A Sparkling Vintage Life

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sparkling Vintage Fiction: Julie Lessman revisits Gilded Age San Francisco

lessman dare to love againFans of inspirational historical romance will savor Julie Lessman’s newest novel, Dare to Love Again, the second book in the Heart of San Francisco series, published by Revell. Set in San Francisco in 1903, Dare to Love Again continues the saga of the McClare clan that was launched in Love at Any Cost and, like that book, centers on an upper-class woman recovering from a love affair that ended badly. Wealthy Allison McClare loves teaching school in San Francisco’s rough Barbary Coast neighborhood, a position that gives her something useful to do while taking her mind off her broken engagement and steely determination to avoid falling in love again. Working-class detective Nick Barone, for his part, has no use for the upper classes, especially rich, do-gooder females like Allison.  When he’s assigned to protect the school–and its pretty schoolteacher–after she is accosted by thugs, sparks fly on multiple levels. Underneath the constant back-and-forth of sharp barbs and witty banter, these two hurting people are drawn to each other in spite of the walls they’ve built. Their growing romantic attraction is impossible to deny–or resist. But when Nick’s shady past starts to catch up with him, will he turn out to be just another cad willing to break Allison’s heart?

Julie Lessman’s rich sensory details carry the reader back to Gilded Age San Francisco and its treacherous Barbary Coast. As in most of her novels, family bonds are important, as is the characters’ faith in God. While readers might wish for lead characters who are less stereotypically “impossibly beautiful” and “ruggedly handsome,” their quick-witted sparring is clever and reminiscent of the golden age of romantic comedy, when characters connected on an intellectual as well as physical-attraction level. Allison’s fierce desire for independence and a career seem a little anachronistic, more 21st-century than Edwardian in outlook, but it’s also understandable in light of her romantic disappointments. Altogether, Dare to Love Again is an enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series (and hoping it will feature the great San Francisco earthquake of 1904!).

Disclosure: I’ve been given a review copy of this book by the publisher. This generosity, while appreciated, has not biased my review. I also post some of my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Retro Recipe Wednesday: Peach Melba


Peach Melba
(photo source: The History Kitchen)

In my recent post about the opera diva Dame Nellie Melba, I mentioned that a dessert named after her, Peaches Melba (or Peach Melba), became very popular in the early to mid-twentieth century. The famous French chef Escoffier created it in her honor. On the PBS site The History Kitchen (what a marvelous site for history buffs with robust appetites, like me!) writer Tori Avey tells us:

Nelli Melba (Photo source: operafresh.com)

Nellie Melba
(photo source: Opera Fresh)

“It was in London, while performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie became acquainted with Escoffier. The legendary French chef was known and respected worldwide for his innovative, imaginative dishes and ‘haute cuisine.’ During the late 1800s, Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His food was known for being elaborate and fancy—what we might describe today as being “typically French.”


Auguste Escoffer
(photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Avey goes on to say, “Nellie Melba often ate at Escoffier’s restaurants while performing in Covent Garden during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Escoffier claims to have first created the Peach Melba while Nellie was a guest at the Savoy Hotel, where he was chef. As the story goes, Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to her performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan. The following evening, Escoffier presented Nellie with a dessert of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver dish perched atop a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish Pecheau Cygne, or ‘peach with a swan.’ A few years later, when Escoffier opened the Ritz Carlton in London with César Ritz, he changed the dish slightly by adding a topping of sweetened raspberry purée. He renamed the dish Pêche Melba, or Peach Melba as we know it here in the U.S. The rest, as they say, is history.”

(Avey also mentions that the cracker called Melba toast was also named for our girl. Seems there was no end to the tasty nibbles she inspired. Maybe Melba toast, a classic staple of reducing diets, was designed to counteract the effects of eating too much Peach Melba!)

Here’s a translation of Escoffier’s original recipe for Peach Melba. I haven’t tried making it yet but it sounds heavenly, especially for summer (remember summer? sigh…) when peaches are abundant.

