Monday, March 29, 2010

Weekend bulletin

  • Attended Junior Regional Orchestra, in which Miss G participated as a violist. This involved a two-hour drive to Woodstock, VA which wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't worked the night before, and then had to restrict my after-work sleep to just three hours in order to be on time for the event. So off to Woodstock we went to sit on bleachers—bleachers—in a middle school gym for two hours. Mr. McP was all, "WHY DOESN'T THIS SCHOOL HAVE AN AUDITORIUM?" and I was all, "Dammit, I wanted to nap while they were warming up" but there is no way to nap when you are sitting on a bleacher. There wasn't enough leg room, so my choices were to sit sideways, or let my knees dig into the back of the woman in front of me. Another woman asked us to make room for her to sit in our row, and Mr. McP and I obligingly swung our legs to the side so she could squeeze past us but she said "Thank you," in a way that clearly meant, "You are such a bitch for not moving over and letting me get the seat on the end." Then she talked loudly to the people in front of her about all the boring things she has been up to lately. I noticed that they had divided the children into two groups, so that we were going to get to sit through two concerts. Goody! Miss G was in the first group, and there was no mingling of students and parents between acts, so no chance to sneak out early. There were two guest conductors, a married couple, actually, and the female half introduced herself to the crowd by saying that Miss G's orchestra teacher had taught her when she was in high school, which was puzzling since they appear to be about the same age. Then she said, "I only wish I had been able to spend more time under him," with a lascivious twinkle—or did I just imagine it?—that showed she was well aware of her double entendre. The male guest conductor prefaced every single selection with a speech about the deeply personal meaning each song had for him, as if he thought we actually cared. Afterwards, searching for coffee, I headed the car toward "Historic Downtown Woodstock" but then I realized the last thing I wanted was to sit down in the "Calicoe Coffee Shoppe" or whatever and pay $15.00 for a cup of coffee on a lace doily and a couple of cookies to appease the kids. So I made a u-turn and we went to a McDonald's near the interstate.

  • I had been worried about getting killed on the ride home, and it turned out we were almost killed, although through no fault of my own. We were close to Charlottesville, on I 64, driving in the right lane at a perfectly-acceptable cruising speed of 70mph. It was nearly dark and there were no other cars nearby. Out of nowhere, two cars which were apparently racing each other passed me simultaneously, one in the left lane and the other on the shoulder. They were going so fast, they were a blur, and obviously, in passing me so recklessly—especially the guy on the shoulder—they could have lost control and killed me, my kids, and themselves. I thought about calling the police, but the cars were out of sight almost as soon as they had passed. I had no clue what kind of cars they were, or even what color.

  • The girls went off to babysit as soon as we got home. I walked down to bring them some pizza for dinner. Only here's the problem. The door was answered, not by one of my daughters, but by a man—the father of the child who lives there—with his wife following behind. I had never met these people before, but I explained that I was Drama Queen's and Miss G's mother and that I'd brought them some dinner, thinking maybe the parents had gotten detained and were leaving any minute, but it turned out that my girls weren't babysitting for them that night and I was crushed under the full force of the embarrassing implications. Not only was I standing on the front porch of people for whom my daughters were not babysitting, not only was I holding a battered square pan with four slices of pizza in it—I hadn't even bothered to cover them decently with saran wrap—not only was that pizza from Domino's, not only was I delivering my children's dinner at 9:30pm, but I had sent my daughters out into the night and I had no idea where they were. I realized that they could be babysitting at any one of a number of houses in the neighborhood. Was I going to have to knock on all their doors until I found the right house? And the thing is, they had probably told me where they were babysitting, (they had) but I probably hadn't been listening (I wasn't). Anyway, I did find them, and on the very next try so it all ended happily.

  • Speaking of Dominos, we don't usually eat corporate pizza, but the media has been going crazy over how Domino's bravely admitted that they suck and then "improved" their pizza. I had to see what all the fuss is about. It still tastes like crappy corporate pizza, only with more garlic and salt.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Home improvement

My latest project:

Old door from our basement

As you know, if you've been paying attention, my house has ONE closet and that was perfectly adequate for the six of us until lately when my daughters became teenagers and developed insatiable appetites for clothes and are now able to supplement their wardrobes with their babysitting money.

An upscale children's furniture company called Land of Nod used to sell fabulous armoires made from antique doors:

It was on my list of things to buy one day, but then some do-gooding nancypants got upset about lead paint and the armoires were recalled. Lead paint? Please. My entire house is marinating in lead paint. I don't think one armoire door will make any difference. And you might think that the used furniture market would be flooded with these armoires: "I'll sell it to you for $3.00 because it's contaminated with lead paint!" Only you can think again, because I saw only one for sale and that's Seattle and they expect you to pick it up yourself. I guess all these armoire owners are relieved they got theirs before the recall went into effect.

