Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Quest

The pumpkin pickings were slim at the Trader Joe's in Brookline yesterday, where there'd been a lavish display of fancy and regular pumpkins last week. We decided to try further afield.

We headed to Pemberton Farms, on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. They had about six pumpkins left. Had we waited too long? Were we about to face a pumpkin-less Halloween?

I couldn't help being worried. After all, Pemberton's yard was already full of potted evergreens, etc., for You-know-what. 

We drove to Wilson Farm and heaved a sigh of relief. They were overflowing with every kind of pumpkin, especially huge ones. They were running a special where you could fill a cart with all the pumpkins it could hold and pay a fixed price.

Here's a photo of their yard, full of hanging witches and scarecrows, moving in the breeze.

Wilson offers several exotic varieties: gray ones known as "blue pumpkins," white, rugged yellow, pale pink, and flattened, brownish "fairy-tale" pumpkins, reminiscent of Cinderella's coach. I didn't have time to catalog all the varieties; I was hunting for a couple of good specimens to bring home. But I had to photograph this eggplant-shaped monster, something I hadn't seen before:

Even more distracting to my photography efforts was our bag of hot, sugar-coated cider donuts, which made my fingers too sticky to use the camera. Before we got them, I'd snapped a few items of interest:

I think that on our next visit, we'll need to try the freshly dipped apples.

My husband chose his carving pumpkin, with a classic with a sturdy, emphatic stem. I settled on two small ones that had worn sunblock throughout  the growing season.  Their unblemished pale skins are so pretty that I may decide not to carve them.

 Snicky, our Halloween cat, is skeptical of white pumpkins

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scared for Good

Tonight we attended "Scared for Good," a benefit pipe organ concert at Old South Church. It was free (voluntary donations benefited five non-profit organizations). It was packed, with both kids and grownups in costumes. And it was a very good time.

I've never known church organists, in general, to be flamboyant musicians. Old South's organist, "Horrific" Harry Huff, is an exception. What a fabulous ham! He marched to the altar dressed as a nun, in a black habit that revealed red socks, bony calves, and shiny dress shoes. He was accompanied by a hooded monk as his page-turner. Sister Harry turned to the audience and waved a long pointer threateningly. Silence. I had a flashback to grade school, when I took organ lessons from a nun who smacked my fingers with her pointer when I made mistakes. My organ career was not only brief, it was a trauma I'd blocked out for decades. Until tonight.

There was applause as Sister Harry seated himself with a flourish at Old South's superb, four-manual Skinner organ. As he began Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the organ rose theatrically on its hydraulic platform, and we could see a fine display of pedalwork below the red socks. He paused dramatically between phrases as soloists off-stage screamed, laughed lugubriously, and cackled on cue.

The whole church vibrated from the biggest pipes. I remembered the serious structural cracks Old South's stone walls sustained from the Copley Square T renovations a few years ago; the organ couldn't be used until they were fixed. I hope the repairs held through this performance, which literally pulled out all the stops.

It was a creative Halloween program, and an excellent performance. I never thought I'd sit in a candlelit church, watching a guy in drag as a nun play "Tubular Bells," the theme from The Exorcist. It felt cathartic. The theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette) is weird and wonderful in its entirety.

Huff swapped his wimple and veil for a witch's hat to play Hedwig's Theme from the Harry Potter movies, showing off the organ's glockenspiel stop, which sounds like crystal bells. The sound was so pure it made my hair stand on end.

Huff wore a white phantom half-mask to play The Phantom of the Opera. And he plopped his head down on the keys and "died" noisily at the end of Sondheim's Prelude to Sweeney Todd.

After the minister, dressed as a cowgirl, made a brief, eloquent plea for donations, Huff played one of my favorite piano pieces, a wistful little rag called Graceful Ghost by William Bolcom.

Finally, he pulled out a horned helmut for Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Having spent too much of my life managing a well-bred chamber-music series, I always think of this piece as Kill the Wabbit. Usually it's instrumental in the versions we hear on TV and elsewhere; we don't get to hear the Valkyries' vocals. But four black-robed and horn-helmeted sopranos marched stone-faced to the altar and gave us their battle cry. Three of them were robust and looked the part. The fourth was petite, with short braided pigtails under her helmet. But her fierce expression — as the quartet tried repeatedly to burst our eardrums — made hers the scariest song of the evening.
Kill the Wabbit!

If Old South has another benefit concert next Halloween, I think you shouldn't miss it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Pumpkin Time

It's nearly Halloween, and we have yet to pick out a pumpkin for my husband to carve. Horrors! It's hard to find a perfect pumpkin, and we've been known to spend an October afternoon driving around to farm stands and garden shops, hunting for just the right shape and size, and eating cider donuts wherever we find them. I guess that will be our agenda for Saturday. I'm in the mood to carve, too, so we need two pumpkins.

I believe that much of a pumpkin's charm is in its stem — and since most stems are cut as short as possible, that makes the search more difficult.

Fortunately, the folks who harvest the teeny-tiny pumpkins seem to have more aesthetic appreciation for the stems. I've been filling my old Japanese bowl (a birthday gift found in the Big Chicken Barn in Maine) with baby pumpkins from farmer's markets and grocery stores around town. They rarely cost more than a dollar, and they last: one of last year's pumpkins survived until July!

Note the eloquent stems:

It's probably only a matter of time before one or two of these pumpkins gets abducted by a marauding Possum. Looking forward to it.

Catastrophes and Comforters

It seems that all four cats survived the Broken Kibble Dish/Flying Glass Disaster of Sunday afternoon. Phew. No signs of ingested glass.

Which is not to say that life is all giggles and gumdrops chez Proper Bostonian this week.

I won't describe into the current family drama, which concerns an elderly relative who is falling apart and won't admit it. I will just tell you what I learned this week:

1. If you want the local health department to help you remove an old person from their firetrap of a house or an awful hoarding situation, get some humane traps. Catch a few raccoons or possums and relocate them in the hoarder's house. Nothing short of that seems to work.

2. If the fire chief is reluctant to do a home inspection, tell him you could always set a little, controlled fire in the bathtub and call 911, ha ha ha. (It worked for me.)

* * *

On Tuesday, I was closing our front door and didn't notice that Possum was having a tall stretch against it in the corner. I began to close the door on his paw; he screamed, I screamed, not realizing what was happening. He raced across the room limping.  He wouldn't let me near him. He sat with his paw raised, trembling. I lay down on the floor and apologized as he watched with big, dark eyes. Soon he came toward me to be petted. With minutes, he was running around and playing with all four feet.

I was upset for hours. It could have been worse; I was lucky. I hate causing cats pain and fear, no matter how short-lived or minor. Their lives are too short, and they are too wonderful, for anything but fun and contentment. (Some unpleasantness, like vet visits, is unavoidable).

Accidents can happen if you're thoughtless for 2 seconds around cats. I try to be mindful but it's always an uphill battle.

* * *

On Monday, someone left an accidental "gift" on the bed as I was sleeping late.  I don't know whom to thank, but I wish he/she hadn't been in such a rush to leave the bathroom and drop in on me. I sprang into action with Nature's Miracle enzyme cleaner on the coverlet, then power-washed it in extra-hot water, and it's like new. But the down comforter underneath was also smelly. I decided it had to go. It had experienced too many feline accidents over the years, and I've hauled it too many times to the dingy laundromat down the street. And since my husband killed a gluttonous mosquito in the night, it's been streaked with a surprising amount of blood, too.

For weeks as I've been making the bed, I've been noting its many stains, regarding it as a sort of collage of cat memories I'd rather forget. I'm relieved that the "eeww" quotient finally reached breaking point. And it's lucky we're having warm weather this week.

