Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chocolate Class: A Little Knowledge...

The "Craving Chocolate" class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts was a revelation. I didn't know what to expect, but I imagined we'd sit at desks, taking notes while the instructor made truffles and caramels in front of us. Then I thought we'd break into groups to recreate her recipes ourselves, under her eagle eye.

Instead our instructor gave us a quick lecture on different types of chocolate and how to temper it — so your candy turns out smooth and shiny, with a nice "snap."To temper chocolate, you melt it in a double boiler off the heat, cool it down, and warm it up again so you can work with it. Then she pointed out where ingredients were stored in the kitchen and went over a list of chocolate recipes we'd gotten as a handout. We each chose a recipe, and then she let us loose, to spend the rest of the evening making chocolates — mostly on our own. Whoa.

I'd chosen turtles: toasted pecans covered with caramel and chocolate. How hard could that be? Other people chose to make various flavors of truffles as well as toffee, white-chocolate-peppermint bark, and peanut-butter balls. We went to our stations, tied on white aprons, and began to assemble our mise en place, measuring out all the ingredients we'd need before we began to cook. We learned how to chop chocolate — beginning at a corner, using a serrated knife. We learned measure butter by weight, cutting slabs from 1-pound blocks. It was fun to have huge quantities of quality ingredients at our fingertips: big blocks of imported chocolate, a vat of sugar, even champagne for the "mimosa" truffles.

My recipe called for a pound and a half of toasted pecans. A ridiculous amount, I thought, but for once I was determined to adhere slavishly to a recipe. I spread them on a sheet of parchment on a full-size baking sheet and stuck them in the oven for 10 minutes. I'd never seen such an oven; it was taller than me, and had sets of double doors that opened simultaneously to reveal many racks within.

Then I had to make the caramel. I poured corn syrup, sugar, and milk into a saucepan and approached the stove. My cooktop at home is a sheet of glass with four piddly burners. This stove was a vast,  professional gas model, of course, with ten or 12 burners. It must feel like an inferno when all of them are in use. I learned how to adjust the flame and consulted my recipe.

Although we were supposed to read our whole recipe before beginning to cook, I hadn't gotten very far with mine. I guess I like a little suspense as I cook. If I had followed orders, I would have realized that my caramel required 45 minutes of constant stirring. And at the same time, I was supposed to temper my chocolate and arrange my pecans into clusters.

I was lucky that other people had chosen recipes that gave them a little free time, so one kind woman pitched in with tempering my bowlful of chocolate — taking my pot of boiling water off the neighboring burner as I endlessly stirred my caramel, and setting my bowl of chopped chocolate on top. Another woman gave me a break from stirring so I could form my pecans into "turtles." Others helped with this as they waited for their chocolate to cool or their truffles to set. My turtles went from being perfect little reptiles to very free-form, impressionist interpretations. Most had several heads and extra legs, because I had way too many pecans. As it was, we filled three full baking sheets with tightly packed turtles. Meanwhile, people prepared the super-rich hot chocolate recipe and baked a pan of decadent brownies. As you work, you can look around at what others are doing and learn from watching.

And everyone sampled every recipe; it's only polite.

My caramel kept threatening to boil over the saucepan, so the instructor helped me transfer it to a bigger pot. One of the great things about a cooking class, I learned, is that someone else does all the dishes. You just stack everything neatly on the counter.

As I stirred, my wrist began to singe from the high heat of the flame. I'd forgotten how exciting and dangerous cooking can be. Gas stoves add to the fun; at one point, the instructor and I were talking, and the burner behind mine suddenly turned itself on high, bright blue flames shooting skyward. "Weird!" she said, reaching for the right knob. "Wow!" I thought.  I was instantly converted to gas burners.

My caramel took an hour to reach "soft-ball" temperature, but spooning it over the pecans was quick work. It had to be — caramel hardens fast. My bowl of brown goop tasted exactly like caramel, too. Somehow I hadn't expected that. There was only enough to cover two of the three trays of pecans, so someone melted more chocolate and made pecan bark with the leftovers.

Then the instructor showed me how to fill a pastry bag — there are rolls of clear plastic ones that you can tear off, like a paper towel — with melted chocolate to cover the caramel. That was quick and fun, in a drippy, Jackson Pollock way.  After I smoothed the chocolate with a spatula, the pans went into the walk-in fridge to cool. It was nearly 10 pm and class was ending. Refrigerating chocolate ruins its glossy appearance and gives it a streaky "bloom," but the turtles still tasted fine.

So did all the truffles, brownies, peanut-butter balls, toffee, and bark... everything had been made in large quantities for sharing. My friends and I admitted to feeling slightly drugged, spacey and sick, although we kept nibbling and filling our cardboard pastry boxes with professional-looking, fresh, scrumptious candy.

Turtles, if anatomically incorrect.

We also went home with all the recipes. I look forward to making truffles, peppermint bark, and maybe even more caramel, after I buy a candy thermometer.  I'll wish I could stand at that powerful stove again, and I'll also wish I had a house elf to do the dishes. I plan to give most of it away as presents. But not all of it.

As we left the school, we walked through a kitchen that had a professional-training class preparing a late dinner. In one of the classrooms, a table was elegantly set for students and instructors; you eat everything you make in cooking school. Smells of prosciutto and parmesan filled the air — pasta sauce. In spite of our chocolate overload, we inhaled deeply and happily.

I'm definitely taking more cooking classes! I can't wait to learn more. And I want a dangerous stove.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Current Craving: Chocolate (What Else?)

