Thomas R. Aylward: A Reflection One Year Later

This Thursday is the first anniversary of my father’s death. He died on March 26, 2015; he had malignant brain cancer.

In the year after his death, doing anything I liked to do–and liked blogging about–seemed like an alien concept or even a luxury; I was busy helping my mother run the family bakery in Sonoita (Monika’s Home Bakery), help her sell her house and sell the bakery, help her move to Tucson and buy a house, and finally, help her through a December 2014 motor vehicle accident in which she broke her ankle and 5 ribs, a tough trauma to overcome at age 73.

My dad had a seizure several months before he died, which is how he was diagnosed. The first MRI was just a dot in his brain; the second, just 4 weeks later, looked like a hazy donut-shaped cloud with fuzzy clusters.  He had surgery and then a day later had a seizure from which he never regained consciousness. My mom and 4 of my 5 siblings were at the hospice the day he died, but my dad managed to slip away in the one rare moment when no one was paying attention, while my brother John had this Joao Gilberto song playing on his laptop. My dad as many of you know loved to play guitar and played a few Bossa Nova tunes.

Here’s a photo of him with me and my mom at the bakery just a few weeks before he died; I think we all look exhausted, which would be accurate:

thomas aylward blog photo

When thinking about his symptoms I’m reminded of Rainer Ptacek, my favorite musician in Tucson when I was 17 but musically precocious enough to appreciate his music and old-enough appearing to get into bars; his sound was quite sophisticated and magical sleepy Tucson in the early 80s. He had seizures and brain cancer too, but he was much younger when he died. You can listen here for a sense of his music, an inspiring sound during difficult times. I guess I have a new and unfortunate knowledge of brain cancer now. I have lots of old Rainer flyers for his shows back in the day and I know they could be used to make a really cool art quilt somehow.

My mom and I are headed out to Organ Pipe National Monument to camp out and have some peaceful time in the desert to reflect on the year gone by. My mom can walk again, and drive. It’s been a long year. It’s going to be good to get back into art-making. Photos of our trip to be posted. I look forward to sharing them with you all.

The Grasslands Bakery in Sonoita, Arizona Is Now Closed

Well, it’s official: the Grasslands Bakery and Cafe in Sonoita, Arizona, is closed for business as of today. My parents have been trying to sell the property for a while now; and just very recently,  a buyer came forward who purchased the building and the liquor license.

It all happened quite quickly, as these things do.

Some of you may remember me posting early last year that the Grasslands was closing (read about it here). And back then, it did for  nearly 7 months; but for various complex reasons, it had to be re-opened.

This time, it’s for real.

I’m sure some folks reading this will be saddened; but it’s great news for my parents, who have been working way too long and who are long past retirement age.

Here’s one of the last lunch tables; my brother John is on the right, he came in from Boston to help with closing down the restaurant:

Just a few hours later, all those paintings and quilts came down, down, down.

Below, my mom making lunches one last time; the Grasslands has been around since January 1996, and I worked there all the time the first 6 years: I know how hard it is to churn out lots of beautiful lunch plates, it’s not exactly a leisurely activity!

Of course, the Hobart mixer was a big behind-the-scenes player in the success of the Grasslands…

…as was the Blodgett oven…

I was very happy to see that one of the few real old-timers in the area, Sonny McQuiston, made it in one last time for a bag full of danish; I remember selling him danish 20 years ago when our family had the Ovens of Patagonia and the McQuistons lived out in the San Rafael valley on their ranch.  A diet that regularly includes cheese danish clearly has health benefits. Here he is with my mom:

Once the doors were locked up for the day,we had a very short break before starting to clean up and move out. That’s Eric and Frank in the back; Frank came in from Madison, Wisconsin to help close down:

And once I’d packed up my quilts, I headed back to Tucson; here’s one last view of the Grasslands:

RIP Grasslands: a lovely place enjoyed by many for 16 years.

Grasslands Bakery in Sonoita Open Again

Remember this place?

I posted a few times in January about my parents closing their bakery in Sonoita; well, they’ve re-opened as of mid-July. It’s an easy drive from Tucson, just an hour, so get your fresh pastry while you can. Next time they close, I doubt anyone will believe it’s true; they’ll think it’s just another case of the The Little Boy Who Cried….Carbohydrate.


Canning Rhubarb: Like I Don’t Have Enough to Do

Well, there it is: all the frozen rhubarb from the Grasslands freezer (see my last post) with nowhere to go once the Grasslands shut down. I took  it home with me Thursday; I couldn’t really stop myself, because I love rhubarb and in Arizona, rhubarb is rare. I know it’s a weed for so many of you out there, but not here.

