I’ve been keeping a big secret from you.

Imagine for a moment, though, that there’s a little redbreasted robin beside you on the fence. He’s a very talkative fellow, and something about his birdish banter gives you the oddest feeling — like maybe he’s trying to get your attention. He seems very interested in one particular flower bed, and upon closer inspection, you notice a key nestled under one of the bushes. Not just any key, but a key that will finally open the mysterious gate situated in an ivy-covered wall — the key to a Secret Garden. Or in this case, to my Secret Secret Garden Party. Won’t you come in?

…she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly–slowly. Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight. She was standing inside the secret garden.

My sister, Sarah, is a bibliophile. She loves reading all sorts of books. One day she confided to me that her absolute favorite book of all time was the classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden. This sparked my curiosity since I had passed over that book as a child. Unbeknownst to her, I picked up the book and read it in hopes of understanding its appeal to her. What I read planted an idea in my mind of a way to show Sarah how much we loved her — a Secret Secret Garden Party for her birthday, which at this point was still months away. The idea grew and blossomed and, come June, we were busily buzzing about getting ready to give Sarah the surprise party of a lifetime: a bountiful picnic in my mother’s garden complete with a meal inspired by British tea.

In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is the young protagonist who, like Sarah, had to confront issues of identity and find small oases of joy. Mary, a sour and skinny girl, is transported from the dust of India to cool, green England. She finds herself blossoming on the moor as she interacts with nature — a connection with the beauty of living things that Sarah shares. Just as Mary pruned and weeded and planted and nurtured her newfound nest, Sarah has built her own “garden” — a lovely life for herself full of friends, family, her loving boyfriend, a zest for life . . . and, in keeping with the Ruble way, full of food!

When I read the book, one of the things that jumped out to me were the lush feasts the children secreted to the garden and devoured voraciously in the stimulating moor air:

When the white cloth was spread upon the grass, with hot tea and buttered toast and crumpets, a delightfully hungry meal was eaten, and several birds on domestic errands paused to inquire what was going on and were led into investigating crumbs with great activity. Nut and Shell whisked up trees with pieces of cake and Soot took the entire half of a buttered crumpet into a corner and pecked at and examined and turned it over and made hoarse remarks about it until he decided to swallow it all joyfully in one gulp.

The picnic spread we created for Sarah’s party was inspired by this casual countryside food from the novel: summery tea sandwiches; fresh glazed scones with jam, strawberry butter, and clotted cream; strawberry almond petit fours; homemade croissants with butter; sausage biscuits; berry muffins; and pitchers of plain and raspberry lemonades. The crowning triumph of the birthday feast was a honeyed pistachio birthday cake smothered in buttercream, constructed with love by my mom.

We needed more than piles of luscious food to construct the Secret Garden, though. Determined to create a picnic that seemed to come straight from the pages of the novel, I got crafty. I hand-stitched shabby chic gingham napkins, strung paper hearts from loosely draped hemp string, pasted together handmade invitations, and created mason jars full of fresh roses and accented with gingham ribbon. My mom hunted down faux birds, draped old floral quilts about, rustled up a lovely array of sweet dishes, and snipped heavy hydrangeas from her garden.

After half a year of dreaming and two weeks of intense planning, baking, shopping, and crafting, my mom and I set the entire picnic up in her lush backyard. We mounted ladders to string the handmade heart streamers from the branches of a huge tree, spread quilts, and arranged the feast onto tiered plates, rustic trays, and in baskets.

The photos you’ve been scrolling through thus far testify to how gorgeous the spread was, but Sarah never got to see that set-up. One of the biggest pieces of advice for picnic planning is have a plan B. A rainstorm, a heat wave, a fish storm — anything can happen to derail your plans. And derailed our plans were.

This chalkboard as well as many others can be found in my mom’s Etsy shop, Posh Pilfer.

Our outdoor picnic was attacked by flies during our photo shoot. Not one or two flies. An army of flies. Thankfully, we had only set out part of the food to photograph, and the rest was still safe inside. We threw out the besieged food and moved to plan B — an indoor secret garden. Truthfully, it was just as lush and gorgeous, if not moreso, and we were thankful to be without attendees of the, ah, insect variety. Welcome to the Secret Garden #2:

I think this one is more beautiful, anyway, don’t you?