But then I remembered that I have a stack of these old doors in my very own basement. Thus, I found myself sitting in my car in a shady neighborhood of Charlottesville, working up the courage to enter the workshop of a cabinet maker. The building was one of those corrugated iron warehouse-type places with various unmarked doors and no telling which one was the cabinet maker and not the guy who strangles live bunnies or sells stolen cars. I got the right door on the first try and the man inside, although clearly somewhat nonplussed by surprise visitors, was also clearly a furniture maker and he agreed to make me an armoire.

I dragged the door out of the basement myself--it weighs at least eighty pounds, probably more like one-twenty--and realized it needs some TLC before I take it to the cabinet maker, so I am cleaning it and will take it to him next week, and soon my girls will no longer have an excuse for all the clothes thrown all over their bedroom floor.

My other project is a new kitchen window. This window, a cheap replacement for the original, sucks, not only because the storm window broke and freezing air has leaked into my kitchen all winter, but also because in order to open or close it you need to climb up onto the sink and that's a pain. I went to the Pella dealer for estimates and now I have to find someone who will install it.

The sucky old window

What's your latest project?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Erin go Bratwurst

I believe we've discussed before, my dislike of corned beef and cabbage and Jon's inexplicable insistence on eating it for dinner every St. Patrick's Day. My mom, who was as Irish as Paddy's Pig, as they say, disliked Irish food too and never cooked it. Her one culinary concession to St. Patrick's Day was to make Irish coffee for her and my dad after dinner. It looked delicious, with a big puff of whipped cream on top, but it was actually just coffee with whiskey—that's plain whiskey, not Bailey's Irish Cream—and apparently unsweetened. When I was nine, she let me taste her Irish coffee and it was a bitter disappointment.
My dad is Irish and German, but mostly German and my mom embraced the cooking of his homeland. We ate an awful lot of pork chops with sauerkraut and German potato salad while she reminisced about her grandmother's horrible Irish potato pancakes and told us how lucky we were not to have to eat Irish food. Indeed, I came to think it was a sign of being authentically Irish, to dislike Irish food which is why Jon's love of the old corned beef has always surprised me since he's as authentically Irish as I am.
So every March 17th, I find myself confronted with a hunk of brisket and every year, no matter what recipe I use, we end up with a bland, disappointing dinner that not even gallons of mustard can salvage. This year I decided to try Alice Waters' "Boiled Dinner" from The Art of Simple Food. This is a pretty elaborate recipe for such a humble dish and I had to omit some steps, such as where she has you brining your own tongue. That is, your own tongue that you bought at the butcher's and not literally YOUR tongue. But you knew that. Anyway, I had to adapt the recipe to my simpler resources. I trundled off the Whole Foods Wednesday morning and bought an organic, grass fed hunk of corned beef. I bought cabbage and potatoes, leeks and carrots, bread crumbs and cream, ground pork and chicken livers—for the stuffed cabbage leaves. No more wedges of boiled cabbage for us! Had I known about chicken livers' distinct resemblance to chopped earthworms, I might have omitted them. (I now have a tub of extra chicken livers, and if anyone can tell me what to do with them, I'd appreciate it.)
I spent the whole day cooking, which was magnanimous of me, considering I had to be at work at 7:00pm for a 12 hour shift. I even went to the bakery and bought a nice dessert—little cherry almond linzer tarts. And I wasn't even going to be able to eat this creation. The piece de resistance was the pile of little cabbage leaf packages, stuffed with pork and chicken livers. The whole dinner boiled away and was cooked enough for me to try a taste before going in to work. I was dying to try the stuffed cabbage. For the first time ever, my corned beef and cabbage dinner was a success. St. Patrick's Day will no longer be the dinner I dread. It's nice to have a cooking success because I still haven't managed to bake decent bagels, despite ordering high gluten flour from King Arthur. But that's another story.

