Monday, January 31, 2011

The Toaster of Doom

I spotted Seamus sticking a knife into the toaster to retrieve an English muffin.  "Don't do that!" I shrieked and  launched into the "electrocuted by toaster" lecture.

Then I started thinking.  Are the heating elements really live electrical wires?  It seems improbable.  I remembered that my source for the "toasters will electrocute you" story was my second-grade teacher, Sister Maurice, the most evil nun ever unleashed on innocent children.  Sister Maurice was a fountain, a veritable spewing volcano, of misinformation.  Sister Maurice's sole responsibility seemed to be to get us through our religion workbook and give us a taste of what hell was like. Indeed, the daily classroom routine broke into three sections:
  1. Religion
  2. Sister Maurice's reminiscences about her childhood and personal philosophies
  3. Punishment

Of all the adults I encountered in my childhood, Sister Maurice probably had the biggest influence on me.  She was the very first person I ever met who actively hated me, and it has taken my entire adulthood to expunge my brain of the incorrect things she taught--that the four seasons are caused by the Earth's elliptical orbit around the sun, that sitting on the curb in a month with an "R" in it will kill you, that Amherst, NY was almost bombed by the Russians.  The last one, of course, my mother told me was ridiculous but I would have none of her reasoning: "But Mom, Sister Maurice said!"  I can still see her, telling us that for Catholics it is a mortal sin to miss mass on Sunday, and how dreadful we were for grumbling about it and then gesturing out the window to St. Peter and Paul's Lutheran church across the street. "You gotta hand it to the protestants," she said, "if they're in church it's because they actually want to be there." At that moment, I wanted to be a protestant more than anything in the world.

Anyway, I realized that if it was Sister Maurice who told me that toasters will kill you, it was probably not true.  Here I was, 42 years old, and still clinging to fallacies taught to me when I was a gullible seven-year old.  I decided to do some research.  What did I find?  That toasters actually can kill you!  It's not common and there are now safety features built into toasters, but you can't depend on the safety features being  installed correctly and even if they are, you can't rely on your house's wiring, especially if your house was built before 1940. (My house was old in 1940.)  Not only that, unplugging the toaster doesn't make it safe!  Because you could damage the wiring and cause a future electric shock. Not only that, on the Snopes website is a post from a woman who says her mother got a hole blown out of her thumb after she picked up a toaster (presumably one that was turned on) with wet hands. I thought of my cavalier handling of my toaster these many years.  How with downright smugness, I would unplug my toaster before jamming knives into it.  Let other idiots electrocute themselves.  I knew better.

I don't know why I am so surprised.  As a nurse on the trauma floor at a level 1 trauma center, I know that freak accidents aren't called freak accidents because they are rare, but because they are freakish.  I also know that there is almost no object in your house that doesn't have the potential to puncture your lung, lacerate your spleen or break your neck.  Think your leaf-blower has no chance of sending you to the hospital for an entire week?  Think again. Think changing a lightbulb can't buy you an ICU stay?  Wrong.

We've had our share of home-based accidents.  If you've been reading me for a while you might recall that I got chopped in the head by an axe.  Ian once tripped over the clutter in his bedroom and put his arm through a window.  One time, when Jon and I were replacing the sash cords in the living room window, Jon set the end of the new sash cord on fire in order to keep it from fraying.  I licked my arm--idiotically thinking that a thin skim of saliva would somehow protect me--and put the smoldering rope out on my arm, startling myself mightily and burning the shit out of my arm with a horrifying sizzle. This is just a choice few of a much longer list of incidents that I have edited.  Obviously, a modicum of intelligence will prevent many home accidents.  I'm not sure what we can do about the Sister Maurices of the world.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Big Clean

I love Ian, I love him dearly.  I love him so much that I feel guilty about the cleaning frenzy I indulged in after he went back to school.  He had appropriated a corner of the dining room table, where he set up his lap top and books, his cigarettes, his phone, his bowls of popcorn and his empty mugs and glasses.  That is where he sat when he was at home, except when he was spilling bacon fat in the oven or sleeping, or taking long showers, or spreading all seven disks of The Mighty Boosh out on the coffee table.  One day I tried to tidy the dining room.  Ian said angrily, "Stop it! This is an active coffee drinking and cigarette rolling station!"

As soon as I got back from dropping Ian at the airport, I decided to do a major kitchen clean.  I felt that I couldn't tackle the now-dormant coffee drinking and cigarette rolling station in the dining room until I had gotten a grip on the kitchen.  It isn't Ian's fault that my kitchen is filthy.  It's the fault of my sluttish housekeeping.  The sort of cleaning tasks that most women do monthly or weekly, I do yearly, or even once in a decade.  My favorite cleaning product is a can of white latex semi-gloss.

