Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I made some iPhoto albums for my family for Christmas. I've received several as gifts from my husband and they're wonderful. They're not hard to make if you've got a scanner, patience, and a half-decent understanding of Photoshop.

As I was going through boxes of old photos, I came across this one, from December 26, 1949:

I love this photo, taken by my dad — probably with his first good camera, a Rolleicord. I'm always impressed with his photos, which he developed and printed himself. That Rolleicord is still working.

Gathered in front of the tree are the rest of my dad's generation. My Uncle Bill is on the left. His sister, Jennie, is above him. Next to Bill is his girlfriend, Lillie, who is my dad's sister. She is holding my brother. My dad's other sister, Mary, is next. Finally, on the right, is my mother.

Bill and Lillie are grinning with mischief, and although they are in their 80s now, that hasn't changed. And they are still in love. When I was growing up, I'd visit them on laundry night. Bill fixed the washer so that we could watch it agitate even when the lid was open. They'd stand there, holding hands and watching the clothes churn around. This taught me that, if you even love doing the laundry together, you've married the right person.

Jennie and Mary are no longer with us, but here they seem to be gazing dreamily into the future. That future brought them both good times and pain, but life was probably never so grand as when they were this young, and going to parties and dances every week with their gang of friends, wearing pretty gowns — and never the same one twice. There are racks and racks of these dresses, some homemade, with matching shoes and stoles, moldering away in my grandmother's garret.

Now take another look at my mother. That sidelong look she's giving my brother is ripe with meaning. She has just discovered that she is pregnant with my sister. No one will be told for awhile, because my mom had had miscarriages. But there she sits, like the Madonna in an Annunciation painting, practically bursting with her happy secret.

My brother isn't paying any attention. He is not gazing angelically toward the heavens, either. I suspect he is staring up at a snarling stuffed bear head in the center of a wall full of hunting trophies belonging to my grandfather and my Uncle Motty. There were three deer heads, nearly two dozen racks of antlers, a lynx, a pheasant, and, eventually, a stuffed fox. They kept us kids mildly spooked — yet entranced — through family dinners for decades. (No wonder I feel so at home in Paris in Deyrolle.)

The following August, my sister was born. When she was about 5, she was the flower girl in Lillie & Bill's wedding. The other women in this photo were bridesmaids. This lavish event, with 300 guests, was photographed by a professional, who was continually surprised that he still had so much film left in his camera. (He'd spooled a huge amount of film into a canister himself so he wouldn't have to keep changing rolls.) At the end of the evening, he realized he'd neglected to put that full canister in his camera. A few snapshots of my dad's are all we've got. (He was supposed to be the main photographer, but his arm was in a sling from an accident with a saw.)  We have a photo of my sister, looking adorable and carrying a little birdcage full of flowers.

As a child, I frequently complained to Lillie and Bill that it was mean and unfair of them that I didn't get to be a flower girl, too. They would point out that their wedding was many years before I was born, but I didn't care.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Living in a Snow Globe

We've had three quiet, romantic days of snow. Before the storm began on Friday, we did last-minute errands in empty streets and empty stores, walked right up to the bank teller, and brought home burritos as the first flakes began to fall. Most of our Christmas shopping is done and we were ready to settle in and enjoy the weather. That night, I wrapped the rest of the presents with assistance from one of the cats. I also baked orange-raisin-oatmeal cookies, which are dipped in white chocolate, a terrific recipe from my mom. (I soak the raisins overnight in orange juice and a little splash of grand marnier, which gently flavors the batter, too.)

On Saturday, we took the T to the North End, for lunch at Regina's. There was no line outside: a Christmas miracle. We even had a choice of several empty booths! After an excellent pizza, we shared a thickly frosted gingerbread man from Bova's, which gave us the strength to get to Mike's Pastry, where the line is usually out the door around Christmastime. But hardly anyone was in there; we were waited on before we had time to figure out what we wanted. Which was yet more cookies: rainbows, raspberry bows, chocolate leaves, and Florentines. Christmas seems to be all about cookies this year. Then we mourned the loss of Dairy Fresh Candies, which closed in the spring after 50+ years in business. My aunt and uncle won't be getting their macadamia turtles and chocolate-dipped cherries on stems for the first time in decades.

I feel spoiled by all this tranquility, loveliness, and lack of crowds, even though my feet are always freezing and my snow boots stopped being waterproof just when I was counting on them.

This view of a church in the North End reminds me of an Italian village:

After slip-sliding down Salem Street and stopping in that fragrant bakery next to Pace's, where we nearly bought more cookies but restrained ourselves, we headed to Copley Square for Trinity's 4 o'clock free carol service. We shivered in what we considered a long line, waiting for the doors to open. I asked the woman behind us, "Is the line usually this long? Do you think we'll get seats?" Her eyebrows shot up and she pointed, "Usually, at this hour, the line stretches all the way around Copley Square and over there, by the hotel. This is nothing! We'll have good seats!" And in about 10 minutes we were sitting in the third row.

We hadn't been in Trinity for awhile (since they started charging $5) so we were content to gaze upward at the intricate details, stained glass, and soaring space as our feet thawed as people filled the seats. The music was glorious. The choir walked down the aisle holding candles as a boy soloist sang the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City." By the end of the program, as we knelt in candlelight singing "Silent Night," we were thoroughly in the Christmas mood.

The Christmas spirit is like the flu, I've found: it hits you like a ton of bricks and lasts, with varying symptoms (ranging from joyousness to the need to keep replaying Louis Armstrong's "Christmas Night in Harlem") anywhere from five days to two weeks. We decided that Trinity's carol service would become a new tradition for us. The snow fell lightly as we strolled home, past this old-fashioned tree.

As long as one can stay indoors, one of the magical things about winter is waking up to falling snow, as we have for two days in a row. Because we're fortunate — warm and cozy, with plenty of good food, books, and football games — we wouldn't mind another two days of this.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Tree #2

Returning a Christmas tree should not be done lightly, unless you have plenty of twine, strong nerves, and talent for knots. 

We do not. We are especially lacking in twine. We nearly lost the tree in a gust of wind on the Mass. Ave. bridge. It was a blustery day. I never thought I would worry someday that my Christmas tree would plunge into the Charles. We nearly lost it again somewhere between the bridge and Central Square, even with my husband driving at a crawl, and me hanging on desperately to the jerry-rigged twine inside the car. Thank heaven for the guys at Pill's Hardware, who sold us some rope and helped us re-tie the tree to the car. Their slip-knot wasn't the best idea, but I spotted it and was able to add a few more twists and loops to make it fast. Still, it was a long, nervous drive to Lexington.

Pat at Wilson Farm couldn't have been nicer. He took us into a giant barn, where they make fruit baskets and store equipment, to see some of his favorite trees — long-needled, citrusy-smelling grand firs. We picked one, which cost twice as much as the previous tree. I can't argue that you get what you pay for in Christmas trees, because we've had great ones at all prices. But we liked this tree and we liked Pat. We were sold on it when it stood upright by itself after he let go of it. "Now that's a symmetrical tree! And it looks like it wants to follow us home." we thought.  Getting it home was blissfully uneventful, and we made a second stop for the world's best Sicilian slices at Armando's

My husband replaced our tree stand with an identical model. We have the two-piece kind with a foot pedal for swiveling and vertical adjustments. The original stand was sold to us as "The Mother of All Tree Stands" many years ago by a wise man at a hardware store. This was immediately after one of our cats knocked over our 10-foot tree, in a cheap stand, shattering many of my favorite ornaments and soaking the floor. It was a major catastrophe at the time; now I'm not sure if it still makes my list of Top Ten Traumas. But it's probably #2 on my list of Top Ten Traumas About Stuff, ranking just after Losing My Future Mother-in-Law's Diamond Engagement and Wedding Rings.