This was the Secret Garden Sarah actually saw. On Saturday, I picked her up under the pretense of taking her to lunch for her birthday. I casually asked if we could stop by parents’ house to retrieve my present for her, which had been shipped there. She agreed without much thought, and we proceeded to chat in the car about unrelated things. In my brain, I was throwing a celebratory party for myself, having worried for weeks that I would accidentally give away the surprise. She seemed totally unaware! But the self-congratulations came to an abrupt halt when we drove past the grocery store by my parents’ house and she said, “Is that dad in the parking lot?!”

My dad had driven with Sarah’s boyfriend, Alain, and Mike to drop their cars off at the grocery store so they wouldn’t be visible at their house. So when Sarah thought she saw him in the parking lot, I almost had a heart attack! I drove quickly past, but I was privately panicking — what if dad hadn’t gotten them back in time?! What would I say if we walked in to this party I’d been planning for half a year to find only my mom and little brother milling about?! “Um, surprise . . . three of us are here to celebrate your, uh, birthday”?! My heart sank, and it was with great anxiety that I opened the door to my parents’ house when we arrived.

SURPRISE! Not only was everyone there (phew!), Sarah was completely shocked. I was shaking like a leaf as I pulled out her key necklace (shown in the first photo, above, and sold by grigio design) and fastened it around her neck, explaining that this was the key to the Secret Garden. I didn’t want to leave you out, so we filmed her surprised entrance into the picnic. You’ll see how incredibly long it takes me to fasten her necklace with trembling fingers, and hear Byrd’s exciting canine rendition of “Happy Birthday” — okay, maybe she’s just barking. Whichever.


With the joyful surprise behind us, we picnicked! Pastries were devoured, tea sandwiches were daintily nibbled, plain and Lorina French Berry lemonades flowed (we found our Lorina products at World Market). The crisp, buttery pastry; fluffy, cream-slathered Buttermilk Cranberry Lemon Scones; and spicy Smoked Salmon Tea Sandwiches transported us. Huge slices of hearty, triple-layer pistachio cake was the perfect finale to our meal. Mary Lennox would have been proud.

Better than all the food, though, and better even than the lush garden decor, was finding a way to let Sarah know she’s important. The reason families everywhere take the time to construct big, wobbly birthday cakes (even when they’re not bakers) and hang silly streamers (even when they’re not crafty) and light a billion swirly wax candles (even when they’re not, um, pyromaniacs?) is to celebrate a person. What better way to do so than to tailor the celebration to a theme particularly important to that person? When I hugged Sarah goodbye at the end of our Secret Secret Garden Party, she knew she was loved.

Late roses climbed and hung and clustered and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an embowered temple of gold. The newcomer stood silent just as the children had done when they came into [the garden’s] grayness. He looked round and round.

“I thought it would be dead,” he said.

“Mary thought so at first,” said Colin. “But it came alive.”

Sarah and her boyfriend, Alain.

Blowing out her candles.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing with you many of the recipes and crafting ideas that created this party, including the following. As they are posted, they’ll be linked from this page, so bookmark this post to have them all handy. And stay tuned for some Secret Garden outtakes — elaborate party planning makes for some fun blooper photos, as it turns out.


Craft Instructions

  1. Homemade Croissants and Pains au Chocolat
  2. Buttermilk Cranberry Lemon Scones
  3. Best Blueberry Streusel Muffins
  4. Buttermilk Brown Sugar Scones
  5. Strawberry Almond Petit Fours
  6. Smoked Salmon Tea Sandwiches
  7. Cucumber Tea Sandwiches
  8. Sparkling Raspberry Lemonade
  9. Fresh Strawberry Butter
  10. Pistachio Cake with Honeyed Buttercream
  1. Paper Heart Streamers
  2. Handmade Robin Invitations
  3. Hand-sewn Luncheon Napkins
  4. Shabby Chic Flower Jars

I’d love your opinion: Which recipes and crafts from the Secret Secret Garden Party are you most excited to see?

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49 Comments on Foodbuzz 24×24: Secret Secret Garden Party

  1. Maranda
    June 27, 2010 at 10:37 pm (13 years ago)

    Oh my gosh! What a wonderful birthday surprise for your sister!!! I love the idea of the key and all the food looked amazing! Congratulations on such an exquisite feast! I can’t wait to find out some of the recipes!

