Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Recap

I hope you all had a lovely holiday.  As far as ours went, I can't complain, although the weather was gross.  Call me crazy, but I prefer cold weather in the winter.  And if it MUST be freakishly warm, I'd rather it wasn't as damp and nasty as the bottom of a gym laundry hamper.  On Christmas morning, Jon (wearing his utility kilt and a tall cap that Brigid knit for him) had to climb out on the roof and fortify one of the chimneys against the driving rain.

We had a quiet Christmas Eve with just Jon, me, and all four kids.  Seamus made gnocchi, while Jon and I attended a drinks party at our neighbors.  After dinner, we opened our presents to each other and the ones that had arrived from grandparents and godparents.  For Jon, I took an antique wool pea coat that he'd bought at a vintage store when he was in high school and had it restored.  It was in such bad shape that the dry cleaners refused to touch it, but I took it to a little alterations shop in our neighborhood and they cleverly patched up the holes and made it nearly as good as new.  Jon had a necklace made for me with a silver buffalo pendant--to symbolize my beloved hometown.

Christmas morning was fraught with domestic disasters.  Just when I needed fresh, hot coffee for the whiskey cake I'd planned for that night's dessert, the capricious Italian coffee pot did that irritating thing where it boils furiously and produces only a trickle of thick, burned, (yet syrupy) coffee. The dough for the babka, which I'd planned for our breakfast, refused to rise, and I completely forgot that I was supposed to have a supply of freshly mashed potatoes on hand for the dinner rolls, which set me back even more.  To top all, when I started the sugared cranberries, which I wanted to serve as a pre-dinner snack for guests, I learned that it was a several-hours operation.  When will I learn to read the entire recipe before attempting a new dish? Later, I spilled an entire shaker of salt on the very expensive organic rib roast, as if Christmas itself were playing the world's oldest joke on me, and I discovered that one of my best dinner plates was cracked.

In the end, Jon fixed the coffee pot, Grace ironed the dinner napkins, Seamus helped with the various baking projects, and Brigid spray-painted the pears I wanted to use as a dinner table centerpiece.  The babka, somewhat flat, was finished by noon.  The cranberries, not fully dried, were still presentable by the time our guests arrived.  The roast was tender and perfectly rare, although very salty on its perimeter. The cake was delicious, and the rolls had their requisite dose of fluffy mashed potatoes.  We hosted my sister and her husband as well as a friend of ours and had an evening of laughter and fun.

I didn't take a lot of pictures, so have only these two lame ones to share.

My buffalo necklace

A peek at our table

Monday, December 14, 2015

Shiny and bright (sort of)

As far as I'm concerned, the raison d'etre of a Christmas tree is to be shiny, and, let's be frank, an evergreen tree is the opposite of shiny.  Pine trees are pretty depressing and tend to behave like a visual black hole.

This year, I decided I would really, really create the dainty, sparkly feather tree of my dreams.  A feather tree is an old-fashioned, artificial, spindly little tree with a bare trunk and sparse branches.  The original ones, which came from Germany in the 1800s, had feathers as branches. I made an attempt a few years ago, to prune our real tree down to feather tree proportions, but the tree itself was too bushy and for some reason, I waited until it was dark (WTF?) to start pruning.  I wish I had read An Urban Cottage's post about doing this before I started, but oh well.

Anyway, this year, Seamus and I looked through the assortment of trees at Snow's Garden Center until we identified the sparsest one they had.  It wasn't all that sparse and the lady who helped us pack it up clearly thought I was crazy when I told her I was planning to cut a bunch of branches off of it.

Back home, I held the tree upright with one hand, and sawed off branches with the other.  This was pretty awkward, especially as I got down to the base of the tree.  When I noticed how large the pile of pruned branches was, I chickened out.  I also felt sorry for the tree.  Ever since I read "The Fir Tree" by Hans Christian Andersen, I have imagined that Christmas trees have feelings. (For good mental health, avoid Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and if you're going to follow the link to the story, I suggest pre-medicating with prozac.  Or vodka.)

Anyhoo, once the tree was installed in the living room, we used Becky's method of applying the lights.  It makes a HUGE difference to wrap your lights around the trunk.  Doing this helps to mitigate the light-sucking properties of the evergreen and it gives your tree depth and delicacy.

Beginning to add lights.
I'm trying to do something different with the mantle this year.  I laid some of the pruned branches from the tree on it, with a gold ribbon.  It still needs something.  Candles, I guess.  There is nothing on the wall because we have never found the right piece of art for that space.

I would like to restore this Christmas cross stitch project I did nearly twenty years ago when the kids were babies. The pattern came from a library book. Now, it's in rough shape and I don't know what the best way to display it is.  I used to string them all on a strip of gold cording, but they would twist and it never looked right.

Well, I didn't achieve the feather tree look, but next year I'll be more successful.  I'm still very pleased with this year's tree.

My house is only half-decorated, and considering how busy and exhausted I've been lately, I think this is as far as it's going to get.  How's your Christmas decorating coming along?