Original Recipe for La Pêche Melba (for 6)

Choose 6 tender and perfectly ripe peaches. The Montreuil peach, for example, is perfect for this dessert. Blanch the peaches for 2 seconds in boiling water, remove them immediately with a slotted spoon, and place them in iced water for a few seconds. Peel them and place them on a plate, sprinkle them with a little sugar, and refrigerate them. Prepare a liter of very creamy vanilla ice cream and a purée of 250 grams of very fresh ripe raspberries crushed through a fine sieve and mixed with 150 grams of powdered sugar. Refrigerate.

To serve: Fill a silver timbale with the vanilla ice cream. Delicately place the peaches on top of the ice cream and cover with the raspberry purée. Optionally, during the almond season, one can add a few slivers of fresh almonds on top, but never use dried almonds.

Tori Avey also includes this more detailed modern version:


  • 6 ripe, tender peaches
  • Sugar
  • 1 ½ pints vanilla ice cream (fresh homemade is best)
  • 1 heaping cup fresh ripe raspberries
  • 1 heaping cup powdered sugar
  • 6 tbsp blanched raw almond slivers (optional)


  1. Boil a medium pot of water. Keep a large bowl of ice water close by. Gently place a peach into the boiling water. Let the peach simmer for 15-20 seconds, making sure all surfaces of the peach are submerged. Remove the peach from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge it into the ice water for a few seconds to cool. Take the peach out of the ice water and place it on a plate. Repeat the process for the remaining peaches.
  2. When all of the peaches have been submerged, peel them. Their skin should come off easily if they are ripe, thanks to the short boiling process. Discard the skins. Halve the peeled peaches and discard the pits.
  3. Optional Step: Place the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water mixed with 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or ascorbic acid powder. Let the peach halves soak for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and gently pat the peach halves dry with a paper towel. This step will help to keep the peaches from oxidizing and turning brown.
  4. Sprinkle the peach halves with sugar on all exposed surfaces. Place them on a plate in a single layer, then place them in the refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.
  5. Meanwhile, make the raspberry purée. Place the raspberries into a blender and pulse for a few seconds to create a purée. Strain purée into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the solid ingredients and agitating the mixture with a metal spoon to extract as much syrupy juice as possible. It will take a few minutes to extract all of the juice from the solids. When finished, you should only have seeds and a bit of pulp left in the strainer. Dispose of the solids.
  6. Sift the powdered sugar into the raspberry purée, adding a little powdered sugar at a time, and whisking in stages till the sugar is fully incorporated into the syrup. It will take several minutes of vigorous whisking to fully integrate the powdered sugar into the syrup. Refrigerate the raspberry syrup for 1 hour, or until chilled.
  7. Assemble six serving dishes. Scoop ½ cup of vanilla ice cream into each serving dish. Place two of the sugared peach halves on top of each serving of ice cream. Divide the raspberry sauce between the six dishes, drizzling the sauce over the top of the peaches and ice cream. Top each serving with a tablespoon of raw almond slivers, if desired. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings

Dishing about Downton Abbey and Dame Nellie Melba (Possible Spoiler Alert!)

downton abbey2Hello, Sparklers! For those who caught Episode 2 of Season 4 of Downton Abbey last night, what did you think? I thought Mary overreacted to the gramophone. I wonder if a romance will develop between her and the dark-haired dreamboat (sorry, his name escapes me at the moment). We’re certainly meant to think so. Speaking of romances, I hope Tom and Edna don’t pair off. Not that I think he needs to live a monk’s life as a widower, but I don’t think she’s the girl for him. I was happy when Edith’s beau trounced that cheater at cards and generously shared the winnings, thus earning the earl’s respect. That’s what really should count, right? Good character over social pedigree.

I’m the type who feels a bit overwhelmed when hosting a crowd, so I felt Mrs. Patmore’s pain, lol. I was so dismayed by what happened to Anna, it’s gotten my entire week off to a gloomy start. The woman just can’t seem to get a break.

