sterno, anyone?  One of my favorite memories of Aunt Pat was in 1991 during Hurricane Bob.  Winds were howling, trees were down, power was out, and Pat digs through the back of her bottomless freezer and comes out with mussels, clams, scallops…everything you need for Cioppino over Sterno!  I was incredulous…it was delicious.  That’s one of Pat’s great talents: making even the most absurd circumstances fun.

Pat and her son John, with my son Ryan

My cousin John recalls, “When Hurricane Bob roared over the Cape and I was stranded at her house with my best friend and two cousins (including this blog’s author); we had no power for almost over a week, no hot water, trees across the streets, and nature bombing us back to Colonial times. Most households in the area were stuck eating instant soup or mac and cheese but mom followed her usual storm-preparedness drill: after a rummage around her basement, kitchen and garage to assess supplies she quickly had drinks made, Jimmy Buffet playing and five-star cuisine that just seemed to keep manufacturing itself from the kitchen. We ate like libertines while Bob eventually howled himself out–largely ignored.  Twenty-two years later, just last month, I was stuck at my best friend’s house during the blizzard and we were laughing with his own kids about ‘Grandma Pat’s hurricane feast.'”

Stories of Pat’s entertaining escapades are legendary.  The very first Thanksgiving she cooked for her new husband’s family was disastrous.  “The oven door on which the turkey was resting broke under the weight, the turkey went sliding across the kitchen floor, I screamed “s*$#!”—no juices for gravy and I ruined a new pair of suede heels.  The dog lapped it up, the baby was screaming, and Uncle Frank was strumming his guitar and singing, ‘Gobble, gobble, gobble, it’s Thanksgiving Day!’”

Pat’s always been a fantastic improviser.  “A guest chastised me once for not serving red wine with roast beef, so I did what any gracious hostess would do: went to the kitchen and poured some white wine into a carafe and added enough red food coloring until it was just the right shade.  Julia Child, I think, said it right: ‘whatever happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen’”.  At my request, Pat has shared some of our favorite family recipes below, including the Cioppino!

Baked Brie
Marinated Shrimp (or mussels)
Aran Blathai (Irish Soda Bread)
Lemon Tea Bread
Steamed Pudding
Macaroni and Cheese
Sweet and Sour Pot Roast
Potato Casserole

“I Did It My Way”  When asked what her theme song would be, Pat didn’t hesitate: Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”  One of the things I most admire about Pat is that she doesn’t wallow in life’s disappointments—she finds the fun in life.  She’s also built a vibrant social life for herself. The “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” group she joined eventually evolved into the “Macaroni and Cheese” friends who seek out and sample different recipes for mac ‘n’ cheese.  She volunteers at the Centerville Historical Museum, as a wedding coordinator at church, and an usher at the Cape Cod Symphony (“it’s a free ticket to great concerts”).

Since retiring from her job as a mortgage originator, Pat’s been working part-time for a local car dealership.  “In between I try to be a good person for Pepin, my 13 year-old puppy, and keep in touch with the friends I’ve collected from school and parts of my life along the way.”

I will always be grateful to Pat for teaching me about faith and grace under pressure.  Does her story remind you of someone you know?  Sometimes, we needn’t look far for our role models—they are often seated right around the kitchen table.


British Holiday Treats by Carolyn Eddie at the DCA’s Thursday Afternoon Tea

Carolyn Eddie, left, with friends at the DCA

Carolyn Eddie of Carolyn’s Absolutely Fabulous Events, is hard at work in the kitchen whipping up traditional British Christmas cakes, puddings and sweet mince pies, some of which will be served at the Darien Community Association’s Afternoon Tea Thursday, December 6 at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.

Carolyn explains that these treats are “all the things that we Brits need to eat to make it truly Christmas.”  She doesn’t mind making and baking them in large quantities, either.  “The main advantage of making so many is that each cake or pudding involves ‘wishing’ as you stir the mixture.  My wish had been the same for the last few weeks and it came true on Saturday when my son, Andrew, received an acceptance letter from Tulane!”

Carolyn shares a traditional British holiday scone recipe with our readers below.  What will you wish for while stirring?  Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

For more info about the DCA’s Absolutely Fabulous Tea, contact the DCA at (203) 655-9050.

