Tasha Tudor Recipes:
• Christmas-Tree Gingerbread
Tasha Tudor borrows her life from another century and wraps it around her tightly. Her days unfold with a gentle rhythm, from earliest light, when she sets out barefoot to milk her goats, until she settles in the parlor by the fireplace with a cup of chamomile tea at nightfall. She welcomes the crisp autumn mornings in Vermont because they herald winter, when temperatures plunge to 30 below and she burrows even further into her nest. The modern world seldom intrudes.
This celebrated artist and children’s illustrator is about 80 years old (“That’s not a polite question to ask a lady,” she tells an interviewer), and she is still a tough, fiercely independent woman of strong opinions and plainspoken ways. Her weathered house, built for her in 1972 by one of her sons, sits on 250 acres in the rural mountains of southern Vermont. She shares it with her beloved Welsh corgis, Nubian goats, a cat, chickens, birds in antique cages, geese, and other animals. She wears her long frocks, petticoats, aprons, lacy kerchiefs, and handknit shawls with an unconscious grace, as if she truly lived 150 years earlier. She weaves, spins, knits, reads The Dairy Goat Journal, and works on her drawings in the soft lamplight. But nothing gives Tasha as much comfort these days as her sprawling garden; thoughts of the garden sustain her even in winter.
Tasha Tudor’s life is interwoven with the land. You won’t find a television in her house—she has never had one and never will—and her clock is likely to have wound down, so she’s often not sure what time it is. But the garden tells her when it’s time to get ready for winter, to fill her root cellar, replenish her woodpile, cover the flower beds with goat manure, gather herbs to hang in bundles from the rafters, and harvest a bushel of pears.
This fall, Houghton Mifflin published a book by Tovah Martin and Richard W. Brown called Tasha Tudor’s Garden. Tasha has herself written and/or illustrated more books than she can keep track of—75 or 80, she thinks, starting in 1938 with Pumpkin Moonshine. Her garden is familiar to her readers because it has worked its way into many pieces, but the Martin/Brown book is the first devoted entirely to this subject so dear to her heart. Drawings by Tasha are sprinkled through its pages.
A Garden In The Woods
“I can’t tell you why,” she says quietly when asked what draws her so strongly to her garden. “Why do you like ice cream? I guess it runs in my genes. I like the smell of my garden, and I like to see things grow. I’ve always gardened. I gardened as a child with my mother, back when seed packets only cost ten cents apiece.”
Most of Tasha’s property is undisturbed forestland, and she has several pastures for her goats, but the two or three acres surrounding the house and barns contain her wandering, overflowing gardens, edged and defined by stone terraces that descend into the countryside. At the height of summer, the garden is a vibrant display of spontaneity, exuberance, and an intense love of plants, and it was never planned on paper. “I’ve never made a garden design in my life. It just grows,” she says. It is cottage garden style—or, as she describes it, “a good messy garden.”
Tasha’s orchard contains pear trees and crab apples that flower spectacularly in pink and white; thousands of bulbs, and more each year, flaunt their bright blossoms in early spring; the vegetable garden gives her steady harvests, much of which she puts by for the leaner seasons; and old-fashioned flowers bloom throughout the summer. Tasha has many garden passions, among them old roses, an heirloom dianthus collection planted in a fairy ring, peonies, huge stands of bleeding-hearts. Another is a mature, graceful herb garden with a massive, thirty-two-year-old potted bay tree at its center.
“I grow a lot of culinary herbs because I’m famous for my good cooking, of which I am inordinately proud—and it’s wholly due to herbs,” she says. Friends testify to Tasha’s expertise in the kitchen, learned in childhood from her Scottish nanny.
Tasha admits to having no modesty concerning her garden either. She loves the thymes and basils, and she grows marjoram, chives, the savories, and tarragon. She bundles and dries sage to sprinkle on her goat cheese. Chamomile seeds itself everywhere, and for tea and tonics she also gathers nettles and red clover that grow wild in the meadows.
Tasha enjoys shaping various herb plants into standards. The old bay that she brings into the house each winter (it wouldn’t survive outside in her climate, which straddles zones 4 and 5) can be seen in the watercolor painting of her herb garden that appears on The Herb Companion’s cover this issue. In real life, the bay is about 4 feet tall and “bigger than you can get your arms around,” Tasha says. She speaks nostalgically of a huge rosemary standard she had for many years that finally succumbed: “I’m going to get my son to carve me a spoon from the rosemary wood.” She even makes short-lived standards from thymes.
Tasha has said that fragrance is the foremost asset of any flower, which explains why the lavenders and rosemaries rank among her favorites in the entire garden. Clumps of valerian send up white clouds of flowers, and stalks of foxgloves tower over her head. Tasha grows these not for their medicinal value, but for the beauty or fragrance of their flowers, alongside her hollyhocks, delphiniums, and Canterbury bells, and she’d rather call them by their common names, so much more evocative and euphonious than proper Latin botanical names. She collects flowers much as she does her other favorite things, such as old toys, animals, and antique clothing.