I decided that the best approach would be to take absolutely everything out of the kitchen and thus have flat open spaces for easy wiping.  It would be "easier."  And it was easier.  Easier than diving to the bottom of the Atlantic and removing every item from the Titanic one by one with my teeth.

The problem with this all-or-nothing approach to cleaning is that if you don't start until 11:00am and then at 12:30 you take a tea break and fall asleep on your bed and then waste a lot of time ineffectually trying to wipe the grease from your kitchen ceiling--which you could have done without moving a single teaspoon out of the way-- it will suddenly be close to dinner time and you will not be prepared to cook anything.  And you can't order pizza because you ordered pizza last night because it was Ian's last dinner and that's what he wanted, but you had planned to make meatloaf, so there is a great hunk of ground beef in your fridge, already defrosted and you have to cook it tonight or it will go bad.  You are, to put it crudely, fucked.

The meatloaf was served at 8:00pm, in a kitchen that was still missing most of its implements.  It's pretty disheartening to have half-cleaned your kitchen and then mess it up with the preparations for a meal.  I gave up and went to bed without even washing the dishes.

Today I moved the stove and cleaned under it--something I do more often than most people despite my general laziness where cleaning is concerned.  I can't stand the idea of dirt collecting in areas where I can't see it.  I am unconcerned about the inch-thick dust on the desk in my front hall, but I obsess about the dirt underneath the stove and the refrigerator.  So the space under the stove wasn't as dirty as you might expect, and there were no mouse droppings.  The space under the stove used to be a prime spot for mouse droppings.  I don't know if I should be happy about that or not.  I don't like mice--nasty shit-spewing creatures--and for years we were sorely troubled by them.  Then suddenly they disapeared.  I worry that the lack of mice is a sign of a deeper problem--a snake or a lethal disease or some sort of subterranean flooding but there is no way I am braving the crawl space to investigate.  If someone held a scary basement competition, mine would definitely win.

Now it is Monday afternoon and the kitchen is still pulled to pieces.  I have to work tonight and Tuesday night, which means I will be absolutely useless until late Wednesday afternoon, by which time the kitchen will be as dirty as if I had never attempted to clean it in the first place.  Such is the life of the servantless American housewife.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book reviews

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

I first noticed this book when I was in high school, working as a page at our village library. A novel about a girl in medieval Norway? It was right up my alley but the novel's girth put me off when I had so much schoolwork to do and poor Kristin sat neglected on the library shelf. I don't think anyone ever checked her out and Kristin Lavransdatter became attached to my mental list of books to read some day. I did not realize that Sigrid Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928, mainly because of this novel.

One day a few years ago, a friend of mine told me she was reading Kristin Lavransdatter and that she really liked it. Then I saw a street named after Sigrid Undset, in Rome of all places, and decided that the time had come to get serious about reading this novel, which follows the life of Kristin from early childhood until her death in the 1300s.

What I loved most about Kristin Lavransdatter was the portrait of Kristin as a mother.  Sigrid Undset must have known a thing or two about babies because I can't think of any other book in which they are so charmingly and accurately described.  I half got the feeling that some members of the early attachment parenting community used Kristin as an instruction manual. There's also Kristin's marriage, so beautifully portrayed in all its complexity and a cast of powerful side characters, including Kristin's children as they reach adulthood.

The book is long--over 1,000 pages--but divided into three novels.  I understand if you do not feel ready to take on a 1,000 page work of historical fiction (and one that had to be translated into English at that) but I do urge you to keep this book in the back of your mind until the time is right.  If you don't want your life to be all Kristin, all the time, you can read other novels between each of the Kristin books, which is what I did.

Speaking of translations, I read the old translation by Charles Archer, which uses archaic sounding language and was challenging at times.  According to some reviews I've read, the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally is better and truer to the original work.

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen

Three lesser-known works of Jane Austen!  Years ago I tried to read Sanditon, Austen's last novel which was left uncompleted when she died.  Naturally, some busybody tried to finish it for her and the result is disappointing.  I was unaware of the existence of Lady Susan and The Watsons, until I read Virginia Woolf's essay about them in The Common Reader. All three are collected in a single volume, edited by Margaret Drabble.

Lady Susan is a complete short novel, written in epistolary form.  Austen wrote it when she was very young, and it's an immature work without much depth.  What's different about it is that her main character, Lady Susan, is sexually promiscuous, bitchy, and, at age 35, older than most of Austen's protagonists.  

The Watsons, written in the middle period of Austen's life, follows familiar themes:  a daughter of a poor gentleman, sent to live with rich relatives.  She has to return home when the rich aunt who had adopted her marries a man who doesn't want a teenage niece hanging about.  Just as you are getting into the story, it ends, although there's a note about how Austen planned to finish it, based on a letter she wrote to her sister.