Yeah. Well. Now we always tie the tree to a wall with fishing line, too.

Decorating took me from dusk until about 11, including a cranky trip to CVS for more lights. Last Christmas, I wrote a reminder for early December 2008 in my datebook, to buy 400 to 600 white lights. Being cheap, I bought 400 a couple of weeks ago. But 600 were necessary. I also used 400 colored lights, set deeper into the branches, a trick I learned from my sister, a skilled and equally relentless tree decorator. The combination of white and color gives you the best of all possible worlds. (And I never could decide between the two anyhow.) Then I stuck our Italian angel at the top, and piled on more ornaments than even I thought possible. This morning, my husband added a few dozen plastic icicles, proving that I'm not the control freak people say I am.

In recent years, as I decorate the tree, I wonder: Why the hell do we do this? Why do we take a tree out of the forest, stick it in the house, and pile it with lights and tchotchkes until it looks like a shrine to Liberace? Is this a bizarre ritual, or what? What would anthropologists from the planet Remulac make of it? I know about the Druids, the Germans, and the Victorians, but from a clear-eyed, 2008 viewpoint, Christmas trees are completely insane. 

No wonder I love them so much.

And you can see the result: sparkly, romantic, and just a wee bit over-the-top. Let's hope Christmas is the same.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tree Trouble

As I write this, there's an undecorated Christmas tree sitting behind me. That ought to be a good thing, a happy harbinger of struggles with lights and accusations of "Tree Nazi!" when I refuse to let others join in the decorating. But ultimately, our tree is a thing of wonder because we have two or three times more ornaments than any sensible person would consider.

During all the years when our friends came over to decorate it, I often needed pruners and pliers to remove the ornaments after Christmas, because they'd twist the hooks too tightly around branches (despite my pleading and threats). I've broken too many ornaments from this, and have cried and sworn too many times as I watched my favorite vintage Czech and German ones detach themselves from their metal tops and fall to earth. So call me any name you want, but my ornaments are off limits to everyone from now on.

But I digress. This tree is the wrong tree. It's short and fat, misshapen and weird. I'm devastated. I come from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City of the USA. Had anyone attempted to sell this tree there, they would have received a strongly worded letter from the Chamber of Commerce. When I was a kid, my father and I could spend more than a week — after school, on weekends, at night — hunting for the perfect tree in the freezing cold. I would drag him from nursery to farm to gas station to market, and I'd reject every one I saw. Finally, I'd find an acceptable tree — and he would reject it. Neither one of us is known for our patience, so I learned that finding the right tree must transcend moodiness, boredom, and discomfort.

I guess I forgot.

When my husband and I went to Wilson Farm last December, and fell in love with the very first tree we looked at, I immediately called dad from the tree lot. "You won't believe this, but tree-hunting took less than 3 minutes this year." He thought this was impossible, that I'd lost my standards. But it truly was the perfect tree: about 8 feet tall, slender enought to fit nicely into a tight corner of our living room, and perfectly formed. 

I decorated it with a few hundred tiny colored lights set deeply into the branches, then strung another 600 or so white lights around the outside. Then I added my golden Moravian stars, and hundreds of the ornaments I've collected since I was in college (the survivors of our friends' manhandling). The tree was especially lovely last year, and brought us joy every day. Our cats would curl up under it, sated from snarfing its needles and puking them up on the carpet and the tree skirt. But, really, the tree was perfect.

Two nights ago, in a cold, driving rain, we went to Wilson Farm in Lexington for our tree, wreaths, boughs for the mantels, and roping for the building's front doors. I don't know why we didn't wait; I guess we thought the weather would be even worse  the next day. We were miserable as soon as we headed for the car. Even the promise of Sicilian slices from Armando's Pizza didn't help. At the tree lot, we stood around dripping, looking for a tree salesman. The one who finally appeared told us he didn't have much in our size, and showed us a few sopping trees in the pitch dark. Under those conditions, as we stood freezing, hungry, tired, and soaked, this tree looked pretty darn good. I guess we imagined it might grow another 6 inches overnight. Anyway, it was $39.99, and we grabbed it.  When it was on top of the car, its net kept getting caught on our windshield wipers. But we made it home and all was well until we stuck in the stand late last night, and I cringed. It even has branches that grow at right angles, pointing up or down instead of out, giving it a sort of deer-antler effect. 

So I'm doing what I generally do, whether it's dried pasta with live moths from Trader Joe's, or the wrong wedding dress from Filene's Basement. I'm returning it! I called Wilson Farm this morning and talked to the manager. He heard my story and said those magic words: "No problem! Bring it back, and ask for Pat or Jeff." You'd imagine people returned trees all the time. We've always loved Wilson Farm for their friendly staff as well as top-quality produce and plants, but this was beyond expectations. So we're about to drag it downstairs, tie to the car roof, and try again. My dad will approve, after he finishes yelling at me for settling for a lousy tree in the first place.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Making Crêpes, and Making Do

I ate many crêpes in Paris. They are delicious, satisfying, affordable, and fast, whether you're buying from a street vendor or sitting in a tiny crêperie. We like them with mushrooms and Gruyère, and we like them complèt — ham and cheese inside, topped with a fried egg. Savory crêpes are called galettes. Made with buckwheat flour, they taste hearty and substantial. 

We like our sweet crêpes filled with Nutella. Nutella with bananas, Nutella with jam, Nutella with Nutella. Truth is, if you put enough Nutella on anything (even a small child), I'll probably eat it.

Crêpes are properly made on a round, cast-iron hot plate, with a neat little tool to spread the batter perfectly, like grooming the Fenway grass before a Sox game. Many home cooks have special crêpe pans, designed to be lightweight so you can easily spread the batter, with low sides for easy turning. 

Knowing we'd be yearning for crêpes here at home, I almost bought such a pan at Dehillerin. I found lots of them, lying in dusty piles that appeared to have been undisturbed since the days of Madame DeFarge. But I was incapable of completing the transaction in French and I doubted anyone spoke English. I was dead wrong; they even have a web site in English, damn it. (My punishment for being intimidated is missing out on a copper-and-steel oval gratin pan, too — at about half the price we'd pay in the US, even with the rotten exchange rate. I've coveted one for decades. I really have to go back to Paris.)

So, last night, we were hungry for crêpes, and we had some nice imported ham and cheddar, so I tried out our old Calphalon nonstick 10" skillet. It worked like a charm, turning out perfect, round, crispy-edged crêpes using almost no oil. Then we had Nutella crêpes for dessert, and again tonight. 

While crêpes are supposed to be cooked in a very hot pan, you have to use less heat with any nonstick pan (high heat can ruin them — and you). But lower heat can work perfectly well; just cook them a bit longer. 

I've always been skeptical about 90% of the stuff in the Williams-Sonoma catalogs. Many of the best cooks I know have fairly basic kitchen equipment, and typical French and Italian households turn out delicious meals daily without any amazing batterie de cuisine

My kitchen is tiny (we were once featured in a Boston Globe article about small kitchens). I can't fit a KitchenAid mixer or even a Waring blender in there, let alone all the specialized pans and utensils in the cookware catalogs. So it's heartening to discover that the old pan in the drawer does the job. 

