Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Dirty Life

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball is what I read to reward myself after finishing The Brothers Karamazov.  I was expecting a hilarious book about farming neophytes who don't know an udder from a testicle, but The Dirty Life is something different.  Kristin Kimball is a farming neophyte, who leaves Manhattan to farm in the North Country of New York.  Her husband, however, is an experienced farmer and knows what he's doing.  His vision is to go beyond the CSA concept and provide an entire diet, not just fruits and vegetables, for their subscribers.  The fact that within one year, the two of them took the neglected five hundred acre parcel and using only horse-powered tools, turned it into an organic farm, providing meat, dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and maple syrup for their subscribers is downright miraculous.

Kimball is clear about just how difficult this was.  It took multiple tries to master milking their one cow and getting the milk to land in the bucket rather than soaking her own sleeves.  She had to learn to butcher and can and make maple syrup, butter, and cheese, and care for pigs and chickens and harness their enormous draft horses to the plow. They are in a constant race against the weather, especially in the spring, when everything must be planted on time to maximize the short growing season.  It also wasn't easy on their relationship--they're engaged when they first get to the farm and sometimes it seems like they won't make it to the altar.

I appreciated Kimball's honesty.  Sometimes I think this is what I would like to do--chuck it all and buy a farm-- above all a farm in the North Country, which is Almanzo Wilder territory, and one of my favorite places on earth.  Despite the hard work, there must be real contentment in such a life.  But then I remember how utterly hopeless I am with plants and gardening and manual labor in general.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Good and Cheap

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been motivated lately to spend less and save more and I've had a little success.  When a friend of mine shared a link to a cookbook designed for those who are trying to live on a food stamp budget, I knew I had to try it out.  I know what you're thinking:  ANOTHER PRIVILEGED WHITE LADY TRIES TO LIVE ON A FOOD STAMP BUDGET.  SHE WILL SHOW THE FATTIES HOW IT'S DONE.  Except we didn't try to live on a food stamp budget;  I just downloaded the free Good and Cheap cookbook and stuck to its recipes for most of our meals for several weeks.

The NPR story is about Leanne Brown, a food studies student, who wrote a cookbook designed to help people eat well for little money.  This is not your typical thrift cookbook.  There's beautiful photography, and nary a casserole or a rice-and-beans recipe in sight.  What makes this cookbook different is that it gives you permission to serve humble meals with pride and that it elevates humble foods to an art form.  I'm no stranger to thrifty cooking, but the chapter "Things on Toast" was kind of a revelation to me.  Why NOT just cook up a bunch of collards and beans, or broccoli and anchovies (a delicious combination) and serve it on toast and call it a day?

Many of the recipes in Good and Cheap are vegetarian.  A key way to save money on food is to eat less meat.  We had already been eating at least one or two vegetarian dinners each week, but now we've increased that number to four or five.

At this point we have tried many of the recipes in Good and Cheap, and the only failure was the broiled eggplant salad, because none of us really like eggplant, although we keep trying.  I started with the lentil soup.  Lentils have to be the ultimate cheap food and my usual lentil soup recipe is Elizabeth David's sophisticated lemon-spiked version.  The Good and Cheap lentil soup is flavored with fresh ginger, cumin and mustard seeds, and turmeric.  Served with whole wheat flat bread, it was delicious and filling.

A surprise success was the roasted cauliflower tacos.  My kids were outraged at the idea of this recipe and didn't want me to make it, but I'd already bought the ingredients, so I put my foot down and cooked it anyway.  After dinner Seamus told me that he'd always hated cauliflower, but he now he liked it, as long as it was prepared the way I'd done for the cauliflower tacos.

The biggest hit from this cookbook was the pulled pork--which I don't necessarily think of as thrifty, but Brown says this is a special occasion recipe, and pork butt was on sale at Harris-Teeter.  This turned out to be the best pulled pork I have ever eaten.  Brown suggests that you cook it overnight, which I did, putting it in a Dutch oven into a 200 degree oven for twelve hours.  In the morning, I shredded the pork and put it in the fridge, and that evening, all I had to do was shred a little cabbage for a quick slaw and the meal was done.  This recipe makes a ton and I froze some, to use in tacos in a future dinner.

And I did find that I've been spending less at the grocery store, although I'm still spending more than I'd like.  We seem to spend a lot on snacks and breakfast foods.  Also, food prices seem to be really high in Charlottesville--a sort of affluence tax.  Cville people:  do you remember around the year 2001 or thereabouts, when there was a discount grocery store in the Vinegar Hill shopping center near downtown, and it was somehow forced out of business (lease not renewed or similar tactic) because a discount grocery store was not upscale enough for exquisite downtown Charlottesville and it gave the tourists the wrong idea.  What tourist-approved business went into its place?  Staples.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Brothers Karamazov

I feel like I deserve to rest on my laurels for a while and read nothing but Angela Thirkell and  D. E. Stephenson after finishing Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which I read for the fifty classics project.  Are you tired of hearing about the fifty classics?  Don't worry, I am nearly halfway through the project, and I seem to be reading all the more difficult works on my list first.  There is some fun stuff coming up, I promise.