Sanditon is my favorite of the three.  It's a highly comic novel, poking fun at people who imagine themselves to be invalids.  It ends abruptly and leaves you positively crying for more.  This time, there is no hint about where Austen planned to go with this novel and it's hard to make a guess since the fragment is only fifty pages long and she'd hardly gotten beyond introducing all the main characters.

At Home by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is probably the only generally popular and well-known author that I read. The disappointing Thunderbolt Kid, several daft posts on his facebook page plus his somewhat lame campaign against littering had me worried that Bill Bryson is losing his grip.  At Home leaves me reassured.  It's a history of domestic life--mainly Victorian English domestic life--with, as is typical of Bryson, delightful side trips down little-known avenues of history.  Bryson will probably be remembered as an expert on eccentricity--not a single one of the people he describes could be described as conventional.  Especially delightful is the list of 18th century clergymen who, due to the very little effort required of men of the cloth, had time to invent and study and become expert on a staggering variety of esoteric subjects. 

An Education--the movie

It's a book as well, actually, which I haven't read yet, but the movie is stunning.  I loved everything about it. It's set in 1960's London.  Jenny is a middle class girl whose parents are grooming her for Oxford.  She meets David, an older man, who introduces her to a new and glamorous life.  Suddenly, Oxford doesn't seem so important. The cast is superb.  I loved Olivia Williams as the brainy English teacher, and Emma Thompson as the snobbish headmistress.  Alfred Molina plays Jenny's father. Any time I see him in a movie, he's a narrow minded, provincial, domestic male (the husband in The Enchanted April, the mayor in Chocolat)--a role that he fills perfectly.  Peter Sarsgaard as David is a convincing mix of charm and creepiness and Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper are fun to watch as his two friends, complicit in the seduction of Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan who also performs admirably.  So-called "middle class values" get a thorough rogering in this movie.  What I liked are the glimpses of British middle class domestic life in the 1960's--the parents washing dishes together, the father's panic about going out to eat in a restaurant ("Should I order a starter?  How will I know which items are starters?")

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Don't fear the fruitcake

I know the holidays are past, but I am here to talk to you about fruitcake. Most people will tell you, with a little shudder, that they hate fruitcake and then go on to say how much candied fruit disgusts them. I thought I hated fruitcake, although I had never tasted it. The closest I came were my Grandmother Bermingham's Bath Buns, nasty little confections, burned on the bottom and sprinkled with red and green candied cherries. During the Bath Bun era, I was young enough to wonder what buns had to do with taking a bath, and also young enough to be fooled every time by those bright red and green cherries which looked delicious and tasted like something scraped off the bottom of an old jar of Smucker's orange marmalade and mixed with cigarette ash.

A few months ago, I considered the fruitcake and wondered how it came to be so maligned. What did the fruitcake ever do to us? There are the jokes about fruitcake's usefulness as a doorstop or a step stool or any other heavy household implement. If only there'd been a fruitcake to fortify the levees in NOLA in time for Hurricane Katrina!

I had two fruitcake recipes I felt compelled to try. The first, called Country Christmas Cake, which I read about in Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking comes originally from Jane Grigson's English Food. Colwin says:

Country Christmas Cake has a rich deep taste, as complicated as a brocade or tapestry, and makes a person think of those magnificent aged Sauternes....Hands down, it is the best I have ever made--and also the best I have ever eaten.

How could I resist trying this recipe? The other, "Smith Family White Fruitcake" comes from Jeffery Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything. I don't know what he said about this cake that compelled me to carefully copy the recipe on an index card before returning the book to the library, but I do know it hails from Salt Lake City which should be heartening to those of you who don't drink alcohol. Now you too can enjoy delicious fruitcake!

Fruitcake, it turns out, is quite an undertaking. In order to assemble all the ingredients, I had to visit four stores and two websites.

The players:
The blue rubber band is not a player. It just wanted to be in the picture.

The day after Thanksgiving, I got to work on the Country Christmas Cake. First, you chop an enormous quantity of dried fruits, citrus rind, orange juice, apricot jam, applesauce and spices. There are small amounts of candied ginger and cherries in this recipe, but dried fruit is the dominant ingredient. You douse everything with sweet Sherry and let the mixture sit overnight.

The next day you mix the batter, add to it the fruit--which now smells pleasantly boozy--and bake in a 10" Springform pan which you have lined with three layers of parchment paper.

The resulting cake weighed five and a half pounds.
The final step is to poke it with a skewer and sprinkle it with whiskey, after which the cake is wrapped and put on a shelf to compose itself for a month.

The "Smith Family White Fruitcake" is like fruitcake light, incredible as it may seem to use "light" to describe a recipe that calls for a pound of butter. In one bowl, you combine candied cherries, candied pineapple, walnuts and raisins.

In another you mix the batter and then you combine the two. This is stiff work and I recommend you eat a good breakfast before attempting this cake.

Bake in loaf pans.