Monday, December 07, 2015

Two Years Before the Mast

I love books about sailing and finally got around to reading Richard Henry Dana Jr's Two Years Before the Mast.  It has been rumbling around in my subconscious for ages and it did not disappoint. Richard Henry Dana Jr was born in 1815.  (He makes a brief appearance in The Education of Henry Adams, as a friend of Henry Adams' father.)  As a student at Harvard in the 1830's, he contracted the measles, and with it, an inflammation of the eyes.  As an attempt to restore his health, he signed on to serve as a common sailor on the merchant ship Pilgrim, bound for California by way of Cape Horn.

Hello there, sailor

The ship departed in August, 1834, and Dana's memoir of the voyage is a fascinating account of life aboard ship.  This was no soft version of sailing for a privileged boy.  Dana was truly a member of the crew and shared in all their hardships, which were considerable.  The mind boggles at how any human could survive the life he describes. No sailer ever got more than four hours of sleep at a time and was frequently roused from sleep when an "all hands on deck" situation arose, which was frequent.  The food was monotonous and unwholesome.  If a sudden movement of the ship caused you to drop your entire dinner, you just had to wait until the next meal was served.  The work was exceedingly dangerous and disagreeable, particularly in the region of Cape Horn when the sails and rigging were coated with ice and yet still needed to be manned with bare hands.  Worst of all, the captain of the Pilgrim was a monster.  There's a terrible chapter in which two sailors are mercilessly flogged for no particular reason other than the captain's pleasure.  (According to the Wikipedia article about Dana, he devoted his later law career to standing up for the working man, particularly sailors.)

At length, the Pilgrim arrives at Santa Barbara.  Dana and the crew spent many months sailing up and down the coast of California (to San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco) collecting an enormous cargo of animals hides. Dana and the rest of the crew were responsible for curing the hides before loading, which is described as a tedious and difficult process.  It was interesting to see this glimpse of early California.  I had no idea that San Diego existed as a destination as long ago as 1834.

After what seems an endless time curing and loading the hides, Dana is finally bound for home.  The passage around the horn, in winter, was particularly bad.  The heavily-loaded ship lacked buoyancy, and they were under constant threat of tearing up the hull on icebergs.   Back home in Boston, Dana, his health restored, returned to Harvard and later became a lawyer and US senator.  His simple writing style and superior descriptive skills make Two Years Before the Mast an engaging book.  Recommended for anyone who is interested in American history or sailing or memoirs.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Lifetime Reading Plan

The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman (1966) is a list of classics with descriptions of each.  I read it several years ago and from it, selected a short list of books that I felt I ought to read in order to be able to consider myself well-read.  Of the 130-odd books that Fadiman recommended, these are the ones I added to my master list.

Herodotus--The Histories
Thucydides--The History of the Peloponnesian War
Marcus Aurelius--Meditations
D.H. Laurence--Sons and Lovers; Women in Love
Henry James--The Ambassadors
William Faulkner--The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Light in August; Absalom! Absalom!; The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion
Gogol--Dead Souls
Dostoyevsky--Crime and Punishment; The Brothers Karamazov
Tolstoy--War and Peace
Yeats--The Autobiography
James Boswell--The Life of Samuel Johnson
Henry Adams--The Education of Henry Adams

I wrote blog posts about several of these, and last week I finished the last one on the list, The Education of Henry Adams.

Well hello

Henry Adams was born in 1838, and was the great-grandson of President John Adams. The Education is a memoir of sorts, focused solely on life-experience as education.  It starts out charmingly.  Adams' three year old self assumed (adorably) that because his grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents, that he would become one too.  There follows a story of how his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, marched him to school on a day that he refused to go. Later, he attended Harvard and was private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, during his stint as minister to the Court of St. James during the American Civil War.  Here it gets murky and remains so for the rest of the book.  I really struggled and I'm not sure if I gained anything for the struggle.  For sure, I didn't comprehend most of what I read, and then, when I learned that Adams was a rabid anti-semite, I used that fact to justify skimming what I didn't want to read.

Adams claimed he was an 18th century man, living in the 19th century world.  He wrote The Education at the end of his life and from what I could glean from it, saw that he had mostly failed to learn from the educational opportunities that life presented to him.  I did like the final words of the last chapter:

Education had ended for all three, [Adams and two of his contemporaries, John Hay and Clarence King] and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed. Perhaps some day- say 1938, their centenary- they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.

Alas, we still do not have a world which those of a sensitive and timid nature can regard without a shudder.  If anything, things are worse than ever for those of us (and I definitely include myself in this group) who are of a sensitive and timid nature.

So that's another mini-reading project done.  Do I feel more well-read for having finished this list?  Perhaps.  These books were difficult and I  mostly felt like a failure for not comprehending them fully.  I think they have enriched my life in subtle ways that will continue to unfold.  For example, I was able to better appreciate the Yeats' exhibits at the Dublin Writers' Museum because I'd read his Autobiography; I still sometimes have a brief, inner laugh at the punchline of As I Lay Dying; I can look at a copy of Crime and Punishment and say, "Yeah, I've read that."

Monday, November 30, 2015

Thanksgiving Solutions

Given the fact that the turkey neck is incompatibly shaped with the hole it's coming out of, that pulling it out usually involves pain, bloodshed, and possibly uncouth noises, extracting the neck from your Thanksgiving turkey is somewhat akin to childbirth.