Plus, it saves money for other things, like that gratin pan in my future. And more jars of Nutella.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Sights and Shops in Paris

There are endless photo opportunities in Paris. Even the pavement can be attractive. I found something interesting or beautiful almost anywhere I looked. I shot these with my little Leica C-Lux pocket camera.

Above, Notre Dame from one of my favorite vantage points.
Below, La Grande Roue, on the Place de la Concorde. Admission: 9 Euros.

Notre-Dame, last Saturday at dusk. Musicians under the tree were playing "My Girl Is Red-Hot" and there was a little dancing, too.

A pedestrian way with elegant shops and black and white Christmas trees. Between this sort of thing and the lavender twinkle lights everywhere, French holiday color schemes took some getting used to. I suppose I should try to evolve beyond red, green, gold — and the multicolored lights that are my secret favorite.

Here are two more photos of my favorite tea shop, La Charlotte de l'Isle. Above, the cluttered kitchen, where the magic takes place. Below, a detail of the pastry case. Her desserts may look plain and flat, but every slice is memorable.

I wish I had taken a shot of the restroom. From the kitchen, I was directed to go outside into a courtyard, where I found a door. I found a tiny bathroom, no more than a closet, old-fashioned and unheated, but clean. When I turned on the ancient porcelain sink, I realized there was no drainage plumbing — my boots almost got soaked as the water rushed right through the sink onto the floor. Needless to say, I adored the whole experience.

I know a cat who would look terrific in this tiara, if only for a few seconds.

A few store interiors. Above, Mariage Frères, our all-time favorite tea emporium, on the Rue des Augustins. We especially enjoy their butterscotch-flavored black tea. This time, they suggested we try Wedding Imperial, which is similar, with hints of chocolate. How could we refuse? We haven't brewed a pot yet, but it smells promising. And the elegant black tins are irresistible, too.

Above, some of the animals who have returned to Deyrolle, on the Rue du Bac, after the devastating fire in January. People actually donated past purchases to build up the taxidermy inventory. The restored shop is a little too fresh and elegant for my taste, but it has a nice selection of butterflies and bugs along with these animals. A lion was being professionally photographed in this room, so I took this shot by sticking my hand around the photographer's gray screen, not quite knowing what I'd get. Except for the ostrich in the foreground, it looks like everyone is watching "Project Runway."

I miss the stuffed dogs most of all. They no longer accept dogs for taxidermy because too many people left them and never returned to pick them up. So the old store was full of eerie, dead pets, which tended move a bit when you walked across the creaky wooden floor. They also need a zebra.

Even buying an apple is an aesthetic experience in France. This was a simple grocery store, with a Cézanne-esque abundance of produce, displayed with casual perfection.

Below, two photos of the Sainte-Chapelle, a Gothic jewel worth visiting on every trip. The top photo is a detail of an angel peeking from above a pair of gilded arches. As we sat and gazed upwards, I gave my husband my 90-second spiel on French Gothic architecture, culminating in the Rayonnant, or High, Gothic style, of which this chapel is a perfect example. He said he'd heard it all before, in prep school. So instead I contemplated how I wore myself to the bone studying Gothic art history in college. And for what, if not to impress the spouse occasionally?

Below, from the edge of the Seine. Sure, it's the City of Light, but it can still look great when there's barely any light.

Notre Dame with architectural lighting. The atmosphere that night was every bit as frosty as it looks — a fine excuse to buy yet another Nutella crêpe from a street vendor.

Now, who wants to fly to Paris this minute? ME!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Parisian Shop Windows

Shop windows are theater in Paris. You rarely see anything quite as wonderful here in the States. Here's a sampling of some of my favorite windows from last week's trip:

A magical toy shop in St. Germain. I love that enthusiastic bunny in the hat.

An antiques and curiosities shop we spotted late on our last evening, on the Rue Jacob. We longed for the bird, of course, but you can't own stuffed owls in the U.S. Yet another reason to move to Paris....

Russian nesting dolls to delight any obsessive-compulsive collector, on the Rue Bonaparte.

My favorite tea shop, La Charlotte de' l'Isle, on the Ile St.-Louis. They say Charlotte is a witch, and she certainly owns the most peculiar, intoxicating tea shop. I think she casts spells on me, because I find myself in a rare, giddily wonderful mood whenever I'm in there, even before my dessert arrives.

A tiny bookshop in St.-Germain, specializing in old, decorative bindings and illustration. Five customers were enough to overflow the shop, but no one wanted to leave.

A Polish Christmas palace filling a bookshop window on the Boulevard St.-Germain.

Many shop interiors fulfill the promises of their windows, and I captured a few of those, which I'll show on my next post.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I Loved Paris in November

Still jet-lagged from our trip to Paris, but there will be more posts soon. In the meantime, a photo of our suite from the hotel web site (better than our photos, but we didn't have the fruit and flowers). We could easily imagine we were in a château, with that velvet-canopied bed, the inlaid parquet floor as slick as a skating rink, the tapestry walls, beamed ceiling and all the antique furnishings.

Our bathroom had a soaking tub, a huge old-fashioned sink, and a casement window with a deep outer sill that was ideal for keeping bottles of water and green tea cold. With an expense account for meals, and maybe a couple of extra drawers, I could have lived happily in that room for at least a couple of years.

Here's a list of the pastry I enjoyed on a typical day:
1. Breakfast: Two smallish croissants (plain and raisin or chocolate) with soft cheese, butter, and jam.
2. Snack: A chocolate éclair, usually with a dark, rich filling better than anything over here.
3. Lunch: A nutella crêpe from a stand on the street, perfect food for walking (as are éclairs).
4. Tea: A tart citron, gâteau chocolat — or a wonderful wedge of dark chocolate, candied orange peel, amaretto, and almonds, called Florentine farfelu, at my favorite tea shop, Charlotte de l'Isle.
5. Dinner: Mousse au chocolat or crème brulée for dessert, after a far less memorable entrée.
6. Snack before bed: A chocolate-almond croissant, dusted with confectioners' sugar and flaky and divinely sweet, unlike any over here.

My packing worked out pretty well, although lugging the suitcase from the airport on the RER was a real drag. I still need to work on packing more minimally, but the two coats, three pairs of boots, and four turtleneck sweaters all came in handy. It was frequently cold and damp, but always beautiful.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Packing for Paris

For years, I've been lulling myself to sleep at night by imagining I'm packing a lovely little suitcase for an imaginary weekend getaway. Three days in Paris, Florence, Vermont, New York.... I start thinking about which sweaters to bring and I'm out like a light. It works every time.

But in reality, packing is drudgery. By the time I finish, I often wonder if the trip's pleasures will outweigh the trouble of loading up the suitcase. It usually takes much of a day, even with advance planning. And then I panic: I feel a desperate need to re-pack about an hour before we're due at the airport. I always throw in several  ridiculous "what-if?" items at that point.

And it's not like I don't have a system. I aim for semi-minimalism. I believe I should be able to manage my suitcase easily while racing from one end of a train station to the other, or traipsing up and down steps and bridges in cities like Venice.

So I am not one of those people you see in check-in lines pulling suitcases large enough to fit a stowaway. I have standards, even if I fail to meet them. I use a 24", non-expandable suitcase, which is just barely over the limit for carry-ons. I've been stuffing it for years for any jaunt short of a 3-week trip (I borrowed a portion of my husband's 27" suitcase for that.)