This cake does not need to be aged, but will keep in the refrigerator for three weeks. You slice it thin--part of the appeal of this cake is the stained glass effect from its thin slices--and it makes a nice addition to a platter of Christmas cookies. It is very sweet and moist. You eat it and think, "Hey! I like fruitcake!"

On Christmas morning, I unwrapped the Country Christmas Cake. I had been afraid it would turn moldy, but it didn't. It did, however, closely resemble petrified wood and required further embellishments before serving. First of all, the cake is spread with quince jam. Any jam will do, but Laurie Colwin recommends quince so that is what I used.

Next, a layer of marzipan. I was a little intimidated by the marzipan, having never worked with it before. I dusted my work surface with a little powdered sugar, and it turned out to be not so terrifying after all.

Laurie Colwin says, "Roll it out, cut it to fit, and you will find that it sticks to the cake in a very satisfying fashion," which is exactly what happens.

Finally, a layer of boiled icing.
At last, it was time to serve the cake.
I could hardly wait to finally sample the fruit of my month-long labors. I expected something subtle and sophisticated: a complex blend of the many complementary flavors that went into this cake. The truth is, it tasted a bit pruney. I had expected the jam+marzipan+icing to be too much sweetness, but the cake itself is not very sweet, so the toppings are welcome.

Now I understand the problem of the fruitcake. First of all, it is very rich, so serving it after a large Christmas dinner means that most people will only be able to get down a bite or two. We had eight people for dinner on Christmas and barely 1/4 of the cake was consumed. Fruitcake, we must remember, is an old-fashioned dish from an era of large families and housefuls of servants. My family is large, by 2010 standards, but not large enough for a fruitcake. And I can't pass the leftovers on to the scullery maid for the simple reason that I am the scullery maid. In other words, where there is fruitcake, there will be leftovers, hence the idea of fruitcake as something that you simply can't get rid of.

For the rest of the holiday week, the fruitcake reproachfully sat on the dining room table, with it's pathetic little wedge cut out. It looked like a pacman. We ate Christmas cookies and lemon tart but we neglected the fruitcake. I did finally try it again, on an empty stomach, and it is very good and I was able to appreciate the subtle play of flavors. It is now January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany and the official last day of Christmas, and the fruitcake is still on my dining room table.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Christmas Cleanup

All this holiday season I was congratulating myself on not watering the Christmas tree. No more tree water slopped all over the floor when we take it down. Today, I confidently turned the tree, still in the stand, on its side in order to drag it out the door. What happened? Tree water, slopped all over the floor. Apparently, some asshole Jon decided to get all officious and water the tree. Doesn't he read my blog? It never in a million years occurred to me that if I never bothered to water the tree myself, someone else would. In the driveway, I wrestled the tree out of the stand and dragged the it to the curb. Tree pick-up isn't until January 10, but Jon has plans to make a bonfire out of it, and so I put it as far away from the house as possible as a deterrent to yet another of his daft adolescent plans. Then I tossed the tree stand onto the back deck where it will stay until I have worked up the courage to go down to the basement—September or thereabouts.

Speaking of cleanup, my kitchen this morning, which was more or less clean when I went to bed last night, was almost as messy as it was the morning after the moonshine mash experiment. My party cheese plate was out, with bits of crumbled cheese and crackers, there was a fruitcake out on the counter, plus a cookbook. The source of the mess was certainly Ian. Middle-of-the-night kitchen messes have always proved to be Ian's fault and so it turned out to be today. It looked like he had attempted to host a cocktail party--he told me later that the cheese plate and fruitcake were for his friends who were here very late. These things didn't bother me, but the cookie sheet coated with a thick film of bacon grease was most disturbing. There was an equally thick coating of bacon grease all over the bottom of my oven. Ian actually tried to cook bacon, in the oven, on a cookie sheet. OH MY GOD. My oven may actually be ruined, depending on how much bacon fat got down into the space where the gas flame is. You may well ask what possessed him to cook bacon in such a novel way, considering I have always modeled the frying pan method of bacon cooking. The answer involves a boring story about Ian and bacon and getting into trouble for waking us up at 02:00 with the smell of frying bacon, so his plan to cook bacon in such a way that involves "no cleanup" (his words) was to do it in the oven on a flat cookie sheet that allowed grease to run everywhere.
I realize that parents of college kids are supposed to love it when they visit, but can we just be honest for a moment and say that having your college kid back in your house can also be a real pain? I love Ian dearly, and I miss him when he's away, but a semester away from parental authority has taught him that he can smoke or drink or stay out until 3:00am and not have to answer to anybody. His physical presence in the house is huge, despite his actual person being fifteen pounds lighter. He is the tallest person in the house; he has the biggest shoes and the most dominant intellect. His personality, like the tobacco flecks from his hand-rolled cigarettes, occupies every corner.