Monday, November 30, 2009

Et tu, Willams-Sonoma?

I don't enjoy cooking, ordinarily, but when the holidays arrive I get all excited about the recipes that are presented in the foodie magazines and catalogs. Indeed, as I paused last Wednesday to allow a line of shiny Mercedes, groaning under their weight of groceries, lumber out of the Foods of all Nations parking lot, I felt suffused with good will toward all mankind. It was time to cook!

This year for Thanksgiving I decided to try a new stuffing, which, in the scheme of our Thanksgiving tradition, is like committing to wearing a wig for the rest of one's life. I have always made the stuffing from the Tasha Tudor cookbook, which is identical to my Aunt Mimi's stuffing, and only slightly different from my mother's stuffing. It isn't very sophisticated, but we love it. The chestnut-sausage-mushroom-fennel stuffing featured in the Williams-Sonoma catalog seemed like a step toward a more adult fare. I had to visit three different stores to collect the ingredients--hence the trip to Foods of All Nations which carries the peeled, roasted chestnuts that I couldn't find anywhere else (except the Williams-Sonoma catalog).

I also had to buy some sherry. What is sherry, anyway? The only people I have ever known to drink it were my mother--when she was alive--and prim ladies in Barbara Pym novels and Masterpiece Theater dramas. I found a $6.99 bottle. "Excellent for cooking" the label said, which is code for UNDRINKABLE. It's a one liter bottle and I used 1/4 cup. The chestnuts cost $13. This was turning out to be the most expensive stuffing in the world and I hoped that it would be worth it. I won't bore you with the details of the cooking, only that it required considerably more effort than my nursery-level Tasha Tudor recipe. In the end, the flavors that dominated were chicken broth + bread, the same as in any other stuffing. It tasted fine, although the lumps of chestnut were a little scary, but it was hardly the height of sophisticated dining.

On the other hand, the maple cranberry cheesecake--recipe from the December issue of Bon Appetit--was fabulous, so fabulous that I am going to make it again for Christmas. It has a graham craker crust, which 10 year old Mr. McP made for me, and the cheese filling is flavored with a maple syrup reduction. Then there's a brilliant sauce made from maple syrup, fresh + dried cranberries and a little brown sugar cooked together. This is an expensive cheesecake, what with all the maple syrup, but it is totally worth it.

That's our Thanksgiving in a nutshell. We had to celebrate it on Friday because Jon and I both had to work on Thanksgiving, and it made me very unhappy to leave our children alone. I agreed to work holidays, because that is just part of being a nurse, but I didn't agree not to be depressed about it. I had to work Black Friday too but Jon had the day off to roast the turkey.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Laundry 101

Congratulations on taking an interest in the fine art of clotheskeeping! Here is a brief summary of our three day course.
Day 1: Laundry Basics
Day 2: Sorting Colors
Day 3: Review class and quiz

Laundry basics.

A washing machine is a wonderful thing, but it can not work miracles. For example, a washing machine is a finite space. There is a limit to the number of clothes you can fit into it at one time. If you find that you are standing in your machine in order to cram in more clothes, chances are you have a load that is too large. Another thing: it is customary to start the water running first, then add the detergent, and THEN start adding clothes. Yes, there IS a "right" way to do laundry. Using the empty washing machine as a laundry hamper is a bad, bad habit that must be stopped immediately. Take note of the "wash size" dial on the machine's console. You must select a size that is appropriate to your load. We have already discussed how overloading the machine is a bad thing. Overloading it, and then doing the wash set on "small" is an even worse thing. How do you expect your clothes to get even partially clean if you wash seven tons of laundry with three gallons of water? Conversely, washing two pairs of socks, with "large" load selected is also very bad and guaranteed to make your wife mutter under her breath and close doors more firmly than strictly necessary.

Like the washing machine, the dryer can not work miracles. It is not a bottomless pit. It is customary to dry one load at a time. Cleaning the lint trap is MANDATORY.

Sorting colors.

