Monday, February 28, 2011

Whoopie

We were at Wilson Farm in Lexington on Saturday. We hadn't been there since we'd gotten our Christmas tree. Along with fruit, vegetables, Irish soda bread, and other lovely things, I bought an orange begonia. (I made sure to choose a cat-friendly plant because I suspected that Snalbert would find a way to eat it. And he did — before I had a chance to put it safely on the mantel in its silver pot.)

While we were in the bakery section, we spotted free samples of cut-up whoopie pies, piled on a platter We helped ourselves and, when the baker turned his back, we helped ourselves again.

As we stuffed our faces with whoopies, I started thinking about the current whoopie pie controversy: Did the whoopie pie originate among the Pennsylvania Dutch or is it originally from Maine?

The answer is obvious to me, a Pennsylvanian. I absolutely love Maine, and I'd move there in a heartbeat. But there is no way that Maine is the birthplace of the whoopie pie.  The more you think about it, the more ridiculous it seems.

Nutritionally speaking, the whoopie pie is a truly terrible idea — two oversized, rich cookies glued together with too much, too-sweet frosting. Terrible but luscious items, like the whoopie pie, are indigenous to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home of the Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch. These are the people who gave the world shoofly pie, which is an excuse to eat piecrust, molasses, and brown sugar. Then there's funny cake, which is basically a cake in a piecrust with fudge sauce. This is acceptable as breakfast food. We ate shoofly pie for breakfast, too.

The Pennsylvania Dutch don't mess around at mealtime. They believe in butter (also lard), bacon, and sugar (also molasses and corn syrup), and if they can incorporate all three ingredients in the same dish, they'll do it, especially if it can be fried and topped with gravy. (Or how about some hot bacon dressing, anyone?) They eat all parts of the pig, hence scrapple, pickled pigs' feet, and other treats. They also love cabbage, which you might imagine is healthy... but not after they've poured bacon fat and sugar all over it. 

The Pennsylvania Dutch are also serious about fritters, dumplings, and doughnuts. These are not considered dessert; these are just "food." Another memorable dish: chicken and waffles. For dessert, they bake amazing cakes with tons of frosting and they also bake pies, some of which actually have fruit (usually buried in a sugary sauce).

Then there's "church spread." We didn't have this in my town, but I just read about it, and it's a staple in Lancaster County. It's made of peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, and corn syrup or molasses, and it goes on bread. Anticipation of it after services helps churchgoers to be patient.

Mainers wouldn't eat that. Some Mainers consider maple syrup the ultimate in decadence, but they wouldn't dream of putting it on bread. 

I'm not criticizing Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, gosh no. It's great; I grew up with it. But you won't find much that's similar in New England. Except for the whoopie pie, which somehow wandered north to Maine from an Amish kitchen. I'm sure it raised New England eyebrows all along the way. Because the whoopie pie is completely alien to the Maine character.

Think about Maine cooking. It's wholesome. It's lobster. It's clam bakes. It's seafood, which is healthy. It's blueberry pie for dessert. Or blueberry crumble. Or apple-blueberry crumble, if you get my drift. Maine cooking is thrifty: food comes out of the sea or is picked off bushes on the sides of mountains. Mainers also eat chowders, beans, and potatoes. They would not deep-fry lobster in bacon fat and serve it with blueberry waffles and dumplings the way the Pennsylvania Dutch might. The Dutch would find a way to make lobster gravy.

The Maine culinary tradition is too sensible and simple to have spawned the whoopie pie. Then there's the name. "Whoopie pie" is pure Pennsylvania Dutch. First of all, they give things silly names. They have towns called Bird in Hand, Paradise, and Intercourse. Second, they like to call things by the wrong name: see "funny cake," above, which is, in fact, pie. Come to think of it, "funny cake" is as stupid a name as "whoopie pie," which proves my point nicely, doesn't it? On the other hand, Mainers tend to be dry-humored, if not serious. They would be appalled by the implications of "whoopie."

Imagine a rosy-cheeked Pennsylvania farmer's wife saying, "Whoopie pie!" as she frosts her seven-layer fudge cake. That's not much of  a stretch, is it? Now imagine a taciturn Maine housewife in some windswept coastal village saying it as she guts her husband's catch of the day. Nope, it's not a Maine kind of word, "whoopie." It's a Maine tourist kind of word, and that's who the bakers in Bar Harbor and elsewhere are pandering catering to with their whoopies.

We controlled ourselves at Wilson Farm and didn't buy whoopie pies. I have come a long way from Pennsylvania, where they are probably an acceptable breakfast food these days. But I saw a lonely six-pack of mini whoopies at Trader Joe's today and succumbed. They taste like home. 

They do not taste like Maine.

Morning Nap

Doesn't Possum look comfortable? I don't think so, actually. But he spent much of the morning napping in weird, twisty poses like this. I'm glad he can do it; it means he's not such a flabby tabby that he's lost his flexibility.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lazy Kind of Day

Snow, slush, and slippery sidewalks made this a good day for lounging around. 

