Friday, January 01, 2016

Mind the Gap

or how I spent a year doing what I love, while doing something completely different.

In 2015, I experienced the dreaded "B" word of reenacting: burnout. As any reenactor knows, it's easy to dedicate a lot of time, effort & research into this hobby. But after nearly 9 years of focusing on the 18th century & the coffeehouse, things began to change. My demonstration had grown to the point of needing staff. The equipment required renting larger, and larger vehicles. The time required to travel to events & set everything up started to interfere with my modern life. In short, reenacting became less of a fun hobby and more of an unpaid job. Soon enough, I simply stopped having fun.

And I crave that fun! But what is an obsessed arm-chair historian to do when they still love their hobby, but hate their hobby at the same time?

Simple: branch out. History is a huge subject, reenacting not limited to one or two "important" time period or type of impression. Reenacting is an all encompassing variety of niche skills to explore. And in 2015, explore I did.

1st century

I started early in the year with an amazing immersion event in Lafe, Arkansas; Clash of Iron. I have done exactly one Roman event in my tenure of reenacting, but nothing that involved eating, sleeping & breathing the Iron Age. I had also never been to Arkansas. When I heard about the site I simply had to attend. This wasn't just your average line-up of white tents. The event is held on a privately owned, reconstructed Roman fort. There is even a mote! We cooked Roman recipes, practiced Roman martial skills, had a mini-Olympic competition & even ran into some Celts. It was as close to live in the 1st Century as possible without being struck by one of Zeus' lightening bolts.

16th Century

In 2015 I was elected the leader of The Banner of St. Michael, a living history group dedicated to the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1560-1660. I have been a member of the group for several years already but this new position means even more dedication to research, learning & sharing with the public. We spend equal time participating in living history events around the country and delivering school presentations. It's only been a few months, but I am already excited with the new energy of the group and some of the great things we have planned for the 2016 season.

Civil War

Remember when I said I would never do 2 very specific time periods? Well 2015 saw me eat those words. It started simply enough. My home town was celebrating their 150th anniversary. It also happened to be the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's assassination. I quickly made an outfit, borrowed a few basic pieces from my already over flowing reenacting closet and was off & running. What was originally only going to be those 2 once in a life-time events, turned into 4 by the end of the year. As it happens, reenacting the civil war is pretty much like all other reenacting. Especially when the 3 other people in your camp group are friends from other eras!

World War I

If reenacting the Civil War is just like all other reenacting, then WWI at Midway Village is like WWII deja vous. So many of the same people from WWII, in the same location, many of us even representing the same nationalities. It is less like doing another time period than I imagined. A weekend spent with already established friends, while still doing something new, was just the cure my burnout needed. While I am still convinced that the 1910's is one of the 3 ugliest time periods for women's clothing (the other's being 1830's & 1970's), I did enjoy spending time in the kitchen or tromping around in the recreated trenches with the men.

World War II

I wrapped up the year with WWII, which isn't a new era of reenacting for me. In fact, it was the first era that really started my interest in historic clothing & history. Way back in 1997! But like I said, reenacting involves many facets beyond just dressing up or lecturing bored school kids. In 2015 I was thrilled to join the amazing cast & crew of the TV movie Verrater for my first film acting experience. And what an amazing experience it was. I can't say enough about how truly dedicated to getting the details of 1940's Germany historically accurate the production team was. Many of my fellow reenactors have participated in filming projects before, but for someone who has only ever been on stage or behind the camera there was surprisingly little learning curve. I credit the years of living history, having to maintain a character & accent while following the random topics of natural conversation & having to repeat the same lecture to endless rounds of school groups, for the ease that I felt on set. I look forward to more interesting "out-side the box" experiences like this in the future.

Looking forward to the 2016 reenacting schedule as well as my 10th anniversary on this blog & in the hobby, I can confidently say that a Gap Year was exactly what I needed to revive my love for reenacting. Here is to seeing many of you in EVERY ERA!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon.

Or things to consider before your first, first-person event.

I have written a lot in the past few years about how to effectively do first person interpretation, finding your comfort zone and ways to be convincingly historical without forgetting who you are in the modern world. However, during all this time, I have had the advantage of speaking from the perspective of someone who had been portraying the same persona for several years. It was an unfair advantage really.

