Monday, December 24, 2007

Cookie disaster

Here's what the magazine promised:


Here's what happened when I attempted it:


When will I learn not to trust recipes published in home magazines?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

2007 New Years resolution accomplished


At last. After nearly a year, I finished reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, thus fulfilling last year's New Year's resolution to read at least one book that I'd bought but hadn't yet read. And not a moment too soon. This book was a bestseller, but I bet fewer than half of the people who bought it actually read it. Alexander Hamilton was an extremely active person and prolific writer and his prose has a wordy and florid style that makes for difficult reading. Add to that complex political imbroglios and you have a biography that is a struggle to read.
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson loathed each other. I was raised in New York, where history classes had lessons dedicated to him. Now we live in Jefferson's territory and my kids do not seem to be learning much about Hamilton in history. I distinctly remember my fourth grade teacher telling us that Burr and Hamilton dueled because Hamilton insulted Burr's daughter, an idea she must have gotten from Gore Vidal's novel Burr. In reality, no one knows what, precisely, Hamilton said about Burr to spark their dual other than that it was something “despicable.” Chernow loses his objectivity and insists, somewhat implausibly, that Burr was all but jumping with glee after the duel.
For 2008 I resolve to see the Falsies in concert, because everyone tells me how good they are, to see something--anything-- at the Gravity Lounge, because I've never been there, and try at least two new restaurants.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Benjamin Franklin

I just finished Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan. Every American kid learns about Ben Franklin in history, but what I remember of those lessons is a vague montage of an old man flying a kite, writing pithy "Poor Richard" sayings, and somehow involved in establishing American independence. The school history books give the impression he was an old man his entire life.




This picture, by the way, is totally inaccurate. And no, I am not referring to the cherubs assisting in the advance of science, but rather to the fact that Franklin looks like he's about 80 years old when he did his famous kite flying experiment. In reality, he was in his early 40s. And was probably quite a looker, by all accounts. As a young man, Franklin was athletic--a powerful swimmer in a time when most people couldn't swim at all--charming and funny. Not to mention brilliant. The impression you get from reading his biography is that he was supremely charismatic. He loved people and people loved him. Women, apparently, found him irresistable, even in his old age.

Franklin was no provincial country bumpkin American. He spent years living in London, corresponded with influential people in Italy, France, Holland and other countries, was considered an authority on a variety of scientific topics, although he himself felt that devotion to public service was more important than furthering scientific knowlege. Franklin was a tinkerer, a figure-outer of things. He invented bifocals, the lightening rod, a new way of rigging ships. It was Franklin who figured out that lead is poisonous, by observing what handling lead type did to himself and other printers, plus observing and talking to painters, plumbers and glaziers (leaded glass). He also noticed that plants died in areas where lead was smelted.

Most of his life, Franklin considered himself an Englishman. He spent years devoted to a goal of a united English Empire in which the American colonies were full members, and not merely colonies. He also worked to move Pennsylvania from the rule of Proprietors, to the rule of a royal governor--thus earning the enmity of the Penn family.

When it became clear that his vision of America and England united in a single powerful empire would never happen, he devoted himself to the cause of American independence. Arguably, he was the only American sophisticated enough to parry with upper-level French government officials and lived in Paris during the American Revolution, gaining money and support from France.

The interesting thing about this book is the transition of Franklin from Englishman to American. We Americans, when studying our Revolution, emphasize the British as "other" when in fact they weren't. It's difficult to grasp the concept now, 200 years later, when we have a clearly established national identity different from the UK's, that the Revolutionary war was really a civil war--Englishmen fighting Englishmen.

I highly recommend this book although I confess I skimmed some of the more convoluted political passages.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tree Crimes and Misdemeanors

This year's Christmas tree was shipped to us directly from Maine, via the L.L. Bean catalog. It has a distinct list to starboard, but otherwise it is the perfect balsam Christmas tree of my bourgeois dreams.

We were not always so prosperous to order our trees from L.L. Bean. Six years ago, we had a somewhat traumatic tree-hunting expedition that typifies the absurd predicaments Jon and I find ourselves in. Our children at the time were 9, 8, 5, & 2.