Possum knows best:



Saturday, February 26, 2011

Annals of Chicken Soup

In October, I made my first chicken soup in the style of my grandmother, who made a simple but stunning, deep golden broth with rice. Because she left no recipe, I've been experimenting, relying on common sense, memory, and the recollections of my relatives.

I've made my soup about six times now; while it's very good, but it isn't exactly her soup. When I get it right, I believe I will know instantly, because I have a reflexive reaction whenever I taste things nowadays that could have come from her kitchen: I burst into tears.

My first soup experiment was close: the color was just right, and my eyes went a little misty. Since then, I've been trying different kinds of chicken, and tinkering a bit with the vegetables, although hers was a very simple soup with only a few ingredients. For chicken, I shop as she would have done, buying whatever is cheapest. In her day, I remember that wings were about 29 cents a pound. I know she often made her soup with wings; I realize that if I made soup with wings, I'd probably hit the sense-memory jackpot. But wings are never on sale, and they cost, like, $3.99 a pound, so I don't buy them because she would have collapsed in laughter at the idea of paying such a price. And my soup won't taste right if I'm feeling guilty over the price of the wings.

So far, I've used packages of soup parts — necks, backs, strange bits — from Savenors, which were pretty good. Sometimes they sell chicken parts that were compressed, frozen, and sawed into blocks. The price is right, but it seems that you get a lot of extra fat and skin, which do not make good soup.

At Shaw's, I've bought Bell & Evans thighs and drumsticks; these made good soup, too. I may be cheap, but I can't buy Purdue chicken. It tastes terrible no matter what you do to it.

I recently discovered that I can shop at Whole Foods — just as everyone else in the neighborhood has been doing forever. It's not much further away than Shaw's, and the prices aren't always astronomical. It took me a while (okay, 20 years) to warm up to Whole Foods because they were so hippie-granola in the beginning, back when it was still Bread & Circus. I'd buy their wholesome-looking bread and wonder why it tasted like styrofoam. When I commented on the bland taste, they replied that they didn't believe in using salt. Likewise, they wouldn't sell anything with chocolate in those days; they preferred carob. But although I gave up on them decades ago, they have certainly come around to my way of thinking. Their bakery department is a thing of beauty now, full of ganache and salty artisanal breads. And I find that you don't have to pay a fortune for your groceries if you are careful and can walk away from their $8 fresh berry cups.

I picked up an all-natural broiler chicken there for about $5 last week, a price my grandmother would have approved. We and the cats got a couple of meals from it and the rest went into the soup.  I've also bought legs and thighs there at good prices. You can buy loose celery stalks and carrots for about 20 cents apiece instead of having to buy whole packages. These usually rot in my vegetable drawer because I only make soup about every other week. (And I hate chewing raw carrots and celery. My jaw gets tired; I get bored. When I'm tired and bored, I think about pudding, or making Ghirardelli's triple-chocolate muffins. Carrots and celery are never healthy snacks for me.)

As long as I use close to 3 pounds of roasted chicken parts (or a meaty carcass), I get six or seven servings of broth. It doesn't seem to matter how I chop the celery, carrots, and onion. I've bought ready-made mirepoix from Trader Joe's (tiny minced onion, celery, and carrots layered in a tub) and that works well. But my grandmother would never have done that. I've found that chopping the vegetables very roughly yields the same flavor. I also add a few peppercorns, salt, two bay leaves, and two bouillon cubes (which we know she used). I cover everything with filtered water, bring it to a boil, skim it, and let it simmer for a couple of hours. Then I strain and toss all the solids, and pour the broth into canning jars, just as she did. I use a fine mesh strainer and layers of cheese cloth to filter out gunk. (It takes forever, it makes a mess, and I am not getting any neater at it, but I also don't care.) Then I make instant rice, as she did, or tiny Italian pasta "soup shells" from Pace's in the North End.  My grandmother cooked her rice or noodles separately and added them to the soup at the last minute.

My soup is — like hers — deep gold rather than yellow. It is delicious and satisfying. We usually have it with fresh Iggy's bread and a cheese from Harry's, in the Haymarket (his $3 specials are amazing), and call it a meal. I would serve this soup to my family, if they weren't all at least 350 miles away, and I know they'd approve of it, more or less. I know they would say it was close to the soup of our memories, but not quite the elusive elixir. Lost foods, like my grandmother's soup, are serious business to us. They would be frank and outspoken, as they always are. I'm not there yet, and I'd hear about it in some detail. But one of these days, wings will be on sale.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Fun with the Fug Girls

The Fug Girls, my favorite fashion bloggers, have posted a selection of their favorite gowns from Fashion Week, speculating about which actress should wear each dress on the red carpet on Sunday.