Well aren't you in for a treat. Last year I decided to take my first person interpretation to every event that I attend, not just the tried & true 18th century coffeehouse ones. Again this year, I've decided that first person should be a goal no matter what time period I am reenacting. I am effectively starting from scratch in every new time period I visit, just like many of you are. Luckily you have all my mistakes to learn from!

The Very Basics

The first things to consider when preparing for a first person event are the very basics. By basic, I mean the absolute, barest essentials. Everything else can come later, these are the details of the event itself that will make any and all further research easier. Reenacting isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. Assuming you will be reenacting this era & persona for several years means you have plenty of time to develop the endless little details. But if you walk into an event & don't even know the year you are supposed to be portraying or your own persona's name, well, lets just say you'll look awfully silly when a member of the public asks!

Table Clock with Calendar,
Daniel Delander. 1720. The Met
When is it?

Seriously, this should be the first thing that you think about when preparing for any event and not just one in first person. The year effects everything. It will make figuring out clothing styles or eating habits easier, it effects what other important historical events were happening and even what religious beliefs you might have had. The change in year could mean the change in king, or if your country is even a country!

If the event you are attending doesn't have a dedicated year then it is up to you to choose one. This isn't nearly as hard or frightening as it sounds. One of the best things you can do in this situation is stick with an even numbered year. Not only is a round number be easier to remember but adding an “s” when doing internet searches will lead you to information covering an entire 10 year span.

Where are we?

Again, this is so basic we often forget to learn it before going to an event. Just like in real estate, location, location, location matters when doing first person reenacting. Location can change many of the basic details, details that might not matter for your first few events, but could eventually if you stick with this era & persona.
Map of Candia, Bernhard von Breydenbach. 1486, Hebrew University Jerusalem. 

Why is location so important? The truth is, the public doesn't care where your persona is from. What they want to know is “where is this event supposed to be taking place?” This is especially important for those of us who are reenacting far from where the events we are duplicating originally occurred. If we are pretending that this corn field in central Indiana is France, we need to know this & let the public know it too. While some of the subtle things, like flags or the name of the event might clue them in, it is always better to be extra clear. Get used to saying “In this year in this location” as a precursor to sharing any time sensitive information. Constantly repeating the location & year ingrains the information in both the public's mind and your own.

Self Portrait with Brush & Pallet, Edward Steichen.
1902, Art Institute of Chicago.
Who are you?

This isn't the deep philosophical question that some people take it to be. All of that can happen later, and over the course of years if needed. The public & other reenactors really just want to know your name (real, fake, which ever you are using for the weekend) and what your general position is among all the other people they are seeing. They might have an idea that you are someone important because you are wearing a bunch of fancy clothes & a crown, but don't expect them to guess. Keep it simple. Distill your position at the event down to a job title, a military position or even a family connection. Let the pubic & other reenactors know who you are so that they can organize the people they are seeing in their heads & better understand what is happening around them but don't worry about getting bogged down in personal background all at once.

What is happening?

Now wouldn't you look rather silly walking into a an event commemorating a famous battle & not even knowing the name of the battle or who is fighting whom? If there is a special reason behind the event, for Pete's sake, know what it is! If the reason for the event is completely fictitious at least know what is being made up.

Again, this sort of information might be fairly obvious but don't count on the public picking up on it. Do a little Wikipedia research before hand at least to gain the basics. Depending on your memory for facts, it doesn't hurt to have a mini “cheat sheet” with vital names & dates hidden in your pocket. It is also always OK to simply say you don't know an answer if the public continues to ask questions beyond your very basic knowledge. Smile, admit that they have stumped you & direct them to someone more experienced who might know more.


That is it. Everything that you really need to know before stepping into your first, first-person event, regardless of the era, your persona or whether you have ever attempted first person interpretation before. It might feel odd to only need such basic information, but each of these questions asks a vital piece of information which forms a solid first person foundation. Why make first person interpretation difficult or complicated when you can jump in with these easy answers & start having fun right away!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Govern Well Thy Appetite, Part 1.

Or historic food and the modern diet.