Lately, I also bring a Longchamp carry-on with our airplane meals (I won't eat a particle of airline food, having learned the hard way), a pashmina (I won't unwrap those crummy pillows or blankets, either), reading matter (New Yorkers I can leave behind), and all the stuff that's too precious for the suitcase. I try to have enough essentials to tide me over for a day or two if my suitcase is lost.

Upon landing, I pack whatever remains in the carry-on into my suitcase so I'm only shlepping it and my handbag (another weightless Longchamp) to my destination. Leaving enough room in the suitcase is tough. But the beauty of Longchamp bags is that they fold into nothing.

I keep packing lists for various types of trips — Europe, Maine, home, etc. — on my laptop, so I'm never starting from scratch. I add notes later if my choices were particularly good or bad: "22 tees for a 9-day trip?" "Wore same damn skirt for 4 days. Never touched boots or coat." "Read all 4 novels. Wore 2 of 5 pairs of shoes."

Paris in November will be cold and often wet. I expected to spend a lot of time on my own, and planned to bring just a pair of dark jeans, dark cords, turtlenecks, a Barbour (the French seem to love them), and a nice skirt. But now we are meeting various friends for dinner and lunch, and we are invited to the country for the weekend. And I have to meet my husband's colleagues for one or two documentary showings. Busy. So I'm also bringing a long coat, three pairs of boots (two for walking, one for dressing up), a fancier skirt and top, and a pile of scarves because they are très chic et de rigeur in Paris. Plus hats, books, toiletries, and all the other things that make my lists a whole page long.

At least I don't haul heavy machinery: no laptop, hair dryer, iron, clock, or anything you'd find in a TravelSmith catalog. Just a tiny camera, its charger, and a skirt hanger (because there seldom is one).

My next suitcase may be a wee bit bigger, or at least expandable — and it's going to be a spinner. Two extra wheels make all the difference, especially in airports where you can glide them along with two fingers. My husband has a featherweight Heys spinner that I covet, although at 26" it seems too big for me. I'd try to pack my bed pillows with that much space.

Most of the packing for this trip is finally done, and I am going to try to forget about it and read Permanent Parisians, about old Paris cemeteries, one more time so I don't have to pack it. And in just eight days, I'll have the many displeasures of unpacking to contend with. With no croissants or éclairs to look forward to, that's going to be even worse!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Farewell, Farmer's Market

I went to the Farmer's Market in Copley Square yesterday for the last time this year. The market closes on Tuesday, but I'll be away. Winter has arrived and I was bundled up in my shearling coat, hat, gloves, scarf, and boots. Many market vendors close down after the killing frost, when the choices narrow to root vegetables, cabbage, and apples. So just a few hardy farmers were setting up their stalls when I got there, shortly before 11. Selling can't legally begin until the stroke of 11, so I had to hang around. I went to my favorite apple stand, and saw a fellow with his hood pulled down over his forehead and a huge scarf wrapped around the rest of his face, except for his blue eyes.

"Is that you?" I said, realizing after I spoke just how stupid it sounded. I don't know the guys' names, although I've been buying fruit and nursery plants from that stand for years. I never learn: when I call people I know well, I invariably announce myself as, "It's me!" I know it's dumb, possibly even rude, but I can't help it. My friends and family must not know that many idiots because they always quickly figure out that it is, in fact, "me."

Anyway, the farmer was apparently cut from the same bolt of opaque cloth: "Yeah, it's me," he said. "But I wish it wasn't! I'm dyin' out here!"

Then he sold me some Galas and Empires. We wished each other happy holidays and said, "See you in the spring!" 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Listening to: "Intervention" by Arcade Fire

I'm the last person to ask about popular music. Most of what I listen to is at least 10 or 20 years old. I tend to listen to the same album or group relentlessly. My Nick Drake obsession lasted more than a year.

My iPod shuffles from Gregorian chant to the Clash to the Beatles to Joan Baez to Stephane Grappelli to Death Cab for Cutie. I doubt anyone else could stand it. I rarely pay attention to current music, listen to the radio, or buy songs, so I only stumble onto new things when I'm out shopping or at the gym.

Last week, I heard an amazing song in a consignment shop in Beacon Hill and had to ask what it was: "Intervention" by Arcade Fire (2007). I expect I'll be listening to this band a lot. How often do you find a political rock anthem with an enormous, authentic pipe organ wailing in the background? With my Catholic roots, any half-decent song with a pipe organ will grab my attention.

The song is about war and the kind of religion that drives it. As I hear it, I keep seeing images of George Bush (I listen anyway) and Iraq in my mind. It's kind of corny and confusing, admittedly, but it's sung with such earnestness and passion that I can't get it out of my head. The link shows a video with clips from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). This heavy-handed, sentimental treatment doesn't enhance the song so it's better to listen rather than watch (this from a nerd who grew up watching silent movies on TV).

Plus you can really dance to it. I give it a 10!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Feeding the Cat

In my first post, I said I'd try not to bore anyone with cat stories, but that's history now. No one is reading this anyway.

Our 14-year-old tortoiseshell, a doll-face Persian named Snicky (actually Snictoria), has been losing weight, not eating, not playing, just lying around. She once weighed close to 7 lbs. and she dropped down to 5.8 lbs. two weeks ago, which is worrisome. It's the equivalent of you losing 20% of your weight. Unlike our other two cats, she never ate much or seemed interested in food; I used to joke that she absorbed moisture and nutrients from the air. As the others were galloping to their food dishes, I would issue daily instructions to her: "Snick! That's food there, in your bowl. Put your face in it and chew."

She's an odd cat. I look into her owl eyes and I have no idea what's going on in that tiny brain. I watch her walk, with her front paws elegantly turned out in a ballerina's first position, and I wonder where she learned that. I watch her carry her pipe-cleaner toys and place them across her bowl, even though they make it tough for her to reach her food, and I don't get it. I understand a lot about my other cats — and we all talk to each other all the time — except for why they eat plants and throw up.

Snicky had the basic tests to rule out various diseases, including a full-body X-ray, and she'll have an ultrasound next. First she needs to finish the antibiotics for a urinary infection she got about 10 days ago. We know she has early-stage kidney disease, as many older cats do, but it's not severe enough to be making her lose her appetite.

We think at least part of her problem is due to her being high-strung and sensitive, and our being bombarded with construction noise from the apartment below every weekday. This has been going on for more than two months and there's no end in sight — and very shortly after it began, the cat stopped eating. The noise is relentless: yelling, banging, hammering, drilling, nailing, stomping, a compressor, singing, Irish sarcasm. We're also dealing with dirt, dust, and smells filtering up here, because this condo building is still essentially a 19th-century house, porous, with no soundproofing or seals between the floors.

I sense a connection between the cat's illness and the noise, the vet suspects one, and more tests will tell us if it's something more serious. (I dread getting medical test results more than anything — even more than the test itself — whether it's for me or a person or animal I love. It gets worse as we all get older and more fragile.)

To help Snicky gain weight, we give her appetite-stimulant pills. Even though she's declawed and tiny, she transforms into a ravening, blood-thirsty banshee if you try to groom her or give her a pill. She bit straight into into my thumbnail the other day; It's still recovering. And it isn't as if we have no experience with pilling cats. We have decades of experience. She's a shrew.