Monday, March 15, 2010

In Which I bitch about a bad book

I recently took a quiz, put out by the Brazen Careerist, which was supposed to show you if you are happy or interesting. The point being, that interesting people are not happy and happy people are not interesting. But does it follow that all unhappy people are interesting? If you read Sandra Gulland's The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, you will see that the answer is a resounding no.
I was really looking forward to reading this book. I like historical fiction, I like romance, I like this time period, and I felt I deserved some comfort fiction. The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B is the first in a trilogy about the life of Josephine Bonaparte. It's written as if it were her diary. An international best-seller, the Amazon customer reviewers praise it to the skies. So you can imagine my disappointment when I realized what a crappy book it is.
Josephine Bonaparte led an interesting life. Born in obscurity in Martinique, she managed to become empress of France and in the meantime married a viscount, was imprisoned during the French Revolution, hobnobbed with the leaders of the French Republic and raised two children. Yet Gulland makes her as dull as paint, a remarkable achievement considering the material she had to work with.
There is Josephine herself (called "Rose" in her pre-Napoleon years). Here's a sample from her "journal."
I don the clothes of the widow Beauharnais. The dull black suits my soul, reflects the death I feel within. Even my children cannot wake me from my slumber. Stiff white gauze tickles my throat. A veil of taffeta covers my boyish curls. I am a ghost. I am a survivor.
And so it goes. She weeps, she sighs, she expresses sentimental thoughts, she makes irritating dramatic pronouncements. Perhaps she has heard disturbing news about her husband. She will write something like, Alexandre….my husband…the father of my children. Mon Dieu. Those affected little "mon Dieus" really got to me. The book reads like a catalog of all the things that happened to Josephine, and her emotional reactions to them, but what Gulland apparently fails to realize is that describing someone's emotions does not make her a well-developed character. A large portion of the book—at least 200 pages out of its 429—details Josephine's activities during the French Revolution, during which she tirelessly visited various officials advocating for her imprisoned friends. The real Josephine probably did do this. It appears that Gulland researched her subject carefully, but it's difficult to believe that the lumpen, passive, weepy, fictional Josephine could have had an influence over her own chambermaid, let alone the likes of Jean Tallien or the Viscomte de Barras. At one point, someone screams at her, "I am sick of your tears!" possibly the only convincing statement in the entire novel. Not only is all the political intrigue unbelievable, it's also deadly dull. I had a hard time keeping all the French republicans straight, but then I realized it hardly matters since they don't serve as characters in their own right and only as vehicles to move Josephine's story along.
Then there are Josephine's island beginnings, which of course must be tainted with voodoo. There's an early visit to an Obeah woman who tells her she will be queen. There is a disapproving priest, an angry grandmother, a dying sister, a punishment in which she's locked in the basement for eight days. All very thrilling and dramatic if it weren't so stupid.
Gulland also pesters the reader with footnotes. Josephine might receive a letter that says, "Oh guess what? The Duke of Blahblahblah and his wife have had a baby girl." Then there will be a footnote telling us who that baby girl grew up to be who she married, how she will be tangentially connected with Josephine's descendents. Who the freak cares? You suspect the letter was put into the text simply to drop the name of the baby girl who grows up to be Somebody even though she has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Gulland would have done better to write a biography of Josephine rather than this fictional hybrid.
Then there's the writing itself, sentimental, mawkish, low-grade romance novel stuff. At one point there's even mention of a "manhood" of the throbbing variety. Oh Sandra, surely you knew better. For some reason, Gulland felt it important to convince her audience that Josephine was a good person, so there is much hand-wringing about beggars, secret slipping of coins to the household slaves, virtuous rejection of potential lovers. At one point, after traveling from Martinique to France (Josephine's description of the entire journey goes something like this: Seven weeks of mal-de-mer. Ah, to step on firm ground again.) There's a footnote telling us of the belief that Josephine and the ship's captain were lovers. At last something interesting and it's glossed over in a footnote.
Reading this novel actually made me angry. There was the let-down of expecting some glorious brain candy and getting something two steps up from a Harlequin romance. There was resentment, I admit it, that Sandra Gulland is probably living off her royalties while I am dumping urinals and venting my frustration with vicious little book reviews. Is there something wrong with me that I can't enjoy this book? Or maybe I'm secretly gloating over my superior taste. And yet I hate snobbery. And why are books that are this bad such huge best-sellers? I'm sure some of you have read it. What did you think?
For comparison: I also recently read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (Here's what's awesome about Penelope Fitzgerald: she published her first novel when she was in her sixties.) The Bookshop is not a historical romance, but it is a fine example of what makes a good book. Like Josephine, it's mainly a somber book. But here's the thing: it's also very funny. Because real life is a well-mixed concoction of comedy and tragedy and if you want to write about real life, or a real person, you need to include the comedy. Relentless sorrow, no matter how dramatic, is boring.
Perhaps it's better to compare Josephine to other historical romances I've read. Okay, then. How about Forever Amber, the archetype of the trashy novel? Forever Amber is actually pretty good. Oh, it's trashy, but it's so much more alive than Josephine. There's spectacular dialogue—the author availed herself of the rich store of colorful 17th century English and its insults—and Amber is utterly whorish, but also sympathetic although no effort is made to give her a gloss of morality or sentiment. I guess I'm not such a snob after all.