This year,  I ordered a local turkey, and other Thanksgiving perishables from Relay Foods.  I didn't have to set foot inside of a store or wait in line and simply picked up my order from the back of a truck on my way home from work.  When it came time to do the pre-roasting chores, I found the giblets and neck tucked neatly in a crevice between the leg and the breast.  High class!  Why didn't someone think of that forty years ago instead of making us risk salmonella-infected cuts and frostbite by plunging our bare hands into the hostile environment of a half-frozen turkey? Just because the turkey carcass is hollow doesn't mean you can use it as a container.  Words to live by.

My kids' reaction when I told them I was trying a new stuffing recipe this year

My response

This year, the cooking was something like a series of failed science experiments.  For the pie crust, I departed from my trusted recipe and improvised a butter + lard combo, because that's what I had on hand.  The dough was TRAGIC, but the finished crust was acceptable, although not my best.  When I made the rolls, the buttermilk curdled, but it was too late to start over so, I forged ahead and the rolls were fine, if a tad underbaked.  The sweet potato gratin didn't cook properly, even though we cooked for a half an hour longer than recommended.  The one unqualified success was the alien stuffing--Pretzel and Sausage Stuffing from Mel's Kitchen Cafe.  It's not made from pretzels, but from pretzel buns and it's super yummy.  Highly recommended if you want to get out of the Pepperidge Farm stuffing rut.

So the food wasn't tiptop, but it was a great day.  I was on call but didn't get paged.  I didn't feel stressed about getting the food done. I thoroughly enjoyed the long weekend, even if I was on call. I only got paged once on Friday, not at all on Saturday and once on Sunday.  I spent the time happily tidying, taking long walks, and reading In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin.  On Sunday, as a reward for nearing the end of the on-call week, I went to the public library and got two new books and then bought yarn for two Christmas knitting projects.  All of my children were home, all happy and in good health. What more could anyone want?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Real Housewife of Charlottesville

At work, we implemented another upgrade of our software.  (My fourth upgrade.  I remember posting about how worried I was about the first one.)  We must "go-live" with these upgrades in the middle of the night, so as to affect the fewest number of people.  Hospitals are a 24/7 operation, but in the night, they're relatively bare bones, so if we must take away the EMR for several hours and then turn it back on in a new and (we hope) improved version, the hours between 1:00 - 3:00am are the best time to do so.

Anyway, this is just a long preamble by which to say, that because I worked midnight-8:30 am Saturday, I had Friday off.  It is exceedingly rare for me to not be at work on a business day.  I got up at 5:45--which is sleeping in by an hour for me-- had a leisurely hour for tea and a book, tidied the house, and still had time to cook Seamus a proper breakfast before he left for school.  I attended the 9:15 Pilates class at my gym (such a luxury to go to the gym mid-morning!) then accomplished a long-overdue errand that it's impossible to do outside of normal business hours.  I did the grocery shopping, which I usually have to do on Thursday nights after the gym.

In the afternoon, I had time for more reading with a large espresso, then raked leaves, and tore the last section of paneling off a wall I'm demolishing in the girls' old bedroom.  I had hoped to have this room completely redecorated by Thanksgiving, but we had one of those life events that put all projects on hold.

This room needs a LOT of work.

I cooked a proper family dinner and spent the evening Kon-mari'ing the game cupboard, while watching an episode of Outlander.  What do you guys think of the Outlander TV series?  I think it's kind of awful, and I hate the gratuitous violence.  I tell myself I'm only watching for the knitwear.  I KNOW it's unrealistic (and not always desirable) to demand historic verisimilitude from Hollywood, but I just finished reading a history of housework in the British Isles which revealed shocking domestic practices in Scotland in the eighteenth century.  (I think I understand now why Samuel Johnson was so disdainful of Scotland.)  So I can't help giving the side eye to Outlander's magically illuminated and clean Scottish castle and the multi-piece wardrobe that appears out of thin air for Claire (especially the immaculate white fur collar and cuffs).  Also, I can't decide if Jamie is attractive or not, but I felt ambivalent about Michael Fassbender the first time I saw him in a movie, so what do I know.  I AM decided in the opinion that Claire is super irritating. As for the books,  I tried to read the first one in the series but it was so bad I stopped reading 3/4 of the way through. (Book Claire is really irritating too.)

I attempted (unsuccessfully) to take a nap before going in to work and had a second espresso at 11:00pm, hoping it would be enough to keep me up.  (It was, although by 5:00am, just as we started getting post go-live help desk calls, my ability to think clearly was seriously impaired.)

I know that if I were to stay home full time, I'd be bored.  My career gives me intellectual stimulation, the opportunity to wear clothes other than jeans and sweatshirts and a chance to interact with other adults. Not to mention the all-important paycheck.  Still, something is lost when there is no one to keep the home.  My inner domestic goddess is bereft.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On the Nightstand

Let's take a look at what's on my nightstand lately.

I apologize for this dark picture

A Woman's Work is Never Done: A history of housework in the British Isles 1650-1950 by Caroline Davidson.  (1982) I love books about housework and domestic life.  This one is a bit dry, but still very interesting and has a great selection of illustrations.