The Proper Bostonian is meeting two very dear friends tonight for a "Craving Chocolate" candy-making class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. We've been looking forward to this evening for weeks — we're supposed to be in training for it by eating large amounts of chocolate every day. And we've pretty much promised each other that we will not surrender and dive head-first into a vat of melted chocolate. We'll be making caramels and truffles, too.

Full report to follow, unless I succumb to sugar-induced bliss.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Back in the Black

The Proper Bostonian's bargain-hunting instincts and desire to walk 10,000 steps daily overpowered the attractions of her toasty down comforter this cold, rainy morning. She was awake early but couldn't get up — weighed down by 15 pounds of Possum, curled up and napping on top of her. The Black Friday half-off sale at Second Time Around ran between 7 and 9, and she was out of bed and getting dressed at 7:10, along with her husband, who wanted to see what sales were going on at the Apple Store.

The streets of Back Bay and Beacon Hill were hardly packed with shoppers. We saw only a few soggy dog-walkers. There were perhaps two other shoppers in the Charles Street STA store. I quickly located the skirt I'd wanted: heavy black lace, long and full. Then I dithered over a sleek BCBG wool-cashmere jacket that looked utterly Parisian but felt a bit tight under the arms. (Do enough pushups in gym  class and you'll develop your deltoid muscles, for better or worse. Clearly, French women never do pushups.)

The sales associate pointed out that I was wearing a sweater and that the jacket would fit better over a tee. So I bought it, too.

Upstairs at the two-level store at 176 Newbury, there was no sign of the silky black velvet Tahari blazer I'd been watching. They've just reorganized both stores: all coats, jackets, pants and accessories are upstairs, while dresses, tops, sweaters, jeans, and men's clothing are downstairs. Very sensible, and both stores look better — but where was my jacket? The sales associate didn't remember selling it, so I scoured the racks a second and a third time, and finally found it on a rack labeled "newly consigned/off limits!" next to the registers. "Oh, those are really go-backs from the dressing room," said the associate, who then rang up my sale. I'd found three great items in versatile black for less than $90.

Scones at Starbucks and browsing in Anthropologie followed, while my husband bought hard drives and headphones at the Apple Store. I bought three of these cereal bowls on sale:

Upsy-Daisy bowls, $4.95 at Anthropologie

By 9:30, we were all shopped out and ready for home and a nap, with 6,600 steps already on the pedometer and only 3400 more to go. Walking to a family dinner in the North End will take care of that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Black Friday

I rarely do any Black Friday shopping because it's impossible to get useful gift information from my family before December.  Every year on Thanksgiving, my sister tries to make everyone write down their Christmas lists. Somehow, it never happens. My mother attempted the same thing when she was still with us, and she was more persuasive (read "threatening") than my sister. But she never got anywhere with us either.  We are naturally skilled in diversionary tactics.

I have my Christmas list in decent shape, of course. I'm the proactive, organized type, and I love getting nice presents. I also tend to want the same things — books, bath gel — every year. But there's no way I'm sharing my list with anyone who doesn't provide her own list in return. We fight fire with fire in my family.

At any rate, none of us will be freezing in line at Walmart at 5 am tomorrow. That's not our style anyway. We tend to request things like restaurant gift cards, DVDs, and cologne; we all have everything, and too much more besides.

But there's an intriguing Black Friday sale at Second Time Around: 50% off everything between 7 and 9 am. I plan to go to a couple of their stores; I've had my eye on two items that would be perfect for holiday parties and dinners. I don't like to spend much on party clothes (or any clothes for that matter; I am so cheap....). I usually wait for sales, and my some of my best finds have come from Second Time Around. It would be great to snag a certain sweeping lace skirt and Tahari velvet jacket for less than $30 each.

The problem is that I'm never fully conscious before 9 am, so there will be a vicious struggle between my sleepy body and my fierce bargain-hunting instincts tomorrow morning. I have no idea which will be victorious. But the sale continues with 30% off everything for the rest of the weekend. And all the local stores seem fully stocked with pretty things right now, even in teeny-tiny and extra-large sizes.

I will keep you posted, whether I'm successful or not.

Happy Holiday

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another state."  Mark Twain

The Proper Bostonian is properly thankful for her loving, caring, close-knit family in another state. It used to be a large family, too, but we've lost a few too many loving, caring ones in recent years. While many of the survivors will be eating turkey, arguing, and watching football in Pennsylvania, my husband and I will have our Thanksgiving feast à deux at 75 Chestnut, a Beacon Hill bistro that seemed just right for a quiet holiday dinner — while adding a decent quantity of steps to the pedometer. (We'll be driving to Pennsylvania at Christmas for a full-scale reunion with all the other out-of-state escapees.)

Tomorrow night, we'll meet up with my husband's family for a big dinner at Maurizio's in the North End They are all celebrating Thanksgiving in Rhode Island with my sister-in-law's family today, and while they are an incredibly nice family (more polite, less loud than my own), we bowed out this year.

We certainly have a ton of blessings to count since last November. The best one is that everyone in our families, young, old, and really old, has been relatively healthy and not much crazier than they were last year. We're lucky to have heaps of nice friends and colleagues, who are all doing pretty well, too.

The third huge blessing is my husband's new tenured teaching position, which makes him deeply happy while giving us stability for the first time in our financially wayward, non-profit lives. It was a lean year for me, career-wise, but I'm grateful for my one exciting, challenging writing project this year. I'm hopeful there will be more. And if there isn't, we won't starve. (And you will have more dull, shallow blog entries to read.)

We had two amazing visits to Maine and two trips to France this year. And we're spoiled rotten anyhow because we live in the very heart of beautiful Boston.

