Monday, May 23, 2016

Kitchen Rescue Finished

I am finally completely finished with my pantry project. The new shelves were finished weeks ago, but what I didn't anticipate was that the old, existing shelving unit would need a serious overhaul. These shelves had been added by the previous owners, taking advantage of a setback in the wall created by the HVAC system they also installed. The shelves were a thoughtful touch, but over the sixteen years that we've lived in this house, they had become indescribably shabby, especially when compared to the new shelves I'd just built. I cleaned them periodically but they hadn't been painted since 1990, when the previous owners built them.

So I emptied the unit and scrubbed it and painted it. When we bought the house, the kitchen had red and yellow floral curtains and the back wall of the shelves was covered with a piece of the same fabric. One of the first things I did when we moved in was get rid of the fabric. Now, I felt that the plain white backing wasn't doing much for me. I tacked fabric scraps to the back of the shelves, but didn't achieve the Brunschwig & Fils look I was going for and I realized that fabric would just get greasy and gross over time. I had paint samples from when we painted the front hall, and after auditioning these on the back of the shelves, I chose Sherwin Williams' Copen Blue.

The cupboard at the bottom was under-utilized and messy. Jon added a shelf to maximize the space.

Cupboard before

Cupboard after - finally a place to store dog treats.
We used to have to stack the canned dog food on the floor.

Pantry wall before - the cookbook shelf was such a disaster

Pantry wall after.
I am determined to prevent clutter from collecting on the bottom shelf where the cookbooks used to be.

Close up of the re-painted shelves

Close up of the shelves I built

The final touch was new cabinet knobs. I disliked the featureless white knobs that came with the shelves. I browsed etsy for about fifteen minutes and selected these vintage blue glass knobs. Are they perfect? No, but they cost $6. If I find something perfect, I'll buy it then, but life is too short to spend hours dithering over cabinet knobs.

I realize this isn't an aspirational pinterest kitchen. My house is humble, but then I've never desired grandeur. Still, I am really happy with how this turned out. I love having all my baking supplies in one place and especially love having separate canisters for each type of flour. I also love my newly-organized cookbook shelf. The canned goods on the top shelf are a bit random, but I'm only putting frequently-used staples up there.

I made good use of the label maker my kids gave me for Christmas

These little celluloid dolls are my pantry gods.
They were my mother's. I am responsible for their painted shoes and eyeballs.
The sharpie outfit and mustache are an unfortunate addition from one of my kids.
I can't be too mad, I remember being outraged at my inability to dress these dolls.

In case anyone is interested, below are linked the earlier posts about this.

Monday, May 16, 2016


Brigid graduated from college this weekend! Her (now) alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, is ranked the number one public art school in the United States and the number one school for sculpture among all American art schools. Brigid chose to go there after also being accepted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pratt Institute, and the Savannah College of Art and Design. Ultimately, her degree is a BFA in art education, but earlier, she majored in communication arts (drawing), then crafts and materials studies, and finally art education. She was also a sculpture major during her time at the University of Cape Town. She'll be teaching art workshops in Richmond this summer and also attending an improv workshop in Munich (with Jon and Seamus).

OK, enough bragging. We're just really proud, and it's also quite nice to reflect on the fact that two of our four children now have bachelor's degrees. (Ian's degree is in classics.) I don't particularly like graduation ceremonies themselves, but the VCU arts graduation was nice. VCU is a huge state school, but the art school has a separate, relatively intimate ceremony in an old theater, rather than the booming Siegel Center where the main school graduation is held. It was laid-back enough to be fun, but with enough pomp to make you realize that we were witnessing a big deal. No attempt was made to police the applause, and amazingly, every name was heard and everyone got their applause too. At the risk of sounding like a fatuous self-appointed judge of graduations, I'll say it was nicely done all around.