Thursday, March 11, 2010

Patience's Day of Pain

I guess I agreed to chaperone Mr. McP's field trip to Pamplin Park, a Civil War museum in Petersburg, VA because I was attracted to the idea of being taken somewhere--anywhere--in a bus and not have to be responsible for anything other than preventing a handful of ten-year olds from getting lost or spilling soda on an authentic confederate uniform, which turned out to all be behind glass, anyway. That, and the fact that I actually can chaperone field trips, since during nursing school I never had any days off and was pretty much unavailable for all my kids' activities that took place during the day.

Mr. McP was so excited. He was excited about the bus--a bus with a bathroom! He was excited to be spending an entire school day with his mom. He was excited to eat his packed lunch, because I always put extra treats in field trip lunches. We had to be at school by 07:15, a time I figured was more of a guideline, like they tell us 07:15 because they really want us there by 07:30. But no, Mr. McP and I rolled in exactly on time and we departed within ten minutes. Twelve kids were late and got left behind.

Early morning vehicular rides are not my favorite thing and it seemed like the previous occupants of our bus had spent their time taking their shoes off and eating Cheetos. Was I going to be bus sick? How embarrassing! Eventually I fell into a drooling, open-mouthed head-lolling sleep against the bus window while Mr. McP played twenty questions with his friends. My dreams were punctuated with questions: Does it have seeds? Does it lay eggs? Is it a vertebrate? Indeed, I was groggily impressed with some of Mr. McP's probing questions until I realized he was reading them from a tiny computer. It appeared that the other parents were all passed out too, except for the neatly turned-out mom near the front, who I saw passing a copy of The New Yorker to her ten year old daughter to read on the bus. OK--I used to read The New Yorker when I was ten, too, but only for the cartoons and the funny end notes they used to put at the ends of the articles. Do they still do that? I haven't looked at a New Yorker in years. Anyway, later, I heard the father who'd been passed out in the seat across the aisle, say that the dramamine he took had made him sleepy and I was glad to learn that I'm not the only adult who still gets car sick.

By the time we arrived, I felt like I'd OD'd on Valium. I staggered about for a few minutes and clawed through my backpack for my little thermos of coffee. Mr. McP wanted a sip but I snarled at him that I needed my coffee, and he couldn't have any, and I saw the New Yorker mom do a quick double-take.

We were led to a large gravel plot where a man in a confederate uniform gave a demonstration of how to load and fire a rifle.

The rifle shot revived me somewhat, and soon the kids were all issued wooden rifles and went through a mock load-and-fire drill.

Fixed bayonet

Then they learned how to march and how to charge, and how to fire from the second row without blowing off the head of the guy in front of them. They learned how to fix a bayonet and charge with a bayonet and why a bayonet wound was so feared. The confederate soldier fixed his own (real) bayonet and did a mock charge at the children. Oh, it's OK. He stopped a whole two feet from the front row of kids. Now, this was all very interesting, and appropriate to a museum devoted to the experience of the civil war soldier, but my brain had awakened enough to see the irony.

Just last week, a high school student in the next county was expelled, under the zero-tolerance policy, for having a toy gun, locked in the toolbox in his truck. That's right. It was a toy, locked, in his truck. I can see why there are rules against toy guns in schools, but when you have a zero tolerance policy, you are committed to outrages against justice like this one, or the case where the 13 year old girl was strip searched because it was rumored she had some ibuprofen, or the myriad other cases in which kids, doing normal kid things, are humiliated and treated like dangerous criminals, all in the name of "zero tolerance" which is so freaking ridiculous I can't stand it. Then we take them to Civil War museums and give them rifles and teach them how to use them.

Later, before the obligatory gift shop visit, our guide asked if the children were allowed to buy toy guns, and one of the teachers said, "Sure," and I thought how nice it was that Charlottesville's schools aren't bogged down in pointless rule-mongering. A few kids did buy guns and one of them spent the bus ride home merrily pretending to shoot people. Nobody seemed to mind, and I fell asleep again until Mr. McP woke me and told me my mouth was open and it was embarrassing him. That Valium overdose feeling came back to me on the bus, only I suspect it was actually a little carbon-monoxide poisoning. Mr. McP and I both felt awful on the bus, sleepy and headachey and vaguely nauseated, and continued to feel ill for the rest of the day.

