Monday, March 20, 2006

That's Flannel, not Chanel!

So I have to admit that one of the best things about being a freelance writer--whether full or part-time--has to be the wardrobe options. Let's see, there's polarfleece workout bottoms for winter with any number of shortsleeved T-shirts (I'm always warm); there's comfortable faded chambray "garden skirt" generally reserved for weeding but great for writing at the computer in summer or winter, again with requisite clean and roomy T-shirt. And the rolled up and knotted headband (from any number of colorful cotton bandanas) that helps keep my hair out of my face. Shoes and lipstick? Optional. So are morning showers. But brushing teeth and deodorant, yes. Even if you have to e-mail or speak with your editor, it's nice to know that at least you have clean teeth and smell good, even if they have no idea what you even look like! (And in working with different editors over the years I've only actually met one in person.)

Now that I'm in the last month of pantry book writing, and unable to drive, I'm really in the "relaxed dress" mode. When I had to go out for a doctor's appointment this morning, I honestly didn't know what to wear or where to find it. One has to look vaguely presentable in public and knowing I can't wear my usual work duds, I have to resort to fashion memory. Oh yes, that sweater does work with that skirt--and those shoes! At least it will soon be flip-flop season again.

The other day on CBS Sunday Morning I saw an interview with Anne Rice. Not only has the woman found Jesus--at least in her writings--she has discovered the joys of the flannel nightgown, presumably Lanz given the dropped yoke front on the one she was wearing. She literally slides from her bed to her corner desk/computer work station. Of course she doesn't have to first feed and dress her children and get them out the door; she probably only has to trudge to the kitchen to make coffee or tea. But once at her desk, she'll hum right along in her flannel nightgown.

That used to work for me in college. The Lanz flannel gown from Austria--had in variety of colors and patterns and 100% cotton, of course--was the evening wear of choice. By day many of us wore sweat pants--preferably those with our college emblazoned on the upper thigh--with polo shirts, shetland sweaters and if you really wanted to gild the lily, pearls and gold earrings. These were our uniforms--at a women's college which Wheaton used to be until 1987, we did not have to dress to titillate or please any menfolk and had the Brittany Spears look been around, most of us would have been doomed. Our clothing seemed to cover any bumps or bulges attained by the "Freshman 15" or the fact we weren't on the lacrosse team. Besides, it was just so darned comfortable! Many a late night spent studying or writing papers (pounding them out on our electric typewriters--only my college thesis was written on the computer and that was a huge mainframe "word processor"), sitting in the hall or lounge sharing popcorn, enjoying a leisurely sleep-in. Our Lanz nightgowns got us through many a stressful college day and many an "all nighter", too.

So I might just take a cue from Anne Rice and revisit that idea myself. There is nothing more comfortable: since birthing and nursing three babies, I just got out of the habit of wearing them (they are not designed for breastfeeding mothers!). Throw on my wool clogs and cotton socks and I'm set to go until D-DAY: April 15, 2006.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A New Stove


The stove at the JUSTIN MORRILL HOUSE in Strafford, Vermont dates from 1850. Notice the Gothic Revival arches on the doors (it is a Gothic house, after all) and look how low it is-perfect for cooks of short stature like myself!

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We've generally had people in our house-nice people but loud guys with hammers or the Howard Stern show on in the background and general mayhem-since October. It's just the nature of home renovation: it isn't a silent enterprise. My husband seems to like general chaos all at once and I'd rather pace myself in slow, drawn out periods of occasional disruption. First we had the parlors opened up (which I soon discovered was a lot more than just ripping the wall down!)-see Thanksgiving Day blog entry-and then we had windows taken out of the entire main house to have UV glass put in and easy-to-use storm windows (the old ones, at least 40 years old, involve wedging all manner of implements into them at great risk of losing limb or at least a general flesh wound...and that is just to open and close the screen windows). Those are now being painted in the cellar by our painter friends who like to listen to Howard Stern (and not that there is anything wrong with that, it's just now that he is on satellite he can say anything he wants to say).

