Gift Course

This holiday season, ditch the pre-made treats
and make something from the heart

Last winter, a friend gave me a jar of tomato jam. It was delicious, but the fact that it was an unexpected treat made it even sweeter. It served as a reminder of the particular joy of pressing something homemade into the hands of a friend. Here are three recipes that make it easy, and they work just as well for assembling a contribution to a holiday potluck.

To make homemade crackers a snap, use a pasta maker to roll out the dough. Apple cider cranberry mustard makes a charming gift alongside a chunk of cheddar, and this easy tapenade goes from ingredients to jars—or table—in minutes.

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Dust to Dust

A local project commemorates the loss
of a beloved home in Mantua

Illustration by Kathleen White

If you’re like me and you live in Philadelphia, chances are you did not build your own home. So, what you call “your” kitchen or “your” bedroom was actually someone else’s kitchen and bedroom before you moved in. Imagine flipping through a complete stranger’s photo album filled with cherished pictures of Thanksgiving dinners and shoveling out the car in front of the house, but the house they’re in front of is now yours. And the Thanksgiving dinner was going on in what is now “your” dining room. 

I think about this a lot: the recycling of our homes and the gradual accumulation of personal histories they have silently sheltered over generations. This simple premise is the basis of a project I’ve been involved in called Funeral for a Home

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Hard-Working Mussels

A new effort brings the mysterious mussel
back to a Philadelphia waterway

The lack of mussels in the Tacony-Frankford Creek made the stream a desirable target for the reintroduction of the hardy Elliptio complanata species. | Photos by Brian Rademaekers

When you think of mussels in Philadelphia, your first thought might be of ordering moules-frites, Belgium’s signature dish, from Monk’s Café. Ecologist Danielle Kreeger and a team of volunteers is trying to add another association. They want you to think of the Tacony-Frankford Creek, whose swampy terminus is at the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia, where the once plentiful mussel is being reintroduced.

In late August, Kreeger and her helpers took coolers with 50 mussels, scrubbed clean and fitted with tiny radio transmitters, to the creek. Carefully selecting spots along the streambed where they’ll be able to weather storm surges, Kreeger, a scientist working for the nonprofit Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE), and her team gently placed them in small clusters. A GPS location and basic water quality data were recorded at each new mussel bed. The mussels will be monitored periodically. If the mussels survive, Kreeger and others will measure shell growth to determine how healthy the new beds are.

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Bug Net

An innovative project studies urban insect biodiversity

Isabelle Betancourt fished bugs out of Swann Fountain three times a week. | Photos by Jen Britton

"Most of the things I catch are drowning or dead,” says Isabelle Betancourt, curatorial assistant of Entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, as we stood next to Swann Fountain in Logan Circle, surrounded by some of Center City’s great landmarks: the Academy itself, the Franklin Institute, the Free Library and the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

Some may picture entomologists dressed like 19th century explorers, decked out in khaki with pith helmets and butterfly nets. Betancourt was dressed like a casual office worker—sweater and jeans—the day in early October that I accompanied her. As for her sampling equipment, Betancourt carried two collecting vials and “a fishnet that I borrowed from my fish at home.”

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Drier Ground

Venice Island's underground basin can temporarily store up to four million gallons of stormwater runoff. | Photos courtesy The Philadelphia Water Department

In the works for the better part of a decade, Venice Island opened in early October. The five-acre site is sandwiched between the Lock and Cotton Street bridges in Manayunk, and lies downhill of Manayunk’s stormwater flow, which resulted in storm-induced flooding and combined sewer overflows (CSOs). To address this problem, the Philadelphia Water Department and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation collaborated with the Manayunk Development Corporation to demolish the existing Venice Island Recreation Center and rebuild to include an underground basin that can temporarily store up to four million gallons of stormwater runoff and a pump house with a sloping green roof. The site’s other green infrastructure includes a rain garden, porous pavement and tree trenches.

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Lending a Hand

Library activist engages her community
with an award-winning garden

Sheila Washington joined Friends of the Haddington Library after protesting to save it from closure in 2008. | Photo by Jared Gruenwald

On a typical Saturday morning, Sheila Washington can be found in the garden at the Haddington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, watering flowers and teaching children about caring for plants. The garden opened in 2009 with a few rose bushes to beautify the neighborhood library, seated on top of a hill. As the President of the Friends of the Haddington Library, Washington organized volunteers to revitalize the acre and a quarter of land that the library sits on, and it is now filled with roses, azaleas and lilacs. The garden became the pride of the neighborhood when it was recognized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society with the Community Greening Honoree Award in 2011.

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