Eating in America by Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont (1976)

Pure Pleasure: a Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books by John Carey (2000)

A Reader's Delight by Noel Perrin (1988)  I am reading this now and it truly is a delight. Beautiful little essays about obscure books you've never heard of and will immediately want to read.

Assorted Prose by John Updike (1965)  Essays

A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (1958)  David's first cookbook, written during the period of austerity in Great Britain after World War II, and meant to be a sort of consolation and vicarious thrill, since most of the ingredients were unavailable.

In Pategonia by Brush Chatwin (1977)  A classic of travel literature

Come Back, Wherever You are by Lenora Mattingly Weber (1969)  The last book in the Beany Malone series.

All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (2013)  The final book (published much late than the others and shortly before the author's death) in the superb Cazalet series.  I had difficulty finding it for some reason and had to order a copy (used, I always buy used) all the way from the UK.

The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1907)  Henry Adams was the great-grandson of John Adams and this is a memoir of sorts.  I am reading this now and I have to admit it's a bit dull.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Blue Castle

I thought I was familiar with all of L.M. Montgomery's books, but somehow The Blue Castle escaped my notice until I read rave reviews about it in an online forum.  It was published in 1926, which was in the later period of her writing career and like so many of her novels, features the provincial Canadian busybodies that she drew so well.

I wish I'd had this edition

Instead I had this one

Valancy Jane Stirling is twenty-nine, unmarried, skinny, (in a time when it was a bad thing to be skinny) and homely.  She lives with her overbearing mother and insufferable elderly cousin and is treated like a child that they're ashamed of.  One day, Valancy experiences one of those sudden, life-changing moments, and as a result begins to stand up for herself against her family.

This is not Montgomery's best work.  Valency is no Anne, and the busybody characters are not as deliciously comic as Mrs. Rachel Lynde.  Even so, it is satisfying to read about someone who has suddenly decided that she doesn't give a fuck, and acts accordingly.  There's a vicarious thrill in reading The Blue Castle, it's a light read that you'll finish in just a few days, and cheap, used paperback versions abound.  My little copy of this book spent the summer in Switzerland with Brigid, and later went to Ireland with me.  That's a lot of travel for a one-penny Amazon special.  Highly recommended for L. M. Montgomery fans.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Beany Malone: Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Over the last few years, I have been slowly reading through the Beany Malone series by Lenora Mattingly Weber.  I would have enjoyed these a lot when I was a kid.  It seems they were out of print then, because throughout my entire childhood, I never saw a Beany Malone book anywhere, not even at used book stores or our village library, which was otherwise overflowing with vintage children's literature.  I'm not sure why the Beany Malone books fell out of favor, but they did, until the late nineties, when, for about five minutes, they appeared on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and then disappeared again.

After that brief glance at Barnes & Noble, I started a frustrated search for these books, always disappointed until the miracle of Amazon came along, which made it easy for me to acquire the series.

The Beany Malone books are about the Malone family (mainly the youngest daughter, Catherine Cecelia, aka "Beany") but the other siblings, Elizabeth, Mary Fred, and Johnny, are important characters.  Their mother is dead and their father, Martie Malone, is a newspaper columnist.  The family lives in Denver and the books are set in the 1940s and '50s.  They're relentlessly wholesome, but the series as a whole touches on some serious issues: war, death, poverty, classism, delinquency, crime, and domestic abuse.  The modern reader might bristle at the occasional fat-shaming and cringe at the ethnic stereotypes from when Beany starts working at Lilac Way, a community center that serves mostly immigrant children.

Something Borrowed is one of the last books in the series.  Twenty-year old Beany is getting married. This book was written in 1963, so we may be able to claim that Beany Malone is the first recorded bridezilla.

When the story opens, there are only two months until the wedding and Beany is disappointed that no one in her bustling family is showing much interest in her wedding plans.  To make matters worse, their roof springs a leak, so any money that might have been spent on the wedding is eaten up by a new roof.

Enter Nonna, the Malone kids' step-grandmother, who stops in Denver one night on her way home to Kansas City.  Nonna appeared as an elegant, snobbish, coldhearted villain in an earlier book in the series, and Beany claims to loathe her.  Nonna had been an interior decorator, but at dinner she announces that she has just launched a new career for herself as--OMG you'll never guess--a wedding planner.

Nonna offers to put on a wedding for Beany; is even willing to pay for the whole thing and Beany quickly lets go of her professed loathing.  The offer seems too good to be true, but she insists that this is her wedding present to Beany and her groom. You'd expect Beany's father to squash the plan, but he accepts it, rationalizing that since Nonna made off with an inheritance that should have gone to Beany's mother, this might be her way of making amends.

With Nonna in charge, the wedding quickly assumes a monstrous scale.  Beany begins to have misgivings.  How can she expect her friends and sisters to shell out for the expensive bridesmaid dresses that Nonna has chosen?  How can she let her beloved priest know that she will be married in the cathedral, rather than her parish church?  How can she tactfully prevent the rough-edged Lilac Way kids from participating?  The groom (I don't want to reveal his identity and spoil the whole series for those of you who might want to read it) is unhappy.  He doesn't like being dictated to by Nonna, he's offended when Beany turns down his mother's offer of her prized roses for the wedding, and he definitely doesn't want to force his groomsmen to buy tuxes.