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:41 am (13 years ago)

      Thank you, Maranda!

  2. Jennifer M.
    June 27, 2010 at 11:09 pm (13 years ago)

    It was absolutely worth the wait, Julie! After I read your account of the Sarah’s birthday celebration, I searched for the perfect word to describe it….and then it came to me. Exquisite. It fits perfectly: characterized by intricate and beautiful design or execution.
    You thought of everything, Julie. The love you feel for Sarah is apparent in every detail…the perfectly placed daisies on the cake, the symetrical tails of the gingham bows on the lovely jars of flowers, the drizzle on the petit fours and on and on.
    Congratulations on a wonderful event! I hope everyone gets to be on the receiving end of this much love at least once in their life.

    I’d be happy to see any and all of the crafts and recipes, but the tea sandwiches and paper streamers are the ones I’m most excited about!

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:42 am (13 years ago)

      Aw, thank you so, so much Jennifer! You’re so kind!

  3. Christel
    June 28, 2010 at 2:43 am (13 years ago)

    What a delightful birthday surprise! You did an amazing job – everything looks amazing and the details you put in are exquisite. You sister is happy to have a family like yours.

    I am particularly interested in the pistachio cake and the tea sandwiches. But I want to read all the instructions and recipes.

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:42 am (13 years ago)

      Thank you, Christel!

  4. Silvia
    June 28, 2010 at 3:15 am (13 years ago)

    Just Gorgeous! Reading this was like I were there. I can’t find the words, but your post made me dream! Splendid!

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:43 am (13 years ago)

      Thank you, Silvia! πŸ™‚ You found the perfect words to make me smile — that’s just the effect I would’ve hoped to have!

  5. Sarah
    June 28, 2010 at 7:06 am (13 years ago)

    The thought that went into this is amazing. Every small detail combined to make this a perfect and tasty birthday. But what made it truly wonderful is that I was reminded that I have been blessed with an incredible and loving sister.

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:45 am (13 years ago)

      Love you, Sarah πŸ™‚ I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Sue
    June 28, 2010 at 11:29 am (13 years ago)

    What a BEAUTIFUL birthday surprise! Every detail is perfect from start to finish! What a sweet sister!

    BTW, I love The Secret Garden! It was a special book for my mom as a child so it has always been special to me:)

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:45 am (13 years ago)

      Thank you, Sue!!

  7. Jen
    June 28, 2010 at 11:52 am (13 years ago)

    I found this post via Foodgawker and I was immediately hooked with the promise of a Secret Garden party. That has long been one of my favorite books of all time, and to see such an awesome surprise crafted for a sister is just gorgeous. Amazing job! And now I want a scone.

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:53 am (13 years ago)

      Aw, thanks, Jen! So glad you enjoyed your visit. I had to laugh at your last sentence — every time I scan through this post again, that’s exactly how I feel. πŸ™‚

  8. Laura
    June 28, 2010 at 4:51 pm (13 years ago)

    This couldn’t be more perfect if you’d gone back in time to do it. I cannot find words for how gorgeous this is! I wish someone would do this for me!

    • Julie
      June 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm (13 years ago)

      Thank you, Laura! Like Jennifer said, above, I wish everyone could have a special party for themselves!

  9. Michelle
    June 28, 2010 at 10:49 pm (13 years ago)

    That was my favorite book as a child, also. What a great idea! I’m going to read the book to my daughters (we just watched the movie last week), and then have a party in our backyard! Thank you! Wonderful ideas.

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:14 pm (13 years ago)

      Yay! Michelle, I know your daughters will just love that.

  10. Finny
    June 28, 2010 at 11:02 pm (13 years ago)

    The Secret Garden is, to this day, one of my favourite books. Many times I’ve read it, wishing I could be there, dreaming I was.

    This post made it all real for me, again.

    Thank you!

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:14 pm (13 years ago)

      Aw, thank you, Finny! I’m so glad.

  11. Becky
    June 28, 2010 at 11:56 pm (13 years ago)

    Thanks for posting this on LJ (bakebakebake & food_porn)! As an avid reader of your postings, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing your creativity at work on such an amazing occasion!