The Brothers Karamazov is kind of sexy, which I wasn't expecting. The main plot is the sort that attracts filmmakers, but as far as I can tell, it has been made into a movie only one time, in 1958, starring Yul Brenner, and billed as a "drama" and "romance."  (Is it possible that it's a muscial?)

So, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a right bastard who fathers one son, Dmitri, with his first wife, and two more sons, Ivan and Alexei with his second wife.  He also has an illigitimate son, Pavel, who works as a servant in the household.  Dmitri ("Mitya"), Ivan, and Alexei are all motherless and raised away from home because their father didn't take any interest in them.  When the novel opens, all three brothers are young men and have returned home to their father.  (Alexei ("Alyosha") actually lives in the local monastery.)  Mitya is a drinking, whoring, hell-raising kind of guy.  Ivan is the tortured intellectual, and Alyosha is a monk in training.  Mitya is engaged to a young lady, Katerina Ivanova Verkhovtseva, but he falls in love with the town Jezebel, Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova ("Grushenka").  Fyodor is also in love with Grushenka, and the love triangle between father, son, and this woman is the vehicle for much of the plot.  Meanwhile, Ivan is in love with Mitya's fiancee, Katerina.  Alyosha isn't really in love with anyone, but a young girl in the town is very much in love with him.  It's obvious that all three brothers are supreme hotties. See? Sexy.

That's the basic framework.  There are several subplots, and lots of details I'm leaving out, not to mention the philosophical and religious themes, but it's an 800-page book, so I can't go into all of it.  I was intrigued with Ivan's "poem," The Grand Inquisitor, in which Jesus Himself returns to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and is condemned to death, though the Grand Inquisitor knows perfectly well who he is, and elegantly explains his reasoning for sending Jesus to the stake.  Ivan's deeply cynical view of religion contrasts with Alyosha's faith.

What a difference a good translation makes!  My copy was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and this is THE translation.  There are no lame attempts to substitute English colloquialisms for Russian ones, no sense of missed meaning such as I experienced with Crime and Punishment.  This translation of The Brothers Karamazov is so well-done, you'd think it was originally written in English.  If these two had translated Crime and Punishment, I'd read it again, but they haven't.  They have translated The Idiot, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.  I will be reading War and Peace soon and I intend to seek out their translation.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Old Man Goriot

I am just tearing into my list of fifty classics lately.  Old Man Goriot, by Honore de Balzac, was written in 1835 and set in the year 1819.  It's a look at the excruciatingly competitive Paris society of the era.  Think Mean Girls to the 20th power.

Of the inhabitants of Madame Vaquer's Paris boarding house are Monsieur Goriot and Eugene de Rastignac, a young law student.  Goriot is a once-prosperous pasta dealer and Rastignac's family is of modest means, but they have high-society connections in Paris.  Rastignac becomes infatuated with Goriot's younger daughter, who is married to a rich banker, and already has a lover.  She sees Rastignac's social connections as her chance to get into the highest circle of society.  Which is really what this book is about: the machinations people perform, the debt they accumulate, and the private hell they experience simply to be accepted by the cool crowd.  Also an interesting look at the vastly different attitude about marriage in France at that time.  It was pretty much expected that all married people had extra-marital affairs.  One's husband was more like a business partner, so it was necessary to have a lover as well.

I found this to be a pretty depressing novel.  Goriot loves his daughters more than anything, but they reject him because of his humble background as a pasta dealer.  Even so, he funnels all of his money to them, which they waste on gambling and fripperies, while he lives in ever greater poverty.  Even when he is on his deathbed, neither daughter will come to see him; the older because she is negotiating her future financial arrangements with her husband, and the younger because she is hungover and needs to sleep in.  Read it if you want to wallow in your misery.

There will probably be no post next Friday because I am reading The Brothers Karamazov and there is no chance I'll be finished in time to write something.  When I first started writing these book suggestions, I would choose favorite books I'd read in the past, but I'm finding it difficult to remember enough details about these books to write a decent post about them.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Patience is so freakin' excited

So, getting the new circuit breaker box turned out to be less about maintaining the status quo and more about majorly unfucking our electricity, which was so, so fucked and we didn't even know it.  I really had no idea what replacing a breaker box entailed, but at one point I surreptitiously peeked out the kitchen window and saw the electrician grappling with a cable the size of a python.