Of course, we are grateful for President Obama and our general understanding that the world isn't falling apart in too many more new, horrible ways than it was a year ago. But we tend to count our blessings closer to home, so here's another huge one that we were longing for at this time last year: A year ago, we and the four cats were in the thick of a ringworm "plague." Now those awful treatments and that endless housecleaning are a distant memory. Talk about something to celebrate! Woo-hoo!

And, now, I think I'll go for a long walk and celebrate my feet, which take me anywhere I choose to go. Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you have plenty to celebrate, too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eau Neau

I invented a cologne for cats in a dream last night.

This was an improvement over my dream the night before, where I was an advertising copywriter and our new account was a small, unpronounceable town in Bulgaria, seeking tourists. Figuring that one out was challenging; I remember taking copious notes. But at least Don Draper was running the meeting. I like most of my dreams.

The concept of my feline cologne, called "Eau Neau," is to make cats more attractive to each other — reducing conflict in multi-cat situations — and to boost cats' self esteem, making them happier and more outgoing.

The ingredients, as I recall, were oils of catnip and honeysuckle for the base notes, since one or both of these will make almost all cats delirious with happiness. Also in the formula were eau de mouse, eau de mole, eau de vole, and eau de birdie as top and middle notes. (You need obscure, rare ingredients to sell a cologne these days; I even know that in my sleep.) Another key ingredient is whatever they put in Old Spice deodorant that drives both Snicky and Wendy to burrow enthusiastically into my husband's armpits and roll around on any used T-shirt he leaves around. Finally, I'd add a touch of balsam or pine, because cats like to smell fresh and outdoorsy, even if they never get to hunt in the woods.

I remember debating about including sardine oil in the formula, but decided to save that for my second cat cologne. Even in my sleep I know that you can't build an empire with just one cat fragrance.

Market research and feline focus groups will help determine the bottle design. But I already know that it will be sturdy and unbreakable — yet enticing to roll around on the floor.

The next step, of course, is to find a feline model and spokescat. Here is my short list:

Snicktoria has a lot of dark, temperamental charm, but her tortoiseshell coloring makes her difficult to photograph. 

Snalbert projects masculine force, but Eau Neau is a unisex scent, so he'll have to wait for the sardine spin-off.

Wendelina Pantherina is lovely and photogenic, but she is, perhaps, too feminine (some would say "prim") to be appropriate for Eau Neau.   

Wendy's other drawback as spokescat is that she only talks and behaves charmingly in certain parts of this apartment, including the windowsills, the fireplace hearths, and the bathroom, which she has designated as safe zones. Approach her anywhere else, and she'll often flee in pointless terror to hide under the sofa. 

This is not ideal spokescat behavior. Or so they tell me. So that leaves one final prospect...

Possumus P. Passamaquoddy is unfailingly photogenic and has an androgynous yet wholesome charm. He looks wild and outdoorsy yet he always remembers to cross his front paws elegantly in photo sessions. He also talks and sings rather well.

And isn't he irresistible? I think we have our winner.

Eau Neau. Look for it soon at a fragrance counter near you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Pocket Pedometer

The Omron Tri-Axis Pocket Pedometer ($39.99 at City Sports) isn't among the cheapest pieces of fitness gear out there, but I think it's among the best. And it's certainly one of the tiniest — it won't take up a corner of your bedroom or basement, and it won't gather dust. You'll never haul it guiltily to the curb on trash day, like the many exercise bikes and stair climbers that land in Back Bay alleys.

Nor will you have to clip it to your belt for all the world to see; you're paying a premium for its tri-axis technology, which counts steps accurately even when the pedometer is in your pocket or handbag. (I also tuck mine into a boot or the waistband of my tights.)

I appreciate not looking like a dork (or more like a dork) when I'm walking around. I've always had certain standards, which include not wearing running shoes or exercise clothing when I'm not working out. I know running shoes are comfortable, but I believe they look dorky. So I do my routine walking in boots or sandals, and wear exercise clothes only when I'm working up a sweat on Beacon Hill's steepest streets. A few years ago, my health plan sent me a free pedometer after I signed up to participate in their walking program. It turned out to be an oversized, bright-blue plastic box with their logo splashed boldly across the front. No way would I be seen wearing that clipped to my person. I immediately quit the program and threw out the pedometer.

But my health plan was onto something: There's nothing more motivating than a pedometer when you're trying to increase your daily exercise. You're probably tired of hearing the recommendation that we should all aim to walk at least 10,000 steps a day (about 5 miles), including 30 to 60 minutes at a moderate pace. I thought I had it covered. I knew I easily logged a few miles around town on many days of the week. But I recently realized that there are other days — and sometimes whole weeks — when I'm busy with a project, or the weather is lousy, and I barely leave the house. Our recent too-hot summer kept me indoors a lot; I probably walked less than 2,000 steps a day. Between being periodically sedentary and having a middle-aged metabolism, I've packed on some extra pounds.* I knew it was time to increase my walking, and do it consistently.

This pedometer has been an enormous help — I'm competing with myself every day and I enjoy meeting my daily goal. I make sure I get my 10,000 steps even if it means I'm fast-walking around the house for several minutes before bedtime, upsetting the cats. But I usually exceed 10,000 steps before dinner, even on the days I take strength-training classes. I'll probably increase my daily goal to 12,000 steps soon. (The average Amish woman — our closest approximation to our pre-automobile ancestors — takes about 14,000 steps a day. But have you seen the average Amish woman? She is round like a dumpling. But have you eaten her food? The Amish live on dumplings, gravy, doughnuts, chicken pot pie, shoe-fly-pie, and scrapple. I can resist most of that.)

While I'm sure I often walked healthy distances before I got the pedometer, doing it every day is making a difference. I feel better and I sleep better. I'm spending more time away from the computer, outside in fresh air, observing the world and clearing my head. After about a month, my clothes are already a bit looser.