Luckily, since my freezer at home is small, there were some left-over canning jars at the Grasslands as well:

So I took the rhubarb  home….to can and save for later.  Even though a day of canning cuts into my fiddling and art quilting. And even though it’s been a long time since I did any canning. In fact, I’ve never canned on my own, it was always something I did with my mom supervising me.

I also took 2 big steel pots from the Grasslands. When I got home Thursday night, I put the rhubarb in a big bowl and mixed it with several cups of (organic) sugar and let it sit over night to draw out the juice; Friday morning, I quickly cooked it down, juice and all  (in batches) in a small steel pot. Then I put all the cooked rhubarb in a big steel pot, and set that in an even bigger steel pot with hot water to make a double-boiler, and I let the rhubarb cook down for about 3 hours.

I adjusted the sugar a few times until I liked the taste. Hint: rhubarb needs a lot of sugar, though I don’t like things really sweet so I probably use less sugar than the average person.  I think I had about 50 cups chopped rhubarb and I probably used 10 cups of sugar. I was aiming for the consistency of a rhubarb sauce, which I will use in cakes or even in my morning oatmeal. This is what the end product looked like, after 3 hours:

Then I rinsed the canning jars in hot water (with a little bleach) and then rinsed again in plain hot water, and then let dry in the dish rack:

I packed the hot rhubarb sauce into the clean jars, here’s the first jar:

Then I wiped the tops of the jars off with a damp clean dish cloth, and placed the rubber-coated lids on top–I keep the lids in a pan of water while I work so that they’re wet when I put them on the jar, that helps increase the rate of seal. I learned that trick from my mom. Then I screwed on the ring.  Here’s the hot water bath:

I didn’t have a wire rack for the pot. The jars rested on the bottom of the pot, and were covered in water almost up to the rim of each jar, as you can see above. I brought the water to a boil slowly, never going higher than medium-high to get the temperature up.  I used a Calphalon heat diffuser plate which my mom gave me years ago; it’s very handy for keeping a protective surface between your heating element and your pot bottom: here it is on the front left burner:

When I remodeled my kitchen last year (thanks to an art quilt that I sold; and, yes, it sold for enough to remodel my kitchen) I deliberately avoided getting a smooth-top ceramic stove.  There’s a lot of cookware you can’t use on that surface (such as cast iron) and it’s hard to can on it as well. Although electric isn’t as good as gas, old-fashioned electric is better than ceramic-top electric.

But I digress.

I let the jars gently simmer for 30 minutes, then took one pot (9 jars)  off the burner and put the second pot (6 jars) on. I let the jars cool in their respective pots for several hours, and I listened with a great deal of satisfaction as I heard the gentle, solitary “thunk” as each jar sealed. If you’ve never done any home canning you don’t know what I’m talking about. Trust me when I say it’s satisfying to hear the thunk. Because if you don’t hear it, something went wrong and you have to start the hot-water bath all over again because you have a failed seal.

Here are my 15 pints of rhubarb sauce. YUM!

Packing up at the Grasslands

Last Thursday I took the day off from work and went to Sonoita to help close down the Grasslands. The big tasks included emptying out the freezer and the walk-in cooler; up above,  my mom and India are pictured behind bags of frozen rhubarb.

Folks who came to the Grasslands often commented that the floor was so clean you could eat from it; there was no five-second rule. Just for the record, the walk-in cooler–which customers never saw, of course– was just as clean. Most restaurants have dark, dank, moldy, dirty walk-ins (there is a reason I rarely eat out); here’s a shot of the walk-in at the Grasslands as we cleared out the food–it’s almost sparkly:

Then we took all the place-settings and vases off of the dining room tables; they look naked now:

And the bakery case, always stocked up with lots of pastry….now empty, almost:

Oh well. That’s over. All that work. I wonder what’s next?

Grasslands Bakery and Cafe, Sonoita, Arizona: 1996–2010, The End of an Era

Today was the last day the Grasslands Bakery and Cafe was open; as I’ve explained here before, my parents decided earlier this month to close the bakery, mostly because of concerns about my mom’s health.

It was an emotional day, because the few people who came in were really very saddened by the bakery closing; for folks who live in the area, and who appreciate good food made with integrity, it’s a huge loss.