Since I seldom know many of the nominated movies, the whole point of watching the Oscars is to see Who is wearing What, and how well. So this is my kind of fashion quiz.

I agree with the Fug Girls that this dress belongs on pregnant Natalie Portman:

 Black Swan. Navy Ostrich. Practically the same thing.
All photos: www.gofugyourself,com

I disagree with some of the Fug Girls' prognostications, though. For example, I see Helen Mirren in this, not Angelina Jolie:


And this belongs on Penelope Cruz:


And this belongs on Halle Berry, who's been mistaking sexy nightgowns for evening gowns lately and needs to stop trying so darn hard. It's backless, so she can show off a little:


Nicole Kidman would look great in this now that she's over being a blonde and has returned to her natural red hair:

Actually, anyone would look great in this. This is one swell dress.

The Fug Girls think that Johnny Depp would look great in this strapless dress with fur hat. I think Anne Hathaway would look lovely in the dress, and she could let Johnny wear the hat.


Finally, the Fug Girls see Sandra Bullock in this paisley number, but I think it would look better on Amy Adams:


Check out the Fug Girls' 41-photo slideshow; it's an excellent way to waste time.

Wet

I was the only person stupid enough to walk across the MIT Bridge in the pouring rain this afternoon; beside cars, my only companion was a bone-chilling wind blowing across the frozen river. I had the bridge all to myself in both directions the whole time I was walking. It seemed like a very long time.

I was already drenched from my walk down Mass. Ave. from Harvard Square. I was bent on getting my 10,000 steps, of course, but I'm always amazed at how few steps there are between Harvard Square and my front door. It seems I get the same number of steps doing a couple of quick local errands. It must be because I'm bored by Mass. Ave., but it seems like an eternity stretches between home and Harvard Square. Yet it's only about 2 miles.

I also discovered:

1. My waterproof coat, made by The Weatherproof Garment Company, is not waterproof or "weatherproof" (although I suppose it protects me from sunlight). My back and arms were soaked long before I got home. I also wondered why my hair was dripping wet despite my hood. It looks like a raincoat, and it calls itself a raincoat, but it is not a raincoat. It is bogus.

2. My waterproof Ugg leather snow boots are not waterproof. I knew this from stepping into deep puddles of slush at street corners, but I didn't realize that even rain gets in. Oh, well. At least they match the coat.

3. My theoretically waterproof Longchamp nylon tote bag is not waterproof. This is mostly because it's so old that it has holes in its pointy little corners. But the zipper isn't waterproof, either.

4. I am not waterproof. I got home more than an hour ago and I'm still soggy and chilled, after changing into warm, dry clothing, toweling my soaking head, and drinking a cup of cocoa. I can either wrap up in more layers or move around to get my last 1,500 steps for the day. Or both.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pure Prettiness

The PB is taking a break from her usual ponderous, high-brow-intellectual musings to show you a selection of pretty things from the spring collection at Anthropologie. I love these fresh colors, vintage prints, and graceful designs. It looks like we're heading toward a beautiful spring.... one of these months. In the meantime, I hope these will brighten your day.

An old-fashioned garden print in a graceful 1920s silhouette. Camara Shell, $78 

Green and gold tulips sprouting on linen, vintage '60's fun. Perennial Blooms Shift, $248

A grown-up schoolbag in silky indigo leather. 
I hope it goes on sale. Daily Brights Satchel, $188.

They call this fluffy tangerine confection a "tee." Chiffon Swing Shirt, $58

 Skeem soy candles smell as nice as they look. Skeem Kumquat Travelogue Candle, $14

Wedgewood blue peep-toes. Diamond Weave Slingbacks, $90.

I never wear bracelets, but I'd like to play with this one. Warp Whirl Cuff, $28

A steam-punk bird sculpture, one-of-a-kind. Gladiator Bird, Watering Can $398

Perfume bottle doubles as a pin-cushion. Happ & Stahns Eau de Parfum, $68

Good French knives with luscious lucite handles. Laguiole Steak Knives, $78

French botanical print in silk. Not available online, but still in the Boston store.

Taking the soap dish to new heights. Kaokoland Leaf Soap Dish, $28

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wendy's Progress

Our young feral cat, Wendy, continues to grow more sociable and trusting toward us, even though her progress is so slow that it seems to occur one molecule at a time. But there have been some good developments lately.

Wendy, enjoying the breeze when it was warm last week.

Instead of getting straight out of bed in the morning, I've been lingering to read a little more of Dodie Smith's 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. I saw the movie via Netflix last month and was eager to read the book. It's wonderful when a book turns out to be even better than you'd hoped. Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner has several copies for $15, in case you're interested. I've got a library book, and I want my own copy, but I didn't have my wallet when I went there. (If you're trying to save money, try leaving your wallet at home. Since I've started paying more attention to my shrinking finances, this simple technique is helping to save me from poverty and ruin, although I've also missed out on a lot of bargains on things like cheese during my long walks.)