I enjoyed Kiri Te Kanawa’s portrayal of Dame Nellie Melba and thought it was amusing how the household dickered about where she should “properly” eat and sleep, as both an honored guest and, at the same time, hired entertainment. What to do, what to do? Poor Carson. He tries so hard to be meticulously correct, but the ever-changing world keeps tripping him up at every turn.

Did you know that Nellie Melba was a real person? Wikipedia tells me she was an Australian  opera star, one of the most famous in the early 20th century,  who lived from 1861 to 1933. She became a huge hit in England in 1888, followed by her U. S. debut in 1893. So by the time the Granthams hosted her at their home in 1922, she would have been very famous, indeed.

“Melba” became a popular name for baby girls beginning in the 1880s, peaked in popularity around 1920, and fell precipitously after the star’s death. The famous French chef Escoffier named a beloved 20th-century dessert “Peaches Melba” in Nellie Melba’s honor (peaches with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream–yum! I’ll see if I can scrounge up a recipe for it). In the meantime, here’s a soundbyte of the real Nellie Melba in action, singing Puccini in 1904:

Until next time . . . sparkle on!

Light up a room, light up a life, just don’t light up.

smoking ladyFifty years ago this week, the landmark Surgeon General’s report was released that stated exactly how terrible smoking is for one’s health and why the government should get involved in putting an end to it. In spite of five decades of dire warnings about the evil weed, a recent AP article reported that, while the U. S. smoking rate has fallen by more than half to 18 percent [since 1964], “that still translates to more than 43 million smokers.”

Prior to around around 1920, women smoking in public was severely frowned upon. If ladies took a puff at all, they did so in the privacy of their own boudoirs. In 1908 the federal government actually banned women from smoking in public, a law that obviously did not last.

During and after the First World War, as efforts to gain the vote for women picked up steam, tobacco companies jumped on the image of the bold, modern suffragette to promote smoking to women. After all, think of the profits to be made if the other half of the population could be convinced to smoke! Women bearing lighted cigarettes marched in parades, and magazine ads began to depict women smokers as sophisticated and glamorous. Little by little, women courted outrage by smoking in public. As these things go, soon outrage turned to tight-lipped disapproval by uptight “old fogies.” The movies also began to show smoking females in a positive light. “Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford began their careers playing rich-girl flappers, roadhouse dollies, and office workers who expressed their sense of It [that is, modern sex appeal] by suggestively blowing cigarette smoke into the faces of their leading men,” wrote Betsy Israel in her book Bachelor Girl. By World War II, a woman with a cigarette in her hand no longer attracted attention, and by the 1970s Virginia Slims ads were crowing, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Congratulations on having won that fabulous {cough} privilege of smoking. After all, if men do it {wheeze, snort, hack}, why shouldn’t we?

Even before the health risks were known, however, certain populations continued to frown on smoking. Certain religious groups considered tobacco an intoxicant and smoking a vice on a par with drinking, gambling, and card playing. Other people continued to consider smoking plain bad manners. In the decade before the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, a 1957 book aimed at teenagers advised, “If you decide on smoking, your parents agree, and your allowance permits, don’t let it make you offensive. Stained fingers and lips, smoker’s breath, and clothes smelling of tobacco do not attract anyone. Nervous habits which often go with smoking, such as lighting up at the first opportunity and tossing off cigarettes like a machine, are anything but magnetic. Don’t enter elevators or buses exhaling smoke in people’s faces or down their necks. Don’t smoke in sops. Above all, don’t smoke in bed or in a hideout, such as a closet. This is not bad manners; it is lunacy. A polite young man, walking with a girl in a main street, will not have a cigarette in his mouth. In a side-street or byway, you can be more casual–if the girl does not object. Women do not smoke in the street, unless willing to be thought ‘hard-boiled.’ If in doubt about a girl’s smoking, you may politely offer her a cigarette when you take one, even if you hope she refuses.”