For some people experimenting with historic recipes, exploring unique ingredients and testing batches of odd looking results is the fun part of living history. For others, especially those who follow restricted diets, it's hard enough to find something to eat in the modern world, much less a historic recipe. However, it's not actually as hard as it might seem at first to eat period correct foods while still sticking with your dietary needs.

For this mini-series of articles, I'm going to look at a few of the most common dietary restrictions, how to cope with them without sacrificing historical accuracy (too much) and a few favorite recipes that fit the bill. Every one of the recipes I suggest here has been tested, often times at an event, and is guaranteed to appease both those with special diets & the omnivores alike.


Vegetarianism is pretty common in the 21st century but it isn't a new concept. Sure it might seem as though every meal & every dish contained some kind of meat. Some recipes seem like the cook was just trying to cram as many meats into one dish as possible. Thankfully, that's not really true. During the late 18th & early 19th century many enlightenment leaders adopted vegetarianism as part of their greater lifestyle. Writers such as Francois-marie Arouet (aka Voltaire), Percy Shelley & even Leo Tolstoy were all vegetarians. Additionally, many of the lower classes relied heavily on vegetables to fill out the meat supplies they simply couldn't afford.

Lettuce, Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1400.

One of my favorite historic vegetarian dishes to make is cooked greens. Alternately called buttered worts in the 16th century, sallat in the 17th century or simply greens, these are nothing more than spinach, collards, mustard greens, cabbage and any other leafy vegetable. Greens are some of the first vegetables available during the growing season & some of the last before the frost hits. They are ideal for year round events, fast to prepare & adaptable for a variety of time periods. The most basic preparation is simply cooking until soft & dressing with butter or oil, but other ingredients & spices are sometimes included depending on the tastes of the era & the whims of the cook.

Salad dish, c.1800-1810. Victoria & Albert Museum and Salad Bowl, 1728. The Met.
Sallets in general consist of certain Esculent Plants and Herbs, improv'd by Culture, Industry, and Art of the Gard'ner: Or as others say, they are a Composition of Edule Plants and Roots of several kinds, to be eaten Raw or Green, Blanch'd or Candied; simple, and per se, or intermingl'd with others according to the Season.

Acetaria: a discourse of sallets
John Evelyn, 1699

Lettuce Seller, Philippe de Tubieres. 1742. The Met 
A Boyled Sallet.
Take Spinage and boyle it and chop it, and when it is chopt, poure it in a little Pipkin, with Corance, sweete Butter, Vinagre, and Sugar, boyle them altogither, and when they are boyled put it in a dishe, and lay sippets round about, and strew suger upon them and serve them out.

Book of Cookery
A.W. 1591

Be careful to pick it exceeding clean, then wash it in five or six waters. Put it into a saucepan that will just hold it without water. Throw a little salt over it and cover it close. Put your saucepan on a clear quick fire and when you find the spinach shrunk and fallen to the bottom and the liquor that comes out boils up, it is done Then put it into a clean sieve to drain and just give it a gentle squeeze. Lay it on a plate and send it to table with melted butter in a boat.

The Housekeeper's Instructor, Or, Universal Family Cook
William Augustus Henderson, 1805

Part 2: Dairy-Free & Vegan (Coming Soon)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"More helpful than all wisdom is one draught of simple pity that will not forsake us”

From our humble beginnings in the fall of 2007, to our first east coast event in Pennsylvania earlier this summer, the Widow Black Coffeehouse has been a labor of love. We have grown so much in those 7 years,. It's sometimes hard to believe it hasn't been longer. 

The earliest demonstration table, 2008
The current demonstration table, 2012
We expanded from a single table under a borrowed awning, to a 20' x 30' arrangement with separate coffee space & dedicated kitchen. The simple coffee demonstration has expanded to include all hot beverages from the era and has developed into a dedicated first person interpretive space as well. Long gone are the days of roasting in an open pan or brewing 1 pot of coffee for the entire day. These days we roast & brew constantly just to keep up with demand, offer period documented meals as well as other period entertainments for the enjoyment of other reenactors. We are frequently not only the first camp awake in the morning, but the last hold out of laughter & sociability long after others have turned in for the night.

Before the kitchen expansion, 2012
After the kitchen expansion, 2014

Today the Coffeehouse has reached the point where we can't continue to grow without help from fans like you! 

