Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bunny's usefulness in the garden

I decided to do a little weeding the other day. I almost never do any gardening in the summer, but I figured a little weeding is better than no weeding. This time of year, my garden looks OK from a distance, but does not bear close scrutiny, and it gradually looks worse and worse as the summer progresses. We had a party recently and one of the guests was a gardener for UVA. She quickly scanned my garden's state of fabulous neglect, spotted one of the few decent plants--a magnificent hydrangea--and said scornfully, "And I bet all you do is breathe on it." Breathe on it? We don't even do that much.

So, in my tiny weeding adventure, I was surprised to find that things are not as bad as I thought. A flourishing nicotiana plant has appeared, perhaps seeded from a neighbor's garden. I certainly didn't put it there, but it was a nice surprise. The hollyhocks I planted are dead, but the Joe Pye weed is flowering, although stunted. The dianthus I planted is doing well, and when I noticed a small pink flower poking up from under a tangle of trumpet vine I realized that the rose bush I planted, watered a few times, and then forgot, is not only alive, but producing roses. Not particularly showy roses, but roses nonetheless. I pulled up the trumpet vine and couldn't believe how fresh and green my little rose bush looked. It, and the dianthus are the best-looking things in the garden right now, and I realized that what these two plants have in common is that as an experiment, I fertilized them with bunny droppings when I transplanted them.

Back when we got our bunny, a friend told me that bunny droppings make great fertilizer, and every time my kids cleaned the cage and threw the droppings away, I'd regret the waste, but console myself with the fact that there is plenty more where that came from.

I think I am going to start collecting bunny droppings in earnest.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Blasphemy at the DMV

My driver's license is about to expire, so I went to the DMV this morning to renew it. Overall, the process wasn't too painful. This is not a story of frustration with the DMV, it's a story of regret, having to give up the same photo that's been on my license since 1998. I was so young when that picture was taken--still in my twenties--and the guy at the photo booth that day wasn't in a hurry and took my picture twice and let me choose the more flattering of the two.

Generally, I look really awful in photographs. Supposedly the camera doesn't lie, but I've seen enough horribly unflattering photos of attractive people to know that the camera does lie. Indeed, it seems to actively seek to make some people look ugly. At least, that is the ideology I must cling to or become too depressed to function.

Anyway, that 1998 license photo was fabulous, as far as driver's license photos go, and it caused me to have an amusing adventure in a Charlottesville bar. I have a group of friends who share my birthday and one year, on our birthday, we all went out drinking together with the hope that generous bartenders would bestow free drinks on us in honor of the day. We weren't so lucky getting free drinks until the last bar we stopped at--I think it was Starr Hill--where a guy sitting at the bar took an interest in the five lovely birthday ladies and bought all of us drinks. He told us he was a hairdresser and he was very flamboyant and funny, one of those guys you tend see in bars late at night and then tell your friends the next day, "We met the funniest guy last night..."

So he bought me a purple haze, a drink I'd never had before and has since given me a lifelong aversion to Chambord, and then, wanting to make sure he wasn't being taken advantage of, asked to see our driver's licenses to prove it really was all our birthdays. I handed him my license, he took one look at it and said, "What is this? Little House on the Prairie? God Damn Laura Ingalls!" And he was right. I looked exactly like Melissa Gilbert in that picture.

Maybe that's why I liked it so much.

So today, sitting in the DMV I knew my chances of having a second flattering photo were next to nil. I'd brought a book to read while waiting--The Hard to Catch Mercy by William Baldwin--and had gotten to a scene where someone is caught stealing biscuits and says that Jesus made him do it. This struck me as funny and suddenly I thought, "Jesus please let my new license photo be flattering." Shocking! I never pray for trivial things and here I was invoking Jesus, of all people, in the DMV. I thought it would serve me right if I walked out of there with a picture of a 90 year old hag with a toothache, which is how I look in most pictures.