* * *

Comforter shopping is tough, though. There are too many choices: brand, size, warmth level, down quality and country of origin, cover fabric, baffles or box-stitching...  So I've taken a cue from my college psychology professor, Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice, Why More Is Less), and narrowed my options to two retailers I trust: The Company Store and Cuddledown. Both make their comforters in the USA. Both offer lifetime guarantees, cat stains aside.

I'm something of a bedding snob but I don't go overboard. I look for qualitative differences I can feel; I don't obsess over thread counts. I can tell the difference between lofty European goose down and mid-range down from China, which has a higher percentage of feathers. European down feels more luxurious in pillows as well as comforters, and has a longer lifespan.

Never be covetous of top-of-the-line, 900+ fill-power comforters that cost thousands of dollars. They are often so airy and light that they aren't comfortable; a little weight feels cozier and more natural.

A comforter should be soft and fluffy enough so it drapes all around your body, enclosing you in a warm cocoon. When you have a winner, you hate to get out of bed. A comforter ought to be comforting.

Cuddledown currently has a 700 fill-power model with a silk-and-cotton cover on sale for half price — excellent quality and quite a deal. The Company Store's premium "Legend" comforters always get rave reviews, and I have a 20% off coupon. Both stores have more moderately priced options, too.

How do I choose in these situations? It's simple: I describe the options to my husband and make him decide. Then I buy something else. I don't know why, but it works like a charm.

The hard part comes later: keeping the cats from marking it as their own.

Update: Husband totally outsmarted me. He sensibly chose the silk-and-cotton comforter, which was secretly the one I wanted. And not only did I listen to him, I PAID for it myself! 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Turkeyed Out

About 10 days ago, I was browsing the poultry section at Shaw's and found "hotel-style" turkey breasts on sale. I guess they're called "hotel-style" because they'll feed a small hotel — I'd estimate 12 to 15 people. I lugged home the smallest one, which weighed 9-1/2 pounds, noting that the cooking instructions on the wrapper only gave roasting times for birds up to 8 pounds. I paid just $12 instead of the regular $30. I was thrilled. I'd snagged one of these on sale last year around this time and it had fed our little family for many days. Our cats love turkey.

These birds are pre-basted — i.e., brined — so the meat is juicy and salty. You don't need to do much besides rub on some butter, stick it in the oven, and wait for the timer to pop. The bird browned impressively. My husband is a good carver and was amazed at how much meat there was.

The first couple of nights, our turkey dinners were sumptuous and satisfying. The carcass also produced three jars of my darkest, richest-looking stock ever. (For some reason, this turkey breast had legs.) The cats ate their fill, too.

But the leftovers were overwhelming. Every time I'd see that huge container of meat in the refrigerator, I'd feel a small wave of guilt. I'd planned to make turkey salad, and pot pies to freeze. But I totally lost interest. So we ate turkey sandwiches as I procrastinated, wishing I were eating ham, or peanut butter, or anything else instead.

Finally, when the turkey was on the verge of going bad, I gritted my teeth and chopped it up, which took a long time. Whenever I'm confronted with too much meat, I realize how close I am to becoming vegetarian. It filled a mixing bowl. I made some of it into turkey salad as quickly I could, adding carrots and peas in tribute to the great salad they served at Formaggio's in the Garage, back in the '80s. How I loved it then.

How I loathed it now, after all that time spent handling meat. I couldn't even taste it: Turkey Overload. My husband pronounced it delicious. I ate toast. I also froze some chopped meat, as I should have done the night I roasted it.

Yesterday I threw out all the leftovers. I even tossed the frozen turkey because I decided it had been in the fridge for too many days. Putting it all down the disposal took forever. I hate to waste food but I was relieved to see it go.

I'm dreading Thanksgiving. Because of our complicated family situation, we usually drive 700 miles round-trip in two days, in-between sitting through three Thanksgiving dinners in a row in three different states. I'd better be back in the turkey mood by then.

But tonight, I would like a bowl of spaghetti.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

House-Hunting Continues

Today we went to three open houses for new properties in our price range.

First, we headed to a penthouse duplex on Braddock Park. There were only photos of the exterior in the listing, but the broker promised that it was full of wonderful detail inside, plus a deck and roof deck.

To get there, we walked through the Pru shortly before noon. A Halloween celebration for kids was in full swing. We saw fairies, princesses, pumpkins, superheroes, a butterfly, some geishas, and one very tiny blonde vampire in a satin tux —napping in his baby stroller because it was daylight. And this mummy:

He wanted to be King Tut....

It looked like everyone was having a great time. Kudos to the Pru for organizing this big, happy event.

At Braddock Park, we found a sign on the door saying that the open house was canceled. Oh, well. We had other fish to fry. And I'm trying to log at least 10,000 steps on my new pocket pedometer every day, so the hike over there wasn't a total loss.

We headed back to Back Bay, walked through the Public Garden and the Common, down Bowdoin Street and onto Cambridge Street. Off Cambridge is a tiny street I'd never noticed before, Coolidge Avenue — an alley, really. To get to the open house, we walked through a large parking lot. I had no idea such a thing existed on Beacon Hill. The lot became a tiny brick-paved mews (I guess that what you'd call it) and on the left was a quaint, Federal-style townhouse with a wide red door, flower pots, a pair of handsome coach lanterns, and an antique letterbox. It felt liked we'd arrived in an English village.
We walked into a low-ceilinged living-dining room furnished with good antiques, which harmonized with the historic details of the room. There were handsome oriental rugs everywhere; a log crackled in the marble fireplace, next to a baby grand piano.
The layout was L-shaped, with 1,000 more square feet than we have now. A door from the elegant cherry kitchen led to a private, brick-walled garden with a wall fountain and plenty of space for furniture and flowers. We could imagine our cats playing there, safe and secure. So far, it was magic and we were in love.

Upstairs were three bedrooms and two small marble baths with showers in lieu of tubs. And 11 good-sized windows. Added to those downstairs, there were a total of 18 — most of the perimeter walls were fully lined with them. These are load-bearing walls where we'd ordinarily put big, heavy bookshelves. We have 200 linear feet of shelves now, and we could use a lot more. So there was almost zero space for books in this house. The current owners shelved their "library" on just eight little foot-long shelves. All the windowless walls were lined with radiators along the floor, making them poor prospects for bookshelves, too. We have three beloved, glass-fronted oak bookcases from Restoration Hardware, and there was nowhere to put them in this house.

This was disappointing; we'd been immediately taken by the cozy rooms and private garden, and the price was right. It's amazing how a place can be nearly twice the size of ours yet not have room for our favorite furniture and bookcases.
* * *

We consoled ourselves with burritos at the Cambridge Street Anna's Taqueria and headed to our last open house, also on the Hill, on Beacon Street. Beyond the massive green door, the common hallway appeared to have been covered in sheets of melllow gold leaf; the effect was elegant, not ostentatious. A graceful oval staircase spiraled up three more stories. The open house was on the parlor level.

As soon as we walked in, we learned that it had gone under agreement that morning, after less than a week on the market. But we were invited to walk around, "just in case." Today we were batting .333.

The condo had a large, cream-colored living-dining room overlooking the Common, a small, 1980's kitchen, and a spacious bedroom, all with dark wood floors. Off the bedroom was a brick-floored sunroom with glass-paned walls, unique and old-fashioned. Loads of charm, and probably loads of drafts all winter.
Beyond it was the private garden. It was HUGE for a city garden. There were different seating areas, paths, shrubbery, a hedge, several mature trees, ivy-covered walls. It was almost as amazing as the Joy Street garden with the swimming pool — but that one was shared by two buildings.