It started with a budget crisis...

...I remembered that Ashlawn-Highland, the home of former US president James Monroe, was giving out FREE trees. We grabbed the tree saw, and headed down route 53. Jon drove ahead in his truck, and when the kids and I spilled out of the Volvo, we saw a young couple dragging a perfect Christmas tree toward their car. When questioned, they told us that the best trees were in the vicinity of the sheep. I popped into the gift shop to make sure we understood the rules of this venture, and was told we were free to cut down any cedar tree, and that donations to Ashlawn, in any amount, were gratefully accepted. Fair enough, although I kept to myself the fact that I didn't know what a cedar tree looked like.

Our first challenge was climbing the fence into a large field with woods at its edge. There were no suitable trees in sight, and there was a disconcerting lack of sheep. But what these woods lacked in sheep and Christmas trees, they made up in other organic matter, for the area had recently been occupied by a large herd of cows. After a long and dreary walk, we stumbled on a barbed-wire fence. The trees are always more Christmas-y on the other side of the barbed wire. Boosting four small children over the barbed wire fence was considerably more difficult than climbing the first fence, but we managed it, and were deep in a wood of enormous trees of one species that I assumed was cedar. They were all much too tall, and just as we were about to give up, we spotted the sheep and a tree that appeared suitable, or at least, diminutive compared to its neighbors. There was a long stretch of trunk before the branches began, but we were confident that once trimmed down, this tree would be perfect. Jon set to work with the saw, the tree fell with a resounding Whump!, and it became horribly clear that this tree was HUGE, and that we didn't have a chance of even dragging it to the car, let alone fitting it into our living room. What also became clear was that we had committed a crime. Our first impulse was to hide the evidence. Jon quickly began sawing the tree into smaller chunks, much as an axe-murderer chops his victims into pieces that will fit into a briefcase. The kids and I dragged the amputated tree bits to another fence nearby and tossed them over. Even two year old Mr. McP was scurrying to and fro with small branches. We were just in sight of the house and Jon alternated between bellowing at us to hurry up and hissing at us to be quiet. It was at this point that I remarked that our donation had better be in cash. And so we floundered through the muck--for the cows had been here too--frantically disposing of the tree, while ducking and dodging in order to remain invisible. The sheep, curiously, seemed oblivious to the sudden burst of activity in their pasture.

Once we'd hidden the evidence of our crime, we began our search anew. We now realized that our sense of perspective was somewhat skewed but when we found a second tree, we were at least able to judge that it was much smaller than the first one. As Jon started sawing, the three youngest children started to cry. "I don't want a Christmas tree!" sobbed Drama Queen. This tree, however, turned out to be easily portable. Even better, we discovered a broad stile over which we surmounted the fence with ease. Jon put the tree into his truck and headed home, while I stopped by the gift shop, gave them $10, and left in a hurry.

When I got home, there stood Jon, holding the tree up against the house. It was several feet taller than the front porch roof. We did, however, cram that whole tree, every bit, into our stairwell, where its top nearly reached the second floor ceiling and its branches bulged through the banisters and almost completely blocked the hall.

The really amazing thing is that the following year we returned to Ashlawn for another tree.
This year's mantle, artfully arranged by Drama Queen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Maybe local food is cheaper after all

When I was buying food at local stores, I was constantly conscious of price, and individual items are definitely more expensive at local stores. Yesterday, I tallied my spending for November--most of which was spent buying food only at local stores--and I was stunned to see that we actually spent less for food in November than we did for the past several months. In November we spent $895.24 on food. In October, $1106.83, in September, $925.97, and in August, $1018.86. This is for six people, two of whom are teens.

By "food" I mean food and not toilet paper or toothpaste or dog food or any of the other things you can buy at the supermarket. "Food" also does not include alcoholic beverages. Food bought in restaurants is a separate line item on my budget. Interestingly, in our month of buying local, we spent far less at restaurants too.

Why was shopping local cheaper even though prices are higher? I think it's because I stayed away from packaged foods, which are expensive anywhere, but are especially pricey at stores like Foods of All Nations.

I am once again rethinking how I buy food in Charlottesville.