The book goes on to say, “Always in the presence of older people who are not smoking, or of strangers at a restaurant table, ask if they will be bothered by smoke before lighting a cigarette. Don’t give nonsmokers an overdose of fumes, making them feel as if they had been poisoned by nicotine. Leave off entirely when you are with anyone whose throat or nose is sensitive to smoke.At a dinner table, do not smoke unless your hostess suggests it. Smoking between courses shows small appreciation for food; smoking while you are eating is barbarous. Do not put ashes on a plate or in an emptied cup–wait for an ash tray to be provided. Vases and bric-a-brac in a living room have definitely not been put there to catch ashes and butts. If you cannot find an ash tray, you had better ask for one. Guests who carelessly put down their cigarettes and leave marks on mahogany tables or nonchalantly drop hole-eating sparks on a rug are not likely to become hostesses’ pets. Never go on a dance floor holding a cigarette. Don’t smoke in a ballroom at all if you have to choose between putting the ends on the floor or in your pockets.

The author goes on to say, “Trust yourself enough to refuse a cigarette or a drink in a crowd without embarrassment or apology. Only an ill-bred person will ever comment on your refusal in a way to make you feel conspicuous. Going against your standards and tastes to be like others is weak-kneed. It is not a prescription for building personality.”

I’ll go one step further . . . Forget about smoking altogether and save yourself a lot of trouble!


Dishing about Downton Abbey {SPOILER ALERT}

mary crawley mourningFor those of you in the United States, did you watch the Downton Abbey Season 4 premiere last night? What did you think?

I was surprised by O’Brien’s move, grieving with Lady Mary, shocked shocked shocked by the nanny, loved how things turned out between Mary and Carson. As always, I was impressed by the attention to detail, such as the solid black of deep mourning giving way to mauve for the lighter “second mourning.” As Emily Post explains it in her book, Etiquette (published in 1922, the same year that this season opens), “The young widow should wear deep crepe for a year and then lighter mourning for six months and second mourning for six months longer. . . . People in second mourning wear all combinations of black and white as well as clothes of gray and mauve. ”

Re Mary’s grief, which seems maybe excessive to our twenty-first century sensibilities, Emily Post writes, “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use nor be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from dearest friends. One who is by choice or accident selected to come in contact with those in new affliction should, like a trained nurse, banish all consciousness of self; otherwise he or she will be or no service—and service is the only gift of value that can be offered.”

Seems like nowadays we expect people to bounce back from deep grief in a matter of days. I’m not sure if this quick return to business-as-usual is such a great thing for the person suffering a significant loss. What do you think?

Regarding Mary’s future, Mrs. Post writes, “There is nothing more utterly captivating than a sweet young face under a widow’s veil, and it is not to be wondered at that her own loneliness and need of sympathy, combined with all that is appealing to sympathy in a man, results in the healing of her heart. . . . There is no reason why a woman (or a man) should not find such consolation, but she should keep the intruding attraction away from her thoughts until the year of respect is up, after which she is free to put on colors and make happier plans.” I wonder what those “happier plans” might be for Lady Mary.

In other news, I also had the joy of attending a Downton Abbey premiere party in Coeur d’Alene, sponsored by Idaho Public Television. I’d estimate that about 80 people (many in costume–my tribe), gathered to nibble on appetizers, sip wine, listen to a string quartet, and pretend, if only for a couple of hours, that the Hampton Inn was Highclere Castle. There was a costume contest, and the winners’ costumes were fabulous (although my own personal most-creative award went to the man at my table who dressed as the late, great Matthew Crawley, complete with bloody head wound.) The centerpiece of the event was being shown the first hour of the premiere on the big screen, but had to wait to watch the second hour at home on Sunday night along with the rest of the country.

One of the unexpected joys of going to a Downton Abbey party was hearing the reactions of a large audience, as if we were in a movie theater, but with everyone being familiar with the characters and backstory. Maybe that’s a glimpse of what my football-loving friends enjoy about watching a televised game in the company of like-minded friends–the collective groans, sighs, gasps, and sniffles as the action unfolds onscreen.

Here’s what I looked like, a semi-confusing conglomeration of decades, but somehow it worked:

downton abbey rotated

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