Of course, there's always my personal inner drama, but there wasn't much of that either. Having experienced what the UVA graduation does to Charlottesville, I was expecting terrible traffic and an impossible time finding a parking space. Instead, we rolled into a surprisingly quiet Richmond, found a free parking space on the street a short walk from Brigid's apartment. We were early because I'd allowed so much extra time for traffic that never materialized. From Brigid's apartment, it was an easy fifteen minute walk to the Altria Theater. Once there, I had a brief moment of panic when I saw they were searching all bags upon entrance. My own bag contained a ludicrous assortment of things one doesn't usually bring to a graduation: a pair of Dansko clogs (in case the thonged sandals I was wearing got too uncomfortable) a cardigan sweater, a copy of Emma Beddington's (one of my all-time favorite bloggers) lovely memoir (to read while waiting for the ceremony to start) and my entire smaller purse. Luckily, there was no ban on clunky Swedish clogs, just food and drinks and many people had to leave their water bottles at the door.

We were told the ceremony would last from 2:00pm-4:00pm. It started on time, and at precisely 4:02 it was all over and we were grouped together on the curb, planning our next move. We had originally planned to walk down to Belle Isle (hence the clogs) but there was a blast of freezing wind and a sudden downpour that sent us scurrying for home where we drank champagne and posted our pictures onto social media. Later, we went to Ipanema, one of our favorite Richmond restaurants, for a celebratory dinner. Altogether a lovely day.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Framley Parsonage

I'm so pleased that there is currently some literary buzz about Anthony Trollope. (By "buzz" I mean that other bloggers are reading him and there's an Anthony Trollope Society facebook group.)  His books are so pleasing and they deserve to be read. I was fortunate to have a college English professor assign us Barchester Towers in a British Lit class. I went into the assignment expecting to be bored and came out a decided Trollope fan.

Years later, I decided to read through all six novels in the Barchester Chronicles, got as far as Framley Parsonage, and gave up for some reason. So I added them (including Framley Parsonage as a re-read because I couldn't remember much about it) to my fifty classics list.

The Barchester Chronicles is a series of novels concerning church (and national) politics centered around the fictional cathedral town of Barchester, in the fictional British county of Barsetshire, which seems to be located vaguely west of London. The titles are:
The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1861)
The Small House at Allington (1864)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

"Church politics" sounds super-boring, but the novels are really gently comic romances. I hate to do the inevitable "Jane" comparison, but these novels do put one in the mind of Jane Austen's works in that they are heavily peopled with clergymen and each one involves a young lady in need of a husband. Trollope also had a Jane-level aptitude for poking fun at the foibles of human nature.

In Framley Parsonage, young Mark Robarts has it all. Educated since childhood with Lord Luften, the two men become good friends and as a result, Lord Luften's indomitable mother, Lady Luften provides him with the "living" (i.e. he becomes her vicar) of Framley and also finds for him an eminently suitable wife, Fanny. The living comes with a handsome income and Fanny and Mark settle down to married bliss, housekeeping and babies.

Unfortunately, Mark and Lord Luften are both young and foolish and fall into the clutches of their financially-embarrassed MP,  Mr. Sowerby, who talks them into signing loans for him.  Lord Luften, since he's a lord and all, can get out of the trouble with relatively little inconvenience, but Mark is brought to the brink of ruin and scandal. It is uncomfortable to read about some of the foolish things Mark does, and you have to keep reminding yourself that it's Trollope and everything will work out in the end.

The young lady in need of a husband is Lucy, Mark's sister, and her great romance is the second major plot line in the book. There are also numerous diverting side-plots, and in the last chapter ("How they all got married") there are four weddings for Trollope to relate.

Framley Parsonage is a stellar example of the comfort read, or a cozy book. All conflict is expressed in polite language. Two ladies who would like nothing better than to kill each other will still address each other as, "my dear." Indeed, Trollope is absolutely brilliant at depicting ladies at war, particularly the ongoing, cross-novel conflict between Mrs. Proudie, the Barchester bishop's wife and Mrs. Grantly, wife of the archdeacon. Delicious reading.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Evolution of Eating

The other day, I noticed that we had consumed half of a bottle of rice wine vinegar in the space of two weeks. In the past, a bottle of rice wine vinegar could sit in my pantry for years before it was used up. In the same vein, I was grumbling to myself at Foods of All Nations the other day because they didn't carry gochujang, a product I hadn't even heard of a few years ago.