Anyway, Wendy spends time on the bed to visit with me when I'm reading. (This is different from her choosing to lie on the bed while I happen to be there. Now she's making eye contact and paying attention to me!) A month ago, this would have been unheard-of. She jumps up right next to me, instead of keeping her distance over on the other side of the bed, as she would have done before. She will even walk across my legs or lie down on top of them now— I'm buried under a comforter and coverlets, so she may not realize that she's technically a Lap Cat — and she lets me pet her. This morning, she rolled over, purring, so I could stroke her fluffy white belly.

This has happened four times now, so it's becoming a fine morning ritual. If my husband comes into the room, she'll run away, but that's what we expect: Wendy's progress is very slow, one piece of fur at a time, it seems.

In the evenings, she'll jump on a chair one of us is sitting in, and walk around on the arms and the back, near enough so we can pet her. She'll purr and sashay around for a few minutes, until she decides to be wary of our stroking hand again.

She still won't voluntarily touch us. You know how some cats, even outdoor strays, will come right up to you and twine themselves around your legs? We're still not close to that degree of trust with Wendy after 16 months together. The most contact I've experienced is a slight brushing of her enormous tail against my leg as she passes me. (Oh, for her kitten days, when she'd sneak up and smack my backside as I sat at my computer, and quickly disappear.) But she's becoming more trusting and attention-seeking in the most minute increments. (Speaking of her tail, I just realized that, if there were Academy Awards for cats just being cats, Wendy's tail would belong in the Best Actress category, while the rest of Wendy might only get a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Her tail still overwhelms her.)

Naturally, we respond to any attention Wendy chooses to bestow on us with wonder, gratitude, praise and mild feelings of unworthiness. She has us well trained, and wrapped around her furry white paw. How will it be when things progress to the point where she'll plop herself into our laps without a second thought? Will we ever take her affections for granted instead of rejoicing?

It will probably be time to adopt another feral cat when that day comes.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Little Orphan in Beacon Hill

Here's a contender for the city's most forlorn lost glove, spotted on the flat of the Hill:


I've made it this far into winter without losing a hat or a glove, as I tend to do every year. I've come close, though: dropped my favorite hat on the floor in a shop on Newbury Street, and then left it behind at an animal shelter. Both times I quickly discovered my loss via my freezing-cold ears. I dropped a glove at the gym last week; they kept it for me. I've also left my boots there two or three times, realized it soon after heading home, and paid the price of having to hobble back down their steep staircase and then wobble back up again, an extra workout for my trembling, exhausted carcass.

I'm kind of neurotic about storing my gloves inside my hat, and stuffing it into my bag or pocket, but eventually I'm going to forget. I'm absent-minded. The hat will be forgotten on my lap as I stand to get off a bus or trolley at my stop — and goodbye, winter warmth, one more time. Hello, fruitless search for a similar hat and gloves.

I'm sure this wayward glove, with its pretty pastels and sparkly rhinestones, broke some little person's heart last week. I had to sympathize.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Current Craving: Mango Juice

Oh, for a tall glass of freshly squeezed juice from perfectly ripened mangoes.

Better yet, a whole pitcher of fresh, ripe mango juice. Definitely not available in Boston in February, or perhaps ever. Mangoes like to ripen on their tree, and I've never had a good one in New England.

I've been craving mango juice since Sunday, when a glass of sour, watery pineapple juice at an otherwise tasty brunch got me thinking. And wishing.

Long ago, I knew an Indian grad student at MIT who was shy until he got on the subject of mangoes. Then he would wax eloquent about how he pined for ripe mangoes, how splendid they were at home, plucked from his family's grove — and how completely disappointing they are over here, because they are harvested and shipped when they are green and can't ripen properly. He gave quiet, passionate monologues on the subject during almost every meal we shared with our mutual friends. I don't remember him talking about anything else, certainly not about whatever rarified subject he was studying.

When I met him, I barely knew the difference between a mango and a kumquat. But it didn't take him long to convince us that mangoes were glorious and that he was suffering. Soon we were all wishing for fresh, ripe mangoes, for him, for us. But since nobody else had ever tasted one, we couldn't truly sympathize.

Years later, I visited Egypt, tasted ripe mangoes and drank their juice whenever possible. Finally, I understood what that Indian student was talking about. I realize now that, during all these weeks of Egyptian turmoil, the memory of mango juice has lingered in the back of my mind as I've watched and read the news, and heard from friends over there. Friends who, when not advocating for democracy, can enjoy a decent glass of mango juice whenever they want.