Despite the misgivings, Beany doggedly insists that she would like to have ONE day that is entirely hers, in which she is the star of the show, rather than a helper in the background.  Can't everybody just go along with her this one time?  Beany's friends and family, because they love her, do their best to play along, but a serious rift develops between Beany and her fiance.  How she escapes the wedding juggernaut is a neat little plot twist that I wasn't expecting.

I really enjoyed this book.  I'd count it as among my favorites in the series.  It also got me thinking about the circus that the modern wedding has become.  Beany's cathedral wedding seems simple compared to the extravaganza weddings of today.  With two daughters who will be probably be getting married sometime in the next ten years, I'm starting to worry about this.  The whole point of Something Borrowed is that a wedding is supposed to be a joyful event in which the bride and groom share their happiness with their loved ones and should not bring stress and unhappiness to those involved.  I'm hoping that when my daughters get married, we can escape the overdone wedding trend and still provide an event to remember for our friends and family.

There is only one book in the series that I haven't read yet--Come Back, Wherever you Are.  A used copy is on its way from Amazon and my newly Kon-Mari'd bookshelf has a space waiting for it.  The whole series is highly recommended for those of you who like vintage teen lit.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

2015 will go down in my memory as the year I read all the difficult books. I apologize for making you suffer through these posts about books that appeal mostly to scholars.  I promise I'll be reading more fun things soon.

The Life of Samuel Johnson has been on my mental to-do list for a long time, possibly as far back as high school.  I'm pleased to announce that I've finally read it, fulfilling my personal list and also another item from the fifty classics project.

Portrait of James Boswell

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is best known for his Dictionary, completed in 1755.  In his early career, he was a teacher (the playwright David Garrick was one of his students) and later lived a life of rakish poverty in London, writing journal articles and essays.  The Dictionary gained notice as an important contribution to English letters and King George III granted Johnson a  yearly pension.  Johnson continued to write and his other works include an account of a journey to the Hebrides, and his Lives of the Poets (1781).

By the time James Boswell (1740-1795) came along, Johnson had quite a reputation.  I always imagined that Boswell was something of a pest who followed Johnson around like a groupie, a sort of 18th century Mel from Flight of the Conchords.  In reality they were close friends.  Young Boswell spread the word that he was dying to be introduced to the great Samuel Johnson and eventually got his chance.  The two men began to see each other often and attended evenings together, often in the company of other arts and literary figures like Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  After each of these meetings, Boswell would record as much of the conversation that he could remember, and so Johnson's pronouncements were preserved.

It was Johnson who said that if a man was tired of London he was tired of life.  He said a good many other things too: hilarious opinions about Scotland and the Scottish (hilarious to me anyway, perhaps not so funny to the Scottish although Boswell was Scottish), sharp remarks about Americans, a people whose fight for independence clashed with their practice of enslaving people, and many other memorable sayings that can now easily be found via google.

The Life of Johnson, in addition to containing a record of Johnson's conversation, includes the history of his early life, letters, and the sequence of his long friendship with James Boswell.  The two men traveled to Scotland together (the subject of Johnson's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) and corresponded when Boswell was at home in Scotland.  They had occasional falling outs, and Johnson is sometimes sharp with Boswell in his letters to him.  Johnson admitted to being terrified of death (aren't we all) and the end of the book is sad.  Johnson suffered from heart failure (known as dropsy in the 18th century) and the last fifty or so pages are of the many letters he wrote during his last days, plagued by shortness of breath, sleeplessness, and edema.  He kept insisting that his symptoms were improving, as if he were trying to convince himself of this fact.  Johnson died on December 13th, 1784.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Texas versus Cincinnati

It was a chili cookoff weekend in our house.  Using the cookbook Stylish One-Dish Dinners by Linda West Eckhardt and Katherine West DeFoyd, I made Texas chili for dinner on Saturday night and Cincinnati chili on Sunday and we compared the results and decided on our favorites.

I didn't follow the recipes exactly, as both direct you go cook chunks of beef chuck on the stovetop for two hours, which I think results in tough, chewy meat.  Instead, I adapted both recipes for my Dutch oven and cooked our chili all day at low heat in the oven.

I started the Texas chili at 7:00 Saturday morning.  The recipe called for four pounds of meat to be dredged in 1/2 a cup of chili powder.  I buy the chipotle chili powder from Whole Foods (available in the bulk section) and it is hot.  Much hotter than normal chili powder.  I decided to use only 1/4 cup. I seared the chili-dredged beef chuck in batches on high heat.  By the time that was done, the bottom of my Dutch oven was coated with a thick layer of blackened chipotle chili powder.  I deglazed the pan with a can of beer and a plume of pungent steam arose from the pan and I found myself sneezing uncontrollably and then coughing fit to die.  A few minutes later, coughs erupted from the bedrooms upstairs.  Jon came staggering into the kitchen in his underwear, coughing and with streaming eyes and demanded to know what the hell I was cooking.  Seamus was similarly affected but he was more good-natured about it.  I realized I had inadvertently pepper-sprayed my entire household.  I'm sure we're not the first capsicum casualties in a home cooking incident and certainly won't be the last.