Here's my total step tally for the past three weeks:

I'm averaging a little over 6 miles a day, which usually includes a few local errands and a more distant destination, like Coolidge Corner or the North End. My more intense exercise route, around Beacon Hill, adds up to about 8,000 steps. I try to do that twice a week. I'm a little worried about what I'll do when the streets are icy, but there's always the mall. Ugh! But, on the other hand, I can read a book while walking at a decent pace. That's how I walked back and forth to school for many years, immersed in classics like Anne of Green Gables. I don't read on Boston streets because people stare at me and I'm likely to get hit by an equally distracted bicyclist.

Almost all of my outdoor walking qualifies as "moderate" exercise, which surprised me. It's just my usual pace. I suspect that most Bostonians walk naturally at the same pace, which feels normal here but is considered "brisk" almost anywhere else.

You can find this Omron pedometer at lower prices online. And check the back of your Back Bay Shaw's grocery receipt for that 20%-off coupon from City Sports, which is what I did. It can change your habits, and that can quietly improve your health.

* These didn't help.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where to Recycle Your Laptop

My 7-year-old Mac PowerBook — the one with the pink-snowy screen effects and the 8-minute battery life — had been sitting around the apartment since I replaced it last May.  I had removed as much personal data and software as I could; it was high time for us to part.

I knew I could recycle it at Staples, but not at their store in Back Bay, even though their website says:

Bring your old computers, monitors, laptops, printers, faxes and all-in-ones to any Staples® U.S. store and drop them off at the customer service desk. All brands are accepted for secure recycling, regardless of where they were purchased.

Apparently, our Boylston Street store isn't a "store." It's a "copy and print shop," even though we buy all of our supplies there. Staples at Landmark Center or in the financial district would recycle my laptop for $10, if I weren't too lazy to walk it all the way over there.

Instead I took my laptop to the Apple Store, to see what they might suggest. They don't accept equipment for recycling at the stores. Apple has a mail-only recycling program. (Mail? Seriously, Mr. Jobs? How quaint and old-fashioned!) You fill out an online form, print a label, pack up your equipment, and ship it off somewhere. If your equipment is worth anything, they'll send you an Apple gift card for the value. (Mine was worth 0). They'll even send you a shipping box. But I am incredibly lazy and impatient, and all that rigamarole seemed like too much trouble. I wanted to get rid of my laptop right now. Would I have to abandon it to the recycling truck in the alley?

The Apple folks sent me and my laptop to Tech SuperPowers, around the corner from them on Newbury Street. They do recycle laptops, but they charge $49 for the privilege. The alley was looking ever more attractive.

On a whim, I went to Best Buy. I usually have to be dragged forcibly into that store; it was an entirely uncharacteristic whim. Best Buy is always loud and hectic, and their fluorescent lights and ugly decor are known to cause headaches. Sure enough, as I approached their door, I was assailed by a deafening blast of some heavy-metal tune pouring from their outdoor speakers. I can only assume that they've hired a 19-year-old as the store manager. But that would be fine as long as I walked out of there without my computer.

A friendly security guard inside the door told me that recycling a laptop would be no problem as he stuck a green "recycle" sticker on the lid. He directed me to the Geek Squad counter at the back of the store where two ladies tried and failed to remove the laptop's hard drive — they don't take responsibility for hard drives. Even so, they took the whole thing for recycling anyway.

And it was free. They have the sanest, most helpful recycling program I've found.  Check out their policies and encourage your fellow man to take old electronics there instead of dumping them in our alleys and landfills.

Chocolate on the Brain

I decided to make some brownies on Saturday night. I don't bother making them from scratch because I get great results using a mix. I like Ghirardelli's Double Chocolate brownies because they do what brownies are supposed to do — make your eyes pop wide open during the first bite from their intense  flavor and satisfyingly fudge-like texture. And they aren't cloyingly sugary. I switched from my tried-and-true Betty Crocker mix after tasting them just once.

So I reached down into my baking cabinet and pulled out one of three boxes of Ghirardelli mix that I'd stockpiled over the past few months. Three boxes of anything is a stockpile around here — our kitchen is remarkably small.

The first box turned out to be Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Muffin Mix.

"Weird!" I thought. I never buy muffin mixes; I make muffins from scratch. I didn't even know Ghirardelli made muffin mix. And while the two boxes look similar, I would have thought that my brain, of all brains, was hard-wired to differentiate brownies from muffins in a fraction of a second. Brownies mean a lot to me.

I pulled out the second box. Muffin mix.

And quickly reached for the third box: more muffin mix.

So I had three boxes of muffin mix, which I never buy, and no brownie mix. Somehow I had managed to choose the wrong item on three different trips to the grocery store. Three times I put muffin mix in my basket, and then put it on the belt at the cashier, and stood there, next to it, oblivious. What's wrong with me?

Maybe I'm seriously on autopilot when I go food shopping — but I don't think so. I have to be very sharp while hunting down the five or six flavors of Fancy Feast that our cats will eat, among the dozens of similar fish flavors they offer. If I can tell three varieties of Fancy Feast tuna apart, I should also know a brownie from a muffin.

I decided that I am not losing my marbles, so this had to be Fate. It had to be the Chocolate Fairies (I wonder why they don't call themselves "brownies"?) steering me relentlessly to try a New Good Thing. So I made muffins. I needed 12 of those foil liners. I had 13. Fate.

I can report that Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Muffins are fantastic: rich and moist, with eye-popping chocolate intensity. They are possibly better than brownies because they seem more wholesome, although they are not. (A brownie is dessert; a muffin is breakfast food....) So it's very easy to eat two muffins in one sitting before you realize what you just did. We've both done it twice. Oops.