In between those projects, as we had the parlor floor refinished any way, my practical husband thought: why not the kitchen floor? Well, that alone involved moving EVERYTHING out--and I have a lot of EVERYTHING in that kitchen--and storing it on the floor, on available tables, even on the staircase, so that the floor sander (yes, a fine dust veiled our entire kitchen, permeating into cabinets and finding out of reach cracks and crevices which still probably haven't been properly cleaned) could HAVE AT IT and then the floor could be given at least 5-6 polyurethene treatments (we like wood floors but we also like to "cure" them from hard traffic areas).

So I asked if we could delay getting our new gas stove and oven for the kitchen until after my book gets out! I thought it would be as involved as sanding and refinishing the kitchen floor had been. I just don't do well with constant disruption...or so I thought. Today I had my laptop downstairs while keeping an eye on my youngest son and being "present" near the kitchen in case the guys working on removing the old stove, etc. had any questions. Surprisingly, I tuned right into the computer and the task at hand and the ambient noise of drill or saw seemed to lull me into a deep writing mode. Perhaps I am trying too hard to be "too quiet". But I do welcome the day when we have our house to ourselves again but I don't think that will be until they are done repointing the four chimneys and redoing the roof later this spring. At least the work will be outdoors!

But a new stove! Can I gush for a moment? I have never had a gas range before. We were on our second glass cooktop and had tried to order a third since last summer. Our brand, wouldn't you know, is not something easily in stock and now has to be special ordered--we needed to find the same model to fit the same opening cut into our granite countertop eight years ago when we last remodeled the kitchen. So, we continued to use the glass cook top and hoped it wouldn't further shatter into smithereens as we really had no choice.

Then my husband had a "eureka" moment--sort of a mini-epiphany but when one is speaking about appliances it is probably best to imbue the moment with less importance than an outright epiphany (which is reserved for those life-changing, revelatory times and clearly getting a new appliance is not one of those times!). Why don't we get a gas stove? I recoiled in horror-GAS! But we will all die in the night or our house will explode! After a few basic gas-range lessons 101 I realized that the dials today are not what they used to be, pilot lights are easier to use and far more reliable, and that the reason gas has a SMELL is because it is added for safety. So while I am still a bit timid, I do know as a cook that the benefits of cooking and baking with a gas range far outweigh the unlikely problems.

On Monday next a six burner, 36" wide gas range from Viking will arrive and soon after they will fit it in, hook up the propane and we'll give it a test drive. I'm loosing some valuable storage space in the process so now I'm going to have to twist my husband's arm into letting me construct another pantry somewhere! Either that or it's time for an eBay unloading...

In my readings I have encountered many descriptions of new stoves, of how the arrival of a cast iron wood-fired cookstove held great significance to a family that had been cooking on open flames in a hearth setting (just think of Ma Ingalls' delight when Pa got her an iron stove for her new frame house-especially as the poor woman had been cooking on a tin stove in her dug out at Plum Creek for quite a while). Other women have written about their battles with these iron giants-about the drudgery of keeping them fired, keeping them at the just the right temperature, cooking a variety of items while juggling various degrees of warmth and heat. Tending these stoves--and earlier fires--was practically a full time job. So I'm not complaining about receiving such a gleaming gift (we opted for black enamel as I think stainless is the greatest pain to clean) that I only have to "fire up" once or twice a day to get the family meals! I'm just a bit nostalgic for the cooktop it is replacing, just as I "mourned" the car that I totaled in my recent accident. And besides, the oven on this baby could potentially hold the biggest Thanksgiving turkey yet...and there is something to be said for that.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Back to Ohio: Part 2

Occasionally I will dream of it, the white 1930s (perhaps earlier?) Greek Revival-ish "four square" suburban house where I grew up in Akron, Ohio. It is still there on Ayers Avenue: the only evidence that we were ever there is the large Japanese maple tree that dominates the front of the house. It is as old as I am, planted there in the summer of 1962 and, like myself I suppose, it has become a thick trunk with a sprawling mass of different directions and odd cohesion. Other plantings and embellishments--like the fence which created our giant play pen in the back yard, the silver maple which grew too fast and was always losing limbs, the evergreen by the sign post out front, even the green yew hedge in front of the windows--all are gone. With the exception of the large tree out front, the yard and house and even driveway look as they did in 1962 when my parents bought the house. The cement "stoop" (in the midwest, the front step is always a "stoop", from the German influence no doubt) is still there, the black shutters on white aluminum, the white cement block garage. My mother, who has gardening in her soul and DNA, always planted red and white geraniums along the front walk and she turned her hand to the back yard, too. She had been raised on a vegetable and flower farm and she tried to infuse her 1/8 acre with all the greenery and floribundance that she could.