After that, the chili settled down and I put it into the 200 ° oven for the day.  Due to the chili powder situation, I changed the recipe quite a bit from the original--added more garlic and eliminated the tabasco sauce and a chopped jalapeno pepper, but with excellent results.  The chili was hot--I had to eat mine with a big mound of salted Greek yogurt to combat the heat--but the meat was as tender as butter and Jon and the kids loved it, but the next night unanimously declared that they preferred the Cincinnati chili.

For the Cincinnati chili, other than using the Dutch Oven method (which involves reducing the amount of liquid and increasing the cooking time) I stuck to the recipe in the book.  You sear the beef chunks, then cook onions and garlic in the same pan you used for the beef.  The spices involved here are more varied than those used in Texas chili: paprika, cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, chili powder, vinegar, and molasses.  About fifteen minutes before serving, you add half a pound of spaghetti to the pot and let it soak up the extra liquid.  We ate this with oyster crackers and shredded cheddar.  You're supposed to offer kidney beans as a topping, but I forgot to serve them.  This chili had a kick (2 tablespoons of chipotle chili powder) but it wasn't as hot as the Texas version, and I liked the bite of vinegar, smoothed by the hint of molasses.

Cincinnati Chili

 I love doing cooking experiments like this and we did something similar with shepherd's pie one weekend last weekend.  Any suggestions for other dishes?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lorna Doone

Lorna Doone is a classic historical romance by R. D. Blackmore.  It's heavy reading--literally.  My 500-page Alderman library volume was too heavy to take to work for lunchtime reading.  I think the guilding on the pages added a lot of weight.

R. D. Blackmore was a masterful storyteller and Lorna Doone has many satisfying plot points and a few well-drawn characters.  It's set in the 1670s and has all the romantic characters associated with that age: courteous highway robbers, cavalier soldiers, blackguard villains, and beautiful ladies in distress.  Since reading John Evelyn's diary, I had been wanting to read something set in the 1600s and Lorna Doone satisfied that desire.

John Ridd is a young boy from Somerset, England, an area infested with the terrible Doone clan. The Doones, aristocratic Catholic refugees from the turmoil earlier in the century, are sequestered in a carefully guarded valley.  They make their living by plundering the countryside and robbing travelers and one fateful evening, they murder John Ridd's father during a roadside altercation.  A year later, thirteen-year old John accidentally crosses the boarder into the Doone's secret valley and encounters a beautiful little girl who says her name is Lorna Doone, granddaughter of Sir Esnor Doone, the clan's leader.  The years pass, Lorna and John reach young adulthood and fall in love, which is problematic, due to Lorna's criminal family and the fact that she is expected to marry the villainous Carver Doone. You can see where this is leading, and there is a lot of action and some plot twists even up to the last chapter of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed Lorna Doone, but with some reservations.  The book was written in the 1860s, and the Victorian sentimentality in the writing clashes with the more prosaic 1600s setting.  John Ridd himself is something of an oaf.  He's physically huge and perhaps a tiny bit slow .  However, he's sexy when he's angry.

The real problem is Lorna Doone herself, who is hardly a character at all.  She's almost entirely passive and doesn't do much of anything other than allow herself to be rescued.  According to the infatuated John Ridd, Lorna's perfections are endless.  She is so beautiful and dainty and good-tempered!  She has a tiny waist and a nice figure, and hardly opens her mouth except to say complimentary or loving things to John.  The emphasis on her daintiness is particularly infuriating. When she borrows a dress from John's sister Annie, the waist has to be taken in.  When she's locked up for days without food by the evil Carver, John rescues her and produces a mince pie, but Lorna can only manage to eat half a portion because of her dainty fairy appetite.  John remarks that in general, Lorna eats only about one fourth the amount that his sisters and mother do.  I found myself rooting for Ruth Huckaback, Lorna's rival for John's affections.

Overall, this is a nice, cozy, book for winter reading.  It also has been translated into film several times and published in many different editions with interesting cover art:

John Ridd and Carver Doone fight to the death

This is a movie poster, but it illustrates Lorna's wimpy behavior

Monday, October 12, 2015

Real Talk about Fall for Basic Bitches

Do you love fall?  Is it your favorite season?  Is it really?  That is so interesting. How are you going to celebrate this, the most savory of seasons?  Are you going to wear boots and chunky sweaters and scarves and cup your chilly hands around steaming mugs of tea?  Are you going to go to Whole Foods and buy one of those albino pumpkins and arrange it on a black-painted antique table with a few artfully drifting autumn leaves and then take a picture of it and post it to instagram? Are you going to imply to facebook that you baked an apple pie, even though you didn't because, fatty fat carbs? Are you going to walk swiftly through the Halloween candy aisle staring straight ahead with a fixed expression because it's super important that your legs stay skinny for legging season?  Are you going to roast marshmallows over a campfire, while wrapped in a plaid wool blanket and wearing nerdy heavy-rimmed glasses even though you can't possibly be nearsighted because you've never read a book in your entire life?  HAVE YOU HAD YOUR PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE YET?