I guess I'll settle for a mango passion smoothie from Boloco later this afternoon. I might even pick up some frozen sliced mangoes or mango sorbet from Trader Joe's. But I'm certain that nothing will hit the spot.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bye Bye Borders

It's sad news for Back Bay that we're losing our Borders bookstore. I read the news yesterday, just after posting about a recent, disappointing trip there. While they may have too many Jackie Collins titles to suit my idiosyncratic taste, I've certainly relied on that store and bought my share of books there over the years. It was an ideal spot to while away a dull afternoon; the café on the second floor was always lively, every seat holding a freshly caffeinated person with a laptop or new book purchase. I've spent many happy hours in the travel and local history sections downstairs, and upstairs among the art, architecture, and photography books. And let's not forget their vast cooking section....

Plus it's always fun to take a quick wander straight through the store, entering on Newbury and exiting on Boylston, or vice versa, and checking out new fiction and glossy home and fashion magazines along the way.

It's hard to see a beloved neighborhood bookstore turn into yet another big, empty, retail hole — and we Back Bay residents have had quite a bit of experience with this type of departure. Borders is going the way of Waterstone's, Buddenbooks, the Harvard Bookstore Café, Avenue Victor Hugo, Rizzoli, the Globe Travel Bookstore, Waldenbooks, the Barnes & Noble on Boylston Street, and no doubt several other former bookstores who have slipped my mind. I guess we just don't have enough voracious readers in Back Bay. Or are we all Amazon shoppers? I wonder.

Literate locals still have the Trident Booksellers & Café, which has, among other things, an excellent selection of occult and New Age books, if that's your thing. It's not my mine, but wouldn't an encyclopedia of spells would look interesting on the coffee table? Then there's the handsome recent arrival from Cambridge, Raven Used Books, which has good selections of classics and literature. Let's keep our fingers crossed that we'll always have the big Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Mall. I've never been fond of B&N because, as a frugal shopper, I just can't see paying $25 a year to join their discount program. At Borders, it cost me nothing. But these three stores are ever more precious elements in our retail scene — and I hope they'll thrive without Borders's competition.

But they just don't feel like enough.

Those of us who are walkers can make a brisk, 25-minute trip to the Borders downtown (where a broken escalator and packed elevators make getting upstairs a challenge) or head to the BU Bookstore in Kenmore, which is another Barnes & Noble. Go a little further and you can find deals (and at least one cat) at the Boston Book Annex at 906 Beacon Street. I'm always happy to browse in the Brattle Book Shop on West Street downtown, although I never have any luck in their haphazard outdoor discount lot. Otherwise, it's off to Harvard Square, or over to Coolidge Corner to the excellent Brookline Booksmith. There are still a few other independent bookstores, like Commonwealth Books, downtown; I don't mean this list to be comprehensive.  But the Back Bay Borders is going to be missed. (At least the space is too big to be taken over by yet another nail salon.)

Waterstone's, are you listening?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Disappointment on the "C" Shelves

Did you know that Jackie Collins is still writing books, or am I the only reader who hasn't been paying attention? She's written 27 novels since 1968, including Poor Little Bitch Girl, released last year. That title is so amusing that I'm almost tempted to read it. But I have a feeling I have read it, and the title was the best part.

I thought Ms. Collins had faded into obscurity sometime in the '80s. But now I'm realizing that I simply stopped noticing her around the time I moved to Boston. In those quaint, post-Revolutionary days, Boston and Cambridge had bookstores on practically every block, all bursting with undiscovered treasure. I stopped noticing Jackie Collins simply because I was no longer limited to buying paperbacks from our small-town drugstore whenever I wanted something new to read.

In fact, Jackie Collins has sold more than 400 million books as of last year — and every title has been a New York Times bestseller. She's just never sold a book to me. And I will not be buying Goddess of Vengeance when it's released next (nor will I be reserving it from the library).

I've missed the JC boat, and I'm not about to jump in and swim after it. But, you know, more power to her. Sometimes a breathless, trashy read is the only thing that will hit the spot. It's a reasonable choice if you're stuck in a foreign airport, say, or suffering through a medical procedure. Clearly, she can transport her fans far from the real world. She deserves credit for skills, smarts, and discipline. She figured out how to give millions of readers just what they want, and she keeps doing it, well into her 70s. I can't even write a short story, dammit.

So, what's my issue with Jackie Collins? That her thick, hot-pink paperbacks are hogging all the space on the Borders shelves that should be shared with Wilkie Collins. I've been to both stores in town and found the "C" shelves loaded with Married Lovers, Hollywood Divorces, Lovers and Players, Deadly Embrace, and Lethal Seduction. I did not find a single copy of The Woman in White, The Moonstone or any other Wilkie Collins title, except one lonely volume of Armadale, which is also good, but is less likely to keep you up all night in his thrall as those other two. (I'll be checking out Barnes & Noble today, but I'm not hopeful.)

Moving along, after Wilkie Collins, Laurie Colwin's books deserve "C" shelf space, too. I couldn't find a single one of her wise and wonderful books, although there was new edition of Home Cooking in the cookbook section. But no sign of the new edition of one of my all-time favorites, Happy All the Time? For shame.