But the pills work. She just ate most of a can of Fancy Feast trout. We're elated. Normally, I would find that stuff too disgusting to even put in a dish, but I've grown hardened. We've dealt with many revolting prescription cat foods lately, chopping it all into icky little puddings with extra water and flavor-enhancing powder. Yum. Yesterday's can of sardines and tuna was the winner: I'd swear it had fish eyes in it. She's finicky and we have to keep offering new things many times a day. Or she just sits by her bowl and stares at us with those alien orange eyes.

She's gained two-tenths of a pound, which the vet says is promising.

A side-effect of the appetite pills is that cats become more vocal. Snicky previously had little to say, although she had an irresistible "silent meow" if she wanted milk or a treat. She would also complain for a few minutes, every few weeks, in a long string of chirpy meows, as if she'd been storing up a lot of private comments over that time and needed to get them off her chest.

Now Snicky often sounds as if she's being fed into a wood-chipper. Her howls usually mean she's hungry or wants to drink from the faucet, but not always. They go on through the night. I didn't know she had a foreign accent. Usually it's her sibling, Snalbert, who entertains us with cat speeches in the middle of the night. Now he's competing for air time.

We are going to Paris soon, and I considered bringing Snicky along to keep an eye on her, but I know she'd hate every moment. Because she's such a demon about pills, and needs frequent feedings, we will board her at the vet while the other cats have a sitter. She will hate that, too, but they claim there Feliway pheromone spray will make her calm and relaxed. I hope so.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

One More Reason to Enjoy Winter

Potatoes Dauphinois. It's impressive to say, easy to make, and so satisfying to see — bubbling and browned — on the table on a cold evening. I made this the other night, along with herb-roasted chicken, mushroom ragout, and a green salad with pears, dried cranberries, and clementines. Add a fresh Iggy's baguette and some softened Président butter from France, and you can pretend you're in Paris.

For the ingredients, I went to Trader Joe's: a 2-lb. bag of small Yukon Gold potatoes, a pint of half-and-half, and a chunk of their best Gruyère. I rubbed my oval baking dish with butter and a clove of garlic. Then I scrubbed the potatoes and sliced them into very thin rounds with my V-slicer. It's fun. (You may prefer the fancier mandoline, but a Japanese V-slicer is equally effective, fast, safe, and at least $100 cheaper.) 

Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan with the half-and-half and add salt, pepper, and ground nutmeg. Simmer gently until the potatoes have softened. Grate the cheese as you're waiting. You should have about two cups, but more is better, of course.

If you want to enrich the flavor, you can sauté a small amount of thinly sliced and chopped sweet onion in a little butter and add it to the pot. But the three-ingredient version is a winner.

Spoon the mixture into the baking dish, alternating with sprinklings of cheese as well as more dashes of nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. Pour the last of the liquid around the dish. Save plenty of cheese to cover the top. I also added a layer of panko (Japanse bread crumbs) for extra crispness. 

Bake at 425° for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown and gorgeous. Or bake longer at lower heat if you've got other dishes in the oven. Serves 6 to 8 hungry eaters and reheats nicely. I can't wait to make it again, and next time I'll have my camera on hand.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Three Museums, a Wedding, and a Chilean Sea Bass

This weekend, we went to my niece's wedding in Philadelphia. It was a joyful, beautiful, lavish affair. The rehearsal dinner was at Amada, an excellent tapas restaurant. We stuffed ourselves with serrano ham, crab wrapped in roasted peppers, garlicky shrimp, and perfectly dressed green salad.

The vows were exchanged in a jewel of a Victorian Gothic church in Little Italy. The groom's cousin sang a heart-rending Ave Maria. I read from Paul's letter to the Philippians, 4:4-9, apropos for both weddings and post-election high hopes.

The reception at the Loew's Hotel featured a four-course dinner, a 10-piece R&B band, thousands of white orchids towering over the tables, and a buffet loaded with Viennese desserts and tiny ice cream meringue sandwiches — in case the chocolate wedding cake wasn't enough.

The bride was incandescent in Michael Pool beaded satin, the groom played a set with band, and the dancing hardly stopped. The parents of the newlyweds tore up the floor.

My family looked civilized and almost aristocratic in tuxes and sparkly dresses. My cranky Republican brother cracked a smile occasionally, although he refused to get down and boogie.

At dinner, I found a new object of adoration. I recently decided to stop being a picky eater, and have been sampling oysters, mussels, squid, shrimp, octopus, and other fishy things I previously scorned. After hearing the foodies at my table rave about Chilean sea bass being well worth $30 a pound, I decided to skip the Black Angus filet mignon and try it.

Oh, my god. Who knew fish could taste like that? Who cares if it's really Patagonian toothfish? It was sublime: rich, sweet, light, satisfying, and healthy at the same time. Its crabcake-and-roasted-tomato topping blew it out of the water. So to speak.

Good fish makes me feel like I'm near the ocean. My first oyster startled me: it tasted exactly like the sea. Sitting in a gown in a ballroom on 12th and Market Streets, I was simultaneously splashing barefoot in the waves on Long Beach Island.

I need to find a rich person to invite us out for dinner. Now.

There was an after-party in the penthouse, with a DJ and a candy bar in the bridal colors of black, silver, white, and green (licorice, M&Ms, nonpareils, jelly beans....) and a sort of soft-pretzel buffet. But we were too exhausted to linger.

My non-wedding goal for the weekend was visiting three museums for the first time. The Mutter Museum, with its "disturbingly informative" collection of medical specimens, models, and instruments, was fascinating and a bit sickening — and my husband was thoroughly creeped out. I'll have to go back alone. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in a landmark Gothic Revival building by Frank Furness, is full of old favorites from my Swarthmore art history classes. And my husband had business at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It has a fine collection, some cool Victorian architecture, and friendly staff. I heard the Romanian accent of a guard and realized we'd worked at the MFA at the same time. We had a great time catching up and telling stories.

The day of the wedding, we had breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market. We began with a big slice of marble layer cake, served by a friendly Amish girl. Then we split an apple-cherry-walnut bagel. And wandered, wild-eyed, overwhelmed by the array of local produce and meat; imported Italian groceries; and best of all — Amish pickles, preserves, baked goods, meats, dairy, ice cream, and pretzels. And so much more.

The only thing we couldn't find, oddly enough, was a good cheesesteak. The renowned Rick's in the Market closed years ago, we were told (after two Philly natives insisted we go there and only there).

Boston really needs a food market like this. Philly's serious attention to take-out puts us to shame. Any place that can offer more than six different kinds of chocolate- and candy-covered pretzels deserves our respect. Let's import some Amish farm families right away. Let's put the cows back on the Common, and see if our vaunted local ice cream shops can beat theirs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History Made. Time to Make Progress

I heard the victorious cheers and shouts of students and neighbors from our windows last night and knew Obama had been elected. I had given up on following the returns online because every site was giving different numbers and I was nervous. I pretended to read a novel. But when the cheering began, we turned on the TV and heard McCain's and Obama's speeches. McCain was gracious and generous; he reminded me of the guy I'd always appreciated before he became a candidate and morphed into somebody else.

For at least a few years, we won't have to worry about Sarah Palin representing us anymore. That's worth a celebration with cupcakes all by itself.
I am proud to be American for the first time in eight years. It feels odd, but good. The next time we visit Europe or the Middle East, we'll have a little less to explain and apologize for — not that anyone we've met on our travels has ever held anything against individual Americans like us. People are smart enough to know that government and politics are one thing, while the beliefs and desires of the people are another. They also know that Americans who travel and talk to foreigners tend to have broader vision than Americans who always stay home. However, people overseas do tend to wonder aloud why America, which is able to choose so freely, had chosen so disastrously. Twice. But every political discussion we've had over there has revealed a degree of understanding that's far more sophisticated and encompassing than the myopic mental workings of the average Joe over here. 