We would be ENORMOUSLY HONORED by anyone sharing this link & contributing to the fund that will enable us to rent a vehicle & bring the Coffeehouse to Mississinewa 1812 this year. There are even rewards in it for every funding level!

Above all, we want to thank everyone who has supported the coffeehouse over the past 7 years. Whether it was simply by sitting & enjoying a cup of coffee with us, donating your energy by chopping fire wood or hauling water, promoting us on Facebook and other social media or inviting us to set up at events, we owe each of you more than can ever be repaid. It is thanks to fans like you that we have grown so far in such little time, without ever sacrificing our dedication to historical accuracy!

Thank You, from the bottom of our coffee dishes!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Life is a foreign language: all men mispronounce it

or Easy foreign language for first person interpreters.

The contrast : a French prisoner in England ; an English prisoner in France. 
1758. Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection

As anyone who has been reading this blog, or visiting with me at events over the past several years knows, I am a huge proponent of first person interpretation. During the course of my time presenting & interacting not only with the public but with other reenactors in this manner I have run across several popular excuses that folks like to use for why they don’t join me in the fun of first person interpretation.

Today I’d like to debunk one of those excuses and hopefully offer some alternatives for those struggling with first person interpretation or who are interested in getting started.

Using Foreign Language!

First off, it’s great that I need to talk about this subject. Why? Because it means that we aren’t just portraying the average American or Englishman, but that people are interested in portraying the wide variety of nationalities that populate the historic world. This in itself is a fantastic thing! But portraying someone of a non-English speaking nationality is not without its difficulties. The biggest of these, especially for anyone doing first person, is how to deal with a foreign language.

So what options do you have if your heart is set on portraying a non-English speaking person, but you don't speak a lick of the language? That really depends on how determined you are, both in your first person & your dedication to language learning. Are you planning on making this persona your primary focus or is it just a whim to try at the rare event? Are you obsessed like I am, or more of a first person dabbler? Either way, using foreign language properly adds to both first person portrayals & to events as a whole.

The “Sprinkle” Technique of Foreign Language First Person

How can you quickly give the impression of being a non-English speaker in first person, without spending years learning another language? Key words & phrases of course! A friend coined this the “sprinkle technique” because we are using a few key words, sprinkled in with mostly English. It's just enough of the target language to remind the public that you are portraying a foreign speaker but not so much that anyone who doesn't speak the language is confused. It's like in Star Trek shows, where we know the characters speak different languages, but we suspend our disbelief just long enough & accept everyone speaking English besides a few choice terms in their native language (Qapla anyone?).

What are key words & phrases? They are those simple words usually found at the beginning of language books & audio tapes. They are the first for a few obvious reasons; they are easy to learn & they are the words you need to know now when talking to a native speaker. They are the things you say to the lady behind the counter at the coffeehouse in Paris, to the guy getting off the train in Prague or the kids running down the hall in Munich. Those words that everyone from toddlers to seniors know & use.

Now think about how the public at a historic event will react to those same, simple, but essential words when presented in the right context. A member of the public walks into the kitchen at a 16th century event & is greeted by the woman chopping garlic with a cheerful “hola”, or overhears 2 interpreters chatting in English yet when they part one yells “bis spater” & the other “tschuss”. Does that member of the public know exactly what was said? Maybe, maybe not. What they do know is that those first person interpreters, while they might have been speaking in English for the majority of the time, are not portraying English speakers.

Key Words to Learn & When to Use Them

General greetings & goodbyes. If you are going to learn absolutely nothing else, at least learn how to say hello & good bye in your persona's native language. Obviously these words are best used when the public enters or exits a room, or when another first person interpreter joins you. Beyond having an obvious use, the fact that hello & goodbye are used at the beginning & end of interactions is also important. By starting with a single word in your persona's language, you are telling the public a vital piece of information: you are portraying a non-English speaker. Imagine that, one word & they know something about you! Doesn't matter if that is the only dang word you know in your target language & it took 6 months to learn to say it properly! The same goes for saying goodbye. By closing in your persona's language you are giving them a solid reminder of who they were interacting with, a reminder that will stick with them long after the door closes.