My story of the closing began last weekend, when I drove to Sonoita to get ready for the final “sale”:  my mom had things she wanted to sell from the kitchen, like her Cordon Bleu casseroles, as well as many of her potted cactus plants behind the bar and on the patio.  I’d promised to price things and assemble a sale table to prepare for the closing weekend.

The day before I drove the 50 miles to Sonoita, there’d been a lot of rain and snow in southern Arizona, and the Santa Rita Mountains, from this view en route to the Grasslands, were all white:

Once at the Grasslands,I went behind the bar to get started my pricing project; this is the lovely view behind the bar:

All cactus plants would be for sale (most of them sold BTW); isn’t this a lovely tableau? Aside from the great food, something folks are sure to miss about the Grasslands is the aesthetic:

I stacked up #10 tins of tomatoes, roasted chiles, artichoke hearts and bags of pasta on the bar, and priced everything with stickers: here’s the bar transformed into a sales table:

And here’s the final view:  while working, I remembered that that this very tasteful dining environment was once, in the early 90s, a dive bar called El Vaquero. I went there only once, I took some friends in for a drink; my memories of the place included bright green Astroturf on the floor, a pinball machine and clearly intoxicated patrons snorting coke off of the very bar where I’d just stacked the half-price Cordone Bleu casseroles.  El Vaquero and The Grasslands are night and day. In 1995 when my parents acquired the property it took an intensive amount of work to remodel the place; today, at last 2 long-time customers told me they remember seeing my mom outside back in ’95 with a pick-axe digging the footing for the block wall around the patio. I can remember scraping up the old tile (in retrospect, I hope it didn’t have asbestos in it!) and I can also remember a few painful back sprains from that work.

Anyway, after stacking up the bar, I put price tags on all the potted plants out on the patio, even those with snow on them:

And on those that were snow-free:

So, that was last weekend. This morning, when I came in the back door of the bakery, I thought I heard a different voice inside in the kitchen….and I was right, one of my mom’s (many) younger brothers came to visit on this last day….and he was eating breakfast in the kitchen. Here is my uncle, Thomas Schmidt, with my mom:

I then started to take photos of customers who came in to eat or buy stuff to go and say good-bye; here’s my parents w/Gary Naban and Lori Monti:

And, here’s Chris and Sandy;  I remember first meeting them 15 years ago. Chris washed dishes on weekends for my parents last year and was very helpful to them on busy days; while I’m an amateur weather-geek, he’s an actually employed as a weather geek: Chris, keep up the accurate forecasting!

I got John and Kay Bevan to pose w/my mom in front of all the canned preserves; John and Kay used to come into the Ovens of Patagonia, when my folks owned that place. We’ve known John and Kay for a very long time. After I went to massage school, Kay was one of my very first clients. Thanks you guys for your many years of patronage!

And in yet another farewell pic, here’s Steve and Gabriel in the kitchen w/my mom and dad. I think Steve and Gabriel started coming in after 2001, which is when I moved to Tucson and worked less often at the Grasslands. They asked me why I wasn’t taking over the Grasslands (not knowing all the time I put in the place early on); but the real answer to that is, I’m not my mom, and she’s really the heart and soul of the bakery and is the real reason for its success. I mean, everyone loves my mom; what is there not to love?

I got one last shot of the last brotchen–what I’ll miss most–and the last cookie batter my mom made this afternoon:

In the last hour being open, here are some of our very beloved and long-term local customers–Ernie Hann, Gloria Engle-Hann (an enthusiastic and talented–yes!!–quilter) and Bernice Pomeroy, who taught piano to my brothers Frank and John when they were kids. These 3 folks just have the best vibe. I always enjoyed taking care of them and waiting on them, just lovely people, thanks so much!

Here’s me and my mom and dad, after we closed up and locked the door:

And, finally, here’s my folks with India, who moved to Arizona from Montana last year, and who’s worked for my parents since November; she’s just been a wonderful support and great help in that short time. Plus she’s a new friend! Thanks India.

I know there will be many, many people who will day-trip to Sonoita from Tucson or Phoenix or further afield, expecting to find their favorite bakery open. And they’ll be disappointed, at best; I think a lot of people will be very saddened, even devastated.

Most customers at the Grasslands weren’t locals, they were tourists or from out-of-town. It’s impossible to contact these people and let them know, so they can avoid being inconvenienced. The Grasslands webpage now reflects the closure. But the Grasslands is not hooked into social media platforms; there’s no tweets or Facebook  friends. The pace is old-world.

To all the folks out there who’ve come in over the years, thank you very, very much. The Grasslands was a special place.