Because her life is so closely tied to the land, it’s not surprising that Tasha is a believer in herbal medicine not only for herself but for her animals. She plants garlic each fall, much of which she feeds to her corgis. “They don’t have fleas as a result,” she says triumphantly. When a goat is sickly and off its feed, a few leaves of comfrey usually seem to set it straight. A large stand grows beneath a crab apple, restrained from rambunctiousness by its proximity to a stone wall.
From Garden To Table
On a dependable old wood cookstove, Tasha concocts her “receipts”, as she calls them: pies, breads, Irish stew, soups, gingerbread cookies. A tiny, wiry woman, she herself probably eats no more than one of her birds, but any visitor is an excuse to fire up the stove.
In The Tasha Tudor Cookbook (Little, Brown, 1993), Tasha’s generous use of fresh herbs in the kitchen is apparent. Thyme, chervil, tarragon, and basil flavor her favorite French dressing. Nasturtium blossoms or violets garnish her summer chicken salad, which contains big handfuls of fresh sweet marjoram, chives, summer savory, parsley, thyme, and tarragon. Rosemary leaves impart their flavor to her slow-roasted leg of lamb, which she serves with a spearmint sauce. One of her specialties (“of which I am inordinately proud”) is her iced tea receipt, which combines loose-leaf English or Irish breakfast tea with freshly squeezed fruit juices, ginger ale, a sugar syrup, and fresh spearmint. She writes in the cookbook:
The first pitcher of iced tea is marked yearly on the kitchen door where I keep all important records, including births, deaths, marriages, goat-kid arrivals, corgi whelpings, goings as well as comings home, first frosts, first snows, sightings of birds in the springtime, and so on. I never fail to mislay paper records, but a wall is not to be lost.
Sometimes in the fall, Tasha brings sweet Annie or goldenrod into the house for dried bouquets, but there’s little time in her life for fripperies. Raising her own herbs and vegetables, canning, drying, and root-cellaring are all ways in which Tasha asserts her independence. “I don’t think progress is beautiful, so I’m really behind the times,” she says, adding: “Look what people have done to this beautiful planet. They’ll discover too late that they’ve gone too far.”
Enriching all parts of her garden is a large compost pile fueled by goat manure. “My compost pile is marvelous. It looks like Mount Everest,” she says. “I don’t spray anything. You could call me an organic gardener. You know, if you plant enough, you’ll have enough of most things. A few worms in an apple never hurt anybody—it’s good protein.”
The Art Of Living
Tasha views her artwork with this same brand of horse sense. “My drawing is only a means to an end. When people talk about my creativity, that’s nonsense. It’s a case of the wolf at the door. I do it to support my corgis and my four children.” Her remarkable publishing record, the number of magazine stories that have been written about her over the years, and her legion of admirers haven’t swayed her from a hard-headed practicality about the need to earn a living. Her elaborate, delicate artwork, often framed by borders filled with vignettes from her life, supports her garden, her menagerie, and her implacable mind-set.
Much of Tasha’s artwork and her reading are done in the wintertime. “I love the winter. It’s delightful,” she says. “I don’t have to go anywhere because I work at home. If I’m snowed in, I can stay this way for months.” She hopes for early, deep snow to protect her garden from the harshness of the New England winter, and when it comes she puts on snowshoes when she needs to get down the mile-long dirt path that leads to the road.
Given her enjoyment of winter and her fantasy way of life, it’s not surprising that Tasha’s Christmas is a storybook holiday. She hangs garlands of laurel over the front door and swags of hemlock in the barn. Her tree comes from the woods, and it goes up on Christmas Eve, lit by homemade candles of carnauba wax and beeswax and decorated with her great-grandmother’s collection of delicate ornaments that date from 1850, as well as cornucopias filled with homemade pralines, butter toffees, vanilla cream caramels, taffy, and fudge. In a place of honor on the tree are large gingerbread cookies cut into the shapes of her animals. (The recipe for these cookies, which also adorned the White House Christmas tree during the Johnson administration, is given below, along with her good-eating gingerbread recipe. Both are from The Tasha Tudor Cookbook by Tasha Tudor, ©1993 by Tasha Tudor, reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.)
The grandchildren and other young relatives and friends get presents from Tasha’s old dolls; the animals receive goodies, including sardines in the dogs’ stockings, and they have their own Christmas tree. “Of course, it’s a known fact that all the animals talk on Christmas Eve,” she has written. Small, handmade gifts fill a big wooden chest. Christmas music plays on an old music box.
At the end of each year, Tasha can look back and know that the fabric of her life is intact, that she has again ignored the twentieth century, that the magic continues. And for the rest of us, here’s a bit of advice, Tasha style: “Nowadays, people are so jeezled up. If they took some chamomile tea and spent more time rocking on the porch in the evening listening to the liquid song of the hermit thrush, they might enjoy life more.”
Kathleen Halloran, writer and associate editor of The Herb Companion, would spend more time rocking on the porch if she had a porch. Her home and garden are in Laporte, Colorado.