France Freedom Britain Slavery. James Gillray. 1789. National Portrait Gallery.
Yes, no, I don't know. In addition to greeting others in your persona's language, being able to easily answer simple questions should be high on the list of words to learn. The simplicity of “yes, no, I don't know” is two fold. First, each has it's own pantomime. No matter what language the public or interpreters speak, everyone understands a vigorous head shake, a big smile & a nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Add in the rudimentary “ya” and you've conveyed not only that you are a non-English speaker, but that you agree with what has been said.

Why is “I don't know” included in this list? Because as living historians there are always going to be times when we simply don't know the answer. Saying it while maintaining the language makes it easier to stay in first person rather than slipping. Plus it's useful for those rare times you happen to run into an actual native speaker & need a quick out if they start speaking a mile a minute in a language you only know 5 words in. Believe me, it will happen & you will be thankful for that little out and a good laugh with the person who really thought you understood them.

Trade Terminology. So you've got the bare essentials down but would still like to add more to your first person foreign language vocabulary without going over board. There are a lot of words out there to choose from, where do you start? With things that your persona would actually have reason to say of course! Will a gunsmith ever need to explain turnip stew to the public, probably not, but a cook might. Knowing what that recipes would have been called in your persona's native language, using it when the public asks what is in the pot & then explaining to them (in English) that it is a turnip stew while showing them the roots demonstrates that your persona is a non-English speaker, but doesn't neglect the public's desire to learn & have their questions answered.

The inability to share information with the public while in first person, especially when that first person is a non-English speaker, is a common concern that is eliminated with the sprinkle technique. We often have to explain unfamiliar English words to the public when discussing historic objects, those terms being in a foreign language is no different. In a way the trade specific terminology itself becomes the springboard to educating the public rather than limiting their experience. Plus, given a “funny” name, even turnip stew can be entertaining.

How to Learn Key Words & Phrases (for Free!)

Thanks to the internet you can learn just about every language your heart could desire, for free. All you have to do is know where to look. Since we are only interested in a very simple words & phrases, most of the learning programs that focus on reading, writing & complex grammar are useless. Instead focusing on auditory based programs can make learning the necessary pronunciation fast and easy. Following are my favorite places for learning a variety of languages. In addition, free audio CDs from your local library can be a fantastic, free way to learn a language. Plus they are especially helpful for long car rides, say to far away events where you intend to use said language.

The Contrast. Thomas Rowlandson (printer). 1792. Lewis Walpole Library Online

Omniglot.  A huge, wandering, language loving website that has a section for “Useful Foreign Phrases”. Provides plenty of auditory files in enough languages that even the most obscure reenactor can find one to suit their needs. Great for learning just a few phrases but not much help in how to combine them into a full sentence or more.

Duolingo. My personal favorite for language learning. Very game-like with speech recognition on the phone app, lots of audio, visual & builds gradually over multiple lessons. The main drawback is that you have to actually learn the entire language, not just a few key phrases, so this might not be the best choice if minimalism is your goal.

As you can see, while the idea can be frightening at first, by using the sprinkle technique it is possible to portray a non-english speaking historical persona without also sacrificing your ability to educate the public. Hopefully I will get a chance to see some of you trying out this technique at a historic event in the near future. Until then adios, auf wiedersehen, do widzenia or how ever you choose to say it!

Monday, April 21, 2014

And the Water Was Spent in The Bottle

Or a quick recipt for orange shrub as served at the C. Black Coffeehouse, most suitable for birthday celebrations and other occasions of pleasure.

White wine of a sweet variety
Brandy of moderate quality
The juice of oranges, lemons & other citrus fruits
Peel of the same fruit
Fine sugar
Nutmeg, grated fine

Combine the citrus juice, nutmeg & brandy in a dark colored bottle, keeping it well closed for no less than 3 days. Unlike many common shrub recipes, this variation needs no long infusion period. In fact, the shorter wait makes it particularly suitable to last minute celebrations when no other punch can be properly made. On the day you wish to consume the shrub, combine the wine with the brandy infusion in a large bottle or bowl, keeping in mind the proper proportion of 3 parts wine to 4 parts brandy. Add sugar to taste. Strain through flannel if needed to remove sediment. Serve in small cordial or dedicated shrub glasses. Be prepared to readily refill the glasses as they are quickly emptied of this delicious liquor.