I still have two more packages. But I can't wait to see what I bring home from Shaw's the next time I go there to pick up some brownie mix.

Friday, November 19, 2010

So Much for Flats

The Fitzwell flats described in my previous post arrived and looked as cute as expected. After reading the reviews on Zappos, I ordered them a half-size larger and wider than my usual size. They fit... but there's a row of very rough stitching around the "comfort" gel insole in the heel. Walking as much as I do around the city, that stitching would rub my heel raw in no time.
Ouch, nasty stitching on the insole.

Back in the '60s, the Midges of Manhattan didn't have to worry about all kinds of crazy things stuck into the soles of their shoes in the name of comfort. Soles embossed with little designs, or labels stitched into the heel are all forms of torture for those of us who actually walk some distance in our shoes instead of wearing them to go back and forth to the car. But shoe manufacturers just don't get it.

So, back they go. Three cheers for Zappos' free and easy returns.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Current Craving: Midge's Flats

In last season's "Blowing Smoke" episode of Mad Men, Don's bohemian ex-mistress Midge Daniels stakes out the SCDP lobby to "run into" Don, take him back to her apartment, and cadge money from him. Midge is not just a starving artist now; she's become a desperate heroin addict.

But Midge's 1960's heroin chic looks rather fetching. Here she is in the lobby, catching Don's eye and looking every inch the Village artist-waif in her beret and beads:

I liked her colorful, casual outfit — so different from Betty's doll-like perfection and Peggy's career-girl primness. You could find this ensemble today in Anthropologie. 

Sad and riveting as Midge's scenes with Don were, I was distracted by her pointy black flats. They looked cute and comfortable, and I knew they'd work nicely with skirts and jeans. In the '80s, a very similar style had been my go-to shoe for a few years, although I wasn't a heroin addict. I'd had them in black kid, black patent, navy, fuchsia, and bone, and I wore every pair to shreds.

Like Don, it was time for me to revisit a friend from my past. So I tracked down a similar pair at Zappos, reasonably priced, with gel inserts in the heel and flexible soles.
There are a few other popular items from the 1960s that remain as perfect as they were back in the day and have never been superseded. Check out Apple's iTunes store and you'll see what I mean:

from Apple.com

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dressing Up Was Hard to Do

I managed to dress for last night's dinner party without buying anything new. I kept hearing Thoreau's admonition in my head: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." So I decided to shop in my closet, and realized I had the right items to dress like a guy.

As some of you know, it perturbs me that, compared to women, men have it so easy when it comes to dressing well. My husband can walk into Lord & Taylor and walk out with everything he needs to be well-dressed for a few years. We recently shopped during one of their many sales and picked out three suits and two sport coats to add to his collection. Their tailor went at everything with a mouthful of pins, and now they fit him perfectly. Since he stocks up on shoes, dress shirts, and ties with equal aplomb, he has no trouble dressing well for any event.

But when I walk into Lord & Taylor, I usually walk out empty handed. Nothing is ever what I had in mind; almost everything has some "creative" detailing that ruins it for me. It would be nice if women had a uniform that bestows instant authority, dignity, camouflage, and elegance as almost any suit does for any man (provided they haven't fallen for those Pee-Wee Herman short pants and sleeves).

But that's never going to work for women. It just fails, no matter what we try. And we keep trying. Take, for example, this company, Basiques, which has a shop on Newbury Street.  Their clothing line is based on the style of French women, who theoretically have only a few, very wonderful items in their closets. According to Basiques, women just need about 10 pieces to have a wardrobe any chic Frenchwoman would envy. So they want to sell you a black jacket with matching pants and an A-line skirt, and a stack of button-down shirts: white, stripes, giant polka-dots, sheer black for evening, and a graphic wave pattern. Add plain pumps, a white tee, jeans, a strapless bustier, and some accessories, and that's all you'll need forever. Everything coordinates with everything else, and it all fits into a carry-on suitcase. Great premise.

But it doesn't work.

Most of the outfits you can make from those items will make you look very French indeed. The problem is that you will look like a French flight attendant — but not Air France, because their uniforms are designed by Christian Lacroix and are somewhat hip. You'll be an attendant for a small, regional French airline in your neat little suits with lively blouses and scarves tied just so. When Americans wish they could dress like French women, I do not think we are aspiring to look like we are about to hand out in-flight menu cards.

Basiques. Doesn't she look like she's welcoming
you aboard Air Bretagne, or whatever?

I believe it's both a blessing and a curse that we women are expected to show more imagination in how we dress. If we were as limited fashion-wise as men are, we'd go crazy. But we're expected to weed out all the bad options and choose only what suits our figures, personalties, and style — for any occasion. And, actually, it's not that hard to know what we should wear. We know which cuts and colors flatter us and which don't. What's difficult — next to impossible, really — is finding those imaginary clothes amid all the very, very wrong things stores are selling. Many of us want to wear things like the Hepburns, Audrey or Kate, wore, for example. But good luck finding such perfect, classic items anywhere..

I'm beginning to think that a finding a good dressmaker might be my only salvation. I'd show her movie stills of Audrey Tatou in Coco Before Chanel and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now, saying, "Make me that, and that, and that!"

But my fantasy seamstress couldn't help me last night. So I ripped the tags off a menswear-style black suit jacket and pants that had been sitting in my closet for a few years. I wore a tuxedo shirt untucked, high-heeled boots, and a long chain with my grandmother's pocket watch. The effect was elegant, dignified, authoritative, and definitely camouflage. Success, on the outside at least.