People abroad have been watching us closely and most have wanted this outcome badly, because they realize that what happens here reverberates in their world. They would usually begin a conversation by quizzing us cautiously, discover we're kindred spirits and tell us their hopes and fears for America. While a typical American has zero interest in European elections, it seems like most Europeans wish they could cast a US ballot. Today we're getting jubilant email from foreign friends we haven't heard from in ages. Even the Berlin couple we met briefly at a Venetian B&B located our address. People care.

So, history was made yesterday, and politics and people were united on a new course that ought to generate solutions rather than just rhetoric. It was inspiring to see the mosaic of colors, ages, and ethnicities joined together in celebration. I was relieved to see blue spreading further across the map of the states. (I was also surprised to see that a million Massachusetts voters picked McCain. Whoa! Vermont tops us as the bluest state — those lovable old hippies.) 

The new president faces unprecedented problems of mind-boggling proportions, as he well knows. But if anyone can deal with the mess we're in, I think he can. He has brains, vision, staff resources, and diplomatic skills, which are all ostentatiously missing in the current administration. (When Clinton was elected, I remember thinking the same positive things, although I also worried that it would all end in tears somehow, no matter how much he was able to accomplish. This time I'm much less worried about personal foibles and Republican slime tactics.) 

I know I sound disgustingly starry-eyed, even for a Massachusetts liberal, but there is a time for everything, and today we have a reason to hope. I'll go back to being cynical tomorrow. Today, my brain is taking a rest from my jobless situation, tanking portfolio, and generalized worries for the economy, the world, and the future. 

Thursday, October 30, 2008

10 Good Things about Winter

Every year, I wrack my brain to find reasons to enjoy winter. Every year it gets a little tougher, but here we go:
  1. Baking and roasting as much as I want — without overheating the house.
  2. Cashmere and shearling. Warm, soft, good-looking.
  3. Cocoa. I drank sugar-free Swiss Miss year-round to stay warm at my former job (in fingerless gloves and a fleece, while blasting a space heater). But I'm no longer there, so hot chocolate tastes like fun again. Our favorite brand is Penzey's.
  4. Christmas. By mid November, I'll be getting in the mood for holiday displays in stores. And twinkly lights and fragrant greens always make me happy, even the day after Halloween.  Then there's Christmas music, and food, our lovely tree, and presents!
  5. Boots. My only classy, comfortable alternative to flip flops. Every fall I order many boots online from Zappos and ShoeBuy and spend weeks making up my mind. I've got four promising styles at the moment and one more on the way.
  6. Clementines. The wooden crates have just appeared at DeLuca's. Of all fruits, I think clementines taste the most like candy. 
  7. Blizzards. Even when I don't have a job to go to, I love being trapped at home, especially when my husband gets a snow day. All I need is bread, cheese, chocolate, and a book.
  8. Bed. We use flannel sheets and a thick down comforter throughout the year, but this winter we're going to be warm. We bought a Level 3 down comforter for half-price at the Cuddledown outlet in Freeport. Most customers buy a "Summer" or a Level 1 comforter if their house has normal winter heating. Level 2 is for people who are always cold and turn the heat way down. Level 3 is for people who are always cold and live like pioneers, with bedroom temps in the low 50s. Level 4 is for people who always feel cold but are dumb enough to live in an unheated chateau or cabin. Cuddledown clerks are thrifty Mainers who try to talk you into the least expensive option. They were stunned and almost horrified when we told them we used a heavy comforter in Boston in July, with the windows open. And that, although our bedroom is drafty, we get decent heat. They practically begged us not to buy the Level 3, as if it were a Level 3 biohazard instead of 4 pounds of goose down and feathers. But we insisted. And we're putting a coverlet on top.
  9. Winter Olympics. There's no better way to waste time on a freezing night than watching guys in mullets and velvet unitards throw sequined, bleached blondes across the ice to music from Goldfinger. Too bad we have to wait until 2010.
  10. Wreaths. For the past few years, I've volunteered as a wreath decorator for the Back Bay Garden Club's holiday fundraiser. They sell hundreds of wreaths, and dozens of us spend days in a church basement on Marlborough Street, getting coated in pitch and punctured by flower picks as we turn plain balsam wreaths into elaborate yet sturdy creations. I suspect that everyone in the club except me has a second home in the country, and they gather bushels of pinecones, berries, boughs, holly, and dried flowers, plus every possible item from the flower market for decorating material. My first year, I had to make two huge, matching wreaths for Tom Brady's front doors. The pressure! The Garden Club women are talented, hard-working, wise, and fun, and I feel honored to be among them. Wreath sales support tree pruning and planting projects in Back Bay. But what I love most is hanging out in the alley in a mask with a can of spray paint (gold pinecones are essential), knowing I can't possibly be arrested.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Autumn in Mount Auburn Cemetery

Last weekend, the fall color show had not yet peaked in Mount Auburn. There's still time to take a walk in the leaves and enjoy the beauty of one of the world's finest 19th-century cemeteries.

We were "members" of Mt. Auburn for awhile, and we may join again when/if our finances recover, but it seemed odd to belong to a cemetery while we are still pretty good at breathing.

On our walks there, we sometimes try to imagine what sort of elaborate, overwrought monument we'd have chosen for ourselves as wealthy Victorians. If I were ever to start my own business, I'd manufacture reproductions of Victorian tombstones in some sort of impervious, stone-like material, so people can have graves with character and artistry again. Mourning ladies, benevolent angels, baskets of wheat sheaves, loyal dogs, lambs, obelisks, books on pedestals, draped urns — all a thousand times more eloquent than any modern slab of granite.

Then there's my brother's plan. He wants to build a mausoleum, with lifelike statues of him, our sister, and me sitting inside. A recording of us yelling at each other would play 24 hours a day. I think it's a great idea: it celebrates one of our top skills, and no passerby could possibly feel sorry for us.

On this walk, my husband asked if I would mind if we had a monument in Mt. Auburn someday, a place where our names would be carved. And that sounded good to me. (A nice plot costs well into six figures, so this is highly speculative.) This is a change. Previously, we'd both said we want no marker, just cremation and ashes tossed in the wind. I guess our plans are evolving. We don't have children, so it's likely no one else would visit us, but if he wants his name on a stone, it's certainly going to be there.

We passed a new, curb-style stone belonging to a Boomer: "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." We puzzled over another one: "Yellow Always Wins." I wondered if mine should say: "She was passionate about trying to discover her passion." Then I realized I'm not even passionate about that, and got really depressed. My husband recalled Mel Blanc's epitaph — "That's All, Folks!" — which we saw years ago in Hollywood. Short and snappy. I suppose ours could be equally truthful and succinct: "Too Many Burritos."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another Clothes Call

To protect his dignity and privacy, I should not blog about my husband's sartorial disasters. It's simply his destiny to ruin so many of his clothes in strange, sometimes hilarious ways (including two lambskin coats, a few elegant blazers, and numerous shirts, sweaters, shoes, belts, and pants). It's no one's business but his, and perhaps mine. Telling such stories could pose a threat to our marriage — in addition to being just plain wrong. It would be especially wicked to do so without asking him. If he ever posted anything like that about me, I'd brain him.

But I can't resist. (Who reads this blog anyway?)

For the past couple of weeks, he's been preparing for a long day of interviews for his Dream Job of a Lifetime, a newly endowed teaching post, which hasn't had a professor in his obscure field since about World War II. He prepared his lecture extensively during Red Sox and Patriots games, got a haircut, and tolerated my asking him endless, annoying interview questions day and night. Late one sleepless night, we even debated the pros and cons of his pulling a live lobster out of his laptop bag during his meeting with the search committee. We decided against it because — while it would make him an unforgettable candidate, and handling lobsters is new skill we're both proud of — lobsters smell.

We also spent time on his outfit. He has many suits, shirts, ties, and dress shoes, but these tend to be elderly since "office casual" has long been the rule where he works. He usually wears an old blazer just to have extra pockets for his iPhone. 

We settled on a heavy charcoal flannel suit with a simple jacket cut like a blazer (patch pockets, no breast pocket). He looks great in it and said he didn't want to look like a banker or lawyer. He wore a blue shirt and my favorite burgundy tie. Knee-high socks with black wingtips. He'd polished two pairs the day before and we chose the nicer, Italian ones. And for luck, he carried a pocket watch that belonged to that WWII predecessor, his hero. This morning, we pulled every speck of cat fur off both the suit and the car seat. He looked wonderful. He left the house an hour early.

About an hour later, he called me. "You won't believe this," he said. (But I believe everything these days.) "I got out of the car and was walking toward the lecture hall, and I noticed some stuff peeling off my shoe." It seems that the heels and soles of both of his wingtips chose this morning — of all mornings — to crack and disintegrate to the extent that he was practically walking on socks instead of shoe leather. 

I can only imagine the impression this might have made on the dean and the search committee. Fortunately, he had time to hobble to a store for a pair of glossy Bostonians.

I've almost never heard of quality Italian shoes suddenly falling apart like this. Except that it happened to him a couple of years ago, too. In Vienna, on the way to a business meeting. The hideous Austrian emergency shoes he bought were recently donated to the Salvation Army. 

Should we have his closet tested for shoe-eating bacteria?

After we were done laughing on the phone, I walked to St. Clement's and lit a lot of candles. I'm not very spiritual, but there are times when this seems like the only thing to do. I'm still waiting  for him to come home and tell me about the rest of his day. I wonder if he used that stuffed lobster I put in his bag, just in case.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sunset in Southwest Harbor

To escape from the mold removal process, we took off for a long weekend at our favorite inn in Southwest Harbor, Maine. We stay in the poolside bungalow three times a year, and we've been going there forever. We've calculated that we spend more time each year with the innkeepers than we do with our families. They are wonderful.

The leaves were at peak, Acadia National Park was full of hikers, and the popovers at the Jordan Pond House were piping hot. 

Even though it was fleece jacket weather, we stayed in the pool and hot tub every afternoon for as long as we could stand it. The pool was a chill 80 degrees; on other October visits, it's been cranked up to at least 9o — heaven when the air is cold enough that you can see your breath. 

We were visited day and night by a friendly local cat who spent five hours curled up with us as we watched the Red Sox and the Patriots.

I took this photo wearing a wet swimsuit and a towel, after racing to the parking lot by the bungalow, where the Cranberry Island Ferry docks. When that water turns pink, it's one of the prettiest places in Maine.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Squash? Or Art?

I visited my favorite farmer, Aidan, at the Copley Square Farmer's Market today. Along with the apples, tomatoes, carrots, red onions, and corn, I found a beautiful carnival squash, which will sit around our apartment as an objét d'art until it starts to soften and look a bit suspect — round about March, judging from last year's model.

Aidan thinks it's hilarious that I buy his vegetables as sculpture, but anyone might admire my squash's lyrical, curvy stem and enjoy watching its slowly shifting colors, from greens to golds to orange, as it matures. I couldn't bear to slice it and roast it. And I'm not so crazy as to try the same thing with, say, one of his heirloom tomatoes.

I scheduled my last two part-time jobs so I'd be free to make my morning visits to the Copley market: Tuesday and Fridays, 11 to 6, from May to Thanksgiving. Many of the farmers know us steady customers on sight, and I've gotten helpful cooking and gardening tips over the years.

We head to Iggy's bread stand first, because their best stuff sells out quickly. (The only bread that tops Iggy's is the pricey little golden raisin and pecan wholegrain loaf from When Pigs Fly.) There are many other bakery stands these days, but I pass them by. Except for the coffeecake-and-pie lady, who sometimes proves irresistible.

All winter long, we long for fresh, local vegetables, berries, sunflower bouquets, and butter-and-sugar corn. In spring, I buy plants and potted herbs for the front steps; in the fall, I carry home leeks for soups, and red beets, Yukon Gold potatoes, and yams to roast. But, of course, the real treasure is a bag of ripe, red field tomatoes. We stock up as soon as they appear in July; by late September we keep our fingers crossed that their season will stretch into November.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My Boyfriend

We met years ago, at his ground-floor apartment on Beacon Hill. He lives on the last steep slope of my exercise route. We bonded instantly, and now we see each other as often as our schedules allow. He has tawny hair, intelligent eyes, and an endearing habit of flopping on his back, waving his feet in the air, and blinking his baby blues at me.

My husband is tolerant of our relationship, a cosmopolitan attitude that I find rather attractive. They've met a few times and had civil exchanges. But my boyfriend and I are devoted to each other. (Just don't tell that possessive roommate of his, the dame who keeps him locked up behind the screen and the barred window.)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Best Photo: Prague

I love this photo, taken in 2001 with my Nikon CoolPix. The perfectly angled boat makes all the difference.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Shoe Happy

I'd like to thank the women who take the time to write all the detailed, thoughtful reviews on Shoebuy and Zappos.com. (I've written plenty of them myself because I know how useful they are.) It's hard to choose shoes online; it's even hard to find good ones in stores if your feet are fussy, like mine. For me, reading reviews can be much more helpful than trying on actual shoes.

I may be the last woman in America to own a pair of funky rubber rain boots but—thanks to you reviewers— I think I've suffered my last drenching in slippery flip flops. I loved reading about how you test your rain boots in the bathtub. I appreciated it when you told me, again and again, that those deceptively adorable Sperry boots were, in fact, garbage. And there's nothing better than reading 52 glowing reviews about a style that's unexpectedly cute, affordable, and available in my size, like these Nomad "Puddles:"

I ordered these from Shoebuy, which ranks second only to Zappos for customer service—and usually has better prices. Shoebuy constantly offers coupon deals, so it's easy to get 10% to 25% off. I'll also get 11% in cash back from my credit card company.

I look forward to their arrival, to see if everyone is right. I hope my own reviews won't pop anyone else's balloon.

Update: Unfortunately, I had to return them because they were too small, and the next larger size was much too big. Darn! I'm blaming my feet, and not the reviewers.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ode to Trader Joe

We're lucky to live a few blocks from the Back Bay Trader Joe's, where we look forward to seeing Phil, the Stephen King lookalike, dispensing sports and food wisdom at his register. On our last trip, we met a lively French cashier, Jean-Phillippe. In his gorgeous accent, he told us that he lives in Aix-en-Provence, but his pension is in dollars and the exchange rate had driven him over here. We sympathized, remembering all the gelato we ate instead of meals on recent trips to Italy.