The entire lot size was not much bigger than a postage stamp. When I was a child it seemed park-like: the well-manicured lawn out front and the cozy fenced in space out back with its zinnia and tomato bed, its meandering trumpet vines and morning glories all over the fences, even a pumpkin patch which launched itself from behind the garage up into the trees. For one year we had dangling orange pumpkins! The swing set and a few other small trees--an apple and a silver maple--made up the back yard. There was even a poured cement patio off the living room and another smaller slab area with a "back stoop" off the kitchen where the milk man from Reiter Dairy left us milk, cottage cheese, and sometimes ice cream (It was years before I realized that my mother actually had to leave a check list for him!).

We left this house in 1974, almost thirty-two years ago, and yet I remember every detail of it: the cool plaster walls, the tiny bedrooms (again they seemed much larger then), the suburban efficiency of it all. Downstairs there was a living room that stretched from one end of the house to the other, comprising half of the box; the other half was made up of a small dining room at front, a small kitchen with breakfast nook and small closet in back and a staircase that bisected both sides up the middle. Beside that was a coat closet in the front hall and behind the coat closet was an even more commodious storage closet where brooms and cleaning supplies and some kitchen overflow was kept. Adjacent to the broom closet was a tiny half-bathroom across from the cellar door down to a cavernous basement.

The kitchen was pink and black: pink painted cabinets, a pink refrigerator, and black appliances. Even the linoleum was black with pink and white flecks on it. I used to stare at that linoleum pattern for minutes on end while my mother was making dinner. It reminded me of the starry night outside which we could occasionally see from our front lawn but much more clearly on our summer visits to New Hampshire. I remember asking my mother or maybe father in that kitchen: "What's infinity?"

"A universe that goes on and on." Remember, my mother was probably trying to cook something. Imagine such an intrusive question?

"Well, it must stop somewhere...where does it?"

"I don't know that it does."

"Wouldn't there be a wall at the end of the universe? But then, there must be something beyond that wall..."

I soon realized that the conversation that I was now beginning to have with myself would go no where and that the answer was probably not attainable in my lifetime. I was probably somewhere between three and five, when questions like that might occur if you were practically at eye level with black linoleum with pink and white flecks. It was probably also the first time that I realized my parents probably didn't know EVERYTHING and that infinity was probably something invented by God to drive us nuts.

I learned to bake and cook in that pink kitchen. For Girl Scouts, the Berlani girls and I made a four course chicken dinner, carefully attending to the side dishes, gravy and dessert. As I recall, the roast chicken wasn't quite done and we left the kitchen in total chaos. My mother probably cleaned up (the badge instructions for "Cooking" didn't specify cleaning up). I also would bake in my aqua Easy Bake oven for hours on end: chocolate cake with white icing in those cute little miniature Betty Crocker mix boxes (that, along with the aqua blue Easy Bake oven they don't make any more), white cake with confetti icing, miniature cupcakes, hey, it was a cottage industry for my dolls and I, who like Drusilla in the Raggedy Anne stories, lined her dolls up all around for a tea party with sweets and "sugar water tea". Later I would graduate to more complicated dishes but if it wasn't for those Easy Bake years--or the small pink assembled cardboard kitchen under the cellar stairs with its plastic food and endless hours of playing house--I doubt I would have wanted to bake or cook as an adult. Years later when my daughter was young, we got a second hand "microwave" model of the Easy Bake oven. I couldn't stand it and never took it out of its box. My daughter and I made a few things in the real kitchen oven of our apartment. In hindsight I think I deprived her of a pivotal childhood experience! Perhaps that is why she doesn't have the impetus to cook much more today than chips and salsa or buttered popcorn. I ruined it for her.

I dreamt last night of returning to that house but I will save that for another installment.