Works Cited

E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion (London, 1739)

John Daview, The Innkeeper and Butler's Guide, or, a Directory in the Making and Managing of British Wines (Leeds, 1810)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"No One Can Be Caught In Places He Does Not Visit"

 Or what to expect when visiting an 18th century coffee house or its 21st century recreation.

Mad Dog in a Coffeehouse, Thomas Rowlandson, 1809.
One cold day in December 1663, Samuel Pepys did what many men before him, and even more after him, would do; he went to the coffeehouse. He was greeted upon entering the central room of the Coffeehouse by a rotund yet energetic coffee man with an exclamation of “What news sir?” and the offer of a steaming dish of coffee, which Pepys took happily, adding just a bit of sugar to sweeten the bitter brew. From here he wound his way through the crowd to a heavy worn table which filled the center of the otherwise open room. Scattered across the wooden surface were various newspapers, a well-worn copy of the French play “Heraclius, Emperor of the East. A tragedy”, three flickering candles despite the daylight hour and, mixed among it all, dishes of coffee in every state of consumption. Surrounding the table Pepys found an assortment of men with whom he would share “very good discourse” some that he was well acquainted with, having shared conversations in the past, others that he had not yet met, a fact that did not limit their discussions in any way.

Among the coffeehouse patrons Pepys found the flamboyantly dressed “Secretary of the Virtuosi of Gresham College” with whom he would enjoy a “very fine discourse” concerning a newly invented instrument to be tried at the college the following day. Next his attention was drawn to a less academic but no less enthusiastic “discourse with an Iron Merchant” where Pepys discovered the difficulties experienced in that trade between the Swedes and English. A thin boy, no more than 12 years old scurried among the crowd, ensuring that the men's dishes of coffee remained well supplied. At the cost of only one penny a dish, the men were unlikely to complain about this constant attention, preferring instead to continually sip at the hot liquor without interrupting their adamant discussions.

The Discomfited Duellists, 1784.
From across the crowded room Pepys saw his good friend, taking his dish of coffee he left the iron merchant and crossed to “[sit] by Mr. Harrington, and some East country merchants” whom he found “talking of the country about Quinsborough” and “the manner of putting their nets into the water” during winter. Soon his attention was distracted by the vociferous argument at another table, as the patrons dispute the suggestion that “all the opinion now is that the Dutch will avoid fighting with us at home. . . ” Finally, Pepys found his acquaintance Mr. Harris, who he “was to meet” at the coffeehouse for business. The two eventually leave the coffeehouse but most certainly returned another time for the latest news, freshest advices and camaraderie of other gentlemen such as had been enjoyed that day.

Widow Black's Coffeehouse, 2012.

I can not promise that if you happen "to stroll into a little coffee-house", perhaps on the edge of a green field, the checkered floors & a lot hanging roof, that you will find such entertaining friends as Mr. Pepy's did, or the excitement that Mr. Rowlandson drew. However, I can promise a constant supply of the finest true English coffee, the freshest advices from around the colonies & indeed, across the seas. But most of all, I can promise an experience as true to that of the original English coffeehouses, an experience that no other reenactor or historian has attempted to duplicate purely for the enjoyment of their fellow reenactors. I look forward to seeing many of you at the Widow Black's Coffeehouse "this year", whether that is 1650, 1760 or 1812.

For more information on visiting the Widow Black's coffeehouse, the Widow's lecture schedule or to bring the coffeehouse to your event; Please Visit the Widow Black Coffeehouse on Facebook.

Works Cited

Chole White, Camaraderie of the Cup: The 18th century English coffeehouse & the development of an enlightened public sphere (2011). 

Thomas Rowlandson, Mad Dog in a Coffeehouse, 1809 (Museum of Fine Arts Boston).

Samuel Pepys, Mynors Bright, and Henry B. Wheatley, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Transcribed by the Rev. Mynors Bright from the Shorthand Manuscript in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College Cambridge Vol. 1 (New York: Heritage Press, 1942), 8 March, 1663/4.

Joseph Addison & Richard Steele, The Spectator, Volume 5 (Philadelphia: Robert Desilver, 1819).


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