It turned out not quite as bad as all that. The new photo makes me look like a frustrated sales manager in her thirties whose mother is hounding her to get married and who dates a series of striped-shirt assholes and hates her job and lives in a cramped townhouse close to the interstate. And I get to keep it on my license for the next ten years! At least no one will mistake me for a character on Little House on the Prairie.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Forays in American cooking: part II

It's not sporting to make fun of the USDA. They're such an easy target. While we were in Washington the other day, we walked past the USDA headquarters, a huge building near the Mall. I wondered if somewhere inside was a test kitchen where government nutritionists labored to create new dishes that are thrifty and healthy. I knew there was a cafeteria in the basement, and I was tempted to stop in. We were looking for a place to eat lunch anyway and I was curious to see if they served “Pizza meatloaf” or “Ranch beans” or any of the other dishes in the official USDA cookbook.

Today was supposed to begin week two of living off the USDA thrifty food plan but when I saw that for lunch today I was supposed to prepare “Chicken and vegetables, scalloped potatoes and a homemade peach cake” (not to mention grapes, and one slice of bread-and-marg per person” I decided that this is not how I want to spend my summer vacation.

One week doing this diet taught me a number of things, mainly that the USDA wants us to eat. They want us to eat a lot. I don't know if this is because most Americans really do eat as much as what is presented on this menu, or if it's because they're trying to move American agricultural products. As we progressed through the past week, my fridge got more and more stuffed with leftovers. I thought we'd need to take a time out between week's one and two just to eat them up. Even though I was using a menu plan designed for a family of four to feed a family of six, there was still more than we could eat.

Example: Lunch on day four was homemade turkey chili, cooked macaroni, and peach-apple crisp. The turkey chili was more than enough, and it had barley in it. Why would we eat barley and macaroni in the same meal? Even without the macaroni, there were three servings of chili left over.

The USDA plan sticks to the outdated food pyramid, so it's ridiculously carb-heavy. Potatoes and bread at the same meal? Cereal and toast for breakfast? It also relies heavily on juice as a source of fruit. Why not just eat an actual piece of fruit? Indeed, foods rich in fiber are not in abundance in this menu.

The USDA wants Americans to eat less sodium, so many of the recipes have no added salt and as a result are tasteless.

The USDA wants Americans to eat a lot of meat. Breakfast is usually vegetarian, but both lunch and dinner for both days for both weeks (except for dinner on the last day) include meat—mainly beef, chicken and turkey.

The USDA does not approve of butter and lists margarine as a substitute in all recipes. Most recipes call for minimal amounts of fat, and the cookbook has taken many dishes that are traditionally fried and reworked them so they are baked.

Apparently, the USDA wants us to eat lots and lots of rice and potatoes. I made rice pudding for dessert four times last week, and that's four times more than I've cooked it in my life up to this point. The USDA rice pudding recipe is OK although it has that unfortunate “what the hell is rice doing in my pudding” texture that is the one fatal flaw of this dish no matter who cooks it. I had to double the amount of sugar called for to make it palatable. One day we ate cooked rice cereal for breakfast. This was rice cooked in milk instead of water, to which you add a little sugar and cinnamon. Potatoes appear on the menu almost daily: hash browns or “baked potato cakes” for breakfast, the ubiquitous scalloped potatoes for dinner and lunch. One day, I even had to bake “crispy potatoes” as snack.

I can appreciate that it would be difficult to put together a menu like this, since not only do the foods need to be reasonably nutritious and cheap, the recipes need to appeal to what someone at the USDA has decided is the typical American taste: nothing too ethnic, conservative seasonings, familiar ingredients that are available everywhere, and the menu has to provide enough calories to satisfy everybody.

Still, not everything we ate was terrible. The scalloped potatoes were good the turkey chili became edible once I added salt to it, and the oatmeal cookies—made with applesauce to replace some of the fat—were delicious. The oatmeal cookie recipe is the only one I'll keep and make again.

Tales of doom regarding our economy plus rapidly increasing food and gas prices have left me feeling worried about how I'll feed my family if a serious crisis develops, which is one reason I tried this menu. There are other menus out there. The Hillbilly Housewife has published an emergency plan which will feed a family of 4-6 for $45 per week. (That's probably $80 in Charlottesville dollars.) I'd like to try it. You can access it here. It seems more sensible, less doggedly devoted to the food pyramid than the USDA plan. It includes many vegetarian meals which makes sense if you're trying to save money. The USDA's commitment to serving meat twice a day is silly.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Forays in American cooking: Two weeks on the USDA thrifty food plan

I have achieved heights of ludicrousness I never dreamed possible. I am feeding my family the USDA way. I'm not the first person to try it. Jeffrey Steingarten, in a hilarious essay published in The Man Who Ate Everything followed the USDA thrift menu too, although his experience was different from mine in that he didn't feed an entire family and the menu seems to have changed since then. What I remember from Steingarten's essay is his description of a “peanut butter snack cake” which he says he ate “not without enjoyment.”

What is this thrifty food plan of which I speak? The USDA publishes a guide to help you feed your family nutritiously on a relatively small amount of money. You can access it here. It includes menu plans for two full weeks, a cookbook, shopping lists for each week, and tips on healthy eating and thrifty shopping.

Day one started with a trip to the grocery store. If you plan to do this yourself, I recommend that you bring both the menu and the shopping list to the store. Both are needed for clarification. But you won't try this experiment yourself. I have suffered so you don't have to.

I'd grabbed the list without looking at it carefully and as we progressed through the aisles of Harris-Teeter I became more and more appalled at the foods we were expected to buy. The thrift plan is designed for a family of two adults and two children. Since I have four children I'd planned to increase what I bought by 50% but this left me buying stupendous amounts of food. Thirty-two oranges, sixteen bananas, nine apples and 1.5 pounds of melon for a single week? Not to mention that I had to bypass the luscious Ranier cherries that were on sale, and also in season. Sixteen pounds of potatoes? Aghast, I decided to scale back to the amounts specified on the list.

We were led to buy foods I had never known to exist. Spinach comes in a can? We could hardly believe it, but it's true, there is such a thing as canned spinach. White bread? Does anyone actually eat white bread anymore? An entire gallon of ready-to-drink lemonade? Eight cans of frozen orange juice concentrate? Three and a half gallons of milk? My cart was a veritable tower of food by the time we got to check out. The total came to a not-so thrifty $197.

By the time we got home, it was time to cook the lunch. Day one's lunch consisted of “Turkey patties, hamburger bun (4) Orange juice (3 c), Coleslaw (2c), 1% lowfat milk (2c).” Yes, a hot, cooked lunch. Every day. I have news for the USDA: most American children are in school at lunch time. How, pray, am I supposed to pack “Potato soup, low salt snack crackers, Tuna pasta salad, orange slices, and oatmeal cookies”--day five's lunch menu—in a lunch box? Don't talk to me about tupperware. There isn't enough tupperware in the world to pack a five-dish hot meal in four lunch boxes every single day, not to mention Jon's lunch—and my own—I'm in school too, usually. And one must question when I am supposed to cook all this stuff. Can you imagine yourself frying up the turkey burgers at 06:00 so they're ready to pack in time for school?

But this was my experiment and if the USDA wants my family to eat a hot cooked lunch every day then my family will get a hot cooked lunch every day. And so it came to pass that on day two I was roasting a farking chicken at 9:00 in the morning.

But back to day one. The turkey patties weren't bad, although by the time I had finished cooking them, my children thought I was clearly off my rocker. They were excited too. I think they liked the idea of a menu set out for them, especially Mr. McP, my nine-year old.

The scheduled snack for day one was a slice of white bread each and “chick pea dip.” Chick pea dip turned out to be an inferior sort of hummus and I thought to eat it with white bread would be disgusting, so I toasted the bread and cut it into dainty triangles and my kids loved it. Loved it! Dinner was a hamburger helper-ish “beef noodle casserole” with lima beans (prepared from scratch) and sliced oranges and bananas for dessert.

Day two I realized that eating from the thrifty food plan was like going back in time to the 1930s. I was cooking almost the entire day. No sooner had I finished serving and cleaning up from breakfast, it was time to think about lunch. The lunch required a stupendous amount of preparation. There was the chicken, plus homemade potato salad, homemade rice pudding and an “orange gelatin salad” which I had to make from unflavored gelatin packets and orange juice. The lunch was tasty, except for the gelatin salad, which was inedible. Why not just buy a box of orange jello? Making it with the unflavored gelatin was actually more expensive and when you consider that nearly 100% of it got thrown away, it was not a thrifty dish. Dinner was a turkey/vegetable stir fry with rice and a homemade peach/apple crisp, which we ate not without enjoyment, to use the words of the inestimable Jeffrey Steingarten. After dinner, Mad Scientist brought his empty plate to the kitchen and said, “Thanks for making dinner, Mom. It was almost decent.” High praise, considering the source.

Today we begin day four.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

If the van is a-rockin' or, There'll always be a Belmont

Remember when Belmont was described by Realtors as every house buyer's dream neighborhood? Charming! Darling! Newly renovated! Mere steps from downtown! Jon and I used to snort at the hype because when you actually live here, you see that Belmont hasn't really changed that much. True, it's less common to see passed-out drunks in the park, but it was only a few months ago that Jon had to speak sternly to a man who felt that it would be perfectly appropriate to sleep off his hangover sitting on the curb across the street from our house--his back against a tree and his legs sticking out into the street.

We call this "keeping it real."

So this Saturday I came home from an errand, about 4:30 pm and noticed an old van parked in the curve of the road between our house and our neighbor's. A suspicious car is very obviously suspicious. I knew immediately that the occupants of the van were not a family visiting the park. Nor were they guests of any of the neighbors. Perhaps the passenger-side door left hanging open was a clue. Still, it isn't a crime to park your car in a public street, so I went about my business. Jon came in the house a little while later and said, "That van is a-rockin'." And it was. Bouncing and jiggling in an obvious way that left no doubt as to what was going on inside.

I admit, we thought it was kind of funny. That particular spot on our quiet street has long been a favorite place for people to park and have public sex. We have seen it before, but it's probably been a good three years since the last time, when I called the police because when I looked out my daughters' bedroom window I got a clear sight of two people engaging in oral sex in the front seat of a pick up truck. This was in broad daylight right at the time when the kids were expected home from school.

We didn't call the police this time--I don't know why except that we've called so many times over the years for nuisance things like this, we've grown jaded. Our neighbor was less amused and the police showed up about five minutes after he got home and saw the van parked in front of his house. Then came an amusing little street drama: the police officer confronting the van, then stepping back for modesty's sake to allow the occupants to dress themselves. The man emerged first. He was older than I expected him to be. The lady took a few minutes longer to correct her dishabille. She looked familiar. I am almost certain that she is a prostitute. The cop either chose not to notice this or really thought he was confronting two ordinary people who decided to have sex in a van in front of houses and a busy family park in the middle of the afternoon. The couple was "advised" and then they and the cop went their separate ways.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

day trip photos

Ambitious day trip yesterday.

Places visited: US Post Office Museum, Jefferson Memorial, lunch near Capitol Hill, Library of Congress, US Botanic Garden, National Art Gallery, National Zoo, Dinner in Adams-Morgan. We left Charlottesville at 7:30am and didn't get home until after 11:00pm.

What I did wrong: not studying my guide to the Metro beforehand. We would have been quicker and more efficient at catching our trains if I had done so.
Settling on a restaurant mentioned in Fodor's for dinner--it was an interminable walk from the zoo, and we passed by dozens of likely looking restaurants, but we were determined to eat at this particular restaurant, and it turned out that it wasn't even very good.

What I did right: Saving our trip to the zoo for last. We got there at 5:00pm, after everyone else had left and we practically had the whole zoo, including the pandas, to ourselves.
Staying in DC for dinner and avoiding rush hour for the drive home.
Driving all the way in to town and parking at Union Station. So much easier than worrying about finding a spot in a commuter lot.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Stipping paint is like childbirth

Anyone who has given birth has probably experienced the post-birth amnesia. After a while, you forget the pain, even think, "Oh, labor wasn't that bad," until you begin labor with another baby and the memories come rushing back, and you think, "Oh God! How could I have been so stupid to have done this to myself again?"

It's the same thing with chemically stripping paint from an object. You try it once, are appalled at the results, vow never to mess with strippers again, until one day, you decide the fifteen coats of paint glutting your living room woodwork has got to go, and you once more expose yourself to mutagens, teratogens, carcinogens.

I did some research, and learned that "NMP" strippers are what you want and not this other stripper whose name I can't recall, but it did have a "T" in it. So off I went to Meadowbrook Hardware, which is my favorite hardware store, btw, and they had a selection of strippers, but none of them were labeled as "NMP" or as the now forgotten "T" formula.

I spent quite a long time in the stripper aisle at Meadowbrook, and finally selected "Dad's" brand stripper which came with a little plastic spray bottle. I thought it seemed handy, and that spraying the stripper would result in a quick, even coat and would be easier than applying it with a brush.