Inside, I was wretched. To fit into the pants, which I'd bought in an optimistic size 4, I wore "shaping" tights by Donna Karan. Before I put them on, I was skeptical — they were so narrow at the top that I could barely fit my two hands in them. Getting into them made me grateful for my strength-training classes; it was an exhausting battle. If all contemporary "shapewear" is like this, it would be easier to starve off some pounds than suffer such agonies. The tights were supposed to be high-waisted for more "shaping," they insisted on rolling themselves at my waist, like a tight iron band, all night long.

I would never have survived Victorian corsetry or 1950's girdles; I would have had to join a convent in self defense.

It occurred to me during the dessert course that perhaps I was dressed like a French woman after all. Because, as they say, "Il faut souffrire pour être belle." (One must suffer to be beautiful.) But those tights are now retired, long before they"ll reach age 62.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dressing Up Is Hard to Do

The Proper Bostonian is in a tizzy because she has a blitz of social events this month. This is unusual; aside from copious amounts of email, the PB's social life usually consists of witty banter with her gym instructor and the woman on the next mat, and small talk at the register at Trader Joe's and Dependable Cleaners. (Even the PB doesn't count talking to her cats as social life. They are family — although they are often better conversationalists than her two-legged relatives.)

At times like these. the PB wishes she were a cat. Cats are always appropriately attired, whether in fluffy, apricot pajamas (Snalbert) or a striped suit with a white shirt, gloves, and boots (Possum). As a calico, Wendy looks like she had a run-in with an Abstract Expressionist, but she looks great that way.

Most of all, the PB wishes she were a cat because cats rarely are invited to dinner parties. They never have to make inevitable small talk about What They Do. It's lucky for them, since they don't Do anything. Since the PB is unemployed, she has to steer these conversations in creative directions before things get awkward. It can be tricky when she's also trying to keep her dinner out of her lap.

She's already survived one little party (flimsy knit dress, chunky cardigan, boots) and an opening reception for the MFA's American Wing (wacky skirt, turtleneck, boots). But she's got two more dinners coming up this week, so she must look and act presentable twice more. This is exhausting the PB's resources; many of the same people are attending all of these events, and she was raised never to show up in the same outfit twice in a row.

Her winter closet is full of jeans, corduroys, and wacky skirts — typical for a writer who's worked at home or in casual offices for the past decade. In her drawers are cozy sweaters. She owns a couple of suits, purchased deeply on sale for Dreaded Occasions like these. But her "Mad Men" skirt suit has already been trotted out to yet another dinner party with the same characters. And her "In Case of a Job Interview" suit's size 4 pants are on the tight side these days. It's awful when clothes shrink on their hangers when they still have their tags.

Clearly, the PB needs to do some last-minute shopping tomorrow. She will hunt for a Little Black Dress, a longer top to camouflage the suit pants, or a pretty jacket to wear with the black skirt. Finding any one of these at short notice will be a miracle. But she believes in miracles, especially after discovering that shoemaker in Cambridge. She'll keep you posted on the results.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cambridge Instant Shoe Repair!

I took my shiny new Børn riding boots out for their first spin today. We walked about 4 miles around Harvard Square, and they felt and looked great. Then I let a plate-glass shop door scrape right over the top of my left boot. It left a big, horrible scar right across the toes.

Oh, crap. Oh, $%&#.  I've damaged boots before. Those scuffs don't go away.

How would I ever enjoy these boots again with that ugly reminder of my klutziness glaring up at me? I'd planned to wear them to a dinner party that night. So much for that.

I did not burst into tears although I wanted to. I was near The Tannery, so I went in for advice. Three salesmen shook their heads and said my boots were ruined. They commiserated, saying they did the same thing all the time. One tried some polish; it did nothing at all. He told me to go to Cambridge Instant Shoe Repair, at 1105 Mass. Ave., just beyond Harvard Square. "They're really good," he said.

I got a ride there and ran into the shop. There was no one around, so I rang the bell on the counter. A tall, handsome fellow came out of the back room. I took off my boot, put it on the counter, and told my tale. (I remember including a few embarrassingly melodramatic statements that clearly conveyed my state of mind.) He said he'd do his best, but he'd need a day, or at least a couple of hours. "I also just started to eat lunch," he said. "Come back after 4."

I asked him how much it would cost. "Ten dollars." "Is that all?" I asked suspiciously. I needed a miracle and they don't usually come so cheap. He was patient: "If you would like to pay me more, you can, but I'm charging ten dollars."

He had me leave both boots so he could polish them, so I walked to the car in my stocking feet. I wasn't hopeful after that bad prognosis from the three salesmen. I was also too distracted to notice how cold the ground was.

After 4, I returned to the shop. The shoemaker put my boots on the counter with the heels facing me, so I couldn't see the damaged area. With a remorseful, vaguely theatrical expression, he said, "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I failed." Then he turned the boots around. They looked brand new. I stared hard. I couldn't find the scar. He was smiling. I was stunned.

"You have a wonderful sense of humor," I said. "And you're a miracle-worker." I praised him to the skies, and handed over ten dollars. "I should also bring you some soup," I said. "After all, I ruined your lunch, and you fixed these so quickly for me." "Next time," he said.

Go there!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How Much Is that Tabby in the Window?

Spotted in the window of Hilary House, a decorating shop on Chestnut Street on the flat of Beacon Hill:

The designers at Hilary House know that a cat is the finishing touch in an elegant room. Even if she nibbles the orchids in the antique Chinese câche-pot.

As Romantic as Paris

Here are a couple of quick photos I took after it stopped raining on Wednesday and there was strange, rosy light across Boston. There are plenty of places around town that are quite as pretty as Paris — I just have to remember to take my eyes off the sidewalk and pay attention. We may not have Paris's gorgeous historic architecture, or its many expansive boulevards, but there is plenty of romance in our red brick and gaslights.