British scones
Recipe type: Breakfast or Tea
Cuisine: British
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 12 (2 scones each)
Traditional British Holiday Scones
  • 3 cups self raising flour (or plain flour with 41/2 tsp baking powder added)
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • 1 cup dried fruit (I use cranberries)
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  1. Mix together.
  2. Knead lightly.
  3. Divide into three rounds then cut each round into eight triangles.
  4. Bake at 400 for approximately 20 minutes until risen and lightly browned.
  5. Serve with jam and clotted cream.







Mambo, Massage and Merlot: Dance with Me Stamford’s Party to Benefit Food Bank, Wednesday Dec. 5

Dance with Me Stamford

Dance with Me Stamford, part of the chain of Dance with Me studios that are home to ABC’s Dancing with the Stars champion Tony Dovolani and professional dancers Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Valentin Chmerovskiy, invites the public to take a break from the stress of holiday shopping and planning.   Join Dance with Me at its Stamford studio, 20 Summer Street, 5th floor for a group class at 7:30pm followed by the holiday party, 8:30-10pm.

Admission is $15, and includes ballroom dancing, chair massage, wine and refreshments.  All proceeds from the evening will benefit the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County, whose stock of holiday food has been depleted helping those families in need after Sandy.

To raise additional funds, the event will feature a silent auction that will include products and services from Dance with Me, Horseneck Wines and Liquors of Greenwich, Lanphier Day Spa & Salon of Darien and other local businesses.

Lanphier Day Spa

Lanphier Day Spa & Salon is partnering with Dance with Me Stamford to provide massage and other relaxing therapies at the party and will offer certificates for massages, seasonal body scrubs, and BareMinerals makeup applications at its new luxurious facility at 20 West Avenue in Darien.

Horseneck Wines & Liquors, owned by Terry Rogers, a ballroom dancing enthusiast, will be providing wine and auction items for the event.

Dance with Me Studios is one of the nation’s leading latin and ballroom dance studios.  Come join the fun and help your neighbors in need!


Grandma Donelan’s Apple Pie

Grandma Donelan's Apple Pie

5.0 from 1 reviews
Grandma Donelan's Apple Pie
Recipe type: Pastry
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8
Nothing but compliments on this traditional apple pie!
  • 5 cups macintosh apples, peeled, cored and sliced
  • ⅓ cup brown sugar
  • ⅓ cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp allspice
  • ¼ cup corn starch
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • Milk and sugar
  • 1 Betty Crocker pie crust mix (my mom makes her crust from this mix, but I take the lazy man's route and buy Pillsbury pre-made, refrigerated crusts).
  1. Make pie crust.
  2. Peel apples and slice. Add sugar, allspice, and corn starch to apples and stir well. Place apple mixture in pie crust. Dot with butter. Top with crust. Brush top crust with milk and sprinkle sugar on top. Pierce top crust with fork for ventilation.
  3. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower to 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cool and serve.

Just thought I’d offer you my favorite pie recipe for Thanksgiving. This recipe was handed down to my mother from her mother, Arline Donelan, and has been enjoyed by the family for well over 50 years.  The secret ingredient?  Allspice instead of cinnamon.  Turns out, my grandmother was allergic to cinnamon, switched it with allspice, and created a family favorite for generations.  Enjoy!


The “Entertaining Addict” Dishes Out Tips for Turkey Day

Sheila McCaffery, The Entertaining Addict

I enjoy having people over for dinner, but the thought of Thanksgiving entertaining in the wake of a hurricane, a nor’easter and a week of no school, starts my heart racing and my palms sweating. 

No worries!  I’ve enlisted Sheila McCaffery, the “Entertaining Addict,” to share her forty years of entertaining and cooking wisdom with all of us.  A former 27-year resident of Greenwich, Sheila has been featured on AOL and in Bon Appetit and Greenwich Magazines.  She recently spoke at the Darien Community Association and now she shares her passion for food with us.

What are your tips to alleviate ‘entertaining anxiety’?  Organize, make lists, and plan ahead.  Pick a time when you can sit down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and think about your dinner party.  Have a notepad and pen handy and start imagining what kind of dinner party you would like to have. Then research it and chart out a plan.

A theme helps you get organized and becomes your personal “style board” for planning and producing a successful experience.  From the invitation to the menu, from the table setting to the décor, a theme is almost like a special assistant who makes your lists and focuses your decisions, so you can enjoy your party and your guests—which is really the point!