Grasslands Bakery and Cafe Closing 01-31-10

My mom called me last Wednesday, January 13, to tell me that she and my dad just decided to close The Grasslands at the end of the month. My mom has some health concerns. Even though it’s very sudden, that’s just how it has to be. I think only people who’ve confronted a serious health crisis know how it becomes easy to just drop everything; there really isn’t any alternative.

My brother John was visiting from Boston when my parents made the decision to close; he’s going home in about….8 hours. John teaches music at Clark College in Worcester, MA. I went to visit him and my parents today at The Grasslands; here they are, doesn’t my mom look just crazy-happy? Probably because she has about half-a-dozen days left to wake up at 3:00AM to bake:

John’s piano teacher–Bernice Pomeroy–from his teen years came in to see John, and also because she heard The Grasslands is closing:

John and my dad played some music together, here they are playing a Lenorard Cohen tune:

And here they are playing a guitar duet, an Eagles tune:

And finally, here’s John playing guitar, accompanying me on the fiddle. Notice that the chairs have arms. DO NOT play the fiddle in a chair with arms. I should know better. Ouch.

John is a very gifted musician. It’s too bad he doens’t live around here, because I’d love to be able to play with such a great guitarist; he makes even the most mediocre playing shine! Oh well. One day I’ll live somewhere with great Irish tunes.

The mood was very happy. There weren’t a lot of customers. The Grasslands has been open for 14 years. It’s really an oasis, and my mom’s very kind, upbeat energy has always drawn people in; plus, she’s very good at creating a harmonious, beautiful environment–who wouldn’t want to eat in such a place?

I’ll post more photos in the next few weeks. Get in while you can for some danish.

Clare Aylward on Youtube

There’s a video of me on Youtube called simply Clare Aylward.

It wasn’t my idea. Enough people have found this video while googling my name so a small explanation is in order.

My dad had an identical twin, Bill, who was very eccentric and just completely nuts (in a good way); he was also a provocateur and he loved verbal arguments; and he came to Arizona twice last year, once in April to visit for a week, and once in June, to die in hospice care in my parents’ home.

My mom took this photo of us in April, when I’d gone to my parents’ house after work to pick up Bill to take him to the airport and back to Boston; as you can see, one of the twins looks sick. We just didn’t know how sick at the time:

Bill self-published a small newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts called Black’s Creek. He supplemented his printed paper with videos he posted on Youtube of Quincy-area news and art; he did this because he said the Quincy Public Access cable station wouldn’t let him on the air. Bill really tilted at windmills, though; and I think it’s likely that the public access station was just another windmill.

Bill refused to be edited–he considered it an affront to his art; so, while I allowed him to film me a few times, I didn’t let him use my name as a tag for his many Youtube videos, because I had no idea what he would post and I knew once he posted it, it would never come down, and god knows what would have my name on it.

For example, in this video he took of me during our May, 2008 trip to Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA, I was really irritated with him because he constantly used the camcorder to mediate our time together;  and, of course, he filmed me being annoyed! The whole day, he had the camera in my face. He posted Ipswich Idyll, and considered it a “masterpiece”. If I’d allowed him to use my name, well, my name would’ve been the title of video, no doubt, and any search of my name would turn up a video of me looking grumpy and frumpy at the beach.

I spoke with Bill on the phone last April before he came out to Arizona to visit. He said he wanted to “film” my art quilts for a Youtube. Maybe I guessed something was wrong, because  I told him he could film me at the Grasslands talking about my quilts, and he could use my name as a tag; I told him he could have complete access. He sounded very excited when I told him this. I knew I’d made him happy.

So that’s the explanation behind the Youtube video Clare Aylward.

Bill promised me that I could view the video before he posted it; but, of course, he never let me see it before it went up. He promised me that he’d take my suggestions and edit the piece; but when I saw it, and when I asked him to please do something about my red eyes, he told me he couldn’t fix it. When I suggested another title instead of just my name, he said the title was “perfect”. I think his exact words were, “It’s my greatest work, I can’t change it”. I pushed a bit; and then he said he’d take it down if I wanted. Well, I wasn’t going to ask him to do THAT. I realized he really loved the video and that, ergo, he really loved me, and that was how he could show it. So instead of complaining more about my red eyes, I thanked him for his hard work, and his piano music in the introduction.

Five weeks later Bill was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer; he died 8 weeks after that.  I’m glad that I didn’t make a fuss, and that I let him use my name as a tag. Which to him meant a title, and, ultimately, victory.