You'd have to shout to reach someone at the other end of this one. You could grow crops and keep a pony.
The best thing about house-hunting is finding secret treasures behind the doors of ordinary-looking buildings we've passed for decades, never suspecting.

Back in the condo, we climbed carefully down a ladder-like stairway to a basement bedroom and a 1970's bathroom with turquoise fixtures. The staircase was too steep and precarious, like one you'd find on a boat — a deal-breaker for sure... if it weren't for that garden.

It's good that this place is off the market so we don't have the dilemma of deciding whether to buy it.

* * *

We came home to a possible catastrophe. I'm trying to keep Possum from stealing food from the other cats, since he is too fat. So, before we left, I took a glass bowl with a small amount of Snalbert's kibble and put it up on the counter, where Possum doesn't jump. I've been doing this for months without incident.  But clever Snalbert jumped up and knocked the bowl off the counter, where it shattered into a thousand little bits. We swept and vacuumed, and I noticed there was no kibble among the wreckage. Did Snalbert finish it before the accident? Or did one or more cats come in and eat kibble mixed with glass on the floor? If so, which cats? We checked paws and mouths; no injuries. And i'd fed everyone a second breakfast before we went out.  Did they avoid the kitchen because of the scary sound of the crash? Did the other cats sleep during the three hours we were out?

We have to watch all four of them for signs of bleeding and anemia over the next several days. I'm going to call the vet tomorrow, just in case they have any advice. Needless to say, I'm a wreck and plan to remain so for the near future. I'll never leave another bowl of food on the counter: I thought the was Pyrex, and we have a soft vinyl floor. But that little dish was pulverized; glass even flew back up onto the counter.

According to my pedometer, it's been a 13,000-step day.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thanks, A-Rod!

Like all Bostonians, I instinctively loathe the Yankees. But I can give credit where it's due. It was swell of A-Rod to strike out in the 9th and send the Rangers to the Series. What a satisfying game.

As a Pennsylvanian by birth, I'll be rooting hard for the Phillies to win their division, just like the rest of my family there. At any rate, we won't have to put up with Derek Jeter smirking. Etc.

It should be a fun Series, especially if the Phillies win their next two games. When the Red Sox are in, my blood pressure and adrenaline go crazy, so I have keep leaving the room at crucial moments to settle down. This one shouldn't be nearly as stressful — although my dad is a dedicated Phillies fan and I'm hoping he will have more games and another victory to savor. The months after baseball season stretch out a lot longer for him, at 96, than for the rest of us.

Update, after Saturday night's game:  So much for that. The Phillies gave it away to San Francisco.... 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Current Craving: Cozy

Tonight the temperature is  supposed to dip down into the 30s. Besides inspiring me to make pots of soup, chilly October weather triggers my primal sweater-shopping instinct. I just delivered a number of elderly sweaters to Boomerangs and Second Time Around, mainly because they were too short to wear with today's jeans. So I've got a golden excuse to restock — and I especially like turtlenecks because when my neck is cold, the rest of me is miserable.

How fortuitous that J. Crew just launched their toasty-looking Cambridge Cable collection. These are a soft, cozy mix of wool, nylon, and cashmere — much less expensive than pure cashmere and very comfortable. And they had a 20% off promotion for cardholders this week.

I ordered this hefty cabled, ribbed turtleneck in a few colors and sizes, because you can't trust J. Crew for accurate photography or fit. It will be fun to open the box and see what they really look like. I've had four Cambridge turtlenecks over the years, some thick and fluffy, some thinner and finer. I wore them all to death. I've also thrown some in the washer without incident. As usual, this year's crop comes in too many colors; I can't be blamed for going overboard and ordering several, and then returning all but one. Or two. Besides, I used a gift card.

They make a cardigan, too. This color is "henna," which appears be deep rusty red. It looks like it's throwing off its own heat, like a wooly furnace or a hot coal. I love that idea.

I suspect it might be a little too Father Knows Best on an old lady like me. Even though I'd wear it with skinny jeans. I caved and bought some, because what else can one wear with one's collection of tall, low-heeled boots? Jodhpurs? Puttees? The surprising thing about them: they have plenty of spandex so they are more comfortable than regular jeans.

Around this drafty apartment, I wrap up in a huge, moth-eaten knitted throw thing. It's a weird size, like a giant table runner. I've been tempted to wear it outside, but it looks silly, especially when I cover my head.

Instead, I like this, from Anthropologie ($68), which is covered in rich crewel embroidery:

Then there's this whimsical wrap, also from Anthropologie, by Eugenia Kim ($238.)

But instead of paying that outrageous sum or stuffing my drawer with another scarf, I have something similar lying around the house that would be the perfect wrap for a frosty day:

Fur. The ultimate fashion accessory.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Into the Soup: Memories and MSG

I made my first chicken soup the other night. I simmer carcasses to make chicken stock all the time, but I have never attempted pure chicken soup. It's a talisman, you see — one of our family's Proustian madeleines.

For decades, in all seasons, every Sunday night supper at my grandmother's house began with a bowl of her perfect chicken soup. It was a beautiful color: not yellow but golden, almost brown. She never made any other soup; it wasn't necessary. If you turned up at her house on any night of the week, you could have a nice bowlful before your ziti or spaghetti with wings. Her soup was "just" broth, usually with Uncle's Ben's rice, but sometimes my Croatian uncle's mother would contribute homemade noodles. There were no vegetables in this soup, and not a fleck of parsley. I grew up not knowing that chicken soup involved onions, celery, and carrots. It still seems wrong to let them stay in there.

When my grandmother died, it became clear that not one of us had been paying attention for even ten minutes during the 60 years or more that she had made that soup. Before I was 20, I'd spent hours every week sitting in her kitchen, playing with the cats, reading or doing my homework, talking with her, and enjoying every dish she put in front of me. We all loved to be in her kitchen, even though it had only four chairs. We took turns sitting at her table, which was pushed into a corner and seated two. It had a white enamel surface, and we could doodle on it, or leave messages in pencil, which were later wiped away.

During all those idyllic hours, it never occurred to me to learn to cook from my grandmother, nor did it occur to her to teach me. This is among my greatest regrets. I also regret not telling my aunts, her daughters, to pay more attention. (I hope I often asked her if she wanted help; I have no idea if I did. I was a spoiled, lazy brat in those days. She certainly never needed or asked for a shred of assistance.)

* * *

My grandmother rarely cooked from a recipe — only when we baked her famous lamb cake together, which was a yellow cake in a 3-D lamb mold that we iced with white frosting and decorated with coconut, and raisins for eyes. When anyone asked her how she cooked something, she grew vague. She honestly couldn't describe it; it like asking how she sewed dresses without a pattern or grew fig trees and grapes in a cold climate. She'd make an earnest attempt, which devolved into hand gestures and a change of subject.

After she died, our family's Sunday suppers continued at her house, with my aunts attempting the cooking. It was a doomed situation. I remember the soup arriving in the dining room the first few times. Everybody quieted down, a bad sign. (Normally the conversation around the table was so loud and contentious that it shocked guests who weren't Italian.)

The soup was the wrong color. It had the wrong taste, and not enough flavor. You might think we'd be charitable since these two grieving women were doing their best. But no. There were harsh, unsparing complaints about the soup and practically everything else, too.

When you've lost the taste of something you loved, perhaps forever, it's hard to swallow.