For big or small parties, I always follow the same checklist: the theme, the date, the menu, the guests, the tableware, the candles, the decorations and seating arrangements for each room.  I sketch it all out and make annotations like a storyboard or a script for a commercial.  My experience as a creative director in the advertising business, where I had to organize photo shoots and manage the disparate elements of an ad campaign, has helped me to see the entire picture.

Always try to set the table the day before… that gives you a chance to live with it, add to it, or see what you’ve forgotten. And best of all, it’s out of the way.  With regards to the meal, I like to chop and prep the food for each recipe I’ll be preparing the day before (if possible).  Then I place each set of recipe ingredients on its own cookie sheet and store it in the refrigerator until I need it.

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In the wake of destruction caused by Sandy and the nor’easter, what are your best ideas for a simple, yet elegant Thanksgiving menu?  I’m a traditionalist and I like to make turkey, however, “simple” is probably not getting up at 5 a.m. to baste the turkey every 20 minutes!  So plan on a buffet and step away from the Turkey for a moment.

One idea for Thanksgiving Dinner is:  baked lobster pie, buttermilk cornbread, twice-baked potatoes with cheddar cheese and bacon, green beans and brown butter.  For dessert, apple brown betty, hard sauce and ice Cream.

Another idea is: roasted cornish hens on a bed of caramelized chestnuts and baby onions (cipollini),  or fruit-stuffed cornish hens with cranberry compote, roasted brussel sprouts with white balsamic vinegar, garlicky green beans with pine nuts, roasted sweet potato wedges and chocolate pecan pie with whipped cream for dessert.

Simple idea for a centerpiece?  Place a runner down the center of the table, either alone or on top of a tablecloth.  Burlap is very harvest-y.  Buy it at your local nursery or Home Depot, cut it to drape over the whole table or to use as a runner.  Sprinkle mini pumpkins or squash, lady apples and pears down the center of the table. Add candlesticks or votives. Candle colors can be either orange, rust, cranberry white or cream. Branches with berries or leaves, found outside, can be interspersed with the fruit and squash.

Have you ever had something go wrong while entertaining?  When I cooked lobster for the first time, I boiled already-cooked lobsters for one hour.  When we cracked open the claws, there was no lobster meat—it had cooked away!  We laughed, made pasta and drank a lot of wine.

Another time, one hour before the guests were to arrive, the power went out and I hadn’t finished cooking.  I panicked and almost cancelled the dinner, except the phones were out and I couldn’t call anyone.  So, the guests arrived and I finished cooking the dinner in the fireplace, with the room lit by candlelight.  It was a memorable evening, made even more so because it was so much more fun.

What do you usually have guests bring?  When guests ask what they can bring, the answer is usually thank you, but nothing.  I really do like to cook and entertain. Occasionally someone will bring dessert.  I like to make everything, from hors d’oeuvres to dessert.

Any suggestions for quick meals for unexpected guests?  I whip up pasta and salad, or a risotto and salad.  I always have pasta and a variety of ingredients in the pantry to make either one.  A charcuterie platter is also easy to put together at the last minute.

Sophia Loren serving Sheila spaghetti alla carbonara at a photo shoot

How did you develop your passion for food and entertaining?  I love to entertain. I love every detail about giving a dinner party.  I wasn’t born with the entertaining gene, but it became my passion.

My introduction to the world of food was not at my grandmother’s side or my mother’s side. The interest in food came from my taste buds.  I wanted to learn how to cook the foods I experienced in many fantastic restaurants like Lutece, The Four Seasons, San Marino, Romeo Salta, Nanni’s, etc.  It was like traveling, except you stayed at home and invited friends over to share in your acquired passion. All they had to do was bring an appetite and a love of food and wine.

It helped that my husband was a wine connoisseur.  That left me more time to concentrate on the food.

I decided that entertaining was going to be a big part of my life and I relished the memories, so I started to keep journals. These journals became more elaborate over time.  I draw the table, the flowers, and the serving pieces that I used.  I list the guests who were invited, and write down the menu and recipes.  I started my journals in 1970, the year I was married, and have been adding to them ever since.

Click on the links below to view some of Sheila’s favorite recipes.

Individual Lobster Pie
Fruit-stuffed Cornish Game Hens
Cream of Pumpkin Soup
Gravlax with Mustard Dill Sauce
Salmon Tartare

Sheila is currently working on her entertaining book, and will soon have her entertaining planning templates and consulting services available through her website, www.entertainingaddict.blogspot.com. To contact Sheila, email her at Sheila@thecreativefarmllc, or visit her website.