    Btw, I just bought one of your mom’s magnetic chalkboards because of your post…so thanks!

    • Julie
      June 28, 2010 at 11:58 pm (13 years ago)

      Thanks, Becky! She will love that πŸ™‚ They really are lovely.

  12. ovenhaven
    June 29, 2010 at 4:01 am (13 years ago)

    You’re such a gem of a sister to have pulled this off with your mom! Happy birthday to Sarah!

  13. Chef Dennis
    June 29, 2010 at 8:12 am (13 years ago)

    now that secret garden party was just perfect!!! Its too bad the flies drove you indoors, you had done such a magnificent job setting up! But moving indoors didn’t seem to slow you down at all…what an incredible presentation!!!
    Congrats on the 24 x 24 honors!

    • Julie
      June 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm (13 years ago)

      Thanks, Chef Dennis!

  14. Megan
    June 29, 2010 at 4:18 pm (13 years ago)

    Julie, you are amazing! You pulled off a gorgeous party and didn’t even blow the surprise. You thought of every minute detail! I honestly can’t wait to hear about the petit fours… I have not had good luck making those and the strawberry butter — it just sounds so intriguing.

    And honestly, one of the things I was thinking as I was reading this (knowing you’re a teacher) was that this would be such a creative way to have students do a book report… much better than the dioramas I used to have to do!

    • Julie
      June 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm (13 years ago)

      What a fun idea, Megan! It would be so much more engaging to have book parties than dioramas, you’re right πŸ™‚

      Thank you!

  15. Parisa
    June 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm (13 years ago)

    WOW! This looks so great!!! Everything is so cute and summery. I loved your outtake post as well!! I enjoy the behind the scenes look at all the chaos of planning (been there! haha). The croissants look GOOD. Post that recipe/technique please? And the scones and petit fours! πŸ™‚ Actually… everything please haha.

    • Julie
      June 29, 2010 at 4:49 pm (13 years ago)

      Aw, thank you, Parisa! I will definitely post them all one by one — I think I may start with croissants. I’m just so darn proud of those . . . πŸ™‚

  16. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella
    June 29, 2010 at 11:29 pm (13 years ago)

    I’m speechless Julie. Picture after picture of fabulousness! I’ve always thought that your layer cakes are par excellence and this one is a beauty too!

    P.S. Love your mum’s Etsy store! πŸ˜›

    • Julie
      June 29, 2010 at 11:32 pm (13 years ago)

      Thanks, Lorraine! Wish I could take credit for the cake, but that was my mom’s creation! She’s so great at them!

  17. Gini
    June 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm (13 years ago)

    So sweet! I love it! I thought the video and the key necklase was so neat. The food looked so good. Nice little details everywhere.

    • Julie
      June 30, 2010 at 3:51 pm (13 years ago)

      Thank you, Gini!

  18. Monica H
    July 2, 2010 at 4:09 am (13 years ago)

    I don’t know where you find the time to do all this! Everything looks so beautiful. I would like a croissant, and a muffin, and a scone and a petit four just to round off my plate!

  19. thejoyofcaking
    July 3, 2010 at 9:33 am (13 years ago)

    Awesome idea! I love it…. What times the next party? LOL….

  20. Suzy
    July 19, 2010 at 12:24 am (13 years ago)

    What a sweet wonderful thing to do for your sister. I know she will always remember the care and thought you put into all of the details. Great Job!

    • Julie
      July 19, 2010 at 12:45 am (13 years ago)

      Thanks, Suzy πŸ™‚

  21. joann
    July 27, 2010 at 12:51 pm (13 years ago)

    Very creative! It’s a shame it couldn’t be outside, but I’m sure your sister appreciated everything you did. All your cakes and desserts look so professional and I love the chalk board! Well done.

  22. Clarice
    August 12, 2010 at 9:42 pm (13 years ago)

    This is such a great idea! I wonder what other books would make great party/dinner ideas.

    • Julie
      August 16, 2010 at 10:02 am (13 years ago)

      Someone mentioned their favorite book was Catcher in the Rye, Clarice, and I said, “You know, I don’t think that would quite work.” HAHA. It’s almost just as fun to think of books that would make AWFUL dinner parties. But perhaps when actually putting a party into action, we should stick to the good ideas πŸ˜‰


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