We felt stupid as well as bereft. Who knew that soup would be so hard to make? We interrogated my uncle, an A&P meat cutter who often did my grandmother's grocery shopping at his store. We learned that she bought a lot of bouillon cubes. We already knew that she used the cheapest chicken: wings, necks, and backs; we all ate lots of wings cooked in spaghetti sauce.* But the rest was a mystery. After a few more failures, our Sunday suppers ended, but not before we'd discovered more losses, of seemingly simple dishes. Her salty, juicy roast beef that fell apart with a fork, for example. Even simple spaghetti sauce was never the same.

Of course, without her, nothing in our family was the same. She wasn't just our cook, she was our mother, and as close to a saint as anyone we'd ever known.

* * *

In 1985, in a restaurant on Hanover Street, and in 1998, in the Piazza Navona in Rome, I tasted a forkful of pasta in tomato sauce and burst into tears. They had made her sauce. I didn't have a moment to realize what was happening: the tears came by themselves both times. And they didn't stop until I finished eating.

Waiters get upset when they see patrons sobbing into their plates. "This is wonderful!" they'd hear me say, as they hovered near my chair. And then, because I could not stop crying, which was wrecking my companion's meal and attracting attention from other tables, I'd exclaim, "This is terrible!" which brought an alarmed waiter running over. Both times I explained, and the Italian waiter instantly understood and left me to my sauce.

* * *

So it seems I can reconnect with my grandmother's spaghetti sauce every 10 years or so. But I've been missing her soup. I decided that this winter's project would be figuring out how she did it. This might not seem like a terrifying endeavor, but it is. It's so fraught that I've been procrastinating over it for more than 20 years. But, nowadays, I have plenty of free time as well as the resources (thanks to my tenured spouse and being too old to get hired myself) to buy all the formerly low-class chicken parts I could ever need. I can make hundreds of pots of soup. And I might need to.

I began by trying to recall everything I could about that soup — its beautiful flavor and color, its purity and clarity, with never a hint of a vegetable. The little globules of fat that floated across the surface. She made it on Saturday mornings, a time when I was usually not around and my aunt was shopping downtown (her timing accounts for a lot). She cooked Uncle Ben's rice separately, in a cheap aluminum pot, and added it to the soup before serving it. I don't remember her soup pot, but I'm sure it  came from a five-and-dime store, too. The most divine food often comes from junky old pots — have you noticed this, too?

All I really knew was that chicken wings and bouillon cubes were involved. And, although I never saw an onion, carrot, or celery stalk go into the soup, I know she kept all three were around, because my family liked onions, and there were always celery stalks and fancy, curled carrots in a cut-glass dish on the Sunday dinner table. I remembered the layer of fat that topped the jars she'd send home with us whenever anyone was sick, so I knew she didn't skim all the fat (and flavor) from her soup, as some cooks do. And I remember her once thinning her soup with water when more people turned up for supper than she'd anticipated. It had tasted fine.

On Sunday afternoon, I called the family historians, my Aunt Lil and Uncle Bill. Like every elderly relative of mine, they are as deaf as haddocks, or their crappy cordless phones don't work, or both. My aunt and uncle's landline hasn't worked for dialing out for more than a year so they can only receive calls. If they need, say, the occasional ambulance ride to the ER, they keep some minutes on an old track phone.

Our conversation went like this:

"Hello?" says my uncle.

"It's ME! Your NIECE!"

"Just a minute. . . [shouts] LIL!!!" We wait in silence until my aunt gets on the other line.

"I need to ask you about Grandmom's soup. But I'll bet you can't hear me." I yell.

"What?" says my aunt. "This phone is lousy."

Bill and I shout, "Grandmom's SOUP!"

"Huh?" says my aunt.

Soon my uncle is loudly repeating everything I say, and he finally moves to the same room as my aunt so she can hear him, if not me.

I tried to persuade them that Grandmom made her soup without vegetables.

"No, you have to have onions, celery, carrots, and maybe some parsley," said my aunt. "Well, not much parsley."

"Parsnips?" said my uncle, whose hearing is not that much better than my aunt's.

"NO!" said my aunt.

I told them that, in all my years of eating that soup, I'd never come across the tiniest scrap of a vegetable. (If I had, I probably would have been afraid of it.) How could that be?"

"Mom took everything out," said my aunt. "Because nobody liked it. You know us: nobody eats fruit, or vegetables."

We ate truckloads of mashed potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and Birds-Eye frozen veggies. We ate homegrown peas, onions, tomatoes, radishes, and dandelion greens. My grandfather also grew figs, pears, apples, cherries, raspberries, and grapes.** Throwing out vegetables would run counter to our family's ingrained poor-immigrant and Depression-era habits. But she was insistent, and I was too hoarse to argue that point on top of my others.

It seemed to me that the key to understanding the soup was its distinctive color. Chicken soup is usually yellow, bright or pale. My grandmother's was mellow, bronzy gold. If I could figure out how her soup got its color, it might also provide me with its flavor. It can't be complicated; she was a very simple cook.

I have long had this idea that my grandmother might have roasted or browned her chicken parts first, to get that golden color. In Savenor's market on Charles Street, where I'd recently bought a couple of pounds of chicken backs, the man behind the meat counter liked my theory.

My aunt and uncle vociferously disagreed — it was as if I'd suggested dusting my chicken backs with cyanide. It's surprising how loud and forceful my very old, frail, deaf relatives still become when they are riled.

But if you make stock from a roasted carcass, you do get a richer color than when you use a raw bird. I kept insisting, and they kept protesting as if I was contemplating a felony. They disavowed any responsibility for the resulting soup.

* * *

Feeling guilty, I roasted my chicken parts, and put it in my fancy French cast-iron soup pot. I added mirepoix — finely chopped onions, carrots and celery, neatly layered in a tub, from Trader Joe's. (I'm sure my grandmother never made mirepoix, but celery is celery.) I filled the pot with filtered water and threw in some kosher salt. Cringing, I added two bouillon cubes, which are mostly salt, MSG, artificial flavors, and other garbage. I wanted "her" soup to be pure. But I know they were in her recipe. After the pot came to a boil, I let it simmer and ignored it for a few hours.

The result, after I strained out every particle of vegetable, was suggestive of the amazing color I remembered. It wasn't yellow, but its gold was a little too faint. (More chicken next time.) I added cooked Italian noodles and poured my experiment into old canning jars, similar to the kind she had.

Did I taste it?

Of course not. I was nervous. I waited two days. (I remember that her soup might sit around for a week in her fridge.) On Tuesday night, I heated some, and brought it to the table.

It was good. So good that one of my eyes suddenly began to water and I felt a hint of a catch in my throat.

That's a start.

* I've been told this was my favorite breakfast when I was 3 or 4, with a glass of chocolate milk.

** One of my earliest memories is of being placed, barefoot, in a metal tub full of grapes, to crush them for wine. I believe the wine was always terrible, but still better than the homemade cigars my grandfather tried to make from his own tobacco.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Things Are Clearer in the Morning

Well, that was easy. After tying myself in knots yesterday over that pretty condo we saw, I woke up this morning with the answer. All it took was a few hours of sleep and a few minutes of thinking about why we want to move. After all, we're mainly suckers for fine 19th-century detail, and we have plenty of it right now.

1. We want more space. Specifically, we both want a bigger office for my husband, a library space that we can both hang out in. Right now, he's stuffed into an 8' x 10' room that's loaded with overflowing bookcases and a giant desk. We'd also like a kitchen that isn't the size of a closet. The ideal apartment would also include an extra, small room where we could keep our guitars, our little TV, and maybe my mother's old sewing machine. (Ultimate fantasy would be another small room where I could foster kittens, but that's probably asking too much.)

2.  We both really want a deck or a garden. We miss being outside in warm weather and would love to be able to eat, read, nap, and work outdoors, in relative privacy. I also love to garden. I want to grow flowers, herbs, and tomatoes. I once won 2nd Prize in the Mayor's Garden Competition for my porch garden.