But at the end, when the electrician proudly showed me our new breaker box, I was quite pleased.  And then he showed me all the ways that our electricity had been fucked.  The connection between the big cable from outside and the box itself was so corroded they had difficulty getting them apart.  The breakers themselves were totally rusted.  Apparently, it's a miracle we had any power at all.  He showed me how someone had stuffed a rag into gaps in the brick foundation behind the connection to keep the water out.  A RAG.  Now I'm pretty sure our breaker box's problems weren't caused by the brief drenching it got when the kitchen pipe burst, but from water seeping in from outside through the rag for the past thirty or so years. I'm not sure how old the box was or if our house even had electricity when it was built originally and who knows when it was wired and then rewired?  We didn't have a ground wire either, but the electricians added one.  The power company still needs to come and inspect it, but we don't need to be at home for that.

I worked from  home, which was lovely, only I had to clock out while the power was out, which was even lovelier.  So I did some general unfucking around the house (i.e. cleaning) and read The Brothers Karamazov until my eyes were bugging out of my head.  And then, to crown what was already a stellar day, our NEW DOORMATS arrived. 

When Phoebe was still a little puppy, she had quite a few accidents on the doormat.  Is that disgusting?  What were we supposed to do, buy a new doormat every time Phoebe peed on it?  So the old doormat was pretty gross and Phoebe is now fully housebroken, so I ordered new doormats, for both inside and outside the front door.  These are no ordinary doormats, these are LL Bean's famed "waterhog" doormats, which allegedly suck every drop of mud and wet from the paws and feet of all who enter.  They were expensive but I think they are going to be LIFE CHANGING DOORMATS. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Inconvenient Truths

  • It is impossible to reason with someone who doesn't understand computers.
  • The most delectable-looking dessert recipes on Pinterest always turn out to be written in Polish.
  • You can go to Trader Joe's on a Sunday or you can keep your sanity. 
  • The people who design those impossibly detailed Jack-o-lantern patterns are sadists.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch is never going to fall in love with me.

Tomorrow we are having our circuit-breaker box replaced, which doesn't seem to fit in neatly with the list above, except that it is true and it IS inconvenient.  There's nothing like spending a metric ton of money and getting a permit from the city and a fire department inspection just to maintain the status quo.  It's not like our electricity is malfunctioning.  It works fine, except for the one outlet that trips the breaker if we try to plug the vaccuum cleaner into it.

The electricity project, by the way, has nothing to do with my facebook page drama from yesterday, in which I called 911 on the men who showed up at our house, claiming they were there to work on the gutters.  I was at work, but Grace called me to tell me that she was home alone and there were three strange men on the roof so I called Jon and he hadn't hired anyone to work on the gutters, so I freaked out and called 911.  And then the police came and the gutter men had an actual work order and it turned out that our painting contractor from LAST YEAR sent them, which he neglected to tell us.  So that was lovely and everybody was mad at me for not intuiting the situation.

I regret the misunderstanding, but it really was not my fault.  I assumed the gutter guys were running some sort of scam--claiming we'd hired them and then forcing us to pay or something like that, like those guys who won't take no for an answer when they want to shovel your driveway or rake your leaves.  I once had a terrifying encounter with a deranged man who tried to kill my sister and me with a shovel because we refused to hire him, so I think I had a legitimate reason to call for assistance.

    Friday, October 03, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: Servants

    Here's some non fiction for a change!  Servants by Lucy Lethbridge is one of those not-too-scholarly social history books intended for the general public.  Downton Abbey fans especially will appreciate it. It covers the history of domestic service in Great Britain, from the late Victorian period to today, with the bulk of the material focused on the Edwardian era.

    And there's so much fascinating material!  I think most of us have seen either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park or similar movies that portray the upstairs/downstairs life.  Downton Abbey definitely glosses over the more unpleasant realities of service, such as the expectation that servants turn their faces to the wall whenver their employers were in the room. Lethbridge includes extracts from the memoires of servants of the day, which show that servant/employer relations varied greatly from family to family.  Also, there was a big difference between serving in the country estate of an aristocratic family and serving for a middle class family.  According to Lethbridge, the middle classes, who had less money and more insecurity, were more likely to treat their servants shabbily.

    The period right before World War I seems to have been they heyday of households with legions of servants: scullery maids, housemaids, parlourmaids, ladies' maids, footmen.  The closer you worked to the family areas of the house, the more presentable you had to be.  Footmen and parlourmaids were often hired for their appearance.  One duke insisted that all his housemaids be at least 5' 10".

    The war threw a wrench into the system as those who had worked in service found opportunities elsewhere, and after the war were reluctant to return to it. This brought about the great handwringing over the "servant problem."  If you read British novels that are set any time after World War I, there are usually references to the servant problem, or else a touchy servant character who does her work poorly and with ill grace but whose employers are comically terrified that she will leave.  The 1930's saw a resurgence of the traditional domestic service system, but World War II, and the advent of labor-saving technology pretty much killed it forever.

    Non-fiction can be tough going sometimes, but Servants is engaging enough to read in bed at the end of a long day.  I now intend to read some of the memoires that Lethbridge refers to.