PSL with mason jar of bittersweet berries

I was like you once.  I loved fall.  Want proof? Exhibit A: my my very own diary:

Fall is coming and I am happily planning my wardrobe. I ordered a turtleneck, corduroys, and a pair of tights from J. Crew. Mom is supposed to be getting me a skirt from J. Crew for my birthday. Ordering my fall clothes makes me feel so intellectual!  I can't wait for school.  It is much easer to read Shakespeare in a sweater.*

I wrote that on August 5th, 1988. So don't think you invented this fall-love nonsense. What were YOU doing in 1988? Probably wetting yourself, if you even existed.

Fall is no longer my favorite season.  It signals the coming of the Darkness, and the narrowing of the gap between today and the day that I sob into the cookie dough and scream, "I HATE CHRISTMAS."  I do it every year.  It's practically a ritual.  Maybe this year Santa will bring me some seratonin for Christmas.

Do you want to know why the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte is so good?  Because it doesn't actually contain any pumpkin.  Because pumpkin and coffee are disgusting together.  The other day I went to a local coffee shop and ordered a "real" pumpkin spice latte.  An artisanal pumpkin spice latte if you will. It was....thick and not very good and the barista rolled her eyes when I ordered it. The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte is the one instance I can think of in which the bland, corporate chain's fake product is better than the real thing.  Every year I go to Starbucks and order a PSL. On a scale of zeto to basic, that ranks about a Gwyneth Paltrow but I'm not ashamed.  It's fucking delicious.

And pumpkin?  It tastes like library paste. Pumpkin is one of those foods, like tofu, that only tastes good if you add a bunch of shit to it. And then all you're tasting is the cinnamon or the brown sugar or whatever  is masking the pasty pumpkin flavor. I pinned a recipe for oatmeal pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and then realized that the results would be gross.  Chocolate and pumpkin will never work. Just stop with these chocolate-pumpkin recipes.  I had a pumpkin pie martini one time. I felt silly ordering it but I did it for science. It was vile. There's yet another thing pumpkin doesn't go well with: vodka.  And yet the pumpkin pie martinis persist.  I saw one in my instagram feed the other day and it looked gross.

Unfortunately, the sad conclusion to this post is that complaining about how basic it is to rhapsodize about fall is almost as basic as rhapsodizing about fall.  You just can't win where fall is concerned. Wake me in February.

*NOTHING is more cringeworthy than reading your old diary.  I can see why people burn the journals of their youth.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington

If ever a woman wanted a champion, it is obviously Laetitia Pilkington. --Virginia Woolf

Laetitia Pilkington was my constant companion in Ireland because I packed her memoirs to be my main read on our trip. And how appropriate, because she was Irish. (I know, WHEN am I going to shut up about Ireland?  Right after this post, I promise.)

Laetitia Pilkington (1709-1750)

Mrs. Pilkington's memoirs caught my notice after reading about them in Virginia Woolf's Common Reader.   She was born into a respectable upper middle class Dublin family with aristocratic connections.  In her teens, she caught the eye of Matthew Pilkington, a young clergyman who courted her, although without the support of Laetitia's parents.  Or so she says, but then reports being rushed into a marriage with him.  One wonders if Laetitia is entirely a reliable narrator.  

Anyway, they settled down into what appears to be a charming domestic life.  Laetitia and Matthew were both diminutive in stature and they occupied a little house in Dublin with a sweet little garden and a tiny summerhouse in the back.  (I tried to find it in Dublin, but could find no clue online as to what the address may have been.)  They were friends with Jonathan Swift and Laetitia appears to have been the model wife, as she describes herself as "always breeding."  Five tranquil years passed.

Unfortunately it wasn't a good idea in the 1700s to be smarter than one's husband. Because of her quick wit, talent for verse, and ability to provide a snappy answer, she became a great favorite of Jonathan Swift.  One suspects that Matthew became disgruntled over being outshined by his wife's wit.  And here the marriage breaks down.  Matthew spends some time in London and Laetitia takes it upon herself to visit him there and discovers she isn't wanted.  I won't go into all the details.  It suffices to say that Matthew Pilkington turns out to be a right shit.

Here's another thing about the 1700's:  if you end up divorced because your husband has accused you of infidelity, men will just show up at your house and think you're going to have sex with them on the spot.  You're officially a whore now.  (Her former friend Jonathan Swift called her "the most profligate whore in either kingdom.")

Was Laetitia Pilkington unfaithful to her husband?  Her side of the story is that she wanted to borrow a book from a gentleman, who wouldn't part with it, so she was forced to stay in his bedroom late into the night, reading the book to its end.  At any rate, Matthew was certainly unfaithful to Laetitia.

Anyway, there she was, divorced, penniless, homeless, and in the late stages of pregnancy. All she had were her wits, which she used to her advantage, eventually moving to London and earning a meagre living selling her poems to gentlemen who then passed them off as their own.  This isn't a super stable way to support oneself, and Laetitia becomes more and more distressed, going without food, moving into a progression of cheaper apartments and eventually, prison.

The book reads like a long catalog of all the ways that people suck, but it's not entirely hopeless.  You have to hand it to Laetitia, she had spirit. For a woman in her time and situation, the only available path to survival was prostitution, and she managed to use her brains and hang on, though barely, to respectability.  That was a triumph. 