3.  Thanks to my husband's new job, we have a very nice relocation package that will make these things possible. It's a generous package, and we'd be crazy not to take advantage of it, given #1 and #2.

Now I can see that the lovely condo we saw yesterday just isn't right for us, although much of it suits our finicky, old-fashioned tastes. We don't need a giant bedroom; we need a library or dining room we can turn into my husband's office. We also need that deck or garden space to be happy in a new place.

Dilemma solved. Now I would just like to know when this perfect condo is going to materialize....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Nice Problem to Have

We are still condo-hunting so, as usual, we walked around to open houses today. The first one, a penthouse duplex in the South End, was unremarkable, except for the large bowl of Lindt chocolate truffles in the kitchen. We sneaked a handful. Made it well worth the hike over there.

The second prospect, a parlor level rear with a floor-through above, was on Comm. Ave. beyond Mass. Ave. We'd been there before — months ago — and hadn't been interested. But lately I realized I'd forgotten why, so we revisited. It has nice 19th-century detail, two living rooms, a pretty view of the street from second-floor bay windows, and there's a small deck off the bedroom. We've been dreaming of some private outdoor space; if we had any, we'd live out there in nice weather. And we'd grow things.

The floors, kitchen, and baths were okay, it has plenty of space, and we can actually afford it. But here's one problem: the washer and dryer are two flights away in the basement, and there's no way to fit them into a bathroom, a closet, or the kitchen. After 20 years of loathing it, I'm through with hauling laundry. My current set-up has spoiled me: our washer and dryer are within a few feet of the closets and drawers where laundry is put away. It doesn't make sense to have it any other way. Especially if you don't enjoy doing laundry. Since it's right in the bathroom, I do laundry several days a week, and I check the dryer often, rescuing clothes before they wrinkle. Hanging things when they're still damp means I iron just a couple of times a year. I really hate to iron.

The other deal breaker: no parking space, and no option for a rental space because there's no alley nearby. Garage parking is some blocks away, and expensive. We're used to parking and walking halfway around the block, but adding a few more blocks to that little hike would be a nuisance.

We moved on. The next place, a floor-through on our own street, was very handsome. Very much like our own apartment, but on steroids — 50 percent larger. The living room had a higher ceiling and more massive moldings, a bigger bay window,  a marble fireplace, original floors. A tiny study adjacent to it, feels just like ours (that is, too tiny). The master bedroom, in the back, was the size of a ballroom, with wide built-in bookcases flanking another fireplace. Another bay window, a walk-in closet. And beside it was second tiny study with a wall of pretty, built-in bookcases. There's just room for a small sofa and a tiny desk. There were two small, no-frills bathrooms, and I think it might be possible to repurpose one into a laundry area: the current one is two flights down, in the basement. We need a washer and dryer more than we need a second bathroom, which would be just for the cats, after all.

The kitchen made me a little nervous. It is compact and dark, with mahogany cabinets and pumpkin walls. It has one of those big gas ranges that looks dangerous because it is, having much more power than most home cooks can use. Worse, the countertops are screaming, lipstick red. And they aren't formica — or anything one can replace minimal guilt. They are "engineered" quartz, a semi-natural material that's as expensive as granite. Why choose red? With decent lighting in there, they'll be blinding.

And there's no outdoor space. Rats.

These issues aside, the place was beautiful. It's in our price range. It's in great shape. There's direct-access parking. Still, something's not sitting right with us. Why aren't we in love, anxious to make an offer? Is it because it's so similar to our place? Are we jaded from looking for too long, to the point where we wouldn't recognize the right place when we walked into it? Are we holding out for some imaginary ideal — or just More, which we probably can't afford? Do we really crave a little 5-month deck more than we want an otherwise amazing apartment? Do we want something different from what we have? Are we just afraid to finally take the big step from looking to buying, not to mention the anxieties and work of trying to sell our current place?

We visited two more floor-throughs a few doors down the street. Both were very similar to the lovely place: same building footprint, square footage, fireplaces, bay windows. But in every other way, they came up short. They had been chopped up into worse layouts, with a larger kitchen, smaller master bedroom, and a tiny second bedroom. These mediocre condos (same price range) should have convinced us of the advantages of the nicer one. It's going to be snapped up quickly, we can tell.

I have no idea why we are feeling ambivalent instead of putting together an offer tonight. I'm tired and confused, so I'm ready to sleep on it. What I do know that we are incredibly lucky. This is a really nice problem to have.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Possum, a Year and a Day

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Possum's adoption from a feral foster home in Marlborough.

He's been a joy from the minute we let him out of his carrier, whereupon he crawled into my lap and insisted on sharing my burrito.

We were lucky to choose two exceptionally well-behaved kittens. Neither is a curtain climber. They've never broken anything, chewed on an computer cable, jumped on the stove, or been curious about electrical outlets. They didn't even climb the Christmas tree. The only times I chastise Possum, in my Professor Minerva McGonagall voice, is when he bothers Snicky or steals a food dish from under another cat's nose. He's otherwise a perfectly good boy. We were bracing for much more craziness and destruction. Oh well... you can't have everything.

I don't think that losing the top of his left ear has had the slighted impact on his charm:

He's always photogenic, and will pause in a pose when he's in front of camera. I don't know how he understands that, but he seems to get it. He'll even cross his paws.

He had no trouble fitting in with the rest of the cats:

He's brought new color (and stripes) to the group:

Being a tortoiseshell diva, Snicky had a few issues with the arrival of two kittens, but she adapted within days. She still doesn't appreciate it when Possum bats at her, hoping she'll play with him:

But at least he's Wendy's best friend:

Our only concern is Possy's gusto for food, especially food that isn't his:

But he's a prince among cats, and we're so lucky that he's ours!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mysterious Doings under the Bed

On Monday, I was vacuuming under our bed, where there are eight large plastic storage tubs, along with a wooden file box and some other stuff, often including Wendy, who claimed the file box as her sleeping place. Everything is nicely hidden by a heavy cotton bedskirt, which is velcroed to the bed frame. This way, we have a ton of storage under our high antique bed.

To vacuum, I have to pull out all the tubs, which is no fun. As I pulled out the last one, from the area by the wall, under my pillow, I found about two tablespoons of bright, fresh sawdust on the lid.

The sawdust obviously came from our wood mattress frame — but how did it get there? It had been about 10 days since I'd last performed this cleaning maneuver. That's not enough time for a lot of dirt to accumulate between the mattress and the lids of the tubs. And nothing rubs against the bed frame to abrade it.

I mentioned this to some friends, and they said, "wood-boring beetles." Now, any sensible woman would take a flashlight and look under the bed for little holes that bugs would make, or other evidence. But I have a thing about bugs. I mean, I really have a thing about bugs, certain bugs. I can't help it. I just start screaming and lose my head, with no regard for life or limb. It's really bad if a spider happens along the dashboard when I'm in a fast-moving car.

I don't freak out about all bugs. I'm okay with lightning bugs and lady bugs. I don't mind killing clothes moths, kitchen ants, or mosquitoes. But things like roaches (which I haven't encountered in decades, thank god), millipedes, centipedes, and anything disgusting like a termite infestation? Forget it. I'm outta here.  Screaming.