I didn't start cooking proper meals until after I got married. (Growing up, I was often responsible for cooking the family dinner, but that doesn't seem to count.) During the year between graduating from college and getting married, I lived alone in an apartment, and I don't remember cooking much of anything other than coffee. Soon after Jon and I married, I bought my first cookbook.

The Cabbagetown Cafe Cookbook (1986) by Julie Jordan changed my life. Its recipes show a quaint type of vegetarianism with unashamed use of dairy, gluten and grains, and not a single recipe that contains kale. No glossy photographs either, although there are grainy black and white pictures of some of the Cabbagetown Cafe staff (it was a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca). I decided that from now on, we would be vegetarians. Which we were, for about ten years, and the Cabbagetown lifestyle helped me fit right in with the La Leche League crowd I ran around with back then. Not that I was a stranger to hippie food. My mom wouldn't even let us eat commercial peanut butter because it had too much sugar. Her cooking was strongly influenced by the time she spent as a Fulbright fellow in Ecuador, and a later friendship with a family from India. She grew her own hot chili peppers and put them into many of the things she cooked, along with generous amounts of cumin and other pungent spices. Due to her influence, I rely on cumin and chilies in my own cooking.

For years, I cooked meatless but somewhat heavy meals: vegetable quiches, pasta dishes, bean or tofu burgers, cauliflower or potato curries, cheese pizza, an endless variety of pita sandwiches and stir fries. When we started eating meat again (partly because I became aware of the fact that carbs make you fat) I lost ten pounds and never regained it.

Switching from vegetarianism to meat-eating was a conscious decision, but the more recent changes to our eating style have been more subtle. They are caused by a combination of new trends in nutrition, changing tastes, and my practice of getting many of my recipes from blogs and pinterest. We used to eat pasta two or three times a week. Now we eat it that many times in a month. We used to eat a lot of spinach.  Now I rarely buy it, but we eat kale, collards, and Swiss chard instead. Sweet potatoes were something we ate once in a while, now we eat them almost every week, whereas our consumption of white potatoes has dropped. We eat fewer carrots but more radishes, fewer onions, more ginger, fewer grapes, more avocado, less vegetable oil, more coconut oil.  Fish sauce and Siracha are staples now. Back in the early '90s, I hadn't even heard of them. I once thought of yogurt as something you sweetened with maple syrup and ate with fruit or granola. Now, I like nothing better than full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with salt, lime juice and cumin, dolloped onto sweet potatoes that have been roasted in olive oil and chili powder. The foods we continue to consume consistently are eggs, cheese, broccoli, dried beans, and garlic, Mexican food and Italian food. (Although now, I'll poach eggs or meatballs in homemade tomato sauce rather than serve it with pasta.) And bread. I know, grains are bad and fat-making, but I will never stop baking.

So that's it. Just a ramble about how our eating habits have evolved. In other kitchen-y news, my pantry project is almost ready for the big reveal! (One of the things I did during this project was shift the Cabbagetown Cafe Cookbook down to the cupboard with the infrequently-used cookbooks.) I am just waiting for new cabinet knobs to be delivered.

Last night we had a quinoa and green lentil curry with coconut milk and baby Kale.
We still eat vegetarian several nights a week.

Have your eating habits changed in the face of new food fashions and/or the latest nutritional research?

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust appears in Modern Library's 100 best books list and it is also one of the fifty classics I need to finish by March, 2017.  The New York Times describes it as a "vicious, witty novel" which is right up my alley, and indeed, I enjoyed it very much.


The novel is about the dissolution of the marriage of Brenda and Tony Last, and despite the dark humor, it's also desperately sad. It's the early thirties in England and Brenda and Tony live in a medieval behemoth of a house (wrecked by a Victorian renovation) and have a charmingly naughty young son and plenty of money. At the beginning, Brenda and Tony's marriage seems comfortable and happy, but then Brenda inexplicably engages in an affair with John Beaver, a caddish mooch. She also forges new friendships with horribly vapid society types who encourage her in her apparent desire to become one of the most loathsome wives in England. Events ensue, sad, tragic, and absurd. I was appalled, but also constantly entertained.