When we got back to the school, a teacher made a hurried announcement to "the kids in the triad that WERE allowed to buy guns." He told them they couldn't go back into the school building and that riding the bus was going to be a problem too--I'm not sure how they sorted it out, but most kids had parents to pick them up anyway. So, Charlottesville does have a zero-tolerance policy, but at least the teachers showed common sense and didn't freak out and no one was expelled.

Our tour guide, demonstrating on Mr. McP, how a soldier would carry his blanket.

I dare you to wear these earrings.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Putting the GLUE in gluten: a bagel FAIL

The ability to make decent bagels at home has long eluded me. I've tried several recipes, each one claiming to divulge the "secret" of bagel baking—barley malt syrup in the dough, baking soda added to the boiling water, boiling for X number of minutes, or Y number of minutes or whatever. Every recipe I've tried produced what were essentially dense little dinner roles with holes in the middle. I gave up on bagel making for a long, long time. Then I got Baking Illustrated from the library—a cookbook in which even the simplest recipes come with pedantic explanations. The Baking Illustrated bagel recipe was so comprehensive, so well-researched besides adding a new "secret" to my store of bagel lore that I felt it could not fail. I set out to Whole Foods forthwith in search of barley malt syrup and high gluten flour. I envisioned my kitchen becoming a bagel production center on a small scale. Never again would I have to stand in line at the bagel shop on a Sunday morning behind hung-over UVA students and Hateful Yuppie Families.
Baking Illustrated warns that high gluten flour can be hard to find and when I saw something called "Vital Wheat Gluten" in the bulk section at Whole Foods, I found an employee and asked him if it was the same thing as high gluten flour and he assured me that it was. I had some misgivings—the vital wheat gluten seemed somehow wrong—but the employee said it was OK—so I filled a big bag. After all, I planned to make lots of bagels.
Baking Illustrated says that professional bagel bakers put their bagels in a "retarder" (hear that Sarah Palin?) A retarder is a specially designed refrigerator that "retards" the dough i.e. causes it to rise more slowly to enhance bagel flavor. I felt that knowing the secret of retarding plus the new high gluten flour (not bread flour, Baking Illustrated is very clear about that) would finally give me the perfect home bagel.

A stand mixer with a dough hook is necessary, Baking Illustrated says, since bagel dough is so very stiff and dry. I put my precisely measured ingredients into the mixer and set it to high. The result was an industrial adhesive. I was concerned about its sickly gray color. I was more concerned about the fact that my dough blade—literally—could not cut into it. I made a half-hearted attempt at kneading the mass on my counter, but this dough didn't need kneading. It needed an exorcism. "Snack food for aliens" was one metaphor that passed through my brain as I wrestled with what, clearly, would never be an acceptable bagel. The dough reminded me of something that I couldn't quite place: cartilage, maybe. I was reminded of tales of old horses being cooked down into glue. This was like a pot of boiled hoofs. No doubt I had created something useful. It might patch a leaky tire or be used to caulk your garage windows, or repoint your brickwork but to actually eat it might prove fatal and would certainly result in a bowel resection.

Of course I realized quickly that "vital wheat gluten" is not the same thing as high gluten flour and may Whole Foods forever bear the shame of having misinformed a customer. I tried again the next day with all purpose flour. I considered adding a little vital wheat gluten to punch up the dough but decided that I'd had quite enough of baking disasters for one week. I slid my little bagels into my refrigerator retarder where they retarded themselves for twelve hours before being boiled and baked. Result? Dense little dinner rolls with holes in the middle.
Now I know that high gluten flour can be found in the King Arthur Baker's Catalog, and I may make ONE last attempt at home made bagels, but if it fails, it is the back of the line at the bagel shop for me again.
In other news, I got my application to UVA submitted on time and finished my "who do you want for dinner" essay last night after working a twelve-hour shift, actually two twelve hour shifts for the weekend, which, believe me, is fucking exhausting. For the essay I finally committed to Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Johnson, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Of course there were hundreds of other people I could have chosen, and I kept second guessing myself: "Oh God! What about Dorothy Parker? What about Michelangelo? What about George Stephanopoulos? What about Tim Russert? What about a Paul McGann triptych: Paul McGann as himself, Paul McGann as the "I" in Withnail & I, and Paul McGann as Lieutenant Busch in Horatio Hornblower?" That last one, I wouldn't seriously put in a college essay, but it's a fun idea. Anyway, it's done, except for the stupid FAFSA and UVA's own financial aid form which is more arduous than the FAFSA. Those are due today too.