We have large, biting millipedes in this building, although we rarely encounter them. One night, when I was home alone, lying on the sofa, one crawled out from under a basket in the living room and started to walk threateningly toward me with its thousand legs. I started screaming, which confused the millipede. As it paused, I grabbed the only weapon at hand, a thick issue of "In Style," with Katie Holmes on the cover. I threw Katie Holmes on top of the millipede and then bravely got off the sofa (after a while) and added a pile of other books, and a heavy statue for good measure. My husband cleaned up the smashed bug when he came home. He's used to this.**

All this is by way of saying that here was no way I was going to look for evidence of wood-boring beetles under our bed.

So I called an exterminator to come and look instead. He was just here with his flashlight. He didn't find anything. After he looked, I looked, and didn't find anything either.

Where did the sawdust come from? I saw it. It was real.  He suggested the cats. But they are all much too big to crawl between the tubs and the mattress. And cats don't make sawdust anyway. His next theory was that the sawdust was caused by friction between the tubs and the mattress. But I just put the tubs back, and they never touch the mattress frame. There's about 2 inches of clearance. The exterminator was very nice, and left without charging me. (We also discussed a lengthy, expensive treatment for moths, which is another story....)

So we have a mystery. Any thoughts?  What makes piles of shavings and isn't a bug?

Did you say mouse? Don't say that so loudly — several of us will get overexcited. (Not me: I don't freak out over mice. I throw bowls over them and carry them outside. But some of us are really into mice as entertainment.)

The next time I vacuum under the bed, I'm going to bag any evidence and take photos.

**My dad was always my bug-protector when I was a kid, even though he's so kind that he picks up any bug he finds and carries it out of the house. The night I killed the millipede, I called him. "Can you get up here, NOW?? I'm home alone and there's a millipede! There could be others!" He was then about 90 and living 350 miles from here, but at least he politely considered the possibility of making the late-night trip on my behalf. Then he confessed that he hates millipedes, too. While he'll carry a carpet beetle out to the garden, he keeps a can of some deadly, banned chemical to spray on millipedes. "They shrivel up and turn into powder!" he said. I asked him why he, the Saint Francis of the insect world, would do that. "Millipedes are nasty. They bite, and they can be dangerous. And it's interesting to watch." 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Is Brad Marston....

and why did he tape a flyer on our recently painted front door yesterday, informing us that Marty Walz has refused to debate him?  I read the flyer yesterday and found it extremely odd, knowing what I do about Walz. It got me thinking — often a risky activity, since I indulge in it so seldom.

I knew Marston was a Tea Party candidate. And now I've discovered he has never held public office or been active — apparently — for a civic organization beyond helping out with other Republican campaigns and helping out with Tea Party events. I just looked up his bio on his web site. He's a businessman and sometime actor, who "avidly" likes to cycle, play tennis, and ski. He's coached youth soccer and was a volunteer umpire in Little League. He lives in Beacon Hill.

Oh, I see, a jock — but not exactly a team player. I think we should strongly consider some of these credentials. A Little League umpire might be just what our House of Representatives needs. And it sounds like he has spent a considerable amount of his life waiting in lift lines and chasing tennis balls. And he can act. Might as well elect him, actually. I'm not sure those aren't transferrable political skills.

Honestly, I think it's a magnificent thing whenever any Concerned Citizen decides to throw his hat into the political ring and try to help fix the mess. And everybody has to start somewhere. But first things first. Don't proceed by making false accusations to attack the popular incumbent.

Instead, how about being active in a city or neighborhood organization? This might demonstrate that you care about your constituents. It might give us a sense that you actually care enough about local issues to work on them at a grassroots level — and can work successfully with people who don't share your political views.  It might (should) demonstrate to us that you can get something done, with patience, diplomacy, strategy — the whole host of skills that working in government at any level requires. It's how people get started in politics.

Right now, we have no idea about any of that as it relates to you, Mr. Marston.

Now, Marston's bio says he's a member of the Beacon Hill Civic Association and the Esplanade Association. But it doesn't describe what's he's helped them accomplish as a member. He doesn't have a leadership position at either. He holds no position at the Esplanade Association. He holds no position at the BHCA — and they have 35 elected directors. who chair committees. His website details his sporting activities exhaustively but gives scant attention to his civic accomplishments; it's possible he just pays membership dues, which entitles him to a credential. If he is, in fact, an active volunteer, I hope he'll describe his contributions. But so far, it's looking like this: A BHCA family membership is $50, membership in the Esplanade Association is $45.

Marty Walz has had a long career in public services, beginning in the trenches, in her neighborhood. And for three terms, she's consistently done an excellent job of communicating her ideas and discussing the issues she's been involved with during her many years as our state rep. She's smart, wise, and eloquent. She's always looking out for her constituents.

So it was obvious to me that Marston's little flyer couldn't be true. I took it down and threw it out.

This was just reported by Wicked Local Cambridge

Neighborhood group: GOP state rep candidate Marston lied about debates
By David L. Harris
A Republican candidate for state representative who says his Democratic opponent is blocking debates is taking heat from Boston neighborhood groups for not telling the truth.
The Brad Marston campaign issued a press release Tuesday saying that Marty Walz, the Democratic incumbent in the race, is refusing to participate in debates, and one group in particular, the Back Bay Association, expressed interest “until they found out who [the] opponent was.”
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, the president of the business-focused Back Bay Association, said the statement isn’t true.
“That is an out-and-out lie,” she said.
“It’s ridiculous that he would involve us in this,” said Mainzer-Cohen, who added her organization was first approached by Marston to “join the campaign” a year ago and then was approached again in recent weeks to ask to sponsor a debate. “We’re a nonprofit. We don’t get involved in debates.”
Marston also said in the release that the “heads of both the Beacon Hill and West End Civic Associations have stated they want to sponsor debates. Yet they still aren’t happening.”
Suzanne Bresser, the head of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, said the group is discussing hosting a debate between the candidates but hasn’t yet set a date.
“But we wish to assure you that neither candidate has turned us down or in any way indicated an unwillingness to participate,” said Bresser in an e-mail to both campaigns.
In his press release, Marston said Walz had been uncooperative and was deliberately barring debates.
“The Beacon Hill Civic Association says she hasn’t returned their calls regarding debates and the West End Civic Association told me Representative [sic] Walz said she wasn’t interested,” the statement reads.
Meanwhile, Walz said she would participate in any debate that’s scheduled before the Nov. 2 election.
“I’m completely open to debating my opponent,” said Walz. “I’m happy to educate the voters on my views and what my priorities are.”
A representative from the West End Civic Association was not immediately available for comment.
I hope you'll have your people come around and post a correction. Actually, if you could stick it in the mail slot this time, your neighbors would appreciate it. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Jingle, Jingle, Jingle

I was appalled to find Christmas trimmings in Crate and Barrel on the day after Columbus Day.

Is there no decency?

I went over to this guy, deeply absorbed in the silver-and-gold area, and said, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry." He said, "Yeah, I can't believe I'm actually buying Christmas ornaments."

I tried to conceal my overwhelming sense of superiority.

Then I spotted the old-fashioned lightbulb ornaments I'd wanted last year. They had sold out before I got around to buying any on sale after Christmas. They were 95¢ apiece. (Boy, I must have been feeling oh-so-miserly last year.)

They were cute and shiny. And so colorful.

If you can't beat em.....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Looking Back

When we got Wendy and Possum as kittens last year, we hadn't spent much time examining them closely in their foster homes. Wendy mostly huddled and cringed in her crate, staring at us with huge eyes, while Possum was very active, running around and playing with his siblings. We held each of them a couple of times, and made our decisions mostly on instinct.

So it was fun to "discover" them after we got them home. We loved Wendy's calico spots, but we hadn't gotten a good look at her backside.

When we saw her fluffy hind legs, or "bloomers," we were charmed. She's patterned like a harlequin: one leg has orange and white stripes; the other has black and white stripes. There are cute "polka dots" on her feet, too. So festive. One of her many nicknames is "Mrs. Partypants."