A note about the book:  It's not particularly easy to find, although UVA's Alderman library has a copy.  When I went to the library, it wasn't on the shelf, which was a huge disappointment.  I almost resorted to google books, but returned to the library to search again. I suspected that it was simply misshelved.  I will often find books that are off by just a few places.  I worked as a library "page" in high school and one of my responsibilities was "reading" the shelves and putting all the books in proper Library of Congress order.  My grandmother was a librarian and my mother was an activist on behalf of public libraries, so I'm really into libraries and rely on them for most of what I read.  Anyway, on this second trip to the library, I searched more thoroughly and found Laetitia!  She was more than a few places away from the correct spot.  She wasn't even on the wrong shelf, but in an entirely wrong bookcase.  Now, when I return it, she'll be shelved correctly and others will be able to find her.  On the OCD satisfaction meter, this scores at about a 10,000 for me.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Ireland wrap up

Our first trip to Ireland was a great introduction, and I'm really grateful that we got a chance to travel there but there's so much we didn't see, I'm already planning what we'll do on our next visit.

I didn't realize that Ireland is such a paradise for hikers.  When we go back, we'll pack hiking gear, drive out to the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula and get a boat out to Skellig Michael and climb its stairs.  I considered doing it for this trip, but we didn't have time, and it turns out they were filming Star Wars on it while we were in Ireland, so I imagine tourists were banned. We could see the island from Dingle and Beara.  So near and yet so far!

After Skellig Michael, we'd drive to Dingle and take the ferry to Great Blasket Island and do the 6.5 km hike around the island and perhaps some of the other Dingle hiking loops.  From Dingle, we'd take the Tarbent ferry across the Shannon into County Clare and see the sites there, particularly the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.  Then we'd head north to County Mayo, where a big branch of my family comes from.  I love fantasy-planning travel!

And now I give you way more pictures from our visit than you probably want.

Trinity College

This was our neighborhood for our first two-night stay in Dublin.  The other side of the street was the DART embankment. Possibly not the greatest neighborhood, but the house itself was very nice inside and comfortable and there was a convenient Aldi nearby and we were still within walking distance of the city center.

Downtown Cork
The bell tower in Cork that we climbed. (Note the Salmon weathervane.)
Approaching the belfry.  We had to wear protective headphones.
I took this picture from the top of the ladder in the belfry. Not a great pic, but it was scary to take it. I guess the bells are hanging from that mess of supports at the bottom. It was actually too dark to see much.  This is all just blown out with flash. Essentially, you're looking at the ceiling of a belfry.
At Dzogchen Beara
Meditation room at Dzogchen Beara
Village of Allihies, Beara Peninsula
Our hike around Allihies.
Fishing boats in Castletownbere
Driving to Healy Pass
Healy Pass
Looking down from the top of Healy Pass
Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park

Dingle town.  The yellow and green bunting are the Kerry colors for Gaelic football.  Luckily, we were in Galway when Kerry lost to Dublin for the All-Ireland SFC title.  We were in Dublin for the celebratory parade down O'Connell St.

Slea Head Drive.  The space between the dashed yellow lines is for two way traffic. That wider bit is a parking lot.  See the bus taking up the entire road?  And the cliff?  Luckily, most people are driving clockwise around the peninsula.  My favorite Irish road sign was, "ONCOMING TRAFFIC IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD."  The speed limit was always 20 kmh faster than what felt safe.

Bee Hive dwellings on Slea Head
The closest we got to Skellig Michael--the pointy island in the distance
Blasket Island Ferry
Slea Head selfie
Lynch Castle, Galway

A pub in Salthill.  Somewhere along the line (in Dingle, I think) I asked a bartender if it were possible to order a beer in a portion smaller than a pint.  He was like, "I can pour a HALF pint," perhaps a tad sarcastically.  Those half pints saved me.  I know it's feeble, but I can't finish an entire pint of beer.

At a roadside overlook.
In case you're wondering why I'm wearing the same outfit in practically every picture--I packed two sweaters and two pairs of similar black pants and alternated them for the duration of the trip. I had an assortment of clean underwear and shirts.  My green down vest, which appears in a lot of my Ireland posts, was the perfect outer layer for Ireland in September.

Dublin Gargoyle--Christ Church Cathedral

Ancient inscribed cross at Glendalough
10th century cathedral ruins, Glendalough
Round Tower, Glendalough.
You might want to reconsider a trip to Ireland if you have a sheep phobia.  There are sheep everywhere.
The hike to the upper ruins at Glendalough
Jon sits in the ruins of St. Kevin's Cell
Rainbow on the Wicklow Mountains
Insouciant James Joyce statue on O'Connell Street

Dublin Castle.  I forgot to mention this in my "last day in Dublin" post. We didn't go inside because we couldn't find the door, although we did blunder into the subdued (though free) Revenue Museum trying to find the door.  I'm not even sure if the castle itself is open to the public.  We were so over sightseeing at this point, we didn't particularly care if we got in or not.  After Dublin Castle, we tried to find a sector that was labeled on my map as an "antiques district," got lost, gave up, and started pub hopping our way back to our hotel.

Titillating display of drug paraphernalia at the Revenue Museum.

Jon has a whole collection of pictures of me stranded at crosswalks that he recklessly ran across.

Bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin.