Friday, September 9, 2005

The Right Couch

We live in a large house with many rooms and many couches but the most comfortable are in our least used room, a Tudor bunker we designed in our basement on our first and only renovation to our 1813 Federal home. I knew the room would be seldom used because of its far distance to the kitchen. The idea was to have a place for my husband to go to but no one wants to be away from Mamma for long, I guess, so I have gotten rather used to everyone swarming around the kitchen--and if not hovering in the kitchen, they are watching television, reading or playing games in the adjacent living area.

But despite this cozy picture of domesticity, we've had this pressing problem of family room space. Despite the amount of actual living spaces in our house, few are cozy enough--or child-proof enough--to be called a family room. I do love the presence of the past and the many layers in my husband's family home--including the ones we have added--but we do live in a home, not a museum. One can only have so many parlors--and we love ours for Christmas and larger get-togethers--but there must always be one central family gathering spot that you shouldn't have to fuss over. Today's trend towards the "Great Room" in architectural design actually makes sense. The Great Room is now the "keeping room" of the 21st century--adjacent to the kitchen or an extended part of it, the Great Room is at once parlor, family room, rumpus room and 'Great Hall' (as many span two stories).

Our "great room' is the same size as seven other rooms in the original part of our Federal home (the ell, added later, houses the kitchen and several other spaces chopped out of former woodshed): c. 15'x15'. The design challenge of this room is that it has a fireplace, centered on its western wall, flanked on either side by an exterior door and a window; a window, a bookcase, and a door (to the kitchen) on the north wall; a door to the pantry, a door to a dish closet, and a door to the hall on the east wall; and, finally, a long wall space and one door leading into the front parlor. For those who are counting that is six doors, 2 windows, a bookcase niche and a fireplace, all on approximately 60' of total wall space. Its twin room on the east side of the house (our house was built as a Federal duplex for two brothers and their families) works well as a dining room. Most furniture in a dining room is naturally drawn to the center of the room. Both of these rooms were the original kitchens before the ell was added--they would work as 18th century kitchens centering around the fireplace. But with so many doors it is difficult to put anything along a wall.

Thus, any couch(es) must hover, island-like, in the center of the room, and after almost 10 years of marriage we find it works best if the couch faces the fireplace (not that we light it that much). Meanwhile, as this is our primary television viewing area and we have five people in our household, it is essential that everyone be able to see the television, even if necks must be craned and bodies contorted. [NOTE to readers: Early New England houses were not designed for "family entertainment centers", let alone wide-screen televisions. Our as-large-as-we'll-ever-go television is angled into a corner to the right of the fireplace on an old dropleaf table. Surprisingly, it works.]

Several years ago in some sort of agophoric stupor, I think, we bought a large plump chintz-covered couch at a large new furniture chain store. We generally don't buy new furniture but find it handy for things like couches and chairs your children might spend hours of their young lives on (and that includes kitchen furniture which also requires that the occasional marker or paint spill be able to smoothly blend into the decor). This particular couch was not only down-filled and thus way too cushy, it is about four feet deep. For short people like myself, that means to approximate comfort by lining one's tush up with the back of the couch also means having both feet stick out straight ahead of you with no hope of reaching the floor. Meanwhile, your bum starts to sink into the back of the couch between the down pillow "supporting" your back and the couch cushion which slowly creeps ever so quietly towards the floor. At the end of an hour of "Six Feet Under" you are practically ready for embalming yourself. You can lie on this couch but children fuss and complain about no room and it IS possible to drown in the sea of eighteen throw pillows that come with the thing. So in hindsight I realize I was attracted by the fabric and the idea of a plumpy English throwy couch like so many in magazines. (And I won't even confirm or deny that the backdrop of this couch is creame-colored. Furthermore, the other reason we bought it was that it had a very comfortable Queen bed tucked inside it. That feature has been used once but only at the peril of our guest who was almost launched into the fireplace when they tried to put the bed back the next morning...)

Last December, my husband and daughter went off chair shopping without me. They came home not only with one taupey-blechy super soft and pillowy Lazy-Boy type contraption but two! Now I admit, this chair is comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, but not only does it render instant hyper sleep at any point in the day but it has the aesthetic nature of a frowsy old dress and takes up a good quarter of the room. I immediately had mine cancelled but I admit to having sat in my husband's on many occasions since. So for the most part we've had an increasingly dingy uncomfortable couch (that my kids use as a giant napkin, by the way, when not leaping full bore into its piles of throw pillows) and Snoring-Husband-in-Ugly-Chair cramped by the book case and just barely clearing the door to the kitchen. If you recline, forget room to walk in.

So today we found a dream scenario. First of all we chose our two loveseats (which will approximate an L-shaped sectional in front of the fireplace--or if the television factor were not present could face each other in front of the fireplace) and chair and ottoman (my husband's idea--we will sell the couch, perhaps, but definitely the LazyBoy). We chose them by comfort first followed by a close second of "Will Cath's feet actually reach the floor?" and finally by appearance. The fabric selection was also based on durability and the "how will it look if we spill wine or grape juice on it?" factor. The fabric is a leafey Victorian-esque foliated pattern with greens, burgundys, taupes, and a bit of blue. It was surprisingly easy for the two of us to agree on furniture and fabric and fortunately we found a combination of comfort, old-cushy clubiness, support and attractability. Imagine, a couch with an X-factor? My husband even consented to the new coffee table idea I had for games, food, a laptop computer, and God forbid, feet! His one criteria is that I not position the loveseats in an L-shape approximating a sectional--well, sssh, we won't tell him that the corner piece area will now have a floor lamp.

We even spoke of opening up the two parlors into one, as we have discussed before, but not this year. Oil prices are too high and I'm envisioning a lot of comfey cocooning this winter--no draughts, thank you--just off the kitchen, where I can hear the news while cooking, where my kids are reading or playing games in absolute harmony, and my husband is happy in his chair with his book or an old movie that I'm supposed to be arranging via satellite (more about that decision another day).

So we will turn the main house down to 55 degrees--ideally--fire up the fireplace or don more throws and blankets and sweaters and live in our "Great Room" with the right couches and run up to our bedrooms at night and crawl in very fast to our beds, soon to be warmed by the piles of blankets. I'll keep you posted as to how it all works out. In the meantime, on to the classifieds: " FOR SALE: One large sleep-sofa couch (slept on once), great bones, needs good cleaning, must like Chintz or maybe a slipcover and a tolerant man; one "like new" LazyBoy, only six months old, needs nice home, preferably with well-intentioned worn out man and one tolerant woman."

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

The Gulf Coast

I have never been to New Orleans but have read about its architecture, have tasted its cuisine, and have savored the Southern Gothic atmosphere of the Bajou in so many novels over the years. My photographer friends, Sue and Steve (who will be shooting some for my IN THE PANTRY book) were down in Creole country last spring to shoot a variety of old homes and Spanish moss-covered places for their upcoming book on Creole architecture (I will blog more details on the book as they become available). Now they realize they have likely documented that which we may never see again.

But architecture aside, it has been difficult to think about writing about place, any place, since the effects of Hurricane Katrina have made themselves known in the storm's aftermath. Since late August thousands of people are homeless, and probably as many more are dead, and it was only a few days ago that aid and water and food started to reach them. We could not watch the news without thinking about the horrors of loss and illness and fearing for one's life on the streets or in the supposed protection of the SuperDome. The few that were able to escape ahead of the storm were going to stay with relatives or friends or to their second residence. [Who can forget Bush's off-the-cuff remark when he first landed to survey the damage: "Trent Lott lost his house! And we're going to rebuild it and I'm going to visit him there." Now I was surely heartened to know that Trent Lott's second, or third, or perhaps even fourth place of residence was going to be rebuilt. What about the poor New Orleans families whose only homes were washed away or submerged under feet of filth and stagnant water?]

And now Barbara Bush's comment today about "things working out well" for the refugees in Houston. "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them." The old Welfare state at work again, eh Babs? I used to have a lot of respect for this woman.

Anne Rice wrote a heartfelt piece (she lives there and writes about New Orleans) in the NEW YORK TIMES last Sunday. It was nice to hear from an author, a real place-identified writer whose atmospheric descriptions ooze of the old South and Creole traditions. It was also a rallying cry--a wake-up call. After highlighting the rich black history that the city has, she said the following:

"Something else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy...

Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went north. They didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods that dated back centuries; they didn't want to leave families whose rounds of weddings, births and funerals had become the fabric of their lives. They didn't want to leave a city where tolerance had always been able to outweigh prejudice, where patience had always been able to outweigh rage. They didn't want to leave a place that was theirs...

...Now nature has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done what the labor riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what "modern life" with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do. It has done what racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do either. Nature has laid the city waste - with a scope that brings to mind the end of Pompeii...

I share this history for a reason - and to answer questions that have arisen these last few days. Almost as soon as the cameras began panning over the rooftops, and the helicopters began chopping free those trapped in their attics, a chorus of voices rose. "Why didn't they leave?" people asked both on and off camera. "Why did they stay there when they knew a storm was coming?" One reporter even asked me, "Why do people live in such a place?"...

...Well, here's an answer. Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave. They didn't have the money. They didn't have the vehicles. They didn't have any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do - they huddled together in the strongest houses they could find. There was no way to up and leave and check into the nearest Ramada Inn...

What's more, thousands more who could have left stayed behind to help others. They went out in the helicopters and pulled the survivors off rooftops; they went through the flooded streets in their boats trying to gather those they could find. Meanwhile, city officials tried desperately to alleviate the worsening conditions in the Superdome, while makeshift shelters and hotels and hospitals struggled...

And where was everyone else during all this? Oh, help is coming, New Orleans was told. We are a rich country. Congress is acting. Someone will come to stop the looting and care for the refugees...

...But to my country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us "Sin City," and turned your backs...

Well, we are a lot more than all that. And though we may seem the most exotic, the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part of this land, we are still part of it. We are Americans. We are you."

It takes a writer from the inside to speak so eloquently about a place that belongs to so many.

The United States is not a Third World country. While waging a war in Iraq, surely we could look after our own in a more expeditious manner? This is a national outrage--with international attention--that only underscores our weaknesses and the pressing need to address our country's own domestic issues of poverty or of pressing need in a natural catastrophe. It was heartening to see Oprah, who usually focuses on the poor in Africa, to visit our own refugee camps. I have always had isolationist tendencies--now, more than ever, we need to heal ourselves and help our own.

A neighbor told me this week that New Orleans got its name "The Big Easy" because of one's ease and ability to buy drugs there. It wasn't until I learned from Anne Rice's essay that it was because it was always considered 'easy' for a black performer to get a gig in that city. Above most, New Orleans is city steeped in black culture and tradition. As a nation we should do our best to not only restore the buildings to their former glory--from the French-inspired houses to the distinctly Southern "shot gun" style house--but we should do our best to give back their city, not as it was found but as it was lost.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Dad's Iced Tea

My father taught me how to appreciate a fine iced tea--and the importance of having one's own mint bed! My husband and I are so spoiled by Dad's method that we rarely get iced tea in restaurants unless we know it's been fresh-brewed. Sure, we bought the occasional Lipton instant stuff as a child (and all of its derivatives) but you haven't had iced tea until you've had it fresh-brewed, steeped in mint, and chilled to a fine and frosty liquid. It is deceptively simple to make. If you don't have your own mint bed (highly advisable), find a friend that does or splurge in the produce section where you can often find bundles of fresh herbs. [I prefer the bigger, woolier leafed 'Apple Mint' variety.]

Dad always made his tea in an old 1940s Robinson Ransbottom pitcher, dark green with a hobnail design. I still have that pitcher but I can't use it because it has some hairline cracks and to pour boiling water in it would likely destroy it. So it sits on my shelf with many other Robinson Ransbottom relics, a pottery company that closed its doors in Roseville, Ohio earlier this year after 100 years of manufacture. He got the pitcher from his grandmother next door in Akron, Mary Manton, who married a Robinson and thus was fortunate to stock her kitchen with a variety of yellowware, pitchers, crocks and other items from the company. Through my father, I have a few pieces from her collection--considered utilitarian kitchen stuff in its day--and have added extensively to it in the past ten years.

Here is the recipe for these last days of summer and I "blog" it in honor of what would have been my Dad's 69th birthday on Sunday, September 4. My husband loves it (and even my children--we have to watch that as they have their own natural caffineation!) and I make some every day or so right up until apple cider season at Tenney Farms in Antrim (which, if you haven't tried it, is autumn ambrosia of the Gods--and non-pasteurized, the best!). Remember, this is all tea--not the syrupy "Sweet Tea" served regularly in the South:


- 4 quart-sized Lipton tea bags (we bought a lot on our last trip South) or 16 individual-sized bags (Tetley is also good)
- 4 individual tea bags of your choice (this is my variation on Dad's theme--I often use 100% rosehip tea or Celestial Seasons "Cold Brew" Lemon-flavored tea)
- 4 foot-long sprigs of apple mint (check for bugs! no need to wash, unless you spray your garden)
- 1 half-gallon pottery pitcher
- 2 quarts boiled water (a full kettle)

Place bags at bottom of pitcher (remove all strings and paper tags). Add mint sprigs and boiling water. Steep for 30 minutes.

Remove tea bags (and mint, if desired, or you can leave that in) carefully with tongs but be careful not to squeeze tea bags (this can impart a bitter flavor). Pour into a sturdy plastic 1-gallon 'bottle' (I use old apple juice bottles that have the thicker plastic). Brew will reach half-way up the side: top off with clear, cool tap water.

Chill until iced cold or serve immediately on ice, with a mint sprig. Enjoy!

VARIATIONS: You can always use decaffineated tea bags, if desired. For those who like sweet tea, you can add sugar or honey to taste while brew is still warm (before adding cool water)--we don't. You can also add lemon slices while brewing (we add later). My friend Edie told me this year about a wonderful herbal powder called STEVIA (available in health food stores or at Trader Joe's). I don't know much about it except that a small amount goes a long way and that it tastes sweet! I sometimes use a pinch in a glass of tea.