When I first saw Possum and his siblings on, I had the impression that they were gray tabbies. Here's one of the photos:

Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, and Ossipee in foster care

Possum was also listed as a spayed female. My husband kept saying he only wanted another female kitten. How fortuitous that, while I was pining for a little boy, Possum secretly was a little boy.

And Possy's not gray. He's a classic brown tabby. His amazingly silky, tawny fur matches his hazel eyes. When we discovered that his lower lip is outlined in black, that possum-y feature helped us choose his name.

While we'd liked his white mittens and ruff at first sight, we didn't see the extent of his white "trimmings" until he came home with us and began lying around on his back. He has a fluffy white chest and belly and extra-long white socks.

I tend to get nostalgic when anniversaries roll around; the kittens' adoptions were such a joyful time last October. I'm focusing on the nice surprises that accompanied them — including the way our older cats accepted them almost immediately. And how the racket the babies made as they played together in the night —we were bracing for at least a year of sleep deprivation — was always happy music to our ears.

It's important to balance these against the other surprises — the calicivirus, ringworm, and other parasites that darkened our door soon after they arrived. (I don't think we'll be celebrating the anniversary of their ringworm diagnosis on November 7!)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Afternoon in Wiscasset, Maine

Downtown Wiscasset

For years, we've driven through Wiscasset, which calls itself "The Prettiest Village in Maine," stopping only for a quick lunch — we were always more interested in getting to Mount Desert Island. (If my husband needs a driving break, we'll stop in Kittery or Freeport, where he usually manages to leave with a couple of shopping bags full of nice clothing along with his iced coffee. I never have any luck myself.)

We were supposed to be in Southwest Harbor for this long holiday weekend, but work issues and unavailable cat sitters intervened, so we had to cancel. Instead of spending the whole weekend pining for Acadia, the hot tub, our innkeeper pals, and the popovers at the Jordan Pond House, we decided to drive as far as Wiscasset and finally explore the village at our leisure.

Coastal Route 1 goes straight through downtown Wiscasset, so there is usually a long line of cars crawling down Main Street, heading to the bridge over the Sheepscot River. As you sit in the traffic, you can see that this village has more than its share of beautiful historic houses and antique shops.


Our first stop was, as ever, Sprague's Lobster Pound, just before the bridge. Although they offer the usual seafood — lobster dinners, clam fritters, crab rolls, and haddock sandwiches, we have a yen for their hot dogs, served with melted cheese on a warm buttered roll. We sit on their sunny deck by the tidal river, and watch the long line right across the street for Red's Eats, the most famous spot in Wiscasset. We've tried the famous lobster roll, which is about $15, only to find it so-so. And it disappeared very quickly. But everyone else seems to love the place, which is fine with us. There's a much shorter wait at Sprague's that way.

 Red's Eats — famous for lobster rolls and long lines

See what I mean about long lines?

There used to be a very atmospheric wreck of a tall ship beached in the river, which kept everyone riveted as they passed it on the bridge. But it fell apart several years ago and there's no visible trace anymore.

Even minus that, the village is extremely picturesque, and like all good New England towns, is already getting decked out for Halloween. Here's a display outside Sarah's Café:

We found a great store selling African artifacts, and antiques, and an excellent selection of used books — Water Street Antiques, a few doors away from Red's. There's one room filled with antiques, old toys, and vintage-style crafts:

Overwhelming display style 

Not an inch of wasted space. 

If you spend enough time in there, I can almost guarantee that you will find something that was in your parents' or grandparents' house, triggering a Proustian moment. For better or worse. It was like a live, more tasteful version of one of my favorite Web sites. (It tends to make me weep hysterically with laughter and recognition.)

For some silly reason, neither of us took any decent photos any of the historic houses we sighed over. We were just having too good a time kicking up leaves and admiring the autumn scenery on a crisp, sunny day. I expect that we'll visit again someday and take some house-museum tours. And there's the Musical Wonder House, which I'm sorry we skipped. Instead we lingered at the Ancient Cemetery, not far from the center of town. The oldest tombstone dates from 1739.

If you go, be sure to stop in at Treats, on Main Street, for a picnic of wine, bread, and cheese, or some cookies for the road. They also have a nice collection of Emma Bridgewater dinnerware, like the carafe the stole my heart (see previous post):


No town is complete without cats. We spotted only this little gray and white kitten, reminiscent of Possum:

And that, naturally, made me homesick for him. I was happy to head back to Boston.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Current Craving: "Drink Me"

I wandered into a very nice specialty food shop called Treats in Wiscasset, Maine, today. I spotted this carafe by the English designer Emma Bridgewater:
It's only about as tall as an old-fashioned milk bottle but stockier. It's made of heavy, hand-blown Polish glass, with elegant etching straight out of Alice in Wonderland: Drink Me. 

It felt wonderful in my hand. I've always wanted a nice water carafe; I've never owned one. As I kept examining this one, I fell in love. The tiny price tag said $86. I put it down. I gave it a last look and walked away. I left the store and met up with my husband. We wandered the town (more about that later). We had lunch by the water, explored the neighborhood, visited shops, and bought some old books.

When it was time to go, we went back to Treats on the way to the car. There sat the carafe, looking handsomer than ever. 

I picked it up, and put it down. I wished it weren't quite so expensive. Or quite so charming.

We left the store to check out the kitchen store next door. It was sparsely stocked and smelled of mothballs. But as we browsed in there, I knew I was done for. 

I'd remembered a shopping lesson I'd learned the hard way, years ago. If I didn't buy the carafe, I would likely spend a few years regretting it — and never forgetting it— until another one finally turned up somewhere... inevitably at a much higher price. That's just how it is with me.

We left the stuffy kitchen store and returned to Treats, where I picked up the carafe for the third time and sensibly announced to clerk and spouse: "I really have to have this." Husband admitted he'd been admiring it all along.

The clerk was smiling the whole time as he wrapped it in newspaper and put it in a shopping bag. We bought an excellent toffee cookie to share while we were about it. 

I figure the carafe will be well worth the price if it benefits my health. Every day, I vow to drink plenty of water, but I never meet my goal. With a charming carafe of cool water and lime slices on my desk, I believe I will finally become the heavy drinker I want to be. (Now I just have to clear a place for it. Tomorrow, I promise.)

It turns out that no shops in the Boston area carry anything by Emma Bridgewater — a big disappointment, if you ask me. According to her Web site, you can find her things at Shubies in Marblehead and Best of British in Newburyport.

Friday, October 8, 2010

I Love a Mystery

The other day, we made a new friend as we were over in the South End. We began by talking about our mutual quest for the perfect condo. As we were getting to know each other, my husband mentioned where he taught. The guy perked up. We thought nothing of it — lots of people perk up when they hear a name they recognize.

Eventually, he said, "I need to ask you a strange question." Now we perked up. I like strange questions. He said, "Is there any way you could get me into your school's library? I want to look at yearbooks."

While we were speculating about that, he explained: "I have children by an anonymous egg donor who was an undergrad there. I don't want to contact her, but I can't help worrying that someday my children will want to know about their mother. If they ever do, I'd like to be able to help them. I just want to find out who she is."

I was intrigued. I like a research challenge like this, and I don't have a job to keep me busy right now. I also believe that all children have a right to know who their mother is. If I'd been adopted or artificially conceived, I would be tortured by not knowing who my mother was. Heck, I was thrilled to find out who Wendy's mother was, I wonder about Possum's feral parents all the time. (We have pedigree papers for the older cats.)