A Handful of Dust was made into a movie in 1988, starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda, Rupert Graves as John Beaver, and Judi Dench as Beaver's poisonous interior-decorator mother. (James Wilby plays Tony Last, but I always associate that actor with unsympathetic characters, so it's hard to picture him in this role.) I would love to see it, but it doesn't seem to be available anywhere. (Possibly for view through Amazon but only by subscribing to something. I don't think I want to see it that badly.) Let me know if you've seen it and what you thought.

I tend to confuse Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forester, so I thought I had read quite a lot of him, and actually I haven't. The only other Waugh novel I've read is Brideshead Revisited. A Handful of Dust has made me want to read his Decline and Fall, and Vile Bodies. Have you guys ever read Evelyn Waugh? What did you think?

Cut loose from the fitness shackle*

Yesterday, I lost my fitbit. After the first few minutes of searching, I realized it was a relief to be rid of it. I started Sunday with a virtuous run and synced the fitbit to my tablet when I got home (9,000 steps).  So I know it made it safely into the house. Then, poof, it disappeared as suddenly as if it had been vaporized.

In January, my employer gave out free fitbits to all staff, with the condition that by accepting one, you were then committed to participate in the "fitness challenge," which involved syncing your fitbit with the employee wellness website and receiving a $100 bonus if you logged at least 50 workouts or walked at least 5,000 steps a day by the completion of the challenge. The strange thing is, my fitbit disappeared the day after the challenge ended.

It had become my dark overlord.  The last thing I did at night is take it off, and the first thing I did when I woke up was clip it to my pajamas, so as not to miss those first few steps to the bathroom. Steps had become something of an obsession, to the point that the morning I forgot to put it on and didn't realize until after I'd taken Phoebe for her walk, I was almost tearful about it.

I wasn't thrilled about allowing some data collector to have access to my height, weight, age, and activity level; to cluck disapprovingly when noting that I'd lost 0.0 pounds over the course of the week.  But it was too late to back out.

Five thousand steps isn't that much--less than two and a half miles for someone my height.  I make the 5,000-step goal almost every day with no effort.  However, to satisfy the fitbit itself, rather than my employer, you need to take 10,000 steps a day, which is considerably more challenging if you work at a desk all day, although I somehow managed to walk 500 miles (!) in the four months that I wore the fitbit. No wonder I'm constantly wearing through the soles of my shoes.

In addition to the step count, the fitbit sets daily goals for you for calories burned and active minutes. According to my age and size, the fitbit thinks I should burn 2,143 calories each day.  I almost never meet that goal, and typically burn about 1900 calories per day. Which is useful information, I suppose, but I've heard that the fitbit has caused people to gain weight because it encourages you to consume more calories based on your step count. For a while, I logged what I ate into the fitbit, but it became a huge chore.

Not only did I feel like I was under surveillance I was frustrated by silly fitbit idiosyncrasies. For example, when I logged my forty-five minute barre class, the fitbit refused to add that time to my "active minutes" total. Barre class is hard and it's outrageous that the fitbit doesn't consider it to be legitimate exercise.  On the days that I bike to work, the fitbit doesn't record any steps, which is fair, I suppose, but it makes me look like a slacker. (Conversely, my colleague who rides to work on a scooter says his fitbit logs steps from it. Something to do with the way the scooter makes the arms vibrate.) Now that my fitbit is lost, it will forever be transmitting to my employer that I have stopped moving altogether. But that's fine with me. Exercise has been a part of my daily routine for decades. I don't need an intrusive device to keep me moving.

I will not be participating in next year's Get the Fatties Moving campaign and I am happy to return to a life where I am blissfully ignorant of the number of steps I take each day. What are your thoughts on fitness trackers and employers who track their employees' fitness? In my opinion, it's uncomfortably close to Big Brother.

*PS: I didn't coin the term "fitness shackle." A brilliant blogger I know invented it, but the blog post (indeed, the entire blog) where it first appeared has been taken down.

PPS: Late Sunday night, I spotted the fitbit, wedged between some bottles of shampoo. I didn't put it back on and I'm not wearing it today.