I hope the exchange rate improves before our next trip, next year. I want to eat! We had a few memorable meals, but not nearly as many as we wanted. When a plain, salad-plate sized pizza is $15, and a small glass of iced tea or coke (I can't drink alcohol, long story) is $6, gelato looks even more attractive. (Especially pistacchio, and cioccolato arancia, and cioccolato fondente....)

We were happier to come back to Boston knowing we could buy whatever we wanted at TJs to restock the kitchen. While food prices are rising insanely—I think my favorite LaBrea wholegrain loaf at Shaw's just increased by $2—TJs still has plenty of deals. Here are some of the things we can't live without:

1. Chocolate raspberry sticks. Satisfyingly chewy and chocolately, but low in fat. (They must be terrible for our teeth, however. I've spent the last few days editing articles dental health articles as a freelancer, and learned too much about the perils of sugar.)

2. Dairy dairy dairy. Cage-free eggs. Big tubs of low-fat plain or vanana (vanilla-banana) yogurt. Real French brie. Happy yellow New Zealand grass-fed cheddar. All still reasonably priced. To indulge: bars of luxurious President butter from France and English Stilton with apricots. We really should switch over to organic milk.

3. Trail mixes and nuts. Our favorite Sweet & Savory Trail Mix has chocolate, white chocolate, and peanut butter chips among the nuts and cranberries. Yep, it's candy, and we don't care.

4. Mushroom risotto. The price on the box went up during the rice crisis. But it went back down. At any price, it's easy to make and tasty, especially if you add shredded cheese and a porcini bouillon cube. These aren't available in the US, so just send me plane fare to Tuscany and I'll return with a porcini-scented suitcase. (I always do.)

5. Fresh pasta. One of our dinner staples, although I have a little trouble keeping those artichoke ravioli from exploding. Their bags of dried Italian pasta are great (and cheap) too.

6. Avocados. I can't have enough guacamole since I learned how to judge an avocado's ripeness—and while the tomatoes are perfect at the farmer's market. I make a lot, since TJs only sells them in bags of four. (At Shaw's they are twice the price.) If only they sold single lemons and limes instead of big bags that would go to waste around here. So I trek to Deluca's for a lime, and then we eat our guac with TJ's baked blue corn chips and their fresh, mild salsa (the one without cilantro, bane of our existence, since it tastes like soap to us).

7. Triple ginger snaps. Big tubs of extravagant, slightly chewy, ginger flavor. These replaced my craving for the extra-thin Swedish kind. But I'll still be very happy to get another big red Swedish tin at Christmas from my brother and his girlfriend.

8. Vitamins and supplements. I don't love them but I also don't like to think about how ill, bald, dry-eyed, sniffly, and rickety we'd be without them. We take flaxseed oil, omega-3s, and their powerhouse Super Crusade multivitamins.

9 Cocoa Hazelnut spread. They discontinued this a while ago, even though people raved about it. It was made with dark chocolate, tastes richer and less sweet than Nutella, and came in cute, hexagonal glass jars. (The plastic Nutella jars seem to react with the oil in the spread, which is just evil.) When a small supply of jars turned up in the warehouse recently, customers in the Brookline store were rejoicing that it was back (luckily, I was there), but alas. I stupidly bought one jar instead of 10. So I spread sparing amounts on my toast and peanut butter, and mornings are good.

There's much more to say about Trader Joe's, but I'm stopping so I'll have time to shop there later today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

That Time Already?

All year, I've been diligent about removing our names from catalog mailing lists, but I still get a few that I like, including The Company Store's (those cozy, pretty, embroidered flannel sheets). Today I felt a chill upon seeing their first Christmas (aka "holiday") catalog in my mailbox. 

I suspect I love Christmas far more than the typical sane adult. After all, I grew up in the Christmas City of the USA. But even I don't want to think about it three full months ahead. Somewhere in early November suits me: after Halloween but well before Thanksgiving, since we have to figure out our multi-family, multi-state holiday plans a few weeks in advance. 

And when it's cold and dark at 4 o'clock, all those little twinkly lights and glowing shop windows make winter more bearable. At least until January. (And in January, there are sales.)

I'll bet that if I went into Lord & Taylor on Boylston Street today, I'd find overdressed trees and their signature, revolting decorations that play loud and relentless electronic holiday tunes. (The Boston store's trees always go up first, and then all the other store merchandisers visit and take notes.)

So I'll stay out of there. I may keep Christmas in my heart all year long, like Mr. Scrooge, but I'll be darned if I'll put up with the Little Drummer Boy before the leaves are falling.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sugar High

I became a cupcake connoisseur when I was little. My mother was a school secretary, she was popular, and she brought me every class birthday-party cupcake she received; usually a few a week. I could distinguish scratch baking from mixes at an early age, and developed standards.
In Boston, our cupcake options are limited. Everyday, hopeful people wander into the Johnny Cupcakes store on Newbury, which sells T-shirts, not baked goods, and walk out disappointed. Here's a partial run-down of local cupcake bakers; additional research (Flour, for instance) is obviously necessary:
Lyndell's Bakery in Somerville makes large, flat "moon cakes" shaped more like tall pancakes. (They make the regular shape, too, but the flat ones are fabulous.) I had one tonight, frosted in vanilla and chocolate like a black-and-white cookie. The flat shape gives the perfect cake-to-frosting ratio in every bite, although it helps to eat them with a fork. Their chocolate frosting is exceptional: rich without being too sweet. Nirvana.
The bottom of the barrel: overpriced and microscopic Kickass Cupcakes in Somerville: a crumby, tough, biscuit-like texture and bland frosting. (These were not even their scarier, vegan versions.) In this case, "too small" was a good thing. Hard to believe they won "Best of Boston." They also make cupcakes for dogs; perhaps all of their recipes are best suited to dogs.
In Back Bay, we have Sweet. I wanted to love them, because they are nearby, and their shop looks charming. But their $3.25 cupcakes were disappointing: very small, flat, dense, and mealy-textured. They need a more buttery, less lardy taste, and a touch of salt. Their frostings were fluffy but lackluster. They offer a great cardboard carry-out box, however, with a clever insert that protects each cupcake like a jewel. A friend's wife helpfully pointed out that we should have eaten the box first, so the cupcakes tasted better.

Lulu's in the North End was also a retro-chic let-down. Their cupcakes looked great (reproduction Hostess cream-filleds!) but their taste was uninspiring. Not enough salt to enhance the sweetness? The wrong kind of shortening? I can't tell. But a cupcake should be more than a vehicle for frosting. (And I love frosting.)
The South End Buttery has the best cupcakes I've tried in the city. Moist cake, rich frosting, a good range of flavors, including carrot cake and lemon. They bake superb scones, too, and it's a friendly place to hang out.
I've tried to love Party Favors, in Brookline. They offer a riot of colorful, creative designs; their display case is a spectacular sight. But their products are often stale despite their good looks. Frozen, not fresh.
Modern Pastry, in the North End, makes a delicious, classic cupcake. A mound of creamy frosting and moist cake in basic flavors, with sprinkles or little plastic decorations to delight your inner child. I've only had them once; need many more.
In Manhattan, all the Carrie Bradshaws head to Magnolia and Sweet Sugar Sunshine for old-fashioned, super-sweet cupcakes. They're cute, fresh, and fluffy, and you can't argue with buttery, pastel-blue frosting.

The best cupcake I had in NYC was a red velvet number at the Blue Dog Café on West 25th, with a mountain of gorgeous chocolate ganache swirled on top. Overkill, but there's no such thing as too much frosting. In cupcakes, as in life, it's the thought that counts.