I asked our new friend if he'd seen The Kids Are All Right, a movie about a lesbian household where the teenage children track down their anonymous sperm donor. He said that friends had both urged him to see it and cautioned him about seeing it — the results are messy and the ending is far from happily-ever-after. He said he had no interest in contacting the egg donor himself, and was only thinking about giving his children some peace of mind years from now.

So I told him I'd try to find her. I asked him to email me any information he had about her. He said he would, but he was skeptical; a friend of his had searched for her already, and failed. A few days later, he called me to say he'd be sending me the profile she'd provided to the donor-matching company. "I'm not even sure it's all true." he said. " I said I doubted that; there'd be serious liability issues if donation agencies didn't do background checks. He also said he thought he knew the donor's first name. "We were allowed to be at the clinic when they did the procedure but we didn't meet her. But we heard them calling someone 'L—.' Maybe that's an alias, or maybe it's really her name."

He sent me a PDF of the donor's profile and a photo of his spectacularly cute children. When I opened the donor's file, I was surprised to see a face very similar to mine at that age: oddly familiar features and hair, dramatic makeup like I wore in those days. The similarities ended there.

I spent a couple of hours trolling the school's website, looking at every news article I could find about the sports she played. No players matched her name or class year. I kept digging, and found photos of the intercollegiate team. She wasn't in any of them. I tried searching by her first name, for students with her major, and used every other piece of information I had. No luck.

I gave up, decided to read on the sofa for awhile and immediately fell into a coma. When I awoke, I returned to my laptop and realized I hadn't Googled for reunion sites for her class year. I instantly found a public Facebook page. I searched for her name. And there she was.

Now I had her last name, so I did a basic Google search. In addition to her own lively and public Facebook page, I found her employer's site, plus a public web site she created to post wedding news and photos. Along the way, I found photos and details about her family. I found high school sports results confirming her rankings. I was pleased to see that everything in her profile was accurate. She was genuine, and appeared to be blooming, accomplished, well-loved, and successful, too.

If I hadn't known her first name, I would still have found her. It just would have taken me longer to view all the photos on the Facebook reunion site.

I sent all the links to our friend, telling him that it would be easy to follow her discreetly and at a distance since she posted so much about her life in public. If a time came when one of his children was anxious to know about her, key information would be accessible. He wrote back, thanking me warmly, saying he was amazed.

I'm kind of amazed, myself. I thought I could do it, but it's still mind-boggling that we post so much information about ourselves online. Many people with Facebook pages are open books to the world. I keep mine private. Yet I write this personal blog. Still, I'm anonymous to most of you readers, although a dedicated sleuth could figure out who I am. One friend did stumble upon this blog and recognized me. (It was the "cake" reference in the blog description that clinched it for him.)

I don't mind; I have no kids whatsoever, I'm not involved in organized crime, I won't run for public office. I have little worth stealing. I wonder if I'd be a little cagier if I were an egg donor.

I trust the our friend not to interfere with their biological mother's life. But, years from now, when those children are grown, they will be able to know everything about her that she's permitted the rest of us to discover.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A House Is Not a Home

 Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in
— Robert Frost

I always get annoyed when I read real-estate articles that talk about buying a "home" instead of a "house." Does this bother anyone besides me? Or am I being excessively fussy and Edwardian about this?

It's bad enough when Boston Globe reporters (John Ellement, I mean you) and zillions of others who write about real estate can't spell basic architectural terms like "mantel."  I've also seen references to "parkay" floors. Try Googling that.

Then there are plenty of writers and realtors who refer to anything built before 1950 as "Victorian."

I recently read about a Back Bay condo that reportedly had its "original 18th-century wainscoting." That  realtor gets points from me for knowing what wainscoting is, and how to spell it. But all of Back Bay was a swamp in the 18th century! There's no original 18th-century anything in Back Bay.

I went to the open house, and the wainscoting was gorgeous: unpainted, 1880's oak.

* * * 

But the "house" versus "home" distinction perpetually bothers me. It's just wrong to talk about "home-buying." No one can buy a "home." Homes are made, not purchased. A house is a structure, with walls and floors. You buy your house — and if you furnish it, settle in, and get comfortable, then you feel at home in it. "Home" is a concept, a state of mind.

As with most of my English style and usage rules, I have no idea where I learned this. It's just there, in my little brain, making my skin crawl whenever I read Boston Homes, where reporters are permitted to write things like, "an absolute jewel of a home."
Nobody's home — and so this is not a "home." Yet. 

Perhaps my understanding of "house" versus "home" is just one of those antiquated class distinctions useful only for separating the hoi polloi from the well bred. If so, being from peasant stock myself, I should get over my pretensions. But I don't think it is. I believe it's correct usage; it just isn't taught widely. And everyone in the real estate business should know that, to some of their clients, talk of "buying a home" will always sound uneducated.

Here are a couple of examples of how we do use these words correctly: You would never say to your friend, "Hey, let's go to your home!" She would think you were weird. We always say, "Let's go to your house," because it's been ingrained in us for generations that it's only proper to describe our own residences as "home."  Other people's residences are spoken of as houses. Otherwise we're being presumptuous: maybe their house isn't all that homey.

We also say, "Let's go to my house," not "Let's go to my home," when we are taking others to our domicile, which is not the home of everyone who is accompanying us. When we say, "Let's go home," we mean something different: we're aware that whomever we're with will be at home there, too.

Final example: People (i.e.,women) who take care of other people's houses are known as housekeepers. People who do their own housework are known as homemakers. Because homes are made.

But I guess that, one day, some realtors decided that talking about "homes" would make buyers feel warm and fuzzy, and thus be more likely to fall for a ratty dump in a moldy basement with tiny windows facing an alley. (Or maybe they figured that "home" would sum up all the options in one neat little noun, covering not only "house," but "apartment, condo, co-op, shack, rathole, cabin, boardinghouse, loft."

But it's still wrong.

To be thorough, there are indeed "homes" where other people live. But in all of these cases, "home" is a euphemism: old folks' homes, nursing homes, homes for the mentally impaired. The New England Home for Little Wanderers. You can refer to such places as "homes" with enthusiasm and still be my friend. But we all know the truth: generally, these places aren't homelike at all. These homes are residences we all hope to avoid.

No, thank you.

I bet that, long ago, descendants of the cheerful (and probably annoying) do-gooder Victorians who gave us the "rest home" recognized that there would be more money in real estate than in charity ventures — especially if they began referring to every decrepit, rotting hovel as a "cozy home."

* * * 

Along these lines, I'm never happy to go to Home Depot. Not only is the store overwhelming, the lumber department gives me an allergy attack. I firmly believe it should be called "House Depot" because it primarily sells materials for structural improvements. Yes, you can buy décor there. But most of the time, that's far from a good idea. 

On the other hand, my favorite store is ABC Carpet and Home. And that's okay, because it sells things to make a house homier. It's also the best retail experience in Manhattan.

Mecca: ABC Home in Manhattan (ABC Carpet is across the street)

* * * 

In some cases, a house never successfully becomes a home — because it's not comfortable. Or it's not healthy for its inhabitants, or it's ugly, or ill-equipped. Or it's cluttered or disorganized. Sometimes places just aren't sufficiently "lived in" by their peripatetic occupants, so even home feels like yet another strange hotel.

In these situations, Groucho Marx was correct: "Home is where you hang your head."

For problems like these, there's Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan's excellent book, Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure. It's full of insights and ideas, including a guided plan to turn any house into a welcoming nest. If you're motivated, it really works. And when you're done, you might post a tour of your fabulous abode on the ApartmentTherapy site.

For some, "home" requires books, a cushy sofa, 
and/or a cat or two lounging by the fireplace.