As far as laundry is concerned, there are three types of colors: darks, lights, and whites. Examples of dark colors: black, navy blue, charcoal, brown. Examples of light colors: baby pink, sky blue, butter yellow. Examples of whites: white. It is usually acceptable to wash light colors with whites. It is NEVER acceptable to wash your wife's pastel pink blouse with a load of black pants and blue jeans. Remember, modern laundry sorting is not the equivalent of the Jim Crow South. You can't just designate "coloreds" and "whites" and think you have done even a remotely satisfactory job of sorting your laundry. This WILL be on the quiz.


We have covered some basic topics: not overloading your machines, and recognizing the fact that there are several color variations. Do you have any questions? No? Good. You have thirty minutes to complete your quiz. If you score less than 100%, you will be required to retake this class before you will be allowed access to your washing machine. Laundry 101 is a prerequisite for Laundry 102, in which we will study advanced topics like water temperature, detergents and bleach, delicates, pockets, and buttons and zippers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

You poor, base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen

After this, I promise to shut up about the Arctic. I finally finished The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton and I am bursting with knowledge. Did you know that the North Pole and the North Magnetic Pole are not the same thing? I have always assumed that Earth's magnetic poles are located at its geographic poles, when in fact, the North (and South) magnetic poles are located nowhere near the geographic poles, and they do not maintain a constant position. According to Wikipedia, the North Magnetic Pole is currently located on Ellesmere Island, but when it was first was discovered, by James Clark Ross, in 1831, it was on the Boothia Penninsula--both locations hundreds of miles south of the geographic North Pole and hundreds of miles distant from each other.

Then there's the Peary/Cook controversy. Did either one reach the North Pole? Cook has been discredited, although you can't help rooting for him because Peary is so unlikeable. I, in my colossal ignorance, had Robert Edward Peary--who claims to have been the first to reach the North Pole--confused with Oliver Hazard Perry, who beat the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, near Buffalo during the War of 1812. I did think it odd that a War of 1812 hero also conquered the Pole, and now I am straight on that mystery, much to my own satisfaction. Then there's Edward Parry--another important Arctic explorer, and of the War of 1812 era (although British), so you can excuse my confusion.

While helping Miss G write a poem for school, I discovered an amusing little web tool: Shakespeare Search. You type a word into the search bar and you will get every line from any of Shakespeare's plays that uses that word. Fresh from my Arctic research, I typed in "scurvy" and got a wealth of amusing insults: "What a pied ninny's this! thou scurvy patch!" (The Tempest III ii) I tried "whoreson": "You peasant swain! you whoreson malt-horse drudge! (The Taming of the Shrew IV i). Wench: "Marry, sir, she's the kitchen wench and all grease." (The Comedy of Errors III ii)

Elizabethan English had a rich collection of insults, most of which, sadly, have fallen out of use. Take this line from Henry VIII: "Bless me, what a fry of fornication is at the door." Or take this line from All's Well that Ends Well: "Drunkenness is his best virtue, for he will be swine drunk, and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him." There's a great scene in the academic satire I'm reading now, in which two professors engage in a duel of insults taken from Shakespeare. I read Forever Amber a while back and was impressed, indeed almost slack-jawed with amazement, at the glorious insults Amber uses against her many detractors. Forever Amber may not be taken seriously as a work of literature, but Kathleen Winsor did an impressive job of resurrecting the colorful dialogue of the 17th century.

English today has a pathetic collection of insults: asshole, douchebag--what else? I can't think of anything beyond these tepid examples.

Friday, November 13, 2009

She was so preppy was she?

Of the many irrational things I have done, encouraging Mr. McP to take up the bass is the one that is currently plaguing. The bass! What was I thinking? He is only big enough for a 1/4 size bass, but even so it takes up fully half of the back of my van. What we will do when he grows into a full size, I don't know. It towers over Drama Queen's full-size cello, and the bridge sticks out a mile. Luckily, he doesn't have to take it to school every day, since they keep one at school for him, but for rehearsals and concerts, he is expected to bring it. The other morning, we stood on the stage, attempting to unpack it, while the orchestra director looked on, and it must have been obvious that the bass spends most of its time at our house, standing in a corner, unplayed. It is so unwieldy that just getting it out of and back into its case is a project and a half, and Mr. McP's little armsare simply not strong enough to carry it.

Miss G, who plays the viola, was given first chair and a solo for her concert. I have been waiting for seven years for one of my kids to get first chair, and what happens? She arrived at class a little late, wasn't quite prepared to start playing when the director told them to, and for that, the director bumped her back to second chair and took away her solo. Thanks, Mr. Middle School Orchestra director. Thanks a lot.

Miss G and I have been scouring the city for black pants that she must wear to this now-ruined-for-us concert. Charlottesville generally sucks for shopping. There are nice boutiques, but when you need something basic like a pair of girl's black pants, size 0 long, you won't find them.
Gap: nothing.
J. Crew: nothing.
Belk: nothing.
Target: less than nothing.

I know a lot of people like Target, and maybe they do have nice housewares, but the clothes at Target are the most pathetic, shit-bag crap I have ever seen. Unwearable! In desperation, we went to J.C. Penny. It just never occurs to me to shop there, but I must say, their selection is far superior to Target's and we did, in fact, buy the very last pair of size 0 long girl's dress pants (black) in all Charlottesville. Sorry, other orchestra mothers who left their shopping too late. Next year, at least, she will get the concert dress provided by the high school and we won't have to do this again.

Speaking of shopping, Drama Queen needs winter boots. Would you like to see the boots she selected as appropriate for snow-and-ice wear?

Wait for it.

She really really really wants those tweedy clog boots. They cost $248. I finally persuaded her to accept something more sensible, but she is complaining that the boots we did buy are too preppy. When I was in high school, preppy was a good thing. I was so preppy, my collars impeded the range of motion in my neck. I was so preppy, I was virtually sexless. I was so preppy, I appeared to have a sock allergy. But today's teens follow a different path, apparently. How preppy were you?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Scurvy knave

Mr. McP was in a tizzy this morning because I was supposed to sign his report card. I assumed signing was unnecessary, since the signature acknowledges that I, the parent have received it, and in this case, his report card had been handed to me personally, by his teachers, and we had discussed it. He INSISTED that has teacher said that I had to sign it. Why not just sign it then and let the poor kid stop worrying? Because I had already lost it, and now, I'd have to write a note, saying I'd seen the report card, and the note--scrawled on a scrap taken from the recycling--would be proof of my carelessness. No, I don't save my kids' report cards. Isn't that what the transcrips are for? Actually, I do make an effort to save the last report card of the year, since it has the full year's grades on it. This is one of the many idiotic public school policies that make me nostalgic for our homeschooling days.

This weekend, my kids and a friend from the neighborhood went into the park across the street and raked themselves a huge pile of leaves. A random dad who was in the park with his small child joined in, and my kids welcomed him, and they were all planning to have a grand time jumping in their pile. Then other parents arrived, who, not understanding the spirit of the leaf pile, acted put out that my children were playing in it. Their plaintive requests: "Can my child have a turn now?" implying that they were somehow entitled to it. I know it's a public park, and I know that leaves are free, but, judging from my children's description of the encounters, it seems these parents thought the leaf pile had been provided by the city, much like the other playground equipment and that my children, in wanting to jump in the pile they had raked themselves, were being selfish. My children, having been brought up to be polite, deferred to the other parents and hardly had any time to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Am I being petty here? It's too much, perhaps, to say, "Go rake your OWN leaf pile." My kids didn't mind the dad who helped, and then let his kid jump, but I don't think they're wrong for being annoyed at seeing their pile destroyed by others who didn't even have the courtesy to thank them.

I'm still reading The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton. Much of it is devoted to John Franklin's tragic1846 expedition. His orders were to find the elusive Northwest Passage. He and his entire crew died, most likely of scurvy, and the British navy (and later some Americans) searched for twelve years before finding conclusive evidence of the crew's fate.

If scurvy was the primary cause of their deaths, a secondary cause was snobbery--not of John Franklin personally, but of the British Admiralty in general whose attitude influenced most arctic explorers of the period. A handful of explorers realized that the diet of arctic natives--fresh meat and blubber--was what prevented scurvy, but most refused to eat the native diet, and granted, it does sound singularly unappealing. Another problem was the navy's refusal to listen to arctic whaling captains, who were more competant with ice, but, since whalers had lesser social status, and were not British Navy officers, their expertise was rejected. Inexplicably, none of the explorers had the least idea of how to hunt and had no intention of learning. Instead, they lugged mountains of provisions through areas that had plenty of wild game. Sometimes they hired natives to hunt for them. Sometimes they were forced to resort to cannibalism. They also refused to use dogsleds. Instead, they built massive sledges designed to be hauled by men. Indeed, the explorers of the time actually believed that man-hauled sledges were somehow nobler, and that using dogs was a form of cheating. The result of this attitude was men who were completely worn out and taken by scurvy all the quicker. On the one hand, we had men who endured unimaginable hardship in order to map the arctic and contribute knowlege of the region--and they made many important contributions. On the other hand, The Arctic Grail is, among other things, a catalog of stupendous incompetance.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I started blogging in 2005, and yesterday I went through my archives and deleted a ton of posts. It felt good to weed the mental baggage: the memes, the "today I did this," the "bitching about my co-workers" posts. There are, however, a some posts that I deemed worth saving: most of my book and movie reviews, for example, the chronicle of the winter we spent building the addition onto our house, some other things. The original bunk bed story is pretty funny, though I say it myself. There was the time my nipples accidentally ruined one of Creigh Deed's campaign ads. There are some good Mad Scientist stories: the time we were in Sears and he thought we were in the Gap, the time he hacked through the security on the library's computer and got a stern tap on the shoulder from the librarian, the time he and his friend were giggling over a paperback book that I assumed was obscene that turned out to be short stories by Isaac Asimov, the time he used Celtic Runes to spell out the message "JESUS, YOU'RE AN IDIOT" to his science teacher and she translated it. There is also my post about Adele Davis and how I suffered because my mom followed her nutrition philosophy. That entry, written in 2005, brings multiple visitors to my site, daily, and is still generating comments. Indeed, just yesterday, someone claiming to be Adele Davis' son contacted me. His message was somewhat incomprehensible and I didn't understand why he mentioned cowboys until I realized he was referencing my profile picture. Ick.

All of that is on my old blog at a different hosting site. I don't back up my blog entries. Is that what most people do?

One series of posts I might republish is a recap of the novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Clarissa is the longest work of literature in English. Written in 1748, it tells the story of a young woman's determination not to give in to the man who goes to great lengths to have her. The themes of Clarissa are so foreign to modern sensibilities, and the plot is so ridiculous, it comes across as a farce, although I gather that eighteenth century readers took it seriously. It was also made into a movie, starring Sean Bean as Lovelace, the wicked man who's after Clarissa, and a forgettable actress in the title role. I'm considering rereading it and writing an improved snarky recap, but the thought of devoting months to rereading a book that drove me crazy isn't appealing right now. On the other hand, some people who read my recap liked it enough that they bought Clarissa so they could read it themselves.

Speaking of lengthy books, I am currently reading The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton--631 pages, but well worth the effort. Many non-fiction historical accounts are very dry. I sometimes read them like medicine; good for me, but so hard to get down. The Arctic Grail isn't like that. If it isn't the most entertaining and readable work of history I've ever read, it's definitely in the top five. The title sums up the subject matter: the 19th century quest for the Northwest Passage, and later, the North Pole. Highly recommended.

I'm also reading A Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes. A standard academic satire. Why are academic satires always set in English departments in the Midwest? Is it because writers are most comfortable with English, or is it because English departments are guilty of the worst crimes of puffed up, deconstructionist, post-modern, academic nonsense? Still, Hynes is a good writer, and his satires are more entertaining than some I've read, and at the very least it makes me glad I didn't choose that career path.