Charles Street in the rain.

Boulevard St. Germain in the rain.

The Public Garden in autumn dusk.

The garden around the Church of St-Germain-des-Pres in autumn gloom.

Of course, Boston would be even nicer if we had boulangeries and patisseries on every block, and perhaps one bateau mouche with gaudy lights touring the Charles. Our T stops could use a little dressing-up, too.... I think I'll stop this line of thinking. Boston is lovely just as it is. And it's home.

In both cities, I've been enjoying the wet, chilly November weather. After summer's long heat wave, it's a pleasure to bundle up in sweaters and boots, to warm our bones with homemade soups and casseroles, and to curl up at night under flannel sheets and our sumptuous and silky new down comforter.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shopping and Museums in Avignon

Avignon is a great place to shop, and I managed to fit in plenty of browsing and window-shopping, and even a little buying during my two days there. I'm always pleasantly surprised to find that almost all of the clothing in a typical French shop window has some degree of refinement, even if it's not my taste. And almost all of it can be worn with confidence by women over 30. Or over 60. If only that were true over here. While there are French stores that cater to teens and young women seeking abbreviated club attire, of course, they don't predominate, as they do here. It's just too bad that the European prices are usually out of my range, because there are many lovely things.

Shopping district in Avignon

Instead of splurging on clothing, I kept my shopping low-key. I've been on a quest for new eyeglass frames, but hadn't seen anything I liked in the Boston area. I'd found one British style I liked, but my optician couldn't (or wouldn't) order it in a different color for me. So I decided to continue my search in France. There are loads of opticians in Avignon and I met many of them. I had a great time getting their reactions as I tried on frames. And, after visiting about eight shops, I found that British frame I'd wanted, in the right color. Voilà!

Spouse holds the bag with eyeglass frames before a celebratory lunch.

I also bought bought the typical Provençal souvenirs, which tend to be delicious or useful, rather than tacky, like most souvenirs. I visited Avignon's indoor food market, Les Halles, I bought herbs de Provence and fleur de sel de Camargue.

Olives at Les Halles.

Cheese! We need a market like this in Boston.

Mushroom display. Sigh.

This is almost certainly where my wonderful breakfast fruit came from.

I also picked up some lavender sachets, jars of regional jams (orange and chocolate, apple and caramel, apricot and almond) and a jar of tasty red pistou (pesto) of the region. My husband and I also stocked up on different flavors of caramels (chocolate, chocolate with orange rind, vanilla, nougat) and lollypops from the gorgeous candy store. I always go to grocery stores when I'm abroad for things like local seasonings, biscuits, cookies, and chocolate bars.

Finally, in a Swedish design shop, I met some friendly salespeople and picked up a present for an old friend who owns a printing company. I couldn't resist:

I visited two museums on my last day, the Musée Lapidaire, a former baroque chapel that now houses a collection of ancient sculpture, vases, and bronzes. If you visit one Avignon site at full price, you get a pass to visit the rest at a discount. My visit to this museum set me back 1 Euro:

Former churches make great exhibition galleries.

Provençal sculpture.

I also visited the Musée Calvet, a collection of 15th- to 20th-century paintings, sculpture, and crafts, housed in an 18th-century mansion:

View from the staircase of the Musée Calvet.

Detail of a gorgeously painted cabinet.

But it was a beautiful day and I wanted to be back outdoors. As I walked back to the hotel to prepare to leave town, I realized that whole town is museum-quality, despite the grafitti and a few modern encroachments. Everywhere there are architectural treasures:

On the way to catch the bus back to Paris, I encountered transit strikers. The town had been almost empty all day but, in the late afternoon, a steady stream of strikers streamed in from the portals, heading for the main square.

Strikers passing the hotel.

Strikers protesting in the main square.

That was my destination, too. I threaded my way through a lively mob and persuaded a gendarme to let me through the police barricade by waving my Forum ID badge. The conference was held in the palace, next to where the strikers had gathered. Shortly after I went into the palace, we were told that it was too dangerous to let anyone leave. So we all stood around, drinking apple juice and coffee and schmoozing. After more police arrived on the scene, we were allowed to leave in small groups, walking quickly past the boisterous, booing crowd of strikers. 

Then we boarded another private, high-speed train and headed to Paris, where it was cold and rainy. We had dinner at the Café Deux Magôts, which was expensive and not worth it. Dessert was a Nutella crèpe (always wonderful!) at the stand across the street.  That was our evening in Paris.

It's nice to be home. And we hear that at least one of us will be invited to the forum again next year....

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November 6: Walking in Avignon

The weather in Avignon was just cool enough for comfortable walking. I wore jeans, boots, and a little black knit coat, blending in with everyone else. (These days, French women wear skinny jeans or leggings tucked into chunky-heeled or flat boots, as we do here. They also wear complicated sweaters, chic short coats, and messy updos.)

After another sumptuous breakfast — there were witnesses this time, but no one raised their eyebrows at my butter consumption — I went out to take a self-guided walk, following a tourist map I'd been given at the Pont d'Avignon. There were four walks to choose from, but I'd pretty much covered two of them the day before.

My walk took me along winding streets lined with gothic, baroque, and neoclassical architecture. My destination was the rue de Teinturiers, where Provençal cottons were once woven and dyed, and where there is still a canal with a few working water wheels. Here's what I saw along the way:

 A little baroque splendor.

A gothic restoration. The sky, stones, sidewalk, and even the tree trunks 
were a very pale golden-gray that morning. Strange and beautiful!