Choosing the brand with the spray bottle turned out to be a nearly fatal mistake, since with spray, you will have splashback. Tiny specks of stripper caused tiny painful chemical burns on my arms, my feet, my face, and perilously close to my mouth. It also dripped. A lot. I had decided that I probably wouldn't strip the baseboards, but as I sprayed the window, I noticed the paint on the baseboards bubbling and peeling as dripping stripper landed on it. So now I am doing the baseboards. Hurrah!

A few minutes after you apply the stripper, the paint comes bubbling up in an encouraging way, and you think it will come off easily, but you have been fooled, because it comes off in slimy bits, and inconsistently, as some areas will be stripped to bare wood, and others will have lost just the first coat of paint. Don't get me started on trying to get the paint off curved moldings.

I had been worried about the fumes, but one whiff of stripper evoked a distant feeling of very early childhood. I have a feeling I spent some time, as an infant, sitting in a swing or bouncy seat, watching my father strip woodwork. In that respect, the "Dad's" paint stripper was appropriate. Indeed, all that day, even after I'd scrubbed my arms and hands thoroughly (and of course I'd worn gloves) an odor of paint stripper hung about me that was, I admit, not unpleasant.

Here is a picture of the Window of Sorrow

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

If you give a girl a paint chip...

Now that I am unemployed, I am about to repaint my living room so I have plunged bravely into the world of paint chips. My neighbor lent me her Benjamin Moore fan book, and with it were pamphlets from Pottery Barn with their paint collections from Spring, Summer and Fall of 2007. This was very exciting, as I had already purchased fan books with the Pottery Barn palettes for Spring and Summer of 2008, so now I have a wide variety of Pottery Barn-approved colors to choose from. Because where would the middle class be without Pottery Barn to guide us?

Even with all the help from PB, I'm having trouble deciding between Wedgewood Gray, Crystal Springs or Silvery Blue for my living room. I want the perfect blue-gray. Not too blue. Not too gray. I feel like Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dreamhouse, a movie I rented last weekend because the narrator in Do the Windows Open? says she watches it often because it's so unrealistic. And it is unrealistic. Especially the scene where Cary Grant is arguing with his architect and his lawyer while wearing a quilted satin smoking jacket. It's also very funny. Anyway, there's this one scene where Myrna Loy is telling her painters what colors she wants. She says something like, “I want the kitchen to be white, but not a cold white, a warm white. Warm it up with something but make sure it's a color that doesn't give a suggestion of anything other than white.”

Actually, painting the living room is turning out to be something of a Project. Before I could even get started, I had to paint the armoire. We bought it second hand at Circa. The previous owner had antiqued it. She'd painted it blue, with an umber glaze and hand painted flowers on the door panels. She even signed it: Gloria Mitchell, 1993. I'm sorry, Gloria Mitchell, but what worked in 1993, does not work now. I felt bad painting over your hand painted flowers, but it had to be done. Now the armoire is a dark gray, although I'm thinking it needs to be black. I did just find the most fabulous new knobs for it at anthropologie.
Anyway, I realized that it makes no sense to paint the living room without doing something about the ceiling. Ever since we moved in, the paint has been peeling off the living room ceiling in large, loose flakes. Underneath is bare drywall. I realized that this means my ceiling hasn't been painted since about 1974. Long ago, some previous owner of our house covered all the old horsehair plaster with drywall. They did a really bad job, too. They also installed a hideous ceiling fixture in the living room. Yesterday I scraped all the large, loose flakes off the ceiling and I covered the areas with a thin coat of drywall mud. Today I will sand and prime those areas, and tomorrow I can paint the ceiling.

But I also realized that something needs to be done about the woodwork. Previous owners—probably the same ones who put in the drywall and the hideous ceiling light—painted all the woodwork in the living room mustard. Mustard. The people we bought the house from had painted white on top of the mustard, only now the white paint is peeling off in long strips—probably because the mustard paint is oil base and the white paint is latex. I have seen this happen before.

Not only that, Jon and I damaged the paintwork badly when we replaced the sash cords last year.
The only thing to do is strip them. Gah! I suppose I ought to strip them before I paint the walls. It's a good thing I'm unemployed.