If you're in the mood for spine-chilling mystery, read The Moonstone. Craving a superb romantic novel? Read Happy All the Time. And then, by all means, indulge yourself with Jackie Collins's Drop Dead Beautiful, or whatever.

Update: I just read on Boston.com that the Boylston Street Borders is closing. Horrors! At this rate, I'm going to be buying my books in the drugstore again.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cat vs. Furry Hot Water Bottle


(Cat, left. Pottery Barn Faux-Fur Hot Water Bottle, right.)

Cat: always warm, always furry.  WINNER
Bottle: warm for 12 hours when full of hot water, always furry.

Cat: very cute, purrs. WINNER
Bottle: less cute, despite little pom-poms. Doesn't purr.

Cat: wanders off, ignoring warming duties.
Bottle: stays wherever you put it. WINNER

Cat: needs love, food, water, clean litter box, medical care, playtime, toys, friends.
Bottle: needs a kettle of boiling water. TIE

Cat: thermal-regulating, will move away when you're both roasting.  WINNER
Bottle: always hot, easily mistaken for hot, immovable cat when you're asleep.

Cat: generally not prone to leakage. WINNER
Bottle: eventually prone to spectacular leakage.

Cat: comes in unlimited sizes, colors, patterns. WINNER
Bottle: choice of brown or ivory.

Cat: $0 to about $1800 to buy. Somewhat costly to maintain. Priceless to have.
Bottle: $29 at Pottery Barn.  TIE

Cat: easily obtainable from shelters, catteries, Petfinder.com, etc. WINNER
Bottle: only available in season.

Cat: decorative and companionable when not in use. WINNER
Bottle: just sits there. 

Score:  Cat: 9   Bottle: 3

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Would Walk 500 Miles

Last week, I was sitting, bored, in a doctor's exam room, waiting for him to come back with a tiny camera on a long, long tube, which he wanted to stick up my nose. To take my mind off things, I decided to check my pedometer. I've been wearing it regularly for more than three months, hidden in a pocket, tucked into a waistband, or floating around inside a boot or bag. It's my secret, constant companion and I knew we were about to reach a milestone together.

Sure enough, I discovered I'd reached 999,999 steps on the way to the doctor's office. Very carefully, without getting out of my chair, I managed to take a photo to document the occasion. I figured that if I moved even one step, it would zero out, leaving me with no evidence of our achievement — except for a clearer head, stronger legs, less shoe leather, and possibly a less-flabby torso. (My old jeans fit better, but it might not be from exercise. It might be my new stretching technique, where I yank the heck out of them while they are still damp from the dryer.).


A song came into my head: "But I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door...".

Remember the Proclaimers?  I was glad it was queued on my internal playlist instead of that depressing Peter, Paul & Mary song about hearing the train whistle.

Where would walking 500 miles from my door actually take me, I wondered. Google had the answer: Youngstown, Ohio.

Hmm. Time to walk 500 miles more. Youngstown is not my dream destination. If I keep walking at least 10,000 steps a day, I should be out of Ohio pretty soon.

I checked the pedometer again as I was heading home from the medical area, after the nose-camera (it wasn't so bad). It was still reading 999999, so I had to figure out how to re-set it.

Since then, I've missed getting 10,000 steps on two days. One morning, I forgot all about the pedometer as I was dashing to gym class and doing errands. And one night, I forgot to do my late-night, jog-in-place catch-up to get my last 1,200 steps because I was too busy watching Eddie Izzard. An occasional lapse is okay; walking a few miles a day is an enjoyable habit now, after all these weeks. I'm just too easily distracted and lazy to be obsessive about it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Big One

In local news, this week's top story — as far as I'm concerned — centers on an obese raccoon. It's been living high on the hog in the Rutland Square area of the South End, foraging in the garbage and freaking people out.

The South End has apparently been having trash-stashing problems on its streets for years, attracting both local and non-local wildlife. Its trash is also notable for its quality, given all the excellent restaurants in this part of town. Just as the restaurants have gentrified the neighborhood, their trash is gentrifying the wildlife. A raccoon is not a rodent; it is a procyonid. So there.

The raccoon must be quite the connoisseur, partaking regularly of such delights as the Hammersley Bistro's renowned roast chicken, either on location or in tossed-out doggie bags.

When I mentioned this to Possum, he was curious to know more:


A discriminating cat, he has an active interest in roast chicken but almost none in raccoons. He suggested taking a stroll over to the South End to see what might be good to eat in the alleyways, if not the bistros.

But then I told him that the Rotund Raccoon of Rutland Square is rumored to weigh as much as 50 pounds. I said, "Possum, this gentleman is more than three times your size, and you are... ahem... somewhat portly yourself."

His reaction:


Possum never cares to be reminded of his increasing girth. But he was more perturbed to realize that he'd never win a tussle over a chicken carcass with an opponent three times his size. I had ruined his day.

Wingaersheek in Winter

Today we went for a walk on Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester with a couple of good friends. It felt great to get out of town; our car has been stuck in its parking spot for about three weeks and I've been feeling city-bound.

Snow was in the forecast but it never arrived. We were all bundled in layers and warm boots. After trekking across the snowy parking lot, the beach was not as cold and windy as we'd expected. The sun made a wan appearance. We had the place to ourselves except for a few dogs and their people.

The late afternoon light was wonderful. even my little old Leica point-and-shoot managed to take some nice photos:


The dullest aspect of the scenery was the ocean, flat and gray. It was more interesting to look at the beach, where snow and ice had formed frozen tidal patterns.


The snowy dunes reminded me of bleak Dutch landscape paintings. The best ones make you shiver just looking at them:


We often think of winter as colorless, but it's just lacking in green.Winter brings out the golds, grays, blues, and browns we otherwise ignore:


We walked along until nearly sundown, enjoying the changing light and the freshening winds.


Then we headed to Essex for an early dinner at Woodman's. They keep serving crab and lobster rolls, fried clams, chicken fingers, and onion rings, no matter how frozen the North Shore may be. Fried food is extra delicious after a long walk in the cold.

Friday, February 11, 2011

And there was great rejoicing...

in the land of Egypt!

Yesterday was a day of despair for everyone who knows or loves Egypt. Little did anyone expect that today would bring this stunning turnaround. Suddenly, there's hope for freedom and democracy, and the end of oppression, secret detentions, unlawful imprisonments, torture, and murder.

How many millions of tourists have visited Egypt every year, admiring its monuments but never realizing that a pharaoh was still in power? If those of us who have only been tourists are this joyful and relieved, what must be in the hearts of those who call it "home"? I can't wait to find out. Mubarak's departure came just as everyone was bracing for more deadly attacks against the mostly unarmed protesters. That's reason enough for dancing in the streets.

People everywhere should be celebrating in solidarity with the Egyptians. But then we'll need to brace ourselves for whatever happens in the next country where brave, determined people finally decide to rise up against tyranny.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hyacinth

Introducing Lowla, my vertically challenged hyacinth. It flowered right from its bulb tip, without bothering to grow a stem. Either this plant is highly efficient or I did something wrong.

How can you plant a bulb incorrectly, besides confusing top and bottom? Leave it to me....


This bulb kit was 75% off during the big Harry & David sale on Newbury Street. Perhaps that's why we only got 75% of the hyacinth. It makes the apartment smell like Easter, nevertheless.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Little Good News on Charles Street

Walking around Beacon Hill yesterday was an adventure of the slip-and-break-your-leg kind. Heavy chunks of ice fell from rooftops to sidewalks, narrowly missing pedestrians. But even though it was raining, I pursued my 10,000 steps, or 5 miles a day. I'm in the habit now, and it feels better to walk in almost any conditions than to stay cooped up indoors.

Icy sidewalks, icy window boxes, icy everything.

On Charles Street, I looked towards #93, where one of my favorite antiques stores, Upstairs Downstairs, has just gone out of business. But instead of an empty storefront, I saw lights and a new sign. "Store Closing!" had been replaced by "Grand Opening!"

An interior decorator who lives on Beacon Hill just bought the business, which has been around for ages in one incarnation or another. She quickly refurbished the interior, filled it with a new collection of antiques, and hired a friendly saleswoman. It looks pretty, fresh, and new. She's keeping the old name.

Phew. And there's a 20% store-opening discount.

The saleswoman gave me a tour, pointing out her favorite pieces. There were several, and I was surprised that I really liked all of them, too. The new owner has a discriminating eye. There are elegant tables of all kinds, along with mirrors, chairs, chests, smalls, and even a bed.

She showed me a small French demilune table by the front door, with a dramatic curves and slender legs. She said she loved it, and as she pointed out all of its details, I began to love it too. We both coveted it, but I have neither space nor cash to spare. I hope she bought it; it's one of a kind.

In the back room, we looked at a set of dining room chairs and a Victorian tufted settee, stripped down to their muslin layer and waiting for new fabric. This is unusual: typically, dealers recover old armchairs and sofas with fabrics they like, which are unlikely to work well for you, and price the pieces accordingly. Or they leave on some worn-out, hideous fabric, so you'll have to find an upholsterer, feeling a bit guilty because your antique find is suddenly much less of a bargain. But at "Upstairs Downstairs," you have options. Since the owner is a decorator, you can choose any fabric you want and she'll recover that settee for you. Sample books are right there.

And, chances are that you item will still be a good deal. "Upstairs Downstairs" was always a good hunting ground for inexpensive antiques, and the new owner is said to be committed to keeping her prices reasonable. Nothing induced sticker shock when I was browsing yesterday, which is not the case in other Charles Street shops.

Check it out, it's happy news for Charles Street and antique-lovers.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Nationals

We can't be glued to Al Jazeera and the other news sites all the time.... and we're hearing from our friends in Egypt that they are all either hunkered down and okay or have just left the country. Whew. But it's still horrible to watch what's happening to good people in places we know and love. Tomorrow will be a decisive day for the protesters and opposition; it could go either way. It's probably going to be ugly. It's almost dawn there. Back to Al Jazeera, soon.

We can't write about Latin American art all the time, either. The PB has a little project for the museum, and she's having a great time learning about stuff she knew nothing about at this time last week. Who knew that the ancient Maya made colorful ceramic chip-n-dips? Who knew that Afro-Cuban Surrealism was so cool? Who knew that Geometric Abstraction was so... abstract? The more you learn about art, the more there is to enjoy. I wonder if it's same for subjects like tax law and statistics. I'll have to find out.

So the PB just took a break to enjoy the Fug Girls' commentary on the U.S. Figure Skating Championship. I love Nationals; I'm sorry I missed the men, pairs and ladies. It's my fault: I miss everything. I never read TV listings, and even when I manage to turn on the TV, I never know what any of the channels are, so I give up. Plus I can't read and watch skating TV at the same time. Even sitting upright is a challenge when I've got translations of highbrow essays that had to be equally mystifying in their original Spanish. I can barely read art criticism and breathe at the same time.

But it's okay. Thanks to the Fug Girls, at least I got to see a few wacko costumes. Their post is so amusing that I feel better despite missing all those triple toe loops. And my favorite, ice dancing, is tomorrow night. I'll definitely try to catch Worlds, which are the most fun of all.

Kaydee Denney and Jeremy Bartlett.
Jessica wrote: "Bonus points for how DISGUSTED he looks here."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Okay, Campers, Rise and Shine..."

"And don't forget your booties, 'cause it's cold out there today...."

If those words conjure Bill Murray popping up from under a patchwork quilt fifty times during Groundhog Day, here's the trailer — such a brilliant film, and today's the day we Pennsylvanians celebrate the redemption of both Phils.

Baked Spinach with Cheese

By request, here's my current favorite one-dish recipe, adapted from The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever, by Beatrice Ojakangas. The title of this 640-page book sums it up perfectly.


This dish is reminiscent of quiche, but without the high-fat crust and cream. It's still rich, thanks to the  eggs and cheese. I add extra cheese and imported ham to make it heartier. I've used skim milk with good results and I love it topped with panko breadcrumbs. The crispy golden topping is as rich and essential as the icing on a cake.

I don't know if low-cholesterol versions of eggs and cheese would produce good results, but if you experiment, let me know how it works out.

This works best with baby spinach, but regular spinach is fine if you tear it up and remove the thicker stems. Spinach packages come in many different quantities, so adjust the ingredients based on whatever amount you bought. Wilting the spinach will reduce its volume dramatically. If you buy three 6-ounce bags of spinach, you'll have enough for about six servings unless you're famished.

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons melted butter + extra for the dish
18 ounces of baby spinach
1/4 cup flour
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (or similar, or more)
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (panko is best)
2 to 4 oz. shredded or cubed ham (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Boil water in a kettle.

2. Put the spinach in a colander and pour boiling water over the leaves until they wilt. Drain excess water. (I use a salad spinner.)

3. In a mixing bowl, mix the flour, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Mix in the spinach. (Add ham next, if using.) Butter a casserole dish and fill it with the mixture, packing it loosely and flat.

4. Beat the eggs and add milk. Pour this all over the spinach mixture.

5. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, uncovered. It should be set. Mix the breadcrumbs and melted butter and spread evenly over the top. Return to the oven for another 5 or 10 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are golden and crispy.

To get the maximum nutritional benefits from spinach, always serve it with orange juice or citrus fruit — vitamin C helps your body absorb iron.


Bon appetit!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Was Falling, Snow on Snow, Snoowww upon Snow...

That Christmas carol is taking on new meaning this winter. Here we go again! Just when the sidewalks were getting dry enough for speedy walking, more snow comes to make staying upright an adventure again. And we'll have another storm on Ground Hog's Day.

I am still not complaining. It's really beautiful, and it gives me perfect excuses to stay inside with the cats as much as I choose.

The white Halloween pumpkins are watching this morning's snowstorm from their spot in the bay window. I'm surprised they've lasted this long, but they're doing fine on their chilly perch, just turning a deeper shade of ivory as the weeks pass.  I decorated them with pale gold ribbons for the holidays. They've become members of the family, and I'm not throwing them out until they insist.

If they make it to Easter, I could dye them instead of eggs!  White pumpkins: who knew they were such versatile and cost-effective holiday decor?


This post was a nice distraction from deciding whether to put on a few more layers and head to the gym in time for class. It's now or never: must make up my mind....

Gym class? Or a nice hot shower and maybe a cup of cocoa?  Gym class, cocoa....

No-brainer.