There is graffiti everywhere in Avignon, marring its historic areas.

 The rue des Teinturiers turned out to be a tranquil place, centuries-old, shabby, and authentic. Elegant but also very working-class, depending on where you looked. I fell in love with it. Someone was playing the piano in an upstairs apartment, and that helped, of course!

The rue des Tinturiers has little homes and shops on the left, the
canal on the right, and more elegant buildings alongside it. The
cobblestone street is lined with wonderfully carved, ancient-looking 
stone benches that appear to have been made in the past decade.

There are many bridges over the canal, either stone or metal.

Here's another. My photos avoid showing grafitti.

One of the carved benches.

An elegant residence beside the canal.

A row of carved benches, each clever and unique.

A few of the water wheels were churning away.

I think I need to go back here....

November 5: Walking in Avignon

For the next two days, I woke alone in the giant bed in our giant room and contemplated cloudy weather. I didn't care; in fact, I preferred it because I wouldn't have to wear sunglasses. And I didn't mind being alone, although it would have been nice to explore the town with my husband.

It can be nice to be alone during breakfast, with no one watching in amazement as you copiously butter your already-buttery croissant. And for my first breakfast in Avignon, I had the whole breakfast room and the buffet to myself.

I guess I was expected to be attending the forum — I encountered no other solitary spouses — but I had no interest in sitting in a lecture hall listening to simultaneous translations of media- and techno-speak. Not when there was a medieval French walled city beckoning me. I'm deeply underemployed, despite being both skilled and experienced. No one hires people my age. Unless there's something magical that can make me younger, I feel I'm under no obligation to suffer for imaginary future career opportunities.

So I had a few croissants instead. It's important to try every kind on the buffet table, so you know which are the best when you go for seconds. The buffet was magnificent. There was every kind of fresh fruit, from figs and currants to pineapple and tiny strawberries. There were different brands of the excellent yogurt they have in Europe, with interesting fruit flavors (pear! apple!) and just enough sweetener to make it delicious. (You can approximate it at home with plain yogurt, honey, and fruit, but it's never the same.) There was granola with chocolate chunks. There were many kinds of baguettes, rolls, ripe cheeses, and meats. There would have been eggs and bacon and sausages, had I wanted any. There was fresh-squeezed orange juice, and I ordered a pot of Ceylon tea. There was wonderful apricot jam at my table, and decadently large packets of sweet butter, in gold foil. After the strange gourmet dinner we'd had the night before, I was famished.

There are similar buffets in hotels across America and Europe, but all this tasted French.

I ate well, but discreetly, making a few quiet trips back to the buffet until I was fortified to explore Avignon. See, my first pass doesn't look so outrageous:

But that was just the beginning. Eventually I was full enough to venture outside. (Still, when my husband called in the late afternoon to see where I was, it was fun to tell him, "I'm just finishing breakfast!" He knows me all too well.)

Here's the courtyard of our hotel. It was warm enough to sit and read, or have a drink, or just listen to the fountain and the birds:

I couldn't find a useful guidebook in English for Avignon, so all I had was a map from the hotel. So I wandered, and managed to find many of the major points of interest over the next two days. I walked 11 or 12 miles each day, and I was glad to be able to switch between my three pairs of low-heeled boots in the middle of each day.

Here are some of my favorite scenes from Avignon:

A house near the Place du Palais.

 Stone walls along the ramparts en route to the Palais.

Restored section of the Palais.

 Above the city walls. The Rhône and the famous Pont d'Avignon — the St. Benezet bridge. 

A neighboring town in morning fog.

Interior of the Cathedral Notre-Dame des Doms.

An irresistible candy store in the town.

Their many flavors of caramels are excellent!

Two Winnie the Poohs dine beneath the Virgin. It's France.

"Ne pas toucher le chien, merci!"

What lies behind these doorways? Beautiful courtyards, perhaps....

Sur la Pont d'Avgnon, where I performed the five ballet foot positions in lieu of dancing.

View of the Palais des Papes from the bridge.

Let's live here!

Another door with wonderful carving and hardware.

Carousel in the main square, the Place de L'Horloge. There's a famous
clock tower there, too, but I didn't figure that out. (No guidebook!) But 
It can't be better than the one in Prague. 

Doors of the Church of St. Pierre. They were reciting the rosary inside.
 I used to be able to say it in French, but no more.

One of many "places" with tables, trees, and cafés.

I met three cats in Avignon. Here's one.

A mossy wall. Some walls were carved from the rocks.

A little autumn color.

Lunch was a chevre crèpe and various eclairs. In the evening, we had a private tour of the Palais des Papes with an enthusiastic guide who marched us everywhere except to the kitchens, which I'd been curious to see. I couldn't get over the fact that most of this enormous gothic castle — plus 20 cardinals' residences and many other impressive buildings — had been constructed within 30 years. It was an unusual situation where money, materials, and workmen (who came from all over Europe) were all plentiful. We met the "palace cat" at the end of the trip, a friendly tabby who seemed delighted to have found some humans — the palace is vast.

We were supposed to attend another gourmet dinner party for forum participants but we decided we were too hungry. Tonight, we would eat food. Our Palais guide directed us to a trio of Provençal restaurants on the rue Racine, and we chose Le Brigadier du Theatre, with its cozy red, candlelit interior. We enjoyed our soupe pistou, puréed vegetables with dollops of pungent red pesto. My husband had beef, and I had a tian, a bubbling casserole with eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and three cheeses, which I hope to recreate at home.

Dessert was a few Pierre Herme macaroons, a welcoming gift we'd found in our room. Then to bed, to  lie awake with jet lag, planning the strategy for my last day in Avignon.